Clemency – Episode 1: “Bobby’s Story”
By Diane Bezucha and Jackie Harris
DIANE BEZUCHA: Bobby Ehrenberg was popular in high school. Senior year, his classmates voted him Nicest Troublemaker and Best Student Body. The awards were published in his senior yearbook. In one of the photos, Bobby is wearing Converse All-Stars and a fitted white tank-top tucked into a pair of loose, black pants.
Music: “Creeping on You” by Godmode
One hand is on his hip and the other is around a girl. His dark blonde hair is cut into a shaggy mullet—it was the 70s. He is staring intently at the camera, but also looks like he might start laughing at any minute. He stood out to his classmates at Commack High School North.
DEBBIE FORTE: I knew Bobby from a distance in high school. He was one of the cool guys. He was in a lot of sports. And he was always winning whatever he was doing. He just appeared to me to be someone who kind of was like a leader, like somebody that people would look up to.
CRAIG HAFT: He was a star athlete, very good student, very smart. I almost felt like a lot of times he was the, uh, you know, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed guy, and I was his sidekick.
DIANE BEZUCHA: With this record, none of his classmates would be surprised that Bobby went on to become valedictorian at his college graduation. What would surprise them is where the graduation happened.
SECURUS PHONE SERVICE: This is a free call from
BOBBY EHRENBERG: Bobby
SECURUS PHONE SERVICE: an inmate at New York State Department of Corrections and community supervision. [fades under narration] This call is subject to recording and monitoring. To accept this free call, press one. To refuse this free call, press two. If you would like to, Thank you for using Securus.
DIANE BEZUCHA: I’ve been talking to Bobby Ehrenberg for the last two months. Every Saturday he calls me at 3pm sharp from a payphone at Sullivan Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
SECURUS PHONE SERVICE: You may start the conversation now.
DIANE BEZUCHA: Our conversations always start the same way.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: Good afternoon, Bobby here. What a lovely afternoon we have today. Doing okay. Been doing a lot of writing, a lot of thinking [fades under narration]
DIANE BEZUCHA: Bobby is a positive guy, which might sound surprising since he’s been incarcerated for 28 years. In 1992, he murdered a jewelry store owner during a robbery gone wrong. He was 33 years old at the time.
Music: “Ammil” by The Tides
Bobby has wrestled with his crime every day since, looking for ways to redeem himself. He has written to family members of his victim, expressing his remorse. He has conquered drug and alcohol addiction. And he’s earned two college degrees. Both times as valedictorian with a 4.0. And he even started a program to help other incarcerated men pursue education.
Today Bobby is 61 years old. And he feels that he’s changed. But he is serving a 50-years-to-life sentence, and won’t be eligible for parole for another 22 years, when he will be 83. And it’s unlikely he will live that long, especially in prison.
But there is one option for Bobby to get out sooner. The governor can grant something called executive clemency. It would shorten or even end his sentence.
But clemency is rarely given. Since taking office in 2011, Governor Cuomo has commuted the sentences of only 24 people—less than one percent of applicants.
This year, Bobby’s is one of those applications.
Music: “Algorithms” by Chad Crouch
My name is Diane Bezucha and this is Clemency. A podcast about one man’s transformation and quest for redemption. Over the course of six episodes, we will follow Bobby’s attempt to get his sentence shortened. This is not a did-he-or-didn’t-he story. Spoiler: Bobby did it. This is about what happens before and long after a crime. You’ll hear from advocates, recipients and opponents of clemency, and what the stakes are. Do we as a society believe in forgiveness? That people can change? And if so, who qualifies for a second chance?
This is episode one, Bobby’s Story. We’re going to start at the beginning to figure out how a kid with so much potential could fall so far.
Most of the time when I talk to Bobby, he’s on a prison payphone.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: Okay, right now I’m in the west yard at Sullivan Correctional Facility. We have a east and a west yard. The east yard is pretty much for ball playing, so they got grass and stuff like that. On the west side, we’re all blacktop. [fades under narration] I’m right now on a series of phones. I’m on the middle phone.
DIANE BEZUCHA: But two months into reporting, I had a chance to meet Bobby and interview him in person. You’ll hear more about that later. For now, all you need to know is that some of his story is told from inside the echoey walls of a concrete room at Sullivan Correctional Facility. And because of COVID, we had to wear masks.
Bobby was born in 1959 to first-generation German-American parents. His sister Eileen was born two years earlier. At the time, they lived in Ridgewood, Queens.
