Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder, Inc.

Lepke's War

Thomas E. Dewey
Thomas E. Dewey

Having taken over a good chunk of Dutch Schultz's operations, Lepke became a prime target of law enforcement. But that didn't concern Judge Lepke too much, for he had friends in high places. Buchalter and Gurrah Shapiro were two of 158 people named in a 1933 federal indictment on racketeering charges. They were quickly tried and convicted of the crime and immediately appealed the verdict. The trial judge denied bail, but U.S. Circuit Court Judge Manton overruled the judge and allowed Lepke to post $3,000 bail. The Honorable Martin T. Manton would eventually be removed from the bench because "his decisions were frequently influenced by something more than legal merits," Turkus wrote. Lepke wasn't too worried by the appointment of Thomas Dewey as special prosecutor and he always seemed to be one step ahead of the law. A bug in his office was thwarted by a loud radio; he would meet his underlings only after he was sure he had lost the tails that Dewey set on him; he only answered his phone when someone called for "Murphy." And Lepke was a firm believer in taking care of problems at their source. If there was a potential witness and that witness couldn't be trusted, eliminate him.

But by 1937, the heat was on Lepke and he decided to lam. He turned over day-to-day operations to Mendy Weiss and decreed an all-out "war of extermination" to halt the Dewey probe. With no canaries to sing, the D.A. would have no case, Lepke believed.

"What followed was a bloodbath," Turkus wrote. "That was when he was officially labeled 'America's most dangerous criminal.'"

Throughout the Northeast, gangsters scrambled for cover like cockroaches when a light is turned on. Not only were they on the run from the law, they were looking over their shoulder lest another mobster be gunning for them. In 1939 alone, Lepke ordered the boys from Brooklyn to make more than a dozen hits, Turkus said. Sometimes he would have two Murder, Inc. crews on the road at a time looking for mobsters who might squeal.

Ironically, it was Judge Louis's bloodbath that helped Dewey and Turkus the most. Low-ranking mobsters who had been marked by Lepke for death ran straight into the arms of the law for protection.

Joe "The Baker" Liberto, the night attendant at a garage owned by Vito Gurino, a Murder, Inc. soldier and friend of Lepke's, wasn't a mobster, per se, but he knew where the bodies were buried. Sometimes Joe the Baker helped Murder, Inc. get a hot car for a job and as such was dangerous to Lepke. He was one of the many walking dead who turned from being a Murder, Inc. helper into a target. Happy Maione, picked up in one of the early raids on Murder, Inc., ordered his brother-in-law, Joe Daddonna, to silence Joe the Baker before Liberto could talk. Daddonna kidnapped Liberto and held him in a house in rural Long Island, but Liberto managed to escape by diving out a window. The Baker made his way back to Nassau, Long Island where his mother lived, but Daddonna tracked him down. However, before Daddonna's Murder, Inc. buddies could show up to finish the job, the cops — tipped by someone — showed up and took the Baker into protective custody.

Even in custody, Joe the Baker wasn't safe from the long arm of Murder, Inc. Vito Gurino showed up several times at the Queens County Civil Jail wanting to know if Joe had talked and telling him that "if he wanted to go for a ride, that could be arranged." Gurino had carte blanche access in the Queens County jail, but he knew his face was too well known to pull the job on Joe the Baker himself. He hired a helper for $100 to fulfill the contract. The accomplice went straight to the D.A. instead and that was the last time Murder, Inc. had a shot at Liberto.

Armed with the knowledge that Gurino was gunning for Liberto, Turkus was able to offer protection in exchange for testimony. "The mob itself had unlocked the lips of the Baker," Turkus said.

Big Julie Catalano was another low-level mobster who rushed to the law for help. Picked up on vagrancy charges early in the Dewey probes, Big Julie was bailed out by his brother against his wishes and put back on the street. He was outside for three weeks before Turkus realized that Julie was more valuable dead than alive to the mob because of what he knew.

A day after his brother posted bail — the mob forced him to do so — Big Julie received a visit from Gurino who told him that Happy Maione, languishing in the Tombs, wanted to see him.

"Vanish," Hap told Big Julie. "Make yourself scarce from the neighborhood."

Big Julie wasn't too bright and the last thing he wanted to do was leave home. So he went home and sent Happy a wire telling him he had no intention of taking it on the lam. His suspicions aroused, Happy told Vito to silence Big Julie.

Vito showed up at a wedding where Big Julie was celebrating. "Let's go for a ride," he said. "I'm gonna help you hide out."

Big Julie knew what that meant and stalled for time. "I'm going to tell my wife I'm leaving," he said.

"No," Vito told him. "Don't tell her anything."

"Then I need some clothes," Julie replied. Vito acquiesced and told Big Julie to go home, get his stuff and meet him in an hour.

As he was weighing his options at home, salvation arrived in the form of two policemen acting on Turkus's orders to pick him up. Big Julie nearly leapt into their arms, he was so overcome.


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