News & Politics

Beatnik Coffee House Owner Gunned Down


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April 4, 1963, Vol. VIII, No. 24

Elderly Evictee Shoots Bleecker St. Cafe Owner

By J. R. Goddard

The life of Ronald Van Ehmsen, a bearded, flowing-haired 31-year-old Villager locally famous for his resemblance to Christ, ended last Saturday in a manner worth of the most violent passages in the Bible. H was shot by an elderly man facing eviction to make way for the enlargement of Von Ehmsen’s beat-ambiance coffee house.

Simone Pepe, 73, the occupant of the premises behind Von Ehmsen’s Cafe Rafio, 165 Bleecker Street, was arrested for the crime on Saturday evening. Taken to the Charles Street (Village) precinct house, he readily confessed.

The shooting occurred at 12:20 Saturday afternoon. Von Ehmsen was walking his dog near his cafe when Pepe approached him. According to witnesses, Pepe showed him an eviction notice which had been sent preparatory to enlarging the Rafio. The two men apparently argued, and Von Ehmsen finally turned away. Pepe, it was reported, then pulled out a .32 caliber revolver and shot the coffee-house owner three times. Von Ehmsen stumbled down Bleecker Street where he collapsed and died in front of a liquor store. Pepe quietly left the scene to take a train to his daughter’s home in Long Island.

Ironically, only moments after the shooting of the Biblical Von Ehmsen, a man on a motor scooter drove by carrying a giant cross. About the same time local police cordoned off the area and found Pepe’s eviction notice lying on the sidewalk. Detectives promptly traced Pepe to his daughter’s home and arrested him. The elderly and allegedly ailing Pepe is scheduled to appear in court on April 15.

Since taking over the Rafio a few years ago, Von Ehmsen had become something of a legend in the Village. He often displayed a picture of himself in the Rafio window looking like the common pictorial representation of Christ. A later picture, however, contradicted this Messianic image. It showed Von Ehmsen, or “Von” as he was often called, driving down Bleecker Street in a bed on wheels ogling a sexy girl. Von Ehmsen’s success with women was another part of the legend, which also included ownership of a weird variety of sports cars, old limousines, motor scooters, and the like. No matter what MacDougal Street thought about the exhibitionistic Von Ehmsen, most had to admit he had a weirdly amusing sense of style.

Because of his reputation, many among the huge springtime crowd surging onto Bleecker and MacDougal Streets on Saturday night knew of his death. Clumps of curious people peered into the closed Rafio, and many made wisecracks about the “beatnik killing.” Some locals were also overheard singing a hastily written and ribald ballad, sung to the tune of “Mack the Knife,” which recounted the violent demise.

Von Ehmsen’s deat was the second homicide in the controversial and highly commercialized coffee house district last week. On Thursday evening Thomas McNear was stabbed to death by Eugene “Teeno” Smith on Sixth Avenue near Minetta Lane. And on Friday evening police answering another fight call in the area cooled a near rumble at Bleecker and MacDougal Streets. One Villager living nearby shrugged his shoulders when it was all over and laughed. “Well, it’s warm weather fight time again.” Then he added with much less humor, “What can you expect when you’ve got the worst creeps in New York hanging out here now?”

[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.]


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