The life and death of John Gasparinetti

John’s Early Life

Born and bred in Newark, New Jersey, back when that city was more than a punchline, John was one half of a set fraternal twins. His older brother — by mere minutes — Luigi and he were the cause of their mother’s death.

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A young John, in a photobooth

There were four kids in all: twins John and Luigi, the oldest, Ron and sister Trutti.

Though sickly and often confined to a bed, John’s grandmother helped raise the kids, as any Italian grandmother is wont to do. But between them, John’s grandmother and father couldn’t keep John on the straight and narrow.

“He took to the streets and became a product of that,” his daughter Linda said.

“His father had to work a lot to support the family – there were four children,” John’s first daughter, Denise said. “He sent them all to dance class. But, of course, my father [John] and uncle Ronnie had no interest in how to dance ballet.”

As they grew up, John took more after Ronnie: big, manly, tree-trunks of men. Luigi, built as strong the other two, but more svelte, took to dance. Trutti and Luigi dove into the arts. Ron and John stuck to sports.

Before they were 18, the dancers were off to New York City to pursue their passion. Ron was looking into the police academy. John was still playing football. Because he was good at it.

John’s hands were as large as mitts. His legs, like two, powerful pistons. Thick as sequoias and just as strong. He was a force.

“He was a very good player,” Denise remembers.

Except for one fateful accident, football looked like John’s future.

The Firecracker Incident

One day, playing around with his friends and some roman candles — fireworks, for the rest of us — an accident stole John’s left eye.

John, separated from the group, was off on his own. The pack was setting off the roman candles. One went astray.

Instead of ducking, he turned at the sound of his name. Bang. Firework to the face. His eye fell out into his hand.

The crew grabbed John and made for the hospital. There was no saving it. He lost his left eye that day, and his dreams of a professional football career with it.

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From his football playing days

He had to wear an eye patch as he healed. Later, he would get a glass eye that he would wear in place of the real thing. This left him, obviously, with just one working eye. If you’re ever closed one eye and noticed how your depth perception changes, imagine doing that forever. And do it while playing football. It’s not easy.

“He had a glass eye for the rest of his life. There went his football career, whatever was going to become of that. They wouldn’t let you play with a glass eye back then,” Denise said.

He soldiered on, playing semi-professional football for the Boonton Bears. Information about the Bears is scarce. Often, the only Google result for “Boonton Bears” are obituaries of their former players. The Boonton Historical Society did not return repeated requests for information on the team.

He would never progress past semi-pro with just one eye, despite his other physical stature and abilities.

“It prevented him from pursuing a pro football career, but it didn’t stop him from much else,” Linda said.

“Always on a softball league, with my friends,” Denise said. “He would hit the ball and the ball would just scream because he would hit it so hard.

“He was so powerful. He would take the three of us [sisters] to bed. Pile us all up on him and carry us all to bed when we were kids.”

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John’s Family

He met his first love, Jean, at a teenage canteen – a type of social. They were just young teens.

“She was at the canteen and her girlfriend said to her, ‘Hey, do you know John Gasparinetti is here?’” Linda said of her parent’s first meeting ‘“Who’s John Gasparinetti?’ my mom asked.”

It was the beginning of the story of the big man and the little lady. He towered over six feet tall, big and bulky. She barely touched five feet, on a good day.

Just three years later, both at just 17-years-old, John and Jean were expecting their first child.

“A few moments pleasure isn’t worth a lifetime of misery,” Jean would later say to any teenager that would listen.

That lifetime of misery turned out to be Denise, the couple’s first child.

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John, and his first daughter, Denise

“We were only 17 years apart,” Denise remembers. “He was 17 when I was born, and sometimes it was funny because we had some of the same friends growing up.”

John moved into the house shared by Jean with her parents, brothers and sisters at 28 Manchester Place, in Newark, New Jersey. That’s how the Italians did it back then – and some still do today.

Soon after, Linda and JoAnn followed. The couple’s second and third daughters were welcomed into the world.

Their relationship wasn’t perfect — far from it. It was strained, be it by any number of factors that most would not like to reveal all the years later, one of which includes a half-sister, Lori, who John had fathered with another woman.

pq 5Eventually, John moved out of the home in Newark. He saw his daughters less and less.

“He was a lot of fun when he was there,” JoAnn said. “He was never really there, though. We knew he existed. We knew he had another life.”

Then, he didn’t see his daughters at all.

“He was gone when I was 11, they separated for the last time,” Denise said of her parents. “And I didn’t see him from age 11 to 17.”

