“The final battle in which the bandits were killed was in front of 146 Dyckman Street. Here the bandits were overtaken in a taxicab driven by William Nugent and occupied by Patrolman Albert Walker of the Thirtieth Precinct, Patrolman Albert Morrell of Traffic Squad H and Detective William Kiley. The two patrolmen and the detective, standing on the running board of Nugent’s cab and using the car as a barricade, shot it out with the thugs. When the bodies of the gunmen were removed from their bullet-riddled car a revolver, five automatic pistols and a quantity of cartridges containing “dumdum” bullets were found on the floor.” (New York Times, August 22, 1931)
On a mid-August evening in 1931 the apartment dwellers of the Dyckman district had just begun to stream home for the weekend. This was Prohibition-era Inwood and a gangland shooting outside a speakeasy called The Mad Dot Boat Club, on Dyckman Street near Seaman Avenue, the previous spring, still had many on edge.
Teenager Phil Dickens was working a summer job at the hardware store on Dyckman Street, not far from Broadway, when he first heard the gunfire. The sixteen-year-old, who lived several blocks west on Payson Avenue, impulsively stepped outside to see what was happening.
James Cagney’s gangster tale “Public Enemy” was fresh in the theaters and, like many youths, Dickens wanted to witness some real life action.
That he was about to walk into a raging gun-battle never crossed his mind.
The decision nearly cost Dickens his life.
Looking west up Dyckman Street the teen watched with saucer-eyed amazement as a bullet-riddled taxicab zigzagged towards the Loews Inwood movie theater on the south side of the street.
The cab slowed to a crawl as police moved ever closer, peppering the mysterious yellow cab with shotgun blasts and machine gun fire.
Standing on the edge of the firefight, time seemed to slow down as the gun battle raged around him. Only later, his heart racing, did he stop to think that he had been directly in the line of fire.
Dickens, and thousands of others in the neighborhood, had witnessed the final moments of a ninety-minute car chase that had begun with a payroll heist in the Bronx earlier that afternoon.
Lacking radios to coordinate their efforts, police, for the most part, had fought the pitched gun battle, for a distance of twelve miles, from the running boards of taxicabs.
The bloody chase, spanning four police precincts, would dominate the news and unite law enforcement as New York came to grips with a new breed of criminal–the gangster.
The sensational crime, that left two police officers dead, would result in the placement of short wave radios in police cars and station houses throughout the city and change law enforcement’s approach to high-speed chases through residential areas.
The Payroll Heist
Around 3:45 PM on August 21, 1931, some 150 employees of the Mendoza Fur and Dye Works on east 133rd Street in the Bronx were getting ready to call it a day. The week had been long and hot, but today was payday and quitting time was a little more than an hour away.
Outside the factory, plant manager Floyd Fomhoff had just returned from the bank on East 138th Street where he had picked up the $4,619 payroll withdrawal. Patrolman Walter J. Webb, who had been assigned to guard the cash, accompanied Fomhoff.
Just to be safe, the plant manager parked behind the tall wire fence that surrounded the factory.
But, despite all precautions, two gunman, armed with pistols, waylaid the factory man and his armed escort just as they stepped out of the plant manager’s car.
Webb reached for his gun a second too late.
One of the bandits, as if taking aim at Webb’s police shield, fired a shot that crashed through the officer’s chest piercing his heart.
A moment later, Webb, who had just celebrated his ten-year wedding anniversary, lay on the ground mortally wounded
The 39-year-old police veteran was pronounced dead in an ambulance while en route to nearby Lincoln Hospital.
Fomhoff, the terrified dye works manager, offered no resistance as the two thugs, later identified as 25-year-old John Brecht and 19-year-old Martin Bachorik, snatched the payroll and took off in his car.
Inside the long, one-story, brick building the employees of the dye works continued working; not realizing a robbery had transpired until the alarm was sounded.
After speeding away from the scene of the heist, the two robbers ditched the plant manager’s car at 149th street and transferred their guns, ammo and stolen payroll satchel into a yellow Monarch taxicab driven by Herbert Hasse to continue their getaway.
