Death Unveils Parents' Troubled Path Couple's Life Of Decay

Date: 1987-11-10

Newsday (Melville, NY)

Author: This story was reported by Timothy Clifford, Kevin Flynn, Barbara Whitaker, Richard Esposito, Sheryl McCarthy and Ellis Henican. It was written by Henican.

Andres Romero stood on the steps of the 10th Street townhouse.

As usual, Joel Steinberg didn't invite him in.

It had seemed like just another Sunday night. The two men had eaten dinner together at a Waverly Place cafe. They had taken a stroll through Greenwich Village, looking into the windows of antique stores. They had talked of 6-year-old Lisa, Steinberg's adopted daughter.

"He was a little concerned," recalled Romero, a soft-spoken man who runs Wilcot Immigration and Bail Bond Services on Madison Avenue with his brother. "I asked him, `What happened to Lisa? Where's Lisa?' He always brings Lisa. She always came with him. And he told me she wasn't feeling well. I didn't think about it."

Steinberg, a lawyer who practiced at home, had referred criminal clients to Romero, and the two were investing together in Texas oil leases. After dinner, Steinberg had some snapshots he wanted Romero to see.

By Monday, of course, everything would be undone.

Lisa would lie in a coma from which she would never revive. Steinberg's long-time companion, Hedda Nussbaum, would be hospitalized too, with a flattened nose and nine fractured ribs, her once-smooth skin marred by bruises, sores and cigarette burns. Steinberg would be in the hands of police, accused of wielding the exercise bar they were brutally beaten with.

And the family's apartment would soon be known as an unspeakable hellhole - a place of clutter and excrement, a haven for dark secrets and grim brutality.

But at 10:30 Sunday night, Romero knew none of this. Steinberg told him to wait downstairs. Then the lawyer went inside for a moment, returning with half-a-dozen photographs of barren Texas prairie.

"He made some comment about Lisa," Romero remembered. "But I didn't get it. I was ready to leave.

"He talked very fast. Sometimes I couldn't understand.

"He asked me if I wanted to go to Texas with him. I said sure."

And then they bid good-night. "Take care now - call me tomorrow," he remembered Steinberg saying.

"When I left him that night, everything was fine with him."

Romero turned and walked away. The last he saw his friend, Steinberg was climbing the stairs toward Apartment 3W, where Hedda Nussbaum and young Lisa waited.

Now, eight days later, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and childwelfare workers are still trying to make sense of what happened inside after Romero headed home.

So far, there are no clear answers.

Steinberg, held on a suicide watch at Riker's Island, has said hardly a word to authorities. Nussbaum, facing heavy criminal charges of her own, is also keeping mum, for now at least. Lisa is awaiting burial. The only other person in the apartment that night, 16-month-old Mitchell Steinberg, the couple's other adopted child, is too young to be of much help.

Yet a few undeniable facts remain, bald though they may be. A child is dead. A woman is beaten. A man is in jail. And they all had lives before Nov. 2, 1987.

In those lives lay some clues.

In those lives lay some hints about what happened that night.

And why. * * *

At 6:33 a.m., almost exactly eight hours after Joel Steinberg returned home from dinner, Hedda Nussbaum called 911. Lisa, whose real name is Elizabeth, had stopped breathing, she told the operator. For police, it was not an unusual call. Officer Vincent Daluise and his partner were dispatched from the Sixth Precinct.

When the officers got to the red-brick building at 14 West 10th St., once home to Mark Twain, they found a scene now burned in the minds of many New Yorkers: "Filthy and unkempt" is how the police report described it. Mess was strewn about. The place smelled of urine and spoiling food. The officers did not see a child's bed or a crib in the entire apartment.

They did find drugs - hashish, marijuana, five medicine bottles filled with cocaine, five plastic vials of cocaine, 25 crack pipes. And cash - $25,000 in various denominations.

Lisa was lying on the kitchen floor, her little girl's rosy face a deathly white. Her back, legs and arms were bruised severely, as was the right side of her forehead. Mitchell was there too, tied with a length of packing twine to a living-room chair, wallowing in his own excrement and chewing on the nipple of a bottle of putrid milk.

