"Sit over there," Jacobson said as he motioned to a chair on the other side of a long table, directly across from him. "I'm going to tell you I'm innocent, and I want to look you in the eye when I say it. The pain's so bad I can't turn my head to see you if you sit anywhere else."
It was Bobby Frankel who had led me to Attica and Jacobson. Frankel had worked alongside Jacobson when he was just breaking in as a trainer, and knew Buddy's sister, Rita Costello, who was still trying to marshal an appeal of her brother's conviction. Costello asked Frankel if he knew any journalists who might revive the case.
"Look," Frankel said to me one day at Hollywood Park, "I don't know if he did it or not. That's up to you. But if you want to go back there and visit Buddy, I think Rita can help set it up."
Before I left Los Angeles, Jacobson sent me a typewritten note that read: "Drop in anytime. I'm always here." He signed it Howard Jacobson, Prisoner No. 80a3899.
I flew into Buffalo and drove the 50 or so miles to the little village of Attica. It was early January and there was snow on the ground and more falling. The prison's high walls and cold exterior were intimidating. I had the feeling that winter wasn't the only time the sun didn't shine at Attica. Willie Sutton, Mark David Chapman (who murdered John Lennon) and H. Rap Brown of the Black Panthers had been billeted there. In 1971, at a time when prisoners were allowed one shower a week and one roll of toilet paper a month, there was a four-day riot at Attica that left 39 dead.
A bus took me from a distant visitors' parking lot to the front gate. The only other passengers were a handsome, well-coiffed woman and her young son. I don't know where she got them, but she carried a plastic bag filled with the biggest avocados I've ever seen. She told me they were for her husband. Without asking, I knew he wasn't inside because he tore up too many parking tickets.
At the metal checkpoint, I took off my shoes, emptied my pockets, and passed through without any problem. The woman went through several times, and kept setting off the alarm. One of the guards suggested that she might have to go into a private room and take off her bra, but another guard said: "Lady, you wearing any bobby-pins?" She was, and when she removed them, that fine do collapsed faster than a bad souffle. Her husband would like the avocados, but hate the hair.
I had never met Jacobson, whose three uncles, including Hall of Famer Hirsch Jacobs, were trainers. Between 1963 and 1965, Buddy saddled 509 winners, mostly claiming horses, and five times he led all New York trainers in wins. Jacobson wore his wrong-side-of-the-tracks persona on his sleeve, once irreverently said that if it were kangaroo racing he'd be claiming kangaroos instead of horses, and in 1969 led a strike of lowly backstretch workers over pensions that closed down Aqueduct for nine days. Not long afterward, a ticky-tack suspension in Maryland, and a beef with an owner over the sale of a horse, brought on a 45-day suspension, which stretched out to five years when the New York tracks repeatedly denied him stalls. Jacobson left the game, sold his farm and ran the money up in Manhattan real estate. He lured Melanie Cain, ripe for a Svengali, away from the Ford agency, and with the My Fair Lady agency that they formed, Jacobson's stable was transformed into models and airline stewardesses who lived in some of his buildings.
"I loved every one of them," Jacobson told me in that room at Attica. A small man, he was about 170 pounds, heavier than when he worked at the track, but still wore a droopy black mustache. Before he had been sentenced, while confined to the Brooklyn House of Detention, Jacobson shaved off the mustache and he and a bartender friend, Tony DeRosa, engineered a bold escape that took him all the way across the country to California. DeRosa, who bought a Vermont ski lodge from Jacobson a few months before a winter bereft of snow, was forgiven the mortgage and owed Buddy a favor. He posed as a lawyer and smuggled a gray tweed suit into the prison. Jacobson put it on, added a necktie and somehow walked out the front door.
"The signature of your visitor had to look the same going out as it did coming in," Jacobson told me. "I practiced (DeRosa's) signature hundreds of times, to get it just right. But when I got to that book at the door, my hand was shaking so bad that all I could make was a wavy line. But they still didn't stop me."
Running down Atlantic Avenue, Jacobson bumped into a woman with a shopping bag and knocked the contents all over the sidewalk. He instinctively stopped to help her pick everything up.
