Cover Story

The Unusual Suspect

by Mary Tutwiler

The bizarre tale of Vince Marinello, the longtime New Orleans’ sportscaster who is about to stand trial in Lafayette for the murder of his wife. Diehard Saints fans are as attached to their opinionated sportscasters as they are to their running backs, and have been since the inception of the Saints in 1967. There was nothing quite so local as sitting in a New Orleans neighborhood bar, drinking a Falstaff, and listening to the Ninth Ward accents of WDSU commentators Buddy Diliberto and Vince Marinello as they chewed on head coach Jim Mora when the Saints went 1-15 in 1980. That was the year Diliberto started watching games with a paper bag over his head. Outspoken, colorful, native sons, they were part of the golden years of broadcasting at Channel 6, where local sports, from winners of the daily double at the Fair Grounds to high school basketball rivalries, were as important as Archie Manning’s passing stats.

So it was certainly a shock when The Times-Picayune reported on Aug. 31, 2006, that Marinello’s wife, Mary Elizabeth, had been shot in the face in a parking lot in Metairie. But even that didn’t hold a candle to the Sept. 8, 2006, screaming headline, “Marinello Booked in Wife’s Murder.” The city was stunned and then transfixed as the bizarre details — disguises, bigamy, a to-do check list — of the alleged murder unfolded.

Two years later, Marinello, 71, will stand trial for second degree murder. The proceedings were moved from the Jefferson Parish Courthouse in Gretna to Lafayette, after attorneys for the defense successfully argued that, because of the publicity, an unbiased jury couldn’t be seated in New Orleans. Twenty-fourth Judicial District Judge Conn Regan will preside. Marinello is being represented by New Orleans defense attorneys Paul Fleming Jr. and Lee Faulkner. Jefferson Parish assistant district attorneys Tommy Block and Vince Paciera lead the prosecution. The trial is scheduled to begin Monday, Dec. 1.

All Vince Marinello had to do was open his mouth, and anybody who heard him would know he was a New Orleans native. The “yat” accent gave him away. The wavy pompadour and sharp dressing were another clue to his heritage. His turf was a part of the upper French Quarter known back in mid-20th century New Orleans as the Italian quarter. Marinello grew up in the working class neighborhood of New Orleans’ upper Ninth Ward, playing basketball and baseball for St. Aloysius (now Brother Martin High School.) Long before pro football made its entry into the Crescent City, the professional sporting event was the opening of racing season at the Fair Grounds. Even as a child, Marinello was drawn to the races at the Fair Grounds, indoctrinated by his grandfather. As an adult, he became a jockey’s agent for Craig Perret, who would go on to win the Kentucky Derby. “Horse racing, boxing,” says former WDSU sportscaster and colleague Ro Brown. “He came up in that kind of era when those sports were important.”

In 1992, Vince Marinello was the sports director at WDSU-TV in New Orleans.

photo courtesy of The Times-Picayune

Marinello began his New Orleans broadcast career at WVUE, Channel 8 in the ’70s. Buddy Diliberto was an institution there, as was the respected news anchor and director Alec Gifford. When Gifford moved over to WDSU in 1980, he took Diliberto and the commentator’s loyal viewers. Marinello followed. “Vince was always considered a second banana to Buddy,” says Gifford. “Buddy was the key man in the sports world here. Vince was his loyal supporter and backup person.” Gifford was close to both men. “Vince and Buddy were cut from the same cloth,” continues Gifford. “They loved the horses. They loved betting. I think they would have gone into a state of catatonic shock if the Fair Grounds had ever closed.”

Within two years the sports department was joined by Ro Brown and Ed Daniels to form a four-man team that hit its stride all through the 1980s. “That was the best television sports department in the history of New Orleans television,” says Brown. “It was four people from New Orleans who really weren’t interested in going to ESPN. We knew the area; we each had our expertise. If it were left up to us, we’d probably all still be there.”

“We had a really good time,” adds Daniels. “Vince covered the Saints for a long time. Went to training camp, to games, to practice. He was a hard working guy and loved his job. He was very passionate, very good at what he did. We had a good office; we had a lot of fun. We’d laugh and cut up. I have a lot of good memories from those days. Vince was a good guy to work alongside of.”