The Breakaway

The one-eyed man left his family behind. He just slipped away, like his football career slipped away: in an instant. Without warning or provocation. One moment he was there, and one moment he was gone.

Out he went across the town, the state, the country.

John disappeared.

Walking out on three children with his wife — and a fourth with another woman — isn’t a decision made lightly. But he did.

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Down the shore

Then, all of a sudden, he was back. If only for an instant.

“I was in Studio 1 – it was a dance club – and he was a bouncer there,” Denise said. “He let us in and I didn’t say anything. As the night went on, people pointed me out. ‘You see those girls over there?” He’s like ‘Yeah, I see her. She came in with her friends.’ And they’re like ‘That’s your daughter.’ He said ‘Oh.’

“My girlfriends’ never really wanted to go to Studio 1 after that because no one would dance with us because my father was the bouncer.”

Those are lost years in John’s life. Details are scarce on what he did, but we do know where he ended up. A life he would never live or a different life he wanted to lead…

“He couldn’t stay there. He just needed to go and run and keep running,” JoAnn said. “And that’s what he was happy doing. Finding all these women and loving them. Everybody seemed to still love him. All his ex-wives. They still talk kindly of him. All of them.”

He started another life, with a new woman. He got married to his second wife, Elaine. She couldn’t have been more opposite from his first wife.

Elaine was tall and lean, with a shock of red hair. His first wife, back in New Jersey with his three daughters, was short, olive-skinned and was lucky to reach the lowest shelf of a cabinet.

John and Elaine moved to Texas soon after the chance meeting at Studio 1. He disconnected from his children again.

“I visited him once,” Denise said, sitting on a couch in her home she shares with her husband in western New Jersey. “My sisters went out another time with Uncle Luigi and Aunt Trudy, who are his brother and sister. They went out one year, and then I went out myself one year. And then that was it.”

John and Elaine weren’t meant to be, either:

John L. Gasparinetti and Elaine G. were married on July 04, 1984. After being married for 6 years and 157 days, they got divorced on December 07, 1990 in Harris County, Texas. At the time of their divorce, John L Gasparinetti was 48, and Elaine G was 48 years old.

Eventually, he came back around the family.

The Comeback

“He came back when … my child, my only son, was born. He decided that he wanted to move back,” Denise said. “And he was a good grandpa.”

A few years later, Linda had Jaclyn, John’s first granddaughter. Later, he would welcome two more grandaughter’s from Lori — Denise, JoAnn and Linda’s half sister. They are all close, no the “half” portion easily forgotten. 

“He caused us a lot of heartache when we were young, but he sure did make up for it later on in life with his grandchildren,” Linda said. “He came back into our lives ready to make up for all the years he was away from us and he did so in a great way by embracing his grandchildren and family.”

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John and Marion

Denise echoed the same message.

“As a grandpa? Oh, he was very doting. He loved to shower you with gifts,” she said. “He was very proud. He was always telling my friends that he would see around town … They knew what we were up to because of Grandpa. He filled them in on the latest adventures.”

His grandchildren grew and his relationship with them and his daugthers grew right along with them. John had something of a late-life renaissance.

“Well, he met a wonderful woman, Marion. And her family just absolutely loved him,” Denise said.

They dated for a while, and were eventually married on July 24, 1999. The four daughters all attended the wedding, something he wasn’t around to do for Denise’s marriage.

Despite everything he put people through, no one held grudges. Not against John.

“Nobody really ever stayed mad at him,” Denise said. “I think that was a very unique quality about my father. You couldn’t be really mad at him. Everyone was very forgiving. He was very forgiving, and everybody was forgiving of him.”

Denise remembered one of her favorite stories about her father: “At one point, I think when his brother Luigi died, in one row were three wives and an ex-girlfriend all talking to each other. I remember my father up in the front of funeral room just looking over and going ‘Oh boy, I hope they don’t start trading stories.’”

For many years, John and Marion lived a wonderfully happy life. They lived with Marion’s mother and stepfather in a cute little home in Nutley, New Jersey.

When John’s twin brother Luigi passed, he left his siblings a bit of money. John and Marion became frequent guests in Atlantic City hotels, doling out weekend vacations, concert tickets, expensive dinners and more to his daughters, family and friends. Everything was wonderful for the couple, for the whole family.

That is, until December 19, 2009.

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John’s Murder

John would sometimes be out and about at night, visiting someone, going to “the club,” stopping at a bar to see friends. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. He’d be out late, but he always called home. He never, ever would not ring his wife to tell her where he was and when he’d be home.

