Photograph by the Los Angeles Times
Howard Steindler, about 1970.
Howard Steindler’s killing follows the classic arc of a story about an unsolved murder.
First, an interesting victim dies violently. There are a few tantalizing clues, almost enough to break the case–but not quite. Detectives hit a dead end and appeal for help from the public. There’s a flurry of new interest when some of the victim’s belongings are mailed to the family, but that too dwindles away.
Finally, detectives defer the case for more pressing investigations and as the unsolved murder lingers in the popular memory, it’s linked by police, the press and the public to killings that appear similar–if only superficially. Through the years, the family grieves. Perhaps they are public with their sorrow, or perhaps they seek privacy, but the grief endures.
Los Angeles was reminded once again of Steindler’s murder as his daughter Carol joined police in appealing for help on the 32nd anniversary of his death. On March 9, 1977, Steindler’s battered body was found in the back seat of his gold Cadillac–license HOWIE5–on the shoulder of the eastbound Ventura Freeway in Studio City.
Our victim is a slight, scrappy man named Howard R. “Howie” Steindler, a 72-year-old lifetime smoker with a bad heart whose health is so frail that he carries oxygen.
|A onetime amateur boxer from New York’s tenements who talks out of the side of his mouth, Steindler came to Los Angeles in 1942. Since 1953, he has run the shabby Main Street Gym, a popular skid row landmark in what was once the Hippodrome theater and has since been torn down. In his decades at the gritty, decaying gym, Steindler has managed any number of fighters and become a local legend. Burgess Meredith spent two weeks studying Steindler and the gym as he developed the character of boxing manager Mickey Goldmill for the hit film “Rocky.”
Despite his many years in the fight business, Steindler had not enjoyed much success. “Howie suited up a lot of bad fighters,” Times columnist Jim Murrary wrote in 1977.
“Pals said Howie kept skinny–and he was nothing more than a big bantamweight to the day he died–lugging the carcasses of first-round KOs back to his corner.”The irony of the killing is that in the months before he was murdered, Steindler had finally gotten his first world champion: Danny “Little Red” Lopez, who won the featherweight title in a Nov. 6, 1976, match fought in Ghana. Lopez took the title from David Kotey (or Kotei), who was managed by his brother Daniel, a Ghanan official at the U.N. Lopez’s chances seemed slim, but “Little Red” took the fight and left Kotey so badly injured that he was hospitalized and never entirely recovered, although he continued boxing until 1989.
Steindler was in such poor health that he couldn’t accompany Lopez to the bout in Ghana, but although he missed the fight, he drew new pride in Lopez’s victory. At the bar where he always stopped for drinks on the way home, he entertained reporters and friends with a taped radio broadcast of the Lopez match. He bought a gold Cadillac with his share of the winnings. And according to a Times story on the 10th anniversary of his death, friends said he became more difficult to deal with.
In February 1977, a month before he was killed, Steindler was at odds with fight manager Daniel Kotey and the World Boxing Council, according to a story by The Times’ Jack Hawn.
Steindler was trying to set up an April 9 bout for Lopez at the Forum but any deal was blocked by a previous agreement with Daniel Kotey, who had offered a contract for $85,000 and $5,000 in training expenses.
The option on Kotey’s contract expired Feb. 6 when he was unable to find an opponent, but without explanation, the boxing council granted an extension to March 12, making Steindler furious, Hawn said.
Hawn noted that an immediate rematch between Lopez and David Kotey was banned under boxing council rules, and The Times reported on the day before the killing that Lopez would be unable to fight anyone until he had surgery to remove bone chips in his right hand from the Kotey match.
With one mysterious exception, Steindler’s final hours before the killing seemed like any other day.
He spent most of that Wednesday at the gym. A fingerprint found on the Cadillac, traced years later to a parking attendant, revealed that at some presumably recent point he had been at the Redwood, a downtown watering hole that was then next to The Times Building on 1st Street.
In the afternoon, homicide Det. Marvin Engquist and his unidentified partner stopped by the gym to say hello to Steindler, a longtime friend. “Peeking into his cubbyhole office at the top of the stairs, the detectives could see that Steindler was busy, as usual, so they merely waved hello, watched a few boxers work out and left,” The Times said in 1987.
But sometime during the day, Steindler made another attempt to contact state Sen. Alex P. Garcia (D-Los Angeles), an avid boxing fan who represented the Eastside. Steindler had called John Noblet, Garcia’s field deputy, a week earlier and asked for a meeting. “He didn’t discuss the problem with me other than to say it was relative to the boxing commission,” Noblet said a few days after the killing. “I don’t have any idea what it was all about.”
Garcia was too busy for a meeting, Noblet said, so he gave Steindler Garcia’s home phone number. “Subsequently he called me a second time, but I never was able to arrange the interview. I’m sure he never talked to the senator.”
[At the time of Steindler’s killing, Garcia was mentioned in news stories about deaths linked to organized crime.
