When My Boss Was Murdered

Sometimes the unthinkable becomes reality and murder touches our lives.  It can hit us so unexpectedly that it’s like a sucker punch knocking us breathless. Such was the case with me in Roanoke, Virginia, in the wee cold hours of January 3, 1986.

When the phone rang at 4 a.m. that Friday morning I fumbled for it, still half asleep.  For a second I didn’t recognize the sobbing sounds coming from my boss’ secretary, Carolyn, on the other end of the line.  I had never heard her cry. She had always been such a cheerful person.  Then she stopped sobbing long enough to speak. “Wade, Tony is dead.”

I knew in an instant it was true.  No one calls someone at four in the morning with a prank call like that.  And I knew it was true because I knew Carolyn–an upstanding woman who adored her family, her church and her job.  Her admiration of, and loyalty to our boss was unshakable. It would be unthinkable of her to joke about something like that.

It felt like the bed had suddenly dropped out from under me.  The room was tilting and my heart started pounding. There seemed to be a buzzing in my ears.  Before I could say anything, Carolyn spoke again, “Chris is dead, too.”  Another kick in the chest.  Christine was Tony’s wife, adoring mother of his two sons, and herself adorable.

“Oh my God.  What happened?”  It was all I could get out. I was immediately thinking “car accident”.

Carolyn’s anguished voice again, “Someone broke in their house and shot them just after midnight. The boys are okay.  Oh, Wade, that’s all I know. The police just called.”  More crying.

All I could think to mumble was “Oh my God.”  I told Carolyn that I would be heading into the office right away and for her to come in when she could.  I knew we would need to call all the restaurant managers in our chain of 23 pizza restaurants.  If we could reach them soon enough they wouldn’t have to hear it on the morning news.

On the drive into work I kept praying. “Please let it be a mistake. Please let the police have the wrong people.”  The loss was beginning to sink in, and I knew it would only get worse in the coming days.

Tony Loicano, my boss, my mentor, my friend—a man of integrity, intelligence, and street smarts—was gone.  It just seemed so improbable that I couldn’t figure out how it could have happened. Tony was an ex-cop from the streets of New Orleans.  He would have been prepared. He was always prepared in everything he did.  There had to be a lot more to this story.

When Tony first arrived in Virginia to take over as director of our company, he and I didn’t exactly hit it off.  I was, somewhat immodestly if I do say so, the “star” manager of  the company at the time, with many successes under my belt.  I was also very rigid in my thinking when it came to the restaurants.  I was all about quality first. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Tony had been hired for his fiscal discipline.  Our owner, who lived in Denver, had lured him away from another pizza chain to tighten up our financial situation.

Tony began to implement cost-cutting measures almost immediately, and they rubbed me the wrong way.  I didn’t want to use anything but the best quality products in my store.  I also had considerable clout within the organization, as the other managers looked up to me. Looking back I suppose Tony realized right off that he would need to win me over.  Then the other managers would fall in line.

And so Tony began to break the ice.  It began simply enough, with him dropping in for lunch at the restaurant I managed, and inviting me to join him for a few minutes.  I sat down with him and we began a conversation.  It was a conversation that lasted for six years—until his untimely death–and benefited me in ways I’m still just beginning to fully understand.

The rest of that Friday morning was like a dream–a strange, foggy dream where everyone spoke in whispers as they came and went to our home office.  Some answered phones while others sobbed quietly in corners.  Tony had been a good boss, strict but fair with everyone.  Both he and Christine were beloved members of the community.

The police gave a solemn accounting of the horror story they had pieced together of the night before.  Five people were dead, including one of their own, a rookie policeman just 24 years old. We would later learn there was a sixth victim, and that the killing spree had actually begun a week earlier in another state. When all the facts were in, this is the story as we got it.

It all began in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on December 27th of 1985, one week earlier.  Danziel Malcolm, a Jamaican immigrant due for an appearance before the immigration authorities, was in a jealous rage. He smashed through the front window of his girlfriend’s house with a brick.  As she and another man began to flee towards the back of the house, Malcolm entered and shot her in the back of the head with a .38.  She was likely dead before she hit the floor.  Her friend escaped.

