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The Case of Judge Carter

This article is about a man called Joseph Carter. He was a judge in New York who went missing in 1930 and is known as "the missingest Man in New York."

Joseph Force Crater was a judge in New York City.  On the night of August 6, 1930, he disappeared.  The last place he was seen was leaving a resatuarnt on 45th street.  His disappearance has become one of the most most well known in pop culture and American history and has even earned him the title of “The Missingest Man in New York.”

Crater was in Easton, Pennsylvania on January 5, 1889, to Frank Ellsworth Crater and the former Leila Virginia Montague.  He was the oldest of four children and went to Lafayette College and Columbia University.

Crater was an Associated Justice of the New York Supreme Court for New York County.  Just four months before he disappeared, then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to the state bench. 

The Disappearance
Judge Carter and his wife, Stella Mance Wheeller were on vacation in their summer cabin at Belgrade, Maine, in the summer of 1930.  He received a phone call in late July.  He would not give his wife information about what was said in the call but did say that he had to go back to New York “to straighten those fellows out.”

He arrived at his 40 Fifth Avenue apartment the next day.  Instead of dealing with business however, he went to Atlantic City with a showgirl called Sally Lou Ritze, who was his mistress.  He went back to Maine on August 1 and returned on August 3 to New York.  He promised his wife that he would return by her birthday, on August 9,before he made his final trip.  Crater spent two hours on the morning of August 6, going through the files in his courthouse chambers.  He then got Joseph Mara, his assistant, to cash two cheques.  These cheques totaled U.S. $5,150 (equivalent to $71,649 in today’s money).  Carter and Mara carried two locked briefcases to his apartment at noon.  He allowed Mara to take the rest of th day off.

Crater went to a Broadway ticket agency later that evening.  He purchased one seat for  Dancing Partner.  This was a comedy which was playing that night at the Belasco Theatre.  Then he went to Billy Haa’s Chophouse on 332 West 45th Street for dinner.  He ate dinner there with Sally Lou Ritz and William Klein.  Klein was a lawyer friend of Carter.  Investigators were told later by Klein that Crater had been in a good mood that evening and showed no indication that there was anything concerning him.  The dinner finished a little after 9 pm, a short time after the curtain rose on Dancing Partner which Crater had purchased a ticket for.  The group then went outside.

The Last Known Sighting of Crater
Ritz and Klein both entered a taxi outside the restaurant.  They both later testified before a grand jury that the last time they saw Crater, he was walking down the street.  This is different from the popular story that he got into a taxi and waved to them before he sped away.  It is a mystery what happened to him afterwards.  Theories on the disappearance of Carter have suggested that he ran off with another woman, he was murdered or had been involved with corrupt practices that were going to be revealed. 

Delayed Response
There was no reaction straightaway to the disappearance of Judge Carter.  His wife started making calls to their friends on New York when he did not come back to Maine for 10 days.  His fellow justices only became alarmed on August 25 when he did not come for the opening of the courts.  They began a private search but no trace of Carter was found.  On September 3, the police were notified at last and the missing judge became front-page news after that. 

The story of the Judge’s disappearance captivated the nation and a huge investigation was launched.  The official investigations began strongly but slowed down fast.  It was determined by detectives that Crater’s safe deposit box had been emptied and also that the two briefcases that he and his assistant had taken to his apartment had gone missing.   These were promising leads but the thousands of false reports that came in from people claiming to have seen Crater, quickly bogged them down.  The missing money was later discovered by Crater’s wife in a dresser drawer, along with a note from him.

A grand jury started to examine the case in October.  They called 95 witnesses and collected 975 pages of testimony.  Mrs Crater declined to appear before the grand jury.  The grand jury came to the conclusion that “the evidence is insufficient to warrant any expression of opinion as to whether Crater is alive or dead, or as to whether he has absented himself voluntarily, or is the sufferer from disease in the nature of amnesia, or is the victim of crime.”

None of the investigations were successful to finding what had happened to the judge.  In 1979, his case – Missing persons File No. 13595 was officially closed.

Sometimes it is claimed that Sally Lou Ritz went missing in August or September 1930.  This is not true however.  She was interviewed in late September 1930 in Youngstown, Ohio.  She had gone here “to be with her sick father.”  She was interviewed by police in Beverly Hills as late as July 1937.

Judge Crater’s Wife
Judge Crater and Stella Mance Wheeler married in 1917.  He had been her lawyer in her divorce against her first husband.  They were wed just one week after this divorce was confirmed.  Mrs Crater stayed at their vacation home in Belgrade Lakes, Maine during the initial search and even after the police had been notified and started their nationwide search.  She remained here until January 20, 1931.  This is when she is alleged to have found checks, stock, bonds and a note from Crater in a drawer.  When the police had checked earlier, the same drawer had been empty.  Mrs Crater could not maintain residence at the fashionable Fifth Avenue apartment without Crater’s income and she was evicted.  She petitioned to have Crater officially declared dead in July 1937.  By this time, she was destitute and apparently living on $12 a week (approximately $194 in today’s money).   

Mrs Crater remarried on April 23, 1938.  This was before the judge was legally declared dead.  She wed Carl Kunz.  He was an electrical engineer from New York.  In 1939, Judge Carter was legally declared dead in absentia.  Mrs Crater received $20,561 in life insurance.  This would be about $343,536 in today’s money.  She and Kunz separated in 1950 and aged 70, she died in 1969.  Oscar Fraley, newspaperman and freelancer, published her account of Crater’s disappearance, in which she showed her belief that he had been murdered.  This was published in 1961 by Doubleday.

Recent Information
On August 19, 2005, it was revealed by authorities that they had been given notes left by Stella Ferrucci-Good after she died at 91.  A location near West Eighth Street in Coney Island, Brooklyn, at the current sit of the New York Aquarium, was identified by the writings.  It was claimed that Crater was buried under the boardwalk here.  The notes also claimed that NYPD officers Robert Good (her husband), Charles Burn and his brother Frank, were the killers.

The site had been excavated in the 1950s and police reported that no records had been to found that indicated the presence of skeletal remains.  Skepticism was expressed of Ferrucci-Good’s account by Richard J. Tofel, who wrote “Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater and the New York He Left Behind.”

The phrase “to pull a Crater” means to disappear.  However, this is rarely heard these days.  A standard gag among nightclub comedians was “Judge Carter, call your office,” for many years after the Judge went missing.  It was also heard a lot on public address systems.

Warner Bros. advertised that they would pay $10,000 to Crater if he came to the box office to claim it in person.  This was done to promote the 1933 film Bureau of Missing Persons.

In 1981, the will of Judge Crater was sold at auction for $700.  the will was marked confidential and addressed to his wife.  It may have been written on the day that the Judge disappeared. 

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