Murder on Fifteenth Street
CARLO TRESCA IS A NAME not much remembered today, but in the first half of the last century he was widely known, a leading light of the American left, when in response to the Great Depression the nation turned to progressive, even radical, ideologies. One writer recalled Tresca as a “labor spellbinder,” citing his ability to whip up a crowd of workers with fiery oratory.
In January 1943, Tresca found himself in the middle of a fight to determine the future of his beloved homeland, Italy. The Allied invasion of Sicily—the initial thrust in the battle to break the Axis in half—remained six months in the future. But it was already clear to anyone with a modicum of awareness that the days were numbered for Benito Mussolini’s fascist ruling order. Tresca adamantly demanded that the still-aborning postwar Italian government be free of both former fascists and eager-to-dominate communists.
Tresca habitually found himself in the middle of public political fights. A thin-faced firebrand born in the Abruzzo in 1879, he wore a Trotsky-like beard and, after moving to America in 1904, helped organize strikes for the Wobblies, the International Workers of the World. Tresca’s personal politics matured like a rogue Chianti, beginning with nationalism, proceeding through socialism, finally to arrive at a vinegary style of anarchism. His newspaper, Il Martello (the Hammer), had carried on the battle against Mussolini since 1920. The Spanish Civil War and the Russo-German nonaggression pact had soured him on Stalin and the communists.
While agitating against Mussolini and the fascists as well as against Stalin and the communists, Tresca also fought the mob. He vehemently opposed organized crime’s infiltration of trade unions. Since the days of the Black Hand, the original Italian crime syndicate, Tresca had battled the mob in his adopted home of America.
Tresca’s enemies were legion. In 1931, Mussolini put the rabble-rouser on his “death list.” The man had been repeatedly beaten, threatened, and targeted for assassination. The first try was in 1909 by a razor-wielding assailant in Pittsburgh, who missed Tresca’s throat but slashed through his cheek and jaw.
Tresca didn’t quit. An odd alliance occurred in WWII Italy. In the prewar years Mussolini had mounted an impressive assault on the entrenched Mafia, in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy, shattering its century-old hold in many parts of the country, hounding its soldiers into exile.
Yet, in the early 1940s, one of the powerful figures in Il Duce’s orbit was an Italian-American mafioso named Vito Genovese. And it was this man—the same fedora-wearing figure Ed Croswell would spot inside a Chrysler Imperial limo at Apalachin—whom Carlo Tresca decided deserved special attention.
Born near Naples in 1897, Vito Genovese emigrated with his family in 1913 to the Lower East Side. There he formed a friendship that would shape his life, meeting one Salvatore Lucania, who as Lucky Luciano would come to be known as the premier organizer of organized crime in America. The same age, Lucky and Vito represented the classic mob combination of brains and brawn, respectively.
As a young turk in the twenties’ and thirties’ mob, Genovese cut a violent swath across New York City and its environs. His rap sheet reads like a true gangster résumé: homicide, disorderly person, burglary, homicide, carrying a dangerous weapon, homicide. These were only the crimes that came to police notice—there were others, infamous and bloody. The judicial dispositions of the arrests were equally interesting: discharged, dismissed, discharged, discharged, dismissed, discharged.
In 1936, in flight from the heat over one of these murders, Genovese decamped for the homeland, settling in Nola, near Naples. He prospered. He helped lay the groundwork for the Marseilles-Cuba-Montreal “triangle trade” in heroin smuggling. He cultivated contacts in Fascist leadership circles in Italy. His legitimate bona fides developed to the degree that he became part owner of several factories, power plants, and a castle in Campania.
None of this sat well with Carlo Tresca. He had a run-in with Genovese in 1935, when the mobster wanted to open a fascist-friendly club for Italian seamen in New York City. Tresca, an avowed antifascist, put the kibosh on the plan. Later, when he heard of Genovese’s activities in Italy, Tresca reasoned that the only way the gangster could be accepted by higher-ups was through ignorance of his past. He fired off a series of letters to the government, detailing Vito’s unsavory background in America.
Vito Genovese was not a man to be trifled with, especially not by a left-leaning anarchist journalist with multiple political axes to grind. According to an anonymous informant, Genovese had the following conversation with Il Duce at a 1942 Christmas party in Rome.
“Carlo Tresca is an archenemy of mine,” Mussolini said to Genovese.
“Mine, too,” Genovese said, agreeing with the dictator that Tresca had bothered too many powerful people for too long.
“If there is anything you can do to rid us of him,” Mussolini said, “I would do anything in the world for you.”
