Andy Ostroy treasures the photographs he’s taken over the years of his daughter, Sophie. They capture the milestones in her life: first days at school, triumphs in soccer and even her attempts to ride a bicycle without training wheels.
In a heartbreaking scene from “Adrienne,” the— — Ostroy directed about his late wife, actress Adrienne Shelly, he shows some of those pictures to the man who when the girl was just two.
“Adrienne missed a lot,” Ostroy tells Diego Pillco during an emotionally charged visit to the killer’s prison in upstate New York.
Dropping Sophie’s images onto a table in turn, he describes each one in detail. “This is her first birthday after her mom left her,” Ostroy notes.
The next photo he puts in front of the inmate shows Sophie as a teenager, laughing as she eats a slice of cake. “Her most recent birthday — still no mom.”
It’s impossible to tell whether or not Pillco is moved by Ostroy’s commentary since the 34-year-old former construction worker is impassive throughout. Finally, while being led back to his cell, he mumbles the words “I’m sorry” in Spanish.
As Ostroy later admits in the movie: “My life will always be about grief. That will always be the ghost in the room. That love that I had at that time didn’t go anywhere. It froze. It’s like she is frozen in time.”
The documentary finds that Shelly’s personal life and career could not have been happier, busier or more promising when she was killed, at age 40, on Nov. 1, 2006.
The Queens-born actress, writer and director, who married Ostroy 12 years earlier, had starred in more than 20 films. They ranged from indie productions such as 1989’s “The Unbelievable Truth” to more mainstream movies like 2005’s “Factotum” with Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei.
Sadly, Shelly didn’t live to see the runaway success of her passion project, “Waitress” — the quirky drama that she wrote, directed and co-starred in alongside Keri Russell. The movie was released to critical acclaim a year after her murder and has since been adapted as a
Shelly, who lived with Ostroy and Sophie in the West Village, did most of her writing away from the family home, in a nearby Abingdon Square apartment that she rented.
Pillco, then a 19-year-old illegal immigrant from Ecuador, was helping renovate another apartment in the building in November 2006.
In the documentary, he tells Ostroy through a translator that he “needed money” and had been roaming the property looking for cash and other things to steal. He snuck into Shelly’s office and rifled through her purse, only to be caught red-handed by the five-foot-two-inch mom.
“The lady came out and she ran after me,” Pillco recalls on camera, sparing none of the gruesome details as Shelly’s widower listens in horror. “And when she started yelling at me, the only word that I heard her say was ‘police.’”
As Shelly went to seize her phone, he says, he grabbed her from behind, covered her mouth and told her not to call the cops.
“I lost it and I was choking her with my hand,” continues the killer, who pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 25 years for his crimes. “At the same time, I was covering her mouth so that she wouldn’t make noise. I took my hand off and I let her go.”
Both Ostroy and the translator look repulsed as Pillco goes on to reveal how he knew the actress was dead: “I saw that her lips were blue so I thought: ‘Oh, I killed her.’”
Pillco explains how he dragged Shelly to the bathroom and fashioned a noose from a bedsheet — then hung her from the shower curtain rail so to make it look “like she had committed suicide.”
After a long pause, Ostroy leans forward and asks: “Did you think you’d gotten away with it?”
“Yes,” Pillco replies.
But he hadn’t. Detectives first claimed that Shelly had taken her own life but that was immediately challenged by Ostroy and other family members who refused to believe it.
Shelly was born on June 24, 1996, in Queens, and raised with two brothers. Her father, Sheldon Levine, died suddenly when she was 12. A gifted singer and dancer, she began performing around the age of 10 — and later dropped out of Boston University to pursue acting in Manhattan. Shelly’s breakthrough role came in 1989 in independent filmmaker Hal Hartley’s “The Unbelievable Truth,” which led to other ingenue roles in indie movies.
Elaine Langbaum, Shelly’s mom, remembers in the documentary not being being able to accept that her daughter had committed suicide.
“This was the time of her life,” Langbaum says, referring to Shelly’s devotion to Sophie, whom she’d given birth to at age 38. “This was it — the time she’d wanted her whole life. And she wanted to kill herself?”
But Pillco was quickly fingered for the murder. Detectives found a shoe print in Shelly’s bathtub that was identical to one discovered in the dust of the downstairs apartment being renovated — and the tread matched Pillco’s sneakers. After being arrested, and he was arrested, he.
Retired NYPD homicide detective Irma Rivera-Duffy, who became a friend of Shelly’s family and appears in the documentary, reveals that Pillco admitted his guilt after she told him the victim’s toddler was the same age as his own niece.
“After I got the confession, driving in my car, I got a nice cold chill in the back of my neck and the hairs stood up,” Rivera-Duffy tells Ostroy in the documentary. “I felt it was your wife thanking me for having had this guy confess so that your daughter didn’t have to go through life thinking it was a suicide.”
