Monday, January 21, 2008

The Furnace Death

The Kidnapping of Norman Miller
by Robert A. Waters

At midnight on July 24, 1938, Norman Miller and his friend Sidney Lehrer left a movie house in Brooklyn, New York. As they climbed into Miller’s car, two men with guns jumped onto the running boards on each side.

“What’s the idea?” Miller asked.

“You’re wanted for a hit-and-run accident.”

Miller, a student at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, suspected he was about to be kidnapped. Since the 1932 passage of the Federal Kidnapping Act (popularly called the Lindbergh Law), abductions had not stopped--they had seemed to increase. Recently, a wealthy businessman named Arthur Fried had been snatched off the streets in nearby White Plains. After unsuccessfully attempting to collect a ransom, the kidnappers had broken off contact with the family. The mystery of what happened to Fried was still in the news when Miller was accosted.

He never hesitated. With his foot, he punched down the accelerator. The lurch of the car caused the assailant on the passenger side to fall to the ground. As the car screeched off, the other gunman jammed the barrel of a pistol into Miller’s ribs. “Stop or blow your brains out,” the man said.

Miller had no choice. As he pulled over, the second abductor huffed up to the car and ordered Lehrer out. “Tell his old man he’s been kidnapped for ransom,” the man told Lehrer, pointing to Miller. “We’ll be in touch.”

Miller’s mouth was taped and he was blindfolded, then forced into the back seat of a second car. As it raced away, he made up his mind to remember everything about the kidnappers. He knew his father, a hard-working businessman, would pay the ransom. If Miller was released, he determined to gather enough clues to catch the abductors.

Miller realized that the car had two jump-seats in the back. He listened as the tires left the pavement and crossed a long bridge. The only long bridge leading out of Brooklyn went to Manhattan. As the car roared along, the radio played Ella Fitzgerald: “A tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow basket…”

Shortly after leaving the bridge, the abductors stopped. Miller estimated that the entire trip had taken twenty-five minutes. The captive was pulled out of the car and forced up a set of stairs. He counted the number of steps. Finally, he was placed in a room with a guard.

After an hour of silence, the man spoke. “I bet you wonder how we got into this racket,” he said.

“Yes, I do,” Miller responded. “But you know what happens to you if you get caught.”

“We’re careful.” The man paused for a moment, then said. “One a month isn’t bad.”

The college student filed everything in his mind. Outside, he heard church bells. In another room, there was the unmistakable sound of balls clicking on a pool table. At regular intervals, a street car passed by. Miller asked for food and it was quickly brought to him—restaurant food, no less. The bathroom he was allowed to use had four-pronged faucet handles.

Within twenty-four hours, Miller’s father had paid $ 13,000 to ransom his son. After collecting the cash, Miller was released.

When Miller returned home, he and his father contacted the FBI and reported the kidnapping. (Many wealthy families refused to seek the help of law enforcement. It was a widely-held belief that involving law enforcement in ransom kidnappings would put the victim in greater danger. In fact, the newly-passed “Lindbergh Law” was blamed by many for a spate of deaths victims had suffered at the hands of kidnappers.)

As the FBI agents heard Miller’s story, they were delighted. The kid remembered everything. On the other hand, the kidnapper's statement that the gang had committed one abduction a month was ominous. Was Arthur Fried one of their victims?

Agents determined from Miller’s description of the car that the abductors drove a Packard coupe. They traced hundreds of such cars in the area. They also felt that Miller had been kept in the social hall of a church in Manhattan. Agents fanned out and searched for churches that matched the description. After going to nearly two hundred churches, they came upon the Ukrainian Hall at 217 East Sixth Street.

Everything matched. A church stood nearby and pool tables were in a social hall. A streetcar could be heard two blocks away. The Commodore Theater was next door—that was the place where the ransom for Fried was to have been delivered before the deal soured. Agents learned that the Ukrainian Hall was owned by Denis Gula, who also owned a black Packard coupe similar to the one used by the abductors.

