Degrees of Separation: Maria DiLorenzo’s Deep Dive Into a Local Killing Spree

Maria DiLorenzo’s poetry has appeared in the Barrier Islands Review, The Flea, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the Pennsylvania Literary Journal. Her current writing obsession, however, is Maksim Gelman, a man currently serving a 225-year sentence at Sing Sing Correctional Facility for murdering four people and injuring five during a two-day stabbing spree in mid-February 2011. How does a poet go from Keats to killers? And why? I spoke with DiLorenzo to find out. 

Amanda Knox 

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Maria DiLorenzo

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and living there, I guess you develop a thick skin. My neighborhood was kind of rough growing up in, but I went on to college and then grad school and got my MFA in poetry. And then from there, I was sort of lacking direction. You finished grad school and you’re like, “Okay, now what?” So from there, literally two weeks after I graduated from Hunter with an MFA, this horrible crime happened really close to where I grew up in Brooklyn. It was maybe like two neighborhoods over. And it happened in a neighborhood, so Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, it’s not really known for crime. It’s not one of the tougher neighborhoods in Brooklyn. There’s a lot of restaurants. It’s really residential. Things like this just don’t happen. 

Amanda Knox

Are you the type of person who would follow crime stories before this certain crime happened close to you? 

Maria DiLorenzo

So that’s the thing. Not really. I’ve always had an interest in the darker things of life, but I wasn’t one of these true crime enthusiasts that follow this stuff religiously. When this happened, I think what drew me in was the fact that it happened so close to where I grew up. I actually went to high school in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and I mean, he was going around killing people in broad daylight. And he was relatively close in age to me at the time. So my first question was, “Oh my God, do I know this person, too?”

Amanda Knox  

How many degrees of separation are there from you and this person?

Maria DiLorenzo

His name is Maksim Gelman. I went to high school with people that he knew. When I met with him and he started telling me the people he hung out with, I was like, “I actually know some of these people.” It was really weird. 

Amanda Knox 

What made you want to approach him?

Maria DiLorenzo

In the midst of researching, I did talk to victims’ families, I did talk to friends of victims. I have spoken to as many people as I could who were involved in this or who knew people involved. But I first reached out to him because my first question was like, “Why would someone do this?” What the newspaper was reporting, it just didn’t seem plausible. It just seemed like there were a lot of holes in the story. And I remember I was talking with a friend of mine, and he was like, “You should just go get the story.” I had no intention of this becoming a book, per se. It was just sort of like, “Well, let me see what I get out of it.” And then, once I saw, I was like, “Wow, there’s a lot of backstory here and he’s actually a really interesting person.” Just the way he grew up, his childhood, there were a lot of layers to the story that I found. So fast forward eight years and I have my first manuscript.

Amanda Knox

What did you have to do in the process of researching and developing this story?

Maria DiLorenzo 

I had to frequent maximum security prisons in New York, so that definitely took me out of my comfort zone. Spending a lot of time in that type of environment, even as a visitor, I mean, you hear bad stories, but seeing and hearing about it firsthand, it’s a different experience. Also, having to hunt people down. He was a low level drug dealer, so the people I had to go interview, took me out of my comfort zone as well.

Amanda Knox 

What about reading case files and legal paperwork? Was that something that was new for you?

Maria DiLorenzo 

He pled guilty, so there was no trial. It was just a few court hearings and then his sentencing. I was there at the courthouse when that happened and then having to go and retrieve the files from Bellevue, because there were a lot of psychological evaluations before his sentencing. I think his lawyer was trying to see if you can go for the insanity plea. So having to go through all of those files, that was definitely a new experience.

Amanda Knox  

Writing about this particular case, how has that impacted your perspective?

Maria DiLorenzo

I’ve always felt that any system has corruption, but I think it just kind of solidified that there’s a lot of things that need fixing in the system. For one, you have an inmate population, almost half have some type of mental illness, but they’re not being treated for it. There’s other prisons elsewhere that focus more so on rehabilitation, but our prisons don’t really do that. I feel they don’t prepare people for reentry. They punish and there’s really not a lot of focus on rehabilitation and mental health treatment. That’s one of the questions with the criminal justice system in general: “What is its purpose? To rehabilitate or to punish? Or both?” So I think that opened my eyes, just seeing what inmates go through and especially Max’s experience. He would tell me he would talk to a doctor for like two minutes over a computer screen, and they would just ask him, “Oh, how are you feeling today? Are you suicidal? Okay, good.” And then they medicate them and that’s kind of it. There’s no real therapy. There’s really not a lot of options for therapy or creating a therapeutic environment.

Amanda Knox

Were you expecting a different outcome for Max?

Maria DiLorenzo  

No, I mean, he pled guilty. His guilt was really obvious. He got caught, knife in hand, attacking someone on the subway. So I knew he was going to be sentenced for life. 225 years in his case.

Amanda Knox  

But were you imagining that his experience post sentencing was going to be different than the experience that he is having now?

Maria DiLorenzo  

Not really, because prisons, at least here in the U.S., they’re built to punish. It’s just a really sad reality. It’s a system that needs fixing.

Amanda Knox  

What do you make of the fact that the system has been developed to be punitive as opposed to restorative?

