FORT LEE, N.J. — A young man wearing a baseball cap sat alone in his convertible at the drive-through lane of a Dunkin’ Donuts here, the top down on a warm October afternoon, waiting to order Munchkins and coffee. He did not notice, from behind, the approach of a man carrying a baseball bat.
The stranger smashed the bat into the back of the driver’s head and ran away. The driver, dazed and bleeding, lurched his car out of the line and crashed into another vehicle on Bergen Boulevard.
The attack was as brief as it was brutal, but it was long in the making. A couple of years, at least, perhaps longer. The yearnings of the heart don’t come with time stamps, and long-game acts of deceit and betrayal don’t lend themselves to simple when-and-where entries on police reports. The chain of events that led to and followed that attack would not be a straight one, but a twisting series of seemingly random and bizarre actions and reactions no one could have seen coming.
The path to that drive-through begins in familiar territory: a lonely older man with some money in the bank and a younger woman who would come to separate the two. The old man was Jerry Needleman, a retired builder and a widower, who was 84 when he walked out of his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side on Aug. 5, 2013, and was approached by a distraught woman he did not know.
“She had just left a boyfriend in Massachusetts who beat her and raped her,” Needleman, now 90 and trim, said, recalling their first conversation in a recent interview. “She was in and out of hospitals and had no money and two children.”
Needleman offered to help her look for an apartment. Her name was Sylvia Anderson, and she was 38. Some days later, Needleman found her an apartment on East 95th Street, a mile or so from his own home, and signed as her guarantor. He also put up several months’ rent. He wanted to see her get settled. They struck up a friendship. Anderson had become a mother at 19, and was already a grandmother.
“She would come down most every day and bring her grandchild,” he recalled of those days.
Anderson struck him as woefully naïve and uneducated. She told him she was Kalderash, a part of the Roma community often pejoratively called Gypsies. “She knew absolutely nothing of the world,” Needleman said. “I showed her a map one time and she didn’t know what she was looking at.”
He was impressed with her children, especially her son, Geno, 19. He seemed to have ambition. When he was told that Geno had met a girl and intended to marry her and needed $60,000 for a dowry for her family, he handed over the money.
More four- and five-figure handouts to Anderson followed. Where alarm bells would seem impossible to miss, Needleman either ignored them or wasn’t listening. He was thinking long term.
“I’m all alone,” he said. He and his beloved wife of 40-plus years, Gitti, who died in 2008, had no children. “I just feared ending up in a nursing home.” In Anderson and her children, he saw companionship in his waning years.
Time passed. Geno’s wedding fell through. Then Geno met another girl. Another $60,000 dowry to be paid. Needleman stepped up again. And when that engagement went south, and a third girl came along, he paid that dowry, too.
Needleman was one of a group of guys who got together in Central Park every Saturday, fellow retirees from all walks of life. They learned of the woman who was becoming a regular presence in their friend’s life.
“He had introduced me to her. Said he was dating somebody and wanted me to meet her,” said Mike Stern, 78, a retired jewelry manufacturer. “Immediately my defenses went up. Jerry is not a young man, and this girl is attractive, let’s put it that way.” But Stern didn’t think it was his business to say anything.
Others were less reticent. “They thought I was crazy,” Needleman said. “‘Jerry, this girl’s not for you.’”
He also got an earful from an unlikely stranger. One day, his bell rang, and he opened his door to find a New York City police detective who told him he had reason to believe, based on another investigation, that Needleman was the victim of a so-called “sweetheart swindle.” He asked if he would make a complaint.
Can’t help you, Needleman told him. “I’ve thought about what you’ve said to me, and I believe I can correct everything,” Needleman recalled saying at a later meeting with the detective. “She’s been through a hard life, and given the opportunity to live a proper life, she would turn out to be a good lady.”
Anderson told Needleman that they should get married. On Sept. 8, 2015, a mild and sunny Tuesday, Needleman and Anderson were wed in a civil ceremony at the New York City clerk’s office downtown. The bride wore a matronly, robin’s-egg-blue skirt suit with a necklace to match. Stern, the jeweler, served as best man.
