Part of an irregular series of historical articles called The Bad Old Days, detailing true crimes in Bay Ridge from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.
On Friday, May 7, 1982, Joan Kipp went into her kitchen to open the day’s mail. She and her husband, Howard, planned to spend that Mother’s Day weekend out of town, at the family’s summer home on Lake Hayward, in Connecticut, so she had left work early, at 4pm. Minutes later, she arrived home.
Joan and Howard lived at 132 91st Street, one in a long row of modest one-family homes likely built by the Narrows Park Corporation ca. 1924–25, across from the high stone walls of the Visitation Monastery; their daughter, Doreen, 31, lived in Connecticut, and their son, Craig, 27, lived practically around the corner.
Kipp was 54 and worked for the Board of Ed, supervising guidance counselors in the local school district, which encompassed Bay Ridge as well as Bensonhurst and Borough Park. She was active in the community: she volunteered for the local outpost of the South Beach Psychiatric Center, and she was treasurer of the Bay Ridge Community Council, an umbrella organization of local nonprofit associations that promotes the neighborhood. She was running for vice president and was expected to win.
Among the mail that day was a package, addressed to her. She opened it, and inside was a cookbook, smaller than a phonebook, from Sears: the Quick and Delicious Gourmet Cookbook. Joan Kipp loved to cook. She thought it was a Mother’s Day gift. She lifted the cover.
“I was under the kitchen window in the driveway when I heard the explosion,” her husband later told the Daily News. “When I ran into the house, she was conscious. She said, ‘Look what they did to me.’”
[The cookbook] had been hollowed out to make space for a small battery and three stainless steel tubes. In the book was a battery, a metal plate with wires connected into the contents of three stainless steel tubes. “The tubes were positioned to hit something chest high or higher—that means vital organs,” said Charles Abercrombie, a lawyer…
In each stainless tube was a bullet whose base had been removed, exposing the gunpowder. The filament of a light bulb was stuck into the gunpowder. The wires from the battery were connected to the filament, and when the gunpowder was sparked, the tubes served as gun barrels, Mr. Abercrombie said.
“In Joan Kipp’s case, the lab cops were amazed that all three tubes discharged,” he said.
The bullet from one struck the wall; the other two struck Joan in the chest. Shrapnel also “severely wounded” her face and hands.
She was taken to Lutheran Hospital, where she died, on an operating table, at about 7:45 p.m., more than three and a half hours after she’d opened the day’s mail. “Her murder was unbelievably bizarre,” Robert Stack said on a 1997 episode of Unsolved Mysteries. “Unfortunately, more than a decade would pass before police realized it was not an isolated incident.”
Conscious after the blast, Joan, dying on the couch, had told her husband, “…there may be others.”
The next attack was 11 years later, in 1993—and several would follow it in relatively speedy succession. The second package was mailed to 278 Dickie Avenue, in the Westerleigh neighborhood of northcentral Staten Island, to Robert Lenza, a retired sanitation worker; relatives brought him the package while he was on vacation to visit family in northeastern Pennsylvania, on the New York border. When he opened it, the bullets struck him; his wife, Connie; and their granddaughter, Liza. They all survived.
The next package arrived the following year, to 1946 E. 27th Street, in Sheepshead Bay, addressed to Alice Carswell’s brother, who had moved out decades earlier. The 75-year-old woman opened it and was critically injured by shrapnel to the abdomen. The first two packages had been mailed from Staten Island, but the third was mailed from Brooklyn; the fourth was sent from Manhattan to a home in St. Albans, Queens, where it was opened by a eight-months-pregnant 18 year old, Stephanie Gaffney; doctors induced labor the next day, and both she and her daughter survived.
The fifth package was sent to Marietta Basile, of Bath Beach, whose husband Richard, 79, opened it; he wasn’t injured when the bullets fired inside his white-stucco house on Bay 26th Street. “The blast in the Basiles’ kitchen blew a hole through a window and damaged a wall,” the Times reported.
“Usually she opens all her mail, but yesterday she was putting things away,” a friend told the paper. “Her husband took a knife, opened the package and he was facing the window and the thing went. They got scared and ran.
“I don’t think they think it was meant for them. They just think these are things that happen in society.”
Tabloids gave the attacker a nickname: the Zip-Gun Bomber, even though it wasn’t quite accurate. “Zip guns…are not bombs; they don’t consist of any dynamite,” postal inspector Gregory Rhatigan told Unsolved Mysteries. “What they basically are are crudely made guns.”
The Daily News explained the Zip-Gun Bomber’s MO:
In each case, loaded gun barrels have been hidden inside hollowed-out books or video cassettes. The bomber removes the firing pins and replaces them with electrical filaments that get a charge when the recipient opens the package and unwittingly completes an electrical circuit. The barrels are aimed to hit a victim in the torso, as they have in three of the cases. The packages have return addresses that make them look like they are not junk mail. Writing usually announces some type of free offer…
[T]he devices are the work of a skilled, calculating killer. “Mail bombs are never crudely made,” [a postal inspector] said. “It takes a pretty sophisticated individual to make one.
Investigators have been unable to determine any meaningful connection between the victims. No attacks have been linked to the same attacker since the one in 1996. “Some of [the victims] were reticent with investigators, leading to the theory that extortion could have been the motive,” the Daily News floated in 2002. “‘It was like it happened, they learned their lesson and they moved on,’ said one law enforcement source. ‘It was like they wanted to close the chapter on it.’”
The last major metropolitan newspaper coverage was in 2010, in Al Baker’s police-beat column.
“Here is a case that has so many turns, and it’s still unsolved,” said one law enforcement official who is familiar with it. “Some of the people involved are still here, some are deceased. It is really old case. Every time something happened on this, it opened another door.”
The official added, “One guy thinks this is the case of the century, and it goes on and on and on.”
…In New York’s cold-case crime files, few have as firm a grip on the collective psyche of city law enforcement officers as the so-called zip-gun bomber.
Immediately after Joan’s murder, however, this was just an isolated, weird attack, and police investigated it as they would any murder. Detectives considered organized crime, but ruled it out; they looked at students suspended by guidance counselors that Joan oversaw.
“It’s shocking that a person such as Joan—who dedicated her life to helping others—should have her life ended in such a violent way,” the school-district superintendent told the Spectator. She led “almost a sheltered kind of life…She was very family-oriented—and it’s hard to figure out how any of this could happen.”
Investigators soon settled on her family.
The jury-rigged cookbook had a note written on the inside cover: “Howard you’re dead. First Joan, then Craig and Doreen.” Joan’s name had been crossed out.
Howard was a suspect. The family cooperated with the investigation. “I gave them Joan’s personal diary to look at,” Howard told the Home Reporter. “I gave them the key to my shop, so that they could look at everything they wanted to about my life, about our lives. I didn’t even ask them to have a search warrant. They were in and out of this house for days, looking at everything, asking everything, knowing everything about my activities.”
That cooperation ended on the day of Joan’s funeral, at Union Church, on 80th and Ridge. Police took Doreen to the stationhouse and interrogated her for hours beforehand. “I was harassed,” she later told the Home Reporter. “I felt my family needed to be protected from the police. We were advised by lawyers to get that protection.”
Investigators had shifted their attention from Howard to the son, Craig. “Investigators suggested that Craig Kipp had been fired by his father, who owned a marine consulting business in Red Hook,” the Daily News reported years later. “‘They tried to build this hatred he had of his parents. It was such crap, pardon my language,’ Howard Kipp said.”
On Sunday, August 9, 1982, almost three months to the day after the murder, police staked out Craig’s apartment building—Briarleigh Hall, 28 Marine Avenue—less than five minutes and 1,000 feet away from his parents’ home. Close to 11pm, Craig returned home from the family vacation home in Connecticut (where his mother had been headed the day the cookbook shot her), accompanied by his wife, Susan, and his father. “Both of them seemed surprised” when police arrested Craig, the Spectator reported, but “Craig did not put up any struggle when police…swooped down on the apartment.”
Police laid it out: Craig had been employed by his father, at the family’s marine engineering business, headquartered at 270 54th Street, in Sunset Park, until November 1981. The company “installed electrical lines into ships’ boiler rooms,” the Spectator reported, which police alleged gave Craig the technical know-how to have fashioned the sophisticated weapon. Plus, his handwriting samples matched handwriting samples from the package and note, an expert alleged, and Craig refused several times to submit to a polygraph test. Also, “a dog trained in sniffing human scents…matched a piece of Kipp’s clothing to the bomb,” the Spectator reported—a 9-year-old German Shepard smelled one of Craig’s socks, then picked the internal mechanism from an array of similar devices.
Craig’s relationship with Joan, police told the local paper, was “one of hatred and bitterness.”
Craig arrived at his arraignment on Friday in blue jeans, with a denim shirt over a orange T-shirt; he was released on $300,000 bail [more than $750,000, adjusted for inflation], secured by his father with the deeds to his house and business. After his scheduled court appearance, Craig walked out with his wife, sister and father, all of whom maintained his innocence.
Howard criticized the police investigation as “flimsy.” Years later, he told the Daily News:
I was 110 percent certain that he was innocent. He was the most peaceful person. There was no hatred, no animosity for his mother. He was a real family guy. He lived around the corner from us.
At the time, Howard and Doreen were more forceful in their denials and criticisms of the investigation in an exclusive interview with the Home Reporter, published on August 13, 1982.
[Craig and Joan’s] “relationship has always been caring and concerned,” said Howard…”Just one week before she was killed, Joan fell on a pothole. Craig came right over, made dinner, and bandaged her leg. He took good care of his mother whenever I was away on business, and was always concerned about her, his sister, and his grandmother.”
…There were arguments, [Howard] admitted. “The usual kind, like all families. Nothing horrendous.” Nothing, said Doreen Kipp, that would lead to the killing of his mother.
Was he a “troubled young man,” as he has been described? “No,” said Doreen. “He may have had the usual troubles in adolescence. This is what the police heard. They talked to family friends, acquaintances, who told them this. But he never had any problems with the law….He was struggling, that’s how you would describe him. He was seeking career goals, professional identity. That was all.”
[An] Assistant U.S. Attorney…told a Brooklyn Federal Court judge that Craig Kipp smoked marijuana and used cocaine. “He used marijuana, now and then,” said [Howard]. “But it never affected his job.”
Did he use anything else?
“Not that I know of.
…”Police say he quit his job because we had a fight. Not true. He had problems working this particular job. It required a lot of traveling, and he didn’t want to be away from his wife. The ships we had to work on had no telephones. He also had physical disabilities. Problems with his knees, a bleeding ulcer from stress. His doctor thought he should try another line of work.”
Craig Kipp, his father said, also didn’t possess the “technical ability for this type of work. He felt he wasn’t catching on to the technical end of it, he was frustrated. We all were. His goals were too high for his mechanical aptitude. It was a decision made by both Joan and myself, and in the end, he made the decision. It’s tough, because of the father–son thing. But he was not fired.”
As for the bomb-making skills, “He didn’t have the training,” Howard said. “He never even took physics.”
Howard mocked the evidence. As for the handwriting: “They called him down there and kept him there for hours, making him write things over and over again. After a while, anybody’s handwriting could match a note.” As for the sniffing dog: “That’s just plain silly…Besides, that sock was on Craig right before he submitted it to police, and he was wearing it when he set off firecrackers at Breezy Point on the Fourth of July.
“…It will never hold up in court. No jury will believe it.”
He was more or less correct: less than a year later, in June 1983, the charges were dropped for lack of evidence, the Times later reported.
Charles Abercrombie, who handled the Kipp prosecution before leaving to go into private practice, said the charges were dropped because neither the handwriting analysis nor the dog trainer’s statements were credible enough to prove murder in a court of law.
“It’s very difficult to link block lettering to individual people,” Mr. Abercrombie said, adding that other handwriting analysts said they did not find compelling similarities between the block letters on the note and samples of Mr. Kipp’s writing. The credibility of the dog trainer was also in question, Mr. Abercrombie said.
The next zip-gun “bomb” wouldn’t be arrive for a decade.
After being freed, Craig moved away. Before his mother died, he’d been planning to move to San Diego with his wife, who had been offered a transfer by the publishing company for which she worked. But the arrest derailed those plans. The Daily News last tracked him down, in 2002, living in Connecticut, laid off from a job as a foreman at a computer plant, working as a clerk in a 7-Eleven.
Howard eventually remarried and moved to Massachusetts. He “said he still waits for closure in the killing of the ‘woman I loved dearly,’” the News reported in 2002.
All the crimes remain unsolved. In the early 80s, police said they interviewed more than 200 people. “No one outside the family, in her professional and civic life, had animosity for [Joan],” a detective from the 68th Precinct told the Spectator. “Everyone liked her.”
Joan believed the assailant to have been connected to her job; one of the last things she said to Howard was, “Call Denis,” the superintendent of the school district, so he could warn other teachers and educators.
“It was a prank,” Howard told the Home Reporter in August 1982. “Someone meant it as a horrible scare, a threat. It might not have killed her. I might have opened it myself.”
Someone in the community was jealous of Joan Kipp, her husband maintains. Or someone was unhappy with her decisions in the school system, or it was a former student, a disgruntled parent. Someone wanted to scare her, to know the threat to her children would be taken seriously. They wanted her to live under a threat.
But it killed her.
…”Anybody could have done it. She was well known, she dealt with troubled students, with their suspensions, their transfers,” insisted Kipp.
Maybe he was right. The only suspect besides Craig ever named in the press was a man named Steven. “Cops working on an unrelated case in 1983 stumbled on a hollowed-out book and bomb-making equipment on the kitchen table in the apartment of [Steven] and his pal,” the Daily News reported in 2002. “In 1995, he was nabbed in a Brooklyn Public Library branch with a hollowed-out book that contained Exacto blades. He was in possession of four 22-caliber rifle shells.”
According to military records, [Steven] served in the Navy from 1972 to 1973 and was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. He has spent much of his adult life behind bars on offenses ranging from criminal possession of noxious liquids and making bomb threats against postal facilities to assaulting a military police officer. Joan Kipp was his guidance counselor at Dyker Heights Junior High School, where he had been left back twice, he said. “I had nothing against her,” [Steven] said. “I was in prison at the time. They know that I could not possibly directly be involved in it.”
But investigators theorized [Steven] mailed the components of the book device to his pal, who constructed and sent it. Another theory, [Steven] said, was that a third person paid them to send the bombs. “It always came back to the two of them, consistently,” said retired Detective John Tarangelo, who worked on the case for two years. “There was always a common denominator between them and the victims, whether it was the pharmacy, the neighborhood, the hollowed-out cookbook. There was a record of [Steven’s pal] in the computer of each of the victims’ local pharmacies. We could never figure it out.”
At the time, Steven was in federal custody in Beaumont, Texas, doing 90 months for possession of ammunition by a convicted felon. He was released on March 25, 2005, according to federal records. He’s now 64 years old.
He denied involvement—and told the Daily News he was working on his own history of the case, to which he said he’d become linked by “a web of circumstantial evidence.”
Whoever he was, the Zip-Gun Bomber has never been caught.