The couple had quick explanations.

Lisa had become ill after eating a take-out dinner of spare ribs and Chinese vegetables the night before, police quote Nussbaum as saying. Asked about the marks and bruises on Lisa's body, the mother reportedly said: "Lisa falls down a lot when she roller-skates."

Steinberg is said to have mentioned something about Lisa being hit by one of her first-grade classmates at PS 41.

But as ambulance attendants raced the girl to St. Vincent's Hospital, police were already skeptical.

For one thing, Hedda Nussbaum herself bore the undeniable signs of abuse. For another, Steinberg's knuckles were cut and bruised. Then, in the apartment's master bedroom, the officers reported finding clothing, sheets and pillowcases stained with blood. There was blood on the floor and on a wall. And there was blood on what police came to describe as the murder weapon, a stiff metal exercise bar. * * *

Joel Steinberg had always been a big talker.

It wasn't just oil wells in Texas, a crap-shoot investment in these days of energy-industry depression. In more than two dozen interviews over the past few days, friends, neighbors, relatives and business associates describe Steinberg as a man of adamant opinions and grand gestures, someone who seemed to enjoy impressing others with stories of big-time clients, deep-mystery relationships and once-in-a-lifetime business deals.

But friend or not, they all agree on one thing: Joel Steinberg is a creature of intensity. One of his staunchest supporters, lawyer Jeff Denner, answered like this when asked about his friend's temperament:

"Have you seen his eyes?"

Many Steinberg stories that people interviewed said he told cannot be independently verified, although others can be proven.

The oil-lease deal, for instance, does exist, according to the Texas lawyer who set it up and an oil-deal promoter involved. "About two years ago, I had heard through an acquaintance of mine that he was interested in oil drilling," Willis H. Bebinger, the Richardson, Texas, promoter, said of Steinberg. "I heard that these leases were for sale, so I called him. They closed the deal about a month ago. It was small potatoes."

And, until his arrest, Steinberg's law practice, which was weighted heavily to the defense of clients facing drug charges, did continue to attract at least some well-off clients. His most recent known courtappearance - Oct. 24, in U.S. District Court in Albany - was on behalf of an accused upstate cocaine dealer, Charles J. Scannapieco Jr., a man law-enforcement officials said was connected to a Queens drug-distribution ring. Steinberg even brought Lisa along with him to court with him that day.

But the avalanche of other colorful adventures with which Steinberg regaled his friends are not always so easy to verify. Indeed, their sheer volume betrays two possibilities: Steinberg is a man whose life contains extraordinary drama, or he is an creative and energetic self-aggrandizer.

His adopted daughter Lisa, he told one friend in passing, was actually the child of a professional basketball player whom Steinberg had represented in a criminal matter. Police say they can find no evidence of truth to that.

At dinner Nov. 1, he excitedly pitched Romero on a deal for insider rights on a Fifth Avenue apartment, a purchase he said could be made for $60,000 - well below market value.

And then there was his and Lisa's supposed runin with the police, one day he said he was taking Lisa along on his round of court appearances. "All of a sudden, there were police or DEA agents," an acquaintance recalled Steinberg's telling him. "That they put him up against the car and said, `You're kidnaping this girl.' He had a bunch of cash in his pocket. He said to those guys, `Look at my eyes. Smell my breath.' He was going from one court to another. He told the officers that they were obstructing justice. He said to the officers, `You're traumatizing my daughter. You're detaining me for 20 minutes and sticking guns at me."

Again, there is no confirmation of the incident.

He also told exciting tales of military service in Vietnam. Pentagon officials confirm that, for three years ending in March, 1968, Steinberg served in the Air Force. Government records report that his assignment was "military intelligence."

One acquaintance who said he has talked to Steinberg about his supposed experiences in Vietnam said: "What he told me, he was in the Air Force, military intelligence, maybe the Phoenix Program, I don't know. . . I think he was involved in very tough interrogations with prisoners. He mentioned something about being in Thailand."

