Category Archives: Organized Crime

1999: David Leisure, mob war veteran

Gangster David Leisure — not to be confused with the “Joe Isuzu” actor of the same name — was executed by lethal injection in Missouri on this date in 1999.

A rare real-life mafioso — perhaps the first executed in the United States since Murder, Inc. boss Louis “Lepke” Buchalter in 1944 — Leisure shattered the tense 19-day calm after St. Louis mob boss Anthony Giordano died in 1980.

What would the post-Giordano underworld look like? The Leisure family sized up 75-year-old James “Horseshoe Jimmy” Michaels Sr. as a rival to eliminate for reasons both personal and professional. Paulie Leisure, his brother Anthony, and their cousin, our man David Leisure, already held Michaels responsible for permitting the murder of another family member in 1964. But as a more direct inducement, Michaels purposed to wrest control of a mobbed-up union from the Leisures.

On September 17, under Paulie’s orders, David Leisure and Anthony Leisure tailed Michaels onto Interstate 55, where by remote control they detonated a bomb they’d attached to the undercarriage of their enemy’s Chrysler Cordoba.

A nationally known gangland war ensued, nicknamed the “Syrian-Lebanese War” — not in tribute to world news but because mobsters of Levantine descent were a principal St. Louis crime faction, and it was for primacy among them that the Michaels and Leisure circles murdered one another. The next year, Paulie Leisure lost his legs to a retaliatory bomb, which in turn led the Leisures to kill Michaels’s grandson, and on and on.

By 1983, FBI informants had brought all our Leisure characters under indictment. David Leisure already had lengthy prison sentences for racketeering and for a different car bomb murder by the time the Show Me State was ready to prosecute the Michaels murder. Paul Leisure never got the death penalty but he died in federal prison a few months after his cousin’s execution. The St. Louis mafia has been said to be reduced by the present day to little more than a social club for aging wiseguys from a bygone world.

1941: Pittsburgh Phil

On this date in 1941, Brooklyn gangster Pittsburgh Phil went to the Sing Sing electric chair.

The smart-dressed Pittsburgh Phil* — “Harry Strauss” to his parents or just plain “Pep” to his friends — was the most notorious contract killer of the Springsteen-worthy crime syndicate Murder, Inc.. He racked up an alleged body count well north of 100 — possibly several multiples of that figure — popping whomever some organized crime figure needed to be rid of. (Like this guy.)

Pep eschewed any single m.o., murdering with blades and bullets and garrotes and lungs full of water, and he rarely even carried a weapon lest it incriminate him on a chance arrest. Well did he know this tradecraft, for he beat no fewer than 17 prosecutions in New York. The man also took hit assignments all around the country, for other crime lords in cities whose patrolmen did not recognize him by name and reputation.

And fittingly, it took another assassin to kill him.

Fellow Murder, Inc. killer Abe “Kid Twist” Reles — a childhood buddy with whom he’d come up in the Prohibition crime world via Meyer Lansky‘s organization — got caught in the government’s sights and realized that his only probable purchase on life involved giving evidence against his mates.

We’ve seen that his testimony did in Frank Abbandando and Harry Maione, even though Reles had “fallen out of a window” before those goons sat in the mercy seat. Reles likewise gave up Pittsburgh Phil, who in Raymond Chandler’s was “electrocuted with a sneer on his face” on this date along with his fellow Murder, Inc. plugger Buggsy Goldstein.

* Why did they call him “Pittsburgh Phil”? Who knows! He is at any rate not to be confused with groundbreaking horse bettor George “Pittsburgh Phil” Smith.