How Detectives Caught 'Palm Sunday Massacre' Gunman, Who Killed 8 Kids and 2 Women: 'Their Faces Still Haunt Me'
Christopher Thomas was released from prison earlier this year.
As torrential rain lashed Brooklyn on Palm Sunday 1984, Detective Bo Dietl walked into 1080 Liberty Avenue in East New York and saw something he will never forget.
"It was not real-looking," he said. "Everyone was just like mannequins. I've seen a lot of dead people, but this was freaky."
Eight children — aged 3 to 14 — and two adults, one of whom was pregnant, had been shot dead inside the home. Just one child, a 13-month-old girl, was spared.
It was as if "the bodies were placed there," Dietl told InsideEdition.com. "It looked like it was all a setup."
The atrocity, later dubbed the "Palm Sunday Massacre," was one of the deadliest shootings New York City has ever seen.
Over a month later, authorities tracked down Christopher Thomas and arrested him for the killings. Deemed to be under the influence of drugs at the time, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 250 years in prison.
But in January 2018, after serving just 33 years, Thomas was quietly released back onto the streets of New York. Dietl and other detectives who had worked the case were shocked.
They wanted to know: How was this allowed to happen?
In the ‘80s, crime ran rampant across New York City. In 1984 alone, there were 1,450 murders, according to NYPD data.
"A lot of people were out there killing people, drug dealing, robberies," Dietl recalled. "It was a very peak time for crime."
East New York in particular witnessed so much violence that cops in the 75th Precinct called it “The Killing Fields” and “The Town Without Pity.”
"We had over a hundred murders a year in East New York," Dietl said.
There was even a slogan used among officers — “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you a homicide” — a grim spin on local radio station 1010 WINS' motto, "You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world."
Dietl’s former colleague, Det. Joe Hall, said there were shootings every night on the job.
"We lived through it, we worked through it, but it was chaos," he said. "You would hear shootings in the squad room. Outside one night, a round came through the window of a detective squad."
Theirs was "probably the busiest squad in New York City," he said.
Still, nothing could prepare them for what they saw the evening of April 15, 1984. It was Palm Sunday, typically a quiet holiday for the officers.
But just before 7:30 p.m., a call came in. Det. Hall picked up the phone.
“A patrol sergeant said to me, 'Joe, we have six dead at 1080 Liberty Avenue,'" he said.
Shocked, he started gathering his colleagues.
"Then the phone rang again," he recalled. "Ten people dead."
The victims had been discovered by Enrique Bermudez, who had returned to his apartment to find his relatives and a child’s friend slaughtered.
Dietl was off that day but happened to call into the office to see if anything was going on. When he heard the news, he joined his colleagues at the scene.
He arrived to a swarm of officers outside the sand-colored brick home, which was surrounded by yellow tape. Onlookers had collected outside a neighboring bakery in a bid to find out what had happened.
Inside, the victims were still dressed in their Sunday best, presumably after marking the holiday at church. Most were gathered around the TV in the living room, while others were holding containers of half-finished pudding. One victim still had a spoon in her hand.
In the bedrooms, some of the children looked like they had been napping.
"There was kids that were shot in the head," Dietl said. "Some of them had their eyes opened, and those eyes, I'll never forget."
Authorities believe the killer entered through the side door of the railroad-style, two-family apartment on the ground floor. With a .38 caliber gun in one hand and a .22 caliber pistol in the other, he moved through the kitchen before making his way to a parlor.
He reached the third room, a bedroom, where he shot his first victim, 4-year-old Juan Lopez.
The child was found in bed wearing blue jeans and a white shirt punctured with a bullet wound. On the floor beneath the bed was a pool of blood; Det. Hall believes Juan was lifted into the bed after he was killed.
In the next area, the living room, authorities found seven victims. Most were slumped on sofas around a coffee table adorned with porcelain figurines. The television was still on.
To Hall, the scene looked like a wax museum.
Among those victims was 20-year-old Carmen Perez, who was eight months pregnant. She had been shot in the forehead as she fed chocolate pudding to her baby, Christina. The child was found by her feet, alive and crying, when authorities arrived.
