By Thom L. Jones
I think he is one of my favourite mobsters of all time. The one-eyed killer who couldn't shoot straight.
Most people have never heard of him. He never achieved any immortal status as a big player in the Mafia crime families of New York, although he longed for and lusted after it. He was probably the rule rather than the exception when it came to setting the standard for the street hoodlums that made up the rank and file of organized crime. A grifter, struggling through the interminable days that made up a year in a journeyman crook's life, constantly looking for the perfect score and never finding it. Doing the dirty jobs for a pittance and getting screwed from every angle by whoever was higher up the rank in the mob hierarchy than he was, which was basically everybody. He had a reputation for being a tough guy, but Ernest Rupolo was basically an idiot looking for justification for his very existence. Alan Block in his book East Side, West Side, calls him a dope and a criminal incompetent; Peter Mass, in The Valachi Papers, says, ' Rupolo apparently carried around his own built-in banana peel.'
I mean he had dreams of being the head of the Mafia, at least according to his de facto wife, Eleanor. She'd said to him how could he tell anybody what to do, he couldn't even tell her what to do. Talk about a ram butting a dam. High hopes indeed. Still, there was something about him that makes me feel he deserved better than the multiple gunshot holes and knife cavities all over the place, and a concrete block to go skateboarding on in Jamaica Bay.
Whatever you say about 'The Hawk,' he did achieve a certain kind of fame in a way. Because of him, one of the toughest mob bosses in New York, who ran away, with his tail between his legs, and then came back, almost went to prison, which would have dramatically changed the future of organized crime in New York; and in death, he almost got even with a mobster, a guy he really hated, who ultimately spent more time in jail than Willie Sutton. And at the end, he was centre stage in a courtroom drama that was unique for its rareness. So perhaps his life was not completely a wasteland of opportunities lost. Fourty years plus after the event, I'm probably looking at it all with the eyes of a weary cynic, who has searched too long and too hard to find some kind of redemption in a class of unredeemable people.
The real mob. The Godfather it ain't.
Being one of the underworld's least charismatic people, or spectacular successes, there is little information about the man, except, a beautifully written section, in a book by an associate editor of Life magazine, called James Mills. That, and an article in the same magazine, plus there's also a bit in Dom Frasca's book about Vito Genovese, the odd, old newspaper report, and that seems to be the best there is to search out the painful history of a man who seemed destined to always be the guy to get the sand kicked into his face, down on the beach.
It began for the law on a hot, sultry day-- August 24th., 1964-- off Breezy Point, the terminus of the Rockaway peninsular, at the entrance into Jamaica Bay, in Queens, New York. A body was found, floating in the shallow waters by two men, Nicky Caputo and Butch Spyliopolous, and dragged ashore. There is a photograph of this misshapen, bleached white, bloated heap that was once a human being. It lies face down in the sand, washed by the ebb-tide. The hands are lashed together with rope or plastic line, a dirt stained shirt is clinging to the torso. The lower limbs are nude, although it looks as though his trousers have collapsed around the ankles, and there is a large, concrete building block at his feet. The head is bald: presumably the action of the water along with the decomposition of the body, has leached the hair from his head because in life, he had a full head of hair, dark, though greying at the temples. His right eye socket is open, glaring up at the world in indignation at being exposed like this. 'Go away, and leave me alone,' he seems to be saying, 'I'm just having a break between scams.' According to the pathologist's report, the body had probably been water bound for at least three weeks.
Ernie's dead body
The corpse was taken to the 100 Precinct of the Queens, NYPD, on Rockaway Beach Boulevard. There was enough in the way of identity items to make the police believe it was the body of a known criminal, Ernest Rupolo, and his brother Willie was contacted and brought in to try and confirm this. Willie, a mob groupie, and part-time bookie found it hard to be sure.
'It was just-like a skeleton with some stuff on it,' he said.
But he told the cops to check on a mesh in the stomach, a relic from a hernia operation his brother had when young, and that also, when he was just a kid, a punk had shot out his right eye, and the bullet was still in there, somewhere. Willie also identified the clothes on the body as his own. His brother had been so broke, he had loaned him a shirt, pair of pants even some shoes. Being semi-destitute was par for the course for Ernie, the big-time gangster.
