Leave It To The Girls

Leave It To The Girls

FRONT PAGE DETECTIVE DEC 1955

Leave it to the Girls
Captain's Blog

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. 

Captain Henry Flattery is no stranger to FRONT PAGE readers. He has taken you on two memoriable excursions through some of the most hair-raising investigations of his career. In this third in the series of Captain Flattery stories you are given an opportunity to see still another side of a big city homicide department and how it works — through the eyes of one of this country’s most capable detectives.
But Aldino wasn’t a robot; he was a man with a weakness. He was hungry for his woman. Before dawn that next morning, I was awakened by a telephone call from Newark.

“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.    

Look for a Blabbermouth

Look for a Blabbermouth

Front Page Detective October 1955

Look for a Blabbermouth
Main StoryCaptain's Blog

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.

“What for?”

“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 what?”

“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?”

He nodded.

“Who else?”

“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’ll try.” 

“Okay.”

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.