The Bank Robbery That Would Become 'Dog Day Afternoon'
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives. August 31, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 35
Littlejohn & the mob: Saga of a heist By Arthur Bell
Tuesday, August 22. Home about 10 p.m. A message from a friend on my cassette phone unit. "Just heard a couple of homosexuals are holding up a bank in Brooklyn and they're holding people hostages. Thought you'd be interested. Bye. " I made a couple of quick calls and got through to the CBS local newsroom. "Yes, two men have been holding seven hostages at gunpoint since 3 this afternoon at a Chase Manhattan branch in Brooklyn. We have the bank's phone number." I called. "Hello, this is Arthur Bell from The Village Voice. Can you tell me what's happening? " The voice at the other end said, "Arthur, am I glad it's you. This is Littlejohn." "Littlejohn, what the hell are you doing down there?" "I'm one of the robbers." "Jesus Christ!"
John Wojtowicz, whom I've known through Gay Activists Alliance as Littlejohn Basso (Basso was his mother's maiden name), proceeded to tell a bizarre story. He said he met a Chase Manhattan bank executive at Danny's a Greenwich Village gay bar, some time ago. The executive told him how he could rob a branch of $150,000 to $200,000. The money was expect to be delivered by armored truck at 3.30 that August afternoon. John said that he and a couple of friends, Sal (Natuarale) and Bobby (Westenberg) entered the bank shortly before 3: They discovered that a mistake had been made: the big money had been called for at 11 a.m. So instead, they took the $29,000 on hand. As they were about to leave, several cop cars pulled up and surrounded the bank. Somehow Bobby managed to escape. But Sal and Littlejohn were stuck inside. They had no alternative but to hold the bank staff hostage until they cleared out. They had six women and one man and now the place was surrounded by cops and FBI and onlookers and Littlejohn was sure the boys in blue wanted to pull an Attica. They wanted him dead.
So he had issued a list of demands. One of them was to release Ernie Aron from Kings County Hospital. Ernie is the part-time transvestite whom John had married in a $2000 mock Roman Catholic ceremony in December. John wanted Ernie to enter the bank in exchange for one of the hostages. Another demand was to bring hamburgers and Cokes to the bank. The third was to provide transportation to Kennedy Airport and to have a plane waiting there to take Sal and Littlejohn and the hostages to points unknown. They would release two hostages at a time at stops along the way, until they reached their final destination. The FBI, he said, was reneging. They brought Ernie from Kings County, but Ernie didn't even get near enough to kiss John. Littlejohn couldn't believe Ernie was that terrified, and thought it was an FBI plot to keep Ernie away. The hamburgers didn't come. Instead they brought pizza, which he didn't like. He said he paid for the food anyway. He tossed a lot of bills out the bank door. Now he was afraid that the cops would screw him up with the plane plans. "We've got guns and rifles and bombs here and I don't want to hurt anyone. I just want to get out of here alive." He told me that Sal was uptight and mad as hell because the radio reports were labeling him a homosexual. "Sal's not gay. I'm the only gay one here."
Could I do anything, I asked. Could I come down and talk to him? John said, "Yes, you come down and be our mediator. Tell the FBI chief that I want to talk to you, and I'll tell him at this end. He'll let you in." I confessed it's been a long time since Flatbush Avenue days and I didn't know how to get to Brooklyn and it might take a while. John said, "Grab a cab. I'll throw a few $100 bills out the window." "Sit tight," I said, "don't do anything. I'll call you back in a few minutes," and hung up.
I then called Voice City Editor Mary Nichols at her home and explained the situation to her. Mary made a few phone calls. Twenty minutes later, Sergeant David Durk, the honest cop who testified before the Knapp Commission, and Ed Powers, another efficient cop, showed at my apartment. They were to have guested on the Barry Farber radio show that night and minutes before showtime they were called off to whizz me down to Brooklyn. I phoned John at the bank again to tell him I was on my way. He gave me the phone numberer of the female wife whom he had separated from, to call in case anything happened. "I've got news for you," he said. "I think they're going to give us the boot. We're not going to walk out of here alive.
