How the killers of Danny DeGennaro were found

Lisa Kingston holds a photo of Danny DeGennaro, circa 1998, at 45. She is with their daughter, Gia DeGennaro Pape.
Lisa Kingston holds a photo of Danny DeGennaro, circa 1998, at 45. She is with their daughter, Gia DeGennaro Pape. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 30, 2013

Nick Wilson walked through the door of the Levittown home and saw Danny DeGennaro lying at the foot of the stairs.

At first, he couldn't tell if his friend was dead or alive. Then Wilson noticed the softball-size hole in DeGennaro's rib cage. And the blood gushing out of it.

He called 911, gasping as he described what he saw. At the operator's urging, he looked for something to stop the bleeding and found an unopened pack of white T-shirts - a Christmas gift.

Wilson ripped open the package and shoved the shirts into the cavity.

It made no difference.

That night two years ago marked the tragic end of a life and once-shining career. A gifted guitarist and songwriter, DeGennaro had toured the country with high-wattage musicians. At 56, his star had dimmed, but he was still a local fixture, playing regularly in New Hope and around Philadelphia.

That's what made his death such a mystery.

For weeks, investigators were puzzled about who killed DeGennaro and why. They had no witnesses and scant evidence.

Then they got a break. An unlikely phone call led them through thousands of pages of phone records to text messages among high school girls, and, eventually, to a perplexing Dr. Seuss reference.

This month, a judge sentenced the last of five defendants to at least 52 years in prison in DeGennaro's death.

It was a day police and prosecutors had not been sure would come.

"This was the biggest 'connect-the-dot' puzzle I've ever had to connect," said Matt Weintraub, the Bucks County assistant district attorney who led investigation of the case.

How they connected those dots is a story that emerges in hundreds of pages of police and court records, trial testimony, and interviews.

Even then, the puzzle might not be complete.

The final night

On the night he died, DeGennaro and his roommate, Jimmy Meszaros, had finished a steak dinner around 10 p.m. in the kitchen of their split-level home. They washed it down with gulps of rum and Coke - DeGennaro's favorite drink - and puffs from a joint.

Until that hour, Dec. 28, 2011, had been a typical night for the old friends. Both grew up in Levittown, where winding lanes of single-story houses are squeezed between high-traffic roads.

DeGennaro graduated from Pennsbury High School in 1973, and soon became well known beyond his hometown.

In the late 1970s, he toured with Kingfish, which once featured the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir. And over the next 20 years, "Danny Rio," as he came to be known, played with Clarence Clemons, Billy Squier, Bo Diddley, and many others.

With a mop of brown hair, a goatee, and a striking baritone, DeGennaro had a magnetic stage presence, his fans said. And he was versatile, comfortable playing rock, blues, or acoustic.

Substance use got in the way - heroin at times, alcohol and marijuana more often - but never stopped him.

In the 1990s, John Farmer Jr. was a federal prosecutor in New Jersey when he happened into a New Hope bar where DeGennaro was playing. At the time, Farmer was mourning the sudden death of his wife. DeGennaro's music so touched him he came back week after week.

"It provided tremendous emotional comfort at a critical time," said Farmer, who later served as state attorney general.

Music was also a family affair for DeGennaro. When daughter Gia was a toddler, he once brought her on stage before hundreds and serenaded her with "My Girl."

As she grew older, Gia and other relatives would regularly attend his shows, often capping a weekend with DeGennaro cooking one of his specialties - saltimbocca, or filet mignon with bearnaise sauce - for the extended family at his Crabtree Lane house.

A horrible find

DeGennaro had inherited the house from his mother. He rented the basement to Meszaros to help pay the mortgage. Wilson lived across the street.

After dinner that December night, Meszaros went downstairs. He was drunk and high, he later admitted.

On his way back upstairs, he saw DeGennaro standing at the top of the steps like a zombie, blood pouring out of his chest.

"His eyes went up in his head, and he fell" down the stairs, Meszaros testified.

In a stupor, Meszaros scrambled across the street to get Wilson, who rushed in and called 911.

