Murder at the Half Moon Hotel
John William Tuohy
Half Moon Hotel. On the Coney Island Boardwalk. Located at West 29th Street and the Boardwalk, the spot where Henry Hudson was said to have landed. The name refers to explorer Henry Hudson's ship, which anchored off Gravesend Bay in Brooklyn (Coney Island), on its way to find to find a shorter route to Asia. A 16-story, 400-room hotel, $3 million hotel it was the pride of the boardwalk. Governor Al Smith spoke at the opening night of the hotel on Coney Island when it opened on May 5 of 1927 and the Ancient Order of Hibernians held their massive annual meeting in its conference rooms.
On November 12 1941, long after the Half Moon’s glory days had passed, the New York City Police Department rented room 623 to hide away Abe Reles, a government witness against Murder Incorporated.
Surrounding Reles was a team of five New York City policemen including Detective Victor Robbins, James Boyle, John E. Moran, Frank Tempone and Harvey McLaughlin. All five were under the command of Captain Frank Bals.
In the underworld Reles, age 35, standing five foot four inches tall and under160 pounds, was considered weird and fanatical. Most reporters and policeman assumed he had a lower than normal IQ. The detectives later admitted that they despised Reles, who was arrested 44 times since the age of 13, and found him to be a filthy man with internal gastric problems that made being around him impossible. He was also surely and disliked the police. “All cops” he once said “are yellow and I’ll fight anyone of them with guns, knives or broken glass” At 7:45 that morning, William Nicholson, who kept a private office on the second floor phoned the front desk to say to report a white sheet dangling down the side of the building. Reles, as police told it, had tried to climb out of the 6th floor window by tying a series of sheets together which broke causing him to plunge to the hotel concrete kitchen floor landing on his back and breaking his spine. Detectives swore that when they checked on Reles at 7:10 that he was sleeping, a radio on in the background.
Captain Bals later told the media...with a straight face...that it was his opinion that the detectives guarding Reles fell asleep. Reles decided to play a joke on them by slipping out the window, onto the roof and then walking back up to the room where the police were sleeping and knocking on the door to surprise them.
In 1963 federal witness Joe Valachi confirmed what virtually everyone in the United States assumed, that the police assigned to guard Reles had been paid off to toss him out the window. In 1954 the Metropolitan Jewish Geriatric Center converted the Half Moon to a nursing home and in the 1990s the building was finally demolished.
Frank Bals, long suspected as the payoff man behind the murder, was actually promoted after the Reles murder and retired from the force as a Deputy Police Commissioner. The promotion came in spite accusations by gangster Harry Gross that he paid Bals for years to protect his gambling operations.But Bals was protected by District Attorney William O’Dwyer, Bals had been his chief investigator, who named Bals to the Deputy Commissioners spot after O’Dwyer became mayor.
Appearing before Kefauver Committee to explain Reles odd death, Bals claimed that all of the officers on duty must have been asleep when Reles climbed out the window. He could not, however, explain how Reles body flew fifty feet from the windows ledge before it hit the ground. Bals retired from the force and died in Florida in 1954 at age 62.