Some two weeks after this exchange, on the evening of Monday, January 11, 1943, Tresca worked late at the Il Martello office on the third floor of a six-story commercial building at 96 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, on the southwest corner of Fifteenth Street. He had finished a busy day, huddling with associates, discussing plans to disrupt a meeting of the Office of War Information the following Thursday, seeing writer John Dos Passos for lunch, meeting with a job seeker, an engraver, staffers at the newspaper.
At around nine p.m., a lawyer named Giuseppe Calabi arrived at the Il Martello offices. He and Tresca had a committee meeting planned, but the other members didn’t show up, so the editor suggested the two men go for a meal at a nearby bar. They left the building via a Fifteenth Street exit and turned toward Fifth Avenue.
Wartime gas rationing and blackout rules meant the cross street was very dark. As Tresca and Calabi headed east, a gunman stepped out of the shadows behind them and fired—a single shot, then three more in quick succession.
Two bullets hit Tresca, either of which would have been fatal, one tearing through his left lung and one penetrating the right side of his face to lodge in his spine. He dropped to the pavement, his legs cocked awkwardly, feet splaying to the curb. Witnesses—two workers from the nearby Norwegian consulate—reported a black Ford sedan pulling away down Fifteenth after the shooting.
Carlo Tresca, activist, anarchist, friend to the workingman, was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Vincent’s Hospital, four blocks from the murder scene.
That should have been that. A man with many enemies gunned down on the street, an anarchist killed amid the kind of lawless chaos he himself advocated. The list of likely suspects was long.
But the murder of Carlo Tresca would become a tiny ringing bell, vibrating, dinging, pealing, setting off sympathetic tremors, triggering expanding circles of effect that passed through the echelons of American law enforcement until it arrived, years later, within the patient, long-memoried reach of Sergeant Edgar Croswell.
* * *
“La Marese,” they called them—the Mafia soldiers and bosses from Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily. If Italy is the boot kicking the Sicilian football, then Castellammare is the northwest tip of the ball.
A rough declension played itself out among Italians in the mob in America, dividing them into two camps. There were the Castellammarese, from the insular, secretive commune in Sicily, and then there were immigrants with backgrounds in and around Naples, the provinces of Calabria and Campania.
It wasn’t black and white, and there were exceptions hailing from all over Italy, but generally the division held true. The styles could be said to be different, too. La Marese and Neapolitan, the heart and the head, the fiery emotional and the coolly rational. Again, nothing set in stone, just a vague stereotype, both true and untrue in the way of all stereotypes.
The opposing clans banged and bloodied each other in the fabled Castellammarese War at the dawn of the 1930s, a revenge-fest that left sixty gangsters dead.
In the heat of battle, factions proved fluid and situational. Mobsters regularly killed their allies and made alliances with their enemies. Younger, more assimilated gangsters used the war to further their ambitions, displacing the older, more traditional “Mustache Petes” of the first immigrant generation. When the smoke of the Castellammarese War cleared, clearly the mobster who benefited most was the Sicilian organizational genius, Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
Luciano ushered the Mafia into a new era. The mob evolved from an ethnic-based society preying on immigrant enclaves into a well-oiled syndicate reaping illicit profits from nearly every sector of the American economy. Luciano forged a pan-ethnic alliance with Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky. Borders were crossed, divisions were abandoned, and organized crime went national.
Another casualty of the Castellammarese War in-fighting was the old “honored society” tradition that forbade any involvement in narcotics and prostitution. The gangland battles foreshadowed the end of Prohibition in 1933 and, like any forward-thinking corporate boss, Luciano realized new revenue streams had to be developed. Dope and sex fit the bill.
By the fifties, the division of the mob along geographical lines had increasingly faded, but still held on as an inherited vestige. The Sicilians Joe Bonanno, Joe Profaci, Steven Magaddino, and Frank Garafalo lined up as La Marese, while Vito Genovese, Frank Costello, and Albert Anastasia had roots in Naples and Calabria.
Also numbering among La Marese in 1943 was a deadly thirty-three-year-old cigar-chomping killer named Carmine Galante. Born in Italian Harlem of Castellammarese parents, Galante—known all his adult life as “Lilo,” slang for cigar—acted as close ally and underboss to Joe Bonanno. Galante was also, as it happened, certifiably unhinged.
Prison psychologists at Sing Sing once got hold of Carmine Galante, ran him through a battery of personality tests, and diagnosed their prisoner—big surprise to those who knew him—as a psychopath. “He had a mental age of 14-and-a-half and an IQ of 90,” read the assessment, diagnosing the subject as a “neuropathic, psychopathic personality, emotionally dull, and indifferent.”