The Phoenix Program, an effort to wipe out the Viet Cong's political leadership, some historians have charged, used assassinations, torture, and one especially brutal interrogation technique: throwing captives from helicopters to persuade other prisoners to talk. However, Phoenix did not begin until 1968.

This is the Joel Steinberg that was remembered by Judy Liebman, Hedda Nussbaum's older sister. "He would say how much money he made, that he got $250,000 a trial," she recalled.

Liebman remembered one of the last times she and her husband had dinner with Steinberg and Nussbaum - about four years ago. Steinberg made a big show of ordering wine and expensive dishes, but when the check came, never reached for his wallet, she said. He let his brother-in-law pick up the bill. * * *

Steinberg, according to those who described him, is a man who relishes exercising control over others. Nowhere was that more apparent than on his boat.

He sails a green and white 30-footer-plus, "The Agua Viva," kept at the Dockside 500 Marina in Patchogue, L.I. Workers there know him, in the words of one, as "uptight, always sweaty, jumping around. You couldn't have tied him down."

"He took the attitude, `I'm the captain of the boat,' " recalled a Greenwich Village neighbor named David who saw Steinberg nearly every day but agreed to go sailing with him only once. "He made a point of it if you screwed up. I was going to bring my wife along, but he reminded me, `I come out here to sail. I come out here to relax. I won't tolerate anybody screwing around here while I'm sailing.' "

Although Steinberg didn't bring Hedda Nussbaum with him, his daughter Lisa came along that day. For her, the trip was a structured lesson. "He was teaching her to sail; she was at the helm a lot of the time," the neighbor recalled. "She would be behind the wheel, a 6-year-old girl sailing a sailboat. He would say `Lisa take us in.' She was very smart. I thought he was a little harsh with her, but when I saw how intelligent she was, I thought maybe he was doing something right."

On shore, the stern lessons continued.

"He wanted to teach his daughter about the dangers of things," the neighbor recalled. "He was concerned. He said, `Do you want to go into the water? It's a strong current. Don't go in there.' But she went in anyway and he let her. He was firm with his daughter. He was unsympathetic, he wanted her to be like a man or be mature, to grow up real fast. The water came up over her head. Then he pulled her back out. He didn't let her drown. He just wanted her to see that the water was dangerous."

On the boat and off, the neighbor recalled, Steinberg displayed a keen interest in the workings of other people's minds. "He acted like he was a pyschologist or therapist or something," David said. "He had, like, his own form of deprograming. He'd say `How did you like the deprograming? Like going on the boat was to straighten out my head.'

His personality did not always win friends in the legal profession. At least three times, for instance, his disputes with colleagues over shared office space ended up in lawsuits over rent payments.

For clients, though, he could be a shrewd, tough advocate.

Boston's Jeff Denner is one.

"Some people might consider me crazy for saying this," said Denner, who was cocounsel with Steinberg on a 1981 Vermont drug-sale case. "But I consider Joel Steinberg a friend and I think he is a decent man. He is one of the maybe 50 guys I've met over a lifetime that I really liked." The two men even discussed establishing a partnership, but that never came to fruition, Denner said.

The case they handled together generated a series of complaints involving Steinberg's representation. His client, John Novak, sought to have his conviction overturned with a claim that Steinberg was using cocaine during the trial - an accusation Denner says he doubts.

"I remember us talking about the lunacy of drugs after the trial," Denner said. "I can guarantee you no drugs were being used at the trial. Maybe a decent amount of scotch, but no drugs."

Other lawyers remember him less kindly.

Nassau County attorney David Verplank had met Steinberg seven years ago, when Steinberg represented the biological mother and Verplank the prospective parents in an adoption case. After that, Steinberg asked Verplank to be his Nassau liason.

"It didn't work out at all," Verplank said. "I found that his style and mine were very much at odds." Steinberg, for instance, was not especially careful about meeting filing deadlines, Verplank recalled.

In 1986, Verplank found himself involved with Steinberg again. This time, however, Verplank was representing the natural mother of a child that Steinberg wanted to adopt, young Mitchell.