When Bobby was about four, his parents started to worry about raising kids in the big, bad city.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: They feared for the children. You know, me and my sister, because If they ever caught wind to the fact that my old man was a police officer in the area, there might be some kind of retribution against the family like that. Just to keep us safe.
DIANE BEZUCHA: So they moved to Commack—a sleepy town on Long Island and that’s where Bobby and his sister Eileen grew up.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: They bought a brand new house at the time, in the, you know, the big baby boom, pop-up developments.
DIANE BEZUCHA: So there they were. A working-class family with two kids in the suburbs. It looked like an idyllic childhood—something you might see in a Norman Rockwell painting.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: I did very well in school. In, especially in my junior high years. Four letter sports, every quarter honor roll and that went on for seventh, eighth and ninth grade. Participated in Boy Scouts, Little League. You know, it was pretty much what I term Pleasant Valley Sunday.
DIANE BEZUCHA: I visited Bobby’s childhood home on Long Island. His old house is on a wide suburban street lined with evergreen and maple trees. On a Saturday morning you can hear lawnmowers, children playing, the occasional car passing by. His family doesn’t live there anymore, but the house is still there—a gray split-level on a wide, grassy lawn.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: It’s abutted by woods that lead up to the Sagtikos Parkway, nice place for a kid to grow up and dig in the dirt and climb trees. It really was. Strawberry patches down the far end, as big as a football field, free to pick for the neighborhood.
DIANE BEZUCHA: Bobby grew up comfortable. He and Eileen always had new clothes at the start of the school year and toys under the tree every Christmas. But despite these happy memories, Bobby’s homelife was less than idyllic. In our early phone conversations he painted a picture of a strict German household and parents that were not exactly affectionate.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: You know, I wish I could tell you, you know, I’ve cuddled on the couch. My mother read books to me and stuff like that. It was never like my friends staying over to eat dinner or stuff like that. You know, there was no playing at my house. It was always I went away from my house.
DIANE BEZUCHA: His best friend lived down the street. Together they rode bikes, played baseball, went camping and fishing for trout in the nearby Nissequogue Creek.
Bobby was a bright, well-liked, charismatic kid. But in our early conversations he told me he still struggled with the awkwardness of adolescence as he started junior high school
BOBBY EHRENBERG: I looked around and I’m this little kid, maybe the 90, 95 pounds. I mean, I am just a little kid. And there’s guys in seventh grade, walking around with full beards, biceps. And I’m just, “What is this?”
DIANE BEZUCHA: So Bobby tried to fit in. He started playing sports—wrestling, soccer, baseball, gymnastics. And soon, instead of just fitting in, he was standing out. But no matter how well Bobby did in school or on the wrestling mats, it never seemed to impress his parents.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: It was a household family unit that minimalized nurturing, but maximalized achievement, without reward, without a real pat on the back.
DIANE BEZUCHA: According to Bobby, his father started displaying an explosive temper.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: And just the strictness and the strictness became violent in the house. I felt that my father was bringing the job home with, with him, what he experienced out there in the Brooklyn setting as a police officer. And it was pretty vicious at times. It involved fists, weaponry, straight-out assaults for things a lot of times I just didn’t understand.
Music: “Somnolent” by The Tides
DIANE BEZUCHA: One of the most vivid incidents Bobby describes is a dinner one night when he was ten and Eileen was 12. As he tells me this story, I’m seated across from him at a large conference table at Sullivan Correctional Facility.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: And we’re sitting, you know, five o’clock is mealtime. Circular table. My father’s seated where you are, my sister’s here, my mother’s here.
DIANE BEZUCHA: He gestures to his right and his left.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: And we’re having steak that night. And the steaks are delivered onto the plates. I’m a kid, so I Iook over to the plate my sister has and my father notices that I’m looking at my sister’s plate. And he says, “Bobby what’s wrong?” And like a whiny little kid, alright, I’m a brat, whatever, I don’t think but, “Well, Dad, her steak is bigger than mine.” And the next thing I remembered, he grabbed the serrated steak knife from side of his plate. And I don’t know if I should do this. But he quickly came up and he tried to slash my throat.
DIANE BEZUCHA: At this point in the story, Bobby stood up and reached towards me across the table, miming the slashing motion of his father. And then he sat back down. I didn’t flinch, but then I kept thinking how strange it was that I didn’t flinch.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: I sat back and missed, and he missed. My mother said, “Eddie!” And I just sat there and everything stopped. And things changed in my mind at a very young age because of that. And you could see I remember that, vividly. I don’t think I deserved anything like that. Not as a child.