Four ex-cons were quickly arrested and charged with kidnapping. Demetrius Gula, the son of Denis, was the leader of the gang. William Jacknis, John Virga, and Joseph F. Sacoda were also collared by the feds. They confessed to three other abductions, including the kidnapping and murder of Arthur Fried.

The FBI issued the following statement: “This gang had intended to kidnap Fried’s brother, Hugo, but they made a mistake. They got a car and forced Arthur to the curb while he was driving to his mother’s home. The car was forced to the curb at Davis and Bolton Avenues, White Plains, by Joseph Sacoda and Gula.

“Gula got out and drove Fried’s car a few blocks. Fried was put into Gula’s car which Sacoda had been driving. They took Fried to 240 East 19th Street (New York City) where Joseph Sacoda had an apartment…

Fried was compelled to write to his brothers and sisters stating that a ransom of $ 200,000 was demanded. The ransom was never paid.”

Four days after the kidnapping, amid sensationalized media coverage, Fried was shot and killed by Sacoda. The gang took him to a fraternal lodge they had access to and placed Fried in the furnace, thus cremating him.

The gang had also abducted Benjamin Farber and George Mishkin, both coal dealers. Farber was ransomed by his family for $ 19,000—the kidnapping had never been reported to authorities. Mishkin paid an undetermined amount to the kidnappers and also did not report the crime.

In addition to kidnapping, the gang was also involved in extortion and armed robbery. Gula and Scaoda were convicted of kidnapping Fried (but were not convicted of murdering him because the body was never found). They were given the death penalty and executed at Sing Sing on January 11, 1940. They were the first to die under New York’s “Lindbergh Law.” John Virga was given 50 years to life and Willie Jacknis served 25 years in prison.


CM Washor said...

Just wanted to let you know that I am Norman Miller's nephew and more information about this story can be found in an old book called "Sabatoge" The Secret War Against America. This was published in 1942.

The Soft City said...

Good greif. I am the husband of Norman Miller's granddaughter. I was writing a blog post about this case. Did not expect to see this. You beat me to it...

Joe said...

An interesting footnote to this case is that BRANDWOOD WILDING (17) testified that he along with two friends witnessed the kidnapping in White Plains (I take this from a NYT article from the time). Wilding later died young in 1947 when his B-29 crashed shortly after takeoff OFF QUADRALANE (military base) and he and the crew were never recovered (according to the account I found).

Pepper said...

Branwood was my uncle i never met !! Never heard this story from my father or grandmother wow !

Unknown said...

I am a relative of Arthur Fried and this heinous crime was a terrible tragedy that affected my family for decades. I want to publicly thank Norman Miller for his courage to bring the barbaric outlaws to justice.

Skindeep1 said...

R.M. Miller, M.D.

I am the son of Norman Miller. Sadly, my father passed away many years ago, nearly age 90. He had retired from his successful career as an insufferably ethical attorney and innovative businessman at age 85! His father, my grandfather, was a larger-than-life character. Brought to the US from what is now Ukraine, he became a professional boxer, then, a dock worker, and then…well, let’s say that he was a fruit importer in the same way that Tony Soprano was in “waste management“! He was a profligate gambler, lived a lavish lifestyle, could become lethally violent, and was an incredibly wonderful and loving grandfather. It was to my great sorrow that he died at age 61 from cancer.

Norman was a great father in too many ways to enumerate. He remained close friends with Sidney Lehrer until Sidney’s death. My father collected friends, and sustained long-time friendships, largely because he was the very definition of a mensch. Both my sister (an attorney) and I (a physician) proudly attended my father’s alma mater, Franklin & Marshall College.

Norman Miller is missed by his “kids” and by anyone who knew him.

It always surprised me how infrequently my father talked of his kidnapping, and the role he played in the capture and execution of the kidnappers. He didn’t avoid it, he just didn’t boast.