The Capeman Murders On the night of August 29, 1959, the curtain went down on the performance of West Side Story on Broadway, Leonard Bernstein's paean to young love destroyed by youth gang warfare. It was a time when urban youth gangs rumbled almost nightly in the streets and alleyways of most large cities across the land. Little did the theatre goers at the Majestic know that an hour later and just four blocks away, a real-life version of West Side Story would be enacted on the streets of Hell's Kitchen and that it would constitute one of the most infamous crimes in the history of a neighbourhood long known for crime: "The Capeman Murders." The place: A playground (named May Mathews Playground in 1972) between West 45th and 46th Streets, midway between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The time: 12:15 a.m. on a night in late summer, after a rainy day.
The protagonists: Six neighbourhood teenagers sitting on a bench in the park after three of them had attended a movie on West 42nd Street, and twelve other teenagers, members of a gang called the Vampires. A taxi cab screeched to a halt on West 46th Street about midnight. From the cab emerged Salvador Agron, the Capeman, who was decked out in a borrowed, crimson-lined black satin cape and fancy shoes, and Antonio Luis Hernandez, the Umbrella Man. Agron, a.k.a. Dracula, Bigfoot, and Machinegun Sal, aged 16, came from Brooklyn, where he used to lead a gang called the Mau Maus. He moved on to become the leader of the Vampires, based in Manhattan's West 70s and 80s. He wielded a twelve-inch silver-mounted Mexican dagger. Hernandez, 17, who hailed from the Bronx, was his top lieutenant and drew his nickname from his habit of using an umbrella as a sharp-pointed weapon. The expansionist Vampires had come downtown for two reasons: they aspired to the turf south of 50th Street and
they had heard that their fellow Puerto Ricans were being ill-treated by Irish and Italian teenagers in the area. A rumble had been arranged between the Vampires and the Nordics, to be held at the playground, coincidentally the scene of a spate of recent muggings. Only the Nordics failed to appear. Instead, minutes earlier, three teenagers on their way from the movies walked across the unlit playground, met three friends, two boys and a girl, and sat down to talk. At that point, led by the battle cry, "Where's Frenchy?" (one of the rival gang members?), the Vampires came pouring into the park and circled the benches. When they realized the Nordics had not shown up, they turned their fury on the six local youths. Robert Young, 16, a resident of West 47th Street, was stabbed to death, dying in front of 449 West 46th Street. Anthony Krzesinski, also 16 and a resident of West 47th Street, was stabbed in the back and staggered across 46th Street to 445-7 West 46th, where he fell in the doorway, saying to his friend, "I'm hurt. Get me
upstairs fast." He died soon afterward in the apartment of Frank Zorovich and his daughter, Edna. Edna later said that the Vampires were looking for someone in particular, who lived on West 46th Street. Edward Riemer, 18, of Ninth Avenue, was also knifed and stomped, and brought to St. Clare's Hospital in critical condition. He ultimately survived his wounds. According to some accounts, some members of the gang held the boys down while Agron stabbed them in the back. One of the fatally wounded boys is said to have run across 46th Street holding his "insides in his hands." In the aftermath of the murders, cops descended on the block and more than 100 local residents formed a semi-circle around the buildings where the two teenagers lay dead. Initially, the police were unable to determine if the attacks involved gang warfare, even though they followed by a week gang action on the Lower East Side which left two teenagers dead and six others shot or stabbed. In a city reeling from youth gang violence, the murders in May
Mathews Playground soon became famous as "The Capeman Murders" and still stand today as one of the most publicized crimes of the era, serving as the climactic event of the concrete jungle fifties. On September 2, Sal Agron, the swaggering, almost illiterate stepson of a Pentecostal minister, was arrested for the murders and brought to the West 47th Street station house (now the site of Ramon Aponte Park). When questioned by reporters as to why he did the crime, Agron answered, "Because I felt like it." Said Agron at the time, "I don't care if I burn. My mother could watch me." In fact, his mother, Esmeralda Gonzalez, brought him a Bible, which Agron refused to accept. Agron's sidekick, Antonio Luis Hernandez, was also arrested, admitted being present at the crime scene, but denied any role in the fatal knifeplay. Two other Vampires were charged with manslaughter and the rest were hit with lesser charges.
