Two crimes, ten years apart. The robbery of a Sun Drug employee in May 1923 and a shooting at the Bella Napoli Cafe in Hollywood in August 1933. The connection between these crimes was a long and twisted road paved with gangland vengeance.
Monday afternoon, May 21, 1923, Sun Drug Co. cashier David Antink set off on foot as usual from the company’s general offices at 1114 S. Los Angeles St., carrying the weekend deposits to the Farmers & Merchants Bank at 4th & Spring streets. Partway down 11th St., a red touring car with five men inside pulled up to the curb. Two got out and, with revolvers trained on Antink, snatched the satchel full of cash and jumped back in the car. Antink drew his automatic and got off a shot at the retreating vehicle. One of the robbers shot back. Though wounded in the arm and chest, Antink managed to return fire, hitting the driver. The robbers nevertheless got away with the cash, estimated at $25,000 to $38,000 (1). Sun Drug awarded Antink $1,000 for his brave action.
The bloodstained getaway car was soon found abandoned at 23rd St. & Griffith Ave. Police found a second vehicle believed to have been used in the caper and traced it to the wife of Elmer Dowdy, known as the “Pajama Kid,” wanted in Philadelphia in connection with a 1921 assault and jewelry hold up.
On May 23, police took a suspect, Granville Blair, into custody. Blair, who was suffering from a gunshot wound to the neck, admitted to being the driver of the car. High-powered lawyer S. S. Hahn, appeared at Central Station and was said to be negotiating with authorities for surrender of the his client, the Pajama Kid. But as of July, Blair remained the only one of the gang in custody. Dowdy was finally captured and arrested in Hollywood on August 25, 1923. The hunt for the other 3 hold-up suspects, identified as “Harry” Abe Frank, William (or Charles) Westerman, and a man known only as “Moll,” proved fruitless.
Blair was convicted of the robbery on September 12 and sentenced to life in prison. A few days later, on September 28, Dowdy’s bail, originally set at $20,000, was reduced to $10,000. Dowdy forfeited the cash, however, by failing to appear in court on October 10. The Crime Commission requested a Grand Jury investigation into the matter of the bail reduction, but like most such cases, it went nowhere. Dowdy remained a fugitive until being captured in Jacksonville, Florida on April 1, 1924 on a narcotics charge. He was extradited to Los Angeles and, upon being found guilty of the robbery charges, given 1-to-life in state prison (2)
It wasn’t until July 1928 that the names of Moll and Frank surfaced again, when reports came from New York that a “Moe Liss” had been arrested in a narcotics raid. Liss was identified as an alias of “Morrie Moll,” and wanted with “Harry” Abe Frank in the Sun Drug robbery case. Los Angeles sent photos and “Bertillon measurements” (3) of Moll to New York, but Liss and Moll were not the same person. The real Moll was located a few months later, in February 1929, in Miami Florida. Federal authorities were also seeking Moll for the 1925 fatal shooting of liquor hijacker Burton Stevens in St. Paul, Minnesota (4). St. Paul prevailed and held Moll, who, as “Morrie Miller” was said to be an enforcer for the city’s powerful liquor syndicate.
Los Angeles authorities, still hoping to extradite Moll/Miller to California, sent David Antink with L.A. County D.A. investigator Tom O’Brien to St. Paul, where, on June 5, 1929, in the office of Governor Christanson, he identified Moll/Miller as the man who had shot him during the Sun robbery. Moll/Miller’s attorneys were granted a week to “refute” Antink’s testimony by proving that their client had not been in Los Angeles at the time. The extradition to Los Angeles was granted on June 15; in the meantime, however, the county grand jury refused to indict Moll/Miller, the “Phantom Gunman,” for the murder of Burton Stevens. A few hours later, county authorities released him on $10,000 bond for a fugitive from justice charge and Moll promptly vanished once again.
Next came tragedy. On September 26, 1929, David Antink, a loyal employee and good citizen, was ambushed by three thugs near his home at Melrose Ave. and Fuller St., knocked down by a lead window sash weight, and shot in the head. A witness heard one of the men say “Finish him. Throw him in the car.” A volley of shots followed.
Hollywood police put out a dragnet for Granville Blair, who had been paroled in February 1928, and Morris/Morrie Moll aka Miller, the so-called “Phantom Gunman.” D.A. Buron Fitts lashed out at the St. Paul authorities who had thwarted Moll’s extradition, blaming Antink’s death on the “political maneuvers and manipulations of the St. Paul authorities and certain local politicians,” and declared the conduct of Minnesota’s officials “from the governor’s office down, an outrage on American justice.”
Two days after the murder, Moll’s St. Paul lawyer William Quinn claimed that Moll had called him from New York, avowing that he’d been there for a month. Granville Blair claimed he’d been in Oakland, meeting with his parole officer, the night of the murder (5). D.A. investigators considered that hired gunmen may have been used.
The same day, it was also reported that a stenographer retained by Quinn to take down Antink’s testimony in St. Paul implicating Moll in the Sun Drug case had turned over the original notes to Moll/Miller along with the only available transcript.
On April 11, 1930, Moll/Miller, using the alias Morris Marks was arrested in New York and held for Los Angeles authorities. Minnesota also sought to extradite him on a misdemeanor bail jumping charge, but this time they were on the losing end, and on the morning of April 18, Capt. Clyde Plummer and Det. Lt. Jack Trainor of D.A. Fitts’ staff caught the train east to bring Moll back to Los Angeles. It didn’t happen. On May 15, Plummer and Trainor wired Fitts from the east coast that Moll’s extradition was once again thwarted – denied by New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt. Moll again walked free.
