In 1974, Gulliver’s Restaurant straddled the border between Port Chester, New York and Greenwich, Connecticut. It contained a basement lounge and disco dance floor, attracting many Connecticut youth to New York’s lower drinking age. On June 29, 22-year-old petty criminal Peter Leonard broke into a bowling alley adjacent to Gulliver’s. He burglarized a cigarette vending machine and set a fire to cover his crime.
It was now June 30. A few minutes before 1 a.m. in the basement of Gulliver’s, the performing band’s lead singer announced there was a fire and people should leave. There seemed no hurry, and about 100 people trooped up the narrow staircase before a flood of thick smoke rushed down. It took firefighters hours to get the fire under control. 24 people died of asphyxiation. Dental x-rays were required for identification of the bodies. Within 2 weeks, Peter Leonard was arrested.
The first instance of this case’s fascination with legal fine print came in the form of whether New York or Connecticut held jurisdiction. A linear survey said New York. Peter Leonard pleaded guilty to burglary, arson, and felony murder in 1975, but in 1977, the Appellate Court determined his confession had been coerced. Leonard was found guilty again in 1978, but that got overturned in 1985, because the police officers who’d questioned Leonard were unaware he had a lawyer for a pending larceny charge. In 1986, Leonard took a deal for second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years. He had a good prison record, so he got time served.