Brotherly Love and the Luck of the Draw

Serial murder is what happens to innocents in California and coeds in the South. Serial murder-the often ritualistic, methodical murders of women (usually)-is just not something we really worry about in New York. Except for Joel Rifkin and especially David Berkowitz, whose killing spree still pisses New Yorkers off, we don’t grow too many Jeffrey Dahmers, Charlie Mansons and Ted Bundys here.

Then three years ago I opened the paper to see the face of Robert Shulman, now 45, a disgruntled postal worker if there ever was one, staring back at me. Mr. Shulman was sentenced to death last month for beating to death three young women from Queens in 1994 and 1995. After murdering them, he dismembered their bodies and stashed them in his filthy rented bedroom in Hicksville. Robert Shulman is the younger brother of the first man I almost dated after my divorce in the early 80’s.

While Robert awaits trial for the murder of two more women in Westchester-he is the first man on Long Island to be sentenced to death since reinstatement of the law and only the third man on Death Row in New York-another of his brothers, Barry (now 40), stands accused of dumping bodies after he smelled them rotting in Robert’s bedroom. Middle brother Steven, wracked by drugs and depression, was already long dead by his own hand. Only the oldest brother, Shelly, briefly the object of my affections, escaped the ravages of rage and depression that consumed the rest of the family.

Although my “thing” with Shelly never went anywhere, we remained friends for years. When I first laid eyes on him, he was a Robert Redford-looking superjock who’d gotten a full ride at Southern Methodist University for football and went on to become a therapist. He was the handsomest guy I’d ever laid eyes on. I was still wounded when we first met, and I thought maybe he was too good a guy to take advantage of me. I didn’t want to think I just wasn’t his type, which is probably closer to the truth.

Over the years, however, we ran into each other at bar mitzvahs, birthdays, whatever. We talked on and off. I helped him out with a seminar he gave on relationships at Hofstra University.

What I knew was that he and his three brothers grew up in the 60’s in the upper-middle-class development Birchwood at Westbury-the only white pocket in heavily black Westbury. Birchwood just happened to be within the white East Meadow school district, and consequently was mostly Jewish and Italian. (Strangely, Mr. Rifkin also came from East Meadow, and Mr. Berkowitz had also been a postal worker.) I knew the Shulmans had grown up in the land of Dr. Diamond noses, lavish bar mitzvahs, posh sweet sixteens, beach clubs, mothers who didn’t work. From the outside they were as Father Knows Best as every other family on Roxbury Drive. Four little boys. One golden. It’s hard to imagine that years later Robert would slaughter and butcher young hookers not a mile away from that house.

What happened? Never one to jump on the “it’s all the mother’s fault” train (although I am more than happy to take 100 percent credit for how my own kid turned out), sometimes the mother really is a crazy who is to blame for raising psychos. Mildred Shulman, in the words of her own daughter-in-law, was “a nut job” who did, in fact, raise some serious psychos.

While all the other late-60’s Birchwood wives were doing Bess Meyerson, she was doing Kim Novak-seductive in her Capri pants, all red lips and blond hair gleaming. She’d sleep until late in the day and then emerge done to the nines. The kids were neglected, but no one in the neighborhood knew it. In fact, Blanche Kurzweil, a neighbor, told me after the story broke that “Mildred was a lovely woman-a little kooky in her dress-but nice. The husband was a doll.”

Mr. Shulman’s attorneys, Paul Gianelli and William Keahon, told me a different tale. Mr. Gianelli told me Mildred was “an incredibly self-centered woman. She was a good-time Charlie … more interested in partying and going dancing than taking care of her kids.” Bad-but not enough to produce a serial killer, an alleged body dumper and a suicide. Or was it?

Had these boys been sexually or physically abused behind the doors of their lovely house? The lawyers told me something that would never come out on the stand: Mildred desperately wanted a daughter, so she dressed Barry up in girls’ clothes and told everyone he was her daughter. Despite that, Mr. Keahon believes, “It was more massive neglect than active abuse. If there was abuse, it’s buried very deep.” And therein may have lain one of the big problems with defending Mr. Shulman. How could a panel of working stiffs in Riverhead look with sympathy upon a man who’d seemingly grown up with all the advantages-except his mother’s attention? Right.

The father, Jules, died in the late 60’s of Hodgkin’s disease. Shortly thereafter, Mildred met a man at Parents Without Partners and married him five days later. She herself died several years after that. As James Catterson, the District Attorney of Suffolk County, said in an interview, “What are the mitigating circumstances here? My mother died? Puhleeze.”

No family members showed up during the trial or for the reading of the verdict, which came back in four hours-after five long months of trial. The only family members present were in a photograph that Robert clutched in his hand. It was a picture of the four little Shulman brothers happily smiling and laughing together way back when.

Much to the jury’s surprise Shelly came forward to testify during the next phase of the trial, where it would be decided-like an event at the Roman coliseum-whether Robert would live or die. “I made a decision to love my brother before he was incarcerated. It’s still true,” he said in the emotional plea.

The next day, Shelly’s ex-wife, Sheri, took the stand and told of how the little boys had lived in “disgusting” conditions with cobwebs, filthy silverware and uncooked meals. Interestingly, Robert’s rented room was a mirror image of that disarray and filth with dirty dishes, silverware and clothes everywhere. When detectives entered five years after the first known murder, there were still more than 2,000 unwashed blood splatters from five separate victims in Robert’s room on mugs, bowls, silverware and walls.

Who even knows, in the end, how many women were killed and butchered by Mr. Shulman during his rampages? Either he is the unluckiest serial murderer in history or the clumsiest. One victim was found because she had been placed in a recycling bag and ended up on a conveyor belt in Brooklyn instead of in the dump. Another was thrown into a dumpster and a man who’d lost his Lotto ticket just happened to crawl into that bin to find it. The third victim was placed in a new garbage can and left along the road, where highway workers picked it up, figuring they could use it to hold tools.

It’s all about the luck of the draw. For the dead women. For the guys who found the bodies. For Shelly. And for me, too.