What mattered at the time was that the squad had sent some suspicious characters packing and thus sent a signal to the civilian populace and to Mickey et al. That second audience did get the message -- the bug in Mickey's Brentwood home made that clear.
"They can't make anybody leave town," Mickey said. "It's against the Constitution."
The Gangster Squad could not take credit for that eavesdropping, or be blamed when it turned into a fiasco. The squad was still getting organized when vice detectives leaped at an opening provided by Mickey's renovation of a ranch house on Moreno Drive. Five posed as construction workers, when the real ones took off, and hid a microphone between the wood bin and the fireplace.
The bug was set by the time Mickey and Lavonne Cohen moved in, and soon was picking up barking by Tuffy, their bulldog. The vice team's mistake was hiring a private bugging expert, because he secretly ran a second line to his own listening post. For a year it gave him -- along with the LAPD -- a window into what Mickey was up to: talking about fixing charity boxing matches, telling someone back East that "we need a shotgun in the outfit," grumbling about greedy cops who "grab it and tear your arm off" when you offer them "a gift."
But the bug picked up nothing of note on June 20, 1947, when Bugsy Siegel was shot through the eye while reading the Los Angeles Times in his living room a few miles east. Mickey kept mum about Bugsy's demise, which left him and Jack Dragna to fight for control of local gambling.
Mickey's crew did complain about the leader of the Gangster Squad, Willie Burns, and how some cops were harassing customers at his haberdashery. "It's ridiculous," Mickey said. "Anybody who they see leave the store they take right downtown." Not long after, Burns' wife received flowers at home, a funeral arrangement.
Some hoodlums understand the wisdom of anonymity, but the 5-foot-5 Mickey was the opposite breed, like Capone, or later John Gotti. Mickey cultivated his image as a "dese, dem and dose" sort who worked his way up to monogrammed silk pajamas.
He could claim to be a local boy too, for while he was Brooklyn-born, as Meyer Harris Cohen, his mother moved west to Boyle Heights, where he got a paperboy's education in the streets and began boxing with a Star of David on his trunks. He moved East to compete as a top featherweight and settled in Cleveland and Chicago, where he met the Capones and segued into "rooting," his term for "sticking up joints."
Now Mickey sped between nightspots in an entourage of Cadillacs and boasted that he wore suits just twice, then sold them at his store. He made no secret of his hand-washing mania, either, cleaning them constantly for fear that germs, not bullets, would get him.
But he was no joke -- a commission appointed by Gov. Earl Warren estimated that "the Cohen gang" had 500 bookies under its wing, with Mickey demanding $40 a week for each telephone in return for his protection. And although the LAPD once was the place to secure that protection, by 1947 he found it easier to do business in some of the county's other 46 law enforcement jurisdictions, especially Burbank, whose police chief soon was able to buy a 56-foot yacht, largely with cash.
Yet it wasn't easy to get the goods on Mickey, for he'd say one instant that a gambling joint was worth "over half a million," then lament that he still owed $45,000 on his house and, oh yeah, "I haven't booked a horse in four years."
Later, Mickey insisted he knew all along the cops had "a bug in my rug" and that's why he dished them so much nonsense. But he seems to have learned of the bug by chance, when his gardener plunged a shovel through an underground wire. Mickey had his property swept and found the mike by the wood box.
Soon after, he obtained partial transcripts of his conversations, 126 pages of notes that the private bug man apparently had taken and now was selling along the Sunset Strip. The San Francisco Chronicle and the L.A. Times got them too, generating "Cohen's Secrets" and "Cohen's Big Deals" headlines . . . and questions about why the man still walked free if authorities had all that dirt on him.
That's why the Gangster Squad had its own bug man.
From an Iowa farm family that came west in a covered wagon, Con Keeler had grown up tinkering with radios and could cobble together crude bugs using telephone and hearing aid parts. He also knew Navy intelligence officers who were developing eavesdropping systems that did not require long, telltale wires -- a welcome innovation given that Mickey would be looking for wires.
In this system, the mike was connected to a transmitter that sent signals you could pick up blocks away. The downside was that you had to hide a six-pack of batteries with the transmitter and replace them every week. But the first challenge was planting the equipment.