Police responded within 10 minutes. They found a shotgun casing on the kitchen floor and a 9mm bullet in a wall. But there were no signs of forced entry - and nothing seemed to have been stolen.

A few days later, they finally dug into a long shot: a phone call from a would-be car buyer.

Tracking evidence

For weeks, Wilson had been trying to sell his 2007 Volkswagen Jetta. A "For Sale" sign in the car window listed the price, $14,400, and his phone number.

But his house was obscured from any real traffic.

Not like DeGennaro's.

The songwriter's property backed up to the heavily traveled Levittown Parkway - a perfect spot for a billboard. So, with DeGennaro's permission, Wilson parked his car there, the sign facing the road.

About 30 minutes before the murder, Wilson's phone rang. The caller said she was prepared that instant to buy the car and insisted he come outside. Wilson told her to come back the next day.

After the killing, Wilson decided the crime and the call were connected. He told police.

Six days after the murder, authorities obtained phone records for the number. They eventually linked it to Tatyana Henderson, 17, a Pennsbury High School student.

They also found dozens of text messages and calls between Henderson's phone and two others on the day of the killing - one tied to Danasia Bakr, a 17-year-old classmate and Henderson's best friend, the other to Jermaine Jackson, then 19, who lived in Trenton.

The phone traffic piqued investigators' interest for another reason: early in the evening of DeGennaro's murder - and then after - cell-tower records showed the phones in service between Trenton and Morrisville, at least five miles from Crabtree Lane.

But in the hour just before the killing, calls from the same phones were bouncing off towers less than 1,000 yards from DeGennaro's back porch.

Investigators looked into the trio's backgrounds. Bakr and Henderson had had minor scuffles involving police. Jackson's was more jarring - arrests for gambling and armed robbery.

A search warrant then gave them access to the suspects' text messages - and clues that they were on the right track.

can we go do that thing with jermaine, Henderson had texted Bakr around 6 the night of the killing.

ya what time, Bakr replied.

he said now, Henderson said.

The next day, their texting continued. In one, Henderson wrote Bakr: if I was in thereeverybody woulda got down or layed down.

Henderson told her friend not to worry. Bakr wasn't as cool.

Im freaked da f- out, she wrote in a text.

Wiretapping approved

About two months after the killing, Superior Court Judge Paula Francisco Ott approved a 30-day wiretap on the phones used by Henderson, Bakr, and Jackson.

Investigators knew they needed to get the suspects talking - "tickling the wire," they call it.

So they leaked stories about the investigation to local newspapers. Then they placed an article in an envelope on Bakr's doorstep. The message on the envelope was written to appear as though it came from a teenage girl - the i's were dotted with hearts - but it was written by a veteran detective.

Then, on Feb. 22, Bristol Township Detective Greg Beidler called Henderson's mother, Dakita Boone - the phone was registered to her - and asked about the call regarding Wilson's car.

A tidal wave of activity ensued.

Henderson, Bakr, and Jackson began calling and texting one another. The girls then asked Jackson to meet them at a Trenton parking lot.

Henderson and Bakr didn't notice police had trailed them to the meeting.

Jackson apparently did. He never showed up.

After that, he dumped his phone. And he grew more cautious about talking to the girls.

Celebrating DeGennaro's life

DeGennaro's family was still grieving.

In February, about a month after DeGennaro's funeral - and four days before what would have been his 57th birthday - hundreds gathered at John & Peter's nightclub in New Hope for a tribute concert.

Before starting the set, guitarist T.J. Tindall announced, "Let's have a toast to Danny."

The event was a celebration of his life. And though questions still swirled about his death, no one mentioned them.

As to the investigation, his daughter later said, "We knew absolutely nothing."

The probe moves forward

In time, investigators sketched a rough portrait of their suspects - a ragtag crew constantly scheming to get money.

"Every day they were going to come up with some kind of half-baked way to get over on somebody," Weintraub later said.

Of the three, prosecutors focused on Bakr. She seemed enamored with the gangster lifestyle, but was new to it. She was still in school and had a job at Sears Hardware.

