June 01, 2008
Albert Anastasia (l) and Abe "Kid Twist" Reles (r)
On the eve of giving star witness testimony against mobster kingpin Albert Anastasia in 1941, Abe "Kid Twist" Reles plunges to his death from his "police protected" suite on the sixth floor of the Half Moon Hotel on Coney Island. Officially ruled a "suicide," the death of the former senior member of Murder Inc. turned canary was, most certainly, a push, not a hop.
by Robert Walsh
It's a cold and dark night on November 12, 1941. Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, once a senior member of Murder Inc. and now one of the most important canaries in American history, is preparing a makeshift ladder that will help him climb from the sixth floor of the Half Moon Hotel on Coney Island, N.Y., where he is being held in protective custody to turn state's evidence against that most vicious and notorious of New York's mobsters, Albert "Lord High Executioner" Anastasia.
He keeps his preparations as quiet as possible, to avoid attracting the attention of the half dozen detectives assigned to guard him around the clock while he gives evidence that could put Anastasia in Sing Sing's infamous electric chair. Having narrowly avoided a date with "Old Sparky" himself, he has no qualms about inflicting the same on his former friends if it will save his own skin.
He slips the makeshift ladder, made of bed sheets and radio wire, out of the window and, tying one end firmly around his waist, cautiously begins to ease himself out onto the window ledge. Too much noise now will only cause his guards to check up on him, so he is as quiet as possible as he slides out onto the ledge. He begins his descent to the empty fifth floor suite directly below his gilded cage, a cage fit for a canary of his stature. He slowly begins to ease himself down, searching with his feet for the ledge below, leaving scratches and marks upon it that will be found by the FBI crime lab examiners later. (Despite exhaustive research, this writer has been unable to find any evidence that these marks were actually made by Reles and not by persons unknown. A simple forensic test on the shoes Reles was wearing when he fell would have cleared this up, but seemingly one was not performed).
Then the rope, rated by FBI experts as being too weak to take his weight, snaps and Reles plunges six floors onto the extended roof of the hotel, dying instantly. That night in New York and California, grown men will dance with joy. Abe Reles, the most important canary in the country at that time, is dead and nobody can be blamed.
Or can they?
It's unlikely, with the passing of time and the passing of many of those who really knew, that the full story of the death of "Kid Twist" will ever really be known. What is known, and has been commented on a number of occasions, is that the official version (or we should say, versions) of events don't seem to bear much scrutiny. Some say he was murdered, some say it was an accident, some say it was suicide. But we don't know for sure and it's likely that we shall never be able to say with 100 percent certainty.
This writer, among others, believes that Reles was murdered, although precisely by whom cannot be established and almost certainly never will be. Certainly, the official versions of events, for even official sources seem unable to agree on what exactly happened, have all manner of flaws and, while the official versions bear little scrutiny, the flaws seem fairly illuminating if, as this writer does, you believe that Abe Reles's death was neither suicide nor accidental.
We start with the means. According to godfather "Lucky" Luciano and Mafia turncoat Joe Valachi, Reles was thrown or pushed out of the window while either asleep or having been knocked unconscious with a police nightstick by his guards, with the boss of the NYPD Detective Bureau, Captain Frank Bals, being in on the murder. In The Life and Times of Lepke Buchalter by Paul Kavieff (Barricade Books, 2006), Luciano is quoted as saying, "The truth of the whole thing was that the whole bunch of cops was on the take and Bals handled the whole thing ... We paid him 50 grand and set aside some more money for the other guys in case they hadda take a rap. The way I heard it was that Bals stood there in the room and supervised the whole thing. Reles was sleepin' and one of the cops gave him a tap with a billy and knocked him out. Then they picked him up and heaved him out the window. For Chrissake, he landed so far from the wall he couldn't've done that even if he jumped!"
Valachi was more general, though just as firm, according to writers William Balsamo and George Carpozi Jr. in their book Crime Incorporated (True Crime Library, 1988). There he is quoted as stating categorically that Reles had been murdered by his guards and that "the boys," meaning the Mafia, were all aware of this at the time it happened.
Assistant D.A. Burton Turkus, famous as the man who nailed so many of Murder Inc.'s members including boss Louis "Lepke" Buchalter (although D.A. O'Dwyer was only too happy to take full credit himself), was also categorical in describing the case as an unsolved murder. In the epilogue to Kill the Dutchman!, Paul Sann quotes Turkus stating that "Abe Reles was thrown out of that window. I never knew who did it, but he was thrown out. I know he wasn't risking his life on a bed sheet and some wire."
The forensic evidence, aside from the unidentified marks on the window ledge which may or may not have been made by Reles, doesn't seem to match up either. The makeshift ladder was examined by FBI experts and listed as having a breaking strain of 130 pounds, far less than Reles's actually weighed. Yet the FBI website lists Reles's death as suicide. So here's another discrepancy to investigate. If Reles was attempting to escape, why does the FBI's own website list his death as suicide? If he was trying to commit suicide, then why bother with a rope ladder at all? Why not simply open the window and jump, as suicide cases usually do? Come to that, why would Reles commit suicide having tried so hard to escape the chair? He turned on his former associates to escape an appointment with "Old Sparky," was willing to condemn untold numbers of them to the fate that he so conspicuously managed to avoid, and then commits suicide? That really doesn't make any sense at all. Also, a climber who is climbing vertically will also fall vertically. Reles is said to have landed no less than nine feet from the wall of the hotel, despite having fallen only six floors – seemingly a remarkable drift for someone falling vertically down a sheer wall with nothing to bounce off.
So far we've examined means and opportunity. Now let's look at motive. The date of Reles's death is significant because it came on the eve of his giving testimony against the Mafia's "Lord High Executioner" (and one of the bosses of Murder Inc.) Albert "The Mad Hatter" Anastasia, in the murder case against him for allegedly killing or ordering the death of Morris Diamond, a partner of Louis "Lepke" Buchalter in the flour trucking rackets. Later that same day, Reles was due to give evidence that could well have speeded Anastasia's path to Sing Sing's infamous death chamber. Never one to allow such a threat to escape unpunished, Anastasia's attitude to informers was uncompromising to put it mildly. Later on in his career, he was to watch a TV news report giving the name of an informant against Willie Sutton (the "King of the Bank Robbers"). Despite the fact that Sutton had nothing to do with Anastasia or the Mafia, Anastasia turned to an accomplice and ordered the informant to be killed, according to Mob informer Joe Valachi. The informant, one Arnold Schuster, was found dead only a month or so later. The case against Anastasia was then dropped for lack of evidence.
Reles also had another major enemy within the Syndicate, a certain Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. After the Murder Inc. hit on Harry "Big Greenie" Greenberg in California during 1940, where Siegel had played a major part, Reles was in a position to corroborate Allie "Tick Tock" Tannenbaum's account of the murder, putting Siegel squarely in line for a date with the gas chamber at San Quentin. Like Anastasia and the rest of the New York underworld, Siegel would have been only too happy to see Reles dead as he would have walked from the murder charge. And that's exactly what happened. For without Reles's evidence to corroborate Tannenbaum's account, Siegel went free and the case against him was dismissed.
There was also the fact that Reles having rolled over could, and did, make other gangsters decide to talk their way out of various tight spots. Sholem Bernstein, a fellow Murder Inc. associate, made up his mind to talk as well after talking to Reles and numerous other gangsters followed suit such as Allie "Tick Tock" Tannenbaum, Seymour "Blue Jaw" Magoon, Myer Sycoff and others. An example would have to be made to stop the rot spreading and protect the Syndicate bosses, and who better than the most prominent of them all? Nowadays, in a time of Sammy Gravano, Henry Hill, Jimmy Fratianno and others, it seems that indicted gangsters are often more than happy to trade information for a lighter sentence. At that time it was very different and very novel for a gangster to make such a deal, and it may have seemed like a growing trend that the Syndicate bosses, never men to shirk from doing the "heavy work" at the best of times, would do anything to stop.
Reles also had personal dealing with the boss of Murder Inc., Louis "Lepke" Buchalter. For instance, Reles acted as Lepke's principal go-between and personal bodyguard when Lepke went on the run to try to escape drugs and racketeering charges. Reles also handled murder contracts and day to day business of Murder Inc. He knew some of Murder Inc.'s many victims, the motives for their deaths and could also find those witnesses needed under New York State law to corroborate both his own evidence and that of his fellow informants. He knew about the murder of Joseph Rosen in particular, being well acquainted with both Rosen's killers (Emmanuel "Mendy" Weiss, Louis Capone and Harry "Pittsburgh Phil" Strauss) and their motive.
