Craig Crimmins, Phantom of the Metropolitan Opera

Written by C.J. Sullivan on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



Growing
up on a farm in Canada, Helen Hagnes learned to love the violin, and her parents
could see that she had a gift for the notoriously difficult instrument. As Hagnes
practiced, she saw herself playing at a huge opera house. The violin would take
her away from beautiful yet parochial Canada.


Hagnes earned
a scholarship to North Carolina School of the Arts and graduated
in
1973. She is now listed on the university’s website as one of their missing
alumni. After graduating there, Hagnes went on to Europe and studied under master
violinists in Switzerland and Italy. She moved back to America and married.
She and her sculptor husband settled in New York City. Here her dream of playing
classical music professionally came true: she earned a violin seat in the Metropolitan
Opera orchestra pit.



That was
where the Bronx stepped in and smashed her dreams to the ground, like it has
so many others.


On July
23, 1980, Helen Hagnes was 30 and playing violin that night for the Berlin ballet.
The ballet being performed was The Idiot. The last scene is of a woman
being stabbed to death. After the first act, Hagnes left her seat and went into
the back corridors of Lincoln Center. She never told anyone where she was going.
When the second act began other musicians noted her empty chair and assumed
she had gotten sick.


The next
time they heard of Helen Hagnes, she was being taken away in a body bag. She
had been choked, beaten and thrown to her death down an airshaft by an unknown
assailant, who soon came to be known as "The Phantom of the Opera."


The Hagnes
murder created a tabloid stir. Weeks passed and the investigation stalled. Old
boyfriends were checked out. All of her fellow employees seemed to have good
alibis. Then the detectives caught a break. A Bronx stagehand, Craig Crimmins,
21, broke under questioning. He was arrested for Hagnes’ murder.


Crimmins
was an Irish Catholic kid from the Mosholu Pkwy. area in the north section of
the Bronx. His babyish looks and immature demeanor were a surprise to a city
expecting some kind of fiend. Crimmins went for the altar boy look during his
trial.


The story
came out that on July 23 Crimmins got lit up at work. Booze and pot left him
in a staggering state as he wandered around the back corridors of Lincoln Center.
There he ran into Hagnes and propositioned her. When she blew him off he beat
her, tied her up and threw her down the air shaft, where she died. Crimmins
was sentenced to 20-years-to-life and the Phantom of the Opera story died.


A few years
back I corresponded with Craig Crimmins when he was at Comstock prison. He wrote
with a childlike scrawl, yet the missives were decently written–that may
be because the one good thing Crimmins claims he got out of prison was his GED.
Since writing me he has been transferred to Ossining. I recently tried to get
in touch with him but received no answer. I called his mother, but her phone
was disconnected with no further information.


In his correspondence
Crimmins never discussed Helen Hagnes or the murder at the Met, but he offered
a detailed look into prison life. He sent me a recent photograph, and the once
21-year-old kid who looked 14 now had some gravity to him. Prison put some weight,
muscle and facial hair on him; in his early middle age he looks like a fit carpenter
or electrician or any other job an Irish kid from the Bronx might hold.


Crimmins:
"Right now I’m in the worst prison in the state. Everyday inmates
are cutting each other with razor blades, inmates beating up officers, officers
beating up inmates. Every single day wild things are happening here. I really
don’t blame the cons because it’s the way they are treated. You treat
someone like an animal they will act like one. Could you picture killing someone
over a pack of cigarettes? It happens."


He wrote
about the tension between blacks and whites in prison. "Prisoners and prisons
are very racist. More so with the black population. I’ve got into a few
beefs over the words cracker and white boy myself. Whenever you hear a black
person speaking of white people its always cracker this, cracker that…
Everything here is run by the black population. For example take something like
the TVs. Only black shows are watched…The prison system bends to their
every wish. Believe me its no fun if you are white in here."


I asked
him how common sexual assault was in prison.


"Rape
is very rare. In my years I never saw it happen. That happened more in the old
days because there was no trailer visits. It does happen but it is rare. Its
not like people on the outside would think. When I first went away I was 21
and looked 14. My biggest fear was that, but like I said I never saw it. I saw
many inmates having sex with each other willing. There are more than enough
fags to go around."


Crimmins
went on to lament the food served in prison.


"I
wouldn’t give the food here to a dog. If you have to count on prison food
you’re in trouble. We have commissary twice a month. You can spend $55
on food and $16 on stamps each time. I live off of tuna fish. Plus you can get
a 35 lb. Food package from home once a month. If you don’t have someone
sending you money like most don’t you wont be eating good."


What was
the worst thing about doing a long bid in a New York state prison?


"The
worst thing about prison is not having a life period. Locked in a cell thinking
about what’s going on in the outside world. Missing your family and friends.
Wondering what ex-girlfriends and friends are doing while you are locked in
a cell. Wondering if they miss you like you miss them."


Given that
Crimmins is a veteran con, how did he see prison change over the course of his
incarceration?


"Prison
has changed since 1981 because then you didn’t have all this razor tag
they play now. Back then if you had a razor cut on your face it was because
you were marked a rat. Now 80% of the inmates have razor tags on them…
It’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better, and a lot of people are
gonna die in here and out there before things turn around."


Crimmins
had this warning to New Yorkers.


"I
believe the crime rate is so low in the city because they are keeping inmates
longer. At some point a bad batch is gonna get out and the crime rate will blow
sky high. It use to be you did the time the judge gave you and you went home.
Now you do the time your judge gave you plus what the parole board gives you.
I’ll be 41 when I see the parole board and probably 50 when I get out."


Crimmins
was not paroled on his first visit to the board. His next shot at freedom is
November of 2002.


"They
call my sentence 20 years to life. They should call it 20 years to the board.
It really doesn’t matter if you are good or bad Santa doesn’t care."



sullivan@nypress.com


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