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03-31-2004, 10:30 PM
Sean Pica: Out To Do Good

By Donald P. Myers

September 30, 2003

In the dark before dawn on a winter Wednesday in 1986, 16-year-old Sean Pica shivered behind a tree in front of a house on Magnolia Drive in Selden. The Boy Scout with braces on his teeth carried a .22-caliber rifle and had murder on his mind.

He was waiting for the father of a classmate - cheerleader Cheryl Pierson, also 16 - to go to work. When the man emerged, the boy shot him in the back of the head. James Pierson, a 42-year-old electrician, dropped dead on the ice in the driveway. Pica walked over to the man and fired four more bullets into his body.

Then the 118-pound junior from Coram ditched the gun and went to school.

Eight days later, police arrested Cheryl Pierson and Sean Pica and accused them of hatching a murder plot in Homeroom 226 at Newfield High School in Selden. The teenagers confessed.

Cheryl wanted her dad dead, she said, because he had been sexually abusing her since she was 11, about the time her mother fell ill with a rare and terminal kidney disease. Cheryl hired Sean as a hit man, promising him his asking price: $1,000. He agreed to kill, not for the money, he said, but to end a friend's suffering. At a pizza parlor the day after the murder, Cheryl's boyfriend, Rob Cuccio, 18, paid Sean $400. Cheryl had taken the money from her father's safe at home.

Cheryl and Sean pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter. She was sentenced as a youthful offender to six months in Suffolk County jail, and served 3 1/2 months. He was sentenced as an adult to 8 to 24 years in prison, and served 16 years.

Pica, 34, is a free man now, paroled from Sing Sing last December - on Friday the 13th. The story of the son of an ex-New York City cop stretches from a broken home in a blue-collar neighborhood in eastern Long Island, through nine New York State prisons.

On the spring day in 1987 when Pica was sentenced to prison, his father, Sebastian, made a prediction in the hall outside the courtroom in Riverhead. "Sean said he'll make something of his life," the father said. "That's what we told him to do. We'll see - when he comes home." Then the father started to cry.

When Sean Pica came home, he had done what his father said.

Known as a number in the New York State prison system - 87-B-811 - Pica managed to make something of his life. He got a high school equivalency diploma in Suffolk County jail. Sent to prisons upstate, he earned a bachelor's degree in organizational management and a master's degree in professional services. He has counseled high school and college kids for the past 10 years.

Pica lived his last seven years behind bars in Sing Sing, on Cellblock A, the largest in the world, and one of the toughest. "It breaks a lot of guys," he says now, but it didn't break him. After he was paroled, he spent a couple of months in a Catholic Charities halfway house in Peekskill. Then he got a job as a counselor in East Harlem for Strive, a nonprofit agency that helps ex-convicts, troubled kids, welfare recipients and others get and keep jobs, and to change their attitudes. He lives with an aunt and uncle in Pleasantville. He commutes on Metro North into Manhattan, where he's working on another master's degree at the Hunter College School of Social Work.

Pica looks back with piercing blue eyes toward the murder on Magnolia Drive as if it were an old map that tells him where he's going by reminding him of where he's been.

"I did what I did out of a sense of obligation - as warped as that might have been - thinking I was helping a friend," Pica said the other day during a four-hour interview in the offices of Strive. "Cheryl was adamant. She wanted her father dead. I felt that she had suffered enough. She convinced me that there was no other way out. But the bottom line is that I didn't have the courage to tell her that I really didn't want to kill her father."

The 1986 story of incest and murder involving two dysfunctional families in the suburbs made headlines nationwide. The case was the subject of a book, "A Deadly Silence: The Ordeal of Cheryl Pierson" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988), and an ABC television movie.

In Suffolk County court 16 years ago, the prosecutor in the case called Pica a drugged-up sociopath with a $200-a-day cocaine habit. The judge called him a hired killer. The press pronounced him the "Homeroom Hit Man." A psychiatrist said he was an irrational little Rambo bent on saving a girl in trouble.

Pica might have been all of that then, but he's none of that now. The New York State prison system houses 70,000 men and women. Most of those who survive get chewed up and spit out onto the street with not much claim to dignity or worth.

Sean Pica is one of the exceptions.

"The fact that Sean survived and got his degrees in a system that destroys people speaks to his dedication and character," said Robert Carmona, 52, an ex-convict and former heroin addict who is president and chief executive of Strive. Carmona founded the agency the same year that Pica fired five bullets into a man he didn't even know.

