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A Young Man Was Murdered After NYC Afterparty Went Wrong — But Who Was The Killer?
After a trio of girls said goodbye to Joey Comunale at a NYC apartment following a night of partying, three other men were still there. Which one of them killed him and buried his body in the New Jersey woods?
When Joey Comunale decided to attend an afterparty in New York City, he had no idea it would be his last.
On November 12, 2016, Joey, 26, had left his home in Stamford, Connecticut for a night out in Manhattan. He and his friend Stephen Naso drove to a club in the city's Meaptpacking District, a neighborhood known for its nightlife scene. The pair met up with a ton of people and hung out at a club.
"We were having a great time — tons of friends, smiling, laughing. That's what I remember from that night," Naso told "New York Homicide," airing Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
At around 4 a.m. that Sunday, the club shut down. Naso's girlfriend had taken his phone while looking for her car, but called Joey's number when she realized she couldn't find it. Joey let Naso use his phone as he went to his girlfriend to help locate the car. Joey soon contacted Naso, telling him he was going to an afterparty with a couple of people and would just get his phone from him tomorrow. Naso wasn't worried, and headed back to Connecticut with his girlfriend. He never saw Joey again.
Joey was supposed to head to his family's home the next day for a meal — they were "a typical Italian family, we were just close," his father, Pat Comunale, told "New York Homicide." "Sunday was big because he helped me fill out my fantasy football team."
Pat was concerned that Joey never showed up, and started calling his friends, learning from Naso what happened the night before. He wasn't the only one concerned. Joey, who was working in sales and described as having a "magnetic" personality, had many friends — and they were all reaching out to each other, nervous they hadn't heard from him. It was out of character.
One friend, Max Branchinelli, hadn't been out with them the night before. He got the name of the club and looked on Instagram, recognizing some girls he knew were at the same club that night. He took a screenshot of the photo and sent it to the friends who were there, who confirmed they had indeed met up with those girls and they were hanging out with Joey.
Branchinelli messaged one of the girls, who explained she and her two friends had met two other men that night, Max Gemma and Larry Dilione. The group, along with Joey, had taken a taxi to an afterparty at an apartment in Sutton Place, a wealthier neighborhood in the city. The afterparty went on for a few hours until the girls decided to leave. Joey and Dilione walked them out, the girls got an Uber, and they saw Joey and Dilione head back into the building.
The girl gave Branchinelli Dilione's number. Dilione told Branchinelli the same story — except he said he thought Joey left in the Uber with the girls.
Joey's concerned loves one got authorities involved with the search. They, too, contacted the girl Branchinelli had spoken with, who gave the same story as well as the address of the Sutton Place apartment. She added the owner was a young man named James Rackover. Everyone had been hanging out, drinking and doing "controlled substances," according to a detective. Joey in particular was very drunk and "out of it," she said.
Dilione, however, continued to tell a different story, insisting he didn't remember if Joey had left with the girls or headed off to buy cigarettes, but that he didn't come back inside with him. Investigators also contacted Max Gemma, the other man at the afterparty. Gemma claimed he was drunk and fell asleep on the couch. When he woke up, no one was there so he headed out.
Detectives decided to review the building's security footage to determine what really happened. As they were doing so, Rackover, the owner of the apartment, came in.
"He walks in, smiles at me, and tells me, 'Good luck getting the video,' and keeps walking past the desk," Det. Yeoman Castro, of the NYPD' 17th Precinct in Manhattan, recalled.
The footage revealed Dilione had indeed lied. Joey had gone back into the building with him. It never showed Joey leaving. However, investigators saw that on Sunday night, Rackover and Dilione had left the building and moved a large object into a car before driving away.
Authorities decided to look at the garbage in the building, and found something shocking: a plastic case for a comforter with a tag still on it, indicating it had been sent to James Rackover. Inside the bag were towels soaked in blood. They also found Joey's ID and credit cards in the trash.
After running Rackover's name through the system, detectives learned he was driving on a suspended license. An arrest warrant was issued and he was taken into custody. They searched his apartment, noting a strong smell of bleach — and Luminol applied in the bathroom revealed a massive amount of blood had been spilled all over.
Another shocking twist came when investigators learned James Rackover wasn't his birth name. He had been born James Beaudoin, and was a Florida man with a criminal history, including burglary, drug use, and even cutting off his ankle monitor and going on the lam for a brief period, according to a 2020 Vanity Fair report. He had changed his name after Jeffrey Rackover, a wealthy jeweler who had designed pieces for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, took him under his wing and became a kind of father figure to him.
Jeffrey gave Rackover a new name and a chance to hide his criminal past, as well as the ritzy apartment. James Rackover had then gotten a job as an insurance broker specializing in jewelry and fine arts, according to Vanity Fair, and embarked on a glamorous lifestyle: He had expensive clothes, almost always used Ubers and taxis instead of the subway, had an Equinox gym membership, and spent his nights out at fancy restaurants and clubs.
"He wasnt who he was posing to be. He was somebody completely different," Castro told "New York Homicide."
A break soon came when Dilione agreed to talk. He gave them a location in New Jersey where he said they could find Joey. When investigators arrived at the scene, they discovered Joey's body buried, his hand sticking out of the dirt. An autopsy revealed he had been stabbed multiple times, and other knife wounds indicated the men had tried to dismember his body. The many broken bones also indicated what had happened to him after he died: They had tossed his body out the window in a bag in order to move it.
Dilione claimed a fight had broken out at the end of the night over who had supplied what to the afterparty, which led Dilione to punch Joey hard. He claimed Rackover, though, was the one who stabbed Joey in a fury until he was dead. Gemma had been asleep the whole time, but the sounds woke him up, so Dilione told him to get out of the apartment immediately. Dilione and Rackover then drove to the woods of New Jersey to dig a grave for Joey and get rid of the body.
Dilione and Rackover were both charged with second-degree murder, while Gemma was charged with hindering the prosecution, as investigators believed he had seen Joey's body that morning before leaving the apartment and lied about it. But while the forensic evidence was strong, investigators only had Dilione's word that it was Rackover who had committed the actual murder, not him. Rackover's defense team argued Rackover had only helped with the cleanup, and Dilione had committed the crime on his own, pointing to a dented ring Dilione owned that was found at the scene. Photos from earlier the night of the murder showed it undamaged, according to Vanity Fair.
But then a new witness came forward: Louis Ruggiero, the son of a NYC newscaster and a friend of Rackover. He claimed that he'd run into Rackover a day after the murder at the gym and Rackover bragged about killing someone. He didn't believe it — until he walked past Rackover's building and saw it was a crime scene.
A taped conversation between Rackover and his friend also caught him bragging about Joey's death, saying, "My rep's gonna be up there, bro!"
On Nov. 2, 2018, Rackover was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 28 years to life in prison. Dilione pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was handed a 23-year sentence. Max Gemma was given a six-month sentence and served four months. He was released in August 2019.
Rackover continues to maintain Dilione was the real killer and he only helped dispose of the body, according to Vanity Fair.