One of the most bizarre stories that I have ever researched. The nearly unbelievable true story from 1946 about a New York City woman hired to investigate another woman suspected in a jewel heist. What happened next is truly unforgettable.
Original Podcast Air Date: November 29, 2014
On December 22nd of 1895, Wilhelm Rontgen took the world’s first medical x-ray, in which one could clearly see the bones of his wife Bertha’s hand and her wedding ring. Upon viewing the picture, she commented “I have seen my death.”
While X-rays are commonplace in the medical world today, the vast majority of our population would probably be hard pressed to explain how they work. This mysterious, magical nature of x-rays makes it ideal for the world of espionage and plays an essential part in today’s story: The Woman with the X-Ray Camera.
19-year-old Pearl Lusk had recently graduated from high school in Quakertown, Pennsylvania when she decided to pick up and move to New York City in the fall of 1946. For a short period of time, the young blonde lived with her mother and stepfather, the Siemansky’s, in Brooklyn.
But as soon as she secured a job as a sales girl at the Oppenheim Collins department store in Manhattan, she high-tailed it out of her mom’s place. With a steady income, Pearl was now able to rent a small room on the upper West Side of Manhattan for $5.00 per week. Nothing fancy…
Everything seemed to be going smoothly for Pearl until December 24th, Christmas Eve. As with all seasonal jobs, the Christmas rush was over and Pearl found herself unemployed. Making ends meet was going to be tough and with her newly found freedom, the last thing she wanted to do was go back to live with mom.
A few weeks prior to losing her job, she met a personable, good-looking man while riding on the subway. He introduced himself as Allen La Rue and asked her to accompany him for a drink, but she declined the invitation.
Fast-forward to December 26th, two days after losing her job, and can you guess who she runs into again on the subway? Yes, the one and only Allen La Rue. And this time she agreed to have that drink with him at a restaurant on 14th Street.
As with nearly all first dates, at one point the conversation turned to what each other does for a living. Pearl, as you would expect, didn’t have much to say other than to tell her sob story about how she had just been laid off. La Rue, on the other hand, was dutifully employed as an adjustor for an insurance company. He explained that he was currently investigating a case of stolen jewels and that the main suspect was a 28-year-old woman named Olga Trapani of 1434 Fifty-Seventh Street in Brooklyn. Knowing that she was in much need of a job, La Rue asked Pearl if she wanted to come work for him as his assistant. Her job would be to trail Ms. Trapani and collect evidence for his company’s case against her.
Pearl, a big fan of detective stories, enthusiastically accepted his offer. Pearl Lusk, unemployed sales clerk was now Pearl Lusk Private Investigator.
LaRue took Pearl to the suspect’s place of work – the Croyden Hat Company – at 43 West Thirty-Ninth Street in Manhattan to point the suspect out to her. For the next few days, Pearl trailed Ms. Trapani’s nearly every move to and from work.
On Monday December 30th, LaRue handed Pearl a package that he said had a camera hidden inside. But this wasn’t any ordinary camera – it was a special model that took x-ray pictures. All Pearl had to do was follow Ms. Trapani and snap a picture.
That evening, Pearl picked up Ms. Trapani’s trail as she left work, boarded the subway at the Times Square BMT station and she sat near her until they exited the train at the Fifty-fifth Street elevated station in Brooklyn. As soon as the two women stepped on to the station platform, Pearl pointed the box at the suspect and pulled the looped trip wire that extended out of the bottom of the box. She then boarded the train back to Times Square and handed the camera to LaRue so that he could develop the film.
The next morning, New Year’s Eve, Pearl met LaRue at 8 AM at the Automat near Union Square. He informed her that the picture “didn’t take.” No worry. He gave her another x-ray camera, one that was supposedly more powerful that the first. Concealed in red and green holiday wrapping paper, this camera was both larger and heavier. A similar trip wire extended from the box to trigger the shutter. Just before she left to carry out her day’s assignment, LaRue added that she should “Remember to aim it low, at her waist.” He added, “That’s probably where she’s carrying the jewels – pinned inside her dress at her waist.”
Pearl followed the suspect until they arrived at the Times Square station. As soon as they both exited the subway car, Pearl kneeled down on the platform, pointed the box toward her waist, and BOOM!
Ms. Trapani fell to the ground and started screaming. Transit Officer Joseph Bonistalli ran up to see what had happened and Pearl said “I just took this woman’s picture and somebody shot her.” It wasn’t until another officer ripped open her package to reveal that her x-ray camera was really a sawed-off shotgun encased in two wooden cream cheese boxes that Pearl realized that she was the one that had done the shooting.
Photo of sawed-off shotgun hidden in a Breakstone’s Cream Cheese box.
Patrolman William Walsh asked Ms. Trapani “Why did this woman shoot you?” She responded, “You fool, she didn’t shoot me. My husband did.”
The victim told another person “I’m going to die. Well, he got me this time. Now if he wants me he can. I’m crippled. What happened to the police? He must have been too smart for them.”
Someone applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding in Ms. Trapani’s leg and both women were rushed to Roosevelt Hospital for treatment.
And it was there at the hospital that all of the pieces of this bizarre puzzle came together. 28-year old Olga Trapani had been Olga Trapani Rocco until her marriage of 1-1/2 years to Alphonse Rocco had been annulled two months earlier. Her husband had become insanely jealous and she had been living in fear of him ever since.
