People often ask me if I have ever run up against the perfect crime. The answer is no, chiefly because there are no perfect criminals — and no perfect corpses. Every homicide has a message for the trained investigator, a lead the murderer never meant to leave behind, a weak spot that can be probed. If you want a machine to do a special job, you check the wires and tighten the bolts and you’re set. But murderers aren’t machines. They’re human beings — and wherever human beings are “involved, weakness is involved too; some character fault that wouldn’t matter or even be noticed in normal circumstances. Fused into the stress of murder, though, that fault becomes the weakest link in the killer’s chain of deception and makes the policeman’s job a little easier. The commonest flaw: A craving for women —or a woman.
The faithful ladies of the underworld will do almost anything for their gangster husbands and sweethearts — sometimes even help them get caught.
I remember a case in which the murderer seemed to be trapped in an impassable swamp. On top of that, he had been seen by a witness trained to remember faces. Yet our man was smart enough to make a clean getaway and might be free right now if he hadn’t had an insatiable longing for a woman. It was his bad luck — and our great fortune — that we found out about Marie Jonasi. It marked the end of a long chase.
It began with a telephone call to the Jamaica squad. A game warden had been shot and killed in the Idlewild woods, the areas that today is covered by one of the world’s greatest airports. But on September 29, 1929, it was a wild tangle of woodland and swamp, protected from illegal hunters and poachers by state game wardens. Now one of them had been shot down in pursuit of his duty. It was a fantastic story we heard when we got to the scene, told by a man whose nose and ear had almost been torn from his face by the killer. He was Joseph S. Allen, the dead warden’s partner. While an ambulance surgeon worked to stanch the flow of blood from his face, Allen told this story:
About an hour or so before, he and Game Warden William T. Cramer, crack woodsman and one-time guide of former Governor Alfred E. Smith, had heard a shotgun blast to the south. Moving in cautiously, they had flushed the poacher just as he was about to stuff a dead bird into his pouch. Though frightened, the man gave his name as Joseph Lentini and quietly submitted to arrest. At worst he faced a fine of perhaps $10. Cramer in the lead, the trio started out of the woods.
Suddenly, a giant of a man with wild, black eyes sprang out from behind a bush and blocked their path. In his hands was a double barreled shotgun. Lentini shouted something to him in Italian and, snarling in reply, the big man leveled the shotgun and fired both barrels full into Cramer’s face. At a range of ten feet, the blast tore off the top of the warden’s head.
Reacting instinctively, Allen snapped his pistol out and, firing from the hip, shot the giant through the arm. Roaring with hurt and anger, the killer charged, threw Allen to the ground and began choking the life from him. His teeth asank into Allen’s nose. When Allen wrenched his head around, the giant bit deep into his ear. With the strength of sheer desperation, Allen kicked straight up —and dislodged his assailant. Bleeding and grogge, he staggered to his feet, just in time to see the two men disappear into the woods to the south.
His pistol gone and hovering on the brink of unconsciousness from pain and the loss of blood, Allen decided to go for help. Besides, he knew there was no escape in the direction the killer had headed. On the other side of an impassable, quicksand-studded marsh lay Jamaica Bay. The men would eventually have to turn back and, if Allen could summon help quickly enough, they would be trapped when they reached the main road, which was Rockaway Boulevard.
Taking a last look to make certain his partner was beyond help, Allen staggered to the nearest telephone and called the police. But though we responded inside of ten minutes and quickly had the road covered for two miles in either direction, neither the poacher nor the killer turned up. Either they were still hidden in the high marsh grass along one of the bay’s countless inlets or, more likely, they had doubled right back and made good their escape before Rockaway Boulevard could be blocked off.
The manhunt continued into late afternoon. Working through from the west, a dragnet of police officers swept through every inch of the woods while, offshore, police boats poked into the bay’s inlets and a police plane roared back and forth over the entire scene. But all we got was an epidemic of poison ivy. The quarry had vanished.
What kind of killing was this? Did the wild-eyed giant have a grudge against Cramer? Was it a professional job with roots in some mysterious aspect of the warden’s life?
I doubted it. Professionals don’t run off and leave eyewitnesses to their handiwork.
Allen had said he had never seen the killer before. Nor did it seem to him that Cramer had recognized him in the split second before the shotgun roared. But he couldn’t be certain of that. Motive, it seemed, would have to wait on our flushing the murderer.
