One evening last October, on a quiet block in Staten Island, a man named Eric Bellucci came out of the bedroom that he barricaded himself into on most nights and used a hunting knife to stab his parents, Marian and Arthur, until they bled to death.
The murders took place sometime between the evening of Tuesday, October 12—when the family got sushi delivered—and the following afternoon, when Bellucci took his parents’ 2007 Honda Ridgeline to JFK and boarded an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. His younger sister, Vanessa, discovered their parents’ bodies when she showed up at the house later that night.
In the days that followed, media outlets mobbed the funeral of the Staten Island couple, while an international manhunt ensued. Bellucci, who is 30, was apprehended when he tried to use a credit card to buy a plane ticket to Beijing. A week after the murder, he was brought to Staten Island for arraignment.
With their parents dead and brother in custody, Vanessa, a 25-year-old law student, and her 28-year-old brother, Brian, a physician doing his residency, are what’s left of the immediate family. Until now, neither sibling has spoken to the press. In a series of exclusive interviews with the Voice, they describe their brother’s descent into mental illness and offer a portrait of a family coping with a problem spiraling out of control: Despite their attempts to get Bellucci institutionalized, his family was unable to convince a court to authorize the state to medicate him, even as the troubled man—a diagnosed schizophrenic—was stockpiling weapons in their home.
On April 28, after spending six months on Rikers Island, Bellucci was found not mentally competent to stand trial on homicide charges (his attorney, Mark Fonte, did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this article). As a result of that court decision, the State Office of Mental Health will place Bellucci in a psychiatric institution where he can be medicated by force if he poses a danger to himself or others. After a year, he will be periodically re-evaluated. If it is determined that he is able to understand the charges levied against him, he will stand trial.
If he never does comprehend what he’s accused of, he will be committed for the rest of his life.
The first thing Eric Bellucci’s siblings remember that indicated something might be wrong were the unusual infatuations he developed while in law school.
In 2003, Bellucci had enrolled in Brooklyn Law School, but he instead became obsessed with documentary filmmaking in a way that seemed odd and a little troubling. With a high school friend, he began making a film about poverty in Red Hook, and, while shooting it, he began developing exaggerated ideas about his own role in the community.
“At one point, he was trying to ‘save people in Red Hook.’ He would give someone a ride, and to him he was becoming a ‘super-mentor,’ ” Bellucci’s brother, Brian, says. “Or he would befriend someone, and he would call it his ‘gang outreach.’ He thought these were huge gestures.”
Vanessa remembers what in hindsight seems a crucial early sign that Bellucci’s mind was not right. During his film project, he became convinced that someone was trying to steal his videotape. His friend became so concerned by his paranoid behavior that he called Bellucci’s mother, Marian, who called Vanessa.
“I vividly remember where I was when my mother called,” she says. “So it indicated, looking back, that we were starting to be worried about him.”
Around the same time, Bellucci developed another infatuation—Judaism. He was raised Catholic, but when he discovered that an Italian grandfather had been Jewish, he began studying Hebrew on his own. He even sought guidance from Rabbi Aaron Twerski, a professor at Brooklyn Law School. But Twerski referred Bellucci to a campus psychiatrist. A school official who saw him around this time tells the Voice, “It did not take a maven to see that he was a sick, sick boy.”
For those who knew Bellucci well, it was bewildering to see him so quickly become someone they hardly recognized. Only a few years earlier, he had been the star quarterback of the Stuyvesant High School football team, a magnetic standout in a school of standouts.
The Belluccis were a close-knit family in the upscale Annadale neighborhood of Staten Island. Arthur Bellucci had worked as a bond trader on Wall Street before becoming a real estate broker at the Corcoran Group. His wife, Marian, worked as a manager for a home health company and, after an MBA, started a company providing home-nursing services. Marian’s mother and sister lived nearby and often dropped by to visit. The kids, meanwhile, were pushed to achieve in school, sports, and music. “If there’s one thing that I remember about the Belluccis,” says a high school friend who asked not to be named, “it’s that they were close—almost unusually close for a family in this day and age.”
Both Bellucci and his sister, Vanessa, went to the elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. When Seventeen magazine profiled the school, Bellucci and his girlfriend—the football team’s trainer—were photographed together for the opening spread. “Everyone who looked at my brother—all my friends—thought he was the best-looking guy they had ever met,” Vanessa says.
