Blanche Wright was 20 when she met the love of her life. He was actually a contract killer who led her on a murder spree. And she took the fall.
Even on a night of surprises for Blanche Wright, the man in the suit stood out. She had headed across the Bronx to visit her sick aunt, but when she entered the apartment she found a roomful of people waiting for her: "Happy Birthday!" Then she was introduced to a friend of her aunt's, an impeccably dressed lawyer from Philadelphia.
He seemed sophisticated, with a three-piece suit and a briefcase. His name was Willie Sanchez, and he wasn't like any other man she knew. They talked and talked, and before he left, he told her aunt, "I'd like to talk to her more."
She turned 20 years old that day in 1979, with little to celebrate. She was struggling to stay afloat with a toddler son in her own apartment nearby, hiding from the boy's father, a heroin addict and a thief who would be out of jail soon and looking for her.
But Willie Sanchez promised a new future. Blanche found herself pampered for the first time in her life, fitted for new clothes in nice stores, sampling expensive perfumes in beauty salons. She was swept up by it all.
This captivation would lead, as the months passed, to literal captivity, ending in a 71-day blur of cocaine, guns, terror and, finally, an ambush assassination that put one of them in prison and the other in the ground.
The police called them "Bonnie and Clyde," a lazy tag that was easier than the truth.
Blanche Wright went to prison a broken human so traumatised that she did not talk for months. She had heard of Bonnie and Clyde, but she didn't feel like Bonnie. It seemed to her that Bonnie had been luckier. Bonnie died.
What would unfold was a story that even veterans in law enforcement found remarkable, one of reckoning and rebuilding and redemption. Prison would be the first place in her life where Wright would feel needed, useful and — strange as it sounds — free. She was almost reluctant to leave when she was finally granted parole 10 years ago.
Now 60, Wright agreed to talk about her past, looking back at a brutal childhood and the series of crimes from the winter of 40 years ago. This account is based on hours of recent interviews with her, as well as a case history written in 2009 for her parole application by a nationally recognised expert on women who kill, who herself drew on interviews and police reports.
Wright now lives in a small apartment outside New York City. The pain of rehashing those memories played across her face and stole her sense of security for days to follow, but she said she believes sharing her story is worth it if it might help others.
"He was my Prince Charming"
Willie Sanchez made it clear he wanted to see more of Blanche after her birthday party, but initially she resisted. "I'm not ready," she told her aunt.
"This guy has it," her aunt replied. "He has cars, I've seen him in different cars. He's stable. He'll take care of you and the baby."
Weeks later, her aunt and Sanchez showed up at her apartment unannounced. It was dark in the apartment because Wright had not been able to pay the most recent power bill.
"This is where you live?" Sanchez asked. He left and went straight to pay her bill and returned with groceries. He asked her, "How about we make a date this weekend?"
They went to a Japanese steakhouse, and Blanche brought along a cousin. "It was fancy for us, like nothing we'd ever seen," she said.
He visited often after that. He bought her clothes, perfume. She slowly, thoughtfully set aside her defences. "He was my Prince Charming, and I worshipped him," she said. "The first thing he did was to get me to get groomed. He took me to a beauty parlour and told the lady how to do my hair. For a long time we had a lot of nice dates. It was not a sexual thing. It was this awesome lawyer interested in me."
Sometimes, she said, when they were in restaurants, men would approach Sanchez, and he'd walk away with them to talk privately. They were clients, he told Wright. Other times they met him in parking lots.
"Once, I saw a peek of a rifle in the trunk," Wright said. "That's when I began to get a little bit inquisitive about these friends."
Mostly she kept her questions to herself. Lawyers, she knew, sometimes represented shady clients.
Then everything changed one day in November.
He was driving her around the Bronx. Specifically, he was driving around the same block, circling over and over. Sanchez explained that he was looking for a friend he was supposed to meet. Then he pulled over and pointed to a man about to walk into a building. Maybe I'm early, he said to her. Go ask that man for the time. She obeyed.
She approached the man and spoke, and he turned to her, and right then, behind her, she heard a "whisper of air." The man fell. She turned and saw Sanchez holding a pistol with a silencer.