Investigators have not been able to locate legal papers demonstrating the couple ever completed the steps necessary to legally adopt the baby

- or 6year-old Lisa, for that matter.

The adoption had been arranged through an obstetrician on the staff of Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan, where Mitchell was born.

Still, Verplank said, he found it hard to believe Steinberg was capable of inflicting a beating such as the one that left Lisa dead. "When I saw the names, I really became very agitated myself," Verplank said. "If you had known Steinberg [and Nussbaum] there's no clue they would be the kind of people who would abuse children." * * *

There were few obvious danger signals in Joel Steinberg's early life.

Born May 25, 1941, the only child of Morris and Charlotte Steinberg, his father was a lawyer in Manhattan, his mother for years a secretary with the Yonkers Child Welfare Department. The father died around 1970.

When Joel was 14, the family moved from the Bronx to the Greystone apartments on Cascade Terrace in Yonkers, a two-story garden apartment complex where his mother still lives. A neighbor and family friend there, June Dworkis, remembers young Joel as a frequent babysitter of neighborhood youngsters. He caddied at the Fairview Country Club and summered with his family in Mahopac.

In the class of 1958 at Yonkers' Gorton High School, he was quite active, a real joiner: dancing club, school newspaper, biology club, yearbook, color-guard band, golf team, varsity football team and swimming team.

"We were all very proud of him," said Dworkis, remembering that Steinberg had always been a good student and that he received a scholarship to Fordham, one of few Jews at the Catholic university then.

Steinberg graduated from Fordham University class of 1962, with a degree in political science and service in Air Force ROTC. "I can still picture him wearing that blue uniform," said Joseph Mezzacappa, a fellow political-science classmate at Fordham.

He entered New York University law school that same year. But because of poor grades he went on leave two years later, joining the Air Force in April, 1965, leaving with the rank of lieutenant. In 1968, he resumed his NYU law studies, receiving his law degree and joining the New York bar in 1970.

About that time he moved into the townhouse at 14 West 10th St. and, also about that time, met Hedda.

He quickly established himself as a neighborhood character. People in the Village who got to know Steinberg in those days remember him as a knockabout criminal lawyer who hung out in such Eighth Street nightspots as the Eighth Wonder.

"He represented a couple of guys from the nightclubs who got in trouble, some drug cases, the normal things," said David Heenan, a comedian and long-time Village resident.

Even though his law practice included the representation of drug dealers - and prosecutors privately accuse him now of using and possibly selling narcotics - several Steinberg friends say he could lash out angrily on the subject of drugs.

David, the neighbor and sailing companion, recalled:

"When I went out to the boat, I had a bag with swimming gear and some other stuff. He said, `Do you have contraband in there?' " It wasn't the only time. While riding in the neighbor's car, Steinberg became agitated again. "I had baking soda in my ashtray," the neighbor said. "My wife puts it in there to get the smell out of the car. He said, `Is this contraband? What the hell is this - you got cocaine in the ashtray?' "

And over the years in the neighborhood, small difficulties began appearing.

Several neighbors grew irritated over a large frisky dog Steinberg kept inside. His downstairs neighbors were more than perturbed once when they said Steinberg pulled a sink from a wall in the apartment, sending torrents of water through her ceiling.

Executives at Jalst Realty Corp., the building's landlord, had their own frustrations with Steinberg over late rent payments and the couple's refusal to allow repairmen inside. In more recent years, loud screams would emanate from the apartment. * * *

There is a picture of Hedda Nussbaum, taken in 1975 at the beach on Long Island, five years into her relationship with Joel Steinberg. She is smiling. Her curly hair is still dark, parted down the middle. She's standing up straight, 5 feet, 5 inches of youthful, cheerful exuberance.

Compare that to the Hedda Nussbaum who walked last Monday in handcuffs out of the Sixth Precinct. Or the one arraigned Thursday afternoon at the City Hospital Center at Elmhurst, Queens.

