this day in crime history: march 25, 1990

happylandfireOn this day in 1990, an argument turned into a mass murder at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx, NY.

Earlier in the evening, Cuban immigrant Julio Gonzalez was ejected from the club after arguing with his ex-girlfriend, who worked there as a coat check girl. Gonzalez, who had recently lost his job, was enraged. He screamed threats at the bouncers as they ejected him from the club.

Gonzalez returned to the club armed with a container of gasoline and some matches. He poured the gas on the stairs to the club and ignited it. The fire spread quickly. Due to a lack of working fire exits (they were blocked to prevent people from entering the club without paying), the people inside were trapped. Several managed to escape by breaking through a barrier that blocked one of the fire doors. Eighty-seven people died in the fire.

Among those who survived was Gonzalez’s ex-girlfriend. She told police about the argument and Gonzalez’s threats. They tracked him down and arrested him the following afternoon. Shortly after being arrested, Gonzalez confessed to the crime. He was tried and convicted on 87 counts of arson and 87 counts of murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life on each count. Since the crimes occurred in a single incident, New York State law required that the sentences be served concurrently, rather than consecutively. Gonzalez is currently incarcerated at Clinton Correction Facility. He is scheduled for a parole hearing in November 2016.

The owners of the building were sued by the victims and the families of the deceased. The case was settled for $15.8 million, divided between the plaintiffs.

Further reading:

New York TimesRefugee Found Guilty of Killing 87 in Bronx Happy Land Fire

Murderpedia – Julio Gonzalez

Wikipedia – Happy Land Fire

this day in crime history: march 20, 1933


On this date in 1933, would be presidential assassin Giuseppe Zangara was executed in the Florida electric chair. Forty-five days prior to his execution, Zangara had tried to assassinate President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. He missed Roosevelt, but managed to shoot several other people, including Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. Cermak later died of his wounds.

The general consensus among historians is that Roosevelt was the intended target, and that Cermak was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there is another school of thought: Cermak was the real target. As the story goes, Cermak was behind the attempted assassination of Chicago Outfit boss Frank Nitti. The designated hitters for that job were officers of the Chicago PD, who claimed that they shot Nitti in self defense. Nitti survived the shooting and stood trial for his supposed assault on the officers. The jury didn’t buy it, and Nitti was acquitted. The officers, on the other hand, were eventually charged with assault. One flipped on the other, and they were both convicted and fined $100 each.

As payback for the attempt on Nitti’s life, the Outfit supposedly contracted Sicilian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara to kill Cermak. The hit went down as planned, and Zanagara took the fall as a “crazed gunman.” Of course, there’s not much proof to support this theory, which is fairly standard for conspiracy theories. But it makes for an interesting story. Maybe Oliver Stone will make a movie about it someday.

Further reading:

Awesome Stories: Frank Nitti – The Enforcer

Chicago TribuneThe Shooting of Anton Cermak

Executed Today – 1933: Giuseppe Zangara, who is not on Sons of Italy posters

this day in crime history: march 16, 1934


On this date in 1934, Herbert Youngblood, an accused murderer who escaped from the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, IN with John Dillinger, was killed in a shootout with police in Port Huron, MI. Undersheriff Charles Cavanaugh was also killed in the shootout, which left two lawmen and a civilian injured.

Further reading:

Time“Bad Man at Large”

Dillinger: The Untold Story, by G. Russell Girardin, William J. Helmer, and Rick Mattix

YOUNGBLOOD IS SLAIN IN BATTLE

this day in crime history: march 15, 44 b.c.

Beware the Ides of March. At least if you’re Julius Caesar. Cornered by a bunch of (literally) back-stabbing politicians, Caeser’s political career was ended the old-fashioned way: assassination. You can get William Shakespeare’s take on it here. Better yet, check out William Shatner’s take on Shakespeare’s play from Free Enterprise:

this day in crime history: march 13, 1964

KG

On this date in 1964, 28 year old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was murdered outside her apartment building in Queens, NY. Her killer, 29 year old Winston Moseley, stabbed her twice, but fled the scene when he thought he had been seen by one of Genovese’s neighbors. He returned a short while later to find Genovese on the ground at the back of her building. He then raped her, stabbed her several more times, and robbed her of $49.

Two weeks later, an article in the New York Times told the story of how as many as thirty-eight of Genovese’s neighbors had heard her scream, but had made no effort to assist her or call the police. The story ignited a national controversy about the apparent callousness of people living in large cities. The details of the Times report are still disputed to this day. Many of the people living in the neighborhood at the time stated that they could not hear the attack, and those that did hear something weren’t certain what was actually happening.

Winston Moseley was arrested six days after the murder. He was tried and convicted of the crime. He was originally sentenced to death, but the NY Court of Appeals overturned the sentence and reduced it to 20 years to life. Moseley died while incarcerated at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY. He was 81 years old.

Further reading:

“Thirty-Eight Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police” (Original New York Times Article)

Wikipedia – Murder of Kitty Genovese

New York Times – “Reviving Kitty Genovese Case, and Its Passions”

this day in crime history: march 12, 1909

LtJoeP

On this date in 1909, New York Police Lieutenant Joe Petrosino was assassinated in Palermo, Sicily.

Born in Padua, Italy in 1860, Giuseppe Petrosino came to the United States as a young boy. In 1883, he joined the New York Police Department. In 1895, then-police Commissioner  Theodore Roosevelt promoted Petrosino to Detective Sergeant in charge of the NYPD’s Homicide Division. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1908 and placed in command of the department’s Italian Squad, a special unit manned by Italian-American officers tasked with investigating Italian organized crime.

While head of the Italian Squad, Petrosino arrested members of the Black Hand organization who were attempting to extort money from opera star Enrico Caruso. While working a case involving an anarchist group, he received a tip that there was a plot to assassinate President McKinley while he was at the World’s Fair in Buffalo, NY. He passed the information on to the Secret Service, but McKinley chose to ignore the warning. This, as it turns out, was a fatal mistake. President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.

In early 1909, Petrosino planned a trip to Sicily to investigate connections between the Sicilian Mafia and Italian organized crime in the United States. The trip was supposed to be a secret, but NYPD Commissioner Theodore Bingham inadvertently revealed it to the New York Herald, which reported on the impending trip. Petrosino, believing the Italian Mafia would observe the same prohibition on killing police officers as their American counterparts, decided to go anyway.

Lieutenant Petrosino was in Palermo on March 12, 1909, when he went to what he believed would be a meeting with an informant. The meeting was a setup. Petrosino was killed by Mafia assassins. No one was ever convicted of his murder.

Further reading:

New York Times Blog – “A Park Is Renewed, the Better to Honor the Hero in Its Name”

Officer Down Memorial Page – Lieutenant Giuseppe “Joseph” Petrosino

Find a Grave – Joseph Petrosino

Wikipedia – Joseph Petrosino

this day in crime history: march 11, 2005

On this date in 2005, Brian Nichols, the defendant in a rape case in Atlanta, overpowered the deputy assigned to guard him and took her gun. Nichols then went on a shooting spree that left four people dead. He was arrested after police received a tip from Ashley Smith, a woman Nichols had held hostage for seven hours after escaping from the court house.

After multiple delays, Nichols was tried on 54 criminal counts in October 2008. The jury found him guilty on all counts. He received multiple life sentences, with no possibility for parole.

Further reading:

About.com – Brian Nichols: Atlanta Courthouse Killer

Wikipedia – Brian Nichols