Before dawn on August 17th, 1975, about 60 police officers and FBI agents charged into the New York City apartment of a fireman named Mel Patrick Lynch. The living room was dimly lit; its blinds were drawn. Lynch sat on the couch next to the unshaven, foul-smelling, bound and blindfolded 21-year-old scion of one of the United States' richest families, Samuel Bronfman II, who had been missing for nine days.
Authorities arrested Lynch and an accomplice, Dominic Byrne. The men confessed to abducting Bronfman, describing the planning and execution of the crime and identifying the hiding spot of two garbage bags containing a $2.3 million, or €1.95 million, ransom. That seemed like the end of the drama. Actually, it was only a first act.
The kidnapping trial turned out to have more narrative twists than the crime itself. Lynch and Byrne would be convicted of an extortion charge, but incredibly, after it seemed they had been caught red-handed, a jury pronounced them not guilty of kidnapping, a charge that could have put them in prison for life. They and their defence lawyers managed to convince jurors that there was, in fact, no kidnapping.
The family's butler answered and heard Samuel Bronfman's voice. 'Call my father,' he said. 'I've been kidnapped'
This miracle was pulled off in large part by Byrne’s attorney, Peter DeBlasio, who called the case the greatest trial victory of his career. The Bronfman kidnapping is one of the stranger tales of New York’s criminal history, but over the following decades hardly anyone had reason to recall the intricacies and mysteries – except DeBlasio. Even as he revelled in his triumph, he worried until the end of his life about what he had done to secure it.
DeBlasio’s mix of pride and unease combusted in July 2020, when he self-published a memoir, Let Justice Be Done. His book, which went largely unnoticed, reveals what he long told his two daughters was the secret of the Bronfman trial: his winning argument was premised on a lie – and he knew it.
It was effectively a deathbed confession. Just five months later, on December 18th last year, DeBlasio died of heart failure, at 91. DeBlasio’s memoir – along with an examination of 45-year-old court records and interviews with actors from this episode who are still alive – help set the record straight on a tangle of allegations. They range from a forbidden love affair to a years-long surveillance campaign to a conspiracy that hoodwinked the US.
ON AUGUST 8TH, 1975, Bronfman was in a Tudor mansion surrounded by dense woods. This was the centre of a 180-acre estate north of New York City in Yorktown Heights, Westchester County, owned by Samuel's father, Edgar, patriarch of the Bronfman family. A small group had gathered for a candlelit dinner of chilled vegetable soup, roast beef and, for dessert, mousse au citron. At 11.30pm Samuel bid everyone farewell, got in his green BMW and drove into the night.
That June, Samuel Bronfman had graduated from college, where he edited the sports section of the school paper and played varsity tennis. He was about to start a job in sales at the magazine Sports Illustrated. He and his girlfriend, Melanie Mann, whom he had met in his first year at university, were moving towards marriage. A night out without Mann might entail Samuel Bronfman cruising around a familiar set of Westchester bars.
At 1.45am, the phone rang at the Yorktown Heights estate. The family's butler answered and heard Samuel Bronfman's voice. "Call my father," he said. "I've been kidnapped." The Bronfman family owned Seagram, the sprawling conglomerate that the New York Times described around that time as "the world's largest distiller". Samuel Bronfman was an heir to a trust worth about $750 million – more than $3.5 billion, or €3 billion, today.
The abductors introduced themselves with a ransom note. They promised that if their plan went awry, a survivor of their group would track down and kill Edgar Bronfman, chairman of Seagram. The note described bullets containing cyanide
His abductors introduced themselves to the Bronfman family with a ransom note. They promised that if their plan went awry, a survivor of their group would track down and kill Edgar Bronfman, Samuel's father, who was chairman of Seagram. The note described bullets containing cyanide.
In statements to the press, the Bronfman family pleaded for evidence that Samuel was still alive and assured the kidnappers they would pay the ransom. Spokespeople were sent down the long driveway from the Westchester compound to more than 50 reporters camped outside the front gate. Curiosity-seekers dropped by, along with hot-dog and ice-cream vendors.
While reporters, lacking better material, analysed the significance of grocery deliveries, Edgar Bronfman, one of the richest men in the United States, spent three nights dashing between telephone booths in and around John F Kennedy International Airport, struggling to understand terse instructions given by a man who called at prescribed times.
At about 3am on August 16th, Edgar Bronfman met the man below an aqueduct in Queens, in New York City, and delivered the ransom. Lurking in the background were about 100 FBI agents idling on motorcycles, in trucks, in a van, on at least one helicopter and in at least two decoy taxis. Yet after the hand-off was made, the brigade of federal agents somehow allowed the rust-coloured Oldsmobile that picked up the ransom to elude them and make a clean getaway.
The FBI was saved by a revealing blunder made by its target. The bagman had driven to the hand-off in his own car; all the agents had to do was look up the licence-plate number. They traced it to an apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn belonging to Lynch, an Irish immigrant from the tiny Co Offaly village of Banagher.
Lynch was 37-years-old and a tall, broad bachelor who was losing his hair. His neighbours, who called him Fireman Lynch, said he was polite and reserved. When the guys at his fire company watched the quiz show Jeopardy!, Lynch knew all the answers.
The FBI staked out the area around Lynch’s apartment. One car with two agents parked around the corner – improbably, right outside the home of Byrne, Lynch’s partner in crime. Byrne found himself unnerved by the mystery car. He sent his daughter, Mary, to a police precinct a few blocks from their home. She told officers there that her family feared two hit men were lying in wait on their block.
Dominic Byrne was known for theatrical blarney, greeting friends with a 'top o' the morning'. A family man and joiner of civic groups, he attended Mass with his wife every Sunday
Like Lynch, Byrne was an immigrant from rural Ireland – in his case, the Co Roscommon townland of Taghnarra. In other respects, Byrne, a 53-year-old limousine service operator, was the opposite of Lynch. He was about 5ft 4in tall and known for theatrical blarney, greeting friends with a "top o' the morning" while on walks with his dogs. A family man and joiner of civic groups, he attended Mass with his wife every Sunday.
The police quickly realised the hit men in the idling car were FBI agents, and they all converged on the Byrne family home. Byrne confessed on the spot, telling officers and agents that he had been forced into participating in the kidnapping. He persuaded officers that storming Lynch’s apartment could lead to violence, whereas following his normal protocol, by giving Lynch a call to say he was on his way, would smooth over the moment of their entry.
But on the phone, Byrne took a deep breath and tipped off his partner. “It’s all over, Mel,” he said. “They are coming over.”
Lynch’s place was two blocks away, and when the officers burst into the apartment, they found him and a blindfolded Samuel Bronfman sitting next to each other on the couch. After being arrested, Byrne and Lynch explained that they had been friends for years and formally confessed to the crime. Their statements, coupled with a corroborating account from Bronfman, enabled authorities to piece together a clear story about what had happened.
“With the Bronfman kidnapping,” the Times editorial board wrote, “the men of the FBI did the job that American society expects and needs them to do.”
DESPITE ITS SPEEDY CONCLUSION, it was a crime long in the making. Years before the actual abduction, Lynch persuaded Byrne that a kidnapping would be easy to pull off without hurting anyone.
One night late around summer’s end in 1973, they took their first trip to the house where Samuel Bronfman lived with his mother in Purchase, a hamlet in Westchester County. Lynch pointed out that no fence separated the house from its border on the Hutchinson River Parkway. Over the next two years, the men took 30 or 40 trips.
The final visit was on August 8th, 1975. Lynch watched Samuel Bronfman pull into the garage in Purchase after the dinner with his father. He seized the moment. He ran towards the BMW, and as Bronfman emerged he announced, “This is a stickup.” He handcuffed Bronfman and put a .38 automatic into his captive’s ribs.
By the time the trial began, Lynch had a new story to tell: he and Bronfman were, in fact, lovers: they first met at a bar in June 1974 and shortly thereafter began having sex, he testified, often in the pool house of the Bronfman property
Bronfman spent days begging not to be killed and struggling to go to the bathroom while restrained. After picking up the ransom, Lynch told Bronfman he suspected that the FBI was on to him and that he was thinking of fleeing the apartment and taking him hostage on the road. He said he would kill Bronfman and himself before going to jail. Then came Byrne’s call.
