At 10:10pm, on Friday, July 5, 1974, a police cruiser arrived at Owl’s Head Park—“an opaque blot nicked by the dim lights of harbor craft,” the Daily News reported. A few hundred feet into the park, near a water fountain by the bathrooms, a young man lay face down, an elbow and a knee sticking out against his bike, which was propped up against a bench.
The woman who had called the cops stood over him. She was blond, in her midtwenties, and had been near the park when he fell. “I heard what I thought were firecrackers,” she explained. It was the day after Independence Day; leftover noisemakers had been popping off all night. Then she saw three men run—two into a blue van at the curb, another into the park, over a hill.
Leonard Coury, 16, had a bullet in his left temple. He was declared dead at the scene.
A rising junior at Fort Hamilton High School, Coury had been excited to start a summer job on Monday with the Urban Action Task Force, a program formed under Mayor Lindsay to connect troubled communities with government representatives—sort of similar to our community-board system. But Coury’s passion was for music and audio equipment. He played the piano and electric guitar, and he was “a high-fidelity buff,” his father, James, who was in the lingerie business, later said. “He was a quiet, reserved son who minded his own business.”
On Friday night, July 5, Leonard had gotten a new amplifier and was working on it when the phone rang; it was one of Leonard’s friends, who lived near Owl’s Head Park. James thought Leonard wanted to go talk to him about the amp. Wearing Levi’s, a tan shirt and blue sneakers, Leonard left the Coury house at 161 83rd Street, just west of Ridge Boulevard, with his English racing bicycle. “He said he'd be back in 10 minutes, but if not 10 minutes, then an hour, and not to hold up dinner,” James told the New York Times:
“He never came back.”
That might have just been the story Leonard told his father. “Sources disclosed that the murder victim had a previous arrest record pertaining to narcotics,” the Spectator reported, “and it was disclosed that the youth had reportedly been selling narcotics at Owl’s Head Park for a notable period of time.” But it's hard to say if this were true—the Spectator was the only news source to report it, in one story, in a short paragraph near the end.
Regardless, Owl’s Head had become rough. “For more than a year, there have been numerous reported incidents…including robbery, kidnapping, assault and menacing,” the Spectator continued.
Through multiple arrests…police learned that known narcotics dealers were preying upon other dealers and users. On several occasions, dealers were kidnapped at Owl’s Head Park, robbed and beaten and left at their residence or elsewhere in Bay Ridge. Police sources said that the public should be aware of the fact that persons involved with narcotics at the park are solely preying upon each other, however. The Spectator spoke with numerous residents of the Bay Ridge area who stated that they have and will treat Owl’s Head Park as a house infected with the plague. The public opinion is that no one is safe in Owl’s Head Park.
On June 9, for example, a man reported an attempted robbery. He said he was in the park at about 1am when two men asked him for a cigarette. He gave them one, then they pulled out knives and tried to push him to the ground. But the victim was drinking a beer, and he swung the bottle and hit one of them in the face. The attackers ran off.
Yet Coury “had no fear of riding his bike at night,” his father told the Daily News, “even though we warned him to stay around the house after dark.”
A curious clue in the Coury case was that his bicycle hadn’t been stolen. Bikes had a chic moment in the ’60s and ’70s—Mayor Lindsay rode one, and so did Jackie O, Bobby Short and George Plimpton. Even the conservative William Buckley had gone so far as to advocate for a Second Avenue bike lane during his 1965 mayoral bid, which “nearly unhinged the other Conservatives, who saw it as an affront to the existing order,” the Times later reported.
The U.S. oil crisis of the 1970s also made bikes an economical alternative to cars. John Kennedy, Jr., lost his bike to thieves in Central Park. A few weeks before Coury was killed, Roger Hane, a magazine illustrator, was beaten to death in Central Park during a bicycle robbery. A few weeks after, one 16-year-old killed another in the Bronx over a stolen bike.
Detectives wanted to know why, then, Coury had died with his, so they dug up similar crimes in Bay Ridge and found four in the last two months. “In each case,” the Daily News explained, “a white man had accosted youths on bicycles, flashed a pistol and pretended to be a cop.”
