Heroes just happen; they are not born or made. Prolonged study of Cleveland murders and disasters has convinced me of at least that: there is simply no knowing who will become a hero. A building catches on fire. One man, to the horror of his friends and even himself, stomps over his own grandmother in his panic to flee; another risks his own life to save others, almost as if he had been rehearsing for such an act all of his life. There’s no predicting it: all you can be sure of is that heroes and heroines will arrive in the most improbable places, at the most unlikely times, and with the most unpredictable personalities. Consider, for example, the case of Tina LaMont.
We don’t know much about Tina LaMont. Yes, she was a dancer, and she danced at the kind of establishment that “decent” middle-class folk of the 1950s didn’t have much respect for. We know she was 32 years old, probably a little old for her line of work, and divorced. (That, too, meant something in the 1950s that it doesn’t mean now.) We know that her real name was Mrs. Dorothy Kochs, she lived at 1644 Ansel Road—not exactly a fancy address, then or now—and that she had a little girl, Jody, three years old. We also know she did a very brave thing for which she paid a terrible price.
About Richard Peter Storino, the villain of this story, we know much more. Twenty-nine years old in 1956, he had a shabby resume befitting the nasty little punk he was. He was born in 1927 in Watertown, New York. He and his two sisters had lost their father when he was five and their mother when he was 11. Richard started filling police blotters and reform school registers when he was 10, mostly on charges of auto theft and larceny, and offenses linked to or aggravated by his precocious and prodigious drinking problem. After stints in various reformatories and prisons, in 1951 he went to Elyria, where a relative lived. He worked there for almost five years as a machinist before coming to Cleveland on August 5, 1955. Living at the Hawley House Hotel at West 3rd and St. Clair Avenue, he worked for several months as a night manager at the Kamm’s Corner Royal Castle Restaurant, quitting just before Christmas. He then took a job at J. &J. Wholesale Jewelers in the Scofield Building.
Ignorant of his past, the manager at the Hawley House thought that the small-statured, quiet Richard was a desirable tenant. His older sister Shirley, who tried to look out for him, hoped that Richard might finally be reforming his wayward life. Indeed, in the second week of January 1956, she said to him, “Aren’t you glad that you’ve straightened out?” “Yes,” he replied, “but it cost me a lot to change.” Richard Storino had not straightened out, nor had he changed. At about 8:30 on the evening of January 18, 1956, Richard walked into the Scott Drug Store at 2030 West 25th Street. Showing his .38-caliber gun to the cashier there, he departed with $26. A little over four hours later, at about 1 a.m., he entered the Tastyburger Shop at 1806 East 9th Street. Pulling out his revolver again, Richard demanded money from night manager Lester Babington and left with $30.
Some thugs would have quit right there. It was a chilly January night, and Richard had reason to believe that the cops might be looking for whoever had pulled two heists that night. But he only had $56 to show for two armed robberies, so it must have seemed perfectly logical that he pull one more job before calling it a night.
Richard sidled into the Gay 90s bar at 1:45 a.m., just before closing time. Sitting quietly on a barstool, he nursed his Scotch and soda as he waited for most of the customers and staff to leave. Gradually they trickled out, and by 2:30 a.m. Richard was satisfied with the crowd. The only ones left besides him were co-owners Aaron “Goldie” Goldstein and Hy Wolfson, porter Benjamin Jones, and dancer Tina LaMont. Goldstein was sitting at the bar, while Wolfson counted up the day’s receipts. Tina was downstairs changing out of her work clothes, and Jones was standing near the door.
Goldstein hardly noticed as Storino slipped off his barstool and walked beside him. He didn’t even hear Storino the first time he said, “Look at this.” But he did hear him when he said, “You’d better look at this,” and he definitely saw the .38-caliber revolver that Storino suddenly pulled out of a waist holster. Sitting down beside Goldstein, Storino said, “Don’t make a move, this is loaded. If you move I’ll blow your brains out. I want you to stay here until the other man leaves, and then you get me all the money.”