Her hair has gone mostly gray. Her upper lip is swollen. Her nose is bashed in. Her skin is paler and splotchy.

If her friends and family are to be believed, it was a long, slow-motion ride between the two, filled with a set of treacherous rapids.

The younger daughter of William and Emma Nussbaum, she was born Aug. 8, 1942. The family lived in Washington Heights, near a beauty parlor the father operated.

At George Washington High School, she too was an active student, winning admission to the National Honor Society, working as an artist on "The Hatchet," the school yearbook, holding a part-time job in the school guidance office.

As early as senior year in high school, she show a desire to work with children. In the high-school yearbook, she declared her career goal: "Teacher."

She graduated from high school in 1960, got an English degree from Hunter College in 1964 and the next year began teaching at PS 132 in Manhattan.

She had already started writing, and by the early 1970s had introduced her new love - Joel Steinberg - to most of her family and friends.

Hedda's older sister, Judy Liebman, remembered the couple as seeming in those days to enjoy a glamorous life, including an active night life. "The people they knew were exciting, interesting," she said. The two, she said, saw themselves as avant-garde.

In September, 1974, she turned her experience in the classroom and her long-standing interests in writing and children into a job at Random House. She wrote and edited children's books and rose ultimately to senior editor in the publisher's juvenile division.

George Walter Retan, a former vice president at the publishing house who was Nussbaum's boss for four years, remembers her as "a very hard worker, dedicated, and a very nice, sweet person who always had her office filled with plants."

In 1977, she wrote a book called "Plants Do Amazing Things." It was dedicated "to Joel, my everyday inspiration." Other books followed. In 1978, she edited "Charlie Brown's Encyclopedia of Energy," featuring Charles Schulz' cartoon characters. The next year, she wrote "Animals Build Amazing Homes." The later book's recurring theme is how animals of all species build homes in order to nurture and protect their young.

As time wore on, however, it became clear that all was not well in her own home.

"I remember her coming in late a lot, wearing dark glasses. She seemed pretty nice, normal, quiet," recalled one coworker at Random House. The coworker says now that she is sure Nussbaum had black eyes behind her glasses.

"I looked at her and didn't want to ask. I'm sure other people realized it," the coworker said. "I sort of think people did know, and in retrospect I realize."

Retan recalls Nussbaum coming to work on two occasions with black eyes. "Once she said she had run into a door. The other time she said she had been mugged. We believed her at the time."

Neighbors reported seeing similar indications of trouble.

Gregory Cohen, one of the building residents, described Nussbaum as being rather reclusive, but said that when he did see her she was usually with the couple's son, Mitchell. He usually saw Steinberg with their daughter, Lisa. Frequently, Nussbaum would wear heavy sunglasses, Cohen said.

"Then occasionally you'd see some shadows under her eyes," Cohen said. "I never paid enough attention to her to know she was actually battered."

Rumors and gossip - but not much more - began circulating about the man she was living with, Joel Steinberg.

"She is an extremely loving person," recalled Larry Weinberg, a writer Nussbaum edited who has remained a friend. "But she was so brutalized and beaten down by him that you couldn't go to see her without her hiding in the shadows."

In 1981, she adopted Lisa. At about the same time, tensions seemed to mount at work. Often, she would bring Lisa to the office with her, and that caused some irritation among coworkers. As time went on, she would appear occasionally in bandages.

Retan, who had already left the publishing house, began hearing more serious reports from his former colleagues.

Nussbaum, he heard, "became a problem . . . she was not showing up for work." There were some reports of drug abuse at the time, but Retan said he wasn't sure about that. "I heard things that were very troubling," Retan says. "She apparently did not want to get out of this relationship. He had some hold over her."

In August, 1982, her persistent absences growing even more severe, she was fired. About the same time, Nussbaum's relationship with her own family began to deteriorate.

Her parents, now living in Teaneck, N.J., recalled Nussbaum showing up at home with bruises around her eyes. Her father, William Nussbaum, asked what had happened, and she said she had accidentally banged into something.

"She would say `Joel loves me. I love him. He takes care of me. He's a good man.' " recalled her father, now 77.