Ostroy, a producer and director who previously owned a marketing company for 20 years, recalls in the film how he “lost control of my body and dropped to the floor and started crying” when the lead detective told him of Pillco’s confession.
“It was everything I wanted to hear,” he says. “There was no way Adrienne killed herself. Suicide simply wasn’t possible. She was the happiest that I’d ever seen her.”
The documentary opens with a home video recorded at a low-key Halloween party with friends on Oct. 31, 2006. It shows two-year-old Sophie in a princess dress and Shelly noting that the toddler’s favorite song is “Twist And Shout.”
“Every horrible day in history has a much happier day before,” Ostroy theorizes in the film. “This [Halloween] was ours. I went to bed that night the luckiest guy alive. By the next night, I was living the worst nightmare imaginable.”
Now 62, he has instant recall of both the dramatic and seemingly trivial details of Nov. 1, 2006. He was grateful that he left home later than usual for the office and got to spend a little more time with his family. Then he dropped off Shelly at Abingdon Square before driving to his own place of work.
“I just watched her walk away into the building and that was the last time I saw her,” he says in the movie.
Ostroy had a busy day at work but says there was unusual “radio silence” from his wife, whom he couldn’t reach on email, cell or landline. Their nanny hadn’t heard from her either. “It was incredibly atypical,” he recalls. “[I had] this intuition that something really awful has happened.”
A close friend drove him to Adrienne’s building in the late afternoon. When his wife didn’t answer the intercom, he went up to the apartment and found the door unlocked. “It just popped open, and that’s when the real panic set in,” Ostroy says. “It was just palpable. It was just weird how the room was just still and CNN was on and Wolf Blitzer was talking.”
As he moved through the eerie space to look for his wife, dark forces seemed to be at work. “It was like there was evil in that room,” he remembers. “Really, that’s how I felt. I felt there had been a monster in the room.”
Then hein the bathroom.
“I remember thinking in that moment: ‘Is this really happening?’ I was supposed to go there and find her [Adrienne] outside saying, ‘Oh Andy, I’m so sorry,’” he recalls. “I wasn’t supposed to find her dead.”
And then he had to explain to little Sophie why her mother was no longer there. “I mean what do you say to a kid who can’t handle much?” he asks. In the end, he told the toddler: “Mommy died. Her body stopped working. She’s not coming home anymore.”
Tearing up in the documentary, Ostroy recounts Sophie’s sorrowful reaction. “She walked to the window and turned to me and said: ‘Mommy died. She’s not coming back.’ And I said, ‘No, she is not coming back.’ And she just started out of the window and that was it.”
Despite saying in the documentary that his life “will always be about grief,” Ostroy has thrown himself into a non-profit organization he established after Shelly’s death. Theawards scholarships, grants and stipends to women film makers.
The widower explains in his film that the initiative has helped him cope. “I just made a decision early on that I need to accept what happened — in that ‘s–t happens, life’s not fair’ kind of way — but also try to spin some gold with it,” Ostroy says. “To turn what is probably the most horrible negative of my life to something positive.”
Ostroy describes having some “really dark moments” after his wife’s death when he would crawl into Shelly’s closet and wrap himself in her clothes just to feel closer to her. But he knew he had to keep it together for the sake of their daughter.
“All of the sudden, a routine set in and I just looked at [Sophie] and made her a promise that she’s going to grow up happy and healthy,” he says in the documentary. “We’re a team and we’re going to be okay.”
Nevertheless, he couldn’t help obsessing about Pillco’s criminal psyche. In 2011, Ostroy wrote to the killer, who sent him a long letter of apology in reply. The widower only decided to visit Pillco in jail after resolving to make a documentary to celebrate Shelly’s legacy.
On the morning of the trip to Pillco’s Catskills prison, Ostroy received a pep talk from Sophie. Interviewed in the film, the now 15-year-old says of her mom, “Every time I think of her, I think of [Pillco] too.” Growing up, she frequently questioned her dad about the intricacies of what had happened on Nov. 1, 2006, as they tried to come to terms with their loss.
“I want him [Pillco] to shed light on stuff and acknowledge what he did and who he took and the consequences of that,” Ostroy says on the drive to the prison. Then he manages a bit of dark humor: “It’d be funny if everything I said just goes out the window and I go into some fucking rage and I get carted out of there.”
That didn’t happen. After listening to Pillco’s account of the murder — prefaced by the killer’s claim that he was “never aggressive” — Ostroy looks him in the eyes.
“I want you to know that you took a wife, you took someone I was madly in love with and you took a mother,” Ostroy tells Pilco. Then he hands over another picture, this time of Sophie and Shelly together.
“That’s my daughter with her mom,” he says. “They don’t have anything any more. And they had everything.”
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