[Garcia administrative assistant Robert M. Lewis, a Reseda contractor, was found shot to death in his car Jan. 15, 1977, at 2738 Allesandro St. in Elysian Valley. Lewis had asked Garcia’s help in getting a pardon for Michael A. Rizzitello, who had served time for a series of holdups and was suspected of welfare fraud in conjunction with Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno.
[Garcia also figured in stories about the Feb. 17, 1977, killing of Ellen Anne Delia, a grants writer who was found shot to death in a Sacramento ditch hours before she was to tell legislators about corruption in Eastside community projects. She was the estranged wife of Michael A. Delia Jr., a convicted bank robber who headed Get Going, a troubled halfway house for ex-convicts at 127 S. Utah St., originally based in Garcia’s offices. Michael Delia pleaded guilty to involvement in the killings of his wife, Lewis and Ysidro Trujillo and was released in a 1984 plea bargain. Garcia was defeated by Assemblyman Art Torres in the 1982 Democratic primary for state Senate].
About 8:15 p.m. on March 9, 1977, a California Highway Patrol officer found Steindler’s body in the back seat of the gold Cadillac, which had been parked on the shoulder of the eastbound Ventura Freeway near Laurel Canyon Boulevard.
Steindler had been savagely beaten in the head and there was a puncture wound in his temple, but Police Lt. Richard King said it wasn’t immediately clear whether the wound was made by a bullet or a sharp instrument. A March 11, 1977, story said Steindler had been suffocated. King said Steindler may have been smothered by having his face held against the car’s seat cushion.
Steindler was known to carry hundreds of dollars, but although his wallet and personal papers were missing, detectives did not consider robbery a motive, The Times said. Later stories also noted that his distinctive rings were missing, as well as a gold necklace and a watch.
In the weeks that followed, police passed out thousand of fliers seeking information in the killing. Investigators also placed ads in newspapers that included a composite sketch of a possible suspect, although The Times evidently didn’t publish the picture.
Details about the kidnapping have become murky over the years. The Times’ original story said that a witness reported seeing three men throw a man into the back of a Cadillac–license HOWIE5–in the 5300 block of Lindley Avenue in Encino, where Steindler lived. A story the next day repeated the account of the apparent kidnapping and said Steindler was grabbed “just after he parked his car” outside his home.
A 10th anniversary story by Jack Hawn says a witness saw Steindler arguing with two men rather than three, as originally reported, “just off the freeway, a block from the victim’s Encino residence.” [According to the LAPD, the argument occurred at Killion Street and Lindley, and the kidnappers were two African American men].
Hawn reported for the first time that there was minor damage to the back of the car–cut rubber on the bumper and a dent–that led police to suspect Steindler had been the victim of a “bump and rob,” a style of holdup after a minor traffic accident that was common at the time.
It’s also unclear precisely where the Cadillac was found. The original story said the car was parked near Laurel Canyon Boulevard while a 1978 story by Steve Harvey said the car was near the Laurel Canyon Boulevard off-ramp and the 22nd anniversary story says it was near the on-ramp.
In December 1977, Steindler’s widow, Ann, received an envelope containing his wallet, personal papers, credit cards and car key. Det. Engquist said he suspected that the wallet was dropped into a mailbox and ended up at the Post Office’s Terminal Annex, which forwarded it to the Steindler home. Although police hoped the items might provide new clues in the case, nothing came of it.
Two years later, in a sensational killing, the body of sports promoter Victor J. “Vic” Weiss was found in the trunk of his Rolls-Royce at the Sheraton Universal Hotel about 3 1/2 miles from where Steindler’s Cadillac was parked. Sources said he had been bound and shot in the back of the head.
Homicide Det. Ron Lewis said there were certain similarities between the Weiss killing and the Steindler case, although Det. Engquist said in 1987 that he doubted there was any connection. “There were not many parallels except that both were found in vehicles,” he said.
Engquist retired in 1991 and the case was given to Det. Mike Mejia, who said he suspected Steindler’s killers may have been responsible for the murders of Charles Eugene Smith, who was found shot to death on the Hollywood Freeway on Nov. 26, 1976, the apparent victim of a “bump and rob” holdup; and James “Rusty” Arakawa, who was found, robbed and shot, near the Main Street Gym on Dec. 15, 1976.
[Police arrested Alex Verdell and Steven King on charges of killing Smith and alleged that they followed him from a bar. Verdell and King were set for a preliminary hearing but The Times never reported any outcome. The Times reported that a Caltrans crew found Smith’s body in the ivy by the freeway, but the Steindler story says Smith was in his car.]
In the years that followed, Carol Steindler ran the gym until it was demolished in 1984. She told The Times in 1999: “My father was always there for me in every way–mentally, physically and monetarily, every way you can think. I was so devastated. I just felt so empty. He was such a big part of my life and my son’s life.”
Steindler was given a memorial service at Hollywood Cemetery Chapel attended by about 1,000 people, including many famous names from the world of boxing. Rabbi David Leib told the crowd: “He gave the world not just one champion; he gave it two. He, himself, was a champion.”
Last week, the Los Angeles City Council offered a $50,000 reward for leads in Steindler’s killing. Anyone with information is asked to call (877) 529-3855.
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