“If you had asked me where I thought Eric Bellucci would be right now, I would say . . . working as the manager of some company, running things!” says Raymond Wheeler, a Stuyvesant assistant principal who was also Bellucci’s band director. Of the thousands of students he has taught since the 1970s, Wheeler says Eric Bellucci was one of the five he considered the most memorable. “He was bright, articulate, and he had that magic personality, that charm. He could get things done, and people wanted to do what he wanted them to do. I noticed that right away as a teacher.” And yet, Wheeler says, Bellucci handled his popularity “without an ounce of arrogance.”
A student who worked for the football team but did not want her name used, has a similar recollection: “A lot of guys who are popular can be jerks—that’s the stereotype. Eric wasn’t one of them. He was a strong player, and a lot of guys looked up to him,” she says. At an academically demanding school like Stuyvesant, even being a football team captain did not confer automatic social stature, and she says it was Eric’s personality that made him so popular.
But Brian remembers his older brother differently. “He was completely egotistical about everything he did,” he says, “Eric would never take any criticism. He would fire the insults right back. Everybody yessed him. His third-grade teacher probably yessed him.” He adds: “With the illness, that became narcissistic behavior.”
Wheeler can still remember where he was when he heard about the murders. He said his whole body went cold. “If you were to ask me if Eric Bellucci was going to end up in the mess he ended up in? I would say never in a million years.”
After his senior year, as quarterback and captain of the Stuyvesant High School “Peglegs,” Bellucci was named an All-State Scholar by the New York State High School Football Coaches Association and won a scholarship to Williams College in Massachusetts.
He was listed on the 1998 football team roster as a six-foot-three, 210-pound freshman wide receiver and defensive back. Mike Whalen, the team’s coach at the time, says that Bellucci was extremely disappointed to find out that he wasn’t good enough to play quarterback at the school. “Many guys would have just walked way,” he says. “But to his credit, he worked hard and started as an outside linebacker. He worked his way up the ladder. I think, in his heart, he thought he should have been starting quarterback, but when I told him that would never happen, he didn’t give up.”
Like many students in college, Bellucci struggled to settle on a major, first choosing pre-med and then political science. Later, he decided he wanted to be in finance and did an internship at Merrill Lynch. His academic performance began to taper off, but only slightly. He was very involved with his team, but didn’t act like a jock. “He was a very unique individual, in that he didn’t always have to hang around a certain group of guys,” says Whalen. “I would see him on campus with lots of different kinds of people. He traveled in a lot of different circles.”
Whalen says he never noticed any signs of mental illness. After college, however, he did notice a change. The football team at Williams is extremely close-knit, and alumni tend to come back for years to attend games. But Bellucci, though he played for four years and was always involved with the team, never showed up to a game after college. And he never once went back to see his coaches.
Bellucci’s siblings believe that in college he began using anabolic steroids (they say their parents found empty containers in his room when he was away). Whalen says he didn’t see evidence of it. The Belluccis also say their brother used cocaine and began smoking pot more frequently. (Six years later, he would be a chronic drug user.) If true, drug use would have almost certainly exacerbated the onset of his schizophrenia. Dawn Velligan, director of the Division of Schizophrenia and Related Disorders at the University of Texas, tells the Voice that in patients who have an underlying predisposition for mental illness, drug use can help trigger the disease. Schizophrenia typically develops in late adolescence and early adulthood, but Velligan says that many people can start exhibiting more subtle signs of the disease years before that.
After Williams, Bellucci enrolled at Brooklyn Law School, but almost immediately seemed to lose interest in classes. Instead, he took up the filmmaking and other obsessions. He dropped out of school in 2004, moved back home, and began formulating plans that were increasingly far-fetched. He told his family that he wanted to be a photographer, and then a model, and then an actor. He bought thousands of dollars’ worth of photography equipment. He would hatch grandiose business plans, and took trips to Paris, Italy, and even Israel to execute them. He always referred to these trips as “business ventures,” but no one was quite sure what he was doing when he traveled.
“He was becoming disorganized,” says Brian. “His ambitions were starting to make less and less sense. There were some realistic things, like law school, and some unrealistic things, like turning his businesses into empires, and it would become nationwide, and with that he could buy a villa in Tuscany! At first, some things seemed realistic, but then they just started to come, you know, over and over and one after the other. If you took all his ambitions together, they were no longer ambitions. They were delusions. Because no one could be all that at one time.”
The family did not know what to make of Bellucci’s behavior. “At first we chalked it up to that egotistical aspect of his personality,” Brian says. “It’s like, if you know somebody is mentally ill, you look at what they do and say they are delusional. But if you don’t know they are mentally ill, then you look at it differently.”