“You’re not supposed to be riding on this path,” the gunman would say, and of course the youths would stop—and then be robbed, the thief never getting more than $25 [$130, adjusted for inflation]. Unlike the Coury case, however, none of the robbery victims had been harmed.
A newfangled police computer gave them more cases with a similar MO, but in Manhattan. The most recent had been in May, on Madison Avenue, just off 34th Street, where a man with a gun got $18 from a 17-year-old—who then trailed his robber to a large apartment building a few blocks away, across the street from the Morgan Museum. Police searched the building but found nothing. They filed a report.
The Coury detectives found the victim and staked out the building, 220 Madison Avenue, for almost twenty-four hours when, at 1pm on Sunday, July 7, a guy in a jean jacket and jeans went inside, and the 17-year-old identified him as his mugger. The detectives arrested him in the doorway. He was George Stewart, 19, an unemployed plumber’s helper who lived in an apartment building in Brooklyn, just over the Bay Ridge border, at 368 60th Street.
He confessed to killing Coury.
Stewart had been arrested in Sunset Park just months before. On March 24, 1974, three women driving down Fourth Avenue approached 64th Street and saw a man lying in the street. They got out of the car to help and “were approached by Stewart,” the Spectator reports. (It’s unclear if he were the one lying in the street or if he came onto the scene.) Brandishing a knife, he got them back into the car and made them drive around; on 55th Street, between Fourth and Fifth, the women spotted a cop car, jumped out and got the officers’ help.
Stewart was arrested, and the knife was recovered from the car. He was charged with kidnapping, assault, menacing and possession of a weapon. “He was held in $2,500 bail by Judge Murray, pending a March 26 hearing,” the Spectator reported. “He was later released”—who knows why.
The paper reported this in its article about Stewart’s arrest for Coury’s murder, adding it had previously reported on the kidnapping case—but that issue is missing from the Brooklyn Public Library’s collection of the Spectator on microfilm.
The man who’d hit his attempted robber with a beer bottle identified Stewart as one of the assailants—in fact, police had already been looking for Stewart in connection with that case when Coury was killed; the victim had identified his attacker from police photos. Five victims in all fingered Stewart, according to the Daily News—two in Manhattan and three in Brooklyn.
In Owl’s Head Park, he’d frequently pretend to be Police Officer Stewart, he told police. And/or he’d pretend to be a drug dealer, and then rob kids trying to score.
Stewart had bought his gun, a .32 Smith & Wesson, in Times Square, for $100 [approximately $520, adjusted for inflation]. “He felt his forays in Manhattan had made him too hot there,” the Daily News reported, “and he moved his operations to Owl’s Head Park”—less than a mile from his home, and almost the same distance from Coury's.
On the night of July 5, Coury was supposed to be just another victim of these small-time muggings. Stewart said Coury offered no resistance; his gun just went off, by accident. Coury fell, and Stewart took $21 [about $110, adjusted for inflation] from his wallet, then ran. While on an N train going over the Manhattan Bridge, he tossed the gun into the East River. Police never recovered it.
“The ones who did it didn’t gain anything,” James Coury told the Daily News—“while my son lost a lifetime.”
Stewart was convicted of murder and sentenced to fifteen-to-life. He entered the medium-security Woodbourne Correctional Facility, about thirty miles west of New Paltz, on May 29, 1975, and was paroled on August 4, 1989, a month after he became eligible.
If he's still alive, he’ll turn 65 next month.
When Coury’s mother, Adele (née Saab), heard that her youngest son had been killed, she threatened to kill herself. The Courys often appeared in The Caravan, a newspaper that covered the Arab–American community in Brooklyn in the 1950s and early ’60s. “Mr. & Mrs. James Coury, 161 83rd Street, had their second boy on January 19,” the paper reported in 1958—likely a reference to Leonard. (He had an older brother, Alex, twenty-four and married at the time of Leonard’s death.)
Another small item in March reported their friends came to wish them luck, and one in April says they hosted a small dinner party in honor of the new baby. Many more items announce various birthdays and social functions; they sounded like a close and proud family.
At 8:15pm on Saturday, the night after Leonard’s murder, Adele was found at the Hotel Gregory, just two-thousand feet from the family home, overdosing on narcotics. She was taken to Lutheran Hospital, where she was put in intensive care in critical condition. She survived, however; her and her husband’s signatures appear on a deed when they sold the family house on 83rd Street in 1986.