"Young men and women like Sean, who did what I call 'good time' and excel in a pretty hard-knock place, need a second chance," Carmona said. "I am very much a believer in the concept of redemption."

Redemption can come at a terrible cost.

The ordeals that linked the lives of Sean Pica and Cheryl Pierson began a long time before the murder on the morning of Feb. 5, 1986. The case raised a central question: Where did two kids learn to think the way they did - one becoming a hit man, the other an instigator - resorting to murder as a way out of a problem?

Cheryl told police after the murder that her father - strong and strict, loud and lewd - had started molesting her five years before. She said it started with wrestling and touching and progressed to intercourse when she was 14. Cheryl's mother, Cathleen, who had two kidney transplants, slept on the sofa in the living room.

Cheryl said that she had become her father's surrogate wife. She said she was afraid to tell anybody what was happening: "He brought me in his room. I put a pillow over my face to block it out until it was over.... He always threatened me and said that nobody would believe me, because I had no proof."

Cathleen Pierson died at 38 on Feb. 13, 1985 - one year to the day before Cheryl and Sean were arrested for murder. Cheryl told police that she had feared that her father would prey someday on her 8-year-old sister.

The cheerleader and the Boy Scout had sat together in homeroom since the seventh grade, because their last names begin with "Pi." Just before Thanksgiving in 1985, Cheryl first told Sean in Mrs. Hoban's homeroom at Newfield High School that she was looking for a hit man. Kids in class had been talking about a story in Newsday that morning - the arrest of a Mastic Beach woman and five men she had hired to kill her husband because he had been beating her.

"The next thing you know, Cheryl said, 'I want somebody killed,'" Pica says now. "I felt immediately that the eyes were on me. I said, 'That's something I could do. We'll talk about it.' I thought that it wouldn't come up again, but then it did come up again - and again and again. And then we went on Christmas break...." Pica paused for a moment, and started to cry. When he continued, his voice was soft and choked: "And man, I thought about her every day of that break. I just couldn't let it go. So I just went and waited and shot the guy on his driveway."

Those who knew him said Sean Pica had always been a sympathetic kid. But his mother, Joanne, said after he was arrested that she had warned him: "I always told him, even as a kid, 'You're going to try to help the wrong person someday.'"

Sean was 5 when his father left his mother for the first time. The Picas reconciled, but were finally divorced when Sean was 9. His mother remarried, and Sean liked his stepfather, but there was a dark side: The man beat his mother, and then disappeared after three years. Sean became a silent, angry kid seeking acceptance, and he took his search to the streets - for a life lived too fast too early. He ran with a bad crowd. He turned to burglary, breaking into neighborhood homes. He turned to cocaine - and then he turned to murder.

"Though I loved my father, I was angry at him for leaving, then my stepfather leaving," Pica said. "What has been suggested is that maybe I used that anger against my own father, now against my friend's father. Maybe there was more to that than I understood."

Understanding the motives for murder was controversial in 1986 and 1987. Witnesses said a sobbing Cheryl kissed her father's coffin at his funeral, just three days after he had been killed. Shortly after her arrest, police found out that she was pregnant. She said she was convinced that it was her father's baby. Her credibility was questioned when she had a miscarriage five weeks later - and DNA tests showed that the child was fathered not by her own father, but by her boyfriend, Rob Cuccio.

There were those who believed Cheryl Pierson's story, and those who didn't. Some believed that she had been abused, and that the death of James Pierson was justifiable homicide. Others believed that she had made up the story for reasons ranging from rebellion against her father's violent discipline, to wanting his money. His estate was worth about $500,000.

There were those who believed that Sean Pica was Cheryl's savior, performing a little frontier justice - killing the bad guy in the name of good. Others believed that Pica was nothing more than a coked-up assassin who killed for the cash.

Five months before Cheryl was sentenced, her sister, JoAnn, then 10, wrote a letter to Suffolk County Judge Harvey W. Sherman. She called her big sister a liar and a sneak whom she often found "fooling around with my father." In her letter, the younger sister defended her dad: "My father can't speak for himself, THANKS TO MY SISTER."

Judge Sherman - who died at 75 three years ago - said at sentencing that he was persuaded that Cheryl had been sexually abused by her father. The judge gave her a short jail term and five years' probation. When she was released after serving 3 1/2 months, Rob Cuccio met her in Riverhead in a white stretch limousine that blared hard rock music as they drove away. Cuccio, originally charged with conspiracy for paying off Pica, had pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of solicitation, and got five years' probation.

