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Inside New York's Irish Mob
By T. J. English, Lisa Amoroso, Suzanne Opton
A MysteriousPress.com Copyright © 2006 T. J. English
All rights reserved.
THE GHOSTS OF HELL'S KITCHEN
The victim never really had a chance. It was a moonless night and the sound of gunfire came so fast he could hardly believe what he was hearing.
The guy next to him got it first. Three quick shots and down he went. There was a strange sound coming from the guy's mouth as he struggled to say something.
Fuck this, thought the victim, time to split. He tried to run but only got a few steps before he heard another shot. The bullet hit him somewhere in the body—he knew that because he could feel the impact. But he couldn't tell where. So he just kept running. Then there was another shot. He knew exactly where that one hit him—in the left shoulder. The pain was immediate. Then a third shot. He wasn't sure where this one hit him, but he could feel his legs begin to give out. He fell on his back with a thud and for a minute he thought his arm had been blown clean off.
He heard the person who fired the shots walking across the gravel. He tried to focus, to raise himself up to see what was happening, but he had no strength at all. There was blood, lots of blood, coming from his upper body, and he felt the pain in his arm reverberate through his torso until he was sure his head was going to explode. The last thing he saw, through squinted eyes, was the gunman passing in front of the car's headlights. Then he heard laughter from the four people inside the car; laughter unlike anything he'd ever heard before. It was more like a cackle, really, and it was so loud it seemed to echo right inside his ears.
That was it. Darkness came next. For what seemed like an eternity there was complete silence. He thought he was dead. Then he heard someone talking. He thought maybe the gunmen had come back, but there were lights flashing now. An ambulance. Police cars.
"Hey," he heard a voice ask. "Can you hear me?"
He tried to move his lips.
"Listen," the voice said. "I'm a police officer. Your friend here is dead and you look pretty bad. You better tell us all you know."
"Where's my left arm?" he asked in a whisper.
"Your arm's still there. Can you tell us what happened?"
Surprisingly, he was able to remember a lot. As he spoke, Patrolman Edward Gordon of the 108th Precinct in Queens jotted down what he could in a notepad and then followed the ambulance to the hospital. Once there, as the victim lay on a gurney in the emergency room, Gordon got the rest of the story....
Eight hours earlier, on the evening of April 3, 1966, twenty-six-year-old Charles Canelstein met a guy named Jerry Morales at the Luxor Baths, a steam room on East 46th Street in Manhattan. Canelstein and Morales had never met before, but they seemed to hit it off. After a while, Morales suggested they go for a bite to eat, then see if they couldn't pick up some women at the Pussycat Lounge. That sounded like a good idea to Canelstein. So they had dinner together at an East Side restaurant, a quick drink at a bar called the Living Room, and arrived at the Pussycat Lounge on 49th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues around 8:30 P.M.
Right away Canelstein started schmoozing with a girl named Karen who was sitting at the bar. He lost track of Morales, but that didn't really bother him. Since dinner, he'd begun to realize he didn't like the guy anyway—he was too loud and obnoxious. But Karen he liked. She was single, Jewish, and just in town from Los Angeles. What more could a guy ask for?
Things were going great with Karen until a brawny, brown-haired guy, later identified as thirty-six-year-old Eddie Sullivan, approached. "See that stool you're sitting on?" Sullivan said to Canelstein. "That's my stool. See that girl you're talking to? That's my girl."
Canelstein didn't know what to make of all this, so he asked Karen if she knew the guy. When she shrugged and shook her head, Canelstein told Sullivan he must be mistaken. Sullivan had a few nasty words to say and Canelstein responded in kind. Then Sullivan left.
About twenty minutes later Sullivan returned with a police badge and a gun. Canelstein didn't know much about guns, but he could see this was a big one, with a barrel that looked to be about six inches long. It was pointed directly at his head.
"Alright," said Sullivan, "police business. You're comin' with me."
"What's the charge?" asked Canelstein.
Sullivan grabbed him by the arm and started moving towards the door. "Just get your ass outside."
As soon as they stepped outside, Canelstein saw that another person already had Morales up against the wall. This guy was much younger than Sullivan. In fact, Canelstein was struck by how young the kid looked. He was short and stocky, with blond hair, and he looked to Canelstein to be about nineteen years old. Later, the kid would be identified as James Coonan.
Canelstein and Morales were hustled to a small compact car and forced into the backseat. Things were moving fast now, like a dream, hazy and fragmented. Canelstein could see there were two more guys in the car. The driver was young, but not as young as Coonan. And the kid in the back, he was young too, with blond hair just like Coonan's. Canelstein and Morales were wedged in the backseat, with Coonan on the right side and the other blondhaired kid on the left.
Sullivan sat in the front seat and kept his weapon pointed at them at all times. As the car headed north on 3rd Avenue, he smiled. "You know, if you guys had $2,000 on you we could settle this thing right now."