The other children were not spared, however. Migdilia Perez, 14, and Eddie Perez, 7, were found dead side-by-side on the sofa. Migdilia’s 10-year-old friend Maria Perez was also killed.
Next to the floral upholstered sofa was 3-year-old Noel Maldonado in a pool of his own blood.
Across the room, on a plastic-covered chair, was Maria Perez’s body. Her eyes were wide open.
"This little girl and her pretty little face looking at you," Hall said. "This was the image [that stayed with me]. I can see it perfectly."
Marilyn Bermudez, 10, and Alberto Maldonado, 3, were also in the room. They were sitting in a love seat when they were killed.
"The faces of those kids still haunt me to this day," Dietl said.
In the next and last room, the master bedroom, Virginia Perez, the 24-year-old wife of the homeowner, Enrique Bermudez, was found shot in her bed. On the floor beside her was his 14-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Betsy Bermudez.
Police say the family didn’t have time to react as the gunman opened fire.
"They were systematically shot," Dietl said.
As more police descended onto the scene, baby Christina was placed in the arms of Officer Joanne Jaffe and rushed to the nearby Baptist Medical Center. An image of Jaffe holding the child was splashed across local newspapers.
Then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch visited the home later that day. Reporters noted how shaken he appeared.
''It obviously is a massacre,'' he told The New York Times. ''There were 10 people killed, shot in the head.''
As the news spread, Dietl was determined to catch the killer.
“When I came back to the precinct, I told Lt. [Herbert] Hohmann ... ‘I want to be involved with this case. I want to catch whoever did this to this family and to these kids,’” he said.
Lt. Hohmann was chosen to assemble the largest task force the NYPD had seen since the so-called "Son of Sam" terrorized New York City between 1976 and 1977.
Seventy-five detectives from the five boroughs made up the task force. Hall, then a rookie investigator known as a white shield detective, was among them. He felt the pressure to solve the case right away.
“When you see something like this, you don't know where it's going to stop," he said. "Is there a list of victims that he's going to, is there somebody else he has on his agenda?"
Under the leadership of Lt. Hohmann, the team investigated every theory.
"It was organized chaos," Hohmann said. "The investigation was conducted over a long period of time because it could have been organized crime [or] international drug traffickers who could have done this."
Police fliers promised a reward of $10,000 for information that would unmask the killer.
Calls — more than 1,300 in total — started pouring in to the task force’s hotline from people claiming to have information.
When homeowner Enrique Bermudez, who lost his wife and two children in the shooting, spoke to police, Christopher Thomas’ name was mentioned. They learned that Bermudez dealt drugs to Thomas, who was known as an unsavory character in the neighborhood.
"He had the nickname 'Chris Cross,'" Hohmann said. "Anyone who crossed him, he became violent with them."
Bermudez, who was on parole for a 1976 conviction of selling cocaine, wanted immunity in exchange for information he had on Thomas. Authorities agreed.
"He mentioned about $7,000 [was] owed to him by one Christopher Thomas," Dietl recalled. "In my mind, it is why would someone kill everybody? And he had been [at the home] dealing, buying drugs there, so it was obvious he had to wipe out everybody."
Aside from the large debt Thomas owed Bermudez, authorities said Thomas mistakenly believed Bermudez was having an affair with his estranged wife.
A teenage witness also came forward to say he saw Thomas pacing around the home on Liberty Avenue the afternoon before the massacre. Bermudez’s sister also reported seeing Thomas at the side of the home that same day.
"Enrique Bermudez's sister approached him and tried to engage him in conversation," Hall said. "She testified in court that she had [previously] seen Enrique Bermudez hand him a package and she believed it to be cocaine. So she testified to that and she testified to seeing him there earlier that day, as did the witness."
The task force began surveillance on Thomas, who was living in the Bronx, but he was no stranger to the NYPD.
In 1970, he served three years in prison for an attempted murder conviction and in 1981 he was acquitted of a separate murder charge. A week before the Palm Sunday Massacre, Thomas was released from jail on $500 bond for allegedly beating his estranged wife. She had obtained a court order directing him to stay away from their two young sons.
In June 1984, Thomas was confined in a Bronx jail after reportedly being accused of sodomizing and attempting to rape his own mother. After detectives learned he might be their suspect in the East New York killings, Thomas was brought to the 75th precinct. There, the teenage witness picked him out of a police lineup.