"That money, I wanted it for a sex change operation for Ernie. Now I can't even see him to kiss him. Come here as quick as you can. Do you want to speak to a hostage?" He put on Mrs. Shirley Ball, a teller from Brooklyn. "It's a damn shame that nothing's being done and the FBI are sacrificing seven lives for two. They're backing John against a wall and I don't know how long our luck is going to hold out." Mrs. Ball said that John was okay, that Sal was trigger happy. She'd been allowed to call home and spoke to her husband who was waiting outside the bank with the rest of the mob.
About 11.15 p.m. a radio car from the 19th Precinct showed up in front of my apartment. David Durk phoned Brooklyn FBI headquarters to tell them we were on our way. We zoomed down FDR Drive, sirens blazing, about 90 miles an hour, got off at Houston Street, picked up Mary Nichols, and whizzed down the drive again to Brooklyn. Twenty minutes later, we were in the thick of the hubbub. Thousands of spectators. Hundreds of cops. Dozens of city officials, and hordes of reporters. David Durk directed us through the mob to the FBI chief of operations. No dice. Change of plans. He wouldn't let me near the bank. Why? He shrugged his shoulders. Was he afraid of my safety? No answer. Had they a master plan afoot? No answer.
So I broke and tried calling the bank again, but this time Littlejohn wasn't answering. Mary Nichols and I mingled among the crowd of reporters and spectators. A radio guy, from a network better left unmentioned, said, "I never thought I'd see the day when fags could pull the punches. Grab the little punks." Obviously the whole reverse macho trip was part of the street excitement. Homosexuals are supposed to be victims. And here's a tough guy John Dillinger victor. Instead of demanding his Lady in Red, Littlejohn was asking for his transvestite in pajamas.
John's male wife (I don't know how else to describe Ernie Aron -- they were married) sat in a barber chair at the Palestinian Barbershop, which was set up as police headquarters. Wan, despairing, his eyes two blank sockets, his face white, his body weed thin, clad in hospital garb, a bedraggled bathrobe, bunny slippers, a Kings County guard constantly at his side. Two days before, Ernie had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. He refused to go near the bank because of John's bad temper, "but he was also good-natured, and that was the problem. John and I couldn't live together because of mental problems on both sides. It would never have worked out. John was sadistic in his sex habits. He could control himself, but sometimes he went overboard with such things and he terrified me." When I told Ernie about John's admission to me that the money was to pay for a sex operation, Ernie claimed he wasn't aware of this at all. He broke down. And he insisted he'd go to the bank with me to speak to John. I went to fetch an FBI officer again, and again the answer was "definitely no."
I spoke to John's former male mistress. Earlier in the day, he had been called by Littlejohn to come to the bank, and in front of an approving crowd they kissed smack in the mouth at the bank doorway. The mistress believes that John loved Ernie but wanted him. "John robbed the bank for two reasons. First for Ernie's sex change, second to run away with me. But I don't think he had the brains to mastermind a plot like that."
According to at least two intimates, the real story is as follows: Alleged soldiers in the Gambino organized crime family were behind the hold-up. (This is not the first foray of the Gambino family against the Chase Manhattan Bank. The big boss, Carlo himself, is under indictment for conspiracy to rob a Chase armored truck a few years ago.) Ernie knew it, others around town knew it, and the hold-up was in the planning stages for a long, long time. Ernie, however, found out only last Sunday, when Littlejohn received at least one of the guns used in the hold-up from Mike Umbers (long involved in the Mafia gay bar and pornography and prostitution scene). Ernie tried to stop Littlejohn and threatened to kill himself if his lover-husband went through with it. John didn't buy. Ernie took an overdose of sleeping pills and was rushed to Kings County Hospital. The following day, Umbers gave himself up to the police department on an unrelated charge. The charge dated back a couple of weeks and involved promoting obscenity. It stemmed from a police raid on two of Umbers's buildings and the discovery of a treasure trove of pornographic movies, photos, books, and magazines. Umbers told the police he surrendered because things were just too hot in town. Those close to the situation speculate that Umbers's real reason for surrender was so as not to be implicated in the robbery planned for the following day. Nevertheless, Umbers was released on $2000 bail.
