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How a Real-Life 'Phantom of the Opera' Murdered a Young Violinist at the Met in 1980
On a hot summer night in July 1980, 30-year-old Helen Hagnes Mintiks left her violin on her chair at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City and got up to stretch her legs during intermission of the Berlin Ballet.
She never returned.
Outside the opera house, her husband, Janis Mintiks, waited in his car to pick up his beloved wife, as he did every night. When she didn’t show, he drove home to their Upper West Side apartment, hoping maybe their wires had crossed and he’d find her there. He didn’t.
A knock around midnight brought more hope that was quickly dashed. One of Helen’s colleagues was there to return her violin.
The now-panicked husband called 911 to alert police that his wife was missing.
Twelve hours later, Helen’s body was found inside a ventilation shaft on the third floor of the opera house by a maintenance employee. She was naked, her hands bound and mouth gagged.
Forensics showed she’d been killed during the second half of the performance, while thousands packed the front of the house.
The case immediately captivated the city. How could a young musician be killed at one of Manhattan’s most glamorous settings?
The hunt to solve the “Murder at the Met” — and find a real-life “Phantom of the Opera” — was on.
In 1980, New York City was on a downward spiral, journalist and author of ”Case Files of the NYPD” Philip Messing told InsideEdition.com.
”The real estate values were depressed by the porn business having a huge footprint in Times Square, and the crack epidemic was starting to really hit the city like a cyclone,” Messing said.
The streets, said ”Murder at the Met” author David Black, would be littered with crack vials every morning, regardless of where you lived.
“My daughter, when she was a toddler, she wanted to collect the little plastic vials with the colorful tops that were crack vials. And this was in a family neighborhood,” Black said.
It was one of the worst years of crime in New York City history, according to The New York Times, with more than 700,000 crimes reported.
But amidst it all, there were institutions still considered safe, where the elite of the city would congregate. Among them was the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. Located at the brightly lit intersection of Broadway and Lincoln Square, the opera house was, and is, one of the crown jewels of Manhattan, home to both the Metropolitan Opera Company and the American Ballet Theatre.
“The Met was really one of the things holding New York together as a social capital, and a cultural capital,” said Black.
One of the performers at the Met in the summer of 1980 was Helen Hagnes Mintiks, a violinist from Aldergrove, British Columbia, Canada. The youngest of three children, Helen grew up working on her family’s farm. She was a naturally gifted musician who dreamed of playing around the world with the biggest names in classical music.
As a teenager, she left home and moved to New York City, where she earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees from the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. She also studied in London, Italy and Switzerland, performing with the finest orchestras the world had to offer, and toured as a musician, playing in countries including Turkey, Greece and Jordan.
“She was one of those people that, the expression is, ‘She never knew a stranger,’” said pianist and close friend Judith Olson, who met Helen at Juilliard. “So it was not surprising that anybody would have made friends with her, but we formed a musical bond and that's really the first thing that made us really, really stay together.”
In 1980, Helen was working as a freelance musician, playing violin with the Met Orchestra. She had wed sculptor Janis Mintiks four years before and he was deeply devoted to her, Olson said, picking up his wife each night outside the opera house.
“He was waiting for her outside in the truck, because they had just moved to a loft in not a great neighborhood for her to be going home late at night with a valuable instrument,” Olson said.
They never expected any danger to come from within the opera house itself.
On July 23, 1980, Helen got up at the 9:30 p.m. intermission to walk around and use the ladies’ room, leaving her violin behind.
As she was heading back to her seat, she got on an elevator with a stagehand at the opera house, 21-year-old Craig Crimmins. Reportedly intoxicated, Crimmins tried to make a pass at the beautiful young musician. She rebuffed him.
“He was enraged,” Black said. “It wasn't so much the slap, it was the, ‘You don't think I'm good enough for you?’ I believe.”
While the performance got underway anew, Crimmins, holding a hammer, took Helen through the cavernous backstage areas of the opera house and down to the subbasement, where he tried to remove her clothes and rape her. After she resisted, a frustrated Crimmins took her to the roof of the Met and tied her up.
