On September 20, 1939, two women crossed paths at the busy corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. Though they hadn’t seen each other in 26 years, sisters Fanny Rapport and Ida Schachter recognized each other at once. They had lost contact after Rapport left New York and came to California in the ‘teens. In 1938 Schachter too, ended up in Hollywood with her husband. She lived just down the street, at 1804 Vista Del Mar Avenue.
The chance reunion made it into the Los Angeles Times, a minor human interest item for a slow news day. Hollywood- a place where people came to start new lives, assume new identities perhaps- was full of such tales. To at least one reader, however, this story was positively riveting.
Two months later, Mrs. Schachter and 1804 Vista Del Mar Avenue were in the papers again. Her husband “George,” a 48-year-old purported clothing presser, was found shot to death in his car outside their apartment on Thanksgiving eve, November 22, 1939. He had just returned from buying the evening paper, as was his nightly habit, at the Hollywood & Vine newsstand- the same intersection where his wife and sister-in-law had their fateful reunion.
Ida Schachter told authorities that the victim’s name was really Harry Gottesman. He’d taken the name Schachter- her name from a previous marriage, she said- after they returned from France about six years ago.
With World War II underway in Europe, detectives initially speculated that Mr. Gottesman aka Schachter may have been a refugee.
Or was he a criminal? While awaiting a background check from the New York police department and the FBI, the Los Angeles authorities wondered if the gangland-style murder might have been underworld retribution, and if so whether this Gottesman aka Schachter was killed because he “knew too much.”
Mrs. Gottesman/Schachter insisted her husband had no enemies that she knew of. But, then, she didn’t really seem to know much about him- like what he did for a living, for example. He worked at a motion picture studio, she told police, but she wasn’t sure which one. Back in New York he’d been in the cleaning and dying business, she said- or maybe it was the trucking business?- until he was forced out by the “rackets.”
It was a web of truths, half truths, and lies. Schachter was not Ida’s name from a previous marriage, it was her maiden name. The dead man did leave New York on account of the rackets, but not as a victim. He was one of some 500 enforcers for the Louis “Lepke” Buchalter mob’s extortion operation. Gottesman, who also used the aliases Green and Greenburg, aka “Big Greenie,” had lammed it not to France but to Canada in the wake of Buchalter’s legal troubles two years earlier.
In November 1936, Buchalter was convicted for violation of federal antitrust laws. The following year, he was indicted on federal narcotics charges. Thomas Dewey, Manhattan’s famous gangbusting District Attorney, was after him too, for racketeering and murder in the state of New York. Buchalter, while out on bail, vanished.
In the fall of 1938, with a nationwide manhunt for Buchalter still underway and reported sightings of the fugative pouring in from around the world, the windjammer Mentha Nelson set sale from San Pedro in Los Angeles Harbor, ostensibly for a shark hunting expedition to South America. Her passengers included Mario Bello (stepfather of the late Jean Harlow), socialite Countess di Frasso, L.A. County jail physician Dr. Benjamin Blank, Hollywood barber shop owner Harry “Champ” Segal, and “one time New York police character” Ben “Bugsy” Siegel. When the ship returned to Los Angeles in January, 1939 (minus Siegel, who had disembarked at Ensenada), the FBI was poised to investigate. Had the decidedly odd journey somehow involved Buchalter, who was at one point thought to be hiding out in the Cocos Islands? On January 19, they raided Siegel’s palatial Holmby Hills home at 250 N. Delfern Drive, acting on a tip that Siegel had contraband perfume stashed in his basement. They found nothing.
Meanwhile, back in New York, D.A. Dewey accused the still-missing Buchalter of waging a “war of extermination” against anyone who might be able to put the finger on him. Buchalter would later be quoted as saying “All I know is, when a witness ain’t around, there can’t be a case.” His henchmen also killed an innocent man, Isadore Penn, apparently mistaking him for Dewey’s witness Philip Orlovsky.
Up in Canada, “Greenie” picked this extraordinarily bad time to send a letter to his old boss, reminding him of how much he knew, and asking for $5000. Buchalter told his lieutenant Emanuel “Mendy” Weiss to take care of it. Weiss in turn dispatched a gunman to Montreal, but Big Greenie, with a belated sense of self preservation, had already fled, slipping back to the U.S. using his father-in-law’s passport. No one knew where he was- until that September day in 1939 when the Schachter sisters ran into each other at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, thanks to the Los Angeles Times.
By that time, Buchalter was back in custody. After nearly two years on the lam, on August 24, 1939 he surrendered to the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Turns out, he’d been in New York the whole time.
In early October, Bugsy Siegel was briefly jailed for contempt of court in New York, when he refused to answer a federal grand jury’s questions in its investigation into the harboring of Buchalter.
On November 22, 1939, Big Greenie was gunned down in Hollywood.
The investigation into Big Greenie’s death seemed to be going nowhere. The car used in the murder (stolen of course) was found the day after the shooting, parked in front of 1829 N. Bronson Ave. Police found two guns in the back seat, believed to be the murder weapons: a .45 automatic and a .38 revolver. They could not be traced.
The big break came in March 1940, although the L.A. authorities didn’t yet know it.
King’s County (Brooklyn) New York D.A. William O’Dwyer was preparing to crush the Mob, which under his predecessors, had thrived in Brooklyn for years. He had in custody Abe Reles, aka “Kid Twist,” who, in exchange for immunity against his own numerous crimes, agreed to turn mob witness. Reles revealed the existence of a national murder-for-hire operation run by Lepke Buchalter and others. It soon came to be known in the press as Murder, Inc.
Reles bragged to O’Dwyer that he was the one who kept Buchalter hidden away those two years, and cheerfully recounted details on dozens of heinous murders he’d carried out as one of Murder Inc’s top hitmen.
On April 13, 1940, O’Dwyer announced that he was going to rescue Buchalter from a lifetime in Leavenworth for his federal crimes and send him to the electric chair instead for the September 13, 1936 murder of Brooklyn candy store owner Joe Rosen and the May 25, 1939 murder of Morris Diamond, a Dewey witness in his racketeering case against Buchalter.
Reles also had information on the 1939 Big Greenie murder. O’Dwyer’s investigators arrested Allie Tannenbaum, whom Reles claimed had direct knowledge of the crime. Tannenbaum reluctantly agreed to sing. Both he and Reles named Buchalter and Mendy Weiss as the brains of the Big Greenie murder plot. Mendy had shown Tannenbaum the letter from Big Greenie demanding cash for his silence, and had dispatched Tannenbaum to Montreal to finger Greenie for another Murder Inc. hitman. But of course, Greenie had already fled. Later, once Greenie had been located in Hollywood, Tannenbaum was summoned again and told to take two guns and fly out to Hollywood. There he was met by Frankie Carbo, a mob fight fixer and henchman. Bugsy Siegel drove the stolen murder car with Carbo, Tannenbaum said, while he followed in the “crash car.” When Big Greenie drove up with his newspaper, Carbo let him have it, then jumped back in the car and sped off with Siegel at the wheel. The three met up at Franklin and Bronson avenues, where they were joined by Champ Segal in an third car. Champ drove Tannenbaum to San Francisco, where he caught a plane to Newark.
Under the law, a participant in a felony couldn’t be convicted on the testimony of a co-conspirator. Reles, however, hadn’t been personally involved in the Big Greenie contract- he had merely overheard the planning of it. He corroborated Tannenbaum’s testimony.
Another potential witness in the Big Greenie case was murdered in New York on July 30, 1940: Whitey Krakower, who had reportedly cased Greenie’s Hollywood home in advance of the murder. Kings Co. Assistant Kings County D.A. Burton Turkus flew to L.A. to personally hand off Tannenbaum and Reles’ statements to L.A. County D.A. Buron (not Burton) Fitts, and stayed on to assist Fitts with his investigation.
LA’s reform-minded citizens, who had successfully recalled corrupt mayor Frank Shaw from office in September 1939, were fed up with Fitts’ spotty record in prosecuting underworld cases, and were supporting his opponent, John F. Dockweiler, in the upcoming election.
Fitts, keen to look proactive, issued indictments for Siegel, Buchalter, Weiss, Carbo and Champ Segal. On August 16, 1940, Siegel was arrested, hiding in the attic of the Holmby Hills mansion. Chief Deputy D.A. Eugene Williams said he believed Siegel had been “attempting to gain a foothold in local gambling spots and is believed to have an interest in several beach resorts.”
Siegel was arraigned and held in the county jail on the top floors of the Hall of Justice. A few days later, Reles and Tannenbaum were flown to L.A. under heavy guard to testify before the Grand Jury.
In November 1940, John F. Dockweiler was duly elected to replace Buron Fitts as L.A. County D.A., and thus inherited the Greenberg case. The same month, the Los Angeles Examiner exposed the fact that Siegel had been enjoying certain privileges as a prisoner of the county jail much as bootlegger Albert Marco had twelve years earlier. Siegel had been out of jail at least 18 times in two months for 4-6 hours at a time, including lunch with film actress Wendy Barrie at Lindy’s steakhouse on Wilshire Boulevard on November 8, and a visit to his dentist in Beverly Hills. He’d also received special treatment in the jail and the jail hospital, the latter run by his old shipmate of the Mentha Nelson voyage, Dr. Ben Blank.
Sigiel’s trial for the murder of Big Greenie was due to begin on December 11, 1940.
Brooklyn D.A. William O’Dwyer was now holding Abe Reles and Allie Tannenbaum and two other mob witnesses in specially secured rooms (known as the “Squealer’s Suite”) in the Half Moon Hotel at Coney Island. Reles’ testimony had already convicted a number of Murder Inc. figures and ultimately sent four to the chair. O’Dwyer would not permit Reles to come to Los Angeles to testify, however, ostensibly due to illness. As the trial opened, Siegel’s lawyer Jerry Gielser immediately requested a dismissal of the charges. Lacking his corroberating witness, Dockweiler had no choice but to acquiesce.
