He wasn’t an imposing teenager: slim, medium build, 5’8” tall and 125 lbs. At 17 years old, Sal had a boyish look about him, a typical, run-of-the-mill teenager who lived in Brooklyn in the 1950s. His appearance was innocuous – innocent even – but his mannerisms and behavior betrayed something beneath the surface. Indeed, Sal was far from innocent. He was a young hoodlum committed to crime.
Sal was a member of a youth gang called the Gremlins. Their members were Irish and Italian and came from the Flatbush/Windsor Terrace area of Brooklyn. Along with a character named Danny Marino, Sal was one of the leaders of the gang.
The Gremlins were a rough bunch of bullies and some of them aspired to have careers in the underworld or later became connected with the Mafia. This was true with Italian gangs all across New York City. Either gang members did small jobs for wise guys in their neighborhood and/or they later graduated to the big show when they were old enough. When I wrote Brooklyn Rumble, a book about the Mau Maus and Sand Street Angels gangs, one of my favorite parts to write was Chapter Five. In that chapter I wrote about the relationship between the Italian Sand Street Angels and the Mafia in the Brooklyn Navy Yard neighborhood. Like the Angels, the Gremlins had this type of relationship with the Mafia.
The Gremlins had a history that went as far back as early 1945 with members between the ages of 14 and 16 who alternated between playing baseball on Prospect Park Parade Grounds and roving the streets engaging in gang warfare. In February 1945, one of their enemies was a gang called the Garfields (probably the Garfield Boys which had their own members who were connected to organized crime). One time the Garfields approached a couple of boys and demanded to know if they were members of the Gremlins. They denied it (always deny!), but one of the Garfields said, “Let’s beat ‘em up anyway.” So they did and fractured one boy’s skull. He was taken to Kings County Hospital.
In the 1950s, the Gremlins fought the Jokers and Flatbush Tigers. One fight in 1954 with the Jokers happened at East Fifth Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway. They slugged it out with clubs and bayonets. One of the arrested boys had bail of $10,000 and the other was $20,000 because he had stabbed one of combatants with a bayonet.
Two years after this the Gremlins were still at it. Several of them were charged in February 1956 with Unlawful Assembly when a fight between them and the Flatbush Tigers was thwarted by police who confiscated a bayonet, a scout knife, bricks and sticks.
In 1957, a Gremlin was severely beaten up by the Flatbush Tigers and sent to the hospital. Following the gang code of revenge, the Gremlins combined forces with the Park Slope Royals and as they were about to fight the Flatbush Tigers on Newkirk Ave and East 28th and East 29th Streets, eight detectives arrived on the scene and arrested 37 of the boys, 25 of whom were under the age of 16. Someone had tipped them off and the detectives got there just in time to prevent an all-out rumble between more than 50 members of the three gangs. It’s a good thing they were stopped because their weaponry was simple enough in its own quaint, brutish way – if that makes sense: wooden clubs, four lengths of tire skid chains, iron bars, 20 belts with heavy buckles, nine knives and two bombs, one of them made from a cold cream jar filled with gun powder and the other a metal container filled with gas, a Molotov cocktail.
The Gremlins enjoyed robbing other kids and humiliating them. One boy who lived in Flatbush had regular run-ins with the Gremlins when he and his friends were 7-8 years old. The dividing line between the safe cocoon of his neighborhood and their area was Fort Hamilton Parkway. North of that was Windsor Terrace, a working class neighborhood, a Wild West to him and his friends, an area full of ruffians. At the corner of East 5th Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway was P.S. 130, an elementary school. It was on the edge of the territory of the ruffians and his safe neighborhood. However, the school served both groups. The schoolyard was a favorite spot to play baseball for the 7-8 year olds, but it wasn’t as simple as showing up to play whenever they wanted. There was a system the young boys used so they didn’t get beat up. They sent out reconnaissance to scout the schoolyard for any bullies. If nobody was there they were free to play.
