(Published in The Star-Ledger May 12, 2001.)
He called himself Florida’s “Number One Greaser,” the coolest of the cool, the “Bad Boy” of the doo-wop set.
Daniel Catalano — Danny C. when he took the stage at local clubs and conventions — boasted that he once sang lead vocals for Sha Na Na, that he lived in a palatial oceanfront estate and that he honed his “silken” voice under the streetlamps of Manhattan’s Little Italy during the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.
It was a nice illusion, one that came crashing down at 10 p.m. Thursday as the self-proclaimed “real deal” dangled a fishing pole from a pier in St. Petersburg, Fla.
That’s where federal marshals arrested him, not far from his modest apartment, addressing him by his real name: Elmer Edward Solly. Fugitive from New Jersey. One-time member of the FBI’s most-wanted club. Child killer.
“He was shocked,” said Billy Holmes, one of the marshals who made the arrest. “He didn’t have any clue we were coming.”
Why would he? It had been 27 years since Solly, now 55, bolted custody while on a prison furlough to visit a dying relative. It had been 32 years since he beat the life out of 2-year-old Christopher Welsh, his girlfriend’s son, in Camden County.
No one had come looking. Even as he raised his profile, performing on stages across South Florida, plastering his Web site with photos of himself alongside cops and politicians and fans, no one connected the paunchy, silver-haired singer from South Jersey with prison inmate No. 48954.
The good times might have continued indefinitely had it not been for the New Jersey State Police’s cold case unit and the dogged efforts of one of its members, Detective Louis Kinkle.
In late 1999, Kinkle and his colleagues reopened the Solly case, spending hundreds of hours interviewing witnesses and chasing down leads, said John Hagerty, a State Police spokesman.
The break came when investigators learned that Solly’s mother, Edna Bolt of Lower Township in Cape May County, died in March of last year. Bolt had stonewalled investigators in the wake of her son’s 1974 escape from Leesburg State Prison, now known as Bayside State Prison, in Cumberland County. She also pressed other relatives to keep their mouths shut, Hagerty said.
“We believe his mother had been in touch with him periodically over the years and had been the matriarch in making certain that nobody talked about where he was,” Hagerty said.
Bolt’s death, the spokesman said, loosened tongues. From interviews with various family members, Kinkle and his colleagues determined that Solly was in Florida, perhaps in the Orlando area. Joining forces with investigators from the state Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshals Service, the detectives later traced Solly to St. Petersburg.
Ironically, it was the fugitive’s own boastful Web site that helped seal his fate. The many photos of Solly show a man who looks remarkably like the computer-generated images created for the State Police by a pair of artists, one retired from the agency, the other Philadelphia resident Frank Bender, Hagerty said.
Bender, renowned in law enforcement circles, created the age-enhanced bust that led to the 1989 arrest of John List, who fled to Virginia after killing his family in Westfield in 1971.
There was another overt clue on the Web site. In a biography of “Danny C.,” Solly wrote: “In 1974, Danny left the music scene with what could be termed under a shroud of ‘mystery,’ circumstances being known only to a select few in the industry. But The Bad Boy continued his singing under the guise of anonymity in order to protect certain economic and personal relationships that were important to him.”
Under surveillance by the marshals for four days, Solly was charged on a federal warrant alleging unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Yesterday, he remained in the Pinellas County Jail. Authorities plan to extradite him to New Jersey, where he will serve out the remainder of a 20-year manslaughter term and face an additional charge of escape, Corrections Department spokesman Chris Carden said.
Investigators suspect Solly landed in Florida in the mid-1990s, though further investigation could show he was there earlier, Hagerty said. The fugitive used a variety of aliases, among them Edward Elmer, James Bolino and Edward Brent.
For much of the 1970s, he went by Christopher McManus, the name he used when he had minor brushes with police in Philadelphia in 1975 and in Langhorne, Pa., in 1979.
Authorities said they don’t yet know when he adopted the moniker Daniel Catalano, but Solly wasn’t shy about creating a cover story as he found enough oldies gigs to make a living.
On his Web site (www.shananadannyc.com), he claims to have been raised by a wealthy family in Little Italy. In fact, he grew up in Lower Township before moving to Gloucester City and Runnemede, Hagerty said.
Solly’s boast that he was a front man for Sha Na Na, a still-popular doo-wop act, was perhaps his boldest fabrication.
The group’s marketing director, Peter Erlendson, said yesterday that Solly was never a member. Sha Na Na was aware of the claims by “Danny C.” but opted not to sue, Erlendson said.
“Truth be known, I just thought he was a flake,” he said. “I had no idea he was a murderer.”
Solly’s beachfront estate, authorities said, was one more figment of an active imagination.
He lived in an apartment building where rents run about $650 a month. Neighbors called him a “regular guy” who fished a lot.