-Daughter of John & Antonina DiMartino 1909 ~2021
On February 17, 1983, when Vera Spagnola (Formerly Elvira DiMartino) was 64 years old and living in Paterson, she shot and killed an intruder. Her first shot was meant to scare him away and seemed to succeed. But shorly afterward the intruder returned and Vera took aim and killed him. Her story became the fodder for politicians who didn’t want laws preventing gun ownership. And because there was a possibility that she could have been charged with murder for defending herself, Vera’s story was also used to support passing laws that gave peope the legal right to defend themselves and their homes with a gun.
Not only is it interesting that we have an ancestor who was a poster child for gun ownership rights, it’s also ironic that in the process of researching Vera, I found that her story about how she came to have a gun in her possession left some details out. She refers to her late husband in her story and that he had purchased the gun back in the 40’s when he owned a tavern. When they moved to Paterson, she said they kept the gun as a collector’s item and eventually it was stashed away in a box and forgotten. That was, until there were some breakins in her apartment building. She took the gun down from the closet and had it ready if she needed it.
But then I came upon a newspaper story of Vera filing for divorce in 1955 from her husband (Banana Joe). (Yes, they actually posted divorce filings in the newspaper!) Well if his nickname doesn’t make him sound like a gangster, her reason for filing the divorce sure does. She states that he threw a frying pan at her and tossed dinner all over the kitchen wall. She goes on to say that he emptied out all of her bureau draws and closets…hmmm, I wonder if good ole Banana Joe was looking for his gun? Maybe Vera had been smart enough to hide it?
So the very same gun that politicians were touting had saved Vera’s life, could have, 30 years earlier, in her violent husband’s hands, been the death of her. Just sayin’.
Here’ is what was written about Vera’s shooting incident in the newspaper, and also how the story had been crafted the following year to support gun ownership rights.
The Herald News Feb 18, 1983
Senate in Jersey Supports Force by Homeowners
By Joseph F. Sullivan, Special To the New York Times
Feb. 24, 1984
Credit…The New York Times Archives
Vera Spagnola, a 65-year-old woman who shot and killed an intruder in her Paterson apartment last year, sat in the New Jersey Senate today and watched as the lawmakers passed a bill that would strengthen the right of the public to use deadly force to protect their homes and businesses.
For 10 days after she shot a 22-year-old man who menaced her and two elderly friends with an iron bar, Mrs. Spagnola did not know whether she was going to be charged with a crime. “I’m happy to see them act on this bill,” she said after the vote. “Maybe people won’t be so free in entering homes and businesses without a second thought.”
A week before the shooting, Mrs. Spagnola, a widow, retrieved an old .32 caliber revolver that had belonged to her husband, She took the gun from a trunk after a neighboring apartment was broken into.
“I think it’s a good idea for people to have guns to protect themselves,” she said…
Senator Frank X. Graves, Democrat of Paterson, said he had sponsored the bill because of Mrs. Spagnola’s experience. The measure was passed 36 to 0 and sent to the Assembly, where a similar bill is being introduced.
Mr. Graves, who is also Paterson’s Mayor, alluded to Mrs. Spagnola’s story but did not introduce her.
“What we are saying in this bill to one and all in a clear and unequivocal message is Don’t break into that home or business because the New Jersey Legislature has said the owner has the right to use deadly force, if necessary, to protect themselves,’” he said.
Under the bill, he said, it would be presumed that home and business owners acted properly in using deadly force against a trespasser. The state would be required to rebut that presumption “with proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.
According to Mrs. Spagnola, she was playing cards with two women, 74 and 81, when they heard someone forcing the door of the apartment at about 12:30 A.M. on February 17, 1983.
Mrs. Spagnola got out the .32-caliber revolver. When a young man entered carrying a nine-inch bar that he had used to pry open the door, she fired a shot and he ran out.
He reportedly re-entered a short time later, apparently thinking the gun fired blanks. “That gun ain’t real,” he said, according to Mrs. Spagnola. He then reportedly advanced toward the women.
Mrs. Spagnola fired again, hitting the man in the chest. He staggered into the hall before collapsing. The police identified him as Ameer Hossenbey of Paterson.
After investigating the circumstances of the shooting, the Passaic County Prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute Mrs. Spagnola.
I find it interesting that there was no mention of this event in Vera’s Obituary!