On Monday, a dead body washed ashore in Brooklyn wearing a green jacket, blue underwear, and cement shoes. A community college student made the discovery at around 10:30 AM, and police may have used two tattoos—one of a Virgin Mary, the other of an eight ball—to help identify the corpse. On Wednesday, cops revealed the man was 28-year-old Peter Martinez, a career criminal with 31 prior arrests who survived a shooting earlier this year.
The victim did not have any stab or gunshot wounds, but it appears that he was tied up, forced to stand in poured concrete, covered in plastic bags, and thrown into the water. On Tuesday, the NYPD's chief of detectives said the crime was "obviously a homicide."
Of course, given the details we have so far, it's tempting to spin theories that sound like Sopranos plotlines. But even if the concept of "cement shoes" on a corpse is linked to the mafia in American folklore, it probably shouldn't be. Christian Cipollini, a self-styled organized crime expert, insists there's never been a credible recorded instance of a mobster being fitted with cement shoes, and calls the trope a "twisted-over-time variation of something that did actually happen." He explains that, in the early 30s, the power players of organized crime had a rolodex of hitmen, and the Brooklyn trademark was to truss victims with ropes or puncture them repeatedly with icepicks. The bodies were then put in the trunk of a car that might be lit on fire, or else tied to cinderblocks and thrown in the water.
But that's very different from the cartoonish concept of cement shoes. It's unclear who even dreamed up the notion, although reporters are obviously responsible for its endurance. In 1933, Danny Walsh, a famous rumrunner from Rhode Island went missing; two years later, the Associated Press reported that police were trying to substantiate the rumor that he "was stood in a tub of cement until it hardened about his feet, and then thrown alive into the sea." That story is probably apocryphal––even then, the outlet called it a "grisly underworld tale."
Perhaps the first substantiated case of anything even resembling cement shoes didn't involve known gangsters: In 1938, a gambler named John Paul Bathelt Jr. pleaded guilty to murdering a race-track tipster by putting his body in a coffin, filling it with cement, and dumping it in the Connecticut River.
In 1962, when infamous mobster Lucky Luciano died, a Florida reporter tracked down the cop who saved him after he was beaten and left for dead decades earlier. The officer, Henry A. Blanke, said that all the men who attacked the notorious gangster were subsequently whacked, and one was encased in cement.
"I have no research to confirm that and honestly believe Blanke was, way back at that time, going off the same rumors that everyone else in society was," Cipollini says.
Although there's no way to know if the old man was telling the truth or remembering correctly, the closest real-life approximation of the cement shoes trope came two years after those words were printed. In 1964, Ernest Rupolo, a hitman turned informant, was found at the bottom of Jamaica Bay with his hands bound behind his back and two concrete blocks tied to his legs.
But Tommy Hyland, a retired New York City homicide detective who started on the force in 1968, says he never heard of any bodies wearing cement shoes in his decades on the job. "That's like real old-school stuff, and I don't know how much of that is Hollywood," he tells me.
Part of that can be attributed to the American mafia's decline in prominence and influence; there are simply fewer hits happening now compared to when people like Meyer Lansky walked the Earth. This has been mirrored by a decline in law enforcement resources devoted to the Cosa Nostra: It used to be that each of New York's Five Families had its own team of FBI investigators; by 2014, those responsibilities were delegated between two units. And just this February, the New York Police Department announced it was disbanding its Organized Crime Control Bureau.
An autopsy was performed Tuesday to determine how long Martinez had been underwater, but the results have yet to be made public. Meanwhile, a source told the Daily Mail that his body wasn't too badly decomposed.
"Obviously whoever did this did not understand cement shoes," says Hyland, the former detective. "This is not the way they're supposed to work."
Photo via Flickr user whereareyousimon
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