In short, Abe Reles knew where the bodies were buried. Literally.
Still more questions remain unanswered. In one account of Reles's death, it is stated unequivocally that the detectives guarding him were awake and alert on the night that Reles died, and that at least one talked to him less than an hour before his body was found. Why would a detail of awake and alert detectives, supposedly an elite squad and guarding one of America's most important canaries, have left him alone long enough to construct a rope ladder and try to scale the hotel wall? Why did they not notice that something was amiss, seasoned detectives supposedly being highly observant people whose business is spotting anything suspicious? And what could they have said or done to make Reles decide he was better off taking his chances on the run?
Which brings us to another issue worthy of consideration. Reles had already cut a deal that he would be granted immunity in return for his testimony. He may well have lost that immunity if he reneged on his deal and didn't testify, which, given his acknowledged reputation as a top-notch hit man and his admission to a number of murders, 18 to be exact, would have put him in the very position he was trying to avoid, which was a date with "Old Sparky." His former colleagues in Murder Inc. had also sworn to nail him one way or another so he lost out all around if he decided to run. Maybe Reles was more scared of his guards than of his former associates. If so, what precisely did a man with immunity from prosecution, supposedly guarded night and day by New York's finest, have to fear? And what would scare him so much that he would prefer to take his chances as both a fugitive from the law and a refugee from the underworld. There wasn't a hit man in the country who wouldn't have wanted Reles as a notch on his gun belt at that time, both for the money and the kudos, and barely a major gang boss (in New York or California) who didn't have everything to gain and nothing to lose by that happening. So why did he run?
It's certainly a possibility that Reles was more afraid of being in "protective" custody than of being loose on the street, for Murder Inc.'s reach certainly extended into areas it was never wanted. In 1937 Max Rubin, a high level associate of Lepke's, went before a grand jury investigating New York's rackets and testified. He was shot in the head, although miraculously survived the shooting, not long after testifying. As Rubin later said: "I went into the grand jury room where nobody knew where I was and ended up shot in the head." As a similarly high ranking Murder Inc. member, Reles would no doubt have been well aware of what had been done to Rubin and may have been anxious to avoid the same fate. The weight of evidence either for or against this idea is unclear, however, as only Reles himself could answer that question.
I'll close with one more salient point. The detectives on duty, according to at least one account anyway, were not the first people to notice Reles was missing. They saw nothing and, even more interestingly, heard nothing as Reles plunged from the hotel to his death. Are we to believe that a fully conscious man on the brink of death would simply fall, tightlipped and silent? Especially when there is testimony from so senior a crime boss as Luciano that states unequivocally that Reles was blackjacked before his exit from the window? Furthermore, if the detectives didn't do it themselves, how could they not notice the arrival in a heavily guarded hotel suite of whoever did? This writer submits that this concurs with Luciano's account of the mysterious case of the "Half Moon Hop."
This writer would also suggest that, not only was Reles murdered, he was murdered by his supposed bodyguards and the matter was, rather incompetently, covered up. There are a number of reasons for my making this claim and they are as follows.
If Reles didn't kill himself (which he clearly did not) or fall accidentally (which is possible but, to put it mildly under the circumstances, doubtful) then there is only one other explanation. That explanation is that he was either thrown or pushed out of the window.
Corruption was a major and long-standing problem in the New York Police Department at the time. Police officers were vastly overworked, understaffed and paid a pittance in relation to the risks that they were required to run on a daily basis as police officers. Also, a considerable number of NYPD officers, including some very senior officers, had been nailed on charges of or relating to corrupt activities of various kinds. One senior officer, Lt. Charles Becker, was even electrocuted for ordering the successful murder of a bookmaker who had threatened to expose Becker as being heavily involved in illegal gambling and even conducting his illegal business while acting as chief of the NYPD Gambling Squad.
Public confidence in the NYPD, already somewhat shaky anyway, would have been shaken to its foundations if it could have been proved that not only was an entire witness protection detail corrupt and willing to commit murder for money, but that the commander (a very senior and highly respected officer) did himself personally supervise a contract killing.
Lastly, and perhaps most important, the entire concept of witness protection (now a mainstay in the fight against organized crime), and the immensely valuable testimony from informers gathered as a result would have been gravely threatened. Law enforcement, especially in the United States, could have been dealt a devastating and crippling blow from which it may never have fully recovered. The entire fight against organized crime would have been placed in the utmost jeopardy.