How the Cape Man murders shook New York City

There were 390 murders tallied by New York City police in 1959, and the Cape Man did only two of them. But these two shook loose the city’s worst nightmares.

Because Salvatore Agron killed two people he didn’t know. Because when he was captured, he said he didn’t care. Because he was 16 years old. Because he belonged to a street gang. And it didn’t help that he was Puerto Rican.

“How do you feel about killing those boys?” a reporter asked when cops gave the press a quick shot at him.

“Like I always feel,” the kid said. “Like this.”

“Are you sorry?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

“Do you feel like a big man?”

Do you?”

“Was it worth killing a kid to be here talking into a mike?”

“I feel like killing you,” Agron sneered. “That’s how I feel.”

Sal Agron started the night of Sunday the 30th of August as a fashion statement: dark blue, red-lined, Dracula-style cape, fancy buckled shoes. He ended it as the city’s most wanted man.

When the Cape Man stabbed Robert Young and Anthony (Skinny) Krzesinski a few minutes after midnight in a W. 45th St. playground, he made it impossible to deny a dark secret in the sunny world of the late ’50s: America was terrified of its children.

New Yorkers were especially terrified of other people’s children  including the children of the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who had been arriving by the planeload since the mainland, in a burst of postwar concern for its impoverished island territory, launched Manos a la Obra, or Operation Bootstrap.

That program sought to convert Puerto Rico from an agricultural to a light industrial economy, which involved among other things encouraging displaced farmers to come live in American cities, where thriving factories paid more in a day than sugar cane might yield in a month.

The problem was that some new arrivals did not dutifully report to the factory, but to the welfare office. Some of the children, not old enough to work and not comfortable in a big, noisy, new city where they didn’t yet speak the language, saw street hustling and gangs as a faster path than schoolwork to yanking up their own bootstraps.

In truth, this didn’t distinguish Puerto Ricans from the Irish or Italians of decades earlier. But Puerto Ricans were more visible at the moment: By 1959, the Puerto Rican population of New York was 642,000, more than half of whom had arrived in the previous 10 years.

Moreover, what many people knew about Puerto Ricans came from the gang characters in Leonard Bernstein’s hit 1957 Broadway play “West Side Story”: One more litter of juvenile delinquents.

When police broke down those 390 murders in 1959, they noted that 23 were committed by persons under 16. Another 82 were committed by people between 16 and 20. This sort of statistic was why New York spent $60 million fighting juvenile crime in 1959  and why, on the day Salvatore Agron was arrested, the Daily News suggested the city was “pouring that money down a rathole rather than getting an adequate return on its investment.”

In fact, public officials were already vowing to spend smarter. Less than 24 hours after the Cape Man murders, Police Commissioner Stephen Kennedy asked for 1,000 more street cops. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor Robert Wagner called a summit to “map an all-out assault” on teen crime and gangs.

The problem with anti-delinquency efforts so far, Wagner suggested, was they had been well-meaning but soft-headed: “When organized gangs invade playgrounds and blindly and wantonly commit murder, the handling of the matter has passed from the social agencies to the police.”

Of course, the problem did have an origin, and the police had no trouble identifying it. The nation’s top cop, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, traced juvenile delinquency to broken families and a culture that all but gave budding sociopaths an engraved blueprint.

“With regard to the effect of television, movies and other presentations on juvenile delinquency,” said Hoover, “I am confident that improperly and unintelligently prepared presentations which recognize no restraint in producing in young minds pictures of torture, fantastic acts of violence and brutality, may have harmful effects.”

Material “which makes lawlessness attractive, which ridicules decency and honesty, which depicts the life of a criminal as exciting and glamorous, may influence the susceptible boy or girl,” Hoover said.

It was not known exactly what cultural materials Sal Agron had been exposed to. By all accounts, he could barely read. As for the “exciting and glamorous” life of the criminal, cops who caught up with Sal and his buddy Tony (Umbrella Man) Hernandez four days later found them rooting for tomatoes and bakery scraps in a Bronx garbage can.

Sal and Tony had entered the park around 12:15 a.m. Six white teenagers and one of their kid sisters were already there. “Where’s Frenchy?” Sal asked. Told there was no Frenchy around, Sal left  then went back with eight or 10 members of the Young Lords and possibly the Buccaneers, both Puerto Rican gangs.

At that point, one of the white kids, Billy Luken, told police, his group got up to leave and could not: “The guy with the cape says, ‘No gringos leave the park.’ ”

Next thing he knew, said Luken, Young and Krzesinski were in a fight. Then he saw blood on their shirts. Luken and his sister bolted while Anthony Woznikaitis and the mortally wounded Young fled for the nearby apartment of John Brody, Woznikaitis’ stepfather. A few steps inside, Young fell and died.

The News ran a picture of Brody next to Young’s body, captioned, “All the sordidness of New York City’s asphalt jungle is laid out before him.”

Police first said the confrontation was triggered by friction between whites and Puerto Ricans at the park  that a few nights earlier, Puerto Ricans had been beaten there. Subsequently, they decided that the Cape Man had a beef only with Frenchy, a Puerto Rican who had warned Agron against selling marijuana to his mother, and that the white kids were merely there at the wrong time.

This intensified the nightmare: You could be innocent and uninvolved, and JDs could still snuff you.

It was potent and sordid, a crime magnified by the style in which it was committed.

Less than a week earlier, there had been another gang-related double killing down on the lower East Side. Julio Rosario, 14, was knifed to death by two teens from the rival Sportsmen gang, and Theresa Gee, 15, caught a stray bullet. Now those dead kids were just footnotes  like most of the other 386 people murdered in New York City in 1959.

First published on September 27, 1998  as part of the “Big Town” series on old New York.

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