The worst was when they were in the middle of a game and they were interrupted by the Gremlins. A high chain-link fence surrounded the schoolyard and the only entrance and exit was on East 5th Street. Like song sparrows dodging birds of prey, if they weren’t watching, the Gremlins came through the gate and trapped them in the schoolyard. If that happened, the Gremlins stole their ball, lined them up and forced them to their knees and made them bow to them. If anybody resisted, a beating was promised. The interesting thing is that the Gremlins were only about 10 years old and the boys they picked on were 7 or 8 years old. This batch of Gremlins began their life of terror at a young age. It was “the natural pecking order;” the Gremlins “were the wolves, and we were the sheep.”
The Gremlins were vicious and years ago I met someone who grew up on Ocean Parkway in the 1950s and hung around the skating rink at Park Circle. He lived in Ditmas Duke territory, but he wasn’t a member of the gang. However, he liked to emulate them. That had very bad consequences for him one night when he was walking down East 5th Street and Beverly Road wearing a motorcycle jacket with a skull and cross pistons painted on the back. It was a copy of the jacket Marlon Brando wore in The Wild Ones movie. As he walked down the street, someone emerged from a car and greeted him.
“Hi Ditmas Duke,” he said.
I smiled, because I felt complimented and then took a concussion from a baseball bat. The guy who did it was Frank Reilly, I believe, a member of the Gremlins.
From this hawk’s eye view of Gremlin activity in the 1950s, we dive directly into July 1955, where we learn of a devious scheme Sal and his fellow Gremlins concocted. It was the middle of July, school was out, and as the saying goes, an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. The Gremlins were looking for a victim to sink their talons into. Luckily for them, and equally unfortunately for their victims, the Gremlins found six of them hanging out on the corner of Avenue C and Ocean Parkway.
Like a hot desert wind blowing off the Sahara, Sal and the Gremlins fell upon their prey. It wasn’t a fair match with 3:1 odds. The Gremlins were looking for money and David, one of the boys standing at the corner, refused to be intimidated and resisted their demands. But this didn’t do much and Sal slapped him several times and either he or one of his cronies reached into David’s pocket and stole a dollar and some change. The other boys were also robbed and in total, $2.40 was stolen.
As the Gremlins left, Sal told David they now had to $20 a week for protection (from them) and the first payment was to go down on July 18, 1955 at 8 p.m. on the same street corner. Sal was only 17 years old and he was already a junior Mafioso shaking people down.
David promptly told the police what happened and they arranged to spy on the extortion planned for the evening of July 18. I’m not sure how he did this, but Sal caught wind of the planned sting, and he didn’t show up. Instead he paid a little visit to David who worked as a delivery boy for a cleaning store on Church Avenue and Ocean Parkway. He told David that he found out what he did and warned him to never involve the police again. Arrangements for the extortion were reschedule for Jul.20, 1955, where the payoff would happen at the entrance to the Greenwood playground on Fort Hamilton Parkway and Ocean Parkway. This was the same park that the police would stop a fight between the Gremlins and Flatbush Tigers seven months later in February 1956 (as noted above).
Again, David told the police what happened and again arrangements were made to spy on the extortion attempt in Greenwood playground. The police provided David with five one dollar bills that were marked. While the payoff happened they would observe from a distance. David waited at the entrance to Greenwood playground and with the precision of a Swiss time piece, Sal and a comrade approached David and told him to follow him to a secluded spot in the park where he asked for the money. David told him he only had $5. Sal accepted the money but told him, “Okay, give it to me, and make sure you have more the next time.”
Sal walked away when two detectives who watched the event go down arrested him. Sal had stuffed the $5 into his underpants where it was recovered. I’m not sure whether the detective wore latex gloves to expel the cash from its dark hiding place or if Sal plucked it out with his own fingers. From there Sal was taken to the 70th Precinct where he was booked for attempted extortion.
When Sal was doing his dirty work, a fellow Gremlin was with him. His first name was Robert, and no last name given. For some unexplainable reason the arresting officer dismissed Robert. I bring this up because like a late-popping kernel of corn, Robert will show up later in this story.
