THE LATE TONY FRANK’S “PERFECT” ALIBI
When the bank messenger was slain in Montreal's Bank of Hochelaga holdup, Tony Frank was strutting around City Hall. But Frank and three more hoodlums —including an ex-cop—were hanged. Here is how and why a jury decided that Frank was an absentee killer
A Maclean's Flashback
AT DAWN ON OCTOBER 24, 1924, four men were hanged by the neck in Bordeaux Jail on the outskirts of Montreal. Their crime was the shooting, six months earlier, of a 24-year-old bank chauffeur named Henri Cleroux. One of their confederates, Harry Stone, had already paid the price for his part in the affair. He was cut down — probably by a police bullet but possibly by a shot from one of his fellow bandits — during the wild shooting affray that followed the murder.
This was the great Bank of Hochelaga robbery, which even now, nearly four decades later, is a byword in Montreal. The reason: Of the four who died on the scaffold, one was Tony Frank, then the reigning monarch of Montreal's underworld. His chief lieutenant, Frank Gambino, was another. The others were Giuseppe Serafim and Louis Morel.
While the holdup and killings were taking place in an underpass on Ontario Street in the East End, Tony Frank had been plainly and purposely visible in the corridors of the courthouse. Gambino had an equally airtight alibi. Nevertheless they went to the gallows. Though men have seldom been hanged for killings at which they were not even present, the Criminal Code says clearly that all parties to the offense are as guilty as the man who fires the murder gun. CONTINUED ON PAGE 43
CONTINUED ON PAGE 43
The late Tony Frank’s “perfect” alibi
Continued from page 28
The lead came from a number scrawled on a twist of paper found in the pocket of a slain hoodlum
It was on this one simple paragraph in the law, and the evidence of a member of the bandit gang who turned King's evidence to save his own neck, that Tony Frank went to his death. The trap that was sprung under him that October morning ended an era of crime rule in Montreal that has never been duplicated in Canada. The king was dead. His nemesis had been a fighting Crown prosecutor, R. L. Calder, and an angry, determined judge, Charles Wilson of the Superior Court.
Without exaggeration, the 47-year-old Frank could be called a forerunner of Capone. He ruled Montreal’s underworld from a dingy office on St. Dominique Street in the heart of the segregated redlight district that was a province of his domain. He owned the narcotics trade outright. The visiting hood could operate only under his license and protection. He swaggered about the courthouse corridors as if he owned the building, and some people vowed he did. Cops addressed him with respect and even awe. He was the bailman, the lawyer-getter, the bigshot who could tip any raid before it happened, the fixer with a cut in the payoff in every major crime. That was King Tony.
The holdup and killing that Frank and Gambino did not attend happened on April 1, 1924. Shortly before two o’clock that afternoon the collection car of the Bank of Hochelaga — an unarmored Dodge sedan—rolled down the slope into the dim Ontario Street underpass. As it did, two men ran out from behind a stone parapet, hauling a heavy chain, which they slung across the roadway at windshield height. They then ran into the tunnel. drawing guns out of holsters. At the eastern exit Harry Stone climbed onto the roof of a Ford sedan and snipped the trolley wires with heavy cutters — to keep streetcars from the underpass — as a getaway car was backed alongside the Ford to block the passage. Stone and the occupants of the second car moved quickly into the underpass. As the bank car reached the level stretch under the railway tracks it was met by a fusillade.
Henri Cleroux gunned his engine, and stalled. He jumped and started running. A bullet felled him before he had gone five yards. A bank messenger named Fortier was wounded but survived. Another, named Thibaudeau. grabbed a satchel and escaped. The gunfire ended as sharply as it had begun. The mobsters ransacked the bullet-riddled car. grabbed money bags and ran for their escape cars. Elapsed time: two minutes. The haul: $142,288 in cash, plus bonds.
About 2.15, a Hudson sedan came careering up Christophe Colomb Avenue, more than a mile north of the holdup spot. It leaped the curb into a vacant lot where another car stood parked with a waiting driver behind the wheel. Four men jumped out of the Hudson and into the second car. as its driver spun away on squealing tires. When the police arrived they found the body of Harry Stone in the Hudson. His otherwise empty pockets contained a crumpled wad of paper, on which a telephone number had been scrawled.
The phone number led to a rooming house on Dorchester Street. The landlady described a young couple. Mr. and Mrs. Knight, who had left that morning for New York. Had they received many visitors? She remembered only a Mr. and Mrs. Linden who had been frequent callers. A check of taxi operators produced a cabbie who had driven “a handsome young woman” from the Dorchester Street address to 57 Coursol Street in St. Henri a few days earlier. At 8.30, less than seven hours after the killing of Cleroux, the police moved in on 57 Coursol.
They found two young women and two men, questioned them and took them to
headquarters. They had picked up the “Knights" and the "Lindens” — Giuseppe Serafini and his wife. Mary; Ciro Nieri and Emma Lebeau. No evidence tied them to the crime. Nevertheless a phone number found on a dead gunman was the clue that started Frank and the others on the road to the gallows.
A search of the house on Coursol Street exposed a secret cupboard containing $23.000 in currency, much of it identified as the bank’s money. At the inquest into the deaths of Cleroux and Stone on April 9, Emma Lebeau admitted she had told the police where to look. On the stand she identified a cloth mask as one she had made for Nieri. She described a meeting with him on a street corner an hour after the holdup at which Nieri had handed her a bulky portfolio, which she had carried home to Coursol Street. Serafini’s wife had arrived a little later, also carrying a portfolio. After the inquest Nieri and the Serafinis were charged with murder. The Lebeau girl was held as a material witness.
The Serafini-Nieri trial was put on the docket for the May assizes, but no knowledgeable reporter believed for a moment that the police had caught the organizers. The town was astir with agitation for a cleanup. But a strange silence hovered over the case. At last, on the afternoon of May 7, R. L. Calder called in the press. He spoke casually. “I just wanted to tell you,” he said, "that we have charged some new people with murder in the Hochelaga Bank business.” Names? Calder answered: "Tony Frank, Frank Gambino, Louis Morel and two others.”
The news hit the town with the force of a blockbuster. The king? They’d never
pin it on him. Gambino? Tony Frank might throw him away to give the cops a sacrificial lamb. But Morel? This was a stunner.
Louis Morel was one of Canada’s outstanding athletes, an ex-detective who had been a local hero, the public image of the honest cop. Surely not Morel. Maybe he’d been working from the inside to break up Frank’s crime ring. This was the tenor of town talk. What the town didn’t know was that when Morel had left the force to become a private eye he had been under a cloud — nothing proved but
much suspected. That had been a police secret. Honest policemen don't like disclosures about bad cops.
The other two were Mike Valentino. Frank’s messenger, and Leo Davis, a runof-mill hoodlum. Just names. But the arrest of Frank and Morel shook Montreal.
Calder announced that the SerafiniNieri trial would be held first; the others later. Why? No comment. Nor did Calder offer any explanation when Serafini faced the court alone on May 26. But when the trial ended on June 7 with a hung jury,
the Crown was far from happy with its case. Witnesses who had made positive identification in police line-ups developed sudden doubts. The Lebeau girl contradicted evidence she had given at the inquest. Jurors complained to the bench that their families were receiving threatening phone calls. A witness who had previously identified Serafini as the man tending the spare getaway car on the vacant lot wasn’t so sure, but nevertheless asked the court for a license to carry a gun. In the public mind, gangland was still running Montreal.
In this supercharged atmosphere, Calder played his ace. On June 4 he had said in a normal speaking voice, “The Crown calls Ciro Nieri.” What happened after Mr. Justice Wilson silenced the hubbub by threatening to clear the court had no precedent in Canadian criminal annals. Addressing the bench. Calder said:
“It is important that the witness should hear the statement I wish to make. At a certain time I was informed that the prisoner, Nieri. wished to see me. I saw him prior to the coroner’s inquest, at the central police station. He said he wished to make a declaration, but demanded certain privileges in return. As I was not empowered to do so, I refused to hear him. I then approached the attorney-general and obtained the sanction needed. I was then able to promise that he would be in no jeopardy whatever if he made full confession.”
Calder handed his pardon to the witness. who smiled sardonically as he tucked it into a pocket. Nieri then gave his first detailed version of the planning, the holdup and the subsequent division of the spoils. He named Frank as fixer and Morel as organizer, but made an obvious
effort to help Serafini who, he insisted, had merely been the driver of the getaway Hudson. Contradicting other evidence, he identified himself as driver of the car parked on the vacant lot. The statement that finally wrecked Calder's case, through his own star witness, was that Serafini had been unarmed. The jury split: eight for murder, four for manslaughter. One of the four said later that "an unarmed man can't kill anybody with a gun,” rejecting the law’s clear statement on conspiracy, which the judge had driven home hard.
An angry Mr. Justice Wilson tonguelashed the jurors who had “failed in their responsibility as citizens.” As they filed out, Serafini stood smiling confidently in the dock. But the appearance of bravado turned to apprehension when the judge concluded his denunciation by ordering Serafini to retrial on Monday, June 9. with Frank, Gambino, Morel, Valentino and Davis. It was then Saturday afternoon.
The defense protested and stormed. They needed time for preparation. The court was adamant. The trial of the six began on Monday.
