The Murder of Bonnie Garland
Herrin drove out of the village of Scarsdale and jumped onto the Bronx River Parkway, a short distance from the spacious Garland home. He sped north up the deserted road and out of Westchester County. Herrin later said that he thought of driving the car into a tree at high speed, crashing into a gas station or simply driving off a mountain to kill himself. But for whatever reason, he did not take his own life.
By 6:30 a.m., he found himself in the small town of Coxsackie, New York, some twenty-five miles south of Albany on the opposite side of the Hudson. The car ran out of gas almost in front of St Mary's Catholic Church. Having no money and nowhere else to go, Herrin knocked on the door of the rectory until a priest answered. His name was Father Paul Tartaglia. "Richard was standing there with just a pair of trousers on, no other clothing, and nothing on his feet," Father Tartaglia later recalled in court. "I saw that he was very much disturbed or distraught and that he had to talk to me...and we got into a conversation, and I started to understand, you know, that we were, that I was really in the midst of a very tragic situation."
After Herrin told Father Tartaglia what he had done, the priest thought that the young man may have been on drugs. "On the way into the office," Father Tartaglia later told the police, "he told me he killed his girlfriend. At first I wondered whether he was hallucinating on drugs or in shock" (Tartaglia). He asked the emotional man if the police had come to the Garland home. When Herrin said that he didn't know, Father Tartaglia called the local police. Within a few minutes, Coxsackie Police Chief Ronald Rea arrived at the rectory and began to question Herrin.
"Herrin said that she (his girlfriend) wanted to date other men...and sleep with other men," he testified later. "He said that he hit her at least three times, maybe more" (Norris 6). Chief Rea also later said that when he saw Herrin that morning at St. Mary's rectory, both of his hands were covered with blood. Rea wisely continued to question Herrin, gathering more details about Bonnie Garland. At 7:51 a.m. Chief Rea called the Scarsdale Police Department and notified the desk sergeant that a possible slaying had occurred at 28 Oak Lane in their village.
According to official reports, the police "aroused Mrs. Garland and requested her to check her daughter's room...found Bonnie lying on her back nude in bed with blood over her face and a hammer next to her left ear" (SPD Inc # 77-5141). "I went running up the stairs calling, 'Bonnie! Bonnie!' At first I thought she was crying," Joan Garland later said. "There was blood all over!" (Kochakian). When one detective later testified, he told the court, "all I remember seeing was a big gaping hole in the girl's head" (Kochakian). Scarsdale Police contacted Chief Rea and told him what they found. Herrin was arrested and later that same day was transported back to Westchester. Before he arrived back in Scarsdale that night, Bonnie died in the emergency room of the White Plains Hospital.
But Herrin was able to make a very favorable impression on Father Tartaglia during their brief time together at St. Mary's. His chance meeting with the young priest was the symbolic beginning of an outpouring of sympathy for the Yale student who had bludgeoned his girlfriend to death by smashing her skull with a hammer while she slept. But it would not be only Father Tartaglia who felt compassion for Richard Herrin. Support for the "misunderstood" killer would take the form of an ample defense fund to pay for a private attorney, emotional assistance from Yale clergy, shelter and food, free college enrollment and even a job to help pay his daily expenses.
"A 20 year old senior, the daughter of a Manhattan lawyer, was fatally bludgeoned with a claw hammer in a bedroom in her family's sprawling Tudor home early yesterday. A young man described as her boyfriend, a Yale graduate who had been staying at her home and who was depicted as an outstanding student and an "all-American boy," surrendered later to an upstate priest and confessed," said the story in the New York Times the next day (Smothers 1).
But some people were already beginning to take exception to the press coverage of the Bonnie Garland murder case. "I'm primarily concerned that Mr. Herrin have a fair day in court," his court appointed attorney said at a White Plains hearing on July 12, 1977, "from my reading of the newspaper articles this morning, this person's rights may be in jeopardy" (Norris 1).