Antonio Pingitore was walking his beat in Kenosha after midnight when he saw a light flashing on the police box on the corner of Sheridan Road and what is now 60th Street.
It was March 30, 1919, and Pingitore, an Italian immigrant who joined the force five years earlier, had been called in to work to cover for another officer who was sick.
In those pre-police radio days, officers were alerted to calls by flashing lights on police boxes installed on poles around the city. Pingitore used the phone in the box to call the station.
On the other end of the line, according to Kenosha News stories of the time, a police captain was giving the alert of a dramatic robbery. Three masked men had broken into an office at the American Brass Co. and used dynamite to blow open the company safe.
The men took $50,000 in cash and $33,000 in Liberty Bonds and fled.
But there was a poor connection on the line to the police box, and Pingitore could not understand what the captain was saying. He decided to walk to a gas station on Sheridan two blocks north of the police box.
Unknown to 34-year-old Pingitore, the three men who robbed American Brass had hailed a cab and, when it stopped to pick them up, had pulled a gun on the driver and ordered him to take them to Chicago.
But the cabbie told the men he did not have enough gas to make the trip. The robbers ordered him to go to the closest gas station — the same station where Pingitore had just gone to use the phone.
“As Tony looked up from the phone, he saw taxi driver Gunnard Hansen walking through the door to the garage office,” Kenosha News reporter Don Jensen wrote in a 1981 series of stories about the city’s “Crime of the Century.” “There was a strange look, fear maybe, on the cabbie’s face. He made a weak gesture with his hands.”
Pingitore saw two men walk into the station behind the taxi driver. The police officer reached for his revolver, according to Jensen’s report. But one of the robbers already had his gun out and pressed into the cab driver’s back.
“The gunman lifted his pistol quickly, aiming it over Hansen’s shoulder. He fired. The bullet struck Pingitore in the neck.”
The 34-year-old officer died. The robbers fled, leading to a nationwide manhunt and the killer’s eventual capture.
At the annual Kenosha Law Enforcement Memorial Service today, Pingitore will be one of eight Kenosha County law enforcement officers honored.
The ceremony honors local officers who died while on duty, along with officers who died on duty nationwide.
The city is marking the 100th anniversary of Pingitore’s death by giving Second Avenue from 54th to 56th streets — the street adjacent to the city’s Public Safety Monument — the subname Antonio Pingitore Way.
One of Pingitore’s grandsons will speak at the ceremony.
“We are all very thankful as the remaining Pingitore clan around here that his death is being recognized,” said Peter Pingitore, another grandson.
Peter said the family remained in Kenosha, with generations staying in the same 54th Street home where Pingitore lived with his wife Concetta and their eight children.
Peter said his grandmother had a photo of her husband on the wall, but the family rarely spoke about his death. He said he never really learned the details until he was an adult working in the Kenosha Unified School District.
The superintendent at the time, a history buff, handed him a folder filled with Kenosha News stories from the time about the crime and subsequent search for the killers.
According to the family, Pingitore came to the United States from Calabria, Italy, in 1899. He worked in coal mines in Johnstown, Pa., before coming to Kenosha.
At first in Wisconsin he worked as a plumber. He joined the police force in 1914 when the department was seeking officers who were fluent in both English and Italian because of the growing Italian immigrant population here, according to the family.
The annual Kenosha Law Enforcement Memorial Ceremony, open to the public, begins at noon at the Kenosha Public Safety Monument in the 5500 block of Second Avenue, north of the Kenosha Public Museum.