A fighter till the end, Helen was able to free her legs and tried to make a break for it, but Crimmins caught her. He tore off her clothes and tied her up again, gagging her this time. He tossed her possessions down an air conditioning shaft and then kicked Helen down behind them.
She fell six stories to her death. Her body lay at the base until she was discovered the next day.
“She was ... a doorway away from thousands of people,” Black said. ”Alone in a crowd.”
The murder shook the city.
“The idea that on this particular day in 1980, some young, talented, breathtakingly gifted musician would be able to be killed in an intermission, it was incomprehensible,” said Messing, who reported on the case at the time for the New York Post.
“It was something that was beyond anybody's understanding,” he continued. “People can't understand how somebody young and beautiful could be cut down at the prime of their lives in a way that's not supposed to happen.”
The Met was also one of the city’s main institutions at the time. “If the Met fell into disrepute, if it became a seedy place where rich people won't go and therefore went out of business …” Black trailed off. “The stakes in the Murder at the Met case were fairly high because … of the sociology.”
The case dominated headlines all summer. Journalists at the time called it the “Phantom of the Opera” murder.
“It was about as big a murder case as New York has ever had, even today,” said Black.
The NYPD had teams of detectives canvas the Met to speak to all 800 employees to see if they knew anything.
A month passed before Crimmins was finally taken into custody. Two key clues led to his arrest: a palm print found on the roof and the type of knots used to restrain the victim, a specific kind used by stagehands.
Crimmins eventually confessed to police what happened, saying he was under the influence at the time.
“She tried to hit me, I grabbed her hands, that's when I took out a hammer. I just held it and told her to walk up the stairs,” Crimmins told detectives, according to prosecutors. “When she saw the hammer, she started taking off her clothes. She took them all off.”
In April 1981, Crimmins went on trial for Helen’s murder.
But the case wasn’t as open and shut as it might have seemed. Crimmins’ defense attorney, Lawrence Hochheiser, argued at trial that the confession was coerced, taken in secret with no lawyer present.
Hochheiser said during the trial that police were under “tremendous pressure and were receiving demands from their superiors and public demands for a solution to the case.”
As a result, he said, his client, who he said only has an IQ of 83, cracked. Crimmins, Hochheiser said at trial, was someone who “has particular problems concerning adults and authority figures'' and ''takes the easy way out of situations involving verbal pressures.''
“If you say that X happened and that he has simply forgotten, he is more willing to accept that position than the next person,” Hochheiser said at trial.
Prosecutors, however, argued that Crimmins’ confession included details of the scene only the killer would know.
On June 4, 1981, Crimmins was convicted of felony murder and was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison after the jury deliberated for 11 hours over two days.
“His father told me that he cried his eyes out the first night in jail after he was convicted,” Messing recalled.
“In a way, it's probably not ever going to seem real to me,” said Helen’s friend, Olson. “It was so awful that my brain couldn't even process that it really happened. Intellectually, I know of course.”
Since Helen’s death, Olson said she hasn’t been able to get into an elevator alone with a man she does not know.
“It was intense grief. I mean, I cried day and night, but I was also afraid for myself,” she said.
Every two years since 2001, Crimmins has come up for parole. He has been denied each time. He is up for parole again in November 2019, though his attorney does not believe it will be granted.
Still, Hochheiser told InsideEdition.com, Crimmins is a changed man who poses no threat to society.
“He is a different person,” Hochheiser said. “He is older, doesn’t look like a kid, this is an old man, he is a man in jail for all these years. He reads, he works out, he is thinking about the immediate politics of the prison system. He has learned how to read better.”
He added: “I doubt this would happen again if they release him.”
Today, Helen’s friend said “The Phantom of the Opera” will always mean something different for her than for everyone else.
“I would rather have it called ‘Phantom of the Opera’ than a title that really describes what happened,” she said. “I would rather hear that then, ‘Well, my best friend Helen was tied up, tortured’ … but if I just hear ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ it sounds just like a story.”