Family Felonies

My dad was working at his gas station, and stealing cars part time. My two year old sister could be in his arms as he stole a 1952 Cadillac in broad daylight. He realized she made an excellent decoy.

Another deceptive thing my father would do was dress up as an officer in the army and reap the benefits of being in the military. He’d be treated better almost anywhere, and people would stop their cars to offer him rides.

One of my dad’s customers called to say that his car had been stolen (not by my dad). A week later, the customer got a call from the police. They told him they had located the car, and to call a garage and have it towed in for repair. The car had been stripped. My father gave the customer a written estimate for the damages at $1,000, and the insurance company sent a check. But when my dad fixed the car up, it only cost $400 to repair. He never made $600 so easily. This was a lot easier than stealing them off the street.

As time went by, Jerry had gotten to know other small time crooks that would exchange parts on cars parked in public garages. They would steal anything off of the cars, from the battery to the complete engine.

By now, Jerry realized how to make money with insurance scams. He decided to steal customer’s cars, strip them, and abandon them. When the cars were returned and Jerry repaired them, he made a double profit. He never had to hot-wire a car, because he had a key for every car he stole. While a car was being serviced, Jerry would make an extra key. Then he’d follow the car when the customer drove away to see where they parked. Once he knew where to find the car, he could steal it at his convenience.

Eventually Jerry’s automotive parts delivery guy, Paul, asked him, “Why bother going through all this work with these insurance scams? Why not just steal the car and sell it?” So Dad decided to try that. Paul became his partner. Jerry stole the cars and Paul sold them. Dad always made sure his customers had lots of car insurance so they would be compensated for their loss. And it was key that Paul sell the cars only in New York. My dad also created his own vehicle registration papers so he could resell the car.

A year later Margie pulled back into the gas station, now in a brand new 1954 Pontiac. Her first child, a baby girl from her recent marriage, was in the car with her. She leaned out her window and said, “Hi, Jerry,” as if she’d seen him just yesterday. The old chemistry was there and they started their love affair all over again. Both of them were married this time, just not to each other.

Dad developed a plan to be able to support his double family lifestyle. If he could make enough money stealing cars, he could buy an apartment building. He wouldn’t have to work at the gas station seven days a week and he could spend more time with his two families. That was his plan.

Grandma Schneider always said in Yiddish, “Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht.” (Men plan — God laughs.)

Dad’s station was in a low-income area. The neighbors were getting suspicious of the late model Cadillac’s and Oldsmobile’s that were parked around the station. No one around that neighborhood could afford such expensive cars. A neighbor reported this to the Auto Theft Squad. While Jerry was pumping gas a man approached and flashed his badge. He asked my Dad for the registration papers for all the cars in the station. My Dad produced the falsified papers and the Officer was satisfied.

Trying not to panic, my father called Paul. “We have to get rid of all the cars now as fast as we can, and get out of the car stealing business today.”

Paul found a roving used car salesman and sold him all the stolen cars. Paul was so relieved to get rid of them instantly. When the checks came to my Dad from a car dealer in Massachusetts, and for half the amount he expected, he realized he had been screwed twice. It was a federal offense to sell stolen goods across state lines. The shit was gonna hit the fan.

When the Massachusetts dealer went to register the cars, there were no papers on file. The DMV called the FBI to investigate and all the cars were confiscated from the dealer.

While my dad was at his station putting ignition points into his cousin Seymour’s 1938 Buick, a man approached him, asked if he was Jerry Schneider, flashed his FBI badge, and took him downtown for questioning. For hours he claimed he knew nothing about the vehicles being stolen.

When the Feds suggested bringing in his mother and father for questioning, he said, “I surmise that the cars might have been stolen.” That comment gave the FBI enough to fingerprint and hold Dad for a few days. His friend’s father, a bail bondsman, posted bail of $2,500, and my father was released.

He continued to lie about his role in the robberies, but finally he couldn’t stand the pressure of the FBI tailing him and harassing him. So he decided to tell the truth to the New York City police, the FBI, and the head of the DMV. 
He explained how it was possible for an illiterate person to forge a car registration. He had only completed the eighth grade and could hardly read or write, but he had figured out how to engrave the new numbers on the cars with a file, a hammer, and a battery post for the engraving. He made his own rubber stamps, including an official looking New York City Seal. He used old registration papers from junked cars, changing them into new car registrations. He used disappearing ink to register the new cars and by the time the ink dried up he was already out of the DMV office. In the light of this explanation, the New York Department of Motor Vehicles began to rethink and completely change how car registrations were done.

The Daily News carried a story on my father’s arrest. The day it hit the stands, my mother woke up and took the newspapers from all the neighbors in their apartment building, hoping to avoid the terrible embarrassment.

Eleven months later, Jerry stood before a woman judge in Federal court and plead guilty to conspiracy to transport stolen cars across state lines. He had no prior convictions and was sure he would not go to jail.

The last question she asked him, “Will you still be continuing this affair with Margie when you get out of prison ?”

“Yes, I plan to see Margie when I get out of prison.”

Having always lied he changed his mind and decided to tell the truth.

The judge, a heavyset dowager, glared at my father.