On December 18, he called her at 9:15 p.m., but when he didn’t call again that night, she started to worry.

pq 4“I knew something was wrong when he didn’t call me back after that, because he made a habit of calling me every two to three hours to see how I was and how my mom was,” Marion said, in 2010.

He never drank too much — one vodka and soda was enough for him — especially because of that gout he refused to see a doctor about. The thought passed Marion’s mind that maybe he drank too much and crashed at a friend’s house. Or he fell asleep in his car. Or worse.

Eventually though, she called the police.

They came to the house in the middle of the night and took a description of John and his car, the old, beat up green BMW station wagon he inherited from his brother.

Marion waited, anxiously, hoping to hear from him. Soon, the sun came up. Nothing. She called her step-daughter, Denise. She was very concerned. He never doesn’t call, Marion said.

Denise assured her he’s probably fine, but knew something was wrong. She hung up, and started calling around.

Denise remembers the morning vividly:

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The step-mother and daughter starting calling around , phoning friends and family to see if they knew where he was.

“At the same time Marion called me back, her doorbell rang, and she could see three detectives, not uniform cops, were on her porch,” Denise said. “And then there was just screaming after that.”

“He’s dead! He’s dead! He’s dead!”

Denise couldn’t hear. She handed the phone to her husband Alan.

Alan could hear. Alan handed the phone back to his wife. There was a detective was on the other end of the line, asking to whom he was speaking. She identified herself as John’s daughter.

He told her John was dead.

Denise screamed. She threw the phone. The detective could only hear screaming through the other end of the receiver.

John was shot, they’d come to find out. Police found him, in a parking lot, one gunshot to the head.

Other family members still remember the moment they heard the news.


John’s daughter Lori’s husband, Lenny:

John was now just a body, to be identified. The bullet that traveled through his head came out of the left side of his face, coming out between his eyesocket and his upper cheek.. The same eye he lost all those years ago in a firecracker accident.

He was a memory. Worse, he was now a statistic. That night, he became one of the 319 recorded murders in New Jersey in 2009. One of the 220 killed by a firearm.

Alan and Denise piled into their car and sped down from their home in the suburbs back to their stomping grounds of Essex County. They arrived at Marion and John’s home. The detectives were still there. Other family had already joined.

Everyone was hugging everyone else, holding on much longer than normal. But that was OK. There were many, many tears. Sobbing. Crying. Questioning.

Why would someone do this to John?

They may never know.

The Investigation

That night, he had been visiting with friends inside The Belmont Tavern, a popular and often-visited place for John and his friends.

As he left the bar, it is believed he was followed to his car. Police are not sure what happened.

It is believed that John did not die right away, and was in fact shot, staggered to his car and collapsed trying to get in.

Nothing was stolen from his car, but there was money scattered around the eventual scene of the crime. It was loosely blowing around. Cops believe it was staged this way, to look like a robbery gone bad.

The detectives left Marion’s home and came back hours later. They had known John, when he was alive. Now, they did not know his murderer.

They did know one thing: It was a hit. From someone connected.

Someone wanted him dead and they got what they wanted.

The investigation was launched. There was footage from the parking lot where he was shot. It was dark and grainy. It was black and white. It was hard to make anything out.

The police sent it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, hoping they had the technology to clean up the film enough to make sense of what they could see. But even they couldn’t do it.

So, in a little bit of sad poetic justice, and as part of an agreement the FBI has with the National Football League, they sent it to NFL Films for them to attempt to clean up the tape. John, who in his younger years, seemed destined for a career playing football before he lost his left eye, was now on tape with the NFL. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be for a worse situation.

But even NFL Films couldn’t make sense of what was on the screen. The best they could do was a grainy photograph:


The suspected murderer

All the leads were silent. No one was talking. This is sometimes, if not always the case with mob hits.

No one really knows why John was targeted. Unpaid debts, merchandise that “fell off the truck,” and any other assorted reasonings are tossed about. He’s wasn’t perfect in the eyes of the law, but he was far from crooked.

Between his job at the moving company — hindered by old age and a bout of gout — and whatever he was doing on the sly, he seemed comfortable in life. He had come into some money from his twin brother Luigi’s death a few years earlier, but too many nights in Atlantic City whittled that away quickly.

Still, Marion and John enjoyed their times there, so it was money well spent.

But money may have been tighter than John led his family to believe.

He may have owed someone some money. That’s the prevailing rumor, anyway.

