“There’s a girl in your bathtub.”
It’s 10 a.m., the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, when he gets the call. He’s at the Shore. Chuck is always at the Shore, particularly the first weekend of “Chuck’s season,” as his friends call summer. This isn’t unusual. Nor is it unusual for this particular 58-year-old man, Chuck Peruto Jr., a hugely successful criminal defense attorney and son of one of the most esteemed lawyers in Philadelphia history, to be waking up to the ring of his cell phone at 10, having spent much of the previous night at the legendary beach bar that is the Princeton in Avalon.
Last night, though, he was preoccupied, texting back and forth with his 26-year-old girlfriend, Julia Law (“What the hell are you doing without bubble bath in your house?” she wrote around 10 p.m., followed quickly by “I love my Chuckie Pie”), who was at his stunning Rittenhouse Square apartment back in the city. That night, he says, he went home with someone else—specifically, Trent Cole, the linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles. They crashed together at a mutual friend’s house. (Later, Chuck would remember the look on the detective’s face: Trent Cole is your alibi witness?) But that’s Chuck. Fun, lovable, wild and crazy Chuck, as much a Philadelphia institution as the Liberty Bell, and much more entertaining. Or was.
There’s a girl in your bathtub.
That’s the first thing Chuck says Jaime Santisteban told him after he groggily answered the phone. Jaime (pronounced “Hi-me”) is Chuck’s Peruvian majordomo, who had been dispatched to the lawyer’s abode to pick up a shirt he’d forgotten and deliver it to the Shore. There would be a great many eyebrow-raising moments in the days and weeks to come, this being one of them. To pick up a shirt?
English is Jaime’s second language, but he knew enough, apparently, to say: There’s a girl in your bathtub.
“She’s allowed to be there,” Chuck recalls replying. “That’s my girlfriend.”
But Jaime presses, tries to tell Chuck that the girl isn’t moving. Chuck remembers thinking: Please don’t let him tell me she’s dead.
“Get her out of there! Pull her out! Wake her up!” Chuck orders through the phone. And then Jaime tells him he thinks she may be … muerta. Now Chuck is shaking, crying, he’s throwing on his sweats from the floor and running to his car, he’s not believing this can be happening. “What color hair does she have?” he says he asked Jaime. An odd question, to say the least, but as he tells it now, “I wanted to believe it was anyone but her.”
He tells Jaime to call 911. Then he calls 911. The call somehow goes to dispatch in Sea Isle City, not Avalon, which, he says, will later give the cops pause. (“I have no idea why,” Chuck says.)
He gets into his white Mercedes, not even stopping to brush his teeth, and drives a hundred miles an hour to get back to the city. From his car, more phone calls. His 33-year-old son Chas, his only child and the father of Chuck’s two grandchildren, has also gotten a call from Jaime. To Chas, Jaime seemed unhinged; it was hard to understand what he was saying. Chas says he instructed Jaime to take a photo with his cell phone. The photo comes through. A gruesome picture. Now there is no doubt. On the phone with his father, Chas tries to let him believe there’s still hope, so he doesn’t kill himself on the road. His father is sobbing.
Chuck calls Rich DeSipio. Rich is the top lawyer in Chuck’s office and will figure prominently in the days to come, the person who will serve as Chuck’s spokesperson
to the media—a disastrous choice by any measure. For now, DeSipio, in the checkout line at Wegmans with his elderly mother when he first heard the news from Chas, tries to calm Chuck down. Says he’s on his way to the Delancey Place apartment. He’ll be there, he tells Chuck. Rich DeSipio will always be there.
It’s almost 11 a.m. when Chuck pulls into the driveway off Delancey. The place is already teeming with cops, news trucks. A reporter sticks a microphone in his face, and he recoils. He will later recount that some cops greeted him with hugs. Everyone knows Chuck, including cops he will sometimes eviscerate on the witness stand, then take out for a drink.
