July 29, 1993
It had been a slow Thursday night at the Five Oaks, a little bar at 49 Grove Street in Greenwich Village. Lisa Hall, a short, mouthy blonde who acted and sang, was behind the bar. An off-duty bartender, Barbara Ross, sat in front. At 10:30, regulars filed in for a birthday party. Among them were Dominick, a bisexual man who split time between Manhattan and Allentown, Pennsylvania; Richard, an ex-dancer who owned a furniture store; and Sal, who owned a travel agency. Marie Blake was on the piano and the patrons were singing.
Founded by Bill Normand in the late forties, the Oaks had long been known for its menu (a “true gustatory delight,” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle), its music (Nina Simone, it was rumored, accompanied customers on the piano), and as a sanctuary. Since the bar’s inception, Normand’s wife, Mae, cultivated a loyal crowd of queer regulars, mostly couples. At the century’s midpoint and for many years thereafter, it was dangerous for gays and lesbians even to hold hands in public, so the basement establishment without so much as a window—virtually invisible from the outside—provided a measure of protection.
In a city that was host to a vibrant, thumping smorgasbord of subcultures, fetishes, and scenes, piano bars were a tiny bulwark against change. Most tended to be downtown, many clustered in the West Village—what Michael Musto, the cheeky Village Voice columnist, called a “Bermuda Triangle of showbiz aspirants”: the Stonewall Inn, Arthur’s, the Duplex, Marie’s Crisis, which a local bar owner pronounced “the gayest” of the bunch. The Five Oaks was about a hundred feet from Marie’s. Half piano bar, half restaurant, it was rumored to have once been a speakeasy, with a secret door in the kitchen opening up onto Bleecker Street. There were thirteen steps between the sidewalk and the street, which was quiet and mostly residential. As you walked in, adjusting to the low ceiling and the darkness, you’d see off to the right a thirteen-seat horseshoe bar. To the left was a dining room of a dozen tables. And in between, near the entrance to the ladies’ room, was a Black woman playing piano.
Blake was the anchor of the Five Oaks, and its most sustained draw. Classically trained, throaty, and scat singing, she bobbed her head gently as she played, while beautifully dressed men crooned into the microphone to her right. For Broadway folks, the Five Oaks had long been a destination: Liza Minnelli and Shirley MacLaine dropped in, and Tharon Musser, a lighting designer who worked to acclaim on A Chorus Line, was a regular. Hal Prince, too, came in for early dinners with his wife each Sunday. Stephen Sondheim recalled the Five Oaks as “a fixture in the Village.” It was Judy Garland’s favorite bar; when she passed out, the owner would carry her upstairs to a cab.
At 11:30 p.m., Hall belted out a few songs, including Peter Allen’s ode to ending a relationship before it withers, “I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love.” Ross, the off-duty bartender, became upset about something and went home. By 1:00, the birthday guests were gone. Then Ross called. She’d left her apartment keys at the Duplex, a couple of blocks away, but before retrieving them planned to stop by the Oaks again. She was greeted by an old friend: a big, bearded regular, well over six feet and two hundred pounds, named Michael Sakara.
Michael, it was often said, was to the Five Oaks what Norm was to Cheers. Every night except Mondays, when he didn’t come to the bar, Michael ordered round upon round of Cutty Sark and water. The last stool at the end of the horseshoe bar was his. From that vantage, facing the street, he could see everyone coming down the entrance steps. He sang the same song at the end of the evening and acted as the social director, making introductions. “I spent more time with him than anybody else in the world at that point in my life,” Hall would testify. Having worked at the Five Oaks on and off for more than a decade, she had known Michael since 1976, and across the years they’d become close. From 2:00 to 2:30 a.m., the only people seated at the bar were Michael and Ross, who read his horoscope, as was her custom. They bickered like siblings. She was worried about him, that he drank too much. Which was true; he could down three scotches in an hour. Michael thanked Ross for her concern and offered to retrieve her keys. This was unusual; it was not his practice to leave the bar before closing. Michael was gone no more than ten minutes, and when he returned with the keys, Ross left. It was the early hours of July 30, and the Five Oaks was mostly empty. Marie Blake, half an eye on the entrance, was still playing. Last call was soon, at 3:45. Around this time, Michael would usually walk over to the piano and ask Blake to play a number about romantic nostalgia. The song, by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal, had been popular during World War II, but more recently was embraced by Liberace. It began:
I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces all day through
The bar officially closed for the night in fifteen minutes, but patrons could stay to finish their drinks. This was later than most restaurants in the area, so bartenders, too, would stop by for a round after their own shifts ended.
Shortly before last call, a man descended the thirteen steps and entered the bar. He sat down to Michael’s immediate left and requested the house scotch and water. Hall sized him up: white guy, maybe five foot nine. Average build. Wore a blue button-down shirt and had his sleeves rolled up. She guessed he was in his early thirties, and would, when questioned by detectives, remember his thick, wavy hair and “brown glassy eyes.”
Other patrons had seen the man around the bar, and had even gone home with him. Hall, though, didn’t recognize him. But she assumed he and Michael knew each other; why, after all, would you sit next to a stranger in a near-empty bar? Hall, in fact, would later speculate that perhaps they’d run into each other at the Duplex.
“This is Mark the nurse,” Michael said, ordering a scotch and water. “He works at St. Vincent’s.”
The men talked, but Hall couldn’t hear the conversation. The nurse seemed drunk. Hall was wary of the man, as she was of any new customer who came in just before closing time. There was an increased chance of being robbed by a late arrival. Still, she was grateful Michael had company. She loved him, but he required a lot of attention. Thank God, she thought, he has someone to talk to now.