An autopsy carried out by Medical Examiner Milton Helpern, revealed that Ernie had gone down hard. He had been shot in the head and upper chest four times, and stabbed another eighteen. Digging in among the macerated and putrid flesh, the doctor found five misshapen slugs: four .38 calibre and one, a .45. The big one had in fact been inside Ernie's head for at least forty years since the day he had got into an argument with another young tough, who had settled their dispute by clocking him with a .45 automatic. Somehow, Ernie survived that one, although he lost his right eye, and for the rest of his life had to go around with a patch stuck over the empty socket. True to the underworld code, Ernie would not identify his assailant, but promised to even the score in due course. This proved a lot harder said than done, as whenever Ernie was out on the streets, the punk was in jail and vice-versa. Somehow, the dispute never seemed to get resolved. It was Ernie's first encounter with the fickle finger of fate that would dog him for the rest of his life.
He was born in New York, in Borough Park, in 1908, and grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. There is little concrete evidence about his early life. Dates and places are vague. He claimed he left school at twelve, fudging his birth certificate, making out that he was in fact fifteen. He got his release from school, and started to do what he always wanted to do, a career of crime.
His first foray, was to organize a gang, and they racked up perhaps as many as 100 burglaries, before he got arrested at thirteen, receiving a three year suspended sentence. He kept going, and eventually was caught and sentenced to 1-3 years in the New York Reformatory. He was out in ten months, and the first thing he did was buy himself a gun.
Seemingly, it didn’t help, because the law caught up with again, this time allocating him eight months detention. Sometime during this period, he acquired the nickname, 'The Hawk' because when out robbing, he never missed anything of value to steal. Before he turned twenty, he had a record of six juvenile arrests, and had served two terms in the reformatory.
By the time he was sixteen, he was a well-seasoned street criminal. At some point during this period, he found himself in a west side Manhattan hotel having a barney with a group of his associates that somehow involved a young girl. According to the way Ernie recalled it, when he told this guy to stop bothering the girl, the response was: 'Shut up. Mind your own business or I'll let you have it.' And Ernie says, 'You punk I wouldn’t' care what you did.'
So the guy, who was called Eddy Green, pulls open a drawer in a desk, takes out a .45 and wham, locks one onto Ernie. As he goes down, he remembers, the radio in the room is playing 'My Blue Heaven.' Somehow, he survives the shooting, but looses the eye. A reasonable trade I guess, under the circumstances. According to brother Willie, after Ernie was shot, and his face was disfigured, he didn't really care anymore, about anything. That's when he went on the mob's payroll and from the age of seventeen, became a hit man.
By his late teens, he acquired a reputation as a wild cannon, forming a gang of four that specialized in robbing members of the mob, holding up their bookies and terrorizing their numbers runners. Just why the bosses allowed him to get away with this is a bit of a mystery. Ernie claimed he was often called on the carpet and warned by the top men, but somehow, always avoided the obvious fatal consequences of such acts. Brother Willie, claimed that the bosses were afraid of his brother, the kid was good at his job, and if they missed him the first time there would be no second chance, and he did good work for them after all. But he knew it couldn't go on forever. When he got drunk ( which apparently was often,) he would say to his brother, 'You know, Willie, I'm living on borrowed time. How much more do you think I can go around takin' people?'
The events that gave Ernie (right) his moment of fame began sometime in 1932. The huge, underground earthquake that came to be known as 'The Castellammarese War,' was over by then, and the New York Mafia had settled down into five well-defined groups: criminal enterprises that would go on, developing for the next seventy years.
One of the bigger mobs was led by Charlie Luciano, and his alleged underboss, Vito Genovese. Vito had a good friend, fellow gang member, Anthony Strollo, also known as 'Tony Bender.' He was robbed one day, while attending one of his bootleg liquor stashes at a garage he leased. Two men, Ferdinand 'The Shadow' Boccia and Willie Gallo, relieved Tony of $5800. This was an act of madness by the men, who were basically taking on what could well have been the most powerful organized crime group in America. Genovese decided Ferdinand and Willie had to go, and Ernie Rupolo was approached to handle the hit. 'The Shadow' was apparently brassed off with Genovese, because a scam he had created and which brought in $116,000 was shared by everyone and his dog, except him. The strike on Bender was something in the way of compensation in lieu.
