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The gangland killing of "Ponzi" Albino that ended the story — and the murder of an innocent bystander that started it — gave more weight to the June 17 "beer war shoot-out in downtown Syracuse, but for sheer chaos and this-must-be-a-movie excitement, you couldn't beat what had happened eleven days earlier.

It was a motorcycle-car chase that started at Fairmount Corners and ended in Wolf Hollow, a wooded area off Onondaga Boulevard where the towns of Onondaga, Geddes and Camillus meet. But the chase was merely Act One.

There was a Solvay connection, of course, though that was secondary; this was one of those crazy truth-is-stranger-than-fiction examples.

Involved were four gangster wannabes — three from Chicago, one from Kansas City. They stole an automobile in the Windy City and headed toward New York City, planning, as one of them put it, to "muscle in on the stickup racket." They believed Chicago was too tough, and that it would be easier to succeed in New York.

Perhaps it would have been, but this trip, which provided a lesson in Onondaga County geography, came to an end about 300 miles short of its target. How did they wind up at a retired judge's woodsy estate in Taunton, a hamlet in the town of Onondaga?

Well, it wasn't easy. The miracle is that no one was killed along the way. Today the event would be rehashed and over-analyzed on television; many lives had been placed at risk. During this era, however, things often were done this way.

THE FOUR MEN didn't know each other well. They met at a Chicago pool hall a few weeks before yielding to an impulse to travel east. Because their adventure originated in Chicago, police and reporters in Syracuse suspected the four men might be soldiers in Al Capone's gangster army, assigned to help settle a New York City dispute. The three men who were caught denied knowing Capone, and their denials were convincing because they came across as crime school drop-outs, perhaps destined to remain small-time crooks.

Their downfall began with a stupid decision at a gasoline station near Auburn, New York, when they filled their tank and left without paying. The attendant noted the make, model and license plate number — and called the state police.

Within minutes Trooper Ertman Crouse, a motorcycle officer, arrived at Fairmount Corners (West Genesee Street and Onondaga Road), and began checking eastbound cars. It was shortly after noon. Trooper Crouse would say later that he expected no trouble and intended to escort the offending motorists back to Auburn and make them pay for the gasoline. In perhaps the understatement of the year, Crouse said it seemed like "an easy assignment."

Reporter James Gordon Fraser described what happened next:

Syracuse American, June 7
Waiting at Fairmount Corners, Trooper Crouse saw the car approaching. On his motorcycle, he pulled up beside the car and ordered the driver to halt. Instead, the man accelerated. Down West Genesee Street, toward the city [Syracuse], the car roared at top speed, with the motorcycle in pursuit.

Suddenly, a shotgun poked out one of the car windows and a blast of slugs roared past the startled trooper’s head. Without slackening speed, Trooper Crouse pulled out his own revolver and began firing, first at the wheels of the car, but later, as his fire was returned from automatic revolvers, at the body of the car. One of his shots crashed through a rear window and through the windshield, as he discovered later.

This account has the first shots being fired on West Genesee Street, the main east-west highway in and out of Syracuse. This seems unlikely. Later versions had the exchange of gunfire beginning soon after the car turned south on Fay Road, along the Solvay village line, near the Wescott Reservoir (which was under construction at the time). The gangsters later expressed surprise that Crouse stayed with them on Fay Road, which is why the first shots almost certainly were fired there.

It was on Fay Road that the gangsters passed a car driven by local real estate broker Perry Morgan. This momentarily put Morgan between the gangsters and Trooper Crouse. A shotgun blast from the gangsters' car hit Morgan's vehicle, with one pellet coming narrowly missing Morgan's head.

Further down Fay Road, probably near the present-day site of Bishop Ludden School, Trooper Crouse managed to pull alongside the car. He said later he intended to shoot the driver to stop the vehicle. But the driver swerved into the trooper's path, forcing the motorcycle into a ditch.

Then came one of those Hollywood moments. Unhurt, Crouse was forced to abandon the motorcycle. At that moment Floyd Howell of Fairmount drove up in his car. Crouse flagged him down, jumped on the running board and ordered Howell to pursue the bandits.

Thus the chase briefly resumed, with the trooper firing from his perch on the running board of Howell’s car.

Stories didn't make it clear how and where the car went into a ditch, but based on my recollection of the area and one five-way intersection in particular, I'm making a guess — that the driver of the car attempted to turn right onto Terry Road, went wide and then veered left toward Onondaga Boulevard, going off the road instead. This forced them to flee on foot.

