Walter Sage was being taken for a ride, but he was the only person in the vehicle unaware of this mortally significant fact. He would not have surmised a deadly attack on his health was pending though, simply because he was with his pals, and, on that pleasant late night in July 1937, the crew was heading up to familiar territory – The Catskills. Sage, a Murder Inc. hired gun himself, was also in charge of gambling rackets in the Monticello resort area, so a trip like this was certainly not out of the ordinary.
Seated behind Sage was his closest friend – Irving “Big Gangi” Cohen. Also in the backseat was Jacob “Jack” Drucker, whose family owned a farm near Monticello. Driving the car? That is a mystery still unsolved. Walter Sage was unaware another vehicle was following. Its passengers were Abraham “Pretty” Levine and Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss.
Conversations carried on for a while; both Cohen and Drucker would periodically lean forward to better chat with the front seat passenger. One of those intimately close moments caused Sage to take his final breath. Each of the backseat occupants brandished icepicks. Cohen leaned in, placed his arm around Sage’s neck, thus pulling him tightly against the seat. Drucker then swiftly delivered thirty-two punctures into Sages chest and neck, and even missed once, thereby piercing Cohen’s arm. The hapless victim fought hard, grabbing the steering wheel, careening the car into a ditch. And then… the convulsive reaction ceased.
From the scream Cohen made during the erroneous stab, Strauss and Levine were able to locate the murder car in the ditch. As they approached – Cohen was seen sprinting faster than anyone had ever imagined a hulking 240 lb. could possibly do. Drucker, well, he was neatly wiping blood off his icepick. Strauss, though certainly dumbfounded by Cohen’s gazelle-like escape into the dark woods, knew there was no time to dwell. A body in a car needed ‘disposing of’ immediately. Sage’s lifeless body was transferred into the ‘follow’ car and driven to Swan Lake. There the crew did what they thought would make Sage’s corpse disappear for good.
First, Sage’s body was hogtied and affixed with a rock around the neck. Then, for good measure and probably as a gesture regarding Sage’s particular business, the frame of a slot machine was also attached to the body. Sage was tossed into the water and quickly sank. A job well done for a veteran crew of killers? Not exactly.
The murder of Sage was a cut and dry issue for the boys. He’d been skimming from the gambling profits and punishment was ordered. The matter of Irving “Big Gangi” Cohen was a conundrum. Still, regardless of why he did it, after fleeing the murder car into the forest, Gangi pretty much earned himself a death sentence, if he didn’t already have one. Ironically, that’s exactly why Gangi ran in the first place. He believed his own life was next on the chopping block, either because he was involved with killing his own pal and eventually he’d have to ‘go’ or because he feared Drucker’s icepick accident was an intentional strike. Didn’t really matter to Big Gangi – he was headed for a name change and new geographic locale.
A little more than two weeks passed when vacationers were shocked out of an otherwise leisurely visit to Swan Lake. Sage’s body had surfaced. Strauss, Drucker and Levine knew how to take a life, but they were no experts in the science of decomposition. Once the police removed the remains, Dr. Lee R. Thompkins, coroner, determined the puncture wounds were made while Sage’s heart was still pumping blood. What that meant? The blood was filling the numerous tiny entry holes, trapping gasses. Even a rock and a slot machine couldn’t hold the body underwater forever once the body became bloated.
Walter Sage was merely one of a number of ‘bodies’ that turned up in Sullivan County over the last several years. Monticello had been, since 1936 roughly, dubbed by the press as the mob’s “Dumping Grounds” or “Gangster’s Graveyard.” The Sage murder was just another example of gang warfare that probably began in the greater New York City area, yet consistently made its way to the resort outlands. Despite the regularity of ‘discovered’ bodies – it seemed nobody was able to piece the circumstance together; nobody connected the dots. And for that, men like Drucker and Strauss carried on without much interference.