WDSU came under new management in 1993. Diliberto, too homespun for the new management style, moved to WWL-AM talk radio, and after a stint at KOOL 95.7 FM, Marinello joined him. Diliberto was slotted for drive time, where he continued to entertain and enrage New Orleans sports fans. He died of a massive heart attack in January 2005. Marinello, among his other duties over the years, hosted a talk show with the Saint’s reviled head coach Jim Haslett.

“Marinello handled himself on the air very well in some difficult times,” says KADN Fox 15 Operations Manager Mike Mitchell. During the 2005 season, the Saints had a 3-13 record. Saints fans were calling for Haslett’s head. “Haslett can be very intimidating,” says Mitchell, who has interviewed him as well. “He’s a big guy and can stare you down and give you a look like you better not ask this question. It’s a job that nobody in the broadcast business wanted. Times were bad. The Saints stunk, and Haslett was not a very friendly guy to be around. And Vince made that show work in spite of those tough times. He asked Haslett the tough questions and got Haslett to respond, in spite of the intimidation dripping over the radio. As far as that goes, Vince isn’t a person who’s intimidated by anybody. He did a very good job on that.”

And when it came to hanging in there, after the city flooded following Hurricane Katrina, Marinello was one of the voices on WWL that kept the radio station on the air 24 hours a day, explaining what was happening in the drowning city. His local accent reassured residents as they called in or comforted the dislocated while they were out of state. For the last year before his arrest, he co-hosted a nighttime talk show with longtime WWL colleague Robert Mitchell.

Marinello was 66 years old in 2004. He had been separated from his second wife, Andrea Marinello, for about 20 years when he met Mississippi native Mary Elizabeth Norman Caruso, then 41, in February at Rock ’n’ Bowl. The bowling alley and dance hall is a New Orleans zydeco music favorite. A whirlwind courtship resulted in marriage about six months later. But according to The Times-Picayune, the relationship between Vince Marinello and Liz quickly soured.

A year after the wedding, Marinello lashed out at his bride in a handwritten note, dated Oct. 11, 2005, which was later obtained by The Times-Picayune from Liz Marinello’s family. “You are cold, sarcastic, selfish, unfair and, in general, you have become aggravating,” he wrote. He complained that she did not compliment him about a new shirt he was wearing. “I, on the other hand, always tell you how beautiful you look. Do you really believe I like everything you wear? Do you really think I look at you as being beautiful every time?”

Liz discovered her husband had only filed for divorce from his wife, Andrea Marinello, eight days before the wedding. When they went to the altar, Vince was not yet legally divorced. The T-P reported that Liz Marinello learned that her husband was being sued by Andrea Marinello for forgery for securing loans with certificates of deposit belonging to his ex-wife. Liz Marinello filed for divorce July 6, 2006.

The couple was living in separate rooms in the house they had bought together. “Do I still love you like crazy?” Marinello wrote in another note obtained by The T-P. “Am I still in worship of you? Would I do anything, legal or otherwise for you? Do I still adore you? Would I give you my soul? No! Not anymore — not after the past Monday when you acted like a crazy woman, attacking me in every which way.”

The note appears to refer to a fight between the Marinellos on May 29, 2006. Bertha Norman, Liz Marniello’s mother, told The T-P that Vince had pinned her daughter in a corner and that she had to slap and scratch him to get free. Two months later Vince reported the fight to police. On Aug. 7, Liz Marinello was booked with domestic abuse battery for allegedly scratching, punching and hitting her spouse.

Vince Marinello moved out and into a FEMA trailer parked in the driveway of the flooded house he still owned in Lakeview. He was out of town Sept. 1, at a Saints pre-season game in Jackson, Miss., when at about 4 p.m. that afternoon, Liz Marinello was shot twice in the face while walking to her car in a parking lot in Old Metairie.

She was found with her car keys and her purse with wallet and cell phone inside, still clenched in her hand. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee described the shooting as a botched robbery attempt. Police, according to The T-P, were looking for “a scruffy-looking man” wearing a dark shirt, spotted by witnesses peddling away from the scene on a bicycle. Marinello returned from Mississippi for questioning. Liz Marinello died Friday, Sept. 2, just before 2 p.m. at Charity Hospital Trauma Center in Elmwood.