Several days later, on January 2nd of 1986, Malcolm met up with a friend, whose name has never been established. (It was thought that the second man was also a Jamaican immigrant, though in the country illegally). The two men decided to get out of town.  They coerced a man with an Opel to give them a ride into Virginia, then attempted to steal the car.  When the owner realized they were armed, he tried to flee into the woods and was blasted in the back and neck by a shotgun.  Bleeding badly, he managed to hide near a church until the two gave up looking. The two men headed south on I-81 in the victim’s Opel.

A few hours later Roanoke State Trooper Ricky McCoy began picking up radio chatter about a reckless driver headed south.  Truck drivers reported a guy driving with very bright lights, which he refused to dim.  McCoy had pulled over another driver for a minor infraction when he spotted the Opel coming his way.  The trooper pursued the vehicle, which pulled over just south of Roanoke, near Salem, Virginia.  As he approached the vehicle McCoy was shot twice with the shotgun.  The first hit him in the chest knocking him backwards.  The second blast hit him in the face, tearing off a large portion of his skull.  He died instantly.

For reasons unknown, the two killers abandoned the Opel and ran up the side of a mountain. They bypassed the first house they came to and headed toward the second, a yellow ranch style home further up the hill. It was the home of Tony Loicano and his family.

The Loicanos, Tony and Chris, had lived in this quiet mountain suburb for several years with their two sons, aged 8 and 7. Their sprawling property had often been the site for company picnics. Tony and Chris liked the country feeling of the place, though it was near the city. On that particular January day, Loicano had been home sick with a bad cold. A former policeman himself, Loicano slept with a revolver within easy reach.

Arriving at the Loicano home in the darkness, the two criminals approached the glass patio doors at the rear of the house.  Using the shotgun, they blasted through the patio doors and entered quickly into the home.  The shot awakened Tony– who police later said was likely slowed by cold medication—and it took a few seconds for him to reach his pistol.  As he came down a hallway of the home to investigate, he received a shotgun blast to the chest and fell backward into the bedroom of his two sons.

Wasting no time, the two killers grabbed Chris, his screaming wife, and dragged her toward the garage. Neighbors reported hearing a loud crash as the Loicano van was driven through the couple’s wooden garage door. The van sped down the hillside and out onto the interstate.

By this time the police had arrived at the scene of the Trooper McCoy shooting.  Several policemen immediately began a pursuit of the Loicano van, at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour.  They attempted a “moving roadblock”, whereby the police cars surround a vehicle and force it to stop.  They were not successful.

There was a sound of a gunshot, the van left the interstate and hit a ditch, then righted itself and re-entered the interstate. Then officers heard two additional shots and the van slowed, then stopped. Inside the van all three passengers were dead.  Christine had been shot in the head, then the murderers had shot themselves.  The killing spree was over.

After hearing the story I was numb. I can never forget it, of course.  But as awful and memorable as that day was, even more indelible are my  memories of the days that followed.  Gruesome details would emerge.  The press was arriving from all over the country.  They would have to be dealt with.  And of course there would be funerals, memorial services and grieving.

The days following that first shocking Friday were filled with memorable events. Looking back, I think about how good it would have been to simply grieve–to show up at the memorial service, sit quietly through it, and leave. To not be noticed.  Not be called upon to step up, say something, comfort people, and make plans for the continuation of the company.  But life just isn’t that simple. Life goes on and we are sometimes called on to help it along.

The owner of our company flew into Roanoke from Denver on that Friday night and immediately called a meeting of management staff.  Before the meeting the next day, he and I sat down to discuss the future of our company.  Tony had bought a few of the restaurants, all in West Virginia.  We wouldn’t discuss those.

Tony’s lawyers informed us that he had set up trust funds for his sons.  Tony had also left explicit instructions that the boys would be raised in Atlanta by their godparents should anything happen to he and Chris.  That was Tony—always thinking ahead, always prepared for any situation. He had also—just three weeks before his death—taken out a large life insurance policy.  Though he had made only one payment on the policy, all his ducks were in a row.  His will was ironclad, and the boys would never want for anything.

