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He Got Life


Barry phoned, and a man answered. “Is Diane there?” Barry asked. Dellfava’s wife was Diane.

“No,” said the man.

“I got a call from somebody looking for a job,” said Barry.

“I’m looking for a job.”

“Who are you?”

“Peter Dellfava.”

Barry showed up at the small house the following evening, a Saturday, arriving at nine o’clock. A woman opened the door. Barry glimpsed a burly man lying on the couch. “Get off my property,” said the man, quickly coming to the door. “You’ve got three seconds.”

“Peter,” said Barry, taking a chance, “I need to speak to you about David Wong.”

Dellfava let out a long breath. It had been fourteen years since the murder. “That man did not deserve to go to jail for murder,” he told Barry there on the porch.

Then Dellfava, as Barry put it, “spilled his guts.” He’d gotten cornered by a prison guard. The guard, said Dellfava, “just kind of told me how to make up this story.” So Dellfava tried to work it. “Whatever way I could . . . ,” he explained, “to get the hell out of [Dannemora].” Wong had been the nearest villain.

Why had he finally confessed to Barry? “Would you want to live with this?” asked Dellfava.

It turned out that many inmates who’d been in the yard at Dannemora the afternoon of the murder knew the real killer’s identity. As one prisoner later said, “I think the whole facility except the administration knew that . . . David Wong was framed.” Another inmate whispered the name of the killer to Barry, but refused to testify. Then Barry learned that the killer was dead.

Barry visited Otilio Serrano, a kidnapper and armed robber, in Great Meadow Correctional Facility in 2001, using his special approach: He showed up unannounced. At first, Serrano didn’t want to say the killer’s name. Then Barry convinced him the guy was dead.

And so Serrano said that Nelson Gutierrez “come up behind this other individual and stabbed him in the back . . . I believe it was in the neck.” Gutierrez was a New York City Dominican nicknamed Chino—apparently someone thought he looked Chinese. Perhaps no one had particularly wanted to frame David Wong. Maybe it was a case of mistaken identity, and Wong, a convenient culprit whose English made it difficult to defend himself, happened to be the mistake. Who really cared? He was a nobody.

“Every day,” says Barry, “I thank the Lord for showing me what is true.”

Through his years in prison, David Wong longed for freedom, of course. And yet his past didn’t make freedom seem particularly desirable. He once tried to call up a happy memory of life in America before prison. “In Chinatown,” he managed, “[I] could walk around.”

Now he discovered that a life in prison is still a life. When he checked inside himself, to his surprise he found something other than outrage. “I happy,” he told Patti. “I don’t feel bitter.” Ever since being framed for murder, he’d run into so many strangers with open hearts, people who stirred his emotions and connected him to the world in a way he hadn’t been previously. “You know,” he wrote to Patti and Guy, “I have no concept before I come to prison that if I suffer or have pains, others will feel pains and suffer with me.” He knew it now.

Every two weeks, Wong purchased 50 stamps. He’d write two or three letters some days, typed with perfect margins on his prized possession, a typewriter. (By hand, he added smiley faces to indicate when he was kidding, in case his language didn’t hit the mark.) He’d write Patti and Guy as often as a couple of times a week, seven- or ten-page single-spaced letters, sometimes as soon as they left after a visit. (And he’d call them to make sure they got home safe.) He wanted to discuss everything, every detail of what each said to the other. He talked to Patti about whether she and her husband should buy a new TV and about commitment in marriage. Wong had carefully made a few friends in prison, but nothing like this. “I got to think if I tell them”—prison friends—“something maybe they will take it wrong way,” says Wong. Not Patti or Guy. “We able to talk about everything,” he told Patti gleefully.

Patti came to think of Wong as “a sage,” even a “role model.” How could he go through all this and not let it bother him? She worried about him constantly, and told him so. “He’s a big chunk of my life in New York,” she says. In response, he chided her, telling her not to worry so much, though, he added, “it makes me feel good and happy,” apparently an unfamiliar combination for him.

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