Revisiting a Woohaven crime that led to two executions
by Ed Wendell
Nov 12, 2019 | 737 views | 0 0 comments | 32 32 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It was a frigid night in February 1921, and Professor Wilfred Phineas Kotkov had just gotten off of the A Train at the Boyd Avenue (88th Street) Station on Liberty Avenue in Woodhaven.

Keep in mind that Woodhaven stretched much further South in those days, covering the area today known as Ozone Park.

The 36-year-old professor of philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan was accustomed to coming home late, and often cut across the empty lot at the corner of Benedict (87th Street) and Liberty to get to his home, where he lived with his wife Anna and two children.

It was in that dark vacant lot, just after the clock struck midnight, that four young men lay in wait with robbery and mayhem on their minds.

Cries for help were heard by Patrolman George Burling of the precinct in Richmond Hill, who was on patrol several blocks away. When Burling arrived at the scene, he found Kotkov lying face down in the snow, a bloody iron bedpost at his side.

Four young men were seen fleeing the scene. Burling pursued and managed to quickly apprehend two of them.

Peter Nunziata and Joseph Alfano of Brooklyn were immediately arrested and, once at the precinct, they confessed and implicated Frank Cassesso, also from Brooklyn, and Alphonso “The Turk” Verona of Water Street in Woodhaven (now 102nd Road in Ozone Park) in the attack.

According to their confessions, it was Verona who suggested they prepare for a "stick up." An abandoned iron bed frame was found in the vacant lot and the heavy post, with a brass knob, was pried off.

The quartet stood near the Boyd Avenue station, the iron post hidden under Nunziata’s long coat, waiting for someone who appeared prosperous enough to rob.

After the beating, they turned out Professor Kotkov’s pockets looking for money, but very little was found. Instead, the quartet had to settle for Kotkov's horn-rimmed glasses, his fountain pen and gold watch.

Kotkov was taken to Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica, where he died three days later.

There were immediate calls for swift justice, owing to the fact that Kotkov had not resisted, nor was he even given the opportunity. Newspaper editorials called for the ultimate retribution: the electric chair.

The wheels of justice were indeed swift. Within a week, indictments were handed down and by the first week of April, just over five weeks after the attack, the trial of Peter Nunziata began.

The 17-year old accused, the youngest of the four attackers, was a cool customer in court, often seen yawning during testimony. At one time during the trial he was scolded by the judge for trying to light a cigarette.

Nunziata’s defense by lawyer Edward J. Reilly, who would later go on to defend Bruno Richard Hauptmann, was a vigorous one. Reilly had Nunziata take the stand on his own behalf and declare that it was Verona who was the mastermind, arranging the killing to settle a personal score.

Nunziata also claimed that his confession was beaten out of him by police with a rubber hose, and that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On April 18, the jury deliberated for less than two hours and came back with a verdict of guilty, and that included an hour for lunch. Nunziata sat unmoved when the verdict was read.

The judge explained to the young man that he would soon face death in the electric chair.

A few days later, the judge set the date of execution as June 5, about six weeks away. The attack, investigation, indictment, trial, deliberation and sentencing all took place within a 105-day window. The public demanded swift justice, and they received it.

Peter Nunziata was the youngest person ever sentenced to death in New York, and he received the sentence coolly, without flinching. He was escorted out of the courtroom to a car waiting to drive him to death row inside Sing Sing, where “Old Sparky” was waiting.

Despite numerous appeals, Nunziata went to the chair within two years. Alfano, who was also found guilty using the same defense as Nunziata, followed him to the chair shortly afterwards.

The other two young men saw what was in store for them and plead guilty and served many years in prison. They were eventually released when they were in their late 50s and died in obscurity.
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