Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder, Inc.

Lepke's Mistake

The quiet of the dawning Sunday morning was broken by the sound of firecrackers as the man leaned over his sleeping son. Louis Stamler, a tailor, was waking the boy so he could go to work, when he heard the sharp reports. Stamler rushed to the window of his Brownsville home in time to see a large, black sedan rush away from the front of the candy store across the street.

Curious, Stamler quickly dressed and crossed the still dark street. Looking in the window of Rosen's Candy Store, he saw the figure of a man lying on the floor of the store. Stamler ran down the block where he saw an approaching policeman and brought the flatfoot to the store. Inside, 46-year-old Joe Rosen, a former garment industry trucker, lay covered in blood, 17 holes in his body. He was quite dead. The gunmen had been good shots; a man's hat could cover the 10 entry wounds, police reported. The date was September 13, 1936. Rosen, who was not known to police and appeared to be unconnected to the mob, was, in fact, a Murder, Inc. rubout. Eventually, Lepke Buchalter would forfeit his own life for Rosen's.

Lepke was in Leavenworth serving a fourteen-year term when he was turned over to Dewey for the first time. The prosecutor quickly put together a case on Louis's union rackets and managed to get a 30-year sentence. Then New York turned the racketeer back over to the feds. It looked like Lepke was going to prison for a long, long time.

But that was before Kid Twist started singing and mentioned a Joe Rosen contract.

Quickly, the New York authorities brought Reles before a grand jury and got an indictment on Lepke, Frank Costello, Louis Capone and Pittsburgh Phil, who was already in the Sing Sing death house with Happy Maione, the first victims of Kid Twist's aria of murder.

It took sixteen months of legal wrangling between the feds and New York before Lepke was brought from Kansas to stand trial for Rosen's slaying. When the case finally went to trial, more than five years had passed since Joe Rosen was gunned down in his candy store.

Rosen, it seemed, was not as clean as he led people to believe. And he wasn't very smart, either. He had owned a trucking firm that brought garments to non-union shops in Pennsylvania when Lepke announced that there would be work stoppage.

"Louis," Rosen protested. "That will cost me my business."

Lepke promised Rosen that he would be taken care of. But Rosen was right; the work stoppage, which helped Lepke gain control of a garment trucking firm, forced Rosen out of business.

The trucker went to his friend, Max Rubin, who had been with him when Lepke announced the stoppage.

"You and Lepke promised you would take care of me," he said. "Everyone is back at work and I'm on the streets."

Lepke got Rosen a job with Garfield Trucking, but Rosen was fired in less than a year.

"This is no good," Rubin told Judge Louis. "We've got a desperate man on our hands."

Rubin and Lepke once again helped out Rosen to keep him quiet. They set him up in the candy store, where he and his wife were able to eke out a small living. But Rosen wasn't a businessman and the candy store soon ran into trouble. Rosen pressed his luck and demanded more help from Lepke and Rubin. He was told to get out of town and to keep his mouth shut. Sadly, Rosen didn't listen and he ended up dead that Sunday morning.

But Lepke, the man who had helped build the national crime Syndicate, the racketeer who had his fingers in nearly every New York union — from the bakers to the garment workers — the killer who had overseen a murder squad that was responsible for nearly a thousand deaths around the country, had made a very simple mistake. Lepke, the man who had insulated himself from the lower echelon killers and who took pains never to talk when someone he didn't trust implicitly was in the room had screwed up. He had lost his temper over the gall of a small candy store owner who threatened to talk and didn't realize that an underling had heard him issue the order to take care of Rosen. Lepke had broken his own cardinal rule and left a witness.

When Allie Tannenbaum, the killer who had stalked Big Greenie, took the stand in Lepke's murder trial, Judge Louis wasn't concerned. After all, Allie had nothing to do with Rosen's slaying and couldn't help the prosecution's case. But Lepke was wrong. Allie was a hanger-on in the scheme of things; he reported directly to Lepke, but he took his orders from Mendy and Gurrah. Lepke might have wanted Allie to do a job and might want to know how it turned out, but he never directly told Allie to kill anyone.

But in court that day, Allie dropped a bomb on Lepke.

He told the story of the hit on Irv Ashkenaz, a Lithuanian taxicab driver who was talking to the law about Lepke's involvement in the taxi rackets. The order for the contract came from Mendy Weiss, but Allie was required to report to Lepke about the results. He was confident that day in the fall of 1936 when he reported to Lepke's office. The hit had gone well and he was sure the soft-eyed, quiet ganglord would be pleased. Allie was surprised by what he encountered when he strolled into the office.

Lepke on trial for Rosen's murder
Lepke on trial for
Rosen's murder

"Lepke was yelling that he gave this Joe Rosen money to go away, and then he sneaks back into a candy store, after he tells him to stay away," Allie testified. "Lepke was hollering: 'There is one son of a bitch that will never go down to talk to Dewey about me.' Max (Rubin) was trying to calm him down. He was saying, "take it easy; take it easy Louis. I'll handle Joe Rosen; he's all right.'"

"What did Lepke say to that?" Turkus asked.

"He says, 'You told me that before.' He says 'This is the end of it. I'm fed up with that son of a bitch.' He says, 'and I'll take care of him," Allie recalled.

Two days later, Allie testified, he read in the morning papers that "Joe Rosen" had been killed in his candy store in Brooklyn. The papers said Dewey had been looking for Rosen. In Allie's mind, that clinched it. Lepke had killed the shopkeeper.

The testimony of Allie Tannenbaum was good enough for the jury. Four hours after they were handed the case, at 2 a.m., the verdict came back against Lepke. The co-founder of the national Syndicate was guilty of first degree murder. The penalty for murder at the time in New York was death by electrocution.

 

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