"Headless body in topless bar" killer denied parole

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York state authorities denied parole on Tuesday to the man convicted of the crime that generated one of the most famous headlines in U.S. journalism: the New York Post’s “Headless body in topless bar.”

The parole board denied early release for Charles Dingle, 53, convicted of the 1983 rampage in which he fatally shot the owner of a topless bar, took hostages, raped a woman and forced another to cut off the dead man’s head in order to prevent police from linking the bullet to his gun.

Dingle, held in an upstate prison, has maintained his innocence despite numerous eyewitnesses and considerable physical evidence.

The headline, credited to Vincent Musetto, an editor and film critic who retired last year after 40 years at the Post, recalls a much more violent New York City than today’s. There were nearly 2,000 murders in 1983 compared with 515 in 2011, according to police statistics.

The headline provided the title for the book “Headless Body in Topless Bar: The Best Headlines from America’s Favorite Newspaper.”

It also helped cement the Post’s reputation as the most colorful of New York City’s tabloid newspapers, which maintain an intense newsstand rivalry even in a digital world.

The Daily News went with “Queens night of horror” to chronicle Dingle’s crime. Newsday, the Long Island paper that published a New York City edition at the time, titled the story “A night of terror.” For The New York Times, it was, “Owner of a bar shot to death; suspect is held.”

The rejection Tuesday was Dingle’s third failed request for parole.

The parole board of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision on Tuesday noted Dingle’s long prior criminal record, a “propensity for victimizing others,” and at least 30 violations in prison including assaulting the staff.

“This continued poor behavior coupled with your disturbing criminal history makes your release incompatible with public safety and welfare,” the three-person panel ruled. “To release you would so deprecate the serious nature of the instant offense and undermine respect for the law. Parole is denied.”

In a 2010 interview with the Post, Dingle blamed the media frenzy for denying him a fair trial and faulted the parole board for asking him to “plead guilty and take responsibility for the crime.”

“I can’t do it because I didn’t do it,” he said.

Police told a very different story, based on accounts from people in the bar that night and the morning of April 14, 1983, including the victim’s wife. One year later, a judge in a non-jury trial convicted him of second-degree murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery, sentencing him to 25 years to life in prison.

Dingle was drinking and using cocaine before getting into an argument with bar owner Herbert Cummings, 51, according to newspaper reports attributed to police at the time.

Dingle shot Cummings dead and took several hostages, one of whom he raped. Dingle ordered one hostage who happened to be a mortician to retrieve the bullet from Cummings’ head. When she failed to find the bullet, he ordered her to cut off the head with kitchen knives.

“That woman had a lot of guts,” police Lieutenant Dennis Cunningham told Newsday at the time. “She remained cool during this time and talked Dingle out of killing all of them.”

The severed head was placed in a box labeled “Fine Wines” and stuffed with party streamers torn from a bar decoration. Dingle tried to flee with the head but his car would not start, so he called a cab.

When the cab driver arrived, Dingle locked him in the back of the bar and stole his car, taking two of the women “on a gruesome terror ride into Manhattan,” the Post said.

With one of the women driving and the box in the front seat, Dingle passed out, allowing the two women to flee and call police. Police found Dingle just waking up and they wrestled the gun from him without firing a shot.

With the arrest happening on a Thursday morning, the Post had time to get the story in one of its afternoon editions. A front-page teaser headline read “Cops find headless body in topless bar -- Page 8.”

By Friday morning, at least one of the editions carried the banner front-page headline “Headless body in topless bar,” and a legend was born.

Musetto’s headline also provided the title for the book “Headless Body in Topless Bar: The Best Headlines from America’s Favorite Newspaper.”

Editing by Bill Trott