Underworld hits are often convoluted, complicated exercises that can drag on for months, and this one was no exception. There was, however, an added ingredient here, and that was the ineptitude of the principal assassin. Numerous meetings held in bars, coffee shops, and dance halls across Brooklyn, all led, finally to a rendezvous in a restaurant on the corner of Mulberry and Kenmare Streets, in Manhattan's Little Italy district. This was in early spring, 1934. The program was delayed by 90 days, when Rupolo was arrested on a vagrancy charge and locked up in jail. While there, he bumped into an old pal, Rosario Palmieri, known also as 'Solly Young,' and offered him time shares in the killing. For $1000, Solly was happy to be in on the hit.
At the meeting on Mulberry Street, Ernie was promised $5000 for the killing of Gallo, but only received a down payment of $175 from Michele Miranda, an associate of Vito Genovese, and also one of the major beneficiaries of the Boccia scam. It was unfortunately, all he would ever see in the way of a reward. Fortunately for the organizers of the hits, the Shadows' contract was hired out to other killers who turned out to be seriously good at their job.
It was decided to set up the murder of Boccia at a card game, and that would be orchestrated by one Peter LaTempa also known as Petie Spatz. The killing would go down on September 19th., 1934. At least two, possibly three shooters had been allocated that one. Gallo was to be hit simultaneously by Ernie and his pal, Solly.
On the day before, Peter DeFeo, apparently the mob's armourer, later to be a powerful capo, or crew chief in the Genovese crime family, and indelibly linked in through a relative to the infamous 'Amityville Horror' case of the 1970s, supplied Ernie with two .32 automatic pistols. He also delivered two guns to George 'Blah Blah' Smurra and Cosmo 'Gus' Frasca who had been earmarked as the killers of Boccia, who was to be hit at his uncle's coffee shop at 533, Metropolitan Avenue, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Ernie stashed his two guns in the cellar of a friend, Louis 'Chip' Greco, who lived on 65th. Street, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Later, he met up with Solly who was chaperoning Gallo, and the three men spent the next twenty four hours eating, drinking and partying from Bensonhurst to Coney Island and back to Williamsburg. Gallo decided he wanted to visit the sister of Boccia, and there, something occurred, something so Kafkaesque in its conception, as to almost defy believe.
They arrived at the house about seven in the evening, and mixed with the people who were partying there. At some time that night, Gallo, for some reason, decided to try on a suit of Boccia's that was hanging in a closet. Ernie claimed it didn't look right on him, and suggested that he himself try it on. So Ernie takes off his own suit and gives it to Gallo, and then puts on the suit of 'The Shadow.' When Ernie testified some years later in a King's County court, Judge Samuel Leibowitz asked:
'You gave Willie Gallo, the man you were going to kill, your suit?'
'Was he wearing your suit when he was found on the street full of lead?'
'And you were wearing 'The Shadows' suit, the other man who was killed that night?'
No one ever bothered to find out who was the final recipient of Gallo's original suit.
Following this grotesque charade party, Rupolo, Gallo and 'Solly Young' and a couple of young ladies, headed off to the movies. Half way through the program, Ernie, the consummate hit-man, suddenly remembers that he has forgotten to bring along the pieces. He slipped out of the theatre, called a cab, raced to 65th. Street, retrieved the guns, and raced back to the cinema.
Now you can see why I love this guy?
Dropping off the girls, the three men then began another interminable migration around New York, first across the East River to Hester Street in Manhattan, then back to Coney Island, and then finally, by subway up to 71st. Street in Bensonhurst, the place Ernie had chosen as the killing field. On the way into Little Italy by subway, he slipped his pal, Solly, one of the automatics.
It was now, about 2 a.m. on the morning of September 20th., 1934. 'The Shadow' was already dead; he had been dispatched with maximum efficiency by Gus Frasca and George Smurra over in Williamsburg, hours before. Although there were eleven witnesses to the shooting, nobody, as usual in a mob hit, knew anything.
Walking north from the subway station, Ernie’s group reached the corner of Sixty-eight Street and Fourteenth Avenue. At this point, Ernie pulls out his gun, shoves into Gallo's ear and pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. Again, zilch. Third time, nada. Gallo, even though drunk, wonders what is going on. 'What the hell you doing?' he asks Ernie. 'Nothing,' says 'The Hawk,' I'm only kidding you, the gun ain't loaded.' It was of course, it just wasn't co-operating.
Now even drunk, and having a gun stuck in his face, Gallo shows consideration for his friend, telling Ernie with his record, he shouldn't be wandering around with a gat in his belt, what if the cops stop him? So Ernie promises to get rid of it and walks away a few blocks. In fact, he went back to his friend 'Chip' Greco's home, banging on the door, getting his bleary-eyed friend out of bed, and demanding some oil to grease up his weapon.
