Front Page Detective
I never found honor among thieves. The only thing that kept them from talking was a strip of fear a mile wide. One of the first mottos I learned was: “To catch a thief, ask another.”
When you’re a detective and the former assistant district attorney wants to see you, you hop. You hop even if it’s the coldest night in the memory of man and the clock says 2 a.m. You hop even if the sleep is still thick on your lids and your shoes seem to have completely disappeared from the place under the bed where you know you left them. That’s what I did on the night of February 6, 1936.
The call didn’t come directly from the former assistant district attorney. It came from police headquarters and the voice was the early morning hawk of a police sergeant, but the message was loaded with authority.
“Charley Froessel wants to see you in his office right away, Captain. He’s in the Barr Building. “
Froessel had worked out of Queens County, which was my territory, and he’d participated in some of the most dramatic cases we have on record during the rip and roaring 20s. He was no longer with the District Attorney’s office, but if he wanted to see me at 2 o’clock on a February morning it wasn’t just to reminisce.
How good the reason was I learned as soon as I approached the Barr Building, which stood dark and desolate in the winter night. A uniformed patrolman was on guard at the door.
“Big stickup, Captain. They’re all up on the seventh floor.”
Upstairs, I found Froessel sitting behind his desk. He was ashy white and shaken. With him were two detectives from my squad and a white-haired man whose face was bleeding from two deep cuts. His name was Travis; he was the night watchman.
Practically on my heels came the borough Deputy Chief Inspector. It was a big stick up, all right.
Five men had invaded the building, trussed up Froessel and the watchman, and systematically looted the place. Although no complete estimate had been made of the loss as yet, it would probably be in six figures and would be shared by several tenants.
I asked Froessel to tell us exactly what happened. He said that he returned to his office late that evening to finish a confidential report for the Justice Department for which he was now a special counsel.
At 11 P.M. he rang for the elevator and got in without looking at the operator. The gate was scarcely shut when Froessel felt a gun poked in his ribs: “Open your mouth just one time, Mister, and you’re dead,” the “operator” said.
The man wore a mask and gloves, and seemed to know his way around the building. From the lobby, he prodded Froessel down a flight of back stairs to the basement. There in the glaring light of the unshaded bulb, frossel saw two other masked men and the watchman, who was bound to a chair.
“This guy got cute with us,” one of the men explained to Froessel.
“Don’t you try it unless you want some of the same.”
As they began tying Froessel to a chair, two more men entered the basement. The group now numbered fibe.
“Who’s this guy?” one of the men said.
“I picked him up on the seventh floor just now,” said Froessel’s captor. “Must’ve been working late.”
“Let’s have a look,” the newcomer said. He reached into the attorney’s coat pocket and came out with a billfold. The gunman took out a package of bills, some $250 in cash. Then, as he looked through the papers in the billfold, he whistled softly.
“We got us a big fish here, men,” he said. “This is none other than Charles W. Froessel, the great prosecutor.”
There was a moment of silence. Then the gunman spoke again: “Let’s have a look at his place first. Bring him along.”
Froessel’s bonds were loosened then and he was yanked to his feet. He was let back up the stairs into the elevator and up to his office. A light was turned on and, while one of the masked men held a gun on Froessel, three others began to search the two-room suite.
“Bring him in here,” someone called from the inner office. They had found the safe.
“All right, your honor,” said one of them, mockingly, “what’s the combination?”
Froessel tried a bluff: “I don’t remember. I never touch it. My secretary has been opening that safe for two years.”
How far the bluff would carry him, Froessel didn’t know, but he was ready to ride it as far as he safely could. His personal belongings were in that safe — stocks, jewelry and $4000 in cash — along with $28,000 in government-owned bonds., entrusted to his care by the Justice Department.
As it turned out, the bluff worked — but it didn’t help. Fingering the safe, one of the bandits said, “The hell with him; I can rip this can. Take the hero downstairs and tie him up.”
Back in the basement, Froessel was bound to a chair alongside the watchman. For two hours he sat there…under the watchful A.M., the other four returned, signaled the guard and left…with the unhurried air of a group of businessmen completing a big deal.
It took Froessel and the watchman nearly 15 minutes to squirm free of their bonds and telephone the police. To an experienced hood — which these men obviously were — 15 minutes is a long time.
About the Author
Captain Henry Flattery
From a bicycle cop whose job it was to ticket reckless buggy drivers and overparked carriages, Irish Henry flattery grew to be one of the most respected members of the New York Police Department, a captain who participated in over 200 investigations and who was retired in 1952 with the distinction of being one of the few top officers admitted to the Police Honor League.
The high points in the lives of most retired men have to do with successful business deals, with acquaintanship with celebrities, with the creation of works of art. Captain Henry Flattery’s memories are studded with anecdotes involving the round-up of infamous bandit gangs, the capture of homicidal maniacs, the bluffing out of telephone kidnap threats. The big names that are noted in his book won their notoriety through the questionable channels of thievery, murder, forgery and arson. Captain Flattery (retired) is now in his 60s, a security officer in one of New York City’s leading hotels, but he has known more excitement, experienced more adventures and had more close brushes with death than most men will ever read of. He has volunteered to tell you of some of them and this is the first in a series of Captain Flattery storeis. Other accounts of his many fascinating experiences will appear in future issues of Front Page Detective.
By the time Froessel was finished talking, my men were back with a report on the rest of the building. The first four floors had just been vacated by a large company, but three other offices on the fifth and sixth floors had been hit hard: a jimmied safe in a finance company office had yielded more than $1000 in cash; merchandise valued at $1500 had been taken from a hosiery manufacturer; and an attorney named Gallup was still checking his ransacked office to see if anything was missing. Including the government bonds, Froessel’s office had been the thieves’ biggest mark: all told, more than $50,000 came out of it.
I walked over to the safe. It bore the mark of an expert. A small hole had been drilled near the jamb, a jimmy inserted to pry the hole wider, and a tempered steel can-opener device used to rip the door plate from the top to bottom.
“Did you let the men in?” I asked the watchman. “No sir,” he replied. “After I locked the building doors at a quarter to eight, I only opened them one time and that was for Mr. Froessel.”
“What time was that?”
“About 9 o’clock.”
“When did you first see the holdup men?”
“It must have been around 11 o’clock. I went down to the basememt ot check the furnace and there they were, all around me. I tried to run for it bu one of them hit me with a gun. I sort of blacked out. When I came to, I was all tied up, like Mr. Froessel saw me.”
“Could they have gotten in during the day and hidden in one of the vacant offices downstairs?”
“No, sir. They’re painting down there and I’m supposed to check every one of them offices for fire hazards. I did that around 11 o’oclock.”
“What about the offices up here?”
“All locked, every one of them.”
“Well, how did they get in?”
“I don’t know, Captain.”
And I didn’t either. None of the main doors had been forced; no windows were broken. Despite what the watchman said, they must have been inside the building before he locked it up for the night. But where?
This was only the first of many unanswereable questions that were to rise and plague us on one of the most tangled criminal trails my squad ever followed. Before it took us to the men we were after, it would wind through a maze of murder, kidnaping and robbery; it would involve countless witnesses, big wheels and two-bit hoodlums. Four long, bitter years were to pass before the New York Police Department could close the file on “The Froessel Case,” which opened that winter night.
But that’s how it is when you’re up against a gang of professional gunmen. They won’t give themselves away like a scared kid on his first job. Their moves are never neat and compact like the amateur’s single criminal act; a gang can’t be content with the one stickup, no matter how big the haul. Crime is their business; it’s all they know. Once organized, a gang goes on and on – until death or the law breaks it up.
The worst part of tracking them down is that you may not really have them even after you’ve caught them. You may have your man sitting right in front of you in the interrogation room. He knows he’s guilty, but he knows the angels too: he knows you can’t convict him without positive evidence. If you don’t have the evidence you grit your teeth, let your man go and start all over again. You have no other choice.
Time, however, is on the policemen’s side when he’s tracking a mob of pros because a mob, by its very nature, must eventually destroy itself. Every man in it is a potential police lead, and so is every man he touches. So we forget about the gun-slingers and go after the bartenders and informers; we talk to wives and sweethearts, jail mates and old buddies .We track them all down, every last one of them, and we ask: “Who’s flashing the big roll? What’s your man been up to? Who fingered the Barr Building?”
It’s a tough, weary job, but it’s our best weapon. There are few real secrets in the tight little circle of the local underworld and eventually everything leaks out.
Time works in two ways. The gang strikes again. Pressures begin to mount through newspaper stories and public opinion. We get a bit of information here, add it to what we found there. The same names begin to turn up again and again. A patterne emergges. We keep working, asking, looking. It takes a long time but in the end we win out. As we did in this case.
Before that long night of February 6 was over, police flyers describing the stolen securities were on their way to banks and brokerage houses all across the country. A dragnet was thrown over the city and the usual motley crew of punks, procurers and addicts was brought in. Fingerprint men went to work on the raided offices. A list was compiled of every master safecracker know to be at liberty.
From it all, we learned exactly nothing. None of the underworld characters we had picked up knew anything about a new safe gang; there wasn’t a fingerprint in the Barr building that matched anything we had on file in headquarters; and of the dozen men with the technique to slice open a safe the way Froessel’s was opened, we couldn’t find more than two of them.
But that was only the beginning of our trouble. Five days after the Barr Building was looted, a local creamer was hit and a small safe containing $2800 in cas was stolen. On the night of February 12, the watchman of a coal company was surprised by a band of masked gunmen and tied to a chair while a safe holding $3500 was expertly rifled. On February 16, a vending machine company was the target. Their vault was looted of $242,000 in cash, the checks and securities.
There was no question but that all four jobs had been pulled by the same gang; their touch was unmistakable and was evident on each job. Within ten days, they had made off with close to half a million dollars, and four all we had found out about them in that time, they might just as well have been Martians operating from outer space.
On February 17, I was called to the District Attorney’s office. I wasn’t surprised. I knew just what he had to say; that Charles Froessel’s name as a robbery victim had made headlines and alerted the public; that three more robberies inside of two weeks had made the police department look foolish; that he wanted action.
I was called to the District Attorney’s office. I wasn’t surprised. I knew just what he had to say; that Charles Froessel’s name as a robbery victim had made headlines and alerted the public; that three more robberies inside of two weeks had made the police department look foolish; that he wanted action.
He said all that and more – and I didn’t blame him. He had probably got the same speech from the Mayor, and I turned right around and gave it to my men. Pressure follows a chain of command. That chain leads to the people. They’re at the very top, and when they choose a group of men to do a police job for them, they expect it to be done. I aimed to get it done.
On February 24 we got action. A bank clerk, checking through a batch of incoming securities, spotted one of the bonds stolen from Froessel’s safe. I had two men trace it through the maze of Wall Street to where it had been cashed in, a Manhattan branch of the Corn Exchange Bank.
A few pertinent inquiries led us to a man named Fred Spillman.
He had a record dating back to the time he was nine. Now 35, he had 20 arrests, the charges ranging from forger to armed robbery. At the moment he was fronting for a Cuban development company which, while it may have been legitimate was also a perfect blind for a fence. I ordered Spillman brought in for questioning and, at the same time, sent a man to check his office.
Spillman didn’t have much to say when brought in. He admitted cashing the bond, but insisted it had been deposited with him by a Cuban engineer as part payment for a construction job Spillman’s company was doing.
“Can we get in touch with this engineer?” I asked. “Well, he’s gone back to Havana. I imagine it would take quite a while.”
“Yes, I imagine it would. Look, Spillman let’s quit playing games. We both know you fenced that bond for the crowd that knocked over the Barr Building. Tell us who they are and where the rest of the bonds are, and we’ll have a good word to say for you to the D.A.
“You’re making a mistake, Captain. I’m not fencing no bonds for nobody.”
I was about to try another approach when I was called outside to talk with Hugh McEnroe, the detective I’d sent to shake down Spillman’s office. Another man was with him.
“I think we’ve got the right pigeon, Captain,” Hugh said. “I found a receipt for a safety deposit box made out to an Allen Stevens in Spillman’s desk. I took it over to the bank and had a talk with these gentleman – he’s the assistant manager. He told me that the box was rented on the morning of February 6, the day of the robbery. The bank opened the box for me. This is what was in it.” He pulled some papers out of a large manila envelope. They were all the stocks and some of the bonds stolen from Charles Froessel’s safe.
I led the bank manager inside and pointed to Spillman. “Is this the man who rented the safety deposit box on February 6?” “Yes, sir,” the banker replied. “That’s the one.”
Spillman had nothing to say except that he wanted a lawyer. I ordered him booked for receiving stolen property. Then I began investigating all of Spillman’s criminal friends. It turned out to be unnecessary, however.
Working for 18 consecutive hours with silver nitrate and ultra violet rays, the men at the Police Technical Research Bureau had come up with every identifiable fingerprint on the bond Spillman cashed in. Checked against police records, three of these prints were of a 28-year-old Brooklyn tough who had already served one sentence for armed robbery and beaten the rap four other times. His name was Augie Faucetta. He was neither an underworld wheel nor a big brain, but for a dependable hood who could take orders on a big safe-cracking job, he was a good bet.
I promptly put a tail on Augie and began quizzing everyone he knew. This led us to a cheap hotel on Broadway.
“Augie spends a lot of time there,” one of his cronies said. “He got friends who live there or something.”
That same day, Detective Hugh McEnroe stationed himself at the hotel. We didn’t hear from him for two days, but when he finally did return to headquarters, he had big news.
“That’s Augie’s hangout, all right, but he’s not the only one. That place is like the Rogues Gallery come to life. I saw more hoods in that lobby than we get in the lineup on a good day. And who do you suppose Faucetta’s best buddies are? Red Crowley, Joe McKenna and Charlie Rozea. They spent four hours together in Room 216 last night. “
There was a long silence in the squad room when Hughie was finished. He had made a real find and we all knew it. Crowley, McKenna and Rozea all had long police records. As a team they were capable of anything. There was no question about what we had to do.
Anyone hanging around the lobby of the hotel just before midnight on February 26 probably didn’t notice the two men taking to the desk clerk. They looked like they were asking for a room. A third man stood idly by the switchboard, seemingly asleep on his feet. There was certainly nothing in the picture to get excited about.
The picture changed an instant after I walked into the lobby with Hugh McEnroe. Suddenly the men at the desk weren’t interested in a room anymore. They were detectives and they had a job to do.
The clerk and two bellboys were ordered into a back room, and my men took over at the desk. The man standing at the switchboard came to life, too. He relieved the regular operator with the barest, “Pardon me, buddy,” and quickly disconnected every outside wire. The hotel was sealed off tight. It was primed for one of the most spectacular police raids in the annals of the Jamaica squad.
With the co-operation of Manhattan detectives, 30 special officers had surrounded the hotel. As soon as we had taken over the lobby and ushered all the loiterers into a paddy wagon, ten detectives moved inside and began shaking down every room in the building. In groups of five, every man or woman with a criminal record was taken to headquarters. I noticed two officers hustle Faucetta, Rozea and McKenna outside, but I didn’t give them a second glance. Let them sweat a while.
Before 1 A.M., the job was done, and don so well that when Red Crowley strolled into the lobby at 12:45 his jaw almost hit the ground at the reception waiting for him.
“You’re under arrest, Red,” I told him.
“Playing with fire crackers, that’s what for. Come on.”
With the co-operation of Manhattan detectives, 30 special officers had surrounded the hotel. As soon as we had taken over the lobby and ushered all the loiterers into a paddy wagon, ten detectives moved inside and began shaking down every room in the building. In groups of five, every man or woman with a criminal record was taken to headquarters.Captain Henry Flattery
That same night, we released 11 of the 20 people we’d picked up. Preliminary questioning showed they had no connection with the Froessel job. Later, others were turned loose and we concentrated on the men we were really interested in: Crowley, McKenna, Rozea and Faucetta.
Crowley by now was living up to his image of the hard-as-nails hood. “You ain’t got a thing on me,” he said, “and I ain’t got a thing to say to the cops.”
McKenna, known as the Professor because he had read a book once, admitted he frequented the hotel, but only because his girlfriend lived there. “I don’t know anything about a safe job.”
Rosea sang the same tue time after time: “I’m on parole, fellas,” he kept whining, “I wouldn’t do nothing dumb.”
Augie was the one who really threw us, though. We figured that his prints on the bond would shake him up…but he didn’t even bat an eye when we showed it to him. “Yeah, I seen it before,” he admitted. “Fellow name of Spillman showed it to me a couple of weeks ago. Asked me did I ever see a bond before and I said no. So he let me hold it.”
And that’s the way it went, all that night and all through the next day; we couldn’t budge them.
But the raid on the hotel was far from a total loss. Lieutenant Ray Honan, having checked out all the telephone slips charged to Room 216, turned up a shocker; two of the calls were to Jamaica numbers…one to the office and the other to the residence of Attorney Joseph Gallup . It had been Gallup’s office in the Barr Building that was ransacked but, as it later developed, not robbed.
For a long moment, Honan and I stared at each other, each thinking the same thoughts. Could it be that Gallup had fingered Froessel’s safe for Crowley? Was he the answer to how the stickup men go into the building on the night of February 6? Did Gallup let them into his office before the building was shut down for the night? The watchman, trying Gallups locked door at 10 p.m. would have no way of knowing that a band of safecrackers was waiting inside.
If Gallup had been working with Crowley’s mob under the guise of a respectable law practice, the whole thing would fit together perfectly – we would have our fingerman, our fence and the safecrackers all in one package.
As far as a jury was concerned, however, the evidence was still mostly conjecture. The best we could hope for on what we had at the moment was to put Spillman, the fence, away for a couple of years on a receiving-stolen-property charge. We had little on Crowley and his boys, even less on Gallup. He was an upright citizen without any links to the underworld – except two telephone calls from Room 216.
That same day, even this slender thread was severed. Called down to headquarters, Gallup had a ready explanation for the calls. He was preparing a divorce action in which Joe McKenna was to be a witness. McKenna had telephoned him twice to get some details straightened out.
It was hard to believe that the long arm of coincidence could reach out that far, but we had no choice except to swallow Gallup’s story.
It got worse before it got better. Despite almost three weeks of persistent questioning, not one of the men picked up at the hotel talked. On March 9, they were released.
Ten days later, a union leader was murdered on Manhattan’s West Side docks. Following a lead, detectives raided a West 90th Street apartment and uncovered an arsenal of machine guns, rifles, silencers and 4000 rounds of ammunition. Hovering stupidly over the whole works, like a hen guarding her errant chicks, was none other than Joe McKenna. He was reading another book.
Although he managed to wriggle free of the murder charge, McKenna was quickly convicted of violating the Sullivan Law – about two dozen counts – and was handed a 7-to-14-year prison sentence.
One down, five to go.
A month later, number two was tucked safely behind bars. Spillman was handed a 20-year-to-life sentence for receiving stolen property. And here, in his moment of greatest adversity, Spillman blundered. In a private conference with his wife, he revealed the whereabouts of another $2500 of Foessel’s government bonds; they were in another safety deposit box. When Mrs. Spillman showed up there to get them, two detectives relieved her of the key. The long weeks they’d spent shadowing her had finally paid off.
Number three was Crowley himself. Apparently willing to try anything once – so long as it was against the law – Red had kidnaped the son of a New York State political leader. Captured, he broke out of Jamesville prison, was taken again and this time moved to Leavenworth where he began working off a 30-year Federal sentence.
By now, Augie Faucetta must have grown lonesome. He tried to make some new friends. They were the wrong kind again. Augie was picked up for a payroll robbery and got 30 to 60 years. As the saying goes, that wasn’t the half of it. There was more, much more, in store for Augie.
So there we were. Only Rozea among our prime suspects for the Froessel job was free now, and he was being kept under constant surveillance. To anyone but a cop, this might seem like a job well done: four of the five men we had been after were serving long prison terms. What difference if they had been tried on other charges?
The answer to that is: it makes all the difference in the world. Until the Froessel case came to trial, it remained wide open in police department records, a galling situation to every officer who had participated in the investigation. Furthermore, whether it was Gallup or someone else, I was convinced that Froessel’s office had been fingered, that the gunmen had been admitted to the building and hidden by that same person. And whoever he was, that man was walking free on the streets this very moment.
Meanwhile, the stolen bonds kept turning up in various parts of the country. Although everyone was traced as far back as it could be, we never once got a lead on their point of origin. Finally, on September 29, almost eight months after the robbery, the last batch appeared in Morristown, M.J. When we failed to penetrate the blind thrown up to mask this transaction, we had to cross out the bonds themselves as a potential source of information.
I had one last idea. As a precaution, I had maintained a part-time tail on Mrs. Spillman. When the report came in that she was in financial trouble, I decided to convey the sad tidings to Spillman himself. Remembering the concern he had shown for his wife’s welfare after his trial, I thought there was a chance he’d lose his temper when he heard how poorly fixed his comrades-in-arms had left her.
“You’re wasting your time,” were his first words when he saw me.
“I don’t think so, Spillman,” I said. “Seen your wife lately?”
“What about it?”
“I hear she’s not doing too well.”
He stared at the ceiling.
“I hear the boys didn’t take care of her, that she’s out working day and night to make enough money to get by on.”
“Lay off, Flattery. I got nothing to say to you.”
“Why don’t you wise up, Fred? Your buddies welched and your wife’s paying for it. Now they’re doing time and they can’t hurt you or help her.”
“So play it smart, and you’ll be free in a couple of years. Be stubborn and we’ll lodge a robbery warrant against you. That’ll take care of your chance of parole. You’ll do every last day of that 20 years.”
He was quiet for a long time. He wasn’t looking at the ceiling any more.
“Were you in on the stickup, Fred?”
“Crowley, McKena, Faucetta and Rozea. Crowley ripped the can.”
“Who fingered it?”
Gallup. We went up to his office one at a time that afternoon. He locked us in and left at seven. We messed up his place to make it look good, then came out and went to work.”
“Fred,” I said tensely, “will you tell all this to a jury?”
“Will you get me off the robbery rap?”
I called for a guard and a stenographer. Then I heaved a big sigh. We were about to unwind the Froessel case.
As it turned out, we almost lost it again. Gallup had disappeared. For months we hunted down every lead to find him, but we had no luck.
In December, 1939, just two months before the statute of limitations on the Froessel case would have barred prosecution, an officer shadowing Charlie Rozea–who had never been out of our sight for long—followed him into an uptown apartment building. When Charlie didn’t show by 3:30 in the morning, the detective entered the apartment into which Rozea had disappeared. Charlie was still inside. With him was Joseph Gallup.
With Spillman as State’s witness, the trial was open and shut. Crowley, Rozea, McKenna and Faucetta were each sentenced to from 30 years to 60 years. These terms would not begin until the men had completed their current sentences. Their chances of ever getting out of prison alive are not bright. Gallup drew a 15-to-30-year sentence and faces embezzlement charges when he gets out.
Fred Spillman was not prosecuted on the robbery charge, but he didn’t know a good break when he got one. Weeks after his release from prison, he was back in; he’d developed a small burglary business which he operated whenever newspaper death notices assured him that his victims wouldn’t be home. It took us three such burglaries to catch up with the pattern.
On the fourth one, we caught up with Fred Spillman.
And so, more than four years after the robbery, we were able to make the Froessel case closed. In doing so, we broke up one of Queens County’s most dangerous gangs, not with police heroics or dime novel brainwork, but by patient, persistent — and often aggravating—plugging away at every lead, every angle.
The Wake of the Dawn Patrol
At Jamaica Avenue and Merrick Rd. a motorman saw a waiting taxi, its motor racing. Just around the corner was Mahairas’ restaurant.
Detectives James Sabatino, now Lieutenant, and Theodore Burger, helped solve mystery that surrounded slaying of the café owner.
The white-jacketed figure uttered the one piercing cry and then collapsed to the sidewalk.
At Jamaica Avenue and Merrick Rd., (below), a motorman saw a waiting taxi, its motor racing. Just around the corner was Mahairas’ restaurant.
Two hundred yards farther up the street Patrolman Cornelius McKenna wheeled as he heard the call. He turned in time to see a man fall in front of an entrance to a restaurant on Jamaica Avenue near Merrick Road in Queens, Long Island, part of suburban New York City. Across the street two pedestrians halted as they heard the cry and then hurried toward the motionless figure. Otherwise, the officer noted, the broad thoroughfare was deserted.
As he bent over the man on the sidewalk, Patrolman McKenna recognized him as Angelo Mahairas, one of the owners of the all-night restaurant. He lay on the street just two feet from the doorway of his establishment. He had a fresh cut and bruise on his chin. He was unconscious and his breathing was labored.
“Looks like he had a heart attack,” one of the pedestrians ventured.
McKenna straightened and pointed to the white jacket. A red stain was beginning to spread on the left side.
