Forgotten Crimes: Canadian bandits murder jeweler in 'brutal' Main St. holdup - The Buffalo News

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Forgotten Crimes: Canadian bandits murder jeweler in 'brutal' Main St. holdup

It was around 10:20 a.m. on the unseasonably temperate morning of Dec. 9, 1952, and Buffalo’s Main Street was bustling with activity: Christmas shoppers hurried past elaborately decorated store windows, while men and women weaved their way through the crowded sidewalks en route to work.

In a city boasting a population nearly double what it is today, nobody noticed as three inconspicuous young men made their way through the horde, intent on visiting one store in particular: Hurd’s Jewelers & Silversmiths at 691 Main St.

Within 10 minutes, the three men – all Canadian citizens hailing from Ontario – succeeded in robbing the store of nearly $40,000 worth of jewels, leaving in their wake a mortally wounded store owner and four tied-up and injured employees.

The crime – for which two of the perpetrators were sent to Sing Sing’s electric chair – was one of the most sensational border-crossing heists in Buffalo’s history.

Photo of the exterior of Hurd’s Jewelers & Silversmiths at 691 Main St., taken on Dec. 9, 1952. (News file photo)

Five employees were alone inside Hurd’s when the first of the three bandits entered the store. The blond bandit casually asked 31-year-old bookkeeper Salvatore Cassata to show him the store’s collection of onyx rings. As Cassata accompanied the apparent customer to the rear of the store, a second man entered and asked for assistance. Doris Hurd – who owned the store with her husband, Donald – tended to him.

Moments later, a third man entered. Not bothering to feign interest in the store’s merchandise, he simply signaled to his two comrades. All three men suddenly brandished handguns at the four employees in the main showroom.

As Salvatore Cassata recalled to The Buffalo Evening News later that day, the first bandit “rammed” his gun into Cassata's back, ordering him to go into a nearby office. Seated at his desk inside the office, talking on the telephone, was Donald Hurd.

Unaware of the commotion occurring outside his office, due to his poor hearing, “Mr. Hurd stood up with shocked surprise” when the gunman entered. “Holding the receiver in one hand [he] barely said ‘what the ----,’ when the gunman sneered and without comment shot Mr. Hurd,” Cassata told The News.

Donald Hurd. (News file photo)

“It was horrible. The one man, the blond, appeared to be crazy. He shot Mr. Hurd. He never gave him a chance.”

As Donald Hurd bled to death on his office floor, the blond gunman led Cassata into Doris Hurd’s neighboring office, where he bound the bookkeeper with tape.

As he lay bound on the office floor, Cassata could hear Doris Hurd’s pleading cries from the showroom, as she begged the robbers to stop pistol-whipping the store’s other two employees: 53-year-old watchmaker Fred T. Bartch and 43-year-old Frederick A. Volker.

The bandits beat both Bartch and Volker into unconsciousness with the butts of their guns, then bound and gagged them – along with a traumatized Doris Hurd – in the back room of the store. The blond bandit then “scooped the unset gems from a window display and the rings from trays on the shelf ... and tossed them into a leather portfolio,” The News reported that night. He also stole Doris Hurd’s engagement ring, which she’d taken off only minutes before the bandits entered the showroom.

Doris Hurd and bookkeeper Salvatore Cassata, photographed at the arraignment of Maurice O'Dell and Walter Griffen. (News file photo)

The three robbers walked casually back outside and rejoined the unsuspecting Christmas crowd on Main Street, toting with them nearly $40,000 in loot.

Back inside the store, it didn’t take long for Doris Hurd and Salvatore Cassata to wriggle free from their bindings and run for help at the adjacent Trend Furniture Co.

Buffalo Police had the area surrounded within minutes. They searched office buildings, department stores and the nearby Paramount Theater for anyone matching the robbers’ descriptions, but they came up empty-handed.