Schizophrenia expert Velligan says that it is common for families, in the early stages of the illness, to have trouble distinguishing between the signs of sickness and the more extreme sides of the person’s personality. “Our personalities are what they are, and should we become psychotic, our personalities shine through that. So if his worldview is ‘I’m right and everyone else is wrong,’ then when a person becomes psychotic, that is developed to the extreme.”
“We all became worried around the same time,” Vanessa says. “But it was about him, never about ourselves. And we knew that there were issues that were coming up and needing to be addressed, but you’re not really sure how to go about doing it.” She adds: “Maybe there is a denial element. But then it just becomes so clear that you can’t be in denial.”
By 2005, the delusions had really set in. “He thought he was leading this big life,” Brian says. “At that point, his lifestyle was changing from one minute to the next.” He would go for months without seeing his friends, and then would call people constantly. He would go into the city and stay out all night. At one point, he went to Atlantic City five times in a month. He started taking more trips to Israel, but instead of scheduling them a week or two in advance, as he once had, he would buy his ticket and fly out on the same day.
The family tried to bring up their concerns with Bellucci, but it was not easy. He would usually get angry, and tell them that they were the ones who needed psychiatric help.
Bellucci also began to develop a military obsession, and would walk around the house in Army fatigues. “My mother would say, ‘Eric, you have a closet full of clothes—why are you wearing the same thing every day?’ ” Vanessa recalls. Sometimes he would dress very formally, and would put on a suit to go out and check the mail. He would drive to West Virginia to buy hunting rifles at Walmart and began racking up credit-card debt. He adopted certain phrases indicative of paranoia—“Something’s up in the town here,” was one of them. At times, he thought he was a victim or possibly a member of organized crime. And he started to develop a hatred of women, and often said that his female relatives were conspiring against him.
At that time, Terre Ciervo, Marian’s sister, remembers that he would act remote at family events—making brief appearances and then leaving mysteriously. Relatives say that sometimes, to escape the city and seek what he referred to as “his peace and serenity,” he would go back to Williamstown, Massachusetts, where Williams College is located. Sometimes he would book a hotel for the weekend, but he never went back to visit his football coaches that he had been close to. He lost touch with friends.
As Bellucci became more delusional, he would say that it disappointed him that his family did not believe in his grand plans. “He started to feel like we weren’t taking him seriously,” Vanessa says. He became resentful and angry, and began referring to his parents by their first names. There were frequent fights in the Bellucci household, but family members tried their best to pick their battles, knowing that any disagreement could throw him into a rage. Sometimes, when he got very angry, he punched walls or doors, busted car tires, or scratched cars with his knives and his keys. One time, he got so angry that Marian locked herself in the bathroom in terror. After that, the family was walking on eggshells, doing whatever they could not to antagonize him.
Attempting to diffuse the anger, Marian would jump at every opportunity to have a conversation with her son. She would listen whenever he was in the mood to actually talk, even if all he discussed were his delusions.
“You could just see the toll it took on her, on her face,” says Ciervo. “In just a few years,” says Vanessa, “they aged so much. It really hurt.”
Marian was the most involved with her son, and she hid his illness from everyone besides her immediate family. With Brian, who was studying to be a physician, she would discuss the clinical aspects of Bellucci’s situation. She relied on Vanessa for emotional support. But even Marian’s sister, Terre, who lived nearby and whom she saw frequently, knew very little about what was happening. Friends, too, according to Ciervo, had no idea that Bellucci was sick; they thought Marian and her husband were just overworked. “My sister was a very private person, and I know that she was going about it in her own way to get some help,” Ciervo says. “She didn’t talk too much about it, and, you know, I didn’t ask. When she wanted to tell me something, I listened.” She added: “She was disappointed that Eric wasn’t what he could have been.”
It’s less clear how Arthur dealt with his son’s illness. His children say he was supportive of Marian’s choices about Bellucci’s care. He also felt that if Bellucci got violent, he could physically handle his son. At one point, according to the Staten Island Advance, Arthur asked an old friend who had been in law enforcement about whether it was legal for him to trace his son’s movements. (The friend, Frank Floridia, did not respond to multiple requests from the Voice for an interview.)
By 2008, Bellucci was losing weight rapidly, and had become a chain smoker, smoking two to three packs a day. He would take a puff or two on a cigarette, throw it out, and immediately start another. Arthur, whose father had died of emphysema, was especially hurt by the smoking, his children say. Bellucci was also smoking pot constantly, and his siblings suspect that he was abusing cocaine as well.
