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Revenge Killing in Miami

The 1976 Mob Murder of George Byrum

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Mafia victim George Byrum

Elizabeth Bethel, a chambermaid at Miami's Ocean Shore Motel, unlocked the door to Room 23 at about noon on July 14, 1976. After setting a fresh batch of towels down on a chair, she began making one of the room's two beds. It was the only piece of furniture noticeably disturbed.

Turning her attention to the bathroom, Bethel found the door closed and locked. Believing the room unoccupied, she unlocked and opened the door. The maid was immediately confronted with the apparently lifeless body of a heavyset middle-aged man. The corpse was sprawled upon the floor, its upper portion lying face-down in the shower stall. A large quantity of drying blood stained the man's clothing and coated the tiles beneath him.

Bethel rushed from the room and returned with Mickey Brutto, another motel employee. Brutto looked around quickly and telephoned 911.

Murder scene

The first to respond was Robert Kidd, an emergency medical worker. After just a glance at the scene, he decided there was no need even to check for a pulse. Lieutenant Minium and Sergeant Diecidue, detectives with the homicide bureau of the Miami-Dade Police Department, and Patrolman Michael Cummins arrived soon after.

The law enforcement officers found that the corpse bore multiple bullet and stab wounds. They noted bullet entrance and exit wounds consistent with a shot in the left side of the abdomen. Detectives decided that the victim also had been shot in the right cheek by a handgun held at close range. A slug had apparently entered at that location, but there was no corresponding exit wound. The medical examiner later found the bullet lodged in the victim's skull behind the left ear.

The detectives determined that the victim had been stabbed eleven times in the back with a "large cutting object," likely a hunting knife or similar blade. Two or three deep cuts were also found across the back of the victim's neck from ear-to-ear, an apparent attempt to detach the head from the torso. Just below the gunshot wound in his cheek, contact with the bathroom floor tile had left a cross-like mark.

Beneath the victim's head was a blood-soaked towel. A set of keys sat in a puddle blood nearby. A clean towel was draped across the victim's lower back. The plugged-up sink contained reddish water and a bloody washcloth. The back pockets of the victim's pants were ripped out, and no wallet could be found. A five dollar bill remained in a front pocket.

Outside of the bathroom, the police found a ricochet mark on one of the room walls, and a bullet slug covered in a rubbery residue lying nearby. A small amount of blood was found on the carpet and a wall.

Identifying the victim

Miami-Dade police badge

The killers had left few clues. Police found no fingerprints. No calls had been made from the room prior to the discovery of the body. None of the residents of nearby rooms reported seeing or hearing anything unusual.

Police questioned the Ocean Shore's night clerk, who told them that around 10 p.m. on July 12 he signed Room 23 out to a man who identified himself as John Holland. They knew that name to be an alias associated with organized criminal activity in the region, but they did not know to whom it belonged.

The clerk recalled that Holland was sharply dressed and appeared to be a businessman. He was accompanied by two older looking men who stood silently behind him as he checked in. Holland booked the room for the following three days, paying in cash.

The keys found near the victim matched a tan station wagon parked outside the room. That car was registered to Bolt Electric, a contracting business located in Hallandale, Florida. Following up on the lead police soon identified the victim as George Zebedie Byrum, known as "Dick" or "Dickie" to his friends.

Investigators set to the task of questioning Byrum's family, friends and acquaintances, in the hope of learning the events that led to his murder.

Deep in debt

Map of North Miami Beach area by Thomas Hunt

Byrum, former Golden Beach police officer, lived in Davie and had a contracting business in Hallandale. His final business meeting was at the Ocean Shore Motel.

A former Golden Beach police officer and resident of Davie, Florida, George Byrum was the owner of the Bolt Electric business. Byrum had run up significant personal and business debts between 1971 and the summer of 1976. Bolt Electric was tens of thousands of dollars in the red. In addition to borrowing money against his business, he was taking loans from friends and reportedly owed $50,000 to a loanshark rumored to be connected with the Mafia. The $50,000 loan had been counterproductive. For about a year he had been giving the loanshark payments of up to $2,500 but still was making no dent in the loan principle.

After witnessing the beating of a loanshark debtor behind in his payments, Byrum confided in friends that he felt his life was in danger. On visits to the Moose Club, an adult fraternity lodge where he was a well-liked member, he began parking his car in the back of the establishment, fearful of being spotted by dangerous people.

