Freedom is Denied to Opera House
The New York Times
June 27, 2004
It was inevitable that tabloid
headline writers would call it the "Phantom of the Opera" murder.
In July 1980, Helen Hagnes Muntiks, a violinist in an
orchestra performing with the Berlin Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera
House, did not return to the orchestra pit after an intermission. Her
nude body was later found in a ventilation shaft in the building.
The "phantom" in the internationally publicized case
turned out to be Craig S. Crimmins, 21, a Met stagehand. In 1981, a jury
convicted him of murder, finding that after trying to rape Ms. Mintiks,
31, in a stairwell, he forced her to the rouf and kicked her into the
The jurors rejected the defense argument that
Manhattan detectives had pressured Mr. Crimmins into falsely admitting
he was guilty of the crime. He was sentenced to 20 years to life, making
him eligible for parole in 2001.
Twice denied parole, Mr. Crimmins, now 45, is in the
Auburn Correctional Facility in Auburn, N.Y., with his next parole
hearing scheduled for November.
"I'm sincerely sorry for what I've done, and I wish I
could take it back," he said at his last hearing, in 2002. He said
nothing about his confession having been coerced, according too
transcript of the hearing.
"I was drank," he said. "She slapped me in the face
and kneed me is the groin, and I don't know, something snapped in my
brain." He maintained that he had "tried to leave her" on the roof, but
"she kept jumping up and down" until he gave her "one kick" and she "just
slipped, rolled right in" in the shaft.
"If you feel that I ain't been in prison long enough
and hit me, aube is," Mr. Crimmins said.
So it was. Noting also that he used heroin in 2001,
the parole commissioners said, "Releasing you to the community would
make a mockery of the criminal justice system."
Craig Crimmins, Phantom of the
By C. J. Sullivan - NYPress.com
November 27, 2001
Growing up on a farm in
Canada, Helen Hagnes learned to love the violin, and her parents could
see that she had a gift for the notoriously difficult instrument. As
Hagnes practiced, she saw herself playing at a huge opera house. The
violin would take her away from beautiful yet parochial Canada.
Hagnes earned a
scholarship to North Carolina School of the Arts and graduated in 1973.
She is now listed on the university’s website as one of their missing
alumni. After graduating there, Hagnes went on to Europe and studied
under master violinists in Switzerland and Italy. She moved back to
America and married. She and her sculptor husband settled in New York
City. Here her dream of playing classical music professionally came true:
she earned a violin seat in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra pit.
That was where the Bronx stepped
in and smashed her dreams to the ground, like it has so many others.
On July 23, 1980, Helen Hagnes
was 30 and playing violin that night for the Berlin ballet. The ballet
being performed was The Idiot. The last scene is of a woman being
stabbed to death. After the first act, Hagnes left her seat and went
into the back corridors of Lincoln Center. She never told anyone where
she was going. When the second act began other musicians noted her empty
chair and assumed she had gotten sick.
The next time they heard of
Helen Hagnes, she was being taken away in a body bag. She had been
choked, beaten and thrown to her death down an airshaft by an unknown
assailant, who soon came to be known as "The Phantom of the Opera."
The Hagnes murder created a
tabloid stir. Weeks passed and the investigation stalled. Old boyfriends
were checked out. All of her fellow employees seemed to have good alibis.
Then the detectives caught a break. A Bronx stagehand, Craig Crimmins,
21, broke under questioning. He was arrested for Hagnes’ murder.
Crimmins was an Irish Catholic
kid from the Mosholu Pkwy. area in the north section of the Bronx. His
babyish looks and immature demeanor were a surprise to a city expecting
some kind of fiend. Crimmins went for the altar boy look during his
The story came out that on July
23 Crimmins got lit up at work. Booze and pot left him in a staggering
state as he wandered around the back corridors of Lincoln Center. There
he ran into Hagnes and propositioned her. When she blew him off he beat
her, tied her up and threw her down the air shaft, where she died.
Crimmins was sentenced to 20-years-to-life and the Phantom of the Opera
A few years back I corresponded
with Craig Crimmins when he was at Comstock prison. He wrote with a
childlike scrawl, yet the missives were decently written–that may be
because the one good thing Crimmins claims he got out of prison was his
GED. Since writing me he has been transferred to Ossining. I recently
tried to get in touch with him but received no answer. I called his
mother, but her phone was disconnected with no further information.
In his correspondence Crimmins
never discussed Helen Hagnes or the murder at the Met, but he offered a
detailed look into prison life. He sent me a recent photograph, and the
once 21-year-old kid who looked 14 now had some gravity to him. Prison
put some weight, muscle and facial hair on him; in his early middle age
he looks like a fit carpenter or electrician or any other job an Irish
kid from the Bronx might hold.
Crimmins: "Right now I’m in the
worst prison in the state. Everyday inmates are cutting each other with
razor blades, inmates beating up officers, officers beating up inmates.
Every single day wild things are happening here. I really don’t blame
the cons because it’s the way they are treated. You treat someone like
an animal they will act like one. Could you picture killing someone over
a pack of cigarettes? It happens."