DIANE BEZUCHA: I should point out here that most of what we know about Bobby’s childhood comes from his own recollection and a handful of friends. His family has not spoken to him since the murder and did not respond to our requests for interviews.
In 1972, Bobby started high school. Instead of bike rides and Boy Scouts, he had new interests: Girls. Music. Sneaking alcohol from his dad’s bar. Teenage stuff.
Music: “Underwater Exploration” by Godmode
But his grades started to slip a bit. Around this time, Bobby’s sister had left for college and Bobby was on his own. Bobby says the abuse started getting worse. One time his father cornered him on the stairs with a butcher knife.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: He had the knife to my chest and gently pushing and you could see the manic expression in his eyes and all I did was plead, “Dad, please, no, don’t do it. Please, don’t do it.” And he had a momentary break where he took the knife away and put it down. And I just dove down the stairs to safety.
DIANE BEZUCHA: But Bobby says he never talked about the abuse. Even with his best friend.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: I hid it to myself because I was shamed behind it. But much later in life, I sought answers through psychiatric counseling. And I described some of these events, like I am to you, Diane, right now. And I watched the expression on one of the psychiatrist’s faces as he sat back and became wide-eyed. And I looked at him and I was saying, “Well, you know, just corporal punishment, and, you know, this is what happened, and when,” and I stopped, and he said, “Bobby, that’s not corporal punishment. That’s child abuse.” And at that moment, I realized something in my life was different growing up than others.
DIANE BEZUCHA: Bobby is a charismatic and compelling storyteller. Sometimes too good, to the point of sounding rehearsed. But it makes sense.
He has spent the past year working with lawyers to develop the personal narrative for his clemency application, reliving these moments over and over again. That’s part of the process—telling your story. And for Bobby, abuse is a big part of that story.
And for the most part, I believe his story to be genuine, but I had my moments of skepticism. Like, where was your mom during all of this? Bobby only recalls a handful of times his mom witnessed the abuse.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: She came down the stairs. And I remember thinking to myself, you know, finally she’s going to intervene. You know, say, say, you know, this is enough. But all she said was, “Eddie, not in the mouth.” Which was hard to accept, that any other body part would have been fine.
Through all the abuse of all those years, I never laid a hand on my father. I never fought back. I just kept those feelings internalized.
DIANE BEZUCHA: And so wrestling became an escape for Bobby. A safe place to vent some of his pain.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: It’s a tough sport, it’s aggressive sport, you know, and kind of therapeutic in a way because you could really get, get your shit off on the mat and, you know, feel good about that after a win and stuff like that.
DIANE BEZUCHA: And he isn’t shy about saying he was good at it.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: I was the best in the county that year, I was like undefeated that year, I mean accolades, trophies [fades under narration]
DIANE BEZUCHA: In fact, wrestling became such an obsession for Bobby that he started skipping school just to get in extra training and cut weight on the days he had meets. When his parents found out, they called the school.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: They called the coach. They called the principal, and they told them, “We do not want our son participating in wrestling anymore.” And both of them told them, “Do you know what you’re doing?” They were adamant. They said, “Yes, we know what we’re doing. This is our son.” And it broke my spirit. It broke my heart. I explained to them, “Mom, Dad, you don’t have to pay for college,” I said, “I’m good enough to get a scholarship through this.” And their reply was, “No, no, no. Only people from like Oklahoma or whatever, get scholarships for that.” They didn’t recognize my ability, and I was their son. Even my sister succinctly told them, “You’re making a mistake.” And it was.
Music: “On the Island” by Godmode
DIANE BEZUCHA: So Bobby found other outlets. He started hanging out in the parking lot after school and spending time with a somewhat rebellious group of kids.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: So I started having the mindset, well, let me be the best at being the worst. Because that’s what I’ve been labeled as in life.
DIANE BEZUCHA: And it was around this time that the drugs and the drinking began.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: Hash, marijuana, LSD, 697’s which were amphetamines, black beauties, barbiturates too and all, stuff like that, cocaine.
DIANE BEZUCHA: Soon, Bobby started skipping school and defying his parents at every turn. And this is when things really came to a breaking point at home. One day his dad caught him growing weed in his bedroom and was waiting at the top of the stairs when Bobby came home from school.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: He says, “Do you have your keys?” I said, “Yeah, Dad.” He said, “Let me have them.” And I reached up to give it to him and he literally kicked me in the stomach out of the house. So I retreated down the, the driveway. He started reaching behind his back. He had a hidden crowbar. And he continued to advance on me. Luckily, a friend of mine had just been passing the house. He stopped his car. And I said, “Scott, wait a minute.” And I got in the car and he said, “Don’t come back to my house ever again.” And I was gone.
