Few stories can be told about the New Jersey Legislature that can compete with the one about Assemblyman Silvio J. Failla of Hudson County, who was in his first term in Trenton when he was murdered by a pimp and a prostitute outside a bar in Neptune. At 62-years-old, Failla had an fine resume for a legislator: he studied to be a pharmacist at Columbia University, went to law school, and then became an undertaker. He spent twenty years as the Executive Director of the New Jersey Funeral Home Directors Association, eleven years on the Hoboken Board of Education, and in 1965, six weeks as the Mayor of Hoboken.
Failla was elected to the State Assembly in 1971, winning a district that strongly resembles today’s 33rd district. His running mate was the legendary Christopher Jackman, a labor leader from West New York who would later become Assembly Speaker and State Senator. On Failla’s first day in Trenton, three Hudson County Democrats joined with the GOP minority to elect Republican Tom Kean as Speaker. Failla was one of the three Hudson Democrats to stick with his party and back Howard Woodson for the post.
On Thursday, September 16, 1972, Failla had been playing golf in North Jersey and was planning to spend the night at his summer home in Spring Lake. About four miles from home, he stopped for a drink at Big Bill’s Bar in Neptune, where he met Deborah Dell, a prostitute from New York City. Around 10:50 PM, an area resident heard what she believed to be firecracker noises, followed by the cries that may have been Failla’s last words: “Help me.”
When Neptune police arrived, Failla was still alive. Shot at least four times with a small-caliber handgun, he had staggered a short distance and police followed blood stains to find the Assemblyman in the bushes. He lost consciousness in the ambulance and was declared dead at 11:-5 PM. He was identified when police found his car — with Assembly license plates that carried the gold state seal — near the bar.
Police believed robbery was the motive: Failla’s wallet and watch were missing. The night of Failla’s murder, the Neptune Police Chief said there were few clues. Law enforcement officials set up a 30-member task force to find Failla’s killer, and after a stakeout of a Harlem apartment on October 11, arrested Dell, a 22-year-old prostitute, and Theophus King Webster, her 26-year-old pimp.
The following July, Dell and Webster were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. A witness, Webster’s 19-year-old brother, testified that he saw Failla and Dell leave the bar together and then heard shots. The 5’7, 205 lb. Dell said that she left the bar with Failla and then left him. She denied any role in Failla’s murder, saying she met up with Webster later at a local hamburger stand and they returned to New York later that evening. Dell was originally released from prison after serving fifteen years of her life sentence, but returned a few times for parole violations. She has been out of custody since April 1997. Webster, who was convicted of drug and weapons possession after his arrest, has been out of custody since March 1991.