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Woman Murders Ex-Con In Hopes Of Taking Over His Drug Business, Prosecutors Say

Crystal Gregoire was close with Sam John Passarella — her kids even called him "Uncle Tony." How did their relationship end with murder?

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How Prosecution Fought Crystal Gregoire’s Self-Defense Claim
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How Prosecution Fought Crystal Gregoire’s Self-Defense Claim

A prosecutor explains why Crystal Gregoire’s self-defense argument was such an issue for them, especially in Tennessee, and how they dismantled her claim.

After serving 30 years in prison, people thought Sam John Passarella had left his criminal ways behind — but old habits die hard. Following his release, he set up a drug ring from his senior living facility and was later murdered by one of his dealers.   

Sam John Passarella was born in 1945 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. As a teenager he was shipped off to live with his uncle in Lawrence County, Tennessee after running afoul of the law.  

“Sam John had a charismatic sense to him. He had the personality that just attracted people, but Sam John had a knack of always seeming to be in trouble,” cousin Marty Passarella told “Snapped," airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.

In high school, Passarella became the lead singer in a band that played high school dances. He moved to Nashville to pursue his musical dreams. Fame eluded him but trouble found him once again. 

“He began the business of counterfeiting and buying and selling stolen property, selling drugs, and he portrayed himself as being connected to the mob or Mafia in New York City,” Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Wayne Wesson told producers.

In 1980, Passarella and two other men kidnapped Monty Hudson and his wife, Elizabeth, after Hudson sold them $6,000 worth of fake silver. Monty turned up dead and Passarella was accused of being behind it, according to court documents

“They could never actually pin the murder on Sam John. They did have enough evidence to convict him of the kidnapping of both Monty and Liz and so Sam was sentenced to 20 years and then I believe to 50 years plus life,” Wesson said.

Sam John Passarella Spd 2905

Passarella was released in 2013, having served almost 30 years in prison. Now in his late 60s, he moved into Lawrenceburg’s Crockett Senior Housing Complex. Though people knew of Passarella’s criminal history, they believed it was a thing of the past and he became a beloved fixture of the community. Among his new friends was Crystal Gregoire, then in her early 30s. 

Born in 1980 in Louisiana, Crystal Gregoire had a "pretty rough childhood," according to sister Misty McMasters. After high school, Gregoire worked briefly as a police officer but then drifted from job to job. By the age of 20 she had given birth to three children. After a string of failed marriages, she moved to Tennessee to be near her sister.  

There, Gregoire met Passarella through her new fiancé, Jonathan Howell. The two became fast friends and she nicknamed him “Uncle Tony,” a play on his Brooklyn roots. 

By this time, Passarella, 69, was experiencing severe health issues. After a stint in the hospital, he returned to his home to recover, with the help of Gregoire and her children.

On the night of May 19, 2015, Gregoire’s 16-year-old son, Josh Brown, went to check on Passarella. He had promised to attend Gregoire’s daughter’s 8th grade graduation ceremony that day but never showed up. 

Brown found Passarella’s front door unlocked and went inside. In Passarella’s bedroom Brown discovered a grisly murder scene.

“I just came to my Uncle Tony’s house and I opened the door and he’s laying on the bed. He’s dead,” Josh Brown can be heard saying frantically on recordings of the 911 call obtained by “Snapped.” “There’s blood everywhere!” 

Detectives arrived and discovered Passarella laying on his bed with his feet on the ground and a large pool of blood under his head. Passarella’s cell phone was found submerged in his toilet bowl and a large knife was missing from his kitchen. A bottle of bleach had been left out on a countertop, showing signs of a cleanup. 

“The victim was known for carrying large amounts of cash and prescription medication and there was no prescription medication or money located in the crime scene,” Lawrenceburg Police Captain Brent Hunter told producers.

A medical examiner later determined Passarella had been struck over 20 times in the head with what appeared to be a clawhammer. There were multiple fractures to his skull and part of his right ear was torn off. Two deep lacerations in his neck had punctured his jugular vein, according to the website Lawrenceburg Now.  

Brown had grown close with Passarella and was distraught when he spoke with investigators. He said he and his mother had dinner with Passarella the previous night. investigators next spoke to Gregoire who backed up Brown’s story. Her fiancé, Jonathan Howell, confirmed her statements but detectives sensed they were both withholding information. 

“I was under the impression that they weren’t really telling us everything that they knew,” Wesson told “Snapped.”

Days later, Gregoire contacted investigators and admitted she hadn’t revealed the whole story because her fiancé was there. 

"She tells them that she and Sam had a romantic relationship. That they loved one another,” prosecutor Christi Thompson explained to producers.   

Gregoire said Passarella was kind to her and her children and sometimes gave her money. She also told investigators that since his release from prison, Passarella had begun dealing drugs and that her fiancé was one of his clients. 

“Sam since he had been out of the penitentiary had created a small network of friends and new acquaintances and actually had his own small little enterprise going there where he was buying prescription drugs and then reselling them,” Wesson explained.

Then, in Feb. 2016, investigators learned Gregoire was incarcerated in county jail on a parole violation. They planned to interview her again but before they could they received a call from her former landlord. 

In a mound behind her home the landlord had found a bag buried in the dirt. The bag contained bloody clothing, empty prescription bottles bearing Passarella’s name, two kitchen knives, and a hammer, according to Lawrenceburg Now.    

When detectives confronted Gregoire with the new evidence against her, she tried to throw her fiancé under the bus. She claimed Howell was jealous of her relationship with Passarella and murdered him in a jealous rage. 

Crystal Gregoire Spd 2905

Detectives spoke to Howell, who cried after seeing Gregoire’s handwritten statement against him.

“Jonathan loved Crystal. He could not believe she was accusing him of this,” Wesson told “Snapped.” 

Howell said that Gregoire worked for Passarella selling pills, a relationship which made him uncomfortable. He added that on the night of May 18, he stayed home while Gregoire and her kids had dinner with Passarella. Gregoire brought the kids home before heading back to Passarella's place. She didn’t come back until the early hours of the morning. She admitted to Howell she had killed Passarella then.  

When Gregoire was told of Howell’s statement, her story changed again, claiming she did kill him — but it was self-defense.

Gregoire said Passarella coerced her into selling drugs for him under threat of violence. When she attempted to quit, on the night of May 18, she said he tried to make good on his threat so she beat Passarella with a hammer she found lying next to his bed, then stabbed him twice in the neck to make sure he was dead.

However, Passarella was unable to walk without assistance at the time of his death, making self-defense unlikely. Prosecutors believe Gregoire had a different motive for killing Passarella.

“She was trying to squeeze Sam out of his drug business and take it over,” Thompson told producers.  

On Feb. 5, 2016, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced Crystal Gregoire had been charged with one count of first-degree murder, one count of aggravated assault, one count of tampering with evidence, and one count of theft. 

In April 2017, a jury found Crystal Gregoire guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Sam John Passarella, Nashville ABC-affiliate WRKN reported at the time. Gregoire pled guilty to tampering with evidence and was found not guilty on one count of theft and felony murder. 

Her conviction carried an automatic sentence of life in prison. Now 40 years old, she is currently incarcerated at the Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center, a women’s prison in Tennessee.

For more on this case and others like it, watch "Snapped," airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen or stream episodes here.

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