My Mother’s Murder

These are some of the earliest memories I have of my mother:

I’m four years old, and she’s developing her photographs in our bathroom. During the day she unfurls long strips of film to dry on a string over the bathtub and sometimes she lets me stand in the tiny closet next to the bathroom where she flips on a red lightbulb and warns me not to touch any of the chemicals. We watch the paper go from white to gray and then shapes begin to form as she swirls the paper around with a pair of tongs. Images of Dad and our dogs appear like magic.

Most of the time my mom and I are a secret team, keeping secrets from my dad. She tells me we’re going to take the city bus because her car is getting fixed and this sounds like a great adventure. We take the bus to her friend’s house in Providence and she leaves me there in the living room, where I watch television until the room begins to darken. I sit on the floor pulling at long strands of orange carpet, wondering what is up the stairs. There are no stairs at our house.

When she comes back we get on the bus again. Mom says, “Isn’t this fun?” and I nod, because it is kind of fun, the way the bus lurches and wheezes around the city. “If you want to do this again you can’t tell Dad where we were. If you tell Dad I’ll get in big trouble and we won’t be able to ride the bus again. Do you understand?” She kisses the top of my head.

I am good at keeping secrets. I am good at telling lies. I’m so good that years later, when I’m an adult trying to find out more about my mother’s life and death, I’ll have trouble with my own memories: Did I know we were on the bus buying drugs? Did I understand the danger we were in? Did I really believe we were in this together?

Another time, Mom drives me in Grandma’s car to a small house with long steps leading up to the front door from the street. She takes the keys from the ignition and tells me to wait in the car. She leans over and pats the space beneath the dashboard, telling me to get down there and stay until she comes back. “I’ll lock the doors,” she says.

After a few seconds, I peek out the car window and watch her go up the stairs to the house. She wears a black leather jacket, tight at the hips. She walks up, up all those stairs. And then she’s out of sight.

A few weeks later mom has her car back and we’re going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I stay there a lot, sometimes with my mom when she and my dad are fighting and sometimes on my own. This time Mom has packed my stuff into a blue American Tourister suitcase. Her car smells like cigarettes but also something sweet. It’s my favorite smell. I snap the brass buckles on the suitcase open and closed.

“I don’t want to go to Grandma’s house, again,” I say. Mom is silent in the front seat.

When we get there, Mom takes my suitcase into the house. Grandma wipes the counter in the kitchen with a damp towel. I hug her around the knees and say, “I love you, Grandma, but I don’t want to stay over anymore.”

Grandma smiles like she doesn’t hear and kisses my cheek. She looks like my mom, but with white hair. The inside of her pocketbook smells like lipstick and sugarless gum. I like to sneak it open and leave her love notes and drawings. I steal tissues from the little package she keeps inside and look at myself in her compact mirror. I put on her sunglasses and pretend to be her, hands around the imaginary steering wheel of her big blue Dodge, purse strap hanging off my shoulder.

Grandpa sits, where he always sits, in his reclining chair in the den. His dog, Spot, snores on his lap. Spot only gets up from the chair when Grandpa gets up. Spot’s name is funny because his fur is all black. No spots.

Grandpa tells a lot of jokes I don’t get and sings old-fashioned songs like Hey good lookin’ / what you got cookin’? Sometimes we watch The Three Stooges and Grandpa laughs and laughs. He tells me that the Stooges were Jewish, just like us.

I start crying so Grandpa will notice me. I tell him, “Mom says we have to stay over again.”

Grandpa doesn’t look away from the TV screen. “Knock, knock,” he says.

I sniff wetly and keep my head buried in my knees. “Who’s there?”


“Boo who?” I ask.

“Whaddya cryin’ for?” He looks at me, waiting for my laugh. I wipe my face on the crocheted afghan and Grandpa adjusts the TV antenna with his foot.

Leah Carroll, by Joan Goldman Carroll (1980). Photo: Joan Goldman Carroll

Mom kisses Grandpa on the forehead and says, “Leah, if you don’t stop crying, you won’t get your present.”

I run after her into the kitchen where a big cardboard box waits for me. On the front is a picture of a vacuum, a broom, and a mop. Grandma gets scissors from a drawer and says, “Here, Lee-lee, I’ll do it.”

Together we pull out the miniature cleaning supplies. I stroke the ropy ends of the mop imagining all the games I will play with these toys. I can be a mom, cleaning the house and yelling at the kids. I can be an orphan who has to clean the whole house before the orphanage lady comes back and beats me. I can be a princess, locked away by an evil witch and made to clean my dungeon. I barely notice as Mom kisses me and walks out the door. I hear her car rev up and out of the driveway as I push my broom around the orange-and-brown linoleum. Grandma ties a bandanna around my head so I can be just like a real maid.