By this time, Wolfson was aware that something was going on. He saw Goldstein stiffen and then he saw the gun. Walking slowly by porter Jones, he whispered, “Get the police. That guy’s got a gun on Goldie.” Jones noiselessly slipped out the front door, just about the time Tina LaMont reappeared in the bar and sat down on a stool. Goldstein called to her to go home, but Storino said, “Never mind that. Tell her to come over here.” She walked around the bar and sat beside him.
Meanwhile, Jones had run down to East 9th Street and Walnut Avenue, where he flagged down a police car with Lieutenant Norman Bayless, 43, and Sergeant Melvin Stahley, 47, sitting in it. Bayless was no stranger to such situations. The previous May he had killed a robber attempting to hold up the Mechalovitz Co., a tobacco wholesaling firm at 640 Broadway. He had just recovered from wounds suffered in that shootout, and both he and Stahley knew what to expect as they entered the Gay Nineties front door with their guns drawn.
It happened so fast. Storino, Goldstein, and Tina were right in front of the police officers, sitting sideways at the bar as they came in. As the officers approached the group, 12 feet away, Goldstein shouted, “He’s got a gun!” Spinning sideways, Storino fired at the officers. That is, he tried to fire—because Tina LaMont grabbed at his hand and gun as he brought them up. The gun fired—but the bullet was deflected into the ceiling 10 feet above. And Storino didn’t get another chance. Before he could get control of his gun, Stahley fired three times and Bayless twice. Four of the slugs hit Storino in his neck, chest, abdomen, and right thigh, killing him almost instantly. The fifth drilled Tina LaMont, burrowing into her back and lodging next to her spine. In the struggle to prevent Storino from shooting, she had been pulled right into the line of fire.
Even as Storino crumpled to the floor, Stahley grabbed the fallen dancer, saying, “Are you hurt?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Tina said. “But my legs, I can’t move my legs!” Stahley called an ambulance and did his best to comfort her until it arrived. In critical condition, Tina was rushed to St. Vincent Charity Hospital, where doctors labored feverishly through that night to save her life. Thanks to their skill and multiple blood transfusions they were able to so. But her condition was still so precarious that they could not operate to remove the police bullet next to her spine.
In the meantime, Clevelanders awoke on January 19 to find that they had a new and unexpected heroine in their midst. Clevelanders have never responded as warmly to a noble soul as they did to Tina LaMont. How was it, they asked themselves, that this humble little lady (really a stripper, for God’s sake!) had possessed the courage to risk her life for two policemen that she didn’t even know? Bayless and Stahley initiated the paeans, telling reporters over and over how they owed their lives to Tina LaMont. Stahley rhapsodized:
I’m satisfied that girl saved our lives. We’re both very thankful to her. Storino’s mind was ready [to shoot] and his reflexes were ready. He probably would have fired all five shots before we were ready if it hadn’t been for that girl.
Bayless added, “The girl was quite courageous. I think she deserves all the credit in the world. How many other people would do something like that?”
The outpouring of public admiration was intensified by Tina’s modest and unpretentious explanation of her heroism. When asked what she had been thinking when she saw the policemen come through the door, she simply said:
I saw they were dead pigeons. They were just drawing their guns, and Storino wheeled and aimed his gun and I threw myself at him to save the police. . . . I guess I knew instinctively that whoever came in that door would be shot.
The showering accolades were nice, but Tina LaMont soon learned the real price she had paid for her instant of sublime courage. The day after she was shot, she told reporters from her hospital bed that her doctors said she wouldn’t be able to dance for a year. It was clear then that her legs were at least temporarily paralyzed, but an operation on February 2 disclosed the harsh truth everyone had tried to avoid facing: Tina LaMont would probably never walk or dance again. She took her fate with characteristic aplomb:
I’ve got plenty of spirit. People have been and are being wonderful to me. Things will work out all right, even though it will take time. . . . I’ve never done much but dance, but I hope I can buy a rooming house to support myself and my little girl.