Three years passed. On July 23, 1933 almost a month after the fact, word reached Fitts that “Morrie Moll” had been slain in a gun battle in the Bronx, New York back on June 29. Since the St. Paul liquor syndicate fiasco, Miller had been working for east coast bootlegger Irving “Waxey” Gordon. For the D.A., it was the end of trying to seek justice for David Antink.
But the following month, someone ostensibly tried to seek justice for Moll’s slaying. The scenario played out at a new Hollywood café, the Bella Napoli at 711 N. Vermont Ave. at Melrose, less than 4 miles from the spot where Dave Antink was murdered.
At about 8pm on August 29, 1933, three “swarthy” gunmen in dark suits walked into the brightly-lit restaurant and strode over to a booth in the back where two male diners were seated with their dates. Suddenly two of the trio pulled .45-automatic pistols out of their shoulder holsters and opened fire as other patrons ducked for cover. The gunmen turned on their heels and fled out the street door to a waiting sedan.
The dead men were described as Italians, immaculately dressed. One was initially identified by a business card as Harry Mackley, hat store proprietor, New York City, the other victim unknown.
It didn’t take long for local authorities to connect this crime with the death of Morrie Moll. “Mackley” was found to be Abe Frank, once sought in the 1923 Sun Drug robbery. The unidentified man was Fred Kitty, alias Fred Harris, alias Frank Keller, of St. Louis. Mackley, Los Angeles police learned, had been sought in New York for the murder of Moll, aka Murray Marks.
It was believed that the two murdered men had been living in Hollywood for some weeks, frequenting gambling dives and, as film developed from a camera found in the dead men’s apartment would reveal, visiting the beaches as any other tourists. The guns used in the slaying, 3 automatic pistols and an automatic shotgun, were discovered in a storm drain at Van Ness and Franklin avenues (6).
Warrants were issued for four New York gangsters: gambler/nightclub owner Charles “Chink” Sherman, Morris Solivinsky, Henry Sherman (alias Jimmy Collins) and Jack Weinstein, believed to have been part of Moll’s gang. The motive was attributed to revenge for Moll’s murder.
In the wake of the double homicide, local authorities pledged to combine forces to rid the city of hoodlums, bandits and prowlers. Chief Davis, recently restored to power after having been demoted in 1929, formed a special gangster squad to round up the usual suspects. Arrests were made, joints were raided, but none of it any of it had any notable bearing on the Bella Napoli shooting case. On September 2 New York authorities wired Los Angeles that the four suspects they sought had been in jail in New York since August 28, and therefore could not have murdered Frank and Kitty. But a conflicting message was received stating that Charles “Chink” Sherman had been arrested in New York on August 31, three days after the Bella Napoli murders. Photos of the four were shown around Los Angeles with no results.
By November, police believed that four gunmen from Chicago had been brought out to carry out the murders of Frank and Kitty, and that two had returned east while two remained in Los Angeles. “Detroit gangster” Harry O. Voiler was arrested at the Hollywood Legion boxing stadium and questioned in the case. Voiler had been picked up before in another gangster roundups and authorities had kept him under surveillance. He was released the next day (7). At the same time, D.A. investigators reported that an informant in the slayings had suddenly disappeared, feared “taken for a ride.” The case, like most, went down on the books as unsolved (8).
(1) Newspaper accounts varied wildly as to the amount stolen. Even in its original report of the robbery, the Los Angeles Times has the amount at $38,350 in one place and $25,000 in another within the same article.
(2) In October 1930, Elmer Dowdy, now said to be terminally ill, was paroled from Folsom Prison, over the protests of D.A. Fitts, and traveled home to Texas, where he died in January 1931.
(3) The Bertillon system of criminal measurements was developed in the late 19th century by French policeman Alphonse Bertillon, also credited with “inventing” the mug shot.
(4) In early 1925, Stevens stole a load of liquor from the St. Paul liquor syndicate, which Morrie Miller allegedly worked for as an enforcer. Shortly after Ben Gleeman of the Syndicate and Miller, confronted Stevens in front of a drugstore in downtown St. Paul. Miller shot him dead and escaped. Gleeman and his brother Abe, assured that the Syndicate would fix it up with the local police, agreed to take the fall and turned themselves in. The brothers, however, ended up being found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The prosecutor in the case denied the existence of Miller, calling him the “Phantom Gunman.” The Gleemans demanded a new trial and issued affidavits not only implicating Miller for the shooting death of Stevens but revealing the Syndicate to be a mere cog in a much larger liquor operation. The confession led to an expose of a nationwide liquor smuggling conspiracy. See Paul McAbee’s excellent book John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks Tour of Crime and Conspiracy in St Paul.
(5) Blair’s alibi held and he never faced charges in the Antink murder. In June 1931, he was accused in the machine-gun robbery of the Pasadena National Bank on Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena but won an acquittal when witnesses from Oakland again testified that Blair had been home at the time.
(6) LAPD would note a similarity between this case and the murders of Benny Gamson and George Levinson in Hollywood in October 1946, in that the murder weapons in both were disposed of in storm drains.
(7) Voiler, a former manager of New York nightclub hostess Texas Guinan. had once operated the notorious Green Mill in Chicago and was involved in a shooting there in 1930.
(8) In December 1938, Moe Liss, a suspected “executioner” of Waxey Gordon’s gang, who had once been mistaken for Morrie Moll back in 1928, was arrested in Brooklyn on a narcotics charge and questioned by authorities for at least ten murders, including the Bella Napoli double homicide and the death of Charles Sherman, a onetime suspect in that slaying. Sherman had been found dead in Monticello, New York in November 1935. No charges resulted from it.