On Sept. 6, 2006, Vince Marinello (center) watches as police search his FEMA trailer during the investigation of his wife’s murder.

photo courtesy of The Times-Picayune

The killing shook up Old Metairie, and neighbors, who had felt their enclave was exempt from shootings more prevalent in other sections of the city, were looking over their shoulders. By Wednesday, Sept. 3, details of the Marinellos’ acrimonious split were being aired in the news. Four days later, on Sept. 7, news crews filmed police searching Vince Marinello’s FEMA trailer and Lakeview house.

On Friday morning, Sept. 8, the city of New Orleans woke up to headlines proclaiming Marinello had been booked for his wife’s murder. The “scruffy-looking man” pedaling away from the scene on a bicycle was allegedly Marinello, disguised under a false beard and mustache. Police detectives didn’t even have to put together the pieces. They were already there, written down on a hand-written checklist. The sportscaster’s football game alibi dissolved when friends, who met him at the game, disclosed that he arrived in Mississippi an hour later than he had told police, enough time to commit the murder and still make the three-hour drive to Jackson.

But it was the to-do list that nailed the case as far as police were concerned. In a press conference that now-deceased Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee gave on Sept. 7, Lee detailed the investigation up to the discovery of the note and Marinello’s arrest. Shortly after the news broke that Liz Marinello was killed, a costume shop owner contacted police with the information that Marinello had bought a mustache from him. A Jefferson Parish gun dealer also came forward, telling authorities he had checked out a .38 caliber pistol for Marinello and sold him a box of speciality ammunition, Nyclad bullets. Liz Marinello was killed with round from a .38, and the bullet removed from her body was a Nyclad. “That round is so special,” Lee told The T-P, “it tightens the noose.”

Search warrant in hand, the police rummaged through Marinello’s FEMA trailer and discovered the list. It details what to wear: “mustache, black tennis shoes, gloves,” and how to dispose of the evidence: “bike-paint, clothes-burn, gun-river on way to Mama.” A second page shows a map of the parking lot where Liz Marinello died and has Harry Lee’s name written on it. Lee, who was a long time friend of Marinello, told The T-P he had no idea why his name was on the list. Marinello was booked on one count of second-degree murder, which carries a life sentence. Bail was initially set at $250,000 but later raised to $750,000 after a grand jury indicted him. He has since been under house arrest.

Vince Marinello at the Jefferson Parish Courthouse for pretrial motions on Oct. 17, 2008

photo courtesy of The Times-Picayune

T-P columnist James Gill opened his Sept. 10 column with this salvo: “Vince Marinello should have added one more item to his to-do: DESTROY THIS LIST, STUPID.” Gill continued, “Nobody who knows Vince Marinello regards him as a towering intellect, but he couldn’t possibly be this dumb. He must have wanted to get caught. ... A man intent on killing his wife is unlikely to be so absent-minded that he needs to remind himself to buy bullets. Marinello was just making it easy for the cops.”

Others are not so acerbic. “I was shocked when this indictment came down,” says Gifford. “I would never have believed that Vince would have done something like this.”

“I’ve tried to steer clear of it,” added Daniels. “I’m saddened by the whole process. There are some things that you think you’ll never see in life. I’m kind of at a loss for words.”

Ro Brown won’t give up on his old colleague. “He was my friend then; he’s my friend now. I’ve had people who know Vince, who worked with him, who can’t believe I would even lower myself to talk to him now. Well, I don’t know what happened; I wasn’t here. He was my friend 25 years ago. It’s not up to me to decide what he did or if he did or whatever. I can only go by the Vince Marinello I know.”

Marinello has been close-lipped since his arrest, although he did tell the press, after his indictment, that he wouldn’t be tried by the media. “I’ll have my day in court,” he said. The trial was postponed by wrangling in the courtroom, a change of venue, and hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

But Marinello’s day in court is about to dawn. It arrives Monday, at the federal courthouse in Lafayette.