Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money

Larry Holzwarth - July 7, 2018

There are many monikers for the soulless beings who commit cold-blooded murders in exchange for money. Hitmen. Contract killers. Enforcers. Some within the ranks of organized crime and the police who pursue it refer to them as soldiers. They are not an American phenomenon, killing for money has been traced to ancient times. Nor are they unique to organized crime. Both husbands and wives have hired professional killers to kill their spouses or ex-spouses, business partners have paid to eliminate partners, and contracts to kill witnesses to prevent their testimony in court are notoriously common.

But it is in organized crime where the contract killers have flourished, and professional killing became an industry in the United States. During the 1930s the American press labeled a group of killers as Murder Incorporated for its activities enforcing the commands of the National Crime Syndicate, killing with seeming impunity. The number of murders committed by its killers is estimated to have been between 400 and 1,000, with many never having been solved because bodies were never found. Its killers were paid an annual salary, supplemented with a bonus for conducting a hit. Its members were subject to discipline under the syndicate, and many became targets of their employer.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
Louis Buchalter, who assigned murder contracts within Murder Incorporated, is sentenced in 1941. Library of Congress

Here are some of the most notorious murderers who had no compunctions over taking cash for the act of taking lives.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
John Gotti was widely believed to have murdered Tommy DeSimone in retaliation for some of the latter’s murders. Pinterest

Tommy DeSimone

Tommy DeSimone was an associate of the Lucchese family in New York, known as the Animal to some of his contemporaries. He was the son of a printer who lost his business as a result of a gambling problem. His two brothers were also Lucchese associates, one of his two sisters was the long-time mistress of Jimmy Burke, a mobster who masterminded the Lufthansa heist. DeSimone descended from members of the Los Angeles mob in the 1920s, both his grandfather and an uncle had been organized crime bosses there, controlling the Los Angeles family. DeSimone was the basis for the character played by Joe Pesci in the 1990 film Goodfellas.

DeSimone began working with associates of the Lucchese family who were under the control of Paul Vario. His associate Henry Hill, who later turned state’s witness, described DeSimone at the time as a “skinny kid” (DeSimone was 15 at the time, Hill was in his twenties) and later as a “homicidal maniac”. DeSimone, according to Hill, committed his first murder at the age of seventeen, shooting a random stranger who happened to cross his path. Hill estimated that DeSimone killed eleven people, including at least four while serving a prison sentence, for both personal reasons and for money. His preferred method was by firearm.

DeSimone served as the muscle for the crew run by Jimmy Burke, and several of his murders were ordered by Burke, after he received approval from caporegime Paul Vario. Two of the murders which DeSimone carried out on his own initiative were of members of the Gambino family, and the victims were close friends of John Gotti. DeSimone killed William Bentvena, known as Billy Batts, in a fit of pique over Batts recalling DeSimone’s days as a show shine boy, though the murder took place about two weeks following what DeSimone perceived as an insult. He later murdered another Gotti friend, Ronald Jerothe, after beating Jerothe’s sister while dating her, which led him to fear Jerothe would retaliate.

DeSimone was a member of the crew which carried out the Lufthansa heist and was used by Burke to kill several of the others who had taken part in the robbery. DeSimone may have been murdered by Burke, or another contract killer working for Burke, due to his involvement in the Lufthansa heist. Henry Hill told differing accounts of the manner and reason for DeSimone’s murder after he vanished in January 1979. In the book WiseGuy, DeSimone is described as being killed by the Gotti crew of the Gambino family in retaliation for his killing of Gotti’s friends Bentvana and Jerothe, both of whom had been members of Gotti’s crew.

Hill later changed his account of DeSimone’s murder, claiming that it had been arranged by Paul Vario because DeSimone had attempted to rape Karen Hill while Henry was in prison. Karen had been having an affair with Vario, and when she told him of the attempt, Vario contacted the Gambino family with information about the Bentvana and Jerothe killings. DeSimone’s body was never found and he was declared dead in 1990, based on his having been missing since late December 1978. Also missing was a quarter of a million dollars of the Lufthansa money, which Burke discovered was gone shortly before DeSimone vanished.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
Joe Valachi confirmed the existence of the National Crime Syndicate and revealed its inner workings. Biography

Buster from Chicago

Buster from Chicago was the pseudonym used by a hitman in the 1930s whose true identity has never been confirmed. He was referred to by Joe Valachi in his testimony before the McClellan Committee, who told the committee that the hitman had been killed over an argument while playing in a crap game. This led to speculation that the hitman was a character that Valachi made up while testifying to cover some of his murders committed before he agreed to cooperate with government authorities. Others have speculated that Buster was Sebastiano Domingo, a Chicago-based member of the Salvatore Maranzano family.

