Abe “Kid Twist” Reles

Abe “Kid Twist” Reles
Abe “Kid Twist” Reles

When Abe Reles, a Brooklyn gangster, was picked up by police in 1940, he sported a rap sheet with 42 arrests accumulated over a 16-year period. Hauled in on charges of assault, robbery, burglary, possession of narcotics, disorderly conduct and six charges involving murder, he nevertheless had done only six minor stretches, with never a single major conviction.

Reles might well have eluded conviction again. The law didn't know the real Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, a man who had personally taken part in at least 30 murders. The law also did not know there was such a thing as an organization later to be dubbed Murder, Incorporated, the enforcement arm of the new national crime syndicate.

Some cops knew about something called "the combination," which linked up a great many Jewish and Italian mobsters, but that such an organization had a special troop to handle assassinations was something they had not even guessed. Murder, Inc., did exist and had by then handled something like 400 to 500 murders in the 1930s.

But once Reles started singing in what was called the most remarkable "canary act in underworld history," goggle-eyed investigators cleared up 49 murders in the borough of Brooklyn alone, many of which they hadn't even known had happened. Reles knew; he had been in on the ground floor when Murder, Inc., was created.

He qualified as a second-rung leader in Murder, Inc., standing just below such top leaders of the extermination "troop" as Louis Lepke and Albert Anastasia. As an underworld stool pigeon, he was much more highly placed than Joe Valachi, for instance, and his information was much more accurate.

When Reles was picked up in 1940 along with other major and minor members of Murder, Inc., on suspicion of homicide, Kid Twist started worrying that someone else of importance might start talking. He opted to save his own skin by talking first. His deal with prosecutors: He would not be prosecuted for any murder he participated in provided he revealed it, divulged all the details and named all his accomplices.

Then Reles started talking. He said that such troop members as Pittsburgh Phil, Happy Maione, Dasher Abbandando, Charlie Workman, Mendy Weiss, Louis Capone, Chicken Head Gurino and Buggsy Goldstein, to name some, were sent on murder assignments not just in New York but all around the nation, at times to knock off characters whose identities they didn't even know. Reles (like Pittsburgh Phil) was proud of his handiwork and often trekked down to Times Square after a job to pick up an out-of-town paper to find out just who some of his victims were.

One murder Reles "read about in the Times" was that of a loan shark named Whitey Rudnick. Working as a team Pittsburgh Phil, Dasher Abbandando and Happy Maione had stabbed him more than 60 times, smashed open his skull and, just to be on the safe side, strangled him. Reles was not exactly contrite about the Rudnick killing, announcing that Rudnick deserved what he got since "he was a stool pigeon."

Abbandando and Maione were to go to the chair for that one. Pittsburgh Phil was not prosecuted for the crime, but only because the prosecution had so many others to choose from. (Phil committed somewhere in excess of 100 Murder, Inc., rubouts.) Reles doomed Phil and Buggsy Goldstein for the vicious garroting of a gambler named Puggy Feinstein.

Reles provided so much information on the rubout of crime kingpin Dutch Schultz that one of the hit men, Charlie Workman, after reviewing the mounting evidence against him, switched to a plea of guilty to settle for a life sentence instead of the electric chair.

Kid Twist's grand jury testimony helped build a successful case against the great crime boss Louis Lepke as well as two important Lepke aides, Louis Capone and Mendy Weiss. They were convicted for the assassination of a garment industry foe named Joseph Rosen, but Reles was not around to testify at the trial.

He had taken part in several trials for more than a year, during which time he was kept under close protective custody on the sixth floor of a wing of the Half Moon Hotel in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. Sometime during the early morning hours of November 12, 1941, Reles jumped, fell or was picked up and heaved out a window to his death— this despite the fact that he was always guarded by six officers and was never supposed to be left alone in a room, even while he slept.

In Reles's room, police found several sheets tied together and proceeded to develop a variety of theories, some rather amusing. They said he was trying to escape, or climb down one floor so that he could then romp back upstairs and scare the daylights out of his guards in a malicious prank, or commit suicide.

If it were a suicide attempt Reles apparently wanted to climb down the sheets part way so that he wouldn't have to fall too far. The hitch in all the police theories was that the Kid's body had landed a good 20 feet away from the wall of the building, which would have made him a gymnast of near-Olympic abilities.

Twenty years later, an ailing Lucky Luciano, one of the chief founders of the national crime syndicate in the early 1930s, insisted that Frank Costello had set up Reles' demise and that $50,000 had been distributed within the police department to have Reles flipped out the window.

Years after that, interviews in Israel with Meyer Lansky and Doc Stacher confirmed Luciano's story, but the fee was $100,000 in all—evidently the wealth was not enjoyed only by members of the police department.

The syndicate at the time had not been averse to sacrificing all those who were electric chair–bound but wanted Reles's evidence halted before he doomed more, including Albert Anastasia and Bugsy Siegel. In later inquiries, William O'Dwyer, then the Brooklyn district attorney and later mayor of New York, was subjected to intense criticism for failing to prosecute Anastasia in what was described as a "perfect case" based on Kid Twist's testimony. O'Dwyer insisted the case "went out the window" along with Reles.

In the 1945 prosecution of Anastasia, O'Dwyer's performance was denounced by a grand jury as one of "negligence, incompetence and flagrant irresponsibility." In the words of the grand jury O'Dwyer was ... in possession of competent legal evidence that Anastasia was guilty of first degree murder and other vicious crimes.

The proof admittedly was sufficient to warrant Anastasia's indictment and conviction, but Anastasia was neither prosecuted, indicted nor convicted.... The consistent and complete failure to prosecute the overlord of organized crime ... is so revolting that we cannot permit these disclosures to be filed away in the same manner the evidence against Anastasia was heretofore "put in the files."

There were worse innuendoes swirling around Reles's death. Ed Reid, the prize-winning reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, charged that "Reles served several purposes besides being a fount of information about gang activities. Some of the information he gave out was used by unscrupulous persons connected with law enforcement in Brooklyn—to shake down gangsters."

Had Reles remained alive, other important members of the syndicate, beyond even Anastasia and Siegel, might have been nailed, and a far more lethal blow would have been dealt the crime syndicate. As it was, Murder, Inc., was smashed—as it existed in Brooklyn— but the syndicate continued to grow.

As for Abe Reles's epitaph, he was "the canary who could sing but couldn't fly."