Detective Vince Felber quickly maneuvered his unmarked car into the right lane of Interstate 77, and looked for the exit sign. He’d been heading home for lunch when the reports crackling over the police radio caught his attention. There’d been some kind of incident near BJ’s, the massive wholesale outlet on the edge of the city, and cruisers had already been deployed. Now, it appeared, the occurrence was more serious than anyone had initially anticipated.
“Signal thirty-three,” Felber heard his boss, Sergeant Ed Moriarity repeat. “Detective Felber, we need you to go to Sixteen Seventy-seven Home Avenue.”
Felber was already on his way. “Forget about eating,” he smirked.
WHEN “SHOTS FIRED” first flashed in yellow across the desktop computer screen at Akron police headquarters, Sergeant Moriarity had barely grunted. Shots were fired all the time in Ohio’s former rubber capital, and the taciturn detective squad boss didn’t make an issue of it unless someone was on the receiving end of a gunshot. Because the computer was connected to the dispatch system, the sergeant could read a summary of every call handled by the department’s operators. He liked it when the lettering was green, signifying “non-emergency.” Yellow was a little more serious, but no cause for alarm. So Moriarity briefly looked away from the screen, and went back to his paperwork. A paragraph or so later, the bulletin changed to “man shot,” and the phones started ringing. Moriarity pushed his documents aside, picked up his radio, and keyed it to transmit to all available detectives. Then, he stood up to converge with them at the scene.
The moment Felber received the message, his focus shifted. Working to prevent his adrenaline surge from controlling his actions, he reminded himself that he was in an unmarked vehicle, and had to obey all local traffic laws. But this would not be an issue. Soon after Felber was dispatched, traffic slowed to a crawl.
Only rarely were Akron’s gray skies penetrated by the sun, and today—June 16, 2001—was one of those days. The weather was warm, but not hot—a spectacular afternoon. Kids played baseball on sandlots all over the city. People Rollerbladed and rode bicycles. On this Saturday before Father’s Day, stores were crowded with shoppers who seemed eager to get outside and take advantage of the fair temperatures.
The first report had come in while most of Akron’s detectives were out on their lunch breaks. Even at its busiest, though, the weekend detective squad generally consisted of a skeleton staff, comprised of investigators from both the Crimes Against Persons Unit—devoted to physical crimes against individuals, including rapes, robberies, assaults and homicides—and the Property Unit—specializing in thefts, burglaries and B&Es (breaking and entering episodes). Despite its relatively diminutive size, Akron was not immune to the urban friction that sometimes permeated the industrial Midwest. Murders were no longer a rarity; the city of 212,000 averaged twenty homicides each year. When one took place, the Crimes Against Persons Unit occasionally borrowed a detective or two from the Crimes Against Property division.
Today, Felber was on loan.
At 39 years old, Felber was often mistaken for a doctor, lawyer or engineer—anything but a cop. And, indeed, his background reinforced this. After high school, he’d lived at home and commuted to Akron University, majoring in engineering. After taking a leave of absence from his studies, he registered at Kent State, and pursued journalism. Although he’d graduated with a degree in advertising, he felt too attached to the city of his birth to pursue the career in New York, Chicago or even Cleveland. As clichéd as it sounded, he wanted to make the world a better place. So in 1992, he joined the Akron P.D.
Because of his curly brown hair and vaguely Mediterranean features, Felber was often mistaken for Lebanese or Jewish; in fact, he was German and Italian. To some, he seemed introspective, to others, introverted—qualities he used to his advantage when interrogating a suspect. Despite his six-foot-three-inch stature, Felber could make himself virtually invisible, allowing a perp to blurt out the kinds of extravagant claims and contradictory information that prosecutors found invaluable.
In social situations, strangers were baffled by the detective’s acidic wit, delivered dryly with a straight face. But his friends on the police department had no trouble deciphering what he truly meant. In fact, many shared the same sense of humor themselves.
“Why’d she do it?” a neighbor might ask a cop responding to a suicide call.
“Evidently,” he’d reply without even a hint of a smile, “she wasn’t happy.”
Felber knew that these kinds of responses were simply a defense mechanism to shield the public from confidential information, and the officers themselves from the type of depression that arose after confronting misfortune and tragedy. Felber compared the mentality to the gallows humor soldiers relied on during wartime. Of course, despite the potential to suddenly find oneself in a life-and-death struggle on High Street or Mineola Avenue, war was a lot more severe than patrolling the streets of Akron. But in war, the enemy was generally a faceless menace from a foreign land. In Akron, police were seeing their own people at their worst. And if the job wasn’t tough enough, there was the challenge of negotiating the political combat zone in the station house.
“It’s not the people on the outside,” went the slogan among Felber’s peers, “it’s the people on the inside who burn you out.”
Still, the joking deepened the brotherhood between Felber and his fellow detectives. It was one of the things that he loved most about the job.
FROM I-77, FELBER switched to Route 8–North, exiting at Howe Avenue in Akron’s Chapel Hill section, and passing under the Interstate. At first, there was nothing unusual about the sight on the other side of the windshield: a sunny parking lot crowded with traffic and people wheeling shopping carts. Then, he spotted the crime scene—a gas station situated in front of BJ’s, the boxy store anchoring the nearby strip mall. Another 500 yards, Felber noted, and the Akron detective squad could have enjoyed a quiet weekend. That’s how close the incident had been to Cuyahoga Falls, the suburb that abutted Akron just north of the city line.
