Ch 7: Whispers

   The assailant blended into the crowd and observed the scene. Everything was going smoothly, as murders go. He could hear the mumbling in the crowd as they whispered words to each other that they would never say to the police. They whispered about Mrs. Miletello. Nearly everyone whispered her name.

  The assailant did not crack a smile or give any indication that he was interested in what he heard. The crowd was guessing; they didn't know anything. They were frantically trying to make sense of this murder and place the blame on someone. There were so many rapes and assaults on women in the community that everyone was on edge, especially since very few suspects were jailed, and some of those were mere scapegoats and not real suspects. The people were nervous. They looked for someone to blame for the body in the yard. They blamed Mrs. Miletello. Her name rolled off their lips easily. It made sense.

  Estelle Miletello and her husband were Italians. Like many in Monroe's Italian community, they made their living in the Black community, the bulk of which consisted of the ten blocks east of Five Points. Many members of the Italian community came to Louisiana at the turn of the century in response to invitations from the Louisiana Immigration Bureau. By 1910, the Italian community in the state was 20,233, mostly centered around New Orleans and the river parishes. Many were drawn to Monroe because work opportunities were available associated with the construction of the Endom Bridge over the Ouachita River. The Italian and Black communities often co-mingled socially and lived in the same neighborhoods. Most Italian families clustered together in what became known as "Little Italy" in an area that was later expropriated by the city in the 1960s for the construction of a new civic arena.

  Families such as the Anzalones operated a hardware store on DeSiard and several other streets. Little Italy scattered after the expropriation, but many Italian-run enterprises not located in the reconstructed civic center area concentrated in the remaining areas of lower downtown East Monroe. In the 14th Street area, there was a large number of Italian-run stores, groceries, and bars. These operations were run by families with names like Luffey, LaDart, Fontanna, and Lisotta. Among these families were the Miletellos.  Estelle and her husband Salvadore operated a corner market in the heart of one of the roughest parts of the mixed Italian-Black community. The store that sat at the intersection of Washington and 14th Street enjoyed the hardy and profitable patronage of the Black community. They sold nearly everything families needed except appliances and hardware and profited from the fact that low-income families could purchase items on credit. Any member of a family could buy foodstuffs or household items, "sign the book," and obtain instant credit. At some point, the head of the household would appear and pay whatever was recorded in the book. Some of the Italian stores had boxes of IOU slips, one for each customer family, an ancient accounting system that established credit for each family. Without signing the book or the IOU slips in the box, many low-income families would not have survived. There were no food stamps in the early years.

 The Miletellos were friendly to their Black customers. Salvadore and Estelle knew the names of every family that walked through their doors. They knew the children and the grandmothers. They also knew the family's reputations and, thereby, the ones who could be trusted to sign the book. They were undoubtedly a welcomed presence. Everyone knew both of them, and they were well received, as were most Italians. In many ways, the Italians were similar to Blacks, rejected because of their Sicilian origins, and treated differently by European whites. However, there was one big difference. Even though they were immigrant families, the Italians were still considered white, just one notch above Blacks.

 The 14th Street gang frequented the area around the Miletello's store. It was a gang of Black youth and young adults who were prone to steal, fight, and kill if necessary to protect their territory from the neighboring Pine Street Gang, or the New Town Gang, Booker T. Gang, or the Pirates. These gangs developed in the '60s and continuously fought each other in turf wars. Their clashes always left someone injured, and a few people died. One of the most respected gang members was Frankie Joe Robinson. Frankie Joe was tall, athletic, and virile. In the eyes of the young women, he was a "looker" and a prize to be won. He was mean and defiant. Some said he was ruthless when crossed. Despite his reputation, women were attracted to him drawn perhaps by his rebellious spirit and rock-hard strength. Women were known to fight over him, ripping off each other's clothes, pulling hair while shouting invitations to lusty street fights, swinging razors, and threatening each other. The women who were attracted to Frankie Joe were prepared to fight to keep him to themselves.

  "Miss Miletello did it, she actually did it!" said one of the women looking at the body on the ground.

  "You think she did this herself?" asked another.

 "Naw, she probably hired somebody to do it."

 "Last week, she came out to the Hall and saw Frankie Joe talking to Vonda and told her to leave Frankie Joe alone, or they would find her somewhere with her face in the mud!" said another.