According to the informants, the senior Mafia members' share of the big heist was to have been 50 per cent, or $75,000 to $100,000. The other 50 percent was to have been divided among the three robbers (originally five were involved; two chickened out). The sex change story, said Voice sources, was peripheral to the motive.
To digress a little, my own recollections of Littlejohn date back to May 1971 when John first came to the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse. He bought his little son within and claimed the kid was the youngest member of GAA. John was pleasant, spunky, a little crazy, and up front about his high sex drive. Once, during a Firehouse dance, he balled with a guy on a mattress in the basement. The next day, the mattress was removed, and there was talk about removing Littlejohn from membership. In June 1971, he requested that the members allow him to use the Firehouse for his wedding to someone who wasn't Ernie. A heated floor debate followed: is a homosexual marriage against the goals of gay liberation, or did the goals of gay liberation encompass all life styles? I supported John's marriage, but Arthur Evans, one of the big guns at GAA protested vehemently about John's use of the Firehouse to perpetuate the worst of heterosexual life styles. I believe the marriage motion passed, but John decided to postpone the wedding. Interestingly, about two weeks later, John in his dumb, earnest way asked Arthur Evans if he could deliver Arthur's nominating speech for his delegate-at-large platform. John did a beautiful job -- an homage to Arthur, "it's better to love and forgive."
About a month later, I interviewed Mike Umbers for The Voice ("Christopher's Emperor," July 22, 1971). Mike's mouth ran diarrhetic. He described himself as a veritable Joan of Arc, a straight man who was a "gay catalyst" providing jobs for down-at-the heels teenagers, such as running messages for him and helping out at his Christopher's End. He talked about his porno connections, his real estate involvements, the call boy service he operated from his Studio Book Store, and touched on his acquaintanceship with Jerome Johnson, the man who hit Colombo and was subsequently killed by an unknown assassin. (The genesis of Johnson's gun has never been discovered. Johnson, incidentally, roomed for a while at the Hotel Christopher, where Christopher's End was located, and was involved in the making of porno movies.) A few days later, Umbers's Christopher's End was raided by the New York Joint Strike Force Against Organized Crime. The End was closed down for a couple of days, then reopened. Umbers advertised "Weird Sex -- Now." Gay Activists didn't like it, and threw together a demonstration to protest Mike and the Mafia and the exploitative ripping off of the gay community. Littlejohn attended the protest plan meetings. He relayed secret GAA information to Umbers. When the march took place (plans were formulated and carried out in one day), John stupidly placed himself outside Christopher's End with a "Mike is Good" sign, thereby blatantly switching affiliations. He was rarely seen around the Firehouse thereafter. I bumped into him on Christopher Street a few times. He was always friendly and open and never with Ernie. Last April I asked him if I could interview him for a story I was doing on gay marriages. He said Ernie had left town and the marriage was on the rocks. The last time I saw Littlejohn before the Brooklyn escapade was at the Christopher Street Liberation Day march at the end of June.
To get back to the scene in Brooklyn, about 3 a.m. the crowd heard a shot. We were told it was a prankster's firecracker. Later, a cop leaked that the shot came from within the bank -- fired shoulder-high through the back door. Apparently Sal thought someone was breaking in. At 3.50, Littlejohn came out of the bank with a rifle strapped around his shoulder, a peacock strutting, a little man holding a magic wand. He talked with U.S. Attrorney Robert A. Morse. Not long after, John ordered al the cops, including the brigade in bulletproof vests, to drop their guns. A grin crossed his face. "I want them all down on the ground, please." Guns fell, and John slipped back into the bank. Then one by one, the hostages walked the tightrope from the bank to vehicle -- the magic carpet that was to take them to Kennedy and to faraway lands. Noises erupted from the crowd behind. A man tried to push through. "Who are you?" asked a cop. "I want to see if my wife goes into the car." "I'm sorry, you'll have to step back." "But she's my wife."