Sal told the police that it was true that he got $5 from David, but they misunderstood. He wasn’t extorting David. No, the money was to pay for a debt owed to Danny Marino, one of the other leaders of the Gremlins who I mentioned earlier in this article. However, after close questioning, Sal wilted and admitted that it actually was a shakedown as well as the previous extortion when him and the rest of the Gremlins stole $2.40.
David didn’t care either way what type of punishment would befall Sal. He just wanted to be left alone. Other than the money he lost from the first extortion, he wasn’t out by much. Of course there was the insult of being shoved around by Sal and the Gremlins, but since their arrest, the Gremlins hadn’t come around anymore to terrorize him. The $5 in marked $1 bills would be returned to him by the police who held it for evidence.
The police investigated the case and even though the cash the Gremlins stole wasn’t very much, this wasn’t Sal’s first rodeo in the extortion business. In fact, the arresting officer said that Sal was the “muscle man” of about 15 Gremlins who were a menace to the neighborhood of Ocean Parkway and Church Ave. Their modus operandi was slapping other boys around and collecting extortion money from them. In fact, when Sal was 15 years old, he was arrested on February 22, 1954 for extortion. His 16th birthday was the next day and when you take into account he committed the crime at 8:45 p.m., he was literally hours away from being charged as an adolescent instead of as a juvenile where the punishment wouldn’t be as punitive. In that incident, along with two others, they stopped a 13 year old and a 14 year old, and armed with a penknife, brass knuckles and a club, they assaulted them, hitting them with the brass knuckles and holding the open penknife to their vulnerable bellies. They stole 25 cents from them with violent force.
Sal’s extortion attempt in July 1955 wasn’t his first time. Extortion was his business.
Sal launched into blame-shifting mode and tried to pin the blame on Danny Marino by saying he was the leader of the gang, gave all the orders and that he obeyed him because he was afraid of getting beat up by Danny’s older brother. The plan was to divide the $5 with Marino, himself and three other Gremlins. All of them had Children’s Court records and all of them were on probation. According to the arresting officer, the Gremlins had a sophisticated operation (at least for teenagers) and no police action was taken against them because they adeptly hid their criminal deeds.
Sal didn’t see the seriousness of the situation. He told the police the Gremlins forced it on him and that the reason he was in the gang in the first place was because he would get beat up if he didn’t join. Plus, there were social functions that were connected with the gang that he wanted to be a part of.
However, Sal’s gang behavior didn’t match what he said about joining the Gremlins out of fear of getting beat up.
He came from a large family and his parents were too busy with raising so many kids to pay a lot of attention to him. Both his parents were Italian, but they came from Tunisia, Africa and didn’t understand the American culture or their own son. So he drifted from the family to the point where his home was only a landing pad for eating and sleeping. He never confided in his parents. Instead he sought companionship with criminally-minded boys in the neighborhood. He joined the Gremlins in January 1955, after being invited to join the gang. They told Sal the purpose of the Gremlins was “strictly for social functions” which included church dances, parties and skating rinks. However, this deteriorated into them terrifying the neighborhood, robbing boys and collecting protection money from them. The Gremlins were around as far back as 1945, so it’s doubtful, laughable actually, that the Gremlins were there “strictly for social functions.”
Sal told the investigators the names of a host of Gremlins and how he would meet up with them in playgrounds on Prospect Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway. They roamed up and down Ocean Parkway together. Seven of the names of the Gremlins that Sal gave up to the police were already known to them. They had actually assaulted a police officer near 76 Prospect Park West when he tried to stop them from being disorderly. Years ago I found an excellent write-up on a member of the Gremlins with the first name of “Dom.” His story is no longer on the Internet, but here is a portion of it as it pertains to Dom’s activities in the gang. This is an excellent description of what life was probably like in the gang, as seen through the eyes of an outsider:
I first saw Dom get in trouble shoplifting small items from Kenny’s Variety Store on Church and E. 3rd. It seemed pretty stupid to shoplift right next to where his Mom worked but who knows. He usually got off with a lecture and having his Mom told but he never seemed remorseful or committed to change behaviors. He seemed to have an attitude that he would try harder and smarter at shoplifting.
I once heard that he had gotten caught trying to shoplift a plastic model airplane kit from Victor’s Toy Store on Church and E. 5th Street. I was told that the Cops had come and that Dominic was taken away in a Police car.
He wasn’t around for awhile but finally showed up with a new “look”. He told everyone that he had been staying with an uncle, his father’s brother, in the Bronx and that he used to get beatings.
His new “look” was ’50s hoodlum-ish… greased pompador hair with a DA, pegged pants with an inset of red satin on the legs, very pointy shoes, and a nasty and intimidating attitude.
Where we lived was just north of an area controlled by the Ditmas Dukes and south of Gremlins territory. Dom announced that he was a Gremlin and that he could get 500 guys to beat anyone’s asses. This is where I became even more remote from Dom.
I couldn’t figure out how Dom could afford his new style till I was told that he was stealing checks out of mailboxes on Ocean Parkway and was also snatching purses from old women. I understand that he did get caught and was “sent away” but he always reappeared after three or six months.
Sal was sent away upstate for a 3 year sentence. Up to this point, Sal’s story isn’t exactly promising and it feels like his life will be a repeating series of mistakes, bad decisions and outright crimes. Sal not learning his lesson while in prison would be normal. In today’s age, two thirds of criminals go on to reoffend again with half of them going back to prison. It was probably the same in the 1950s and a life of crime and incarceration seemed to be waiting for Sal.
But Sal wasn’t like so many others. When the doors slammed shut on him, he matured quickly. Real quick. When the psychiatrist met with him on April 25, 1956, at first Sal was apprehsnive, sitting on the edge of his chair with a scared look on his face. However, the psychiatrist won his trust and they began to talk. As they talked, the psychiatrist became very impressed by Sal:
…There is no question about the fact that this boy has real, profound and sincere remorse for his activities and the fact that he became identified with a gang known as “Gremlins.” One gathers that soon after the prison doors closed on his incarceration, he matured and stabilized and reached a point in his thinking and comprehension of a much more realistic nature. He now feels so motivated and so indebted and obligated to his parents that he anticipates obtaining two separate jobs in order that he can aid with the economy of the family. He indicates that the offense for which he is incarcerated was a result of the fact he was turning over his pay check of $34.00 to his mother from which she would give him a dollar a day and three dollars on Sunday. He states that at that time this did not seem to be sufficient in order to hang around with the associates that he had at that time. He now realizes the error of his ways and indicates that his parents are very interested in him. He states that he has caused, because of his behavior and disobedience, some concern to his mother and father, but he indicates in a very convincing manner that that has now come to an end and he can assume his role in life and society as a member of the family in a healthy, adult and constructive fashion.
Sal backed his words up with positive action and he got out on parole on July 12, 1957. I should say though that his time served wasn’t perfect. In his first parole hearing, for which he was rejected (which was normal and happened to all inmates), the following humorous exchange took place:
Q: Back in September you got a little lazy?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: You didn’t get up in the morning?
A: No, sir.
Q: Why not?
A: I was dreaming. Five minutes later I got a report.
The day he got out on parole, Sal met his parole officer who spelled out the rules to him. Rules like an 11 p.m. curfew during the week and a midnight on Saturdays. He was especially warned about not hanging out with his old friends in the Gremlins. As long as he followed those rules he wouldn’t be returned back to prison. Parole would expire on August 15, 1958.
Sal was to live with his parents at 548 East Third Street and he landed a job at the Brooklyn Stone Renovating Company. He got the job because his boss was a personal friend of his father. He couldn’t screw up now.
And you know what? He didn’t screw up. He did very well on parole, in fact. Sal matured and was a regular and willing worker. He didn’t hang out with the Gremlins anymore. His parole officer said that “there appears to be very little doubt that the parolee is on his way to make a very satisfactory adjustment in Society and meet his share of responsibility in the community.”
