This never-ending story is one of murder, loss and remembrance

It occurs to me you might not remember the names of Norman and Russell Crew. It has, after all, been about 27 years since they were in the news.

They were local boys, sons of a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper. I met Norman in elementary school back when Las Vegas was a much smaller place.

The Crew brothers burned their names into local infamy in March 1981 when the bodies of Teddy Zappa, 29, and Michael Nasse, 21, were found by homicide detectives in a crudely dug grave near North Shore Drive not far from Lake Mead. The murder victims had been beaten, stabbed, and shot to death.

Both had their throats slit. An autopsy determined that Nasse was still alive when his neck was slashed with a knife.

Norman, 21, and Russell, 19, were arrested quickly and charged with the murders police said were linked to a 10-kilo marijuana deal that turned deadly.

The double-homicide was considered a crime of the decade in the Las Vegas press, but the collective memory of the crimes has faded along with the newsprint that carried the grisly details.

Veteran Chief Deputy District Attorney Bill Koot told the court he’d “never seen a case with worse mutilation.” But Norman Crew claimed he’d acted in self-defense.

L.J. O’Neale was a young prosecutor on duty when the Crews were arrested and observed them up close.

“From my memory, I would say this was a case where it appeared they went in with the intention from the get-go to kill these people,” O’Neale recalled.

Although the DA’s office veteran admits he’s no psychologist, he observed, “It appeared that they did this because they enjoyed doing it.”

The prosecution believed the Crew brothers had no intention of paying for the marijuana. They dug a grave for Nasse. They have admitted since their trial that they’d never seen Zappa before they killed him.

Norman was convicted, and received four life sentences with the possibility of parole after it was revealed that his knife had done the cutting. Russell avoided trial, pleaded guilty, and received the same sentence. In time, their sentences were cut to double-life with the possibility of parole.

The Crews went off to prison, but something happened not long after the penitentiary doors slammed. Their mother, Flo Jones, began a relentless drive to win their freedom.

She wrote hundreds of letters, conducted dozens of interviews. She attended endless parole hearings and tugged at the fabric of the case down to the last thread. Through the years she gained a reputation as a prison-reform advocate, but those who encountered her suspected she was essentially an advocate for her sons.

Today, Jones is a candidate for Assembly District 4. It’s a safe bet she won’t receive the support of the family of Teddy Zappa.

The Crew brothers are up for parole again. In an emotional hearing last week, their advocates argued Norman and Russell have been rehabilitated and deserve a chance at their freedom after more than 27 years.

Although Theodore Zappa Sr. died in 1985 and their mother, Madelyn Zappa, is well into her senior years, Teddy Zappa’s little sisters, Marisa Zappa and Janine Zappa Romano, refuse to stop fighting for the memory of their brother. They remind me their Teddy has been dead for 27 years.

For as long as Jones has fought to get her sons set free, the Zappas have been fighting to make sure the Crew brothers do the minimum they agreed to serve back in 1981: 40 years.

“The worst part of it all is the brutality of it,” Marisa said. “Russell ran with a gun after the victims. Norman slit their throats.”

She argues that big brother Teddy, a UNLV graduate, wasn’t a drug dealer, but an Aladdin poker dealer who had no criminal record.

“It’s a waking, walking nightmare,” Romano said. “What they did to my brother was unthinkable, was animalistic, was horrendous.”

Nearly three decades after their brother’s death and the convictions of his killers, the Zappa sisters spend dozens of hours and thousands of dollars to make sure their side of the story is told.

For the families of the killers and the deceased, this story never ends.

“It’s a tragic thing that we have to keep reliving this nightmare,” Janine said. “After all these years, it’s still fresh in our minds.”

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0295.

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