It was indeed Wilson's trial. 1 hat grull but friendly man had often been called the Hanging Judge, perhaps unfairly, but this time there could be no doubt that he was out for blood. Faced by a galaxy of the city’s criminal-law talent, he let it be known at the outset that he would allow no leeway to the defense.
Before twelve jurors had been chosen. 256 talesmen had been rejected. Many
pleaded prejudgment of the case when the real excuse was mortal fear of the underworld. The judge berated the evaders by the score. Then began the slow, inexorable construction that gives a great trial the taut quality of high drama . . . the clank of the chain that had been slung across the tunnel, as the Crown placed it in evidence; the identification of money discovered by the police at Coursol Street; revolvers and sawed-off shotguns found by a variety of people at various places; the cutters with which Stone had severed the trolley wires.
When the 1 eheau girl entered the witness box. Calder led her through the story of her early life in Sudbury and her efforts to go straight in Montreal, where she had worked as a hospital maid until she met Nieri, with whom she was in love. She described her contacts through him with gangland. Yet of the six men in the dock she had known only Serafini. Frank. Gambino and Morel were no more than names she had heard Nieri mention. The defense attacked her evidence as hearsay, contradicting much she had said before under oath. Repeatedly the girl was in tears. The bench taxed defense counsel with rough tactics and was given the reply: “We are fighting here for human lives. My Ford." But the girl's evidence had the ring of truth and her tears kindled sympathy. Nevertheless the outcome clearly hinged on the testimony of Nieri. who entered the box on June 17. At the outset Wilson warned him that though he had escaped a murder indictment the court would not hesitate to charge him with perjury if his evidence differed from the story he had told at the Serafini trial.
Nieri was ruthless as he faced six men lie was ready to sell to the gallows for his own freedom. Repeatedly he stared down his former confederates in the dock. Only Morel gave back stare for stare. Whether Nieri lied or told the truth, he was unshakeable. even when his story contradicted the evidence of other witnesses. This w'as his version of the crime:
He and Serafini had been approached by Morel in a bar late in 1923. They had agreed to work together and Morel had undertaken to organize a gang to operate under Frank's protection. Other members had been recruited: Stone first, then the two chain-men, Salvatore Arena and Giuseppe Carrero. Davis came later, and then a man named Adam Parillo. I he bank car had been selected after a number of prospects had been considered. Nieri had not met Frank until after he (Nieri) had been arrested. He swore the underworld king had visited him in Bordeaux jail and said: “Keep your mouth shut. Calder will be replaced and a new man will get you out.“
Serafini and Davis had stolen the getaway cars and parked them in various hideouts. He (Nieri) had rounded up guns and ammunition and on one occasion had met Gambino on a street corner to pick up two gunny-sacks containing sawed-off shotguns that Gambino had said “came from Tony Frank.” Morel and Stone ran a daily check on the bank car and chose the underpass for the holdup. 1 here were many rehearsals.
Nieri went on to describe a meeting at Morel's house on the night of March 31. Morel had said, " l ake no chances. Waste no time. If there's resistance, shoot lo kill." They met again in mid-morning on April I. turned out their pockets, synchronized their watches and left for the tunnel in two groups. Nieri repeated his story that Serafini had driven the Hudson, with Morel, Stone and Parillo as passengers. Stone was to leave them en route to join Davis in the Ford and arrive at the tunnel a few moments ahead of the
others to cut the tramway wires. Arena and Carrero had gone to handle the chain at the other end of the tunnel. Nieri insisted that he had taken the spare getaway car to the vacant lot and stayed there. Whether it was true or not. this enabled him to disclaim knowledge of the killings in the tunnel and to take up the story again with the arrival of the Hudson bearing Morel. Pari 1 lo and Davis and the dead Harry Stone. From the lot, Nieri said, he had driven Morel. Pari 1 lo and Davis to Morel’s house, where the money was counted and divided. Morel
had insisted on destroying the bonds.
The turncoat then gave his version of the cut. Morel took $18.000 and kept a similar amount “for Stone’s family.” He swore that Serafini. Pari 1 lo. Arena and Carrero were cut in for $18.000 each, but that he (Nieri) and Davis were allotted shares of only $10,000, as they had merely been chauffeurs. He had left Morel’s house carrying $59,000 in a valise containing shares for Arena and Carrero, $13,000 for Frank, and his own cut. He had handed the satchel to Emma Lebeau at Drolet and Belanger streets. They had
separated and proceeded by devious routes to 57 Coursol. The two girls and Serafini were there when he arrived about five o’clock. The money was spread on a bed and counted again, while Emma went out to buy a paper. The headlines screamed murder. To C'alder’s question: “What did you think then?” Nieri replied: “I said, ‘If they ever find us, we hang.’ ” As he said this the witness drew a hand across his gullet and looked straight into the dock. A shiver ran through the courtroom.