Tina was right about people being wonderful. Her plight brought out the best in thousands of Clevelanders, beginning with the ranks of the Cleveland police force. In what was accurately described by the Cleveland Press as a “history-making act,” Cleveland police chief Frank Story proposed on the day after her shooting that a fund for Tina be raised by policemen and the general public. The response was immediate and generous. Thousands of dollars for Tina were raised over the next few weeks, and thousands more by other public and private groups.
Downtown restaurant proprietor Charles Rohr and Theatrical Grill owner “Mushy” Wexler solicited contributions from the owners of downtown restaurants, including the Tavern Chop House, Hickory Grill, Kornman’s Restaurant, and Joyce’s Cafe. The Grotto Circus gave a benefit performance for Tina on February 23, the opening parade of which was led by her three-year-old daughter, Jody. Such fundraising efforts for Tina climaxed on April 5 with the presentation of the “Tina LaMont Benefit Show” at Public Hall. Hosted by popular disk jockeys Bill Gordon, Bill Randle, Bob Forster, Wes Hopkins, Hal Morgan, and Norman Wayne, the show featured Morey Amsterdam, Joe E. Lewis, Harry Belafonte, comedians Smith and Dale, tap dancer Tito Cavalero, and many other singers, dancers, comedians, and performers. The benefit show raised $20,000 for Tina, an amount supplemented by a three-year grant of $50 a week from the American Guild of Variety Artists. Six months later, Tina received national recognition of her heroism when she won a Carnegie Hero Award. Presented to her on October 27, 1956, the medal came with a $50-a-month stipend paid through 1965.
The rest of the Tina LaMont story followed the tone set from the outset by this plucky woman. She finally got out of Charity Hospital on March 10, after almost two months there, and tried to resume her interrupted life. Defying medical expectations, she soon learned to walk without braces, eventually graduating to the use of canes and walkers. Carefully managing the money raised for her, she bought that rooming house she wanted, a house for students in University Circle, and eventually purchased a home for herself and Jody on Carlyon Road in East Cleveland. There, she was able to do her own cooking and most of her housekeeping. In 1968, she moved to Conneaut, eventually living in a trailer next door to her daughter Jody’s family, which included two grandchildren. Tina died in 1981 at Richmond Heights hospital, while undergoing surgery for intestinal problems.
When last heard from publicly in 1966, she was still the same plucky Tina who had put her life on the line for two strangers without hesitating for a moment:
And even now—even with what the incident has done to my life—I would do the same thing again. I have no regrets, no bitterness. I feel a great peace. For me, every day is Christmas.
It was still the same credo of optimism that she had expressed seven years earlier:
You know, I’m beginning to think I was lucky. I could have stepped off the curb and got hit by a car, you know, and none of these nice things ever would have happened.
As for Richard Storino, well, he left behind two quite suitable epitaphs. One came from his sister Shirley, whose reaction to his death was a heartfelt “He’s caused my sister and I nothing but trouble.” The other was pronounced by assistant Cleveland police prosecutor Richard Matia, who ruled Richard’s killing “justifiable homicide” practically before they took his cold, dead corpse out of the Gay Nineties.^ top
Excerpted from the book Death Ride at Euclid Beach, copyright © John Stark Bellamy II. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by John Stark Bellamy II
More true tales of woe from Cleveland’s crime and disaster expert. The fifth book in John Stark Bellamy’s popular series delivers 26 accounts of Cleveland-area crimes and disasters from 1900 through 1950, including:
• The depression-era “Blue Book Murder . . . [ Read More ]
John Stark Bellamy II is the author of six books and two anthologies about Cleveland crime and disaster. The former history specialist for the Cuyahoga County Public Library, he comes by his taste for . . . [ Read More ]YouTube Channel