In the sleepy, refined little towns along the Metro-North line where everyone knows everyone, Annie Morell Petrillo and her sister, Alex Morell, had been notorious for years. They were the Scripps girls, carefree and lovely children of privilege whose divorced mother had married a much younger man—a housepainter named Scott Douglas with a secret history of womanizing, alcoholism, and depression. Anne Scripps Douglas, a 42-year-old heiress to the Scripps-family newspaper fortune, had been living off a trust fund that Scott desperately wanted to control. On New Year’s Eve in 1993, Scott beat Anne in the head at least a half-dozen times with the claw end of a hammer. Then he drove to the center span of the Tappan Zee Bridge, pulled over, and jumped to his death.
Some fifteen years later, on a warm Thursday last fall, Annie Morell Petrillo awoke and set about her usual regimen of distracting herself. Mornings weren’t typically a problem. Although Annie, 38, lived alone in her two-bedroom condominium in Rye Brook—her 13-year-old son, Michael, stayed with his father most of the week—she would manage to busy herself with errands, hopping into her black BMW SUV and popping into Kohl’s or CVS. For lunch, her sister, Alex, who lived one town over, would often pick up the check at someplace Annie could no longer afford. But it was at night that Annie was most vulnerable. That was when she’d call friends to keep her company as she walked her dogs. Sometimes she’d call in tears, talking about how she couldn’t find a man to love or how she missed her mother. On nights when she’d had too much to drink, she would make calls that were bitter, angry, even vicious—calls she’d have no memory of the next day.
After lunch together at the Town Dock Tavern that day, Annie and Alex went on to get manicures and pedicures in the village. They were more like twins than just sisters. Both were divorced moms, tan and curvy and bawdy, their smoky, throaty laughs filling the room. Alex stayed with Annie most of the afternoon, and a few friends dropped by. But Alex left to go home for dinner, and by 6 p.m., Annie was home by herself.
She went on Facebook, sending a quick message to her friend Rosey Kalayjian: “What’s up, hooka! Haha, miss you!” Then, at 7:30 p.m., Annie called her friend and sometime boyfriend, Chris Smith, from the road. Her signal was breaking up. She said something about being at the Mobil Station in Rye Brook to get cigarettes. The signal was always bad there, so Smith didn’t give it a second thought.
Fifteen minutes later, just after 7:45 P.M., Annie’s vehicle came to a stop in the center span of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Under the bright lights, at least a few stalled, startled drivers had a clear view of a beautiful woman emerging from her car and walking purposefully to the bridge’s rail. At 7:49 P.M., Annie dialed Smith again. She stepped to practically the exact same spot that Scott Douglas had jumped from fifteen years earlier. Smith heard a loud swooshing sound, then nothing.
Alexandra Morell is smoking on the porch of a friend’s house in Rye, looking out over the Westchester Country Club. She is trying to make sense of her sister’s death—at the same age as her stepfather, slipping out of the same make of car, leaping from the same spot. On Alex’s left wrist is a tattoo of her mother’s and father’s initials, arranged crossword style, sharing the letter M for Morell. (Her mother’s second married name, Douglas, is omitted.) “In school,” she says, “they taught me they thought there was a vein from here to my heart. So now that goes over that vein.”
Before their mother’s murder, Alex says, she and Annie had shared an idyllic childhood on a quiet, leafy street in Bronxville, in a white-pillared fairy tale of a house with seven bedrooms—big enough for endless games of hide-and-seek, and even the occasional roller-skate through the halls. Anne Scripps Morell spent practically all her time with the two girls, making crafts, painting pictures, taking them to Baskin-Robbins. “If anything, the girls were spoiled by their mother’s love,” one friend says. “They were always with her and always expected she would be with them.” Anne was sheltered, delicate, and a little naïve—she didn’t learn to drive until she was over 40. Another friend once called Anne “the last of that generation of Stepford wives.”
Anne tended to downplay her Scripps lineage, but Annie and Alex certainly grew up wealthy. Besides the home in Bronxville, there were country-club memberships and regular trips to Scripps-family homes in Palm Beach and Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Alex was the picture-perfect girl with the daring, caustic wit. Annie was less put-together and more awkward, but warmer and more openhearted. Any toughness Annie got came from her sister. “Alex had more of a defense against feeling the drain of emotions,” says Robbie Morell, an aunt. “She may have more boundaries, so to speak.”