There was this pizza place I used to go to. It was on Van Brunt Street in Red Hook, a gentrifying strip if there ever was one. But it wasn’t cute or twee the way most new Brooklyn pizzerias are. Anselmo’s was old school, no nonsense. It had exposed brick, faux green marble tabletops, an overall tacky kind of charm. A close-up of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam hung off one of the walls. Like other Brooklyn pizza meccas, say Totonno’s in Coney Island or Grimaldi’s under the Brooklyn Bridge, Anselmo’s relied on a coal-fire oven. For my taste it had some of the best pizza around—crust dusted in char; pliable, but not cardboardy like a “New York” slice, or limp and soupy like Neapolitan pizza; sauce hovering neatly in between tartness and sweetness. I usually took my pies with anchovies, which liquefied under the oven’s blistering heat.
Anselmo’s was my go-to spot. So I was bummed when I heard it shut down. On Dec. 23, 2009, without warning, it closed for good. The doors were padlocked, the windows spray-painted black. My favorite pizza place was gone. All that remained was an all-caps rant on its website, with the following lines at its core:
“WE ARE CLOSED…EVERYONE WANTS TO KNOW WHY WE SHUT DOWN. IT WASN’T THE FOOD OR MONEY…OUR LANDLORD SWINDLED US OUT OF OUR LEASE.”
Or to be more precise, never even drafted one. The owner, in this strange, grammatically flawed post, contended that the deal for the property had been made on a handshake. No lease signed. When city health officials came by asking for one, and found that it didn’t exist, they threatened to shut Anselmo’s down. The owner said he pleaded with his landlord to draft one, but she refused, and so left with no other alternative, he shut the place down himself.
His tirade was far from over, however.
“My landlady is telling the people of Red Hook that I have been in prison and jail,” he ranted anew on the restaurant’s website a few weeks later. “She’s right. I was in prison for manufacturing explosives. It’s public record and I’m not proud of it but I got out and moved on with my life…”
Bizarrely, he also mentioned a fight he had gotten into with a “suspected child molester.” But that interested me less than a bit of moral indignation he included in passing—a tiny speck, as small as a piece of ash on a pizza crust, into the man I would come to know over the next two years.
“I’m from the country, where we trust our elders on a handshake,” he wrote. “Never in a million years I would think she would do this to me.”
Who was this man?
Roger Dean Fischer was born out of wedlock in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, on August 3, 1969. Ever since, his life has amounted to a series of tall tales, build-ups, washouts and comebacks that seem to repeat, as if on a loop, like a 21st-century Huck Finn. “I’m not a millionaire,” Fischer says. “I’ve done well for myself, but I make money and I lose money. I’m up and I’m down. I’m not, like, structured.”
Fischer stands five-foot-three and weighs 135 pounds. He has a square jaw and a stolid demeanor. His story is hard to take in all at once. He’s worked in the glow-in-the-dark paint business, the light bulb business, the online shoes business, the pizza business. As for his latest venture, he was dabbling in, of all things, the hip-hop business. Fischer’s been in jail. Twice. Once for eight and a half years and once for four. He’s donated a kidney to his wife, a Colombian immigrant who might otherwise have died. Legend has it that he once burglarized 13 houses in a single night and that he knows how to make a key out of bread.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Above all else, Roger Fischer is “a country boy,” and all roads lead back to West Virginia, where he was born and raised.
Fischer never knew his father, a man of Italian descent who ran off to Canarsie, Brooklyn, shortly after his son’s birth. Nor did he have much of a relationship with his mother, who left most of the child-rearing to his maternal Jewish grandparents. “I think I’m a lot better off for it,” he says.
As a youth, Fischer was a self-described “mean ass.” He was only 11 years old when he first flouted the law, breaking into his grade school cafeteria and stealing the clock his principal made him stare at during detention. While he was at it he also stole a TV and a VCR. His aunt ended up turning him in.
There wasn’t much to do in Berkeley Springs, Fischer says, and even less to do five miles outside town, where he lived. Located in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle and officially known as Bath, Berkeley Springs boasts a population of just over 600. (Greater Morgan County maxes out at about 16,000.) Historically, the area was and still is best known for its warm mineral springs. It was first noted in a 1747 map by colonial surveyor Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas; and George Washington himself made occasional visits to Berkeley Springs, the country’s first spa, to “take the waters.” But the historical pedigree never translated into widespread wealth. Today, the local school system, hospitality sector and sand mining remain the town’s major industries. And, naturally, as a kid, Fischer wasn’t interested in any of them.
“I used to blow fish out of the water,” he once told me. “How do you put it? A lot of people did that around me. The telephone companies back home used to blow stumps out of the ground when there was a tree in the way for telephone poles.”
“We went to ponds,” he went on. “You’d take a gallon jug and put in the mixture [ammonium nitrate], and you put a quarter stick of dynamite—you got the long wick on it—and then you bring it to the water. If you’re too near the water you’ll lose your hearing. But the fish, they all lose their hearing. Anything in the water, their whole head, the blood comes out of it. Every one of them just starts floating up. You can eat ‘em, it doesn’t rip ‘em apart. It just blows their brains out.”
When Fischer wasn’t bombing ponds, he spent his early teenage years listening to rap and breakdancing with his childhood best friend, Carlos Ugaz. “We’d hang out up at school where everybody played basketball,” Ugaz recalled. “I’d bring my radio up there and we started playing that music. I don’t know how it began, but we started breakdancing up there on that basketball court.”