The afternoon Cheryl was released, Cuccio got down on a knee and proposed. He gave her an engagement ring, which they displayed proudly for photographers. By then, Sean Pica was locked up in the Great Meadow Correctional Facility at Comstock.

Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Edward Jablonski had been asked why Cheryl got a lighter sentence than Sean did. "Her motivations were different," the prosecutor said. "She wanted to have the abuse stopped. He did it for the money."

Pica frowns about that now. "I didn't do it for the money. When I finally said, 'You know what? I'm going to shoot her father,' I wasn't thinking, 'How can I get away with it?' I knew I was going to jail. I did it for her - and that's one hell of a sacrifice to make for anybody. I was so naive."

Nine months after Cheryl got out of jail, she and Cuccio were married on a Sunday in a Roman Catholic ceremony in Miller Place. "I want to be a good wife and mother," she said.

Cheryl Cuccio, 34, has two young daughters now. Cheryl and Rob will celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary on Oct. 9. She has worked as a beautician, a bank teller and a salesclerk in a department store.

Paul Gianelli, Cheryl's trial lawyer, said the Cuccios have become a success story: "I've seen how lovingly Cheryl treats her girls. She's a terrific mother." The father is a registered nurse. Although Cheryl and her sister, JoAnn, 26 now, "have had their ups and downs," they have reconciled, Gianelli said.

"Sometimes we make predictions when we stand in front of judges, asking them to be lenient," Gianelli said. "We ask them to take chances on people, hoping they can make something of their lives. This is one of those cases where the predictions turn out to be true - and a young lady's life is saved."

Reached at her home in Medford, Cheryl Cuccio declined to discuss the case or her current life, other than to say, "I'm doing good." Of Sean Pica, she said, "I wish him the best, I really do."

When Pica first got to prison, the convicts, and some of the guards, called him "Angel." Maybe it was because he was so young and so frail, maybe it was because they thought he was a martyr for killing a man who was molesting his own daughter.

"So I was this 16-year-old kid walking around saying, 'I did the right thing. The guy deserved it,'" Pica says now. "It took me a lot of years to get beyond that and say, 'You know what? I never had the right to kill somebody.'"

In Pica's early years in prison, they might have called him Angel, but he wasn't one. He was still getting high, smoking marijuana, which was readily available in prison. "I was dealing with my demons, the guilt of the crime. The only thing I really felt like doing was lifting weights. I had no intention of helping anybody else, because I couldn't even help myself."

They put Pica into solitary lockup a few times for fighting - to defend himself, he said. He was moved from prison to prison a couple of times for disciplinary reasons. "It wasn't enough to hit rock bottom," he said. "I had to wallow there for a while."

The change from dope-smoking, iron-pumping screwup to semi-solid citizen convict came a dozen or so years ago. He got involved in a youth program, talking to troubled teenagers who had been raised to believe that going to prison was just part of growing up, a rite of passage toward manhood.

"That program was life-changing for me, and it began a healing process," Pica said. "I learned something I never knew existed: When you help other people, you help yourself." He said he has been clean and sober ever since.

Pica earned his bachelor's and master's degrees by taking prison courses from the Junior College of Albany, Ulster County Community College, Skidmore College, Nyack College and the New York Theological Seminary. Those programs no longer exist.

With judges giving - and the public demanding - longer and more mandatory sentences to crack down on crime, Gov. George Pataki abolished most educational prison programs in 1995. The Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a privately funded program at Sing Sing, is the only college-degree- granting program left in the New York State prison system.

Pica still volunteers in the Sing Sing program and also speaks at high schools in Westchester. He tells youngsters about what he did as a kid and what he's done since: "Being able to use 16 years of hardship to help others kind of gives meaning to what I've been through."

When Pica earns a master's degree in social work at Hunter College, he said he'll return to Strive in East Harlem for full-time counseling work. The empowerment outfit, funded by both private and government grants, has 34 sites in 22 U.S. cities.

When Pica speaks to youth groups, he encourages a quality that he said he lacked a long time ago: courage.

"Killing somebody is very different than in the movies. It's not Schwarzenegger or Clint Eastwood or Rambo shooting everybody. If you think you can look at somebody and pull the trigger, and then think that your life won't be instantly changed forever, well, think very hard. I wish I would have had the courage to say no. No matter what he was doing, the fact that somebody's dead because of me...."

Pica began to cry again, and was unable to speak for a moment. After he cleared the tears, he continued: "I truly believe that he would have been dead, no matter what I did. But it didn't have to be me to do it."