As for who, that’s another story entirely.

Some members of John’s family believe the murderer even showed up at his John’s wake. He could have been one of the men who said his goodbyes at the coffin, shook the family’s hands and offered his condolences, all while knowing he was there solely because of his actions not a week earlier.

Who was he and can he be brought to justice? Not likely. According to whispers from second- third- and fourth-hand sources, the murderer was a man from Chicago. He was dying. He owed someone something, and in return for him killing John, his debts would be erased. Not long after, he, too, would die. The cause: Natural causes. Cancer. A death much more predictable than the one he caused.

The police do not officially have a suspect. Or a cause. Five years later, the case is cold. It’s still an open investigation

A year after his murder, the Belleville Times ran an editorial, asking for any tips or leads. Nothing came up.

“We have no word. Nobody returns our calls. We still haven’t received his personal effects back. We have no idea what’s going on,” Denise said a year after the murder. “The prosecutor has no answers. It’s very frustrating.”

She still feels the same way in 2014.

A spokesperson from the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office said Gasparinetti’s death “remains an active investigation.”

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John’s Legacy

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John, on his wedding day

Over 1,000 people attended John Gasparinetti’s funeral. The family knew the group would be large, so they secured two rooms in the funeral home. Still, that wasn’t enough.

“When he passed away, I couldn’t believe the amount of people that loved and respected him in his life,” Linda said.

Now, whenever an important date from their life together comes around on the calendar, his third wife Marion writes on her husband John’s online obituary.

December 19, 2010, first anniversary of his death: “A year ago today I experienced the most devastating day of my life. John was the love of my life, and I miss him SO MUCH every day.”

December 19, 2011, second anniversary of his death: “Since you’ve gone there’s a hole in my heart that can only be filled by your love. I wish I could say it gets easier, but it doesn’t.”

May 6, 2012, the anniversary of their first date: “I thank God every day for having given me the opportunity to know such a special love. To have lived a life and not have shared your love is something I cannot imagine. Despite our ups and downs, you were the very best thing to ever happen to me–I love you so much.”

January 31, 2013, his birthday: “Today would have been your 71st birthday. I miss you so very much each and every day. A very large piece of my heart died the day you left me.”

July 24, 2013, their wedding anniversary: “My Darling John–14 years ago today, July 24, 1999, was absolutely the happiest day of my life–our wedding day! I was so certain of my feelings, my love for you, and our vows that I smiled through the entire ceremony and much beyond! I don’t understand why you didn’t feel you could share anything and everything with me during our years together–you’re the one who verbalized my depth of love for you and how it made you feel. I love you unconditionally, John, even now, and I pray that you know that.”

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The police don’t know much. His family knows even less. There are many rumors and theories as to why he was killed and who killed him.

In the end, though, does it matter? Who did it? Why they did it? All that matters is John is gone. And he’s never coming back.

“Unfortunately, he was taken from us when we finally had him as the loving father and grandfather we so needed in our lives,” Linda said.

“There were four girls involved, four children, and we all have a wonderful relationship with everyone else,” Denise said. “I think that was part of the man he was. He was very personable, quiet, but funny and always joking.”

He would no longer be there for those who needed him, some he barely even knew.


John, and his youngest granddaughter

“They loved him. Everybody loved him,” Denise remembered. “It’s hard now, when my son’s getting married… That’s when you really miss the people who are gone.”

Denise’s voice trailed off… Her eyes wet, thinking of her father, of what he could have seen. He’ll never see his grandkids graduate from college, get married or be around for his great-grandchildren. Heck, he was young enough there was an outside chance he could be around for his great-great-grandchildren.

But no, that won’t happen. It can’t. All because his life was cut short. Much too short for a man of his stature, his size, his life.

What will his daughters remember most about him?

“The man he became,” Denise said.

Linda, too, was proud of her dad.

“After a rough childhood and a not-so-easy adulthood, as an older man, John became someone that I was proud to call my father.”

And JoAnn believes that one day, they’ll all be back together.

“Hopefully he’s in heaven now with the rest of the family,” JoAnn said. “With his mother, his womb-mate — his brother — and hopefully we’ll all be together today in heaven. That’s what I believe. And that’s all I could say.”

John Gasparinetti, January 31, 1942 – December 19, 2009

If you have any information on the man in the surveillance video, please contact the Essex County 24-hour “Crime Stoppers” tip line. All calls will remain anonymous: (877) 695-8477 or (877) 695-4867

The Epilogue…