Any would-be evildoer can hire an assassin to do their dirty work. However, when you come across a case where said evildoer enlists an unwitting assassin, you know there is some truly Strange Company-level mayhem going on.
In the fall of 1946, a few months after graduating from high school in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, eighteen-year-old Pearl Lusk moved to New York, eager to start an independent new life in the exciting big city. She initially moved in with her mother and stepfather in Brooklyn, but as soon as she got a job as a department store salesgirl, Lusk found a room on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Pearl quickly blossomed. She began using makeup, had her hair redone in bouncy blond curls that matched her bubbly, outgoing personality, and redecorated her little room in cheery shades of pink and lavender. She made many friends among her fellow salesgirls, and went on frequent dates with Manhattan’s young men. As far as the latter went, Pearl was what was then called a “Nice Girl,” so she made sure that none of the dates went too far. She received so many phone calls at her rooming house that the landlady began to grumble.
On Thanksgiving Day, as Pearl was riding the subway to spend the holiday with her mother, a man who introduced himself as Allen La Rue began flirting with her. Although Pearl was delighted by the man’s dazzling good looks and easy charm, she was, as I said, a Nice Girl. She politely chatted with the stranger, but refused his offer to have a drink with him, and declined to give her name and address.
Pearl went on her merry, busy way. Then--on Christmas Eve, no less--her newly-crafted happiness threatened to come to an abrupt end. Now that the Christmas rush was over, she was among the salesgirls laid off by her department store. And Pearl’s landlady informed her that she was sick of having to constantly summon her to the telephone. In the future, she was forbidding Pearl to speak to anyone but her mother.
Pearl spent what must have been a bleak Christmas at her mother’s place. On the following day, she again met handsome Mr. La Rue on the subway. This time, Pearl agreed to have a drink with him. Perhaps it would lift her spirits.
Pearl told La Rue about her recent problems, and he was very sympathetic. As they talked, she sensed a change in his demeanor. She later recalled, “He seemed interested in me like any other man at first, but the more I talked the more I felt he had some different kind of interest in me.” She learned that La Rue did indeed have more than romance on his mind. He offered Pearl what she needed most at that moment: a job. La Rue explained that he was a private detective working for an insurance company. He believed that a young woman named Olga, who was private secretary to the owner of the Croyden Hat Company, had stolen some expensive jewelry from one of his company’s clients, and was hiding them inside her clothes. Unfortunately, Olga knew him by sight, so he couldn’t follow her without arousing her suspicions. And he couldn’t ask the police to arrest her without proof that she really had the jewelry. That was where Pearl came in.
La Rue showed her a photograph of Olga--a beautiful woman with long dark hair. Pearl was to go to the Croyden Hat Company’s offices on some pretext so she could get a good look at Olga in person, just to ensure that Pearl could easily recognize her in a crowd. He wanted Pearl to tail Olga when the suspected thief left work at five o’clock. La Rue presented Pearl with an odd object that looked like a shoe box wrapped in plain brown paper, with a hole in one end and a short piece of wire hanging from the bottom. La Rue told her that this was an X-ray camera. Pearl was to follow Olga off the train, and when she was at close range of her quarry, pull the wire. This would take an “X-ray” photo which would establish if Olga had the jewels or not.
Pearl was thrilled. Not only was La Rue as handsome as a movie star, he had drawn her into something straight out of an exciting crime film. She loved the thought that she, humble little Pearl Lusk, would help bring a jewel robber to justice!
Right at five p.m., Pearl followed Olga out of the office building and onto the subway heading to Brooklyn. When the train arrived at the Fifty-fifth Street station, Pearl came close behind Olga as she got out, pointed the box at her, and pulled the wire. Then, she hurried to La Rue’s apartment to return the camera.
The following morning, La Rue informed Pearl that unfortunately, the photo had not turned out well. They would have to try again, with a better camera.