On the morning of July 13, Byrum's situation appeared to improve. He received a phone call in his office around 9:15 from a prospective client, who was planning to open a restaurant in the area. The man needed someone to oversee wiring of the business and explained that Byrum had been recommended highly. The two made plans to meet at the Ocean Shore Motel at one that afternoon. The man called back a few minutes later, apologizing for not giving Byrum his name during the first call. It was John Holland.

Half an hour before the meeting, a hopeful Byrum borrowed a five-dollar bill from Linda, his office secretary and live-in girlfriend. "I might have to buy this guy a sandwich or something," he told her as he left the office.

Byrum stopped by the Moose Club, where he told a friend about his good luck and invited him along to the meeting. The invitation was declined. Byrum continued alone on his way to the Ocean Shore Motel at 12:55.

At Bolt Electric, Linda continued her usual duties through the afternoon. When evening came and Byrum was not yet back from his meeting, Linda told a co-worker that she would sleep at the office in case he called there.

That night, Linda began to fear that Byrum's creditors had caught up with him. She phoned area hospitals in an attempt to locate him. As Bolt Electric employees showed up for work the next morning, Linda was still awake and still waiting.

Investigation stalls

Authorities informed Linda of Byrum's murder on July 14. They quickly learned of the businessman's debt problems and identified as their primary suspect in his killing Anthony Plate, a loanshark and reputed member of the New York-based Gambino Crime Family. An informant had told detectives he heard Plate bragging that he had killed a man named "Dick Byrin" in a hotel on the Miami shore.

As the murder appeared to be connected with organized crime, the FBI joined in the investigation. The Bureau assigned agents to track down Plate, but the loanshark could not be located. With Plate's whereabouts unknown and without evidence to connect the crime to anyone else, the case went cold.

The murder investigation was stalled until 1983, when events far off in New York City got it moving again.

Turncoat witnesses

In the early 1980s, a joint federal/state investigation headed by the Justice Department's Southern District of New York Organized Crime Strike Force was working to dismantle a Gambino Crime Family crew suspected of involvement in large-scale auto theft, drug dealing, loansharking, extortion, prostitution and murder.

Anthony Nino Gaggi

"Nino" Gaggi

Efforts against that crew were aided in 1982, when a member involved in its car theft operation became a cooperating witness. The case was further strengthened in March, 1983, with the arrest of Dominick Montiglio on extortion charges. Montiglio was the nephew of Anthony "Nino" Gaggi, a Gambino captain and the immediate superior to Roy DeMeo, who headed the targeted crew. Facing a possible 20-year racketeering sentence, Montiglio agreed to become a cooperating witness in the Strike Force's investigation.

Dominick Montiglio had been closely involved in his uncle Nino's criminal activities through 1979 and had valuable insight into the inner workings of the DeMeo Crew through the latter half of the '70s. Montiglio provided information on a number of crew offenses, including previously unknown gangland slayings.

The Mafia turncoat provided investigators with the details he had heard from his uncle and from DeMeo about their murder of a Florida man in a motel room. Authorities at last learned what had happened to George Byrum.

According to Montiglio, DeMeo said he started to dismember the victim's corpse so it could be carted away and disposed of, but stopped when a third participant in the crime informed him construction workers were outside of the motel and suggested a quick exit. Montiglio told the Strike Force that the third man was loanshark Anthony Plate.

Though the victim's loansharking debt to Plate might have been a contributing factor in the murder, Montiglio revealed that it wasn't the primary cause. In 1975, two burglars beat and robbed Anthony Gaggi within his vacation home in Hallandale, Florida. The Gambino captain later learned that Byrum, who had supervised the electrical wiring of the home, provided a tip to the burglars that the house was an easy target. Byrum might have done so for a share in the burglary proceeds. He was desperately in need of money and believed the burglary would be performed while Gaggi was not at home.

According to Montiglio, an infuriated Gaggi blamed Byrum for the pain and insult of the burglary and planned retribution.

Byrum's last moments

Motel room where Byrum was murdered

The motel room where George Byrum was murdered.

New York Detective Frank Pergola, a member of the Strike Force, contacted the Miami-Dade Police Department with the new revelations concerning Byrum's murder. Combining Montiglio's information with the crime scene evidence, Miami investigators assembled a clearer picture of Byrum's last moments.

Roy DeMeo telephoned Byrum on the morning of July 13 to set up the motel meeting. DeMeo then went to the room, accompanied by Anthony Gaggi and Anthony Plate, to await Byrum's arrival. Plate and Gaggi, knowing their presence would tip off the victim, hid in the bathroom.

