“It Was So Fascinating! Here They Were, in My Little House in the Suburbs, Trying to Plan a Murder!”
Brenda, whose formal education ended after the 10th grade, had been working full-time since she was a teenager, but she married a late sleeper with insufficient energy or incentive to hold a job of any kind. Not content to live off Brenda’s earnings as a doughnut shop waitress, he encouraged her to answer an ad seeking nude dancers for a nightclub on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, a job she took to support them both. Or, rather, all three of them, because before long, she bore him a son. The charm of this life soon wore thin on poor young Brenda, and she and her husband fought more or less constantly. It was in 1988, on the night of such a row, that her life made a fateful turn.
"My husband and I are in one of our usual battles," she says. "He bangs me around, then locks me out of the apartment. Then he drives off in the car. My car. One o’clock in the morning, and I’m standing in our driveway, weeping. No place to go, so I walk to the Dunkin’ Donuts.
"When I danced at night, I always stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way home. Shows how wired I was back then — I needed coffee to get to sleep. The one near our house had a crowd of regulars, and one of them was a very nice divorced plumber named Philip. So on this night, I’m sitting there, crying, when Philip walks in and notices the bruise my husband gave me before he took off. ‘Come on,’ he says, ‘let’s go to Denny’s, I’ll buy you breakfast.’
"And that’s where we were when who walks in but my husband. He sees me with a man and goes totally off. I’m humiliated, so Philip and I walk outside, and my husband follows us, and then he decides he’s going to hit me. Philip puts himself between my husband and me and says, in a very calm voice, ‘If you touch her, I will kill you.’ That stops the action. Then Philip turns to me and says, ‘If you want to go with this piece of shit, then go. But if you’re afraid of him, stay put and I’ll take care of you.’
"’I’m staying,’ I say. I shocked everybody. Even myself.
"My husband doesn’t know what to do next. He’s kind of a butterball. Philip spends a lot of time at the gym. So my husband goes over to my car and starts punching the window. He’s still at it when Philip and I walk away."
From such a romantic start, could anything but true love grow? Before they tied the knot in 1990, Philip let Brenda in on two aspects of his life that might have scared her off but in fact had the opposite effect. He revealed that in 1981, when he was 21, he shot and killed a man with whom he was arguing over parking. (He pleaded guilty and served six months in prison before receiving an early parole.) He also told her that at around the same time, he had worked as a low-level mob associate, meaning he menaced gamblers who owed money to loan sharks. By the time Philip and Brenda married, however, he was a plumber working for tradesman’s wages. Before long, they had a son and entered into a short, idyllic period of law-abiding domesticity in Glassboro, New Jersey.
"We worked in the garden," Brenda says, "played Monopoly. He taught me to make gravy the way his mother made it, and before long, he said I did it better than she did. Then he got laid off. I started waitressing again, but that wasn’t going to cover our bills. Suddenly he started going out at night. He had taught me never to ask about his comings and goings, but eventually he told me he was doing some work for the guys from his old neighborhood. Small stuff, he promised. He wouldn’t go into the details."
Brenda says she got a better idea of his exact involvement on his birthday, when he took her to a Bucks County restaurant she’d never been to before: "He always said it wasn’t planned. But there was a bunch of guys he knew there, some of them with women. Everybody was dressed up sharp, if you know what I mean. He starts introducing me around. A few of the men are older than Philip, and he’s treating them with his best manners.
"Then he says, ‘Bren, I want you to meet somebody.’ And I look up, and it’s an older guy with gray hair. ‘Honey,’ he says, ‘this is John Stanfa.’
"We say hello, and I hear the man has an Italian accent, but it means nothing to me. When we got outside, Philip says, ‘Brenda, do you know who that was?’
”’No, hon,’ I go. ‘Some nice old man?’
"He goes, ‘That was the boss of the Philly mob.’
"And I was, like, ‘Oh, my God! I shook hands with the don!’ Not many people get to shake the hand of a don of a whole city, after all. I felt honored. Of course, I still got treated like dirt along with the rest of the women. Not like dirt, really, but I was shunted off to the side when the men wanted to talk serious business. I had to sit and watch. And that’s how it stayed for a little while longer."