They won’t let Chuck inside. He goes to his office around the corner—twice—before eventually the cops take him down to Homicide, where, for seven hours, he answers questions. It’s a joint he knows well from representing “alleged” criminals all these years. His brother-
in-law, also a lawyer, accompanies him, but Chuck insists it was in the role of brother-in-law, not lawyer. “I wasn’t going to lawyer up,” says Chuck, a peculiar thing for a $500-an-hour defense attorney to say, and he knows that. He admits that none of the things he did in the days and weeks to come were things he’d allow one of his clients to do. His father, the venerable Chuck Peruto Sr., now 86, who heard the news on television, calls him on his cell phone while he’s being questioned by homicide detectives, and “He’s freaking out,” remembers Chuck. “He’s like, ‘What are you giving a statement for?’” Chuck also fields a call from Genna Squadroni, his 25-year-old recent ex-girlfriend of three years, who is also freaking out, though in her case apparently not due to a girl being found dead in Chuck’s bathtub, but to the fact that Chuck had been dating that girl at all, a paralegal she’d hired at the law offices of A. Charles Peruto Jr. As Chuck is being peppered with questions from the cops, Genna leaves a string of expletive-filled rants on his cell phone. Welcome to Chuck’s world.
The homicide detectives, the coroner, the forensic experts, spend a good 10 and a half hours at the scene. And while Chuck says they later privately told him they “knew this was an accidental death,” it was a 26-year-old woman found dead, naked, facedown in a watery grave. They had to do what they had to do.
Chuck returns home around 8 p.m. The homicide detectives still aren’t finished, still won’t let him inside, so he sits on his stoop for a while, then takes a long walk, ends up at Little Pete’s. (He ordered eggs.) Once they finally let him in his house, he answers more questions, points out “some things that they missed.” He says there were two empty half-gallon orange-flavored vodka bottles in his recycling bin that they hadn’t noticed and didn’t take. He tells them his theory: From the photograph he saw, there were towels in the water. On the rack above the tub, a few decorative towels were hanging, larger ones folded on top. It was—and remains—his supposition that Julia tried to grab onto the towels to get out, then fell back into the tub.
Eventually, the homicide detectives clear out. Chuck is alone in his gorgeous place, which has suddenly become a very creepy place. It’s a mess (and Chuck is meticulous), covered with the residue of charcoal fingerprint dust—on his leather chairs and crystal lamps, even his antique gumball machine. His bed has been stripped of the sheets where he and his love spent their last “euphoric” night together, two days earlier.
He wanders around aimlessly. He needs a shower, but is afraid to go into the bathroom. Finally, he does.
He stands there and stares for a long time. At the tub in which she died. And he cries. It’s a beautiful tub, not some cheesy big Jacuzzi as many would assume, but a tasteful European-style deep soaking tub, white porcelain with claw feet. In it, he can see her bodily fluids. Feces and blood. (Both can be excreted in the initial hours after a drowning.) The tub has been drained to about two inches of water. Now it’s clogged.
Days later, when his pal Rich DeSipio tells the Inquirer that Chuck even cleaned the bathtub, for the dead girl’s “dignity,” a great many red flags are raised. It’s a curious thing for two criminal defense attorneys to put out there. But Chuck says he did what he had to do: “I didn’t want a cleaning service to do it. I wanted to do it. That’s where she died. I wanted to clean it myself. So I did.”
He says it took him a good 90 minutes. He started with Windex, but that didn’t work—fingerprint dust is a bitch—so he switched to Tilex. When the tub was finally clean, he says, he filled it and got in. He is telling me all of this exactly one month later, in his living room on Delancey. I’m curious: Why? Was he trying to figure out how it happened?
A long pause. “I was just lost,” he says. “I was praying that it was a dream. I wasn’t positive that it wasn’t a dream.”
He says he stayed in the tub until he was “like a prune.” Then he got out and dried himself off.
>>To read the rest of this story — including more details of Julia’s relationship with Chuck Peruto; her ongoing affair with “M.B.,” a prominent married Philadelphian; and her texts from the night leading up to her death — pick up the September issue of Philadelphia magazine or buy the e-book, The Dead Girl in the Bathtub, available in these formats:
• For the Kindle, Kindle Fire, and Kindle reader apps for iPhone/iPad, Mac, Windows, Android devices, and BlackBerry at Amazon
• For iBooks on the iPhone/iPad, the Nook and Nook reader apps, Kobo, and Sony Reader at Smashwords