Old Fashioned Crime

Vincent Coll, 1908-1932:

This Juvenile Delinquent Graduated to Murder Before Losing His Life (and Most of His Face) in a Manhattan Phone Booth

by Stephanie Hoover, April 19, 2020
© 2020, All Rights Reserved, Permission Required for Any Use or Re-Distribution

Tall, lean and blond, Vincent Coll could have been the kind of young man who succeeded on good looks alone. He instead chose crime as a more expeditious means to an end and, unfortunately for the handsome Irishman, it quite literally was.

Coll's extensive arrest record includes a wide sampling of unlawful acts:

1920 (at age 12): disorderly conduct; juvenile delinquency
1924: juvenile delinquency; illegal possession of a revolver
1928: unlawful entry; assault; robbery; suspicion of a felony; violation of parole
1930: homicide; several counts of illegal possession of a revolver; several counts of robbery; felonious assault
1931: jumped bail; homicide (of a child); robbery
1932: conspiracy

Vincent Coll It was an ambitious rap sheet for a criminal who'd arrived in New York in 1909 as an infant. Just eleven years later, Coll was running with the Gopher Gang. Working out of the predominantly Irish Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, the gang (said to be named after their propensity to hide in basements) controlled much of the revenue generated by illicit activities in Manhattan. By his late teens, Coll had graduated from the Gophers to a larger crime organization headed by mobster and bootlegger Arthur Fliegenheimer, better known as Dutch Schultz (1902-1935).

Coll worked as an armed guard protecting Schultz's beer delivery trucks. Schultz initially admired Coll's fearlessness and quickly promoted the younger man to second in command. Among mobsters, Coll was compared favorably to a young Chicago thug by the name of Al Capone (1899-1947), the presumed heir to that city's big boss, Johnny Torrio (1882-1957). Much like Capone, though, it ran against Coll's grain to be second to anyone.

Without Schultz's permission, Coll made two drastic decisions. First, he killed speakeasy owner, Anthony Borello, and a dance hall hostess. Borello, it was said, refused to sell Schultz's beer. The hostess may well have been collateral damage. Next, Coll robbed a large dairy of $17,000. He kept all of the cash proceeds rather than offering Schultz a cut. This was unthinkable in a world that operated on a system of "kicking up" to the boss. The final straw was Coll's demand for an equal partnership in Dutch Schultz's enterprises. He was flatly rebuffed, leading Coll to declare war on his former boss in January 1930.

Without earnings from Schultz, Coll's primary streams of revenue were kidnapping and extorting other gangsters. In 1931, Coll targeted bootlegger Joseph Rao (1901-1962). Rao, an off-and-on associate of Shultz, was sitting outside the Helmar Social Club at 208 East 107th Street in Harlem's "Little Italy" on the afternoon of July 28. It was a hot day and the street was full of children seeking relief. One boy had erected a lemonade stand. Several girls were playing tag. Michael D'Amello played on the sidewalk while his 12-year-old sister, Florence, pushed their toddler cousin, Michael Bevilacqui, in a wicker pram. Suddenly, all hell broke loose.

The boy working his lemonade stand was the first to see the gun protruding from the window of a slowly passing car. He dropped to the ground as bullets dismantled his makeshift booth. The shooting was over by the time most of the parents made their way to the street. The scene was devastating.

Rao had escaped injury but five-year-old Michael Vengalli lay dead on the sidewalk. The little boy in the stroller had three bullets in his back, but he was alive. Several other children were bleeding from non-life-threatening wounds.

All Vincent Coll had accomplished was the murder of a child. He didn't capture Joe Rao, and he certainly wouldn't get another chance to catch his rival off guard.

The reports of the "baby killing" appeared in newspapers across the country. With each re-telling, outrage grew. Readers had grown accustomed to stories about mobsters killing one another. This was very different. Parents shuddered at the thought of their innocent children gunned down for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Citizens everywhere called for the murderers' heads.

Vincent Coll in disguise On October 4, 1931, police in the Bronx found Coll and four members of his gang holed up in an apartment. The bright lights beating down onto the police line-up in which he stood revealed the mobster's ridiculous attempt at a disguise. His blond hair was dyed black, as was the scraggly mustache he'd barely managed to cultivate. At the time of his arrest, police found $4,600 in his pocket. Lottie Kliesberger, the self-described fashion designer Coll had recently wed, was taken into custody with him. When asked why she stayed with a man like Coll she explained, "I'd rather share a ham sandwich with Vincent than a fortune with any other man."

Coll knew he needed a good lawyer if he was to have any chance at beating the murder charge. Mob legend has it that it was a kidnapping threat against fellow gangster Owney Madden (1891-1965) that generated enough cash to hire Samuel S. Leibowitz, famed defender of the Scottsboro Boys. In the end, Liebowitz was far less effective in securing Coll's release than was the prosecution's sole witness. George Brecht was forced to admit on the stand that he had lied about his background and former criminal activities. Coll was acquitted on December 28, 1931, but escaping consequences in a courtroom was easier than escaping them on the streets.

On February 2, 1932, gunmen killed three innocent bystanders in an attempt to assassinate the Irishman. Six days later, the 23-year-old's luck ran out. While using a phone booth inside a drugstore on Eighth Avenue at 23rd Street in Manhattan, a gunman entered through the front door. Coll's bodyguard silently and quickly exited through the rear, leaving the young mobster unprotected. The man holding the Thompson submachine gun opened fire. At least 15 bullets hit Coll, although a number of others may have passed through his body. One slug tore the nose from Coll's once handsome face. The killer was never identified, although the gun used in the hit was later found at the scene of a 1933 murder in a Hell's Kitchen saloon.

Ironically, Vincent Coll is remembered today as the one thing he would have hated most: a sidekick to Dutch Schultz who was himself murdered at the behest of Lucky Luciano (1897-1962) just three years later.

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