Long-Concealed Letter May Be Key to N.Y. Judge Mystery


Aug. 18, 2005 — -- ABC News has learned New York City detectives have obtained the first new evidence in 73 years in the disappearance of a New York State Supreme Court judge once dubbed "the most missingest man in America" by the city's tabloid newspapers.

On Aug. 6, 1930, Judge Joseph F. Crater stepped off a midtown Manhattan curb and into a cab after seeing a Broadway play with his showgirl girlfriend. He was never heard from again.

It was long suspected -- but never proven -- that he was killed by notorious mobster Frank Costello as a payoff to the Tammany Hall politicians who protected his rackets.

The disappearance of the dapper, well-known judge remained a fixture of city newspapers for years. A grand jury called 95 witnesses and amassed nearly 1,000 pages of testimony, but never determined Crater's fate.

Rumors surfaced that the 41-year-old jurist had been spotted in various remote and exotic locales. Others theorized he might have suffered a heart attack while visiting a call girl.

The possible break in the case came after the death a little more than two months ago of an elderly woman, whose name is being withheld by detectives at this time.

The woman's death prompted her family to open a safe-deposit box where they discovered a letter labeled "Do Not Open Until My Death." In the letter, the woman recounted her own father's deathbed statements to her, statements which, if true, could bring to a close one of the oldest enduring mysteries in America. And so far, detectives say, everything the woman wrote has been corroborated.

The letter contained the names of cab driver Frank Burn, and his brother, a police officer named Charles. The letter claimed that Frank Burn had killed Crater and buried the body under the boardwalk at New York's Coney Island. Charles Burn was named as the killer in another notorious homicide.

ABC News has learned detectives have examined erosion records, and believe they have identified a location where bones could be recovered. Police officials said digging there had not yet begun.

ABC has learned that the NYPD's Cold Case unit may soon submit remains to the New York City Medical Examiner's office for analysis.

There was no comment from the Cold Case squad.

Costello had long been suspected of killing Crater as a favor to corrupt Tammany Hall politicians, who feared being exposed by the judge.

Costello was also the prime suspect a decade later in the murder of a disgruntled mobster named Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, who fell from his sixth-floor window in Brooklyn's Half Moon Hotel. It was long suspected, but never proven, that Costello paid a police officer $100,000 to kill Reles.

Police now believe that officer may have been Charles Burn, the brother of the cab driver referred to in the letter.

ABC News has also learned that detectives have turned up a potential witness to the mob hit, an elderly prostitute who apparently was intimate with the detectives as well as their crime.

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