"Willie's come and shot this man," she recalled. "I feel him grabbing me and snatching me back. His features were totally different, scary."
They got to the car. She asked him, Who are you?
"I'm the same man who's been looking out for you," he said.
A childhood lost
A man looking out for her. Until then, the concept had been just that, an idea, as if from fiction. She never knew her father. Her mother, who was 16 when Blanche was conceived, had schizophrenia and sometimes locked Blanche in her bedroom while she wandered the streets. The girl was raised by a grandmother and violent uncles.
Other times, neighbours would find Blanche outside, partly clothed, and return her to her grandmother's home, where her uncles beat her and tied her to a radiator to keep her from leaving. Social workers eventually investigated and pulled her out of her grandmother's home. She was placed in foster care with an older couple.
Her foster father was in his 60s and owned a dry cleaners. Blanche was 8 when he began coming into her bedroom at night. She learned to wrap herself in her sheet, tight as a mummy, and kept quiet. He took her to the basement and abused her, explaining it was to "teach her what not to do with boys."
She told herself it was happening to someone else. "Picture a radio with knobs, take the dial, and turn it off," she said later, describing her mindset. "'This is not going on with me. That's her, it's not me.'"
Her foster mother discovered the abuse but blamed Blanche. When she was 13, her foster father entered her bedroom and climbed on her, and she resisted. He grunted and gasped for air, and collapsed. His wife drove him to a hospital, where he died. Blanche said she blamed herself for the man's death and stopped speaking. The state sent her to a group home.
The home's mother, addressed by the girls as Miss Richardson, took Blanche on as a personal project. She spoke endlessly to the mute girl, offering encouragement and praise. There were no unsafe men in the home. Slowly, Blanche began to speak again.
At 16, she went to a friend's birthday party. The friend had a brother she had known for years. He invited her to a bedroom, where he raped her, she said.
"I'm done," she recalled thinking. "I felt dirty." She gave up on the dreams Miss Richardson had helped her see, she said. She listened to the older women around her, who said men act that way "because they love too much," and she started dating the boy who had raped her.
A year later, she had a baby with him. They lived together in an apartment of their own for a time. She found needles in the bathroom and learned he was shooting up. She confronted him, and he beat her with an ironing board, knocking her out.
He was later jailed after a fight with one of her uncles, and she sneaked away with the baby, leaving with just the clothes on her back, and moved in with a cousin. She heard her baby's father would be out of jail soon and that he would come looking for her. She chewed her nails to nubs.
She went to her aunt's house: Surprise. Meet Willie Sanchez.
"The craziest killer I've ever seen"
Two years earlier, Willie Sanchez wasn't his name. At that time, he was known as Inmate No. 76-A-4463, and he was being held at the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane north of New York City. His legal name was Robert Young, and a year earlier, he had climbed into the Bronx window of a 23-year-old woman to rape her, the police said. She resisted, and he shot her dead before sodomising her, the police said.
Newspapers quoted a police psychologist calling him "the craziest killer I've ever seen." He was 33.
One night in 1977, 10 inmates managed to cut through three sets of bars at the hospital, escaping in the darkness. One of them was Young. Bloodhounds and police helicopters swept that patch of rural Dutchess County, quickly finding a few of the inmates, who had split up. Young remained at large.
He was eventually arrested in St. Louis in 1978 — a hand grenade was reportedly found in his car — and transported back to Dutchess County to stand trial for the escape. In the courthouse, he was locked in a holding area on the fourth floor. Officers did not notice the jailhouse bedsheets he had hidden under his clothing.
Young made a rope with the sheets and, while other prisoners in the cell watched, climbed out a fourth-floor window. He lowered himself to an open window on the third floor and stepped inside, finding himself in the offices of the district attorney who was prosecuting the escape case. The room was vacant.
Young walked through a door and calmly asked a secretary for directions out of the building, as if he had become lost. She pointed the way out. Officers first noticed him missing after a head count an hour later.
Six months after his bedsheet escape, he walked into Blanche Wright's birthday party.