DIANE BEZUCHA: Bobby crashed on friends’ couches for a while and eventually got an apartment with two guys from school. To pay the bills, he got a job at Dunkin’ Donuts and tried to keep up with school. But it didn’t last and he quit both.
The varsity athlete and honor roll kid had lost his drive. It was a different Bobby.
When his roommate Joe offered a way to make some quick cash, Bobby didn’t hesitate.
Music: “Blacksmith” by Godmode
Joe had the inside scoop at a movie theater. Each night, the day’s earnings were collected in a bag and left in a deposit box. At the same time each night, someone would pull up in a car to collect the money. All they had to do was grab the bag and run.
The plan was that Bobby would wait for the pickup. He would grab the bag and run around the building where Joe would be waiting for him with the car.
Now, the first time Bobby told me this story, I have to admit, I was riveted. I mean, it was his very first crime in what would become a pretty long rap sheet.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: I got a pellet gun on me. And I got a stocking on me. I was nervous just standing in that vestibule waiting for the car. Once the car came in and pulled up, I pulled the mask down, the gun out, I was cool as ice. I just came out and said, I don’t know, freeze, or this is a robbery, don’t move, drop the bags. He dropped the bags and I said, now get back in the car or I’ll blow your fucking head off. And I picked the bags up, ran around the back of the strip mall building. He pulled up in his Barracuda, I jumped in the car, we took off.
DIANE BEZUCHA: For his first robbery, things went pretty smoothly. Bobby spent his share on a GTO motorcycle. And he thought they got away with it, until Joe turned him in. The way Bobby figures it, the police stopped Joe for something unrelated.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: Had some kind of interaction with the police where they must have said, “Well, if you want to get out of this. Tell us what you know.” And he pinned it all on me. And they came and they picked me up. And that was my first robbery conviction.
DIANE BEZUCHA: At the time, Bobby was only 17 so he got probation—a slap on the wrist. And he was back at home with his parents. And for a while it seemed like things were working. Bobby was back in school and won those senior superlative awards I told you about earlier.
He graduated and even went to college at SUNY Brockport. He wanted to study psychology. But his mind was elsewhere.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: College life was nothing but fun and games. That’s what it became. And it was drug use. And there were distractions, and there were girls. And it was nothing much else besides that. And things progressively got worse with my drinking, in particular. Other drug use on the campus.
Music: “Ammil” by The Tides
DIANE BEZUCHA: It wasn’t long before Bobby was getting in trouble again. He picked up a shoplifting charge when he stole a pair of jeans and served his first jail time—45 days. A few months later, back in Commack, he and a friend robbed a convenience store.
Now, Bobby is not exactly a criminal mastermind. In one of our phone conversations, he described how they went in with guns, demanded money from the cash register and then left on Bobby’s motorcycle, which he stashed at a friend’s afterwards.
When he gets home later that night, he is surprised to find two police officers waiting in the kitchen with his parents. They start to question Bobby. And he realizes right away it’s not going well. Someone must have gotten the license plate off his motorcycle.
So Bobby gives a fake name and address for where his motorcycle is, hoping to throw police off the trail. He says it’s with a guy named John Glass who lives somewhere on Hedgerow Lane.
But there was one snag.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: And my mother turns around and she said, “You don’t know any John Glass on Hedgerow, you know a John Dumkowski that lives at 36 Hedgerow Lane. And I just got up and put my wrists out. I says arrest me and take me out of here, because that’s exactly where it was, you know. My mother gave me up
DIANE BEZUCHA: His mother gave him up.
This time Bobby doesn’t get off as easily and his parents were not exactly helpful. Especially his mom.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: So I go to jail you know. They’re not gonna bail me out. You know, I call them up, I says, “You know…” She says, “Stay in jail, maybe you’ll learn something like that.”
DIANE BEZUCHA: Bobby was sentenced to 0-5 years and it was his first time in prison. He ended up serving 32 months before being released on parole. He didn’t return to college.
Over the next 15 years, Bobby increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol. His rap sheet grew longer as he racked up arrest after arrest. Sometimes his crimes supported his drinking and drug habits, and sometimes they were the result of them.
What started as teenage rebellion and experimentation had grown into full-blown addiction and things started spiraling out of control. His life became a blur of partying, arrests and incarceration.
