Road Companies, Brutes and Safecrackers
An exclusive excerpt from Allen M. Hornblum's Confession of a Second Story Man the first history of the Irish burglary team from K&A that terrorized the East Coast during the 1950s.
by Allen M. Hornblum
Burke and Brewer's mugshots
Allen M. Hornblum's Confessions of a Second Story Man, due out at the end of this month from Temple University Press, follows the exploits of Junior Kripplebauer, the ringleader of the so-called "K&A Gang" a ragtag band of gruff, beer-guzzling hoods from Kensington. Despite their humble origins, the K&A Gang would knock over countless houses from the Philly burbs to the affluent counties of Houston from the 1950s through the 1970s. Consider it the dark side of the Rocky Balboa story: blue-collar nobodies with a particular talent (in this case, breaking and entering) achieve a level of national fame (in this case, infamy). In the following, we follow the K&A Gang as they make their way to other cities and reveal the tricks of their felonious trade. Want to know more about how Hornblum fell in with the criminal element and convinced them to spill it all? See the interview here.
One night we're doin' a bowling alley up on Roosevelt Boulevard and Adams Avenue. We'rand decide we're gonna have to burn the safe, which takes a little time and casts off a good bit of light. We're all tense, tryin' to be as quiet and inconspicuous as possible, when all of a sudden there's a big bang like a goddamn explosion. It scares the shit out of everybody, and we all duck for cover and try to figure out what the hell happened. When we don't hear any sirens or see any cops come barging in, we look out into the middle of the building where all the dust and debris seem to be, and there's a guy lying on one of the bowling lanes moaning his head off. Once we realize it ain't the cops, we go over to see what the hell all the commotion is about. We get on the eighth or ninth lane, put our flashlights on the guy moaning in pain and the big hole that's now in the ceiling of the joint. It turns out the guy flat on his back is Steve Zagnojney. He's another burglar from the neighborhood, and we always called him Steve the Mechanic. He's screaming that he broke his leg when he fell through the roof and needs a doctor bad. What could we do? We had to forget about burning the safe and took Steve to Frankford Hospital. But that's what it was like in those days. While we're tryin' to open a safe and make a few bucks, another Kensington crew decides to burglarize the same damn bowling alley. But one of their guys, Steve the Mechanic, who goes about 6'2", 250 pounds, falls through the roof while we're burnin' the safe. None of us made any money that night. -Johnny Boggs
They weren't off the Delta jetliner more than a few seconds before Junior stopped at a concourse newsstand and purchased a copy of the Houston Chronicle and a map of the city. He was never one to waste time when working: The newspaper and map took priority over both a necessary pit stop in the men's room after the long flight and a cold beer at an airport restaurant.
Junior and his three friends were in Texas on business; some things, especially a refreshing libation, could wait.
Burglary crew leader Junior Kripplebauer was featured in a Philadelphia Police Department "blue book." In an effort to grapple with the challenge presented by the K&A Gang,the police developed handbooks full of individual burglars' photos and vitals.
They traveled light. There was little baggage: Tommy's large suitcase and a small overnight bag for each crew member. By the time they had hailed a taxi and were on their way to a nearby motel, Junior had pretty much decided on the location of the evening's activities by scanning the Chronicle's Real Estate section for quarter- and half-million-dollar properties. All that remained was to cross-check that location against the addresses of area synagogues and ritzy country clubs in the motel's telephone directory a match and they'd be on their way.
While Junior and Bruce did their research in a Ramada Inn motel room, Tommy and Mickie went about their business; after years of working together, they had the operation down like clockwork. They first took a taxi to the nearest Avis car rental agency and signed for two mid-sized automobiles. Tommy drove one car back to the motel and immediately began installing the police scanners, walkie-talkies, and batteries he had brought with him from Philadelphia. Mickie took the second car to a nearby mall in search of a Sears or a large automotive shop. When she returned with three pairs of gloves and a collection of chisels, pliers, crowbars, flashlights and short-handled sledgehammers, Tommy installed the same electronic gadgetry in the second car.
Their assignments complete, the four Philadelphians decided to take a ride. It was their first trip to South Texas and they were interested in seeing some of the local sights, particularly an area called the Village which the Chronicle declared one of the most beautiful and affluent sections of Harris County. After a brief ride along Houston's North Freeway, they turned off the highway, noticed the swift decline in office buildings, strip malls, and vehicular traffic, and began navigating through open country roads bordering expansive brown fields. Soon they were driving through quiet, attractive neighborhoods with stately homes surrounded by lush, green grass, well-tended shrubs, and the occasional gazebo and faux wishingwell. Impressive, opulent mansions became more frequent, and Cadillacs, Lincolns, and sporty foreign models like Jaguars filled the driveways. The place reeked of money. Though no one mentioned it, each crew member focused on those homes displaying two items the average tourist would no doubt have overlooked: a small mezuzah and an equally small key-controlled alarm mechanism near the front door.
"I think we did OK," said Bruce to no one in particular. "This place looks like my kind of town."
"Yeah," replied Junior, "I think we're gonna be fat tonight."
After driving slowly through the area for another 10 minutes, they returned to their motel. Second story work wasn't kid's play. It was damn serious stuff, demanding more than a modicum of physical ability and nerves of steel. Though burglary was a year-round activity, those frigid January nights when fingers and toes went numb and noses and eyes ran uncontrollably were sheer hell for the Philly-based crew. At those painful times, Florida and the other Sunbelt states appeared decidedly more inviting. That was why they were now along the Texas Gulf Coast and not trudging through the snow in Newport, Greenwich or Scarsdale. If things went well later that night, Houston might get placed right up there with their favorite winter haunts such as Miami, Tampa, and Saint Pete.
Back at the Ramada Inn, they needed to kill a couple of hours while waiting for nightfall. Mickie luxuriated in a warm bubble bath while Junior and Tommy played a few hands of poker. Bruce contented himself with a crime novel he had swiped from an airport newsstand. Finally, anxious to go to work, Junior threw the playing cards into the trash and told the crew that it was time to get dressed. The three men were attired in their customary business suits; Mickie wore a gray pantsuit with contrasting white blouse and modest bow. As always, a black wig completed her costume. With Junior and Mickie in one car and Tommy and Bruce in the other, they drove to the closest restaurant and had a light meal. Other than Mickie's comment on the number of people wearing Stetson hats and cowboy boots and Junior's reminder to Tommy to go easy on the beer, conversation was practically nonexistent.
Back in the cars, they promptly headed for the wealthy Houston suburb known as the Village. Once in the target area, they slowly traveled along Pine Forrest, Hunters Trail and Country Squire Roads, all the while noting apparently unoccupied homes, particularly those adorned with a tiny red light by the front door. Junior finally decided that a spot along Coach Road would be the best place to park the second (or "drop") vehicle. With the whole crew in the main car, they were now ready to strike.
In a matter of minutes and with little debate, the foursome decided on a handsome three-story colonial at 5927 Pine Forrest Rd. as the evening's first piece of work. Junior was let out of the car, walked up the driveway and rang the doorbell. After a few seconds he could be heard knocking on the front door, and a few seconds after that he was seen moving to the rear of the structure. When he returned to the front door, he gave his partners the thumbs-up sign, and Bruce and Tommy the latter with walkie-talkie in hand promptly joined him. Mickie took the wheel, turned on the communications equipment, and slowly drove off. The three men would be in the house less than 15 minutes, but it was a highly profitable 15 minutes.
Among the items taken were 10 albums containing Graf Zeppelin and other early airmail stamps, as well as early plate locks; an enormous coin collection including full mint sets for a half-dozen different years and 10,000 pennies, many dating back to the Civil War; silver goblets; two diamond tie tacks; a Rolex watch; and several pieces of expensive jewelry. The owner, more than a little stunned that the thieves had gotten around his sophisticated alarm system, would later inform the FBI that the items taken were worth well over $50,000.
