On a leafy New Orleans balcony, nearly five years after the murders, Rose Preston remembers her late husband, James Saporito.
His mother, Patrina Saporito, owned a “glorious” old mansion in Mid-City, Preston recalls. Both mother and son were found murdered in the manse, their bodies charred, on Sept. 3, 2003. Preston, a native of Johannesburg, South Africa, first met James at the University of New Orleans almost 20 years ago. They were both academics. She was pursuing a master’s degree in theater. As it happened, she cast him in a play, Waiting for Lefty. They married in 1991.
At the time of his death in 2003, Saporito was visiting from Paris, where he’d been conducting research for his doctoral dissertation on intellectual history from the University of Pennsylvania. He had received numerous academic honors but a simpler tribute endures from his tenure at Pennsylvania. “One student at ‘U Penn’ called him – ‘the Dude of Teaching,’” Preston recalls, smiling. “He was a brilliant lecturer,” who could immediately engage the most disinterested college student. He once startled a class by asking – “Do you think there’s too much sex in Freud?”
She laughs at the memory. Her dog Woof, who has been lying beside her feet, suddenly looks up, hopefully. Preston cups a hand under the leaf of a plant on her balcony. For a moment, she lets herself languish in the recollection of the man she loved, the warmth of the sun on the porch, and, of course, Woof. However, the story of James Saporito always has the same, inevitable, horrifying ending. Preston draws her hand back from the leaf and then soldiers on with the telling.
In August 2003, she was directing theater and teaching at two universities in Johannesburg. He was in Paris. He returned to New Orleans to visit with his mother, Patrina, 75, at her Mid-City home. There was tension to contend with – a couple who lived in the front part of the Saporito manse for 20 years hadn’t paid their rent for more than a year and the Saporitos had begun an eviction process.
In the wee hours of Sept. 3, 2003, Preston recalls, she was asleep in Johannesburg. Meanwhile, a cousin of Saporito’s in the U.S. was calling a friend of Preston’s in Johannesburg. The cousin, who Preston didn’t know, was looking for the phone number of Saporito’ wife. Preston later learned that her friend retrieved her contact information, then said into the phone: “I hope it’s not bad news.”“It’s as bad as it gets,” the cousin replied.
Suddenly, Preston’s phone rang.
It was Saporito’ cousin. She asked Preston if she was sitting down. Groggy with sleep, Preston recalls replying that she was lying in bed. The cousin then told her – “James and Patrina are dead.” She says she then asked her husband’s cousin, “I said, ‘What happened?’ She said, ‘They were murdered.’ My heart started pounding. I could barely breathe.”
Saporito and his mother died in the majestic Mid-City home. He was stabbed repeatedly in the face and shot through the nose, Preston says. His mother was stabbed to death. Both had their throats slit. Preston said New Orleans police later told her that the killer then set the house on fire, as an attempt to destroy the bodies and evidence of the crimes.
Six months later, former tenant Paul Willis was arrested for the murders of James and Patrina Saporito. Preston remembers people in New Orleans telling her what an unusual crime it was for the city, “It wasn’t drug-related and it was ‘white on white,’” says Preston, who as a white student activist in South Africa, agitated for an end to the racist Apartheid government there.
Preston recalls that NOPD chaplain Rev. Lynn Hyder – “a great person” – told her of the state Crime Victims Reparations program. Funded entirely by convicted felons, and overseen by a board appointed by the governor, the reparations program helped to pay for about a third of the cost of her husband’s funeral, Preston recalls. However, Preston wasn’t immediately informed of the emergency funds she would’ve qualified for and the reparations board rejected her application for being a few weeks late.
She continues: NOPD Homicide Det. Joseph Trippodo and two senior officials in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office, Val Solino and Craig Famularo, stood out for their hard work, candor and compassion.
The system wasn’t so kind, Preston recalls.
She received notifications of court hearings – with the wrong dates – sometimes after the proceedings occurred. The case had three separate prosecutors; in court one kept calling Saporito by the accused killer’s last name and to Preston as the killer’s wife. Another assistant district attorney told the admittedly distraught survivor she was “too emotional.” The case dragged on – then suddenly ended. Willis, the middle-aged, suspected killer, died of illness in Orleans Parish Prison. Willis’ wife, who had been charged as an accessory after the fact to the murders, was released from jail. Preston is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Willis’ wife through a mediator.
Five years later, Rose Preston remains in New Orleans.
She is working on a guidebook for victims and survivors of crime. “I want to include the kind of information and resources I wish had been available to me at a time when I felt so utterly broken and lost,” she says. She also says she feels more at home here than in any other city in the U.S. where she has lived. “I’ve always said that New Orleans is a microcosm of South Africa: the crime issues, the preoccupation with crime, the race issues and the preoccupation with race,” she says.
She also observes that, to crime victims trying to navigate a complex and broken criminal justice system, the frequent official discord adds “the ultimate insult to the most unbearable of injuries.”
“Part of what I feel has to be broken is the distrust between the public and the police, the police and the District Attorney, the public and the DA — and City Hall,” she says.There have been more than 750 murders since Preston’s husband and her mother-in-law were killed five years ago, and thousands of victims of robbery, rape and aggravated assaults. Part of the problem, it must be said, is that the New Orleans Police Department as an organization hasn’t managed to rise to the high level of performance of certain individual officers – the kind of cops that Rose Preston seems to have encountered.
Unfortunately, under Mayor Ray Nagin, the major “strength” of the NOPD has been fending off criticism, however constructive. The major “weakness” of Police Chief Warren Riley and the four police organizations has been a failure of robust compliance with a state law requiring that cops notify crime victims and their families of social services, including up to $25,000 in reparations from the special state fund.
On a personal level, life has become more bearable since the murders, Preston says. She has stopped drinking, works out, tends her garden and takes long walks with Woof. Like many New Orleans residents, post-Katrina she says she has difficulty remembering things. Unlike most of us perhaps, the flood of 2005 is not her reason why.
She smiles: “I always say my memory went with James.”