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Crusaders in the underworld: The LAPD takes on organized crime

Sgt. Willie Burns had a Tommy gun on the bench in front of him when his 18 handpicked candidates arrived at the 77th Street station on the edge of Watts. It was a cool evening in November 1946, and the men came in topcoats and hats. Burns wore his low, almost over his eyes, like the bad guys.

Years later, he told a grand jury: "My primary duties were to keep down these gangster killings and try to keep some of these rough guys under control." But he hadn't given his fellow LAPD cops any hint of why they'd been summoned that night. Now he laid it out.

If they joined the Gangster Squad, their targets would be the likes of Bugsy Siegel, the playboy refugee from New York's Murder Inc., and Jack Dragna, the Sicilian banana importer who quietly lorded over the city's rackets.

Then there was Mickey Cohen, the dapper former prizefighter who had come to town as Bugsy's muscle but soon had his own cafe on North La Brea and a "paint store" nearby with three phones to take bets. That's where he'd shot a produce broker whose family ran competing bookie joints. Mickey said the man came at him with a .45, the one found beside the body, and there were no witnesses to contradict his story. "It was me or him," Mickey said. "I let him have it."

There had been three more mob rub-outs around L.A. since then, including the shotgunning of two Chicago men outside a Hollywood apartment. That one generated a "Gangsters in Gambling War" headline that was a prime reason Police Chief C.B. Horrall wanted those 18 cops to see what a Thompson submachine gun looked like.

"You'll be working with these," Burns told them.

The deal was: If they signed on, they'd continue to belisted on the rosters of their old stations. They'd have no office, only two unmarked cars. They'd almost never make arrests. They'd simply gather "intelligence" and be available for other chores. In effect, they would not exist.

Burns gave them a week to ponder advice from an old lieutenant at the 77th, who said an assignment like that could get you in good with the chief. "Or you could end up down in San Pedro, walking a beat in a fog."

After the week, only seven came back, making a squad of eight, counting Burns.

"We did a lot of things that we'd get indicted for today," said Sgt. Jack O'Mara.

* * *

On the job a decade before J. Edgar Hoover's FBI acknowledged the existence of the Mafia, they took an anything-goes approach to making life hell for Mickey Cohen and driving other such characters from the Southern California sunshine.

They used a look-alike Pac Bell truck to plant bugs, to hell with warrants. They did secret favors for Jack Webb, who glorified the LAPD with his "Dragnet" TV show. They stole evidence from mobsters and neutralized a pesky newspaper columnist. And Jack O'Mara personally set a trap for the showboating Mickey, to prove he was a killer.

There were close calls -- grand jury investigations, lawsuits and a skeptical chief or two -- but they endured through the 1950s. That's when one of their cases changed the ground rules for policing in California and when one of their own -- Jerry Wooters, the most reckless of them all -- grew far too friendly with L.A.'s homegrown hoodlum, Jack "the Enforcer" Whalen.

But when "the Enforcer" made the mistake of confronting Mickey and his crew at a hangout in the Valley, a bullet between the eyes signaled that the Gangster Squad's time was over, and so was a defining era in the city's history.

Noir L.A. was a time and place where truth was not found in the sunlight, and justice not found in marble courthouses, and where not a single gangland killing was solved, not one, for half a century. Not on paper, anyway.

* * *

Their first assignment: the visitors shaking down Hollywood restaurants and nightclubs. "Hoodlum types from Rhode Island," in O'Mara's words, "what we called 'dandruff.' "

The fear of evil outsiders had been a refrain in L.A. before any of these cops were born. You could go back to 1891, when this was a community of 70,000 with a police force of 75, and hear Chief John Glass warn of "Eastern crooks" seeking warm weather and easy pickings. After the turn of the century, the invaders were upgraded to "Eastern gangsters," and in 1927 Det. Ed "Roughhouse" Brown became a local legend by escorting Al Capone to the train when the notorious mobster was discovered in a downtown hotel. "I thought you folks liked tourists," Capone said before returning to Chicago.

Now a new group of "tourists" was demanding 25% of the take at landmarks such as the Mocambo and Brown Derby, and the club owners did not want to go to court, worried what might happen to their families. A state crime report would warn anew of an "Invasion of Undesirables." "What are you gonna do?" O'Mara asked.

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."

Amid that darkness, he would "put a kind of a gun to their ear and say, 'You want to sneeze?' "

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.

Of course, no one knew then what would become of the two men who were allowed to stay on promises of good behavior. Who could have guessed that James Fratianno, an ex-con "used-car salesman" from Cleveland, would become infamous as Jimmy the Weasel, the L.A. mob's most prolific hit man? Who could have guessed that James Regace would rise to head that mob three decades later, under his real name, Dominic Brooklier?

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.

His right-hand man, Neddie Herbert, was overheard the day after the roust, saying: "I can't meet you at the Mocambo, I'm afraid they'll pick me up." At 3:30 a.m., he updated Mickey: "Somebody else got picked up. Jesus Christ. I'm getting out of this. I want to live to be a grandfather."

"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.

That was especially daunting at Mickey's house because someone -- probably Dragna -- had exploded dynamite under it. Mickey now had round-the-clock guards, swinging searchlights and an armored front door with a porthole window.

The answer? A diversion. As soon as Mickey and Lavonne went out one night, two squad members began digging noisily in a nearby lot. When Mickey's guards went to have a look, Keeler climbed a fence and crept though an orange grove behind the house. He had burlap over his shoes to silence his footsteps and ammonia on his clothes to drive off dogs.

The bombing had left splintered openings under the house, and Keeler was able to slide one bug inside a closet where Mickey stacked dozens of pairs of shoes. Then he crept out through the orchard and past the home of an English physician who had worked for British intelligence in the war and was letting them use his garage as a listening post.

But they hadn't counted on what their bugging would do to Mickey's TV. At a time when only 10 million Americans had sets, he had the fanciest sold by W&J Sloane department store, with a "distinguished mahogany" cabinet and 45 tubes to guarantee clear reception. Now they overheard him ranting about the screwy lines on Channel 2.

Listening from the doctor's garage, the squad knew what was up -- their transmission was too close to the lowest frequency picked up by a TV. Mickey was likely to figure it out also.

"We could hear him call up and raise hell with W&J Sloane company. 'Take this goddamn thing out of here or come out and have somebody fix it!' " O'Mara recalled. "Sure enough, they sent a technician out."

O'Mara had an idea -- intercept the repair truck. "Pulled him over, talked to him. He was scared, but he agreed. 'I'd like you to take a man,' I said."

Mickey wanted service? He'd get two men fiddling with the back of his set. "While we're in, we put in another bug. Right in his TV. And the batteries to run the damn bug."

This one used a slightly different frequency that would not put annoying oscillations on Channel 2.

"Mickey said, 'Fine, well, fine, thank you, guys' and gave 'em 25 bucks apiece for a tip, you know. Well, my guy takes Mickey aside and says, 'Lookit, I'll be back in here once a week and take care of it. You know, there's a lot of bugs in televisions and stuff you have to work out.' "

Mickey had to think his lavish tips were why the repairman was so eager to get into his TV every week.

OK, so the bug couldn't hear much when Mickey's TV was on, and it was on all the time. But O'Mara sensed that their mission might be measured by small victories, and it was a small victory, for sure, to be able to say, a half-century later . . . and that's how Mickey Cohen wound up paying for his own bugging.

paul.lieberman@latimes.com

Times researcher Maloy Moore and former researcher Tracy Thomas contributed to this series.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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