Syracuse American, June 7
Racing up a slope, the fugitives headed toward the home of former Judge William S. Andrews and his wife, writer Mrs. Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews, and ran through one of the gardens where Edward Elmer, son of the gardener, was playing.

The boy ran into the house and aroused his mother. She appeared outside just as Trooper Crouse ran into the yard and yelled, “Call the state police at North Syracuse and tell them I have got four gunmen in these woods.”

Mrs. Helmer promptly contacted Sergeant Perry, who relayed the call. Within minutes several armed men from the state police, the sheriff’s department and the Syracuse police force were rushing toward the scene from all directions. Syracuse Chief Martin L. Cadin and his son, Francis, were just leaving for the golf links when the call came.

Cadin took charge of the situation and summoned a small army of his policemen. In all, about 75 armed men arrived and participated in the manhunt. Revolvers in hand, the men surrounded the wooded area which is thickly covered with trees and underbrush. They were joined by volunteer citizens. There were numerous false alarms. Guns popped everywhere and bands of searchers rushed hither and thither, uncertain whether the forms they saw moving in the brush were hunters or hunted.

In a field near the abandoned right-of-way of the Auburn-Syracuse trolley line Detective Frank Brazell stumbled over the first captive — "Big Harry" Sulton, 24, of Kansas City, Missouri. He offered no resistance, meekly submitting to arrest.

Soon word got out that something big was happening. Cars pulled off the roads that surrounded the Wolf Hollow estate; some people went into the woods, others stayed by the cars — and when something prompted them to tilt their heads, the cry went out: "Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! No, it's a plane!" But it might as well have been Superman.

Afterward most agreed that the highlight of the manhunt — which continued all afternoon — was the performance of pilot Emil Roth.

Syracuse American, June 7
Wing tips to the sky, displaying a flying technique which held thousands of curiosity seekers awed, Emil Roth, Syracuse pilot, proved himself a hawk of the air, pointing the path to police to capture one of the four Middle West bandits sought Saturday afternoon.

Grazing tree tops as he scanned the earth below him, Roth ferreted out the second of the gunmen after two hours of searching by the armed posse on the ground had proved futile.

For the thousands who lined the various roads bordering the scene of the search, unable to watch the progress of the manhunt because of the dense foliage and the tall grass, Roth’s flying was the most dramatic element of the search.

It was by sheer chance that Roth entered the hunt. Robert Allen, 143 Oakwood Avenue, owner of one of the planes at the airport, was driving toward Amboy when the cars loaded with police sped by en route to Split Rock. Allen followed, and when he learned the circumstances, rushed to the airport where he imparted the news to Roth and several other flying enthusiasts.

Roth’s Standard was on the line. He offered to fly over the scene to watch the police comb the district marked by its hilly topography.

Allen and three other men climbed into the ship and Roth headed for the scene. For sometime he circled the area, slowly decreasing the radius of the circles until he was directly over the Wolf Hollow estate of Judge William S. Andrews.

On all sides he could see men advancing, guns in their hands. Then, through a rift in the trees he spotted a man prone on the ground. Roth swooped his plane low over the trees — so low that the crowd watching him gasped in fear. His suspicions were confirmed as he saw the skulking figure burrow deeper into the grass.

To make sure, he cut his motor and shouted a command to the police to quit the woods. The plane fluttered and wobbled and the propeller slowed its revolutions. Roth zoomed into the air again and when he saw the police leave the woods, he turned and headed for Amboy.

He later explained:

“With four men in the ship, it was too heavy to try to get down any lower over the trees. I was afraid that I’d clip a tree. Then again, there was no way to show the police where I had seen the man, so I took the Standard back to Amboy.

“I chose Pete Kincaid to go along with me on the second trip. I had Pete picked up a couple of heavy stones, to which he attached his handkerchief.

“We took off and headed back for the woods. I got down as low as I could. I was wearing goggles and I thought I saw a man on the ground. Pete, without glasses, couldn’t see. I told him to drop the rocks and the handkerchief when I gave him the signal.

“I circled the grounds once or twice, and cut the motor when I passed a large group of men on the ground. I shouted that I was going to drop the handkerchief where I spotted the man.

“I was not sure they heard me and I flew over them again and called that they should wave their hats if they heard me above the motor. I got the signal and flew back over the scene as low as I could without touching the trees.

“When I reached the spot where I saw the fellow on the ground, I flew a little farther and gave Pete the signal. I saw the rock and handkerchief fall near the spot where the man was hiding.

“When I saw the coppers start into the woods on the run, I knew my job was done, and I flew back to the airport.

“I was there when I got news they had captured the man I had seen.”

