Samuel Ayala remained behind bars this week, more than four decades after murdering two young South Salem mothers and two months since the state Parole Board declared he could go free.
Reversing the decision it had made a dozen times earlier, the board in July paroled inmate 78A0767, ordering a tentative Sept. 3 release. But as this week began, Ayala was still in a cell at the Fishkill Correctional Center, his home for 43 years, because he has yet to secure an “acceptable” new home on the outside, a parole prerequisite, a Department of Corrections spokesman said.
It was one of the few boxes Ayala failed to check after successfully beseeching the Parole Board to turn him loose. Now elderly, Ayala was 26 when he shot to death Bonnie Minter, 32, and her friend Sheila Watson, 38, during a 1977 home invasion near Meadow Pond Elementary School.
Two of the board’s 16 members, Tana Agostini and Michael Corley, interviewed him via videoconference on July 20. The Katonah-Lewisboro Times has obtained a redacted transcript of the interview.
In it, an emotional Ayala portrays himself as contrite, a convict who has found religion and a trade—shirt designing—while in prison. He repeatedly calls his actions “horrible” and blames, among other things, drugs and the women in his life—an unfaithful wife, an uncaring mother and sister—for his deviant behavior.
“That day at the house, I exploded,” he says. “I wanted to get revenge for the way I was treated when I was a kid.”
Play date interrupted
His crime, as the afternoon sun was setting on March 2, 1977, was the stuff of small-town nightmares.
Ayala and fellow gunman Willie Profit forced their way at gunpoint into Sheila Watson’s Smith Ridge Road home—a target Ayala says was chosen at random by the Norwalk, Conn.-based marauders—as Watson’s 3-year-old daughter, Nicole, played with Maggie Minter, also 3. Later, Minter drove with son Jason, 6, returning Lucas Watson, 6, after the boys had played at the Minters’ West Lane home. Bonnie Minter walked in on an unfolding nightmare from which neither woman would waken.
In an upstairs bedroom, where Watson had already been raped by the two gunmen, both mothers were methodically murdered, 11 staccato gunshots that their terrified children could hear in a nearby bedroom. After the gunmen fled, laughing, Jason Minter found his mother’s body and ran for help.
Within days, police arrested the killers and their getaway driver. A year later, convicted on all counts of murder, rape, robbery and other crimes, Ayala and Profit drew the stiffest sentences then possible: 25 years to life.
Sentencing Judge Richard J. Daronco called that punishment “inadequate...to fit the ghastly crimes” and the law has since been revised to permit consecutive prison terms for each felony conviction.
Profit died in prison, but 1978’s more lenient sentencing guidelines made Ayala, jailed in 1977, parole-eligible in 2002.
As a 6-year-old, Jason Minter saw his mother’s bloodied body; as an adult, he has fought against Ayala’s release, repeatedly appearing in person before the Parole Board. Twelve times he has seen Ayala denied.
Then came COVID
This year, the coronavirus pandemic changed certain procedures. For one thing, it meant that Jason Minter and others who opposed his release could not appear in person before the Parole Board. Instead, they had to phone in statements, possibly affecting their impact on board members.
In addition, COVID-19 prisoner deaths nationwide were seeing a dramatic spike. In New York, one study reported, 17 prisoners had been fatally infected by mid-September. Asked whether coronavirus concerns had played a role, the corrections spokesman did not directly respond, saying only that board members “must follow statutory requirements.”
At 68, Ayala appears to have dropped his gunman’s swagger and adopted the countenance of a chastened convict.
“I take responsibility for my actions,” he told the Parole Board, “and I am sorry. I am regretful for the horrible crime that I committed,” he said, according to the transcript of the hearing.
Asked why he took part in such a brutal attack, Ayala said, “I got to the point that...I didn’t like women.”
He blamed, without providing specifics, his treatment “by my mother, when I was 12 years old.” He was also “rejected” by his sister, he said, and his wife “was cheating on me with somebody else.”
That day at the Watson house, he said, “I exploded, I wanted to get revenge for the way I was treated when I was a kid.”
He expressed empathy for the survivors.
“Those kids, they go on, they got to get some professional help to overcome the experience that I put them through and it’s horrible. The husband coming home and finding that he don’t have a wife no more because of me, the horrible decision that I made.”
Ayala said he was on drugs when he raped and murdered.
“I was using cocaine and heroin and I was drinking,” he said. Still, he didn’t blame substance use for his actions.
“I’m responsible for the crime,” he told the board. “I made the bad choice of using drugs. It’s no excuse.”
Ayala insisted he had found religion.
“I went and I got involved in church. It gave me a positive direction, journey in my life,” he said. “And I ran by the word of God and I understood how important it is to take responsibility for the crimes that I committed and treating women the way they are supposed to be treat[ed], like a human being.”
Apparently assured by those kinds of declarations, the Parole Board decided to give Ayala one more chance, something he never gave Sheila Watson and Bonnie Minter.