The other day, my wife and her friend Eunice decided on a lark to go to an upstate murder trial. I offered to drive, and my wife said I could come if I kept my comments to myself. The case was a jaw-dropper that I’d followed a little in the papers last year. It involved a sexual triangle orchestrated by a 60-year-old town official. The man was married but allegedly had compelled his two female lovers to sleep with one another, and even videotaped them, before ordering one of them to kill the other.
My wife smoked a cigarette in the car, and Eunice told us how the assassin, Dawn Silvernail, had testified against her former lover. We thought the name Dawn Silvernail was the funniest name we’d ever heard. My wife and Eunice discussed painting their fingernails silver in female solidarity.
Then we got to the third-floor courtroom in Poughkeepsie and hadn’t been there a minute when the defendant, Fred Andros, was led in in manacles. His appearance was nothing less than stunning.
He was about 5 feet 7 inches tall, with a stubby, small-featured head and a slanted smile. Surely one of the homeliest people I’d ever seen in my life. Eunice said he looked like a Pekinese. And this man had wielded such power over two women? At best, he looked like a numbers runner.
A large sheriff removed Mr. Andros’ handcuffs, and the trial got underway with testimony about the many phones that Mr. Andros and his two lovers had used to coordinate their movements.
Mr. Andros’ homeliness obsessed me. I went back to the trial a day later without the ladies, then visited some of the places in his story. I asked people on the street how they thought this stubby creature had exercised such control. “It’s something in his character; he’s been married four times,” said a man who had worked with Mr. Andros, helplessly. “He’s pure evil,” said a woman getting her mail. “It’s all about political corruption,” said a third.
I sat through more testimony, then read through the thorough coverage of the case in The Poughkeepsie Journal, and got this story.
Fred Andros was 60 and had all the accouterments of an upstate Napoleon. He lived in a nice house in Hyde Park, drove a late-model Chevrolet Impala with license plates that read “FREDDEE” and ran the Water Department for the Town of Poughkeepsie, overseeing an empire of pumping stations and backhoes. He seems to have projected a squeaky, thuggish air.
Mr. Andros’ first brush with the law was at 16, when he was mixed up in a burglary ring. He later went to work for the town, and that career ended after 33 years with more legal troubles. In May 1999, Mr. Andros resigned from his job for what he said were health reasons. A day later, he copped a plea on small-time corruption charges– $5,000 here and there. The feds were going after the town boss, William Paroli Sr. Mr. Andros was to testify against Mr. Paroli.
After Mr. Andros lost his power, his life seemed to spiral. He wanted to open a hot-dog stand outside his Hyde Park home. The town said no. He worked at his hobby, model airplanes.
But most of all, he was involved with women. Mr. Andros seems to have had an intense and intimate way with women. He made them confidantes, and he was conducting two affairs.
One was with a somewhat rootless and obese woman of 50 named Dawn Silvernail, whom he’d met doing CB radio. Mrs. Silvernail worked at a rest area off the New York State Thruway, coaching retarded people who worked there. Mr. Andros lent her several thousand dollars, and she says he had his way with her, even proffering Mrs. Silvernail as a kind of sexual hors d’oeuvre to male associates whom he wanted to please, once delivering her inside his own garage to a local tow-truck operator.
Dawn Silvernail’s attraction to Mr. Andros was understandable. Like him, she was a hard case, and she was up against it. Her story–down to losing part of a finger in a prison door lately–seems more pathetic than tragic.
The tragedy surrounds Mr. Andros’ other alleged girlfriend. Susan Fassett was attractive, a big blonde of 48, 6 feet 1 inch tall and 185 pounds, twice Mr. Andros’ size, and so much younger. Fassett was a farmer’s daughter and a police lieutenant’s wife. She had a big upstanding life. She worked in the personnel offices for the Town of Poughkeepsie. She sang in the choir at the Methodist church.
Fassett lived in the town of Pleasant Valley, which is one of those rapidly changing areas in Dutchess County where working farms are losing out to the malls fostered by the exurban boom. She was on the go from 5:30 in the morning till late at night. She drove a brand-new gold-colored Jeep Grand Cherokee S.U.V. She went to Jazzercise at the Jewish Community Center. She carried a cell phone, and a second secret cell phone to communicate with her lover. Their affair had been going on for years.
On the stand, Mrs. Silvernail said that Mr. Andros paid her to have sex with Fassett, and that he then joined in. His compulsion over Fassett would have been on a different order. According to Mrs. Silvernail, Mr. Andros said that Fassett was interested in women. Five times they were brought together, Mrs. Silvernail said, once in a room at a water-pumping station. And once Mr. Andros, the true hobbyist, videotaped them.
