The death this week of Linda Pugach at the age of 75, brought it all back to me. Flashing back 39 years, I remember that day in May 1974 that Burt Pugach used me as a conduit to get to the woman he was barred from contacting, the woman he had disfigured because she refused to marry him.
Pugach had just been released from Attica Prison, where he served 14 years for hiring three thugs to throw lye into the face of the pretty young woman, leaving her scarred and legally blind.
My news assignment was to interview a man who wanted to publicly apologize to Linda Riis and profess that he still loved her. We sat on a park bench in Forest Hills as Pugach talked about how remorseful he was and he related how he originally intended to kill her.
He told me he stalked her Riverdale apartment building for several nights, laying-in-wait with a 38-caliber revolver. He changed his plans after fearing he’d be caught and put to death in the electric chair. The death penalty was legal in New York back in 1959.
At one point during the interview, Pugach turned from me and glared right into the camera and declared, “Linda, I love you. I have always loved you. Will you marry me.?”
The interview was heavily promoted for the 10 o’clock news. One of Linda’s friends heard it and alerted her, “Linda, you won’t believe what crazy Burt is up to now. He’s proposing to you on television.”
Linda watched the broadcast and was moved by Burt’s remorsefulness and amorous proposal. Since parole stipulations prevented Burt from having any direct contact with Linda, she called me and I initially served as the go-between. Finally, they agreed to meet with some of Linda’s friends present. Linda would later tell me that something seemed to click when she was with Burt again.
A couple of months later Burt and Linda attempted to reach me to inform me they were getting married and wanted to invite me to the ceremony. Somehow the message never got to me.
I have interviewed Burt and Linda many times over the years. I would have to say that theirs was a love-hate relationship. They constantly bickered and battled, often over the most inane things.
I sensed that they both needed one another. For Linda, it was retribution with Burt now caring for her. Burt was always quite open with his expressions of love for Linda, but Linda told me she never used the word. “It’s something psychological,” she once told me. I once asked Linda if she loved Burt and she replied, “Yeah, when he behaves.”
During a 1992 interview, Linda attempted to explain why many people have a difficult time accepting this twisted love story, a story that has endured for so many years. “Because people don’t like happy endings,” she insisted, adding, “Ours has a happy ending.”
During one broadcast, after the release of the documentary, “Crazy Love,” I asked them what was the glue that held their relationship together for 33 years at that time. There was almost ten seconds of silence before Linda exclaimed, “You wanna answer that Burt?” He did. “I’m still obsessed with her.” They both professed forgiveness as Linda confessed to once attempting to have Burt killed in prison. She said she tried, but was unable to arrange it.
During one of my first visits to their apartment, I found it most unusual that Linda showed me a box of news clippings she had stashed under her bed. Yellowing from age, they were all mounted in scrapbooks detailing ever episode in this bizarre love story.
Linda interrupted Burt in my 1992 interview to say, “You know Burt, if not for Marvin Scott and me seeing you on his broadcast, you’d still be looking for me.” Burt looked me in the eye and exclaimed, “Thank you Cupid.” In the book, “A Very Different Love Story,” they inscribed, “To Marvin Scott, The Cupid Who got us to the alter.”
I’ve been called many things during my long career, but this was the first time I had ever been called Cupid. I extend my heartfelt condolences to Burt over the loss of his Linda.