Mrs. Stella Crater grew worried when her husband, Judge Joseph Force Crater, did not return from New York City on her birthday - Saturday, 9 August, 1930 - as promised. But she had been married to Joe since 1917, when he had handled her divorce from her first husband, And over that decade Stella had learned to tolerate Joe's womanizing, his gambling and his drinking. And she had learned not to ask too many questions. She only knew of Joe's appointment to the trial court when she read of the swearing in ceremony in the newspapers. She had no income of her own, but Joe's approximately $75,000 a year allowed her to live a life of comfort.
But with the Stock Market Crash 9 months earlier , lawyers like Joe had seen their incomes cut by 40%. It explained why Joe had been eager to move to the judiciary since it meant at least a regular salary, which could be easily supplemented by bribes and kickbacks. But on Monday, 11 August, Stella decided she could wait no longer. She walked into Belgrade where she would have access to a telephone, and called Maria, the maid for their 40 Fifth Avenue apartment. Maria was surprised to learn that the Judge had not returned to Maine the previous Thursday.
Next Stella called Frederick Johnson, the Judge's law secretary at the Manhattan Court House (above). Fred assured Stella that the Judge was fine, although he could offer no evidence to support that claim. In fact the last time Frederick had spoken to his boss was that previous Wednesday.
Crater had arrived at the Court House about 11:00am. After sending his attendant Joseph L.Mara out to a brokerage house to collect $5,100 cash from 2 investments, , the Judge went into his office and locked the door. Half an hour later, he stepped out to borrow Fred's brief case, and returned behind the locked door again. A little after noon Judge Crater asked Joseph Mara to help him carry two briefcases and six full stuffed cardboard folders out to a taxi. On his way out the door, Crater had said, "Don't forget to turn off the lights, Johnson."
Joseph Mara had ridden uptown in the taxi with the Judge, and lugged the six cardboard briefcases up to the Crater's five room condominium at 40 Fifth Avenue (above left, awning) . The Judge had said to Mara, "You may go now, Joe. I'm going up to Westchester way for a swim. I'll see you tomorrow."
While Fredrick had not gone into the details of the Judge's Court House activities, he did take the time to warn Stella against pressing the issue of the Judge's whereabouts, by saying it might make things professionally unpleasant for her husband. The unstated hint was that there might be women or gangsters involved. And this hint proved enough to convince Stella to return to the cabin. For the time being, Judge Crater had a great deal in common with Doctor Schrodinger's cat. He might be missing, but only if somebody couldn't find him. So it was better if nobody went looking.
Joe Crater had been a surprising appointment to the New York Supreme Court because he was not openly affiliated with New York Mayor Jimmy Walker (above), or his friends at the Democratic Club at Tammany Hall (below) - the center of graft and corruption in New York government since the 1840’s.
But Crater was connected to the hall (above). The proof was that in April of 1930, just after Governor Franklin Roosevelt had announced Crater’s surprise appointment, Joe had withdrawn $23,000 (about $250,000 today) from his bank.
The standard and unspoken rule in New York state was that any appointment required the payment of one year’s salary to the lions of Tammy Hall. Lowly trial court - Supreme Court - judges were paid $23,000 a year. No record was ever found of where Joe's $23,000 went.
But Governor Roosevelt (above) was already positioning himself for a possible run for the White House and he could not afford to be connected to anyone connected to Tammany Hall, because of the murder two years earlier of Arnold Rothstein.
It was 13 minutes before midnight, Sunday, 4 November 1928, when elevator operator Vince Kelly (above, re-enacting for the newspapers), just coming to work, discovered a well dressed man lying on the concrete floor of a service corridor of the Park Central Hotel on West 56th Street. Vince bent down and asked, “Are you sick?” The man held out a dollar bill. “Get me a taxi”, he said. “I've been shot.”
Before the ambulance had even pulled up to the service entrance on 7th Avenue, word of the shooting was being whispered into the mayor's ear. Recently elected dapper Irish pixie, 40 year old James John “Jimmy” Walker was drinking and dancing at the hotel's Park Lounge. Clearly the management thought it would be better for the hotel and the mayor if he was not discovered without his wife in the vicinity of a shooting. While Walker waited for his girlfriend, Ziegfeld Follies girl Betty Compton (above), to get her coat, Big Band Leader Vincent Lopez asked the ashen faced mayor if he was alright. “Not Exactly”, Jimmy replied. “Rothstein's been shot, Vince. And that means trouble from here on in.”
At 46 years of age Arnold Rothstein was a living legend. The son of a banker, A.R. applied his natural talent for math to making a lot of money, quickly. In his twenties he opened an underground gambling club in Manhattan's Tenderloin district, then a horse track in Maryland, and made a million dollars by the age of thirty. He was, rumor said, the man who rigged the 1919 World Series. It was Rothstein who used prohibition profits to organize crime, and train the next generation of mobsters - people like Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Arnold's own body guard and partner, Jack “Legs” Diamond.
