Buffalo Courier Express, July 11, 1933
ALBANY (AP) — John J. O’Connell Jr., 24, nephew of Edward J. and Daniel P. O’Connell, powerful upstate Democratic leaders, has been kidnapped and held since Friday for $250,000. Negotiations for his release have come to a standstill.
Police learned of the kidnapping today. The abductors had telephoned a warning that they would kill their captive if police were called into the case.
Young O’Connell, powerful athlete and lieutenant in the National Guard, is believed to have been snatched from his home as he got out of his automobile on Friday at 1:15 a.m.
Perhaps no kidnapping in history ended the careers of so many criminals. The abduction of the politically connected John J. O'Connell Jr. by a surprising large number of people made me wonder what the hell these folks thought they were doing.
Perhaps, because those involved had previously gotten away with several crimes, they believed this one would be easy. To a great extent, it fell into the category of gangster-on-gangster crime. The O'Connell family had legitimate businesses, including a brewery, but they ran a corrupt political machine in a medium-sized city that happened to be the capital of what, in 1933, was our most populous and important state.
After the kidnapping it would be revealed that John J. O'Connell Sr., nicknamed "Solly," was the original target, though he wasn't a key figure in the political machine. He was a boxing manager turned sports promoter. When three Albany hoodlums sat down with three New York City hoodlums in December, 1932, it was suggested that kidnapping "Solly" O'Connell would net a fast $75,000.
Instead, for no reason that made sense to police, those plans were changed. Seven months later, it was "Solly's" son who was confronted outside his home at 1 a.m., when he returned from a date with the woman who would become his wife. The kidnap victim was young, strong, athletic, and part of a family that commanded more fear than respect.
As such, his disappearance didn't generate much concern outside of his family. There were some who suspected, that like the Jerome and John Factor "kidnappings" in Chicago, something wasn't right about the abduction of John J. O'Connell Jr., who was returned home after 23 days and a ransom payment of $40,000 — negotiated down from the original demand for $250,000.
From day one, there were theories galore. Some thought the abduction was the work of friends of the late Jack "Legs" Diamond, murdered in an Albany hotel in December, 1931. It is widely believed the O'Connells orchestrated Diamond's death, perhaps having the Albany police chief leading the hit squad.
But in 1933, there were no friends of "Legs" Diamond. His widow was murdered a week before the O'Connell kidnapping, and a former Diamond bodyguard was killed a few weeks after.
As it was, at least according to James Dunn, author of "Kidnapping the Prince of Albany," four Albany gangsters and a small army of New York City bad guys, including seven associated with Waxey Gordon, then Public Enemy Number One in the Big Apple, teamed up to pull the O'Connell job.
Gordon was out of commission by the time O'Connell was kidnapped, so his gang had time on their hands. Gordon had been arrested for tax evasion, and would follow in the footstep of Al Capone.
Casting a shadow over the whole thing was scary professional killer, Leonard Scarnici, who also robbed banks. Scarnici was in on the early planning of the O'Connell kidnapping, but may not have played a role in the actual crime.
It is now common knowledge that, in 1932, Scarnici and another hitman, Anthony Fabrizzo, accepted a $50,000 offer from Owney Madden, head of the Irish mob in Hell's Kitchen, to kill Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll. On their first try, the invaded a Bronx apartment, expecting to find Coll, but wound up killing three people and wounding three others, none of whom was the target, who didn't show up until the killers had left.
Scarnici and Fabrizzo had better luck with their second try, Fabrizzo standing guard outside a drug store, while Scarnici went inside, told the cashier to "Keep cool, now," and then used a submachine gun to put fifteen bullets in Coll, who was in a phone booth talking to Madden, the man who had arranged his death.
But Scarnici's downfall would occur after he went to Albany in May, 1933, presumably to talk about kidnapping one of the O'Connells. By all accounts, Scarnici was not enthused. Considering the number of players, the kidnapping would be a relatively small pay day.
However, Scarnici didn't not want to leave Albany empty-handed. He and three associates stopped in nearby Rensselaer to rob a bank. In the process, a police detective was killed, a patrolman wounded. This crime put a crazy spin on the O'Connell case.
On September 20, New York police and federal operatives from the organization that soon would be known as the FBI, arrested Scarnici, four other men and two women in connection with the kidnapping. Police had them sit together to pose for a photo that appeared in newspapers, giving readers the idea the O'Connell case had been solved. There was no hint, however, just how bad the leader of this group really was.
Poof! One day later, Leonard Scarnici and friends no longer were accused kidnappers. They were questioned about bank robberies and murders, including the one in Rensselaer on May 29. Incredibly, Scarnici casually admitted four murders and six bank robberies.
Soon police determined the man who planned he O'Connell kidnapping was named Manny Strewl. It took take four years, but Strewl and no less than twelve others were hit with charges stemming from O'Connell's kidnapping. (The seven persons arrested on September 20 were charged with and convicted of other crimes. Scarnici was the only one found guilty of murder. He was executed two years before the kidnappers were even tried.)
Albany Knickerbocker News, August 13, 1937
The verdict of the federal court jury, finding that John Oley, Manning Strewl and six others guilty, came a little more than four years and a month after John J. O’Connell Jr. was seized in front of his Putnam Street home.