James Pierson, the man Pica murdered, might have been lewd, loud and abusive, but a friend said 17 years ago that he could be generous, but tough - a James Cagney type: "If he knew you were hurting for money, he'd tell you to go to hell, but he'd give you the money to get there."

Pierson is buried in Holy Sepulchre cemetery in Coram - anonymously. Cathleen Pierson is the only name engraved on the brown tombstone. "The family has chosen not to put his name on the marker, but he's in there with his wife," said a woman in the cemetery office.

The only words James Pierson left behind are the ones he had chosen for his wife's tombstone. Framed by a rose and a heart and a cross, the cemetery words are chilling: "Love Is Forever."

Convict 87-B-811 was released nine months ago on Friday the 13th. "That's my lucky day," Pica said. The next Friday the 13th will fall in February, and that day next winter might not be a cause for celebration: It will be the 18th anniversary of the day Pica was arrested for murder.

Pica's got a green 1986 Dodge Ram van, loaded with power tools, and he returns to Long Island on weekends sometimes to do what he's done since he was a kid: carpentry. Whenever he isn't busy with schoolwork, he does decks and cabinets and windows and such, working with a contractor, a friend from his old neighborhood. He also sees his parole officer twice a month, has regular drug testing and counseling - and visits his parents, who are both remarried and still living in Suffolk.

Pica was eligible for parole after he had served six years of his sentence. But he was denied five times over 10 years - due to the violence of his crime. He was finally freed after he had served two-thirds of his sentence, and because he had managed to make something of his life.

Pica has traveled from death and despair, to repair and reform. Can his life be called any kind of a success story? "No, no," he said, shaking his head. "Some days I get on the train to go home, and man, I just cry and cry. It's overwhelming sometimes."

Sean Pica and Cheryl Cuccio haven't spoken to each other since they pleaded guilty. She got 3 1/2 months in jail. He got 16 years in prison. What does he say to her now? "In the beginning, I felt like sort of a sucker," Pica said, "but I'm at peace with that now. I just hope that she's OK. I hope that she's in a good place, mentally and spiritually."

Pica survived in some hard-knock places, the last seven years in Sing Sing, on Cellblock A. "You survive that, I guess there's not much else to intimidate you," he said. "What's going to stop me now?"

Walking along Third Avenue near 123rd Street in East Harlem with a black pack on his back - past Angel's Nails and Joey's Superstore and Andy's Coffee Shop - the man who once had murder on his mind basked in the marvels of Manhattan.

"It starts raining, and everyone runs to get inside. Not me. I would have given anything a few months ago to be standing in the rain in New York," Sean Pica said. "And now I can."
Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.

03-31-2004, 10:40 PM
What a powerful story. For those who say people can't change, this story proves that you can if you are willing to work hard for it.

04-01-2004, 08:05 AM
I just watched this sad story last night on 48 Hours...really sad, but he turned a negative into something really postive...

04-01-2004, 09:44 AM
It's a bittersweet story ... I'm glad to hear that he's come out and doing well but something about the whole story just makes me really sad. Does it really take all of that? I just think of the thousands that are languishing in prisons across NYS and this country and it brings tears to my eyes b/c of the waste of it all ... there has to be a better way.

04-01-2004, 09:57 AM
although I agree, it is sad, when you read this, you wan to cry for him, and how it must have been for him being that he spent 16 years in prison, and that there are many guys in there with the same story, yet, I do not see it as a waste...and really is not sad, he is triumphant, he conquered! My husbands story is very similar and he does not feel his time inside was a waste, he learned from it. He did miss out on many things and family he lost but he feels it saved his life. I do not believe anything we go through is a waste, although it breaks my heart to think of all the people in prison that were not justly sentenced,children sentenced for LIFE, or a 25-life sentence for a gun charge (not for killing someone)and all the innocent ones who will never see life out here or wont until they are in their 50's and 60's!!! that makes me sad.
The Story about Sean inspires me, he is a great example that anything is possible, that no matter what, you can start over, get a second chance, and win! He is a wonderful inspiration and he gives me hope for my husband...

04-01-2004, 03:00 PM
I saw this story too and I hope they DO pass laws to give these "kids" another chance,my man included

04-01-2004, 03:57 PM
i remember reading this book years ago and thinking how terrible to have so much hate in your heart against your father ( it was told from the girl's angle ). i'm glad that instead of hardening himself, he learned and is working toward giving to other people.

04-01-2004, 06:33 PM
Thanks for posting a sad story with a happy ending..very inspirational....Judy