Search intensifies for killer in first documented case of 'cement shoes,' long the stuff of gangster lore
By YANAN WANG | The Washington Post | Published: May 6, 2016
In E.L. Doctorow's 1989 novel "Billy Bathgate," the eponymous character is an Irish American 15-year-old who has fallen in with the wrong crowd. Living in the Bronx and working at a laundromat to support his poverty-stricken family, Billy suddenly finds himself playing witness to a brutal, Mafia-style murder.
After being kidnapped at gunpoint, the victim is tied to a chair with a series of elaborate rope loops and knots. But before this happens, his feet — the most crucial element — are placed "delicately, gingerly . . . one foot at a time in the laundry tub in front of him that was filled with wet cement."
The cement hardens, slowly, giving the victim ample time to consider his demise. Then he is thrown overboard, into New York City's East River.
While his is among the most well-known versions, Doctorow is far from alone in his depiction of the "cement shoes" killing method. It is the stuff of urban legend and Hollywood gangster movies, great fodder for dark rumors but never grounded in fact.
In what crime-writers and historians believe to be the first documented instance of the body-disposal tactic, a man's body washed up ashore on a Brooklyn beach earlier this week.
"This individual was wrapped in plastic bags and his arms were tied behind him and his feet were submerged in concrete," New York Police Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said at a press conference. "Obviously a homicide."
Unlike Billy Bathgate's companions, however, the culprits were not well-versed in the procedure. They hadn't waited long enough for the material to dry, resulting in air bubbles that likely buoyed the body to its destination.
According to the Associated Press, his feet were entrenched in a concrete-filled plastic bucket that weighed more than 50 pounds. He also had tape over his mouth and nostrils, an indication that he was suffocated, although the cause of death has yet to be released.
The victim, 28-year-old Peter Martinez, has been identified by law enforcement as a "high-ranking" member of Crips, a notorious and wide-reaching street gang started in Los Angeles.
A police official told the Wall Street Journal that a woman who described herself as Martinez's girlfriend said he owed someone a lot of money: "He wronged someone."
The same official added that Martinez has a long criminal history and was shot in 2008. His girlfriend reported him missing on Feb. 7, after last seeing him at a barbershop where he was getting his hair braided near the spot his body was ultimately found.
Authorities identified him by a back tattoo of the Virgin Mary and a rose, which was described in his missing persons file.
While the NYPD continues its search for Martinez's killer, armchair detectives have been engrossed in a tale of gangster lore rendered reality.
There are many names for the cruel form of death and disposal: "cement shoes," "cement overcoat," "concrete gloves." In a deceptively gentle turn of phrase, a victim of said technique is sometimes called one who "sleeps with the fishes."
The most widely-used term, "cement shoes," is in fact a misnomer, as the material is most likely concrete.
Two crime historians interviewed by the New York Times said they were unable to recall any prior instances of real-life "cement shoes."
"I've definitely never heard of this happening before," said Mike Dash, a London-based writer of historical crime books, including one on the New York Mafia. "It's just one of those stories that goes around. I think you've got a first there, by the sounds of things."
Crime historian Thomas Reppetto told the AP that there have likely been several such instances that escaped records.
"There's a lot of urban legend to this . . . but it all has some sort of truth to it," Reppetto said. "It started somewhere real and took off."
Back in 2008, "cement shoes" were dismissed as pure rumor by Cecil Adams, the writer of the syndicated column "The Straight Dope." In response to a curious reader's query about whether there was any truth to "mobsters' choice of swimwear for fellas with rodent traits," Adams took a dive through the archives.
An Associated Press article dated June 3, 1935, and subsequent American Weekly feature detailed the fate of a mobster who was placed in a coffin-like box filled with concrete. His girlfriend's feet were reportedly set in concrete, too, but neither of their bodies were ever found.
Other cases involved cement, but not on feet. In 1941, Johnnie Goodman, a Philadelphia fraudster, was found dead in a creek with a 40-pound concrete block attached to his body. Two decades later, the body of a hitman-turned-informant, Ernest Rupolo, was found with two concrete blocks tied to his legs.
Adams concluded: "Either custom concretewear is 100 percent effective, and the victim invariably vanishes forever from the ken of man, or the whole thing's a myth."
First or not, the botched "cement shoes" operation that killed Martinez has brought a tradition mired in fiction above the watery surface.