But Dockweiler didn’t give up. On January 29, 1941, O’Dwyer and two of his aides, Captain Frank Bals and Liet. J. J. Gorman, arrived in L.A. Though O’Dwyer insisted they weren’t reviving the case, that is exactly what they were doing.
On February 10, Dockweiler hinted to the press that the Big Greenie case might be connected to the murder of Les Bruneman, which had occured two years to the day before Big Greenie’s- November 22, 1937. A bank robbery suspect, Peter Pianezzi, had been convicted in the Bruneman shooting in April 1940. Dockweiler called Pianezzi a “tool of the mob.” Nothing more came of it, however and death cut Dockweiler’s career short.
On April 8, 1941, Mendy Weiss- who’d been indicted in absentia for the Big Greenie murder and vanished soon after Reles began to sing- was arrested in Kansas City by federal narcotics agents and held in New York on drug charges. A week later, on April 16, Siegel (whom some local papers still called a “dapper Hollywood film colony man about town”) was again arrested at his mansion by the FBI on a Brooklyn federal grand jury indictment, accused of harboring Buchalter in 1938-1939. He was released the next day on $25,000 bail.
Siegel was successfully able to fight extradition to New York. So, on May 23, Abe Reles was flown to L.A. to testify in the harboring trial. He told the court how he’d met Siegel in New York in late July or early August 1939, and that Siegel had returned with him to Buchalter’s hideout.
On June 26, 1941, “Champ” Siegel finally surrendered to authorities in Los Angeles. Frankie Carbo followed suit on August 17. Both suspects had been missing since the Big Greenie indictments were handed down.
On September 22, 1941, D.A. Dockweiler, citing new evidence, brought the Harry Greenburg case to the grand jury. Allie Tannenbaum, without Reles, made another trip west and repeated his earlier testimony. Siegel, however, was missing. The “Hollywood sportsman” finally presented himself at the county jail on October 10 and was again held on murder charges. He still faced charges in New York federal court for harboring.
Then, in a lucky break for Siegel, Abe Reles fell to his death from the window of his room on the sixth floor of the Half Moon Hotel in what the papers called an “escape attempt.” Some eastern papers blamed West Coast mobsters, said to have arrived in New York with orders to make sure Reles didn’t testify in the Siegel/Carbo murder trial.
If Siegel expected, as he likely did, that his murder trial, scheduled to begin on January 19, 1942, would be cancelled, he was disappointed. Dockweiller was prepared to proceed. Ida Greenburg testified. Brave eyewitnesses had also been located who identified Siegel and Carbo as having been at the scene of the crime. Tannenbaum was allowed to fly west yet again to testify. Siegel’s lawyer Jerry Giesler, on cross-examination, tried to provoke Tannenbaum into the kind of emotional outburst that could serve as the basis for a mistrial.
That failing, Giesler argued that Tannenbaum’s testimony should be tossed out altogether because, without Abe Reles, it was uncorroborated by that of a non-accomplice.
Accordingly, on February 5, 1942, despite the testimony of eyewitnesses, Siegel walked free.
Frankie Carbo’s jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of conviction, resulting in mistrial. A retrial date was set, but O’Dwyer wouldn’t let Tannenbaum come out West again and on March 24, 1942, the case against Carbo was likewise dismissed.
That was the end of the Big Greenie case.
Burton B. Turkus (with Sid Feder) wrote of his experiences investigating the crime syndicate in Murder Inc. (1951).
Prison records for Gottesman from the teens and early ’20s indicate his birth date as circa 1894. He claimed then to have been born in Austria, and that he arrived in New York in 1910. He listed his future brother-in-law George Schachter as his closest friend or relative.
On December 20, 1939, Buchalter was found guilty of narcotics smuggling and sentenced to a long stretch in federal prison.
Krakower is often identified today as Bugsy Siegel’s brother-in-law. While Siegel’s wife’s maiden name was Krakower, census records do not indicate that Whitey was her brother. He may have been some more distant relation.
Harry Feeny of the New York World-Telegram is credited with coming up with the name Murder Inc.
Years later Pianezzi, who was also serving time for a bank robbery conviction but maintained his innocence in the Bruneman murder, was granted a full pardon by Governor Brown.
D.A. John Dockweiler, though still a fairly young man, died suddenly in January 1943. It’s known that the local mob resented that he was too good at his job.
In an affidavit for a 1941 trip to Mexico, Siegel indicated he’d been a resident of Los Angeles since 1935. It’s also known that he made several earlier trips before that.
Back east, the testimony of Allie Tannenbaum and others did convict Buchalter and Weiss, along with Louis Capone, for the 1936 murder of Joe Rosen. They were executed at Sing Sing in March 1944. Tannenbaum did not go out of the window like Reles, however, and in fact testified as a mob witness again in 1950.