After Mickie was notified that the job was complete, the goods were transferred to thedrop car, and Mickie drove the trio back to Pine Forrest Road, where they entered and cleaned out another home. They walked out with 12 demitasse and 12 silver bouillon spoons; a four-piece sterling silver Royal Danish serving set;10 pairs of gold earrings; a platinum necklace topped off with a two-and-one-half carat diamond; a gold watch with six diamonds; two mink stoles and more.
After a quick trip back to the drop car, Mickie then took the men to 314 Hunters Trail, where they repeated the drill despite the state-of-the-art Westinghouse alarm system with a backup directly wired to the Village Police Department.
The next stops were 1125 North Country Squire Rd. (cash, jewelry, silverware and several mink coats) and 815 CreekWoodway (a heart-shaped platinum diamond band encrusted with five diamonds; a gold watch with 16 rubies and nine diamonds; a gold ring with two center diamonds; a pair of gold earrings inlaid with a diamond and pearl; and, for good measure, a tourmaline mink jacket and matching hat).
The trunks of both cars were now filled with every imaginable expensive item, from Hummel figurines and silver candelabra to fine jewelry and mink coats, not to mention the two hundred pounds of coins that stressed the automobile's suspension system. In a little less than two hours, Junior Kripplebauer, his wife, Mickie, Tommy Seher, and Bruce Agnew had broken into four homes, cleaned out at least a quarter-million dollars worth of goods and administered a long-lasting trauma to the community's psyche. For this K&A crew, it was just an average night's work.
Their work, of course, was production work, a home burglary system that had been perfected over two decades and was still pulverizing the nation well into the late 1970s.
Local and state police officials were pinballing between embarrassment, frustration and annoyance. It was the summer of 1959, and communities in central Pennsylvania's hard-coal region were being ravaged by an astute and crafty group of burglars who appeared out of thin air, entered homes and businesses at will, avoided detection and left law enforcement authorities slack-jawed and mystified. Out of nowhere, it seemed, residents of Lycoming, Clinton, Berks, Union and Columbia counties were being besieged as if a plague of locusts had descended on them. From the homes of prominent doctors to commercial cattle dairies, citizens all over the region were caught in the undertow.
Weeks went by before the first lead surfaced: a description of a suspicious automobile and unfamiliar, well-dressed men driving through the countryside. Finally, in early July, Pennsylvania state police made an arrest in a Williamsport motel room and confiscated several thousand dollars in cash, a rare coin collection, an assortment of expensive jewelry and "a complete set of burglary tools." But their catch was less impressive at least numerically than the army they had expected to find. Instead, it turned out to be a particularly industrious "road company of four Philadelphia criminals."
It was no ordinary road company, however. It was a crew of supremely gifted and accomplished burglars: Hughie Breslin, 28; Jimmy Laverty, 27; Harry Stocker, 36; and Effie Burkowski, 33. Though the distraught victims would probably have taken little solace from the fact even if they had known it at the time, their central Pennsylvania communities had been pillaged by the best. The four Kensington burglars were the equivalent of Ruth and Gehrig's '27 Yankees in the world of burglardom.
Pennsylvania's heartland was by no means the only recipient of the K&A Gang's affection. As Jimmy Laverty says, "From the earliest days, we did jobs outside the city." "Let's go find some virgin territory" seems to have been a constant refrain of the gang members.
Initially, says John McManus, the novice Irish burglars followed the Jewish businessmen of Kensington Avenue back to their homes in Northeast Philadelphia and suburban Cheltenham. "We'd see a guy get in his Cadillac after closing his shop and follow him back to his house. We didn't have nothing against the Jews, but the Jews had a lot and we didn't have anything." The abundance of "gold, diamonds and cash" discovered in Jewish residential targets would be the centerpiece of the gang's livelihood for many years to come.
It wasn't long before affluent communities such as Chestnut Hill in Northwest Philadelphia, Elkins Park and Rydal north of the city, and Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Radnor along the well-to-do Main Line were also receiving the burglars' attention. "I've probably been in every house in Chestnut Hill," says Jackie Johnson matter-of-factly. Others had their own favorite hunting grounds. "La La (McQuoid) loved the Main Line," recalls Johnson. "He didn't like to travel too far."
Few others, however, had such reservations. "We'd go out on the road for a few days or a week," says Ray Mann, "and do pretty damn well." In fact, year after year more and more road companies were coming out of Kensington and traveling the new superhighways and the bucolic back roads of America, searching for "virgin territory" in some remote, pastoral corner of New England or, just a stone's throw away, across the Delaware River. "New Jersey was made for burglars," says Laverty. "You could drive down the street of most neighborhoods and almost tell how the job would go and if it was worth it by how the houses were lit and the way the shrubs were cut." Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Moorestown, Princeton and other Jersey bedroom communities soon became regular haunts of K&A Gang members. Some crews ventured up into Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley and beyond, visiting Bethlehem, Allentown, Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton and Scranton, while others headed west along the Pennsy Turnpike to Lancaster, Johnstown and Pittsburgh.
During the 1950s, as Sears, Burke, Breslin, Laverty, McQuoid, Stocker and company became more proficient in their chosen profession, their excursions stretched to distant locales as far west as Ohio and up and down the East Coast, from plush Connecticut suburbs to Virginia tidewater estates. But wealthy towns in North Jersey and Long Island became "favorite areas" for most Kensington crews. Laverty, for example, was especially fond of the Oranges, Teaneck and Tenafly in New Jersey and ritzy Long Island towns like Sag Harbor, Oyster Bay and East Hampton.
"We were doing good in Pennsylvania," says Laverty, "but New York was a whole other story. There was little jewelry in Hazleton, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. It was mostly cash. How many opera houses do you have up there? Any woman up there with a nice ring probably never takes it off. In New York there'd be $15,000 in cash lying around a house, plus a safe with more cash and all sorts of fine jewelry, expensive artwork and silverware. The New York bedroom communities were a wealth of stuff. We hit every town of consequence up there." Laverty was not alone in his fondness for the area. "We really hit Long Island," says Fancy Frank Mawhinney. "We'd look for a house that looked unoccupied and that was it." Westchester, Scarsdale, the Hamptons and many other affluent New York towns soon became the Promised Land for a growing number of K&A road companies.
For Donnie Johnstone, a Kensington boy who learned the business in the '50s from the likes of Sears, Effie and Laverty, there was a comforting regimentation about the business. "We'd leave on a Wednesday and come back on Sunday," says Johnstone. "First we'd find a motel to stash our stuff and then go out and do two or three houses in a row and then move to another neighborhood and do two or three more. You'd just keep driving until you found a nice neighborhood. That was production work. Usually we'd eat dinner at three in the afternoon and then start doing production work at 4:30. We were usually done and back at a bar by 9."
K&A burglary teams quickly learned to home in on elite neighborhoods, drawn by "well-known private country clubs that were usually surrounded by large, wealthy homes," Johnstone recalls. Street smarts, experience and a ruthless entrepreneurial spirit contributed to a sound and fruitful geographic targeting system. "We'd go into a town," says Jimmy Laverty, "and look up the private country clubs in a phone book. Most of the homes around these fancy clubs belonged to doctors. And the doctors were predominantly Jewish. All of them had cash."
"Jewish neighborhoods were good," says Jimmy Dolan. "Jewish women had to have jewelry. They loved to show their jewelry off." For many years, according to Dolan, "jewelry was the meat of the game."
Whether the goal was cash, jewelry, coin collections or artwork, Jewish residences were considered a bonus. An impressive home with a manicured lawn and well-tended shrubs situated in an upscale neighborhood was always inviting. Add a mezuzah on the doorframe, and the Philly crews found it irresistible. "My eyes would light up and my heart would beat a little faster when I went up to the house to see if anybody was home and saw that mezuzah on the door," says Johnny Boggs. He'd curl his index finger in the crude shape of a hooked nose to signal to his partners in the car that the house belonged to Jews.
