New York’s Riddle of the Floating Corpse

New York’s Riddle of the Floating Corpse

 New York’s Riddle
of the Floating Corpse

Dynamic Detective Magazine, November 1941

by Claude Stuart Hammock

Dynamic detective

The hush that comes with twilight enveloped the scene as the car slowly neared the end of Lovers’ lane at the foot of Jamaica Bay on Long Island, N.Y. The machine came to a halt where the road makes a horseshoe curve around the inlet.

Water lapped against the mashy bank a few feet below the road. But even this was not heard by the lovers as the young man’s arm tightened around his companion’s waist and her head rested contentedly on his shoulder.

Darkness ws slowly closing in as they sat there enjoying the solitude. The young man’s gaze rested idly on the swaying bunches of marsh grass in the back eddy. Suddenly his body tensed. An unusual movement in the vegetation of the marsh had caught his attention. He leaned forward, his eyes wide and staring.

Discovery

A ghastly object ws being borne ashore by the slowly rising tied. With a trembling hand he snapped on the ignition, and said in a husky voice, “Let’s get out of here.”

His companion was alarmed. “What’s wrong, dear?”

“Nothing…nothing at all. I don’t like the looks of this place.”

The gears meshed and they were soo speeding back down the lonely road. Not until they had turned into Sunrise highway did he recover sufficient composure to explain that he had seen the body of a man floating in the waters of the inlet.

He knew the matter should be reported at once to the police but shrank from the possibility of becoming involved in a situation that might require embarrassing explanations. He decided to wait until the next day, hoping that someone else might report the body; but when there was no mention of it in the morning newspapers he went to the police and told his story.

Action began at once. Police cars and an ambulance raced to the lonely spot at the end of the lane, with Detective Lieut. Henry Flattery, commander of the Jamaica squad, in charge.

Evidence of a fiendish crime was apparent when officers lifted the lifeless body from the water and placed it on the bank.

After the first cursory examination the ambulance doctor said, “I’d say he’s been dead about a week.”

The dead man’s clothes were partially removed, exposing his torso. “Stabbed eight times in the chest,” the doctor added. “Yes, and seven more in the back. We’ll get complete details at the autopsy.”

Flattery looked at the victim’s head and face. The certainly did a complete job. “See how they’ve battered his features out of shape before they knifed him?”

All traces of identification appeard to have been removed from the body but Flattery, unwilling to admit defeat, took a second look at the coat. There was a hole in one pocket. Shoving his hand through it, he retrieved a folded piece of paper that had lodged in the lining.

“They always overlook something,” he muttered, unfolding the paper. It was a tradesman’s bill made out to Dominick Tovano.

Upon his return to headquarters, Flattery directed an investigation of records of automobile and operators licenses, the telephone directory and other sources of information in an effort to connect the name with the victim. It was well past midnight, May 4, 1934, when he positively identified the corpse as that of Tavano, and located his address.

Flattery, accompanied by Detective Thomas Coote of the homicide squad, went immediately to search the apartment where Tovano was reported to have been living alone. Although light showed beneath the door , repeated knocking brought no response. At a nod from Flattery, Coote’s burly shoulder thudded against the panels. The door splintered and flew open. The room was untenanted and a glance gave unquestionable signs of poverty that promptly ruled out robbery as a motive for the brutal crime.

A careful search of the premises yielded little information. The bed had not been slept in and the whole place was in disorder. Clothing was thrown about as though someone had dressed in a hurry. A revolver was found but there were no letters or other papers to throw any light on the owner’s affairs.

The click of a latch sounded from the apartment across the hall and a man and a woman stood framed in the open door.

“We…we heard a noise,” the man said.

The detective lieutenant identified himself. “When did you folks see Tovano last?” he asked.

“Why, not for several days.”

 

Why had the impovershed victim left the lights burning in his rooms above the barber shop?

Woman Angle

Flattery followed with other questions but the man and woman were unable to give much information. They were visibly startled when Flattery told them. “Tovano has been murdered. Think hard now, if there’s anything that might help solve his slaying.”

The effect was magical. The man, giving his name as John Miller, blurted, “Tovano thought he had a way with women. He used to bring them here to his rooms. There was one in particular that came here quite a lot. Pretty, too, with dark hair and dark eyes.”

“And always well dress,” his wife interrupted. She gave a fairly complete description of the woman and added, “She was married, too, and Tovano was always afraid her husband might find out about them and make trouble.”

“Did he ever mention her name?”

“No, never.”

Flattery considered the love triangle.  The unusual brutality of the crime might be the work of a wronged husband crazed by jealousy. But why would  a good-looking, wel-dressed woman jeopardize her home and her good name for a man in Tovano’s circumstances?

And if not a jealousy killing, what then?

“Now, Miller,” he sai, “when did you see Tovano last?”

“I remember now,” the man said after a moment, “it was a week ago tonight. My wife and I were driving over to Manhattan to take one of her friends home. We were just ready to start when Tovano asked to go along. He said he he had a date. He had shaved and was all dressed up. We got into a traffic jam on Queensboro bridge and were late getting to Manhattan, but when wet go there Tovano changed his mind and said he wanted to go to brooklyn. So we came back that way and dropped him off.”

“Where?”

“Why, it was on Pitkin avenue at Linwood street. He just said ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,” and walked off. I don’t know where he went.”

Mrs. Miller added, “That’s right. That’s just the way it was. We left him there about eleven o’clock.

Flattery dismissed the Millers with thanks.

As the investigators were leaving the building they glanced at the open mail boxes. There was a letter in the one marked “Tovano.” It was from a resident of Brooklyn and stated that the writer had found Tovano’s driver’s license on Crescent street, near Fulton, in Brooklyn. The license was enclosed. How the license happened to be found several miles from Tovano’s home merely added to the mystery.

Next morning the man was questioned but could offer nothing further. He had picked up the license in the street and mailed it nearly a week before, thinking he was doing the owner a favor.

Flattery and Coote returned to Tovano’s house. They had noted that the ground floor was occupied by a barber shop and it seemed a likely source of information.

“You know Dominick Tovano, don’t you?” Flattery asked the barber. “Oh sure. He lives upstairs.”

“When did you see him last?”

“It was on Saturday. More than a week ago. I know because I let him have my keys so he could come in here and cook his dinner.”

“Do you live here?”

“No, but I have a stove in the back room. Tovano is a very poor man and I like to help him out. When I came to open the shop Monday morning I remembered Tovano had not returned the keys, so I went up to his room. He wasn’t at home but there was a light shining under the door. I asked John Miller who lives across the hall from Tovano if he or his wife had seen him and they said not since Saturday. So I had to go home for my other keys.”

“You say Tovano was poor?”

“Yes. He was a housepainter and business is awfully bad. He owed a lot of rent and his gas was turned off. That’s why he came here to cook.”

“Why didn’t you report that to the police?”

“I meant to at first but it slipped my mind. Sometimes he goes away for a few days so I didn’t worry about him. I thought he would come in just most any time.”

Flattery puzzled. Who would want to kill so poverty-stricken and unimportant a victim? Why had a sharp instrument been plunged fifteen times into the body of an unemployed painter?

Dominick Tovano met a ghastly death. Detectives probed deeply into his life to find out why. 

Flattery followed with other questions but the man and woman were unable to give much information. They were visibly startled when Flattery told them. “Tovano has been murdered. Think hard now, if there’s anything that might help solve his slaying.”

The effect was magical. The man, giving his name as John Miller, blurted, “Tovano thought he had a way with women. He used to bring them here to his rooms. There was one in particular that came here quite a lot. Pretty, too, with dark hair and dark eyes.”

“And always well dress,” his wife interrupted. She gave a fairly complete description of the woman and added, “She was married, too, and Tovano was always afraid her husband might find out about them and make trouble.”

“Did he ever mention her name?”

“No, never.”

Flattery considered the love triangle.  The unusual brutality of the crime might be the work of a wronged husband crazed by jealousy. But why would  a good-looking, wel-dressed woman jeopardize her home and her good name for a man in Tovano’s circumstances?

And if not a jealousy killing, what then?

“Now, Miller,” he sai, “when did you see Tovano last?”

“I remember now,” the man said after a moment, “it was a week ago tonight. My wife and I were driving over to Manhattan to take one of her friends home. We were just ready to start when Tovano asked to go along. He said he he had a date. He had shaved and was all dressed up. We got into a traffic jam on Queensboro bridge and were late getting to Manhattan, but when wet go there Tovano changed his mind and said he wanted to go to brooklyn. So we came back that way and dropped him off.”

“Where?”

“Why, it was on Pitkin avenue at Linwood street. He just said ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,” and walked off. I don’t know where he went.”

Mrs. Miller added, “That’s right. That’s just the way it was. We left him there about eleven o’clock.

Flattery dismissed the Millers with thanks.

As the investigators were leaving the building they glanced at the open mail boxes. There was a letter in the one marked “Tovano.” It was from a resident of Brooklyn and stated that the writer had found Tovano’s driver’s license on Crescent street, near Fulton, in Brooklyn. The license was enclosed. How the license happened to be found several miles from Tovano’s home merely added to the mystery.

Next morning the man was questioned but could offer nothing further. He had picked up the license in the street and mailed it nearly a week before, thinking he was doing the owner a favor.

Flattery and Coote returned to Tovano’s house. They had noted that the ground floor was occupied by a barber shop and it seemed a likely source of information.

“You know Dominick Tovano, don’t you?” Flattery asked the barber. “Oh sure. He lives upstairs.”

“When did you see him last?”

“It was on Saturday. More than a week ago. I know because I let him have my keys so he could come in here and cook his dinner.”

“Do you live here?”

“No, but I have a stove in the back room. Tovano is a very poor man and I like to help him out. When I came to open the shop Monday morning I remembered Tovano had not returned the keys, so I went up to his room. He wasn’t at home but there was a light shining under the door. I asked John Miller who lives across the hall from Tovano if he or his wife had seen him and they said not since Saturday. So I had to go home for my other keys.”

“You say Tovano was poor?”

“Yes. He was a housepainter and business is awfully bad. He owed a lot of rent and his gas was turned off. That’s why he came here to cook.”

“Why didn’t you report that to the police?”

“I meant to at first but it slipped my mind. Sometimes he goes away for a few days so I didn’t worry about him. I thought he would come in just most any time.”

Flattery puzzled. Who would want to kill so poverty-stricken and unimportant a victim? Why had a sharp instrument been plunged fifteen times into the body of an unemployed painter?

“It means one thing,” said Flattery. “This fellow MIller is holding something back. He knows where Tovano was going and and he’s trying to cover up. Here’s what you’d better do. Go over to Brooklyn Where he said he dropped Tovano.”

“Maybe he left him there and maybe he didn’t. But work from there in every direction until you find if Tovano was in that neighborhood. No telling how long it will take or how far it may be from that spot. There’s a chance that Tovano didn’t even want Miller to know where he went.”

“Do you know if Tovano ever had trouble with anyone?” he asked.

“Well, I don’t know.” The barber shrugged, then added, “About three months ago somebody tried to break into his place but I don’t know who it was. I never heard any more about it.”

That last remark might have some significance. Flattery thought of the dark-eyed woman’s husband. Of course the housebreaker might have been just a common prowler. The detectives returned to headquarters to check developments.

In the meantime, Tovano’s relatives had been located. They evidently knew little about the victim’s acquaintances or his relations with them. They did mention, however, that he once had received a legacy of 13,000 lire and suggested that possibly Tovano had been in some kind of trouble in Italy and had been pursued and slain in revenge.

A search for the dark-eyed woman had been successful and the report was waiting. She said that she had broken off her affair with Tovano several months before and that she and her husband had been reconciled. The husband was exonerated after his alibi was investigated. The love triangle was definitely out but that only plunged the case into deeper mystery.

“They probably broke off after Tovano had spent all his legacy,” Coote suggested.

“That’s a thought. Say, did you get a line on any one of Tovano’s friends?”

“Only one — James O’Connor. He’s not hard to locate; he’s in jail right now waiting trial for robbery.”

Why had the impovershed victim left the lights burning in his rooms above the barber shop?

Quiz Prisoners

O’Connor’s record showed that he had been arrested in April, several days before the murder, and had been in Queens county jail ever since. That would clear him of any actual participation in the crime but it raised a question in Flattery’s mind. Was Tovano involved in any of O’Connor’s escapades? His friendship with O’Connor, an ex-convict with an unsavory record was nothing to be proud of. It would bear looking into.

They went to O’Connor’s cell and began questioning him. The prisoner positively refused to answer. At the first mention of Tovano’s name he flew into a violent rage and poured out a torrent of profanity. Disgusted, the detectives left and got out O’Connor’s arrest report. It showed that he had held up a gasoline station single-handed. He was all set for a getaway but had trouble in starting his car and the delay had permitted a radio car to pick him up.

The detectives reviewed the fragmentary bits of information that they had at hand but they failed to fit into any kind of pattern. Tovano was broke, he was in debt, his gas was shut off, and still he had left the lights burning when he went out.

“What does that suggest?” asked Flattery.

“He must have left in a big hurry.”

“Exactly. He must have had something important on his mind. He said he had a date and wanted to go to Manhattan, then changed his mind and went to Brooklyn.

“It doesn’t add up. It means something, all right.”

“It means one thing,” said Flattery. This fellow Miller is holding something back. He knows where Tovano was going and is trying to cover up. Here’s what you’d better do. Go over to Brooklyn where he said he dropped Tovano.

“Maybe he left him there and maybe he didn’t. But work from there in every direction until you find if Tovano was in that neighborhood. No telling how long it will take or how far it may be from that spot. There’s a chance that Tovano didn’t even want Miller to know where he went.”

Coote went to Pitkin avenue and Linwood street, Brooklyn, and tried to pick up Tovano’s trail. Working methodically, he called the stores, homes, restaurants and bars, making inquiries and showing a photograph of Tovano. It seemed an endless job but, as frequently happens, he struck a lead as he was about ready to admit defeat.

He had shown the photograph to a barman in a squalid saloon and received a negative shake of hte head when a patron leaning on the bar glanced at the picture.

“I saw that fellow once,” he offered. “He was drunk.”

Coote tuned to the man and began questioning him but met with sudden suspicioun.

“Say, who’re you?” the patron asked cautiously.

“Why, I’m a friend of this man. I’ve got an important message for him.”

Again at ease, the patron told what he knew. He had been walking along the street when the man in the photography came out of a house and bumped against him, then got into a car with some other fellows and drove away, he related. He told where this had happened and gave a good description of the house. Coote hurried away to check it up.

A three-story house on Glenmore avenue answered the description. Coote rang the bell. The woman who opened the door looked at the photograph and said she recognized the man as one who had been at her daughter’s birthday party on the night in question. She was not acquainted with him. He and two other men, who also were strangers, had come with some friends of the family and therefore had been allowed to stay, she explained.

“Who were these friends who brought the three strangers?”

“Mr. and Mrs. Miller, from Jamaica.”

Coote controlled his elation. Here, then, was a tie-in with the Millers.

Coote secured a fairly complete list of those who had been at the party, thanked the woman and hurried away to telephone headquarters.

Flattery was enthusiastic. Would the party furnish a key to the riddle of the weird slaying? The lieutenant detailed detectives to bring in the party guests. Later in the day, a young man, his sister, a portly merchant, the hostess and her daughter formed a group of astonished guests at police headquarters.

Each played a part in a murder drama: the sullen sailor at left, freckle-faced James O’Connor, center, and detective Lieut. Henry Flattery, right, who finally rang down the curtain on a puzzling mystery. 

“We are investigating a murder,” Flattery told them, “and I am sure that all of you will be glad to cooperate. The victim was Dominick Tovano. Were any of you acquainted with him?”

All answers were in the negative.

“I believe you were all at a party a few nights ago. Tavano was there, so you must have seen him.” He passed around the photograph for inspection.

All remembered seeing the man but none had ever seen him before the party and his name had not been mention there. They corroborated the hostess’ story about the three guests the Millers had brought — one who had been merely introduced as “Jo-Jo,” another as “Lenny” and the man in the photograph.

“We have been told that Miller and his three guests left the party about midnight,” said Flattery., “and returned several hours later without this man Tovano. Does anyone here know just when they returned and what explanation, if any, was given for the absence of Tovano?”

“They returned about three o’clock,” one man replied. “I know, for I was getting ready to leave. I heard Jo-Jo say that this man Tovano had been taken sick and they had left him at a restaurant while they took a ride. They had all been drinking heavily and I guess no one paid much attention.”

The witnesses were dismissed. The story pieced together from the information they had given convinced Flattery that they were making very definite progress. It also confirmed his suspicion that Miller had beenholding out on hi. Miller and his wife were sent for.

“We told you all we know about Toano,” Miller protested as soon as he arrived. He seemed very nervous.

Flattery smiled mirthlessly.  “Then suppose I tell you what I know?” he said.

He gave them the whole story as he had gotten it. Miller became visibly agitated as the tale unfolded and when it was finished his face was ashen.

“Now, Miller,” demanded Flattery, “tell us just what happened dring the three hours you were away from the party. And tell it straight, this time!”

Miller broke completely. Trembling, he poured out the whole story of the midnight ride. He said he had been forced to drive the car and that Jo-Jo  and Lenny threatened him with death if he ever told what happened. He knew what went on before and after the murder, but he said he had not witnessed the actual killing.

On the afternoon before the murder, he said, he had been at a ball game and when he returned home Jo-Jo and Lenny were waiting for him. He had met Jo-Jo through Tovano but Lenny was a stranger to him. During their conversation the forthcoming party had been mentioned and it was decided that they would all go. Jo-Jo Jo-Jo suggested that they take Tovano along and show him a good time as he did not have much money and it would be a treat for him. The others agreed.

“Now this man Jo-Jo,” Flattery interrupted.  “He was a friend of Tovano’s?”

“Yes, they had been friends.”

“What do you mean by ‘had been’?”

“Well, Tovano, Jo-Jo, and O’Connor all belonged to a holdup gang, but they had quarreled and Tovano was behind the eight ball. But I thought that was all patched up when Jo-Jo wanted to treat Tovano to a party.”

“What was the quarrel about?”

Miller hesitated a moment, then said, “Tovano worked with O’Connor on these holdups. But he ran out on O’Connor.”

“Then O’Connor pulled a job alone and got caught. Is that right?”

“Yes, that’s what the fuss was about.”

Miller went on to explain that there had been a whispered conversation at the party, during which he learned that Jo-Jo and Lenny were out to avenge O’Connor.

“All right, the ride was planned. Go on.”

Miller said they started out at midnight. Tovano was very drunk by that time vut Lenny helped him into the rumble seat and got in with him. Jo-Jo got in front with Miller and they drove to a tavern. Miller and Tovano remained in the car while the other two went to get some liquor. They returned soon, Lenny ordering him to drive on. This time Lenny got in front and Jo-Jo got in with Tovano.

They had gone only a short distance when Miller heard Tovano yell. He turned to see what was the matter, he said, but Lenny told him to attend to his own business and keep driving. but in the rear-view  mirror he saw Jo-Jo hit Tovano over the head with a bottle. A moment later he was told to stop the car. Jo-Joe then closed the rumble seat on Tovano and got in front.

Miller said he drove the car on as directed, out to the Sunrise highway, off on a dirt road, following it to the end. Here Lenny and Jo-Jo opened the rumble seat and pulled Tovano out, then ordered Miller to drive back down the road a short distance and wait. He had no idea they were going to do more than give Tovano a beating.

Soon the two rejoined Miller and they started back to the party. On the way, Jo-Jo stopped at the his home to change his shirt. They continued their ride but at Crescent street, Brooklyn, they stopped again. Miller said the others left him in the car while they went for a walk, taking Jo-Jo’s soiled shirt with them. He noted that they returned without it.

“All right, Miller, who is the man they call Jo-Jo?”

“His name is George Stanulov.”

“And Lenny?”

“I don’t know his name. I never saw him before that day, nor since. I don’t know a thing about him.

Seek Shirt

 

Stanulov, a broad-shouldered man of about 25, was picked up and questioned. He denied all knowledge of the affair. Flattery knew the evidence Miller could give was not enough to convict Stanulov, as he had not been present at the actual killing. He would have to find something definately implicatin the man. If Miller had told the truth about the two men taking a walk on Crescent street and returning without the soiled shirt, the next step was clearly indicated. It was more than a mere coincidence, Flattery decided, that Tovano’s license had also been found on that street.

“Search the sewers on Crescent street,” he ordered. “We’ve got to find that shirt.”

Some hours later, a bloodstained shirt was fished out of the catch basin at Crescent street and Ridgewood avenue. Before bringing it to Flattery the detectives traced the laundry mark and proved definitely that it was Stanulov’s shirt.

Flattery took the garment to Stanulov’s cell. “Ever see that before?” he asked.

“No.”

“You had one like it, didn’t you?”

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. Thousands of men have shirts like that. So what?”

“That’s the shirt you had on when you killed Tovano,” Flattery thundered, “You got it all bloody and chucked it in the sewer on Crescent street, over in Brooklyn where you thought it would never be found. The laundry mark pins it on you, so you might as well come clean.

Stabbed 15 times in the chest and back, a man’s body in Jamaica Bay, N.Y., offered police a baffling mystery. But a tiny slip of paper led them at last to the killer shown here in custody.