The police showed a picture of Mr. Rocco to Pearl and she confirmed that he was, in fact, the same man, Allen LaRue, who had hired her for the supposed investigative job. And strangest of all, the police had already been on the hunt for him.
A few months earlier, back in October, the former Mrs. Rocco had run into her ex-husband while on the train commuting to work. Olga mentioned that she wasn’t feeling well, so Rocco offered to drive her back home. They exited the train, crossed over to the other side of the track, and picked up the train back to the station where they both had originally boarded. Her decision to get off that train and into his car would prove to be a big mistake. Rocco pulled a knife out, held it to Olga’s throat, and threatened her life if she didn’t cooperate. They drove to Poughkeepsie, which lies north of Manhattan – probably about two hours by car.
Upon arriving upstate, Rocco rented a tourist cabin for the two of them. Somehow, after five days of being held captive, Olga convinced her husband that they needed to go back to Brooklyn so that she could get more clothing. The whole ordeal appeared to end when Rocco dropped her off at her niece’s house.
As bad as kidnapping may sound, it was not the reason that the police had been looking for Rocco. That’s because a few weeks later, on November 1st, things worsened for Olga. “I was helping my mother set the dinner table and the window was open and all of a sudden I felt a very sharp sting in my right leg and when I bent down to touch it, it was bleeding.” She had been shot in almost the same exact spot that the pseudo x-ray camera would get her a short time later.
The police were contacted and Olga told them everything. The NYPD was now on the lookout for their prime suspect in the shooting – Al Rocco. After ten days in the hospital, Olga returned to work and spotted Rocco peering out from behind one of the pillars supporting the elevated train on New Utrecht Avenue.
On December 9th, she received a phone call while at work. Olga, in her statement to the police, said “He said he was watching me, he knew everything, he knew when I went to work, and that he did not aim right the first time but that when he would aim again he would kill me.”
The threatening phone calls continued on a daily basis. On several occasions she ran into Rocco while on her commute. Things got so bad that the police agreed to provide officers to escort her back and forth from her job each day. But, detectives didn’t show up the morning of December 31st, so Olga’s sister escorted her to the train. There was no way that anyone could have anticipated Rocco’s next move. At 9:45 AM, Pearl Lusk would unsuspectingly fire that camera gun and Olga would ultimately have her leg amputated.
A nine-state police search was now underway for Alphonse Rocco. At first, police had no credible leads as to his whereabouts. That all changed on January 5th, six days after the shooting. Rocco, a small-time hoodlum with a criminal record for stealing cars, had gone to the home of Dominick Rizzo, claiming that he had a lead on some scarce automobile parts. The Rizzo family had known him as Allen La Monte, so they had no reason to be suspicious of Rocco in any way.
The following day, Mr. Rizzo, his nephew, and Rocco drove to the Catskills to get the supposed parts. After stopping in Cairo, NY to grab a bite to eat, Rocco drove off in Mr. Rizzo’s car, leaving the two men stranded in what probably seemed like the middle of nowhere to them. When Rizzo called home to explain to his wife what had just transpired, she went through a traveling bag that Rocco had left behind at their home, which she found to contain .22 caliber cartridges and documents that positively identified him as the man that the police had been looking for.
After stealing the car, Rocco drove about 30 minutes to the northwest and, brandishing two guns, entered the home of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Nash in Broome Center, telling them that he planned to stay indefinitely. Yet, the very next day he decided it was time to leave and ordered Mr. Nash to drive him back to NYC. When Mr. Nash informed Rocco that his car was in need of repair and would not make it that far, Rocco opted for the nearby town of Grand Gorge. Then, along the way, Rocco changed his mind and demanded that Mr. Nash to drive him to the farm of a hunting buddy, Leroy Lewis.
The police weren’t far behind at this point. They surrounded the farmhouse and when they entered, Mrs. Lewis had informed them that Rocco had left about a half-hour earlier with one of their sleeping bags.
With ten inches of snow on the ground, it wasn’t difficult for the police to follow Rocco’s trail into the woods. After being spotted sleeping under a tree in the darkness of night, police fanned out around him and a fired a warning shot into the air. Rocco fired four times in the direction of the flash and officers returned fire. With Rocco still halfway within his sleeping bag, three bullets brought an end to his life.
In his possession, troopers found that the 29-year-old fugitive had two guns, $62.98 in cash, a picture of his ex-wife with another girl, a letter from another woman, his class 4F military draft card, two pairs of eyeglasses, his driver’s license, a flashlight, and a wristwatch.
Pearl Lusk was released by the court several days later. Olga Trapani remained in the hospital for about two months. She ultimately sued the city of New York for $200,000 (which would be about $2 million today) basically claiming that the police had failed to protect her from her former husband, even though she had filed numerous complaints against him and they had promised to safeguard her.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Joseph A. Cox dismissed the suit on April 21st of 1953. While sympathetic, he said that she didn’t have a case because the complaints had been filed against her husband, not Pearl Lusk. While they should have protected her from Al Rocco, there was no way that the police could have anticipated that they needed to protect her from Pearl Lusk and her x-ray camera gun.
Amazingly, Pearl and Olga became casual friends afterward, occasionally seeing each other from time to time.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.