To a man, however, the gang members insist that their voracious appetite for burglarizing Jewish households had less to do with anti-Semitism than with practical financial concerns. They viewed themselves as businessmen looking for the best return on their labor. "That's where the money was," as con man and prison escape artist Willie Sutton is said to have replied when asked why he robbed banks. For the K&A burglars, Jewish homes contained the cash, jewelry, furs, expensive silverware and other items of value they were looking for. Years of persistent, dedicated effort across large swathes of the nation had confirmed who had the goods.
"The worst thing we could see when we entered a home," says 80-year-old Billy McClurg, "was a crucifix on the wall.We immediately knew there wouldn't be anything of value to steal. The worst thing you could smell upon entering a house was wine. Italians may have money, but many of them don't keep it in the house." Known as "Billy Blew" to all his confederates, McClurg says the crews he worked with targeted "Jewish neighborhoods" almost exclusively. "We'd drive up to a town like Scranton or someplace in upstate New York and look in the phone book for Jewish synagogues. Those were the neighborhoods we wanted. That's where the money was."
In fact, some gang members sound like demographers or sociologists. "German families," according to Jimmy Laverty, "had beautiful homes and substantial bank statements, but they weren't flashy and had little jewelry. They never left money lying around the house. You'll never get 10 cents out of a German's house." The homes of "gentiles" in general were less attractive to the burglary community. "She's got a diamond she's never taken off and the guy gets paid by check," says Laverty bluntly. Lawyers, surprisingly, were equally unappealing. They had all their "money invested. It was never in their house." For Laverty, as well as most of his accomplices, the homes of Jews and some Italians were the most rewarding. "They're flashy people and love jewelry. They had the money."
"Most gentiles didn't have too much," adds Donnie Johnstone. "But when you saw a mezuzah on a door, it meant a half a score at least and possibly a home run." Most of the old Kensington burglars flatly admit that Jewish homes were the core of their business, and some claim mezuzah-adorned properties represented 90 percent of their trade. "Hell, we'd cross over into Jersey," says Donnie Abrams, "get a phone book and look up the fucking Jews. And that's where we went. We'd look up all the Jews, see a mezuzah on the door, and hit 'em."
With the exception of carpenters and mechanics accustomed to working on heavy machinery, most people encountering a #9714 screwdriver might mistake it for a simple household implement bulked up by steroids. In actuality, they have come upon one of the most valuable pieces arguably the centerpiece of a Kensington burglar's weighty arsenal. The sturdy steel screwdriver, 3-feet long, 3/4 of an inch thick, was as indispensable to the Kensington burglar as a typewriter was to an author or a calculator to an accountant. Nicknamed "the brute," the hefty crowbar-like hunk of metal was an all-purpose device that could, for starters, shatter a well-built door lock (assuming that the burglars didn't already have the keys to it).
"It was the basic tool of a burglar," says Jimmy Dolan, "and one store owner got rich selling them." "We used to buy five or 10 at a time," recalls Jackie Johnson. "That was a key piece of the equipment," adds Donnie Johnstone. "Not many doors could stand up to it."
Not every hardware store bothered to carry the ominous-looking screwdriver, which could easily be mistaken for a relic of the Crusades. However, for one automotive parts shop on Kensington Avenue in the 1950s and 1960s, the #9714 screwdriver was one of the most popular items.
"We had a run on them back then," recalls Jay Tipton, who began working at Morris Auto in 1953. "Our regular mechanics who came into the store never bought them, just members of the K&A Gang." At the time Tipton didn't know the "articulate, clean-cut" customers who appeared fixated on the unusual tool, but one day in the early '60s a couple of city detectives came into the store to ask about it. "The cops said that burglars were leaving the tools at the scene of the crime and asked if we could identify any of them," says Tipton. "They had mug shots of people and I did recognize some of them." Once Eugene Steinberg, the store's owner, realized how the tools were being used, he told his staff "not to purchase the #9714 any more. It was a good seller," says Tipton, "but the boss said not to order it any more."