Fourth of July weekend in 1974, as the Nixon impeachment neared its climax, had been particularly violent in Brooklyn. A dead man with slash wounds was discovered by firefighters in a burned-out apartment on Eastern Parkway, in Crown Heights; another man, his wife and an elderly cousin were stabbed to death with an ice pick in East New York; a twenty-three-year-old man’s throat was cut in the Red Hook pool; and a woman was stabbed to death in a Bushwick elevator. (Her daughter, also attacked, survived.) Meanwhile, a mob war between the Gallo and Colombo families was raging. On July 2, two Colombo associates were wounded in a “wild fusillade of shots from a handgun” outside a liquor store at 3901 Fort Hamilton Parkway, the Daily News reported.
Owl’s Head Park was no stranger to crime, but it had mostly been spared from more serious incidents of assault and murder. The most notable exception was the 1963 killing of twenty-four-year-old Joseph Vitale, nicknamed Joe Fish, whose family lived on Grand Street, in Manhattan. “Mob vengeance reached into a quiet Brooklyn park yesterday to claim the life of a junkie-punk,” the Daily News reported in markedly purple prose.
Vitale…was chopped down by six slugs from a .32 automatic, his body stomped, his right hip and left leg fractured. His body was found face down at 8 A.M. on the grass of Owl’s Head Park, 100 yards from an entrance at 68th St. and Colonial Road [steps from where Coury would later be killed]. It is a gentle spot shaded by red maples and oaks.
He had $5, two pawn tickets, a hypodermic needle and syringe, and three books of matches in his pockets; he had a single match clenched between his teeth. Police surmised this was a drug-related mob hit, and that Vitale had likely been lured to the park with the promise of heroin. Witnesses heard muffled shots at 2:30am, followed by “raucous auto horns and indistinct shouts”—the sound of assailants fleeing. The body was discovered in the morning by a parks employee, who initially ignored it, believing Vitale to be passed-out drunk until he returned after changing into workclothes and taking a closer look.
About a hundred pieces of torn paper were discovered “far from the scene of the crime,” police said; they reassembled the scraps into a document that not only listed where drugs where coming from, where they were going to and how much they cost, but also a list of names. Police interviewed almost forty people, finally coming up with a suspect in Joe Fish’s murder—Anthony Piracci, 23, of Flatlands, who admitted to firing one shot and gave them the name of the guy who fired the other five.
John Mascia, a New York drug distributor who had relocated to Miami, was arrested in Florida, at a motel a few blocks from the home where he lived with his wife and two children. Outside the motel was a 1963 white Pontiac that police said had taken Vitale from Manhattan to Owl’s Head; Mascia reportedly believed Joe Fish was an informant, and also that he had cheated the mob out of money from drug sales.
Piracci pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to seven-and-a-half-to-fifteen. John Mascia pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to twenty-to-life; he was paroled in 1975, after about eleven-and-a-half years, and has stayed out of prison since.
This crime—its details twisted by memory and the influence of lore—might be what Nicholas Pileggi references in Wiseguy, his account of the Lufthansa robbery adapted into Goodfellas, when he describes the early-1960s adolescence of the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the case.
…He was no stranger to wiseguys. He saw his first gangland killing from the social studies classroom window at Xaverian High School in Bay Ridge; five days later, when he went over to [Owl's Head] Park to practice his jump shot, he found that the mob had dumped a corpse on the basketball court.
If murder was rare in Owl’s Head, issues with vandalism and substance abuse were less so. In 1932, just four years after the park opened to the public, the Eagle ran a story with the headline, “Drunkards Infesting Owl’s Head Park at Night,” and the subhed, “Residents of Section…Fear Rowdy Gangs; Women Tell of Hideous Noises; Demands for More Police Protection.”
“Where children frolic by day,” the article reports, “drunkards keep a rowdy rendezvous by night.” Local police patrolled at all hours, but when they’d leave the park to check on nearby streets, “the park lies unguarded and ruffians sneak through,” even after the gates had been locked.