She appeared at the family home for the following Thanksgiving, and then never again. "We hadn't seen her in four years," her father said. They did, however, exchange pleasantries on the telephone once a week or so, he said.

Judy Liebman, Nussbaum's older sister, had even stronger hints of her younger sister's deterioration.

"She became very paranoid and suspicious," Liebman recalled. "She got it in her head," Liebman recalled, that Liebman and their parents were conspiring to take Lisa away.

"When I called her on the phone, he's on the extension prompting her, `Tell them that you bumped into the door,' " Liebman remembered.

Later, "He would say `Your sister is such a klutz. Always bumping into things,' " Liebman recalled.

About four years ago, Judy suggested that Nussbaum get therapy. She didn't take the suggestion well. That was the last time they spoke.

Larry Weinberg did stay in touch, and he didn't much like what he saw either.

"I urged her to leave him many times," Weinberg said. "She didn't want to talk about it. I tried to talk to him about the way he treated her."

Steinberg was even more difficult, Weinberg said.

"To have met him was to meet someone who was unbearably aggressive in trying to control everyone," the writer said. "He was intimidating in his manner, even in his legal manner. He intimidated clients, friends, young lawyers . . . With Hedda, it was endlessly making her feel degraded about her capabilities."

Added Weinberg: "In the course of years, he must have realized that, the more he humiliated and degraded Hedda, made her less certain of her powers of judgment, the more he could get away with.

"It was kind of snappy put-down attitude that was relentless," Weinberg said. "He would make her feel stupid, make her feel that money she was earning was small compared to what he was earning."

Her appearance began to deteriorate. Her dark hair grew greyer. "She's been looking terrible for a long time, not like a person who had aged, but like a person who was wandering the streets, a bag lady."

In hindsight, Weinberg, Liebman and others close to Nussbaum say, they should have been more assertive in pushing her to get out of the relationship or alerting authorities about the danger signals.

But Liebman's answer echoes that of many of the her sister's friends. "What could we have done? People lead their lives. You look back now and you think - maybe I should have seen something."

At the same time, said Weinberg, Steinberg could be a formidable character.

"There was a sense that he was all-powerful, that he could get to her anywhere," the writer said. "She was a victim. I know it as well as I know anything in this life." * * *

The past week has brought much hand-wringing over the death of Lisa Steinberg. Neighbors stepped forward, saying they had telephoned police and the state's child-abuse hotline at least 20 times - a figure authorities contend is greatly exaggerated.

Parents of her first-grade classmates at PS 41 recalled that Lisa had come to school at times in dirty clothes with matted hair. A photographer who had taken pictures in the classroom last month recalled bruises on her face.

The city's public school system, officials acknowledged in recent days, is ill-equipped to recognize all but the most-obvious cases of child abuse. Elementary-school guidance counselors are in short supply, and the old-fashioned on-campus nurse is a thing of the past at most schools. Teachers union president Sandra Feldman acknowledged that better training "is clearly needed."

At the same time, there has been much talk of the "battered-wife syndrome," the psychological concept according to which victims of abuse feel powerless to fight or even admit their victimization. Hedda Nussbaum, experts said, is a classic example.

It's a late discovery, of course.

And now the system that failed Lisa Steinberg has begun to look at itself.

As that process begins, Joel Steinberg remains at Riker's, meeting with lawyers, fashioning the beginning of a defense. He hasn't revealed yet what he'll claim: That he didn't do it? That his wife did? That, for some other reason, he can't be blamed?

And he'll have to explain the drugs police say they found in the apartment.

Hedda Nussbaum is still hospitalized and under arrest while her lawyers and the prosecutors try to figure out just what she is - murderer, victim or some portion of each. Prosecutors are reportedly pressing hard, hoping she will turn on Steinberg in exchange for more lenient treatment.

Young Mitchell Steinberg is in the hands of the city's child-welfare system, which snapped to attention after his sister's death.

And the same collection of strangers and friends who couldn't save Lisa now have the job of burying her.

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