“You’re thinking to yourself, ‘Jerry, what are you doing? What are you doing?’ But he did it,” Stern said. “They each arrived separately. The whole thing took maybe two minutes.”
Enter ‘Danny Champs’
The Needleman marriage was not a happy one. Before the wedding, their relationship had evolved into a blink-and-you-missed-it romance, and they had sex “a couple of times,” he said. That ended with the exchange of vows. Anderson came and went at all hours. “She never made breakfast, and rarely made dinner, and if she did, it was a Gypsy dish that made me sick,” Needleman said. “The spices.”
She redecorated the apartment that Needleman had lived in since he married his first wife in 1958. A hulking, faux-bejeweled white sofa arrived, with matching chairs. Above them hung a new chandelier. It didn’t turn on. It was just for show — she had not connected it to a power source.
As Needleman watched the interior of his longtime home be transformed, more significant events were taking place out of his sight. At some point, Anderson had reunited with a man she had known since they were teenagers. His name was Danny Eli, but everyone called him Danny Champs. He resembled a younger Johnny Depp and wore a goatee. She secretly rented an apartment a few blocks from Needleman’s.
Needleman discovered the second apartment and that his wife was seeing Danny Champs. Enough was enough — first her odd hours, and the furniture, the bad food, no sex, and now this. He filed for divorce in May 2017, citing his wife’s “paramour” on his court filing. He also accused her of stealing his money.
“Defendant scammed me out of at least $1,836,725,” he wrote in his filing.
The divorce was granted. But Anderson didn’t go anywhere. She asked him to reconsider and marry her again. She promised things would be better.
And so on Aug. 24, 2017, the couple once again entered the city clerk’s office and once again left with a marriage certificate. This time there was no best man.
The changes she promised didn’t happen.
“It was right back to the way things were,” he said, including her regular pleas for his money.
The relationship fell apart for good soon after, and by the fall of 2017, four years after walking into his life on a street corner, Anderson was gone.
She left the furniture behind.
‘An asteroid hit my head’
Anderson’s stay in Manhattan had set in motion a simmering drama across the Hudson River that would lead to violence. The situation involved yet another man with a long history with Anderson: Sonny Nicholas, 47, Geno’s father and Anderson’s common-law husband. They had eloped when she was 18 after his family paid her dowry. Everyone called him Gordo.
Nicholas was apparently enraged — not over her marriage to Needleman, which was an open secret in their family, but rather her affair with Eli — Danny Champs — and her renting of the secret apartment. He ranted on Instagram: “Nothing but a pure garbage Jezebel.”
He and his son decided to pay Eli a visit.
On Oct. 31, Nicholas and Geno Anderson drove to Ridgefield, New Jersey, to the small house where Eli lived and waited outside, watching, the police said. His house shared a wide common driveway with the one next door.
In that house next door lived a physician assistant named Charbel Chaoul, 28, and his parents. Chaoul wanted to be a doctor, and he was preparing to take the Medical College Admission Test in a few months.
That afternoon, his sister dropped by with her daughters. Chaoul offered to pick up coffee and Munchkins.
He got in his convertible wearing a ball cap, and, his side of the driveway blocked by his sister’s vehicle, veered into his neighbor’s side to get out. To an observer on the street, it would have appeared as though the convertible was leaving Eli’s house.
Chaoul drove a little over a mile to Dunkin’ Donuts and entered the drive-through. Behind him, the end of his life’s plans for the foreseeable future was fast approaching, bat in hand.
“It felt like an asteroid hit my head,” Chaoul said at his home recently. He fled into traffic and struck another vehicle. Emergency responders thought he was injured in the accident and took him to the hospital, but doctors quickly suspected something else when they found “serious skeletal and soft tissue injuries, which were inconsistent with a motor vehicle collision,” the Fort Lee police said later.
He spent two weeks in intensive care. Doctors removed a portion of his skull to address the swelling in his brain. His head looked lopsided. Two months later, doctors performed another surgery and installed a titanium plate.
He said he gets confused and can’t focus for long. “My mind’s been so ruffled up,” he said.
