The Corner on Pleasant Avenue: The Mafia, crooked cops and drugs

By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.

David Durk, who was born in 1935, joined the New York Police in 1963, and by the closing of the 1960s, was a detective attached to the city’s Department of Investigation, which served as an independent and non-partisan watchdog for New York City government. Their job was to examine and investigate corruption and other failings within the local government’s many divisions. An endless job in a city with more than its fair share of crime, fraud and graft.

Sometime towards the end of 1968, he met an old man who worked as a printer for one of the city’s many newspapers. The man had approached him as Durk left a shop in Greenwich village, and said, “You look like an honest cop”, and so it began. He asked Durk to help him try to save his son, Vinnie, who was being dragged into the underworld’s 10832184085?profile=RESIZE_400xdrug trafficking, in and around East Harlem on Manhattan’s upper east-side. He was being offered $1,000 a week or more, to peddle heroin from someone called “Ernie Boy.” He would be Oreste Abbamonte (left), an up and coming young hoodlum attached to the Gambino crime family, who operated his business from a store-front on 1st Avenue, one block west of Pleasant Avenue.

In early February, Durk and the old man drove to the avenue, and sat in the car as snow fell softly while the printer described what was happening around them. Durk, who had never been involved in police activities that operated to detect and arrest drug-dealers, was astonished at what was going on. He could well have been a stranger in a foreign land trying to understand a social grouping as divorced from his life as a visitor from Mars.

In the months ahead, he would become not only familiar with drugs, drug dealers, street criminals and Mafiosi, but would also find himself caught up in a vortex of scandal, graft and media frenzy as he triggered his own investigation into deception and the worst level of malfeasance among his fellow New York police officers.

Although everyone knows of Frank Serpico and his epic struggle to end the cycle of police misconduct in The Big Apple, it was in fact Durk who began the crusade, and then Serpico joined him to carry on the fight. They had met each other in 1966, and stayed friends, before becoming allies in a war on police corruption.

Between midnight and dawn there was an endless train of gangsters, hoodlums, thieves and drug-traffickers passing through and hanging out on the comer of 117th Street and Pleasant Avenue. It was a neighborhood long tainted with the stench of Mafia criminals. Generations of them had honed their skills on the avenue, and surrounding streets, which sat in the original Little Italy of New York, long before Mulberry Street assumed that mantle.

By the 1920s, there were over 100,000 Italians living in an area of fifty square blocks that made up Harlem. Mafia had been infiltrating this part of the city since before the turn of the twentieth-century. The alleged boss of all Mafia bosses, Giuseppe Morello, had lived for a time on East 138 Street, barely a mile from the avenue. The smell of organized crime carried in the wind across the Harlem River as though its very odor was a part of the community it was infesting.

In the tradition of so many Mafia legends, Morello will die by the gun, shot in an office in August 1930, only a few hundred yards from the corner.

By the end of 1968, it’s as busy a junction as will be found in a borough of 200,000. Except, so much of it was not the usual traffic flow you would expect to see. Cars would stop and park illegally, double or triple, while drivers did their business with men who glided over the side walk, packages in hand, or simply leaned into open windows to talk to their customers.

A police surveillance image catches the activity one summer afternoon. A dozen men hanging about outside their base, The Pleasant Avenue Tavern, in their raggedy shirts, or wife-beaters** and baggy pants, smoking, talking to each other, almost always one of them using one of the two pay phones booths on the side-walk. And always, one lounging against the wall, the look-out guy.

10832183273?profile=RESIZE_710xPhoto: Surveillance photo of Ernie boy and Johnny Echoes. Includes surveillance markings.

10832184463?profile=RESIZE_180x180Durk (right) would find out from the old man the names and street handles of these dealers, who were creating what officials later referred to as the biggest drug trafficking ring in New York.

Most of the players in this crowded house were members or associates of the Lucchese Mafia family, historically based in The Bronx. They had been in the drug business for years. The infamous “French Connection” case of the early 1960s involved members and confederates of the gang controlled since 1951 by Tommy Lucchese until his death in 1967.