Peaceful citizens, especially women, homeward bound from parties, have been terrified by screams and rough house play in the park late at night. Miss B. E. Leake, who lives at 6643 Colonial Road, is afraid to go home alone in the dark because of the rowdiness in the park. “I often go to dances,” Miss Leake said, “but usually I return home about 11 o’clock. Sometimes my boy friend has to leave me at the corner and I run like mad because I am afraid of the horrible noises which I hear, and of the men I see.”
Mrs. I. B. Hyman of 6663 Colonial Road [said], “I was terrified last Saturday night, because I thought someone was being murdered in the park. Although drunks are common there after the park gate closes, this was the worst night I have ever experienced.”
…Robert Norman of 6655 Colonial Road declared that for a long time sleep had been impossible because of drunken noises emanating from the park. “The people in this neighborhood have the most insufficient police protection and something should be done about it.”
By the early 1960s, media reports of vandalism began to surface. “Owl’s Head Park…suffered from glass-breaking and damage to swings, heavy chains and a picnic table,” the Home Reporter reported in 1961—even though parks vandalism was down in Brooklyn that year by five percent.
In 1971, it had gotten so bad that the Times ran two articles about vandalism and the lack of maintenance at Owl's Head Park, one in June and another in July. “After 5 at night there's not a soul in the park,” an elderly man sitting on the hill overlooking the Verrazano Bridge told the paper. “I guess they're afraid. In the last 10 or 15 years the park has gone downhill.”
“The youngsters are tearing up benches and setting fires,” he added. “There used to be a little house that sold franks and ice cream. They set fire to it and burned it down.”
“Five years ago it was so nice,” said a woman sweeping her front porch on Senator Street, near Colonial Road, just a block from the park...“We haven't abandoned it, but it's not safe at night. It's lit up, but still I wouldn't go alone.”
….Complicating the problem in Owls Head are two other factors: what residents say is inadequate police protection—and the attitude of the older residents toward young people.
“People come here from a hundred areas—we get weirdos, hippies, perverts, and there's very little police protection,” said the park's only full‐time maintenance man, who declined to identify himself.
Walking through the park, he pointed to the many benches missing one, two or three slats. “Half a mile of bench slats were busted this year,” he said. In the women's room, he showed a visitor windows that had been broken just the night before.
“You can't do anything with them,” he said of the vandals. “There's no respect for authority.”
…Budget problems have created other difficulties for the park. “The amount of vandalism is greater than we can take care of,” a Parks Department spokesman said. Every spring, he said, a lump-sum appropriation is given to cover repairs. But this is not enough, he asserted.
“Even if vandalism is heavy, we can't make repairs except annually,” the spokesman said. “It's a manpower impossibility.”
The garbage pickup has been cut from three to two times a week at the park, and the trash is gathered in a central area. This only only makes it easier for vandals to find the trash barrels, according to the maintenance man.
The upkeep of the park's grassy areas also suffers. “Two men and 32 acres—we can't keep all the grass cut,” the park attendant said.
...A Parks Department spokesman attributed part of the problem to “youth frustrations.”
“There have been few incidents of violence [in Owl's Head Park]...although residents nearby have complained in recent years of an increase in vandalism and a decrease in police protection,” the Times reported in 1974, in the wake of Coury's killing.
Yesterday afternoon, as couples sprawled on the green grass and youths shot basketballs in the small corner court, several told of…changes in the park in recent months, particularly in the night and evening hours.
“There's a lot of [drug] dealing in this park,” said Tom McQuade, who lounged on a blanket with his wife, Mary, and 2½‐year-old daughter, Jessica. “I wouldn't come here at night. A lot of the lights are broken. And I don't know how well patrolled it is, either.”
Fifty feet away, on a blacktop walk, adjacent to brightly colored benches, the police-chalked outline of the body of the Coury boy ended in a dark blood stain where the word “head” was scrawled. Youths sitting nearby said that the bench and a nearby rest house were used frequently by drug dealers and their customers.
An elderly man with a shock of white hair was sitting at a small metal table and said that motorcycles bearing drug dealers roared through the park entrances every evening as darkness fell. And several youths nearby agreed.
Residents responded to Coury’s murder with outrage at the parks department and the police, demanding that the city clean up local public spaces and that cops step up patrols. They were led by local Republican councilmember and minority leader Angelo Arculeo, who said he was “fed up with official claims that Bay Ridge is a low-crime area and must therefore accept the loss of police through redeployment of force members to high-crime areas. That’s nonsense, and people are tired of it,” the Spectator reported.