Whenever he was out of prison and on the bricks, Lilo proved himself eminently useful to his superiors as a torpedo, racking up more than eighty contract killings. He was vengeful and spiteful in the extreme. Even after his old mob enemy Frank Costello died, his tomb wasn’t safe from Galante, who dynamited the crypt.
When, in 1943, as a courtesy to Mussolini—but also for his own purposes—Vito Genovese was looking for a killer to take out the troublemaking journalist Carlo Tresca, naturally Lilo’s name came up.
At eight o’clock on the night Tresca was murdered, Galante, just released after an eight-year stretch in prison for the armed robbery of a brewery, visited his parole officer, Sidney Gross, in the state offices at 80 Centre Street in Manhattan. When Galante left Gross, he picked up a tail, Fred Berson, another parole officer, who followed Lilo to ascertain if the ex-convict was violating his parole by associating with known criminals. Galante crossed Centre, proceeded down Worth Street, but instead of entering the subway climbed into a black sedan. Berson noted the license plate, IC 9272.
Straight from the parole office to murder. An hour and a half later, Galante was the shooter who stepped out of the Fifteenth Street darkness to nail Carlo Tresca with bullets to the head and chest. He was the one who had lain in wait for the anarchist outside the offices of Il Martello. With him were his La Marese allies, Frank Garafalo and Joseph Di Palermo, along with a wheelman named Sebastiano Domingo.
When Tresca and his lawyer friend Calabi stepped into the street and headed off toward their ill-fated supper, Galante was there in the shadows.
“Which one?” Galante hissed to Garafalo. “Which one do I do?”
“Kill the son of a bitch with the whiskers,” Garafalo told him, and Lilo did.
It could only be called bad luck to have a parole officer tail when heading off to commit murder. Galante was perplexed when, the next night, upon coming out of a candy store at 246 Elizabeth Street with Di Palermo, he was picked up by police. Sure, he had just shot some poor sucker, but hadn’t he gotten away clean?
Not quite. A couple hours after the killing, a patrolman named Saul Greenberg happened upon a black Ford sedan while walking his beat. The car was parked on Fifteenth Street only blocks from the murder scene, outside the entrance to the Seventh Avenue subway, its car doors left flung open, key in the ignition.
License plate IC 9272. The same car parole officer Berson had seen Galante entering just before Carlo Tresca was gunned down.
The police held Galante, first as a material witness and then for a parole violation, while they investigated the assassination on Fifteenth Street. They kept him in limbo for over a year, with District Attorney Frank Hogan repeatedly promising to present the case to a grand jury.
It never happened. The assistant district attorney assigned to prosecuting Galante, Louis Pagnucco, had a history of fascist sympathies and was presumably no great admirer of Tresca (Pagnucco’s college thesis extolled the “courageous leadership of Mussolini”). An FBI agent in the New York field office memo’d Hoover that, even with solid evidence of Galante’s guilt, political pressure had evidently derailed the prosecution.
In December 1944, the New York authorities released Galante from jail.
The assassination of Carlo Tresca faded in the rearview, lost amid the flurry of war news, memorialized by a few of his left-wing associates, perhaps, but largely just one more notch on Carmine Galante’s gun.
A few people remembered. A state police sergeant in upstate New York, for example, a cop who was becoming increasingly suspicious of mob activity in his territory. So it happened that on October 18, 1956, more than thirteen years after the Tresca killing, the memory of his murder set off a chain of events that would lead, a little more than a year later, to the bust-up of the Apalachin summit.
* * *
New York State Route 17 cuts diagonally across the Southern Tier, a region of farms and hills along the border of Pennsylvania. Some one hundred miles east of Binghamton, the road picks up the Susquehanna and follows its valley. That specific stretch has always been something of a speed trap, with a confusion of varying speed limits along its length.
On this busy four-lane highway that cool, dry, pleasant fall day in October 1956, outside Windsor, New York, a state police trooper named F. W. Leibe clocked a speeding Oldsmobile sporting New Jersey plates (HA 9J9), heading east, traveling at 65 miles per hour in a 50 mph zone.
Leibe snapped on the bubble lights of his black-and-white and pulled the vehicle over. Inside the Olds sat three men. The driver presented a license that identified him as Joseph Di Palermo of 246 Elizabeth Street, New York City. But something did not sit right with Leibe. The physical description on the license did not match the man sitting in the driver’s seat, a broad-shouldered gent of about forty with thinning hair and a cigar in his mouth.
When state police stopped cars on the highway in the fifties, running a drivers license represented quite a process, much slower and more arduous than the scanning of a bar code as is the current procedure. Inquiring on a plate or license meant a radio call to a central dispatcher, who had to enter the information manually into a Teletype terminal.
