The shooting victims were discovered at 9 o'clock that night in an old warehouse along the Delaware River in South Philadelphia.
I had been on a "ride-along" with a Philadelphia police sergeant when his car radio alerted us to the triple homicide. The sergeant, Bill Francini, was a friend as well as the subject of a column that I was writing for the local paper. Not wearing a seat belt, I braced myself as Francini raced for the river.
Arriving at the crime scene some ten minutes later, Francini pulled into a vacant space among a dozen hastily parked police vehicles. Francini ushered me around to the side of the warehouse bay, where I would not be violating the official crime scene, yet I could clearly observe Philly’s finest do their work.
Francini called out to his lieutenant and introduced me. The lieutenant looked at me sharply, perhaps placing me from the photo that ran with my column, and then simply nodded. He took his sergeant by the arm and they entered the warehouse. From my vantage point I was able to see the three dead men in the center of the warehouse bay. All were dressed casually. A short, elderly man lay crumpled with his squat legs twisted under his torso. A snarl appeared to be etched across his face and a gunshot wound was clearly visible just above his right ear.
The second victim had been a big and heavy man. I’m no little guy, but this guy was truly big. He was face up and stretched out across the ground. He died with a dumbfounded expression on his face, just below the large wound on his forehead. The third victim sat in an upright position against a wooden crate. Like the other two, he had a gunshot wound to the head. His face retained a goofy grin that looked familiar to me.
I heard one of the crime scene investigators from South Detectives tell the newly arrived homicide detective that an anonymous caller had dialed 911 and reported the shooting. The scene looked like a professional execution, organized crime style, so the detectives called the city's organized crime intelligence squad and asked for someone to come and help ID the bodies.
When a detective named McCollum from the squad arrived some 15 minutes later, he quickly walked among the three bodies, sidestepping the spent shell casings and blood puddles. He immediately identified the short older man - the one the detectives with their usual black humor had nicknamed "Grouchy" - as James "Jimmy First Nickel" Martin. Martin was a known associate of the local mob in his capacity as a receiver of stolen goods.
McCollum identified the second victim, nicknamed "Dopey," as Joey Aurelio, a strong-arm enforcer for Martin. The third victim, nicknamed "Happy," was dismissed as some small timer, as McCollum, the organized crime expert, had never seen him before.
"Hey, McCollum," one of the detectives shouted, "This guy should be happy – he’s still alive!"
A month later I entered the Federal Building in Center City Philadelphia and rode the elevator up to the 8th floor. I stood before the FBI’s receptionist, who was securely housed behind a sheet of protective glass. I told her that I had an appointment with Special Agent Frank Kaplan. I had come to interview Kaplan’s protected witness, Harry Sullivan - a.k.a. "Happy."
I had been granted an exclusive interview with the sole survivor of the warehouse murders, who was now a star witness for the prosecution in the upcoming murder trial of Francis "Frankie Raven" Ravelli, a particularly vicious mob captain of a particularly vicious crew of thieves, extortionists and hit men.
Sullivan had granted me an interview, as he liked my column on the warehouse murders and we knew each other from the old neighborhood.
I had joined the Navy on my 17th birthday and traveled to Southeast Asia about the same time the 20 year old Sullivan was heading to state prison for his first of many periods of incarceration. Years later, I would see him at neighborhood bars and clubs and he would play the criminal insider, feeding me tips for my column. He liked to show me off to his cronies. He was quite impressed with the notion that I had become a writer. Of course, the only other writers he knew were number writers.
Kaplan came out to the reception area and directed me to a vacant office where I saw Sullivan sitting at a conference table. Sullivan’s head was adorned with a turban bandage and he used a cane to navigate his way back to his chair after he stood and came forward to shake my hand. I sat on the other side of the table, laid my tape recorder down and took out my notebook and pen. I threw out some obligatory questions about his health and his family before I launched into asking him a series of questions about the events that lead up to the warehouse murders.
Harry Sullivan was a small time thief. He was in his early 50s, slightly built with a drawn, pock-mocked face that was framed with longish, unruly and scruffy blond hair. Despite his looks and his profession, he was not a drug addict. Sullivan barely managed to make a proper living from his small time stealing and he often had to supplement his illicit income with a straight job. Despite his failure, he still yearned to be an arch-criminal, like Willie Sutton the old bank robber. Sullivan wanted to be respected.
