'Growing up Buttafuoco': Joey and Mary Jo's daughter talks life in the public eye, says 'the real me…is in pain'
Jessie's mother was shot in 1992 by a teenager having an affair with her father.
For nearly 30 years, the Buttafuoco family has spent their lives in and out of the spotlight, beginning with that tragic day in May 1992 when Mary Jo Buttafuoco was shot in the face by the teenage girl who was having an affair with her husband, Joey.
Following the shooting, there were years of tabloid stories about the cast of characters. Then, the talk-show circuit, from Phil Donahue to Oprah Winfrey. And later, a TV special in which Mary Jo and Joey Buttafuoco faced off against shooter Amy Fisher.
In new interviews with "20/20," which also include never-before-seen family home videos, the couple, now divorced, and their only daughter, Jessie Buttafuoco, describe their journey after that fateful day.
Watch the full story on "20/20" FRIDAY, Nov. 8 at 9 p.m. ET
Jessie Buttafuoco, who was 9 years old at the time of the shooting, spoke openly not only about how the shooting and media frenzy around it has affected her life — even as an adult — but also about how she is finally ready to heal and reclaim dignity for the family name.
"Growing up for me, the performing arts was my outlet. When I was on stage, I was a character. I wasn't Jessie Buttafuoco, and it was so nice to get out of that reality," she told "20/20." "My friends call me 'Showtime' because I can be on. I can make you laugh and I can make you happy and smile. But the real me inside is hurting, is in pain and is trying to figure out life."
Jessie and Mary Jo Buttafuoco told ABC News that while they are not trying to escape the past, they're now focused on moving forward with their lives and continuing to heal from the collateral damage caused by the trauma.
"I'm really trying to get deep and figure out why I operate the way I operate and how I can change and be a better person and help other people along the way," Jessie Buttafuoco said. "What makes me the most sad, to be honest, is my complete inability to be able to love somebody because of all this. Since I was 9 years old, all I’ve known is that sex and love and intimacy leads to bad things. It’s extremely hard for me to even think that love exists. It’s really hard to change because I’ve missed out on that."
Amy Fisher shoots Mary Jo Buttafuoco
On May 19, 1992, Mary Jo Buttafuoco sent her children off to school from the family’s home in Massapequa on Long Island, New York. Her doorbell rang around noon, and when she reached the front door, a young woman was standing there. Behind the young woman, a man sat in a car.
Mary Jo Buttafuoco said the young woman, who claimed to be 19 years old and called herself "Anne Marie," showed her a Complete Auto Body T-shirt advertising a local auto body shop where Joey Buttafuoco worked. The young woman said it was proof that her then-husband was having a relationship with her 16-year-old sister.
"I kinda said, 'Look, Anne Marie, I don't know what you want me to do about this,'" Mary Jo Buttafuoco said. "And I believe I said, because I was raised to be a good Catholic girl, 'Thanks for coming by.' And with that, I turned my head, went for the door and that was the end of my life as I knew it."
After the shooting, there was zero degree of normalcy. That's all I wanted. All I wanted was to be normal but it was a rough, rough time
The young woman shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco once in the head. The bullet broke her jaw and severed her carotid artery before getting lodged at the base of her brain above her spinal column. She was in surgery for seven hours but doctors were not able to remove the bullet.
"They told us, 'She's going to die. She'll be blind, paralyzed, deaf.' … They just knew she could die," said Mary Jo Buttafuoco's sister Eileen, who asked that only her first name be used. "The surgeon said to my mother, 'What do you want to do?' … And she said, 'Let's go for it,' meaning let's have her have surgery."
She was in surgery for seven hours but doctors were not able to remove the bullet.
When she woke up from surgery, Mary Jo Buttafuoco identified the shooter as a 19-year-old named Anne Marie who had shown her a Complete Auto Body t-shirt. Joey Buttafuoco recognized the shirt as one that he'd given to a man named Elliott Fisher, who had a daughter: 17-year-old Amy Fisher, who lived with her parents in Merrick, Long Island.
Fisher was arrested and charged with first-degree attempted murder. Fisher claimed she'd been having a sexual relationship with Joey Buttafuoco, according to Maria Eftimiades, author of "Lethal Lolita."
At the time the relationship began in the summer of 1991, Joey Buttafuoco was 36 and Amy Fisher was 16, nearly one month shy of her 17th birthday. She was still considered a minor under New York State law. Mary Jo Buttafuoco said that when she confronted her husband about the relationship with Fisher, he denied it.
"Joey is a fabulous liar. I did not realize that then. I didn't realize how much he manipulated me and lied to me, but he did," she said. "Joe was adamant. He screamed from the rooftops [that] he had nothing to do with her sexually — nothing. ... I know I did go home and ask Joe a million times, 'Did you have sex with her?' And a million times he denied it. And a million times he swore to me on our children's lives, so I thought he's got to be telling me the truth. He denied it. Then, I believed him."
Joey Buttafuoco now tells ABC News that his relationship with Fisher had been "inappropriate."
"That's as far as I’m gonna go with that," he said.
