The Murder of Diane McDermott
In February of 1967, a 20-year-old woman named Diane Florence McDermott died of a gunshot wound to the back of the head. She was rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital but died within the hour.
A gun found in Diane’s left hand, even though she was right-handed. The size of the gun was too small to have created the damage to her head and the weapon that did kill her had been pressed to the left side of the back of her head. There were no nitrates (by-products of burned gunpowder) on her hands.
The house was a triple-decker at 11 Walnut Street Waterbury’s North End. Diane McDermott, Nee Marino, had grown up there when the neighborhood was still respectably working class and largely Italian but by the early 1960s, it was in the midst of a transition into a rundown, crowded black area.
The apartment, her mother’s apartment actually, was near the corner of Cherry Street, a rough part of town in a very rough city. In those days, lower Cherry Street was renowned for its street hookers and Walnut Street had its share of illegal after hour bars and a few brothels on the far upper end of the street.
Diane lived there with her son, Dylan, the future television and film star, then 5 years old, an infant daughter and her boyfriend John Sponza. Diane had been separated from her husband, Rich McDermott for a while, they just teens when Dylan was born.
It was a Thursday night. Sponza, who was known to the cops, said Diane had shot herself as a suicide and then amended the story to say that he was cleaning his pistol while Diane peeled potatoes over the sink in the kitchen. He said that she entered the room where Sponza was sitting, she was carrying the peeling knife. She picked up the weapon, for no known reason, and it accidentally fired a few seconds later. The paring knife was found beside her body.
The murder scene
Remarkably, not only did the cops buy Sponza’s version of what happened, they didn’t bother to test his hands for gunpowder residue. Sponza told the cops on the scene that he and Diane never argued. Yet virtually everyone who knew the couple said they argued constantly and that the arguments were “very violent and very vicious”
On at least one occasion, Sponza choked Diane when she didn't move fast enough to get his cigarettes. Friends recalled that Sponza terrorized her son Dylan, struck him and once pushed a gun in the boy’s face. On the night Diane died, Sponza ordered 5-year-old Dylan out into the cold night while he and Diane argued.
Sponza’s second wife, Naomi, said that Sponza beat her and once put her in a chair, cut her and threatened to kill her. “John had also hit me several times with a vacuum cleaner pipe.” She said “This was after John was involved in a car accident. John trusted me but would tell me if there came a day he didn’t trust me, he would kill me. The way I knew John though, I knew he didn’t shoot her (McDermott) by accident. I knew he killed her.”
No one who knew her believed that Diane killed herself, accidentally or otherwise and virtually everyone who knew the situation believed that Sonza had killed her. The problem was no one could prove it
The slight (just under five foot seven) tattoo covered Sponza was a typical street punk, wise-guy-wanna-be. In 1962, he was sent to Cheshire reformatory for breaking and entering and theft of a motor vehicle. Two years later, was jailed for a year in Hartford on a charge of breach of peace. In 1967, he was convicted breaking and entering and larceny and served several months in the can. A heroin addict, other reports say he pistol-whipped a victim in a medical clinic and allegedly shot another man in the face. The few friends that he had, acquaintances would be a better word, he met in jail. “He liked to project the image of a gangster,” one of them said.
In December of 1964, Sponza and two other men tracked down a man named James Little to a bar in Waterbury and bear him severely him because he had testified that he had sold a stolen television set to former Waterbury deputy sheriff, Francis Palladino, who once ran as the Republican candidate for high sheriff of New Haven County. Waterbury police reported that Sponza and the other two hoods, Paul Fontaine and Ronald Colasanto were “near and dear friends of Palladino” according to Waterbury Chief Inspector of Detectives Byrnes.
That incident, selling stolen goods to law enforcement officers, happened in 1964. Four years later, a crime ring developed in Waterbury that sold thousands of dollars in stolen merchandise to police officers.
Chief Inspector of Detectives Henry Byrnes, a gruff, political cop, decided to believe the beat reports about the murder of Diane McDermott. He officially determined that the death accidental and the Coroner’s office, relying on information from the police, agreed. In effect, the cops had inadvertently covered up Sponza's involvement in the crime. But why?
Two years after Diane was killed, Byrnes and Deputy Superintendent Paul Moynahan were suspended from duty after being convicted on breach of peace charges and public intoxication. The two men, both armed, locked up after banging on the front door of States Attorney Francis McDonald on Christian Road in Middlebury. Twelve state police cars answered McDonald’s frantic phone calls.
The reason Byrnes and Moynahan were there was that they had learned that McDonald was investigation the Waterbury Police Department involvement in accepting stolen goods in lieu of arrest, gambling, and loan sharking. Reports of the investigation had leaked out and rumor had it that the State Police were about to arrest 14 members of the Waterbury police force. Several hours before showing up at McDonald’s house, the two cops had gone to the home of the State Policeman who had been assigned to investigate the case.
In the end Retired Waterbury Chief Justice P. O'Sullivan, acting as the grand juror linked the scandal to the Mafia. He accused the Watertown chief of police and assistant prosecutor in Waterbury Circuit Court of destroying records in the case. Ninety-four persons gave testimony and 17 others refused to testify
Of the 33 arrests made in the case, mostly cops or city hall connected characters, twenty were convicted. Six persons were found innocent, one case was not prosecuted, 4 cases were dismissed by the Superior Court, one was declared a mistrial and one never went before the court because the defendant skipped town.
Moynahan and his son, Attorney and politician Timothy Moynahan were arrested for receiving stolen goods. The grand jury determined that the senior Moynahan "used his position as a police officer to protect the operations of Charles Vemale."
Vemale was a mob associate who dealt in hijacked goods a pornography distribution. Timothy Moynahan, the son, knowingly received a stolen $200 air conditioner which was put in his law office. He was acquitted on perjury charges arising from the grand jury probe. The court also dropped the larceny charge because of a mistrial and subsequent "double jeopardy" ruling. Paul Moynahan was found guilty of larceny and was sentenced to one year and one day in jail. It is not known how long he actually served. Welcome to Waterbury.
Chief Inspector of Detectives Byrnes missed a bullet in the dragnet and he was given special treatment in the handling of the McDonald harassment case and was eventually given a suspended jail term. By the end of the year, he was gone from the force. The official story was that he was suffering from heart problems and was allowed to retire from the force with full benefits.
If John Sponza was involved in the scandal, and it’s very, very possible that he was, his name was never mentioned in the investigation which focused almost exclusively on the involvement of the police officers and not the hoods who were involved. If Sponza was involved in handing over stolen goods to the police, it would go a great way in explaining why the investigators in the case decided that Diane McDermott killed herself.
On March 7, 1970, John Lonza was arrested for possession of heroin and slammed away to Somers maximum security prison 3 to 5 but only served 11 months on a modified sentence. He was discharged on parole in February of 1971. Sponza told his parole officer that he was buying wholesale merchandise in New York City and selling it at market rates in Connecticut and Massachusetts. There is no evidence that was true. He also listed his place of work as the Trailer Truck Salvage Company, a questionable firm that was actually in business or at least had an office, in Hartford, but no one there had ever heard of him and denied he ever worked there.
Sponza was under court order to attend a methadone clinic in Hartford. “He came in every day for nine months to pick up his medication.” A counselor recalled “He was a loner, he never came in with anyone. He was a little cocky and always felt uncomfortable and threatened.” Sponza was eventually tossed out of the methadone program because he failed to attend required sobriety meetings
In October of 1971, he married Naomi Balkan in a civil ceremony in Tolland.
On August 6, 1971, Lata, his girlfriend Linda Ziomek and John Sponza, robbed the American Savings and Loan Co. on Rt. 64 in Middlebury of $18,485. Sponza and Lata rushed into the bank wearing masks and black gloves while Ziomek waited in the getaway car. Immediately after the Middlebury robbery, Sonza, Lata, Ziomek and Stuart “Birdsey” Smith, of Meriden robbed another bank in Meriden of $68,000 on December 13, 1971.
In early June of 1972, Sponza crashed his Cadillac on Interstate 84 and rented a car, a Dodge Charger, from National Car Rental in Hartford on June 5 and then vanished. After a week, the car rental employee in Hartford who loaned the Sponza car registered the car as missing when Sponza failed to return it on time.
Sponza had rented the car because he needed it to kill Peter Ladas and anyone else who could finger him for the string of bank robberies they had been involved in and then there was the matter of the stolen loot. Lonza wanted it all for himself.
Sponza called Ladas, William “Billy” McNellis and Alexander “Skinny” Dziadowicz and told them it was time to split the contents of two stolen safes. With James Lata driving, Sponza took the group to an isolated area in eastern Connecticut, the rural end of the state. Sponza was sitting in the front passenger’s seat. The car was parked. He turned suddenly, pistols in both hands, and opened fire on the three men Skinny Dziadowicz got hit, McNellis and Ladas, who was grazed in the head by a bullet, jumped from the car. Dziadowicz was never found.
Lata and the others weren’t going to let Sponza live after that. Linda Ziomek, Lata’s girlfriend, lured Sponza to Waltham, Massachusetts. She told him she needed his help casing some banks in the area. Several days before Sponza disappeared, witnesses said they saw James Lata at a Waltham motel.
On June 16, 1972, a Friday, Sonza’s body was found in the trunk of a car that had been left in a shopping plaza in Waltham Massachusetts. He had been tossed into the trunk and then shot through the back three times. The gunmen were more likely Lata and McNellis.
By the time they found the body, Sponza’s wife said he had been missing about a week. The body was decomposing for about a week. The foul odor is what led the local police to the scene. Based on the condition of the body, police estimated that Sonza had been murdered in or about June 10th. His wife identified him, by phone, by his rings and body tattoos. He died with $1.12 in his pocket, a fake diamond ring on his finger. Sponza is buried in the Calvary Cemetery in Waterbury where Diane McDermott is also buried.
The Waterbury police reopened the case in 2011 but the investigation was weakened by the fact that the official files and pictures from the time were lost or had disappeared, and the main suspect, John Sponza, was dead. But the investigation did go on and the correct picture of what happened that day became very clear, very fast. John Sponza had murdered the young Mrs. McDermott. In fact, there is a possibility, although not much of a possibility, that some members of the Waterbury police had purposefully covered up Sponza’s guilt. The final determination in the reopened case, based on what information was available, was that Diane McDermott was probably murdered by John Sponza