The handwritten note held by Burton Turkus didn't look like much, but it was the thread that, when pulled, would eventually unravel the fabric of Murder, Inc. Written on the stationary provided to inmates at New York's Riker's Island City Workhouse, it read:
I am doing a bit here. I would like to talk to the District Attorney. I know something about a murder in East New York."
It was signed "Harry Rudolph." Rudolph was well known to the New York law enforcement community. Detectives called him "a full mooner" someone whose mental faculties are not all together.
Harry was serving a short stint for a misdemeanor, so he wasn't looking for a sentence reduction in exchange for cooperation. Turkus and his investigators, who had been working on nearly 200 unsolved homicides believed to be connected to organized crime, decided to talk to Rudolph. "We have nothing to lose," Turkus thought.
"Those rats killed my friend Red Alpert," Rudolph alleged. "Those Brownsville guys — Reles and Buggsy and Dukey Maffetore. They took Red when he came out of his house."
Nineteen-year-old Alex "Red" Alpert, a small time hood had been shot at the edge of his house in 1933. He apparently had been involved in a jewel heist and tried to fence some goods to Pittsburgh Phil. The two men had been unable to agree on a price for the gems and Pep was angry over Red's insolence.
Murder, Inc. was called in and Red paid with his life. For more than six years the crime had remained on the unsolved list.
Rudolph's allegations were good enough to allow Turkus to get a grand jury indictment of Reles, Dukey and Buggsy Goldstein. Turkus didn't hold out a lot of hope of getting a conviction of the men on just the testimony of a "full mooner" like Rudolph, but he got the indictment because "at least it would keep them off the streets — until a trial anyway."
The cops picked up Dukey the afternoon the indictments were handed up. Word went out that Reles and Buggsy were wanted men and surprisingly, they turned themselves in the next morning.
"The same old crap," they crowed. "Here we are. This is the old walk-in-and-walk out."
Ironically, the two men who had beaten so many raps before turned themselves in on the one murder charge that stuck.
Maffetore wasn't the brightest bulb in the Brownsville mob. A "sleek young flyweight," Dukey was an avid reader of Li'l Abner and Superman comics, but like the rest of the gang wasn't afraid to kill. His English left a lot to be desired and he was more comfortable talking in Italian. Turkus and the police decided to lean on Dukey because they were convinced Kid Twist and Buggsy would never talk. But Dukey was tough. The law tried everything to get him to open up, but Dukey knew what happened to stoolpigeons. Nowhere would be safe if he squealed. A guy could get a shiv in the neck in the prison exercise yard just as easy as he could go down in a burst of gunfire in the street.
A break in the case came from Harry Rudolph.
"It's worth five grand to me if I pin this on Dukey and square it with Kid Twist and Buggsy," he told Turkus. There were corroborating witnesses who also told Turkus that Reles and Goldstein planned to sell out Dukey.
The assistant D.A. lost no time in telling Dukey how his friends were willing set him up. That broke Maffetore's will and he sang for more than an hour about what he knew of the mob and Murder, Inc. But it was clear that Dukey was a fringe player and a higher-up was needed to fill in the gaps.
"You should go get Pretty," Maffetore told the law. "He's smart. He knows a lot more than me."
Pretty Levine, a killer with big blue eyes and curly hair, had been involved in half-a-dozen slayings by the time he was 23. A newlywed, Pretty and his wife Helen tried to make a break from the underworld and had almost made it when Helen gave birth to their first child. Pretty had been driving a truck and hauling garbage, but he wasn't rich. When the hospital demanded payment before it would discharge his wife and child, Levine was forced to go to Pittsburgh Phil and borrow $100 at "6 for 5"— $1 a week interest for every $5 borrowed. Of course, over time, Pretty couldn't make his "vig" — interest payments — so he was forced into working back for the gang to stay alive.
When Turkus went out to pick up Pretty, Pep was gunning for him, as well, because he thought both Dukey and Pretty would be valuable to the law. Fortunately for both men, Turkus and the New York City police beat the Murder, Inc. gunmen to Pretty's house.
Downtown, Pretty was putting up a good front. He stonewalled Turkus for days and forced the assistant D.A. to take desperate measures. Turkus knew he was onto something big — just what and how big he didn't know — but he was determined not to let Pretty set the agenda.
