Letter Exhumes Mystery of the Missing Judge

From Associated Press

What ever happened to Judge Joseph Crater?

The disappearance of Crater, an associate justice on the New York State Supreme Court, captured the public’s imagination for decades.

Long before Elvis, Judge Crater sightings were an international phenomenon. There were reports of Crater in a Manhattan nightclub and a Maine cottage, of Crater wandering through Havana and playing bingo in North Africa.

Now a recently discovered letter saying that Crater was murdered and buried near the Coney Island boardwalk has prompted tabloid headlines about a case that still puzzles authorities more than 70 years after the newly appointed judge entered a cab in midtown Manhattan -- and was never seen again.


“1930 Crater Vanish ‘Solved,’ ” proclaimed the New York Post on Friday, although police said that wasn’t quite the case.

Barbara O’Brien, a Long Island resident, discovered a letter left by her late grandmother, who wrote that her husband had heard the story of Crater’s demise over drinks: His cab-driver brother, a cop and several accomplices had killed Crater and buried him on the site of the future New York Aquarium.

Police were uncertain about the letter’s legitimacy but said they were combing through records to determine if any bodies had been unearthed during the aquarium’s construction in the 1950s.

After the 41-year-old judge vanished, the Crater saga became a part of the national psyche -- first as a news story on par with the O.J. Simpson trial, later as a synonym for unsolved mysteries and eventually as a punch line for Groucho Marx.


“If this had happened today, it would dominate all the talk shows and cable shows for the next five years,” said Thomas Reppetto, co-author of the book “NYPD.”

On the evening of Aug. 6, 1930, Crater dined at a West 45th Street steakhouse with a group of friends that included a showgirl. Crater had earlier withdrawn $5,150 from a pair of bank accounts. He was last seen at 9:15 p.m., climbing into the cab.

The taxi disappeared into the night.

So did Crater.


For the next 75 years, there were rumors and rumblings but never any resolution. Whether this letter provides an answer, Reppetto said, there is at least one thing for certain in the Crater case.

“They won’t,” he said with a laugh, “find him alive.”