Sometimes it’s fun to pick up an isolated, minor incident and go into the nuts and bolts of the story and the protagonist. The event I am going to write about involves a member of the Apaches, a Puerto Rican gang that hung out on the corner of Pacific and Nevins Streets in Brooklyn. This is the neighborhood of Boerum Hill and their turf was close to the Gowanus Projects.
This story involves an Apache by the nickname of “Papo,” who lived at 297 Pearl Street. The reason I bring up his address is because it is far from Apache turf and I wonder how he became entangled with the Apaches gang. But entangled he became.
Born on Christmas Day in 1940 in Caguas, Puerto Rico, Papo and his family lived in a small farming community. His parents split up when he was 8 months old, lived apart for a year, and then came together just long enough for his mother to become pregnant with another child, only to separate again. Papo had asthma and for many years had continuous headaches that doctors couldn’t diagnose. When he was 12, he suffered his first epileptic seizure. He would get around four seizures a year, but medication helped control the problem.
By the time he was a teenager, Papo was thin, 5’6” tall, and had brown eyes and reddish brown curly hair. He was pale, passive and withdrawn. He spoke broken English and it was difficult to understand what he was saying. He spoke Spanish at home and with his friends. His favorite activity was watching television; Perry Como and Westerns were his favorite.
Papo didn’t have a steady job. His mother said his seizures prevented him from getting a good job. The best he could do for employment was when he worked in a pet shop for a month and when he worked after hours in a barber shop. It was while he was working in the barber shop that he met Charles Smith, a music composer who took a liking to Papo and who hired him and his friends to do odd jobs. On one occasion Papo painted his flat for $150.00 – not an insignificant amount of money (about $1,300 in today’s money, certainly a good amount of money for a teenager).
Charles Smith felt sorry for Papo and helped him as much as he could. Besides hiring him for odd jobs, he also gave personal counseling and introduced him to a Roman Catholic priest for more help. Charles saw Papo as a “lost waif” who couldn’t cope with the New York City environment. When he hired Papo for odd jobs after school, he was impressed by his eager response to any act of kindness.
Likewise, Papo felt a close kinship to Charles Smith and was very attached to him. Charles even taught him how to play the piano. Whether he was successful or not with this isn’t known, but the effort Charles put out was considerable.
In August 1959, Charles traveled to London, England to make arrangements for showing a musical comedy. It was then when everything fell to pieces for Papo.
It started innocently enough on the evening of August 30, 1959 when he went to a movie at the Terminal Theatre on Pacific and Nevins’ Streets with his pal, Carlos Torres (aka “Geronimo”) also of the Apaches gang. They had supper at Geronimo’s house and hung out there until midnight, when four more fellows joined them: Maximo, Apache, Lefty and Jose. They all chipped in and bought a quart of beer for everyone in the group which they guzzled while they hung out on a stoop. Someone proffered a marijuana cigarette. Papo obliged and smoked the cigarette which made him feel “high and brave.” It was at this point that Apache said in Spanish, “Let’s go rob a house.”
Jose liked this idea and picking up on this theme, he asked Papo if he wanted to come along. He knew a great place to rob. Papo, feeling brave from the effects of the marijuana, agreed and followed Jose. For whatever reason, the others didn’t join them, even though it was Apache’s idea to rob a house. By this time it was about 3:45 a.m.
The spot that Jose had in mind to rob was two miles away from where they were, which is about a 30 minute walk. While it is possible they took the subway, at this time of night the subway system probably wasn’t running at full capacity and so they probably would have walked to their destination.
The house that Jose wanted to rob was 70 Orange Street in Brooklyn Heights which was quite close to Papo’s home on Pearl Street. They went to the rear of the building and Jose told Papo to wait outside while he would break in and hand the items to him. Papo was the lookout. It was then that Papo saw that 70 Orange Street was none other than the home of his employer and good friend Charles Smith. The actual break-in though was not into Smith’s flat, but rather that of an office worker who happened to be on vacation.
Still, this did not look good – what would Charles think? To Papo’s credit, he tried to convince Jose to forget about it. Jose laughed at Papo. Papo, who didn’t have the fortitude to press matters, continued working with Jose. As Papo watched, Jose broke the window above the latch and gained entry to the three-story building. A few minutes later he came out carrying a portable typewriter and a slide projector which he handed to Papo. Jose entered the alleyway, repossessed the loot and both boys walked toward to the street. As they got to the end of the alley, Jose suggested that Papo should venture out first to see if the coast was clear.
As soon as Papo stepped into the street light he saw a policeman. He turned around but Jose had vanished like a wraith into the darkness, leaving the loot against the wall. It was too late; Papo was caught like a rat in a trap.
Unbeknownst to Papo, someone had heard them trying to gain access in the backyard of the building and hearing the noise had made an anonymous phone call to the 84th Precinct at 4:15 a.m.
Responding to the call, Patrolman E.R. Rosini proceeded to 70 Orange Street in his patrol car where he saw Papo and Jose emerge from the alleyway. He ordered them to halt. Papo obeyed the command and stopped. Jose fled.