Besides Abbamonte there were at least three Nunzi’s, (one a Gambino to-be, another a Lucchese to-be, and yet another, simply a wannabe,) along with Gerry “Z” Zanfardino, Louis “Gigi The Whale” Inglese,” Johnny “Hooks” Capra, Joe Sparracio, Tommy “Moe” Lentini, and lot’s more.

Their only real competition was based in lower Manhattan, in a police station near the Fulton Fish Market, which was the headquarters of the Special Investigations Unit, the infamous SIU. A police officer in this law enforcement group of seventy, would become tagged by the media in due course as a “Prince of the City.”

In the late 1960s and early 1970s hundreds of kilos of drugs were being peddled by officers whose job was to take down drug-dealers. David Durk would stumble upon this as he tried to get his head around the hoodlums he was discovering and their jabberwocky style of talking when discussing heroin deals. They talked about shirts and socks, pants and shoes. A kilo of heroin was a boy’s shirt, while if dealing in cocaine, it was a girl’s shirt. He also discovered early in his investigation that at least one police officer was selling guns to the mobsters, sometimes using The Delightful, a coffee shop on the corner of 116 Street and 1st Avenue as their meeting place.

10832188858?profile=RESIZE_710xPhoto: Johnny Capra, Louis Inglese, and Gerry Zanfardino

Durk started his long, exhausting and frustrating journey of discovery into police corruption by reporting first to his boss, then discussing his findings with officers from the SIU, and finally, in desperation called on an old political friend who was an aide to mayor John Lindsay. Nothing seemed to work for him, and he would uncover in the fullness of time that the mayor’s office had known about the smell of police corruption and a wide-spreading involvement linking police officers and heroin dealing as early as 1966.

Durk was quoted once as saying: “The fact is that almost wherever we turned in the Police Department, wherever we turned in the city administration, and almost wherever we went in the rest of the city, we were met not with cooperation, not with appreciation, not with an eagerness to seek out the truth, but with suspicion and hostility and laziness and inattention, and with our fear that at any moment our efforts might be betrayed.”

The “we” refers to Frank Serpico, who teamed up with Durk to attack the system from within. He gets himself shot on a drug-bust and almost dies. Retires from the force and makes headlines in a book and movie that stars Al Pacino playing him on the screen.

Complicating matters, David Durk wasn’t the only one investigating crooked New York cops. Running almost parallel with his own vendetta against corruption in the lines of blue, was one run by Federal investigators involving Robert Leuci, part of the SIU. A Prince who had turned against his peers. He also, in due course, gets the book and the movie treatment.

And still the narcotics keep pouring in. Coming from Marseilles, Amsterdam, Paris, Israel often channeling down from Toronto or Montreal in Canada, and the wholesalers on Pleasant Avenue are pumping it into New York and as far away as Detroit.

Early morning on the corner it was bookies taking bets, Louis Fats and his cronies doing numbers, and loan sharking taking place. From afternoon onwards, often until early next morning, it was the stamping ground for the drug-dealers. In an ironic twist, they were not only destroying their neighborhood through flooding it and the city with their poisons for sale, but at the same time, pumping work and income into a relatively impoverished part of New York by paying people to sort, pack and warehouse the goods in cutting rooms, mostly within a short radius of the corner in special controlled rooms behind candy stores and bakeries and coffee shops. In the unholy trinity of lies, power and violence, the men who ran the drugs ring held all the cards that really mattered.

10832186069?profile=RESIZE_710xPhoto: The corner showing Zanfardino, second left and Inglese fourth left

It’s Keynesian economics at its most basic: Spending from one consumer becomes income for a business that then spends on equipment, worker wages, energy, materials, purchased services, taxes, and investor returns. That worker’s income can then be spent, and the cycle continues. Of course, in maintaining the cycle, the process is also destroying the fabric of the society that supports it.

