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419: Petty Tyrant

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Steve Raucci. Let's just start with something that Steve Raucci was really good at-- cutting energy costs. He was legendary. If you worked in the Schenectady School District, you knew that if you wanted to turn on extra lights, or make some illicit toast in your classroom, there'd be hell to pay. Unauthorized coffee makers, microwaves-- forbidden.

Richard Agnello

I never saw this happen, but I heard reports of people's electric cords being just cut at the source so that they couldn't be used again. Just physically snipped in half. So we didn't want to cause trouble, so we just tried to live reasonably.

Ira Glass

At one point, Richard Agnello, a special education teacher, was working in the middle school and had this little office with no heat-- none. In winter, it would be 56 degrees in there. He borrowed a thermometer from a science classroom to check. He asked for heat repeatedly. Nothing happened, so he broke the rules, brought in a little space heater, which he would hide in a file cabinet at night. So one winter morning, he gets to work, and he turns on the space heater, hangs up his coat. Suddenly, Steve Raucci walks in and sees the heater.

Richard Agnello

Eyes bulging, and veins on his head throbbing. Started yelling at me and saying, what are you doing with that space heater here? You're not supposed to have that here? That's against district policy. And I-- kind of taken aback that someone would get this upset over a little heat in the room. And I said, you know what? You're right. And I'm not trying to be a scofflaw, but look at my thermometer. It's 57 degrees in here. And he didn't have much to say. He sputtered and fumed and said, well, you've got to get rid of that.

Ira Glass

The next day, Agnello is walking up a flight of stairs, and sees a maintenance worker coming down the stairs.

Richard Agnello

He's carrying my space heater in an arm, cradled like a football, and he's running down the stairs. And I saw him from about half a flash away, and I said, hey, what are you doing with my space heater? And he said, don't talk to me. Don't talk to me. Talk to my boss. And he ran out the front door, ran past me, jumped into the district van that was parked outside, and tore away from the building, just spewing rocks as he went.

John Lapointe Jr

I got the thing tucked under my arm and I'm going down the stairs--

Ira Glass

That's John Lapointe Jr, the district electrician who'd been sent to remedy this very, very serious space heater infraction.

John Lapointe Jr

And this guy goes-- right at the bottom of the stairs, I'm heading out to my truck-- hey, that's my space heater. Where you going with that? I go, you got to talk to facilities. You know, Steve Raucci in facilities. And I just kept going.

Ira Glass

For the people who worked under Steve Raucci, this story's a dime a dozen. And it's got all the hallmarks of Raucci's style-- the temper, the fanatical control over every single detail around him, the pettiness, the comic strip antics, even the fact that workers were forbidden to talk to teachers when they were out on a job.

Schenectady School District has a good reputation academically, and the people in town knew the usual things about their schools-- the test scores, the good teachers, the budget fights. What they didn't know was that a huge scandal was slowly coming to a boil in one of the least likely places, down Norwood Avenue, along the side of Mount Pleasant Middle School, behind the high chain link fence surrounding a parking lot filled with trucks and vans, an area called the pen.

Alongside the pen there's a big garage where they store lawn mowers and tons of supplies. That's where the workers hang out-- the custodians and the maintenance guys. They were Steve Raucci's subjects who, only half-jokingly, called Steve the "King," or the "Doctor," or sometimes even just "God." Everybody who worked for him has an example of something that he did, something just off enough they've never forgotten it.

Man 1

When I was in the restroom, he slid newspapers on fire underneath the door.

Man 2

He had eggs. I have chickens, so I'd bring eggs in for the guys. And he saw them in the fridge or something. He goes, oh, here. He makes the gal-- his secretary-- pick who he throws the egg at. She didn't want to pick anybody.

John Lapointe Jr

I was on my way home one day, and I see something smoking in the middle of the road as I'm approaching it with my van. And all of a sudden, this thing goes ba-boom. Scared the living daylights out of me. You know what I mean? This thing, when it went off, it shook the whole area. So I come to work the next morning. Steve's sitting there. He starts asking me, so anything exciting happen, or anything unusual happen? And I'm like, it was you?

Act One: Act One

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, how one guy came to be untouchable, how he grabbed power and dominated everybody around him, sometimes with fear, sometimes cruelty, playing by rules that he invented. And how people all around him, including people with the power to stop him, let it happen.

And what's so interesting about this is that all the intrigue and drama did not happen in a setting like national politics or big business. This guy wasn't a Harvey Weinstein with the power to make somebody a movie star. This is a study in tyranny writ small, Machiavellian scheming in the maintenance office of school district.

Act One of today's show is about what it was like at the height of Steve Raucci's power. Act Two is about how he fell. We first broadcast today's show years ago, when all this happened. This week is the 10th anniversary of Raucci's arrest. And he just did an interview with a reporter about what happened where he says some things he's never said. Some details of that at the end of the program. The reporter for our story is Sarah Koenig, who later became the host of the podcast Serial. And let's get right to it. Here's Sarah Koenig.

Sarah Koenig

Of course there are tyrannical, manipulative bullies everywhere, but Steve Raucci was special, a virtuoso. Schenectady County District Attorney Bob Carney is something of an expert on tough characters of all kinds. Since he's been DA, he's overseen the convictions of more than 80 murderers.

Bob Carney

And some of them did unspeakably bad things. But in terms of a person who bullies people, and studies the art of intimidation and coercion, I don't think there's anybody that compares with him because he made it the theme and the focus of his life.

Sarah Koenig

What also makes the Raucci affair unusual is that he got away with it, quietly, for decades. So that when he was finally arrested in February of 2009, charged with 26 felonies from weapons possession, to arson, to terrorism, the citizens of Schenectady were incredulous. Carl Strock, a writer for the Schenectady Daily Gazette, wrote dozens of columns about the case. And he's not someone who ever thought the school district could yield interesting news.

Carl Strock

Not only Schenectady School District, but any school district around here that I've heard of-- these are boring, boring places for a journalist. If a clerk sometimes embezzles $20 from the petty cash drawer, that would be a big event in a school district. School districts attract-- you know, it's kind of noble-minded people. And so my first reaction, and I think everybody's, was wow.

How could this happen? How can you have a mid-level employee in the school district being sort of a terrorist, really? Vandalizing people's houses, threatening them bodily, and grabbing them physically, humiliating them. And all this that had been going on for years, how could this have happened?

