Saturday, July 31, 1937 dawned sunny and warm in Sullivan County, a nearly perfect summer day. A light breeze stirred the cooling waters of Swan Lake as dozens of vacationers rowed about in the bright morning sunshine. Two of those vacationers, convinced that it was their lucky day, rowed enthusiastically over to a strange shape they saw bobbing on the surface of the lake. What they discovered instead was grisly and gruesome. It was the body of a man, all trussed up and tied to a rock and a slot machine frame.
Police were notified immediately, and Sergeant Thomas J. Mangan of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Troopers George Braisted and Ray Dalrymple fished the body out of the water. The man was handsome and well dressed, in a grey striped suit with a purple display handkerchief still protruding from its pocket, and a striped purple shirt. In his pants’ pocket was a single penny. He wore just one shoe. The man had been bound around his legs, neck and mouth with sash cord and ignition wire from an automobile. The rock and the heavy metal frame dangled from his neck. He had been stabbed numerous times in the chest with an ice pick.
The body was removed to the McGibbon & Currey Funeral Home in Liberty where it was examined by county Coroner Lee R. Tompkins, who initially estimated it had been submerged for two weeks or more. Tompkins found 32 holes in and around the man’s heart. On one arm was a tattoo of a peacock, on the other, a bird of paradise and the initials WJS. Fingerprints were lifted in an attempt to identify the body.
By 11 o’clock that evening, police had learned that the good looking man in the grey suit was 32 year old Walter J. Sage of 1245 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Sage, whose real name was Zagotsky, had been a taxi cab driver in Jersey City, New Jersey until about 1930, when he joined up with the Browsville 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 Browsville and East New York sections of Brooklyn.
“He worked with such gang notables as Harry Strauss, known as Pittsburgh Phil, Martin ‘Buggsy’ Goldstein, and Seymour Magoon,” the Liberty Register reported in its August 5, 1937 edition. “When the Reles gang wanted anybody ‘rubbed out’ for invading the Reles kingdom, Sage was the appointee. He had been under arrest several times for gangster killings.”
Indeed, Sage had been questioned in the 1932 murder of Israel Goldstein on a Brownsville street corner and arrested for the murder of Brooklyn gangster Alex “Red” Alpert in 1933.
When the Reles 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, Sage had been picked up from his room at the Ambassador Hotel in Fallsburg by his roommate, Irving “Big Gangi” Cohen and local henchman Jack 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 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 off the ice pick. Strauss took over from there, exercising his own sense of irony by utilizing the slot machine frame. He and Drucker tied up the body, drove to Swan Lake, rowed out to the middle, and dumped it.
Cohen, frightened by his part in the crime, and fearful that he might be the next victim, took off running, and went into hiding. Three years later, police noticed him in a crowd scene in the movie “Golden Boy.” Cohen’s idea of lying low was to gain work as a screen extra in Hollywood under the name Jack Gordon. Once identified, he was quickly brought back to New York and indicted in the Sage murder. He went on trial in Sullivan County Court in June, 1940 and was acquitted after just two hours of jury deliberation. Levine was one of the chief witnesses against him.
Drucker was also indicted in the Sage murder, but was able to evade capture until 1943. The following year he was convicted in Sullivan County Court. He died in prison, still trying to get authorities to reopen his case right up until the end.
Pittsburgh Phil, the mob’s premier hitman, was executed for other crimes and never stood trial in the Sage murder. His execution, along with those of Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Louis Capone and Mendy Weiss, effectively put the gruesome gang that had become known as Murder, Inc. out of business for good.
Walter Sage’s relatives never claimed his body. The county paid his $147 funeral home bill and he was buried in the potter’s field section of the Liberty Cemetery.
Photo: The body of Walter Sage, poked full of holes and tied to a slot machine frame was fished out of Swan Lake in Sullivan County on July 31, 1937.