He wrote about the tension
between blacks and whites in prison. "Prisoners and prisons are very
racist. More so with the black population. I’ve got into a few beefs
over the words cracker and white boy myself. Whenever you hear a black
person speaking of white people its always cracker this, cracker that…
Everything here is run by the black population. For example take
something like the TVs. Only black shows are watched…The prison system
bends to their every wish. Believe me its no fun if you are white in
I asked him how common sexual
assault was in prison.
"Rape is very rare. In my years
I never saw it happen. That happened more in the old days because there
was no trailer visits. It does happen but it is rare. Its not like
people on the outside would think. When I first went away I was 21 and
looked 14. My biggest fear was that, but like I said I never saw it. I
saw many inmates having sex with each other willing. There are more than
enough fags to go around."
Crimmins went on to lament the
food served in prison.
"I wouldn’t give the food here
to a dog. If you have to count on prison food you’re in trouble. We have
commissary twice a month. You can spend $55 on food and $16 on stamps
each time. I live off of tuna fish. Plus you can get a 35 lb. Food
package from home once a month. If you don’t have someone sending you
money like most don’t you wont be eating good."
What was the worst thing about
doing a long bid in a New York state prison?
"The worst thing about prison is
not having a life period. Locked in a cell thinking about what’s going
on in the outside world. Missing your family and friends. Wondering what
ex-girlfriends and friends are doing while you are locked in a cell.
Wondering if they miss you like you miss them."
Given that Crimmins is a veteran
con, how did he see prison change over the course of his incarceration?
"Prison has changed since 1981
because then you didn’t have all this razor tag they play now. Back then
if you had a razor cut on your face it was because you were marked a rat.
Now 80% of the inmates have razor tags on them… It’s gonna get a lot
worse before it gets better, and a lot of people are gonna die in here
and out there before things turn around."
Crimmins had this warning to New
"I believe the crime rate is so
low in the city because they are keeping inmates longer. At some point a
bad batch is gonna get out and the crime rate will blow sky high. It use
to be you did the time the judge gave you and you went home. Now you do
the time your judge gave you plus what the parole board gives you. I’ll
be 41 when I see the parole board and probably 50 when I get out."
Crimmins was not paroled on his
first visit to the board. His next shot at freedom is November of 2002.
"They call my sentence 20 years
to life. They should call it 20 years to the board. It really doesn’t
matter if you are good or bad Santa doesn’t care."
2 psychologists testify Crimmins has verbal
By E. R. Shipp - The New York Times
May 22, 1981
Two psychologists - one who tested Craig S. Crimmins
when he was 13 years old and another who tested him earlier this month -
testified yesterday that he had a long history of learning disabilities.
Mr. Crimmins, a former stagehand who is now 22 years
old, is on trial in State Supreme Court in Manhattan for the murder and
attempted rape of Helen Hagnes, a violinist, who was slain at the
Metropolitan Opera House last July 23.
The psychologists, Dr. Lenore Migdal and Dr. Estelle
Tchack, said the defendant's disabilities manifested themselves in a
poor memory, short attention span, frequent confusion, an inability to
understand words or ''think deeply'' and attempts to extract himself
from difficult situations by readily agreeing with what is told to him.
The defense attorneys, Lawrence Hochheiser and
Kenneth J. Aronson, have described Mr. Crimmins as ''highly suggestible''
and have contended that he was coerced by shrewd and manipulative
detectives into admitting he had killed the 31-year-old violinist, who
was in an orchestra playing at a performance of the Berlin Ballet. Judge
to Limit Testimony
While allowing the expert testimony, Acting Justice
Richard G. Denzer has indicated that he wants to avoid details of Mr.
Crimmins's ''entire emotional life.''
Dr. Migdal evaluated Mr. Crimmins on several
occasions between September 1972 and March 1973 when he was a fourth-grade
student. She said he had been referred to the Montefiore Hospital
Learning Center, where she was then working, because he ''wasn't
interested in school.''
During cross-examination, Roger S. Hayes, the
prosecutor, reminded Dr. Migdal she had indicated in her original report
on Mr. Crimmins that he had been referred to the center because he was
''hostile'' to his teachers and was a ''truant.''
Dr. Migdal said Mr. Crimmins would pretend to
understand conversations rather than admit that he did not. ''The only
way we could be sure he understood what was said to him was for him to
repeat it,'' she said. Of his functioning under stress, she observed: ''If
pushed too much, he would agree.'' Dr. Tchack, whose testimony will
continue this morning, said her tests showed that Mr. Crimmins is now
reading on a fourth-grade level, while spelling on a third-grade level.
She said that ''there is almost no difference'' between these results
and findings of Dr. Migdal in 1972.
Both psychologists said they had found that Mr.
Crimmins is much more agile in tasks ''that did not require much verbal
Craig S. Crimmins was convicted
of murdering a young violinist, Helen Hagnes, and dumping her body down
an air shaft at the Metropolitan Opera in 1980.
(Photo: The New York Times)
A young violinist, Helen Hagnes,
was thrown down an air shaft — nude, bound and gagged — from the rooftop
of the Metropolitan Opera House in 1980.
(Photo: The New York Times)
A view down the air shaft where
the body of Helen Hagnes was found, from the
rooftop of the Metropolitan
Opera House at Lincoln Center.
(Photo: Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times)