The key, they knew, was to separate her from Henderson, who was almost always by her side.

On March 6, police scooped up Henderson on an outstanding theft charge as Bakr watched.

When Bakr asked why her friend was being arrested, detectives simply said: "You know why."

Then they handed Bakr a subpoena. She had to go to the District Attorney's Office in two days. To talk about the murder.

When Bakr arrived in Doylestown with her parents on March 8, Weintraub and Beidler told her about the text messages, wire, and surveillance. They knew she was near DeGennaro's house at the time of the murder, they said.

And they reminded her that Henderson was in custody. What if she's giving you up?

Then they left Bakr alone with her parents. When they came back, Bakr had decided.

She would cooperate.

Convictions

Bakr told investigators Jackson had organized the plan to "get money" from DeGennaro - recruiting Henderson and Bakr as getaway drivers. Two other accomplices, Kazair Gist and Breon Powell, brought the guns.

Police hadn't been aware of those two, but phone records also placed them near DeGennaro's house that night.

Bakr's testimony proved indispensable. She testified at two trials - one for Jackson in May 2013, and a second for Gist, now 19, and Powell, 22, in the fall.

All were convicted.

As the mastermind, Jackson got a life term. So did Powell, who fired the shotgun blast that killed DeGennaro. Gist, sentenced two weeks ago, got at least 52 years in prison.

Bakr, a minor at the time of the murder, is in a juvenile detention center. Henderson, who also eventually agreed to cooperate and plead guilty, got one to two years in prison.

But there was one thing the girls couldn't answer. Why target DeGennaro in the first place?

Digging deeper

Prosecutors don't have to prove why a crime occurred, just that it did.

The closest Weintraub and Beidler got to untangling a motive was a number that DeGennaro had in his cellphone and that he had called more than 100 times.

The number was labeled "Sam I Am," a character in Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham.

Neither investigators nor family members know the meaning.

But Weintraub discovered it appeared to be registered to a 70-year-old relative of Jackson's - a man who died in 2007.

Weintraub and Beidler are fairly certain Jackson didn't know DeGennaro. On the night of the murder, they say, his crew got lost on the way to DeGennaro's house.

They believe DeGennaro called "Sam I Am" to buy drugs - and that Jackson must somehow have learned the regular customer was a celebrated guitarist and songwriter.

Beidler said he thought the mysterious contact was just a loose connection, not a sixth co-conspirator escaping justice. "I think we got everybody who was involved in the homicide," he said.

Family members aren't so sure.

DeGennaro's brother Gary has his own theories about who may have tipped off Jackson - theories police say they have chased to no avail.

And DeGennaro's daughter, now Gia DeGennaro Pape, a 29-year-old teacher who said she was exceptionally grateful to investigators, said she also believed there's a missing piece to the story. "That's the hardest part," she said, "because we still don't know."

Family memories

A day after the last defendant was sentenced, DeGennaro Pape sat at the kitchen table of her Bensalem home with her husband, Stephen Pape, 30, and her mother, Lisa Kingston.

With pictures of her father on the wall, and his music humming out of speakers, the family enjoyed pasta with homemade gravy - Danny's recipe - and traded stories about the man they knew so well.

Kingston talked about a two-month trip they took to Bermuda, where she and Danny DeGennaro stayed in a beachfront house. Gia recalled bursting into tears when she was at Pennsylvania State University and her father sang to her over the phone.

And Pape marveled at how strangers approach his wife to recall stories of parties her father played at in an era gone by. "Almost everywhere we go, someone comes up to us," he said.

Because of the trials, DeGennaro Pape said, she never got a chance to mourn her father.

Now that they have ended, she's not sure what facing the grief will be like.

She talks of doing things to remember him: reading an Eric Clapton book he gave her, visiting music cities like Memphis and Nashville, recording a new verse to one of his songs.

She hopes that's enough.

"My hardest thing is, the music stops," she said. "We can listen to these songs he wrote over and over again, but we'll never have another one."


cpalmer@phillynews.com

609-217-8305 @cs_palmer

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