An Inmate Dies, the Closing Act in the Murder of a Ramsey High Student


William Kennedy, Managing Editor

An elderly inmate, age 83, died in March. However, it took the national media six months to take notice. The Washington Post first reported the death of this Ramsey High School dropout in September. This is a far cry from 1957, when a controversial front page of the Bergen Record included a picture of his victim at the crime scene, or the page 3 coverage in the NY Daily News of his trial. Sixty years to the month earlier, inmate Edgar Smith would, in the words of town historian Tom Dater, “shatter Ramsey’s small town innocence.”


15 year old Ramsey High sophomore Victoria Zielinski had made arrangements during school to meet her friend Barbara Nixon that Monday night, March 4th, 1957, to do homework together and study for an upcoming bookkeeping exam. Victoria walked with her sister from her home on Wyckoff Avenue down to her friend’s house near the corner of Fardale Avenue.  She would leave again for home approximately an hour later at 8:40pm, the last time she was seen alive.


Her sister had agreed to walk her home, arriving at the Nixon’s home at 8:50pm, only to be told her sister had left already. Confused as to why she didn’t pass her on the road, she told her mother, who assumed Victoria must have met her older sister on the road. When her older sister arrived home, the family began looking for Victoria, she wouldn’t be found until 9am the next morning when her father spotted one of her shoes and then a kerchief on Chapel Road. Later, near a dirt driveway that led into a sand pit at the intersection of Chapel Road and Fardale Avenue, a pair of red gloves, and then a locket would be found. Finally Mr. Zielinski found the bludgeoned body of his daughter and called over the Mahwah policeman he was with. A split baseball bat would later be found near the scene.


Finding a spot of blood in his car, and the strange explanation his friend who borrowed it the night before gave for throwing away his pants and not having his shoes (later found on Mechanic Street, stained with blood), caused Joseph Gilroy to go to the police about his friend “Smitty.” This was an initial clue that led to 23 year old Edgar Smith, who lived in a trailer on Pulis Avenue not far from the crime scene with a young wife and daughter. After questioning for hours, Smith would confess to the crime, and eventually be convicted and sentenced to death, a confession he would later claim was coerced in a time before Miranda Rights.


In prison, Smith, reputed to have a high IQ, would become a jailhouse lawyer of sorts, taking courses and filing appeals staving off execution. He wrote a book, Brief Against Death, and befriended through correspondence the conservative author and founder of the National Review, William F. Buckley, who became convinced of his innocence, writing an article for Esquire Magazine in 1965 that cast doubt on Smith’s guilt. He helped enlist the help of a prominent Washington attorney, helped raise money for a defense, and in 1968 the US Supreme Court ordered the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider not granting a hearing on the validity of Smith’s supposedly coerced confession.


In May of 1971 the Third Circuit court ruled that the confession was coerced. In December of the same year, Bergen County prosecutors, knowing they had a weak case without the confession, allowed Smith to plead no contest to a reduced charge and be sentenced to time already served. Smith would later claim and write in his second book Getting Out that the guilty plea was just a means to getting out of prison. Smith would appear shortly after on Buckley’s television show Firing Line.


In October of 1976, Smith kidnapped and stabbed a woman in San Diego, and during the subsequent trial in 1977 admitted that he had in fact killed Victoria Zielinski. Bergen County Prosecutor Guy W. Calissi described the Ramsey murder as the “most vicious, most brutal and the most sadistic I have ever seen.”