Beggar with million-dollar photo collection found dead in Gowanus Canal mystery

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

BROOKLYN, New York (PIX11) – The office of the District Attorney in Brooklyn acknowledged Tuesday it is taking another look at the death of 55-year old Howard Frank, an Orthodox Jewish beggar who owned a multimillion dollar collection of celebrity photos.

Frank was found floating face-down in the Gowanus Canal on June 29th, 2012.  The NYPD originally ruled it a suicide, but Frank’s friends—and his brother—told police he wasn’t suicidal.  Instead, they said Howard Frank feared he would be killed, in the two weeks leading up to his death.

“He knew things about a lot of different rabbis,” said Abie Maltz, a chef at Café 47 on New Utrecht Avenue in Borough Park,  “different things he actually wanted to expose.  I used to say, ‘You better keep your mouth shut; you never know, something like that can kill you.’  And look: he’s dead now.”

Frank’s estranged brother, Robert, told PIX 11 an investigator from the Brooklyn DA’s office called him up several months ago and arranged a meeting.  “They asked me if my brother was threatening to expose people in the Jewish community,” Robert Frank said.

The last time Howard Frank was seen alive, he had just finished begging outside the Landau synagogue on Avenue L in Flatbush.  He told one worshipper there he owed someone $80,000 and had to meet him.

Friends said Howard Frank had some mental health issues and was obsessive about his photo collection, which contained some rare, celebrity snaps from the 1950’s through the 1990’s.  He had ten thousand photos of the late comedienne, Lucille Ball.

“I’ve never heard of anybody committing suicide by throwing themselves in the Gowanus Canal,” said Henry Hewes, a midtown Manhattan real estate developer who paid for the storage fees on Frank’s pictures for the last five years of his life.  “Howard hated water.”

The collection was kept at Stop & Storage off the Belt Parkway in Bensonhurst.

Hewes met Howard Frank through an old college friend, Frank Pohole.  It was Pohole who gave the homeless collector a place to stay, after Howard Frank lost his odd jobs and his apartment.  Pohole had difficulty paying the bills on his run-down home in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  The place often had no heat or running water.  Pohole became business partners with Howard Frank and set up a website, seeking to sell some of Frank’s celebrity photos.

The website, called “Personality Photos”, even sought serious bidders who would buy the entire collection, telling them to expect to pay “in the eight digits”.  Anyone offering less was told “don’t bother contacting us.”

The website is now down, because the collection was willed to Howard Frank’s second cousins.  The executor of the estate is Ian Lerner, a dentist.

Frank’s brother was not notified in a timely fashion about the death, and an Orthodox Jewish bereavement group, Misaskim, picked up the body and prepared it for burial.  Orthodox Jews frown on autopsies, and none was performed on Howard Frank.  His brother, Robert, told PIX 11, “Somebody wanted to block that autopsy.”

PIX 11 went to the offices of Misaskim on 16th Avenue in Borough Park, also home to a company called Paper Masters, a printing shop.  When we got inside, a man who refused to identify himself told us he didn’t know anything about Howard Frank’s case or who the head of Misaskim was.  He asked for our phone number, but we never received a call.

This case was first broken by Shmarya Rosenberg of the website “Failed Messiah” in 2012.