The search continued for another hour before a third bandit was found in the woods. He called himself William Mack and was a 29-year-old Chicagoan. He had been hiding in a clump of bushes for more than three hours. He put up a brief fight before surrendering, but refused to talk.

The fourth bandit, "Little Harry" Ronan, was never found. Regarded by the others as the toughest, most experienced gangster of the bunch, Ronan had outfoxed everyone, though how he did it may have had more to do with an injured ankle than ingenuity.

When his companions scrambled out of the car and fled on foot toward the woods, Ronan chose to hide in the ditch. He waited until Trooper Crouse had started after the others, then popped up and surprised Howell, who was standing beside his automobile.

Later Howell told reporters that Ronan's orders were clear: "Drive me up the road! And don't let a squawk out of you or I'll bump you off!"

After driving a short distance, Howell was tossed out of the car. Ronan slid behind the wheel and made his escape. Chances are he was long gone before police reinforcements arrived. He drove to Syracuse, ditched Howell's automobile, stole another car and apparently backtracked and headed west, toward Chicago. Later in the day a car crashed through a police barricade about 40 miles west of Syracuse. Police figured it was Ronan behind the wheel.

Syracuse American, June 7
In all, the manhunt occupied nearly four hours. It enlisted the services of at least 200 men, in uniform and out, of several airplanes — others came over from the municipal airport to join Roth toward the end — and aroused the area as nothing has done since the Auburn prison riots in 1929.

Carloads of heavily armed officers, roaring through the streets and country roads, terrified and alarmed the countryside, leading many to think the prison population had risen in rebellion once more.

In the wrecked car used by the Chicagoans, Detectives Metzger and Block and Corporal Howard Spellicy found the automatic shotgun and a length of clothesline, folded into a small bundle.

There were blood spots on the seat, but they were so small that police inclined to believe they might have come from scratches inflicted by flying glass, rather than a bullet.

The three captured men were taken to the Syracuse city jail and placed in specially guarded cells. One of them said farewell to Trooper Ertman Crouse: "So long, copper! You won't live very long; you've got too much nerve."

The three men arrested were identified as John Ryan, 24, of Chicago; "Big Harry" Sulton, 24, of Kansas City, Missouri, and William Mack 29, alias “Steve,” of Chicago. The missing member of the quartet,“Little Harry” Ronan, was said to be hampered by a sprained ankle he suffered during the group's first stop, in Gary, Indiana. He carried crutches with him during the rest of the trip, though whether he actually needed them was doubtful.

Mack and Sulton didn't talk much, but at times Ryan couldn't stop. He made a long statement to Syracuse Police Chief Cadin and Assistant District Attorney Martin, who released the statement to the press. As you might expect, it wasn't entirely truthful, though overall it was about as accurate as anything written about this case and its aftermath. Here is an edited version:

Syracuse American, June 7
“My name is John Charles Ryan. I am 24 years of age and single. I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My father, Herbert Ryan, is dead. So is my mother. I am a chauffeur by occupation. I live at 256 South Ashland Avenue, Chicago.

“On Thursday night, June 4, I was in company with three fellows in the Elks poolroom in State Street, between Harrison and Seventh Street, Chicago. We were together all evening. I know these fellows as:

“Big Harry, last name not known to me. I had met him the day before in a poolroom.

“Number two, Little Harry Romer or Roman. I have known him since I first went to Chicago from the [West] coast eight months ago.

“Number three, Steve, last name not known to me. I met him about a week ago in the Elks poolroom through Little Harry.

“We all met at Elks poolroom and decided to go to New York and get into a stickup racket or some other racket. We hung around the poolroom all Thursday night until about 5 or 6 in the morning. We went out of the poolroom with the intention of stealing a car to drive to New York.

“When we got out we saw two fellows known to me as New Orleans Blackie and State Street Eddie, sitting in a 1929 Hup sedan with Illinois plates. I knew the Hup must have been a hot car because I knew the two fellows in it could not have owned it.

“I put my hand in my coat pocket as though I had a gun and told them to move over. They got out of the car. I got in with my three companions.

“I told Little Harry to get behind the wheel. Big Harry and Steve got in the back seat. After we got away from the poolroom, Steve took the wheel and drove to some friends on the South Side.

“Steve went in and came out with an automatic shotgun, .25 and .32 automatics. He had the shotgun and one pistol wrapped together and we loaned the .25 automatic to Little Harry. It was loaded when he took it. Steve kept the .32 and the shotgun was kept in the back of the car.

“We then drove to Gary, Indiana. Steve had the wheel. We got into Gary early in the morning. We stopped at the Virginia Hotel; Little Harry sprained his ankle getting out of the car in front of the hotel. We parked the car in the lot at the rear of the hotel.