After Fisher was arrested, she told authorities that the shooting was an accident. But two men named Steven Sleeman and Chris Drellos came forward, claiming that she'd approached them months before the shooting to ask them to help her kill Mary Jo Buttafuoco.
Bruce Parnell, who represented Sleeman, said that Fisher and Sleeman went to the Buttafuoco home on Nov. 1, 1991, with the intention that he would shoot Mary Jo Buttafuoco but claims that he never fired because he couldn’t get a clear shot. He said Fisher was irate.
Sleeman was granted immunity. Drellos came forward after Sleeman, saying he had refused to assist Fisher.
In a surprise admission, Sleeman revealed to ABC News that he actually went back by himself to the Buttafuocos' a few weeks later and shot into their home with a long-scope .22 hunting rifle.
"I happened to be in my car and no one was in the house. Had her lined up in my sights. And I put two shots through the window. … I saw her, a shadow, in the window. But I didn't know if I hit her. I was too scared," he said.
Mary Jo and Jessie Buttafuoco told ABC News that the family had seen a bullet hole and thought it had come from some mischievous neighborhood children. The bullet had entered through the front living room window and gone into a wall in the living room. The police had even been called, Jessie Buttafuoco said, and her mother filed a report. Mary Jo Buttafuoco was unharmed because she had left the room.
After Fisher was apprehended for the May 1992 shooting of Mary Jo Buttafuoco, police also arrested Peter Guagenti, who was the man Mary Jo had seen sitting in the car that day, and charged him as Fisher's accomplice. Guagenti was convicted of criminal sale of a weapon for providing the gun to Fisher and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution against her. He received a reduced jail sentence of four months.
While Fisher's defense tried to present her as a naïve, high school senior manipulated by an older man, it was revealed that Fisher had worked for an escort service, Eftimiades said. And a television show aired a portion of a sex tape that one of Fisher's clients had secretly recorded and sold to the program.
As Fisher's trial neared, tabloid TV producers descended on Massapequa with gifts and money to get people to talk. Mary Jo Buttafuoco said the focus of the case in the media and public's eye changed. It was no longer about how she was shot; it was about Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher.
In late July 1992, a judge released Fisher on a $2 million bond. Her lawyer, Eric Naiburg, sold her story to movie producers to raise the bond money. Two months later, Fisher pleaded guilty to reduced charges of first-degree aggravated assault.
On Dec. 2, 1992, Fisher was sentenced to five to 15 years and eligible for parole after five years. Authorities had sought to charge Joey Buttafuoco with at least statutory rape but they dropped their case against him at that point.
"You would think that after a huge tragedy like this you would want to maintain a low profile. But, no, that didn't happen," Jessie Buttafuoco said.
After Fisher was sentenced, Jessie Buttafuoco was ready to get back to a normal life, but that would prove impossible for her and her family. There were three made-for-TV movies released around the case and the family was courted by tabloid TV talk shows.
Joey Buttafuoco goes to jail
A man claiming to work at Joey Buttafuoco's family auto body shop appeared on Geraldo Rivera's talk show "Geraldo," and claimed that Joey Buttafuoco had admitted to having sex with Fisher when she was 16. The district attorney's office came up with a 19-count indictment against Joey Buttafuoco, including for statutory rape.
In November 1993, a year and a half after his wife was nearly killed, Joey Buttafuoco pleaded guilty to one count of statutory rape. He was given six months in jail — the maximum allowable under his plea agreement -- a $5,000 fine and five years' probation.
Jessie Buttafuoco told ABC News that going to jail to see her father was "pretty surreal."
"What sticks out the most now is — and it makes me kind of sad — is I drew a lot of pictures. I colored a lot of coloring books so he could post it on his wall. You know, and that's just messed up. That's a messed-up exchange between a father and daughter to have to do," she said.
Joey Buttafuoco was released in March 1994 from the Nassau County Jail after serving four months. Again, Mary Jo and Jessie Buttafuoco said they thought that their lives would return to normal, but Hollywood came calling and Joey Buttafuoco answered.
While he was in California, he was arrested for soliciting a vice cop posing as a prostitute, which was a violation of his probation. He landed back in jail.
"He's always getting into mischief. Mischief seems to always get into him," Jessie Buttafuoco said. "Things would calm down for a little bit, and then, you know, Joey would do something. Another shoe would drop."
By 1996, Mary Jo Buttafuoco said she was depressed and even suicidal after all they had been through, but she said she decided to stay with Joey; she and the two kids moved with him to Los Angeles. Their Long Island home was now a tourist attraction and the family could not go outside without being recognized, Jessie Buttafuoco said.
"My family now is this larger-than-life thing. You can’t be normal anymore so what do you do? You move to Los Angeles and you join the circus," she said.
Mary Jo Buttafuoco said she didn't want to go with Joey Buttafuoco but she felt she had no choice because of her mental and physical state. While in California, she said, she realized that she had a drug addiction. Dominic Barbara, the family's lawyer, got her into the Betty Ford Center where she got sober.
