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The acquittal of Big Gangi

John Conway
Posted 6/16/23

Late in the afternoon of Friday, June 21, 1940, a jury of 11 men and one woman delivered a verdict in one of the most famous trials ever conducted in Sullivan County Court.

They found Irving …

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The acquittal of Big Gangi


Late in the afternoon of Friday, June 21, 1940, a jury of 11 men and one woman delivered a verdict in one of the most famous trials ever conducted in Sullivan County Court.

They found Irving “Big Gangi” Cohen not guilty in the ice pick murder of gangster Walter Sage nearly three years before.

Upon hearing the verdict read aloud by Judge George L. Cooke, the hulking Cohen broke down in tears, and was quickly joined by his sobbing wife and his mother, who just a few moments before had returned to the courtroom from the street, where she had been pacing up and down, all by herself, for the entire two hours the jury deliberated.

Cohen had been the first to stand trial in the death of Sage, the overseer of the mob’s slot machine operations here in the mountains. His alleged accomplices included Harry “Pittsburg Phil” Strauss, who by 1940 had already been executed for another murder—one of hundreds he reportedly committed for the ruthless gang of killers dubbed by the press as Murder, Inc.—and Hurleyville farm boy Jack Drucker, who at that point had yet to be apprehended, and wouldn’t be until December of 1943. Drucker would be found guilty the following year, and would spend the rest of his life in prison, dying of a heart attack at Attica in 1962.

Cohen, meanwhile, walked out of the courtroom that day a free man, and returned to California, where he had been hiding, making a living as a film extra ever since fleeing the mountains after Sage’s murder, convinced that he was next on his gang’s hit list.

The jury, made up of Mrs. Robert T. Many and John Knight of Grahamsville, Robert L. Moore of Sackett Lake, Edward Milligan of Lake Huntington, Charles Maas of Cochecton, Earl Kortright of Neversink, Wilbur Robertson of White Sulphur Springs, Michael Minnehan of Monticello, Ivan Wood of Loomis, Herman Molusky of Callicoon, Albert Emerich of Fremont Center, and Thomas Kell of Mongaup Valley, apparently were not convinced by the case put on by prosecutors William Deckleman and Benjamin Newberg, which relied heavily on the testimony of other gangsters who had made deals for themselves.

The murdered man, Walter Sage, or Zagotsky, as his birth certificate read, was a gangster himself. He had been a taxi cab driver in Jersey City until about 1930, when he joined up with the Brownsville gang run by Abe “Kid Twist” Reles. Sage worked as an enforcer for the group, which operated a dozen rackets, including slot machines, in the Brownsville and East New York sections of Brooklyn. 

When the gang began running slot machines in the Sullivan County hotels, Sage was sent here to oversee the operation. Locally, he was known as a quiet gentleman, always impeccably dressed and ready to help out a neighbor with a ride or by picking up groceries.

At some point, the gang discovered that Sage had begun helping himself to a percentage of the slot machine profits, and it was decided that he had to be taught a lesson. His old pal Pittsburgh Phil was chosen as the instructor.

On the evening of July 27, 1937, Sage had been picked up from his room at the Ambassador Hotel in Fallsburg by his roommate, Cohen, and the local henchman, Drucker. They drove to the Hotel Evans in Loch Sheldrake, closely followed by another car, driven by Abraham “Pretty” Levine and carrying Pittsburgh Phil. At some point during the drive to the Evans, Cohen had mugged Sage around the neck and Drucker had begun plunging an ice pick into his chest. Sage had put up quite a fight, grabbing the wheel and steering the car into a ditch, where it stalled. 

One of Drucker’s thrusts apparently missed its mark and pierced Cohen’s arm, causing the big man to scream out in agony. The screams of Cohen and Sage helped Levine and Strauss locate the murder car, and by the time they joined the others, Sage was dead and Drucker was wiping blood off the ice pick. Strauss took over from there, exercising his own sense of irony by utilizing a slot machine frame to provide weight. He and Drucker tied up the body, fastened it to the slot machine frame and a 30-pound rock, drove to Swan Lake, rowed out to the middle, and dumped it. 

Unexpectedly, however, Sage’s body did not stay submerged for long, bobbing to the surface of the lake on July 31.

Cohen, frightened by his part in the crime, and fearful that he might be the next victim, went into hiding. Three years later, police noticed him in a crowd scene in the movie “Golden Boy.” Cohen’s idea of lying low had been to gain work as a screen extra in Hollywood under the name Jack Gordon. Once identified, he was quickly brought back to New York to stand trial in Sullivan County in the Sage murder.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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