Suffolk County police units responded by midnight. There was no doubt about the source of the sound. They found the body of an elderly, large-framed African-American man in the middle of the grove, bathed in so much blood it looked as if the ground itself was bleeding. No ID, no wallet. From the Salvation-Army style of his clothes, he could’ve been homeless. He’d been stabbed multiple times, though the fatal wound had to have been the vicious slash that sliced into his heart after splitting his chest open from nipple to nipple. He was a barrel-chested man, and after he’d fallen on his back, the blood from the gash had flowed back toward his face, so that by the time the police found him his head was a mask of congealed red.
I didn’t know much about him or his work at the time, but as a top editor at Real Story, I knew Robonnet was good material. One of 13 kids, raised in and around New Orleans. Confined to institutions for the feeble-minded (a term much used back in the day) most of his childhood. Became a self-taught painter later in life, known for his incredible visionary canvases. Emerged as one of the symbols of New Orleans’ post-Katrina renaissance.
And now he was dead, catching some nasty and obsessive knifework in the middle of a suburban park in Long Island, N.Y. I assigned reporters to cover the killing; I edited the posts that ran on the website and the larger story that ran in the magazine. Robonnet had been visiting his daughter’s house on the north shore of Nassau County that night and he’d gone out for a drive. How and/or why did he end up maybe 50 miles away, slaughtered in a small Suffolk County town where no one knew him? I just wanted to know. I thought it would make a good story and I just wanted to know.
I had no idea where my curiosity was going to lead.