Montgomery jeweler dies before being able to confront robber at sentencing

October 7, 2011

This month was supposed to be Sandro Vendemmia’s chance to tell a Montgomery County judge to punish the man who attacked him, a chance for Vendemmia and his family to move on from the crime.

In April 2010, the 77-year-old Italian immigrant was minding his small jewelry store. Two men walked in. One pointed a gun at Vendemmia, prompting the former boxer to grab the intruder’s arm, smash it into a glass case and retrieve his own gun.

“You better get on the ground,” Vendemmia said, his pacemaker still ticking.

The man charged, and Vendemmia shot him in the shoulder, police say. The man picked up a metal-and-glass display case and smashed it over the jeweler’s head, sending blood pouring down his face and arms. Then he grabbed Vendemmia’s gun and dashed from the store, following his accomplice.

Vendemmia was hardly done. He reached for the Derringer in his ankle holster and stumbled in pursuit — finally halted by a bystander who persuaded him to sit on a bench and wait for paramedics.

The sentencing hearing for Charles Jackson, set for Oct. 25, will go on without Vendemmia. He died over the summer, suffering from diabetes and heart disease. But the effects of the violent crime continue, interrupting the memories and grieving of those closest to Vendemmia.

Pina Vendemmia, his 74-year-old widow, tries to remember the dashing 21-year-old who courted her in Rome, who helped raise their two daughters on a middle-class street in the Montgomery community of Glenmont. But she often sees something else: her husband bloodied and bruised, suffering from a concussion, so upset by the robbery that he closed the store he ran for more than 25 years.

“I see it all the time, all the time,” she said recently.

‘He was beautiful’

Arnaldo Sandro Vendemmia was born Feb. 7, 1933, in Turin, one of eight children. The family later moved to Eritrea, then a colony of Italy. Vendemmia made his way to Saudi Arabia to work for an oil company. Living in a camp with other Italian immigrants, he played his guitar and was known for teasing other workers.

“He had a joke for everybody,” remembers Lou Rebecchi, a friend from those days.

By Vendemmia’s 21st birthday, while vacationing in Rome, he approached a young dancer walking outside her theater. It was Pina, then 17.

“He was beautiful. My heart, it was up here,” she said, putting her fingers to her throat while sitting at her dinner table and looking through photo albums.

She recalled how every night for three weeks, Vendemmia stood next to his car outside the theater, offering her a ride home instead of the three buses she took. Each night she declined, until he finally caught her coming out into the rain.

“Please come inside the car,” he said.

“If you move one finger,” she remembers telling him, “I will open the door and push myself out.”

Within a week, he persuaded her to allow him toface her mother with his plan, which he delivered with a bouquet of roses. “I love Pina,” he told her mother. “I want to marry Pina and bring her with me to Saudi Arabia.”

No good.

He went back alone and stayed in Saudi Arabia for three years. Then he pursued a venture on the Italian island of Capri, opening a restaurant and nightclub. He made his way to Rome, taking a public relations job at a foreign embassy.

“Pina, why we don’t marry?” she remembered him asking.

Soon they did.

The couple arrived in Maryland in 1970. Vendemmia worked for local jewelers before opening Sandro Jewelry Boutique in Kensington by 1984.

“He was very proud of that store,” said his next-door neighbor and older brother, Ettore Vendemmia.

Customers came to see him as a friend. On their birthdays, they’d come home, listen to their phone messages and hear Vendemmia playing “Happy Birthday” on his harmonica. Customer John Gallivan still keeps two of those messages, along with a third wishing him and his wife a happy anniversary.

“If you come home and you’re not feeling good, you can always play one of those,” Gallivan said.

‘I’m not okay’

On April 27, 2010, Ettore and Pina Vendemmia were called to the store, where they found Sandro Vendemmia being treated for deep cuts to his head.

“Are you okay?” Ettore Vendemmia remembers asking him.

“I’m not okay, but I am still alive,” he said.

Jackson, who became a suspect when he showed up at Howard University Hospital with a gunshot wound, was arrested days later. His accomplice has not been caught.

Jackson had left a blood trail outside the jewelry shop, according to DNA tests. And he left his weapon — a BB gun that looked like a genuine handgun — inside the smashed jewelry case. The handle, police said, had genetic material that matched Jackson’s DNA.

Vendemmia wanted to see the case to the end, even as his health weakened. “I want to go to court,” he would tell his brother. “I want to see him.”

The week of May 31, Ettore Vendemmia said, he took his brother to the courthouse to testify. But just before the trial started, Jackson pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and attempted robbery.

Sandro Vendemmia had become so ill that he had trouble sitting up straight. On June 26, he died with his wife and brother at his side. Ettore Vendemmia called out in Italian but got no response.

Ettore Vendemmia has no interest in seeing Jackson in court. He prefers memories of his brother at his backyard pool, where they hung out, or in photos of Sandro boxing in Saudi Arabia.

“I care only for my brother, and he’s gone,” said Ettore Vendemmia, 82.

Pina Vendemmia also has no plans to go to the hearing. She will be in Florida with one of their daughters, where she plans to move because she can’t stand being alone in her house.

Sandro Vendemmia was never the same after the attack, Pina Vendemmia said.

“I am positive it affected him. He started going downhill quick,” his brother added.

‘Saddened the . . . angels’

As for Jackson, a 48-year-old from the District with a long criminal record and a history of mental health issues, it’s unclear what he will say at his sentencing hearing.

Three months after his arrest, Jackson wrote Montgomery Circuit Court Judge John W. Debelius III, saying his prayers went out to Vendemmia.

“I hope that he is doing fine there no doubt this saddened the faithful angels,” Jackson wrote, according to court records.

Jackson also wrote that he was innocent and has unsuccessfully tried to undo his guilty plea.

In his letters, he said he was in the store when he heard gunshots and was attacked by an unknown masked man.

Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Post staff writer Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County, Md.
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