“What we have been observing is a once-safe community—thanks to ample police protection—slowly slide into a community lacking in safety because of police protection that has become inadequate.
“…The people simply won’t sit still any longer while the city plays the same old low-crime rate song. Nor should they. We must put pressure on the proper authorities and never let up until police visibility in our community measures up to what it should be.”
In a letter to the police commissioner, Arculeo asked for “the full complement of police in the Bay Ridge area that people have every right to expect and every reason to deserve.”
Robert Hutchison, a director of the Bay Ridge Block Association Council, was on vacation in the mountains when Coury was killed. “I learned from no less than half a dozen sources of the recent violence,” he wrote to The Spectator. “It is indeed regrettable that the infamy of Bay Ridge parks is so widespread as to be known hundreds of miles away in the hinterlands.”
Hutchison’s group had worked with the local police to have drug dealers arrested, in 1972 and 1973. Such occasional busts were not unusual. In 1970, tipped off to a sale of pills, cops staked out Owl’s Head one night just after Christmas. “Around 8 p.m., a car drove up to a large apartment building at 6817 Colonial Road, across the street from the park,” the Daily News reported.
As if on signal, about 50 boys and girls emerged from the darkness of the park and surrounded the auto. After watching the kids exchange cash for white envelopes, the cops moved in. The teenagers scattered in all directions.
This was before the age of beepers, let alone cellphones, when drug dealers might appear at a certain place at a certain time, and if you wanted drugs, you had to be there. Two suspects ran into the park but cops caught them and charged them with possession and sale of dangerous drugs—mostly, barbiturates.
In a literally more colorful incident in 1972, undercover officers went into Owl’s Head Park and marked twelve suspected members of a dope ring with a fluorescent powder—“and disappeared without blowing their cover,” the Daily News reported. “Police raiders moved in, flashed on black light, and picked up the marked suspects.”
A simultaneous and related raid at 149 Marine Avenue supposedly broke up a large local drug ring. Police confiscated $50,000 [more than $300,000, adjusted for inflation] in illegal substances and another $3,000 in cash.
But Hutchison knew such busts were just band-aids—more police were needed to patrol. “City parks are almost completely controlled by the lawless at night, and…the costs of vandalism would more than offset the costs of [more police],” he said. “The nightly affairs that take place in our parks are widely known by area residents, some of whom can give chilling eyewitness accounts of incidents. But who can they give these accounts to?
“…The so-called ‘War on Crime’ apparently never reached Bay Ridge.”
“Most of the parks in Bay Ridge and surrounding areas are poorly maintained, and heavily vandalized on a continuous basis,” the Spectator reported. “Park Houses are burned, broken and misused, and park lighting is insufficient, and police coverage of parks is spread thin mainly because police numbers have been spread thin. While there are residents of the concerned community who will frequent certain parks during the daylight hours, there are few—or now, none—who will frequent parks after dusk.”
Police made a show of force two days after Coury’s death and arrested three teenage boys, residents of 34th Street in Brooklyn, whom plainclothes officers had observed in Owl’s Head and then arrested on Senator and Ridge, “allegedly in possession of a quantity of alleged marijuana cigarettes.” They were charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance and loitering from drugs.
More parks police were added in the wake of Coury’s death and other crimes—but to Central and Prospect Parks.
Bad as things could get, Owl’s Head at the end of the twentieth century was still a much-used community space. The park is unique among those in Brooklyn. Between approximately 1850 and 1928, when it opened to the public, it was a private estate, held by two wealthy and powerful families, the Murphys and then the Blisses. No other public greenspace in the borough, to my knowledge, has such a tony lineage.
It was a piece of land prized by those rich men for its topography—for its high hill with dramatic and magnificent views, covered with old trees. In modern times, it received recreational amenities, such as basketball courts and a playground, but these are off to one edge of the park, leaving the rest of it as a wanderable wood, with winding paths among and around trees, up and around hills with occasional magnificent views opening up with little warning.