 "Well, look at that! There she is, with her face in the mud," said another.

  'It's a shame." No one contradicted the claim. As rumors go, it was amplified at each telling as details were added and exaggerated. Before long, all of Booker T. whispered that Mrs. Miletello had hired a hitman to kill Vonda Harris. Trying to stop a rumor once it started, fueled by just a spark of truth, is like trying to stop a raging forest fire with a squirt gun. In a matter of hours, public opinion had convicted Mrs. Miletello. All that remained was for the police to arrest her.

  Even though she worked around the Black community all her life, Estelle Miletello was still Italian and white. No one in the Black community expected a white woman to be arrested for murdering a Black woman, not in Monroe, Louisiana. That would require a dramatic change of mind from the city leaders and the police officers themselves. A white woman accused of brutally murdering a Black woman who may have been her rival in a love triangle was too much for Monroe to handle. If there was any way for the police to avoid indicting a white woman in this affair, they would do it to keep the peace.

  So, the whispers began, and the fingers pointed.

  What fed the rumors was an incident about a week earlier in which Estelle and her husband Salvadore came to a party at the American Legion Hall.[23] The two were no strangers in the company of Blacks, many of whom they considered friends. They often attended social events in the black community including birthday parties and weddings. When there was a death in the Black community, it was not unusual for them to attend and mourn with the grieving family. The Miletellos were a regular sight in some social circles despite being white. They were a strange couple. Devout Catholics who rarely missed Mass, they prayed regularly and were seen as the perfect, God-fearing Italian family. Yet Salvadore and Estelle had a peculiar attraction to Blacks of the opposite sex. It was no secret to either of them, neither was it a secret in the Black community. Salvadore had an attraction to Black women and Estelle was attracted to Black men, one in particular, Frankie Joe Robinson.

  The music was especially loud the night the Miletellos, visited the hall a couple of weeks before the murder. The Miletellos entered smiling and laughing through a low-hanging cloud of smoke. The clinking of beer bottles mingled with the hum of conversation and bursts of laughter between songs on the juke box. Ordinarily, the Miletellos would not have drawn any attention to themselves except that Frankie Joe was at the Hall that night and he was not alone. He was with Vonda Harris. Everyone watched as Mrs. Miletello, short and feisty, smiled and hugged friends as she entered. She was in high spirits until she saw Frankie Joe and Vonda smiling and talking to each other. Her eyes cut to the pair as they sat across the room and chatted. It didn't matter what they were talking about, Estelle felt violated because someone else was moving in on her turf.

  What angered her more than anything else may have been the fact that she had been supplying Frankie Joe with money, and apparently, he had been using her money to wine and dine Vonda Harris. She had heard about the woman that he was seeing, but she didn't know who she was. Then that night by chance, she happened upon them together at the Hall, talking as if they were lovers. He probably bought the beer she drank with the money he received from her. She could feel her blood rushing.

   Estelle moved over to the area where Vonda sat and confronted her. She was bold because she was small in comparison to Vonda, but passion sometimes adds inches to one's height and bolsters their strength. Those standing around tried to get quiet so they could hear her words. Most didn't understand all of what was said or what Vonda told her. What they did hear would run the rumor mill for years.

   Pointing her finger, Mrs. Miletello looked at Vonda with a threatening eye and said, "If you don't leave my man alone, I'm going to bury your sweet little face."

   It was a stunning statement that left Vonda staring at her.

   Most in the crowd brushed off the threat because it was not unusual for women to fight over Frankie Joe. It wasn't uncommon for two women to talk smack to each other, waving their arms and pointing their fingers. Women argued over men like Frankie Joe every week. The in-your-face confrontations became so familiar that they rarely caught anyone's serious attention. It was part of the weekend drama that many came to expect. However, it was unusual for a white woman to come into a Black club and threaten a Black woman over a Black man with dozens of Blacks standing close by.

    When asked about her statement later, Estelle couldn't remember saying anything to Vonda. She told anyone who asked that she saw her that night, but didn't say a single word to her.

  Whether she did or not, someone started the rumor on the day of the murder and it grew exponentially.


   The assailant listened to the whispers and watched the police work. None of them had any facts that would lead to him. Rumors and shoddy police work were all they had. It was more than enough for him to avoid detection.
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