Sutton 1

During the 22 days that David Sweat and Richard Matt were on the loose, I had occasion to mention to an acquaintance the name Willie Sutton. I was dismayed by the blank expression that name inspired. This happens to me more and more often as I get older and older. There was a time when, just as the name Enrico Caruso could be used interchangeably with the phrase “great singer,” the name Willie Sutton could be used interchangeably with the phrases “bank robber,” “prison escapee,” and “master of disguise.”

Sutton, who was born in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn in 1901, was a bank robber and prison-escape artist. Because of his use of disguises, he was known as “The Actor.” At various times in his career, he posed as such things as a mailman, a telegraph messenger, a police officer, a window cleaner, a prison guard, and a maintenance man.

After a series of robberies and a prison term for safe cracking, Sutton was sent to 30 years in Sing Sing in 1931. He got his hands on a firearm, took a guard hostage, and escaped on December 11, 1932, using a makeshift extended ladder to get over the prison wall.

Willie Sutton, right, is questioned after his arrest in Brooklyn in 1952.

Willie Sutton, right, is questioned after his arrest in Brooklyn in 1952.

He moved to Philadelphia and resumed his vocation until he was arrested again and spent about 15 years as a guest of the commonwealth. On April 3, 1945, Sutton and eleven other inmates escaped from the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia by crawling through a tunnel — Sutton’s fifth attempt to break out of this prison — but he was arrested the same day by city police.

Because he was a four-time loser, Sutton was sentenced to life in prison and sent to the Philadelphia County Prison in Homesburg. On February 10, 1947, he and other inmates, dressed as prison guards, carried two ladders across the prison yard to the wall after dark. The story goes that the watchtower searchlights found the men, but Sutton yelled, “It’s okay,” and no one interfered with the escape.

That escapade earned Sutton a place on the FBI’s list of ten most-wanted fugitives.

Sutton 3


Sutton was said to have good manners, and he dressed to go along with his demeanor. In a wry coincidence, that turned out to be his undoing. Police, knowing of Sutton’s penchant for fine clothes, distributed his photograph to tailors and haberdashers. A clothing salesman — 24-year-old Arnold Schuster — saw that photograph in his father’s store. On February 18, 1952, the young man recognized Sutton on a subway in Brooklyn and followed him to a gas station where Sutton intended to buy a car battery. The young man called the police, and Sutton was arrested yet again. Less than a month later, Schuster was shot to death in what was presumed to be a mob hit against a squealer. No one was ever charged with the crime. In an autobiography published in 1976, Sutton wrote, ”Throughout my career I had plotted and planned my jobs to make sure that I would not have to hurt anybody, and now, after it was over and I was sitting in jail, a good-looking, promising young man had been killed because of me. The laughter of the gods.”

Sutton already had a life sentence plus 105 years hanging over his head, but he was tried again for a bank robbery in Queens and had his lease extended another 30 years, this time at the Attica State Prison.

The dapper Sutton at the Queens County Courthouse where he was tried and convicted for the final time.

The dapper Sutton at the Queens County Courthouse where he was tried and convicted for the final time.

Because of his failing health, however, he was released on December 24, 1969. The following year, he did a television commercial promoting a new credit-card program offered by the New Britain, Connecticut, Bank and Trust Company.

Sutton was reputed to have said, when he was asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.” Sutton, however, denied having said that although, he added, if someone had asked him that question that might have been his reply.

“Why did I rob banks?” he wrote toward the end of his life. “Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that’s all. Go where the money is…and go there often.”



I was a neophyte reporter in Perth Amboy when I first heard the term “flim flam.” I came across it on a police report during my daily visit to headquarters, and I was to see it many times during the two and a half years I covered the city. This term can be used to mean more than one thing, but in the parlance of Perth Amboy police in the mid ’60s, it meant a scam that was run on the sidewalk outside a bank. In those days, before there were banks every thousand feet, Perth Amboy was a banking center and therefore a favorite haunt of a certain kind of con artist.

In Perth Amboy, flim flam meant that an older person who had just emerged from one of the banks on Smith Street would be approached by an amiable stranger who appeared to be both excited and confused. The stranger had found a bank envelope stuffed with cash and with no identification. While the stranger explained this to the unwitting target, a third party would “observe” the scene and approach the pair to ask what was up.  Eventually, the ring leader would offer to split the money with the dupe — something that wouldn’t make sense if the easy mark wasn’t drunk with the smell of found money. There was a catch: the sucker would have to put up a significant among of money to show “good faith.” Usually, the victim would go back into the bank and withdraw that money, agree to meet the pair later to split up the dough, and you know the rest.