"Bring in his wife," Turkus told his investigators. The lawmen picked up lovely Helen Levine and with her 16-month-old daughter, and took her downtown to see her husband. Helen begged her husband to tell what he knew, but Pretty stayed tough.
"They'll kill me if I talk," he told her. But then he relinquished a little. "I'll talk about what I've done. I won't talk about anymore than that."
As his wife stood by and his daughter, Barbara, played at his feet, Pretty spilled his guts about the crimes he and Dukey had done, including one in which the two punks stole a car for someone and had it returned with a body in it.
"Now send me to jail," he challenged.
Turkus played his trump card.
"You'll go to jail all right," the D.A. said. "And so will your wife. She heard your confession and now she's a material witness." Turkus ordered the woman sent to the Women's House of Detention.
It took Pretty another couple of days before he finally cracked and implicated Pittsburgh Phil, Happy Maione, Dasher Abbandando, Louis Capone (no relation to Al) as well as Buggsy and Kid Twist in a number of slayings.
Pep, Reles, Louis Capone and Buggsy had killed Red Alpert, Pretty told the law. Pretty, Gangy Cohen, Pittsburgh Phil and Jack Drucker, a Brooklyn killer murdered Walter Sage, who had been skimming off the gang's slot machine rackets. Sage was strangled, icepicked and tied to a pinball machine which then dumped into a Catskill Mountain lake.
While this stuff was good, Turkus needed a big fish to start talking. He figured Buggsy or Happy Maione would break sooner or later and implicate their cohorts.
Imagine his surprise when Mrs. Abe "Kid Twist" Reles walked into his office and announced that her husband wanted to talk to the law.
If anyone knew where the bodies were buried, it was Kid Twist. After all, if he hadn't been in on the slaying, he knew who did it and why. Turkus and Dewey wanted Kid Twist's scalp and were slowly gathering enough evidence to pin something on him — probably something that would send him to the chair. The law never expected that Kid Twist would sing, even if the alternative was a one-way trip to the Sing Sing death house. Reles was tough, he was egotistical and he was smart. He knew the law better than most gangsters and felt he was a match for any attorney or detective.
Kid Twist had a long police record, but few convictions. He had six times been charged with homicide and never convicted. He was arrested nine times on assault charges and had one conviction. Between 1932 and 1940, the lisping gangster was arrested on the average once every 78 days, but his longest sentence had been two years for assaulting a parking attendant with a bottle. From 1932 to 1934, the law had picked up Kid 23 times but he had spent just 30 days in jail.
Despite having a string of call girls, Reles was reportedly a devoted family man. When his gangland career ended, he had a six-year-old son and his wife was pregnant.
Kid Twist voluntarily surrendered along with Happy Maione for the slaying of Red Alpert, confident that once again, he would walk. "Don't worry," he told Hap as they were separated in police headquarters, "it'll be all right."
After sitting in the Tombs in downtown Manhattan for a couple of weeks, Kid Twist got a visit from one of his lawyers who told him that Murder, Inc. was unraveling. Realizing that the next stop on the Murder, Inc. express was Sing Sing's electric chair, Reles sat down and wrote a note to his wife, Rose, telling her to seek out the D.A.
Abe Reles was still cocky when he sat down with Turkus and Brooklyn D.A. William O'Dwyer. He was without remorse and laughed out loud when Turkus started talking about the Alpert killing.
"You think any jury would convict even a cat on what that bug Rudolph says?" he asked. "You ain't got no corroboration."
Reles demanded to speak to O'Dwyer alone.
"I can make you a big man," the criminal told the prosecutor. "But I walk."
O'Dwyer and Turkus knew that Kid Twist would give them enough to break the murder mob, but they were reluctant to deal with such a cold-blooded killer. Eventually, though, a deal was reached. Kid Twist would testify before grand juries and at trials, but he would not waive his immunity from prosecution. The law couldn't prosecute him for the killings he admitted, but if something else came up, it was fair game.
"Reles' song was a full-length opera," Turkus wrote. " 'I can tell you about 50 guys that got hit,' he said. 'I was on the inside.'"
Kid Twist talked for two weeks straight. His memory was amazing. He remembered who was hit, who hit them and why. No details were left out. Before he was finished, Reles helped the police close the books on 85 separate killings in Brooklyn alone and for the first time revealed the organization and structure of the national Syndicate. He testified at trials in Los Angeles, Newark and New York City; his information would send four men directly to the chair — including the biggest fish of them all, Lepke Buchalter.