"Here I was, down on the ground, picking up boxes of cereal and apples and oranges, when it hit me," Jacobson said. "I was escaping from prison. I didn't have time for any of this."
Waiting for him, in a 1980 Dodge, was Audrey Barrett, a 22-year-old ex-model, college student and sometime Bible teacher. On their cross-country hegira, they happened across a cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa, and shopped for aliases from the headstones. Jacobson became Lonnie Sherman Rumbaugh and Barrett turned into Rhonda Sue Guessford.
Jacobson, who claimed that Tupper had been killed because of some sort of drug deal, later told the authorities that there was an important witness living in Northern California, who would be crucial to his appeal. But he told me in that lonely room, away from the snowstorm, that "the only reason I ran was to be free. I hadn't done anything."
In California, Barrett called a brother, who talked her into going back to New York and turning herself in. Jacobson, unshaven, wearing a wig and a battered baseball cap that made him look older than his 49 years, took up residence by himself in a motel in Manhattan Beach, a Los Angeles suburb. He bought a typewriter and told the motel manager that he was a writer. He fell in love again, this time with the fried zucchini at a local diner. On July 11, 1980, he went into the place, got a half-order of zucchini and a cup of coffee. His buildings back East were worth millions, but all he had in his pocket was $1,800 and five dollars worth of quarters. He had been on the lam for 39 days.
He finished the zucchini, got $10 more in quarters from the cashier, and walked to the back of the restaurant, where there was a pay phone. He told me that he called his son, David Jacobson, although David has denied over the years that he was implicated in either his father's escape or capture. During his interview with Karen Johnson, David Jacobson said that he wouldn't talk about his father's murder case.
Buddy Jacobson had trouble completing the call. "This phone's taking all my quarters," he shouted to a waitress.
"Write the phone company and they'll send it back to you," she said.
"Sure," Jacobson said.
The phone conversation lasted about 20 minutes, enough time for authorities in New York to contact the Manhattan Beach police station, which was just across the street, about 200 feet from the restaurant. Before Jacobson hung up, there were two cops at his back, one with a shotgun and the other with a revolver. Three other armed cops were outside, eyeballing all the exits.
"Can you ID yourself?" one of the cops said.
"I'm Howard 'Buddy' Jacobson," he said.
As he was led away, Jacobson said, "I've still got 20 quarters left. At least I got change to call a lot of lawyers."
"Not from that phone, you won't," one of the cops said.
Jacobson left without paying the check.
"It was a dollar and six cents," he said.
The Attica interview lasted four hours. Visiting hours had ended, and I left. Outside, in darkness, my rental car was covered with the snow that was still falling. It was dicey getting out of the parking lot. I had to baby the car, backward and forward several times, before I got out of the hole that I was in. I had visions of spending the night at the prison.
Jacobson told me that he might have only a year to live, but what was important was reversing the conviction. A little later, I asked the New York journalist Pete Axthelm, who knew Jacobson, about the Tupper murder. "Buddy didn't do it," Axthelm said with conviction. "He was too savvy, too street-smart, to kill somebody as sloppy as that. That wouldn't have been Buddy's style."
Ramsey Clark, who was Lyndon Johnson's attorney general, had a small role in Jacobson's appeal early on. Jacobson, 58, died in May of 1989, lasting slightly longer than the year he gave himself at Attica. Months later, I was back in New York and met Rita Costello, Jacobson's sister, at a coffee shop. She told me that their mother, who was almost 90, hadn't been told her son had cancer, and the family had no plans to tell her that he had died.
"Buddy's appeal was going to be heard," Costello said. "It was to go before the judge the day Buddy died."
During our interview at the prison, we got sidetracked into talking about some of the horses Jacobson trained. He didn't win many important races, one of the biggest the Belmont Futurity with Bupers, a horse that cost $16,500 after Ogden Phipps and his trainer, Bill Winfrey, had given up on him. But the day we were together, Jacobson talked more about a horse who had beaten the great Kelso one day at Atlantic City.
"What was his name?" I asked.
"Call the Witness," Jacobson said. He hurt too much to even chuckle, but the irony was not lost on either of us.