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Wrestling with a family legacy

Published Sep. 3, 2005

A pair of homicides bookends his life.

Vincent LaMarca, 55, was a decorated police officer from Long Island who has since retired to Punta Gorda. He was 11 when his father was executed for a Long Island kidnap-murder _ and 49 when his son was imprisoned for manslaughter.

Robert De Niro plays LaMarca in the new movie City by the Sea, based on a 1997 Esquire magazine story written by the late Daily News Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Michael McAlary.

"De Niro does an astounding job of catching the essence of a divorced father trying to save his son," LaMarca says. "He actually came up to me the other day, hugged me and thanked me. I kept saying, "Hey, man, it's the other way around.' "

City by the Sea, which opened Friday, would never have been made if not for the persistence of McAlary. He was covering a routine homicide _ the victim was James Winston, whose tattooed body washed ashore at Rockaway Beach on Oct. 9, 1996.

McAlary learned that the prime suspect was a druggie named Joey LaMarca, 24, son of a legendary retired Long Beach, N.Y., cop. And in Vincent LaMarca, McAlary uncovered an emotionally conflicted real-life character no reader would believe in fiction.

"When McAlary found out who the suspect was, a couple of detectives told him that my father, Angelo LaMarca, was executed in Sing Sing in 1958 for a horribly botched kidnapping in which a baby died," LaMarca says.

On July 4, 1956, Angelo LaMarca kidnapped 1-month-old Peter Weinberger from his home in Westbury and asked for $2,000 ransom. When a nervous Angelo reconnoitered the ransom drop and saw the cops and reporters setting up a trap, he fled, leaving the 9-pound infant face-down in the woods. The baby suffocated.

"I know it's hard for people to understand, but I remember my dad as a loving father," Vincent LaMarca says. "I had polio as a kid, and I remember him getting up and bathing me and rubbing down my legs every morning before he went to work and every night when he came home. I loved him. It tore me apart when he did this horrible thing. But it taught me a lifelong lesson about responsibility. And I became a cop so that no one could ever say one single bad thing about me (and so I could) restore the family name."

But LaMarca says he will never forget the cruel remarks of classmates, his mother's anguish or the media frenzy after his final Death Row visit to his father.

"I never had a warm spot in my heart for reporters," LaMarca says. "So when McAlary called to ask me about my father and son, I told him where to go and hung up."

But McAlary's tenacity paid off.

"He called me three times," LaMarca says. "I was running out of ways to tell him to go to hell."

Then LaMarca listened to Susan, his wife of 25 years.

"I told Vinnie that McAlary was going to write the story with his input or without it," says Susan LaMarca, played by Frances McDormand in the film. "I told him, "You better get involved to have some influence.' "

LaMarca called McAlary back.

"He arrived on my doorstep in Florida the next morning," he says. And McAlary had his story.

Before it appeared in Esquire, an early draft of the story was given to producer Brad Grey.

"Brad then showed it to me," says producer Matt Baer. "I was floored by the quality of the writing, the emotions it explored."

The decision was made to have the film version of Vincent LaMarca investigate a murder in which his own son is the prime suspect, "and we had the emotional hook."

Meanwhile, Joey LaMarca pleaded guilty to manslaughter and is doing 15 to 25 years at a New York prison. Mike McAlary died of colon cancer on Christmas Day 1998, soon after winning the Pulitzer for his stories on the Abner Louima police brutality case.

LaMarca, who divorced his first wife, Linda, in 1977, gets along well with his other child from that marriage (Joey's older brother, John, 33), as well as three adult stepchildren from Susan's first marriage. Vinnie says that, before Joey's crime, he and his younger son had little contact.

"After (my) divorce, the animosity between me and my ex-wife made it difficult for me to pick up young Joey, so I just stopped trying," he says. "I'm guilty of that. Joey's guilty of his crime.

"But in six years in jail, Joey really has learned responsibility," LaMarca says. "He's found his humanity, his core. And, oddly, we've found each other."

These days father and son stay in close touch by letter, phone and jail visits. "Joey could be out in 10 years," LaMarca says. "And in a strange kind of way, my son's crime helped me come to grips with my father's. Hopefully, it's made me a better father. And Joey a better son. I believe a good and changed man will step out.

"I'll be waiting at the gate."