Today Marks the 40-Year Anniversary of a Stranger Than Fiction Brooklyn Crime


Immortalized in the film “Dog Day Afternoon,” the story behind the robbery of a Chase bank in Gravesend would be hard to believe if it wasn’t known to be true. And although the motivations for the bank robbery-gone-wrong could be summed up by saying “the things we do for love,” the events of that day would have concrete and lasting results, including the creation of the NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team.

On August 22, 1972, John Wojtowicz, 27, and Salvatore Natuarale, 18, entered a branch of Chase Manhattan Bank on Ave P and E 3rd St in an attempted armed robbery that was motivated by Mr. Wojtowicz’s desire to get $3,000 to pay for his partner’s sex change operation. The two men entered the bank in the quiet Gravesend neighborhood at around 3 pm, just as the bank was getting ready to close, with the intention of taking the money, locking the bank employees inside the vault, and making their escape. The plan went awry when the police were tipped off and a 14-hour standoff ensued culminating in the death of Mr. Natuarale and the arrest of Mr. Wojtowicz.

None of the hostages were harmed, and indeed many of them later told the police and reporters that they had been treated very kindly. In honor of the anniversary, the New York Times spoke with one of the hostages, the now 88-year-old Dolores Goettisheim, who remembers the day was one of the worst of her life and say that though “she had not cried, she was terrified.” The Times has an excellent accompanying slideshow that depicts the scene surrounding the bank where over 1,000 spectators gathered to watch the scene unfold.

Sidney Lumet’s cinematic depiction of the events in the film “Dog Day Afternoon” was remarkably true to life, down to Wojtowicz’s (in an iconic portrayal by Al Pacino) riling up of the Brooklyn crowd with the chant of “Attica! Attica!” The movie was shot on location in another Brooklyn neighborhood, Windsor Terrace, and—especially if you haven’t seen it—should definitely be viewed today, or any day, every day really. It’s amazing and besides Pacino, features incredible performances by John Cazale as Natuarale and Chris Sarandon as Pacino’s lover, Ernest Aron.

The Daily News also remembers the events of that day, but looks beyond the media circus that surrounded the event to what the larger results were. The News reports on how, following both the robbery and the tragic hostage crisis at the Munich Olympics just a few weeks later, the NYPD started to put together the beginnings of what would eventually develop into the Hostage Negotiation Team, which responds to about 3 dozen calls a month, “consists of about 100 seasoned detectives from various commands, [and responds] to several types of jobs that include domestic incidents and people threatening suicide.”

According to Lt. Jack Cambria, who leads the team, “The best negotiators are people with life stories, because they can relate.”

It’s doubtful that many of them have similar life stories to Wojtowicz though. After completing 6 years of his 20 year prison sentence, Wojtowicz was released in 1978. He used the money he made from selling the movie rights to his story to get his partner, Ernest Aron, sex-reassignment surgery. Aron, later known as Elizabeth Eden, died of AIDS in 1987. Wojtowicz died of cancer in NYC in 2006.

Their story, or at least part of it, will be remembered forever in Lumet’s movie and in the collective memory of New Yorkers as something that could only ever happen on a hot, Brooklyn, August afternoon.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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