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One Barbarino sentenced to 20 years in baby brother’s murder, another vindicated

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

EDITORIAL: It might not seem like justice that a judge today sentenced Joseph Barbarino to 20 years in prison for killing his youngest brother nearly 40 years ago at a deserted construction site a short walk from the tumultuous family’s Lodi home. But there’s a simple explanation.

Joseph, Michael Barbarino

Because Barbarino was 15 when he raped and stabbed his 6-year-old brother, Vincent, three times across the stomach in 1972, state law required that the justice system try him in Family Court under juvenile statutes.

There’s one other important factor, as well: “Joe Joe” is already serving 50 years in prison for raping an 11-year-old female relative. Today’s sentence is to run consecutively. As in: Make that 70 years.

Compute the mandatory 85 percent he must serve without parole eligibility for being a violent offender, and Barbarino would have to live to roughly 113 before he even had a shot at getting out.

As Family Court Judge James Guida, in calm and carefully measured tones, put it so eloquently on Friday, Barbarino now has the rest of his life “to ask your little brother for forgiveness in the silence of your heart.”

Jerry DeMarco Publisher/Editor

And even though this doesn’t bring a young innocent back, it avenges a gruesome, unimaginable death. For those keeping score: That makes 16 straight cold cases that Prosecutor John L. Molinelli s staff has put down since he became Bergen County’s top cop. That’s some “closure” rate – for the unit, for the justice system and for the victims who survived and survivors of those who didn’t.

The verdict and sentence also mean vindication – and, quite possibly, redemption for a third brother, who was the key witness in the case.

Michael Barbarino was 4 when his baby brother was killed a block from the family’s house. As got older, he got into Dutch of his own. His ex-wife married (of all people) “Joe Joe.”

Michael proudly beat back a heroin addiction, turned a corner and grew more willing to defy his family and others to tell his story.

If not for his courage, the case admittedly would have been shaky.

Michael first told authorities 22 years ago that he saw the murder, pinning it on his brother.  Although subpoenas were issued, all prosecutors got for it were conflicting stories in front of a grand jury that ended up rejecting charges.

Joseph had failed a lie-detector test during local investigators’ initial pass through years before, but that’s inadmissible in court. Prosecutors had no knife, no fingerprints – and until Michael grew a pair, no eyewitnesses.

There was talk that the Lodi powers-that-be at the time had personal reasons and enough clout to “make it go away.” Although Joe Barbarino bullied other neighborhood kids, his mother had ways of protecting him.

Michael Mordaga, the previous chief of detectives at the prosecutor’s office, told me me he still believes Estelle Barbarino knew what really happened but didn’t want to lose another son. He also said records show that family members initially told detectives they often overheard Joseph saying “I killed Vincent” or “I should kill you like I killed Vincent.” They later recanted.

In fact, Mordaga said, Joseph stabbed another brother, Peter, in the upper thigh during a fight years before the murder. No police report was ever produced, however.

One important factor Estelle couldn’t control was Michael.

Had Joseph been locked up right away, Michael told me before the trial, he believes his own life would have turned out differently. His older brother had him in his spell, and years of therapy only made things worse, he said.

“He’s my brother, but I can’t stand behind him,” Michael said. “I don’t want to run anymore.”

With the now-retired Mordaga at the helm, he didn’t have to. Detectives had enough impetus from the defiant, clear-minded brother – not to mention a directive from their boss to talk to everyone they could. They also employed some funky “C.S.I.” techniques.

Molinelli made cold cases a priority when he became prosecutor. So in 2006, investigators from his office arrested Joseph Barbarino on murder charges after reviewing the file and interviewing family members and friends, including some people who either hadn’t been spoken to before or originally gave only brief statements.

Investigators also made a disturbing find while searching the family’s house: They discovered letters in which Joseph Barbarino described raping a female relative, for which he was later convicted.

During the murder trial, Michael testified that he tried to stop “Joe Joe” as he brought Vincent to the vacant construction site and began raping him. But Michael said he was overpowered. After that, he said, his older brother removed Vincent’s clothing, stuffed it under a nearby trailer and carried the lifeless body to a fuel truck.

Estelle Barbarino called police shortly before 10:30 p.m. April 5, 1972. Two hours later, during a search that involved Peter, Lodi police found Vincent’s naked, abused boy in the truck’s cab. Forty feet away, police discovered his bloodied clothes.

Case notes show that police found bruise marks on Michael’s neck, as well.

Their sister, Ann Barbarino Crane, has supported Joseph ever since the case was reopened. She insists that Michael concocted the murder tale as revenge against his brother for molesting him. Several years ago, Ann tipped off detectives that Michael was carrying a loaded gun, for which he ended up spending six years in prison.

With both brothers locked up at the same time, investigators planted a recording device on Michael, hoping to get Joseph to confess the murder to him. Instead, Michael told “Joe Joe” he was wired.

Joseph played the victim at his sentencing, telling the judge he’d been “shanked” and subjected to “prosecutorial misconduct” and “mistakes.”

If only the judge had told him to save it ….

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