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Greenwich Village's Only Murder of 2011 is a Double Tragedy

By Murray Weiss | October 19, 2011 7:05am

A career criminal arrested for a Morningside Heights burglary is the NYPD's prime suspect in the murder of an 83-year-old Greenwich Village man six months ago — the first and only person slain in the Village this year.

Trouble is, prosecutors won't charge him.

Cops believe there's enough evidence to charge ex-con Leroy Wright, 55, for the murder of Joseph Sibilla, sources told "On the Inside." A Village fixture who was never seen without his springer spaniel, Chester, Sibilla was assaulted April 29 in his ground-floor apartment on West 12th Street.

He died two weeks later.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office keeps asking police for more evidence. Some prosecutors want ironclad, air-tight cases before someone is charged. But the world doesn't always wrap up so neatly.

And there are two tragedies here. One is the friction between law enforcement agencies that is possibly delaying justice for a murder victim. The other is that the one attack led to two deaths — Sibilla and his loyal friend, Chester.

Joseph Sibilla was a retired psychologist, electrical engineer and pilot whose family had owned a popular French bakery at West 8th and Greenwich streets. He lived for decades in the Village with his wife, Marie, also a psychologist, who he met in 1970 on a blind date and quickly married.

The Sibillas were a vibrant couple involved in the local First Presbyterian Church and singing group The Showstoppers. They were childless, but loved dogs.

The couple adopted their last dog when a nephew called in 1985 and said he and his wife had just had twins and were looking for a new home for their year-old English springer spaniel, family members told "On The Inside." The Sibillas happily agreed.

They named the white-and-tan pup Chester after the upstate town where the Sibilla’s kept a weekend home and where Joe kept his small plane.

Chester went everywhere with the Sibillas. He even took a few spins in the air. And after Marie died four years ago, Joe and Chester grew even closer.

"Joe and Chester were inseparable," Sibilla's sister-in-law, Rosamond Lancia, explained.

Even at the age of 83, the still-vibrant Sibilla could be seen using a cane, and later a walker, leading his aging Chester along Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the Village. Few people knew it, but Chester was in extremely poor health, and had lost his sight and hearing. Joe knew Chester likely should have been put down.

"Joe just did not have the heart to do it," Sibilla’s sister-in-law, Rosamond Lancia, said.

“Chester had just been to the vet again and Joe had spent a lot of money, and I said, 'Joe, you can’t keep doing this,’ and he said, 'This will be the last time, I swear.'"

In the end, Sibilla’s devotion to Chester may have cost him his life — and Chester’s, too.

When Sibilla had to leave his apartment, he frequently left the rear door ajar for Chester to use the patio. It was a familiar route for his frail and aging companion, who spent much of the day on a sofa and, at night, at the foot of Sibilla’s bed.

That rear door was apparently open April 29 when Sibilla returned from an errand and found an intruder, believed to be Wright, rummaging through his bedroom. The thug turned on him and slammed Sibella in the face, knocking out several teeth and fracturing his nose and right eye socket.

The thief fled with a wallet.

"Joe was sitting in the kitchen wiping blood from his face when his aide came in,” his-sister-in-law continued.  “He said he saw someone in his bedroom going through his drawers, who was wearing gloves.”

An ambulance took him to the hospital.

Patrol officers initially thought Sibilla had fallen, and may have lost a few hours of investigative time before it became clear he was an assault victim. His apartment then quickly filled with cops and became a roped-off crime scene.

Some cops fed Chester. Others kept the rear door open for him, Lancia said.

But Chester started to miss his master, and all the activity was upsetting him. Even though Sibilla's nephew took Chester in, he died a few days later.

"I guess you could say Chester died of a broken heart," Lancia said.

No one had the heart to tell Sibilla.

"Joe would ask how Chester was," Lancia said. “We just told him he was doing fine. We said we were taking good care of him and he was OK.”

Joseph Sibilla died May 10. “We never told him Chester died,” Lancia said.

Ten days later, Wright was picked up in connection with another burglary. This one occurred in Morningside Heights Nov. 15, 2010.  His DNA was recovered from a mismatched pair of white and black gloves left at the scene. Police say in that case Wright pushed in an air conditioner and shimmied through the gap. He stole a jewelry box filled with rings and bracelets, prosecutors say.
Wright has been held in a Rikers Island cell on $70,000 bail since May for the Morningside Heights burglary. He is also considered a suspect in two more burglaries in Gramercy, and has a rap sheet going back three decades. 

Several weeks ago, the Medical Examiner finally determined that Sibilla’s death was a homicide.

Sibilla’s family is hopeful that his killer will face justice. The cops, however, are frustrated.

They say their proof lies with surveillance tapes — one of which was released by the NYPD — showing Wright in Sibilla's building on the day of the attack.

But that hasn't been enough to satisfy prosecutors. Even with Wright behind bars, and seemingly going nowhere, it has been nearly six months since Sibilla died. There may not be more evidence. 

It is time to start to find justice for Sibilla.  And, perhaps in some measure, the other victim in this New York murder story — Sibilla’s “inseparable” companion.