Around 3:00 a.m. on March 9, 1919, grocer Charlie Cortimiglia, an Italian immigrant, was asleep in bed with his wife, Rosie, and their 2-year-old daughter, Mary, when they were attacked by an intruder, or intruders, with an axe. Mary was killed, and her parents both received severe head injuries. The Cortimiglias lived just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans in Gretna, Louisiana, and they were taken to Charity Hospital in New Orleans after the attack.
At the time of the attack, a serial killer known as the “Axeman” had been terrorizing New Orleans for nearly a decade. After several years without striking, the Axeman had become active again in 1918 and 1919. He targeted Italian immigrant grocers in New Orleans, using an axe to violently kill or maim the grocers, and sometimes their families, during the night. To gain entry to his victims’ homes, the Axeman typically chiseled out a panel of a back door, in order to reach the bolt or to climb through. He ransacked his victims’ bedrooms but did not appear to take anything.
While the attack on the Cortimiglias did not occur in New Orleans like the previous Axeman crimes, New Orleans Superintendent of Police Frank Mooney quickly made public his belief that the Cortimiglias were victims of the Axeman. Other than its location, the crime fit the Axeman’s pattern. Gretna police felt differently. They were skeptical that a serial killer had come to their community and looked for other explanations. They soon focused their investigation on the Cortimiglias’ next door neighbors, 17-year-old Frank Jordano and his 68-year-old father,
Like the Cortimiglias, the Jordanos were in the grocery business in Gretna. The Cortimiglia and Jordano families had been close but had quarreled recently when the Cortimiglias opened a competing grocery store down the street from the Jordano store. Police theorized that this falling out and the Cortimiglias’ rival business had spurred the attack. According to the Jordanos, however, the quarrel had largely blown over by the time of the attack, and the Jordano family had remained especially fond of young Mary, who referred to Iorlando as “Grandpa.” The Jordanos had been among the first on the scene of the crime after another neighbor discovered the Cortimiglias in bed with grave injuries.
Despite the severity of their injuries, Rosie and Charlie survived. Rosie suffered a fractured skull and brain injury, and her treating physician, Doctor Landry, believed the attack might leave her with a “permanently faulty mind.” During the time the Cortimiglias were being treated at Charity Hospital, the Gretna police and Sheriff Louis H. Marrero hounded them for details of the attack. Initially, both Charlie and Rosie told doctors, police, and family members they had no idea who attacked them. Regardless, police arrested Iorlando and Frank Jordano a week after the attack and held them in the Gretna jail.
On March 28, 1919, Rosie was released from the hospital. Sheriff Marrero immediately arrested her as a material witness and placed her in the Gretna jail. The next morning, Rosie, who could not read or write English, was released upon signing an affidavit identifying the Jordanos as the attackers. A coroner’s jury was convened on April 13 to assist with the coroner’s inquest by collecting preliminary information about Mary’s death. After hearing Rosie’s testimony identifying the Jordanos, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of murder against Frank and Iorlando.
By this time, the Jordanos had retained William H. Byrnes Jr., an experienced defense attorney. Following the coroner’s jury verdict, Byrnes immediately contested the jailing of Rosie and he requested she receive a mental competency exam. Judge John E. Fleury granted Byrnes’s request and scheduled a preliminary hearing for May 7.
On May 5, 1919, Iorlando and Frank were indicted for Mary Cortimiglia’s murder. With this indictment, Judge Fleury canceled the preliminary hearing, ruling that it would be “useless and unnecessary,” and set a trial date of May 19, 1919.
On May 19, the Jordanos’ joint trial began in the 28th District Court, which served as the district court for St. Charles, Saint John, and Jefferson parishes. District Attorney L. Robert Rivarde, who had close political and personal ties to Sheriff Marrero, prosecuted the case. The prosecution was assisted by Clay Gaudet, an attorney hired by the Cortimiglia family.
The state’s case depended on Rosie’s identification. She testified that Iorlando and Frank had been in her bedroom at the time of the attack and that Frank attacked Mary with the axe. Charlie testified that he had no recollection of the attack.
Frank and Iorlando each testified. The prosecution asked about threats the two had allegedly made against the Cortimiglias to third parties, but both men denied having made any such statements. The people who had supposedly heard the threats were not called to testify. In cross-examination, the prosecution tried to present Frank as untruthful, emphasizing minor inaccuracies in his statements to police and suggesting he had not been home as early as he claimed on the night of the attack. The defense was not permitted to introduce evidence relating to the Axeman or his crimes to show that the attack on the Cortimiglias fit the pattern of a serial killer who was known to be active nearby.
The jury found Frank and Iorlando guilty on May 26, 1919. Frank was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death. Iorlando was convicted of murder “without capital punishment” and sentenced to life in prison. After their sentences were read, Frank rose and addressed the courtroom. “Judge, you can hang me if you want,” he stated. “I’d rather hang than die with a lie on my conscience like I know one witness in this case will do. But don’t send my father to the penitentiary for life. He’s innocent as I am…Hang me and set him free.”
A reporter from The Times-Picayune, Jim Coulton, was convinced the Jordanos were innocent, and he promised Frank he would work to uncover the truth.
Judge Fleury denied the Jordanos’ motion for a new trial, and Byrnes filed an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court in November 1919.
In January 1920, the Jordanos made the news when Iorlando’s daughter, Anna, held her wedding reception at the Gretna jail so that her father and brother could be a part of the celebration.
On February 3, 1920, Rosie spoke with Coulton and recanted her testimony. She said her accusations against the Jordanos were false. She explained that Saint Joseph had come to her in a dream and told her not to die with this sin on her conscience. Rosie signed a statement stating that the attackers’ faces had been covered with red bandanas and she did not recognize them or their voices. News of her retraction made headlines the next day. Soon after making this statement, Rosie was admitted to the hospital with smallpox.
District Attorney Rivarde remained convinced of the Jordanos’ guilt and did not believe Rosie’s recantation. He threatened to charge her with perjury if she changed her original trial testimony.
On March 6, 1920, the Jordanos’ appeal was heard by the Louisiana Supreme Court. They said the prosecution had failed to turn over to the defense Rosie’s written statement identifying the Jordanos or to produce the witnesses who had allegedly heard the Jordanos making threats against the Cortimiglias. On April 5, the Court granted the appeal and overturned the Jordanos’ convictions.
Rosie recovered from smallpox and was released from the hospital on April 23, and she repeated her recantation under oath in front of a notary and several witnesses. In a Times-Picayune article, Rosie accused Gretna jailer Charles Burgbacher of threatening her with life in prison if she did not identify the Jordanos.
The retrial of the Jordanos was scheduled to begin on December 6, 1920. When Rosie arrived at the courthouse, Rivarde called her into his office. Rosie maintained her certainty that the Jordanos were innocent and confirmed that she would testify to such, regardless of the risk of perjury charges. Rivarde then decided to drop the charges against the Jordanos. Judge H. N. Gauthier granted Rivarde’s motion to dismiss the charges, and the father and son were released from jail.
After 1919, the mysterious Axeman never struck again in New Orleans. Some experts believe he may have traveled northwest through the state, as a series of similar crimes continued in other areas of Louisiana through 1921.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
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