Read The Savage City Online

Authors: T. J. English

The Savage City (5 page)

BOOK: The Savage City
11.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Whether a cop took money or not, it didn't seem to matter. The system was the system. Graft made the world go round. Dirty money not only determined who got rich in the department, it also played a role in promotions, choice assignments, who got punished, who was seen as a threat, and who was viewed with esteem. By the early 1960s the NYPD's system of graft was deeply entrenched within the entire police bureaucracy. And it had begun to take the department's work ethic down with it, giving rise to a culture that tolerated brutality, racism, sloppiness, laziness, and police malfeasance.

It was this mentality, in large part, that led detectives down the wrong road as they scrambled to close their most sensational double homicide case in a generation.


Murders lit up the city like a hit Broadway show. The case had innocent female victims, shocking brutality, and the makings of a classic whodunit. The background players were already cultural figures: Max Wylie, father of the deceased, was an advertising executive with Lennon & Newell, and the author of four novels, six nonfiction books, and three plays. His brother, Philip Wylie, was even more famous, the author of twenty-five novels, and an established figure in Manhattan literary and publishing circles. The race of the victims, the savagery of the killings, and the social standing of the Wylie family all conspired to make the story a keeper: “a good murder at a good address,” as police beat reporters and cops often described their most noteworthy murder cases.

The killings were made more poignant when it emerged that Janice Wylie had intended to take part in the March on Washington on the day of her death. Worried about the crowds and the potential for violence between the police and marchers, Max Wylie had urged her not to go; the night before the march, he was relieved when she told him she'd changed her mind and decided to stay in New York.

From the beginning, the top NYPD brass announced that the investigation was being given the highest priority. One hundred and fifty detectives were searching for the killer or killers. The investigators began with a principle that is applied to nearly all homicide cases: 90 percent of the time, the victim knows the killer. The life of Emily Hoffert led detectives nowhere; she was a good girl, originally from Minnesota, a schoolteacher, clean as a whistle. Janice Wylie was also a good girl, talented and vivacious. But she was a modern woman—an aspiring actress, and one with skeletons in her closet.

When detectives discovered an address book among Janice Wylie's belongings, the names and numbers within it dictated the initial thrust of the investigation. Anyone who'd ever worked with or dated or known Janice Wylie became a “person of interest.” Old boyfriends, secret lovers, even crank callers to Wylie's place of business were hunted down and interviewed. Wylie's employer,
sweetened the pot by offering $10,000 to anyone who could supply information leading to an arrest. The net was thrown far and wide, with a squad of Manhattan detectives—augmented by other detectives from around the city—questioning more than five hundred persons in the first month of the investigation.

After four weeks:
. Bupkis. Less than zero.

In the
New York Times,
a high police official tried to explain the lack of progress. “There is a complete lack of physical evidence, no description of the murderer, not one substantial clue, not one tangible motive.” As one
reporter on the case noted, the NYPD was flailing. “The police, under intense pressure to solve the crime and remove from the streets a killer whose act has frightened thousands of lonely women, have disrupted the offices of
by repeated interrogations of the magazine's personnel. Thirty-eight persons who attended a farewell party for a departing magazine executive on the eve of the double murder have been questioned. Persons as far away as 3,000 miles have been asked to explain their movements on Wednesday, August 28, the day of the killings. Intellectuals, delivery boys, taxicab drivers, disturbed persons with police records of sex crimes have been interrogated.”

When it became apparent that their excavation of Janice Wylie's personal life was leading nowhere, detectives were forced to go in another direction. The jewelry, money, and other valuables left in the apartment had convinced investigators that the killer wasn't a burglar. They also discounted the idea that it was a random crime of opportunity; the savagery of the murders seemed to suggest something more personal. Could it have been an addict? An intriguing possibility, but police knew from experience that most junkies were single-minded in their pursuit of dope, or the means to buy it. Why would a desperate junkie take time out to rape a woman, eviscerate two people, and leave behind money and jewelry?