Whoever he really was, Buster from Chicago worked freelance, and according to Valachi carried a Thompson machine gun in a violin case when he traveled between assignments, creating a long-standing cliché of the gangster world (a Thompson is too large to fit in a violin case). Buster was hired by Salvatore Maranzano to kill rival Giuseppe Morello, which he accomplished on August 15, 1930, in East Harlem. In the fall of the same year, Buster was hired to kill two members of the Masseria family, which were fighting with the Maranzano faction during what is known as the Castellammarese War. Buster killed the two with a shotgun which he concealed in a guitar case.

In the second killing Buster was fleeing the scene when he encountered a policeman who had heard the shots. Pretending to be frightened by the shots, Buster directed the policemen to the apartment yard where the murders had occurred before walking away, carrying the guitar case with the murder weapon within. He was then picked up by Joe Valachi, and returned to the train station and eventually Chicago. In February he returned to New York, this time under a contract to kill Giuseppe Catania, known to mobsters as Joe the Baker. Buster killed Catania from the window of a basement apartment in the Bronx, with a shotgun blast that did not injure Catania’s wife, who was walking beside the victim.

Mobster Joseph Bonanno claimed that Buster was Sebastiano Domingo, known as Bastiano to his associates. Bonnano participated in the Castellammarese War and later wrote that Domingo was the best shot of the Maranzano soldiers, describing him as a “virtuoso” with the machine gun. Bonnano’s physical description of Buster differed substantially from Valachi’s, leading to speculation that Buster was either a completely fictional character created by Valachi, or Valachi himself. Following the two murders in the Bronx in which Buster allegedly directed a policeman to the scene, Valachi became a made man in the Mafia, though he claimed to have merely driven the escape car.

Valachi’s description of Buster from Chicago and his exploits were given before the McClellan Committee in televised hearings. Shortly after his testimony, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Chicago police had identified Buster from Chicago as Frank “Buster” Marlo, an associate of the Aiello mob which was at war with the Chicago Outfit of Al Capone. Marlo was murdered in New York in February 1931, meaning that for some elements of Valachi’s testimony to be true, Marlo could not have been Buster from Chicago. Valachi testified to conversations with the gunman subsequent to that time. Though Valachi described Buster as always carrying a machine gun in a violin case, none of the murders attributed to him were committed with a machine gun.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
Gangster and notorious murderer for hire Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel in a mugshot from the 1920s. Wikimedia

Benjamin Siegel

Known as Bugsy and today considered one of the founders of the Las Vegas strip, Benjamin Siegel was one of the most violent and feared hitmen in organized crime. He became a bootlegger during Prohibition and eventually ran his own criminal operations but his main focus as a member of organized crime was as a hitman and enforcer. With his partner Meyer Lansky, Siegel formed the Bugs and Meyer Mob in the early 1920s, working with Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Frank Costello. The Bugs and Meyer Mob performed automobile theft, truck hijacking, ran gambling operations as well as extortion and served as enforcers for Costello.

After Luciano organized the National Crime Syndicate Siegel and Lansky formed Murder Incorporated, a name later given to it by the news media, to operate as enforcers for the entire syndicate. Murder Incorporated received contracts for hits from organized crime across the United States. Siegel and Lansky soon withdrew from operation of the killing organization, which was taken up by Louis Buchalter and Albert Anastasia, but Siegel remained on contract as a hitman and enforcer. In 1932 Siegel was arrested in Miami, charged and convicted of vagrancy and gambling, for which he paid a fine. It was the only time in his life he was convicted of anything.

Within the underworld Siegel developed a reputation for violence and for having a vicious streak, making him one of the most feared gangsters in the nation. By the mid-1930s Siegel was being closely watched by the authorities in New York, and Meyer Lansky suggested that Siegel relocates to the West Coast. Siegel went to Los Angeles in 1936, then experienced a boom in growth. Siegel claimed to be a professional gambler, using legal means at California race tracks, but he quickly set up illegal gambling operations, muscling aside the existing underworld operations, protected by his reputation for violence and his association with Luciano.

