by Peter Zablocki
World War II witnessed some of the biggest sacrifices ever made by our nation’s citizenry, our states, and our towns. As the small town sent their young men and women to fight in arguably the greatest conflict the world had ever seen, Denville was not much different. Those that remained found themselves strapped down with food and gas shortages, rationing, and scrap drives. Yet, even in the darkest of times, there were still individuals willing to break the law. What they did not account for was a small-town cop who just would not let it go.
The Denville Police Department was established on September 2, 1936. At the time, it consisted of a Chief of Police and one Patrolman. In nine short years, the department had grown to the Chief, Harry Jenkins, and three patrolmen; Sam Gill, Jack Kelly, and Arthur Strathman. Interestingly, it was not for another nearly ten years before they had a dedicated building with a holding cell. At the time of the events described here, the department often worked out of the Chief’s home.
According to an editorial in the Denville paper from February 22, 1945, small-town police officers at the time were often viewed as “hick cops” by cartoonists and the media alike. Often laughed at for keeping busy with their routine guarding of school children, listening to complaints about dogs and neighbors, and other “dull” duties such as traffic duty for weddings and funerals; they were the laughing stock for the big-time city detectives with their “…interesting sinfulness upon which [they] fed.”
The notorious group responsible for thousands of dollars’ worth of robberies in and around New Jersey’s big cities, seemed to evade the police at every turn. “But then they pulled off just one little job in a ‘hick town’ of Denville, and look what happened…” boasted the editor of the Denville Herald. The main newspaper for the Morris County town, incorporated merely thirty years prior, went on to explain how a small town police chief, one of only four police officers employed by the town, went after the criminals with “patience, determination, and intelligence.” What big-city detectives with their Philip Marlowe-esque outfits and Sam Spade’s cool attitude could not accomplish for months, Chief Jenkins of the Denville Police Department took three days to crack. In turn, the local hero uncovered a ring numbering 15 men and women and subsequently solved a series of wartime theft and robbery cold cases throughout the Garden State.
Perhaps there was a reason why a truck normally parked inside a locked-up garage with others like it at the Essex News Company in Newark, NJ was left outside, yet Morris Hochhouser could care less. This was exactly what he needed for a small job with a big payoff. The location of the theft as well as the plan, had been drawn up earlier in the week during one of his runs as a delivery driver for a local distillery. The Lysaght’s Liquor Store on Main Street in Denville, NJ was a no-brainer. After making his delivery in the small town a week prior, Morris informed his accomplices of the quaint little spot with a Police force of barely four men, with one on sick leave. In comparison to the greater heists in Linden and Newark – both of New Jersey, where the group stole thousands of dollars in cigarettes and liquor; this was going to be a nice side job. Heck, the police in Newark were still scratching their heads after Morris’ group robbed jewelry stores of thousands of dollars of merchandise.
Morris was a little late when he finally parked the stolen truck directly in front of Denville’s United Cigar Store on Broadway, the town’s road parallel to Main Street. He did not anticipate the truck to give him as much trouble as it had to try to hotwire it. The young man exited the stolen vehicle and walked between the buildings towards Main Street and Lysaght’s Store. On his way, he passed Dorothy Raleigh sitting in the passenger seat of a parked Buick sedan. The girl smiled at him, and he smiled back. Perfect, he thought to himself after looking in the back seat of the car. August Kaleta had removed the car’s back seat as he was told; just in case they were able to locate the liquor store’s safe. A small town, a small store, a small safe. No use trying to crack the safe; why not just take the whole thing with them.
It was a late Sunday night in February, the town, still adhering to blackout war restrictions, was pitch black. Still, it was a good idea to have Dorothy keep a lookout, just in case. Upon approaching the store and putting out his cigarette on the defunct light pole, Morris saw that August and Thor were already inside picking out their loot. It was time. Turning around almost as fast as he arrived at the sidewalk, he walked past the Buick and back to his truck. There was no time for a smile on the second passing. After bringing the truck around the back, Morris and his gang loaded it as fast as they could, selecting only the nationally recognized and advertised brands of liquor, and leaving the local brews behind. At one-point Dorothy thought she saw someone walking towards the car at the end of the street, but before she could get out and warn the men, the shadow had disappeared. It must have been the nerves.
Dorothy and August were barely 3 miles away from Denville, driving east bound on Route 6, (today State Route 46), when they noticed the stolen truck they were following veer off to the side and slowly come to a stop in Parsippany; just a few minutes away from the scene of the crime. The truck was overheating. Morris was starting to get the idea as to why the truck was left outside the garage at the Essex News Co. Shortly after stopping at a nearby house and asking a local for some water to fill the radiator, his worst fears came to fruition. By the time they reached Livingston, still a ways off from their designated holdout in Newark, the truck had quit altogether. Forced to get it off the road, the foursome hitched the heavy truck to the Buick sedan and towed it a block away to a side street. Leaving the loaded truck behind, Morris knew that time was now of the essence. They needed to figure out how to get the loot back to their holdout and simply abandon the stolen vehicle. By the time the four of them reached Newark, it was decided that Morris would report to work at his delivery service company a bit earlier, and backtrack quickly to meet the other three in Livingston where they would transfer the stolen goods into the work truck and then quickly stash them before he started his shift. Returning to Newark after completing their plan, they stowed the cases in August’s one-car garage. Morris once again smiled at Dorothy as he drove away for his morning shift at the National Biscuit Company. All was well.