During the summer 0f 1971, one block north and east of the corner, art imitates life in only the way it can in the strange, noir world of crime and the Mafia.

A film-company 2nd Unit set up a pivotal scene for a movie that would forever change how the world, and its own members, would view organized crime, the Italian-American way.

“The Godfather” would open in cinemas in 1973 to a massive critical and commercial success, becoming a lodestar that mobsters in the underworld will follow in the years ahead. Using 700 locals as extras, the cameras ran for four days as Sonny Corleone beats-up his brother-in-law, Carlo Rizzi.

Adding even more layers to the blending of fact and fiction, producer Albert Ruddy is being harassed by the real-life Mafia, in the form of Joe Colombo, who ran his own family in the south of Brooklyn who insisted that the film never mentions Mafia or Cosa Nostra, which it never does. It’s been alleged that men from the Colombo family supervised this condition, enabling the production to proceed without massive disturbance by union disruptions.  

The mob that ran the drugs in this part of East Harlem also employed a pack of lookouts, paying women and children to be their eyes and ears. Pleasant Avenue, north to south, runs only for six blocks, and any sniff of police presence in the area would be quickly passed down the line to the men on the corner. Zanfardino and Capra and “Johnny Echoes” were as smart and relentless as hyenas tracking their prey, and especially so in keeping their packages secure as they moved in transit through their zone. They often using a barber shop on the avenue between 117 and 118 Streets as their meeting place.

Careful as they were, the dealers did not pick up that the head of the New York’s police intelligence unit, Assistant Chief Inspector Arthur Gruber, who was an ally that David Durk finally gained, had arranged early in 1972 for undercover officers to occupy an apartment on the corner of 118th Street, one block north of the corner.

Posing as itinerant gypsy cabdrivers, five detectives carried out surveillance that resulted in over a thousand hours of film and videotape recordings of the corner in all its kinetic activity. Because a lot of the hoodlums used cocaine as part of their daily routine, they often seemed to have unlimited energy, jostling each other, strutting around the corner like peacocks in heat as they passed their time, waiting for the deals to go down. On one occasion, the police observers saw them firing off marine flare guns into the air. And never the sign of a police car. The local precinct avoided the area as though it were out of bounds.

In April 1970, The New York Times began a series of articles based on information Durk had supplied to one of its investigative reporters. Having tried to get some kind of reaction from his superiors, and the mayor’s office to seemingly no avail, the fourth estate seemed his only option. In one article, they reported that drug dealers, gamblers and merchants were making illicit payments of millions of dollars a year to the police officers of New York.

The heat this generated moved the mayor of the city, John V. Lindsay, to create The Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption (known informally as the Knapp Commission, after its chairman Whitman Knapp). The panel confirmed the existence of widespread corruption and made several recommendations in its 264 page document submitted in December 1972.

David Durk was a principal witness, giving evidence before the commission on December 21, 1971.

The “Hook” was a man behind the scene. He rarely, if ever, turned up at the intersection. Along with Jewish gangster, Herbie Sperling, and a Lebanese dealer, he organized the buying and shipping of drugs into New York, leaving the trench-work for the strange and motley crew who seemingly lived their lives on the side-walk near the tavern. In a landscape of twisting and diverging paths, life on the corner would eventually follow only way-go directly to jail.

Capra and the drug-dealing crew were living on borrowed time as 1973 arrived and the police and federal agents closed in on the junction and its gangster inhabitants. “Operation Undercover,” the biggest organized crime investigation carried out at that time involved not only the surveillance on Pleasant Avenue but also taps on two public telephones in Diane’s Bar, on 2nd Avenue and 105 Street in 1972, which recorded conversations and messages over a period of about a year, and these police initiatives lead to the arrests and indictments of 86 suspects in April 1973.

Another nail in their coffin was Dolores Martinez.

