By Rebecca Bricker
February 09, 1981 12:00 PM

But their death row romance is still at the mercy of the courts

The courtship was not the idyll Charlee Ganny had dreamed of as a girl. “I remember especially one Thanksgiving,” she says. “They let me in this little barracks that was like a dungeon at 7 a.m. and I sat until 8. Then they took me across the street. A big gold key came down on a rope, and they opened two gigantic doors that stood two stories high in a stone wall. Through them was a courtyard where I was searched. They took everything I was carrying and then opened the door to the old death house. There I was, hanging up my coat in the room where they might have killed him—the bolts that had held the electric chair in place were still in the floor. Tommy and I sat in a dark cell just like the one he was in for nine years. Cockroaches the size of mice were zipping by. Emotionally, it was crack-up time for me.”

That was three years ago, on a “contact” visit with condemned cop killer Tommy Trantino at Trenton State Prison. For six years before that she had pledged her love to him in letters and through tiny windows of thick bulletproof glass in maximum-security visiting rooms. The estranged wife of Trantino’s lawyer Jeffrey Fogel and a professor of English, Charlee had been asked in 1971 to edit the reams of writing Trantino had done during his seven years in prison to that point. (The result, Lock the Lock, a bizarre stream-of-consciousness autobiography, was published in 1974.) She had fallen in love with him, as she recalls, “before first sight. I finally got the courage to write him because I sensed the excruciating loneliness and pain in his writing.” Trantino had been wary at first. “Charlee understood me because she was suffering too,” he says. “I fell deeply in love, but I thought I would never get out of prison. I didn’t want her to get involved.”

But last summer, nine years after their romance began, Trantino, 42, married Charlee, now 36, during a 14-hour furlough from the minimum-security Wharton Tract Unit in southern New Jersey. Restricted to public places, the newlywed Trantinos “honeymooned” in a local shopping mall buying housewares for the home they hoped to share soon. Trantino’s release seemed imminent. He first became eligible for parole in 1979. (His death sentence was commuted to 25-years-to-life when the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in 1972.) Last summer, after earlier parole denials, his release date was set for Aug. 12, which would have been four days after the wedding—but it was conditional on his making financial restitution to the families of the two policemen whose murders had sent him to prison.

At that point Trantino became the focus of intense local protest—and his parole date came and went. Last September, as hundreds of police chanted “Kill him, kill him” at a demonstration outside the courthouse, Judge Theodore Trautwein rescinded the parole board’s decision, calling restitution in this case “insulting and demeaning” to the survivors. As one official in the Bergen County prosecutor’s office sees it: “Society would have been a lot better off if Trantino had died in the electric chair.”

Like many women who marry men in prison, Charlee is inured to such perceptions of her husband—and to suggestions that she has been exploited by a shrewd criminal. “I never knew Tommy when he was supposedly this person acting viciously,” she says staunchly. “I find it difficult to picture. I have never doubted him.”

She was getting ready to start her sophomore year at Drew University on Aug. 25,1963, the night Trantino, already a convicted robber, and his pal Frankie Falco, then wanted for murder in New York, went to the Angel Lounge in Lodi, N.J. At about 3 a.m. Detective Sgt. Peter Voto and rookie Gary Tedesco, both in civilian clothes, answered a complaint of disturbance at the tavern, and a brawl ensued. “I grabbed Voto and was beating him around—my idea was to put him in the bathroom and get out of there,” Trantino admits. “Falco was up on the bar. He had two guns. I had my gun. Then Falco told them [the officers] to strip. That’s when I ran out the door. I was very drunk and can’t remember everything.”

During his trial the prosecutor derided Trantino’s “very convenient amnesia.” But two witnesses, who admitted perjury in previous statements, testified that Trantino shot Voto. (Falco was killed by police trying to arrest him two days after the crime; Trantino voluntarily surrendered 17 hours later.) A jury found Trantino guilty in February 1964 after less than eight hours of deliberation.

“I don’t think it matters if I’m guilty or innocent at this point—it doesn’t bring anybody back to life,” says Trantino, who nevertheless is still appealing his conviction on grounds he was given drugs in prison which hindered his recall during the trial. Meanwhile he credits Charlee with “piercing my macho facade and making me a human being again. I still eat soup with a fork,” he adds wryly, “but she’s making me more socially acceptable. Charlee is my Professor Higgins.”

New Jersey born and educated (at Drew, Rutgers and Princeton), Charlee has taught English literature and composition at Essex County College in Newark since 1968. That year she separated from her husband of six months, lawyer Jeffrey Fogel. But throughout their fractious estrangement their mutual tie to Trantino continued. (Fogel is still handling his appeals.) Tommy’s initial reticence when Charlee began writing to him was quickly overcome. “In our third letters, which crossed in the mail,” she recalls, “we both said ‘I love you.’ ”

At their first meeting, in February 1972 at Trenton State Prison, they sat on opposite sides of a steel wall, looking through a small window and talking by telephone. Only when Trantino was sent to Rahway State Prison later that year did they have their first “contact” visit. “We were allowed to kiss,” Tommy recalls, “but guards would harass us if we kissed ‘too long.’ ” To Charlee, it was torture. “I don’t know if there are words for what it’s like to go into a prison and see the person you can’t live without, when you’re not able to be with him,” she says.

Improvement in their visiting conditions came slowly and painfully. Trantino’s transfer to Rahway was contingent upon a haircut; he had spent two years in solitary at Trenton, he says, for growing his hair too long. And then, at Rahway, Trantino and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the ex-boxer convicted of a 1966 tavern murder, pushed hard for inmate rights; Tommy was consequently transferred twice, ending up at Leesburg State Prison in 1974. His involvement there in a 1977 protest over parole procedures landed him back at Trenton. Every Sunday Charlee had to get up at 3:30 a.m. and drive the 65 miles from her home in West Caldwell, N.J. to be in line at 6:30 a.m. for an 8 a.m. visit. She pleaded with him then to curb his activism, and he agreed. Since 1978 he has been at the minimum-security Wharton Tract Unit.

Now they talk daily by phone and visit four hours every Sunday. They’ve already planned their first dinner at home: champagne, steaks and 32,000 oysters,” Trantino says. He plans to work for Elaine Markson, his literary agent in New York, and hopes someday to move to a 30-acre farm in Pennsylvania that Charlee owns.

Under the parole plan, however, Tommy and Charlee must first live with his parents in Brooklyn, in the same neighborhood where he spent a troubled childhood that led to his expulsion from high school, a $50-a-day drug habit and an arrest at 18 for a drug-related robbery for which he served nearly six years in a New York prison. After his release on parole in 1961, Tommy married Helene Pierra, by whom he has a son, Guy. Divorced from her in 1974, he was reunited with Guy, now 17, just a few months ago. “He’s a troubled kid,” says Trantino sadly. “Until the publicity about my parole case, he thought I was dead.”

Reluctant to start a second family but anxious to end his celibacy, Trantino predicts, “I’m going to be a father again—Charlee and I are planning a lot of sex, and we don’t believe in contraceptives.” They say they are looking forward to having domestic problems to confront. “We think our love is the greatest thing on earth,” he declares. “We wish other people could know this kind of love, without going through what we have. It’s amazing to us what most couples take for granted. Our only wish is to be driving away from Wharton, honking our horn.” Next week the appellate division of the New Jersey Superior Court will hear arguments on the restitution issue to determine when—and if—the Trantinos will ever be able to make that drive.