In 1939 Harry Greenberg, an associate of both Lansky and Luciano, threatened to turn state’s witness and Murder Incorporated hired Siegel and some associates to kill him. Siegel was arrested for the murder and during his trial two state witnesses were killed. In the absence of evidence, Siegel was acquitted. Whether he had anything to do with the deaths of the witnesses was never clearly established. He was after that more closely watched by authorities in Los Angeles and was tried again for illegal gambling in 1944 but was again acquitted. The close scrutiny by authorities and the press led Siegel to try to establish himself in Las Vegas, where gambling was legal.

Siegel spent too much of the mob’s money trying to create his gambling mecca, the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. The mob bosses which he had long served were at the first patient with him, but when loans continued to go unpaid and further debts were run up, their patience wore thin. Siegel opened the Flamingo too soon and the unfinished hotel and casino lost yet more money. In 1947 the syndicate decided to get rid of Siegel and in June, Siegel was killed as he sat in the home of his girlfriend in Los Angeles, Virginia Hill. He was shot from a distance with a rifle by an assassin never identified, a violent end for one of the mob’s most violent hitmen.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
Frank Sheeran claimed to have been the murderer of Jimmy Hoffa, among many other victims. Wikimedia

Frank Sheeran

Frank Sheeran was a US Army veteran who served in combat during the Second World War, seeing action in Sicily, the Italian campaign, the invasion of Southern France, the Battle of the Bulge, and the invasion of Germany. He later claimed to have witnessed and participated in war crimes, including the execution of German POWs and other reprisals, which led him to develop a callous disregard for human life. After his discharge from the Army, he found work as a truck driver but also began committing crimes including truck hijacking and according to his own admission, murders for hire. This attracted the attention of the Bufalino crime family.

Sheeran became a close associate of the leaders of the Bufalino family, who introduced him to Jimmy Hoffa. Hoffa used Sheeran as a bodyguard and as muscle, including the elimination of rivals in the Teamsters Union and officials of other unions which Hoffa feared were encroaching upon his authority. Sheeran continued to be used by the mob as a professional killer for hire during his time with the Teamsters, and was instrumental in the union’s corruption by organized crime. When Hoffa was introduced to Sheeran he said “I heard you paint houses”, Mafia code for paid killings. Sheeran replied “Yes, I do my own plumbing too,” meaning that he also disposed of the bodies.

In 1972 Russell Bufalino hired Sheeran to kill Joey Gallo, a member of the Colombo crime family. Sheeran caught up with Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House, where he was sitting at a table celebrating his birthday with his wife and young daughter. Sheeran opened fire on Gallo, who staggered outside before collapsing, while his family ducked for cover. They were unharmed but Gallo was dead. Sheeran walked to a waiting car and escaped. His account of the murder of Gallo differs considerably from that reported by the newspapers at the time, which described multiple gunmen taking part in the murder, and that more than twenty shots were fired in the restaurant.

Sheeran also claimed to have been involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, delivering three rifles to David Ferrie for eventual distribution to the three gunmen. According to Sheeran, the assassination was a Mafia-planned operation, intended to disrupt the investigations into union corruption which were spearheaded by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Sheeran claimed to have been involved only to the level of delivering the rifles, which he carried from a warehouse in Brooklyn to an undisclosed location in Florida, where he handed them over to Ferrie.

Sheeran also claimed to have been hired to kill Jimmy Hoffa. According to his story, which he related to Charles Brandt who published it in a 2004 book, Hoffa was lured to meet Sheeran, who then rode with him and two others to a house in a Detroit suburb. Hoffa and Sheeran went into the house as the others drove off and Sheeran shot the union leader twice in the back of his head. He claimed the body was cremated in a mob-controlled crematorium. The house was later examined by the FBI and bloodstains consistent with Sheeran’s story were found, but could not be definitively linked to a single person. Sheeran later served 13 years in prison for racketeering and died in 2003.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
A young Roy DeMeo, who became one of the mob’s most reliable killers. Biography

Roy DeMeo

Roy DeMeo began his career in crime by developing a loansharking business while he was still in high school. After graduating he expanded his growing criminal business by adding car theft and other activities, with the support of Gambino crime family member Anthony Gaggi. DeMeo began funding drug dealers through his loans and laundered the money he acquired through his criminal activities through the Boro of Brooklyn Credit Union, where he obtained a position on the board. By the end of the 1960s, DeMeo had a well-established crew within the Gambino family. In 1975 the DeMeo crew committed its first known murder.

