The detectives in the Bronx Robbery Squad, the guys who knew Bobby Halpern as a wild neighborhood kid who couldn't stay out of trouble, roll their eyes up when they hear that Bobby thinks he was framed. How many times have they heard it? "No, we got the right guy," says the recently retired McPartland, who can go back a long way in the history of the East Bronx. "You say that Bobby filed 25 writs in prison? He says they never identified him out of a proper lineup? Well, sometimes these longtimers spend a lot of time in the library, reading the law books. They get to be pretty good jailhouse lawyers. They all try to find some loophole."
The Bronx is a series of islands. Bobby Halpern's island is the 10 blocks or so around East 187th Street, just south of Fordham University and in the hub of a Little Italy. It is not as colorful as the Little Italy in lower Manhattan—Mulberry Street with its festivals and feasts—but it is tighter and more fiercely ethnic. Surrounding the island is what the police call the Blackout, block after block of black and Puerto Rican homes and stores and bars. Blacks are not welcome on East 187th Street.
Thirty years ago the neighborhood was mixed, not racially but ethnically, and Halpern, the son of a Jewish father and an Irish mother, was no oddity. There were plenty of Jews and Irish around Webster Avenue and East 180th, where he grew up. But Bobby Halpern was something special. He was a fighter in a neighborhood where fighters were revered.
When he was 15, Halpern was the 118-pound Diamond Gloves champion and the New Jersey state champ, both amateur titles. A year later, grown to middleweight, he worked with Gus Lesnevich, the former light heavyweight champ, helping him train for the Ezzard Charles fight. Halpern is not sure how many amateur fights he had, maybe 150, maybe 200. He says he lost "about 10."
On the street his record was just as formidable. He was considered crazy and wild and he loved to fight. "Cops, kids, grown-ups, it didn't make any difference," he says. "I started a fight in the old Crotona theater. They called the cops in to get me. They almost did, except I jumped out of a window, and a cop tried to follow me and he broke his leg. Once when I was 17, we went to watch a basketball game in the St. Joseph's Church hall. At halftime I went down on the court and started shooting baskets. Pretty soon one of the teams came out and a couple of guys chased me off the court in kind of a rough way. I waited for them till after the game. Then I laid out the whole team. You do stuff like that, you get a reputation, you know?
"I used to fight every day. You ever hear of the Five Iron Dukes? Ask anybody in the neighborhood today about the Five Iron Dukes. I bet they'll remember. Me and Izzy Kaiser and Andrew Porque and Angelo DiGirolamo and his brother Brownie. Angelo and Brownie are still around somewhere upstate. They did a year in Riker's Island, selling pistols, fighting with cops. Brownie once went to a wedding in the Winter Garden. He started a fight. Then he got up on a table and dove into a bunch of guys, just like he saw them do it in the movies.
"Izzy Kaiser fought lightweight. Tall, about six feet, a freak fighter. A bad guy with a knife, forget it. He's dead now. OD'd on dope. He was into everything, every racket. Once me and Izzy were walking through Crotona Park, that's where they used to have a lot of the gang fights, and some gang surrounded us, about 10 or 15 guys. I said, 'We're from the Iron Dukes,' and they said O.K. and left us alone.
"One day when we were just kids we got into a fight with a couple of guys in a bar on 179th and Webster. The whole bar jumped us. Izzy pulled a knife and cut one guy real bad across the stomach and neck. Then an off-duty cop came out and pulled a gun on us. What do you think happened? The guy who was cut across the neck grabbed the cop's gun so we could get away. That's the kind of neighborhood it was."
Andrew Porque, the fifth Iron Duke and a professional stickup man, is dead now. He was shot during a robbery. "Andrew jumped in the back of a guy's car and pulled a gun on him," Halpern says. "The guy turned around and shot him dead. You know who that was? Detective Mario Biaggi, the most decorated cop on the force at that time. Congressman Mario Biaggi now. Andrew picked the wrong guy to hold up."
Porque appeared as a co-defendant with Halpern on a first-degree robbery charge late in 1952. Halpern was 19. It was his sixth arrest of the year. Four ended in dismissals, two in suspended sentences. "Most of the time I wasn't even put in jail," he says. "The cops would just take me down by the icehouse, right off Webster Avenue, and give me a beating."