SPEAK OUT - Murder and faith in old Coney Island

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There was much more to the old Coney Island than the fun in the sun, 365 days a year. Coney Island was its own total community – replete with religious institutions of different faiths. When the bells at Our Lady of Solace, OLS, Church rang they echoed far and beyond their confines.

The bells rang to the whole area, resonating a religious harmony that knew one and all – harmonious togetherness that reached out to all the faithful – but that song of harmony could not reach every ear – every heart.

Across the very street from OLS some of Coney’s most vicious crimes fell, not very far from the holy pulpit.

Two of the saddest tales that ever befell Coney took place directly across from the brick faced Our Lady of Solace Catholic Church and its ringing bells.

One major tragedy was the brutal murder of Max Weinberg, married and father of three sons, who operated a wine and liquor shop directly opposite the church.

It was just past noon, on a sunny Memorial Day that an old man opened the door of our men’s shop, and yelled in, “Go home before you get killed like Max.” “Max who?” We cried out to that fleeing informer. But he was gone with the wind, running like a vanishing ghost.

We peeked out of our lobby, looking a few doors down the street. A policeman stood, arms folded against his chest, right smack in front of the third store, the popular Mermaid Wine and Liquor Shop.

As we approached the cop, he braced his arms, forbidding our entrance to the shop, solely owned by Max Weinberg now that his ex-partner had retired to Florida. Max hadn’t been ready to retire as yet. He had three grown sons and a wife. He hired a ‘stranger’ to work a few nights a week, and a liquor salesman to work a few more nights. That way Max would not be imprisoned in his store for too many nights until he too might retire.

Just the night before this Memorial Day, a former part-timer stopped in to ask Max if he’d sell out, now that his partner moved away. “Will you be here if I bring my friend in tomorrow?” He asked.

“Sure,” Max replied, “Memorial Day is not a holiday for liquor shops.” Memorial Day dawned sunny, bright and early. After a few hours, Max asked a neighbor to bring him some Nathan’s shrimp and coffee for a lunch bite, when his former clerk stopped in.

“Where’s your friend that you wanted to bring in, to look at my store?” Max asked him. He explained that it was a holiday, maybe he was here early and went up the Boardwalk first, “I’ll bring him in, if I spot him, Max..” Just then the shrimp lunch arrived from Nathan’s. Max thanked the neighbor, tipped him and started to eat the lunch – when a customer came in. The lady wanted a bottle of wine.

“Eat your lunch, Max,” his ex-clerk told him. “I can ring it up for you Max..” he said assuredly and he did. He made the sale, gave change, wrapped the bottle and fell in love with the monies in that register.

Then as Max went to wash his dishes, his ex-clerk slipped up behind him, pulled out a knife and buried it in Max’s larynx, emptying the cash register and fleeing.

Moments later another Memorial Day customer came in for a bottle and heard the noises from the nearby wash room. Opening a second door, he spotted Max on a toilet seat, his eyes closed, but his throat choking out a song of death gurgles.

In two days Max was buried and we were approached by his sons, “We want his killer.” In turn we screamed at the police and the detectives and they did get him – the man who had worked for Max briefly and who was going to bring a friend to buy his store – instead, he brought a knife to make that Memorial Day truly infamous.

A more pitiful part of this sad saga was the trial. The accused worked out a deal with the Kings County DA. He would plead guilty and accept a sentence of reduced time in prison.

The DA did the deal, netting the murderer a year and a half in prison, via a two and one-half year sentence – on a guilty plea. The deal was done and the victim’s family fumed. They hollered at us, his neighbors, “Is this all that our Dad’s life was worth?” They wanted to know.

We arranged a meeting with the Chief District Attorney of Kings County and with a small group of concerned merchants, asked “Is this all our lives are worth?” we demanded of him.

But he stalwartly refused to yield, firing back, “The only evidence we had was a later contested confession, so we made a deal.”

The sad saga concluded when this same DA was down south at a district attorney convention, and arrested at a hotel for having an underage girl in his bedroom.

Some stories never end – one sad turn unwinds another – which brings us to another tale that we shall relate soon. One even closer to that long-famed amusement park Steeplechase.

Updated 3:43 pm, October 19, 2011
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