DeMeo developed what became known as the Gemini Method – named for the Gemini Lounge favored by DeMeo and his crew – of killing designated victims and disposing of their bodies. The DeMeo crew became an execution system for other crews of the Gambino family. The method required the victim to be enticed into entering the Gemini Lounge through a side door and into a backroom apartment where they would be shot in the head, simultaneously stabbed in the heart and a heavy towel immediately wrapped around the head to stop the flow of blood. The victim was then dragged to a bathtub and the blood drained.

The shooter was nearly always Roy DeMeo, according to the testimony of eyewitnesses who later cooperated with authorities. DeMeo developed the Gemini Method as a means of killing victims and destroying their remains in a manner in which the body could never be found and thus murder could not be determined. After the body was drained of blood it was dismembered and placed in plastic bags, for disposal at the Fountain Avenue landfill and dump in Brooklyn. The bagged bodies were shipped to the dump in cardboard boxes. Other locations were sometimes used when the victim could not be lured to the Gemini Lounge.

Sometimes a killing was intended to send a message and the DeMeo crew would carry them out – again usually including Roy DeMeo – in a manner in which the body would be found in the streets or alleys of New York, mutilated so as to convey the intended message. Between 1973 and 1983 the DeMeo crew committed more than 100 murders, with DeMeo personally the killer in at least 70 killings. In 1979 Gaggi was convicted of a mob-sanctioned hit, though the conviction was for the lesser included charge of assault, and he was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison. While he was in prison one of the witnesses who had testified against him was murdered by DeMeo.

DeMeo eventually fell into disfavor with the mob as the FBI investigated the number of missing persons who had last been seen either in the company of members of his crew or entering the Gemini Lounge. Fear of DeMeo or members of his crew being turned by federal authorities led to a contract being put out on DeMeo. Demeo’s body was found in the trunk of his car on January 20, 1983. He had been shot several times in the head. His murder had been authorized by the head of the Gambino family, Paul Castellano, who was eventually indicted for it and many other crimes, but he was executed at the order of John Gotti while he was on bail during his trial. Gotti took over as the head of the Gambino family.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
Louis Buchalter ordered the assignments within Murder Incorporated, which included Frank Abbandando. Wikimedia

Frank Abbandando

Another member of Murder Incorporated, which was called The Combination by its leader, Louis Buchalter, Frank Abbandando was a contract killer who came to the organization from street gangs in the Ocean Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. In 1928, at the age of 17, Abbandando delivered a beating to a police officer and was sent to a workhouse in Elmira. He acquired the nickname “Dasher” while in custody. Upon his release, he returned to the street gang, where he was involved in extortion rackets, illegal gambling, and loansharking. He also worked as a collector, and when asked, as an executioner.

In the early 1930s, he joined Murder Inc. and worked with Abe Reles, who would later turn state’s witness. Abbandando and Reles, besides working as contract killers for the Five Families, took steps to eliminate the members of the rival Shapiro gang, a group of mostly Jewish gangsters who encroached on some of their own rackets in Brownsville. Abbandando worked as the chief enforcer for Harry Maione, and under his orders murdered the three Shapiro brothers. Working for Maione was lucrative, but Abbandando developed such a feared reputation that he was in high demand for his services by Murder Inc.

Abbandando received more than three dozen murder assignments while under contract from Murder Inc. from which he drew a regular salary and received bonuses after successfully closing a contract. Usually, his bonus was $500. From his earnings he purchased an extensive and flashy wardrobe, preferring dark suits and expensive silk ties, shoes with spats, and costly watches and other jewelry. He also preferred expensive convertibles in which he drove around the Brooklyn neighborhoods, where he developed another reputation, that of being a sexual predator. Abbandando was accused of several rapes, but was never convicted of one.

Throughout the 1930s Abbandando committed at least 40 murders for Murder Inc. and possibly up to sixty more on other business, using an icepick on occasions, knives, cleavers, piano wire, firearms, and on at least one occasion a cinder block to kill his victims. In 1940 Abe Reles was picked up on suspicion of murder and decided to cooperate by describing the activities and organization of Murder Inc. Abbandando was arrested for the murder of George Rudnick, who had been killed in a Brooklyn garage in 1937. Reles testimony was corroborated by other gangsters cooperating with the authorities in the hope of leniency, but Abbandando denied everything.