If the dispatcher believed highway personnel were running too many licenses, a “phone the station” call would go out and the uniformed officers were told to knock it off. A call to the station at times required finding a pay phone or stopping at a friendly farmer’s house.
In addition, 1950s drivers licenses didn’t have photos, so all a patrolman had to go on, in order to decide if the person on the license was actually the citizen in question, was information on height and eye color. Despite the difficulties, Trooper Leibe detected problems.
“This is not your license, sir,” Leibe said, invoking the studied politesse of his state police training.
“Oh, I guess I looked in the wrong coat and grabbed the wrong one,” the driver said. He made a vain show of going through the pockets of the other coats in the car.
“I don’t have mine with me,” he finally said to Leibe. “I must have left it at home. But look, I’m in a hurry. Can’t we make a deal?”
Trooper Leibe didn’t like the looks of the men in the car. His hand strayed down to the gun in his holster. “Get out of the car,” he said to the driver. “You’re coming with me.”
To Joseph Di Palermo, Leibe said, “You follow me to the station.”
The driver in the Olds hesitated for an agonizing moment. The highway was crowded and the scene was public. Maybe at another time—in a dark street, say—he might have tried something. Not here, not now.
“Okay,” the driver said. He turned to Di Palermo. “You know what to do.” Palermo did indeed. He neglected, of course, to follow the trooper. He and the other two occupants of the car, Frank Garafalo and John Bonventre, sped away.
Leibe brought his charge to the Five-Mile Point state police substation east of Binghamton. There, the man identified himself to the sergeant in charge—one Edgar Croswell—as Carmine Galante.
Galante. Di Palermo. Hadn’t he heard those names before, Croswell thought, or read them in the numerous circulars that the NYPD and the Bureau of Narcotics sent out?
A name arose in Croswell’s memory, almost unbidden, a street murder victim from many years ago. Tressler? Trevas? Something Italian.
The man standing before him at the Five-Mile station was impatient, upset, staying just on the safe side of belligerent. “Look,” Lilo Galante said, “this is a lot of crap. So I don’t have my license with me. So I pay my fine. Let’s get it over with. I can make a lot of trouble, you know.”
A not-so-veiled threat. Croswell did not allow Galante to see his hackles rise, only continued in his usual carefully measured way. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “I’m afraid you’ll have to remain here until we find out about your driver’s license. It’s just routine, but that’s the rule.”
Lilo had that “why-I-oughtta” look in his eyes, but there was nothing he could do. Croswell had him searched, turning out his pockets to reveal a cash cache of $1,815, most of it in hundred-dollar bills.
It is a distinct habit of mobsters to carry paper money not in a wallet but rolled up and secured by a rubber band. That way, whenever they felt the need to flense off a few notes, their money was handy. The practice lent a virtue of display, too, a thick cylinder of bills denoting wealth and demanding respect. Croswell recognized this quirk, and identified it in the mobster money roll of his lead-foot suspect.
Croswell left Galante cooling out in a detention cell and went to work. He got on the teletype, querying his brethren in the NYPD, the Jersey State Police, the Bureau of Narcotics, and the FBI for the jackets on Carmine Galante and Joseph Di Palermo. The search eventually turned up Galante’s violent past, including verification of his alleged association with the Tresca killing.
With his fellow state police officers, Croswell conducted a telephone canvass of area motels and hotels. A few hours after he sent Galante off to chill, a positive hit came up. Galante, Di Palermo, and the two other occupants in the pulled-over Olds—Frank Garafalo and John Bonventre—had registered for the previous night, October 17, 1956, at the Arlington Hotel in Binghamton. According to the preliminary search Croswell had done, all were high-profile New York mobsters.
Croswell called the Arlington to verify. “Could you tell me who paid the bill?”
A beat of silence while the hotel clerk checked.
“Joseph Barbara,” came the voice over the phone. “Paying in the name of the Canada Dry Bottling Company.”
There had been other clues, other hints over the years that Joe Barbara was not the legitimate businessman he pretended to be. There had been run-ins between Croswell and Barbara before. The state police sergeant always kept an eye on the owner of the big stone house on McFall Road.
But here was something different. Here was proof that the local man was mobbed up, connected at the highest levels. Tresca to Galante to Barbara. Connect the dots.
Sometimes you can gauge the size of a fish by the ripples set off when you pull him in. And with Galante, there were ripples aplenty. For a routine traffic stop, the reaction was all out of proportion.