•••

Investigators didn't have to wait long for a lead. According to News reports from Dec. 11, 1952, Buffalo Police received a tip the next morning from 20-year-old Dorthy Wachowiak. Wachowiak was a waitress at the dining counter of the Holzman Drug Store at the corner of Delaware and Chippewa, where you'll find Spot Coffee today.

Wachowiak said she had served coffee to the three thieves on the morning of the holdup. She told investigators that she had briefly dated one of the three men: 26-year-old Walter “Grif” Griffen of Hamilton, Ont.

Wachowiak also divulged that Griffen was “part of a gang of five or six fellows in business together,” working out of an apartment on Delaware Avenue. Two of those “fellows” were 27-year-old Maurice “Digger” O’Dell and 28-year-old Frank Grubisich: Griffen’s accomplices in the holdup, both of whom joined him for coffee at the drugstore on the morning of the crime.

When presented with photos of the suspects, the victims of the holdup identified the three men as their attackers.

Police mugshot of Maurice "Digger" O'Dell: the "crazy" blond bandit who murdered Donald Hurd on the morning of Dec. 9, 1952. (News file photo)

Within 24 hours of learning the thieves’ identities, Hamilton police arrested both Griffen and O’Dell at their Ontario homes. Both were charged with first-degree murder and first-degree robbery. When police arrived at the residence of O’Dell, the blond gunman, his girlfriend was sporting Mrs. Hurd’s stolen diamond engagement ring, The News reported on April 16, 1953. The third robber, Frank Grubisich, was nowhere to be found.

Police also managed to quickly locate two of the three guns used in the holdup – as well as much of the loot – thanks to a tip from Thomas J. Williams, a dubious associate of Griffen and his gang. Williams, who lived in Buffalo, told police that on the night before the holdup, Grubisich had asked him to “hold something” for him the following day, until he could return from Canada to retrieve the haul.

When O’Dell dropped much of the loot and two of the weapons off to Williams minutes after the holdup, he warned him: “Keep this. Don’t cross me or I’ll knock on your door and put a shot through your daughter’s head,” The News reported on Jan. 16, 1953.

Diver John F. Finnegan holds up the .38 caliber revolver used in the Hurd store holdup, recovered from the Buffalo River. (News file photo)

Panicked by O’Dell’s threat, Williams threw one of the guns into the Buffalo River near the Michigan Street Bridge. He then surrendered the other gun to police, along with the stolen jewelry, and told them his side of the story. Divers soon after recovered the .38 caliber revolver Williams had discarded in the river.

•••

Despite the many obstacles involved in extraditing two foreign murder suspects, authorities managed to have both Griffen and O’Dell brought to Buffalo to stand trial in the spring of 1953.

According to a News report from Jan. 8, 1954, defense lawyers for O’Dell and Griffen attempted to frame Thomas Williams as the mastermind of their crime – an accusation they were unable to support with hard evidence.

Fearing the death penalty, Griffen eventually turned on O’Dell in court by admitting to his own part in the robbery, but he maintained that O’Dell had committed the shooting alone. That allegation was supported by witness testimony from Doris Hurd and her battered employees.

Despite Griffen’s late courtroom cooperation, both he and O’Dell were found guilty of all charges on April 17, 1953. Two weeks later, they were sentenced to death by electrocution.

Walter Griffen is fingerprinted by Buffalo Police on Feb. 10, 1953. (News file photo)

The pair nearly succeeded to an attempt to appeal their case the following fall, based on outdated technicalities barring the United States from executing an extradited Canadian citizen. Those efforts ultimately failed.

On Jan. 8, 1954, both Griffen and O’Dell were executed minutes apart from one another in Sing Sing’s electric chair, paying “their share of the debt for the holdup murder of Donald F. Hurd,” The News noted that day.

According to all available sources, the whereabouts of the third bandit, Grubisich, are still unknown. According to a News report from Aug. 29, 1976, the last apparent sighting of Grubisich occurred in London’s Trafalgar Square in the late 1960s.

Rumored to have escaped to Europe from his native Canada, Grubisich would now be about 93 years old, if he is still alive.

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