By Michael Rosenthal
It’s a true story of tragedy and perseverance, of love and devotion. And it could be in a theater near you soon.
The battered body of Howie Steindler, a well-known boxing manager who owned the old Main Street Gym in downtown Los Angeles, was found on the backseat floor of his Cadillac on the evening of March 9, 1977 not far from his home in the suburban San Fernando Valley.
Four decades later, the murder remains unsolved. And his daughter, while still hopeful the killer or killers will be found, lives with the memories and the pain every day.
“To me, there’s no closure,” said Carol Steindler. “You go through different stages. Wanting to find the murderers, having them put to death. I’m past that stage now, past the stage of wanting retribution for the person who hurt your father.
“Now I would just like to know what happened, why it happened. I want closure.”
That’s where independent filmmaker Don Franken might be able to help. He and his partners have begun production of a film based on the journey of Carol Steindler, a sheltered elementary school teacher who took over the gym after her father’s death in part to find his killer.
She hopes the film will somehow lead to information that will finally solve the case. And Franken, a longtime friend of hers, believes the project will be inspiring.
“I just thought it was an incredible story, a person overcoming tremendous adversity in their life to achieve something special,” Franken said. “She was a single mom, living in the suburbs. It’s a story of how everything was taken from her and how she fought back, a woman stepping into a man’s world at the time because of her love for her father. Incredible story.”
Howie Steindler, 72 when he died, supposedly was the inspiration for actor Burgess Meredith’s character in the Rocky movies, a feisty, curmudgeonly boxing trainer who was as soft on the inside as he was hard on the outside.
Steindler boxed as a youth in New York City but decided that his future lay elsewhere in sport. He started by training fighters, including a boyhood friend named Walker Smith, a gifted boxer who would later go by the nom de guerre of Sugar Ray Robinson.
Steindler migrated to California as a young man, in the 1940s, and took over the Main Street Gym in the late 1950s. The gym was in one of the worst neighborhoods in Los Angeles, near the infamous Skid Row, a crime-ridden stretch where many of the city’s most-downtrodden souls call home to this day.
Steindler kept his wife and daughters, Carol and Bobbie, far away from what one police officer familiar with the area called “the jungle.”
Carol Steindler remembers one deranged man who demanded to sell his jacket for 35 cents or he’d kill everyone in the place. Another man repeatedly broke the glass on the front door of the gym, apparently hoping to return to the safe confines of jail as a result of his crime. Carol Steindler finally installed unbreakable glass.
“There were a lot of crazy people there,” Carol said.
Of course, that never kept the fighters away. Some of the biggest names in the history of boxing passed through the Main Street Gym, which opened during the depression. Henry Armstrong, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Steindler’s old friend Robinson. The list is long and illustrious.
And Howie Steindler, by all accounts, loved every minute of his association with the gym and the sport. Only one thing was missing: He dreamed of managing a world champion.
That finally happened only four months before his murder, when his star fighter, Danny “Little Red” Lopez, traveled to the African country of Ghana and defeated David Kotey to win the WBC featherweight title. Steindler, on oxygen at the time, was too frail to travel overseas for the fight but reveled in the moment.
And then he was gone.
The facts of his demise aren’t complicated. The Los Angeles Police Department issued a press release on the 32nd anniversary of the murder, in 2009, offering up to a $50,000 reward for information leading to the prosecution of the person or persons responsible for the murder.
It read: “On March, 9, 1977, at about 7:00 p.m., a witness observed Mr. Steindler at the corner of Lindley Avenue and Killion Street [in Encino] which was only a block from his home. Steindler was involved in a confrontation with two unidentified black males who began beating Steindler and then forced him into his own vehicle, driving him away from the scene. Within an hour, Steindler’s vehicle was discovered abandoned on the Ventura Freeway and Steindler was found dead in the car. The investigation revealed that Steindler was robbed and to this day no suspects have been identified in this case.”
Carol Steindler remembers the night of her father’s murder like it was yesterday.
A phone call from her sister, informing her that their mother was anxious because her husband was late returning home. The arrival of boxing publicist and friend Don Fraser, who called the police department and was told family members should go to the North Hollywood station immediately. Hours of waiting, with no explanation. And, finally, L.A.P.D. detective Marv Engquist delivering the devastating news.
“I don’t know what (Engquist) said to me,” she said. “I was hysterical when he was talking to me. I don’t know what said or what he did but he got me through it. Then I had to tell my mother and my son, who loved his grandfather. She went crazy. I didn’t get along with her but she did love him. They’d been together many years.
“You’re sort of in a state of shock, of disbelief. It was very difficult. You never think a murder is going to happen to you. It’s something you see on TV.”
The motive for the murder is less clear than the actual killing.
Engquist, an acquaintance of Howie Steindler, would remain on the case and become close to Carol over the years. He visited the gym the day of the murder just to say hello to Steindler and see who was training that day, which he had done many times. Steindler waved and said he was tied up at the moment, that he would talk to the officers later.
“The next time I saw him he was dead,” Engquist said.
