A Funeral Director Preys on an Innocent
“Undertaken,” Forensic Files
Frankie Pullian’s murder is one of those stories that simultaneously affirm and deny faith in human nature.
A band of fraudsters put into motion a plan to kill Pullian, a 29-year-old errand runner at a funeral parlor, and pocket $980,000 from life insurance policies.
Justice exists. The culprits thought no one would pay much attention to Pullian’s death because he lived in relative obscurity with no family near him in Passaic County, New Jersey.
But society cared. The criminal justice system worked. It took them a few years, but authorities determined how Pullian had really ended up lifeless underneath a Ford Maverick and put three of the conspirators in prison.
The crime happened back in 1980, so for this week, I hunted around to find out whether the perpetrators are still alive and what happened to them.
Guy Friday. But first, here’s a recap of “Undertaken,” the Forensic Files episode about the case, along with other information from internet research.
Frankie Pullian joined the army after high school but received an early discharge because of what Forensic Files called a neurological impairment. An Asbury Park Press story from 1982 described him as retarded.
Whatever the case, he functioned highly enough to take a job with the E. Lee White Funeral Home in Paterson, New Jersey.
White hired Pullian to wash funeral limousines and perform other assorted tasks. Pullian earned $7,500 to $10,000 a year.
Forgotten scandal. Pullian (as well as Forensic Files) apparently overlooked a bit of trouble the business experienced back in 1975.
The state of New Jersey stripped E. Lee White of certification to conduct funerals because of unethical business practices including the “unconscionable” practice of marking up caskets to “four times their wholesale cost,” according to an Asbury Park Press account from July 15, 1975.
The New York Times reported that the revocation was permanent, but somehow, E. Lee White resurrected his reputation and operations within a few years.
Newspaper accounts published after 1980 describe him as a “respected civic leader,” and E. Lee White Funeral Home was open for business.
Cruel quartet. Meanwhile, White had progressed from crooked to homicidal. He hoped to parlay his investment in the innocent Pullian into a six-figure payoff.
In the eight months preceding the murder on April 8, 1980, White and his wife, Erna, and associates Lawrence Scott and William Brown started taking out insurance policies on Pullian, forging his signature, and naming themselves as the beneficiaries.
Newspaper accounts give Scott’s profession as truck driver or construction worker and Brown’s as a Prudential Insurance employee, but the two apparently did some kind of work for White’s funeral parlor as well.
Large indemnity. Erna White, a public school teacher, obtained one of the insurance policies on Pullian by claiming she was his sister. She signed the policy “Erna Boone,” her maiden name.
Pullian didn’t have a sister.
One of the policies offered an extra $350,000 if the insured party died in an accident.
Ready to pounce. Investigators believed that E. Lee White was the mastermind behind the crime and had started planning it several years ahead of time — and possibly hired Pullian with the intent of killing him.
Meanwhile, Pullian “idealized White and considered White a father figure,” according to N.J. Superior Court documents.
With all the insurance policies in place, White arranged for someone — the police never determined who — to kill Pullian, run over his body with the car, and abandon the vehicle in an alley so it looked like an accidental hit and run.
Everything worked as planned at first. Emergency services took Pullian directly to E. Lee White’s funeral parlor, where White started the autopsy himself.
Cops not fooled. The medical examiner arrived and unwittingly declared a car accident the cause of death and cleared the path for the conspirators to begin collecting the funds.
But the position of the body, lack of skid marks, and unlikelihood of a car traveling fast enough on a short alleyway made police suspicious.
One of the life insurance companies requested an investigation.
Three years after Pullian’s death, authorities dug up and reexamined his body. They discovered his skull carried a fatal “moon crater” injury — the mark of a blunt instrument, like a hammer — inconsistent with a death by auto.
Assumed identity. Investigators had noted that the vehicle contained high-velocity blood splatter in the interior. But someone had taken care to wipe fingerprints away.
They theorized that a Lee associate lured Pullian inside the car and killed him there with a heavy implement.
Once detectives spoke to doctors who administered the exams required by the insurance companies, it became clear that the plan involved impostors.
The men claiming to be Frankie Pullian had to refer to notes to answer the doctors’ questions.
No sweat. As the case pressed on, White tried to appear calm, even after his indictment for first-degree murder and fraud.
The funeral director said that he was not worried about the charges and that business increased after his indictment, according to a Morristown Daily Record story from 1984.
Lawrence Scott somehow managed to snag William Kunstler, a lawyer world-famous for taking on social outcasts as clients, to defend him.
On January 18, 1985, E. Lee White and the other two men were convicted after a 47-day trial.
Condemned at last. The following month, Judge Amos Saunders, citing “pure, evil greed,” sentenced White, age 45, to life with eligibility for parole after 25 years.
Lawrence Scott, 38, also got life but with parole eligibility after 15 years.
William Brown was scheduled to receive sentencing the day after Scott and E. Lee White did, although newspaper accounts were unavailable.
Erna White was tried separately and convicted of fraud and theft by deception. She got off with probation.
So, where are these four cold-hearted people today?
1. E. Lee White got into trouble while incarcerated in Trenton State Prison.
In 1990, a judge tacked an extra five years to White’s sentence after a jury convicted him of soliciting a fellow inmate to take responsibility for the Pullian murder.
White had offered Robert Earl Moore cash and a sports car in exchange for making a false confession.
That disappointment didn’t deter White’s optimism and, over the years, he vied aggressively for release on the basis of various claims, including the seemingly universal “ineffective counsel.”
In 2016, two superior court judges affirmed a New Jersey State Parole Board’s decision to deny parole to White.
The court noted a lack of “rehabilitative progress” and that “instead of confronting the facts as proven at trial, petitioner adhered to a version of events that downplayed his culpable actions.”
According to court papers, Lee would be eligible for another review in 2024.
But his profile is not available via the New Jersey Department of Corrections inmate locators.
An undated Mugshots.com profile of E. Lee White Sr. indicates he was moved to East Jersey State Prison (formerly named Rahway State Prison) at some point.
He may have died sometime after 2016, or perhaps he’s being held out of state.
2. Erna Boone White is alive and still living in Paterson. She is around 77 today.
Interestingly, Mugshots.com lists an “E. Lee White Jr.,” born in 1971, as jailed in Florida in 2014 for an offense related to cocaine possession, although there’s no confirmation on whether or not he’s Erna and E. Lee White Sr.’s son.
3. Lawrence Scott won release in 2001 but ended up back in prison later that same year. The N.J. Department of Corrections lists his status as “paroled,” but his mugshot still appears on its website.
4. William Brown is not listed with the N.J. Department of Corrections. Newspaper accounts of the crime carry little identifying information about him, and the commonness of his name makes it hard to research him. A story from 1985 lists his age as 50, so if he’s alive, he’s around 82.
Judge Amos Saunders, who viewers may remember from his appearance on Forensic Files, retired in 2000 and became a counsel to the law firm Carlet, Garrison, Klein and Zaretsky. He died in 2015 at age 81.
A New Jersey Star-Ledger obituary noted that Saunders was an expert in boxing law “after presiding over several cases with such luminaries as Don King, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, and Evander Holyfield appearing in his courtroom.”
That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. —RR