It was a balmy September night in 2007, and Amy Chesler called the house on her way home from work at an after-school program for middle-schoolers. The recent college grad lived with her mother, Hadas Winnick, and her troubled 25-year-old brother, Jesse, in Calabasas, the wealthy LA suburb where she had grown up, and found it odd when no one answered the landline at home. After all, Hadas was a math teacher who rarely went out on school nights and Jesse had earlier seemed anxious for 22-year-old Chesler to get home so they could watch the TV show “Quantum Leap.”
So she rang Jesse’s cellphone.
“Is everything OK?” she asked when he answered.
“Don’t come home,” he said tersely.
Confused, Chesler tried the house phone again. And again and again. She dialed her brother twice more in a panic.
“Mom’s not answering,” she said when he finally picked up. “Where is she?”
Jesse’s response made her heart stop: “I killed Mom.”
In shock, Chesler dialed 911 and sped home. The operator told her not to enter the house.
“The killer may still be inside,” she was warned. But Chesler had already made it to the foyer. She couldn’t turn back now: She had to know if her brother was telling the truth.
As she stepped into the kitchen, and there, on the floor, was a body lying face down in a pool of blood. Her 55-year-old mother had been stabbed to death by her own brother.
“I still will flash to that image of the hilt of the knife in my mom’s shoulder,” Chesler, now 36, told The Post from her home in LA. “It makes me sick to my stomach all the time.”
Thirteen years later, Chesler is still dealing with the trauma not only of her mother’s death but of the years of abuse both she and Hadas endured at the hands of her brother. Her new memoir, “Working for Justice: One Family’s Tale of Murder, Betrayal and Healing” (Post Hill Press), out now, tells their harrowing story.
“He abused us for 20 years before the murder,” Chesler said. (Even today, Chesler cannot bring herself to say Jesse’s name, and in her book calls him “Rory”: “I did not want to honor him by writing his name,” she explained.)
While Jesse was finally convicted of second-degree murder in 2011 — after pleading no contest — with a sentence of 15 years to life in prison, plus one for the weapon, he is up for a parole hearing soon.
“I’m still scared sh-tless. I never want him to get out,” Chesler admitted. “That’s why I think it’s important to tell this story. Every time I tell this story, the more justice I feel, because I feel my mother coming back a little bit.
“The more I revive her the more it gives me hope that there is some sort of poetic justice in the world.”
From the time he was a small child, Jesse was trouble.
“Every childhood memory that my mom would share with me about him seemed manipulative in nature,” Chesler said.
When he was 4 or 5, he devised a scheme where he would draw fake treasure maps, then ask Hadas to take him to the grocery store so he could sell them to people.
“My mom thought this was the cutest thing ever, but when I think about it now, he was learning to manipulate people and to lie,” said Chesler.
By that point, Hadas was a single mother raising two kids by herself; her husband, Sherman, a charismatic but alcoholic lawyer and wannabe musician, had left when Jesse was 3 and before Chesler was even born. So Hadas moved back to where she had grown up in The Valley, eventually settling in Calabasas, and got a job as a teacher there, where she quickly becoming a beloved fixture in the area.
“She was tough but full of love and always advocating for her students,” said Chesler. Hadas even gave one teenager a place to stay when she got pregnant and her parents kicked her out of the home. “She led with her heart. She was fiercely protective and loving but a strong force to be reckoned with.”
Yet as strict as she was with her students — and with Chesler, who remembers her friends calling her “Cinderella” due to her many household chores — her mother always tread lightly with Jesse.
Chesler ruminated: “I think it was partly guilt” — about not being able to provide her son with a father figure — “but also I think some of it might have been fear.”
Jesse, who always had a bulky frame, would push and shove Hadas, even when an accident had put her in a wheelchair for a while. He once called Child Protective Services on her, and lied to them, claiming Hadas physically abused him and Chesler, she said.
When he was 15, Jesse tried to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of Extra Strength Advil after a shouting match with Hadas. When he got out of the ER, he spent two weeks in a mental rehabilitation facility for minors. Throughout his teens, he was diagnosed with various disorders, including bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and Tourette’s.
He never seemed to get proper treatment, however. He was so abusive to doctors and teachers that they would often just give up, Chesler said.
“I think the diagnoses that were given to him around that time and his attempts and his apparent fragility — I think it might have made my mom a bit more lenient with him at times,” Chesler said.
His behavior only escalated. He began punching holes in the wall and slashed his mom’s tires. He went after her with an aerosol can and a lighter, threatening to kill her. He began doing drugs and drinking, crashing motorcycles. He went to jail a few times.
Chesler said her brother abused her, too, once slicing her hand with a knife and blackmailing her into selling copies of “The Anarchist Cookbook” in high school (saying that if she didn’t, he would tell their mom that she skipped a test).
When Chesler was just 12, Jesse also blackmailed her into performing sex acts — with different objects — while he watched, she said.
“It took me years to realize that this was sexual abuse, since he never touched me himself,” said Chesler, adding that she never told her mother about these encounters. “I think that it really took being disconnected from him to get a perspective of how abusive that situation was. Because even in our worst moments, he was still family.”
That was why, no matter how many times Hadas called the cops on Jesse, no matter how many times she threw him out demanding that he get a job — she always invited him back, hoping that his promises of change would be true.
“I always knew my brother was capable of harm,” Chesler said. “He made that clear. I just never saw the true depth of how far the horror could go.”
As for his final murderous act, Chesler will never know exactly why he killed their mother. But the story he told was that he was eating a sandwich when Hadas had asked him to clean up the mess he had made in the kitchen. When she kept insisting, he killed her with the knife he had used to make the sandwich.
“I’m sure they were yelling at each other,” said Chesler. “But he didn’t really need a trigger. When he was in a bad mood, he could go from zero to 600 in a second.”
It took cops just a couple hours to track down Jesse after the murder, and he turned himself in after a 30-minute standoff on Ventura Boulevard. Yet four more years passed with him in jail before he was convicted. He couldn’t keep a lawyer, because he would hurl so much verbal abuse their way they would quit, Chesler said. He would take a certain medication and then abruptly stop using it close to a trial date, which then had to be rescheduled because he was deemed mentally unfit.
“That happened for months and months,” Chesler said. “He was just trying to exhaust me so I would give up.”
Chesler never wanted to see her brother again, but she did visit him in jail to beg him to plead guilty and accept responsibility for his actions.
During that meeting — after a long moment of awkward silence — her brother did offer an apology. “Look, Amy. I’m sorry, if that’s any consolation,” he said. He also added: “Mom visits me in here. I dream about her all the time. She forgives me.”
About three years into the process, Chesler — at this point married and working as a substitute teacher — got a visit from the lead detective on the case.
“Did you help [your brother] plan your mom’s murder?” he asked.
He went on to explain that Jesse wrote a letter to another inmate, telling him that Chesler had planned the killing with him and then stiffed him on the money from their inheritance.
“I’m so sorry, Amy. It’s the law, I have to ask,” the detective explained when she expressed shock. “You can be assured you’re not truly a suspect.”
Then the detective added that Jesse had tried to hire the same inmate to kill Chesler when he got out of jail. Instead, the inmate ratted on Jesse to the authorities.
For Chesler, it was a turning point: “I knew that Jesse was getting desperate.”
Yet Jesse remained as stubborn as Chesler. So the assistant DA and the lead detective on the case suggested they offer him a plea deal: 15 years to life, as opposed to 25 years to life (including the four years he had already spent in jail). Jesse took it. He was finally convicted in September 2011 and went into the California State Prison System to serve out his sentence.
Although only 10 years have passed since his conviction, Jesse, now 39, is up for his first parole hearing in August — a year earlier than expected. (In California, inmates can apply for a parole hearing after serving 85 percent of their sentence, which includes the time they spent in jail before trial.)
“I am scared,” Chesler, now 36, admitted. “I don’t think I will never not be scared while he’s still alive.”
Yet Chesler said that she herself has come a long way since her mother’s murder. After working as a teacher, she became a full-time writer. Now divorced, she and her husband happily co-parent their two children, a 7-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy.
In the meantime, she will keep working to ensure her brother doesn’t get out of prison.
“It’s only been 12 days since I found out about his [parole] hearing, and I’m still coming out of shock,” she said.
As a co-victim of the crime, she will be allowed to speak at the hearing, and she’s currently working on her statement.
“Hopefully the first one will be via Zoom, so I won’t have to be in the same room with him,” she said.
She says that she has the massive community of murder victims and sibling-abuse victims on her side, and hopes her book will bring more attention to the case.
“He might get out one day,” Chesler said. “If he does I definitely would move far away. I fear for my life and my kids. But I can’t think about it constantly. There’s this quote: ‘To live in fear is to not live at all.’ The most I can do is keep living and keep fighting.”