Sarah Koenig

Steve Raucci grew up in Schenectady. It's a small, mostly working class, middle class city about three hours north of Manhattan. He started working in the district in 1973, making $3.12 an hour as a laborer. He worked his way up to groundskeeper, then maintenance guy. And by the time his career ended 36 years later, he was in charge of all 21 of the district school buildings. He was 60 years old, married to his third wife, Shelley, no children, living in a modest condo.

The stories people tell about Steve's behavior-- and there are probably hundreds of stories-- fall into a few categories. First, humiliating hijinks. Second, insatiable control. And third, retribution-- reserved for those who didn't react well to the first and second categories. I talked to John Lapointe Jr, the electrician, Ellen Frederick, Steve's former secretary, Bryan Schaeffer, a district carpenter, and a few other people who didn't want their names used. They all said that humiliation was a daily event, and often creepily sexual. Here's Ellen Frederick.

Ellen Frederick

He walked around my desk, and walked behind me, pretended to grab my hair, pretending to drag me in his office, and bend me over his desk, and proceeded to-- he simulated-- we got it. We knew exactly what he was doing.

Sarah Koenig

And then there was the so-called man game.

Man 2

He'd put his hand on a guy's thigh, and kind of jokingly wait for any sort of reaction from the person. Just because if you enjoyed that, perhaps you'd be gay.

Sarah Koenig

Once he asked a young employee to show me a picture of his girlfriend, who was beautiful. So the guy did. The picture was on his phone. And Steve asked him to email it to him, and the guy said no. Steve asked again. And the kid said no. And then Steve suggested that if he so wanted that raise they'd talked about, he would send the photo. So the guy did. The next morning, a big blown-up copy of it was taped to the office whiteboard, along with a caption too disgusting to repeat. The kid was horrified.

John Lapointe Jr

Steve's answer was, I didn't know you were coming in today. I thought you were off.

Sarah Koenig

If you were out to breakfast with Steve-- and a core group of employees was compelled to attend these breakfasts-- he might pour a shaker of salt in your coffee when your back was turned, or sneak up on you in the bathroom and steal your glasses. Steve would open your paycheck and write something embarrassing on the back, or even the front.

At morning meetings-- sometimes hour-long affairs at which Steve would read aggressive, prepared remarks, Soviet-style, to the 20 or so guys gathered-- he might bring up your personal problems, how your marriage was on the rocks, your wife cheating on you, apropos of nothing.

An older guy who'd since retired from the school told me, you can say a lot of it was funny, but it was funny like this. We were at a restaurant and he took his beer bottle and put the base of it halfway across the edge of the table, so it was teetering. At any moment, crash. And then it was a disaster, he said.

You don't do stuff like this-- slide flaming newsprint under a door, or pretend to have sex with your secretary-- unless you're sure you can get away with it. Steve was sure. He was methodical and utterly in charge. For one thing, he controlled work assignments for the 110 people he managed, and treated his department like a combination of an army unit and a fourth-grade classroom. If you messed up one of his many rules, even in a small way, he'd make you write, I will not do such and such, over and over on that whiteboard every day.

You were supposed to arrive at 6:55 AM. If you came in at 7:00, the official start of the workday, he'd make you sign in late up at the admin office, in a different building a few streets away. Ellen Frederick, his secretary, was a favorite of Steve's for a while. She was the Faye Ray to his King Kong, except that he's actually a small, trim, chiseled guy who wore a brown weave in his gray hair until he had to shave it for prison.

Ellen was such a favorite that she even talked back to him sometimes. At meals, she always had to be at his side. He'd assign everyone else seats, as well. He'd tell her how he liked her to look-- hair, long and curly, skirts short, leggings. Sometimes the staff was told they weren't allowed to talk to her. She was his alone. But eventually, even she crossed him. And if you crossed Steve, you were done. She and a couple of other people in the office were having a casual conversation one day about romantic types. Steve asked Ellen what she meant, so she explained.

Ellen Frederick

You know what I mean. You like Susan Lucci. He was obsessed with Susan Lucci. He loved her. He had pictures of her underneath his little desk, his blotter. And I said, well, you're not my type. I like Matthew McConaughey. He's my type, whatever. Well, you thought that I just told him I put the knife right in his heart. His face turned beet red. His veins popped out of his neck. I mean, he couldn't even talk. He was just like, OK, that's enough. We're done here. So that was it. Two weeks later I was in a different office.

Sarah Koenig

Ellen was moved to a different building, different department, no questions asked. It wasn't a demotion, but it wasn't what she wanted. Other than Steve, she really liked her job in the maintenance department, had a lot of friends there. Administrators told her they were moving her for her own protection. They didn't explain what they meant. She told me she later heard Steve had threatened her at a meeting with administrators, saying if she doesn't go quietly, she knows what's going to happen to her, her house, and her family.

And all this time, no one said anything because if they did, they knew they'd face the same sort of retribution from Steve. People said they were afraid to talk sometimes for fear they'd accidentally say the wrong thing. Someone would report it back to Steve. He openly encouraged reporting back, rewarding gossip with time off or overtime pay. A district carpenter even made a wooden wedge of cheese which would end up in your mailbox if you'd been what Steve called a good rat.

Steve flaunted his vengeance, his mastery of it. At a union holiday party in 2007, everyone dressed up, having a nice time. He stood up and asked for their attention so he could read a speech. Instead of a toast to all their hard work and the fun times to come, he issued a yuletide warning. If you criticize me behind my back, you will be very, very sorry.

Bob Carney

It doesn't matter if you say it while you're in a drugstore, a mall, or one of our schools. Unless you're talking to yourself, there's always a good chance of it leaking back to me.

Sarah Koenig

Police found the text of the speech in Steve's computer when they seized it. That's Bob Carney reading, the district attorney who personally prosecuted Steve.

Bob Carney

So you understand how important it is for me to protect myself with my responsibilities, I will mention the names of several people in our department that I have eliminated because they found out just how protective I can be. Some of you may remember them.