When Byrum arrived and walked through the door, DeMeo shot him in the side with a silencer-equipped .380 handgun, the bullet passing through the body and ricocheting off the wall behind him. Byrum fell to the ground. DeMeo finished Byrum with a gunshot to the face, using a towel to stanch the flow of blood from the wound. DeMeo, Gaggi and Plate dragged the body into the bathroom and put it partly into the shower stall. DeMeo then drove a knife into its back eleven times.

Plate went on watch outside as DeMeo began cutting into the body. The plan was to dismember the corpse, put its parts into suitcases and carry them out of the motel where they could be disposed of. DeMeo had some experience with the process. A year earlier in Queens, New York, he and his crew dismembered the body of a 22-year old car thief who was discovered to be cooperating with authorities.

DeMeo was just starting to sever the head from the torso when Plate came back into the room and warned that construction workers had shown up outside. The three men decided that it would be too risky to try to remove the remains from the motel room under those conditions. After one of the men took Byrum's wallet and briefly ran the shower on the corpse's upper body, the trio left the motel.

Strong case, but too late

Roy DeMeo

Roy DeMeo

The New York-based Strike Force worked with the Miami-Dade Police Department to verify the details of Montiglio's story. Ballistics information confirmed that Byrum had died of gunshot wounds to the face and body consistent with the use of a .380-caliber firearm. Residue found on the bullet casing at the scene was consistent with rubber from a silencer.

Byrum's 11 knife wounds fit with DeMeo's reported claim of stabbing the victim after the shooting. The deep cuts seen along the back of Byrum's neck meshed with Montiglio's story. Even the presence of a work team outside of the hotel room was confirmed. Motel records showed that on July 13 workmen were assigned to repair a faulty air conditioner near Room 23.

The clerk who checked "John Holland" into the room before the murder was shown a collection of photos and identified a mug shot of Roy DeMeo as Holland. He also identified photos of Gaggi and Plate as Holland's two silent companions. Pearl Titel, a handwriting expert in New York, analyzed Holland's signature on the motel's registration card and found it a match for DeMeo's handwriting.

Follow-up interviews with a female Byrum acquaintance revealed that Gaggi and Byrum were seen together at the Moose Club shortly before the murder. Byrum appeared fearful of Gaggi and told the witness that he owed Gaggi money.

The Miami-Dade Police Department and local prosecutors found themselves with enough evidence for a credible case against the murderers of George Byrum. However, they couldn't find anyone to prosecute.

Roy DeMeo had been murdered in January, 1983, just months before authorities got hold of Dominick Montiglio. DeMeo's near-frozen remains were found in the trunk of his car. He had been shot repeatedly in the head and chest. Anthony Plate, who disappeared in Miami during the summer of 1979, was never found and was presumed murdered.

Anthony Gaggi was still alive and his location was known, but prosecutors in southern Florida would not be able to charge him until Rudolph Giuliani and other U.S. attorneys from the Southern District of New York were done with him. Gaggi was named as a defendant in two scheduled federal trials.

In March 1986, the first trial ended with Gaggi's conviction for conspiracy to steal cars. Convicted with Gaggi were Ronald Ustica, Peter LaFroscia, Henry Borelli, Ronald Turekian and Edward Rendini. Gaggi was sentenced the following month to a prison term of five years and a $10,000 fine. Gambino boss Paul Castellano also was a defendant in that case until his murder in Manhattan on Dec. 16, 1985.

The second trial, in which Gaggi and remaining members of the DeMeo crew were charged with racketeering murders, narcotics trafficking, extortion and other offenses, was under way when 62-year-old Gaggi died of natural causes in April 1988.

In Florida, the George Byrum murder investigation was designated "exceptionally cleared," and the case was closed.


Sources

In researching this article, the writer consulted the George Byrum homicide file of the Miami-Dade Police Department. That file contained correspondence with the Organized Crime Strike Force of the Southern District of New York. The following New York Times articles were also consulted: "2 held in murder of auto mechanic," July 6, 1975; Smothers, Ronald, "Six in Gambino trial guilty of roles in a car theft ring," March 6, 1986; "5 linked to Gambino family sentenced in a car-theft ring," April 10, 1986; "After 15 months, mob trial nears end," May 28, 1989.

Additional background information on this subject is available through Mustain, Gene and Jerry Capeci, Murder Machine, Onyx, 1993; DeMeo, Albert, For the Sins of My Father: A Mafia Killer, His Son, and the Legacy of a Mob Life, Broadway, 2003; O'Brien, Joseph F. and Andris Kurins, Boss of Bosses: The FBI and Paul Castellano, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.