At night, Grandma lets me wear one of her velour housecoats over my pajamas. It goes down past my feet and as we walk down the stairs Grandma holds up the back and says, “Careful, careful,” with each step. We make our special nighttime snack by pouring peanuts and big fat golden raisins into a bowl and then shaking them until they are all mixed together. Grandma lets me have a spoonful of peanut butter, and I lick the spoon as we walk into the den and sit on the couch.

“That kid’s nuts for peanuts,” Grandpa says, and he and Grandma laugh. Grandma thinks all of Grandpa’s jokes are funny.

I wake to Grandma lifting me off the sofa. Grandpa snores in his chair. I fell asleep halfway through Murder, She Wrote, which is kind of scary but mostly not, because Jessica Fletcher is an old lady.

I wonder when we are going home to the little house on Dixwell Avenue. We stay with Grandma and Grandpa for what feels like a long, long time.

“Mom’s not home,” I say.

Grandma bends over the kitchen table and starts to cry. She and Aunty Sandy talk about Mom’s car. Aunty Sandy says she wants to go out and look for it again. Grandma says we should call and let the police do that. Grandpa is in the den, sitting in the recliner, watching TV.

“Where’s Mom?” I ask again.

Grandma goes to the den to tell Grandpa they are leaving. He turns briefly from the television to look at her. “We’ll be right back,” she says to me. Her face is splotchy from crying and her lipstick is worn away from her mouth. Her breath smells like coffee.

When they leave I halfheartedly mop the floor with my toy mop, but it isn’t as fun without a bandanna tied around my head, and Grandma is the one who does that for me. I go to the living room, with its china closets and sofa I’m not allowed to sit on. There are pictures in beautiful silver frames set up on a table in front of the bay window. I make the faces in the frames talk to each other.

“Hi, Kevin and Joan,” I make a picture of my Aunty Sandy say to a picture of my parents. In the picture my aunt looks extra pretty. She wears a green shirt that says ARMY and big silver earrings.

“Hi, Leah,” I make a picture of my mom say to me. “Here I am,” says the picture. “Here I am. Here I am. Here I am.”

For months after my mom disappears, my grandmother and I live in a world of make-believe. It’s like Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood of Make-Believe, but there is no King Friday or Queen Saturday. There is no shy Daniel Striped Tiger. Mister Rogers never pops up at the beginning of our day to narrate what happened the day before.

He never says, “Yesterday in Grandma and Leah’s world of make-believe they went to the Rhode Island Mall. And Leah asked Grandma if they could sit in the pit in the middle filled with fake trees where all the old men smoke cigarettes, and Grandma said, ‘No, of course not,’ and that Leah ‘should never smoke because smoking kills you.’ And Leah thought, But Mom smokes.”

The difference between our world of make-believe and the regular world is that in our world of make-believe my mom is still alive. In the real world, my mom’s body will remain off the side of the highway, undiscovered for five months. But because there is no trolley car to signal the beginning and end of the make-believe, my grandma and I keep at it relentlessly.

These, I now know, are the details of how my mother died:

On October 18, 1984, she attended services at Temple Sinai with my grandmother. Then she said she was going to meet a friend named Debbie. Really, she was on her way to Sonny Russo’s Restaurant in Johnston, Rhode Island. Sonny Russo’s was where Gerald Mastracchio Sr. conducted much of his criminal business. It was where my mom, who just a few months prior had completed a rehabilitation program that did not take, knew she could get drugs.

That night, October 18, the men happened to be talking about a girl they knew, Joanie, or Joanie the Jew, as they called her sometimes, alias Joanie Grant, real name, Joan B. Carroll. The men were discussing how Joanie “had to go.” And when she walked into the restaurant, Mastracchio said, “This is beautiful.”

He invited her to party; promised her drugs. She told him she had to go home, attend to personal matters, check on her child. They made a date for later that night.

When she returned she parked her car around the corner and left with Gilbert and Mastracchio to rent a hotel room in Attleboro, Massachusetts, just over the Rhode Island line. They all shot up cocaine. Mastracchio appeared from the bathroom holding a wet towel and started to strangle her. Her legs went out from under her and as she struggled, Mastracchio yelled for Gilbert to help him. As her face turned purple, Gilbert stepped on one end of the towel for leverage and Mastracchio said, “Come on, you rat, give me the death rattle.” Then, when she was finally dead, they wrapped my mom’s body in a blanket, put it in the trunk of the car, and drove off, pulling eventually to the side of I-95, where they left her body in a marshy area off the exit ramp. She’d officially be a missing person for the next six months.