On a February afternoon, Vanessa was driving into the city when Bellucci called and told her that he was standing in the shower and was about to slit his wrists. She drove home immediately and found her brother in what she called a “psychotic haze.” The family called 911 and Bellucci was taken by ambulance to Bayley Seton Hospital, about 25 minutes away. But he was never admitted, the family says. “He probably just convinced them that he was OK,” says Vanessa, adding that her brother, like many schizophrenics, could disguise his illness when he needed to.
That same year, Bellucci missed Brian’s wedding in California, where he was supposed to be best man. The day before the event, he called from Israel, saying that he had to stay there for business. “So that put a stamp on it,” Brian says. “Now, it’s like he’s missing things. Now it’s starting to feel like, not that it’s falling apart, but that we can’t be a family.”
In August 2009, Bellucci was finally hospitalized. He had taken his mother’s computer into his room and barricaded the door, claiming he was protecting her from bad people who were going to hack into her machine. His mother screamed at him, trying to make him understand that her company’s files were on the computer. He wouldn’t open the door.
Ciervo says it was the first time she really understood how sick her nephew was. It was also the first time anyone outside the immediate family had seen that side of him. Vanessa called the police to have her brother removed from the house.
Bellucci was admitted to Staten Island University Hospital, where he stayed for about six weeks. During his hospital stay, he was injected with a long-acting medication, which his siblings say made him very mellow, almost without personality. Marian went to visit him every day, but for the most part he refused to see her and the other family members. He was furious for being hospitalized against his will, and blamed everything on his family—specifically his sister, Vanessa. It was during that hospital stay—about six years after his illness began to surface—that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The hospital’s on-site psychiatrist, Dasen Brajkovic, told the family that he was going to bring a petition to a judge that recommended Bellucci for an “assisted outpatient treatment.” An AOT court order would give doctors the right to come to the house and medicate him there. (Brajkovic did not respond to requests to be interviewed.)
Bellucci’s siblings say that Brajkovic told them he felt they had a strong case for an AOT order. The family was elated. “We thought that could have been the answer to our prayers,” Brian says.
The law that allows this is called Kendra’s Law—after Kendra Webdale, a young woman who died in January 1999 after being pushed in front of a New York City subway train by a man who was not receiving treatment for his mental illness.
Kendra’s Law has been the subject of bitter political fights. Civil liberties advocates have argued that it infringes on the rights of competent mentally ill people to make their own health care decisions and to refuse treatment if they choose. The ACLU and other groups argue that Kendra’s Law was supposed to apply only to individuals with a history of violence—a small percentage of the mentally ill—but was being applied to anyone who did not comply with a doctor’s prescription. The ACLU has helped defeat a similar statute in New Mexico.
Even with a court order, Kendra’s Law, mental health experts say, is toothless in New York State. Nurses cannot compel a patient to take medication unless the patient is an immediate threat to himself or others. And the criteria are very narrow: In order to qualify, a patient must either have been hospitalized two additional times within the prior 36 months, or have threatened or attempted to cause physical harm in the prior 48 months.
Still, the vast majority of petitions are granted in New York courts—the most recent data show that 93 percent of petitions are granted.
For some reason, Bellucci’s was not among them.
Prior to his hospitalization, Bellucci had been smashing car tires and punching walls, stockpiling firearms, and making threats like, “I’m going to burn the house down,” his siblings say. Brian says that he and his mother provided all of this information to Brajkovic. But without the transcript to Bellucci’s Kendra’s Law hearing—which is not accessible to the public—it’s unclear what the judge in his case was told about his behavior. His siblings only know that the court was not convinced that he should be subject to an AOT order, even though granting such orders is nearly automatic in this state.
The day Bellucci was discharged from the hospital, he came home to his parents’ house. The long-acting medication he had been given was in effect, and he was under orders, by Brajkovic, to visit an outpatient treatment center a few times a week. It was September 2009. Vanessa had just started law school. She remembers sitting on the back porch with her brother, and for the first time in years, the two held an ordinary conversation. Bellucci asked if she liked law school, and she told him that she did. He was mellow, medicated, but more mentally present than he’d been for a very long time. That, she says, was the last normal conversation she would have with her brother.
Once the medicine wore off, Bellucci was angrier and more hostile than ever, Vanessa says. He blamed her, and his parents, for locking him up, and when she came over, he would lock himself in his room.
Then he began barricading himself in regularly, putting furniture in front of his door. He would only come out at night, when he was alone in the house with his parents. He developed a health-food obsession, and would sometimes take the car to Whole Foods to eat. He began smoking in the house, an affront to his father that he had never made before. Distrustful of tap water, he began importing bottled water from Israel.
