When Carl Rettich moved to a seaside mansion on Warwick Neck in Warwick, R.I., people thought he was a genteel lawyer named Charles Ryerson who moved to the neighborhood to take care of his elderly father.
He actually belonged to the mob and had links to Al Capone.
The New Jersey-born Rettich got involved with New York’s criminal underworld at the age of 17. He overheard a plot to kill a wholesale poultry dealer, but kept his lips sealed about the murder. That got him started in the mob-controlled live poultry business. He soon moved on to bootlegging.
Suspected of a 1924 murder in New York, Carl Rettich moved to Rhode Island to run New England’s biggest crime ring during Prohibition.
When the truth about ‘Charles Ryerson’ emerged, so many people flocked to ogle his crime castle that an ice cream vendor showed up to sell his wares.
When Prohibition took effect, speakeasies sprang up all over Rhode Island (and elsewhere). Illegal hooch flowed freely in Kent County: in West Warwick, Old Warwick, Warwick Neck, Arctic, Apponaug and East Greenwich.
Smugglers operated with impunity along Rhode Island’s rugged shoreline, where quiet inlets and coves disguised their activities.
Danny Walsh, a prominent Rhode Island horse breeder, controlled the liquor smuggled into Rhode Island. Carl Rettich joined Walsh and began expanding operations. He bought the 20-room mansion overlooking a cove. The press later nicknamed it the ‘crime castle’ and ‘murder mansion.’
He lived large on Warwick Point. People said Rettich threw parties for politicians and ‘high-hat’ friends, during which he showed off his machine gun by firing it on the front lawn. The estate was so isolated the neighbors didn’t complain.
Carl Rettich also had a fleet of speedboats tricked out for smugglers’ every need. They each had three Liberty airplane engines and were plated with armor and layers of New York telephone directories. They would speed out to the 12-mile limit, where they unloaded bootleg liquor from seagoing vessels. Then the rumrunners brought their contraband to a stone dock leading to Rettich’s crime castle. They stored the booze in a secret underground vault before distributing it.
Then Danny Walsh and Carl Rettich had a falling out. Walsh disappeared in February 1933 a day after they argued in public. Rettich was suspected of accepting a ransom of $40,000 for Walsh and then doublecrossing Walsh’s family.
The Associated Press ran a story on June 3, 1935, speculating that Walsh ‘was stood in a tub of cement until it hardened about his feet, and then thrown alive into the sea.’ The AP reported it was just a ‘grisly underworld tale,’ and no witnesses had been found.
Police kept looking. An informant tipped them off to Rettich’s criminal activities. He told them Rettich’s crime castle contained a secret vault and an underground tunnel.
In April 1935, police acted on a tip. On the banks of Lake Pearl in Wrentham, Mass., they found the body of Andino Merola slumped over a Chevrolet with a .38 bullet in his head. Merola was a small-time associate of Carl Rettich, and police believed he was involved in the murder.
In July, police got a warrant to search the crime castle. They combed the property, but found no tunnel, no vault. The basement was spotless, with four whitewashed brick posts.
A Few Beer Cans
One detective thought the basement looked too clean. He looked carefully and found a large screw in one of the posts. When he turned it, the cement floor rose slowly to the ceiling, revealing steps that led to a concrete room. But they only found a few beer cans in the room.
On the rest of the property, though, police found an arsenal of weapons, a car with bullet holes in it and stolen money.
Police eventually accumulated evidence implicating Rettich in the disappearance of Danny Walsh, a dozen Massachusetts bank robberies and four murders.
As details about the real Carl Rettich emerged, his crime castle took center stage. On May 5, 1935, a crowd of 15,000 people came to rubberneck the 20-room mansion.
Informants told police that Rettich’s gang took Walsh to a dungeon and clubbed him on the head. They put his body in a barrel filled with concrete and dumped it into the ocean.
His girlfriend talked too freely about what happened to Walsh, they said. Rettich’s men took her to the underground vault, killed her and put her feet in a tub of wet cement. Then they dumped her into the ocean. Putting a whole body in wet cement was just too heavy.
No one ever found their bodies. But Carl Rettich spent the rest of his life in prison anyway, convicted on multiple charges for a Fall River mail heist that netted $129,000.
Carl Rettich built his crime empire with help from corrupt public officials. Prosecutors later discovered that Rettich and his gang had paid off Warwick police for three years. An investigation uncovered the bribes, and 11 police officers left the force.
This story was updated in 2020.