This gag followed the same pattern every time. The first few times I read flim flam reports, I asked anyone who would listen how a person could fall for such  a scheme. Cops who knew more about human nature than I did told me it was about greed, but it was also about trust. That’s the “con” in “con man” — a guy gets away with a stunt like that because he wins the confidence of his prey.

That phenomenon — the ability to con — is the subject of Amy Reading’s sassy, informative, and sometimes provocative book, The Mark Inside. In this book, Reading, who holds a Yale doctorate in American Studies, traces the origins and development of the con game in America, finding its roots in the humbug of showmen such as Phineas T. Barnum and following its evolution into the modern age — an age, she writes, in which the con is no longer the sole province of showmen and criminals but a  vital tool in the commerce of everyday life.


Radical changes in American life, Reading deduces, led to this vastly increased reliance on the con. These changes included systems of rapid transportation — notably the railroad, the rise of cities, and finally the emergence of a “managerial class,” very different from the classes that once lived and traded only with what their own hands had produced, a class whose lingua franca was trust, the ability to get others to like them. Some critics have argued that Reading exaggerates the pervasive influence of this development, but the anecdotal evidence of the daily news — and even our own behavior, if we’re honest about it — seems to support her. What is our first concern in any transaction if not that the other party likes and trusts us, whether or not the trust is well placed?

As Reading is describing this aspect of American history, she is also telling the story of J. Frank Norfleet, a successful Texas rancher who in 1919 went to Dallas to conduct a legitimate transaction designed to improve his land holdings. When he arrived in the city, he almost immediately became the target of a gang of  swindlers overseen by Joseph Furey, a gang that prowled cities like Dallas on the lookout for people exactly like Norfleet.


Through an ostensibly chance encounter not unlike those on the streets of Perth Amboy, the gang drew Norfleet into a web that eventually involved phony securities investments and wound up costing him what today would be well over a million dollars. The Furey gang had this swindle down to an art form; every person involved knew his part well. What they didn’t count on was the personality of Frank Norfleet. Unlike con-game victims who usually slunk way in shame and fear, Norfleet put his personal affairs aside and went after the six characters who had done him wrong. He spent a fortune, took big chances, chased down leads from state to state, coped with corrupt cops and politicians, and benefited from dumb luck. Eventually, he succeeded utterly, and all six of the gangsters were prosecuted.


When Norfleet traced the last of the six to Denver, he became the target of yet another con game, this  one engineered by an organization run by Lou Blonger, who for 25 years was the crime kingpin in the  city. Blonger himself ended up being toppled, thanks to the amateur detective, J. Frank Norfleet.

Norfleet, by Reading’s account, quickly warmed to his role as a relentless and fearless sleuth, and he loved to tell the story, even if he exaggerated at times. Reading’s own detective work sorts through fiction and fact, and the fact turns out to be compelling and even astounding on its own terms. After Norfleet had disposed of his  quarry, he wrote an autobiography, appeared on vaudeville stages, delivered lectures, and started to produce a silent movie about himself. He became, Reading writes, a con man in his own right, selling J. Frank Norfleet to whoever would buy.

Murder most foul

November 24, 2011


When I first heard the other day that Greg Halman had been stabbed to death I was, of course, shocked, but not just because of the murder itself. Murder usually takes us by surprise, whether the victim was someone we knew, someone we only knew about, or someone we never heard of. It’s in the nature of the crime that it seems to come, as it were, out of left field.

In this case, my shock was doubled because the victim was a major league baseball player. It’s a hangover from my growing-up years when I thought those guys were special. I came to learn, as we all do, that they’re subject to all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our kind. I know that intellectually, but emotionally I’m the type who still thinks Santa Claus will show himself some day and sit in judgment over the sheep and the goats.

The fact is, though, that baseball players may be more susceptible to homicide than the general population is. Something like 17,000 men have played in the major leagues and I know of ten who have been murdered. What’s that – one in about 1700? The murder rate in the United States last year – ostensibly an all-time low – was nearly one in 10,000.


The ones I know about are Frank Bell, Frank McManus, Ed Morris, Lymon Bostock, Tony Solaita, Gus Polidor, Ivan Calderon, Dernell Stenton, and Luke Easter.

