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Story pick: An unsympathetic subject

Sympathy is hard enough to evoke. But evoking it for those who we generally consider irredeemably unsympathetic – murderers, rapists, or in the case of a New York Times story on Sunday, mobsters – takes finesse.

The story, which takes us to “somewhere in south Florida,” explores how time and circumstance have peeled away at a crime boss’s finances and dignity. What we are left with are pathetic images of an old man so tormented that he punches walls in his sleep and so broke that he can’t afford plane tickets to visit his grandkids.

Reporter Alan Feuer introduces us to Joe DeFede, or “Little Joe,” with this telling image:

Sitting in one booth with his wife, the former acting boss of the Luchese crime family tucks into his $4 plate of scrambled eggs. He wears a pink Hawaiian shirt, a gold medallion, a brand-new pair of therapeutic sneakers. He is talking about the old days: everything he had, everything he lost.

My first beat at The Post involved covering crime in Prince William County and I remember walking into the jail there one day to interview Donald A. Brew. He landed there after confessing to a murder that had remained unsolved for more than 35 years. Prosecutors had always suspected he’d done it, but never had enough evidence to pin it on him. The body of his victim, Patricia Adams, was never found.

What I remember most about that interview was not the details of what Brew had done, but how cool his demeanor was as he described them. Before the interview, Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert had warned me that Brew was smart – very smart – and incredibly charming. Both proved true. Brew was both despicable and likable at the same

We sat across the table from each other. There was no glass separating us, no guard in the room. And I felt completely at ease, even as I pushed him to describe how he killed Adams.

"The toughest thing about it all is she knew it was over with," Brew said. "She asked me for a couple of minutes to be able to pray, and she prayed out loud. Some of it was toward her son, saying goodbye to her son. And some had religious connotations as far as asking the Lord for forgiveness."

I should have left there disgusted by him. But that would have been too simplistic. What he had done was horrific, but I found him smart and charming and intriguing.

By Theresa Vargas  | May 3, 2010; 11:04 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  | Tags:  Alan Feuer, Donald Brew, Joe Defede, Mobster, New York Times, life of crime, mob boss  
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