But now there were sixteen restaurants to consider.  Mr. Bacon, the owner, asked if I could step up to become Director of Operations for the company.  He then laid out what he considered my qualifications.  Everyone knew I had been Tony’s right-hand man.  I have to admit it was true and there wasn’t really anyone else to do it.  Still, it was a hell of a way to get a promotion.

At the time of Tony’s death, he and I had never been more in sync.  We had just returned from a business trip to Chicago and were considering a move into a croissant franchise.  We also had plans to eventually buy all the pizza restaurants from Mr. Bacon  We knew Mr. Bacon was keen to get rid of them.  Actually, the future had never looked brighter for me until Tony’s death.  Now, that all went up in smoke.  I still play “what if?” in my mind to this day.  It’s likely that had he not died, we would have continued our successful business dealings, and even more likely we would both be very wealthy men.  We had the opportunity and the ability, along with the banks lined up behind us.  What if?

After the meeting with the owner I was approached by leaders of Tony’s church.  He and Chris were members of the largest Catholic church in Roanoke, and their priest wanted me to speak at the memorial service on Monday.  Naturally, I agreed, but put off thinking about it for the time being.

In the lobby area of our office several reporters were waiting for an interview.  They were intent primarily on speaking with me and Carolyn, as we were the closest to Tony. I barely remember speaking with the reporters, or standing before cameras making statements.  That evening I was almost surprised to see myself on the local news, standing in front of the office, speaking about a boss and friend I had just lost. About how senseless it all was.  When did I give that interview?  They all ran together.

A week later someone sent me clippings from the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.  Again, I barely remembered even speaking with those people, though I must say the quotes seemed accurate.

A few months later, someone sent me an issue of “True Detective”, which had run a full article on the killings. The cover headline: “The Day Roanoke Ran Red with Bood.” I was quoted in that article as well, though it must have been obtained secondhand.  I had no memory of it.

In the True Detective article I learned more about Trooper McCoy.  He was 24 years old and a newlywed. His wife was pregnant with their first child—a child he would never meet, of course.  McCoy was well liked in the force–an upright, by the book kind of officer who befriended everyone.  He was all about doing the right thing.

Though there would be a memorial service in Roanoke for the Loicanos, there was to be no funeral. Tony and Chris’s bodies were to return south for burial.  Carolyn called me that Sunday afternoon from the funeral home to ask if I wanted to see Tony and Chris before they left for the last time.  At first I didn’t, but then I did.  I felt I needed to say good-bye to them in person.  As I sit writing this decades later, I wonder if that was a good decision.

While we were in the lobby waiting, Carolyn shared a bit of news one of her policemen friends gave her–that Tony had not died instantly.  Between tears she recounted Tony’s last minutes.

Tony’s two sons, Anthony, Jr. and Steven, had immediately hid in their closet when they heard the first gunshot–the one that shattered the patio window. Behind the lattice doors they would see their father fall backwards into their bedroom after being shot.  Then they heard the van crash through the garage doors and drive away with their screaming mother inside.  The two little boys came out and approached their father, kneeling at his side and not knowing what to do.  After all, they were seven and six years of age. Tony lay bleeding and gasping for breath, blood gurgling from his mouth, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.  And that’s how his life ended, and how his sons saw it end. Officers found them together shortly thereafter.

As I sat contemplating the horror of Tony’s final minutes, I couldn’t help but wonder how it would scar his sons.  Then the funeral home director called us in to view the bodies. I first approached Chris, so serene, so normal looking.  I couldn’t detect any damage to her face.  Then my eyes traveled down to where her hands lay folded on her torso.  Clearly visible under her broken fingernails was a lot of dried blood—the killers’ blood–which the undertaker had not been able to remove. Chris had not gone out without a fight. I could imagine her clawing the faces of her attackers.  After all these years that image still sticks with me–dried blood under ragged fingernails.