Three days later, on December 30, La Rue told Pearl that he had the new camera. She was to meet him at an Automat near Union Square the following morning. When Pearl arrived at the Automat, she saw him holding a box that was bigger and heavier than the last one. It was wrapped in red and green holiday paper. This time, La Rue wanted Pearl to go to Olga’s station in Brooklyn and follow her into the train as Olga headed for work. When Olga got off the train at Times Square, she would take the photo in the same way as before. La Rue told her to aim for Olga’s waist. “That’s probably where she’s carrying the jewels.”
Pearl followed her instructions to the letter: when the train reached Times Square, she closely followed Olga through the door, pointed the box waist-high, and pulled the wire. This time, however, it created a loud explosion that nearly knocked the box from her hands. Olga screamed and collapsed, holding her shattered left leg.
A subway guard rushed over, yelling, “What happened? What happened?” Pearl, dazed with shock, said, “I just took a woman’s picture and somebody shot her.” A policeman grabbed the box from Pearl and ripped it open. Inside was a sawed-off shotgun. Pearl was horrified to realize that she was the “somebody.”
Pearl, in tears, wailed to Olga, “I’m awfully sorry I shot you. There was this new job, you see, and I thought I was taking your picture with an X-ray camera.”
Olga seemed strangely unsurprised by this ghastly turn of events. She muttered to herself, “Well, he got me this time.”
Pearl was, of course, hauled off to the police station for questioning. Fortunately for herself, detectives soon recognized her Nice Girl status, and that she quite sincerely believed she had merely been tailing a jewel thief. The true villain of the piece, they realized, was the man who had employed her.
|"Knoxville News-Sentinel," January 7, 1947, via Newspapers.com|
Olga knew who this man was. In 1945, after a brief courtship, she married a highly attractive man named Alphonse Rocco. Unfortunately, she soon learned that he was a dangerously jealous, controlling man with a criminal record. Once she realized her new husband’s true nature, she left him to go live with her parents in Brooklyn, and had their marriage annulled. Rocco responded by making several attempts on her life. He would follow her around the city in a menacing manner and make phone calls telling her to “say her prayers.” On one occasion, he kidnapped Olga and held her prisoner in a remote cabin for several days. The terrified Olga repeatedly went to the police, begging for protection, but she said they always responded that she “should not worry.”
|Olga and Alphonse, soon after their marriage|
Finally, Olga spoke to some detectives who promised to guard her when she rode the subway to work. However, on the following morning--December 31--she saw no sign of the detectives. She did, however, notice a blond girl holding a large, Christmas-wrapped box.
When shown a photo of Rocco, Pearl immediately recognized him as her recent employer, Allen La Rue. Meanwhile, doctors were forced to remove Olga’s leg six inches above the knee.
Six days after the shooting, police traced Rocco to the Catskills, riding in a stolen car. State police found the car parked on the side of a mountain road. Nearby, Rocco was sleeping under a tree. When the police called on Rocco to surrender, he fired at them. In the ensuing gun battle, Rocco was killed. When Olga heard the news, she wept and said “At last I’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep.”
The two women he had victimized managed to get on with their lives. Pearl eventually married, started a family, and settled down to a comfortable existence blissfully free of personable men with enticing job offers.
Olga sued the city for $200,000 on the grounds that the police had been negligent about not providing any protection from her psychotic ex-husband. Sadly, her case was dismissed on the grounds that Pearl Lusk, and not Alphonse Rocco, had committed the shooting. There was, defense lawyers argued, no legal duty on the part of the city to protect Olga from a young woman who posed no known threat and was completely unknown to the plaintiff. The judge agreed. He dismissed the case, adding regretfully that “it is most unfortunate that some redress cannot be afforded the plaintiff.”
A postscript: Even though their initial meeting had been, to say the least, unfortunate, Olga and Pearl eventually became friends.
You see, Olga Trapani Rocco was a Nice Girl, too.