During their investigation, police searched Thomas’ home and recovered a shell casing from a .22 caliber bullet.
A month-and-a-half after the Palm Sunday Massacre, Thomas was arrested and charged with 10 counts of murder. It was Dietl who put Thomas in handcuffs.
"He looked like Satan," he recalled. "He was a little snippy with me, and you know it wasn't a personal thing anymore. It was, 'I got you and you're going to jail, and that's it.'"
For Lt. Hohmann, Thomas’ arrest came as a relief.
"We did it," he said. "We did it to the best of our ability. It was a big joint effort."
In 1985, Thomas stood trial and his lawyer argued that his client had a cocaine addiction and was suffering from depression over his marital problems.
Dietl, who was in court during the trial, found Thomas’ defense inexcusable.
"You like doing cocaine? I like drinking cocktails," he said. "I like scotch. I'll have a couple of scotches, I'll go kill people? I'll say, ‘Well I was a little high on my alcohol, and you can't blame me for killing everybody because I had one too many!' Bulls***! You've got to be responsible for the actions, especially taking these young kids’ lives."
The jury found Thomas guilty of manslaughter, but acquitted him of murder because they believed he acted without full responsibility due to drug use.
''It is this court's intention that you serve every day, every hour and every minute of the minimum sentence I impose on you,'' New York State Supreme Court Justice Ronald Aiello told Thomas during his sentencing. ''Don't let him out. That is my message to the New York State Parole Board. Your judgment day today is on earth. Your next judgment day will be with the good Lord. Today is a piece of cake, Mr. Thomas, compared to your final judgment day."
Thomas was sentenced to eight and one-third to 25 years in prison on each of 10 counts of first-degree manslaughter. Aiello ordered the sentences to run consecutively for a total of 83 to 250 years.
However, under state law, he would spend no more than 50 years behind bars. In New York State, if a sentence does not end in the term "life," the maximum a convict can serve is 50 years.
“I didn’t like the manslaughter conviction," Hohmann said. "It should have been a murder conviction."
In the years following the massacre, authorities tackled the crack cocaine epidemic, and the city’s crime rate dropped.
Today, East New York is alive with businesses and blue collar workers. The home where the massacre unfolded is now a bank.
It was the final case of Dietl’s career. After suffering a leg injury in a parachuting accident, he was forced to retire. He opened up his own private practice as an investigator and penned two books.
He also became an actor, landing roles in such films as "Goodfellas," and will next appear in "The Irishman." He also played himself in "The Wolf of Wall Street."
While Dietl has worked on many cases as a private investigator, he'll never forget the Palm Sunday Massacre since children were involved.
"Everyone says, 'Bo, it was 33 years ago. Let it alone.' You can't let it alone," he said.
Det. Joe Hall retired from the NYPD in 1991. Two years later, he joined New York City’s Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor where he still works today.
Lt. Hohmann retired from the NYPD in 1987 after he was hurt on the job. He later obtained a private investigator license and briefly worked with Dietl before health issues sidelined him.
"It took me many years to get over being retired after 24 years on the force," he said.
The sole survivor of the killings, Christina, spent part of her life not knowing what happened to her family. She lived with her grandmother and was often visited by Joanne Jaffe, that same officer who carried her out of the home following the tragedy.
Jaffe and her partner, along with another pair of cops, were the first to arrive on the scene. She was later handed the baby, who was bundled up in a blanket.
Jaffe told InsideEdition.com that she formed an "emotional" connection with the child.
"I held her close," she recalled. "I spent many hours with her and took her to the hospital to have her get checked out. I spent the night and next day with her in the station house."
As a result, Jaffe pledged that she would somehow find a way to look after the baby girl.
"I fed her, I changed her in those first 18 hours," she said. "I fell in love with her and wanted to be a part of her life. I made a promise to myself and her."
She said she asked her senior officers if she could take Christina home, but they said no. She later drove the infant to foster care in another part of Brooklyn. She admitted it was "difficult to leave her."
"I knew I would see her," Jaffe said. "Whatever she needed ... I would be a part of her life and be a positive influence and love her."
