this day in crime history: december 31, 1986

rescue

On this date in 1986, 97 people were killed when a fire was set at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The fire was started around 3:30 PM in a ballroom beneath the hotel’s casino. The fire spread quickly and the hotel’s lack of a sprinkler system and locked fire exits (to prevent theft) aggravated the situation. Many of the hotel guests fled to the roof, where they were evacuated by police, National Guard, Navy, and Coast Guard helicopters.

The fire was started by three hotel employees, Héctor Escudero Aponte, José Rivera López, and Arnaldo Jiménez Rivera. The men were angry with hotel management for rejecting a proposal by their labor union, Teamsters Local 901. All three were convicted of murder and given prison sentences. Jimenez was released in 2001, Lopez in 2002. Aponte remains in prison.

Further reading:

Wikipedia – Dupont Plaza Hotel arson

New York Times – “3 ADMIT SETTING HOTEL FIRE THAT KILLED 97 IN SAN JUAN”

Rescue 911 Video 1, Video 2

Advertisements

this day in crime history: december 29, 1975

TWA

On this date in 1975, a bomb was detonated in the TWA baggage claim area at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Eleven people were killed and seventy-five were injured. A Croatian nationalist emerged as a suspect, but there was never sufficient evidence linking him to the crime. The case remains officially unsolved.

Further reading:

New York TimesTerrorist’s Release Reopens Wound of Unsolved Bombing

Wikipedia – 1975 LaGuardia Airport bombing

this day in crime history: december 24, 1913

ItalianHall1913

On this date in 1913, striking copper miners and their families gathered for a Christmas party at the Italian Hall in Calumet, MI. The miners, who worked for the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, were in the fifth month of their strike. At some point in the evening, someone yelled, “fire!” The party-goers — who numbered over four hundred — raced for the exits, which were insufficient to handle a mass evacuation of that size. Seventy-three people, including fifty-nine children, were killed in the ensuing panic. The person (or people) responsible for starting the panic, and the motive for starting it, were never discovered.

Further reading:

New York TimesX-mas Tree Panic Costs 80 Lives

Wikipedia – Italian Hall disaster

this day in crime history: november 18, 1978

Photo: The Jonestown Institute
Photo: The Jonestown Institute

On this date in 1978, members of the People’s Temple cult in Guyana assassinated Congressman Leo Ryan, who had traveled to the South American country to investigate allegations of abuse made against the cult.  While he was at an airstrip waiting to fly home, Temple gunmen opened fire, killing Ryan, three journalists, and a Temple defector.

Shortly after the murder of Ryan, People’s Temple leader Jim Jones led the group in a mass murder-suicide.  Over 900 men, women, and children died.  It is believed to be the largest murder suicide in history.

Further reading:

Wikipedia – Jonestown

SDSU – The Jonestown Institute

this day in crime history: november 13, 1974

HighHopes

On this date in 1974, 23 year old Ronald “Butch” DeFeo, Jr. walked into Henry’s Bar in Amityville, NY and announced that he thought his parents had been shot. Several people left the bar with him and went to his house to check on his parents. As it turns out, they were dead in their bed. The police were called. When they arrived, they searched the house and discovered that DeFeo’s four younger siblings, two brothers and two sisters, were also dead in their respective beds. All six family members had been shot.

DeFeo, a known troublemaker and drug abuser, spun a tale for police about a mob hitman killing his parents. As the investigation progressed, details of DeFeo’s story didn’t hold up. He eventually confessed to all six of the murders.

At trial, DeFeo and his attorney, William Weber, attempted an insanity defense. The jury didn’t buy it, and Defeo was convicted of six counts of second degree murder. He was given six consecutive twenty-five to life sentences. DeFeo is currently incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility. His next parole hearing is in July 2017.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s probably because it was this crime, and DeFeo’s attempt at an insanity defense, that were the inspiration for the story of The Amityville Horror.

Further reading:

The Amityville Murders

Wikipedia – Rondald DeFeo, Jr.

Amityville: Horror or Hoax

this day in crime history: october 1, 1910

On this date in 1910, a bomb was detonated in an alley next to the Los Angeles Times building in Los Angeles, CA.  The bomb, which was planted by labor union activists who were angry at the paper’s anti-union editorial policies, was set to go off when the building was empty.  A faulty timer resulted in an early detonation.  A faulty placement of the device–right over a gas line–resulted in a fire that ultimately destroyed the entire building, and the building next door.  In all, 21 people were killed.

The police investigation of the bombing quickly hit a dead, leading city officials to hire private investigator William J. Burns to track down the guilty parties.  Burns, who was already investigating other bombings believed to be union-related, incorporated the case into his ongoing investigation.  Based on information from spies that Burns had planted in the unions, as well as eyewitness testimony, Burns identified the guilty parties as brothers J.B. and J.J. McNamara, and Ortie McManigal, who were all labor union officials.  In April 1911, McManigal and J.B. McNamara were arrested in a hotel in Detroit.  They were found in possession of suitcases that contained blasting caps, dynamite, and alarm clocks.  After a grueling (and probably unconstitutional) interrogation, Burns got McManigal to agree to turn state’s evidence.  A warrant was obtained for the arrest of J.J. McNamara.  He was arrested several days later at an executive board meeting of the Iron Workers Union.

National labor leaders condemned the arrests as a frame job.  The union tried to hire famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow to defend the men.  Darrow initially declined due to his failing health, but was eventually convinced to take the case by labor organizer Samuel Gompers.

Darrow quickly realized that the police had a fair amount of evidence against the McNamaras, including the testimony of McManigal, who was not being charged in the case.  He eventually convinced the brothers to plead guilty in order to avoid death sentences.  J.B. McNamara was sentenced to life in prison.  J.J. McNamara got 15 years.  J.B. died in prison in March 1941.  Upon his release, J.J. went back to work for the Iron Workers Union as an organizer.  He died in Butte, MT, two months after his brother’s death.

Further reading:

Wikipedia – Los Angeles Times bombing

Wikipedia – William J. Burns

this day in crime history: september 16, 1920

On this date in 1920, an unidentified man stopped his horse-drawn cart in front of the J. P. Morgan building on Wall Street. He got down from the cart and disappeared into the noontime crowd. A short while later, a bomb consisting of dynamite and cast iron slugs detonated on the busy street. Thirty-eight people were killed and over four hundred were injured. Police conducted an exhaustive investigation that lasted over three years, but the case was never solved.

Further reading:

The Street.com: “Previous Terror on Wall Street — A Look at a 1920 Bombing”

FBI: Terror on Wall Street

Wikipedia: “Wall Street bombing”