Blood Brothers 

The Kilbanes had one more skeleton in their closet. 36 years after he was murdered, Arnie Prunella gets his revenge.

. . . Owen and Martin, his shadow, began coming to the Redwood often. They would sit and talk to Phil. Phil began feeding them small tidbits of things that he wanted them to think he was into. That way, perhaps, they'd trust him enough to let him onto something that he could use against them to extort money from them -- maybe even give him a piece of the action on the girls.

A couple of months after first meeting them, Phil got his opportunity. The brothers came in the Redwood. Owen had been beaten up pretty badly. His eye was turning black and there was blood all over the front of his shirt. "What the hell happened to you?" Phil asked. "Looks like somebody worked you over pretty good."

"Listen, I'm having some trouble with this guy, Prunella," Owen mumbled through swollen lips. "Do you know someone that can take care of him?"

Andrew E. Prunella Jr. was a competing pimp off of Euclid Avenue. He had the territory first and Owen was trying to move in on his turf. Arnie, as most people knew him, didn't like having people muscling in on his territory.

Phil thought about it for a while. "You mean get him bombed?" he asked.

"No," Owen said. "Get rid of him." The extract above is from an autobiographical manuscript penned by Phil Christopher, a former Mafia associate who is now an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania. It is co-written by Anthony Blunnie. This is Christopher's account of the murder of Arnie Prunella.

The setting is the summer of 1968. Christopher was dating Peggy Kilbane. Through their relationship, he met her brothers. At the time, Owen Kilbane was 20 years old, rising fast as a Collinwood hustler and pimp. Martin Kilbane, 18, idolized his elder brother and was never far from his side.

For a convicted murderer, Martin Kilbane has a soft grip. At age 54, with thick glasses and a short crop of white hair, he looks more likely to be armed with a syllabus than a gun. But he is wearing a Cuyahoga County Jail jumpsuit, and at the time of this meeting in December of 2003, he has been a prisoner for 26 years -- nearly half his life.

He and brother Owen look nearly identical; they're distinguished only by differences in temperament. Owen is intense. Martin is patient, ponderous, a man with the time to trace his path to prison from the very beginning.

Raised by their grandparents, the Kilbanes grew up in a rough-and-tumble East Side neighborhood feeling entitled to make their own rules. In 1963, when Owen was 16 years old, he and a friend knocked off a neighborhood grocer. It wasn't a smart move -- the shop happened to be next door to the Cleveland Heights Police Department. The accomplice rolled over on Owen, who spent the next 13 months in the Mansfield prison.

The cellblock was a toughening experience. "Being that young, he had no choice," says Martin. "Fight, or become a punk."

He returned to a Cleveland swarming with Mafia thugs. Owen was still a kid, but the new version was brash and fearless. "The brother who left for Mansfield was not the same brother who came back," says Martin. "What came back was a mean, nasty person, who was going to get back at the world for screwing him like that."

Owen launched a prostitution business, as well as subsidiaries in gambling and loan-sharking. As criminal minds go, his was ambitious.

Arnie Prunella, among the East Side's biggest pimps, watched Owen's progress with interest. Prunella had the muscle, which he used to extort a thick cut of Owen's earnings. It left Owen with two unpleasant choices: Pay, or take a beating. According to Christopher, Owen had at least once chosen option two. The beating forced him to put Prunella on the payroll -- and left him with a simmering resentment.

Still, he had enough money to flaunt it, in classic pimp style. He bought a new pink Cadillac and wore flashy suits. It was a lot of money, a lot of action for a boy still in his teens.

Flamboyance has a way of looking convincingly like success -- especially to a younger brother. "I saw all the attention he was getting, all the money," Martin says. "To me, it was irresistible. There was no way for me to think, 'Gee, I'm going to get a nine-to-five.' Not when he's making $5,000-10,000 a week, driving around in a Cadillac. So we both went there at an early age."

In the decades since, the brothers have talked about how things might have been different if Owen had never gone to Mansfield. "If that hadn't happened, if he had got probation or something, we had the energy and the wherewithal -- we may have gone off to become Kilbane & Kilbane, attorneys or something," says Martin. "Look at all the Kilbanes who are in politics around here. We had the intelligence to do that."

Martin remembers his brother talking about opening a store that would rent videotaped movies for home viewing. The year was 1976, when films were still exclusive to theaters. Years later, someone else would fashion the same idea into a franchise.

"Owen would have been Blockbuster," says Martin. "He'd be worth $500 to $600 million."

But the Kilbanes headed in the opposite direction, toward enterprises that were increasingly felonious and bore consequences of increasing magnitude.