Sarah Koenig

If you're noticing a certain embattled tone, for Raucci, the maintenance department is an operatic drama of endless threats and intrigue. He can't trust anyone. He's constantly undermined by disloyal minions. You're either with Steve, or you're against Steve, he'd tell people. There is no, on the fence. Fence riders get hurt. He'd recite lines from Goodfellas and other tough guy movies, without irony, in conversations about routine office business. In his Christmas speech, he went on to denounce a bunch of people he'd eliminated, including these guys.

Bob Carney

Bob Nunamacher, who was a plumber in this department who thought he was better than the people he worked with, including me. He even attempted to fight my decision to get rid of him by going to our union officials at the local and the region. It took me one day to eliminate him and his partner who said to me he had an allegiance to him, not me. Two days later, they were both gone. Now, this was his holiday message.

Sarah Koenig

Sounds like a really fun party.

Bob Carney

Oh, yeah. I think it probably upped the alcohol intake for the evening.

Sarah Koenig

The story of the plumbers was a classic case. There were two plumbers on staff. The senior plumber was giving Steve lip, but to get rid of him, Steve would have to get rid of the junior plumber first-- because of seniority rules. So he tried to get the junior plumber to take another position to make way for Steve to fire his partner. The guy didn't want to do it. One longtime employee who didn't want his name used told me about it. It disgusted him to see how easy it was for Steve to can the junior plumber.

Man 1

So he got rid of him. Just that easy. And it was no challenge. There was no question, either from the administration, the school board, or anything. When it came across the table, there was just no questions. The union didn't question, this guy's got a year and a half. Why are you getting rid of him all of a sudden? Nothing.

Sarah Koenig

Steve justified the firings as a cost-cutting measure to the administration, saying the district didn't need any plumbers. A month later, of course, they hired another plumber. But anyone who'd stuck up for the enemy plumbers was punished. This guy, who's retired now, had taken that risk, questioning the firings to Steve's face.

Man 1

Well, I told him-- I said, I didn't think it was right.

Sarah Koenig

And so after you said, I don't think it's the right thing, then what happened to you?

Man 1

I went to the high school.

Sarah Koenig

And what did it mean to be sent over to the high school?

Man 1

Well, it was just to humiliate the employee that was involved in that. You would have to take out the trash. You would get the worst part of the building to clean up after the kids. The one part of the building that was kind of isolated, where the milk was spilt, and the chips were thrown, and food was all over the windows and things. And there's nothing wrong with doing an honest day's work, but it wasn't-- I spent my whole life getting into this position. And now I'm demoted back to where I was 30 years ago.

Sarah Koenig

So you were kind of exiled there.

Man 1

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

And how long did your exile last?

Man 1

Seven weeks. The length of time was until he felt you learned your lesson.

Sarah Koenig

Did you learn your lesson? In other words, did you speak up about things after that?

Man 1

No, I did not, because his big threat to me was that-- at the time, I was 51 years old. I had 30-plus years in the school district. Where was I going to go and get a job? What was I going to do, start over? How was I going to afford my child support? How was I going to support my children? How was I going to do things with my sons, that I enjoyed doing, without a job? And he used that.

Sarah Koenig

Wait. Are those things you were saying to yourself inside your head, or things he was saying to you?

Man 1

No, he was saying that to me. Those were quotes.

Sarah Koenig

I heard this over and over. I needed my job. What choice did I have? I had no one to complain to. I had nowhere to go for help. Steve convinced his workers that he was responsible for any pleasure, any benefit that came their way, which meant he could also take it away without warning. it's the oldest trick in the tyrant playbook.

Steve knew the only way he could maintain the kind of absolute control he wanted over the people below him was to be in the excellent good graces of the many bosses above him-- in the union, the school board, and the district administration. Arguably, his chief talent was figuring out how to make himself indispensable to them. Steve had worked in the school system so long, he knew exactly which levers to pull and in what order.

He started with the union. In the 1990s, the district's maintenance department was in bad shape. It was unruly, and supervisors weren't lasting very long. The district was getting lots of grievances about working conditions and pay. It got so bad that the district considered getting rid of the maintenance department altogether, hiring an outside company to do the work. Back in those days, Steve Raucci was just a regular utility worker with a reputation for strangely aggressive pranks.

He decided to run for president of his unit in the union, which is the CSEA-- Civil Service Employees Association. He promised to help settle the workers problems himself, and he won. John Lapointe, the electrician from the space heater incident, voted for Steve, even campaigned for him. John's a slim, dark-haired guy with a goatee and stylish glasses. He's in his 50s, and his son also works in the maintenance department. John's a deeply nice and gentle man. And yet, he became one of Steve's inner circle.

John and his wife would go to dinner with Steve and his wife and a few other couples. You couldn't refuse these dinners. At the time, 2001, John was impressed with Steve.

John Lapointe Jr

In the beginning he was very effective, jumping on issues immediately, resolving them immediately, and he seemed like, wow, this guy's a pit bull. You know what I mean? He's grabbing, growling, and getting stuff done.

Carl Strock

And you won't be surprised to learn that under his administration, the number of grievances from that unit went from an average of 20 to 25 a year down to zero.

Sarah Koenig

That's Carl Strock again, the columnist.

Carl Strock

There were no union grievances. So this, of course, is a big advantage to the administration. You know, it's time consuming to deal with these grievances. He was a wonderful asset.

Sarah Koenig

As head of the union, Steve had the opportunity to gain entrance to the inner workings of the entire school district, all from his perch in the maintenance office. He became friendly with a guy named Jeff Janiszewski. They had breakfast meetings at a local chain restaurant. Janiszewski was school board president. But even when he wasn't on the board, Janiszewski was widely known around town as the board's kingmaker. He chose candidates and got them elected. That's where Steve Raucci came in.

Bob Carney

Their whole electioneering effort was pretty much undertaken by the O&M unit.

Sarah Koenig

That's DA Bob Carney. O and M is the operations and maintenance department, the one Raucci ran.

Bob Carney

If they had phone banks at night, he would bring 20 of his guys. The teachers would bring maybe two. They would pass out flyers. They would do phone banking of voters. And overwhelmingly, it was his people. I do believe, from what I know about electioneering, and politics, and the school board elections, that that kind of level of effort would be effective to turn an election because you're only dealing with 400 or 500 people that vote.

And for many years, that faction was very successful in controlling the school district, and consistently won school board elections. And Raucci took credit for that in memos and emails that he sent to them.

