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1978: Gruesome day at the Capitol
By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian
Cops, bureaucrats and newsmen who were there remember it as the most sensational event of their careers: Jean Zelinsky hurling her mother's head on to the steps of the New Jersey State House during the office Christmas parties of 1978.

They can see the white-haired woman behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile smashed against a marble column at the Capitol entrance. They still hear her ranting about the shopping bag she tossed out after crash.

The witnesses remember the startled look of Harold Hodes, the gubernatorial aide who was first to peer into the bag and see the head of Julia Zelinsky. They tell of the secretary who got a peek and ran down West State Street screaming, "It's a head! It's a head!"

For years after her insane stunt, Jean Zelinsky's name came up at every New Year's Eve party at the home of the late Emil Slaboda, editor of The Trentonian, and other such social gatherings of policemen, state workers, reporters and photographers.

None of the witnesses, however, have been able to explain why 78-year-old Julia Zelinsky's seemingly dutiful spinster daughter battered her with a hammer, then razored off the head and delivered it to Trenton the afternoon of Dec. 22, 1978.

And in 20 years of letters to and visits with the only relative willing to maintain contact with her, Zelinsky herself hasn't been able to explain the why she snapped that Friday at the rural East Amwell home she shared with the mother

Authorities do know that, eight days earlier, Julia Zelinsky showed up at a neighbor's home asking if she could stay for a while because she feared her 48-year-old daughter would hurt her

Investigators also found out from neighbors that Julia Zelinsky criticized her daughter for years for quitting her job as a state clerk and returning to college to get a special education degree.

"The mother was very critical of everything Jean did. She was constantly harping at her, and under that kind of pressure, any one of us might have snapped," a neighbor recalled only the other day.

The neighbor, who would not give his name, also said Julia Zelinsky seemed proud of Jean's little sister and doted on her other daughter's three children whenever they visited

He also said that, even in her 70s, Julia Zelinsky was a strikingly handsome woman, like her married daughter. Asked if Jean was pretty, the neighbor responded: "Well, she had that wall eye.

"One eye looked ahead and the other was cocked off to the side," the man said. "I always felt that had something to do with her being such a recluse. I never saw Jean with a date. She never had a boyfriend. She didn't even have girlfriends who came to the house."

With a plea that her name not be used, a niece who visited Zelinsky for years at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital said that, despite her yearning to know why her mother's sister killed her grandmother, she never thought the cast in her aunt's eye or jealousy about attractiveness figured into the murder.

"But maybe there was some of that there," the niece said last week. "I remember them talking about how all the boys were drawn to my mother when she was in high school, and it must have been hard on aunt Jean to see her little sister so popular, and to see my mother getting married first."

The niece said she was 20 years old, a freshman in college, when her aunt killed her grandmother. After a Hunterdon County judge found Zelinsky not guilty by reason of insanity and sent her to the mental hospital, the niece decided to visit and correspond with the aunt.

An artist with a studio in northern Jersey, the niece said the visits and letters helped stop the nightmares about the murder she had been having. They also set her on a mission to find out the why of the slaying that reached the 20-year mark last Christmas.

"I've asked her why and a lot of other detailed questions over the years, and I wonder sometimes if it's not the shrinks talking when she answers," niece said. "They are not real answers. She still really won't open up about it.

"Now I think it was just something always in her waiting to happen. She always had shown signs of mental instability. I remember when I was 17 and my grandmother was in her mid 70s and she told me she felt aunt Jean was going to kill her," she said. "Well, you know how you are at 17. You just ignore grandma."

Three years later, the niece would be attending the grandmother's funeral, which took place as Greater Trenton started 20 years of chatter and speculation about the wild woman from Ringoes who crashed the State House Christmas party.

There's been plenty to talk about. Why, for instance, did Zelinsky poke the staff of a small American flag through the shopping bag holding Mom's head before tossing the gruesome package on the Capitol steps?

Why did Zelinsky fail to kill herself with the two slices she made across her own neck as Jersey troopers Bernard Weiss and Tom Clugston were trying to get into her smashed car to get her out

Why did Zelinsky think the state wanted her mother's head?

"Merry Christmas. This is what you wanted," Zelinski reportedly said on tossing the brown shopping bag out the car window.

In 1985, Clugston recalled Zelinsky telling him "Call my mother" as he was trying to get her out of the car. "I asked her where her mother was and she said, ‘She's right outside."'

"I asked the other troopers if there was a passenger in her car. The bag was there, a brown shopping bag. I saw the plastic bag inside it, and that's when it dawned on me," Clugston said. "That's her mother!" Jean Zelinsky was taken away from the State House that day wearing a white straight jacket and a pair of dress shoes with short heels. By May, the judge had found her not guilty by reason of insanity and decided she should stay at Trenton Psychiatric until further notice.

Within 18 months, Zelinsky's mental condition had improved in the minds of TPH doctors enough that the judge started permitting her to walk the grounds of the shaded campus of the mental facility

By 1985, Zelinsky was permitted to take escorted trips off the hospital grounds and one day a week was allowed to leave campus alone as long as she came back in time for dinner.

Until she tried to kill herself again about 18 months ago, Zelinsky led a life that made her happy, the niece said. She often took trips with other TPH patients to Great Adventure, museums and other attractions, or simply walked the streets of downtown Trenton — which raised the eyebrows of cops who recognized her

Zelinsky lost much of her freedom, however, after her suicidal reaction to TPH administrators telling her in late 1997 that she's have to start sharing her "cottage" quarters with another patient.

"She reacts very badly to change. She's a creature of habit who has this regimen that she has to follow," the niece said. "After they told her she couldn't live alone anymore in her little house, she got suicidal again.

"She cut her throat with a razor again. I think it was on the anniversary of the murder," the niece said. "But, like everything, else, she didn't succeed with that either. She didn't do it totally, so she had a hard time breathing and eating for a while after that."