After his arrest and when he was questioned, Papo was asked about what he expected to happen. He hung his head and said he hoped he could be put on probation. The only reason he did the burglary was because he had “lost good sense” by smoking the marijuana cigarette. This wasn’t Papo’s first time smoking marijuana: he had started about two weeks before this date. He was asked if he realized that smoking the cigarette was against the law; Papo shook his head and agreed that this only made everything worse and in broken English said, “I hope the Judge let’s me go out.” The smoking of the marijuana had compounded problems for Papo because he was actually on bail for an incident from August 11, 1959.
On that day – actually it was night time – he was picked up on a disorderly conduct charge and an “1897 PL” charge (possession of a dangerous weapon). The time was 10 p.m. and the place was Union Street and 3rd Avenue. Patrolman Rampulla of the 78th Precinct had been called to the scene to investigate a possible gang rumble. Papo and several others were on the corner, milling about and shouting to the annoyance of those living in the area who called the police. Papo was charged along with four others, one of them who I know was in the Apaches. I was able to receive some insightful context from a friend of mine who was a former member of the Butler Gents, one of the many sub-groups under the South Brooklyn Boys gang umbrella. The South Brooklyn Boys were a large white gang with a long history dating back about 10 years. Their turf was relatively close to the Apaches.
The spot where Papo and the others were arrested on the corner of Union and 3rd Street was the heart of South Brooklyn Boys turf. The South Brooklyn Boys sub-groups usually went by their street names, so based on this corner, the sub group would have been the Union Street Boys who later called themselves the Union Devils in the early 1960s. Most likely this would have been the group the Apaches would have ended up fighting if they didn’t get pinched by the police. Not only was this corner the heart of South Brooklyn Boys turf, but South Brooklyn was a neighborhood with a heavy Mafia presence. Carmine Perisco, who later became the boss of the Colombos, lived on Carroll Street, only three blocks from that corner. He was 26 years old by August 1959, so he was well along into the life of organized crime, but when he was a youth he was also a member of the South Brooklyn Boys and in fact was questioned for his role in a gang murder in 1950.
The possession of the dangerous weapon was from the same incident. When Papo was arrested, he had a long, stick-like broom handle which was taped at both ends. The police asked why he had the stick and Papo said it was to fight some Italians. When he was questioned further about this, Papo showed some street smarts when he denied that he planned to hurt anyone with the stick. Perhaps he wasn’t planning to hit them very hard.
At any rate, he said that for that situation the Mau Maus were meeting with the Apaches to fight a third gang. Papo denied he was affiliated with either the Mau Maus or Apaches, but said he was closer to the Mau Maus. In all likelihood, Papo was a member of the Apaches as one of the other boys’ who was also arrested for this possible rumble was in the gang. And as mentioned before, when Papo was hanging out with the guys before the burglary, one of them was Geronimo, a leader of the Apaches. And finally, the Jose who was with him on the burglary was very likely none other than “Flame,” another mover and shaker in the Apaches who would later be arrested in 1960 for shooting a Mau Mau.
A more in-depth history of the Mau Maus and Apaches can be read in my book Brooklyn Rumble (click here to order your copy). The two gangs had a tempestuous, on-again, off-again relationship that swung like a pendulum between fast friends and bitter enemies.
Getting back to the burglary, Papo was in serious trouble because not only was he caught doing a robbery while on bail, he had admitted to smoking the marijuana cigarette.
Charles Smith must have been a great human being because when he found out about Papo’s arrest for breaking into the building he lived in, his response wasn’t what you might expect. He still had compassion for the lad and felt that Papo was so shy and lonely that just the offer of companionship was enough to get him involved in the disorderly conduct and burglary. In Smith’s words he said that Papo was “material that can be rehabilitated.” He blamed the company of his friends (the Apaches) for driving him into the crime.
So what happened to Papo? Well, it was a mixture of good and bad news for him. The good news is he was acquitted of the disorderly conduct charge. For the possession of a dangerous weapon they established bail, but the charge itself was dropped down to a misdemeanor. Most likely he wouldn’t have had much of a punishment for a misdemeanor.
The burglary, on the other hand, was sent to the Grand Jury, and bail was set at $1,500 on Sep.8, 1959. I’m not sure if Papo was able to make bail or not, but he was found guilty and sentenced on January 8, 1960. He was sent to Elmira Reception Center in upstate New York, and from there I lost track of him, so I’m not sure how his journey in the criminal justice system – and after – ended. Most likely he would have received a 3 year sentence and with good behaviour would have been out on parole in two years which would have been around January 1962.
As for Charles Smith, I’m not sure exactly who he was, especially with a common name like that. He certainly had some means at his disposal, being able to pay Papo $150 to paint his apartment and traveling to London, England for a musical comedy. So he must have had some substance derived from earnings on the music scene in New York City. I found information on a Charlie Smith who was a jazz drummer that lived in New York City and who worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman and other performers. He was born in 1927 and died in 1966, not even making it to the age of 40. During the 1960s, Smith worked mostly as a composer and educator, which fits with how he composed music at the time he befriended Papo and helped him play piano. I can’t say with 100% certainty that this was the Charles Smith in this story, but I think it’s a reasonable assumption.