Sarah Koenig

Several people who worked for Raucci told me if they refused to do all this campaign grunt work, they'd most certainly be punished for it. They also told me they'd had to pass out election flyers, endorsing candidates or urging passage of the budget, door-to-door on district time, which is illegal in New York.

Steve's influence earned him yet more influence. Two years after becoming union president, he was promoted to director of buildings and grounds for the district. His salary jumped from $37,500 to $67,500. But he wasn't called the director, because if he officially became a director or manager of anything, that meant he couldn't also be in the union, much less run his unit, a position he very much wanted to keep.

So on paper, he finagled the underwhelming title of, quote, "head utility worker." That way he could keep his union control. In addition, he wouldn't have to take the civil service exam required to qualify for a manager's job. And importantly, he could still get overtime pay, which managers don't. I asked a former district official, who didn't want to be named, about all this, why he allowed Raucci to cut all these corners in terms of his title and his pay, while he promoted him at all considering his history.

In the past, Raucci had been disciplined for taking work trucks home or disappearing on the job, and there were rumors about explosives. An administrator's car had been set on fire, for instance, and there was talk that Raucci was involved. The former official sorrowfully defended his decisions. I believed in Steve Raucci, he told me. The maintenance department was a tough unit, a troubled unit, and I thought he was someone who cared about the district, who would do a good job. I'm sorry now. But it's hard to say publicly that I believed in him at the time. It's like saying you think Hitler was a good guy.

As for the personnel file, the former official said he didn't know about all the complaints and suspicions about Steve at the time, because he never looked at the file.

This part of Steve's story is the most confounding to me. How it could have happened that a boss of 110 people was also their union president, which in Steve's case meant he could threaten their jobs, prevent them from going over his head, cut off all avenues of complaint. How was such a blatant conflict of interest allowed to stand?

John Lapointe Jr

Some people had brought it up, and it was squelched pretty quick. Steve dealt with that very quickly.

Sarah Koenig

John Lapointe again.

John Lapointe Jr

We actually had a meeting at CSEA headquarters in Latham, and it was explained to us that it was actually quite common for a boss to also be a union president.

Sarah Koenig

In fact, it's not that strange for a so-called straw boss to be a union president-- someone who's supervising maybe four or five people. What is unheard of at CSEA, however, and probably at any union, is a union president who's an actual boss over 110 people, capable of hiring and firing at will. It seems only a couple of people tried to do anything about this. One of them was Michelle Tabbano, co-chair of the union's grievance committee for Schenectady County. She tried hard to boot him, but she was blocked at every turn.

Michelle Tabbano

I was part of three meetings trying to get Steve Raucci out. I knew that, with the position he was in, was a conflict of interest, and that he should have had judicial charges filed against him. I knew that. So I had a meeting with Kathy Garrison.

Sarah Koenig

Kathy Garrison is the region four president of CSEA.

Michelle Tabbano

I know Steve Raucci was there, and I told him I wanted him out of the union. I thought we had all evidence in the world to prove that he was part of management. What more egregious thing can you have, is the union present to be in bed with the school board, with the facilities supervisor, with the attorneys? Are you kidding me? That's who represents our members? Just one of those things he should have been-- you're working me all up. [LAUGHS] I'm sorry.

Sarah Koenig

Tabbano took up this fight when she started getting phone calls. Two, three, then six, maybe eight total-- people who worked for Steve.

Michelle Tabbano

And it was always the same complaint-- bullying, belittling people, embarrassing people, threatening to fire them if they didn't do what he said. And I told them that we could file grievances, but I needed them to give me their name and we could talk about it, so-- but nobody ever would. And then I wouldn't hear from them again. They said they were afraid of the repercussions.

Sarah Koenig

The reason they were calling her is because they couldn't use the normal chain of command. If a worker had a problem, they were first supposed to go to their supervisor, Steve. Then their complaint went go up a level to the district's director of human resources, Mike Stricos, a pal of Steve's who once presented him with a framed picture of Marlon Brando as the Godfather at a morning staff meeting. After that, there was the union's labor relations specialist, a guy named Mike Campon, who was good friends with school board president Jeff Janiszewski, another Steve supporter.

And the head of the union local? Also friends with Steve. It was a spider's web of good old boys. Since Tabbano couldn't get workers to go public, she tried to oust Steve on a technicality. He was clearly making too much money for his title of head utility worker, which therefore had to be a phony. She filed official requests, twice, with the school district demanding that they disclose financial information about Steve. And how did the school district respond to these official requests for transparency regarding Steve's position? Request they're required to respond to, according to labor law?

Michelle Tabbano

They never answered me. They never answered me.

Sarah Koenig

Tabbano couldn't prove anything. And none of her union superiors cared to press it. The higher ups at CSEA liked Steve. He helped them with their campaigns.

Michelle Tabbano

You know, the union, I think, broke down at every level. I blame myself for a lot of these things. I wish I could've fought more to get him out of there. CSEA blew this one, big time. We blew it.

Sarah Koenig

One of the main ways Steve ingratiated himself with his bosses was also the most traditional, one used by any manager in any workplace to get in good with the people in charge. He saved them money-- lots of it. And the way he did that was pretty ingenious. In 2004, a year after he takes over the maintenance department, Steve also becomes the de facto energy manager for the district, hence the space heater incident.

Another guy had had the job, but he wasn't meeting his energy reduction goals. What happened was that the district had invested in energy-tracking software that, if used properly, was supposed to reduce its energy consumption by, say, 20%, a big savings. A guy named Lou Semione was put in charge of the program, a seventy-something thousand dollar a year job. Steve decided he wanted it, so he began to sabotage Lou. John Lapointe knew what was going on.

John Lapointe Jr

Steve would make it very difficult for Lou to have any access on the computer, to make any changes to the heating system, lighting, and so on.

Sarah Koenig

So wait. So Lou's in charge of getting the numbers down, but he doesn't actually have his hands on the buttons to make that happen?

John Lapointe Jr

You got it. Right. There's a computer that you access, and you could see all the buildings through it, and make your changes. And Steve would let Lou see it, but not change anything. Somebody else would make the changes. So you can kind of take it from there what kind of changes were being made, and it wasn't in Lou's favor. OK?

Sarah Koenig

Steve, for instance, left the heat and lights on in every building over the three-day Columbus Day holiday. He once pretended the school's football lights were broken, and John had to pretend to fix them.