All but one hostage hopped into the vehicle. The car zoomed away, and the crowd cut loose and rushed the bank. Dozens of officers blocked the entrance. Only the fingerprint squad and officials high in FBI and police circles were allowed inside.
An hour later, David Durk, Ed Powers, Mary Nichols, and I rode back to Manhattan. And not long after -- it was dawn -- I turned on the radio to hear that Sal Natuarale was shot dead by an FBI agent at Kennedy while waiting for the airplane. Littlejohn was taken into police custody, and the hostages were all okay.
A couple of days later, I tended a Gay Activists Alliance meeting at the Firehouse. The attendance was about double what it usually is. After the usual order of GAA business, I was to moderate a discussion on the bank robbery. Did it or didn't it, should it or shouldn't it relate to the gay liberation movement? I couldn't effectively participate as a speaker because the discussion was based on the facts that the papers had carried to that point and my knowledge about the organized crime hook-up could not be divulged on the GAA floor. However, someone I'd never seen before, a former bartender at Danny's named Gary Badger, showed up to make a plea for money to bury his best friend, Sal Natuarale. Gary's plea came before the general Littlejohn discussion, and met with a less than enthusiastic response from the membership. Gary said he had to talk to me, and we left the general meeting and climbed up to the third floor of the Firehouse. Gary discussed what he knew about the robbery. His information jibed with the information I received from Littlejohn's friends. When I asked him "why are you telling me all this?" his answer was "because after Sal's death, it hit me that Umbers and the Gambino people were using young kids without giving a fuck about life or death to rake up money and power." We returned to the meeting proper, Gary sat next to me. He did not sit quiet. Following an inane statement by a long-winded GAA filibusterer, Gary shouted, "It's not as simple as that. The robbery was planned in April. You'll know a lot more when next week's Village Voice comes out."
At 10.30 that evening, Gary and I split. I went to the Barry Farber show where Farber quizzed me about the events of last Tuesday and where, again, I could only speak up to a point. Farber raised the question several times. Had the FBI allowed me to see Littlejohn, would events have been different, would a life have been saved? While I was verbally gymnasticizing with Farber, Gary Badger, in his raw-nerve state, visited New Jersey, then went back to the Village. He called me early the following morning to claim that he had been pot shot at the Morton Street pier and he wanted to see me because he had a lot more to tell. I called The Voice. Mary Nichols and Assistant City Editor Alan Weitz picked me up at home and we drove to Gary's place in the Village. We whisked Gary into the car and headed toward The Voice office. The place was teeming with cops and firemen. There had been two bomb threats at The Voice from the time Mary left the office to the time we returned -- a period of no more than an hour. With Gary and me stooped low in the car, we drove to FBI headquarters, where Gary told the feds what he had to tell. We returned to The Voice again later in the day. There was a phone call from Ed Powers of the New York City Police Department. Powers said the police had raided Mike Umbers's Mark-Litho Printing Plant earlier in the day and confiscated printing press material valued at $500,000. A new warrant was out for Umbers's arrest on that charge.
Here's how it stands, this Tuesday morning, August 29. Mike Umbers, the "gay catalyst," is roaming the streets somewhere or sitting tight, his heart in his mouth; a 19-year-old kid is dead, his body on ice, about to be removed to Potter's Field; Littlejohn is under federal custody; several dozen people are stuck with sewer hole memories in their heads; organized crime, like the March of Time, marches on; homosexuals continue to frequent bars run by the Gambinos since there are few alternatives (ironically, the Stonewall, the bar that precipitated the first gay riot and the beginning of the gay liberation movement, was a Gambino operation); and members of the gay liberation movement, including yours truly, are having a helluva time figuring out how the whole Littlejohn thing relates to gay liberation -- and it does -- and what we can do about it, if anything.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter