Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Ketchup Murder Case

In late July 1934, the average life of Watertown’s Vincent Sparacino took a sudden, drastic turn, becoming anything but humdrum. Vincent was an Italian immigrant who came to America in 1906 when he was 16 years old. The family settled in Watertown and operated Sparacino & Company, a fruit wholesaler that later branched out into vegetables. By the late 1920s Vincent and his brother Tony were partners in the business with other family members. Vince was a hands-on guy, frequently driving a delivery truck to customer sites around the city.

On many days after finishing work and taking supper, he drove to a nearby grocery store, parked outside, sat in the front passenger seat, and played the car radio. His good friend of many years, Patsy Carbone, ran the store, and whenever there was free time, Patsy came out to visit.

On the evening of July 25th, Sparacino followed the same routine. While waiting near the store, he noticed Patsy’s brother, Joseph, whom Vince knew through occasional business dealings. Stopping to visit, Joe slid in behind the steering wheel, and the pair chatted while listening to the radio. A few minutes later, two strangers appeared, one standing outside the car next to Vince’s window, and the other climbing uninvited into the back seat.

The man outside spoke in Italian, warning him to take his family and get out of the country within 48 hours. Stunned at what he heard, Sparacino protested, asking what he had done wrong, but was told, “It doesn’t make any difference.” The statement about leaving the country was repeated, after which the man in the back seat cautioned, “Move and I’ll blow your head off.” When Carbone attempted to speak up on Vince’s behalf, he received the same threat, followed by a slap to Joseph’s face and a warning, “You shut up. You mind your business.”

Sparacino kept trying to reason with them, but to no avail. As the two men began to leave, Patsy exited his store and received the same warning given to his brother. Upset by the matter, Joe told Vince to stay put while he went for a gun so they could follow the men and settle things. He came back empty-handed, but left again and returned with an eight-inch table knife, after which they set off together in pursuit of the pair. Vince drove down several streets, and Joe entered different establishments, but they learned nothing. Back at Sparacino’s home, they sat on the front steps and talked. All Vince could figure was that they were new business rivals in town, trying to drive out the competition.

Finally, Carbone offered a solution: a friend in Syracuse, who handled a difficult matter in the past, might be able to help, he said. Vince agreed, so the following day they drove to Syracuse and visited the home of George Cotroneo, who summoned two associates to help find a solution. One of them, going only by the name of Pasquale (his real name was Antonio D’Anna), placed a call to Utica and ordered two of his men to track down the culprits.

All three drove to Utica the next day in two vehicles and parked in front of a restaurant. The two men who had threatened Sparacino emerged from the eatery and entered the cars, which proceeded to a house on Gardner Street at the city’s outskirts. Everyone entered the back door and descended into the basement, where a meeting was held around a table. The conversation became tense, and when one of the two men threw his hat at Pasquale, they were asked to visit the back room for a private discussion.

Soon after, four shots echoed through the house. The door to the back room opened, and Pasquale called to Vince, who approached the open door and heard the words, “Mr. Sparacino … your troubles are over.” Both men were lying on the floor, motionless, their clothing a bloody mess. Pasquale then led everyone from the home, cautioning, “We’ve got to get out of here or everybody will go to the electric chair.”

A man outside, the apparent owner of the home, asked what would be done about the two bodies left in the basement, but Pasquale’s chilling reply silenced him: there were two bullets left in the gun, and if the man didn’t keep quiet, they would be used on him.

The group departed the scene and drove about three miles into the country, where Pasquale engaged in conversations with a farmer about having his workers dispose of the bodies. He balked at first, and then demanded $20,000 for the job, but they settled on a price of $15,000. The group began driving back towards Utica, but stopped along the way to discuss what had happened. Since the two men who had threatened Sparacino were rubbed out on his behalf, it was decided that he should pay the bill. After further discussion, the three men — Sparacino, Carbone, and Cotroneo — drove to Watertown, where Vince withdrew his life savings of $6,000 from the bank. Cotroneo told him it wasn’t enough, but after trying several other money sources and failing, he drove back to Utica with the men and paid Pasquale.

Later, back on the job in Watertown, but shaken and distracted by events of the past few days, Vince spilled the beans to his brother Tony, who tipped off Vince’s wife, Mary. She knew something was up, for Mary was the sole manager of their finances. All three were upset about the situation, prompting Tony to pay a visit to the district attorney, whom he knew very well.

Soon after that meeting, Vincent was approached by a Department of Justice agent, who was soon privy to the entire story. As the investigation proceeded, Vince guided state troopers to the sites he had visited in Syracuse and Utica, described what had occurred at each location, and was called upon to confirm the identities of certain participants.

So the case was broken and arrests were made, which led to the stunning, almost unbelievable truth: the entire thing was a hoax. No one was buried on the farm because no one had been shot. It was all an elaborate, well-acted extortion plot that netted less money than planned because Sparacino had only $6,000 — equal to $112,000 in 2018, so still worth it unless they got caught, which they did.

A painful revelation early on was that Joseph, a brother of Vince’s friend Patsy Carbone (who ran the store), was in on the scam from the start, even as he sat in Vince’s car and received fake threats while pretending to defend him. The men Vince met every step of the way were con artists, from Pasquale, who faked the calls to Utica with a phone that wasn’t even connected, to James Vitale, who donned overalls and a straw hat to pose as the farmer who agreed to bury the victims — who were “shot” with blank cartridges.

The story made headlines far and wide as the “Ketchup Murder,” for the bloodied victims Sparacino saw lying on the floor had been smeared with America’s favorite red condiment. Caught up in fear and anxiety after the shooting, he had no inkling at the time that fakery was involved.

But now the tables were turned, and serious charges were brought against Joseph Carbone, George Cotroneo, Salvatore Cambareri, Antonio D’Anna, and James Vitale. Still, Sparacino was plagued by uncertainty, for defendants John Doe, Richard Roe, John Roe, and Richard Doe were participants yet to be identified — men who remained free and might seek revenge.

On November 30, 1934, all five offenders were found guilty of extortion and sentenced to, in the words of the judge, “hard labor at Attica.” Two-time felons D’Anna and Cotroneo each received 20 years, Carbone was given six to twelve, and Vitale and Cambareri were sentenced to five to ten.

In January 1938, three more of the conspirators were arrested: Joseph Scalisi, his brother Salvatore, and John Giosa, all of New York City, where, incredibly, versions of the Ketchup Murder scam had been worked in the past. Sparacino visited New York and positively identified two of the three suspects, all of whom denied any involvement in the plot against him.

The trial was already under way in Watertown when each defendant pleaded guilty to grand larceny. The judge showed mercy, citing their repayment of $2,500 of the extortion money, and sentenced them to terms of two to four years in Attica, ending Watertown’s infamous Ketchup Murder case.

Photos: headlines from the Rome Daily Sentinel (1934) and Syracuse Journal (1938).

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

5 Responses

  1. Dave Gebo says:

    Was this case ever published in the Watertown Newspaper at the time?

    • Lawrence Gooley says:

      I can’t say for certain because the archive site with most of the Watertown newspapers has been down for about a week. It was covered in many other papers, and I used the actual court record to get the facts straight in a really twisted story.

  2. Randy Fredlund says:

    Well told interesting story. Thanks.

  3. Beth Rowland says:

    What an incredible story, Larry!

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