Abbandando continued to profess his complete innocence throughout a trial in which his long career of extortion, loan sharking, rape, intimidation, and murder was revealed to the jury, which convicted him of murder. Abbandando had been led to believe that the jury would be fixed, which may have contributed to his casual dismissal of the prosecution and even the judge, to whom he allegedly whispered a threat while he was on the stand. His conviction was overturned on appeal but he was re-tried and convicted a second time, and finally executed in the electric chair at Sing-Sing in February 1942.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
After the death of contract killer Abe Riles the New York newspapers dubbed him “The canary that could sing but couldn’t fly.” Wikimedia

Abe Reles

When committing murder to fulfill a contract Abe Reles preferred weapon of choice was an icepick, jammed into his victim’s right ear, a method at which he became quite adept. Some of his victims killed in this manner were originally believed to have died of cerebral hemorrhage, the fact of their murder not being revealed until several of the former members of Murder Inc. were cooperating with the authorities. Reles was a short but powerfully built man, who built a crew in Ocean Hill and Brownsville which eventually dominated the illegal gambling, bootlegging, extortion, and loansharking rackets, eliminating their rivals through murdering them.

Reles crew became the core of Murder Inc. after it attracted the attention of Louis Buchalter, and was used by the syndicate to carry out the executions ordered by the Five Families and approved when necessary by the Commission. Once hired, Reles or other members of the crew traveled across the United States carrying out murders, which were performed in a manner dependent upon the particular killer’s preference. The crew planned meticulously and avoided confrontations with police officers and the possibility of their crimes being observed by troublesome witnesses.

Reles was charged in several instances during the 1930s as being involved in murders but was able to avoid conviction. He did serve time for assault, which occurred when a parking lot attendant asked him to stop his repeated honking of his horn. Another account states that Reles was angry that the attendant was slow in retrieving his vehicle. In either event, Reles beat the man severely, for which he was sent to prison for a brief term in the 1930s. Reles had served other terms as a youth, including one in which he was sent to a juvenile workhouse and reform school for a term of two years. By the late 1930s, his luck avoiding conviction was running out.

After Buchalter ordered the elimination of several Murder Inc. associates and other low-level mobsters who could implicate him in multiple murders and other crimes, some gangsters turned to the authorities, offering information for protection. Reles was implicated in up to six murders, and rather than face the death penalty he too offered to provide evidence for the state. Reles gave prosecutors information regarding scores of murders and their perpetrators, including Buchalter, Abbandando, Louis Capone (no relation to Al Capone) and several more, all of whom were convicted and sent to the electric chair. With Buchalter removed, the authorities targeted his replacement, Albert Anastasia.

Reles was in protective custody at the Half Moon Hotel, on the morning of November 12, 1941, the day he was scheduled to testify at Anastasia’s trial for the murder of a longshoreman. That morning Reles fell from the window in his room on the sixth floor. There was evidence that he had tried to lower himself using a rope made of bedsheets to the fifth-floor window below, but it was likely planted. The five police officers who were guarding him were demoted after Reles’s death. Officially it was declared an accidental death, but rumors that the guards were bribed by Frank Costello and that Reles was pushed out the window began immediately. They have never been proved, but Reles had shown no desire to leave protective custody.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
When Murder Inc. killers inadvertently murdered the wrong man a crackdown, including protection deals for informants, spearheaded by Thomas E. Dewey led to its demise. Library of Congress

Seymour Magoon

It was a blown contract that led to the demise of Murder Inc. and Seymour Magoon was one of the hitmen involved. Magoon was known as Blue Jaw among his colleagues, because of his appearing to constantly be in need of a shave. Magoon was a contract killer with multiple murders on his record, but his ability as a driver led to him often being assigned the role of driving the getaway car after fellow gangsters committed the murder. Magoon was the driver on an assignment along with fellow Murder Inc. hitman Jack Parisi. In the car with them was a local thug who was there to identify their target when he exited the building across the street from where they sat in the car.