For a moment, Felber felt a sense of detachment, observing the police cars and frantic officers from a distance, like a person watching some cinematic fiction in the darkness of a movie theater. Then, he was being waved through the barricades, steering around cruisers and exchanging nods with cops he knew from the station house. He couldn’t help but flash back to his childhood, when he’d hear police sirens from his room and burst out the front door, running down the street to gape at the action. Always, the barrier was manned by some stern officer, holding back the curious and staring back, tight-lipped, when anyone tried prying loose a morsel of information. Now, all these years later, Felber was the object of curiosity, with the eyes of the public upon him.
Stepping out of his vehicle and past the yellow crime-scene tape, Felber felt a bit self-conscious and uncomfortable. On the day he graduated from the police academy, he’d crossed the line from onlooker to active participant. But this wasn’t the time for contemplation. Sergeant Moriarity had beaten him to the scene, and taken it over, monitoring the activity in the parking lot closely while delivering instructions to investigators.
It was an odd place to kill someone. “If you think you’re going to be murdered,” the detectives often said, “go to the most public place possible. You’ll scare the killer away.”
Apparently, that strategy hadn’t worked. The BJ’s parking lot was one of the busiest places in the city—a familiar, seemingly safe location completely incongruous with murder.
The detective walked up to Moriarity, and received a synopsis of the morning’s events.
Minutes earlier, an ambulance had removed the body of 44-year-old Jeff Zack, a prematurely white-haired businessman who’d seemed impervious to danger. As an Israeli paratrooper, he’d been trained to navigate minefields, and fight alone behind enemy lines against armor, attack helicopters and infantry. In the United States, he’d gained a reputation as a smooth-talking, strong-willed guy who used the knowledge of Arabic he’d acquired in the Middle East to enter into a number of business ventures with a network of Arab-Americans. On a good day, the six-foot-four-inch Zack seemed like a jovial man who didn’t let the rigors—or responsibilities—of life bother him. But very suddenly, he could explode in anger, yelling, threatening and using his hulking size to intimidate.
Zack was a well-known character at BJ’s—for all the wrong reasons. A serial adulterer, he was notorious for flirting with the female clerks. At first, his overtures seemed harmless. But after procuring the phone number for a pretty, 17-year-old clerk, he began badgering her with calls, even offering to pay her for sex. Eventually, her father contacted Zack, and informed him that the girl was underage.
“So what?” he replied.
Incredibly, Zack continued to phone the teen, prompting the other clerks to band together and report him to management. One month before the murder, Zack had been banned from BJ’s.
Nonetheless, he was possessed with the uncanny ability to learn the intricacies of whatever business he was pursuing, whether it was scrap metal, insurance, credit cards or heating and air-conditioning. In fact, he’d procured his Ford Explorer at an employee discount, after a transaction with the automaker. He currently divided his time between, among other things, an Akron flooring company, a landscaping operation and a vending machine enterprise. It was that last that initially aroused interest in investigators. He’d shop at BJ’s to purchase candy in bulk to fill his vending machines. And, rumor had it, the business was secretly bankrolled by Zack’s former paramour, Cynthia George.
Around Akron, the stunning George was described as a “socialite.” A coal miner’s daughter, Cynthia had turned her back on her past, and reinvented herself as the wife of wealthy restaurateur Ed George. With her sparkling eyes and engaging smile, Cynthia was an ideal hostess at her husband’s night spot, the Tangier, a local institution characterized by purple neon and an Arabian Nights motif. She’d also entered beauty contests, taken hula lessons and consumed self-help tomes. At the Georges’ 8,100-square-foot palace outside of town, Cynthia seemed to live in splendor with her Christmas card–perfect brood of children, jewelry and furs, and a troupe of servants.
While Ed George supported his wife’s lifestyle, Cynthia came and went as she pleased, attracting the attention of men of varied backgrounds and often forceful temperaments. With Ed away at the restaurant, Jeff Zack was a regular guest in the wing of the house Cynthia had all but claimed for herself. For eight years, they carried on an affair, and even had a baby together—a child Cynthia’s unsuspecting husband deeply loved and raised as his own. Some were shocked by her lack of discretion, but Cynthia didn’t care. She’d long ago liberated herself from the conventions of her childhood. In her mansion, ensconced in opulence, she was indifferent to the jealous condemnation of others, indulging instead in the freedom afforded those of her station.
But a month earlier, the romance between Cynthia and Jeff had come crashing to a halt. There had been tears and angry phone calls and—as was common when Zack found himself in a predicament that didn’t suit him—threats. To the few who knew her well, Cynthia had confided that she feared Zack exposing their relationship and love child to her husband—resulting in divorce and, even more terrifying, the evaporation of the prosperity she’d labored so long to procure.
But Cynthia was far from the only person in Akron engaged in an adversarial relationship with Jeff Zack. The alliance between the former Israeli warrior and his Arab business partners was always tenuous at best. And because of his penchant for bouncing from one scheme to another—many bordering on the illegal—some described Jeff as a man who acquired new enemies with every personal and professional transaction.
Today, on possibly the prettiest day of the year, the wrong person had caught up with him. As Felber discussed the crime with Sergeant Moriarity, a call came in from Akron City Hospital. Shortly after his arrival there, Zack had died from the bullet to the head he’d received while pulling up to the gas pumps.
It would be Felber’s first homicide, and he realized that there was a great task ahead of him. He’d always prided himself on being a thorough detective, but it was obvious that this case was going to receive a lot more scrutiny than a breaking and entering at a florist’s shop. Every report would have to be written with greater contemplation and detail. Every observation would be dissected by supervisors, prosecutors, defense attorneys and, ultimately, judges. In the years to come, Felber would find himself battling reluctant witnesses, obstructionist attorneys and incompetence within his own department. But he didn’t care. He was looking forward to it.
Nobody, he reasoned, should get away with murder.
Copyright © 2008 by Keith Elliot Greenberg and Vincent Felber. All rights reserved.