Deli Owner Abe Lebewohl’s Grieving Family Wants Help in the Cold Case Murder of the ‘Mayor of 2nd Avenue’
On March 4, 1996, Abe Lebewohl was going to a bank when he was robbed and killed. Nearly 30 years later, his family is still seeking answers.
Abe Lebewohl was the mayor of Second Avenue. It wasn't an official title, but all who knew the owner of one of New York's most famous delis agreed if it had been, there wouldn't have been a contender around who could've ousted Abe from the position.
Known for both his generosity and good food, Abe's 2nd Ave. Deli attracted the rich and the poor, the unknown and the famous. Muhammad Ali, Joe DiMaggio, Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Joan Rivers, Molly Picon and Fyvush Finkel were among his customers, and many today still travel to the eatery for its famous pastrami sandwiches and Matzah Ball Soup. But now those who journey to 2nd Ave. Deli are no longer greeted by Abe, because the man once considered a fixture of the deli and the neighborhood was slain on March 4, 1996.
“He was such a revered person in a neighborhood," fellow local business owner Jason Birchard tells Inside Edition Digital. "Who would think they would do that?"
Abe's killing remains unsolved, but it's the hope of his loved ones that will one day change. And according to one retired detective who investigated his killing, it may have been someone he knew.
How Abe Lebewohl Found the American Dream After His Family Fled Their Home During the Holocaust
Abe Lebewohl was born in Kulykiv, Ukraine in 1931. By the time he was 10, World War II had his family running for their lives. As Jews living in Eastern Europe, Abe and his parents did everything they could to survive. His father was sent to Siberia when the Soviets occupied Western Ukraine, while he and his mother went to Kazakhstan.
The family eventually reunited and they made their way to Italy after spending time in Poland and Austria. During their time in a refugee camp in Italy, Abe's little brother, Jack, was born.
In 1950, as Abe was turning 19, the family of four emigrated to the New York and settled in Brooklyn's Jewish enclave of Williamsburg.
“My brother said to my father and mother, ‘How can I go to school? There's a young baby. We have to provide food for him. I'm going to work.’ And my mother and father told him, ‘Don't. We will provide for him,’” Jack tells Inside Edition Digital. “My brother went to work, and every week he brought home. I don't know how much money it was, how much he made but he gave my parents most of the salary that he made.”
Abe worked in a deli in Coney Island, on the other end of Brooklyn. The commute was long, but he enjoyed his work.
In 1954, Abe, along with two other partners, opened the 2nd Ave Deli on East 10th Street and Second Avenue in the heart of the Ukrainian community and Yiddish theater district.
After a few years in business together, Abe bought out his partners and he became the deli’s sole proprietor. The deli wasn’t just going to be his place of business or his piece of the America pie, but his way to give back.
“He wanted desperately to make something of himself,” his daughter, Sharon Lebewohl, tells Inside Edition Digital. “He wanted to take care of his children and his brother and his nephews. He felt like he owed something to New York City. He felt like he needed to pay back for what the city did for him.”
Abe would eventually relocate from Williamsburg to the Lower East Side, not far from where the deli was located. After a lifetime of moving around, he was finally home. But never once did he rest laurels.
“You have a certain feeling of pride that you're not just a simple store, that you're more than just a neighborhood business. But on the other hand, we know we have an awesome responsibility, because if you look around the place, we have employees," Jack Lebewohl says. "We provide livelihoods for numerous people. If you look around, you see our customers. We provide not just food for these customers, but they get a certain spiritual enrichment by eating in the restaurant.
"Everything basically was just to make a living, and provide food for your family and put it on the table. That was the basic need at the beginning," he continues. “Later on, different ideas, things took shape, when it became more than just a deli and a business, and there were more important things than money."
In 1958, Abe married the love of his life, Eleanor. The couple would go on to have two daughters: Sharon and Felicia.
In just under a decade in America, Abe learned English, how to work in a deli, how to operate a business and then how to open his own shop, all while starting his own family. Abe's gregarious and altruistic nature didn’t just extend to his family but to every person who came into the 2nd Ave. Deli.
Anytime a homeless person on the street was hungry, Abe made sure they ate, Jack says. In the winter, if a homeless person needed a warm place, Jack would let them spend time in the catering van to get out of the cold, get some rest and warmth.
“That shows you my brother’s character,” Jack says.