I wonder sometimes what she must have been thinking as these two men choked her to death. I think most of all she must have been confused. Why was this happening?

This is why my mother was killed:

On September 7, 1984, the Rhode Island State Police raided Mastracchio Sr.’s home. They found weapons, drugs, syringes, and money. They found the heart of Rhode Island’s drug trade. They arrested everyone on site. One of the men arrested that day was taken into the state police barracks where he was handcuffed to a desk for hours awaiting intake. As he sat there, waiting, the man realized that a detective had left the affidavit in support of the search warrant for the raid on the desk to which the man was chained. So he reached out, cuffs and all, and read every single page.

When given his one phone call, he used it to dial Mastracchio Sr. and tell him everything he’d just read in the affidavit: There was a confidential informant. That person had given details about Mastracchio’s apartment including the fact that the street-facing windows were made of one-way glass. Mastracchio Sr. was furious. He liked to say that he valued loyalty above all. My mom had recently made a comment to him about the mirrored glass, something like, “Oh, you can see in, but you can’t see out.” That was enough evidence for him.

“Joanie’s a rat,” Mastracchio said. “I’ll kill her with my bare fucking hands.”

After my mother was murdered she likely might have remained a missing person forever, but on February 28, 1985, the Providence Police raided Peter Gilbert’s home in a drug bust.

In custody at the Providence police station Gilbert told the two police detectives guarding him that he felt like he was having a heart attack. In the ambulance on the way to Miriam Hospital, he told the detectives he had information on three murders and some other crimes and he’d tell them whatever they wanted, he promised, if they gave him protection from Mastracchio. He said he’d bring the police to the bodies. And there was more. Gilbert swore that the drug dealing, the robberies, and the murders to which he would confess were condoned and sanctioned by the man running organized crime in Rhode Island, Raymond Patriarca.

Trapeze Artist, by Joan Goldman Carroll (1979). Photo: Joan Goldman Carroll

Patriarca had been New England’s most powerful organized crime boss for more than three decades and tying him directly to a crime would advance the careers of everyone involved — the arresting officers, the entire Providence Police Department, and especially the attorney general, an incumbent Republican and former nun named Arlene Violet.

In fact, Violet had run for her office on a platform largely devoted to the promise that she would bring down the Mafia in Rhode Island. On the night that Gilbert started talking, Violet, along with the specially created Intelligence Bureau of the Providence police, couldn’t resist the opportunity for a possible RICO indictment against the Patriarca crime family.

By ten thirty on the night of his arrest, Gilbert had given detailed information about three murders and the robbery of a liquor store that he claimed were linked to the Patriarca crime family. The next day, the office of the attorney general dispatched a representative to make a deal. If Gilbert told them everything he knew, and if he could link his crimes to the Patriarca crime family by testifying in court, he’d be given a sentence of forty years — thirty suspended and ten years to be served in the custody of a fledgling state Witness Protection Program. If all went according to the deal, he’d never spend a day in an actual prison.

On March 1, 1985, Gilbert brought the police to my mother’s skeletal remains off the side of the highway in Sharon, Massachusetts. He confessed to the murder of Joe West, who’d been found dead in a parked car, shot in the head execution style, a few months before. Gilbert then helped the police track down the remains of Joseph Olivo, another drug customer who Mastracchio and Gilbert had suspected was an informant.

Olivo’s dismembered torso was found, with Gilbert’s guidance, under two thousand pounds of refuse in the local landfill. In grand jury testimony, Gilbert would later explain that he couldn’t recall exactly where all the other pieces of Olivo had gone, but he was sure he’d thrown the man’s legs in a dumpster outside of a Mister Donut franchise in Cranston.

All three victims were young drug users. The decision to make a deal with Gilbert was a simple one for the state of Rhode Island: a few dead addicts in exchange for the RICO indictment they’d been seeking for decades against the Patriarca crime family?

By their logic, it was a deal they’d be foolish to turn down.

I have those photos now, thirty years later, the ones my mother developed in her tiny makeshift darkroom. The images still feel like a kind of magic to me. This is the world as she saw it, as she lived it.

Joan Carroll, Leah Carroll, by Joan Goldman Carroll (1980). Photo: Joan Goldman Carroll

In my favorite picture, she doesn’t get the shot quite right. She stands in front of the window of our living room in profile, naked, her belly round with me inside. Her head is cut off in the shot and she stands straight. She’s documenting, not memorializing. “This is me, pregnant. This is how my body looks.” It’s late August 1980. She’s twenty-six years old. My life has barely begun.

From the book DOWN CITY by Leah Carroll. Copyright © 2017 by Leah Carroll. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

My Mother’s Murder