The view was great from the hills off Mulholland Drive. So why not escort these hoodlums up there and, as O'Mara put it, "have a little heart-to-heart talk with 'em, emphasize the fact that this wasn't New York, this wasn't Chicago, this wasn't Cleveland. And we leaned on 'em a little, you know what I mean? Up in the Hollywood Hills, off Coldwater Canyon, anywhere up there. And it's dark at night."
That was O'Mara's signature, the gun in the ear and a few suggestive words: "Do you feel a sneeze coming on? A real loud sneeze?"
The squad members met on street corners or in parking lots. Their 1940 Fords had 200,000 miles on them and holes in the floorboard so they could pour fluid into the master cylinders. At times five men rode in one, and if several smoked cigars, their suits would stink so bad they'd hang them outdoors at night.
Their three Tommy guns came with 50-round drums and beautiful violin cases, but were a pain -- they couldn't leave them in the trunk and risk having them stolen. O'Mara slept with his under his bed.
When they did get an office, it was a cubbyhole in the decaying Central station, which had horse stalls from the 1880s.
It was tempting to see them as a wrecking crew, with several resembling another new team in town, the football Rams. Doug "Jumbo" Kennard stood 6-foot-4, Archie Case weighed 250 and Benny Williams was construction-strong -- one of the cops who built the Police Academy in their spare time.
But a team needed a quarterback or two, men tough and clever, like Burns, who'd been a gunnery officer during the war. Or Jack O'Mara.
Born in 1917, he spent his toddler years in Portland, Ore., until ice storms inspired his father to pile the family into a Model T and drive south. Jack landed at Manual Arts High, where he wasn't the speediest guy on the track team but never understood how anyone beat him. For fun, he boxed.
Not quite 135 pounds, he had to stuff himself with bananas and ice cream to make the weight for the LAPD, which needed men in the wake of its scandals of the 1930s, when a mayor and chief were caught selling promotions and a rogue squad planted a bomb under the car of a civic reformer. "It was a lousy, crooked department," said Max Solomon, Bugsy Siegel's attorney.
O'Mara became part of a generation that was supposed to change all that. At the academy, he foolishly kept racing the fastest man in the Class of 1940, Tom Bradley, the former UCLA track star and future mayor, though he had no chance of winning.
He worked patrol and traffic until Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. Coast Guard gave him an aptitude test and sent him to a cryptography unit in the Aleutian Islands, part of the effort to intercept Japanese communications and break their code. Who knew he had brains? When he returned, he was a pipe-smoking, 165-pound Spencer Tracy look-alike, and just the sort Burns wanted for his hush-hush unit.
Other cops suspected they were internal spies, headhunters, a rumor that started when a beat officer confided to the chief's office that a bookmaking barber was inviting cops to "get on the take." The squad caravaned to the barbershop, "ripped everything, kicked all the walls out," O'Mara said, and shaved the guy's head with his own razors.
Pleased, the brass gave them more muscle: 6-foot-5 Jerry Greeley and Lindo "Jaco" Giacopuzzi, a 230-pound former all-Valley football lineman who had built himself up carting milk cans at his family's dairy. When that pair got a Tommy gun, they showed they understood the rules of this gig -- that there were none in dealing with Mickey Cohen and his ilk. Asked to stake out the clothing store Mickey had opened, they decided to leave his crew guessing whether they were cops or out-of-town hoods.
They took the plates off their unmarked car and found others -- from Illinois -- in the trash at the DMV, then parked up the block from Mickey's place. One of Mickey's men went out to investigate and "every time he'd pass by us, we'd put our coat up and pull our hat down," Giacopuzzi recalled. "So when we left, I was driving, and all the men in Mickey's establishment there came out on the sidewalk . . . and I took the car and I swerved it . . . and Greeley leaned way out of the window with the Tommy gun. And you should have seen them hit the deck."
It was a great prank to share with the squad, the fake drive-by, and maybe they wouldn't have done it later, after someone -- not faking -- came by Mickey's haberdashery on the Sunset Strip with a shotgun. That was no laughing matter, the dead body that marked the start of the Sunset Wars.
The squad made news for the first time on Nov. 15, 1947, with a report that Willie Burns and O'Mara had led a "flying detachment" that rousted six Midwesterners on Wilshire in a limo with New York plates. The six were booked on suspicion of robbery, though there was no evidence they had yet committed any crime in Los Angeles. Photographers were invited into the Wilshire station to snap them seated on a bench, several with bowed heads. Then four were escorted to the county border.