Sitting nearby was an editor from The New York Times. He came to the Five Oaks twice a month, venturing downtown after work. Preparing to move out of the city, he had come to say his goodbyes. The newsman knew Michael and could see he was lost in conversation. “Engrossed in their own little world,” is how he described it years later. He also knew the man talking to Michael, having gone to college with him in the 1970s. They’d run into each other in September at the Townhouse and had crossed paths a few times since.
But he let the two men be and said nothing.
Hall had a lot of work to do and turned her back to the bar so she could wash glasses, count money, and take inventory. She carefully wrote down the bottles she’d used that night.
Peripherally, she could see Michael and the nurse still in deep conversation.
It was finally time for last call. A dozen new customers had arrived, maybe more. If you bought a drink between two and four in the morning, you got a second one free, so Hall was busy.
“This is it,” Hall announced.
“I want everything,” replied Michael, which is what he always said. He’d downed twelve scotches already and had eaten nothing. Sometimes he and Hall shared a dinner, but not tonight.
As for the nurse: he professed to be done for the evening, on account of having to drive home. But then he changed his mind and ordered another scotch and water. Hall noticed he hadn’t finished the first drink, so she watered down the second with ice.
Just after 4:00, Hall collected her tips and took the candles off the bar. She grabbed Michael’s leather briefcase from the cubbyhole, where he always stowed it. As Hall placed it on the bar, she noticed condoms inside. That was strange. Michael wasn’t the type for one-night stands and had been, until recently, in a long-term monogamous relationship.
Fifteen minutes later, Hall and Marie Blake left the Five Oaks, got into a cab together, and flew up the west side of Manhattan.
Barely a day later, at 7:00 a.m. on July 31, a man collecting bottles and cans at a Haverstraw Bay overlook found a briefcase and a bag holding shoes, pants, a shirt, and a wallet identifying the belongings’ owner as Michael J. Sakara of Manhattan. The man considered keeping the bounty, but looking at the personal papers gave him an eerie feeling. He deposited his discoveries at the police station in Haverstraw, a sparsely populated village an hour north of Manhattan.
A few hours later, Ronald Colandrea, forty-eight, arrived at the overlook, at the lunch truck he owned and operated on Route 9W, a highway running north to south through New York’s Rockland County. The parked truck hugged the guardrail just before a bend in the road and was emblazoned with the words Ron’s Best. That morning, he stopped for coffee and then shopped for supplies. He got to work at 10:30, just as a light purple van was pulling out. Colandrea’s family had sold hot dogs on that very spot since 1943, going back to his father, Anthony, an immigrant from Naples. Colandrea knew precisely how much garbage ought to be in the four fifty-five-gallon trash barrels near his truck on any given day.
The barrels were emptied the prior morning. But that Saturday, when Colandrea returned to the overlook, he found the barrel nearest to his truck almost full; it should have been one-third full, which was how he left it on Friday. Colandrea inspected the contents, hoping to find the address of whoever left the garbage. This wasn’t out of mere intellectual curiosity; he was inclined to dump garbage on the lawn of those who used his barrels without permission.
Resting near the lip was a green plastic trash bag tied in a knot. Colandrea partially opened it, and wooziness overtook him.
Staring up at him was a face.
The head, double-bagged, had been sliced off but not cleanly, about an inch below the closely trimmed beard. Colandrea looked further. He found a set of arms, cut off well below the shoulder, fingers clenched in a loose fist. They, too, were double-bagged. The arms, Colandrea would remark, “were cut nice and even, like butchering a cow.”
At 11:15 a.m., he enlisted a customer to drive to the Haverstraw Police Department.
The first patrolman on scene was skeptical. “You think there’s a head in the barrel?” he asked Colandrea. But when he donned gloves and opened the bag, he, too, felt ill. The patrolman called his command, which, in turn, contacted the Rockland County Medical Examiner. The Rockland County District Attorney’s Office also was notified. It wasn’t their case by statute, per se, but the Haverstraw police lacked the capacity to investigate a murder.
Detective Stephen Colantonio, a decade into his career with the DA’s office, arrived within a half hour. He lived eight miles away, in Nanuet. Dark-haired with a dimpled chin, Colantonio exhibited a tendency toward self-improvement. Now in his early thirties, he’d earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s in public administration. He’d been studying karate for years and was a student instructor at the local dojo. The martial art, he told a reporter, “teaches you self-control— maintaining your composure.”
Colandrea’s truck was familiar to the detectives, who picked up hot dogs when they went to a nearby shooting range. It was clear the body parts hadn’t been there long. Even the hot dog vendor could see that. “He had to be dumped overnight,” he told a reporter. “It was still fresh and there were no flies.” This was soon confirmed by the medical examiner, who, peering into the garbage bags, pronounced the body parts “very fresh.” The crime scene was elsewhere, the detectives realized, because there were no signs of a struggle, and no blood on or outside the trash barrel.
It didn’t take long for a desk sergeant to tentatively match the photo on the ID found earlier at the overlook to the face in the bag. With that identification, detectives put together a teletype announcing the prosecutor’s office’s recovery of body parts. It was sent out late that night to surrounding areas in the hopes of finding similar cases. Then, on August 2, after two days of work on Michael’s case, the Rockland County Prosecutor’s Office had visitors. A half dozen New Jersey state troopers, in response to the July 31 teletype, filed into the squad room. They wanted to talk about the fresh case, but also one of their own.
From the book Last Call: A True Story of Lust, Love, and Murder in Queer New York. Copyright © 2021 by Elon Green. Published March 9 by Celadon Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers.