By Christian Cipollini
Throughout the chaos of well-known and publicized mob warfare, several gangsters were learning lessons, gaining their own reputations and cementing future positions in what was becoming a new crime empire. They were young, most in their early twenties, but already hardened criminals. Brooklyn’s toughest, most rebellious and motivated Jewish and Italian hoods were joined up; a mirror image of what occurred with the big boys of mob power in greater New York. They would soon become the ire of law enforcement and judges, the role models for even younger kids growing up in the slums, and known by memorable nicknames like Happy, Kid Twist, Dasher, Bugsy and Pittsburgh Phil. But most of all… they would prove to be the epitome of organized crime’s worst enemy – itself.
July 19, 1931…
Three o’clock am, quiet in Brooklyn. Meyer Shapiro and three of his goons had just left a card game. Tired and hungry, they were heading down Church Street for a nearby restaurant when the crack of gunfire erupted. From a trio of snipers a barrage of a 12 gauge and .38 caliber slugs wildly sprayed the vicinity. Meyer was under attack for the eighteenth time. This attempt on his life was partially expected though. Not even two weeks had passed since his older brother Irving was gunned down at their family home. Police and newspapers reported the intended target was Meyer all along. Still, the younger Shapiro – a boastful boss of Brownsville – had survived yet again. Amazingly, none of the quartet was seriously injured.
The ruckus certainly stirred up the neighborhood though, and to the particular misfortune of the would-be assassins, grabbed the attention of Patrolman Harry Schreck. So instead of finishing their target off and being able to gloat in a job well done, Abe Reles (photo above), Harry Strauss and Frank Abbandando found themselves under attack as well. Speeding away from the scene in a stolen Buick, the culprits were recognized by Schreck (Reles gang members were very familiar faces in and around Brooklyn) who then gave chase. Several more officers and detectives joined the patrolman for what became a two-mile pursuit. Police fired no less than thirty shots at the fleeing Buick; the occupants tossing their weapon stash and ammo out the windows. The chase finally ended on Livonia and Howard avenues when the perpetrator-driven car crashed on a sidewalk.
Before the trio could make another effort to escape, the descending cops delivered a few subduing blows with the butts of their revolvers. Reles, Strauss and Abbandando (right) were dragged off to police headquarters for questioning regarding the attempt on Meyer and the murder of Irving. All three vehemently denied any knowledge of either crime. So bold were these young men, able to lie and argue before nearly irrefutable evidence. The following morning in court, Reles, stone-faced and unwavering, told the Magistrate he and his companions were simply standing on the sidewalk when police assaulted them.
Why so audacious? These men had history to support their collective prediction of little or no substantial penal repercussions. That customary sequence of arrest, bail, release, charges dismissed continued unhampered. For example -
September 10, 1931…
Supreme Court Justice Lewis Fawcett was livid. His disgust did not stem from waking up on the wrong side of the bed on that Thursday morning, but rather from endlessly enduring a proverbial thorn in the side of New York’s sense of law and order. The irritation of said thorn had been causing society a festering infection since the days of prohibition. Underworld types consistently marching in and out of courtrooms with little or no debt paid to society. Enough was enough, and then walks in four brazen bad boys, smirking all the way. This was the second time in a week he would endure the quartet of twenty-somethings who together tallied almost a hundred arrests already in their young lifetimes. Collectively, these four men were more familiar with handcuffs, chains and leg shackles than most beat cops.
Accompanied by their attorney John J. Riordan, Harry Maione, Harry Strauss, Abraham Reles and Martin Goldstein stood before the judge. Each defendant oozed with a palpable aura of cockiness. Having been held without bail for violation of the Sullivan Act (1911 law requiring a license for owning and carrying concealable weapons), the men were hoping for some further judicial relief in Fawcett’s courtroom. They had been arraigned on a robbery charge only days earlier by a magistrate; the only witness to the alleged crime could not identify any of the alleged culprits. Justice Fawcett ruled for their release. Seemed like a quick exit for the men, or was it?
Detectives had an ace up the sleeve. A statute (really it was a piggy back to disorderly conduct), enabled police to “round up” known criminals that were “consorting” together. Under that law, the presumed bad guys could be held up to one-hundred days. The idea was to then nail them for vagrancy.
When the defendants first appeared in front of Judge Fawcett, they were on considerably stable legal ground. But for good measure, their lawyer pulled the sympathy card. “Observe that they have no marks on them now,” warned Riordan, “because they may have as soon as they are rearrested.” The implication of possible police brutality was noted by Fawcett, but he had no intention of ruling on anything but his interpretation of the law, which was in the defendants’ collective favor.
But… before the men left custody, detectives had taken every key found in their possession and an extensive search began. It was a mission to unlock every door they could find at every address the investigators could think of. Eventually, one key opened the metaphorical Pandora’s Box. A Turkish bathhouse on Cleveland Street in Brooklyn housed a locker. Inside that locker? A sawn-off shotgun, six loaded revolvers and a large cache of ammunition. Who originally held the key? Martin Goldstein.
Maione (right) , Strauss, Reles and Goldstein were known to frequent the establishment; many recognized mobsters did. Furthermore, all four of these guys often, upon numerous arrests, gave the bath house as their home address. And so commonly did they visit the bathhouse that cops knew the men would probably return, and in short order. They were right. As predicted, all four young men returned to 602 Cleveland Street. Detectives quickly returned them to magistrate’s court. Back to jail they went, yes, but not without their enterprising lawyer right behind them – ready for legal warfare. Although the controversial consorting together statute was being implemented quite a bit in New York that year, not every judge was confident in its constitutionality and some were concerned it was being abused. Furthermore, reputation, prior records and the judge’s own perception were not enough to take them off the street without a chance for bail. Police and the magistrate felt, however, the Sullivan violation would suffice. That is why attorney Riordan sought release for his clients in the courtroom of Justice Fawcett yet again.
Still, the judge could not contain his displeasure in New York’s lack of allowable punishments for such offenders. Powered by his view of how the outrageous growth of underworld control, and worse yet – the gangsters frequently walking conviction-free out of every courtroom – this would be the twice in one week for his courtroom alone. Fawcett could hold back no more.
His displeasure was clear in warning Riordan, “Persons who possess so many guns are potential murderers.”
Although Justice Fawcett thoroughly believed the defendants were guilty as sin even the first time he faced them, a writ of habeas corpus guaranteed them the right to bail. Riordan then argued for considerably low bail with respect to all his clients that day, yet acknowledged that Goldstein was the only member of the foursome he could see possibly getting stiff bail.
Fawcett made a decision. He issued Maione, Reles and Goldstein each $7500 bail, and Strauss $3500, but not without sharp warning.
“We should have here the whipping post and the lash,” he declared. “The latter vigorously applied. If we had, they would not come back for a second dose.”
The judge further explained his theory was proven in England, Maryland and Delaware, where second offenses occurred far less than in New York. In spite of his verbally expressed belief in a “vigorously applied” lashing of “gangsters and racketeers” – he back peddled adding, “Mind you, I am not advocating that the police beat these men.”
Maione, Reles, Strauss and Goldstein strutted out of yet another legal entanglement. Good legal teams, purchased politicians, and a network of gangland hierarchy looking out for them… all the ingredients for a powerful, arrogance inducing potion. Leaving police custody once again, the team was set to dispose of Meyer Shapiro once and for all. Elimination of the Shapiros was both business and personal, especially for Abe Reles. For those emerging as victors… career paths were finalized; professional killers like the world had never imagined.
Only a month after the Reles gang was arrested under the controversial consorting statute, a meeting of uppermost racketeers would commence, birthing – at least partially some believe – the official unification of Italian and Jewish gangsters in a new “Syndicate” of crime and the inauguration of what would become infamously known as Murder Inc. Nine Jewish mobsters were arrested at the Hotel Franconia in Manhattan (owned by the late Arnold Rothstein (mentor to several of the men arrested). They were: Joseph “Doc Stacher” Rosen, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Henry (Harry) Teitelbaum, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter (right), Harry Greenberg, Louis Kravitz, Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, Philip Kovalich and Hyman Holtz. Detectives raided the room based on the same statute that was intended to hold the Reles gang. In similar fashion though, all nine men were eventually released, as the presiding judge felt the law did not justify arresting the men when no criminal act had taken place (though he made a point to express his personal belief most of the men were indeed gangsters). Gangland lore suggests the meeting was led by Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, possibly at the behest of Meyer Lansky. Besides discussing various rackets they were all involved in, the word was to be spread of a new joint venture with Charles “Lucky” Luciano and his Italian loyalists. Basis for that possibility stems from the general consensus that two assassinations – that of mob bosses Joe “The Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano – were planned by Luciano and Lansky, carried out by both Italian and Jewish gunmen earlier in 1931.
The gang successfully dispatched Meyer Shapiro into spirit world just two weeks after being released by Justice Fawcett. Meyer’s body was discovered in a tenement building on September 17; bullet wound to the head. Reles, Maione, Goldstein, Strauss and Anthony “Tony the Sheik” Carillo were arrested for the murder, but again – all men were soon released. A third Shapiro, Willie, was murdered in 1934.
Meyer Shapiro was presumed responsible for an attempted hit on Reles in 1930. The drive-by shooting injured Martin Goldstein, lodged two .45 caliber slugs into Reles’ back and killed George DeFeo. Meyer was also reputed to have kidnapped, battered and raped Abe Reles’ sweetheart (who later became his wife) as a message.
On a larger scale, the notoriety Reles and company garnered from their ambition, success and propensity for violent resolve had earned admiration from Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro (not related to the Shapiro brothers) – two of the major mob figures in competition with both the Shapiro and Amberg brothers (Joe and Louis Amberg’s fate came in 1935). Reles, Maione, Strauss and Goldstein had essentially solidified a new career path in the eyes of Lepke. These guys would be the foundation and privileged members of the national Syndicate’s enforcement division, directly overseen Lepke himself.
This has been an excerpt from the book Murder Inc.: Mysteries of the Mob’s Most Deadly Hit Squad by Christian Cipollini published exclusively at Gangsters Inc. You can buy the book at stores near you, online, and at Cipollini’s website. You can also follow him on Twitter @cipthescallion
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