Even for jaded New Yorkers, it was a shocking murder. For the television industry, the shooting thirty years ago today of 33-year-old advertising sales executive John Reisenbach was a gut punch and wake-up call.
Around 11:40 p.m. on July 30, 1990, during a peak of the crime wave that plagued in the New York City in the 1980s and early ’90s, Reisenbach was gunned down in an apparent robbery while he was using a pay phone in a booth around the corner from his apartment in the West Village. He was struck three times, twice in the chest and once in the leg, by .38-caliber bullets.
Reisenbach’s co-worker and intended business partner, Larry Schatz, was on the other end of the phone at the time and heard what sounded like a scuffle and the receiver hitting the side of the phone booth. Schatz called 911 to report that his friend was being mugged. Reisenbach was pronounced dead a half-hour later at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
“It took everybody aback for a long time,” says Ira Bernstein, co-president of Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury, who worked with Reisenbach early in his career. “It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forget.”
All these years later, Reisenbach’s murder remains unsolved. Despite Hollywood’s affection for cold cases, law enforcement experts say there’s little hope of new leads emerging any time soon.
Rather than dwell on the tragedy of his death, Reisenbach’s family and friends have worked since 1991 to honor his memory through a foundation that has a simple mission: to make New York City a better and safe place to live and work. The John A. Reisenbach Foundation has defied the odds against small nonprofits to thrive into its fourth decade as a distributor of grants to grassroots organizations that have direct impact on the lives of residents across the city. The foundation was rooted in the determination of Reisenbach’s father, longtime Warner Bros. marketing chief Sandy Reisenbach, to leave a proud legacy for his oldest child and only son.
Amy Reisenbach, executive VP of current programs for CBS and the younger of Reisenbach’s two sisters, says the foundation has been buoyed by the support of the New York-based television industry for one of its own. John Reisenbach was well-liked in the close-knit world of TV ad sales. Sandy Reisenbach, who died in 2015 at age 82, was a hugely well-known figure with decades of experience in entertainment marketing and advertising on both coasts. He used all of his connections to get the foundation up and running.
“It says so much about who John was that so many of the people who knew him are still on the foundation’s board,” says Amy Reisenbach, who is a board member. “The passion of his friends keeps it going.”
Those friends include Schatz, a former executive at Randolph Media Group who now lives in Asheville, N.C. and works in commercial real estate. On July 30, 1990, he and Reisenbach were a week or two away from leaving their jobs at All American Television, where they had become close friends, to launch a boutique production banner. With Schatz’s background in distribution and Reisenbach’s fast rise as an ad-sales executive, the pair planned to focus on what would today be considered branded content.
But at a time before mobile phones became ubiquitous, Reisenbach had to go outside to use a pay phone to call Schatz about a business matter that night when he discovered that phone service in his neighborhood was out.
In an instant, three bullets changed everything for Schatz and everyone else in John’s life. When John’s wife, Vicki Reisenbach, came out to look for her husband, she didn’t realize he’d stumbled and fallen onto Greenwich Street just around the corner. She picked up the same pay phone that John had just held and called Schatz to see if he knew anything.
“It was a horrible, horrible situation,” Schatz recalls.
The emotional jolt of John’s murder drove Schatz and others to work with Sandy Reisenbach to build an organization worthy of their friend and loved one.
“John was smart, sarcastic, quirky. He had a great sense of humor that was self-deprecating,” Schatz said. He was a genuinely kind person who had a deep love of animals, he added.
Sandy Reisenbach poured his grief and energy into launching the foundation, but privately he had his concerns about the venture. “He was so worried,” Amy recalls. “He thought if it didn’t succeed long term it would be like losing John all over again.”
Known as JAR, the foundation’s focus is to support organizations that work in the areas of youth and education, housing, justice and safety, and as of this year, pandemic relief in hard-hit New York City neighborhoods. The 33-member board — chaired by Gerry Byrne, vice chairman of Variety parent company PMC — is dominated by senior executives from Fox, Google, Facebook, NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS and Twitter, among others.
The foundation’s path has taken some twists and turns. JAR now funds two annual scholarships at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. JAR became involved with the city’s charter school movement and in 1999 lent its name to a K-8 charter school in Harlem that closed in 2005 after a mixed record of success.
In January 2015, the foundation hired its first-ever executive director. Naomi Ryan has helped steer JAR’s resources into partnerships with organizations helping underprivileged communities on a one-to-one basis with food, housing, domestic violence shelter, medical care, educational support as well as established assistance funds ranging from the Actors Fund to the Jazz Foundation of America to the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
“In the 1990s we were more focused on crime prevention. For the past several years we’ve been really focused on helping people with the very fundamentals of life. Not everybody in New York has equal access to those,” Ryan says. “The inequality in the city has been heightened during the pandemic. We’re trying to address those issues by the work we do in John’s name and in his memory.”
JAR does its own fundraising every year for the money that it disperses in grants usually between $10,000 and $30,000. Last year on the back of a successful annual gala event, the foundation raised about $660,000. This year, the org was stumped on how it would come near that total without the ability to have an in-person event. As is often the case, the foundation leaned on the resourcefulness of its board to find a solution.
JAR board member Lew Leone, VP and general manager for Fox-owned WNYW-TV and WWOR-TV, offered a half-hour of airtime for a fundraising special that would highlight the foundation’s work and individual stories of hardship caused by the pandemic. Board member Scott Kushner and others helped produce the “Dear New York” special, narrated by Robert Klein, that wound up airing across each of the city’s Big Four network O&Os at 7 p.m. on July 11.
Ryan credits the foundation’s board for being nimble in evaluating what kind of programs fall within JAR’s mission. Among the most impactful partnerships in recent years has been JAR’s support of Harlem Girls Cheer, a competitive cheer program designed to teach leadership skills and build community among girls 8-14 in Harlem and the Bronx.