Even so, detectives were compelled to consider these and many other possibilities. They went back over the murder scene looking for telltale signs of entry. The apartment door had been locked from the inside, with no signs of forced entry. Neither the building's doorman nor anyone else in the building had seen anyone suspicious. The apartment's kitchen window had been unlocked and partially open, but access to the window from outside seemed nearly impossible. The window was thirty feet aboveground, a distance so remote that police photographers hadn't even bothered to snap photos of the window as a possible point of entry.

Meanwhile, a mood of fear was slowly overtaking the city's central nervous system. Janice Wylie's grieving father sought to stifle the horror and pain of his loss by doing what writers do: he penned a thirty-five-
thousand-word manuscript he called “Career Girl, Watch Your Step.” The sense of foreboding was shared by many. In the big cities of the North—of which New York was the crown jewel—fear could be a collective emotion. Especially in recent years, it seemed as though something ominous was happening. Much of this trepidation—felt by rich and poor, black and white—was sparked by the new prevalence of narcotics.

The junkie as an urban leitmotif was not exactly new. In New York, dope fiends and pushers had emerged on the urban landscape in the late 1940s, after the Second World War—fueled in part by an influx of veterans who'd returned nursing an addiction. At first, the scourge had seemed manageable: an early generation of heroin users were often people with jobs who found ways to function, at least until the addiction kicked in. Heroin wasn't yet that easy to find or purchase. To policemen around the city, junkies were becoming a nuisance, but their criminal activity rarely went beyond burglary or purse snatching.

In the 1950s, however, public and official attitudes toward narcotics users began to change dramatically. One reason was the increase in predatory violence associated with junkies. Another reason was race.

The massive migration of blacks from the South, which had begun as a trickle in the mid-1940s, swelled to a steady stream in the 1950s. And their arrival in New York happened to coincide with the most massive influx of heroin the city had ever seen.

The reasons for the sudden and immense availability of the drug in places like Harlem has never been fully explained. Certainly, the forces of organized crime—in this case the Syndicate, or
Cosa Nostra
—recognized the benefits in having America's urban black population hooked on dope. The sale of heroin in the black community became a kind of ghetto Gold Rush. In the 1940s and 1950s, the suppliers were almost exclusively Sicilian, Italian American, and Corsican mobsters who relied on the American Mafia for distribution. Prominent Mafiosi like Vito Genovese, Joe Bonanno, and many others created huge financial empires off the backs of street-level dope fiends. Statistics revealed that half the heroin addicts in the United States lived in New York City. The free-floating misery of this increasingly drug-dependent culture, combined with poverty and the sense of racial displacement felt by many blacks, helped lay the foundation for a crime wave that would last thirty years.

In his 1965 memoir,
Manchild in the Promised Land,
Claude Brown
chronicled the effects of the heroin tsunami that first hit Harlem in the early 1950s. A community known during the Harlem Renaissance for its proud displays of sartorial splendor and artistic achievement had been shattered by dope. As Brown describes:

Around 1955, everybody wanted a slick bitch; nobody wanted to kick the habit much. They were strung out, and they were really going down. They were ragged and beat up. Cats who had never come out of the house without a pair of shoes on that didn't cost at least thirty-five dollars, who had never had a wrinkle anyplace on them, who had always worn the best suits from Brooks Brothers or Witty Brothers—these cats were going around greasy and dirty. They were people who had too much pride to put a dirty handkerchief in their pockets at one time. Now they just seemed to be completely unaware of how they looked. They would just be walking around dirty, greasy, looking for things to steal.

Manchild in the Promised Land
was a cry for help. With its publication, Claude Brown sought to bring a level of compassion and understanding to the subject. Yet few of the city's white ethnic residents were interested in that. Many of them had already concluded that illiterate, dirt-poor blacks from the South, and Spanish-speaking blacks from the Caribbean, were destroying the fabric of life in their neighborhoods. When heroin was added to the mix, it created the impression that poverty, drug abuse, and negritude were all part of the same psychosis. Spurred by genuine concern and alarmism in equal measure, many white families packed up their belongings and began their own Great Migration out of the city.