There’s something a little wild and otherworldly about Owl’s Head Park; if you were going to set science fiction in Bay Ridge, you really couldn’t put your portal to another dimension anywhere else. It now affords some of the luxury of plutocratic living to anyone who wants a taste, whether that be parents, poets, potheads or violent criminals—or some combination of all four. As a piece of land, it appeals mystically to everyone, more so than your average few acres of public land. And so it has struggled since its opening with the tension between those various groups, as they tried to figure out how (or not) to share the majestic space, especially when the police presence is curtailed and there's no authority to adjudicate.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, the park hosted theatrical productions, film screenings and concerts, including one by the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Park rangers gave tours; Chip Cafiero organized a winter-sports festival; others organized cleanups. I would go there often to practice batting and fielding with my father in the warmer months, and to sled down the immense hill (with every other kid in the neighborhood) when it snowed.
But incidents of crimes also persisted, reported in the media. In October 1981, a twenty-year-old man was found face-down dead in the park near Narrows Avenue, his skull fractured; a bloody, two-foot square of concrete lay next to him. It's unclear if he were ever identified, or if the case were cleared. The next year, a forty-three-year-old man who’d laid siege to Fifth Avenue for nine hours with what he said was a briefcase bomb and a grenade was moved to Owl’s Head Park by police, who planned to let him blow the place up if they had to—but the bombs were fake.
That same year, there were reports of a pack of seven or eight wild dogs stalking the park. Though the dogs were caught, my family encountered a similar band a few years later, when our malamute was off-leash and disappeared; my father found her later, joined up with another wild pack.
On January 31, 1990, two thirteen-year-old boys were approached in the park at 4:15pm by a man who said he was a parks employee; he raped one of them, his fourth attack in Brooklyn parks in three months. (The culprit was arrested two weeks later; firefighters who happened to be at the scene assisted police by forming a human wall to stop the suspect as he tried to run.) In 1997, at least ten members of a Sunset Park gang raped an 18-year-old girl in the park, as revenge for having a relationship with a member of a rival gang; three were arrested and convicted.
In September 1995, twenty-three-year-old Anthony Sarni was found in Owl’s Head, “sprawled about 150 yards from a Belt Parkway service road near 65th St. in an area overlooking Upper New York Bay.” He’d been shot in the back of the head with a .25-caliber bullet, the Daily News reported, and was in critical condition. Police had little information about the crime, and no news outlets reported a followup.
But “the shooting…did not disrupt activities in a playground on the other side of a hill across the scenic park,” the paper added.
“Someone was shot?” asked Theresa Barton, 30, who was sitting in the playground yesterday watching her 3-year-old. “I saw an unmarked detective’s car, but I didn’t know what happened. This is a quiet park. You don’t hear about things like this.”
Jennifer DeVito, 28, in the playground yesterday with her daughter, Darla, also was stunned by the shooting. “We generally stay away from that side of the park,” she said.
Although DeVito said she was sometimes concerned about “weirdos” who she said frequented the park, “this is generally a nice, quiet place. You don’t expect something like this.”
This response from the community was markedly different from that offered in the wake of Coury's murder; conditions had obviously changed. The year before Sarni’s shooting, a $400,000 new playground opened, marking the beginning of a period of new investment; in 2001, a new skate park followed.
As teenagers at the turn of the millennium, my friends and I would sometimes try to loiter in Owl’s Head Park after dark, but it was more trouble than it was worth, as cops in their personal-sized scooter cars frequently patrolled the park’s winding paths, looking for youths to issue summonses to.
We'd leave and go someplace else.
On September 29, 2016, a 35-year-old Bay Ridge resident was found murdered at the Millennium Skate Park in Owl's Head with blunt impact injuries to her head and torso. Detectives have still not solved the case, which has gone cold, despite being the most infamous in recent Bay Ridge history—the most violent thing to happen in Owl's Head Park in a generation, since Anthony Sarni was shot more than twenty years earlier, and the most high-profile murder since Leonard Coury's more than forty years before. (You can see images and video of an unidentified suspect here.)
A reporter visited the skate park shortly after the victim was found and talked to some teenage boys hanging out there and smoking blunts.
The idea of a corpse being found in their beloved skatepark disturbed them and felt like an invasion, [they] said. “This is our home,” said one boy.
...“How about you don’t kill people in the park,” said another.