Two retired New York Police Department officers and a cold case detective have teamed up in an attempt to solve a decades-long cold case that shook the city to its core.
Abe Lebewohl, a Holocaust survivor and founder of the famed 2nd Avenue Deli, was on his way to work early on the morning of March 4, 1996. He was reportedly forced into his van, shot in the head and stomach, and died. The weapon used to kill him was recovered and linked to more murders, but the killer was never found.
There is no statute of limitations on murder cases in New York, so the case is still open. Now, the NYPD homicide detective who caught the case at the time, James Piccione, has rejoined forces with his former partner who had retired from the NYPD and joined the Manhattan District Attorney's office, Jeff Salta. Together, they've partnered with cold case Detective Jason Palamara in an attempt to solve the case for good, the New York Daily News reported.
It all started in 2011, when Piccione, four years after retiring from the NYPD, got a call from his former partner. Salta told Piccione that he was now working at the DA's office, and he wanted him to join him in reinvestigating the murder of Lebowohl.
The 64-year-old was conducting his usual morning routine on that March morning, driving his van to the NatWest bank just a few blocks away from his popular deli on 2nd Avenue and 10th Street, where he planned to deposit $10,000. When he arrived at the bank, a person or persons shoved him back inside the van, and shot him twice. They then drove one block over to 1st Avenue, where Lebewohl was able to pull the door of the van open, and fell out.
A passerby spotted him and flagged down a police officer.
"That police officer goes to Abe, and Abe says something like, 'They got me,'" Piccione said.
The case shocked the community and dominated headlines for days, as initial leads seemed promising. The detectives, Piccione included, were confident that they would find the killer of the so-called "Mayor of New York."
"Today, it'd all be on video, no question," Piccione said. "Still, even when it happened, I was in my office and I'm thinking, 'It's 8:30 in the morning — there's going to be a lot of witnesses. We're going to solve this thing pretty quick.'"
A sketch from a witness who saw the driver was released. The day after the murder, authorities found Lebewohl's money bag on E. 25th street, and a day after that, discovered his wallet on E. 30th. The gun used to kill Lebewohl was recovered, disassembled, and found to have also been used to murder two hotel clerks in Westchester County, and in a Bronx slaying in 1994. However, 23 years later, there have never been any arrests in connection to Lebewohl's murder.
His family has speculated that perhaps someone who knows the true identity of his killer has been too scared to come forward all these years.
"Sometimes I wonder if somebody is afraid to come forward," his daughter, Sharon Lebewohl, 59, said. "Afraid to say they know who did it."
Now, Piccione, Salta and Palamara hope that they can look at the case with fresh eyes, and bring closure to the Lebewohl family. There is a $150,000 reward for any information leading to the conviction of his killer.
Those with information are encouraged to lodge confidential tips with Crime Stoppers at (800) 577-TIPS.
Cold case Detective Palamara was only 17 years old when Lebewohl was murdered, but says he is shocked by the boldness of the crime.
"There's a person or persons who thought it was OK to do this," he said. "They might have done it again afterwards. They might do it again in the future."