"Once you get into that lifestyle, it's almost impossible to get out until" -- Martin smacks his palms together -- "you hit that wall."

That wall came in the form of Euclid Municipal Judge Robert Steele, a celebrity client of the Kilbanes' prostitution business. By the winter of 1968, Steele was having an affair with city clerk Barbara Swartz. He wanted out of his marriage, but not in a conventional way. He wanted his wife dead. So he approached the Kilbanes.

Martin knew someone perfect for the job. Richard Robbins had arrived home from the Marine Corps boasting of his ability to kill without remorse.

On January 9, 1969, Martin dropped Robbins off a block from the Steele home on Miami Road. When the judge gave the signal, Robbins entered the home, crept into the couple's downstairs bedroom, and put two bullets into the sleeping woman's head. Three months later, Steele married Swartz.

The law took its time catching up with the Kilbanes. The brothers knocked around Cleveland's East Side through the mid-1970s, interrupted only by a six-month prison sentence Owen served for a prostitution conviction. But in 1975, after he had a particularly explosive fight with his girlfriend, Carol Braun, she gave a statement to the FBI fingering Steele, Robbins, and the Kilbanes for the murder of Marlene Steele. Robbins got immunity for testifying against his co-conspirators. All three were convicted.

The case solved one of Cleveland's most famous murder mysteries. But the Kilbane name was also linked to another case, one that had a lower profile -- if only because the victim, Arnie Prunella, was a mere pimp and because no one seemed to know for sure if he was dead. The summer before the Steele killing, Prunella had simply disappeared.

Phil asked one simple question. "Do you have a boat?"

"No," Owen said. "But I can get one."

"Come back when you do," Phil said. The conversation was over.

A week later, Owen had a boat. Phil surveyed it carefully, thinking about where things would be stored. The used 26-foot cabin cruiser had cost the Kilbane brothers over $6,000, but they were prepared to spend more than that to take care of Arnie.

"Does it have an anchor?" Phil asked.

Owen showed Phil a small craft anchor.

"That's not going to work. I'll need a gun. How much money do you guys have on you right now?" he asked.

Between them, the two brothers had almost $1,000. Phil took it.

Phil drove to Hudson, Ohio to meet Bob. "I need a throwaway, Bob." A throwaway was a gun with no serial numbers on it . . .

Bob asked no questions, charged Phil $100 for the gun, and wished him a good day.

Phil then drove to the Cerro Copper Factory in Collinwood. At the end of the street, he pulled up a large sewer cover and tossed it in the back of his car. That would be plenty heavy to keep a body down.

Next he went to Anchor Fence Company in Cleveland and bought a ten by ten section of fence and some heavy duty wire. The fence would be wrapped around the body and the wire wrapped though the ends of the fence to keep the body in one piece so that it wouldn't be floating up after the fish start eating it. The other end of the wire was to be tied to the sewer cover.

Phil called Owen. "Could you come down to the bar?"


A half-hour later, Owen and Phil sat down in his back office.

"Arnie knows who I am," Phil said. "How are you getting along with him?"

"Well, I paid him his money, so we should be cool."

"Can you get him to Culp's Bend on the lake?" Culp's Bend was a bar near Lake Erie and not far from where the boat was docked. If Owen could get him there, Phil would be waiting for the trio to show up. There, Owen would invite Phil to come see the new boat that he had just bought. They would all go along with it.

Phil would ask to take it for a ride.

Few actually believe in prison's power to reform. Owen and Martin Kilbane weren't in any rush to prove it.

"For the first several years, I was very bitter," says Martin. After all, Richard Robbins pulled the trigger on Marlene Steele. And the summer before he shot her, he had carved an "N" in a bullet, vowing to used it on the first black man he saw. It happened to be a folk singer named Tedd Browne, whom Robbins shot in the head. Yet Robbins, with two murder convictions to his credit, was still a free man, staked to a new identity courtesy of the witness-protection program. The Kilbanes were settling into a long stretch in prison.

The brothers found no comfort in prison's monotony, its way of numbing the mind and melting away the years. They had too much restless energy. So Owen channeled it into academics, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in business administration from Ashland University. Today, he teaches courses at Grafton Correctional on computers and personal investment, counsels inmates on anger management and parenting, and tutors them in literacy. He has also founded a Red Cross chapter.

Just as he had always done, Martin followed. He too received a bachelor's from Ashland, along with two associate degrees in physical therapy. Like Owen, Martin counsels inmates on the transition from prison to street.

The Kilbanes exhausted the educational resources of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. It made them model inmates, but not model citizens. To prove the latter, they would have to be set free. So they spent their time marveling over the possibilities of the outside world.

