Angel Angelof seemed like a divine prospective American.
The Bulgarian refugee sailed into New York on Feb. 18, 1966, in steerage aboard the Italian liner Cristoforo Columbo. He told immigration officers that he yearned to breathe free.
“I dislike the Communist regime, wish to migrate to the USA and build up my life in a free world,” he said.
Angelof was born in Cherven Bryag, Bulgaria, in 1945, four months after American bombs put an exclamation point on World War II.
He was drafted into the Soviet army in 1964 but deserted to Greece and locked up in Soviet refugee camps on the Aegean Sea at Lavrion.
Nine months after crossing the Iron Curtain, Angelof was walking the streets of New York.
America handed him the keys to succeed.
A Protestant charity and the federal Manpower program got him a job and housing with a manufacturer in Lakewood, N.J., a Russian émigré enclave dating to the Bolshevik revolution. He later washed dishes at nearby Rova Farms, a Russian-American resort.
Angelof returned to New York in 1968 and took a $40-a-month flat in a grubby Hell’s Kitchen tenement on 10th Ave. He brought along a roommate, fellow Bulgarian Kyril Dikov.
Angelof, built as solid as a grindstone at age 22, went to work for a Queens magazine distributor, slinging bundles of niche publications — Shooting Times, Judo Illustrated, The Scale Modeler — for 70 bucks a week. His boss described him as “very quiet, very conscientious and an exceptionally good worker.”
As a roommate he was not so great.
“He was very secretive, very moody,” Dikov told reporter Tom Buckley of the New York Times. “I never learned anything about his past.”
Angelof began fraternizing with the Bulgarian National Front, an anti-Communist group on a mission to restore the kingdom of Simeon II, the former child monarch exiled by the Soviets as a 9-year-old in 1946.
Anti-Soviet caucuses were as common as potholes in the city back then, but Angelof’s group had a twist: Its members were fascists who had supported Hitler’s regime.
Angelof decorated his flat with photos of his Nazi heroes, including a montage with Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and Heinrich Himmler. He also taped up a photo of George Wallace, the “segregation forever” Alabamian who was campaigning for President.
Dikov said Angelof became increasingly angry and paranoid in the summer of 1968, clutching a knife in his fist beneath a pillow as he slept.
He acquired a rusty old Smith & Wesson .45, and he used it to rehearse his shootout chops, standing before a mirror and twirling his six-shooter Old West-style on an index finger before taking aim at his own reflected image.
“He was a crazy man, always talking about pistols, pistols, pistols,” Hristo Ivanov, another Bulgarian, told Buckley.
Angelof quit his magazine truck job on July 2, 1968. That night, Ivanov said, “He had a half a bottle of whiskey and told me he was going to look for a prostitute.”
At 9:30 the next morning, Joseph Bach, an 80-year-old retired chef, took his usual seat on a Central Park bench at the Ancient Playground, at Fifth Ave. across from the Metropolitan Museum in a triangle park created by the 85th St. Traverse.
Nearby, dog walker Lilah Kistler, 24, an aspiring artist from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., tied a canine ward named Gino to a fence and hurried into the lavatory.
There she was ambushed by a stranger—the gun-crazy Bulgarian. He fired a fatal shot that lodged in her chest.
Angelof climbed through a skylight to the roof, where he crouched behind a parapet and pinged shots sporadically over the course of 30 minutes. As police raced to the scene, traffic squealed to a halt on the traverse, and nursemaids frantically pushed baby buggies out of the park and up the avenue.
The sniper hit Bach twice as he sat unaware on the bench. (He would die a week later.) He targeted arriving cops, hitting one in the hand and another in the leg. Police tossed tear gas, giving cover to sharpshooter Albert Salan, 26, who scaled a tree to the west and put two bullets into Angelof.
Lt. Arthur Deutch and Capt. Robert McLoughlin stormed up a wooden ladder and emptied their guns, finishing off the Bulgarian.
Federal and local investigators sought a motive by sifting through his meager leavings and interrogating his few acquaintances.
But there was no revelation. His shots killed two random victims with no connection to whatever his cause may have been. Kistler had been in New York just six months, and Bach had spent 50 peaceful years living with his wife four blocks from the playground.
The shooting came four weeks after the Robert Kennedy assassination, and President Lyndon Johnson cited the sniper as another justification for a national gun registry. The chain of ownership of Angelof’s gun included two New Jersey cops who sold it illegally.
Johnson implored Congress to enact gun laws “to protect the American people against insane and reckless murder.” But gun control was a political non-starter even then.
The conundrum of why he had turned a gun on the city that welcomed him was buried with Angelof in a plain pine coffin at Potter’s Field on Hart Island.