BAY RIDGE — Retired NYPD lieutenant Jack La Torre was working in Borough Park in 2004 when he came across a trove of files labeled “Arnold Schuster Homicide 1952” while clearing out a garage at the 66th Precinct.
La Torre, 61, soon found out he had stumbled onto a piece of New York history.
The discovery included more than 1,700 files from the cold-case investigation into the murder of Schuster, 24, who was brutally slain exactly 65 years ago, on March 8, 1952, after fingering fugitive Willie Sutton to police, leading to the notorious bank robber's arrest.
The former officer started to dig into the files after seeing that both he and Schuster had served in the Coast Guard.
"I've never seen so many boxes of files. As it turns out, this is probably the most investigated case in NYPD history,” La Torre told DNAinfo Tuesday, while thumbing through the files in his mother’s Bay Ridge apartment.
“I really felt some sort of connection with him — the Coast Guard, he’s a Brooklyn boy — just doing what any citizen should do. The mistake was getting the publicity.”
La Torre is pictured in his mother's Bay Ridge home holding a photograph from Arnold Schuster's funeral the day before the 65th anniversary of his death, March 7, 2017. (DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg)
He is now preparing to donate all the files — including never-before-seen photos from the Schuster crime scene and a threatening letter sent to a witness — to John Jay College for their preservation.
The story of how Schuster spotted “Slick Willie” is as incredible as the discovery of his files.
Sutton's exploits robbing banks turned him into something of a legend by the middle of the century. Most famously, when asked why he robbed banks, he famously responded, "Because that's where the money is."
In 1950, Sutton escaped from Philadelphia County Prison, where he was serving a life sentence for his fourth bank robbery conviction.
He spent two years on the lam, making it to number 11 on the FBI's Most Wanted Fugitives list.
As part of their effort to catch him, the bureau, noting Sutton's taste for natty dress, circulated pictures of him to haberdashers.
That's how Schuster, who was working in his father’s Sunset Park tailor shop after finishing a stint in the Coast Guard, came to recognize him. He used to stare at the FBI handout of Sutton at work, according to La Torre.
On Feb. 18, 1952, while taking the R train uptown, Schuster looked up and saw Sutton seated directly across from him.
Schuster followed the bank bandit off the subway at the Pacific Street stop in Park Slope and walked a safe distance behind him until Sutton got into a car.
But the vehicle wouldn’t start and the fugitive got out and went across the street to get a new battery.
"There's an old saying: 'There's never a cop around when you need one,’” La Torre said.
“This time a cop car goes driving right down the street where Arnold is waiting and he goes to the officers, he says, 'I think that man down the block working on his car, I think that's Willie Sutton.’”
The young man went home and only later found out from a radio broadcast that his tip had led to Sutton's arrest.
After his tip, Schuster became a minor celebrity, meeting the police commissioner and doing several television interviews.
Arnold Schuster is pictured with then-NYPD Police Commissioner George P. Monaghan after he helped with the arrest of Willie Sutton in 1952. (DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg)
But less than a month later, on March 8, 1952, Schuster was found lying in the street just a few doors down from his home on 45th Street with gunshot wounds in both his eyes, his head and his groin.
Three of the bullets were matched to a Smith & Wesson and the fourth to an unidentified weapon, La Torre said.
A woman who saw Arnold Schuster on a bus the night he was murdered was sent an anonymous threatening letter shortly after his killing. (DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg)
Police conducted an exhaustive investigation, interviewing more than 4,000 people, according to the records, and tracing one of the murder weapons to a batch of revolvers stolen from a boat headed to Japan.
Gangster John Mazziotta was thought to have possibly sold or given the weapon to the killer, but the fencer for stolen goods, known as “Squinty" and "Chappie,” was never found.
“You saw over 1,700 follow-up reports,” which La Torre added was “unheard of” and will probably never happen again.
Philip Messing — a former New York Post police reporter and author of "Undisclosed Files of the Police: Cases from the Archives of the NYPD from 1831 to the Present" — described Schuster's murder investigation as the department "the most far-reaching and longstanding."
The murder was "an assault upon the authority of the police department and mayor," he added. "The entire fabric of this city has been violated by this crime."
La Torre said he isn’t sure who killed Schuster, though many theories have posited it was a hit ordered either explicitly or implicitly by New York crime boss Albert Anastasia in retaliation for Schuster snitching.
La Torre said he hopes the records inspire people to make donations to the Coast Guard Mutual Assistance program in Schuster’s honor and to recognize the work of NYPD detectives.
“You’ll never see something like that again. Everything is digital,” he said about the files. “It [was a] worldwide investigation. The case was never solved, but not for lack of trying, that’s for sure. You can see that.”