I was eight years old the first time I saw my father cry.
His former boss, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated earlier that day. Even as a boy, I could see and feel Dad’s palpable upset. Not until many years later would I be able to dissect and understand what had occurred that awful day in June 1968.
Dad was relatively low in the vast hierarchy of the U.S. Justice Department, but he somehow came to the attention of RFK — the U.S. Attorney General himself. My father would sometimes field calls directly from the Attorney General’s office, bypassing his own boss, when the issue was politically “sensitive.” I can only guess that Robert not only viewed Dad as a cunning young trial lawyer, but he also thought of him as a “true believer”—a loyal “political appointee” who would follow orders.
By 1963, the era of skyjackings had begun, and the White House took an aggressive stance. The AG’s office had the green light to prosecute crimes committed in the sky with all due prejudice.
When the conference room phone rang one late afternoon, Dad first thought the guys were pulling his leg when it was announced that Washington was on the line for him. He went to his office and closed the door.
A woman’s voice: “Mr. LaRossa, the Attorney General is on the line.”
“I’m ready when he is, ma’am.”
Dad could not have known that two of his worlds were about to collide.
Many of the men who served in the Korean War (like my father) lionized the older men who had fought in World War II. While Dad was in Okinawa, he made it a point to befriend these career soldiers and sit with them as they volunteered personal accounts of the war.
The fact pattern presented to Dad was as follows: A first-class transatlantic passenger had gotten so inebriated that he urinated on a food cart and assaulted the copilot when he tried to intervene. This man just happened to be a highly decorated veteran of the Second World War. My father was about to get the marching orders he had always dreaded from The White House: “Throw the book at this guy.” Dad’s principles were colliding head on with his instructions.
“I’m aware of the incident, Mr. Attorney General,” my father said to Kennedy. “The man was a recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for bravery in the Pacific Theater in the Second World War. There must be mitigating circumstances. Please let me look into it.”
The AG was firm. Jimmy begged. “Please, Bobby, not this guy. He must have snapped.”
“Take him out for the max,” Kennedy said. “That’s why I called YOU.” The line went dead.
The next week, Dad did what was ordered of him. For all intents and purposes, the decorated veteran’s life was over upon conviction.
His days as a prosecutor, he decided relatively soon after that day, were quickly coming to an end.