When the thug pointed to a man leaving the apartment build and identified him as the target Magoon drove past him, turned around, and as they passed the man for the second time Parisi shot him multiple times. The problem was that they got the wrong man. The victim was a music publisher with G. Schirmer Publications, not the former garment union executive named Philip Orlovsky whom they had been dispatched to kill, because Orlovsky was informing prosecutors of Buchalter’s illegal activities within the unions. The murder of the wrong man started the press putting pressure on prosecutors, and Buchalter ordered his killing crews to get out of town.

Buchalter also ordered the elimination of several gangsters who were threatened with prosecution, fearing that they would provide the authorities with information tying him to hundreds of murders and other crimes. Magoon fled with his friend and fellow Murder Inc. hitman Buggsy Goldstein, traveling across the country before returning eventually to Newburgh in New York, staying at a mob safe house. When Goldstein went into town to pick up a money order he was spotted and arrested. Within a few hours, the police arrested Magoon at the safe house. When it became evident to Magoon that several gangsters were cooperating with the authorities he decided to do the same.

Knowing that Abe Reles was cooperating with the authorities providing evidence against Goldstein, Magoon began telling them what he knew about his friend as well as another friend, Harry Strauss. Magoon testified in the trial of Goldstein and Strauss about the many murders they had committed, some of which Magoon participated in as well, leading Goldstein to shout out in court that, “You’re burning me.” Both Goldstein and Strauss were convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair at Sing-Sing on June 12, 1941. Magoon was then a witness in other trials of Murder Inc. hitmen, providing evidence which led to several more convictions.

Magoon remained in custody for a few years before he was released. After he was released he vanished from sight. Jack Parisi, who had fired the fatal shots which killed the wrong man, wasn’t captured by the authorities for more than a decade. When he was he was tried for the murder and acquitted. There were simply too few witnesses. Magoon had by then vanished and the only other witness, the small-time thug who had misidentified the victim, was unreliable as an accomplice to the crime. It was one man’s word against the other and the judge directed acquittal. In 2003 skeletal remains found in the desert near Las Vegas were determined to be those of Seymour Magoon.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
A crew of Detroit’s Purple Gang, a gang so vicious even Al Capone was wary of them. Wikimedia

Harry Millman

Harry Millman was a member of a predominately Jewish Detroit organized crime group called the Purple Gang. The Purple Gang rose in the 1920s, challenging Al Capone’s operations there during Prohibition and became notorious for their violence and their brutality. During Prohibition, the Purple Gang caused Capone so much difficulty that he arranged accommodation with them, and the Detroit gang controlled the flow of Canadian whiskey to Capone’s Chicago saloons and brothels. By the end of Prohibition, the Purple Gang was the most powerful group in the Detroit underworld, controlling nearly all gambling, loansharking, extortion rackets, and other criminal activity.

Detroit was too big of a market to be ignored by the Five Families of the National Crime Syndicate, and in the 1930s William Tocco aligned the Detroit Partnership with the Profaci crime family in New York, and established alliances with other crime families including in Los Angeles and Rhode Island. Tocco also hired Joseph Bommarito to serve as the street boss of the Detroit Partnership. The increasing influence of the Italian mafia placed it in direct conflict with the Purple Gang. Abe Bernstein, the head of the Purple Gang, attempted to prevent violence but growing tensions remained. Harry Millman, anxious to increase his standing in the Purple Gang, repeatedly attempted to confront Bommarito.

Millman had previously been involved in disputes with another member of the Detroit Partnership, Pete Licavoli, a close friend of Bommarito’s. When Millman and Bommarito met in a Detroit bar and words degenerated into a fight, Bommarito was severely gashed across his face, after which Millman began calling him Scarface. A few days later Bommarito was getting a shave when Millman spit in his face as he reclined in the barber’s chair. The Detroit Partnership informed Abe Bernstein that Millman was to be killed and that a contract would be put out to accomplish the fact. Anxious to avoid total war with the Italians the Purple Gang leader concurred.

The first attempt to kill Millman was through a bomb in his car, which detonated, blowing out the windows and leaving the car’s roof on the roof of a five-story building, but Millman was not in the car at the time. Bommarito, through the Profaci family in New York, asked for professional hitmen from Murder Inc. to be dispatched to Detroit to kill Millman. Buchalter gave the contract to Harry Strauss and Harry Maione, who went to Detroit and followed their target after making contact with local hoods who informed them of the Purple Gang member’s usual habits and the restaurants and saloons which he frequented.