Nine days after the attack, the police arrested Nicholas and his son, with video evidence showing Nicholas fleeing the area and getting into a vehicle where his son was waiting.
They were charged with attempted murder. They pleaded guilty, and await their sentences. A court hearing is set for Aug. 28.
A shocking new arrest
Months after the beating, Chaoul was still recovering at home, unable to study and requiring frequent rests. Then, in June, there came an unexpected visit from the police.
On June 22, prosecutors in Bergen County, New Jersey, announced the arrest of a man charged with having more than 10,000 images of child pornography on his computer, and for sharing many of the images. The man was Chaoul.
When Chaoul spoke to me at his home in July, he was free on bond. After we talked about the beating, I asked about the pornography case. He blames the assault for his behavior.
“You drop into a different world,” he said. “My mind wasn’t exactly there much of the time. I tripped into this weird world I wish I never found.”
His lawyer, Frank Carbonetti, said he had not yet seen evidence indicating when the police believe the images were downloaded, and prosecutors declined to comment. But Carbonetti said a sudden interest in inappropriate and illegal material after a traumatic brain injury is not unheard of, a side effect involving the loss of inhibition. The behavior has been given a name in medical circles, Klüver-Bucy Syndrome, and can cause “abnormalities in memory, social and sexual functioning and idiosyncratic behaviors,” according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders.
That case is ongoing.
In Florida, a familiar tale
Needleman, stewing alone in his apartment with a living room set he can’t stand — “This place looks like a furniture store” — has been trying to understand what had happened.
He hired a private investigator, Bob Nygaard, to do some digging. Turns out his wife had used different names in the past and had worked as a palm reader — her grandmother had passed down the skill when she was a little girl — in various states, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida.
There was a lawsuit brought against her in 2011 by an 80-year-old widower in Orlando, Florida, who had bumped into her in a grocery store. He had stopped to listen to her desperate story, one that to Needleman sounded very familiar. She told the widower that she had fled an abusive boyfriend in Massachusetts with her teenage children and they had no place to stay.
Within three months, the man, Samuel T. Silver Jr., a retired executive with Shell Oil, had bought Anderson, then 36, an $11,000 engagement ring and a $58,000 Cadillac Escalade she said she needed to move her belongings to Florida. He also gave her more than $28,000 in cash, supposedly for food and lodging.
Silver’s son confronted Anderson, and she broke off the engagement and returned to Massachusetts. Silver sued her for fraud, and he prevailed. In a 2012 deposition before Silver’s lawyer, Anderson declined to answer questions and invoked the Fifth Amendment.
A year later, she met Needleman in New York.
Eager for some justice of his own, Needleman met with the district attorney’s office. He brought along evidence: In the final days of their relationship, he had written out a confession, and she signed it. “Needleman gave me credit cards on which I spent $10,000-$20,000 per month and sometimes more,” the statement reads. “He provided $60,000 to ‘buy’ each of three wives for her son.”
No luck. Needleman said he was told it would be highly unlikely that a jury would convict her because he had not only married her, but later, after divorcing her and believing himself the victim of a scam, married her again.
He has filed for a second divorce.
Jerry D’Angelo, the lawyer representing Anderson in that divorce, said he does not anticipate her being charged with a crime. “Their marriages were based on love and respect for the other person,” he said.
Anderson left New York, moving to a house in Paramus, New Jersey. On a recent morning, a knock on the door was answered by the man known as “Danny Champs,” Eli. He stood in his doorway, visibly annoyed as he listened to questions about the chain of events that ended with the beating of a man who the attacker believed to be him.
“Sounds like you have the whole story. I don’t know what you need me for,” he said. “I have no comment. I’m afraid for my life.”
As for Anderson, the single thread connecting at least half a dozen men whose lives have been altered because of their proximity to her, she was, according to Eli, not home.
Back in Manhattan, Needleman remembers what she used to tell him when he shared his worries of dying alone.
“She told me that she loved me eternally,” he said, “and when I died, she would jump in the box with me.”
“If anybody told me the story I’m telling,” he said, “I wouldn’t believe it.”