Hasse, a twenty-seven year old father of two, had been driving a cab for less than a year when the armed bandits jumped in his back seat.
But what role had played in the heist? Was he a confederate of the brazen killers, or, to use modern vernacular, had he been carjacked and forced to drive against his will?
While most on the police force believed Hasse had been “in” on the crime, that the pickup location had been prearranged, his wife later insisted that he was not a criminal.
Regardless, Hasse proved an adept wheelman as the gunmen continued their attempted flight from justice.
Bullet Begin to Fly
For twelve blocks the bandits continued on in Hasse’s cab unnoticed, but the speeding taxi soon attracted the attention of two traffic cops assigned to Third Avenue and 163rd Street.
Just after the escape car sped past motorcycle policeman Edwin V. Churchill and traffic cop Edward Worrell another motorist pulled over to catch their attention. The tipster, Charles Fackler, told the two bluecoats that the passengers appeared to be brandishing firearms.
In moments the chase was on.
Officer Worrell quickly hopped onto Fackler’s running board as Churchill raced ahead on his motorbike. Firing his pistol as he drove, Churchill quickly closed the gap between himself and the renegade taxi.
The motorcycle cop nearly caught up with his quarry when the bandits let loose a fusillade of bullets. Struck six times in the abdomen, Churchill fell to the ground. The father of three young children died on the operating table three hours later.
The Good Samaritan
Municipal fireman Vincent J. Hyde was enjoying a much-deserved day off when the stolen cab blew past his driveway. Hyde watched in horror from the curb as Churchill was thrown from his bike by the deadly blast. He rushed into the street to assist the mortally wounded cop, but Churchill was beyond help.
As tipster Charles Fackler rolled past the bloody scene, Hyde, hands covered in blood, grabbed Churchill’s weapon and jumped on the running board opposite traffic cop Edward Worrell.
But Hyde’s act of valor would prove short lived.
Moments later the Good Samaritan, too, lay bleeding on the pavement—struck twice in the chest by one of the nearly 1,000 shots police claimed would be fired over the course of the chase.
Hyde would recover from his wounds and was later honored by the Uniformed Fireman’s Association for his heroism in the “battle of the Bronx.”
A Crimson Trail
Sitting in their car at the intersection of 161st Street and Jerome Avenue, the three members of the Lopez family, John, a city fireman, his expectant wife, Matilda and their four-year-old daughter, Gloria waited for the light to change.
Without warning their vehicle was strafed by a barrage of gunfire.
A wild bullet struck the young Gloria in the head.
The family was taken to Morrisania Hospital, in the Bronx, where Gloria died at 2:20 in the morning. Her parents, both wounded in the exchange, were recovering in nearby rooms when their daughter passed away.
Other bystanders were wounded as well.
* Mrs. Sophie Van Zerkorn, 40, was shot in the right leg near the intersection of 169th Street and Boston Road.
* Thomas P. Cullin was hit in the shoulder after a bullet shattered his windshield. The 25-year-old attorney had left the safety of his office to join in the chase when he heard the commotion outside.
* Nicolas Klein, 31, was shot in the left forearm near 168th Street and Park Avenue.
* Taxi driver Ruben Katz, 34, was struck in the shoulder.
* 13-year-old James Girodano, who lived on Arthur Avenue, was shot in the shoulder as he scrambled for cover.
In all, twelve persons would be wounded by gunfire before the sun had set.
On the Job for Three Days
Cab driver William Nugent was looking for a fare when the two cars blew past him, and, out of simple boredom, decided to join in on the chase.
“I been a taxi driver only three days an’ things were kinda dull yesterday,” Nugent told reporters afterward. “I took in three fares for $1.30 an’ I got 45 cents out of that. Things wasn’t so good, an’ I was looking’ for excitement, so when this taxi rips past me up at 167th and Park, I thought I’d fall in behind and see the excitement. I didn’t know they had guns, then. I just thinks they’re speeding’ an’ maybe a cop’d give ’em a bawling out.” (New York Sun, August 22, 1931)
Several blocks later, off-duty Detective William J. Kiley commandeered Nugent’s taxi and climbed onto the running board, firing round after round, as Nugent pushed the pedal to the floor.