John Lapointe Jr

These football field lights-- there's, god, I'm thinking about 120 of these lights. And they'd draw a lot of power. So we had them turned on during the day, and they stayed on for a few hours to eat up some energy. And in fact, they weren't being worked on. They were just being left on. And--

Sarah Koenig

And did you know why?

John Lapointe Jr

Well, yeah. I mean, Steve didn't really hide the fact that he was screwing with Lou. You know what I mean?

Woman 1

You knew what he was doing.

Sarah Koenig

Well, how did you feel that he was asking you to do this thing, which you knew was totally baloney, and also unfair to this other guy?

John Lapointe Jr

Again, you just did what the guy wanted you to do.

Sarah Koenig

Did it make you mad?

John Lapointe Jr

Well, of course. Well, you know--

Woman 1

It's upsetting.

John Lapointe Jr

It is upsetting that you're doing this type of stuff. But again, I keep telling myself, I'm just doing what my boss asked me to do. He's your union president, your boss. With Steve, again, you're either with him or you're against him. That's the way it was.

Sarah Koenig

So Lou's energy savings numbers were bad, maybe single digits. Steve persuaded the administration to give him the job, instead. But again, not the title of energy manager, since that would jeopardize his union situation. He said he'd do the job for half Lou's salary, which he'd collect in overtime. In this way, Steve's salary nearly doubled, so that by the time he was arrested in 2009, he was making about $125,000 a year. The superintendent, by contrast, was making about $194,000.

As energy czar, Steve was fearless. He would openly do battle with anyone who tried to turn on a switch he didn't think needed turning on. Didn't matter if you were a teacher, or an administrator, or one time a priest who wanted weekend heat in a classroom being leased from a church. In an email, Steve called the clergyman a, quote, "joker and a crook with a collar," and vowed to fight him.

Because of all this, Steve's energy reduction numbers were great. He got consumption down by a stunning 30%, saved the district millions in bills, and was publicly praised by the administration. And in particular, by superintendent Eric Ely, for whom Raucci had a soft spot. Judging from their email exchanges, the two became pretty cozy.

Bob Carney

It's an email from Raucci to Eric Ely, superintendent of schools, dated September 4, 2008.

Sarah Koenig

That's DA Bob Carney.

Bob Carney

I've often told you that you and I are alike in many ways. We just have different backgrounds. We both like to win, and we do not care how we do it, as long as we win. We both tell it like it is, and if someone doesn't like what we say, that's too damn bad.

If we do not like someone, we let them know about it and usually do something about it. There we may differ a little. According to rumors, when I don't like someone, I force them to go away or make them disappear. When you don't like someone, you have to wait until they die of old age, unless you give me their name.

Sarah Koenig

The columnist Carl Strock has a favorite from these emails.

Carl Strock

Here's one from the superintendent, Eric Ely, to Steve Raucci, dated February 16, 2009, which was just a couple of days before Raucci was arrested. When he had done everything he was going to do-- he had committed all his crimes, and all the complaints that were going to go to Ely had gone to him. He had been told. And Raucci had written him a sort of a flattering email. And Eric Ely responded, there aren't many I trust. You are one. Thank you, Eric.

Sarah Koenig

And then came the incident known simply as the letter, which eventually would lead to Steve's downfall.

Ira Glass

More on that in a minute. Steve Raucci finally goes too far, but he can't be brought down until his fork is stolen from a diner. Sarah Koenig's story about him continues, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. If you're just tuning in, today we're devoting our entire hour to the rise and fall of a petty tyrant, Steve Raucci, who inspired fear, who did what he wanted, who was untouchable in his job running the maintenance department for the Schenectady Public Schools. We first ran today's show back in 2010, shortly after all this happened.

Act Two: Act Two

Ira Glass

We have arrived at the fall part of his rise and fall. Sarah Koenig picks up the story.

Sarah Koenig

In early 2005, someone sent an anonymous letter to the union's regional CSEA president, Kathy Garrison, complaining about Steve, saying he was running his unit like a mafia boss, but he wasn't qualified for his job, that he should be kicked out of CSEA. The letter immediately got back to Steve. John Lapointe again.

John Lapointe Jr

He'd called me off a job and had me come into his office, quite agitated. And he's shoving this letter at me. And he's saying, read it, read it. And it was unbelievable. I mean, he was out of control, he was so angry. And we're trying to calm him down. And spit's flying out of his mouth. His veins were bulging out of his neck.

His head looked like it was going to pop off his shoulders. This is how to heart he took this letter. I just started reading. Getting halfway through it, he's pressuring me. Who wrote this? You know who wrote this. And finally, I blurted out, Debbie?

Sarah Koenig

Debbie was Debbie Gray, wife of Hal Gray, who worked in the maintenance department alongside John Lapointe. Hal had gone to high school with Steve, had known him forever. And Hal and Debbie were both active in the union. And for the record, Debbie says she didn't write that notorious letter, that she's not the type to do anything like that anonymously. But Steve was convinced. He and Hal hadn't been getting along. Steve confronted Hal about the letter, called him a rat, forbid him to come to morning meetings, banished him to the high school.

A few months later, in May of 2005, the Grays discovered rat spray painted in huge capital letters across their tan suburban two-story house. Steve arranged a caravan from work to go check it out. He made all the guys pile into four district vehicles and drive about 10 miles away to the town of Burnt Hills where the grays lived.

John Lapointe Jr

We saw the side of the house, the front of the house, and then the other side as you go past it-- rat in I believe it was red paint. The vehicles were splashed in paint, the front door. This house was devastated.

Sarah Koenig

John Lapointe was in the passenger seat in the lead car next to Steve.

John Lapointe Jr

He was very amused on the way up and on the way back, and you had to put on the face, too. You're riding in the vehicle with him. You have to show him the approval, so to speak. He wanted to see you happy about this because he was reveling in the glory of what he--

Woman 1

Had supposedly done.

John Lapointe Jr

--supposedly had done.

Sarah Koenig

I saw pictures of the damage. Steve's MO with paint was to hit every surface, every fixture, every window to make it really expensive to fix. He was a professional, after all. There were more attacks of vandalism on the Grays over the years, maybe six altogether. And threats to burn down their house, to move out of town, or else. They complained to the union about it. School district officials knew about it. But there was no evidence linking Raucci to the crimes. Nothing happened.

