At around 10:20am on Monday morning, a college student in Brooklyn walking along the shore of Sheepshead Bay made a grisly discovery: A human corpse with its feet encased in a block of concrete. The student dialed 911, and police quickly arrived on the scene to investigate the obvious homicide.
A spokesperson for the NYPD told VICE News that the body was wrapped in a plastic bag, which was fastened with duct tape. The deceased had apparently been forced to stand in a plastic bucket, which then had more than 50 pounds of concrete poured into it. He was wearing a green jacket and blue underwear, and he had a prominent tattoo of an eight ball. Other reports have said he had a tattoo of the Virgin Mary holding a rose across his back.
As legend has it, giving a murder victim "cement shoes" has long been a favored body disposal method of mafia hitmen, and it's the origin of the phrase "sleeping with the fishes," which was made famous by The Godfather. The heavy concrete is supposed to make a body sink to the bottom of a river or the ocean, but — for reasons that remain unclear — it might not have worked in this case.
The fact that the body washed ashore has fueled speculation that the murder was the work of amateurs imitating something from the movies rather than professional assassins, and some have even suggested that the remains never sank at all, perhaps due to air bubbles in the concrete. The NYPD spokesperson said the body probably did sink "due to a combination of factors" — which he couldn't elaborate on — and the body washed up partly "due to tidal flow."
Organized crime experts disagree on the credibility of the "cement shoes" myth.
"The story of cement shoes is, in my opinion, a twisted-over-time variation of something that did actually happen," said Christian Cipollini, author of Lucky Luciano: Mysterious Tales of a Gangland Legend.
He explained that the myth originated in the 1930s and 1940s after the American mafia shifted from bootlegging during prohibition to other illicit ventures like drug trafficking and loansharking, and began infiltrating labor unions, and legitimate industries such as textiles and construction. Cipollini said there are no credible instances of a mafia murder victim being fitted with cement shoes around this time, but there is the story of Abe "Bo" Weinberg, a Jewish mobster in New York who worked closely with prohibition kingpin Dutch Schultz. Weinberg disappeared in 1935, supposedly after Schultz had him killed and disposed of his body in the East River after fitting him with a pair of cement shoes.
"That much may indeed be true, but it was one of many of the tall tales that further evolved into a truism of sorts, that was basically 'accepted' as such by historians, press and mafia history aficionados," Cipollini said.
Cipollini noted that the "big boys of crime" — including Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, and Frank Costello — often hired hitmen to off their enemies in the 1930s. The killers were known to make the bodies disappear by chaining or tying them to heavy objects — like metal, rocks, or cement — and tossing them into a body of water.
'It has all the hallmarks of a professional mafia hit.'
The concrete shoes legend is also linked to mafia involvement in the concrete industry. By the 1980s, organized crime groups controlled nearly all of the ready-mix concrete supplies in the New York area. Ralph "Little Ralphie" Scopo, a member of the Colombo crime family, was president of the Cement and Concrete Workers District Council. Scopo was a powerful labor racketeer, and he used his position to extort money from cement contractors, which would then be divvied up between four mob families. The arrangement was known as the "Concrete Club."
Scopo was convicted of racketeering in 1986, and sentenced to 100 years in prison. A number of other prominent mob bosses with ties to the concrete industry were also convicted on federal racketeering charges.
So while there's plenty of circumstantial evidence throughout history, Cipollini said the bottom line is there are few confirmed cases where the mafia actually used concrete shoes. According to the New York Times, the body of Ernest Rupolo, a 52-year-old "triggerman turned informant," was found in New York's Jamaica Bay in the 1960s with concrete blocks strapped to his legs.
"This Sheepshead discovery is, in my opinion, a case of somebody who was made an example of based on a wives tale," he said. "In other words, whoever committed this act was trying to be 'creative' and based it off the old, incorrect and often-taken-as-fact fairy tale of underworld cement shoes."
He pointed out that it's not exactly easy or convenient for professional hitmen to outfit their victims in cement shoes, given the time it takes for the substance to harden.
"What gangster is going to sit for 20 minutes to hours while fitting cement shoes? But again, were some guys perhaps weighted with cement or dropped into cement. Absolutely possible," Cipollini said.
On the other hand, Scott Bernstein, an American mafia historian and true crime writer, said that it wouldn't be a stretch to link the murder with organized crime or mafia.
"It has all the hallmarks of a professional mafia hit," Bernstein said, adding that the Italian and Russian mafias still thrive in Brooklyn, though they are quieter than they were in the 20th century. He said there has been friction between the two groups, but they have also been known to collaborate with each other on occasion.
"The brutality, the ruthlessness, it's still there, and I don't really see it going away anytime soon," he said. "As long as the three pillars of organized crime exist — sports gambling, extortion, and loansharking — there's no reason to believe that [the mafia] would ever go away."
The Sheepshead Bay area where the body was discovered on Monday, along with nearby Brighton Beach, is home to a large community of Russian immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
"The Brighton beach and Sheepshead Bay sections of Brooklyn have been headquarters for a smattering of emigre Russian crime gangs since the 1970s," wrote Sewlyn Raab, an expert in organized crime, for the New York Times in 1994."The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 spawned thousands of powerful crime gangs — collectively known as the Russian mafia — and some of these groups, officials warn, are establishing bases among emigre communities in the United States, particularly in South Brooklyn."
Russian mob activity still occasionally generate headlines in local New York news. Earlier this year, the FBI and NYPD coordinated to bust Boris Nayfeld, a reputed mob boss who reportedly headed a heroin trafficking ring out of Brighton Beach. Nayfeld allegedly threatened a businessman who ran a New Jersey shipping company, putting a bounty of $125,000 on the man's head and threatening to kill him if he couldn't pay. In a press release, NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton called the case a "thuggish story" that "seems like a yarn made only in Hollywood."
Whether the victim who washed ashore on Monday was killed by the mob remains to be seen, but there are already indications that he was linked to criminal activity. His name has not yet been made public, pending notification of his family, but news reports citing anonymous sources have said he was a 28-year-old Hispanic with prior convictions for fraud and narcotics. He also reportedly survived an attempted shooting earlier this year.
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