Excerpt From Chapter Eight:
Wealth, Celebrity and Justice
Bill and I were sprinting up the subway steps in New York City in the rain to a posh address on the Upper East Side overlooking Central Park on Fifth Avenue. We had spent the night on Amtrak’s bed and breakfast deal, coming back from Washington. Bette-Ann Gwathmey, socialite and philanthropist, called me for help just before we left for D.C. a week earlier. A drunken driver had killed her only daughter six weeks earlier in October. She had called the MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) national office, was given a non-working number of a defunct MADD chapter in New York, called back and was given the same number again.
So Bette-Ann called Governor Cuomo’s office. Cuomo had appeared twice as the guest on one of my NBC affiliate, call-in shows and he had referred Bette-Ann to me. The hem of my best camel hair coat showed flecks of dirt from the subway steps and ink spots had rubbed off the wet newspaper I held onto my beige felt bowler hat, its formerly jaunty pheasant feather now sagging limply down my neck. Bill always looked the same, like the doctor on the old Saturday Evening Post covers . . . kindly, slightly mussed with either too short or too long pants and lumpy socks, usually white. Today they were brownish with wet splotches from puddle jumping.
Bette-Ann opened the door of her large Fifth Avenue apartment. We were greeted by acres of blond, hardwood, polished floors, stark white walls with expensive prints and the usual black leather couch, steel and glass tables and chairs. The one softening touch was a large, wide bowl of white tulips banked behind the couch. It was the obligatory interior for the fashionable, wealthy establishment. She was hobbling, using one crutch to help her walk. We shook hands and quickly got down to business, which I later learned was Bette-Ann’s way. She was petite, but large with intensity, her dark brown, short hair spun off to a side whirl over one ear. I began to explain about RID.
“Let me tell you about myself,” she interrupted, leaning towards us. “I lost my 18 year old son, Robert, to bone cancer two years ago, and am recovering from breast cancer myself. My only daughter, Courtney, was crossing the street last October to get into a cab, when a drunk driver speeding down the road hit her. He didn’t stop, carrying her on the hood of his car for over a block, when she slid off into the street. He kept going. She was just out with her friends at a pub they usually go to. It was late. But that’s what young people do here. She died a horrible death. I want the drunk driver to go to jail for a long time. Do you think that will happen?”
I was stunned. She didn’t waver or cry. She looked at me intently waiting for the answer.
“Does this man have a good lawyer? Or a bad driving record? Do you know anything about him?” I asked her.
“Yes, his name is Brian Confoy, and he was driving an expensive car with a telephone, but he didn’t use it obviously, to call for help for my daughter. He kept on going and was arrested by the police in the Bronx after he passed out at the wheel. His lawyer is a Mr. Lankler.”
I had read the papers with varied opinions about who the victim was here. They reported that Courtney had been drinking with her friends, using a fake I.D., which laced her age at 22. A seventeen-year-old doesn’t look 22, but the bar had a reputation for serving kids. The papers wanted to know how come Courtney was out drinking at 2 a.m. Some letters to the editor accused the whole lifestyle of these “preppy kids” and their negligent parents who gave them credit cards but no supervision, or love, as the real cause of this tragedy.
“First, I’ll get the driving record of Confoy; you can help by getting his date of birth from the police report. Then, we’ll find out all we can about his arrest record and give the information to the district attorney. Who is the D.A.? Has he contacted you?” I asked.
“I must tell you that after my son Robert died, we started a foundation for pediatric cancer in his name and collected over a million dollars this year at a large fund-raising dinner. I had committed our resources to this project before Courtney was killed, and I can’t ask our friends to help us with donations for RID. But will you help us anyway?”
She handed us a dinner program listing the guests and supporters present at the Robert Steel Foundation fund-raiser. Almost every big name in New York was listed. The Tischs, the Vonneguts, Mrs. John Hay Whitney, Estee Lauder, Neil Simon, Ralph Lauren, many of the old New York names, and a galaxy of stars.
“Bette-Ann, I can promise you that Courtney’s name will not be forgotten, and that Mr. Greenbaum will get all the public support for an aggressive prosecution that we can muster. I will help our RID volunteers in the city monitor the court events. We will sit with you and present a united front for prosecution. The defense lawyer will try to make Courtney appear to be at fault. Was she drinking before the crash?”
“Well yes, but not much. Her blood alcohol test was .06% The doctor said that meant she had a glass or perhaps a glass and a half of wine that evening.”
“What did Courtney weigh?”
“About 130 lb.s.”
I knew then that Courtney was impaired by alcohol when she attempted to cross the street that night, and that is the defense wanted to, he could bring a very good case that she had been drinking illegally in a pub for hours and contributed to her own death. When she was killed, the police thought they were looking for the family of a 22 year old, and this held up their investigation. She had altered her license. It was not a good time to unload these thoughts on Bette-Ann, as you can imagine. It turned out that there was never going to be a good time for that.
We rose to leave shortly after this exchange, with me assuring her that RID’s services to victims were free, and not to worry about fund raising or donations to RID.
“The best way you could help us is not with money but with your media contacts. Donahue has kept us off his show since 1981, and so have other network programs, because we want the alcohol ads aimed at youth off the air. We’ve been blacklisted by the media since 1983. And that includes the New York Times. They own TV stations and cable stations that earn a lot of money advertising alcohol. If you can get Donahue to put RID on the air, you will be doing us and the public a huge favor.”
“Of course we will,” she said. “We know Marlo very well.”
“Did your husband bring these lovely tulips?” I asked.
“Oh no, Charles wouldn’t do a thing like that. I bought them for me, since Charles hit me with the car when he was coming out of the garage. That’s why I’m on crutches. It frightened me so, and I experienced in a small way, what Courtney must have felt when she was hit. I’ll be all right in a week or so.” She offered us coffee or water before we left. I opted for water.
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