Maria DiLorenzo 

I think it comes down to money. Having to pay for any type of therapy, I feel would be expensive. Also just the perception, I feel it has a lot to do with the attitude that people have towards criminals, especially violent criminals, where people just think, “Oh, it’s impossible to change them.” In some cases, that may be true. But in other cases, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think it’s so black and white.

Amanda Knox

How is Max coping with his new life?

Maria DiLorenzo

He’s grown a lot. I’ve been in contact with him the last eight years or so, and I would say in the beginning of his sentence, he was a punk off the street. I don’t think he expected prison to be what it was. He kind of went in there and he still had a lot of his old attitudes from the street, and it got him into a little bit of trouble in the beginning of his sentence, but I would say as time has gone on, he’s certainly matured a lot and he’s not really involved with any fighting or anything like that. He goes to school, he takes any opportunity he can to make the best of his time. I feel he’s adapted quite well, and he’s definitely matured a lot. 

Amanda Knox 

What was it like first reaching out to him? Was he open to communicating with you or did you have to work to develop a relationship?

Maria DiLorenzo

I definitely had to work to develop a relationship. This happened in February 2011, and I started writing to him around May of 2011, but I actually did not get a response from him until around November. He wrote me a really short letter like, “Oh, I got your letter,” and he just sent me some drawings. And I was like, “Okay, I don’t know what this means. Okay, thanks.” It wasn’t until around December where he started to communicate a little bit more with me. He just said, “I can’t really talk to you. My lawyer doesn’t want me talking to anyone.” But he was open to the idea. So, I waited and in January of 2012, he was sentenced. And then literally a week later, I went up to Rikers Island to meet with him. And that was a nerve wracking experience. I’ve never been to a jail or prison before in my life. But it just felt really intuitive. Like, “I’m doing what I need to do.” I don’t know if that makes sense. 

Amanda Knox 

Is the story that you’re going for his story to understand why he did what he did? 

Maria DiLorenzo 

Yes. I mean, the victims’ stories are in there, too, but I’ve written it more from his perspective. I wanted readers to be in his head to try and really get an understanding as to why someone would commit such crimes.

Amanda Knox 

Why do you feel like that’s an important thing to convey to people?

Maria DiLorenzo 

Because a lot of time, these things happen and everyone looks at it like, “Oh, yeah, that’s really sad,” but I feel there’s not a lot of attention placed on the why, and if we can understand the why, then maybe, in the long run, these things can be prevented. I know each case is different, but there are some commonalities when you look at people who commit acts of murder in terms of the way they grew up, their development, so I think highlighting that a bit more would maybe bring light to it.

Amanda Knox 

What do you think that Max’s case specifically reveals about the criminal justice system and crime in general?

Maria DiLorenzo  

His case, it’s a bit different than most people. A killing spree in New York City in broad daylight, it’s almost unheard of. The fact that he was able to be on the run for that long. But I think when it comes down to it, obviously there should be some type of punishment, however, I think once someone is sentenced and they’re doing their time, the question is, “Should the people working in the prisons take matters into their own hands?” That’s where corruption comes in, and abuse of power. And that’s where I probably have a problem with the criminal justice system. You even witness some of it even as a visitor going into these places. That’s where I begin to question, “How much punishment is too much?” I don’t think anyone really has the right to abuse their power and that’s something that definitely happens.

Amanda Knox

Can you give an example?

Maria DiLorenzo

As a visitor, I feel going into a lot of these prisons, especially in the upstate area of New York, there’s this us versus them mentality. For example, people who go up to visit people in these prisons, they will take either vans or buses. These vans leave from the city at like four in the morning and it’s a five hour drive. So you get there 9:00am, and rather than letting people in, they would just really take their time and it would seem deliberate. They would let people in one by one and just have a slow process, keep everyone waiting and waiting and waiting. I would go the night before and stay in the hotel and make sure I get there on time, but I would still have to wait probably three or four hours even to get into the facility. It just seemed like a really slow, unnecessary process. They were turning people away for, “Your shirt looks a little bit too low cut,” but it wasn’t low cut. Just really slowing down the visiting process. Then the sexual harassment by officers, I’ve been a victim of that before. I remember going to visit and the metal detector will go off if you have a bra with an underwire on it, so I always made sure not to wear a bra that had underwires because I didn’t want to be stopped. To save time, I always made sure I was dressed appropriately. And I remember these officers, they were making the metal detector go off on purpose. They were pressing the button and they were like, “It’s your bra, it’s your bra.” And I was like, “I know it’s not my bra. I don’t have an underwire,” and they’re like, “You have to take it off. Go take off your bra.” It just felt kind of creepy, and I was fighting with them, and they were like, “Well, you’re not going to be able to get in,” so I had to go into this little dressing room, and, I had to walk out, and, you know, you can tell when a woman’s not wearing a bra, so they got their kicks off of that. Things like that, where they don’t have to treat visitors in that manner. But at the same time, I’ve come across officers who were very kind to me, so there’s good and bad, but it’s things like that that I just feel are unnecessary.

Amanda Knox  

How has the coronavirus impacted Max’s imprisonment?

Maria DiLorenzo 

For Max, I know not having visits, that’s definitely taken a toll. I think for all of the inmates up there that’s definitely taken a toll. They haven’t been able to have any visits since March. So loneliness is a factor, depression, just feeling a bit more detached from the outside world. I know for Max, he has a really close relationship with his mom. I know he worries about her.