Like many children whose parents are restaurateurs, Sharon grew up in the deli. There, she'd people watch, have a bite after school as she did homework, and most importantly, got to spend quality time with her very busy dad.
“I kind of resented that I had to share him with everybody. I felt like I was sharing him with the world,” she says. “But considering he worked seven days a week, sometimes 10, 12, 14 hours a day, he never missed a birthday party, he never missed a school play.”
Sharon learned how to operate a business by watching her dad, but more importantly, she also learned how to treat people.
“After school, my sister and I would go to the deli, we'd sit there and do homework, and I was amazed at the people who came in,” Sharon says. “And I knew in terms of my father, he'd walk down the street and everybody knew him and he knew everybody. That's exactly what I felt like. It amazed me how it wasn't just Jews eating this food. Everybody was there, everybody loved it.”
Once, a new hire to the deli needed money so he and his wife could afford to adopt their child. Without hesitation, her dad gave his employee the money and never asked for a penny back, Sharon says.
“The guy said to my father, ‘I don't think I'll ever be able to give you this money back,’ and he said, ‘You'll give it back to me by being a good father,’” Sharon says.
Tom Birchard, who has since retired, ran the Ukrainian restaurant Veselka located near the deli, says it was clear that Abe wasn’t the run-of-the-mill business owner.
“My instinct was to kind of view anybody at that level in close proximity to me as a competitor. But Abe was a role model in many ways. And he used to say, he'd say very often, ‘The more successful businesses around me, the better for me. It brings people to the neighborhood. It's good for all of us,’” Tom says.
“It was an interesting perspective, but I think in a way he was right. So he really helped everybody around him succeed, which was incredibly generous; he had real generosity of spirit,” he says.
Before serving Ukrainian food and becoming the thriving business it is today, Veselka was more of a candy store, newsstand, soda fountain, coffee place. It was Abe’s mentorship and guidance that helped Tom succeed.
“I would say his most distinguishing characteristic was he was just incredibly generous. He was always generous with his time and his advice with me,” Tom says. “When Veselka struggled in the early days, and 2nd Ave. Deli was better known, was more well known, more established. And it really took us a while to reach that level, or to establish our reputation."
Abe “was definitely part of the fabric here of the East Village. This was back in its heyday, much larger Jewish, Ukrainian, Irish community here in the East Village," Tom’s son, Jason Birchard, the current owner and third generation proprietor of Veselka, tells Inside Edition Digital.
“People came from all over the city to have food at the deli,” he says.
Abe, in many ways, helped build the neighborhood into what it is today. And so when tragedy befell him, the little world that Abe built came crashing down as well.
Why the Murder of Abe Lebewohl Shocked New Yorkers to Their Core
The neighborhood that Abe lived in and loved saw significant crime in the decades leading up to his murder, retired NYPD Det. James Piccione, who was stationed in the Lower East Side and worked on the investigation into the business owner's killing, tells Inside Edition Digital.
“There was a lot of homicides," he says.
But if there was one thing anyone in the neighborhood could count on, it was Abe's schedule. A man of routine, Abe woke up at 5 a.m. every morning before going to the local fish market, meat market, bakeries and then eventually the bank. Abe did more in a morning before most had their first cup of coffee, and did so in a reliable pattern. Almost like clockwork, he was known to be at specific places at a certain time each day, his family says.
On the morning of Monday, March 4, 1996, just before 9 a.m., Abe drove his 2nd Ave. Deli van to NatWest Bank, located six blocks from the deli.
Abe “would make his bank drops by himself. And his family and his friends would say, ‘Abe, why are you doing that? Why are you putting yourself at risk?’ And Abe would say, ‘Now it's no big deal. If they wanted the money, I'll give them the money.’ But on this particular morning, it didn't happen that way," Piccione says.
Police say Abe was sitting in his van before entering the bank when he was accosted. "Somebody got into the van and pulled him to the back of the van where he was shot three times,” Piccione says.
Abe was shot in the left flank, the left buttock and the left ear. The $12,000 that he was going to deposit was taken, as well as Abe's wallet. Abe managed to get out of the van before collapsing. He was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 9:40 a.m.
“I never could figure out why they shot him because I know he wasn't going to resist. I think they were just angry that there wasn't enough money,” Jack says.
Abe's family was devastated.