Cocaine and crime
After the shooting in the Bronx, Sanchez would not let Wright out of his sight. He made her leave her son at her grandmother's and moved her out of her apartment. He moved her in with two of his friends, a couple named Rosie and Gene, because he didn't want her alone. He said she wasn't safe.
He locked Wright in a bedroom and left for days at a time. He'd return with bricks of cocaine, which Rosie and Gene would cut to sell.
Wright was always afraid. If she showed her fear around Sanchez, he'd explode in a rage, which made it worse.
Rosie used cocaine and told Wright, "This is what helps me." They offered her a fancy spoon.
"I tried it," Wright said. "I just came up out of the completely trapped, gloomy feeling. 'Oh, they do care about me.' I felt strong. It took me out of this mousy feeling."
Once, Sanchez took her to a Holiday Inn and handcuffed her to a bathroom sink. He closed the bathroom door and left. Later, Wright heard women enter the hotel room and talk. She wanted to call out for help, but hesitated. The women left.
The bathroom door opened — it was Sanchez. "You did good," he said. "You didn't make a sound. You can be trusted."
She saw one chance to get help. There was the woman who ran the group home where Wright had stayed as a teenager — Miss Richardson, whom she trusted deeply. They had stayed in touch. Wright asked Sanchez to take her to the home to say hello, and he agreed.
Her plan was to get Miss Richardson alone and tell her what was going on. They arrived, greeted by Miss Richardson and a man who worked there, and she waited for her opportunity while the group made small talk.
Then Sanchez looked around the walls and ceiling of the group home, seemingly surprised at the lack of cameras. "I don't see any security," he said. "Anybody could come in here and kill all 12 of these girls and you two."
Wright froze. He was onto her. "I knew then, I couldn't allow anything to happen to this house," she said. "I messed up."
Miss Richardson must have noticed her troubled expression and asked, "Is everything OK?" She added, "You have this great guy in your life."
Wright and Sanchez returned to their car. "He said, 'You know I'm God, right? I decide who lives and who dies.' I knew then, I'm trapped. I can't get out. I'm going to die with this guy."
"If he moves, shoot him"
On January 21, 1980, almost two months after the murder, Sanchez drove Wright to the home of a friend on Marion Avenue in the Bronx. The police would later describe this friend as a Colombian cocaine trafficker. The man was there with a woman. Wright sat and stared at their coffee table — an aquarium, with fish inside.
Soon after they arrived, an argument broke out in Spanish between Sanchez and the friend, and Sanchez threw the man to the ground and handcuffed him. He held a pistol with a silencer. Everyone was screaming except Wright, who froze.
Sanchez, very agitated, handed her a second pistol and ordered her to guard the handcuffed man. "If he moves, shoot him," he ordered. Then he pushed the woman into a bedroom.
She heard the "whoosh-whoosh" of the silencer. Sanchez returned alone and saw the man squirming on the floor.
"Didn't I tell you not to let him move?" he roared. He wrapped his hand around hers holding the pistol, and pulled the trigger. There were no other witnesses. There was a knock at the door, she said. Sanchez opened it, and immediately shot and killed the man who had knocked.
Sanchez and Wright left. The man on the floor would live, but the woman in the bedroom and the man at the door were both killed.
"He told me he knew I could do better," Wright said. "If I wanted to live, I had to do better."
The Diplomat Towers
She continued to use cocaine. He did, too. They slept little. Two weeks after the latest shootings, they were back in the car, bound for Mount Kisco in Westchester County, just north of the Bronx. It was February 7, 1980.
They arrived at the Diplomat Towers, two hulking apartment buildings off the Saw Mill River Parkway. Sanchez pressed a gun into her hand. "There's people who want to kill us," he said.
There were two men, he explained. You kill one and I'll do the other. She refused to get out of the car. He fumed all night, badgering her all the while about what she had to do.
After 10am the next day, Sanchez saw the two men he was after emerge from one of the towers, and he and Wright got out of the car.
Wright walked slightly ahead of Sanchez as the two men approached. One of the men, seeming to recognise Sanchez, abruptly pushed Wright down. He may have assumed she was an innocent passer-by, and he was protecting her from what was about to happen.