Canelstein let the words sink in slowly. At least now he knew what was up; it was a scam, a shakedown. Maybe he and Morales could scrape together enough to satisfy these guys. He told Sullivan they didn't have anywhere near $2,000, but if they were willing to drive by the Luxor Baths he might be able to get $40 or $50 out of his locker.
That didn't seem to cut any ice with Sullivan.
There was a long period of silence as Canelstein and his kidnappers drove across the 59th Street bridge to Queens. The driver maneuvered his way through traffic along Queens Boulevard, past the Sunnyside railyard, past Long Island City, past Hunters Point Avenue. From the back seat, Canelstein could see the familiar sight of Calvary Cemetery, with its rolling hills of tombstones. That was the last thing he recognized.
"Are you sure you don't have any money?" It was the driver, speaking for the first time. He turned completely around to ask his question, taking his eyes off the road.
Canelstein just shook his head. He couldn't think of anything more to say.
A few minutes later the car pulled into a dark lot across the street from the Calvary Cemetery. It was after midnight now, and as Canelstein and Morales were taken from the car, the only illumination was from the headlights aimed at a brick warehouse wall. They were led across the debris-littered lot, stood up against the wall and searched one last time.
Suddenly, Morales turned around, pointed at his chest and started to shout, "Go ahead, motherfuckers. Right here! Shoot me right here!"
That's when three gunshots rang out, with two of the bullets striking Morales in the face.
Canelstein started to run. There were three more gunshots, two of the bullets passing right through his abdomen and the third lodging in some bone marrow near his left armpit.
By the time the cops got to Canelstein they were lucky to get anything out of him. Not only had he been shot three times, but he was nearly in a state of shock. All he'd wanted was a drink and a night out, he told the cops. He didn't cheat anybody or do anything bad. A pickup, that's all he wanted, a nice single girl to bring home for the night.
What Canelstein did not know—what he could not have known—was that he had walked right into the middle of an old-fashioned gang war with roots on the West Side of Manhattan, in a neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen.
From the descriptions Canelstein gave them, the cops were able to ID Coonan and Sullivan. Just twelve days earlier, in March, there had been another killing in the same precinct, no more than a few minutes drive from where the Canelstein/Morales shooting had taken place. The victim's name was Bobby Lagville—and Coonan and Sullivan were the prime suspects in that one too.
On the morning of April 5, 1966, the day after the Canelstein/Morales shooting, four detectives from the 108th Precinct in Queens were dispatched to the home of William "Billy" Murtha, a suspected crime partner of Coonan's who lived at 412 East 50th Street in Manhattan. What the cops didn't know was that Murtha had been the driver on the night Canelstein and Morales were shot. When they arrived at Murtha's small studio apartment, he was still in his underwear. They told him to wake up and get dressed. They wanted to talk to him about a shooting.
As Murtha began to put on his clothes, Detective Martin Logan noticed there was a shoe on the floor that was about four sizes bigger than the ones Murtha was wearing. He looked around the apartment and heard a dog barking on the other side of a closed bathroom door. He took his gun out and told Murtha to open the door.
When Logan peeked inside he saw the silhouette of a man standing behind the shower curtain.
"Come out of there with your hands away from your body," he commanded.
The curtain was pulled part way back and six-foot-two-inch Eddie Sullivan stepped out. Like Murtha, he was dressed only in his underwear.
Logan's partner slapped a set of handcuffs on Sullivan and led him out of the bathroom. Logan stepped towards the shower, his gun still poised, and pulled the shower curtain all the way back. In the shower, hunched all the way down and also in his underwear, was nineteen-year-old Jimmy Coonan.
At the 108th Precinct young Coonan was polite but firm. He swore he knew nothing about the Canelstein/Morales shooting. Even when the cops informed him that Charles Canelstein had lived and would probably be able to identify his assailants, Coonan didn't budge—not yet, anyway.
To the cops in Queens it was no big deal. As far as they knew, Jimmy Coonan was just a petty crook from Manhattan, and they wouldn't have been surprised if his victim was too. There had been over 150 homicides in Queens already that year. To them, this was just one more—and a seemingly insignificant one at that.
As of yet, they had no idea that the Canelstein/Morales shooting was the latest salvo in the Hell's Kitchen gang wars, a long tradition that, over some sixty-five years, had done more for the undertaking business in Manhattan than any criminal event in twentieth-century history.
Although most of the gangster element on the West Side knew young Jimmy Coonan was having a war with Michael "Mickey" Spillane, leader of the Hell's Kitchen rackets in 1966, not many had known just how serious it was until the Canelstein/Morales incident. While Coonan, Sullivan, Murtha, and the man identified as the fourth person in the car, Jimmy Gallagher, were being held in custody, a story spread through the neighborhood. It went something like this: Spillane had called in two hit men from Texas to eliminate Coonan and his sidekick, Sullivan. The boys had found out about it, hunted the hit men down, and taken them out to Queens, where they were given a gangland-style farewell.