Early July 7, 1933, after a social engagement with Miss Mary Fahey, who is now his wife and mother of his week-old son, young O’Connell was grabbed by a mob and carried to Hoboken in a truck.
Ransom letters then were mailed to Daniel P. and Edward J. O’Connell, uncles of the kidnap victim.
Strewl, later to be the first defendant apprehended, was selected to negotiate O’Connell’s release after three lists of proposed intermediaries had been published in code in New York City and Albany newspapers. Later in July, he left Albany with the ransom, accompanied by Louis Snyder, Albany attorney.
Twenty-three days after he was abducted — on the night of July 29 — O’Connell was hustled into an automobile in Hoboken. He arrived, exhausted, at the camp of his uncles near Albany early next morning.
The following night, Strewl was taken into custody for questioning. He later was released.
Subsequently arrested as a participant in the kidnapping, Strewl was convicted in Albany Supreme Court in 1934 and sentenced to 50 years in Clinton Prison. Two years later, the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial.
Strewl pleaded guilty to blackmail soon after the second trial opened at Catskill, and he was sentenced to the 15-year term he is now serving.
Meanwhile, a nationwide search was underway for brothers John and Francis Oley, and for Percy Geary, all of Albany, and later claimed by the government to have been associates of Strewl in a pre-repeal beer business. It was not until late in 1936 that the first “break” came, unofficially attributed to a prison “leak.”
Christopher Miller, one of 13 persons subsequently indicted for complicity in the kidnapping, was arrested by government agents as he left the Federal Court Building in New York City on December 27, 1936. Thereafter, the case broke wide open in a rapid series of widespread moves.
The tall and gaunt Frank Fischer was taken as he was released last January from Rikers Island Penitentiary in New York City.
Almost simultaneous raids by government agents and New York City police on three different New York City apartments on February 1 netted Harold “Red” Crowley, John Oley and Geary. The raids followed by a few days the arrest of Francis Oley, a brother of John, in Denver, Colorado, where he was living with his wife and 3-year-old daughter.
Police in Balboa, Panama Canal Zone, nabbed stubby, red-faced Thomas Burke, 29-year-old ship’s steward, on March 4. [Elsewhere Burke is listed as 39 years old.]
The roundup was then directed toward two prisons, a nation’s distance apart. From the federal government’s gloomy, impregnable Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, authorities plucked John McGlone, 34; Charles Harrigan, 37, and Thomas Dugan, 35. They are doing 25 years each for their part in a $129,000 Fall River, Massachusetts, mail truck robbery in January, 1935.
George Garguillo came from Massachusetts State Prison at Charlestown, where he is serving 20 to 25 years for a 1936 Boston payroll robbery.
In February, a federal grand jury returned extortion indictments against the 12 men, along with James Sweeney, who is still at large. Additional federal indictments were found in April against all but Strewl for conspiracy to violate and actual violation of the Lindbergh law through interstate transportation of a kidnap victim.
The 12 were arraigned May 3 in Syracuse, surrounded by the greatest display of Federal Department of Justice strength since the 1935 trial of Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer, slain gang leader, on income tax charges. The O’Connell trial was set for Binghamton.
By the time it opened on June 2, self-inflicted deaths had cut the defendant line to 10. Francis Oley and Miller having hung themselves in Utica and Albany jail cells.
Fischer and Burke, who said they guarded O’Connell at the Hoboken hideout, pleaded guilty at the outset of the trial and later testified for the government. Eight defendants elected to fight it out.
And all eight defendants lost their fight. Each was found guilty of several crimes. For some, their sentences ran consecutively, for others they ran concurrently. The maximum sentence handed out was 77 years.
My guess is none who participated in the kidnapping realized how many laws were being broken. Fischer and Burke were accused of "conspiracy to use the mails to extort ransom for the return of a kidnapped person," and there was a separate charge for each letter they mailed. Taking O'Connell across state lines brought another charge, as did the actual transportation.
Manning "Manny" Strew was convicted on five separate charges, sentenced to 58 years, and fined $10,000. He was described as the brains of the operation, an odd term to use for a man whose brainchild that netted $40,000 that had to be split at least thirteen ways.
Strewl was released from Atlanta Federal Prison in August, 1958. After briefly returning home to Albany, he worked the docks in New Jersey, then went back to Albany in the 1970s, got married, and died of natural causes in 1998 — at the age of 95.
As for the victim of the kidnapping, he died in 1954. He was only 45 years old:
New York Journal-American, September 5, 1954
ALBANY, Sept. 4 (AP) - John J. O'Connell Jr., nephew of Albany Democratic leader, Daniel P. O'Connell, died today in an Albany hospital.
Mr. O'Connell, executive vice president of an Albany brewing company, received nationwide publicity in 1933 when he was kidnapped and held for ransom. He eventually was released unharmed.
He was chairman of the Albany County Democratic Committee from 1940 through 1946.
He was a 24-year-old National Guard lieutenant when kidnapped here in 1933 and held captive for 23 days. He was released when his uncle paid a $40,000 ransom.