The third attempt on John Avena’s life took place on March 11, 1927 as the 32-year old gangster stepped out of a restaurant at 822 South 8th Street.
Avena knew exactly who was behind the failed hit. And, as we learned last time, he had no intention of turning anyone in. “I like to settle these things myself,” Avena liked to say.
Avena worked for Salvatore Sabella, who also liked to settle things for himself. Growing up in Sicily as a butcher’s apprentice, Sabella killed his abusive boss. Now in Philadelphia, this seasoned head of the Philadelphia mob joined Avena and a handful of others to send a message, loud and clear: the streets of South Philadelphia were theirs—and would remain theirs.
This message would be delivered on Memorial Day. Anthony “Musky” Zanghi, 27, a bootlegger, bank robber, bigamist, hold up man, counterfeiter, and alleged cop killer had been making his way into the Philadelphia crime scene. He was standing on the very same stretch of sidewalk on 8th Street where Avena had been shot two months before, talking with his 19-year old brother, Joseph, and Vincent Cocozza, 30, whose own arrest record included burglaries, robberies and the sales of narcotics.
As “Musky” Zanghi later told it, Avena walked by and “gave me a Judas greeting.” Moments later, a car pulled up and as many as 20 shots rang out from pistols and sawed-off shotguns. “I saw two men lift shot guns and fire,” Zanghi stated. “After the shooting, I saw Cocozza on the ground in a pool of blood. Then I saw my brother had been shot. At the hospital I had found out that they had blown his brains out and he was dead.”
Zanghi had been warned that Sabella and his men were after him. “I was sent for by Sabella,” he told police. “The plan was when they fired at me to take my kid brother, too, he choked,” talking to the authorities. According to The Public Ledger, Zanghi “was hysterical over the death of his brother.” And, for the first time “in the history of the police department” a gangster had broken the code of silence. From the newspaper clippings at Temple University’s Urban Archives we learn of Zanghi ‘s willingness “to break all traditions of gangland and ‘squeal.’”
Police rounded up Sabella’s men, and Zanghi placed each one at the crime scene, except for Joseph Ida (at the left in the photograph). Zanghi “was positive in his identification of Avena as the man who fired the fatal shot as Joseph.”
As “he was taken past the ‘lineup’ at City Hall, Zanghi paused before Avena, his face turning purple with rage: ‘Oh, you rat,’ he shouted. ‘Why did you fire when my back was turned?’”According to reports, Zanghi “attempted to assault Avena, but was restrained…”
Zanghi also fingered Luigi Quaranta (at the right in the photograph) as the one who shot Cocozza with a shotgun; he identified Sabella as another shooter and John Scopoletti as the driver. In all, Zanghi identified six men involved in the incident.
On June 3, the day after the victims’ funerals, all six were led to their arraignments through cleared corridors of City Hall. “The faces of the prisoners were covered with heavy growth of beard” as they listened to the charges of murder and manslaughter. Each one responded to the charges through an interpreter. “Twenty four detectives sat on the two benches behind the defendants. The prisoners did not even glance at them. Their eyes were fixed on Judge McDevitt throughout.”
“A tough, hard-looking lot of thugs,” observed Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick, who inspected his Police Department’s unprecedented catch.
But star witness “Musky” Zanghi would drop from the scene before the trials started. Word on the street was he had been offered as much as $50,000 to disappear. The authorities would hold off on their original plan to try Avena first. On June 13, the District Attorney announced, and the newspapers reported that Quaranta, described as “a swarthy and rather dapper little man” was “unexpectedly chosen as the first to stand trial.”
Two days later, Quaranta “nervously twisted his gray-banded straw hat in his hand” and “transferred his gaze to the foreman of the jury” before they read the verdict: “We find the prisoner guilty of murder in the first degree.”
If Quaranta understood, he showed no emotion. He turned away from the jury and stared at the floor. “After a few moments elapsed, he looked questioning at his attorney, but finding the latter’s attention engaged elsewhere shrugged his shoulders.” Then Quaranta, who would be sentenced to life in prison, “was led from the courtroom and down winding stairs to the waiting patrol wagon” and taken to Moyamensing Prison, in what now seemed, to some, a safer South Philadelphia.
(The story continues… Piero Francisco: Singing, Dancing Mob Murder Witness.)