"Between physically getting off the medication and then the counseling that I got, it made me stronger. It made me come home and realize, 'OK, you know, I've got to try and fix what I can fix. I can't fix him. I can only fix me,'" she said.
In 1998, Fisher was up for parole at Albion State Prison in New York. The district attorney's office had recommended that she not be released on parole. Fisher wrote Mary Jo Buttafuoco a letter asking for forgiveness.
Ultimately, Mary Jo Buttafuoco consented to Fisher's being released on parole, which Fisher was granted in May 1999 after nearly seven years in prison.
Fisher later got married and had children, and seemed to move on with her life. The Buttafuocos, however, were still struggling to get their lives back on track.
"Our lives had become ridiculous. It was nothing normal," Mary Jo Buttafuoco said. "I wasn’t in love with [Joey Buttafuoco] anymore. [He] was this child that just wouldn’t grow up. … All the reasons that kept me in that marriage were gone. I was sober and our children were adults."
When Mary Jo and Joey Buttafuoco divorced in 2003, Jessie Buttafuoco said she was devastated by the news.
"It was like a kick to my stomach. I think I got really mad. It's like, after all we've been through, now y'all are giving up?" she said. "You know...it's us against the world, and now this is falling apart? So now what?"
'Zero degree of normalcy’ in Buttafuoco home
Jessie Buttafuoco said that she and her brother struggled in their new surroundings in California and with the new family dynamic.
"After the shooting, there was zero degree of normalcy. That's all I wanted. All I wanted was to be normal but it was a rough, rough time," she said.
Jessie Buttafuoco said she began using cocaine, became an alcoholic and also suffered from eating disorders.
"A lot of it was suppressed. It was all of this hiding and everything's fine and I'm terrific. And deep down, things weren't terrific and it all stemmed from her mom getting shot and seeing how people portrayed her mom and dad," said Eileen, Mary Jo Buttafuoco’s sister.
Still, Mary Jo and Joey Buttafuoco needed money. So, when another opportunity to appear on TV -- and get paid -- came knocking, Joey Buttafuoco persuaded Mary Jo Buttafuoco to join him. They appeared on "Entertainment Tonight" and "Insider" across from Fisher as part of a reunion special in May 2006. Joey Buttafuoco and Fisher also appeared on other TV specials.
Jessie Buttafuoco said she didn’t know about any televised reunion until it had aired. Neither she nor her brother participated in the TV programs.
"I didn't talk to my father for a solid year after that. ... It was a disaster. It was disgusting. … I was like, 'Listen, Dad. My life is hard enough already. I’m in college. I’m trying to figure out who I am. I’m in the height of my drinking, drugging and eating disorders,'" she said. "I just remember being so pissed and just being like, 'You are gallivanting around the streets of New York with the woman who tried to murder my mother?’ This is not a joke. This is not a paycheck I want. No, no, this is not right. It's f----- up. This should not be happening."
In 2005, Mary Jo Buttafuoco appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." She still suffered from facial paralysis and ear damage from the gunshot. Plastic surgeon Dr. Babek Azizzadeh, whose wife had tuned in that day, told him about her case. With the help of the "Oprah" show, the doctor met with Buttafuoco and said he could help her.
"The crux of the surgery was to really even out her face, suspend the drooping — corner of her mouth — to help her not have drooling as much and difficulty in her speech. And we proceeded in doing that," Azizzadeh told ABC News.
Her post-surgery results were revealed on a later episode of "Oprah."
"The bandages came off and I looked in the mirror and I looked like the way I used to look. … I started to cry and my kids started to cry," Mary Jo Buttafuoco said. "It was just terrific, and I was just so happy and so grateful."
Jessie Buttafuoco gives back
Joey Buttafuoco is now working on a movie about his early life.
"I'm not that kinda guy that's gonna sit here and blame anything on anything and how I got here. I made my own choices. I made my own life by my choices, whether they were good or they were bad. I made some good choices and I made some bad choices," he said.
Fisher has since divorced her husband and lives with her children in Florida. She appeared in a few pornographic movies and works as a "cam girl."
Jessie Buttafuoco, 36, told ABC News that she was now on "pretty good terms" with her father.
"He's in a growth phase where he's in therapy and he's healing," she said. "I'm proud of my dad for telling his story, and I hope he’s not using it to justify why he made so many poor decisions. … I like this new man he's becoming. For the first time in my whole life, just a few months ago, he said, 'I understand...that actions have consequences now.'"
Jessie Buttafuoco now produces children's theater and runs after-school theater programs for children. She told ABC News that it was her way of giving back.
"Because, for me, that was such an important space to grow, to feel safe and protected," she said.
Jessie Buttafuoco has moved back in with Mary Jo Buttafuoco. She said the move was something she'd wanted to do for more than a year after her mother was diagnosed with health issues.
The Buttafuocos' son does not go by his last name, but Mary Jo Buttafuoco said that she understood his decision.
"I am never going to recover from this. My son is never gonna recover from this. … My daughter will never. … We will live with it and we will adjust to it, but we will never get over it," she said.
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