'Hello,' Ernie says, ' get me some gun oil quick, I'm in need of a fix.' Greco obliges, and Ernie douses the weapon, checks the slide and mechanism, and off he goes for try number two.
He meets up with Solly, and says, 'We'll get the bastard this time, and just don't forget, this is a double-banger.' They walk Greco down to Sixty-sixth street and on the corner of Thirteenth Avenue, out come the pistols, and bang, bang, bang.
When Judge Leibowitz asked Ernie:
'How many times did you fire at Gallo?' Ernie replied ' Oh, about nine times, but we had some misses.'
Picture the scene: A street corner in Brooklyn, maybe the moonlight reflecting off shop windows, street lamps dimly lighting the shadows, two men shooting vainly at a standing target, weaving in a drunken stupor, from perhaps only inches away, and still they manage to miss with some of the shots. Talk about the gang that couldn't shoot straight!
Gallo goes down at last, according to Ernie, gasping out the immortal words all good New York hoods part from this mortal coil with, ' Oh, Ma!' just like Jimmy Cagney in the movies. Solly and Ernie drift off, and go and get a few hours well deserved sleep at the home of poor old 'Chip' Greco. The next day, Ernie goes over to Manhattan to collect his reward for a job well-done, and receives the bad news from an understandably irate Miranda. After all that time and energy expended, Gallo is still alive. Genovese arranged for Ernie and Solly to go into hiding, and they were sent up to Springfield, Massachusetts. After a few days, Solly cuts loose and returns to the city. A couple of weeks later, Ernie follows suit. As he gets off the train at Canal Street, the cops are waiting there to pick him up. Gallo has identified him and Solly as the men who shot him.
Ernie was taken to Gallo's bedside in the King's County Hospital, where he is literally fingered by the wounded man.
Gallo says to Ernie, ' Why did you shoot me?'
Ernie's response is, 'Why did you tell on me?'
Gallo remonstrates, 'But that ain't the question I am asking you?'
To which Rupolo replies, 'What's the difference what I shot you for? You could get revenge later on, instead of talking, saying I shot you.'
In gangland, you can do anything but be a rat informer. You can rape and pillage and loot and murder and double-cross, but woe betide anyone who has the temerity to tell the truth to the law, especially about another member of the fraternity. And so, Ernie goes away to prison for eight years and six months. When he comes out in 1942, he is twenty-seven years old.
In 1944, operating a luncheonette in Borough Park, Brooklyn, which he had somehow found the funds to purchase, he gets involved in another situation this time with a target he later described as 'a real-good looking guy, one of my best friends.' He was Carl Sparacino, and he had got on the wrong side of the mob, holding up and robbing their organized dice games. He led a group of two-bit mobsters, including Louie and Al Leffredo and Dominick Carlucci, who had hit a number of games including one operated by Andy Ercolino, at his home in Borough Park, Brooklyn, on March 28th., 1943. So Ernie gets the contract, which pays him $500, and he and the target go off one night in Sparacino's car, and Ernie shoots him four times. But as usual, in Ernie's case, the heart was willing, but the aim was weak. The victim survived long enough to finger Rupolo, and he is arrested, tried, convicted and it looks like he is going off for another long prison spell again And this is when it gets really interesting.
In prison, on his second botched shooting, Ernie Rupolo decided to reveal his role in the Gallo shooting and the details behind the killing of Boccia, in the hopes it might work towards mitigating his sentence. Here he was back in jail yet again, leaving his wife behind at their home at 1947 65th. Street, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. No doubt he was broke as usual. As in the Gallo shooting, the mob bosses had assured Ernie that he would only serve short time for the Sparacino hit, and as usual they were wrong. Facing another long session of jail time, forty to eighty years as a second offender, lacking any confidence in the promises of the guys who always seemed to promise but not deliver, Ernie probably thought, what did he have to lose?
Since in the absence of physical proof, New York State laws required corroborating witnesses in the planning and carrying out of crime, Ernie's statement in itself was not enough, but he came up with the name of Peter LaTempa, who under pressure, reluctantly confirmed Rupolo's story.
One of the reasons both men may have agreed to testify, was that the prime target of the murder inquiry, Vito Genovese, was no longer in America, and the authorities had no idea where he was.