“The board’s willingness to be creative and to adapt to what the city needs and what its neighborhoods need has been important,” Ryan says. “As a grant maker, we try to be in service to our grantees. We don’t want to be the kind of philanthropy that comes in and gives out a check and is unwilling to listen to our grantees needs.”
The foundation’s work has been source of pride and strength for the Reisenbach family. The fact that no one was ever convicted for John’s murder is a source of pain that has never left his surviving family members.
Amy Reisenbach was 11 when her brother was slain. Liza Price is four and a half years younger than the brother she grew up with in the 1960s and ’70s in bucolic Tarrytown, N.Y. Both sisters will never forget the night the call came from Barbara Reisenbach, John and Liza’s mother and Sandy’s first wife, that John had been shot dead.
“I went to my father’s home immediately,” Price recalls. “I had never seen such a devastated man. I was thinking only about my own pain and when I saw him, it was the most devastating thing I’d ever seen.”
Price and Sandy Reisenbach lived on the West Coast the time of the murder. The shock was so great that then-Time Warner chief Steve Ross allowed the family to fly to New York the next day on the company jet.
With the passage of time, Price has come to believe that John’s killer is either dead or already in jail. “It was the part of a very violent summer. There were lots of other incidents that year,” she says.
The lack of justice for John doesn’t hurt her now as much as the loss of the sibling she adored.
“I think it would have helped my parents to have had the closure” of a prosecution, Price says.
Barbara Reisenbach, who died in 2013, kept in touch with the NYPD detectives who worked the case. “She stayed on them for years. She called them once a month,” Price says. “They would speak to her occasionally.”
Amy Reisenbach said she learned later that her father was in some ways strangely relieved that there never was a trial. “He felt it would be like re-living it all over again,” she said.
Thomas Hyland, a retired NYPD detective who is now an adjust professor at CUNY’s John Jay College, says the nature of the Reisenbach killing made it very hard to solve, then and now. In 1990, the NYPD was overwhelmed with an astounding 2,262 murders that year. In 2019, the number of homicides was 319, reflecting the vast changes in New York City in the generation since Reisenbach was murdered.
Hyland was in the NYPD at the time of the Reisenbach killing but did not work on the case. But he remembers it as a milestone of a violent period.
“An unsolved murder back then wasn’t unique in any way, especially for something along the lines of a street robbery,” Hyland says. “A victim murdered by a stranger in a crime of opportunity is very difficult to investigate.”
William Emerson, then a 42-year-old homeless man who had been frequenting a park near Reisenbach’s apartment, was arrested for the crime within days. But after he was held for more than six months on Rikers Island, the case against Emerson collapsed for lack of evidence. The informant who had pointed police toward Emerson, a person described in contemporary accounts of the crime as a “transvestite” named Porsche, could no longer be found. There were rumors that Porsche had been paid for the story.
Dan Bowens, weekend anchor and reporter for Fox’s WNYW-TV New York, investigates cold cases in NYC for his podcast series “The Tape Room With Dan Bowens.” He notes that a situation like the Reisenbach murder would have a much better chance of being solved today.
“The fact that this was a random crime on a night when there were probably 10 other murders makes it that much more complicated,” Bowens says. “Today there are way fewer crimes and police have more technology. If it happened today, there are cameras on every street corner.”
Schatz and others remain convinced that Emerson was the wrong person who was targeted because police needed a ready scapegoat. Today, the Jane Street area near Greenwich Street where Reisenbach lived is home to million-dollar apartments and all manner of upscale businesses. In 1990, the city was in the grip of the crack cocaine epidemic. Drug addicts and prostitutes congregated in Abingdon Square Park. Crime and other urban ills often drifted onto Jane Street from what police called “the meat market” atmosphere down the way.
Price recalls her parents being concerned about John and Vicki buying an apartment on the edge of a sketchy neighborhood in 1989. But the two loved the city and wanted to own a place in Manhattan.
John Reisenbach was an incredibly “fun-loving” person who enjoyed the 24/7 life of the city, his older sister recalls. “He had lots of friends,” Price says. As Price became a young adult, her older brother would sometimes include her in his outings. “He liked to have a good time,” she says. “It was the 1980s. We did a lot of drinking.”
At his core, John Reisenbach was a good person who “had a great, relaxed attitude toward life,” says Debmar-Mercury’s Bernstein, who worked with him in ad sales at All American Television predecessor LBS Communications. “He was one of the first guys who taught me that you don’t have to jump up and down every day to get things done.”
Bernstein was impressed by another aspect of Reisenbach’s character.
“He was the son of somebody who was a really big deal in the business,” Bernstein says. “He was never like, ‘Do you know who my father is?’ Never once. He never traded on it.”
Amy Reisenbach has felt the loss of her older brother for most of her life. She wishes she’d had the chance to have an adult relationship with the sibling she idolized. John’s success as the second-generation Reisenbach to thrive in showbiz had a big impact on her decision to pursue a career in TV. She’s been with CBS since 2005.
Reisenbach credits the close-knit nature of the TV biz for keeping her brother’s memory alive.
“The TV business in New York but also TV general can be such a small and intimate business — even in Peak TV — where you really get to know your colleagues,” she says. “The fact that someone good was randomly taken, and that someone was from our business, strikes a chord for people that has endured.”
Schatz was profoundly affected by the “horrendous” experience of being an aural witness to murder on the night of July 30, 1990. The company that the two were poised to launch would have been called Vanguard Media. Through the foundation, John Reisenbach wound up being in the vanguard of the groundswell to combat gun violence and make the streets of New York safer for all.
“I think we’ve done a lot of good in John’s name,” Schatz says. “I think he’d be very proud of what we’ve done in his name.”