Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Killing of Jeff Zack

The Tip

A reward was offered about information, and a tipster sent police to a woman who once had been married to John Zaffino. She admitted that she'd been privy to an odd conversation. In 2001, Zaffino had told her he'd just beaten up a "white-haired Israeli." Then she read about the murder of Jeff Zack, who was described as a former Israeli paratrooper with silver-gray hair, and wondered if there was some connection. She called Zaffino in the middle of the night and, as she put it, he said, "Well, let's just say the guy's going to have a hard time parting his hair from now on."

Investigators then learned that Zaffino had recently made a motorcycle purchase, although he had introduced himself to the dealer as John Smith. He had mentioned that he did not plan to keep the bike for long. To show the police the kind of bike that "John Smith" had purchased on May 24, the dealer went to the Internet and did a search. He came up with an identical bike for sale in McMurray, Penn.

It wasn't long before investigators put two and two together and realized it was the same bike. The purchaser had bought it in May and then taken it across the state line to sell it to another dealer. That led them to Zaffino's first wife, whose fiancÚ owned the dealership. They had taken it in exchange for child support that he owed. The ex-wife described how her former husband had come during the night, eager to be rid of the bike, and had even placed tape over the green stripes.

The "coincidences" were coming hard and fast. While this discovery wasn't solid evidence, it was strongly suggestive, and Zaffino became the primary suspect.

Christine Todaro agreed to wear a recording device and tape calls made to him, beginning in June 2002. This lasted three months, over which time Zaffino grew increasingly more paranoid. He even suspected her of wearing a wire and warned her not to talk with the police. He never admitted to anything directly.

Soon the police found phone records that destroyed Zaffino's alibi. A friend had said that Zaffino was at a car show about 40 minutes away when Zack was shot. However, the records showed that he was calling the friend on his cell phone at that time, rather than being at the show. He actually had arrived at the show some two hours after the shooting. There was reason to believe that the witness corroborating the alibi had been intimidated into making a false statement.

At the end of September, Zaffino was arrested and charged with aggravated murder. The police were confident that he was the black-clad man on the motorcycle, and a search of his home produced cell phone bills with many calls to Cynthia George. Then bank records were obtained which indicated that she had withdrawn $5,300 just before Zaffino had purchased the gray-and-black Honda CBR 1000 motorcycle and some helmets for that amount. There were also calls between them on June 16, before and after Zack had been shot, and a few days later, when Zaffino had taken the motorcycle to Pennsylvania.

Investigators later surmised that there had been a plan in place as early as May to lure Zack to a remote area, because a police officer had come across Zaffino at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, with an empty holster in his car. A few days later, someone found a .32-caliber pistol in the nearby park. Zaffino had purchased a .32-calibre not long before that, which he couldn't produce. Later in the month, after this incident, he had also purchased a .357 Magnum, which took hollow-point bullets similar to the one that had killed Zack. The circumstantial evidence was strong enough for a case.

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