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The drugstore caper
Published on: 2014-08-23
The saga of One-Legged Billy
By Bob Cudmore, Focus on History, Daily Gazette, 08-23-14

Three Amsterdam men led by One-Legged-Billy Wilczopolski burglarized a Ballston Spa drugstore in 1931.

William Wilczopolski lost his leg and gained his nickname when he was drawn under railroad cars while hopping a freight when he was six years old, according to a newspaper account. He was arrested in Schenectady in 1920 at age 13 for stealing $30 in cash and a note for $1,000 which he allegedly took from his mother.

In 1929 he was sentenced to five years at the Elmira Reformatory for a Schenectady burglary. In 1931 he was out on parole.

THE DRUGSTORE CAPER

Three Schenectady fishermen on their way to Saratoga Lake in the early morning of December 17, 1931 saw flashes of light inside the Ballston Drug Company at 92 Milton Avenue. A man with a flashlight came out of the store followed by another man.

As the fishermen watched, the pair went to a waiting car, one of them on the running board, and the car sped away. The fishermen tried to follow the culprits but lost them near the Iron Spring in Ballston Spa. Police were notified.

Two state troopers who lived on Rowland Street in Ballston Spa were leaving their homes to investigate the case when they saw a vehicle speeding on North Street.

The troopers gave chase, what the newspapers called a “wild ride” to Saratoga Lake, Saratoga Springs and back toward Ballston Spa. The chase ended when the culprits’ car hit a telephone pole on Ballston Avenue in Saratoga.

Two of the three men fled but troopers captured Billy who was at a disadvantage because of his disability. The owner of the drugstore, Roy Abernethy, found items from his store in the getaway car.

Billy wouldn’t identify his accomplices. But they were located the next week when cops found an illegal slot machine at an Amsterdam business. Drugstore burglary suspects John "Foxy" Lis and Leonard "Nardi" Conti were hiding in a closet.

The three burglars were tried in February 1932. Wilczopolski and Lis were found guilty, but Conti was acquitted after his attorney suggested that the getaway car's owner, Michael DaBieri, had been the third man in the car, not Conti.

Conti was re-arrested however, due to his suspected participation in an earlier robbery of a Schuylerville pharmacy, committed by the same three men.

Lis was granted a new trial. He later pleaded guilty to unlawful entry and was sentenced to a year in the county jail. After completing his sentence, he was returned to the Elmira Reformatory, from which he had been paroled at the time of the robbery.

Billy Wilczopolski’s stiff ten years at hard labor sentence at Dannemora state prison apparently was because of his previous record.

Billy whispered “appeal the case” to his lawyer but that was not likely to happen according to news accounts. When asked by the court clerk if he had an objection to the sentence, Billy responded, “I was framed.”

The Saratogian reported that when Billy left the courtroom he did not speak to his co-defendants and was “snarly, revengeful and plainly showing his displeasure.”

William Wilczopolski, age 32, is listed as out of prison and living with his mother Josephine and his brother Joseph at 15 Columbus Avenue in Amsterdam according to the 1940 census. Both men were laborers for a trucking company.

In 1942 the Recorder noted that William Wilczopolski was engaged to Jane Soltys of Cornell Street.

The drugstore at 92 Milton Avenue in Ballston Spa was destroyed by a fire in 1969 and presently is the site of a laundromat.

Historian David Fiske, author of “Ballston Spa History Walkaround,” provided information for this story.

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