Nieri said he left Coursol Street to
meet Arena and Gambino at St. Mark and Dorchester streets. He handed Arena a parcel wrapped in newspaper containing the split for the two chain-men. As he passed Frank’s share to Gambino he had said, “Stone is dead.” Gambino had answered, “What do we care? We got the money!” Again Nieri looked full face into the dock. Gambino looked down at his hands, gripping the rim of the dock. Nieri turned to face Calder. “I went back to Coursol Street,” he said in a toneless voice. “And that was it.”
The defense called no witnesses, but attacked gaps and contradictions in Nieri’s story, calling for his rearrest as a perjurer. If Serafini was only a driver, the defense asked, why had he been cut in for $18.000 instead of $10,000? If the witness had been assigned only a minor role, would he have been trusted to carry away the payoff for Frank? The governor of Bordeaux Jail had sworn that Frank had not visited Nieri. but that Gambino and Valentino had done so, carrying forg-
ed permits as Jack Foster and Mike Capuano. How did Nieri account for that? The witness shrugged his shoulders.
Six defense lawyers addressed the jury on Saturday, June 21. Repeatedly they asked: “How can you convict on the unsupported word of a liar and stoolpigeon?” At five o’clock Mr. Justice Wilson adjourned court to Monday morning.
This was the day of climax. Calder prophesied the verdict when he said: “The six men who stand before you have, by a species of suicide, prepared their own deaths.” As he handed the case to the jury, Wilson declared that no man could have invented so coherent and unbroken a story as Nieri’s, even though his memory might have erred on minor points, it was a clear call for a hanging verdict. Twelve men brought it in, in exactly twelve minutes.
The judge donned the black hat and gloves. To each prisoner he put the question: “Have you anything to say before sentence is pronounced on you?”
Serafini answered first, saying "No” in a firm voice. Valentino and Davis were weeping and could not speak. Gambino, obviously fighting for self-control, said “i have nothing to do with this. There arc-
two men in this dock who can tell you that four of us are innocent.” Then Davis found his voice and said in a quavering voice: "1 have nothing to do with this crime. You are hanging an innocent man. There is no justice at all here. When two ot us wanted to make a confession, you would not hear us. Why don’t you hang us the day we are arrested? Then we would not suffer so.”
Valentino cut in. laughing hysterically. “I never see a cent of that money,” he said, and burst into tears again as he collapsed into the arms of a guard.
These w'cre the bit players, building the climax for the principals, Frank and Morel. The one-time king of the underworld stood propped by two guards. He was glassy-eyed and drooling. At the end of the line Morel stood erect, with arms folded.
Frank could only croak unintelligible noises. Such words as came through begged for mercy for a man who was the sole support of an aged father and mother, a wife and three children, and who protested his innocence. He w as halfcarried from the dock.
Morel spoke last. In ringing tones he declared: "1 was in this thing from the beginning. I was at the deliberations and I w'as in the tunnel. Serafini was there and so w'ere Parillo and Stone. But Nieri was there, too, and he is the man who murdered Cleroux. 1 am sorry for what I have done. 1 regret it. But 1 am willing to take my medicine and 1 am not asking for mercy. But this man beside me (he turned to look at Davis) is innocent. 1 swear on the tomb of my father that this man is not guilty. He had nothing to do with it. Let him go free.”
The law got some; the mob, others
Which of two men, the informer or the corrupted cop, spoke truth will never be known. Lawyers have said that if Morel had not spoken, appeals might well have succeeded. But this was Wilson’s day and it ended on the awesome words that each should be “hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy on your soul!” The sentence of Davis and Valentino were subsequently commuted. Both later went free. Mary Serafini w'as released. The police had caught Adam Parillo in Connecticut, and he had “sung" for a light sentence. Parillo had been prepared to testify, but it was said he had been withheld for fear he might contradict much of Nieri’s evidence.
At first light on October 24 four men mounted two scaffolds at Bordeaux. Serafini kept his courage to the last. Gambino had to be assisted on his last w'alk. Frank was carried to the scaffold and propped on his feet under the noose. Morel walked out with firm step, standing alone on the trap. So ended the reign of Tony Frank.
It took a little longer for the law — or the underworld — to catch up with other members of the gang. Giuseppe Carrero, one of the two men who handled the tunnel chains, was picked up in San Francisco ten years later and returned to Montreal. He was released in 1936 after his acquittal. The law never did find his partner. Salvatore Arena, but fellow hoods did — he was stabbed to death in New York in 1936. Adam Parillo died the same way. in the same city, within months of Arena.
Ciro Nieri received the treatment reserved for informers. In 1926, two years after the execution of his confederates, his mutilated body was found in a ditch. His fingernails had been dug out by the roots, and there was other evidence of death by torture.
Gangland had closed the books,