In fact, where he was, was Naples, Italy. He had gone there in 1937, hefting a suitcase packed with $750,000, at least according to his wife, Anna. He had decided to disappear when District Attorney Thomas Dewey had started a probe into the murder of Boccia on December 1st., 1937, as part of an intensive investigation into Genovese and his associates. Dewey had successfully prosecuted Luciano, who had been sent to prison for 30 odd years, and the DA's office was now after the second tier management of the crime family. Vito takes a powder until things cool down. The family business is left in the capable hands of Frank Costello, a.k.a. 'The Prime Minister,' and things are cool until 'The Hawk' starts stirring up the pond with his tales of death and deceit.
Among the various titbits of information that emanated from Ernie, was one concerning the mob itself. According to Turkus and Feder in their book Murder Inc., Rupolo confirmed that Genovese was a national power in what he referred to as the Unione Siciliano, an organization, Ernie claimed that was the self-appointed successor to the Mafia. Ernie had been involved with the crime family of Genovese for at least twelve or thirteen years, so it is interesting to speculate on what he had to say. He also confirmed the legend of the Night of the Italian Vespers, the so-called mass killings of the old moustached Petes of the American Mafia, across America, following the murder of Salvatore Maranzano in 1931, but that one has, I think, been firmly put to bed as an old-wives tale. The other myth about the Unione, continues to be debated to this day, but it seems safe to assume that it's fiction based on fantasy as well. Like most of the guys at his level in gangland, Ernie heard gossip, but rarely the true facts about anything.
Ernie started talking to the DA's office, initially with A.D.A. Edward A. Hefferman, on June 13th., 1944. He first gave up the three men involved in the dice game stick-up, the Leffredo brothers and Dominick Carlucci, then started verbalizing about the Boccia case. The man who would be largely responsible for trying to put together a case against Genovese and his accomplices in the Boccia killing, was Assistant District Attorney Julius Helfand, the city lawyer who would gain notoriety as one of the leaders in the investigation into the New York Police Department corruption probe involving bookmaker Harry Gross, in 1950.
It was Helfand's probing that finally surfaced LaTempa as another independent witness to the events that night in the coffee shop on Metropolitan Avenue. It is interesting that the DA's office thought he was a suitable candidate for this role. Under New York Law, in order to obtain a conviction, it is necessary to secure a second witness who had nothing to do with the commission of the crime. Clearly, Petie Spatz did not fall within that category; he was in fact an accessory or accomplice to the crime. There were however, eleven other witness to the murder, but none were ever called to fill that role. Nevertheless, with Ernie's testimony identifying Genovese as the man behind the hits on Gallo and Boccia, and Petie Spatz to back it up, Helfand seemed sure he had a way to go. Subsequently, a Brooklyn Grand Jury indicted Genovese, Miranda and four others, De Feo, Smurra, Frasca and Sal Zappola for the killing of 'The Shadow.'
The problem was Vito was still incommunicado, and then, wham, like a miracle, two months later, who should come out of the woodwork, but the man himself. On August 22nd ., he was arrested in Naples, Italy, on charges of running a black market ring. It was another nine months before the maze of official red tape could be untangled enough for extradition proceedings to begin, and he was escorted back to New York to face trial. But by then, the case against him had gone out of the window. LaTempa had been taking pain-killers to relieve his distress from gallstone problems. On January 15th., 1945, in his cell at the Brooklyn Civil Prison, he had his usual dose, and dropped dead. An autopsy disclosed he had taken enough poison to kill eight horses. Vito Genovese docked in New York aboard the S.S. James Lykes, on June 1st.
For him, summer had indeed arrived early.
When he finally came to trial on Thursday, June 5th. 1946, in the King's County Courthouse, in Brooklyn, it was almost a foregone conclusion he would beat the rap. Four days after the trial opened, a bullet riddled body was found in underbrush off Highway 303, about fifteen miles north of the George Washington bridge. It was identified as Jerry Esposito, a thirty-five year old criminal, recently paroled from Elmira Reformatory, 200 miles north-west of New York City. He was scheduled to appear as a witness in the case against Genovese. For the Mafia boss, it was another loose end safely disposed of. On June 11th., Judge Leibowitz, after having studied the evidence and law governing the area of corroborating testimony, dismissed the case against Genovese.
In his closing comments, the judge said:
'I cannot speak for the jury, but I believe if there were even a shred of corroborating evidence, you would have been condemned to the electric chair. By devious means, among which were the terrorizing of witnesses, kidnapping them, yes, even murdering those who would give evidence against you, you have thwarted justice time and time again.'