Never mind that Jerry Morales, a small-time burglar who'd once done a long stretch in San Quentin Prison, was from Los Angeles, not Texas. Whatever Morales had said to Eddie Sullivan at the Pussycat Lounge was enough to make Sullivan think he and Canelstein were hitmen from Texas.
Since Spillane and Coonan had gone public with their feud, there had been lots of threats and accusations. One rumor was that Spillane had called hit men in from Boston. Another had him cutting a deal with Little Bobby Lagville, a neighborhood kid, to kill just Eddie Sullivan. That rumor was taken seriously enough that Bobby Lagville disappeared from the neighborhood one evening. Later he was found dead out in Queens with six bullet holes in his body.
Coonan knew Spillane had boxed himself into a corner as far as violence was concerned. Dark and drop-dead handsome, with a courtly manner, Spillane was an oldtime gentleman gangster with a much admired sense of loyalty to the neighborhood. He could not be seen to be condoning violence against a person from Hell's Kitchen or it would make him look bad in the eyes of his "legitimate" friends. That's why Spillane had taken a contract out on Eddie Sullivan instead of Jimmy Coonan. Sullivan was from the East Side. He was fair game.
Little Bobby Lagville had been asked to do the killing because he was a close friend of Coonan's. "Get rid of Sullivan," Spillane supposedly told Lagville, "then we can call a truce. Otherwise, your friend Coonan's gonna be history real soon." When Jimmy Coonan and his buddies heard about this, they thought it meant Lagville was on Spillane's side. So they gave him a ride to 5th Street between 47th and 48th avenues, just across the East River in Long Island City. That's exactly where the police found the body, lying in a river of blood in the middle of the street at 4:30 A.M. on March 23, 1966.
Usually, that's how the Coonan/Spillane Wars were waged—in the quiet of the night on some dark street or in some back alley where there were few witnesses.
Sometimes, however, emotions boiled over. One popular story in the saloons and gambling dens of Hell's Kitchen had it that one afternoon Spillane and Coonan were seen exchanging words right on 10th Avenue. They both pulled guns and traded fire, just like an old-fashioned Western shoot-out.
Another time, it was reported, Spillane was headed to a late-night crap game on 46th Street between 11th and 12th avenues. He was with a group of seven or eight neighborhood buddies, including a young Tommy Collins and Julius "Dutch" Grote. Suddenly somebody opened fire from the roof up above. They all ducked for cover as bullets sprayed down like rain.
"Holy shit!" somebody shouted, "Who the fuck is that?"
They squeezed into the entryway of a tenement, pinned against the glass doors as the bullets hit the street and ricocheted off a nearby warehouse wall.
Spillane leaned forward, peering up towards the roof. "It's that bug Coonan. He's got a machine gun!"
They had to stay like that for a while until Coonan disappeared. Then they scampered off to their dice game.
Most folks in Hell's Kitchen figured it was all about business. Spillane not only controlled the neighborhood policy games, but he was the area's primary bookmaker. Any neighborhood bets on sporting events or anything else of interest went through him. He also had influence with the unions, where various kickback rackets flourished, and all the neighborhood dice and card games. Plus, there was loansharking and his thriving robbery and hijacking operations. All in all, he was a well-rounded guy.
In the old days, the neighborhood rackets sprang out of one centralized scam like the illicit liquor trade or the waterfront. Now it was more of a hustle, and anyone who hoped to maintain control over a sprawling empire of gambling, loansharking and more would either have to do it through intimidation or, like Spillane, by establishing an impressive power base through legitimate as well as criminal connections.
But Mickey Spillane hadn't acquired his reputation overnight. As with earlier neighborhood gangsters, he'd had to build it slowly through assorted extortions. With Spillane, the extortion of choice had always been kidnapping. His modus operandi was simple enough. A wellconnected neighborhood merchant might be shoved into the backseat of a car as he left his place of business at the end of the day. From there, he would be taken to an apartment or maybe to the rear of Spillane's own White House bar at 45th Street and 10th Avenue. Phone calls would be made to the person's business partner or some other associate demanding ransom. Sometimes there might even be violence involved.
To an outside observer, this might have seemed like a high-risk proposition, given that most of the victims were people who knew Spillane. In some cases, they might even have lived down the block or around the corner from Spillane's own West 50th Street apartment. These people could easily have ratted to the police.
But Spillane knew that was unlikely. He was relying on something called the West Side Code, a tradition so sacred that even noncriminal types saw that it was adhered to. Simply stated, it went something like this: Under no circumstances does anyone talk to the cops. To do so would mean certain castigation within the community. It might also mean something very bad could happen to a member of your family.
The West Side Code wasn't based on any criminal impulse, per se. It was more a sign of solidarity against outside forces; a way to show loyalty and "build character." But over the years the gangsters were able to make the Code their own, and people like Mickey Spillane always knew they could bank on it.
Excerpted from The Westies by T. J. English, Lisa Amoroso, Suzanne Opton. Copyright © 2006 T. J. English. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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