When he wasn’t breakdancing, he was busy breaking into places and selling pilfered junk at flea markets. This was relatively easy to do. In the 1970s, out-of-towners from Washington, D.C., began buying up land and erecting summer homes in Berkeley Springs, which sits a mere two hours from the capital. The houses often lay vacant, providing easy targets for burglars—targets that kept then-Morgan County Sheriff William Spitzer and his tiny crew of deputies exceptionally busy.
Reading through old issues of the area’s local newspaper, The Morgan Messenger, gives you a good sense of the kind of stuff Spitzer was up against. Stories about B&Es (breaking-and-entering) and burglary—“Arrest Made in School Break-In”; “Man Sentenced for Pop Machine Theft”—or occasional cases of arson—“Two Men Charged With Arson of D & D Pizza”—regularly ran on the front page.
Fischer was a prime offender. He gave Spitzer hell, and the sheriff returned the favor. “He was still in school when he started getting into mischief,” Spitzer, now 86, told me inside his dimly lit house, which sits among a series of foothills that loom over the downtown. “He’d get right off the bus and go break into some place.”
Twenty-two. That’s the number of times that Spitzer remembers busting Fischer for B&E. “He broke into 13 places in one night!” Spitzer said.
Fischer was as prodigious a thief as he was cocky. He took a measure of pride in thumbing his nose at the cops. Spitzer recalled the first time he took Fischer into custody. The sheriff cuffed him loosely and threw him in the back seat of his cruiser. “What was the point in cuffing him tight?” he thought; he’s just a kid. A few minutes later the boy hollered out to him.
“Look back here!” he said.
Both of his hands were free.
Fischer did a series of stints in the Morgan County jailhouse. The sentences usually lasted a month or so, the result of some robbery or petty crime. Nothing violent. County jail wasn’t too bad, Fischer says. Some of his fondest memories stem from his time there.
Consider this: he claims to have once made a jailhouse key. Out of wood. Using two pieces of bread.
“It was like the Andy Griffith jail,” Fischer said. “The jailer, he’s got the key to open the door and give you your food and everything. So I say to him, ‘Let me see that key for a second.’ So I took it. I had three slices of bread. I pressed it in on one of the slices. I pressed it again on the other side of another one. Then I broke off a piece of busted Plexiglas from the window and melted it down and made a frame out of it. And I sawed it down with, uh…what do you call it? Dental floss.”
It was hard to believe. But in my talk with Spitzer the old sheriff brought up the story himself, before I’d even mentioned it. As Spitzer remembers it, Fischer “whittled the key out of a piece of wood.”
When the guards would retire for the evening, Fischer, then about 20, claims that he and a friend named Kenny used the key to bust out of their cell and sneak up to the third floor of the jailhouse. There, they rifled through old courthouse documents and watched TV. Though they were never caught in the act, Spitzer did eventually get a hold of the key. He confronted Fischer with it on the day of his release; called the boy into his office, quietly set the key on his desk and shook his head in frustrated disbelief.
Spitzer’s deputies took the device to an isolated area of the Morgan County jailhouse. The sheriff then put a call into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and a bomb-demolition crew was dispatched from a nearby Army base to disarm it.
At the time of the raid, Fischer says he was in Queens, New York, visiting his uncle. U.S. Marshalls tracked him down and transported him back to West Virginia, where he faced federal explosives charges.
Spitzer was never able to uncover Fischer’s motivations. To this day, Fischer won’t say what he was planning, except that he didn’t mean to harm anybody.
“He was probably just interested in seeing if he could make it,” Spitzer said. “He was always into some kind of mischief. I really wanted to see Roger Dean do well. Now, I don’t know why. He was no relative of mine. I think, maybe, because he stayed with his grandmother; maybe because he didn’t have other close friends; maybe because he didn’t have some of the things that other kids have—I always had sort of a feeling for Roger. I’ve thought before, ‘Would there have been anything I could do differently?’ And there wasn’t. You wasn’t gonna change Roger at the time. Roger had that mischief in him, and it had to come out.”
Fischer served nine years in federal prison, bouncing from one facility to another. The experience was the same wherever he went, he says: Lots of reading and lots of effort spent avoiding trouble. He tried as much as possible to hang out with mobsters because, as he put it, “they didn’t get into stupid shit” like pointless prison fights.
When he was released in 2000, Fischer was nearly 30 years old and Berkeley Springs was the last place he wanted to be. So he reconnected with Jack Stella—“my best friend and business partner,” as later described in Fischer’s website screed—whom he had met briefly in New York before being carted off by the cops for the explosives charge. Fischer began working for Stella’s now-defunct light bulb business, Northstar Lighting.
Stella is a stocky, Brooklyn-born Italian-American with intelligent eyes, a bit of a belly, and Popeye-like forearms. When I first talked with him, in 2010, he was starting up an online lingerie store. “Most women—excuse me for my vulgarity—but most women are embarrassed to buy that kind of stuff and vibrators in person,” he said. But back when he first met Fischer, Stella was still a light bulb and chemical man. “I liked the way he thought,” Stella said of Fischer. “He was always thinking the next step. Most people don’t think the next step.”
Things were looking up. Shortly after getting out of prison, Fischer met a 35-year-old Colombian immigrant named Maria Garcia at a party in Bayside, Queens.