Gunshots rang out. Wright crawled toward a maintenance closet. She said she got in, poked her gun outside the door and fired a single blind shot.
The gunfire outside ended. A woman screamed. Wright said she stayed in the closet until it got quiet, then crawled out. She saw two men on the ground — Sanchez and one of the targets. Sanchez was bleeding and seemed unable to rise. He told her to put their guns back in the car. She picked them up and walked out in a daze.
"I didn't know what to do without him," she said.
Mute and resigned to her fate
She headed down the street as the police arrived. A cab took her home to the Bronx. Four days later, the police knocked at her door. They questioned her overnight, and she signed a confession February 14, 1980, at 5:45am.
Sanchez was dead. So was his target that morning, Marshall Howell, a drug dealer with several guns and more than $200,000 in cash in his apartment when the police arrived later with a warrant. The two men might have shot each other, or perhaps Wright's lone round struck Howell. The police reports do not elaborate.
She learned the truth about Sanchez, starting with his real name: Robert Young. She learned about the murders he had committed and the jails he had escaped from. The police said he worked for an organised crime outfit called the Council, the name of a drug-dealing operation based in Harlem once run by the kingpin Leroy "Nicky" Barnes. Young was a contract killer for the Council, officers and prosecutors told Wright. The "clients" he met in restaurants and parking lots were hiring a hit man. The police accused her of being his partner.
"They're telling me I was this contract killer," she said.
She went to Rikers Island after her arrest. Another inmate said to her, "Ain't no guns here now, hit woman."
"I had nothing to say," she said. "I had tucked into myself."
Someone spoke for her: an attorney from a white-shoe firm that counted among its partners F. Lee Bailey, one of the country's most famous criminal defence lawyers whose past clients included Patty Hearst and the Boston Strangler. That attorney mysteriously replaced the one appointed by the court, but Wright never paid him a cent. His fees were covered by two men she had met through Young — men who worked with the Council, Wright learned later. The new lawyer sped her through the legal process.
And on top of everything else, she learned she was pregnant with Sanchez's child. Five months after her arrest, she gave birth to a boy while shackled to her hospital bed, a precaution against her somehow escaping. The child was whisked out of the room and, for the most part, out of her life.
She pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 18 years to life and sent to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the state's largest all-women maximum-security prison, surrounded by woods in Westchester County. Soon after she arrived, she overheard an inmate say, "I can't wait to meet her — I heard she's a badass."
She slinked into the inmate population hoping no one noticed. Elaine A. Lord, the prison's superintendent through most of the 1980s and 1990s, remembered the new prisoner.
"She kind of shrank back into the wall," she said in a recent interview.
The jock strap rebellion
She followed the rules. Two years after her arrest, she entered the honour unit at the prison. She began attending group therapy. She listened to former prostitutes describe the gifts and affection their pimps offered, only to turn abusive later, and she felt a connection.
"Starting to see I'm not alone," she recalled. "I knew I needed help with all the crap in my mind. I needed to get well."
The inmates constantly complained about their clothing. The shirts, coats, pants and boots they were allowed to receive as gifts from family members all came from an approved list, and it was a list designed by and for men. So nothing fit quite right.
Wright had an idea, a way for the inmates to quietly, and within the prison's rules, showcase the flaws in the system. "I looked at that list — I wanted to come up with something that was a shocker," she said. She found two items that were approved for inmates: a jock strap and a pipe.
She would spread the word that inmates should request jock straps and pipes — smoking was still allowed — from their families. These were, to her, the two most visual symbols of the masculine footprint on the approved list. She whispered her idea to a few inmates as if someone had whispered it to her, and the plan spread that way, its author unknown.
The packages arrived, and the women went around puffing on pipes with jock straps worn like bandannas. Wright remembered standing in a line one day and looking behind her, and seeing a long row of women with jock straps on their heads — "had to be at least 40 or 45," she said.
Corrections officers wondered what was going on, and a conversation began, one that ended with women's pants being added to the approved list of clothing.
She didn't take credit for the change, but others knew. "I was becoming a quiet leader," she said.
