A College Kid Turns Homicidal
“Family Ties” (Forensic Files)
This week, it’s back to Forensic Files, with “Family Ties” (no relation to the 1980s sitcom of the same name).
The episode was produced in 2009, toward the end of Forensic Files’ run, and delves into the ax attack on Joan and Peter Porco, a couple from Bethlehem, New York.
The story is something of a middle-class version of the Menendez brothers saga.
Flights of fancy. In the case of the Porcos, there was only one bad son, Christopher, a 21-year-old University of Rochester student. His brother, Jonathan, 23, was on a nuclear submarine at the time of the crime and not implicated.
In the years leading up to the assault on his mother and father, Christopher Porco had told his school friends tall tales about having a wealthy family with extensive real estate holdings and vacation homes. He also committed a number of financial crimes against his parents.
He used ill-gotten loans to pay for a $16,450 yellow Jeep Wrangler and whatever other accoutrements one needs to impersonate a scion of landed gentry.
And he neglected to tell his parents that the university had suspended him because of poor grades and he had wasted his $30,000 in tuition money. He needed another $30,000 once Rochester let him back in.
A way out. All in all, Christopher was in the hole for at least $50,000 — a lot of debt, but not insurmountable.
Instead of working out a plan to repay his parents, he tried to avoid them, then decided to kill them. He had his eye on their $1 million life insurance payout, authorities believe.
Here’s a recap of the Forensic Files episode plus some additional facts about the Porco case drawn from Crime Library, 48 Hours, and Albany’s Times Union newspaper.
On November 15, 2004, law clerk Peter Porco, 52, didn’t show up for work, so his colleague Michael Hart stopped by his house on Brockley Drive to check on him.
Peering in the front-door window, Hart saw Peter’s body sprawled on the floor amid a huge amount of blood.
The authorities would later determine Porco had been struck with an ax 16 times.
Apparent burglary. The police found Joan Porco, 54, in the bedroom. Like her husband, she had been hit with an ax, but only three times. The assault had broken her jaw, destroyed one of her eyes, and penetrated her skull deeply enough to expose her brain.
But she was alive and conscious.
Before paramedics took her to the hospital, Detective Christopher Bowdish questioned her about the attacker. In the presence of Bowdish as well as paramedics on the scene, she nodded yes when asked whether it was her younger son.
Police found that someone had smashed the house’s burglar alarm, snipped the phone line, and opened a window and cut a hole in the screen.
A newspaper reporter first informed Chris Porco about the murder, and he rushed home from Rochester to see his mother in Albany Medical Center, where she had undergone 12 hours of surgery. He told police he was sleeping in the lounge of his dormitory, Munro House, during the time of the attacks.
Mob link. Investigators had a few leads on other suspects. One, an unhappy litigant in a custody case, had vowed revenge against Peter. But the man had a good alibi.
There was also a theory involving organized crime. Perhaps a former loan shark named Frank “Frankie the Fireman” Porco — a great uncle of Peter’s — had been considering ratting out his mob associates, and they killed Peter as a warning not to.
But Frankie was in jail specifically because he refused to cooperate, so that theory evaporated.
Investigators discovered more-compelling evidence against Christopher Porco.
For one, someone had burglarized the Porco’s house in 2002 and 2003, and Christopher was the No. 1 suspect. He used eBay to sell computer equipment stolen from his parents and a veterinary hospital where he worked part time.
Surveillance cameras. Investigators found surveillance video of a yellow Jeep that supported their contention that Christopher traveled 232 miles from Rochester to the Porco’s house the night of the attack, assaulted his mother and father with an ax, and high-tailed it back to Rochester.
Police couldn’t find any New York State Thruway E-ZPass data on the yellow Jeep, but toll booth attendants at the cash-only lanes said they thought they remembered seeing the car with Christopher in the driver’s seat.
The video evidence came from the university. It had footage of the yellow Jeep leaving and returning to campus at an interval that fit a realistic timeline for commission of the crime:
• 10:30 p.m. Jeep left Rochester campus
• 2:14 a.m. Burglar alarm deactivated at parents’ home
• 4:59 a.m. Phone line cut (this was 2004, when land lines were relevant)
• 8:30 a.m. Jeep returned to campus
Police believe Christopher cut the hole in the window to make it look like a burglary. Nothing was stolen from the house.
Windfall expected. Jonathan Porco, an officer in the U.S. Navy, said that his brother was one of a handful of people who knew the alarm’s four-digit deactivation code. Christopher smashed the alarm box in a failed attempt to mask the fact that someone had punched the correct code in, investigators theorized.
There was more: Christopher had sought financial advice shortly before the ax attack. He told an investment professional he was coming into some money, investigators discovered.
And of course, they found the evidence about those loans that Christopher had taken out fraudulently — using his parents as cosigners without their knowledge.
Investigators also thought Christopher chose an ax as his weapon in the belief it would divert all suspicion to his mob-involved relative “Frankie the Fireman.”
Buddies no help. The trial took place in July of 2006 with Chief Assistant District Attorney Michael P. McDermott leading the prosecution and lawyers Terence Kindlon and Laurie Shanks defending the accused.
The prosecution had no forensic evidence, except for a New York Thruway ticket that allegedly carried Christopher’s mitochondrial DNA. Investigators theorized he wore scrubs from the veterinary office during the assault and then destroyed or hid them.
A colleague testified that Christopher had experience cleaning up after surgical procedures.
Nine of Christopher’s fraternity brothers refuted his story that he was asleep in the lounge at Rochester, and a neighbor driving by the Porco’s house claimed he glimpsed the Jeep in the driveway on the night of the attacks. Still, there were no eyewitnesses placing Christopher directly at the crime scene inside the house.
Here’s the heart-breaking aspect of the trial: Joan Porco stood by her son through everything. She accompanied him to court and testified for the defense.
Mother’s love. She told the jury she didn’t recall implicating Christopher the night of the attack and that her child would never commit a heinous crime like the one that killed her husband and disfigured her.
She maintained that while Christopher’s financial misdeeds angered her and Peter, they all loved one another and wanted to work on their relationship.
In fact, after Christopher’s 2005 indictment for second-degree murder and attempted murder, Joan had scraped together $250,000 for his bail. The two walked to court with their arms linked.
None of that helped. A jury quickly convicted Christopher on the strength of the timeline the prosecution constructed.
He got 50 years to life and is at the Clinton Correction Facility in Dannemora, New York.
That’s all for this week’s post, but I’d like to continue next Thursday with a look at some of the other interesting parts of the Christopher Porco drama, including the way his doomed father “woke up” after the attack, the conflicting tales about whether Christopher deserved the “Romeo Killer” nickname a made-for-TV movie gave him, and his recent efforts to exit his maximum-security residence.
Until next week, cheers.— RR
Update: Read Part 2 of the Christopher Porco story.