Genovese smirked, and walked out of the courtroom. He must have felt immune from the law by now.
Earlier, during trial proceedings, Judge Leibowitz questioned Ernie at one time:
'What was your occupation?' he asked.
'I was a gambler,' Ernie said.
'And a killer?' queried the judge.
'Oh, sure,' 'The Hawk' confirmed.
On September 23rd., 1949, Rupolo because of his testimony and cooperation, was released from Dannemora Prison in accordance with the promises made by the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office, and went back into the jungle. And for some strange reason, Ernie was allowed to live. One account says that the bosses sat down and agreed that he had given up plenty of years, and for that he got a reprieve, or as they call it in the mob, a pass. Willie Rupoli claimed in later years that Michele Miranda, now a very powerful member of the Genovese family administration, had said to his brother, 'Take care of yourself, kid. Don't worry about nothin. If you need anything, come to me.'
There is another scenario as reported by newspaper reporter Ed Newman of the New York Journal-American. He claimed that while having a drink with Ernie in a Borough Park tavern one day, he questioned why Ernie was still alive and well. 'Whatta you mean? Ernie asked, 'you mean when I testified against Vito. He beat the rap didn’t he? The other guys got off the hook too, didn’t they?' He looked slyly at the reporter out of his good eye and added: 'Don't you know I did Vito a big favour. A man can't be tried twice for the same murder.'
And so, Ernie Rupolo, big time gangster who couldn’t shoot straight, faded into the obscurity of the naked city, with its eight million stories. He operated as a shylock and a bookmaker, and made up his income by muscling in on bars and whatever other opportunities presented themselves. Sometime by 1957, he had left his wife and moved in with another woman, a big, brassy, loud-mouthed babe with a hair-trigger temper called Eleanor. His pet name for her, was 'My Heaven.' Maybe she reminded him of the Popsicle he was with the night he became one-eyed Ernie, all those years ago.
They had a baby girl they called Ellen, and according to Eleanor's later testimony, seemed to spend an awful lot of time moving from one apartment to another across Brooklyn. His relationship with Eleanor was less than placid, and six, seven times a year she would kick him out. Perhaps during this period, Ernie was still carrying out work for the Genovese family, if so he must have either improved his marksmanship, or developed a much more circumspect profile, because as best as I can figure, he did not appear again in any major police investigations, until the final one.
He was last seen alive early in August, 1964 (photo right). Six months before he disappeared he had told his de facto wife that he knew he was going to get killed. 'Honey,' he said, 'there gonna kill me. Eleanor recounted a strange tale about Ernie having papers that another woman was holding in her safe. '
‘They will never do anything to me because I've got these papers,' he would say. 'Then all of a sudden, the stuff she's holding for about eight years is gone. And two weeks later, so was Ernie.'
At the time he was killed, having been kicked out yet again by Eleanor, he was living in an apartment that belonged to his best friend, Roy Roy, on Berkley Place, just off the Grand Army Plaza, west of Prospect Park, Brooklyn. He made his last visit to Eleanor on Friday, the last day in July. He spoke to her by telephone on the Sunday night, and that was the last time she ever heard from him. Both she and Ernie's brother Willie, were convinced that Ernie was set up by his best friend Roy Roy. 'That's what they do,' Willie said, ' they take your best friend, and he has to do what they say, even if he is your best friend. Roy Roy had to be the one.'
The murder of Ernie 'The Hawk' Rupolo would probably have been just another unsolved gangland killing, one of the hundreds that have littered the New York crime scene since the turn of the twentieth century, except for four men who got themselves arrested in October, 1965 for bank robbery. They would be the focus of a murder inquiry that would take almost two years before it came to trial. The man they would finger as the force behind the hit on Ernie Rupolo, the man they claimed was their boss, was a top echelon mobster in one of the five Mafia crime families that dominated New York's underworld. This group was led by Joseph Colombo, and his right-hand and obvious successor, was one of the toughest gangsters ever, John 'Sonny' Franzese.
Born in Naples in 1919, he was one of eighteen children, and grew up in Brooklyn, working as a youth for his father, who owned and operated a bakery. ’Carmine the Lion’ Franzese was a feared member of the mob, and legend has it that he disposed of his victims by converting them to dust in his bakery oven. By the time he was thirty, John Franzese (left) was a soldier in the Mafia family, then run by Joseph Profaci. He was sponsored into it by a capo, Sebastian Aloi, and quickly rose to a position of power following the promotion to the boss position of Joe Colombo at the death of Profaci. One of the bank robbers who would later finger Franzese, claimed he was so powerful that an FBI agent had let slip that 'J. Edgar Hoover would give his left nut for Sonny Franzese.'
