Postscript To Delco's Gang Era

Posted: February 03, 1992

Robert A. Marconi, an Upper Darby gas station owner, was only 28 when he became king of "the Castle," a decrepit mansion that he bought with cash and surrounded with Cadillacs, Continentals and a Rolls Royce.

The Wallingford mansion quickly became a hangout for Delaware County motorcycle gangs and the focus of relentless probes into illicit activities.

Drug trafficking. Burglary rings. Car theft.

And murder. In 1975, investigators said they had linked the notorious Castle and its denizens to the disappearances of five young women, four of whose bodies eventually were found - in the Schuylkill and the Tinicum swamp.

The Castle is no more. It burned to the ground in 1981. But several headlines from recent weeks raised dark memories of its days as a den of iniquity.

On Jan. 18, Marconi suffered chest pains while on furlough from prison, where he was doing time for drug and weapons offenses. The pains hit him while he was visiting the cemetery where his mother was buried. He died later that day.

A few days before Marconi's death, his one-time biker buddy, Robert Nauss, had stood before a judge to be sentenced on escape charges. Nauss received a life sentence in 1977 for hanging and dismembering his girlfriend, Elizabeth Lande - one of the five slain girls - but he escaped from Graterford prison. He had been living on the lam for seven years in Michigan, where, by all accounts, he was an upstanding family man.

The killings are now older than three of the girls were when they were shot. Officially, the cases remain open.

"It's never behind you, being that it's unsolved," said Mary Ann Liscio, mother of the youngest victim, Mary Ann Lees, 15.

If the passing of time has not shed much light on the killings, it has illuminated the forces at play then in Delaware County: The pervasive drug culture and the "outlaw bikers" who emerged as major suppliers. The restless teenagers who saw the drugs and the gangs as highlights of their dreary environment. And the unprepared cops who were caught in the middle.

*

Marconi had a criminal record and was on welfare when he bought the massive, turreted Castle for $80,000 cash in 1974. He put the place in his mother's name.

Just two years later, he put it up for sale.

Though brief, the Castle's time as a bikers' lair made it a galling symbol of the impunity with which Delaware County's motorcycle gangs - the Warlocks and the Pagans - then operated.

Marconi was the impresario of impunity, giving refuge to petty criminals and fierce-looking bikers. He also housed his two young sons and his mother - until she drowned in the Castle's pool.

Occasionally, there were gunshots at the Castle, said neighbors in the middle-class suburb. Often, there were what the county's Criminal Investigation Division chief called "lewd and lascivious" activities involving young women.

Marconi, a medium-size, mustachioed man with muscular arms and a penchant for tight clothes, was presumed by investigators to be a fence for stolen goods and a funnel for illegal drugs, especially methamphetamines.

But authorities had trouble proving it.

At that time, the mid-1970s, the Warlocks had a stronghold around Upper Darby, while their archrivals, the Pagans, were headquartered in Marcus Hook. Though the clubs professed innocence, various members kept getting linked to, if not prosecuted for, serious crimes. Gang rapes, drug smuggling, fatal stabbings and shootings.

Still, the long-haired, leather-clad, tatooed rebels had an allure, especially for the working-class daughters who watched them zoom around the MacDade Mall in Ridley.

Among the girls who hung out at the mall were the four who disappeared. In addition to Mary Ann Lees, they included Debra Jean Delozier, 20; Layne Dorothy Spicer, 16; and Denise Seaman, 17.

Police say all four girls knew people who frequented the Castle, but no police investigator has ever proved that they had visited it.

The families of the four girls insist that the scene at the mall was as close as the girls got to bikers or heavy drugs.

"To me, Layne was a typical teenager," Patricia Spicer of Upper Darby said of her 16-year-old daughter, one of the slain girls. "She had her tricks. She and Mary Ann (Lees) played hooky once or twice. And she was a follower. I worried about that. But she was never nasty to me. She didn't talk back."

Lizze Lande was a different story.

A beautiful Philadelphia Community College student, Lande disappeared five years before the other four. She had a history of mental illness and by various accounts had been brutally abused by Nauss during their relationship. Her body is the only one that was never found, but hers was the only murder that ever was brought to trial, leading to Nauss' conviction in 1977.

With four unsolved slayings still on the ledger, some authorities now acknowledge that police at first were ill-equipped to comprehend and combat the motorcycle gangs.

"When I started (investigating the gangs), I didn't have a single idea what it was all about," recalled Upper Darby Detective Paul Schneider. "For the first three months, I had constant headaches trying to figure out how people could be like this."

"The police (initially) viewed the bikers as neighborhood punks," said Delaware County Assistant District Attorney John Reilly Jr. "They had no concept that these guys were into the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine and that some were murderers."

Even when police caught on, they were hampered by a lack of communication and cooperation among departments. Typical was a series of uncoordinated raids on the Castle in 1975. Evidence obtained - guns and stolen goods - wound up being suppressed because the search warrants were defective.

"It was like Mayberry R.F.D., very provincial," Reilly said.

In 1975, Reilly's father, the late John Reilly Sr., was appointed to head a special investigative unit aimed at curbing the bikers.

The task force, created by Frank T. Hazel, then the county's new district attorney, eventually infiltrated the motorcycle gangs, staged countywide predawn raids, and put witnesses into protection programs.

But the task force confronted two huge obstacles in the cases of the missing women: The trail had grown cold. And people had learned to fear the gangs.

"When we came in in 1976, the Pagans had pretty much taken over Marcus

Hook," recalled Hazel, now a county judge. "We had to instill some confidence in the citizens that something was going to be done. . . . One of our first problems was to get people to open up and tell us some things."

It was a belated unburdening that led to Nauss' conviction.

In 1977 - six years after Lande disappeared outside her West Philadelphia home - a Warlock, William Standen, was arrested on minor charges. During questioning, Standen said Nauss had taken him to the garage behind Standen's apartment and showed him Lande's body dangling from the ceiling. At the trial, prosecutors claimed Nauss mutilated Lande's body, dumped lime on it to prevent identification, and ditched it in the Pine Barrens.

When he began his life sentence, Nauss was a long-haired, goateed rebel in sunglasses.

When recaptured in 1990, he was a short-haired, clean-shaven father of three known in Luna Pier, Mich., as Rick Ferrer. His friends, including the mayor, wrote laudatory letters about him to the sentencing judge. And Nauss' second wife, mother of his three young sons, said she had not suspected his awful past, though she told investigators he sometimes disappeared "for two or three days at a time and returned with $2,000 or $3,000."

After the Castle's heyday, Marconi, too, had adopted a lower profile - but trouble dogged him. In 1978, he declared bankruptcy. In 1983, he suffered burns in an arson at the house where he lived with his family in Springfield. In the house, investigators found illegal guns and drugs.

After a mistrial and various appeals, Marconi was finally sent to prison on

drug and weapons charges in 1990.

The mistrial was declared because someone told a juror about Marconi's connection to the Castle and the unsolved killings.

The girls' families say they have not given up hope that somehow, someday, the slayings will be solved. Perhaps witnesses will speak up.

"I would hope," Spicer said, her voice breaking ever so slightly, "they might be more mature now and would come forward."

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|