“I could imagine the heart attack. I could imagine any number of things, but not a robbery, not the way it happened," Jack says.
Sharon always believed her dad was “invincible,” so it was inconceivable that he would be murdered.
That morning, Sharon had the phone off the hook because she was lecturing one of her children and didn’t want to be interrupted. But the TV was on in another room, and she heard the news that a deli owner had been shot.
“I heard that a famous deli owner was murdered. I couldn't process it. It didn't even occur to me that it was my father,” she says.
Once she put the phone back on the hook, it began to ring and seemed to never stop. Confused by the many people hoping to hear how her father was, Sharon called the deli. The person who answered was crying and told her to call her uncle, Jack.
“I called Bellevue because then I started sensing that something was wrong, and Jack said to me, ‘You need to come to the hospital, but take your time.’ So I knew he was dead, but just the outpouring of love just blew my mind,” she says.
Once Sharon found out her father died, she had to get to her other children that were in school. At the same time, word of Abe's death spread across the city.
While Sharon still finds it cathartic to speak about her dad and is still trying to heal from what occurred in 1996. Her mother “was never the same again” after her father died, she says.
Jack takes comfort in knowing his and Abe's parents died before Abe. “That was the only good thing, I thought about my parents, that I said, ‘Thank God they're not here to see it.’ Because they couldn't have handled it,” he says.
Tom Birchard was sitting in his office at his restaurant when someone came in to tell him Abe was shot. The news shocked him.
“We'd see [Abe] very often going to the bank carrying,” Tom says. “He was very open about when he went to the bank and he was carrying the money in a canvas bag. And everybody knew it. It was kind of risky.”
Abe’s death was an eye opener for many business owners in the neighborhood, including the Birchards. "It was kind of a wake-up call that it's still a potentially dangerous place and you need to be careful,” Tom says.
Jason Birchard worried that what happened to Abe could have happened to his own dad. The Veselka team implemented new rules for going to the bank, including not taking the same route twice, and making sure to go at different times of the day and days during the week.
And at the same time, the community paid tribute to one of the best and brightest, and it was a sight to behold. Some mourners who arrived at the local synagogue for Abe’s funeral were turned away because of the turnout.
“His funeral was one of the most memorable, impactful funerals I've ever been to,” Tom says. “It was literally a turn-away crowd. There were several hundred people who couldn't get in, who stood outside and tried to listen through the doorway.”
Jack appreciated the outpouring of love and support. "You wish it wasn’t necessary,” he says, calling his brother’s killing the “worst experience” of his life.
Soon after Abe’s death, the family learned that Abe had been held up several times at knifepoint while on his way to make deposits at the bank. Before Abe's death, Jack tried to convince his older brother to hire a service to make the deposits and not take any chances. Abe, a consummate man of the people, refused.
“Abe says, ‘I enjoy going to the bank. I enjoy seeing the people. I enjoy talking to the people. I enjoy walking on the street, talking to the people as I'm walking,’” Jack says. “He says, ‘it gives me a certain pleasure. What do I have to worry about? I'm not going to fight anyone. I'm just going to surrender the money.’ That was his attitude.”
No arrests were ever made in connection to the robberies of Abe prior to his death, but authorities do not believe they were connected to his killing, Piccione says.
Was a Woman Involved in Abe Lebewohl's Killing? One Detective Thinks He May Know Who Was Part of His Murder
While the Lebewohl clan and the city mourned one of its most beloved sons, the NYPD pounded the pavement to try and crack this case. Thus far, the case remains open.
"Witnesses who describe individuals in the vicinity of the bank prior to the shooting and individuals were either walking or running away from the van," Piccione says.
After Abe was shot, his van was spotted on the corner of First Avenue and West Fourth Street, where a “female was seen getting out of the van and running into a building off the corner of First Avenue. And residents of that building told me that somebody was ringing all the bells, trying to get into the building," Piccione says.
“Then witnesses also said they saw a woman on the roof of the building trying to go to different buildings to get out, to escape. We also know, again, there was somebody seen behind the wheel of the van and then people were seen running away from the van. There was one male or two males seen running away from the van and crossing First Avenue,” he says.
Investigators found three gun shell casings inside Abe’s van that belonged to a .25-caliber Raven pistol. The next day, a gun was recovered by a city bus driver traveling uptown outside Central Park on 95th Street and Fifth Avenue.
“This bus driver was looking out the window and saw what he believed was a gun. And he notified the police, and the police came and they recovered the weapon,” Piccione says. The bullets the weapon used matched the gun used in Abe’s murder, according to the NYPD.
The gun was connected to several other violent crimes that were carried out in the city and in surrounding areas, Piccione says. The gun was used on June 5, 1994, in the robbery of a drug dealer in the Bronx, Piccione says. In that incident, one of the robbers accidentally shot his accomplice with the gun, according to Piccione. In another incident in 1994, a marijuana dealer was robbed and shot with the gun, according to Piccione. On Sept. 5, 1995, two employees of the Sawmill River Parkway Motel in Elmsford were shot with the gun, one fatally, during a robbery, Piccione says.
Abe's wallet was found the day after he was killed. It was recovered from a dump truck on East 30th Street. The money bag he was carrying was recovered on East 25th Street. Police have “an idea who was involved in the Lebewohl homicide, but unfortunately there's not enough now for an arrest, especially after 27 years," Piccione says.
For years, sketches of men believed to have possibly been behind the killing have circulated to the public.
“There was a male, white or Hispanic that was seen sitting in the front seat behind the wheel of Abe's van. There was also witnesses who see a female run out of the van and that there are sources that see somebody also running across First Avenue. So we think that all those three people were involved in Abe's murder,” Piccione says.
Piccione and Abe's family believe a woman who may have known Abe and possibly someone who worked with him could have been involved in the killing. Police have not publicly named any suspect or person of interest in the case.
“I think that they set Mr. Lebewohl up for a robbery. And I do think it's somebody that knew him. It wasn't just a random robbery,” Piccione says.
Even despite advances in DNA technology, there were too many fingerprints inside Abe’s van to lift a clear print. The gun used also didn’t have any fingerprints on it.
“It would be wonderful if there was some DNA found on the gun, found on the shell casings, but I think we're a little more advanced now with DNA than we were back in the day. And I've often had any evidence reexamined in the Second Avenue Deli case just to see if there's something that they couldn't discover back in '96, that they could do now,” Piccione says.
In 2016, an unanimous donor put up $150,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Abe's killer or killers.
“We had witnesses (coming forward) with identifications. The police artists drew sketches. Every sketch that they drew, based on someone's testimony, looked different,” Jack says.
Abe Lebewohl's Legacy Is Carried on by His Family
Abe’s family has continued running his business.
“I remember saying to my wife, ‘How do you walk away from this? We have an obligation. There's a tradition. We just can't close up shop,’” Jack says.
In January 2006, Abe’s original location closed its doors due to a dispute with the building's landlord. The family moved the 2nd Ave. Deli from Downtown to Midtown and a second location uptown on Lexington Avenue. Both locations remain as busy as ever. The delis serve as a shrine to Abe and his larger-than-life legacy. His image adorns the walls, placemats and even their website.
The delis are now in the hands of Jack’s sons, Josh and Jeremy, who continue on the family business. While Abe lives on in his food and his smiling face is seen across every corner of both delis, his loved ones continue to grapple with the loss of his life.
“I know that the detectives feel personally connected to this. I know that even today they're working on it. It's not like a closed case that is in some shoebox stored away. I don't know. But I do know that even if it is solved, it's not going to bring closure,” Sharon says. “Because he's gone. I just think that if he could meet his grandchildren, if he could meet his great-nieces and nephews. He missed out on all that.”
Sharon wants “justice to be done."
“I think about looking the person in the eye... And in my head I've thought, I've imagined this over and over again, of having my children, my grandchildren, Josh and Jeremy, their children sitting there in the courtroom and making this person look at us,” she says.
Following Abe’s unsolved murder, the city named a small park after him in his old Lower East Side neighborhood. It sits across from the original location of the deli.
The NYPD confirmed that the investigation into Abe's murder is ongoing, and there are no updates.
“I am so fond of the Lebewohls. They're such a wonderful family that I can't forget about the case. I confirm my partner in Manhattan DA's office who I worked with in homicide, he's still actively investigating the case and we'll talk about what direction he's going to go in. I would like nothing more than to bring closure to the family,” Piccione said.
Anyone with information on the murder of Abe Lebewohl is asked to call NYPD Crime Stoppers at 1-800-577-TIPS or visit crimestoppers.nypdonline.org.
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