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Volume 73, Number 29 | November 19 - 25, 2003

Ex-girlfriend of L.E.S. triple murderer speaks

By David Jonathan Epstein

The man convicted on Oct. 29 of a brutal triple slaying in Manhattan’s Lower East Side sent jailhouse letters while he awaited trial to his ex-girlfriend’s sister threatening to kill the ex’s baby and her new boyfriend.

“The best man will stand last,” wrote murder suspect Steven Santos, 21, in a letter from jail intended for his Maryland ex, Stephanie Rill.

Rill, 21, said Santos — who is due to be sentenced on Wed., Nov. 19 — had a record of unruly behavior, particularly when he was drunk or high on drugs. “He would hit on my friends when he was messed up,” she said in a phone interview.

She added that he once attempted to rob a house near her.

Rill said Santos fled to New York from Maryland around the beginning of June in 2002, days after she broke up with him. The day after Santos left, Rill ignored his pleading call for forgiveness and to get back together. That week, Rill said an acquaintance of hers came to her apartment to retrieve a gun stashed there at Santos’ behest. But the gun was in New York with Santos.

On June 12, 2002, Santos was arrested for killing three residents and sexually assaulting one of them, an 88-year-old woman, in the Amalgamated Dwellings at 504 Grand St. Police found Santos leaving the scene after he descended a fire escape. They tackled him from behind and seized his gun.

According to Santos’ police confession, he spent the night before the murders near the Baruch Houses smoking marijuana laced with cocaine. Early the next morning he said he broke into two apartments in the nearby Amalgamated Dwellings. Santos said he sexually assaulted Sara Sprung, 88, with two candles.

Police discovered two candles protruding from Sara Sprung’s body at the scene. The body of her husband, Larry, 86, was found in the bedroom with socks covering his hands and arms, a beret on his head and blank checks stuffed in his mouth.

A third victim, advertising executive Ray D’Amelio, 49, lay dead in his bed in a nearby apartment, apparently killed first. Police found victims’ credit cards, $400, D’Amelio’s watch and a .38-caliber gun on Santos when they arrested him.

Santos told police he shot the first two victims when they startled him. He broke down in tears describing the sexual assault of Sprung. “I don’t know why I did that,” he said.

According to police, before he found Sprung, Santos sat with the deceased D’Amelio and drank his bottle of Jack Daniels while watching pornographic films.

The murders shocked the Lower East Side, which had only two other murders that year.

A New York Police Department detective described the scene as the worst crime he had seen in his 17 years as a police officer.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, an old friend of the Sprung’s, called for the death penalty, a plea that was later denied by the Manhattan district attorney. “If it doesn’t apply to this case, I’d like to know which case it applies to,” Silver told The Daily News.

Santos’ defense attorney acknowledged the reasoning for Silver’s death penalty request. “This wasn’t a crime of passion,” said attorney Barry Apfelbaum. “Basically these people were shot in their beds from close range.” In the trial, Apfelbaum tried to portray the confession as a fabrication by Santos, but the jury needed only two hours of deliberation to convict Santos.

While Santos was giving police his confession, police called Rill to tell her he was held for burglary. Rill said the police finally told her the extent of the charges after she asked if Santos had a gun.

“I thought it was a joke at first,” said Rill, an assistant manager at a Westminster, Md., fast food restaurant.

She shunned the press last June and once evaded police questioning. “He didn’t seem like a guy that could do something like that, but nobody really knows him,” she said. “He claimed he was trying to lead the innocent life here, but that was bullshit.”

After Santos’ arrest, police detectives and prosecutors sought Rill’s memories of her ex-boyfriend.

Rill’s memories of Santos oscillated between nostalgia and anger.

“He was funny,” Rill said of Santos. “He always made people smile, and he danced real well, real different.”

Rill admired his ability to get along with everyone in Maryland, a place he recently moved to and knew few people. She fell in love with Santos soon after meeting him at his job at a local pizza joint.

But things between Rill and Santos quickly went downhill when she began to uncover some of his lies and bad habits.

“He lies about the stupidest things,” she said. “He said he knew his father and that he was rich. He didn’t know his father!”

She finally broke up with Santos when she found out he also slept with her cousin after the two smoked crack together. Rill herself is still on probation from an arrest for assault on a woman Santos cheated on her with.

Rill realized she could take none of what Santos told her at face value. “He lies about everything,” she said.

One thing she does know is that he’s from the Lower East Side, where he lived with his grandmother, brothers and little sister. Rill said she went with him to visit his family but doesn’t remember a location any more specific than “F.D.R. Drive.”

Rill said Santos usually made her laugh, but there were times when he scared her. In one instance, Santos sat on church steps in Maryland cursing his mother. His mother, who he said first turned him on to drugs, was dead. “He sat outside yelling for his knife because he said he wanted to kill himself.”

Rill no longer doubts his guilt. Last year, she chose to abort Santos’ baby. “I don’t want to be raising a little Charles Manson,” she said.

After Santos’ arrest, Rill estimated she spoke to him about 15 times. “He would talk about our relationship and memories,” she said of those phone conversations. “He wouldn’t talk about the situation because he said he thought the phone was tapped.”

Rill no longer speaks with Santos, but he continued to send her love letters, and recently sent a letter to her sister. In it Santos claimed he is out on bail and promised that his case is looking so good that he’ll be free within a few years.

“I seriously think he believes that,” Rill said, but Santos’ bail was immediately remanded, and the district attorney will ask for three life terms with no possibility of parole at the Nov. 19 sentencing.

Told Santos faced three life sentences, Rill said, “Good. I think he’s sick. I think people like him should get the worst.”

Rill has a 4-year-old son and seven months ago had her second baby, her first with her current boyfriend. She has a new life now and if she ever sees or hears from Santos again, she expects it to be only in the newspaper.


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