“This man was just shot over the heart,” he said. “Did either of you see or hear anything?”
“No, we only heard him call the word ‘police’ and then saw him drop. We didn’t hear any shots or see anybody run away.”
The officer stared somberly at the two men. “Neither did I,” he declared in a puzzled voice. He searched the dining room and kitchen of the restaurant. No one was inside. The back door of the building was locked. McKenna looked at his watch and entered the time in his memorandum book. It was 5:20 A.M..
Within five minutes Detectives Theodore Burger, James Sabatino and Horace Holden arrived from Jamaica Police Headquarters, only a block away, to be followed shortly by Dr. James Rizzi of nearby Mary Immaculate Hospital.
The physician applied his stethoscope. “D.O.A.,” he announced. Mahairas had died while the call was being put through for the ambulance.
Detective Burger examined the two cash registers in the restaurant. The one near the front door contained less than a dollar in small change. The second one, located near the kitchen entrance, held $70 in bills and silver.
“Doesn’t look as if robbery was the motive,” Burger said.
Sabatino stopped his two companions in the kitchen and pointed to the wall opposite a large refrigerator. An ice pick was imbedded in the wall at about the height of a man’s head. Above it was a calendar with the date marked off. It was Sunday, March 21st. The dawn had ushered in spring—and violent death.
“Here’s where it probably took place,” Sabatino reconstructed. “There was some kind of a fight. Mahairas picked up the ice pick and threw it at the man with the gun. It might have been in self defense. He missed but the man with the gun didn’t. The shot would be muffled by this room and an elevated train passing by outside could have drowned out the rest of the noise. That would account for no on hearing the shot.”
Lieutenant Martin J. Brown, commanding officer of the detective squad, entered the restaurant. “Sounds plausible,” he commented after hearing Sabatino’s theory. “We’ll have to contact the dead man’s friends and relatives and find out if he had any enemies. We also have to round up all those who were in the restaurant within the last hour. Maybe one of them overheard something that might be a clue.”
“I can help you out on that,” McKenna offered. “I was here about forty five minutes ago. I was walking by on my post and dropped in for a glass of water. Three men were inside at the time. One was just finishing his coffee and left while I was here. The other two were sitting a ta table. Both were dark and stocky. I noticed them because they were wearing fedora hats but no overcoats, even though it is cold outside. Then I figured their coats could have been in a car parked in front. It was a brand-new Hudson with an 8-C series plate.”
“We should be able to trace the car,” Lieutenant Brown said. “There won’t be many brand-new Hudsons with an 8-C plate.”
“The Russian!” McKenna suddenly exclaimed.
“What Russian?” the detectives asked.
“I forgot about him for the moment, the officer said. “He’s missing. He’s the cook here. When I came in the first time I smelled crullers cooking and Mahairas told me the chef was making a batch for the breakfast trade.”
“That may be the answer,” Brown said. “Cooks have a reputation for being tempermental. There could have been an argument and then a quick trigger. If the Russian is the man we want, he won’t be hard to find.”
The words were hardly out of the Lieutenant’s mouth when a key was inserted in the rear door and a moment later a tall, gaunt, black-haired man stepped into the kitchen. He was wearing an overcoat over a white uniform.
“He’s the cook,” the patrolman said.
“Did you get them?” the chef asked in a trembling voice.
“Get who?” Lieutenant Brown replied with a query of his own.
“The tree men. One of them shot and killed Mahairas in front of my eyes.”
Under questioning by the detectives the chef identified himself as Ivan Petrovich. He said he had been in the kitchen making crullers and Mahairas had been chopping ice for the butter trays when two men entered the room with drawn guns. It was 5:15 A.M.
“They told me and the boss to empty our pockets and then put up our hands,” he related. “I had $70 in my back p ocket and threw it on the steam table. One of the men picked it up. THe other, a thin young fellow who seemed to be the leader, was standing in front of Mahairas.
“He took the ice pick from the boss’s hand and threw it into the opposite wall. “You might scratch yourself with this,” he told him. The boss thought he was joking and told him to stop fooling. But he knew it wasn’t a joke when he heard the third man, who was standing in the dining-room watching the door, ring open the first cash register. The boss got mad and pushed the gun away. The fellow shot him and they all ran out.”
“Why didn’t you notify police?”
“I was afraid and ran away out of the back,” the other replied in heavily accented English.
Lieutenant Brown studied the man.
“You’ll have to explain a few other things,” he said. “I want to know why you stopped to lock the back door and how it is that none of the witnesses saw any of your three men run away from the restaurant. They couldn’t have followed you out of the rear exit.”
“I didn’t do it,” the other insisted.
“There was $70 in the cash register but the robbers took $70 from you . Why did you have so much money with you while you were working?”
“I live in a rooming-house where somebody could steal it.”
“Scout around and see if you can find anything to back up his story,” Brown directed Sabatino and Holden. He returned to Headquarters with Burger and the witnesses.
Detectives Henry Flattery and John O’Brien were in the squad room when the Lieutenant entered.
“We were out when the report on the homicide came in,” Flattery said. “A diner on Hillside Avenue near Parsons Boulevard was held up.”
“About five o’clock. Six men, one of them a hack driver, walked int the luch wagon and had something to eat. Only two people were there. Austin Hurley, the counterman, and Albert Schob, who was making a milk delivery. The six of them ordered something to eat, paid for it and left. A few minutes later three of them came in again. Two of them had guns. Schob said one was a revolver and other an automatic. The third man held a knife in his hand. They emptied the cash register and beat it. Hurly and Schob said they made their get-away in a Luxor cab.”
“Cased the place first and when they saw it wasn’t so tough they pulled the job,” Brown remarked. “Looks like the beginning of a nice spring. A murder and a stickup and the day is just beginning. What next?”
Flattery’s blue eyes were serious. “Plenty,” he replied and tossed over a piece of pager. “This alarm came through a little while ago. The Cake Eater Mob pulled another stickup tonight, this time in Harlem. They walked into a chop suey place at 3 A.M. waved their guns at more than twenty guests and left with the receipts. As usual, they escaped without a trace.”
“I’ glad they’re staying on the other side of the bridge,” Brown said.
“That’s the point,” Flattery replied. “They’re not. I compared the description on the alarm with the one given me by the counterman. They match to a T.”
Lieutenant Brown was silent for a while. A new criminal gang was sweeping through the city. In a little over a month they had stage more than thirty robberies, som so bold that they had succeeded simply because of their audacity. Robbers seldom invade croweded dining-rooms and other public places because the chances of capture are so much greater. Yet time after time the gang had done just that. Several times they had sprayed lead to make good their escape. The Lieutenant knew that it was only a question of time before one of the victims would resist and death would follow.
Although many traps had been set for them by an alert detective force, the mob vanished after each holdup. Part of their evil success in avoiding capture swas due to their appearance. The description of the men always agreed on one point. They were always dressed in the latest of fashions. Newspapers promptly dubbed the bandits the “Cake Eater Mob,” and reporteres conjectured on the possibility that the were wealth thrill-seeking youths. Enough victims had thumbed through Rogues’ Gallery pictures for police to know that noe of the men had a criminal record.
“I suppose things are getting too hot for them in Manhattan and Brooklyn, so they’re coming into Queens,” Brown said to Flattery. “If we can crack the chef and clean up this murder, I’ll work with you on the other case.”
Petrovich was questioned for an hour by an assistant district attorney. “His story is full of holes, yet he seems sincere,” the Prosecutor said. “If he’s lying he should have thought up a better yarn than the one he’s been giving us.”
Detectives Sabatino and Holden canvassed the neighborhood and questioned cruising taxi-drivers and the ticket agents on both the elevated lines and the Long Island Railroad. No men answering the vague description of the trio given by Petrovich had been seen.
Sabatino watched a trolley car pull into the depot at the corner of Jamaica Avenue and 168th Street, only a block from the scene. “That’s an idea,” he said. “Let’s find out if any of the motormen saw anything suspeicious.”
From the man on duty the detectives learned that a street car had been scheduled to leave the corner just two minutes before the murder. THe company supplied the name of the motorman. “He finished his run and is through for the night,” a dispatcher informed them.
The pair hurried to the motorman’s home in Woodhaven and awakened him. “I left on time,” he told them.
“Pulled out empty. There was nobody on the street.”
“Did you see any automobile parked near the restaurant?
The motorman shook his head. “There was nothing doing at all. The only thing I did see was a taxicab parked arund the corner on Merrick Road with the motor running. There was nothing suspicious about that because I could see some men sitting in it. I figured the driber was getting instructions. It was one of those new checker cabs.”
Sabatino and Holden returned to Headquarters. “No trace of the three men, if there actually were any,” the detectives reported.
Brown’s eyes widened as he heard the story told by the motorman. “Petrovich may be telling the truth after all,” he said. “Mahairas could have been killed by the Cake Eater Mob. The description the cook gave us doesn’t tally with the others so well, but that often happens. He did say they were well dressed. The gang that got away from the diner used the same kind of a taxi.”
“Those cabs are the latest rage,” one of the detectives pointed out. “Almost every other taxi on the street is that kind.”
At the suggestion of the district attorney, Petrovich was held as a material witness while the investigation continued. “We’re still not sure if he’s in the clear,” the Prosecutor said. “We will need his testimony as an eye-witness if the Cake Eater Mob actually committed the murder, and if our investigation uncoveres any evidence agains him, we will have him where he can’t get away.”
He then read through a report on the activity of the gan. “You’ve got a real job on your hands. First you will have to find these men before we can tell if they killed Mahairas. That’s some order!”
“My men will do it,” the Lieutenant responded quietly. His pride in his squad was matched by their achievements on record in official files. As Brown rose in the ranks to the position of inspector which he fills today, many of his men kept pace with his progress. Flattery is now captain of the detective division where he once served as a precinct sleuth, and HOlden and Sabatino are both lieutenants, the latter in command of the confidential detective squad assigned to District Attorney Charles P. Sullivan.
But as the days passed, Lieutenant Brown wondered whether his confident words would come home to plague him. The Cake Eater Mob had disappeared. His men were working day and night seeking the taxi used in the crime. The Lieutenant, however, was not overlooking any other phase of the investigation into the death of Mahairas.
With the information supplied by Patrolman McKenna, Flattery, Sabatino and Burger succeeded in tracing the new Hudson car which had been parked in the front of the restaurant the night of the murder. The owner was a race-horse trainer and had stopped off at the restaurant for a bite to eat before going to the Belmont track to supervise the exercising of several thoroughbreds He had been in the restaurant with a friend. The two men answered the description of the fedora wearers supplied by the patrolman.
But at the time of the shooting, both these men had been at the track in full for of exercise boys, other trainers and track employees.
Jerry Mahairas, co-owner of the restaurant and a cousin of the slain man, revealed that he was supposed to have worked the night Angelo was killed.
“I had a cold and wasn’t feeling well, so my cousin told me he would take my place, even though he had worked all day on his regular shift.”
He said he knew of no enemies Engelo might have had. “Nobody had any reason to kill him,” he added. “He never refused a food handout even to an out-and-out bum.”
The detectives also probed into the background of Petrovich. THe chef had fled from the Russian revolution and had worked in various parts of the country and Canada since his arrival. Jerry Mahairas as well as customers of the restaurant agreed that the slain man and the chef always had been on friendly terms. ‘police’?” the lieutenant asked Neail.
“He could,” the physician replied. “The bullet pierced the right auricle. Death was caused by the ensuing hemorrhage and a
Dr. Howard. Neail, the assistant medical examiner who performed the autopsy, reported that Mahairas had been killed by a .32 caliber bullet that had entered the heart.
“Could he have run seventy feet from the kitchen through the dining-room with a bullet in his heart and then out into the street where he shouted ‘Police’?” the lieutenant asked Neail.
“He could,” the physician replied. “The bullet pierced the right auricle. Death was caused by the ensuing hemorrhage and was not instantaneous.”
“That upholds part of the chef’s story,” the lieutenant said.
Brown sifted through reports turned in by his men. All bus drivers working in Jamaica that night had been questioned. One of them reported that he had seen a crowd in front of the restaurant during the early morning of the murder and asked what had happened.
“I was told the owner had just had a heart attack,” he said. “I pulled out on my run a little while after that. I picked up a fare while driving east on Central Avenue. He told me to be careful in going down that street. I asked him what was the matter. ‘A taxi just flew down that way,’ the passenger told me. I asked him if the cab was going that fast. ‘It was going so fast that it was ten feet off the ground,’ he answered.”
Brown considered the strange conversation between the driver and the unidentified bus passenger. The lieutenant knew that most cabs race through the streets during the early hours of the morning. The taxi had been traveling east, which would have taken it somewhere farther out on Long Island.
“The mob we want have their hideout in Manhattan, and not on the Island,” he observed. “It’s too open out there.”
“Suppose they doubled back on their tracks,” Sabatino suggested.
“You’ve got something there,” the lieutenant said. “Get a list of all the taxis in accidents that night.”
“Why accidents?” inquired the detective.
“The cab must have been going unusually fast even for that time in the morning.” Brown replied. “The bus driver said he ocassionally picked up the same passenger during the early hours of the morning, so the passenger is used to seeing speeding taxis. If it was traveling fast enough to get that kind of comment from him, the driver was inviting disaster.”
A list of all taxi cabs in the city involved in accidents the morning of the murder was completed. Neighboring Nassau County police reported that no Checker cabs had been in any mishap. Brown summoned Detectives Burger, Flattery, Sabatino, Holden and O’Brien.
“Check on every hackle on this list. One of them may be the driver for the Cake-Eater Mob.”
The detectives split into groups and canvassed the list. They first questioned the cabbies in Queens and then in Manhattan. Late that afternoon, Burger, Flattery and Sabatino went to Brooklyn to interview the last man on their list.
“He had his crackup at almost eight o’clock, three hours after the murder,” Burger said.
“Doesn’t look too promising,” the others agreed.
A man with his arm in a sling answered the doorbell. “I’m Ralph Kobak,” he admitted.
“I’m from the hack bureau,” Burger said. “I just wanted to make a routine check on the cause of your accident.”
“It was nothing,” the driver declared, inviting the detective into his apartment. “I was all through and going home for the night when this other fellow smacked into me, turned my cab over and broke my arm. Five minutes and I’d have been home. “
“Did you have a busy night?”
“One of the best in years, but I can do without another one like that.”
“What was the matter?” Burger asked.
“I picked up some crazy young fellows and drove them all over town. They spent money like water and drank booze as if it came out of a tap. They looked like college boys out on a spree.”
“Snappy. They gave me a nice tip, too.” Burger’s eyes narrowed in thougth. Did you take them out to Jamaica?”
“Sure I did. THey must have thought I was Ben Hur. They kept making me drive faster all the time.”
A few minutes later the taxi driver was rush to Jamaica Headquarters where he was questioned by Lieutenant Brown. Kobak said that he he had picked up five men on Park Abenue and 68th Street at four-thirty in the morning.
“We’re only going out for a ride on Long Island an will come right back,” one of them told the cabbie.
“I figured it would be a good break for me,” Kobak continued. “I drove across the Queensboro Bridge and one of them kept telling me where to turn. They told me they were hungry and I stopped at a diner on Hillside Avenue. They insisted that I come in and have a sandwich with them and they paid for it.”
“What happened after you left the diner?” Brown asked.
“My starter wouldn’t work. It got jammed Three of my passengers said they’d go back to the diner for another cup of coffee while I fixed the trouble. A couple of minutes later one of the other fellows lifted up the hood and found a loose wire. RIght after that the others came out and I drove away.”
“Didn’t you hear anybody shout?”
“You couldn’t hear yourself think,” the other replied. “There was a milk truck parked outside the diner with the motor running and before the trhee went back inside one of them climbed up and pulled out the throttle to race the engine. It made a loud racket.”
The officers exchanged glances. The Cake Eater Mob thought of all angles.
“I drove to Merrick Road,” Kobak related, “when they told me to stop again. They said they wanted to find some place where they could get a bottle of whisky. The same three went away. A few minutes later they came running back and told me to get going, that they couldn’t get what they wanted. They kept yelling at me to step on it and when I didn’t drive fast enough, one of them put a gun to my head. I got scared and started speeding.”
“Weren’t you suspicious?”
“Sure I was. I drove all the way to Lynbrook when they told me to turn around. I made believe I was running out of gas and stopped at a station. I whispered to the guy there that I had a couple of holdup men in the car. He looked inside and saw them laughing and drinking and drinking and thought I was kidding him. Later I thought I had got excited for nothing. I drove right back the same way I came and none of them looked scared. When I got to Manhattan one of them asked me if I wanted to take them to Connecticut. I told them I was too tired. I dropped off some of them at 85th Street and Third Avenue and the rest at 92nd Street and Second Avenue. The bill was nine dollars and one of them game me a two dollar tip. The way they were laughing so unconcerned I thought the must habe been having fun with me when they pulled the gun, so I forgot about it.”
The detectives soon verified the taxi-driver’s story. The gas station attendant remembered the incident. “They were all dress so well, I thought the cabbie was joking,” he admitted.
“I wonder if they were pulling a phony with that Connecticut story,” Brown said.
Kobak furnished the same description as the one given by the victims in the diner. “I don’t think any of them were over twenty years old,” the cabbie said. “One of them wore a derby hat and patent leather shoes. I think I heard him called “Red.” The fellow who seemed to make most of the decisions was called “Herbie.” I got the idea that he was the leader of the bunch. I didn’t hear anything else.”
Brown contacted Lieutenant Thomas F. Dugan, head of the detective squad at the 67th Street station house in Manhattan.
“I don’t recognize any of them from the description,” Dugan said, “but that fits in with the theory that none of them has ever been arrested before. I’ll have my men go around and see what they can pick up.”
That night, detectives rounded up a series of suspects and brought them to the station house for questioning. “I never knew there were so many fellows named Herbert,” one detective remarked as he entered the squad office with another suspect. But all were released when none of them answered the description of the gang leader.
Other detectives posing as door-to-door salesmen, gas and electric meter inspectors, swarmed through the neighborhood and engaged housewifes in conversation. Any item of gossip that appeared suspicious was immediately checked.
Finally Dugan telephoned Brown. “If any of them live around here, they’ve certainly covered their tracks.
“How about the Connecticut angle?” Brown asked.
“I’m working on that now,” Dugan replied. “My men are out trying to get a list of people in the neighborhood who have suddenly left the city since the murder.”
A superintendent of an apartment house on 94th Street listened to the description of the wanted men and shook his head. “Nobody that fancy lives here,” he remarked. “The only tenants I know who are aout of town are two sisters up on the fifth floor. I haven’t seen them around since last week-end, but they go away every once in a while.”
“Give that lead a whirl,” Dugan directed when his men reported to him. “Everything else has petered out.”
Two hours later Dugan spoke to Brown. “We might be on the track of something,” he said. “One of the sisters has a boyfriend named Herbert, but no one knows where he lives. My men found out that the sisters are close friends of Mrs. Green. Neighbors said Mrs. Green and her husband, Jimmy, left for a trip Sunday. I’m posting a watch at both places. “
At eight-fifteen the following morning a taxi pulled up in front of Green’s home on 82nd Street and three men and a woman got out and entered the apartment. The watching detectives flashed a report to Headquarters.
A few minutes later Lieutenant Dugan received another report that the sisters had returned home.
A half-hour later he entered the aprtment followed by Detectives Emil Mack, Martin Solomon and Edward Pollak Green and his wife and the other three men were seated around a table playing cards.
Dugan flashed his badge.
“What do you want with me?” Green asked. “I haven’t done anything.”
We heard you left town in a hurry,” the lieutenant replied.
“Not at all. We planned to go away for a weeks vacation a long time ago.”
“But your week isn’t up,” Dugan pointed out.
“It was too cold, so we came back.”
At the station house the other men identified themselves as Herbert Korber and Richard Daunt. THey denied killing Mahairas or sticking up the restaurant.
Lieutenants Dugan and Brown took turns at quetioning the trio. The taxi-driver was brought to the stationhouse. “They’re the fellows I drove to Jamaica,” he said.
“Sure, he did,” Korber replied. “We were at a party and wanted to get some air so we drove out to the Island, but that doesn’t make us killers.”
“But it makes you robbers,” Bron replied. “You held up a diner on Hillside Avenue.”
Petrovich was brought into the room where the other prsoners were.
“There’s the man who fired the shot,” he accused, pointing at Korber.
“You’re crazy,” the other retorted, “I never saw you before.”
Brown and Dugan held a consultation in another office. “We’ll need some proof to pin this job on them,” Brown said. “Our evidence isn’t strong enough to stand up in court.”
“The girl friend may be the weak link. Let’s try that angle.”
The two lieutenants again faced the prisoners. “We’re booking the whole lot of you,” announced Dugan. “I’m sending out my men to bring in your girlfriend.”
“Keep her out of this,” Korber protested.
“You brought her in,” answered Dugan.
“You left town with her after you killed Mahairas and that makes her an accessory after the fact.”
Korber leaped out of his chair. “She had nothing to do with it,” he shouted. “She didn’t know anybody was killed!”
The prisoner sat down abruptly. “You win,” he said. “I’ll talk.”
Korber admitted being the trigger-man. “I was drunk and didn’t know anybody was killed!”
The prisoner sat down abruptly. “You win,” he said. “I’ll talk.”
Korber admitted being the trigger-man. “I was drunk and didn’t know what I was doing,” he pleaded. He sad that on the night of the murder he had gone to a show “Mondkey Talks, on Broadway with his sweetheart and several other members of the gang. After the show the group went to a cabaret and about 2 A.M. took the girls home.
Korber, Daunt and Green then went on to a masquerade ball where they spent a half-hour. At the ball they met Gustav Fischer and Frederick Kellerman. From there they went to the chop suey place, where they staged their first holdup of the evening.
While police were searching for them they were calmly enjoying the entertainment in a Harlem cabaret. When they felt the coast was clear they left the night club by taxi. They dismmissed the driver at Park Avenue and 68th Street and hired Kobak.
“What did you do with all the money you stole?” they were asked.
“Spent it for clothes, liquor and cabarets,” Korber replied. “I always had to hold Daunt’s money for him because when he got drunk he would throw it away. “
THe hardened officers stroked thier chins in thoughtful silence when Korber and Green stated they were eighteen years old and that Daunt was only seventeen.
“I always had to get half-lit for courage,” Daunt admitted.
Detectives Sabatino and Burger quickly brought in Kellerman and Fischer. Neither had gone to Connecticut with the others.
“We didn’t know anything about the holdups,” these two insisted. “We met Korber, Daunt and Green at the masquerade and they invited us to go riding with them.”
Korber said that they usually hid the guns used by the gang in the basement of the apartment house where his girl friend lived. The death weapon was found hidden under some charred paper in a fireplace in Green’s apartment.
The woman owner of a boarding house in Danbury revealed that Korber, Daunt and Green had spent three days after the murder at her house.
“I had to put them out,” she said. “All they did was play cards and drink all night long. I got nervous when one of them bought a gun and they spent all afternoon trying to improve their marksmanship.”
Four days after their arrest, all five were indicted for first degree murder and three weeks after the murder, Korber was placed on trial.
Assistant District Attorney Charles W. Froessel, now a State Supreme Court Judge, was assigned to prosecute. Foressel had questioned the prisoners after their arrest.
During a bitter, five-day trial, Korber denied that he had confessed to the crime. He admitted being in the restaurant but said that he asked Mahairas if he could buy a drink.
“He told me to come to the back,” the prisoner testified. “All of a sudden he made a grab for me. I ran out of the store. He jumped on top of me and I suppose during the struggle my gun went off. I didn’t hear it and I didn’t know he was shot until the police arrested me.”
Froessel quickly ripped Korber’s story to shreds. “Where did you carry your gun?” he asked.
“In my hip pocket,” the prisoner replied.
The Prosecutor then showed that it would have been impossible for the gun to go off in Korber’s rear pocket and the shot strike Mahairas in the chest.
“The gun went off all right,” he commented, “but Korber was holding it in his hand and he pulled the trigger.”
As the last desperate hope, the defense traced the childhood of Korber. His mother, a janitress, had died when he was fourteen years old, leaving him an orphan. “Poor little Herbert. He never had a chance,” his attorney pleaded.
The jury’s reply was prompt. On April 10th, 1926, Korber was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair.
THree days later, Daunt, Green, Fischer and Kellerman pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and were sentenced from twenty years to life imprsonment by County Judge Frank Adel.
A new trial was granted to Korber on a technical ground. Because the other four defendants had escaped the electric chair, the second jury convicted him of second-degree murder on February 7th, 1927, and Judge Adel also sentenced him to a term of twenty years to life imprisonment at Sing Sing.
Note: The name of Ivan Petrovich as used in the story is fictitious to protect the identity of an innocent man.