The one that most sticks in my mind is Easter, because he was one of my first “favorite” players. He came into the major leagues in 1949 when I was seven years old. He was about six-foot-four and weighed 240 pounds. I got most of my baseball on the radio then, and for a while I thought his name was Lou Keester. I didn’t know it then, but because he was black he didn’t get to play in the bigs until he was 34 – although he was inconsistent when reporting his age and place of birth. He is a prime example of the damage that racism did to major league baseball. He appeared in only six seasons in the majors and played in more than 100 games in only four. He was a good first baseman and a slugger in semi-pro ball — which was a big deal in his day — and in the Negro Leagues. He hit a total of 86 home runs in 1950, ’51, and ’52; he played only 396 games in those three seasons, and he was 37 years old in 1952. He and Mickey Mantle were the only players to hit a ball over the right-field scoreboard in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Easter’s traveled 477 feet.

After his major league stint, Easter played in the minors until he was 48 and coached for a while. Wherever he went, he added to his reputation as a genuinely nice man who liked to help other players. When he and baseball were done with each other, he went to work for the Aircraft Workers Alliance and became the chief union steward at a company in Euclid, Ohio. In 1979, he was delivering payroll money to a bank when he was accosted by armed robbers who shot him to death when he wouldn’t turn over the money.

When a fan remarked that he had witnessed one of Easter’s longest home runs, Easter said: “If it came down, it wasn’t mine.”

Richard Loeb (left) and Nathan Leopold

I was surprised to find in some recent conversations that acquaintances my age don’t remember the “Free Nathan Leopold” movement. I was in my teens when it reached its climax, and I remember reading about it in newspapers and hearing about it on broadcast news. I probably was more attuned to it, because I read a paperback book about Leopold and his friend Richard Loeb, who in 1924 had murdered a 14-year-old boy just to show that they could do it. It was characterized for many years as “The Crime of the Century.” Leopold and Loeb were very rich and very bright young men, not yet 20, and they had gotten caught up in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. They decided that they fit the mold of Nietzsche’s “superman” and that they were above the law — an idea that the State of Illinois didn’t share.

This is one of the cases John A. Farrell writes about to support the title of his excellent book, Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned. It was one of the two cases for which Darrow is best remembered — the other being the Scopes trial, which involved the teaching of evolution in a Tennessee school — but, as Farrell describes in detail, there was much more to Darrow himself and his tumultuous legal career.

Clarence Darrow

Darrow was a complicated man, a mass of contradictions. He was also one of the great celebrities of his era, attracting enormous crowds to courtrooms and to the streets outside with his eloquence and logic and with his theatrical, sometimes outrageous style of questioning witnesses and addressing juries.

Darrow defended John Thomas Scopes, who was tried in 1925 in the evolution case. That trial was a charade, because Scopes was a willing dupe who agreed to face the charge in order to get the subject before the courts.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan

The case set up an historic confrontation between the agnostic, libertarian Darrow and the three-time Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who won the case in the sense that Scopes was convicted but who squirmed as Darrow’s questions showed Bryan’s ignorance of both history and the Bible.

The subtitle of the book refers to Darrow’s penchant for taking on clients whose fate seemed sealed – and frequently bringing in an unexpected result.

Dr. Ossian Sweet

At times he stood for underdogs – such as Dr. Ossian Sweet, his brother Henry, and nine other black men charged with murder after a bystander was shot to death while the Sweets and their friends defended the doctor’s Detroit home from a violent white mob.
It was 1925 and the jury was white — hardly the circumstances a lawyer would hope for — but Darrow, who had been hired by the NAACP – got a hung jury in the first trial and acquittal when Henry Sweet was retried alone.

Clarence Darrow

As he often did, Darrow moved the focus of the proceedings off the immediate charge before the court and drew attention to a broader principle: “There is nothing but prejudice in this case,” he told the jury. “If it was reversed, and eleven white men had shot and killed a black while protecting their home and their lives against a mob of blacks, nobody would have dreamed of having them indicted . . . . .
“That’s all there is to this case,” he said. “Take the hatred away and you have nothing.’’

The same Darrow who stood up for that black family was just as willing to defend people of privilege, such as Leopold and Loeb, and just as skillful in doing it. Inasmuch as Leopold and Loeb admitted the murder, those following the case expected them to enter a plea of guilty by reason of insanity. But Darrow entered a plea of guilty and said he would rely on the mercy of the court. In a performance that no judge would allow today, he concluded the penalty trial with an eight-hour argument in which he presented “these boys” as “immature and diseased children . . . wandering around in the dark.’’ Speaking, as he always did, without notes, Darrow cited the lack of precedent in Chicago for hanging defendants under the age of 21, and for hanging defendants who had pleaded guilty.

