Pam, with son Tim, 3, dressed for Sunday school.
Esther Rufo was jolted from a deep sleep by the sound of the doorbell. A grim trio was waiting outside: a police officer, a state trooper, and the police department chaplain. For Esther and her husband, Paul, their immaculate three-bedroom ranch had always been an inviting place, the site of holiday gatherings and Sunday dinners after church with their kids and grandkids. But this morning a stark grief rolled through the rooms as the chaplain, Jim Corl, said the unthinkable: Esther and Paul's 44-year-old daughter, Pam, had been murdered. And the murderer was Pam's 21-year-old son, Tim.
"There was an altercation between Pam and Tim, and Pam didn't make it. She died" was how Corl put it. Esther, still in her pajamas, doubled over.
All Paul could manage was, "Oh my God." Slumped in a kitchen chair, Esther said, "They loved each other. This can't be. Are you sure, Jim? Are you sure?"
He was sure. At that very moment, Tim was down at the police station, having concluded his grisly confession: Earlier that evening, in a fit of rage, he'd punched his mother in the face and neck, shoved her to the floor, bludgeoned her with a desk clock, and stabbed her repeatedly with kitchen knives. Then Tim covered Pam's body with a quilt, turned out the lights, retreated to his bedroom, and started cutting himself: one wrist, then the other, then his neck, before realizing that he didn't have it in him to kill himself.
As the facts sank in, Esther's mind reeled. Their lives had always flowed in a safe and predictable rhythm of twice-weekly religious services and volunteering at the church—Esther taught Sunday school for a time while Paul did maintenance work. They'd strived so hard for so long to build a healthy, stable life. But now their middle child was dead. And their oldest grandson, the meek perfectionist who barely spoke at family functions, had his mother's blood on his hands.
The three men left. Soon the house would fill with distraught relatives and friends: Paul and Esther's surviving daughter, Pauline; their son, Stephen; and of course the minister of their church, Frank Giuliano—Brother Frank, as he is known. All offered tearful support during this, the worst moment of any of their lives. What Esther didn't realize was that an even greater test of her fortitude and faith was yet to come.
At a maximum security prison in northern New York, Tim Ginocchetti, clean-shaven, with close-cropped hair, looks neat and tidy in his uniform and rimless glasses. Greeting a visitor, he extends his hand and bows from the waist. During a daylong interview, Tim—now 24 and facing at least nine more years in prison—speaks lovingly of his parents and his "Nanni" Esther, and describes a happy childhood.
Happy but eccentric. Tim and his parents resided in the caretaker's house on property owned by their beloved place of worship, the Christian Apostolic Church near Syracuse, New York. When retreats weren't in session, they lived in isolation, surrounded by empty dormitories. Tim had no siblings and few friends, and he was so obsessed with television—wholesome fare such as Touched by an Angel and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman—that when his parents punished him by revoking TV privileges, he carefully cut out plot descriptions in the local listings of each missed episode so he could hunt down the reruns. With a compulsive attention to detail, he hoarded boxes of his elementary school papers and kept meticulous scrapbooks on major news events.
By the time Tim entered his teens, his awkwardness gave way to depression; he battled a host of anxieties as it dawned on him that he might be gay. "I didn't know who I was, what I was," he says now. But he couldn't share his secrets with anyone—not his parents, and certainly not Brother Frank, the looming authority figure in his family's life.
In the early 1950s, Brother Frank made a name for himself among a small network of evangelical churches in the Northeast that catered to working-class Italian-Americans. Emphasizing the notion of a wrathful, if loving, God who could be appeased only by utter obeisance, Brother Frank was a uniquely compelling orator, with a charismatic speaking style and a cerebral take on the Bible; for a fledgling community of worshippers seeking structure and security, it was easy to be drawn in by his moral certainty. By 1952 he had moved to Syracuse and founded what he called the Christian Apostolic Church, a devout congregation that is unaffiliated with any specific denomination.