On the morning of November 25, 1937, the two Murder Inc. killers found Millman at Boesky’s Delicatessen, on the corner of Hazelwood and 12th street in Detroit. Strauss and Maione shot Millman multiple times before leaving the scene. The use of Murder Inc. by the Italians and the relative lack of resistance of the Purple Gang signaled the end of the latter as the dominant element of the Detroit underworld, and from that time on the Syndicate assumed control of the criminal element in Detroit. Abe Bernstein became an associate of Meyer Lansky and the Purple Gang operations were quickly absorbed.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
Although some believe that Charles Harrelson was one of the three tramps present at the JFK assassination, the three have been identified in police and FBI records. Wikimedia

Other killers for cash

Although organized crime is most closely associated with professional killers plying their trade for cash in the public mind it is certainly not the only place hired killers are found. Husbands and wives seek out hired killers to eliminate their spouses rather than endure the cost and bitterness of divorces. Divorce lawyers are frequently the target of hired killers, as are business associates, lovers and ex-lovers, perceived enemies and the targets of grudges, and those who will pass on large estates or insurance settlements. Gavrilo Princip, whose shots helped to start the First World War, was a killer who paid for his actions. So were the assassins of Reinhard Heydrich during the Second World War.

Charles Harrelson, the father of American actor Woody Harrelson, was a killer for hire. In 1968 Harrelson was paid the sum of $2,000 to kill a Texas grain dealer named Sam Degelia, for which he was tried with the result of a hung jury. A second trial in 1973 led to his conviction and a five to fifteen-year sentence, and he was released in 1978. The same year he was hired by a drug dealer to execute the federal judge before which the drug dealer was to be tried. Although Harrelson was convicted of the judge’s murder he claimed that he did not kill him, but merely claimed to in order to collect his fee. Harrelson died in prison in 2007.

Glennon Engleman was a former US Army Air Corps veteran who used the GI Bill to cover his expenses as he earned a degree in dentistry from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. After graduation he set up a practice in St. Louis, often offering free dental services for those unable to pay for them. He also worked as a killer for hire, contriving schemes to murder victims allowing their beneficiaries to collect on their life insurance policies, from which he extracted a fee for his services. Suspected in several additional murders, he was convicted of five, the first three in 1985, and two additional convictions in 1999. He died in prison in 1999.

Michael Danton played professional hockey in the NHL when he attempted to hire a hitman to kill his agent, David Frost. Danton pleaded guilty to the charges but later changed his position, claiming that the target was not to have been Frost, but instead Danton’s father, Steven Jefferson, from whom Danton was estranged. At any rate, the hitman he contacted was not a hitman at all, but an undercover police dispatcher. Danton’s bad judgment continued, in 2008 the man who served as his lawyer was found to have never graduated from law school and was thus not legally allowed to practice law in the jurisdiction where the case was tried. After serving five years in prison, Danton returned to professional hockey.

Murder for hire has existed throughout history and will continue as long as there are those who desire someone dead enough to be willing to pay for it and those who find no difficulty in accomplishing the deed. Hitmen, contract killers, guns for hire, and many other descriptions have long been applied to those willing to commit a killing for a profit, and the business has thrived since ancient times. The chilling murders committed by the members of Murder Inc. are frightening in the cold-blooded manner in which they were performed, but no more or less so than those committed by others every day, all around the world.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“When Big Heist Is Pulled, A Trail Of Death Follows”, by Nicholas Pileggi, The Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1986

“The Valachi Papers”, by Peter Maas, 1986

“We Only Kill Each Other: the Life and Bad Times of Bugsy Siegel”, by Dean Southern Jennings, 1967

“I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran and the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters, and the Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa”, by Charles Brandt, 2004

“Murder Inc.: The Story of ‘The Syndicate'” by Burton B. Turkus and Sid Feder, 2003

“Abe Reles Killed Trying to Escape”, by staff reporters, The New York Times, November 13, 1941

“Kill the Dutchman: The Story of Dutch Schultz”, by Paul Sann, online

“How Prohibition made Detroit a Bootleggers Dream Town”, by Jenny Nolan, The Detroit News, June 15, 1999

“THIS WEEK IN SOUTHSIDE HISTORY: Southside dentist left trail of murder victims”, by Jim Merkel, Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, September 22, 2009