Soon after, Patrolman Albert Morrell, assigned to Traffic Squad H, also climbed onto Nugent’s taxi.
By this time actual police vehicles had joined the westward pursuit, towards Manhattan, as bullets whizzed up and down the streets of the Bronx.
Soon, Nugent, the daredevil cabbie, was racing into a hailstorm of lead, across the Harlem River, and north into upper Manhattan.
“We followed ’em up to Macomb’s Bridge at 155th,” Nugent would later brag, “an’ I stayed on the wrong side of the bridge an’ kept dodging’ through the traffic. The boys with me was pumpin’ away all the time an’ now and then I’d slow down a little so’s they could put more cartridges in.“
After crossing the Harlem River the escape taxi, now trailed by eight cars and taxis commandeered by police, shot west and then hooked a right. A wild exchange ensued as the convoy sped north up Riverside Drive where police estimated that hundreds of rounds were exchanged.
“I’d kinda zigzag when I could so’s to dodge the bullets, but I dodged into ’em sometimes,” said Nugent, describing the final leg of the chase. “One come through the cowl right between my arm an’ me an’ plunked into the seat. That was on the left side, an’ a minute later another one buffed into the seat on the right side of me.”
The bandits seemed determined to die in a final shootout with the cops, and, with two fellow officers dead, the police were ready to oblige.
Nugent tailed the escape vehicle into the Inwood section of northern Manhattan.
The neighborhood was flooded with armed police and sewn up tight.
After leading cops on a desperate loop around the neighborhood the bandits were finally corralled on the east end of Dyckman Street between Broadway and the Harlem River.
By this point the bandit taxi had begun to slow down and weaved back and forth as police sprayed the escape vehicle with round after round—driver, Herbert Hasse, likely shot and bleeding out at the wheel.
“Well, we was pretty near the end, then. I dodged a woman an’ a baby carriage. I thought I had her for a minute but she jumped. I’d a hated to hit them. Then Kiley (the off-duty detective on the running board) or the other guy with me picked off the gas tank on the other car and it begun to smoke.” (New York Sun, August 22, 1931)
End of the Line
Just west of Sherman Avenue the smoking escape taxi rolled into a fruit delivery truck and came to a stop.
In a breathtaking police report, Detective William Kiley, who poured lead into the bandit taxi from an exposed position on Nugent’s running board, described the final moments of the chase.
“We got up to Dyckman Street and Broadway, where the bandits fired on another cop. They zigzagged around the corner, with our machine in pursuit. At Dyckman Street and Sherman Avenue Patrolman Morrell had commandeered another automobile and when we reached the corner of Dyckman Street and Sherman Avenue, Morrell’s machine and our machine got on either side of the bandits’ car and stopped them. I jumped off the machine and pulled open the door of the bandit cab. I had four shots left in my revolver. One of the bandits was sitting on the floor of his car reloading his gun. I let him have the last four shots I had in my gun. I yelled at Walker that the other bandit was kneeling on the seat of the cab also reloading his gun and Walker fired at him.” (New York Times, August 23, 1931)
Looking up, Kiley saw an army of armed officers descending on the death car. The off-duty police detective, who had been in front of his Bronx home washing his car when he joined the chase, worried other cops might mistake him for a bandit because of his civilian clothes.
“Having no hat or coat,” Kiley stated in his report, “and knowing that everybody around there had pistols in their hands and not knowing who I was, it was not really a healthy case for me and I ducked away. I don’t know who shot the third man.” (New York Times, August 23, 1931)
Taxi driver Nugent claimed that after Kiley’s heroic assault on the taxi that he too joined in on the final assault.