The first feelers came via Albany, where state senators and assemblymen, Democratic and Republican both, fielded phone calls from a series of highly paid, well-connected New York lawyers. Can’t something be done for poor Carmine Galante? Maybe a call to state police higher-ups, rein in this cop Croswell?
The legislators took one look at Lilo’s glow-in-the-dark criminal record and begged off. Thanks for contacting us, mister attorney, sir, but no thanks. We can’t do anything for your guy. We may be politicians, but we’re not stupid.
When the Albany end-run two-step didn’t work, Galante’s backers in the mob fell back on good old-fashioned bribery. But they chose only the finest emissaries. Nine days after Lilo’s arrest, Chief of Detectives Captain Christopher Gleitsmann and Detective Sergeant Peter Policastro of the West New York, New Jersey police department visited Croswell at the Five-Mile substation. After some just-us-cops small talk, they got down to business.
“What about this Galante case?” Captain Gleitsmann asked.
Croswell responded cautiously. “Well, what about the Galante case?”
“He comes from my town, you know,” the captain said. “He’s not a bad guy.”
Only in the morally relative universe of West New York, just across the Hudson from Manhattan, could Lilo Galante be described as “not bad.” West New York was long a haunt of mobsters, with Genovese, Lucchese, and Bonanno family interests all well represented there. The local DeCavalcante crime clan, which controlled West New York, would send three of its bosses to the Apalachin summit, and eventually serve as one of the models for Tony Soprano’s family on the HBO series.
The detective captain from West New York wasn’t getting anywhere with Croswell. “I’ve been sent by my commissioner, Modarelli. I’m not supposed to use his name, but you should know.”
That commissioner would be Ernest W. Modarelli, director of public safety in West New York. Croswell’s stony silence only prompted Gleitsmann to blunder on, a rush of words.
“Galante runs the Abco Vending Company, and is a very close friend of the commissioner,” Gleitsmann said. So close, in fact, that Galante’s Abco Vending had a direct telephone line between it and police headquarters.
“We’d like to see Galante excused,” Captain Gleitsmann said. “It wasn’t really a bad violation. We’ll pay the maximum fine. Can’t we get him out of a jail sentence?”
In answer, Croswell pulled out Galante’s rap sheet and pushed it across the desk toward Gleitsmann, who only glanced at it.
“Look,” the West New York cop said, putting a meaningful emphasis on his words, “there’ll be considerations.”
“The answer is definitely no,” Croswell said.
Gleitsmann stuck his hand up, forefinger extended.
“Is that supposed to mean a thousand dollars?”
“Yes,” Gleitsmann said. “And if you think I’m kidding, here it is.” He hauled a money roll out of his pocket, twenties, fifties, hundreds, rolled together mob-style with a rubber band. “If that isn’t enough, I’ll have to use your phone for a few minutes.” A thousand dollars. That amount equalled almost two months of Croswell’s state police salary back then. But it didn’t tempt the cop.
Ed Croswell’s wife Nathalie once described him as “a man with two moods, angry and ‘blah.’” Captain Gleitsmann had provoked the non-blah mood.
“Now don’t be foolish,” Gleitsmann said hurriedly. “We cops should take the opportunities that come our way. We should decide whether a case gets quashed.”
Croswell rose from his chair. “Put the money back into your pocket,” he said. “Get out of here, fast.”
In the publicity surrounding the Apalachin summit, interest in the Galante traffic stop blew up big. THE SPEEDING TICKET OF THE DECADE ran a headline in Albany’s Knickerbocker News. Galante could have paid his fine, done his time, and kept the whole affair off the radar. His notoriety—and Ed Croswell’s long memory—prevented that.
From the time of the Galante arrest forward, Croswell’s interest in Lilo’s friend Joseph Barbara shifted into high gear. He searched police records, looked into the business practices of Barbara’s beverage company, and generally went from keeping a lazy eye on the man to training a sharp one. All because the name “Carmine Galante” had set off alarm bells in Croswell’s mind, linked to a WWII-era murder.
Ding, ding, ding. A tiny bell, expanding ripples. The assassination of a left-wing anti-Mafia journalist that Vito Genovese once engineered as a favor to a dictator would come back to bite the Mafia boss. Many years later, what should have been Genovese’s shining moment at the Apalachin summit was destroyed by a state police sergeant who just happened to remember what they did to Carlo Tresca on Fifteenth Street that dark night in 1943.
Irony of ironies. Resting in his grave, the Italian anarchist must have sported a thin smile. In the events surrounding Apalachin, there would be more of that—more laughter from corpses, more irony, more intricate, far-reaching connections. And, especially, more murder.
Copyright © 2013 by Gil Reavill