As the summer of 1936 faded into fall, New York State Police and local authorities in Sullivan County were trying desperately to uncover new leads in what had turned out to be a particularly perplexing murder investigation.
It had begun just before six o’clock in the morning on Saturday, September 5, when a young milkman from Hurleyville was making a delivery to the Paramount Manor hotel, just a short distance from the hamlet on the road to Liberty. As Dave Margolin neared the main gate, he came upon a stopped car, blocking the long driveway to the main house. Even in the faint early morning light he could make out that the driver’s side door was open. As he left his truck and approached the car, he noted it was a taxi, a dark-colored Lincoln sedan, New York license plate number 034-657. And then he saw something that he would never forget.
A man lay face up in the driveway, his legs crossed, his feet resting on the running board of the vehicle. Beneath his head, a dark reddish brown pool of blood slowly soaked into the gravel. Directly overhead, the hotel’s sign spanned the driveway. It read “Paramount Manor: Hotel of Happiness.”
Margolin sprinted the remaining hundred yards or so to the hotel office and immediately called town of Fallsburg Constable William Kollander, who, in turn, contacted State Police Sergeant Thomas Mangan and Sullivan County Sheriff Harry Borden. Before long, half-a-dozen law enforcement officials had converged on the hotel.
Troopers Joseph Miller and Richard Klausman and Deputy Sheriff Jay Lass cordoned off the crime scene while Mangan and Sullivan County Coroner Dr. Ralph S. Breakey examined the victim, who was quickly identified as 34-year-old Irving Ashkenas, a self-employed taxi cab driver who split his time between Brooklyn and Loch Sheldrake. Police later learned that Ashkenas was an ex-con, convicted of manslaughter in connection with the death of Jacob Rothenberg in a 1930 garment strike riot, and sentenced to fifteen years in Sing Sing. He had served part of that time, had been transferred to Attica, and then paroled. He was on parole at the time of his death.
Breakey initially found five bullet wounds in the body. Four bullets, he determined, had been fired from outside the car and the other by someone alongside the driver in the front seat. All five shots had struck Ashkenas in the head or chest. Breakey ordered the body removed to the McGibbon & Currey Funeral Home in Liberty for further examination. There, he would later discover a total of sixteen wounds, including stab wounds, and would recover five bullets from two different guns, one a .32 caliber, the other a .38.
Mangan, meanwhile, questioned a number of people at the scene, but could find no one who would admit having heard the shots. One hotel employee, a chambermaid named Hattie Bernstein, was taken to Monticello for further interrogation, but was eventually released. Police found witnesses who had seen Ashkenas in the lobby of the Riviera, a Loch Sheldrake nightclub, shortly after two a.m. the morning of the murder, and who had seen him leave the nightclub alone, but they could not account for his whereabouts after that.
The Liberty Register later reported that “authorities believed the taxi operator had taken one man, or possibly two men, in his car to the gate of the Paramount Manor hotel, and this man, or these men, accomplished the killing.”
Troopers took into custody 30-year-old Caesar Costanzo, also known as Charles Bruno, of 504 East 13th Street, New York City, who spent his summers in Loch Sheldrake. Costanzo had operated a taxi stand on the same corner in the hamlet as Ashkenas, and the two were reported to have been bitter rivals who often argued. Costanzo was held for a time as a material witness, and then released.
Mangan and Lass next traveled to New York City to compare the bullets recovered from Ashkenas’ body and the fingerprints lifted from his car to those on file there, but came up empty handed. Ashkenas’ brother Joseph, a waiter at the Riviera, was questioned repeatedly, but outside of supplying police with background on his brother, could shed no light on the killing. The victim’s sister-in-law and niece, who had shared a lakeside cottage with him, his wife, and daughter that summer, and who had been seen with him the evening before he was killed, were also questioned over and over, but to no avail. Soon the case turned cold. By September 17, the Liberty Register was reporting, “Sheldrake Murder Probe Reaches Impasse.”
In fact, the murder of Irving Ashkenas would go unsolved until 1940, when the perpetrators were served up to officials on a silver platter. Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, chief enforcer of Murder, Inc., the enforcement arm of organized crime in the city, and no stranger to Sullivan County, supplied the first incriminating evidence, and his story was then corroborated, down to the last detail, by young hoodlums Anthony “Dukey” Maffetore and Abraham “Pretty” Levine.
Reles claimed that Ashkenas had made a deal with Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey in his war on the underworld, and had been supplying information about Louis “Lepke” Buchalter’s infiltration of the labor unions in Manhattan. Lepke, then public enemy number one and never a man to allow witnesses to remain around to testify, had ordered his execution.
As former Brooklyn D.A. Burton B. Turkus and newspaperman Sid Feder recounted in their 1951 book, Murder, Inc., “the Lithuanian-American taxi man had become overly ambitious. He had run up to the Catskills to do a little investigating on his own. His body was found near the entrance to a resort hotel. It had slumped through the open door of his hack and was draped across the running board. The feet were still inside; the head was in the dust of the mountain road.”
Gang members Allie Tannenbaum, Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, and Irving “Big Gangi” Cohen were indicted for the murder. Tannenbaum, whose family owned a Loch Sheldrake resort, turned state’s evidence in this and other killings and escaped prosecution. Cohen was arrested while in hiding in California, where he had found work as a film extra. He was tried and acquitted in 1940 in the ice pick murder of slot machine custodian Walter Sage – whose body had floated to the surface of Swan Lake in July, 1937 – but never stood trial in the Ashkenas case. Strauss was ultimately executed for one of the hundreds of murders he was said to have committed as Murder, Inc.’s most accomplished killer, but he, too escaped prosecution in the brutal slaying of Irving Ashkenas.
Photo: The Paramount Manor Hotel outside Hurleyville was the last stop for jitney driver Irving Ashkenas, whose body was discovered there on Sept. 5, 1936.