Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder, Inc.

Divine Retribution

Kid Twist Reles after plunge
Kid Twist Reles after plunge

Kid Twist Reles probably would have gotten a kick out of testifying in Lepke Buchalter's trial. After all, it was front page news and Reles would have been a star witness, if he had been around. It would have been the kind of coverage he would have loved. But before Lepke went to trial, Kid Twist was dead.

Conspiracy theorists had a field day with how Reles died. He was in a hotel in Coney Island, surrounded by five, maybe six cops who never left his side, but he still managed to take a dive out a sixth story window. Two bedsheets were found tied together and lashed to a heating register with a piece of wire. Even Assistant D.A. Burton Turkus believed that Reles had somehow been murdered while he was under police protection.

In his book, Murder, Inc., Turkus discounts several of the leading theories, including suicide, accidental death due to an escape attempt and accidental death in the course of a prank.

However, sometime after Kid Twist's plummet from his sixth story hideout, the FBI analyzed the wire found on the radiator in his room and compared it to the wire next to his body. The break in the wire was due to stress, the FBI ruled. It was capable of holding 130 pounds and at the time of his death, Kid Twist weighed more than 160 pounds which was sufficient to cause the stress break.

It appears unlikely that anyone was able to penetrate the protective gauntlet that shielded Kid Twist and Reles probably died trying to climb down the makeshift rope to the room below. For what reason we will never know; divine retribution is as good a reason as any.

Justice

A big gangster doesn't go down without a fight, and at the time there was no one bigger than Lepke Buchalter. Louis might have been safely behind bars, but if he had his way, he would never see the inside of Sing Sing's death chamber. Lepke had connections, and more importantly, he had knowledge that could make a lot of people uncomfortable. And not just gangsters; Lepke was well-connected in political circles, too. Judges, prosecutors, even Senators were beholden to the Brooklyn crime lord. In the fight of his life, Lepke would pull out all of the stops to cheat justice one more time.

Lepke was convicted of murder in December 1941, but it would take another three years before justice would be meted out. New York's judicial system requires that the NY State Court of Appeals hear and review any murder case involving the death penalty, and Lepke's was no exception. The court upheld the conviction in October 1942. Lepke was in federal custody at the time, serving out his racketeering conviction and New York demanded that he be turned over to the state for execution. Not surprisingly, Lepke opposed the transfer and put up a valiant fight. He called in most of his markers with his federal friends in the Justice Department and the court system and managed to stay out of New York's hands until January 1944.

The Sing Sing executioner was ordered to report for work at 11 p.m. on Thursday, March 2, 1944 to carry out the executions of Louis Capone, Mendy Weiss and Lepke Buchalter. That night, the men all ordered the same meals: steak, french fries, salad and pie for lunch, roast chicken, shoestring potatoes and salad for dinner. The trio were shaved, dressed in typical execution garb — slippers, black slacks with a slit on the left leg to make it easier to attach the electrodes and white socks. Then they were moved to "the Dance Hall," the pre-execution cells just 25 feet away from the chair.

Mendy was tight-lipped and silent, Capone, who had a weak heart, appeared nervous, but Lepke was confident.

"Something is gonna happen," he told his friends. "I can feel it."

By 9:40 p.m., nothing had happened. Lepke's wife came in and spent a tearful few moments with her husband, then left to go back to the city.

When she arrived back in New York, the bulldog editions of the newspapers were trumpeting the news that Governor Thomas E. Dewey — the man whose probe had helped put Lepke in the chair — had offered a 48-hour reprieve while the state's highest court looked over the case one more time.

At least that was the reason the newspapers gave for the delay.

Eventually, word leaked out that Lepke had information that could rock the U.S. political system. What Lepke knew could help Dewey, who was running against Roosevelt for president, become an unbeatable candidate. Facts would be revealed that Lepke had enough information to make "a noted public official of New York City" face a conspiracy charge, could tie a "nationally prominent labor leader" in with a murder, and show that "a close relative of a very high public officeholder" was a front for two mobsters who ran national rackets. In return for what he knew, Lepke wanted to live.

"Whether Lepke's revelations would have altered the course of history will, of course, never be known," Turkus wrote. "However, to aspire to the presidency and be handed information of such national implication that it might swing the tide was as great a temptation as a man ever had. To the credit of Dewey, he did resist and he did reject. He would not do business with Lepke, even with the greatest prize on Earth at stake — the Presidency of the United States!"

On Saturday, as the final hours of the stay ticked away, the men were moved back to the Dance Hall. Once again they ordered their last meals and said their goodbyes. The open line to the governor's mansion was checked once again, but this time there would be no stay. Lepke had run out of luck.

Louis Capone was the first to go. He said nothing as they strapped him into the chair. At 11:05 it was over. Mendy Weiss came next. He sat down in the chair and as the attendants made the preparations, Mendy once again protested his innocence. He asked the warden to pass along his love to his family and was silent. Three minutes later, Mendy was taken out on a gurney.

Lepke was last, as befits a gang leader. His eyes were hard as he surveyed the assembled witnesses and he acknowledged the ones he knew. The last thing he saw was the attendant lowering the hood over his eyes. The 2,200 volts of current pushed his body against the eight restraints on the chair. After the current ceased and the doctor declared him dead, the hood was lifted from his face. Perspiration covered his brow, drool appeared at the sides of his mouth and Lepke's face was discolored. Louis "Lepke" Buchalter was dead.

 

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