Sullivan’s graduation to the big time came on the day he happened to witness a head-on collision between a Volvo and a city trash truck. The driver of the Volvo was instantly killed and the city workers were unhurt but badly shaken. Sullivan was one of the first to come to the aid of the Volvo driver, but seeing that he was beyond it all, Sullivan lifted the man’s brown leather satchel from the front passenger seat.
Sullivan slipped away and sprinted the two city blocks to his apartment. Once there, alone in his kitchen, Sullivan broke the lock on the satchel and dropped the contents on the kitchen table. He cried gleefully at the sight of the assortment of diamonds spread across his table. The accident victim must have been a diamond salesman or courier.
Later, after he calmed down, he placed his haul into a large paper shopping bag and walked three blocks to Jimmy First Nickel’s appliance store. Even though Martin had a reputation of being somewhat tight with his money – hence the nickname that indicated he retained the first nickel he ever earned – Sullivan knew that he was mobbed-up and was the man to see.
Martin was sitting behind the counter, talking to his much younger girlfriend Gloria when Sullivan walked in. He handed Martin the bag and told him how he came to be in possession of the diamonds. Martin, a short, heavy man in his 70s, breathed hard as he rose from his chair and came around the counter to lock the door and hang the closed sign.
Martin ran his hand through the sparse gray strands of hair that were slicked back across his head as he looked into the bag. Sullivan stood there feeling awkward, smiling a goofy smile at the strikingly beautiful dark haired girl. She returned his smile with a cold look of boredom.
"I’m impressed Harry," Martin said. "This is some piece of work here. Lemme make a call and see if I can unload it tonight."
Martin mumbled into the phone for a few minutes and then announced that he had arranged a meeting with "the man." Sullivan felt a surge of the perverse pride of a professional thief, but he also felt fearful of entering the world of big time crime.
"I don’t know, Jimmy," Sullivan whined. "I think its better wit you as the go-between."
"Harry, this is the big time! There must be $100,000 in this bag," Martin exclaimed. "The man wants to meet you personally."
A few hours, a few beers later, Martin and Sullivan drove in silence to a riverside warehouse. Inside, Martin introduced Sullivan to a large man named Joey, who lumbered towards them, his hand placed on a gun in the waistband of his slacks. Sullivan instantly knew this was no major league buyer. He knew that Martin had gotten a bone crusher to help steal his diamonds.
In desperation, assuming Joey had planned to kill him, Sullivan scooped a handful of the diamonds from the bag and flung them towards Joey’s face. Sullivan then dove for some stacked crates half-heartily, fully expecting to be shot and killed.
The blast sounded like heavy artillery in the open warehouse bay. Sullivan, surprised not to be dead, scampered up and saw that Joey was stretched out. He also saw two young dark guys, neat dressers, who looked like a hundred guys Sullivan knew from the bars and clubs of South Philly. One held a large semi-automatic handgun, a Beretta, Sullivan guessed. The other held a shotgun, which was now trained on Martin. Getting a better look, he realized that the one with the Beretta was Frankie Raven.
Ignoring Sullivan on the ground, Ravelli smiled cruelly as he held his Beretta to Martin’s head. "We’re your life-long partners, Jimmy. Didja think ya could cut us out of this deal?"
"No, no, please," Martin cried. "I was jes introducing a couple of guys, its small time."
"That’s not what Gloria told me, ya weasel," Ravelli said as he fired into Martin’s head. Martin dropped like a hangman’s weight bag. Ravelli then walked to where Sullivan rested against a crate.
"I know you. You’re a small timer from Donny’s bar," Ravelli said.
"I’m not a small timer," Sullivan scoffed. "This was my job."
"When you’re right, you’re right," Ravelli said coolly as he lifted the Beretta and pulled the trigger.
Kaplan brought us another refill of coffee just as we were finishing up the interview. Sullivan sat in his chair puffing on one of a long string of cigarettes that he had smoked while telling his story to me.
"You know why I really want to testify against Ravelli?" Sullivan asked.
"Well, for starters, I would think his shooting you," I said in response. "And I know Frankie, he will certainly finish the job if given the opportunity."
"Yeah, yeah, sure. But I really want to get up in court and put that bastard away. I want him and everybody to know that I’m not a small timer."
Frankie Raven received a life sentence. Quote the judge, Frankie Raven, nevermore. Sullivan was booked into the federal witness protection program and was moved out west somewhere.
As he wished, Sullivan received his moment of glory, his 15 minutes of fame. But I had to laugh when I spied what my editor placed over my column about the trial.
"Small Timer Testifies Against Mob Boss."