“Kiley had thrown open the door of the bandit cab and was pumping it in right on ’em,” Nugent told reporters. “I got out of my cab and on the tail of the fruit truck I saw a hammer. I picked it up and went towards the driver of the bandit cab, on the other side of him. He had a rod in his hand. As he tried to step out, I hit him with the hammer. And then I threw the hammer down on the running board.” (New York Times, August 22, 1931)
As he was beating Hasse with a hammer, the driver claimed, another cop, whose name he didn’t know, fired shot after shot at the two bandits in the backseat. Then, moments later, Nugent asserted, yet another policeman fired four shots at the bleeding getaway driver.
Hours later a crush of onlookers lingered on the sidewalks of Dyckman to catch a glimpse of the gruesome scene. Splayed out in front of the news cameras were the bodies of the two bandits and their alleged getaway driver.
In the midst of intense media coverage President Hoover ordered a concerted campaign, that involved local and Federal law enforcement agencies, including the Justice Department, Internal Revenue Bureau and Prohibition Bureau, for the roundup and prosecution of criminals in New York City. A similar crackdown in Chicago resulted in the successful prosecution of Al Capone is cited.
Days after the gun battle NYPD Commissioner Mulrooney requested $100,000 to equip all police vehicles and stations with short wave radios. All agreed the chase had been poorly coordinated and hampered by the lack of police radios.
The issue of the safety of bystanders during police chases was also put on the front burner; greater care and discipline were called for.
The widows of slain policemen Churchill and Webb each received a lump sum payment of $3,000 from the Police Relief Fund. The women were also to be provided with $50 a month and $1,500 annually (half of a police officer’s salary) for the rest of their lives provided they never remarried. After her husband’s death, Florence Churchill would become a champion for the widows of police and firemen killed in the line of duty.
Taxi driver William Nugent, who led the chase to the finish, suffered a nervous breakdown in the days after the shooting. Police, summoned to his home on Brook Avenue in the Bronx, were forced to subdue Nugent as a physician injected the hero driver with a tranquilizer.
The bodies of the three men in the bandit taxi were taken to the Bronx morgue for autopsy. Despite multiple gunshot wounds, no bullets were found in any of the dead. All of the rounds had passed through their targets. Among the findings: John Prechtl had been shot twice in the abdomen and once in the heart. Martin Bachorik had apparently bled out after suffering a single gunshot wound to the groin. Taxi driver Herbert Hasse had one bullet wound; he also had been shot in the heart.
An inspection of the getaway taxi revealed that several bullets had pierced the cab’s gas tank. The tank had been nearly empty at the conclusion of the chase. Inside the cab police recovered the satchel containing the stolen payroll, a revolver, five automatic pistols and numerous cartridges containing dumdum bullets.
It was also revealed that stick-up men Prechtl and Bachorik had a criminal history. Both men had been charged with the attempted holdup of a dance hall in upstate New York the previous year. The charges had been dropped after the complainant failed to appear in court.
Stick-up man John Prechtl, who had been out of work for a year, lived with his parents before the Battle of the Bronx. His body was released to his father, John, for burial when the investigation concluded.
Confederate Martin Bachorik, an out of work plumber’s apprentice, lived with his married sister, Anna Lippay before his death on the streets of upper Manhattan. Lippay told reporters that her brother had disgraced the family and that no one planned to claim his body. He is presumably buried in Potter’s Field.
Mrs. Margaret Hasse, widow of taxi driver Herbert Hasse, insisted her late husband had no part in the robbery. Her claims were bolstered by the eyewitness account of Detective Phillip Knecht who insisted the driver of the bandit taxi had been unarmed. After receiving conflicting accounts of Hasse’s involvement, Police Inspector Henry Bruckman told the press: “I’m not sure about it and I guess we never will be. It will have to be left to the public to decide, so figure it out for yourself.” (New York Times, August 24, 1931)
At her husband’s funeral, the widow Hasse told reporters, “If it takes the rest of my earthly days, I’m going to have it proved that Herbert was no gangster.” (The Rochester Journal, August 27, 1931)