But why would a senior member of the Colombo family get himself involved in the killing of an insignificant artisan like Ernie Rupolo? Surely there were plenty of killers in the Genovese family that could have eliminated 'The Hawk' if that was the wish of Vito Genovese, as he languished in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, serving out a sentence for drug trafficking. Searching for the truth in matters of the mob is often like trying to eat spaghetti with chopsticks, possible, but most times, too exhausting to contemplate. In the case of Ernie's whack-out, perhaps the truth was a lot more simple. Brother Willie probably put the finger on it.
'I don't think Genovese had a thing to do with killing my brother,' he said. 'You see, Ernie knew Sonny from when they were kids. And he hated him. The reason, he said, "While I was away doing sixteen years that bastard was out making money." Sonny never did a day, so Ernie figured Sonny was reaping the harvest while he was away doing time. They hated each other. They really, really did. Also, I think Ernie was stepping on Sonny's feet. Ernie couldn’t make money in Brooklyn anymore and he needed money and he figured he'd go out into Queens and start in Queens in whatever Sonny was doing-bookmaking, muscling in on bars, whatever. And Sonny didn’t want that.'
So rather than an act of revenge on a man who had the temerity to expose a mob boss for what he was, the hit on Ernie Rupolo was simply an act of housekeeping, clearing the streets of an inconvenience.
On November 2nd., 1967, the trial to determine the guilt or innocence of the men accused of the murder of Ernest Rupolo, began in the Queens County courthouse. It was the first time in twenty years that a murder trial involving the Mafia had come before the courts in New York. The defendants were, John Franzese, Joseph 'Whitey' Florio, William 'Red' Crabbe and Thomas Matteo. There was a fifth defendant, the chauffeur and bodyguard of Franzese, a man called John Matera, but he was not in court, as he was serving time in a Florida jail, for armed robbery.
The main witnesses for the prosecution were, Charlie Zaher, Richie Parks, Jimmy Smith and John Cordero, all members of a robbery team that specialized in hitting banks in Queens and Brooklyn. Cordero, was now the live-in boyfriend of Eleanor, the ex-de facto wife of Rupolo. It was her hair-trigger temper and rumbustious nature that triggered off the events that led to all these people being gathered in the courtroom on this day in the first place.
In July 1965, Eleanor went drinking with her new boyfriend, John Cordero, in a bar in Queens called the Kew Motor Inn, frequented by the mob. She started bad-mouthing Joe Florio, who was a soldier in the crew led by Franzese, accusing him of being the murderer of Ernie. Cordero hustled her out, and in the car park, an altercation developed and shots were fired, Florio disappeared, and Eleanor and Cordero were picked up by Charlie Zaher, a friend of Cordero, who drove them away.
The next night, 'Sony' Franzese called a 'sit-down' at another mob hangout, the Aqueduct Motel. He called into the meeting, Cordero, Zaher and Florio, who testified as to what had happened at the bar. Cordero and Zaher were allegedly part of the gang that Sonny supervised, who specialized in robbing banks. Apparently, during this rendezvous, Franzese made a number of incriminating remarks linking himself to the murder of Rupolo. And that became the heart of the case that the Assistant District Attorney for Queens, James Mosley, began to build, to indict Franzese and his gang of four for the murder of Ernest Rupolo. When Cordero and his group were arrested in connection with the bank robberies, they had not only implicated Franzese in that one, they also dragged him into the killing of 'The Hawk.''
The four bank robbers had originally offered up as the sacrificial lamb for their cause, one Tony Polisi, who was arrested, tried and convicted. However, that didn't get them quite the reduction in sentence they were looking for, so their next gambit was Franzese. On the basis of their evidence, he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit bank robbery. Although every man and his dog was adamant Franzese would never be mixed up in something like this, the government tried the case, the robbers testified and Franzese was found guilty and sentenced by Judge Jacob Mishler to fifty years in prison. Sonny was out on bail, pending an appeal when he was arrested and charged with ordering the hit on Rupolo.