Tony, of course, lay in his coffin as though asleep.  His wounds were hidden beneath his suit and his face and head appeared normal.  Except for his hair.  Tony had begun losing the hair at the top of his foreheard years earlier and had had several hair implants.  (The plastic surgeon who performed his implants was married to Victoria Principal, of “Dallas” fame.  Tony and Chris were friends with the couple, but I have no idea how they met.)  Tony always wore his hair swept up and back but the undertakers had combed his hair down over his forehead.  It just looked all wrong.  Carolyn asked that it be changed and gave the man a photo to go by.

And that was that.  We said a little prayer and stood quietly viewing their caskets for a few minutes.  We were the only two—out of hundreds of company employees—that the families had invited.  I would hear from many staff members later–staff who had worked closely with Tony for years—who were upset that they had not been given that opportunity.  But it wasn’t my call.

The memorial service was set for the next day at the large cathedral. Hundreds of people filed in, and the local television stations had permission to film from the rear of the church.  In the front pews, along with family and close friends, were the President and other top staff members of Pizza Inn, Incorporated–all the way from Dallas.  I remember thinking Tony would be impressed.  Other Pizza Inn franchise owners from around the country were also there.

Chris was eulogized by heads of organizations she belonged to. Tony’s wife had been a frequent visitor at our office and company functions.  Though always composed and quite the “get things done” type of gal, she was no “June Cleaver”.  She had a loud and infectious laugh, and during such times her face radiated a mischievous joy. I found myself thinking how inconceivable it was that Anthony Jr. and Steven had lost their proud and protective mother.

And then it was my turn to speak of Tony.  I had only made a few notes because I wanted it to be spontaneous.  When you know someone as well as I knew Tony, it was easy to speak from the heart.

I spoke of his love for family—his adoration of Chris and his love for his two sons.  I spoke of how he had mentored not only me, but many others in our organization. I spoke of how he was a disciplinarian but always fair.  I spoke of how I felt as though I knew almost nothing before I met him, and of how much more I had hoped to learn. The man had been a fountain of business knowledge, common sense, and practical attitudes.  Tony’s was a life that had touched hundreds of others. He would be terribly missed.

I recalled how once, when I was frustrated over updating our company operations manual, I came to Tony and voiced my concerns.  As with any company, we were trying to cover all our bases and create policies and procedures to fit all contingencies.

Tony cut right to the chase and asked me why I was so bogged down in it.  Exasperated, I said, “Tony, I’m trying to make it idiot-proof.”  And Tony replied, “Maybe we need to hire fewer idiots.”

We had laughed about it at the time, but that was Tony’s genius.  Always able to cut through the clutter, calm frayed nerves, and get right to the heart of any matter with practical solutions.  Among his many talents was goal-setting.  He had vision and clarity and he was able to inspire.  When we became the first pizza company to deliver pizzas in the Roanoke Valley, it was because he saw a need and made it happen.

The months following Tony’s death were indeed difficult, but we made it through and kept the company solvent.  Mr. Bacon sold the company the following year, and we were all scattered to the winds.  I moved to Atlanta and quickly lost track of my co-workers.  There was no internet in those days and it was more difficult to keep in touch.  The restaurants themselves were eventually sold off piecemeal, primarily for their excellent locations. They became convenience stores and Chinese buffets.

To this day I find myself using a lot of what I learned from Tony.  I’ll find myself in situations where something he taught me is entirely appropriate.  If ever there was a case of “two heads better than one” it was ours.  As mentor and mentee we clicked.

For 20 years after his death I dreamed of Tony. Strangely enough, they were never nightmares—never about his death.  No, I would dream I was working somewhere and Tony would appear, as though nothing had happened, and we were working together again in a new or different enterprise. I can only suppose I had those dreams because I never truly got to say goodbye to him. There was no closure.

Murder can be devastating on those left behind.  It’s often senseless and unexpected–and unpreventable simply because it is unexpected.  The Roanoke Valley slept uneasily those first few weeks of 1986. Tony’s murder left everyone feeling vulnerable.  He was a street-smart ex-cop with a loaded .38, tucked in safely in his locked home, in a safe and remote neighborhood.  If Tony could be murdered, anyone could.

The main thing I took away from it:  Live for today, for tomorrow is uncertain.

© Wade Kingston