Werner E. Schmiedel, alias Robert Lane, had led a gang of American and Canadian army deserters that terrorized soldiers and citizens from Naples to Rome. Collared after a months-long spree of violence, he faced charges that included carjacking a Polish general’s Cadillac and gunning down an Italian man in a wine shop. But on Christmas Eve, he and other Allied bad guys busted out of a Rome jail and scattered.
The soldier who got the tip on Schmiedel’s whereabouts was Technical Sgt. John LoPinto of Ithaca, N.Y., an agent with the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigations Division in Rome. He took a lead role in planning and carrying out the December 26 raid that bagged Schmiedel without a shot being fired, bringing the swaggering malcontent to justice.Schmiedel’s capture that day had all the drama of a Hollywood gangster showdown. But I didn’t have the details on it and didn’t know about LoPinto’s role when I was working on an article about Schmiedel for The Morning Call a few years ago. (It ran in July 2015. Here’s the link: http://bit.ly/2mYEmws.) Schmiedel was of interest to Lehigh Valley readers because he grew up on a farm near Allentown. To tell his story, I’d spent almost a year-and-a-half gathering material that included his court-martial records and personnel file from the National Archives at St. Louis, and contemporary accounts in the press. Early on, in 2013, I wrote a blog about Schmiedel and updated it after my story appeared in The Morning Call.
Despite my effort to cover all the bases, it turns out I didn’t have all of the official paperwork the case generated. The revelation came last month, when I heard from a man in upstate New York who alerted me to an extraordinary document.
The man is LoPinto’s son Joe LoPinto of Freeville, N.Y., near Ithaca. He posted a note on my blog site saying he could provide more information because his father was a top investigator of the Lane Gang. Joe’s older son, John, found my story on the internet and wondered why his grandfather’s name wasn’t in it.
The name wasn’t familiar to me, but it had been more than a year since I’d looked at the records. Why wasn’t LoPinto in my story? I couldn’t say for sure. It might have been for the same reason I didn’t use the names of, for example, the Army prosecutor and Schmiedel’s lawyer – it wasn’t something I felt readers had to know. But I did remember that the court records don’t give details of Schmiedel’s recapture. There’s only a brief mention of the raid in a Stars and Stripes story about the Lane Gang’s wild doings.
“Lane and his second in command were surrounded in a civilian apartment,” staff writer Dean Boswell wrote in the GI newspaper at the time. “When the two refused to surrender, the CID and [British] SIB agents, accompanied by MPs, crashed the door to an apartment and discovered the two men cowering inside a closet.”
Joe LoPinto told me over the phone that his father and three other Criminal Investigations Division agents wrote the report on the Lane Gang that Army prosecutors used to nail Schmiedel. That document, 70 pages long, is not among the voluminous court-martial records I’d gotten from St. Louis. But LoPinto has it, and he sent it to me on a disc.
He said of his dad, “He was instrumental in the prosecution.”
Some Schmiedel anecdotes the former investigator told his family aren’t part of the CID report, his son said. When Schmiedel was on the loose and knew the military police were hunting him, he baited LoPinto by calling the CID’s Rome headquarters and telling the agent to meet him in various parts of the city and they’d shoot it out.
“Dad would take his police special .38 service revolver and go down there in a jeep and Schmiedel wouldn’t show up.”
After authorities identified Schmiedel’s girlfriend, a prostitute, LoPinto and several partners found her in a dance hall. LoPinto asked her to dance, and as they took a few turns, one of his associates went through her purse. He snatched a photo of Schmiedel, hurried off to CID headquarters and had it copied, and then put it back in her purse within the hour, before she knew it was missing. Copies of the pilfered picture were distributed throughout Rome, Naples and vicinity.
Part of that anecdote is in my story, based on a Stars and Stripes account. But the GI paper doesn’t have the gem about luring the woman onto the dance floor.
Joe LoPinto said the Italian press called his dad a hurricane or tornado because he would storm into whorehouses, where AWOLs and criminals hung out, and everyone there would jump out the windows to get away from him.
John LoPinto’s path to becoming a wartime criminal investigator started in Flushing, N.Y., where the son of immigrants from Sicily grew up. “He was basically a street kid, but he was very bright,” said his son, who is 64 and a builder. “He found the public library because it was a place to get warm, and then he discovered all the books in it.”
He went to City College of New York and Dartmouth, where he was a Golden Gloves boxer, and then to law school at New York University, where he edited the Law Review. After a stint as an attorney in Greenwich Village, he moved to Ithaca in the 1930s. When war broke out, he volunteered as an infantryman and fought in North Africa. But the CID needed people like him. He spoke Italian, was college-educated, had a background in law and was tough and aggressive. He joined the CID on Sicily and moved up to Rome.