I didn’t find Sal having any further run-ins with the law, so I’m assuming he wasn’t fooling the psychiatrist: he really did want to do better with his life, prove his parents he could hold his own and be responsible. However, that wasn’t the case with all the Gremlins. I mentioned three of them in this post: Dom, Danny Marino and Robert. Here’s what happened to them:
When Dom got older he hung out with wanna-bees from the Gallo family at a place called the Burger Rail Diner. He was probably running errands for them and other small “jobs.” Dom worked out, got big and looked older than his age. Sometimes when he saw kids from the neighborhood he offered them deals on items that had “fallen off a truck.” Stuff like leather jackets, portable record players and even real 18-karat jewelry.
Around 1961 or 1962, Dom had what I would call a very bad day. Someone found him “crumpled up and bloodied behind some bushes on one of the lawns on East 4th Street.” When he asked Dom what happened, he replied through his bleeding mouth, which had missing teeth, that “some ‘pimp buddies’ were jealous and had jumped him and then dumped him.”
Someone called the police and when they got to him, they stood over him laughing. They kicked Dom and spat on him. One of the cops said, “Let’s wait till we get another call about this piece of shit.” With that they drove away. Dom was in really bad shape and was dragged into a cellar where he was taken care of. He lay there in the fetal position with his hand wrapped in his jacket. The jacket was bloody as Dom was using it to stem the bleeding in his hand. And it wasn’t just a scratch either. His index finger was gone, severed completely off. To make things worse, his eye was seriously injured.
Dom was nursed back to health and his eye was saved. But he was bitter and enraged. His associates from the Burger Rail Diner asked his mother where he was, and so did the cops, but she didn’t give her son up. After he recovered, Dom moved out of New York City and settled down in Las Vegas, away from the cauldron of New York City organized crime.
Dom has since passed away.
Danny Marino took a different turn. On October 4, 1957, he was arrested for third degree assault with three other boys. They punched the victim but the charge was reduced down to Disorderly Conduct.
When he got older, he graduated from teenage extortion to the big time – a member of the Gambino family. His family pedigree probably had a lot to do with that because his uncle was Carmine Lombardozzi who was a capo in the Gambino family. And a very successful and rich one at that. He ran the Gambino stock market rackets, loan sharking and had a “brilliant mind” for numbers.
Not only was Danny in the Gambino family, but he became a part of their leadership. As you would expect, he had a long and “illustrious” criminal career including the following:
- In 1963, assaulted an FBI agent at the funeral of his great uncle.
- In 1993, conspiracy to murder Thomas Spinelli who was planning to testify before a grand jury about Mafia activities.
- According to Anthony Casso, Marino conspired with him to assassinate John Gotti.
- In 2008, Marino was arrested for operating a prostitution ring where women as young as 15 were recruited as prostitutes. He was the boss of the family by this time.
- In 2010, Marino pled guilty to approving the murder of his nephew on his wife’s side. He was released from prison on August 27, 2014.
As of July 2022, Danny is still alive.
Do you remember earlier in this article about how a certain “Robert” accompanied Sal to the park in his extortion scheme and for whatever reason the police let him go? Well, while Sal was on parole, it came out that the Robert who was with him was Robert Fasano.
Along with another Gremlin named Salvatore Monaco, “Buffalo Bob,” which was Robert’ nickname, shot and killed a member of the Ditmas Dukes. He was found guilty of 2nd Degree murder.
Buffalo Bob was an angry young man and had loads of hostility to the people “who framed me and made sure that I got to jail.” He breathed threats against those “who had me convicted.” He would take care of them when he got out of prison, he said. Robert gloried in his self importance and saw himself as becoming an underworld “big shot” one day. He said that he was the one who has been “pushed around” but said that one day “I will do the pushing.”
Like Sal, Buffalo Bob said that the Gremlins weren’t as bad as the police and newspapers made them out to be. According to him their main purpose was to play football and run dances. Even so, he admitted to participating in numerous street fights against other gangs. Even though he said the Gremlins weren’t all that bad, the truth is much different. A detective said the Gremlins were a “vicious gang that caused a great deal of trouble in the 70th Precinct” and that a number of its members were jailed at different times for various crimes.
Robert served his time in prison and was eventually released. He got married and had children, but is no longer alive. He died of a heart attack.
Copyright © 2022 David Van Pelt
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