Leopold and Loeb

Darrow dismissed the death penalty itself as “one long slaughter house,” and he brought tears to the eyes of onlookers, including the defendants, when he spoke of their mothers and the mother of the slain Bobby Franks: “The mother who looks into the blue eyes of her little babe cannot help wonder what will be the end of this child, whether it will be crowned with the greatest promises which her mind can imagine, or whether he may meet death from the gallows.’’
Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life in prison for the murder plus 99 years for kidnapping. Loeb was killed by another inmate, but Leopold led an exemplary and productive life in prison, which eventually inspired public pressure on his behalf. He was paroled in 1958 and moved to Puerto Rico, where he was a model citizen.
Farrell devotes a lot of attention to Darrow’s work on behalf of labor during an epoch in which workers were resorting to violence in order to free themselves from exploitation – whether in the mines of Pennsylvania or in the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times, which was liquidated by explosives in 1910.
Farrell also writes of the brooding, disheveled, boozy attorney’s insatiable thirst for women, his literary ambitions, and his wildly vacillating economic fortunes. As Farrell illustrates and explains, Darrow at times seemed to be an idealist who would take on a lost cause for no pay and at other times seemed to be an opportunist, interested only in money and his own aggrandizement.The jury, as it were, is still out on those questions, but Farrell does make one thing clear: Whatever else Darrow was, he is one of the most memorable characters of his time.

Clarence Darrow in the courtroom during the trial of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, seen to Darrow's right in this picture.

scales of justice(1)This Phillip Garrido case stirs up such a complex of judgements and emotions that it’s hard to think about it dispassionately. The account from University of California police officers Lisa Campbell and Ally Jacobs suggests that Garrido himself is far more than a calculating rapist; he’s a human being spinning out of control.

Unlike the outfall that often follows a case like this, in which the neighbors tell how the suspect was a quiet man who always waved hello when he went out to pick up his mail, the folks on Garrido’s block perceived that there was something way out of whack with this man, and they said so more than once — they said so to law enforcement authorities.

CrimePunishmentWith unerring hindsight, we can see that those authorities should have discovered the facts at Garrido’s home long before they did. I have heard the rationalizations about the amount of territory the sheriff’s department has to cover and the descriptions of visits to the house in which investigators could detect no crime — perhaps code violations, but no crime. However culpable the authorities are for the fact that Jaycee Dugard was not found sooner, this case challenges again the wisdom of registering convicted sex offenders and allowing them to live unsupervised in society. And while Garrido was supposedly under the supervision of a parole officer, anyone can now judge how effective that arrangement was.

women 1I am among those who think there are far too many people in prison in the United States. But it is a matter of common sense that a person who has been convicted of a serious sex offense should either be incarcerated for life or kept under constant surveillance, and in either case provided with intense and consistent treatment — and we have to be willing to seriously invest in that treatment. The rate of recidivism and the impact of such crimes on their victims demands this.

I sat on a criminal jury a few years ago in a case that involved a corrections officer who had committed sexual offenses against two female inmates. One of the inmates was participating in a release program at the time of that offense. The corrections officer was accused of seeking her out at the home where she was staying, ostensibly under strict supervision. An officer who was supposedly keeping track of the inmate, testified that the inmate was not permitted to have any social contact with men while in the release program. But the officer also testified that she paid an unannounced visit to the house on one occasion, found the defendant there with the inmate, and accepted the explanation that he was the inmate’s billiards coach. I’m not making that up. Apparently the supervision of Phillip Garrido wasn’t much better.

I am too much of an optimist to give up even on a Phillip Garrido, but while we’re trying to take care of him, citizens deserve much better protection against a person who is likely to repeat such a crime.



Amid all the tsurris about Michael Jackson’s death bubbles the question of how long his fame will endure. He will have done well, it seems, if the public fixation with him lasts as long as its interest in John Dillinger, an anti-social holdup man and murderer who was shot to death 75 years ago. Once Independence Day is out of the way, we can focus our attention on John Dillinger Day, an observance that commemorates his death, which occurred on July 22, 1934.

There are those, of course, who say that it wasn’t Dillinger who was gunned down outside a movie theater in Chicago, and I suppose we’ll have to live with those who will claim that Jackson didn’t die in Los Angeles last week but is living in Buenos Aires with Adolph Hitler, Emilia Earhart, and Elvis Presley. At last, a fourth for bridge.

The reviews in the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post are unenthusiastic about the movie “Public Enemies,” in which Johnny Depp portrays Dillinger. Dan Zak writes in the Post:



There’s no excitement in the bank-robbing, no thrill of the chase, no emotion over justice served or thwarted. Depp’s Dillinger is neither charming nor despicable, nor does he occupy that delicious gray area between the two. His spree unspools dispassionately, cold as a Colt .380.