“I am sentencing you to three years at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. You have no morals.”

My father wasn’t sure what she meant, but the whole story of Margie and their years together had become part of Jerry’s police record. He ultimately had to look up “morals” in the prison dictionary.

While in Lewisburg he requested an “emergency” visit with Margie. She signed in as my Aunt Rozzie and sat down at the table across from him. 
“Margie, I’ve been thinking up all sorts of incredible angles in here,” he began. “I have all sorts of scams and new connections for when I get outta here –”

“Don’t you dare!” Margie looked into his eyes. Those three words changed his life, and he decided not to further entertain any plans of crime. Next she handed him a Catholic Rosary. This blew his mind — she knew he was an atheist .

Margie went to see Dad in prison regularly, always signing in as Aunt Rozzie. Aunt Rozzie never knew why she was not allowed to visit her brother and other family members were. During his time in prison, at age 28, Jerry learned to read and write. At home his parents had spoken only Yiddish.
Jerry had always thought his mother’s stories, of communicating with dead relatives and seeing the future in dreams, were crazy. Still he thought of her as a spiritual woman.

While in isolation in his prison cell, he had an experience that changed his view. As he sat alone in his cell, three wise men dressed in long robes with gray hair and long beards appeared to show him his future — a life of crime, and years spent in and out of prison. To make sure he wasn’t dreaming Jerry pinched and slapped himself. He was very much awake. The three men were still standing in his locked cell.

After this visit Dad turned to religion, and studied all religions. He started studying the Bible, and preaching in prison.

After eight months at Lewisburg, Dad was transferred to West Street Federal Detention Center back in New York for about four months, to stand trial for grand larceny. The Federal government had tried him for conspiracy to transport cars across state lines. He pleaded guilty on the state charges, and was sentenced to 3 to 10 years.

One morning at breakfast, Frank Costello, the mafia Godfather and “boss of all bosses” in New York racketeering, gambling, and prostitution — who was in for income tax evasion — sat down next to Jerry.
“Hey kid, ya like eggs?” Costello asked, pushing his plate toward my father. (His raspy voice became Marlon Brando’s model for the movie The Godfather.) Costello preferred oatmeal for breakfast.
“Sure thing.” Dad replied.

Frank Costello, New York mob boss, the year my father met him

To Dad, Costello seemed like a nice man who had a dislike for eggs. The mobster gladly gave his eggs to my dad, who ate everything. The detention center was a hot, horrible, place, with glass partitions and no air conditioning in the steamy, sticky, humid summer months in New York.

When my Mom took me to the prison to visit Dad, I was a baby. I would twist and turn and cry. That’s no big surprise to me, because the vibes in the prison must have been intense.

A week later, as he waited to be released, Jerry was dressed in civilian clothes and prepared to go home. Then he heard his number being called over the loud speaker and the announcement: he was scheduled to go back to Lewisburg again instead of home. He went into shock. He was handcuffed to a very large black man and put on a bus. The black man was being sent to prison for ten years for the sale of a minuscule amount of pot.

When Jerry returned to Lewisburg, his fellow inmates were very surprised he had been denied parole. Jerry spoke to some of the fellow cellmates who were called Jailhouse Lawyers, inmates who knew more about the law than the lawyers did. They advised Dad to send his wife to Washington, D.C. to speak with the Parole Board.

My mother was scared to go in front of a parole board, so Jerry spent another three months at Lewisburg, where he met some other famous prisoners. Along with his egg donor, Frank Costello, there was Wilhelm Reich, a psychiatrist and physician, a very quiet man who kept to himself. Reich was a pioneer in the field of esoteric energy devices, which the government preferred to keep suppressed. Reich had been imprisoned for his controversial scientific research and writings, and had defied a court order requiring him to stop distributing his “Orgone” medical device.

Reich died of a heart attack in November of 1957 while in prison. His writings and personal effects were never released to his family. My father and many others have expressed some doubt surrounding his sudden death. There is always the possibility it was an inside job, where an inmate does the killing, while it appears as a suicide or heart attack. In return the inmate gets his own sentence reduced.

Other characters my Dad knew were Harry Gold and David Greenglass, key figures in the famous Rosenberg case. They were doing time for being involved in selling atomic secrets to the Russians during the cold war. Harry, David, and Jerry attended Saturday services at the prison synagogue together. It was supposed to help your parole, and there were not that many Jews in Lewisburg so they accompanied each other to temple.

Finally my Dad’s mother and his brother Stanley went to my Mom and told her to get in the car: they were headed to Washington D.C. to plead for Jerry to be released.

When Irma arrived in Washington, she requested that as a first time offender, her husband should be able to return home to support her and their children. A few weeks later he was released from Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.

I was two years old in September 1957 when my dad returned home from prison. After working in the prison slaughterhouse, he had become a vegetarian. During eighteen months in prison he had lost fifty pounds.

As my Dad exited the prison, a guard looked at the photo of him taken on his first day. “ I would never have recognized you. You don’t look like the same man.”

He wasn’t.

This is a peek at a larger memoir. The other stories already on Medium can be found here. If you enjoy what you’ve read, clap generously! Feel free to contact me at ghayssen at sonic.net.

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