He held steady jobs while on parole—a vault company, a florist delivery driver—but drugs and drinking always got in the way. At one point he thought leaving New York would help, so he moved to Florida where he had a friend.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: I was looking for a change. I said I’m pretty well digging the same grave that I had all the time, I did. You know, escalating drug use and addiction. And I thought maybe the change would be good. Found out it wasn’t. Went down there, had the same kind of experiences, wound up in jail, saw what kind of prison system they had, made me a believer and I said give me a ticket back to New York.
DIANE BEZUCHA: So Bobby comes back to New York. And this is the 1980s—the height of the crack epidemic. Bobby’s drug of choice was cocaine and when he wasn’t snorting it, he was smoking it. His habit got risker and soon it was heroin and sharing needles.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: And even my friend Craig said, “Bobby, you know,” this is ‘84. He said, “Bobby, you know, there’s something going around, you know, people are getting sick.” And here’s Bobby not thinking about anything, but Oh, yeah, maybe it’s the flu, or whatever. It was AIDS, it was the AIDS virus. And at that time, through my use and sharing needles, I picked the virus up, which I hold today in my system under check.
DIANE BEZUCHA: He also picked up Hepatitis B and C and not surprisingly, more arrests. He had a series of rocky relationships with women and even got married once. But it didn’t last—Bobby wound up in prison. He left his wife with a cocaine habit.
And so the drinking, drugs and crime continued.
DIANE BEZUCHA: Like, was it getting in the way of work? Relationships?
BOBBY EHRENBERG: What, it was getting the, work, relationships, life, in particular, in its entirety? Yes. Did I realize that? Did I care? No. Well, I figured let me put my life on a shelf. This is a good way to escape, and not think about life, you know, and how things are going, or maybe worse. And when you do that, it just compounds the issue, it just gets worse. But you don’t care, it’s self-destructing. But addiction has such a powerful grip.
DIANE BEZUCHA: His family tried to intervene. When his mom found out he had Hepatitis B, she tried to confront him about his drug use. But Bobby lied. He told her he picked it up from having unprotected sex. In Bobby’s mind, he didn’t have a problem.
And his drug and alcohol abuse followed him into prison. For years he used inside, whatever he could make, buy or get from psychiatrists. It wouldn’t be until decades later when he would finally use the word addiction. Today Bobby is eight years sober. In the nearly three decades he has spent in prison, he has reflected on these experiences and how they led him to murder an innocent man.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: When you bring all these things up over time and you press the issues that really were buried deep inside of you and you have the time on your hands because you’re sitting in a cell with bars and, and you know, brick walls and stuff like that, you know, you’ve got plenty of time to think about that. You think about that and you think about your life. You think about the life you took.
Music: “Algorithms” by Chad Crouch
DIANE BEZUCHA: In December 1992, Bobby would find himself in a Long Island jewelry store, gun in hand, standing over the lifeless body of Silvio Goldberg. When you look at Bobby’s story, it’s pretty easy to connect the dots—abuse, trauma, alcohol, drugs, robbery—and draw a line to murder. But it’s harder to reconcile this picture with the promising, All-American kid who had so much potential. But addiction doesn’t discriminate. Once it grabs hold, it pushes you closer and closer to the edge until eventually you fall. For Bobby, that edge was murder, but the bottom was even further down.
In the next episode of Clemency, you’ll hear about the days immediately before and after the murder, as well as the murder itself.
BOBBY EHRENBERG: For breakfast I had cocaine. For lunch I had Absolut Blue on the rocks, three olives. Probably four or five of them on the rocks with a side of Heineken. What I had, I had a black leather jacket on, I had jeans and sneakers. I had a baseball cap on and a pair of sunglasses. I had a gun tucked into my inside, uh, left pocket. I had a wad of money in my right front pocket. I walked into that store and I remember everything vividly.
DIANE BEZUCHA: And you will meet Debbie Forte, a high school classmate who comes back into Bobby’s life when he needs someone the most.
DEBBIE FORTE: And I said is that Robert Ehrenberg from school? I was just in complete shock, because I would have never thought that that would have been him. So I read the article, and I was like, I closed the paper. I just didn’t know what to think and then I just closed the paper. Two weeks later, I happened to read the paper again. There was another article, and I felt moved to try to reach out to him and ask him, “What happened to you, Bobby?”
DIANE BEZUCHA: This episode of Clemency was written and produced by Diane Bezucha and Jackie Harris, with additional reporting by Steve Vago. It was edited by Karen Shakerdge. Music is by The Tides, Noir Et Blanc Vie, Godmode and Chad Crouch. Special thanks to Lisa Armstong and Tom Robbins from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY as well as the staff at Sullivan Correctional Facility for help with our interview and of course to Bobby himself and his friends Debbie Forte and Craig Haft.