Rumor had it that Jack had either pulled the trigger on Arnold, or helped lure him into the hotel without other body guards. But the murder of Arnold Rothstein was to shake New York City's hidden financial infrastructure until it almost fell apart, in part because Tammany Hall District Attorney Joab Banton was thin skinned. During the 1928 campaign for mayor, 40 year old Republican Fiorello LaGuardia had charged that Arnold Rothstien was still running the city from beyond the grave. In response Banton dared the Republican to name a single city official who had any ties to the late A.R., and back came the booming response – Bronx Superior Court Judge Albert Vitale. According to LaGuardia, Rothstein had loaned Vitale $20,000.
LaGuardia's charge had no impact on the Tuesday, 6 November 1928 election. Walker won in a landslide. But shortly thereafter United States Attorney Charles Tuttle revealed the source of the accusation – a little black notebook, seized from a known Rothstien heroin dealer, containing the phone number of Albert Vitale. That revelation opened up an investigation by the N.Y. City Bar Association. Their January 1930 report noted that on his $48,000 a year salary, Vitale had $165,000 in the bank. From the witness stand the bombastic Albert Vitale (above) declared "I have absolutely nothing to fear or conceal." But on 14 March, 1930, the New York Bar Association ordered Vitale removed from office,
Immediately Tuttle opened an investigation into the cases Vitale had passed judgment on, and the unexpected collapse of the $400,000 Columbia Finance Corporation stood out. The cause of the fund's failure was their financing the purchase of a series of lots used for piers along the Brooklyn waterfront, leased by United American Lines, a steamship company. The owner of record of one of the lots was Miss Anne McVicker. But the check she used to buy the lot was drawn from the account of Joseph F. Boyle, a political buddy of....guess who? Yes, Albert Vitale. This lease, along with others, had been used by United American Lines to transfer a $250,000 payoff to Tammany Hall, through Vitale. But once the payoff had been made, the lots returned to the original owners and the leases had to be renegotiated, and Columbia went bankrupt.
Joseph Crater (above) had decided only two cases during his brief tenure on the Manhattan bench, a liability case against the Park Central Motors Service garage over a wrecked stolen car, and a civil case demanding restitution over the fraudulent transfer of money in a mortgage foreclosure fraud, Good Time Joe began his written decision of that case this way, "The evidence presented upon the hearing of this cause points so conclusively to judgment in favor of defendants that we may, without prejudice....overlook some of the technical issues raised...". But there were other cases on the Judge's docket he had not yet decided. And with State and Federal investigators already sniffing around, looking for an opening, it suddenly looked like Joe had picked a bad time to transfer to the other side of the bench.
Finally, on Friday, 16 August 1930 - 10, ten days after her husband was last seen - Stella sent her chauffeur to the city to look for him. He reported that the Judge had left their apartment in perfect order - Maria the maid had already cleaned up of course - but none of his clothes were missing and his luggage was still in the closet, hinting he had not left town again. The driver checked Joe's usual hangouts, places he had driven the judge to and from in the city, places he may not have mentioned to Stella. But no one recalled seeing the Judge all summer. Stella then called Simon Rifkind, another lawyer friend of Joe's. He assured her again that everything was fine, and that Joe would soon turn up.
The Supreme Court's fall session opened on 25 August, and Justice Louis Valente telephoned from New York to ask Stella if Joe was still in Maine. Stella became hysterical, and Judge Valente assured her that he would find her wayward husband. He then set New York Police Detective Leo Lowenthal unofficially on to the case.
Back at the Court House, Lowenthal learned of the two brief cases stuffed with money and the six cardboard file folders Crater had removed from the office. From the Court House, the detective went to the 40 Fifth Avenue apartment. Not only were the brief cases not there, neither were the cardboard folders. But hanging in the bedroom closet, Detective Lowenthal found the vest Judge Crater had been wearing when he left the courthouse, validating Joseph Mara's story. But what had happened to all those files, and those two briefcases? There were no ashes in the fire place, and Maria insisted there had been none. So the files had not been burned. When the Judge left the apartment, the files, the briefcases and the money had all gone with him. But neither Bill Klein nor Sally Ritz reported seeing them at the Chop House. It seemed somebody was lying, And that is what he told the judges of the Supreme Court.
So finally, on 3 September, 1930, the dam broke. Judge Louis Valenti called the Commissioner of Police, At last, four weeks after Judge Joseph Force Crater had seen alive and well on West 45th Street, the public alarm was raised. Mayor Walker and the city council immediately posted a $5,000 reward. It was never claimed.