After living in foster care for a brief time, Christina went to live with her paternal grandmother in Manhattan. Jaffe found ways to keep in touch with the girl.
It wasn’t until Christina was 10 that she learned through her grandmother what had happened to their family. Christina had long believed her mother died of an asthma attack until some classmates began taunting her about the crime, The New York Times reported in 2014.
At home, her grandmother confirmed the story and showed her newspaper clippings. When she saw the photo of Jaffe carrying her from the home, she realized how Jaffe had come into her life.
Christina told The Times that she had always regarded Jaffe as "the funny police lady who would come by."
In 2009, Thomas was eligible for parole for the first time. Jaffe was there as it was denied.
At about the same time, Christina’s grandmother passed away, and Jaffe began the process of adopting the girl who she had watched grow up.
In 2013, she formally adopted Christina.
"What a tremendous story. Like, 'Good things come out of bad things,'" Hall said.
Jaffe rose the ranks to become the highest-ranking female officer in the NYPD, retiring as the chief of community affairs in January 2018.
That same month, Thomas was freed from the Shawangunk Correctional Facility in upstate New York on a conditional release. He had been denied parole five times, most recently in February 2017, and had served two-thirds of his full term.
He will remain on parole until June 6, 2034. He will be 84 years old.
According to the New York State Parole Board, Thomas is living in Queens, N.Y., and reports to a Manhattan parole office. Thomas could not be reached for comment for this story.
When InsideEdition.com broke the news of Thomas’ release last month, outrage spread across the city.
"I can’t believe that 10 souls can never be alive again — eight children — and he's out," Dietl fumed at the time. "Where is the justice for those kids? Where is the justice? They will never have another Easter. He is allowed to go free and enjoy himself. That is not right."
Hohmann said he was stunned to hear Thomas was free.
"Despite his drug use [he] methodically, one-by-one killed this family," he said. "It is a shame he is still walking the streets. I still think he is a danger."
When Hall heard the news, he said he was "sick to my stomach."
"I couldn't believe it, you know? I'm haunted now by his release more than anything... "That's what just bothers me so much," he said. “I still do not understand how you let a person like this out."
New York City criminal defense attorney Ron Kuby, who was not involved in Thomas' case, says conditional release is often misunderstood.
"People say, 'Who in the world paroled this guy? Who are the people who said he should be paroled?’" he said. "The truth is nobody said he should be paroled. His release was required under the law because he had served his entire sentence minus accrued good time and, therefore, he was released."
Under New York State sentencing law, someone can only serve 50 years unless they are handed a life sentence, he said.
"Christopher Thomas, you have to remember, was convicted of 10 counts of manslaughter, not murder," he said. "Had he been convicted of murder, even one count of murder, he might very well be in prison ...
“He is released on conditions, the conditions being that he report to parole and he abides by parole conditions, hence, conditional release. He violates his parole conditions, he can be sent back to prison for the balance of the 50-year sentence that he ultimately received."
Thomas is out on parole, but was not released on parole, Kuby clarified.
"To be released on parole means that the Parole Commission has met, at least two commissioners have met, they’ve reviewed you, they’ve reviewed your case, your history, everything about you and they have determined that you pose no future risk and that releasing you at this point would in no way deprecate the seriousness of the crime you committed. That is, there’s an actual determination that you are now OK to walk among us. That’s release on parole.
“Release to parole, which is what happened with Christopher Thomas, is his sentence was over. He had served every day allotted by law, given the fact that he was able to accrue good time credits and he accrued all of those credits," Kuby explained.
Hall and Dietl are not convinced.
“There's no doubt — if this man lives any length of time, he'll do something else again, as far as I'm concerned," Hall said.
Dietl has been working with New York State Sen. Marty Golden and State Assemb. Nicole Malliotakis to introduce new legislation mandating that anyone convicted of first-degree manslaughter be denied a conditional release like the one Thomas was granted.
On April 24, Sen. Golden and Assemb. Malliotakis introduced the proposed legislation in Albany, but politicians have yet to vote on the measure.
In the meantime, Dietl has a message for Thomas, should their paths ever cross.
"I’d say, 'Christopher, I hope you go back to jail because those kids never had a life and you shouldn’t have a life either.'"
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