"I'm a monster. I deserve to be here"
She was elected to represent the inmates in grievance interactions with prison officials. She helped start a microbusiness within the prison, selling cosmetics to inmates, with the proceeds going toward recreation programs.
She became more and more involved in prison life, working with groups like the Family Violence Program and Puppies Behind Bars, which trained guide dogs to help the blind.
"I got so much energy and joy out of helping the population," she said of her time in prison. "I felt like somebody for the first time in my life."
She teared up as she recalled the work she was doing. "I began to see I could be a change for me and for others if I put my mind to it," she said. "I was freer than I had ever been in my entire life."
That feeling went away when she was alone, or when she was asked to discuss her past or her crimes. "I shut down," she said. Sharon Smolick, who ran the violence program, tried to get her to open up. "'You deserve to care about you, too,'" Wright recalled her saying, and her response: "Move on to the next person. Forget about me."
She faced a parole board in 1997. Denied — not an unusual outcome for convicted murderers appearing for the first time. She returned before the board every two years, as scheduled, in 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007 — all denied. She was not particularly disappointed, she said, because she never expected to be paroled.
The truth was, she didn't think she belonged outside. "I'm a monster," she recalled thinking. "I deserve to be here."
A campaign for parole
She had become close with Charlotte Watson, an advocate for battered women who had opened a shelter called My Sister's Place in Yonkers and who had later served under former Governor George E. Pataki in the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. With Wright's seventh parole hearing approaching in 2009, Watson sat her down for a talk.
"I've come to see if you're ready to go home," Watson said.
Watson wrote to dozens of friends and colleagues, most of whom had never heard of Blanche Wright. "I was struck by her honesty and her absolute feeling of responsibility and remorse for those crimes," she wrote of Wright. "I won't go into all the horrific details of her life or of her integrity, strength and courage, because I'm not sure that even cyberspace could hold it all."
Her audience responded with letters of their own to the parole board. One was from Lord, the former superintendent at the prison. "The Blanche Wright I met in 1982 has evolved from a withdrawn, silent individual into a serious, determined and capable adult who has taken advantage of every opportunity for self-growth," she wrote.
Another came from a retired lieutenant at the prison, who wrote, "Inmate Wright is a special case who deserves a chance at the brass ring." A prosecutor said on her behalf, "I never once wrote a letter in support of release of an inmate." Other letters came from different corners of New York — a state senator, a nun, a Zen master — and were handed over in a thick binder.
Wright appeared before three parole commissioners on October 20, 2009. She spoke of meeting Young. "I thought he was a lawyer, nice guy," she said, according to a transcript. "My life was broken. Completely broken. I was emotionally unstable, mentally unstable, underdeveloped mentally."
She spoke of the killings. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't hurt and think about what I've done," she said. She spent her first years in prison praying for a terminal illness. "Nothing came that I prayed for," she said. "God did not want me to just go."
Her parole was granted. Wright walked out of prison. "Women were screaming out the windows," she said. "Women taking out the garbage were cheering and clapping."
At least one weekend a month, Wright makes a trip to the city. She hops on the subway and emerges from the station in Prospect Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn and heads toward a tidy building on a residential block. She is a regular visitor at Providence House, a halfway house for female inmates who are completing their sentences.
Wright has been out for almost 10 years. Her circle of friends consists mostly of people she knew from prison, but she doesn't go out much, doesn't socialise. No parties.
She looks back on that insane span of 1979 and 1980, not with cool analysis and insight, but over her shoulder, as if in a panic. Speaking of her time with Sanchez and the terrible years leading up to it physically pain her and drain her.
This story began when I rang her buzzer, unannounced, in November, and she considered my request that she sit for an interview. Days later, she agreed. She was deeply reluctant to draw attention to herself, but that was outweighed by the positive impact her story could have on battered women who might read it, she said.
When she first left prison, she lived at Providence House. She works there with young women returning to society. She tells them things she wishes someone had told her.
"Your boyfriend's saying, 'Oh, your hair looks better like this,' a light bulb should go off — there's more coming," she said. "But you don't see it that way. We're flattered. We're needy and desperate to be loved."
Written by: Michael Wilson
Photographs by: Becky Cloonan
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES