As the bassist/co-vocalist with US band Mountain and also a producer for Cream, Felix Pappalardi was a pivotal figure in the rock scene of the late 60s and early 70s. By the early 80s, however, his career was on a steep downward slide and his personal life was in disarray.
Felix Pappalardi Meets A Tragic End
The combination of drugs, guns and an unhinged wife meant things wouldn’t end well for the Mountain bassist and ex-Cream producer. Insiders and eye-witnesses remember his murder trial
His long-standing marriage to songwriter Gail Collins was in trouble, due to both parties’ drug use and extra-marital affairs. But things took a turn for the fatal on April 12,1983, when 43-year-old Pappalardi confessed his latest affair to his wife in their New York apartment.
Leslie West [Mountain guitarist/singer]: I first met Felix in the mid-60s when he produced a couple of songs for a band I was in. He and Gail were a great couple. She wrote songs with him, she did the artwork. But as time went on I realised there was more to it than met the eye.
Corky Laing [Mountain drummer]: When Mountain started out, Felix and Gail were a brilliant, creative team. But Gail got in big trouble with drugs. Gradually, people in the business who knew them knew she was a witch. She was very talented, very smart, but evil. Gail claimed she loved Felix, but they were always fighting. Felix was not a big guy, and Gail would beat the shit out of him. Other times they’d get high, and shoot at the walls in their house.
Leslie West: One night when they were sitting in the living room, they heard a continuous buzzing noise coming from inside the walls. Felix was probably high, so he started shooting at the walls from his chair. Turns out that the contractors on the house had stuffed hornets’ nests between the walls after Gail refused to pay a bill. So Felix was trying to shoot hornets.
Corky Laing: In the fall of 1982 Felix wanted to re-form Mountain, and he tried to get me to go along with having Gail in the band. There was no way it was going to happen. Then he fell in love with Valerie Merians, the daughter of a friend, Ron Merians, who owned a club in Woodstock.
Valerie Merians [talking to the New York Post]: We were very much in love, and we had talked of marrying. We talked of getting an apartment together, even of going to Australia together.
Corky Laing: The one big mistake Felix made was telling Gail about it. She knew she was going to lose her world. If she couldn’t have him, nobody else would. It also had to do with drugs. It was a matter of that time coming when she would explode.
Peter McLaughlin [reporter, writing in the New York Daily News]: [On August 17, 1983] Detectives from the E. 21st St station house said 911 emergency operators received a call from Pappalardi’s wife, Gail, 43, about 6am.
Gail Collins Pappalardi [from transcript of 911 call on August 17, 1983]: I killed my husband... I didn’t mean to.
Operator ([ranscript of 911 call]: How did you do it?
Gail Collins Pappalardi [transcript of 911 call]: Anger... but, ah, not intentional, never, never, never.
Neil S. Comer [Gail Collins’s defence attorney]: The shooting took place in a small bedroom. It was a gorgeous spot, a high-rise building on the East River... but the apartments tend to be quite small.
Peter McLaughlin: When police arrived they said they found the musician lying on the bed in his underwear, a single bullet in his neck.
Neil S. Comer: There was a comedic moment when the police officers arrived at her door and she says: “I just shot my husband”. The officer says: “Where?”. And she says: “In the neck”. He says: “No, I mean, where is he?”.
Maureen Bardens [prosecuting attorney]: I got called by the police department on the day of the murder, saying they had this dead body and the wife was in custody. It took a while to sort it out, but once we realised there was just one gunshot wound to his neck, and there was nobody else in the apartment it seemed like she must have killed him. He died because the bullet entered his carotid artery. Which is not a place where you’d shoot yourself.
Corky Laing: That night, Gail was pretty stoned on these Percs [Percodan, a pain reliever]. Apparently they did a blood test on her, and she had about 40 Percodan inside her. She was out of her mind. And she had this little derringer [pistol].
Leslie West: When they asked her what happened she said: “Oh, it was an accident. Felix was giving me a gun lesson”.
Maureen Bardens: Her story was that she didn’t know how to shoot a gun, and while he was teaching her it went off by accident. I think most reasonable people would say: “That’s about the most ridiculous thing I ever heard in my life”. Their neighbours heard loud arguing that night, but according to her it was just a lesson in how to shoot a gun.
Gail Collins Pappalardi [from trial testimony]: He was trying to get me to be familiar with it. Something happened that I have no recollection of – a noise, something... and I moved or something, and the gun went off. Time froze for a second when I realised Felix had been hit. I could not remember my own name at that point.
Leslie West: If it was an accident, what would be the first call you’d make: the emergency services, the police or the lawyer? Well, Gail called her lawyer. We know this, because the police had her telephone call records.
Mike Pearl [reporter, writing in the New York Post]: The framed wedding certificate that had hung over the bed of Gail Pappalardi and her slain rock star husband, Felix, was found ripped to pieces. Mrs Pappalardi swore that the destruction of the wedding certificate was another accident. She said Pappalardi tore it when he was clearing a desk of old papers.
Corky Laing: Leslie and I were playing a show at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, so that’s where we heard the news.
Leslie West: We were about to leave the hotel, and Corky comes out and tells me that his wife had called him to say Felix was dead. Well, I’d heard that Felix was dead five times already. There were always stories about Felix having OD’d and stuff. So Corky says: “No, this is real. You’d better come inside”.
Corky Laing: I was not surprised, because I knew Felix had guns. When you have guns and drugs around, and you have jealousy, frustration and depression, and all the things that are in that negative, grey area, you’re gonna have a disaster. Leslie West: I guess Gail didn’t have money for bail, because she called up Felix’s business partner, Bud Prager, and offered to sell him her share of the song publishing for the Cream songs she had been involved in: Strange Brew and World Of Pain. He gave her $25,000 for that. I said to him: “Bud, how could you do that? She killed your partner”. And he said: “You know, Felix probably would have wanted me to help her”. That was his excuse.
Corky Laing: After Gail was arrested it became a big soap opera; it was front-page news for several days. And her lawyers were saying that it was an accident.
Maureen Bardens: We had the basic fact that Gail had admitted shooting Felix, but proving her state of mind was where we had to do all the work. You then get into degrees of homicide. She was indicted for the highest – second-degree murder. The only thing higher is if you kill a cop. The whole issue became: what happened? Was it intentional, or was it something else?
Neal S. Comer: The prosecution’s theory was that the motive was sexual jealousy. There was ample evidence that these two were living in a very open marriage.
Leslie West: Gail claimed in court that they had an open relationship, and they each had sex with whoever they wanted to. As well as Valerie Merians, at that time there was a housekeeper.
Neal S. Comer: They had relations with other men and women, and there was some woman who they were both sleeping with, and that sort of thing, so that kind of dampened down the idea that somebody in that relationship would be jealous.
Mike Pearl: When defence attorney Neal Comer suggested that members of Mountain blamed Gail for the break-up of the group, and had suffered financially when they disbanded, West shouted: “That’s a lie”.
Neal S. Comer: She said in her testimony that they were in the bedroom and she was searching in a drawer for something, and she comes out holding this derringer in her hand and she says: “What the hell is this?”. Next thing she knows, the cat jumped on her, the gun went off and she’d shot Felix. There was a cat in the room. She may have been surmising it was the cat. It was never quite clear.
Mike Pearl: There was a dramatic moment when Mrs Pappalardi refused to touch the tiny silver derringer with which she shot her husband. Miss Barden, the prosecutor, had a court officer place the gun in front of her. Mrs Pappalardi stared at the gun and, recoiling, sobbed: “I can’t touch that gun. I can’t. I can’t touch that”. She put her head in her hands and wept.
Corky Laing: The derringer was the key in this. The defence were trying to say that Felix had just given her the gun for protection, because they lived on the East Side, and it was negligent homicide, that she did it by mistake.
Maureen Bardens: Gail had said that she didn’t know how to shoot. This was where Francie Laing [Corky Laing’s wife, Frances] was such a valuable witness. She came forward and testified that Gail had had a gun for years.
Corky Laing: They were very gun-oriented. She did target practice. Felix had been a marksman in the army. Over a period of years he had taught Gail about guns. Nobody knew at first that anybody had seen that gun before. A couple of detectives came to Nantucket and spoke to people, and realised they were talking about the gun, the derringer, she pulled on my wife. Gail kept that gun in her purse. She was very proud of it. It was a beautiful little gun.
Frances Laing [courtroom testimony]: We [she and Felix Pappalardi] were trying to have a conversation but the band was too loud, so we went out to the parking lot and sat in my car to finish our conversation. All of a sudden Gail showed up... obviously very irate. She was standing at my window, she pulled a gun and pointed it at me. She was upset about Felix and I sitting and talking in the car.
Corky Laing: Gail was stoned and, thank God, nothing happened. But she came up to my wife and said: “You gotta stop fucking around with my husband or I’ll blow your brains out”, with the derringer at Francie’s head.
Maureen Bardens: I thought we had shown that her account could not be true. I thought we had established by her own words, and by other testimony that she had lied to the jury on the key points. On that 911 call she said: “Anger but not intentional”. But her testimony at trial flatly contradicted this statement. She had been indicted for second-degree murder, but in the end she was convicted of a much lesser charge, criminally negligent homicide. I didn’t think the verdict reflected what we had proved.
Mike Pearl: Gail Pappalardi collapsed in her lawyer’s arms as she was told she’d been acquitted of murdering her husband. A six-man, six-woman jury bought her story that she shot her husband dead during a bizarre bedside firearms lesson with a loaded derringer. Mrs Pappalardi came close to being totally exonerated – until a few minutes before the verdicts were handed down, there were four jurors holding out for acquittal on all counts.
Grace Walters [juror, speaking to the New York Post]: We were very impressed with her. We did believe her story. We felt there was no intent, she did not want him to die.
Mike Pearl: She had cried on the witness stand, and I guess the jury just bought her story. New York juries sometimes seem willing to believe anything. People get away with things in New York that they wouldn’t get away with anywhere else. I thought she got away with murder.
Maureen Bardens: I never spoke to any of the jurors, but I think the picture that emerged was of a relationship that was difficult, that was kinda suffused in drugs and sex with other people and all kinds of things like that, so it got to be a kind of sordid mess. And I think Felix looked bad by the end. So that, I think, had its influence. I think the jury kind of felt sorry for her, and some of them believed her.
Neal S. Comer: The judge thought she was guilty, so he didn’t like it. We didn’t really care. He was a crotchety old guy. Our job wasn’t to be popular with him but to win the case. The prosecution was also very angry at us, because it was a very high-profile case and one they didn’t want to lose. After Gail was released in 1985 she was around for a while. She was running an evening or midnight boat tour around Manhattan Island, and they would serve you dinner. I went on that once, but I never heard from her again after that.
Corky Laing: She went incognito. Nobody knew her. She was gone.
Leslie West: I talked to Tom Dowd, who had engineered the Cream album [Disraeli Gears, on which Felix Pappalardi was the producer], before he died, and he had heard that Gail committed suicide. But I never really was able to confirm that.
Corky Laing: I heard that she hung herself in Mexico or Southern California.
Leslie West: You want my advice? Buy your wife a diamond ring, some flowers, a push-up bra. Don’t buy her a gun.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
Despite rumours of her suicide, Gail Collins has never officially been confirmed as dead. Leslie West and Corky Laing continue to play individually, and also together in Mountain. Felix Pappalardi is buried next to his mother at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.