In the two weeks following the Capeman Murders, Mayor Wagner promised more patrolmen on the beat and leaders from 20 Clinton organizations, including Msgr. McCaffrey of Holy Cross Church (who had buried Krzesinski), met at Hartley House, at the invitation of Assistant Director Edward Tripp, to discuss crime, the needs of youth and the neighbourhood, leading to the creation of the Clinton Planning Council. The Capeman Murders riveted attention on the legions of dispossessed youth plaguing American cities, even as the country experienced a great age of affluence in the years following World War II. Here was Salvador Agron, who up until the age of 16, had spent half his life in poorhouses and reform schools in his native Mayaguez, as well as in several youth and detention homes in New York. His parents had separated when he was one year old. He had foraged for food in garbage cans and slept in hallways, after being abandoned by
his real father in Puerto Rico and brought to New York by his mother. Agron bragged that he had stabbed five people over the years: "It was my usual procedure." His arms bore scars, plus some self-inflicted wounds. While imprisoned at the Brooklyn House of Detention shortly before the Capeman Murders, he inscribed "Liberty or" on his right arm with pins and blue ink. Said Agron, "I left death out because, when Patrick Henry screamed, he had no choice and I thought maybe I might have a choice." Of the night of the murders, Agron said years later, "I was full of booze, full of goofballs, full of hate. I feel deep pain when I think of that night." The case went to trial in General Sessions Court in July 1960. Agron was charged with two counts of first degree murder and one count of attempted first degree murder. The Vampires' rules called for the youngest member of the gang to shoulder the blame, and despite the fact that he initially boasted of the slayings and despite a 44-page
confession which led to his conviction, Agron would say many years later that "someone in that park did it and it wasn't me. I just took the blame. I had a nasty attitude." And: "My cape had no blood. My knife had no blood. The other knife with the blood of the victim was suppressed by the prosecution, was forgot. . . I can't see myself actually plunging in the knife." Although his attorneys contended that Agron was severely disturbed and was not a wanton killer, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Hernandez, who pled guilty to manslaughter, received a sentence of 7Â˝ to 15 years and was eventually re-tried, re-convicted and released on good time.Four other gang members received various shorter sentences which they went on to serve. The trial lasted thirteen weeks and there was considerable controversy over whether or not it was fair. For many months after the trial, the case remained newsworthy. Agron affirmed over and over again that he could not remember the commission of the crime. In 1961, Anthony
Krzesinksi's mother vowed retribution for her son's death. At the time, Agron was in Sing Sing and for 18 months the youngest inmate in New York State history to sit on Death Row. As the death penalty itself was undergoing increasing scrutiny, Eleanor Roosevelt initiated a campaign to have Agron's sentence commuted to life in prison, a campaign Robert Young's father supported. The long clemency drive ended on February 7, 1962, just six days before his scheduled execution, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller commuted his sentence to life in prison without any possibility of parole until 1993. Both trial court judge Gerald Culkin and D.A. Frank Hogan, who had won Agron's conviction, participated in the commutation drive. At the time of the murders, Agron said he was "a real skinny kid, skinny in the flesh and skinny in the brain." He was transferred from Sing Sing to Dannemora. From a kid who could barely read a newspaper in 1959, he learned to read and to write poetry and eventually became known as a
model prisoner. His rehabilitation came from Stella Davis, a House of Detention social worker who became his surrogate mother. Mrs. Davis not only taught Agron to read and write, but motivated him to take college correspondence courses and persuaded newspapers to publish Agron's poems. He also became a famed jailhouse lawyer, adept at writing legal papers and appeals for release, his own and others. He earned a high school equivalency diploma and then a B.A. in Sociology and Philosophy from New Paltz State University. He grew up to be a broad-shouldered man, 5'11" tall and weighing 170 pounds. Attorney Harry Kresky called him a "clear case of redemption."