A few years ago I received an email from someone whose uncle was a participant in a Bronx teenage gang murder from the late 1940s. At the time I wasn’t able to provide him with any information because I had nothing at the time. However, since then I was able to get the details of the murder, and although his uncle wasn’t named in the indictment, I found the case intriguing.
Not only that but I have been corresponding with another person who lived in the Bronx in the 1950s and who knew the Young Sinners gang, a notorious group known for their violence.
I guess you could say I have Bronx gangs on the mind, so I thought now would be as good a time as any to put a page on my website about the Rockets and Lightnings, two gangs from the Bronx in the late 1940s.
This is their story.
On May 25, 1949 at about 9:30 p.m., Salvatore Sarate, Raymond Padro, Anthony Garcia, William Cuesta, Norris Araujo and a juvenile approached Theodore Segarra and a friend who were both hanging out in front of the Melrose House, a community center in the Bronx at 156th Street near Jackson Avenue. All of these boys were members of the Rockets gang.
They asked Segarra and his friend if they were members of a rival gang called the Lightnings. Segarra’s friend wisely took off, but Segarra stayed where he was; he wasn’t going to back down. He even told them that he was a member of the Lightnings, a bold response considering he was hugely outnumbered.
Segarra’s response confirming he was in the Lightnings was all the more astonishing because the two gangs had been in some serious fights up to that moment.
When Segarra said he was in the gang, Padro started the attack by punching him. Padro was likely the most angry of the group because that very afternoon some members of the Rockets and Lightnings got into a fight over a stick-ball game. During the fight, Padro received a beat-down by the Lightnings. He was furious and later gathered fellow members in the Rockets to go on a retaliatory raid.
It wasn’t just Padro getting beat up that was the problem. Apparently, there was a “period of savage feuding” between the two gangs prior to May 25. Amidst the hostilities between the Rockets and Lightnings, the Hurricanes joined in as allies of the Rockets.
That was the direct background circumstances leading up to the Rockets named above to pounce on Segarra. Padro in particular was itching for a fight.
Segarra couldn’t have known it at the time, but even if he did he wouldn’t have been surprised that the Rockets possessed a zip gun, a knife and a .38 caliber revolver. They also brought along broomstick.
When Segarra answered in the affirmative that he was a member of the Lightnings and Padro launched a punch at him, he bravely fought back. However, the rest of the Rockets jumped into the fray, and the fight that Padro wanted so badly with Segarra turned into a circle beating. The Rockets, punched and kicked him, smashed him with the broom handle and pistol whipped him with the butt of one of the guns.
Segarra knew he was in major trouble and tried to escape. However, Sarate stabbed him in the abdomen with a pen knife. Somehow Segarra – who was still on his feet – ran around the corner, actually escaping. Padro shot at him four or five times, but every shot missed, except for one which hit an innocent bystander, slightly wounding him in the neck.
Seeing a passing motorist, Segarra jumped on the running board of the vehicle, but collapsed and fell. The driver of the car took Segarra into his vehicle and to the Lincoln Hospital. When the driver arrived at the hospital and opened the door of his car, Segarra toppled out dead. Later, when an autopsy was performed, the cause of death was a stab wound of the abdomen, stomach and aorta with inter-abdominal retroperitotneal hemorrhage.
Immediately after the killing, police from the 42nd Precinct swung into action and Detective David Wahl was assigned to the case. Within one day of the murder, he had located all of the Rockets involved in the murder. Sarate confessed to stabbing Segarra and the other Rockets also admitted to their involvement. Sarate shared that he had been addicted to smoking marijuana and had smoke a cigarette just before the murder along with taking other narcotics.
Sarate was indicted for 1st degree murder which meant that if he was found guilty he could be strapped into the electric chair. Because of his age, the electric chair wasn’t a definite, but the possibility was still there.
It wasn’t too much of a surprise that Segarra’s mother wanted the defendants to be “punished severely.” With the details of his death coming public, it is likely she learned about the terrible way her son died.
The trial for Sarate began eight months later, on January 23, 1950. The trial was to be a symposium to highlight the troubles the police were having with teen-age gangs solving their problems with knife and gun battles in what the New York Post described as “long terrorized East Bronx areas.” The Bronx District Attorney and police officials hoped that the trial would create a “strong deterrent influence” on the remaining Bronx street gangs and break them up.
All the hoopla about a trial fizzled just as quickly as the headlines hit the newspaper; on January 24, 1950, on only the second day of jury selection, Sarate opted to plead guilty to 1st degree manslaughter with the acceptance of the District Attorney. When it came time for sentencing, Judge Joseph announced that “this tender age of murder will have no effect on me.” He then named 15 gangs that he had in his cross hairs and warned he would “impose the extreme limit” if they ever came before his bench.
Sarate stood in front of the Judge for sentencing and as he did so, the court read from the probation report stating that Sarate had grinned as he talked about the stabbing with police officers and had stated that he had no regrets.
The Judge imposed a maximum sentence of 10-20 years and sent Sarate to Elmira Reception Center where they could evaluate him in detail. After they analyzed him, Sarate was sent to Auburn Prison. The other Rockets were also sent to reformatories or placed on probation for their punishments.
As for the Lightnings, I’m not sure what happened to them from that point forward. Most likely they eventually petered out to disappear forever. As for the Rockets, by 1952 there were 7-10 of them left when they again became involved in a shooting, this time with the Bronx Dragons. And that is an investigation for another day.