“They’re on their way,” Lynch said. “Who?” Bronfman asked. “The FBI,” Lynch replied. Bronfman steeled himself. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “We’re going to give up,” Lynch said. He gave Bronfman his runners back and told him to put them on. He sat next to Bronfman on the couch. Moments later, federal agents, guns drawn, barged in.
THE MOOD OF CELEBRATION started to sour at the bail hearing a month later. The two defendants had retained separate lawyers, and Lynch's made the remarkable claim that Samuel Bronfman had masterminded his own kidnapping.
The prosecution called the allegation absurd, and DeBlasio portrayed Lynch as the mastermind, arguing that the fireman was guilty of coercion in forcing Byrne to participate in a real kidnapping. By the time the trial began, in October, Lynch had rejected the confession he gave to FBI interrogators. He had a new story to tell. Lynch said he and Bronfman were, in fact, lovers: they first met at a bar in June 1974 and shortly thereafter began having sex, he testified, often in the pool house of the Bronfman property in Purchase.
Byrne drove Lynch there because he owed Lynch favours, and Lynch made the trips to meet Bronfman, not watch him. The reason he entered Bronfman’s property from the highway through the woods was for the sake of secrecy. Their conversations, he told the court, focused on Bronfman’s desire to shake down his family for cash; it was Bronfman’s idea to stage his own kidnapping.
Lynch agreed to join the caper, he explained, because Bronfman threatened to inform the fire department that he was gay, which he said would jeopardise his employment. Lynch’s tale lacked basic information. He could not offer even a motive for the crime, like Bronfman’s need for immediate money. Asked what he and his lover talked about, Lynch referred to “things in general”. He said nothing about romance or desire beyond the clinical phrase “we had sex”.
Despite what his story lacked in logic or evidence, Lynch was mesmerising as a storyteller during four days on the witness stand. NYPD officers and FBI agents would contradict themselves recounting basic police work; Lynch, whose story alleged an intricate hoax, could not be tripped up
Yet the prosecutor, Geoffrey Orlando, an assistant district attorney in Westchester, never broached the supposed love affair. "Being called gay was much, much worse then," Orlando said in a recent phone interview. It was 1976, and the topic of homosexuality was so taboo, he decided, that directly challenging the claim of an affair would be pointless.
Despite what his story lacked in logic or evidence, Lynch, the notably taciturn fireman, was mesmerising as a storyteller during four days on the witness stand. NYPD officers and FBI agents would contradict themselves recounting basic police work; Lynch, whose story alleged an intricate hoax, could not be tripped up. “Anybody else join you at the table?” Orlando asked Lynch about his first meeting with Bronfman. “No, sir,” Lynch replied, confirming a minor detail of his testimony. “We were at the bar.”
Preparing for the trial, DeBlasio planned to attack Lynch as “a monster who preyed upon his feeble-minded friend Dominic, forcing him under duress to aid in the most terrible of crimes imaginable.” Then he saw Lynch on the stand. “I can look back now after a 50-year, 600-trial career and say that among the thousands of witnesses I observed, nobody approached the magnificence of Mel Patrick Lynch,” DeBlasio wrote. “He was the Arturo Toscanini and Enrico Caruso of witnesses. He turned a horror story into a tragedy of operatic dimension. The jurors were mesmerised. If they could have, they would have exploded in applause and cried for an encore.”
After a torrent of accusations about secret sexual escapades and plans to film pornography, the judge halted proceedings, took the prosecutor aside and told him he was amazed he had not objected to 'smearing innuendoes' about Bronfman
Orlando agreed with that assessment. “He was a great liar – absolutely, positively – and a sympathetic character,” Orlando said of Lynch. Bronfman, conversely, looked to jurors like a man caught in a nightmare, fighting back tears and biting his fingernails while on the stand. Following a torrent of accusations about secret sexual escapades and plans to film pornography, the judge halted proceedings, took Orlando aside, accused him of a “lack of propriety” and said he was amazed Orlando had not objected when the defence made “smearing innuendoes” about Bronfman.