Peter Rainer in the Monitor writes:

Mann’s hero-worshipy treatment of Dillinger is undercut by the film’s dreamtime existentialist aura. In reality, the working poor cheered Dillinger’s bank raids but in “Public Enemies” the Depression is just a prop, and so Dillinger’s populist hero status, what little we see of it, makes scant sense. (This is probably why we see so little of it.) Missing, as a result, is the knockabout tumult of a time when gangsters could ascend to the same stardom as the movie actors who played gangsters. Dillinger was, for a while, every bit as big as Jimmy Cagney. Mann pirouettes around the twin realities of the Depression and the star culture it engendered and offers instead a moody blues doominess. It’s a vacuum filling a vacuum.

So Depp becomes neither Clyde Barrow nor Robin Hood. Maybe, in his old age, he can play Bernie Madoff.



We watched “Changeling,” a 2008 film produced and directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich. This film which, I gather from independent reading, sticks fairly close to the facts, recounts the story of a 1928 kidnapping case in Los Angeles. Walter Collins, a nine year old boy, disappeared from his home and was never seen again. A boy found several months later in DeKalb, Illinois, claimed to be Walter Collins, but Walter’s mother, Christine (played by Jolie), told police the boy was not her son. The LAPD – which at the time was ridden with scandal and under public pressure to solve the Collins case — insisted that the boy was Walter and that the mother was delusional. Eventually, under a prerogative the police had at the time, police Capt. J.J. Jones (played by Jeffrey Donovan) had the woman committed to the psychiatric wing of a Los Angeles Hospital. A seemingly unrelated immigration case led police to Gordon Norcott (played by Jason Butler Harner), a murderous Canadian whose arrest figured in the somewhat incomplete resolution of the complicated case.



This film is two hours and 22 minutes long — and that’s after two scenes were cut from the final version. It is arresting, however, even for that long — and that’s due at least in part to the awareness that the bizarre events being portrayed on the screen actually occurred.

Angelina Jolie was nominated for a “best actress” Oscar for this role, but there were equally powerful performances by Harner and Donovan. Harner appears on the screen for the first time in an inocuous situation — his car has overheated — and he has no known  connection to the story, but he plays that scene in such a way that it’s immediately apparent that there is something very wrong with him. The more we see of him, the more he makes our skin crawl.



Jeffrey Donovan is effective as the bullheaded and myopic police captain. His behavior so defies simple logic that he would have fit in well at the trial of the Knave of Hearts. Donovan’s unyielding demeanor makes the character the personification of self-justifying bureaucracy. Malkovich presents a study of the Rev. Gustav Briegleb, a Presbyterian minister who campaigned against political corruption and other things he regarded as immoral, and who provided Christine Collins with support that turned out to be critical to her own well being. Briegleb is portrayed here as a radio preacher, but he was not a broadcaster in real life. He was also known to publicly express his anti-Semitism. However, this film sets out to tell the story of Christine Collins, not of Gustav Briegleb, and other sources suggest that Malkovich correctly plays the minister as tough and single-minded.

There are some upsetting albeit not overly graphic scenes involving murder and an execution, but these things are worth facing in a film that reminds us of how much damage can be inflicted on individual lives by corrupted public institutions.




May 8, 2009




I just finished reading Tom Folsom’s book “The Mad Ones,” the story of Joe Gallo and his brothers and satellites, a clumsy Brooklyn crime family that inspired Jimmy Breslin’s novel “The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” I feel a little guilty because these dangerous and destructive people are so much fun to read about. And Folsom makes it fun,  because he seems to be having such a good time telling this  yarn, using a vernacular perfectly suited to the subject. And how can you go wrong with characters like Big Lollypop, Little Lollypop, Johnny Bath Beach, Mondo the Midget and Grandma Nunziato?

Joe and Larry Gallo themselves were worth the price of admission. Larry, anticipating open warfare with the Profaci gang, wiled away the time playing operatic arias on his violin. Joey spent a lifetime – what there was of it – painting, or reading Spinoza, Lenin, Mao, and Nietzsche. Joe Gallo was probably certifiably nuts, but he apparently was also a magnetic personality who sucked in people like Jerry Orbach and David Steinberg. And he didn’t kill Don Rickles for razzing him in a nightclub after being warned not to, so how bad could he have been?

Reading Folsom’s book, one wonders why Breslin had to fictionalize this whacked-out crowd who never made it to the top of organized crime in New York but shed and lost a lot of blood in the effort. The truth is entertaining enough.