According to evidence presented at trial, from the chief witness, Ritchie Parks, the four defendants, John Florio et al. arrived at a car park behind the Skyway Motel, in Queens, at about 2 a.m. in a car. They pulled Ernie's body out of the trunk, and as they were transferring it into the rear of another car, this one previously stolen by Parks, Ernie apparently came back to life, screaming 'No!' 'No!'
Red Crabbe snatched a knife from Florio's hand, knelt over the body and repeatedly stabbed it in the chest. Finally dead, The Hawk was bundled into the stolen car and three of the men, Matera, Crabbe and Thomas Matteo drove off into the night, to dispose of the body.
The way Willie Ruppoli, Ernie's brother, saw it, the killing was set up by Roy Roy, Ernie's best friend. Roy Roy may have been at this time, part of the Joey Gallo crew, over in Red Hook, along with Kid Blast, Bobby Boriello, Tony Bernardo and Louis Hubela, among others. Ernie had hung around with these guys, off and on for years, and had in fact at one time been arrested along with them. Roy Roy had a cafe on President Street, which was the ‘hang-out‘ spot for Joey Gallo and his crew .
Willie said his brother was conned into the killing zone. 'That's what they do,' he claimed. 'They take your best friend....and they make him walk you into something.....wine and dine you first, then walk you into it. Roy Roy had to be the one."
Maybe Willie wasn't such a mob groupie after all.
More than likely, Roy Roy had driven Ernie to the Aqueduct Motor Inn, in Queens, owned by Polisi, another member of Franzese's crew, and the hit had gone down there, before Ernie's body was transferred to the getaway car. Franzese used this motel for meetings with his men, so it's logical to assume that is where they would take him.
To paraphrase a saying of a famous New York cop, 'When you live in the sewers, you don't mix with bishops.' Franzese was less than fortunate, not only operating in the sewers, but cohabiting with some of the worse kind of low lives imaginable. Although he would go down on the robbery conviction, entering a federal prison in 1970, he and his co-defendants were acquitted on the Rupolo charge after a four week trial. Sonny would be back with his wife and family in their Long Island home for Christmas. With the best will in the world, D.A. Mosley was pushing it up a hill, trying to convince the jury on the evidence of a bunch of shiftless drug addicts and scum bags that made up the thrust of his case. He was also badly handicapped by a judge who bent over backwards to help the defence.
I have no idea what became of three of the principal witnesses for the prosecution. On the basis of their backgrounds, they are probably dead or serving time in prison.
Crabbe, Florio and Matteo have disappeared into oblivion. Johnny Matera was listed as a soldier in the Colombo Family as recently as 1988. However, some sources indicate that Johnny 'Irish' stayed on in Florida following his robbery case, and based himself in Fort Lauderdale. He subsequently became a capo in the Colombo Family, following the death of Nicholas 'Jiggs' Forlano, of a heart attack at a racecourse, in 1977.
A few years later, goes another scenario, Johnny was possibly killed by the Colombos for a major breach of mob protocol. He had flown up to New York to attend a meeting with the family boss, Carmine Persico, at a house on Long Island, and failed to notice he was being tailed by FBI agents. As a result, Persico was arrested for violation of probation conditions, and imprisoned. Matera disappeared in June 1980, and is presumed dead. The Broward Sheriff's Office claims his body was cut up and buried at sea by Bert Christie, a Jewish bodybuilder and gym owner.
So as so often in the convoluted world of the hoodlum, there's always money to be paid, and choices to be made.
John 'Sonny' Franzese is now over ninety, not only still active in mob affairs, but back in prison yet again on another parole violation. He has been in and out of jail a half a dozen times since 1970, but is apparently still fit, and tough and just as dangerous as he was all those years ago.
If she is still alive, Eleanor Rupolo/Cordero will now be well into her seventies. Perhaps she is holding on to her memories, somewhere in Queens or Brooklyn, of the one-eyed gunman who couldn't shoot straight, or maybe waiting for her latest paramour to return from the lock-up.
And Ernie, The Hawk?
In 1931, Ernie was a good looking kid, and the world was his oyster. Then, it all changed with that shot to his eye. From then on, he stumbled through life like a blind roofer. When he died, he was burnt-out, old before his time, and, as usual, so broke, he had to clothe himself in someone else's threads. Maybe he is wandering around in the gangster's afterlife, searching desperately for someone with a roscoe that works, and a target that will just accept the slugs and then lie down like all good victims are supposed to, so Ernie can spend the rest of eternity dreaming of being the boss of the Mafia.
© Thom L. Jones 2010