The same year he went to prison, Martin received a picture of a seven-year-old girl who bore a stunning resemblance to himself as a child. He never knew he had a daughter; the mother had raised the girl on her own.

Not until she was 16 did her mother allow her to visit Martin in prison. He says they hit it off immediately. Since then, he wrote her often, but never received a reply. He doesn't know why. So he waited for his parole day for the chance to try again, to see if he has grandchildren. "The first thing I'm going to do, I'm going to locate my daughter," he says. "My 33-year-old daughter."

That day could have come as early as this fall. The Kilbanes' impressive prison résumés gave them a compelling argument for release.

Looming, however, was the ghost of Arnie Prunella.

The next night, Phil sat down at the bar at Culp's Bend. He ordered a J&B on the rocks. As he sipped his drink he watched the front door. They should be here in a couple of minutes. He turned back to the bar. Behind the bar there was a large aquarium. There were piranhas in the tank. Phil watched the bartender feeding small live fish into the aquarium. The piranhas were devouring the fish in no time. Phil thought about the irony. Soon, something else would be feeding the fish.

"Damn, they're late," Phil said to himself. He looked at the door, watching, waiting.

He turned back away from the bar for the fifth time and saw Arnie enter. He turned back to the bartender and ordered another drink. He pressed his elbow to his side and felt the reassuring pressure of the throwaway at his side.

He turned away from the bar and continued drinking. He saw Martin point in his direction and say something to his brother. Martin walked toward Phil.

"Phil! How are you?" Things were going smoothly.

"Hey, Martin, nice meeting you here. What brings you out here?" Phil went along with the charade.

"Oh, we're showing a friend of ours our new boat," Martin said.

Owen and Arnie walked up during the last sentence of Phil's and Martin's conversation. Phil said hello to Owen then turned to Arnie. "Hi, Arnie. Haven't seen you around for a while."

"Yeah, well, I've been kind of busy lately," Arnie said. "How've you been?"

"Good, good," Phil said.

They talked for a little while longer. "Why don't you join us out on our new boat?" Owen said.

"That sounds like a good idea. I haven't been out on a boat for a while. You sure you have the room?" Phil asked.

"Come on," Arnie pitched in. "There's always room for one more."

"This is not a murder case," says Martin, his voice rising, resounding against the concrete walls of a county-jail conference room. "At best, it is a missing persons case."

It's December 2003. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason has just reopened the Prunella homicide investigation; the Kilbanes are the prime suspects. They're furious about being charged with a 35-year-old crime -- especially when no one has proved that a crime actually occurred. Prunella hasn't been seen since 1968.

"Arnie Prunella might be out at the Palms of Las Vegas, drooling on himself with Alzheimer's," says Martin. "Nobody knows who he is. Maybe he doesn't know who he is. And Mason's going to charge us with murder?"

It's the first bit of turbulence in what appeared to be a smooth ride to parole. The Kilbanes had recently had their hearings moved up, meaning it was possible they'd both be set free by October 2004.

Still, the Prunella case was hard to take seriously. Prosecutors indicted the Kilbanes in 1983, but all they had was the testimony of Owen's former girlfriend, Carol Braun. And since there was no body, it was impossible to prove a murder took place. The case was thrown out.

Shortly after the dismissal, Phil Christopher confessed to a judge that he had killed Prunella and that he was hired by the Kilbanes. But Christopher's attorney broke a gag order by leaking the confession to the media; it couldn't be used.

So by last winter, Owen was insisting that the Prunella case was politically motivated; Mason merely wanted the media attention he'd get from prosecuting notorious criminals, he argued.

When the indictment came down in December, Martin expected it to be dismissed long before it went to trial. "It might sound stupid," he said at the time, "but I believe in justice. And I know that what they're doing -- their motives -- are wrong."

Tonight the lake was calm and clear as glass . . . The ripple of the water had a calming effect . . . The only manmade sound was the constant hum of the inboard motor.

They had been out for almost 45 minutes and hadn't seen any lights coming from any other boats for the past thirty minutes. Phil figured that they were far enough away from everything. It was time for Arnie to go swimming.

Phil had thought about exactly what he was going to do. Owen was down in the cabin talking to Arnie. Arnie would hear the hammer of the .38 if it was pulled right next to him. Phil reached back and took the gun from his waistband. He felt the smooth, well-oiled barrel on the gun. Under other circumstances he would have kept the gun. But not this time. He cocked the hammer back and waited for Arnie to come up top.

Arnie finally walked out of the cabin with a drink for Phil. He handed the drink to Phil and then took a sip of his own. "Beautiful night, isn't it Phil?"

"Yeah it is," Phil commented. He was thinking about the best place to put the bullet. He figured that behind the ear would be perfect. Shouldn't take no more than one shot. "Yeah," he repeated, "look at those stars."