The story was far from over. “Pretty” Levine and “Dukey” Maffetore, the first members of Murder Inc. to sing the song of death dealing in early 1940, told District Attorney William O’Dwyer they knew where bodies – the one’s the public didn’t know about – were dumped like garbage, buried and sank throughout the Catskills and surrounding geography. Levine also spoke at length to a grand jury regarding the whereabouts of “Big Gangi” Cohen.
He recalled having some time to kill in fall of 1939, so along with Maffetore, went to the movies. The film was Golden Boy. Part way through the picture Levine was astounded by what he saw. Levine quickly nudged “Dukey,” seeking to verify what was actually transpiring. There he was – Irving “Big Gangi” Cohen on the silver screen. A bit part, brief appearance, but without a doubt it was him (Cohen acted under the pseudonym Jack Gordon).
Every so often his name would come up in the crew’s discourse; basically it was always the then rhetorical question of “What ever happened to Gangi?” Cohen had made his way to California shortly after the Sage murder. As fate would have it though, Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss eventually learned of Gangi’s general whereabouts (Murder Inc. had associates in Los Angeles, not the least of whom was top boss Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel). Once the information was confirmed, Strauss ordered Sholem “Sol” Bernstein, a frequent visitor to the West Coast, to find and assassinate Cohen. Sol went to Hollywood alright, but instead of killing Gangi – he got the guy new gig!
“I went to California to kill Big Gangi,” Bernstein admitted in 1941(while testifying against Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Louis Capone and Emanuel “Mendy” Weiss – accused in the murder of candy store owner Joseph Rosen). “But I didn’t kill him. I had gotten Big Gangi a job as an extra in the movies. I had connections out there.”
Bernstein was asked who his connections were, but his defense attorney quickly withdrew the query and instead probed ‘why?’ he frequented California. “You went there on vacation?” he asked.
“Each time I went to California,” Bernstein continued, “I went to avoid murder. Don’t you call that a vacation.”
Like Irving “Big Gangi” Cohen, Sol Bernstein was caught in a web of fear. At any given moment, particularly in the late 1930’s when bosses of the syndicate were becoming increasingly paranoid, any member of the hit squad could find themselves a victim. This was especially dangerous situation for men like Bernstein who were, basically, lower tier associates – car thieves, chauffeurs, and expendable – yet often would bear witness to things that could prove quite damning to upper tier guys.
Now back to 1940. By the time investigators sorted through the ‘who’ involved with Walter Sage’s murder, they decided to focus exclusively on the alleged icepick pair. Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss had already been put on trial for the murder of Irving “Puggy” Feinstein, so bothering with him was of no point, but Cohen and Drucker were fair game.
Police in Los Angeles immediately responded to New York requests to find and apprehend “Big Gangi.” Posters and bulletins were passed around the city; it didn’t take long to find their man. Cohen was an emotional mess when they grabbed him. Denial, anger, shock, and resistance all formed the bit-part actor’s repertoire of post-arrest responses. Cohen’s resistance was futile. LA cops prepped him for a journey back to New York where he’d face charges in Sullivan County for the murder of Walter Sage.
On June 17, 1940, Irving “Big Gangi” Cohen sat in court, sobbing intermittently while Abe “Pretty” Levine testified about the night of Walter Sage’s murder. Levine went so far as to say he witnessed Cohen help put the body in a truck (which contradicts the version of Cohen running and Sage’s body being loaded in the Levine and Strauss ‘follow’ car.) That’s when Gangi wailed aloud – “This man is lying.” He covered his teary face with a handkerchief as his wife Eva also began an uncontrollable crying outburst. “I was not there,” Gangi argued. “Honest.” The scenario was so loud and chaotic the judge called for a short recess so everyone could compose themselves.
When court reconvened, Cohen’s counsel, Saul Price, went after Levine, trying to show the witness was no better than his already-convicted counterparts in Murder Inc. Price wanted the jury to consider Levine’s role in other murders, such as Irving Ashkenas and Irving “Puggy” Feinstein.
“As far as you know, did Cohen participate in any murder other than the Sage murder?” Price asked.
“No,” replied Levine.
This is an excerpt from Murder Inc.: Mysteries of the Mob’s Most Deadly Hit Squad. Available on Amazon