WWW.QNS.COM RIDGEWOOD TIMES FEBRUARY 6, 2020 25
OUR NEIGHBORHOOD: THE WAY IT WAS
A Woodhaven murder and the historic trial that followed
PRESENTED BY THE WOODHAVEN CULTURAL AND
It was a frigid night in February 1921, and
Professor Wilfred Phineas Kotkov had just
gotten off of the elevated train at the Boyd
Avenue (88th Street) Station of the BMT Fulton
Street Line 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 in their
Cries for help were heard by Patrolman George
Burling, of the precinct in Richmond Hill, 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 the young men 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, Woodhaven
(now 102nd Road, Ozone Park) in the attack.
According to their confessions, it was Verona
who had suggested that they prepare for
a “stickup.” 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 Ave. 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 to be 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 made no resistance,
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, 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 in court.
Nunziata’s defense was a vigorous one. His
lawyer was Edward J. Reilly, who would later go
on to defend Bruno Richard Hauptmann. Reilly
had Nunziata take the stand on his own behalf
and declare that it was Verona of Woodhaven
Courtesy of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society
who was the mastermind, arranging the killing
to settle a personal score.
Nunziata also claimed that his confession was
beaten out of him by the 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 that included an hour for
lunch — and came back with a verdict of guilty.
Nunziata sat unmoved when the verdict was read.
The judge explained to the young man what the
verdict meant: 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,
the investigation, the indictment, the trial, the
deliberation and the sentencing all took place
within a 105-day window.
The public demanded swift justice, and they
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 in 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 pleaded guilty and served many
years in prison. They were eventually released
when they were in their late 50s and died in
Ninety-nine years later, hardly anyone remembers
the Kotkov murder and the trials that followed.
But at the time, this was considered one of
the more sensational murder stories of its time.
* * *
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