Chief Harry Jenkins began his seemingly helpless search Monday morning as a phone call from the owner of the liquor store woke him up before his customary 6:00 a.m. cup of coffee. There wasn’t much to go on. He told the owner that he would stop by as soon as he did his rounds around town. On his drive, in the only police car the town had commissioned, the Chief began to ponder the approach he would take. This was a small town, someone had to have seen something. He wasn’t wrong. By the afternoon, he had already learned that an Essex County News truck was seen around the town center the night of the crime. How could someone think of doing something so wrong to others in the time of war; weren’t they all in it together? It wasn’t even about the stolen property, but the fact that it happened in such a small town – his town. And on the busiest street to boot. Blackout was no excuse.
After sending out a bulletin, Harry took a drive to the Essex News Co. garage where he was told that the truck in question had been in poor condition and hence left outdoors; from where it was stolen. By the time he returned to Denville, a message awaited him; the truck had been found abandoned in Livingston. At this point, it seemed like this was going to be another cold case. The connection to other thefts and burglaries never crossed his mind. His only concern was for his town and for its people who were already stressed awaiting the news of their children fighting overseas, with the newspapers reporting that same day of two more deaths of local boys overseas. There was no reason for the people of Denville to feel unsafe in their own homes. From the Livingston report, Jenkins learned that the stolen truck had a rope tied to its front bumper and would not start. It was obvious that the loot had to be transferred to another vehicle of similar size. He would keep that knowledge in his back pocket; for now.
Back at his home for lunch, his wife made him his second cup of coffee and filled him in on the news of their boy, Harry Jenkins Jr., who had just completed his training and was shipped to fight the Axis across the ocean. Jenkins was not listening, he had one conviction circling in his mind. The criminal knew exactly how to get in and what to look for; being very selective in the process. Whoever was responsible, they had to have been in that storeroom recently to know the specific cases’ inventory and location. He could hear his wife’s displeasure loud and clear, even in her silence, as he excused himself and left through the front door. After getting the list he needed from the burglarized store owner, the Chief set out to visit the offices of the twenty different brewery, distillery, and delivery services that had been delivered to the store in the past two weeks. With each company employing anywhere between two to ten workers, Jenkins made sure he checked on every single one of them.
By Wednesday, his search had finally brought him to two suspects, one of whom was a driver who worked for the National Biscuit Company in Newark. What drew Jenkins to the twenty-something-year-old was the fact that he had come to the garage for his truck on Monday at 3:30 a.m., but did not report with it to the plant across the street until 5:30 a.m. Where did one Morris Hochhauser go with that truck for the two hours? The Chief was determined to find out. Upon further inquiry, he learned from the statements taken by the Livingston PD of a man seen wearing a [blue] windbreaker and a chauffeur cap near the broken-down Essex News Co. truck in the morning hours between Sunday and Monday. After picking up Morris after his shift had ended on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at the National Biscuit Company, the Chief hardly needed an introduction as the company’s manager pointed out the young man in the blue windbreaker and a chauffeur cap. Before transferring the young man to the Newark Police Department for questioning that afternoon, Jenkins left one more message for the Livingston Police Department. As he arrived at the station, he excused himself to make a quick call, leaving the suspect in the hands of the Newark detectives.
The questioning did not take too long before the young man’s story began to unravel. After placing Morris at the Denville store a week prior to the break-in through a delivery slip from the National Biscuit Company and providing evidence from the statement of a passerby who saw someone with Morris’ description and clothing near the stolen vehicle in Livingston, the Chief notified the young man that he just received a confirmation that a National Biscuit Company truck matching the number that he signed out at 3:30 a.m. Monday morning was seen in Livingston around 4:00 a.m. After conferring with the company manager, Jenkins had learned that National Biscuit had no routes in or near that vicinity and there was no reason for that truck to be there. The interrogation lasted into the morning hours of Thursday until Morris finally conceded and confessed.
Jenkins woke up on Thursday at 6:00 a.m. and made himself his cup of coffee. For the past three days, he had spent most of his time digging up information in Newark, Jersey City, Bayonne, Little Falls, and Livingston, with shorter visits to some other towns. He was tired. But he was not tired enough to see the store owner first thing in the morning to let him know that his stolen goods had been recovered. After giving up his three accomplices, Morris led the police to the safehouse in Newark, where other stolen goods were found besides those belonging to Lysaght’s Liquor Store. Chief Jenkins awaited the four to be brought back to Denville for arraignment on charges of burglary. By the time that happened, eleven more joined the initial four, as they attempted to make deals with the police by giving up their other co-conspirators. In the process, Jenkins involuntary uncovered a criminal ring and solved a series of robberies and thefts that had baffled the police departments of Newark, Linden, Jersey City, and Bayonne.
“I was just plugging,” proclaimed the Chief after being asked to comment on the letter published in the local paper by Charles E. Lysaght of Lysaght Liquors, praising the good fortune of the small town having such a great Chief. He then thanked the reporter and stepped back into the middle of the street to stop traffic for the nearby children leaving the Main Street School House. Such was the life of a small-town police officer.
The war was not yet over and might not be over for a while yet, but the people of Denville could sleep feeling safe knowing that their grand police department of three and a half men was there to protect them. Whoever said that a small-town policeman’s life was dull compared to the big city detectives probably had not met Harry Jenkins, Chief of the Denville Police Department, and his crew.
Peter Zablocki is a local historian, Vice-President of the Denville Historical Society, and author of the upcoming Denville in World War II, available from The History Press/Arcadia Publishing