She and her husband, Pedro Melicio, were drug peddlers who sourced their product through the men on the avenue. Arrested by the police, she agreed to cooperate with the law and to wear a wire. She became another source in the river of information that fed the investigation.

10832187276?profile=RESIZE_180x180“The Hook” (right) became a capo or crew skipper in the Lucchese Mafia Family. Following his twenty-year sentence for the Pleasant Avenue bust, he did time in the early 2000s for extortion and illegal gambling.

“Ernie Boy” got his button into the Gambino Crime Family, and then kept going to jail, mainly on drug and extortion indictments. Following his sentence for the Pleasant Avenue conviction, he did time in 1983, was back again in 1987, both times on drug trafficking charges,  then in 1995 and 2005, He recently did a five-year stretch in 2014 for extortion. His police record shows he started getting noticed by the law when he was a mere fourteen-year-old, and he seems to have spent almost half his life behind bars.

10832187678?profile=RESIZE_180x180“Gerry Z” (left) went down for twenty-five years, and was released from prison in 1983. He died in 2011, aged 83. “Johnny Echoes” Louis Inglese and Tommy Lentini all served terms for their part in the Pleasant Avenue connection.

The old man who started it all was dead by 1976.

David Durk died at his home in Putnam County, New York, in November 2012. He was 77. He had stayed in the police and reached the rank of lieutenant, and then he quit. A Don Quixote of the new world, his windmills were the kind that fought not just nature but the beast of man itself. An iconoclast who never turned away from difficult decisions, his work was more than a job, truly, a vocation.

He joined the biggest police force in America that was rotten, systematically, from top to bottom. In trying to close a cancerous drug-ring that was helping to destroy the lives of thousands of people, instead of cooperation, he met only with a bureaucracy overwhelmingly intent on blocking, evading and avoiding its duty, simply because so many of its officers were part of the problem, and never, ever going to be the solution.

Pope Francis claimed, “corruption is paid by the poor.”

They were the ones that lived in East Harlem, and other run-down suburbs of New York, the ones most affected by the corner and its transient drug-dealers. The same ones most damaged by a police who had lost its way, over generations of neglect, greed and indifference.

In 1972, David Durk received an honorary doctorate of laws degree from Amherst College in Massachusetts. His Alma mater, from where he graduated in 1957. In its citation, his school refers to him as “A Good Cop.”

He was, it seems, one of the few.

His good friend, Robert Shaw, remembered him in a quote from Shakespeare:

“He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.” 

10837581496?profile=RESIZE_710xPhoto: Current view of The Corner.

10832193700?profile=RESIZE_710x** There is a famous case and a newspaper picture from 1947 that probably gave the wife beater its name. That year, in Detroit, a man named James Hartford Jr. was arrested for beating his wife to death. Because of the nature and seriousness of Hartford’s crime, the story didn’t just stay in Detroit; it went national and featured on the pages of newspapers around the country. Headlines included the words “wife beater” and Hartford was pictured being walked out of his home after his arrest wearing an A-style white tank top. It’s alleged this is the origin of the term.


Durk, David & Arlene, Silverman, Ira. The Pleasant Avenue Connection: New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

Harlem’s Hidden focus

Critchley, David, The Origin of Organized Crime: New York: Routledge, 2009.

Gotham Gazette August 27,2008. An Affluent, white Harlem?

Deitche, Scott M, Hitmen: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022.

Washington Post, 11-13-2012. Of Note: David Durk, police detective, obituary.

USA Court of Appeals for 2nd Circuit, Capra et al. January 3, 1074.

New York Post, 28-12-2015, 5 Police corruption scandals that rocked New York.

The Village Voice, 1-3-1973, The Knapp Connection.

US Appalee v John Capra et al. Defendants-appellants, 501 F.2nd 267 (2nd Cir.1974)

US Court of Appeals v Solomon Glover, Southern District Court, April, 1974.

New York Times, 31-11-2012, David Durk, Serpico’s Ally Against Graft, Dies at 77.

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2. William Shakespeare.

Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.


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