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.