Arnie lifted his head and looked up. Phil pulled the gun out from behind him and placed it against Arnie's head behind his left ear. Then he pulled the trigger.

Phil felt the power of the gun go through his arm as it extinguished Arnie's life. He felt something wet hit his stomach. It was cold.

He didn't have time to think about it now. He turned the body, making sure that Arnie was dead. If not, he'd have to shoot him again on the floor of the boat. Not something he wanted to do.

The body didn't move. Andrew E. Prunella Jr., age 31, was dead.

Owen heard the shot and came up from the cabin. He looked down at the cadaver. "You piece of shit. That'll teach you to fuck with me! Sorry motherfucker!" Owen kicked the body several times. He couldn't control his emotions.

"Goddamn it Owen, stop it. We've got to get rid of this thing. Come on." He reached down and touched his stomach. A clear liquid came off with his hand. Arnie's last drink.

"Sorry motherfucker," Owen said again and then turned toward Phil.

"Go get the fence up front in the storage compartment," Phil ordered.

Phil went to the tarp and grabbed the manhole cover. He brought it over to the body.

Owen took over at the helm and told Martin to go and get the section of fence and cable-wire for Phil.

Martin laid the fence down and looked at the body. He threw up and started to panic. "I think there's a boat over there," he said.

Phil looked in the direction that Martin pointed. "There's nothing out there. Come on, let's get this over with. Help me out with this fencing. We've got to get him on top of it."

Martin reached down to grab Arnie's legs. He threw up again. "Fuck, Martin! We've got to get this done," Phil said.

Phil tried to put Arnie up on the fence by himself, but with no help from Martin it was pointless.

"Fuck it!" Phil said to no one in particular. He grabbed the cable-wire and started wrapping the body up. He wrapped the legs, arms, and neck in the wire. After tying it off, he put the wire through the manhole cover and made sure that it was tied up real good.

He threw Arnie over the side. Phil and Martin watched the body floating beside the boat for a couple of minutes while Phil rested.

Phil reached down, grabbed the manhole cover, and threw it off the side. Arnie went down like a rock. Phil watched the small bubbles until the boat got far enough away from the area that he couldn't see them anymore.

On August 16, 36 years after a manhole cover sank Arnie Prunella to the floor of Lake Erie, Owen takes full responsibility for ordering the killing. It might mean more prison time. But he hopes it will mean less time for Martin.

This wasn't how the Kilbanes expected the case to go, but Judge Richard McMonagle left them little room to maneuver. Testimony from Christopher and Braun would be admitted, McMonagle ruled. Moreover, the Kilbanes' due process had not been violated by the prosecution's waiting more than three decades to try them. The brothers had little choice but to cop a plea.

The next day, Martin looks like a man time forgot. He arrives in court dressed in handcuffs, a blue leisure suit, a vest, and brown shoes. It's a suit he might have strutted in proudly back in 1968, but not today.

Worn photographs are mounted in the room. They were taken during the Kilbanes' mercurial youth. One shows a bare-chested Owen posing menacingly for the camera. The others show him wearing a smug grin that befits a pimp who believes he's bulletproof. Assistant Prosecutor Steve Dever tells the tale of Prunella's demise, essentially an echo of Christopher's manuscript.

But today, though Owen's chin remains high, his navy suit hangs loosely on his frame. Just before he's to be sentenced, Owen's attorney tells the court that his client is the best inmate in Ohio. Martin's attorney will say much the same thing about his client, contending that his principal crime is his "blind loyalty to his brother."

Yet the Kilbanes are not here to be sentenced for the men they are, but for the men they were.

Retired FBI agent Marty McCann is in the courtroom before the hearing, chatting with prosecutors. With a shock of white hair that shines like a candle above his charcoal suit, McCann, who had convinced Prunella to rat on his Mafia friends, is the lone caretaker of the pimp's memories. "He used to say he'd wake up every morning and say, 'Who's going to try to screw me today?'" he chuckles.

As their attorneys list the Kilbanes' prison achievements, a man sitting in the second bench scowls with disgust. Brett Steele, four years old when his mother was slain, has long crusaded against the Kilbanes' parole.

On another bench, wearing a contorted expression of grief, is Denise Hillier, who was three years old when Prunella, her father, vanished. "Thirty-six years is a long time to wonder, 'Is my dad out there somewhere?'" she says.

Martin Kilbane had hoped that this August would be the first month of his new life. Instead, he is sentenced to an extra three years. Owen gets five. The brothers accept the sentences without expression, then board a van that will take them back to Grafton.


More by Thomas Francis


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