“In a case like this, the victim gets put on trial, and yet he has no means of making a defence,” Bronfman said after the trial. Byrne did not testify, but he appeared strangely dissociated, indiscriminately beaming smiles at everyone in the courtroom: the jurors, the journalists, his codefendant and even the Bronfman family.
Following Lynch’s commanding performance, DeBlasio tailored his defence to fit with the hoax angle, telling the court what he knew to be an outright lie. “There was no kidnapping,” he said, addressing the jury. As for the FBI, he offered, “They should have been checking Sam Bronfman.” DeBlasio portrayed the Seagram heir as resentful that he had not “grown up the way the father wanted him”. Calling DeBlasio brilliant, Newsweek magazine wrote that he “stirred jurors to his summation”. Two jurors told the New York Times they believed that Bronfman had indeed “engineered his own kidnapping”.
DEBLASIO WAITED nearly 45 years to reveal that he had no doubt the story that convinced those jurors was false. "About Sam," DeBlasio wrote toward the end of his memoir. Noting that Lynch and Byrne were both dead, he felt compelled to set the record straight before his own death. "I want it to be clear to all who may ever read these pages that Samuel Bronfman was not a part of the kidnapping." He added, "Neither he nor Lynch were gay as far as anyone ever knew and certainly they were not lovers."
This kind of admission from a lawyer, even in a tell-all memoir, is extraordinary. Experts say DeBlasio's ethical breach did not come in his cunning courtroom argument but rather in his attempt to clear his conscience. "His obligation to his client continues forever, even after his client's death," says Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University who specialises in legal ethics. "He's saying, 'My client, who was acquitted of kidnapping, is really a kidnapper.' That's exactly what he's not allowed to say."
DeBlasio’s daughter, Alessandra DeBlasio, notified Samuel Bronfman about her father’s book. In an email to the New York Times, Bronfman responded to what he called a confession by DeBlasio. “I was really kidnapped in 1975 and his and Lynch’s defence was a fraud,” Bronfman wrote. “I am glad he acknowledged this fact.”
According to Alessandra DeBlasio, Byrne’s signed confession to the FBI (a document that Peter DeBlasio managed to suppress in court) made an overwhelming impression on her father. “He knew all along from day one that his guy had done it,” she says. She adds that at no point in the trial did Byrne tell Peter DeBlasio his confession was false.
Then there was the blindfold Bronfman wore. It was a “putrid mess”, with “ripped-off pieces of Sam’s flesh and his facial hair growing into the adhesive tape”, Peter DeBlasio wrote. “What hoax? Nobody faking their own kidnapping would wear a blindfold.”
Following Lynch’s and Byrne’s exoneration as kidnappers, the Bronfman family held a news conference at their corporate headquarters, the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan. “I went into this kidnapping a little boy,” Samuel Bronfman said, “and I came out a man.”
Despite his escape from a harrowing ordeal, the resolution was disturbing for Bronfman. However baseless, the charges that he had hatched a conspiracy with a lover to defraud his family lingered in the decades to come. “It poisoned the atmosphere forever for Sam,” says Orlando, the prosecutor, who became friendly with Bronfman during the trial. “He will forever be tagged with that allegation.”
Bronfman declines to comment on the impact the episode made on the rest of his life. Orlando says that Bronfman, who is now 67, recently told him that his adult children “have no idea” the kidnapping took place. Ten years after the trial, Edgar Bronfman named Samuel’s younger brother, Edgar jnr, head of Seagram, in what Fortune magazine called a surprise. Samuel Bronfman had worked at the company longer; unlike his younger brother, he had a college degree; and his elevation would have continued the tradition of the company’s passing to the eldest son of the family.
Edgar Bronfman jnr oversaw a series of questionable investments and sold the company in what came to be seen as a financial debacle. The title of DeBlasio’s book, Let Justice Be Done, was also his favourite legal expression. He used the “plain but powerful” phrase to conclude all of his closing arguments, including in the Bronfman trial. Yet something about that “greatest trial victory” caused him to question his credo.
“Whether justice was done in this case,” he wrote, “may not be for me to say.” – New York Times