Finally, after 2 and 1/2 years, Hal and Debbie Gray called the district attorney's office in Schenectady. DA Bob Carney didn't think much would come of it.

Bob Carney

My secretary scheduled a meeting for me with some people from the local CSEA. They wanted to talk to me about a problem they were having in the union. So I assumed it was something to do with control of the union, or union infighting. And I wasn't expecting what I got.

Sarah Koenig

Carney had never heard of Steve Raucci. He says he was blown away by their story.

Bob Carney

They were very angry, and they were very scared. Hal Gray was a decorated helicopter pilot from Vietnam. He's a very tough guy. But the fact that their home was under attack in the middle of the night, and it's one thing to say, in hindsight, well, it was spray paint. You can deal with spray paint. But the problem is, you don't know what you have to deal with. And if somebody is capable of spray painting your house, he's also capable of setting it on fire.

And so they lived in fear that their house, their property, and maybe their lives would be in danger at any time. I know he told me that they ended up secreting arms around the house-- rifles, guns-- to protect themselves in case they needed it. And at that point, they also told me about other victims that Raucci had accrued over the years. And so we start to make inquiries and got some police agencies involved.

Sarah Koenig

Turns out Raucci was suspected in all kinds of other stuff, dangerous stuff. The case of Gary DiNola, for instance. DiNola was the district's well-respected athletics director and an award-winning teacher. He fought with Steve for a year and a half about getting access to sports facilities, which Steve denied him. So finally, DiNola complained to superintendent Eric Ely. Steve instantly found out, and sent DiNola a menacing email. DiNola woke up the next morning to find his tires slashed and an explosive-- a big one-- tucked under his windshield wiper.

There were old cases, too. The most serious was from 2001 in the nearby town of Rotterdam, when a man was woken up in the middle of the night to his metal front door being blown in by a bomb. Steve got the wrong address in that case. The bomb had been meant for a cop down the street.

And there was the case of Laura Balogh. Laura worked at the union and had been romantically involved with the union's local president. When the relationship broke up, Steve went to her house at night, spray painted "cheater" in red letters on her house in Schodack, and planted an explosive on her doorstep, which never detonated.

That was investigators' first big break. Raucci had used a cigarette butt as a fuse in the homemade bomb. But Raucci wasn't a smoker, and he didn't know about New York's safety paper regulations, that a butt will go out on its own if it's left lit. From the stub, the police got a DNA sample. But since Raucci had no criminal record, he wasn't in their system. They couldn't make a match until they got another sample they knew to be from Raucci. Ellen Frederick, Raucci's former secretary, is married to a former cop. And that former cop knew the state police investigator in charge of Raucci's case.

Ellen Frederick

This investigator approached my husband at a gathering and said, you know, I understand that your wife knows quite a bit about this Steve Raucci. And my husband said, yeah, she does. I mean, she was his secretary, whatever. And he said, I'd really like to sit and talk with her. Well, and that got the ball rolling.

Sarah Koenig

They came up with a plan. Steve ate breakfast out at local diners-- Sally's, Peter Pause, Blue Ribbon. Ellen would discreetly find out from one of her old colleagues where Steve was headed that morning, and then tell the investigator where to go. The investigator would try to secure a dirty utensil from Steve's place setting. After weeks of trying, the investigator finally nabbed a fork off Steve's plate before the waitress could clear it away. The cops had their match. They had enough evidence to link Steve to the crimes at Laura Balogh's house.

And they could have stopped there, but they wanted to try to get him for the other crimes, too. So they enlisted Keith McKenna, another former cop, who'd recently been busted on a drug charge and was in trouble. Many years before, Keith and Steve had been close friends. They palled around after hours, messed with explosives together. As it happened, DA Bob Carney had grown up across the street from Keith McKenna, and suggested he might help out with the case. Keith hadn't spent time with Steve for a decade, but he goes to see him at the school on the pretense of needing help, some kind of job. Steve is warm and welcoming, and remarkably forthcoming.

Steve Raucci

When I talk, Keith, anything I say, I could say in a court of law. I never say, yeah, I blew up a window. No, I just-- you never know if somebody's wired or that type of thing.

Sarah Koenig

Of course, what Steve doesn't know is that Keith is wired. I wrote to Steve Raucci in prison asking for an interview, but never heard back. So these tapes are all we've got. Listening to them, it's like hearing a grainy, homemade version of those mobster movies Steve likes so much. Steve talks about punks, and broads, and wiseguys, and street justice.

Steve Raucci

I still don't like punks. I don't like wiseguys, and I still believe in people should get what they deserve.

Sarah Koenig

It's almost as if Steve's been waiting all his life to lay out his world view on tape, if only someone would ask. Keith McKenna doesn't even have to. He says relatively little in these recordings, which are from three separate meetings in Steve's office over the course of two months. In answer to the most generic questions-- what have you been up to lately? How's work? Have you seen so-and-so-- Steve lets loose like a champion.

For the cops, the tapes are a goldmine. Steve essentially confesses by name to almost all of the bombings, and vandalism, and bad acts the cops already suspect him of-- Hal and Debbie Gray, the 2001 Rotterdam bombing, how he didn't know the cigarette butts wouldn't light his explosives.

Steve Raucci

I just wondered why the last two never went off, but no, how would I know?

Sarah Koenig

And why taking revenge on someone at home is his method of choice.

Steve Raucci

Probably one of the worst things that somebody could think of is not feeling safe in your own house, OK? So I guess where I'm going with this, Keith, is that some of the things I do-- like, I never want to physically hurt anyone. Property damage-- you can do a lot with that.

Sarah Koenig

"Property damage-- you can do a lot with that." A big theme with Steve in these recordings is how there's nothing he can't get away with in the district. Nobody dares tell him to make cuts in his department. He can hire who he likes, fire who he likes. No one can complain.

Steve Raucci

They're not going to file a grievance against me, not if they want to last, or live, one or the other.

Sarah Koenig

Then he gestures to the photo of the Godfather, Don Corleone, that's hanging on his wall.

Steve Raucci

The reason I keep that picture behind the door is that was given to me by the people up there in the administration office--

Keith Mckenna

Oh, OK.