He told his parents that he would kill them if they sent him back to the hospital. Arthur had thrown out his son’s rifles during the hospital stay, taking them to a local precinct’s gun buyback program. Bellucci responded by obsessively ordering hunting knives. In the last months, Vanessa says, packages of knives were being delivered to the house constantly.
Without the Kendra’s Law petition, however, the family didn’t have many options. If Bellucci did something violent, they could call the police and have him hospitalized again, and then try another court petition. “Marian was hoping he would make a wrong move, possibly like the last time, so she could put him on the program,” Ciervo says. “But he was smart enough not to. He knew what not to do. He would push the button so far, and then he would stop.”
But Brian points out that his parents were reluctant to call the police, even when it might have been appropriate. “They didn’t want the SWAT team to come in and have him kill himself right in the room there,” he says. “So they thought they would roll the dice.”
And there was another reason, the siblings say: Their mother didn’t like the state hospital that he would be taken to if they called authorities. “She wanted him to go to an academic hospital, where they would be better equipped to deal with such a unique case,” Vanessa says. Her mother believed that in a better hospital her son would receive superior care and might be less resistant to treatment. In the weeks before the murders, Marian had been discussing with Brian the prospect of getting her son into a treatment center at the prestigious New York Presbyterian Hospital, but their discussion always went around in circles. They both knew Bellucci would refuse to go.
Dawn Velligan says these kinds of impulses are common in families who have children with serious mental illness. “There is very little a family in that kind of situation can do,” she says. “Part of the problem is that people walk around on eggshells. People don’t want them to become violent and threatened, and so what happens is you have the mentally ill person running the whole house.
“I think the situation was far more dangerous than the parents realized,” she continues. “If you are afraid in your own home, it’s time to do something about it. I tell families: If you are walking on eggshells, you have to stand up to them. Everyone is afraid to confront a person like this, but you have to do that in order to get them out and to get yourself safe. I would have been calling 911 every day.”
In the weeks leading up to the murders, Bellucci had been threatening to kill his parents on a regular basis, and his threats were becoming more pointed and serious, Brian says. Marian never told Vanessa about the threats.
On the night of the murders, Vanessa and her grandmother were visiting. Marian was working at the computer, Arthur—“Artie,” as everyone called him—was watching television, Vanessa was working on her law school homework, and Eric was in his room upstairs. Vanessa wanted to leave early—she had a feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach, for some reason—but her mother convinced her to stay while they ordered sushi. She and her grandmother left after eating.
The next day—Wednesday, October 13—Terre Ciervo had plans to go with her sister to the Richmond Hill Country Club to attend a fashion-show benefit for children with developmental disabilities. (The Staten Island Advance reportedly incorrectly that Marian attended the fashion show with her son, Eric, based on the statement of Terre’s husband, Joe. Marian was killed before the fashion show occurred, and Joe says the Advance must have misunderstood him.)
That night, Ciervo says she was concerned because Marian hadn’t answered her text messages. She went to the house and rang the doorbell and no one answered. “I didn’t go around the back,” Ciervo says. “Something told me not to go around the backyard, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I didn’t want to see that.” She went to the fashion show, and called Vanessa, relating her concerns. It was Vanessa who then went to the house and found the bodies.
To this day, Vanessa insists that her parents never really believed that their son would actually hurt them. “As parents, they would have given their lives for any one of their children,” she says. “Unfortunately, they did not think it would be at the hand of their child. I don’t think she thought in a million years that he would have harmed either one of them.”
Brian, however, says that his parents weren’t entirely blind to the danger. “They were rolling the dice,” Brian says. “They knew they would either go down with him or get him help. They did not fear for their safety. And they thought they would go down with the ship if they were wrong.”
Neither Vanessa nor Brian have seen or spoken to their brother since the incident. He has sent them letters from jail, but they don’t respond. They say he seems psychotic in his letters—in one, he’ll insist that the murders were committed by organized crime; in another, he’ll blame their uncle Joe Ciervo, or members of the CIA. Bellucci avows, in his letters, to get to the bottom of his parents’ deaths, saying that he misses his mother terribly.
As long as he refuses medication, his siblings see no point in communicating with him. They don’t even attend his court hearings, preferring to read about them in the news.
“Is he going to become medicated and one day realize that he did it? Or will he be medicated his whole life and have no recollection?” Vanessa asks. “I don’t know which is worse.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 11, 2011