Cold case files: The Senseless killing of a New York City deli icon and no arrests years later

abe lebewhol new york murder second avenue deli fpd
Source: Crime Stoppers; New York Daily News

Apr. 24 2021, Updated 8:19 a.m. ET

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The Second Ave Deli in New York's Lower East Side is possibly the Big Apple's most well-known delicatessen. Famed worldwide as a hotspot for celebrities and regular Joe's alike, it was a business built on the work, dedication and outright love of its legendary owner, Abe Lebewohl.

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Standing as a prime example of the American Dream, tragedy would strike the beloved "Mayor of Second Avenue" in 1996 when he was gunned down in a robbery that remains unsolved.

Coming to America, Lebewohl had witnessed the worst of humanity, and perhaps his experiences were what lay behind his legendary big heart and dedication to work, founding his own deli and pursuing the American dream. 

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COMING TO NEW YORK

Lebewohl led a difficult life, but he'd made the most of it. Hailing originally from Ukraine, his family had been exiled to Kazakhstan and eventually fled to Poland after Abe's father attracted the attention of the Red Army. There was no respite, however, and soon the Nazis came calling.  

A Holocaust survivor, most of Lebewohl's family was murdered, and by the end of the war, he was a refugee in Italy. After deciding that Palestine was too dangerous, the Lebewohl family decided to move to America. They lived poor in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but Lebewohl learned English quickly and devoted himself to Americana.

 He worked first at a Coney Island deli as he learned the deep traditions of Jewish food, and as all students must, he soon turned into a master, learning the secrets of the perfect pastrami. By 1954, Lebewohl scraped together every cent he could save and took on a small ten-seat restaurant at East Tenth Street where he already worked as a waiter. 

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abe lebewhol new york murder second avenue deli fpd
Source: MEGA

The Second Avenue Deli was born and would become an icon in New York, not just amongst the Jewish community but for New Yorkers everywhere. Famed as serving the best chopped liver money could buy, Lebewohl 's eatery was far more than pastrami sandwiches, extra sour pickles and noshes. It was a symbol of New York and its proud tradition of immigration, a sign that if you just worked hard and loved Uncle Sam, you could be something.

Lebewohl ran the establishment entirely on his own. He cooked, he cleaned, he worked the counter. When finances were tight in the early days, he worked extra odd jobs. His determination ensuring that the Second Avenue Deli would become world-famous under his ownership. 

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Lebewohl witnessed the worst of humanity during his time in Europe, and perhaps it was these experiences that lay behind his legendary big heart and dedication to work. He pursued the American dream with a smile on his face and his wallet open for anyone in need. It was a dream that came true for Lebewohl, at least for a time. 

abe lebewhol new york murder second avenue deli fpd
Source: New York Daily News

The business boomed and expanded to 250 seats, and Lebewohl counted countless celebrities and New York establishment figures amongst his friends. Regulars included Muhammad Ali, Joan Rivers, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Hope

But that isn't to say Lebewohl was an elitist, far from it. He was noted for his hospitality to all, feeding every homeless person who walked through his door and earning himself the nicknames of the "Mayor of Second Avenue" and the "Jewish Mother Teresa."

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LEBEWOHL’S MURDER

On the morning of March 4, 1996, Lebewohl, then 64, got in his van to drop off his weekend takings at the NatWest Bank on 2nd Avenue and 4th Street; it was just down the road. He was robbed at knife-point just the last summer, but he will have suspected nothing amiss; this was the same run he had made hundreds of times before. 

However, this time somebody was waiting for him. 

abe lebewhol new york murder second avenue deli fpd
Source: NY1

As Lebewohl exited the vehicle outside the bank, at least two men stepped forward, one with a gun drawn. They pushed him back inside and blasted three bullets into him, hitting the deli owner in the head and stomach. Not done, they dragged him into the back of the van as he laid dying and drove away. Speeding erratically, they ended up just one block away on 1st Avenue, where they abandoned the vehicle.

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As Lebewohl exited the vehicle outside the bank, at least two men stepped forward, one with a gun drawn. They pushed him back inside and blasted three bullets into him, hitting the deli owner in the head and stomach. Not done, they dragged him into the back of the van as he laid dying and drove away. Speeding erratically, they ended up just one block away on 1st Avenue, where they abandoned the vehicle.

The thieves made off with a shoulder bag stuffed with cash and Lebewohl's wallet, getting away with $10,000. A small sum for life. 

Gasping his last breath, the victim managed to open the door, falling onto the sidewalk as he exclaimed, "They shot me!." He died at the scene.

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abe lebewhol new york murder second avenue deli fpd
Source: NY1

The murder shocked New York. The very concept that somebody could have wished to harm a man as gentle and generous as Lebewohl was almost unthinkable. More than 1,500 attended his funeral at the Community Synagogue on East 6th Street as a city mourned one of its favorite adopted sons.

THE INVESTIGATION

Manhattan South Homicide handled the case, with the now-retired Detective Jimmy Piccione leading the investigation. Being 1996, there was no surveillance footage, even in the vicinity of a bank. However, there were strong statements from witnesses, and a sketch of a suspect was quickly produced. 

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The bag would turn up the next day on East 25th St and his wallet the day after that on East 30th St and Madison Ave, being found in a dump truck. 

The leads kept coming, and 24 hours later, investigators retrieved the weapon near Central Park; it was a silver .25-caliber Raven handgun.

They linked the weapon to a double homicide at the Saw Mill River Motel in Westchester County and discovered it was used in another shooting two years earlier in the Bronx. With illegal firearms often passing through several hands, it is unknown if either incident was related. 

However, a result in the case looked a near-certainty.

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Despite investigating many leads, circulating witness sketches and interviewing hundreds, the case went cold. Some believed the robbery may have been an "inside job," with somebody close to the deli tipping off the thieves that Lebewohl would be making his run.  

abe lebewhol new york murder second avenue deli fpd
Source: Crime Stoppers

Progress was slow in the case but seemed to be making some ground in 2010 when Piccione told the “New York Post”  there were "persons of interest" in the killing and the NYPD hoped that a $150,000 reward might tempt somebody to talk. The money was mostly put up by Lebewohl's family and is still on offer.

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It wasn't a case that Piccione could let rest, however, and soon after his 2011 retirement, he rejoined his former partner Jeff Salta who was by then working as an investigator at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. The two were determined to finally see justice done in the affair and in 2019 would join with NYPD cold-case Detective Jason Palamara. The unification brought about a new call for information from the public, with reward posters posted around the city. 

There is no statute of limitations in New York for murder.

While the original Second Ave Deli closed in 2006 following a rent dispute, two new locations opened in the city soon afterward run by Abe's brother Jack Lebewohl, 72, and his sons. They remain determined to keep the vision alive, drawing old and new customers alike. 

Yet, the specter of what happened to Abe Lebewohl still lingers, and 25 years later, justice has still to be served on the man who robbed New Yorkers of the generosity and genius of the “Mayor of Second Avenue.”

 Anyone with information can call NYPD Crime Stoppers at 1-800-577-TIPS (8477). All calls are confidential.

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