Steve Raucci

Because that's the way they see me. Don Raucci, and I never even saw that whole series. I'm everybody's hero, and they know it. I think they, in a way, admire that about me when I talk about, sometimes, that's the only justice there is, street justice. And I always tell them-- I'll say to Eric or the board-- you guys are [BLEEP] lucky. You got a Steve. When it falls on me, I don't have a Steve to go to. I got to fix it.

I'll be a legend here in their eyes. When I'm dead and gone, they'll always be talking about what Steve did, and what he could do, and that type of thing. In just the sticks alone, I said two weeks ago, I can't believe how much you guys have come to depend on me. The [BLEEP]? You know, what are you going to do if I'm not around? Because the superintendent-- he's certainly never going to tell me what to do. He listens to me. If I tell him this is what you should do, that's what he'll do. I mean, that's how far it's come. The board president, Jeff-- nobody here can handle the union aspect. Nobody can--

Keith Mckenna

You're not in the union, though, right?

Steve Raucci

Yeah.

Keith Mckenna

You are?

Steve Raucci

Yeah. That's what I'm saying. There's nothing I can't do. Yeah, I'm still president of my union.

Keith Mckenna

How?

Steve Raucci

Because I can. That's all I can tell you. Don't ask me how, Keith. Because I can.

Sarah Koenig

What's striking about these tapes is that Steve sees himself on the side of good. He only does bad things to bullies, he says. He hates bullies. Any anyway, most of what he does-- like planting a bomb at the house of Laura Balogh, the one who broke up with his local union president-- are on behalf of friends, against people he doesn't even know. He'll do anything for a friend, he says. He's loyal that way. Even the guys who work for him-- he says he lies for them all the time, lets them leave early or bill for overtime they don't deserve.

Steve Raucci

But I take care of them. I've had guys that have gone out for three months, no sick time, keep them on the books. Keith, I could go to jail for the things I do, and I don't benefit one bit for me. "Monetarial" or finance, I benefit at no way whatsoever.

Sarah Koenig

And still, they don't love him enough for it. He complains to Keith that he doesn't have any real friends at work.

Steve Raucci

If I left this place tomorrow, there ain't a soul here that would dial my phone, or Steve, you want to go for coffee or

Keith Mckenna

Dinner? It's like that anywhere.

Steve Raucci

That's right, and that's what I can't stand about this place.

Sarah Koenig

Keith, he says, is one of the two people in the world he considers a true friend, someone who'd live for him if need be. At their last meeting, Keith asked Steve if he can give him some explosives, called quarter sticks. There's a guy he wants to teach a lesson to. Steve is so casually generous about it, as if Keith has just asked him for a piece of gum.

Keith Mckenna

Can you grab me two, three quarter sticks?

Steve Raucci

Keith, I can give you one now. I used my last one coming down Troy Road Saturday night with--

Sarah Koenig

Steve tosses Keith an explosive he'd been storing behind a fake plant on top of his filing cabinet. And remember, Steve's office is in a middle school. So through the wall, there are kids 10, 12, 13 years old, and the thing is just sitting there, packed with more than 17 grams of incredibly volatile flash powder, 300 times more powerful than the strongest commercially-available firework. That was on a Wednesday. On Friday morning, cops swarmed the pen and arrested Steve. They had to.

Woman 2

A longtime employee with the Schenectady City School District is in jail without bail tonight. The facilities director is accused of setting off an explosion outside a house. Police say they also found explosives in his office on school grounds.

Sarah Koenig

Superintendent Eric Ely called a news conference the following Monday saying he was shocked-- shocked-- to find out Steve Raucci was a thug.

Eric Ely

My reaction is shock. Certainly concern for the safety of our employees, as well as our students.

Sarah Koenig

Many people I talked to said this enraged them, that Ely claimed ignorance about Steve's behavior. Ely politely declined to talk to me for this story. He's still facing lawsuits from former employees. But he gave an extended interview to the local CBS reporter, Marci Natale. He said he thought workers' complaints of Ross's tyranny were overblown.

Eric Ely

I just have a conceptual problem with, if you're really afraid of somebody, why do you work with him in his home? Why do you invite him to parties? Why do you ask him to get your son a job? Why do you ask favors of him, if you're afraid of him?

Sarah Koenig

As for the people who came to Ely for help, like Gary DiNola, Ely said it wasn't his role to solve these problems.

Marci Natale

Well, you know, some people say that you didn't do anything, that you turned your head.

Eric Ely

Well, yeah, they lied. People are just lying. I won't be the scapegoat for somebody else.

Marci Natale

Was Steven Raucci your friend?

Eric Ely

No.

Sarah Koenig

This is the same man who wrote, "There aren't many that I trust. You are one. Thank you." Ely is now superintendent of a district in Southbridge, Massachusetts.

Raucci was tried on 22 felony counts. The prosecution had DNA evidence, wire recordings. They called 62 witnesses. The defense had two, and one of them was cross-examined so effectively that she ultimately did Raucci's case more harm than good. Raucci's lawyer, Ron De Angelus, didn't want to be interviewed on tape. But he said Raucci was very peaceful, very quiet, not at all how they were making him out to be-- practically a maniac. His argument at trial was essentially that Raucci was a grand exaggerator who liked to take credit for things he didn't do.

At closing, De Angelus place brightly colored plastic eggs into a basket, one by one, and explained that each egg represented reasonable doubt and a chance to redeem. It was Easter time, he reasoned, a time of hope, a time of renewal, a time that, if you're a Christian and dead, you're going to come back to life. Raucci was convicted on 18 counts and acquitted of four.

At the sentencing hearing, Raucci's victims got a chance to speak to the court-- Laura Balogh, Debbie and Hal Gray, and maintenance supervisor Ron Kriss, who'd had his cars vandalized several times after filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against Steve. They hadn't been physically hurt, but their pain was pretty raw.

Hal Gray

For more than five years, my family and I were terrorized by Steven Raucci.

Ron Kriss

Just imagine, if you will, how it would be for you to live in fear for yourself, your family, and your property 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for five years.

Laura Balogh

At night, I don't walk past a window without thinking someone is looking in, or open my windows to experience fresh air.

Debbie Gray

I tried everything that I could to help those employees at the school district who were being tormented by him, but no one would help me-- not anyone in the union, and not on the school board.

Laura Balogh

And then there is my son, who to this day will not sleep in his bed alone. Talks almost every day since the attack as to how he could have stopped it from happening, what violent actions he would have then taken, or could now take, given the chance.

Hal Gray

This terrorism has had a dramatic impact on my relationship with my wife. We both have changed. The relationship is strained easily. My wife's emotions have significant swings. And she is not the woman as I knew.

Debbie Gray

We developed our own plan for survival. When the alarm would go off, my husband would pull me to the floor, on his side of the bed, and he'd grab the loaded rifle from under the bed and he'd go downstairs. And I would make the 911 call from the cell phone. I never know whether or not my husband would return because thoughts went through my mind of him bombing the front door, or setting our house on fire as we slept, something he said he would do to us.

Ron Kriss

For me, and in front of this court and God, there is no forgiveness for this.

Carl Strock

It was really moving--

Sarah Koenig

Carl Strock, the Daily Gazette columnist, watched the trial.

Carl Strock

To see how they went through this experience. It was fascinating. And they say, you like to think you'd be different. You like to think that I would have done something different if I'd been in that position. I would have stood up. I would have been righteous. But you don't know until you're in that position. You can't be sure.

Sarah Koenig

Some of the people who worked for Steve Raucci also thought they'd be different. They were good people. They knew right from wrong. But they tell me that you had to be in it to understand. Ellen Frederick said it was almost like being in a cult, being brainwashed.

Raucci was sentenced to spend 23 years at the Clinton Correctional Facility, a prison so far north, so forbidding, so antiquated that a journalist who visited there told me he expected Boris Karloff to walk in any minute. Raucci's working as a clerk in the prison commissary. He'll be up for parole in 2032, when he's in his 80s. Raucci's own father died in prison. And in the past, Raucci had warned darkly that he'd never let that happen to him. Steve was never technically fired, by the way, so he's still entitled to his school pension-- $80,000 a year.

Meanwhile, Schenectady cleaned house. The top pro-Raucci administrators are gone-- superintendent Eric Ely to Massachusetts, human resources director Mike Stricos goes to Vegas, and assistant superintendent for business Mike San Angelo-- still nearby, but his contract wasn't renewed. There's an interim superintendent now, a well-liked educator and father of six from another district, whose minivan, incidentally, was set on fire in his driveway one night in 1996. Raucci wasn't questioned in that case, but Carney said he wouldn't be surprised if Steve had been involved.

School board president Jeff Janiszewski was shouted down by audience members at a couple of meetings. And almost all the old board members, including Janiszewski are gone, either retired or voted out, replaced by self-described reformers. Finally, management of all CSEA union locals in Schenectady County has been taken over by the region until further notice. And at least six people have lawsuits pending.

When you see pictures of Raucci from the trial, sitting there quietly at the defendant's table, it's hard to imagine that he caused this mayhem all by himself. But of course, he didn't. He was surrounded, above and below, by people who looked the other way. Even Carl Strock, the newspaper columnist, told me, regretfully, that he, too, had gotten complaints about Steve Raucci from maintenance workers in the past, but didn't really follow up. And it's understandable why. Their stories seemed too small and bureaucratic, not something the rest of us would be interested in.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig is now the host of Serial. If you haven't heard season three, it's back to the criminal justice system like season one, but goes so much further, at serialpodcast.com or wherever you get your podcasts.

Act 3

Ira Glass

In the years since we first broadcast this story, the CSEA union locals in Schenectady County have all been restructured. All the officers were replaced. The superintendent of schools there, Eric Ely, as Sarah reported in her story, got another job as a superintendent in Southbridge, Massachusetts, but since then-- since she did this story-- just three years into the job, he resigned after allegations of misconduct. One of the allegations against him? That he trained a middle high school principal to be a bully. He now teaches math at a high school in North Carolina.

Several lawsuits were filed by people who say they were victimized by Raucci, some of them against Steve Raucci, some of them against the school district. Several of those have settled. And finally, as I mentioned at the beginning of the show, 10 years after his arrest, Steve Raucci gave an interview to a newspaper reporter, Paul Nelson, from the Times Union in Albany. A link to his article at timesunion.com is at our website. In the interview, apparently for the first time, Raucci admitted guilt for some of his crimes-- though not the worst one.

Steve Raucci

Did we graffiti Laura Burrel's house? Yes. Did I put an M80 on somebody's windshield and drive away?

Paul Nelson

Gary DiNola.

Steve Raucci

Yes.

Paul Nelson

OK.

Steve Raucci

Yes. Yeah. OK?

Ira Glass

Raucci he said he and his wife talked a lot about whether he's a psychopath, but he said he thought he wasn't, because even when he gets all wound up, he said, he doesn't think he loses control of himself. He doesn't snap and cross the line, though of course, that's not the definition of a psychopath. Raucci said several times during the interview that he always knew that what he was doing was wrong.

Steve Raucci

I know they were wrong. I knew what I was doing was wrong. Yeah.

Paul Nelson

But why'd you do it, then?

Steve Raucci

And I knew I could get arrested for it, but-- and I swear to God I wish they could give me a lie detector for this and everything-- I thought the worst that could happen was, oh, yeah, I know I'm going to get arrested. But you don't go to prison for property damage. That's what's going through my-- I'm just thinking, this was property damage. Graffiti-ing a house, dump paint on the car. I didn't think of those as prison sentences. I didn't think that I could end up in a place like this over that.

I mean, I'm not stupid. I wouldn't have done it if I thought that was-- I actually chose the method I chose because I thought I couldn't go to prison.

Paul Nelson

So you thought it out, then. It was somewhat premeditated. You thought it out.

Steve Raucci

Well, yes. I thought out that I was never going to hurt anybody. That was for damn sure. That's why it was a car in the driveway, or a house. No, I never intended to hurt anybody or anything like that.

Ira Glass

Raucci told the reporter that he's been diagnosed with prostate cancer. But he said he doesn't see the point in getting treated, or prolonging his life in a maximum security prison.

[MUSIC - "WORKING CLASS HERO" BY OZZY OSBOURNE]

Credits

Ellen Frederick

Well, like, you're not my type. I like Matthew McConaughey. He's my type, whatever. Well, you thought that I just told him I put the knife right in his heart.

(HOST) IRA GLASS I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.