Engquist, working in a special homicide unit, was assigned to investigate a body found in the back seat of a car on Highway 101, near Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Studio City. He believes it was a random bump-and-rob, in which a victim’s car is intentionally rear-ended and the thieves take the car or other property.
Engquist suspects Steindler – “who was small but wouldn’t take crap from anybody” – resisted his attackers and paid the ultimate price. He cited the observations of an eye witness.
“This gal was sitting in her car and then next thing she sees is a … guy punching out Howie,” he said. “He was hit a couple of times. The guy looked up and saw her so he opened the door and they (the attacker and his partner in crime) threw him in the back seat.
“She had the presence of mind to write down the license place but, unfortunately, it was Howie’s car. Howie was later found in the back seat of the car, hanging off the seat with his face down toward the floor. … They took his wallet and his jewelry and left.”
Carol Steindler doesn’t dispute those facts but believes her father’s killers were hired by someone(s) in the boxing world, although she doesn’t have evidence.
It was conglomerate of things, she said. Her mother had expressed fear that her husband would be murdered, although, according to Carol, she couldn’t or wouldn’t explain why before or after his death out of fear. Her father had begun to teach his wife how to function without him, as if he knew his life was in danger. And, perhaps most important, Howie Steindler had enemies among other powerbrokers in the business.
The following excerpt, from a 2009 Los Angeles Times blog post recounts a dispute involving a contract between Lopez and Kotey. It proves nothing, but the timing is interesting and it provides an idea of the acrimony that can arise between rivals:
“In February 1977, a month before he was killed, Steindler was at odds with fight manager Daniel Kotey (David’s brother) and the World Boxing Council, according to a story by The Times' Jack Hawn. Steindler was trying to set up an April 9 bout for Lopez at the Forum but any deal was blocked by a previous agreement with Daniel Kotey, who had offered a contract for $85,000 and $5,000 in training expenses. The option on Kotey's contract expired Feb. 6 when he was unable to find an opponent, but without explanation, the boxing council granted an extension to March 12, making Steindler furious, Hawn said. Hawn noted that an immediate rematch between Lopez and David Kotey was banned under boxing council rules, and The Times reported on the day before the killing that Lopez would be unable to fight anyone until he had surgery to remove bone chips in his right hand from the Kotey match.”
Carol Steindler can’t link that friction between her father and Daniel Kotey – or anyone else – to the murder but she’s convinced the cutthroat side of the business combined with the other factors played a role in her father’s death.
“How many coincidences can you have before it becomes reality,” Carol Steindler said.
The reality is that the case was never solved, although investigators are still working on it four decades later because Carol won’t let them give up. She meets with every new captain in the homicide division and reminds them of her dad.
“There was no physical evidence,” said Engquist, who retired in 1991. “There were a lot of ‘what ifs,’ a lot of speculation. That doesn’t solve your case. You have to prove (guilt) beyond a reasonable doubt. …
“It’s very frustrating to me,” he went on. “Homicide guys, they represent the victim. The victim can’t speak any more. That’s why, when you have a case, you want to give everything you have to give and then hope to God you’re successful.”
Carol Steindler acknowledges that she was a daddy’s little girl who was shielded from the underbelly of the boxing world, including the goings on at the gym.
She generally stayed where she belonged, in her safe suburban neighborhood.
So when she ended up in possession of the gym, she was completely out of her element. She learned the ropes with the help of her father’s friends, including Fraser. She eventually learned enough to manage fighters. More important, she kept her ear to the ground. She figured she would hear something she could pass on to detectives.
“One night I was talking to my son,” said Carol, who ran the gym for 13½ years. “He was about 11. He said to me, ‘We have to find out who killed grandpa.’ I was a school teacher at the time. I decided to run the gym to keep his legacy alive and see what I could hear.
“I knew nothing when I got there. My father kept me away from that environment. I did go to fights with him but he didn’t like us coming down to the gym because of where it was located. And it was all guys; I was the only girl. I was entering a man’s world without knowing anything, but I learned.”
Carol also learned about murder investigations, particularly from detective Engquist. Their relationship is a significant part of the film.
They spoke most days during the subsequent years, sometimes about things specific to the case and other times about life. Carol would lean on Marv during difficult times and he was happy to be there for her in what became a partnership. They spoke every day, “sometimes two, three, four times a day,” Engquist said.
Carol believes the relationship was ordained from the heavens.
“I just feel like that was my father’s way of taking care of me,” she said.
Carol had approached Don Franken many times over the years about making her film, more evidence of her persistent nature. He was always too busy with one project or another to give it the attention it required until finally a window opened and he brought the idea to his partners.
Franken and Co. are currently casting for the film, which they hope to complete within a year. Carol said the concept that a film about her life is in the works is “still surreal to me,”
“I went from teaching school to running a gym for boxers,” she said. “When you put your mind to something, you can accomplish anything. I did it because I loved my father. I wanted his name to stay alive, to carry on his legacy.
“And I definitely wanted to find out who murdered him. That’s why I’m so happy about movie. Any kind of publicity about the murder helps.”
Said Franken: “This is more than a movie. It’s an opportunity to get this terrible crime solved. Then Carol can finally and completely move on with her life.”