Those who stayed behind picked up their tabloid newspaper every morning with mounting dread. The subject of race became a boogeyman lurking in the shadows. The city's perceptions of urban crime were infected with a shared racial anxiety that ran like a hot wire through every major crime story in the city—including the Wylie-Hoffert murders.

The city was a fickle suitor, however. The Career Girls Murders story was like a good-looking whore: it was flashy, with sizzle and pathos, but there was always the prospect of something hotter just around the corner. Which is exactly what happened when the Wylie-Hoffert inves
tigation—and most other aspects of daily life in New York and elsewhere—were shoved into the background by the events of November 22, 1963.

As a presidential motorcade wound its way through downtown Dallas that day, a bullet obliterated the skull of President John F. Kennedy; another pierced his esophagus. The president was pronounced dead at the hospital. Then, before anyone had fully processed the shock, the alleged assailant, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself gunned down in the basement of the Dallas police department—live on television. The reverberations of these events—the news reports, the swearing-in of a new president, the unbearably poignant funeral—riveted nearly everyone, especially the media.

It would be weeks before the country emerged from its grief and began to ask:
For what reason had Kennedy been shot? The explanation—that the assassination was the work of a crazed lone gunman—was all well and good; for a time, sorrow outweighed the need to know. But by the early months of 1964, after the burial of JFK and the passing of the torch to Lyndon Baines Johnson, clouds of suspicion began to gather. Oswald turned out to be a murky figure, with ties to many powerful forces that all had reasons to want JFK dead. Shortly before his demise, Oswald himself had insisted he was a “patsy” taking the heat for others. In time, theories about the assassination would metastasize to include conspiracy plots involving the Mob and the CIA.

Among the black community in New York and elsewhere, however, a slightly different point of view began to emerge. Given all that was happening in the country, to them, this story also seemed to be about race.

The previous summer, President Kennedy had taken the dramatic step of hitching his wagon to Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, sending the U.S. Army into Mississippi to enforce civil rights laws. To southern bigots and their supporters around the country, it was a shocking turn of events—tantamount to a declaration of war. Then, in June, the president went on national TV and framed the civil rights debate in a way no U.S. president ever had before.

“We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it,” said Kennedy. “We cherish our freedom here at home. But are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no
master race except with respect to Negroes? Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”

The day after Kennedy's speech, NAACP field marshal Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi. Later in the summer, President Kennedy submitted his civil rights bill to Congress. A few weeks later, in what would go down in history as perhaps the most depraved act of the era, a bomb was set off at a Baptist church in Birmingham, killing four black girls between the ages of four and six.

Many of those following these events viewed them as part of an orchestrated reactionary campaign on the part of white supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan and police authorities. Whenever the civil rights movement achieved a notable success, there was a shooting or a bombing in response. Whenever the president issued a statement or gave a speech in favor of equality for the Negro, terror and death followed in its wake. To many Negroes, JFK's assassination seemed to be a part of this cycle, a kind of murderous blowback for his advocacy of civil rights.

By the spring of 1964, the shock of the Kennedy and Oswald killings had been absorbed into the body politic. It wasn't that people were over it, but life went on. The city was a machine with many moving parts, a beast that needed to be fed. People returned to their lives—though perhaps with less confidence that their democracy was capable of reconciling its many contradictions.

BOOK: The Savage City
11.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

A Violet Season by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kiss of the She-Devil by M. William Phelps
Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor
Dark Hunger by Christine Feehan
Rainbird's Revenge by Beaton, M.C.
Exit Wounds by J. A. Jance
The Cutthroat Cannibals by Craig Sargent
Hostile Takeover by McLean, Patrick E.