“Dad was tenacious, well-educated and was just intent on doing everything properly, doing his job, especially given that he was the son of immigrants. The books he read were Horatio Alger. He was a self-made man.”LoPinto and fellow agents John X. Monahan, Henry L. Manfredi and Eugene F. Land of the 6709th CID Platoon in Rome laid out their case against Schmiedel in Report No. 115, marked “Confidential” and dated February 12, 1945. In a summary, the Report of Investigation of Activities of the Lane Gang says that all of the living military members were in custody by November 3, 1944. That was the day Schmiedel was first arrested in Rome, with Land making the pinch. On November 25, five civilian members were arrested in Naples, followed by three more in mid-January.
The narrative of the Christmas Eve breakout begins on Page 13 with the statement that eight prisoners escaped from the Central MP Jail in Piazza Collegio Romano about 1:40 a.m. Among them were Schmiedel and two other members of the gang – Delmar Joseph McFarlane, a Canadian, and Carl F. Green, an American.
Within hours, MPs nabbed Green and two others on Via Carla Alberto and locked them up. LoPinto got 20 civilian police officers to help MPs surround the buildings where the remaining escapees were believed to be holed up.
“On 26 December 1944,” the report says, “Agent LoPinto received confidential information to the effect that Schmiedel and McFarlane were in hiding in civilian clothes in Apartment No. 4, at No. 13 Via Carla Alberto, Rome.”
LoPinto, Monahan and Manfredi of the CID, and Sgt. Eric Swetnam of the British Special Investigation Branch hatched a plan to seize the two fugitives.
“Accordingly about eight MPs and five Italian police were called to cover the exits of the apartment building. The five civilian police in plain clothes … were placed around the front entrance of the building with orders to let no one leave. Then a confidential contact was made with the apartment in which Schmiedel and McFarlane were hiding. When it was ascertained with certainty that they were still in the apartment, Agents LoPinto, Monahan and Manfredi, Sgt. Swetnam and about three MPs entered the building and proceeded up the stairs one floor to the apartment. Schmiedel and McFarlane were ordered to come out.”
They did not respond, so the agents and Swetnam went into the apartment, followed by some MPs. Confidential sources had revealed that Schmiedel and McFarlane were concealed in a standalone closet, a wardrobe. Again they were ordered to come out and didn’t respond.
“Agent Manfredi and Sgt. Swetnam pushed over the closet. As it was falling over, Schmiedel and McFarlane jumped out of it in the face of drawn guns. They were dressed in civilian clothes and had their hair recently bleached. Bottles of hair bleaching chemicals were found on a stand near the closet, evidencing recent use.”
The two thugs were returned to the Central MP Jail. Within six months, Schmiedel – who ran away from home at 17, joined the Army, and lied and bullied his way from post to post – met his fate. He was court-martialed, convicted and executed for robbery and murder. LoPinto was in the crowd June 11, 1945, at an Army stockade near Aversa, Italy, when the 22-year-old badass died at the end of a rope.
I keep the copies of his records in my attic. The pile of paper in a plastic bin is about 8 inches high. I went through it page by page the other night, looking for LoPinto’s name, and found it typed at the bottom of statements from witnesses he had heard. Elsewhere, his signature is at the end of handwritten statements from Schmiedel and James W. Adams, a crony from Oklahoma. Adams was convicted with his boss in the October 10, 1944, shooting death at the wine shop in Rome, even though it was Schmiedel who pulled the trigger as the pair robbed patrons. Adams got the death sentence as well, but his penalty was changed to life in prison.
The trial transcript shows that the court-martial prosecutor twice called LoPinto to the stand to answer questions about aspects of the investigation and what he knew about the defendants. It was nuts-and-bolts police stuff that didn’t grab my attention when I read his testimony several years ago.LoPinto’s work in Italy earned him a Bronze Star medal for meritorious service. “He spent many sleepless nights and many days of fruitless search and investigation,” the citation reads in part, “but by his perseverance, planning and technical knowledge, he was able to contribute immeasurably to the tracking down and capture of the most dangerous members of these gangs and was instrumental in the recovery of important quantities of Allied military supplies and equipment.”
The Italians showed their appreciation by knighting him with the Order of the Crown of Italy, an honor his son said made him a hero back home in Ithaca.In civilian life, LoPinto was a lawyer handling a wide range of civil and criminal cases for five decades. He died in 1988 at age 80. His wife, Mary, died in 2008. They had two sons, Joe and John, and daughters Rosalia Miller and Cornelia Fiocco.
Lopinto’s legacy of military service to the country was passed on to his son Joe, a Marine Corps veteran, and Joe’s younger son, Scott, who will soon be deployed to the Middle East with the 1st Marines.
Joe said he once asked his father why he never became a district attorney.
“When you’ve hunted a man down and tried him and watched him hang,” said the onetime soldier who fought to put Schmiedel and his henchmen behind bars, “it dissuades you from wanting to pursue that career path.”