We went through the customary routine, checking hospitals for a man with a wounded right arm, searching out Lentini’s address, rounding up all the poachers who had recently been arrested by the dead warden. Because we expected nothing, we were not disappointed by the blank we drew all along the line. The killer hadn’t checked into a hospital; Lentini lived alone in Brooklyn and hadn’t been seen around his flat all day; Cramer’s poachers either had airtight alibis or could contribute nothing constructive.
Close to the murder scene, we got our first break. It was late afternoon when we got to a little street bordering the woods. Set back a few yards from the corner was a ramshackle summer cottage. In front of it was an old green coupe. Cautiously, we pushed openthe unlocked door of the house. There was no one inside its single room. But dirty dishes were piled high in the sink and eggshells and fresh melon rinds were in a brown paper bag on the floor. Under the table was a blood-soaked shirt-sleeve.
“I’d say it’s a pretty good bet our man’s been here,” I said, “and a better bet that the car outside is his. Let’s check it.”
We ran the license plate number through the Motor Vehicle Bureau and came up with the name of Frank Aldino of Brooklyn. On file, too, was a photography of Aldino, as required for the chauffeur’s license for which he had applied. We took the picture to Game Warden Allen.
“Is this the man who shot Cramer?” I asked.
“That’s him! That’s the one, all right!” Allen shouted. “I’ll remember that face for 100 years!”
Now we knew who we were looking for. All we had to do was find him. At the Brooklyn address we found Aldino’s wife, but she was no help at all. “I haven’t seen him for weeks,” she muttered darkly. “He’s a bum.”
We went back to the coupe and stripped the inside. Down under the front seat, we found a grimy sales slip from an auto supply store in Newark, N.J.
“Say,” I muttered, “didn’t that license application show that Aldino had bought his last year’s plates in Jersey?”
We checked back and it did. Aldino seemed to be well acquainted across the river. I telephoned the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Bureau and asked them to run Aldino’s 1928 license plate through their files. In an hour, they called back to say that that number had originally been assigned to a George Darsin of Newark. It was a slim lead but it was the only one we had and we promptly drove across the Hudson River to see Darsin. We got more than we expected. Aldino had not only bought Darsin’s car—he had stolen his girl.
And that’s how we first heard about Marie Jonasi.
“She lives with him off and on,” Darsin mumbled. “I hope you get him good!”
So a woman put us on Aldino’s trail. If we were lucky and the situation followed true to form, she’d bait him into our trap.
Darsin gave us Marie Jonasi’s address and we went directly there. It was an old tenement. No one answered our knock. We let ourselves in with a passkey and, while I waited in the apartment, some of my men went through the building to find out what they could about Marie and her boyfriend. They soon reported back. The neighbors description of a “great big guy” matched what we already knew of Aldino. The trail was hot now and we waited tensely all through the night. But neither Aldino nor his Marie showed up.
By morning, I was convinced that one of them had found out we had their love-nest under guard. Stalking two men close by, the rest of us drove back to Jamaica to wait. At this point, I wasn’t too hepeful. Surely if Aldino had discovered that we knew about his Marie, he’d keep away from her. He hadn’t, after all, committed his crime with guile and deception. He’d killed a man in front of an eyewitness and his only hope was to stay hidden.
“She pulled up with a moving van about an hour ago and took every stick of furniture out of the place. We followed her to another apartment. No sign of Aldino.”
“Good,” I said. “Stick with it. He’ll show before the day’s out or I mmiss my guess.”
If Marie had stayed put, I reasoned, it might have meant Aldino had blown town. But Marie changing apartments in the dead of night could mean only one thing: Aldino wanted to get to her.
That night, Marie Jonasi walked into an Italian restaurant down the street from her new apartment. A Jamaica detective walked in right behind her — and arrested Frank Aldino who sat waiting for his girlfriend in a corner booth.
Once more I headed for Jersey. This time, I went to Newark police headquarters where Aldino sat sullenly denying everything, despite the bullet wound festering in his right arm. He had obviously been afraid to consult a doctor.
We took him back with us, questioning him all the way. But he stubbornly refused to say anything except that his name was Frank Aldino and that his “damn wife” must have sicced us on him.
The break came in the Jamaica station house that night. The longer we grilled Aldino, the more abusive he became and, at one point, he actually shoved two detectives out of his way as he walked from one chair to another. At that, Sergeant Jim Fogarty, a giant of a man himself, rose, lifted Aldino right off his feet and shook him—hard. Then he dumped him down in a chair.
“Listen, son,” he said, softly, “don’t get out of that chair again unless you’re told you can. Otherwise I’ll get angry.”
It was amazing to see what heppened. Obviously, Aldino had never before met anyone who wasn’t awed by his tremendous bulk and scowling face.
Fogarty’s simple act broke him completely. He threw his head into his hands and wept for ten minutes. Then he looked up and told us the whole story:
It was a murder without a motive. Lentini and Aldino had driven down the Idlewild woods together to shoot some birds that morning of Setpember 29. At one point, they had become separated and when next Aldino saw his friend, he was in the custody of two game wardens. The giant then simply went berserk.
“Run, run!” was what Lentini had shouted in Italian.
But Aldino, without knowing why, had replied, “I’m going to let him have it!” and he did.
“How did you get out of the woods?” I asked.
“We doubled back to the highway as soon as we were out of sight of the other guy. We went right to the shack where the car was, but I couldn’t drive because my arm hurt like hell and Lentini didn’t know how. So we separated and I finally got a taxi to take me to Brooklyn.”
Shortly afterward, Lentini came forward to give himself up. He was not charged with complicity in the murder, but was fined $50 for poaching and illegal possession of a shotgun.
On November 27, 1920, Frank Aldino was sentenced to serve a 20-year-to-life term in Sing Sing, trapped by a woman he couldn’t keep away from. He died in prison.
Now Aldino, of course, was not a hardened criminal. He was a novice at murder, a man who got panicky at the wrong moment and killed more out of fright than anything. But his downfall—a woman—puts him in the same class as some of the toughest professional gunmen in the business. Like Aldino, they’re marked by the urge to play with the deadliest toy that a hood ever got his fingers burned with.
The Jamaica detective followed Marie Jonasi into the corner spaghetti joint and nabbed himself a prime meatball.
Everyone knows how the Lady in Red led G-men to John Dillinger. Let me tell you how the Jamaica squad cracked a bank holdup because one of the gang, a smart cookie who’d been around long enough to know better, couldn’t get his Norma off his mind.
It began as a blustery September day in 1935. Just after noon, a Ford sedan pulled up in front of the Bank of Manhattan in St. Albans and three men got out. They ran into the bank doubled over, as though they were bucking the wind. Once inside, the real reason was plain: Handkerchiefs were knotted over their faces and, between them, they carried a Thompson sub-machine-gun, an automatic shotgun and two revolvers.
“Get ’em up, everybody–and quick!” shouted the man with the Thompson. “I’ll shoot anyone who goes for the alarm button.”
It was all over in five minutes. Moving with the precision of a military squad, the trio herded tellers and customers back to the vault and made them lie down out of sight. While one stood guard, the other two went from cage to cage scooping money into huge pillowcases, then ordered the manager to open the vault.
“Don’t keep us waiting, Mister,” they said.
They followed the manager into the open vault and quickly added two boxes of currency and two canvas coin sacks to the loot in the pillowcase. The job was done. More than $10000 was on its way out the door.
“Nobody move for five minutes if you want to live long enough to tell the cops about this,” barked the man with the shotgun and, as though to lend emphasis to his words, he fired two shots into the floor. Backing out, all three jumped into the sedan—where a fourth man kept the motor running—and sped out of sight.
The St. Albans bank thieves didn’t get their five minutes. One of the tellers, at the risk of her life, had slid over to a telphone while the holdup was taking place and whispered a call for help. But although two squad cars arrived three minutes after the Ford sedan had pulled away from the curb, we might as well have taken three days. There wasn’t a sign of the bandits.
We had one lead and one lead only: a pedestrian, almost knocked to the ground by the retreating gang, had caught sight of the shotgun and, as the car roared away, had had enough presence of mind to make a mental note of the license plate number. I promptly sent one of our cars to check the number out and ordered an eight-state teletype alarm. Then I began to take stock.
From the first, it was plain that the men we were after weren’t amateurs. The masks on their faces had ruled out any chance we had of getting a description. Then, after our technical research men had combed the bank for an hour, someone suddenly remembered that the bandits had worn gloves. Finally, the officer in the police booth only a block away was called in and asked if he had heard the shotgun blast.”
“No, sir,” he told me. “I check out of the booth at 12 sharp to relieve Hodges for lunch. My relief doesn’t get to the booth until 12:15.”
Their timing had been letter-perfect. They were smart—and that meant a long, hard search lay ahead of us.
Meanwhile, our first lead, the license plate number, bounced back. The car had been reported stolen two weeks before.
All through the night, squad cars roamed the area looking for it, while a dozen detectives checked public garages, parking lots and filling stations.
It was turned up by a motorcycle policeman early the following morning. On the back seat were the canvas sacks and tin boxes taken from the vault—empty—and a pair of cheap cotton work gloves, the kind you can buy in any five-and-ten. Again the fingerprint boys went to work, and again they came up with nothing but a couple of empty book-match covers that had slipped down under the back seat. Both showed a pair of dice and the words, “Seven-Eleven Club, Seventh Avenue, New York.”
It wasn’t much, but at this point even a slim lead helped. I sent a couple of men to Manhattan to check it out. They returned with the information that the Seven-Eleven club had been closed for weeks; that it had been managed by a man named Joseph LaPreta; that LaPreta lived in Jamaica.
Two men went out to check the man’s neighborhood and turned up a policeman living right next door to him who had observed some significant goings-on in the past few days:
“Three nights in a row,” the officer said, “a Ford sedan with four men in it pulled up in front of LaPreta’s house. They stayed pretty late—I could hear them gunning the motor when they left.”
“When was the last night they came?”
The policeman thought for a moment. Then he said, “THursday. Thursday the fifth. I remembered because we had a little party on Friday and I went to answer the door several times. The Ford wasn’t outside.”
what made this information especially interesting, apart from the match-book covers and the coincidence—if it was a coincidence— of the Ford sedan, was that Friday was the day of the holdup. Obviously, if LaPreta’s friends were driving the same Ford sedan involved in the holdup, they wouldn’t bring it around Friday night.
For ten more days we kept LaPreta’s place under surveillance. But though we saw him coming and going, no Ford sedan showed up, nor did any of the four men described for us by the observant policeman. I decided that there was only one thing left to do: LaPreta was suspicious enough to warrant a raid on his house.
Twelve days after the robbery we struck. It was 5 a.m. and LaPreta had just come home.
“Say, what’s this all about?” he whined.
“Just sit in the chair and be quiet,” I told him.
Four of us scoured the house from top to bottom. Down in the basement, I noticed ashes in the furnace.
“What’s he doing with a furnace fire in September?” I asked aloud. “We haven’t had any cold weather yet.”
I reached in to sift through the ashes and got my answer. Partly charred bank wrappers clearly stamped “Bank of Manhattan.”
I went back upstairs and got right to the point. “Tell us about the bank robber LaPreta, and be quick about it!”
“What bank robbery?” he protested. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Suppose you begin with the four men and the sedan that showed up here every night a while ago. We’ll prompt you from there.”
“Wait a minute, Officer,” he said, half rising out of his chair. “If those men did anything wrong, don’t put the rap on me. They used to hang around my club—the Seven-Eleven— and about two or three weeks ago, they came here and asked if they could rent my basement for a few days, said they were planning a big party. They came every night for a while, then they paid me off and I haven’t seen them since.”
“Who were they?” I asked.
“Gee, I don’t know. I knew their first names, but that’s all. You know how it is in a cabaret.”
“No,” I said, “I can’t say that I do. How is it?”
“Well, what I mean is, nobody ever uses any last names. It’s just Joe or Bill, you know. And that’s how I knew all these guys.”
Although LaPreta’s story came out pretty straight, I didn’t believe him. Not even when his dentist confirmed the alibi he had viven us —”I was at the dentist at noon on the sixth. I had a 12 o’clock appointment. Just ask him.”
I didn’t believe him for a very simple reason: A man may rent his basement to comparative strangers, but he doesn’t let them build a fire in his furnace in early September, not unless he has a good reason for it. No, LaPreta might have been at the dentist’s when the holdup took place, but only because it made such a nice alibi for him. My guess was that he had already performed his part in the robbery—by casing the bank.
We took him down to headquarters and showed him some rogues gallery books. “Pick out the men who came to your house,” I told him.
After an hour, he came up with the one identification, an ex-convict named Charles Buccheri with a record as long as your left arm.
“I knew him as Phil,” said LaPreta.
Two of us made right for Buccheri’s last known address, a Broadway hotel. The manager checked his records but found no Charles Buccheri. Then I showed him the police picture , and he recognized it instantly.
“Oh, that’s Charlie Malone. I remember him. Let’s see”— he leafed through the register again—”he moved out on September 5.”
“Where did he go?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t leave a forwarding address.”
“Did he have any regular visitors?”
“Well, there was this girl. She was a chorus girl or something, went by the name of Norma Norton, but Malone told me they were married. I can’t check all those things, you know. A man tells me it’s his wife…”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. Actually, the girl spelled good news for us. A hood on the lam alone was a smart hood and he’d be tough to track down. If he was traveling with a girlfriend, though, I figured he couldn’t be so smart.
I gave the girls name to the Broadway squad and asked them if they could get a line on her for me. THey soon reported that she had been living with another showgirl but had left town—on September 6. It was all adding up.
We went to see Norma’s roommate and she seemed most anxious to co-operate—in a non-police way. Norma was in Dallas, Tex., she told us; she hadn’t said when she’d be back.
We thanked her and started to leave. “You guys going all the way to Dallas for a dame?” she called after us down the hall. “What’s so special about her? I’m right here.”
“You guys going all the way to Dallas for a dame?” she called after us down the hall. “What’s so special about her? I’m right here.”
Checking the Motor Vehicle Bureau, we learned that Buccheri had bought a used car the day after the robbery under the name of Charles Malone. We wired the plate number and description of Buccheri to the Dallas police and sat back to wait for results.
Meanwhile, another LaPreta was picked up—on a traffic violation. This one was named Anthony, and when it turned out that there was no such address as the one given on his car’s registry, he was held for questioning. One of the first questions established that Anthony LaPreta’s wife was the sister of a long-sought bank robber named Cowboy Pete Colavecchio.
Now the pieces of the jig-saw were falling into place. I confronted the two LaPretas and asked if they were related. At first they swore up and down that they’d never seen each other. But when we moved aside we could hear them whispering a mile-a-minute in Italian.
“Captain,” Joseph said finally, “you got us frightened, that’s why we lied. We’re cousins. But we had nothing to do with that bank robbery.”
There wasn’t a man in that room who believed him. We were convinced that we now had in custody two of the five men involved in the holdup, and that we knew the names of two others—Buccheri and Pete Colavecchio. But unless we could get one of them to talk there was no point in even going to court. My own feeling was that our man was Charlie Buccheri—our girl, Norma Norton.
Then we got the report from Dallas. It was bad. Buccheri had been there, all right, but he’d left town for parts unknown. That same week, Norma returned to New York.
“Put a 24-hour watch on her, but don’t get too close to her,” I ordered. “And check her mail.”
The mail was what paid off. Norma began getting a letter a day from a man named Frank Medeo in Pennsylvania: his handwriting bore a remarkable resemblance to that of Charles Buccheri. Two men from the Jamaica squad went west and picked him up in a small-town rooming house. It would have been a perfect hideout if he hadn’t been sending up “Come-get-me” beacons in the form of those letters.
Before they got back to New York, my men got the whole story of the holdup from Buccheri. The job had been planned for weeks. Joe LaPreta, who lived in the neighborhood, had cased the bank thoroughly and then set up the dental appointment to establish an alibi. A man named Anthony Cutro had driven the getaway car — stolen before the robbery — while Buccheri, Anthony LaPreta and Pete Colavecchio had carried the guns.
Confronted with Buccheri’s confession, both LaPretas talked a blue streak and we went to trial in December, 1935. The results: Long prison terms for all three. Cutro was picked up and tried the following year, while federal police caught up with Cola vecchio a few months later. Cowboy Pete faced a state sentence after completing his federal term, while the other four had to do time for the governement when they were released from state prison. None of them will be in a position to make trouble for a long time to come.
We never had much to on, but once we found out about Norma it was only a question of time. She was the weak link—even though four of the five bank robbers didn’t know her. Buccheri knew her. That was enough.