Thursday, October 23, 2014

The ‘prostitute with a gun’ was a middle-class high school girl

On May 19, 1992, Amy Fisher, a 17-year-old high school student in Long Island, N.Y., rang the bell at the home of 37-year-old Mary Jo Buttafuoco. Buttafuoco stepped onto her front porch and had a brief conversation with the girl, whom she had never met before. Fisher then shot her in the face and fled the scene. Neighbors heard the shot and rushed to Buttafuoco's aid. She regained consciousness the next day in a hospital and was able to recall the conversation with her attacker. This information helped police to promptly identify and arrest Fisher.

Fisher's explanation of her action shocked the nation. She claimed that she had been lovers with her victim's husband, Joey Buttafuoco, 36, since the previous summer when she was still only 16. While those who knew Buttafuoco believed him to be a pillar of the community, Fisher said he perpetrated auto theft scams. She claimed he introduced her to a life of prostitution, such that she wore a beeper to her high school classes and met her clients in the evenings through an escort business, earning $600 per week. At nights, she returned to sleep at her unsuspecting parents' house. Fisher further claimed that it had been Joey Buttafuoco's idea that his wife should meet with an "accident" and that he had helped plan the shooting.

For his part, Buttafuoco admitted knowing Fisher only insofar as he had serviced her family's cars at his auto body shop. He publicly denied having sex with the girl or conspiring to shoot his wife. His wife and her family rallied around him and endorsed his story as he nursed her back to health; she was left with permanent nerve damage and chronic pain.

Why the story fascinated Americans

The story appealed to Americans' sense of intrigue and outrage for multiple reasons.

First, the story was about illicit sex: sex outside of marriage, sex for money, sex with a minor. Fisher was 16 when she began her affair with Buttafuoco, but she looked younger, at one point having forced her weight down to only 80 pounds. Who were all of these men on Long Island, everyone wanted to know, who paid to have sex with a girl who looked barely pubescent?

Second, there was the attempted murder motivated by jealousy. The public wondered: Was it a crime of passion? Or had it been carefully planned? How many people planned it, and for how long? The idea of an unsuspecting, innocent woman being gunned down on her front porch by a stranger in broad daylight aroused feelings of insecurity. The Amy Fisher story did for the doorbell what the movie "Jaws" did for the beach.

Third, there was the question of how a smart, pretty girl with so many things seemingly in her favor – she was a girl-next-door type on Long Island, raised by an Italian mother and Jewish father in a comfortably middle-class community – could have been sucked into such a destructive lifestyle. In 2000, Lorraine Delia Kenny explored Fisher as a case study in her book Daughters of Suburbia: Growing Up White, Middle-Class, and Female. Americans were interested to hear about what was behind the demographic veneer in Fisher's case.

Fourth, there were the lies. Fisher claimed that Buttafuoco seduced her and goaded her to shoot his wife; Buttafuoco denied it. One of them was lying.

Fifth, there was the technological mystique of the "beeper." Cell phones, then called "car phones," were still large and expensive and had not widely caught on. The novel idea of teenage girls wearing beepers to communicate with their friends (or clients) during the school day made parents wonder how to protect their children in what was very shortly to become known as the Information Age.

Ongoing media attention

In the months following the shooting, on Dec. 1, 1992, Amy Fisher was sentenced to prison, where she served seven years. This did not halt the media attention. There were to be multiple movies and books, as well as the trial of Joey Buttafuoco.

Several movies aired on network television shortly after Fisher's sentencing. NBC aired "Amy Fisher: My Story" on Dec. 28. CBS aired "Casualties of Love: The 'Long Island Lolita' Story" on Jan. 3 during the same hours that ABC aired "The Amy Fisher Story", which, according to Sheila Weller, was a competitive approach "unprecedented in TV history." All of the movies received high Nielsen ratings.

Additionally, Fisher's memoir Amy Fisher: My Story, written with Sheila Weller, was released in 1993 while she was in prison. The book reported huge amounts of detail about her affairs, her prostitution, and her premeditation of the murder attempt, but it did not have much to say about feelings of remorse, other than a grunting acknowledgment (filtered through Weller) that she knew she deserved to be in prison.

On Oct. 5, 1993, Joey Buttafuoco reversed his claim of complete innocence, pleading guilty to one count of statutory rape for having sex with Fisher while she was still 16. He served several months in prison for it. Even after this revelation, the Buttafuocos remained married. They moved to California and stayed together until Mary Jo filed for divorce in 2003.

When Amy Fisher was released from prison in 1999, she married Lou Bellera, a former cop, and they had three children. She took a job as a columnist for the Long Island Press and released her memoir If I Knew Then in 2004.

Following the Buttafuocos' divorce, Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco came back into contact. In 2006, they participated in the coin toss at a football game, and in 2007, they appeared on television together. At this late date, however, a decade and a half after the original events, it seemed there was little of great national interest to add to their story.

On Feb. 11, 2008, Fox News published an interview in which Fisher called her shooting victim a "nonentity" and complained that she was making money off her ordeal:

"I feel no sympathy for Mary Jo the multimillionaire! The fact that Mary Jo has a bullet in her head means nothing! I still have silicone in my boobs, and you don't hear me complaining. She can't feel her bullet, and I can't feel my silicone."

(Fisher also bragged that she'd recently had sex with Joey Buttafuoco during a week-long affair and that she didn't enjoy it because he'd aged.)

The following month, she appeared as a commentator on truTV's "The Smoking Gun Presents: World's Dumbest..." show. Former figure skater Tonya Harding has also appeared as a commentator there. Similar to Fisher, Harding became a notorious media figure in the 1990s after rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked with a tire iron. Harding denied knowing of the attack before it happened, but she admitted to helping her ex-husband and bodyguard cover up their involvement. The implied bad-girl comparison between Fisher and Harding – neither of whom managed to regain successful careers, and who have been reduced to performing in degrading verbal and physical fights on television – was not promising for either of them.

In 2009, Mary Jo Buttafuoco, by then engaged to marry a new man, released her book Getting it Through My Thick Skull: Why I Stayed, What I Learned, and What Millions of People Involved With Sociopaths Need to Know, written with Julie McCarron.

In 2011, Fisher appeared on "Celebrity Rehab" discussing her pornographic performances and use of alcohol. The televised charity fundraiser "Celebrity Fight Night" pitted Buttafuoco against Fisher's husband Bellera in the boxing ring, while Fisher was matched against Nadya Suleman (famous only for deliberately having fourteen children as a single mother).

In 2012, Joey Buttafuoco claimed he was writing his own memoir. “It's going to have every single detail that hasn't been out there yet," he said. "It's called 'Closure' because I think without full disclosure you have no closure." Whether the memoir will ever be completed and published, and whether there will be a market for it over twenty years after his various crimes – both the alleged and the admitted – remains to be seen. With the moral satisfaction of Amy Fisher's prison sentence and Mary Jo Buttafuoco's long-awaited awakening and emancipation, most Americans have finally moved on.

Image: You never know who might be standing on your doorstep. Photograph of a doorbell by Jim Kuhn, Wheaton, Md. Uploaded by Yarl. © [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 27, 2013.

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