“We had two double rooms at Gary. At the hotel Little Harry registered first. I registered second under the name of John Ryan. I do not know the names the others registered. We went up to our room after having breakfast. We left the hotel that afternoon after paying the hotel bill of one buck apiece. We took the guns into the hotel with us.

“We drove straight to Cleveland, stopping only for gas and eats. We stopped on the main highway at Cleveland and stole license plates off a roadster which was parked at a factory. They were working at the time. Big Harry took the rear plate off and I took the front one. They were Ohio plates. I do not know the numbers. We did not put the plates on until after we left the highway at Cleveland. We threw the Illinois plates in the grass.

“Little Harry was driving. We came through Buffalo, but did not stop, only for eats and gas. Little Harry had crutches which he had a bellboy get for him at Gary and used them each time we got out of the car to eat.

“On Saturday we stopped at a gasoline station along the main highway, just west of the city of Auburn. Little Harry was driving. I sat in the front seat with him. Big Harry and Steve rode in the back seat. We did not get out of the car. We put in 17 gallons of gasoline. I think we got a quart or two of oil, but I am not sure.

“The attendant who waited on us was an old fellow. After we had got the gas and oil, Little Harry ordered some soda. When the attendant went in the station to get the soda, Little Harry started the car and we left the gas station. We were traveling along the highway about 70 miles per hour when we hit the city of Auburn. We slowed down going through the city. While we were passing through Auburn, we met a motorcycle cop who came toward us. As he passed us, but then turned around and started to follow us. We noticed him and told Little Harry to step on it. We took a couple of side streets and lost the cop. He wore a blue uniform.

“East of Auburn, we met a New York State trooper, who tagged us. We drove pretty fast, with the trooper following. I guess we were doing about eighty. We continued along the main highway until we came to a crossroad, which I have since learned is known as Fay Road.

“We followed this road for awhile, passing through what I have since learned in Taunton. After leaving Taunton, Little Harry made a sharp left turn. Before we got to Taunton, I heard the shotgun pop two or three times in the back of the Hup and maybe four or five shots from a pistol out of the back of the Hup. I do not know who was firing the shotgun or who was firing the pistol, but I know Steve had the pistol in his possession. I know the trooper was throwing lead at us, but do not know if any of his shots came into our car.

“When we made the sharp left turn, just after passing Taunton, the Hup sedan tipped over on the right side. I got out the front door on the right hand side and started for a piece of woods. The other three fellows followed me. I turned and saw them coming.

“We jumped a wall alongside a road. I hid in some bushes for awhile and under hedges. I noticed a car pulled up about 10 feet from me and a man got out. Then a woman got out, walked to the back of the car, then toward the front of the car again. I saw her eyes glance toward me. Then I got up, believing she saw me, and went to a cluster of bushes near the entrance to a private house. I hid there about a half hour until I was caught by Police Officer Patrick Walsh.

“While I was in hiding, I knew there were several troopers and police officers looking for us. I decided to empty my coat and vest pockets of all things that might identify me, put them in my pants pockets, then mingle with the crowd. But before I could do this, I was caught and placed under arrest.

“I had plenty of money to pay for gas and cannot understand why Little Harry tried to jump the gasoline bill near Auburn."

One thing almost certainly wrong about Ryan's account was the identity of the driver. "Big Harry" Sulton didn't say much, but he did tell police he was at the wheel, which seems reasonable considering the ankle injury reportedly suffered by "Little Harry."

However, since police believed all the shots fired from the car had come from passengers in the back seat, "Big Harry" may have thought he had reason to lie, though several weeks later he said something that seemed to support his version — that he deliberately ditched the car to avoid hitting a school bus which was headed toward him after he made a wide right turn at what probably was Terry Road. Police came to believe Sulton was telling the truth, though I saw no explanation of why a school bus would be on the road on a Saturday afternoon.

This might also explain Ryan's reference to a left turn; that is, if the driver abruptly went left to avoid an oncoming vehicle. If I have located the Wolf Hollow estate correctly, it would have been just north of what I always considered a peculiar intersection, with two streets (Terry Road and Onondaga Boulevard) coming together at Fay Road. Most references to the Wolf Hollow estate locate it in Taunton, but sometimes it's in Split Rock, and I found two references to it being in Fairmount. But I'm thinking the car went into the ditch along Onondaga Boulevard (a bit of a misnomer), just west of Terry Road. (Someone please correct me if I'm wrong.)

