Archive for January, 2014


It was midnight on a Wednesday night in July of 1932, when four young people left Sunset Beach in Sag Harbor and headed home. The foursome, two males and two females, chatted excitedly about the upcoming weekend and made plans to get together. They were 19 year old Bernard Ernest and his buddy Earl Stevens from East Hampton and Lucille Deckert and Emma Willer from Bridgehampton. They headed down Noyac Rd, towards Sunrise Parkway and approach the intersection of Stony Hill Rd. They approached the intersection and the teens saw a figure standing in the center of the road. The man, described as “clad in all white” was holding a shotgun.  The gun was aimed directly at them.

As they passed the mysterious figure in white, there was a huge explosion and young Mr. Ernest can be heard to exclaim:

“I’ve been shot. I can’t find the brakes!”

With that, the car crashed into a tree stump and the “figure in white” disappeared into the night.

The bullets had entered Bernard Ernest’s back and torn through his lungs. He died at the scene. The other passengers were cut and bruised but released from Southampton Hospital later that morning. He was only 19 years old when the “Phantom  of Noyac Rd.” had murdered him.

Ernest was born in 1912 to Thomas and Julia Ernest and appeared to be a very upstanding kid. Thomas Ernest was a Carpenter and young Bernard had a job at the “East Hampton Mechanical Repair Shop.” His boss, E.J. Dominy, would have nothing but good things to say about young Mr. Ernest after the shooting.

This is a case that revolves around a cast of characters, worthy of any Hollywood Film. To tell the story of the bizarre sequence of events that ended in the murder of an innocent young man, one must go back and acquaint themselves with the participants in this tragic saga.

We start with the nexus of this sordid affair, 26 year old Katherine Gray.

Katherine Gray was of Scotch descent and described as a “very pretty brunette.” She was born in 1906 to JB and Irma Gray.  She grew up in Texas and her father, JB, is listed as the head of the household on the census forms. His occupation however is a bit sketchy. Under this category it simply states “income.” No other information is available. Very unusual for a census report.

The household consisted of JB Gray, his wife, Irma and their four children. No one in the home was employed with the exception of JB Gray.

Whatever the source of the “income”, it provided enough funds for Katherine to graduate in 1923 from a prep school located in Birmingham PA. Sometime after that Katherine married Harold Chapman, a manager for a local paper factory and the couple moved to Noyac Rd. near Sag Harbor.

The marriage lasted until July of 1931 when, for reasons that are unknown, the couple was divorced. A clue, however, might be found in the fact that shortly after her divorce and just months before the murder of Bernard Ernest, Katherine Gray’s name would be splashed across newspapers in yet another sensational story.

Friday, December 18th, 1931.

Katherine Gray was sound asleep in her bed. After her divorce, she remained in the bungalow on Noyac and Spring Hill Rd. and was now renting the upper portion to  boarders, Steven O’Neil and William Shultz. She was suddenly awakened by loud banging and the sound of voices coming from the front room. She threw on her bathrobe and ran out into the hall to find  prohibition officers and  United States marshals in her home.

The sensational headlines were splashed across the front page of newspapers all over Long Island:

“Radio Plant at Sag Harbor Was Shore Link to Rum Row”

“Find Rum Hoard and Wireless”

“Woman and Two Men Arrested in Raid On Bungalow After Five Month Search”

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At the time of her arrest, Katherine Gray swore that she had no idea that O’Neil and Shultz were using their shortwave radio for illicit purposes. She claimed that she thought the two men were just “experimenting.” At the same time Shultz was claiming to be a “garage man” and know nothing of the operation.

The Federal Government had different information.

That was when it began. In early November of that same year, 5 weeks before the raid on Katherine Gray’s home and only 5 months after Katherine and Harold Chapman were divorced. The first indication that there was a bootleg operation on the East End of Long Island came when Federal authorities intercepted a coded message, apparently intended for rum boats lying off the Long Island Shore. A search began in order to uncover the source of the message. It was discovered that the station was located on Long Island and after a gradual “narrowing down” process was implemented, the agents determine the exact spot. Tests of wireless impulses indicated that the set was in the Sag Harbor area.

After that, a “special apparatus” was brought in and disclosed that the transmitter was concealed in a bungalow near Peconic Bay. Katherine Gray;s bungalow.

Around the same time agents were raiding the home of Katherine Gray, they were also searching a farm located in Cutchogue. There, they discovered “a hoard of 200 cases of Scotch liquor”, in a secret compartment that was located in the barn. The farm was owned by Frank Zewenski.

Not far from the Zewenski farm, the agents discovered a well built staircase heading from the bluff, down to the Sound shore.  They believed the liquor landed there in small boats and was carried up to the top of the bluff where it was then trucked to Zewenski’s farm and stored until needed.

Zewenski tried to concoct a story of a broken down truck, who’s driver asked to store the load in his barn for a few days but the agents had been investigating this case for weeks now and were well aware of the source of the liquor and everyone’s involvement in the Rum Running operation…and that included Katherine Gray.

Perhaps Katherine Gray, future rum-runner and Harold Chapman, hard working plant manager, were simply traveling in two different directions at the time of their divorce?

The charges against Katherine Gray were eventually dropped and by July of 1932 she had met a handsome, 29 year old man from Southampton named Leslie Loomis.

Leslie Loomis was born in New York and was a garage mechanic and a foreman for a Repair Shop in Riverhead. The home he lived in was owned by 67 year old Emily Fritz and her 40 year old daughter, Elizabeth. There were only two young men renting rooms in the household and Loomis was one of them. The house was located on Hill Street in Southampton. One can imagine that a young man of Loomis’s age would much prefer to spend his evenings with Katherine Gray in her bungalow, as opposed to spending his time alone in his room in the Fritz household.

According to Loomis, the couple lived together for a year and a half and had recently split up when the shooting occurred..

It is safe to say that Loomis was far more infatuated with Katherine Gray then she was with him.

Meanwhile, Katherine had somehow, through her daily activities, come into contact with 40 year old Matteo Di Gregorio. Di Gregorio (spelled Di Gregaria on some documents) was born on July 6, 1894 in Sicily. He immigrated to America on the ship the  S.S. Sant’ Anna in 1914. His records indicate that he was traveling with his brother Antonino Di Gregorio and their friend, Domenico Bananno.

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Between 1914 and 1932 Matteo Di Gregorio was Americanized enough to go by the name of “Marty.”  He was living in Sag Harbor and owned “Marty’s Bathing Pavilion” on Noyac Road.

Di Gregorio must have found Katherine Gray as enchanting as Leslie Loomis had because in short order Di Gregorio was at Katherine’s home as much as Loomis had been and it was a fact that caused a feud to develop between the two men.

Leslie Loomis was  going nowhere and he made a point to harass the couple whenever possible. On the night of the shooting, he drove to Katherine Gray’s home and crept up to an open bedroom window. He punched through the screen and seized some of Di Gregorio’s clothing, which was laying across the back of a chair, then ran to his automobile and drove away.

It would seem that Matteo Di Gregorio, fed up with Leslie Loomis and his jealous pranks, had brought a shotgun to Katherine Gray’s house three days before the shooting. On that night he grabbed his shotgun and ran out into Noyac road in a rage. Matteo Di Gregorio was wearing his pajama top and his white boxer shorts when he stood in the center of Noyac road waiting for Leslie Loomis to drive by. It was at this time that the Bernard Ernest and his 3 young companions were innocently traveling down Noyac Road, on their way home from Sunset Beach in Sag Harbor.

Who knows what went through Di Gregorio’s mind after shooting Bernard Ernest. Did he realize all too late that he had shot the wrong person?  Did he believe he had hit his target and become overwhelmed with guilt?

Whatever his thoughts at the time, Di Gregorio threw the shotgun down and ran back to Katherine Gray’s bungalow, eluding even her. He donned what clothes he had left and set out through the woods, stopping only once to sleep.

Matteo Di Gregorio eventually found shelter at the home of Mr. Robert W. Lee on Noyac Road. He emerged from the woods behind Robert Lee’s house wearing a coat, vest and shoes but no pants. He explained to Lee that someone had stolen his trousers while he was swimming.

When Di Gregorio was arrested he was upstairs in the bedroom of Lee’s home, borrowing a pair of trousers. He was promptly arrested and taken to the police station.

Perhaps one of the most flamboyant characters to enter this sad drama is defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz. Di Gregorio hired Leibowitz immediately after the shooting and with good references.

Samuel Leibowitz was an extremely well known attorney at this time and he remained in the public eye for decades afterwards. He became the darling of the news media, beginning in 1922 when he was accused of blackmailing Maryland Governor Albert C. Ritchie, in an attempt to get charges against a corrupt prison official dropped.

In 1926 Leibowitz represented Al Capone in a triple murder charge. He was able to get the charges dismissed because of  “insufficient Evidence” and Capone was released the very next day.

In January of 1930 he made the news again when he represented gangster Max Becker, who was a prisoner in Auburn Prison and killed a guard during a hostage situation.

Long after Bernard Ernest’s young life ended in July of 1932, Samual Leibowitz continued to make the news and garner fame.

In 1936 Leibowitz defended 31 year old Vera Stretz in another sensational trial. Stretz was accused of killing her married lover Dr. Fritz Gebhardt who was the President of a German importing firm. Forty three year old Dr. Gebhardt was married and his wife was in Germany. Vera Stretz and Dr. Gebhardt both lived in the “Tower Apartment”, in New York City.

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That same year he was commended for winning 114 acquittals and not losing a case in 7 years.

Samuel Leibowitz created much controversy that same year by interviewing Bruno Hauptman, who was on death row for the Lindbergh kidnapping. Leibowitz  was granted permission to interrogate Hauptman for hours in an attempt to get him to confess.

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Perhaps acting more as a PR man than an attorney, Leibowitz continued to insert himself into the Lindbergh kidnapping case in 1936,  by representing Martin Schlossman.

Schlossman was a player in a bizarre side story associated with the Lindbergh kidnapping involving an abduction plot, designed to extract a confession from a disbarred New Jersey Attorney, Mr. Wendel.

In 1937 Leibowitz defended Robert Irwin in a triple murder charge and saved him from the electric chair. Leibowitz successfully argued that Irwin was insane at the time of the killings.

Robert Irwin beat and strangled 3 people as the result of being romantically rebuffed.

In 1940 Samuel Leibowitz became a judge and he continued to make the news and preside over important cases. He died in 1978 at 84 years old of a stroke.

Matteo Di Gregario hired himself one heck of an attorney when he went on trial for Bernard Ernest’s murder. Even as far back as 1932, it was clear that Samuel Leibowitz was an extremely persuasive man.

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The trial lasted two days and the jury was out for 4 hours.

The entire defense was based on the fact that Di Gregorio was entitled to use force, if necessary, to regain his possessions. Leibowitz stated that the death was the result of an accident occurring during the pursuit of Leslie Loomis.

Samuel Leibowitz continually stressed the point to the jury, that they were obligated to come back with a verdict of not guilty, if he was able to prove the accidental discharge of the weapon.

Amazingly, and to the dismay of most of the community, the jury acquitted Di Gregorio of all charges causing a great controversy. Most people felt that Di Gregorio should have at least been found guilty of manslaughter considering it was a tragic end to a sordid affair, for a person who was completely innocent of anything.

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