Mr. Andros was not that secretive. He confided his feelings about Fassett to other women, and there were whisperings.
Mr. Fassett got wind of it. In September 1999, he got proof by secretly taping his wife’s phone calls and confronted her. The marriage was over. Fassett promptly moved into an apartment attached to their house.
And then at midnight, Mr. Fassett later testified, his wife came to him and they resolved to work things out. They were going to make a clean start. In a symbolic gesture, they junked their old wedding bands and bought new ones. The husband picked up his new band five weeks later, in late October–the same day Mrs. Silvernail says she killed Fassett.
Mrs. Silvernail testified that she was a “dope” to follow Mr. Andros’ orders. She said that Mr. Andros threatened the lives of her children to make her do it, even showed her photographs taken of them in public places. Plus she owed Mr. Andros money.
It took her a while to kill Fassett. One week she went to the Jewish Community Center and saw Fassett’s car, then lost her nerve. Once she went to the Methodist Church in Pleasant Valley during choir practice, but it was still daylight and children were playing. She couldn’t do it then. Then, on Oct. 28, 1999, she bought a ski mask, doughnuts and a bottle of Excedrin and drove to the Methodist Church, lost her nerve again, regained it, and parked beside Fassett’s Cherokee in the dirt parking lot across from the humble clapboard church. Mrs. Silvernail lowered the back of the passenger’s seat so that she’d be invisible.
Darkness had fallen. When she heard the car next to her start up, Mrs. Silvernail sat up and emptied her .45 Ruger semiautomatic into the window. Most of the six shots hit Fassett. Then Mrs. Silvernail slid over to the driver’s side and drove away. Getting out of the parking lot was the fastest ride and the longest ride she had ever taken in her life, she testified. She dumped the gun on a county road and paged Mr. Andros with a signal that it was done.
He later recovered the gun and delivered it back to Mrs. Silvernail, she says. He was with his father and, handing over the plastic bag, said it was fish.
The investigation took a couple of months. Mr. Andros was questioned and mentioned Mrs. Silvernail, and she eventually copped a plea and told the state police her whole story. The records for pagers and cell phones were voluminous. The police knocked on his door just after Christmas 1999, and Mr. Andros shot himself in the face. Now he is handcuffed because he is serving his corruption sentence even as he is being tried.
I’ve stared at his face trying to see the bullet wound, but it is such a scrunched and twisted little face it is hard to make out.
The other faces I’ve looked at in the courtroom are Fassett’s family, her lean good-looking son, who wears an earring, and her mother. The devastation of a middle-class family by these events is the talk of Poughkeepsie, a psychic drama that is none of our business.
That family will long be probing the same mystery that engages the public. How did Mr. Andros gain this leverage over this individual? What was his motivation? What passion did he still have a month after the affair was broken off? Or–as Dawn Silvernail has testified–did Mr. Andros believe that Fassett, the cop’s wife, had the goods on him and was going to destroy his plea deal?
The trial may end this week, and it won’t answer those questions. Someday maybe there will be a TV movie that fixes Fassett’s big-boned neediness and Mr. Andros’ violent suave edginess in simple, colorful ways.
Meantime, I called Noel Tepper, Mr. Andros’ lawyer, who is famous for representing Timothy Leary (and setting up Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery and other psychedelic religions). With a rude Brooklyn-bred charm, Mr. Tepper dismissed the workings of Mrs. Silvernail’s “fertile imagination,” then spoke guardedly about the case.
“When you talk about the types of experience or activities that are said to have taken place here–adultery, ménage, lesbianism and power in many areas–you usually have this vision of beautiful people who went astray, or were acting out. Your images have been formulated by television personalities. Then when you get to real life, real people, it’s something different. It’s even sometimes shocking.”
You couldn’t find an actor ugly enough to portray Mr. Andros. He’s so ordinary, and yet so extraordinary. He demonstrates what tremendous emotional power can exist in the most unprepossessing package.
Now that we’ve lived through two decades of celebrity culture, we’ve hit the limits of its glamour. Any boob can now deconstruct celebrity. Shows like Survivor have gone a long way toward making clear how easily a strong personality can be made into a star, and the Internet and cheap cameras threaten to give everyone 15 minutes after all. Some shift seems to be going on. The transition from Bill Clinton to George Bush is all about Spago giving way to home cooking, and people secretly like it.
Even the celebrities are tired of celebrity. They’re bored and resentful of the terms. And who wouldn’t be bored? Celebrity requires mindless stoking, retinues and prison-like homes. No wonder celebrities are a little bit boring. The homely can be riveting.