Ryan may not have realized that only two of his companions followed him out of the ditch and tried to escape on foot. "Little Harry," either because of his injured ankle or because he guessed Trooper Crouse might not know exactly how many men had cleared the fence and were running toward the woods, never left the ditch. His strategy paid off because "Little Harry" Ronan was never seen again.

Later John Ryan, who was either nervous or enjoying the attention, talked freely with reporters, saying he and his companions were "just three lousy tramps from the West, trying to get along."

Questioned about a possible association with Al Capone, Ryan laughed. "Big shots? We're not even birdshot, if you know what I mean. Capone never heard of any of us, unless it's 'Little Harry' Romer [Ronan]. I wish he had; maybe he'd get us out of here!"

Police would learn that Ryan, 25, and Steve Mack (real name Steven Stacovik) , 23, had police records that went back a few years, though there was nothing to indicate an affiliation with Capone or any other known mobster. Ryan was much too talkative; it's doubtful any big-time outfit would trust him.

All three of the men captured, especially Harvey "Big Harry" Sulton, expressed admiration of "Little Harry" Romer [Ronan], and correctly predicted he would never be caught.

Ryan's assessment of his gang as "three lousy tramps" was more accurate than Syracuse Police Chief Cadin and the Syracuse Journal would admit. The three men remained behind bars awaiting trial. Despite early claims that they had lawyers, they would wind up having Onondaga County attorneys assigned to them. One of those lawyers was Daniel F. Mathews, who at various times was the town of Geddes attorney, the village of Solvay attorney and the village police justice.

Mathews and other attorneys didn't get involved in the case until November, after the three men had been indicted for assault, first degree, with intent to kill. Their trial began on November 16. By then the men had been in Jamesville Penitentiary for five months.

The Wolf Hollow case, which began with one of the wildest chases and manhunts in local history, ended quietly when the three Chicago bad boys were found guilty of assault, second degree, which lessened their punishment.

Mack, the sullen, photographer-hating member of the group, was born Steven Stacovik. He was convicted of burglary in 1926 in Chicago, convicted of the same offense two years later in Detroit, and finally sent to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth for violation of the Dyer act covering interstate transportation of stolen cars. He had served terms in Illinois and Michigan prisons, as well as in a Michigan reformatory for juvenile criminals.

Ryan, known as James Good in Philadelphia, served time in California for burglary, in Chicago for contributing to the delinquency of minors, and was held in Philadelphia for suspicion of highway robbery and unlawful possession of liquor.

Harvey "Big Harry" Sulton had no previous record. As for Harry Ronan, after his escape it was as if he never existed.

On November 21,Ryan and Mack were given 10 years each on the assault charge, an additional five to ten years for using a gun. Sulton was given a term of two and one-half to five years on the assault charge, and five to 10 years on the gun count.

Four days later, on Thanksgiving Eve, Judge William L. Barnum, perhaps in a festive mood, reduced their sentences. The newspaper article said the judge trimmed them by five years, but didn't explain how this decision would impact Sulton's sentence on the assault charge.

I found no mention of whatever became of the Chicago gangsters afterward. But on the afternoon of June 6, 1931, they put on quite a show. Had that chase and manhunt been part of a movie, most people probably would have laughed it off, thinking real people — including the doggedly determined Trooper Crouse — don't behave so recklessly.

The three gangsters who were captured that day were both annoyed and awed by the trooper's persistence. I don't know whatever happened to Ertman Crouse, except I did find evidence that 21 years later he was still on the job. Well, after the Wolf Hollow adventure, I guess things must have gotten easier.

POSTSCRIPT: Author Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews died August 2, 1936, after a month's illness. She was 76. Three days later her 78-year-old husband, retired judge William Shankland Andrews, was killed in a freak accident after he fell out of bed while reaching for a glass of milk on a nearby night table. In the fall his head was doubled under his body, breaking his neck.

A newspaper story said it was Mr. and Mrs. Andrews who gave the area its name after they built their estate in what at the time was considered a remote section of Onondaga County. Mrs. Andrew explained that in pioneer days the area was the habitat of a wolf pack.

I seem to recall a "Wolf Hollow" sign at the intersection of Onondaga Boulevard and Onondaga Road (Route 173). In the 1950s that intersection looked as though it belonged many miles away, perhaps at the entrance to the Adirondack region. The sign may be gone, but nowadays there is a street off Onondaga Boulevard called Wolf Hollow Road. I wonder how many of its residents know anything about what happened that day in 1931.

 

Most items are from the Syracuse Herald-Journal and its Sunday edition, the Herald-American. Several were edited for length.

For another look at Solvay's past: Solvay-Geddes Historical Society

 
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