In fact, a professional burglar's bag contained an array of nifty tools and gadgets: gloves, flashlight, short-handled sledgehammer, crowbar, punch, L-shaped pliers, rattail files, sandpaper, and an assortment of chisels and keys. Later, walkie-talkies, police scanners, power drills and acetylene torches would come into play. But for the 30-odd years the K&A Gang functioned, the brute was a particular favorite. In most cases, it was the first piece of equipment a burglar used on a piece of real estate. Generally, once a road crew had determined that a house was unoccupied, one of the team would go up to the front door and firmly wedge the brute between the lock and the doorframe. Within seconds of leaning on it, he would hear cracking; soon he could see wood splitting as the lock was torn away from both the door and the frame. As Donnie Johnston says, very few "doors could stand up to it."
Once inside, the men would assume their positions. As adrenaline coursed through their veins and the anticipation built, the searchers went about their individual assignments. Given a choice, most crew members would have preferred the more glamorous (and usually more rewarding) job of searcher, especially the one who had the honor of hitting the master bedroom. The expectation of discovering a cash-stuffed wallet, an envelope filled with hundred-dollar bills, a jewelry box filled with diamond brooches, or a gem-laden necklace would send anyone's heartbeat racing, let alone a professional thief's. Each home, each bedroom, each chest of drawers, each jewelry box was a new heart-thumping adventure. As Jimmy Dolan says, "The excitement of it all was tremendous. It was incredible. You never knew what to expect."
For the K&A burglar, the master bedroom was the equivalent of King Tut's tomb or a buccaneer's buried treasure all sorts of good things were hidden there. It was where they hoped to make a big score, to get rich. "Ninety percent of the time the money could be found in the master bedroom," says Laverty. "People are creatures of habit. They love to be near their money in the closet, the wall safe, in back of a drawer, under the mattress. But almost always in the bedroom."
Once on the verge of making the big score, like fortune seekers caught up in the 19th century California Gold Rush, the Irish burglars displayed their individuality, their own personal treasure-hunting styles. Just as some 49ers tunneled deep into the mountains for gold while others sat by a stream and methodically panned for it, some K&A men were heavy-handed and destroyed the homes they rummaged through while others had a more delicate touch and tried to show some consideration for their victim's property. Jimmy Laverty, for instance, prided himself on being a thoughtful, "meticulous person." Ninety percent of his victims, he claims, "never even knew their place had been robbed. Most didn't realize until they looked for a ring or favorite brooch a few days later."
Other burglars, he says, were just interested in finding the spoils and getting out with the goods. "Effie pulled drawers open and dumped them on the bed. Everything got thrown, tossed, and trashed when Effie worked. It looked like a cyclone had hit the house. When I went through a place," says Laverty proudly, "there was never a mess." Colder-hearted practitioners would argue that the goal was to get as much as you could as quickly as you could. Neither the homeowners nor the cops were giving out merit points for neatness.
All the Kensington burglary crews were conscientious about weapons, however. No one was to carry a gun while doing production work, and a weapon discovered during the course of a job was to be discarded, preferably where no one could find it. "First thing," says Laverty, "I would open the night table drawer, and if I found a gun there, I'd take it and throw it in the toilet tank. You didn't want the owner coming home and getting to the gun while you're in there. No one wanted trouble or a shootout."
This became a cardinal rule of the gang. "We never carried a gun," says Donnie Abrams. "If you found one while on a job, then you'd immediately hide it if you had any brains. You'd hide it behind a couch, a toilet, anywhere." Even a decade later the rule was still in effect. Jimmy Dolan, an Effie Burke recruit in the '60s, says, "It was automatic; you never carried a gun. You do and it opens all kinds of fucking doors; maybe you'll use it, maybe you'll just get more fucking time for carrying it. There was no good reason to be carrying a gun. We wanted to make money and enjoy ourselves. We never wanted to hurt anybody. We wanted to spend money, but not get anybody hurt."
An additional reason for the gang's disdain for weapons came from their growing understanding of the nuances of the criminal justice system. Getting caught with a gun meant stiffer penalties. As Jackie Johnson says, "As long as no one got hurt, you were OK and a lawyer could do something for you." "You didn't carry a gun because you were fairly sure that no one was home," brags another burglar. "You could do a hundred burglaries and you'd only get 11 and a half to 23 months back then."
The gang's "no weapon rule" became well known in the law enforcement community and was much appreciated by street cops. Though Philly and suburban police were being run ragged by Kensington's Irish Mob in the 1950s, they learned that its modus operandi excluded any form of violence. "The guys never had a gun," says John Del Carlino, a city detective who pursued the K&A Gang for over two decades. "They didn't want to hurt anybody." In fact, it wasn't unusual for the first police officers who arrived at a burglarized home to relax and holster their revolvers when they realized it was a K&A job. They knew they were dealing with the cream of the city's crop of burglars: The place was probably cleaned out, but they could be reasonably sure that no one had been hurt in the process.
Another tenet of production work that served the gang well over the years was dressing for success. Everyone, whether he was the driver who never left the car or the lookout man stuck by a window, had to be appropriately attired, preferably in a business suit. It was important to blend into the neighborhoods they were pillaging. Normal street clothes or the factory work outfits that were so common in Kensington would have been spectacularly conspicuous in upscale Merion, Scarsdale and Sag Harbor.
Burglary garb as projected on cinema screens around the country was similarly disdained. Carole Heidinger recalls the time Effie Burke was about to take a crew on the road and a new man he was breaking in "came dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and black slacks like a Hollywood movie." Effie took one look at the guy and "rolled on the floor laughing." Real burglars K&A burglars were professionals, and looked like professionals. "We were always well dressed," says Dolan. "We looked fuckin' right. We wore business suits and even carried briefcases." "You never wore dungarees in case you got stopped," says Georgie Smith. "We wore top-notch suits. I bought expensive Botany 500 suits." "We always worked in suits and ties," adds Donnie Johnstone. "We had to look well dressed and respectable."
The ploy usually worked. A nattily attired businessman with briefcase in hand was unlikely to draw any attention walking up to a fashionable home. Why would a casual observer suspect that the well-dressed gentleman at the front door possibly an insurance salesman or business associate was actually the point man for an experienced, aggressive criminal organization that had just ripped off the more valuable possessions from a half-dozen families in the neighborhood?
Despite the crews' fealty to the tenets of production work, however, they were studiously opposed to any more rules or regulations than necessary and rejected the notion of modeling themselves after the other ethnic crime faction in town the Mafia. In fact, the ever-growing number of Kensington burglary teams were nothing more than a loose confederation of mostly Irish, blue collar, high school dropouts who looked at production work as a career alternative to life as a roofer, factory worker, or cop. There was never any interest in building a rigid, hierarchical outfit as the Italians had done. Kensington Irishmen hated bosses. Installing an all-powerful Angelo Bruno-type figurehead as the capo di tutti capi ("boss of all bosses") of the K&A Gang would have been nearly impossible. There were crew chiefs like Willie Sears, Effie Burke, John Berkery, and Junior Kripplebauer who knew the score and had lots of experience, but an elaborate chain of command with a single overlord was against their nature. They weren't interested in constructing a strict, paramilitary-type operation where orders were given and followed to the letter. K&A men were more free-flowing and democratic. Each crew member had a vote and could veto a job if he chose to. Freedom and organizational fluidity appealed to their carefree, relaxed work ethic. If the Mafia was the model for the traditional organized crime operation, Kensington second story men were quite content to represent disorganized crime.