Weekly Feature

2012-03-15 / Local News

Gang history rediscovered in Depew

Bootlegging, bullets and bodies
Lancaster-Depew Editor

“They call me Korney” explores the history of a Polish gang in 1920s Depew. “They call me Korney” explores the history of a Polish gang in 1920s Depew. The story of John Korney reads like something out of Hollywood, albeit on a smaller scale.

Korney, from the east side of Buffalo, helped turn the Village of Depew, back in the Roaring Twenties, into an outpost for a group of criminals who found abiding by the law just a little too difficult to do.

Korney, real name “Kwiatkowski,” was the ringleader of an all-Polish gang that spread its criminal activities into the village and is the subject of a book by Sloan author Michael Rizzo.

Rizzo, whose background includes working in computers, a delivery company and a sightseeing company, has been writing since 1989 but did not publish his first book until 2005. He is a history buff but his appetite wasn’t whetted until he began researching his first book, which, he said, came about by accident.

“I was at a downtown library and overheard a librarian saying there wasn’t a book about the history of Buffalo mayors,” he said. “I thought I’d write it and I’d get rich off of it, which I realized was never going to happen.”

“They Call Me Korney,” which Rizzo said he “novelized” a bit, came to him when he was researching the Mafia in Buffalo. He discovered a history of a Polish mob that started in the city but had connections in Depew.

“They ended up killing quite a few people along the way. They had no regard for life at all. They were actually pretty violent and dangerous. In the end, one of the guys ends up in the electric chair,” Rizzo said. “You wouldn’t think a bunch of Polish gangsters would be, but they were tough guys.”

Korney’s crimes were fueled by “pure greed,” Rizzo said. When he was asked in court if he was capable of working a legitimate job, he replied that he liked being a bootlegger and a criminal.

“Korney is a 6-foot-tall, blondehaired, good-looking guy,” Rizzo said. “He would help his neighbor, yet at the same time he’d pull out a gun and shoot somebody during a robbery.”

His gang ran their bootlegging operations from a building on Main Street in Depew as well as from some private homes, including one in Lancaster. There was even a gunfight outside a tavern on the Depew/Lancaster border.

One of Korney’s accomplices, Anthony Kalkiewicz, was planning to get out of the mob life but got lured back in for one more job — a job that ended up being the gang’s downfall, according to Rizzo. A planned robbery led to someone being killed. Every other time, the group got away, but this time they were followed.

“They got into a gun battle, a driving gun battle, with police,” Rizzo said. They abandoned their disabled car and carjacked another. The car they left behind was in an assumed name but the address was that of Kalkiewicz, who eventually “squealed” on his former comrades, Rizzo said.

A “media spectacle” ensued when Korney went to jail. Rizzo said hundreds of people crowded the courtroom and hallways and the trial made the newspapers every day. Korney, charged with murder, was found not guilty.

“That night, there’s parties all over the east side in all the taverns,” Rizzo said.

But Korney wouldn’t be free for long. While he was a part of all sorts of activities that should have netted him prison time, his downfall was much like Al Capone’s indictment for tax evasion. What landed Korney in prison? Perjury.

Korney testified for his friend, on trial for the same murder rap he had beaten. Unlike Korney, his friend is convicted. The district attorney decides, Rizzo said, that Korney must have lied during his own trial and charges him with perjury.

Korney was sentenced to 20 years but served only a portion of it. He returned to town but was banished from Buffalo. He lived out the rest of his life in the Syracuse area until his death in 1964.

Rizzo will share Korney’s story at a Friends of Depew meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, March 19, in the first-floor hall of VFW Post 463, 97 Litchfield Ave., Depew.

Scott Wegst, one of the group’s members, contacted Rizzo after reading the book.

“It’s pretty interesting to hear about something like this that took place in our quiet village,” he said.

‘They Call Me Korney” is in bookstores and online at www.amazon or at www.michael frizzo.com.

email: cfarrell 3-15@beenews.com

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