Word went through the underworld that they were tough. No question about it. They were intimidating just by their appearance. The hat was their trademark.
--Lt. Dan Cooke, Los Angeles Police Department
It was slightly past noon, a typical working day almost three decades ago.
A nondescript sedan pulled alongside a curb and parked on Hope Street in downtown Los Angeles.
Four young, impeccably dressed men--in dark, tailor-made, single-breasted suits, wide-brimmed hats, and polished shoes--piled out and approached a hot dog stand. All were well over six feet tall and collectively they weighed more than half a ton.
Momentarily, a Brinks armored truck appeared and rolled to a stop in front of a nearby business. The guards got out and went inside. As they emerged minutes later with a sack of money, they observed the four men at the hot dog stand, looking toward the truck.
Instinctively, the guards spun around and quickly retreated, disappearing inside.
"Well," one of the four said, "it'll probably be about three minutes. . . ."
As he had predicted, police cars--sirens wailing--soon converged on the scene. The officers confronted the suspicious foursome--all munching hot dogs and enjoying a good laugh.
It was not the first time this group had been mistaken for criminals--purely because of their size and dress.
They were, in fact, detectives.
Working out of the robbery division of the Los Angeles Police Department through the 1950s and early '60s, the four became a legend.
They were labeled the Hat Squad--an elite team that quickly gained a national reputation among law enforcement agencies as well as in the underworld.
"They were the most impressive group I ever knew in my 25 years with the department," said Joe Deiro, a retired LAPD detective. "They were tough with criminals but very compassionate people, respected in the underworld."
The squad was led by Max Herman Sr. The others were Clarence A. (Red) Stromwall, Harold N. Crowder and Edward F. Benson.
"We were always together," recalled Crowder, now a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge who supervises the Hollywood branch. "If one guy went to the john, all four of us went to the john. And we always had our hats on."
Stromwall, now a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, chuckled. "We played it to the hilt," he said, "and chasing bandits in those days was fun."
An old, scarred police baton with a leather strap hangs on a wall over the bar of his La Canada Flintridge home, along with plaques, citations and a cherished photo of his father, Albert C. Stromwall, in a police uniform.
"He joined the police department in 1924 and retired in 1948," Clarence Stromwall said. "I came on in 1946."
Smoking a Honduran cigar slightly smaller than the baton he once carried while walking a beat, Stromwall, 62, was visiting one recent afternoon with his ex-partner Crowder, 61.
The judges drank coffee and talked for two hours about when they roamed the city as members of the Hat Squad, the last five or six years of which they were badge-carrying lawyers.
Their words were frequently punctuated by bursts of laughter as they recalled a few of the "thousands of cases" they worked on--a mood that contrasted drastically with that of the previous day.
That was the day--Jan. 30--Max Herman was buried.
The team's leader was eulogized by attorneys Roy Loftin and Morgan Rodney, a former detective.
'Strong, Tough, Gentle'
"Max defended his clients with . . . a ferocity that was absolutely frightening," Loftin told the overflowing congregation of more than 200.
Rodney praised Herman as "the strongest of the strong, the toughest of the tough, the gentlest of the gentle--always a giver, rarely a taker. He will be missed."
Later, he said that Herman had defended about 30 men accused of homicide. "I don't believe anyone he represented was ever convicted of the original (more serious) charge."
Benson, the fourth member, died of natural causes in 1970. He had played football for Fordham University and later earned $100 or so a game as a professional with the New York Giants. He had also boxed professionally. During World War II, he was a paratrooper, making jumps in Italy and France.
Much in Common
Benson joined the police department in the late 1940s and soon found much in common with the men who became his partners--particularly Stromwall, who also had a fling as a professional boxer.
"I had 13 fights, won three, drew one and lost nine," the judge said, laughing. "I was not the Great White Hope."
Like Benson, the others also saw plenty of action during the war--Herman and Stromwall with the Marines, Crowder with the Air Corps.
Later, during the Korean War, all four went on active duty with the 40th Infantry Division and served in the same battalion. Herman, Crowder and Stromwall were company commanders; Benson was a first sergeant. Stromwall remained in the reserve and retired as a full colonel.
Settling within a stone's throw of each other in La Canada Flintridge, all eventually married and raised children. But leading a normal family life proved impossible as a result of their demanding work and, for all except Benson, their ambitious goals in the legal profession.
Squad 'Just Evolved'
Herman and Stromwall were assigned to robbery as partners in 1949 and were joined by Benson in the mid 1950s, then by Crowder in 1959.
"There was no such thing as a hat squad, other than Max and I wore hats," Stromwall said. "It just evolved."
Jake Jacoby, a City News Service reporter first assigned to the police beat in 1935 and still covering it for the wire service, lists Stromwall's father and two others--Claude Thaxter and Slats Henry--as the original "Big Hats."
"Other members of robbery wore hats," Jacoby remembered, "but these guys wore big hats. They existed from 1935, I think, up into the '40s. . . . When they retired, the Hats went into limbo, until the four came along."
Herman and his partners bought their hats from "the old H and K Hatters on Main Street," Stromwall recalled.
'Liked the Big Ones'
"By now," Crowder said, "they were wearing porkpies, little bitty things. We liked the big ones, almost three-inch brims on 'em." Stromwall laughed. "Damned near Stetsons. . . . They were better identification than a badge."
(Teletype messages from agencies around the country never referred to the men by name, simply beginning, "Attention Hats.")
The detectives also had their suits made to order.
"We all spent every nickel we could save to buy a suit," Crowder said. "We'd pay $100--that was half a month's pay--and $20 or $25 for a hat."
Made by a tailor at "Murray's on Main Street," as they remembered, the suits had fancy linings and were single-breasted and cut to compensate for the bulges on their hips, where they carried revolvers.
They used their weapons sparingly. Often, the squad's mere presence--Benson was the lightest at 223 pounds--prompted suspects to throw in the towel quickly.
"We avoided (knocking heads) if at all possible," Stromwall said, "but if a guy asked for it, he got it."
"They were so feared and respected," said Lt. Dan Cooke, a police veteran who worked with Crowder for a period, "that when we'd announce such and such a case had been turned over to the Hat Squad, many of the suspects in those cases would voluntarily give themselves up."
The detectives had citywide jurisdiction and covered their beat thoroughly.
"Earl Carroll's, the Mocambo, Ciro's . . . we roamed that (Sunset) Strip pretty good," Stromwall said. "I think we knew every waitress and bartender in town, and they were the people who knew what was going on."
Knew Who Was in Town
From time to time, the squad found it necessary to run undesirable people out of Los Angeles, and they usually did it swiftly.
"There wouldn't be anyone hit town we didn't know about," Stromwall said. "This one major guy who got run out of New York had about half the New York Police Department on his payroll. . . . He was in town two days and we had him. We told him he was not welcome here. He said 'thank you' and left.
"Another guy came up from New Orleans. He was going to organize gambling. He was here less than a week. We came in on him with machine guns. He got the message. And he left."
Then there were the "magnificent seven," as Stromwall labeled them, from Cleveland.
"They were all pimps. They were going to set up a big prostitution ring. Among other things, they were going to use the gals to worm their way into law enforcement and get policemen in compromising positions. It took the better part of a year to get them."
Could 'Make You Like It'
Cooke and others talk about the detectives' fairness in dealing with criminals.
"These guys could put you in jail and make you like it," said Robert Peinado, a Palm Springs attorney and former LAPD detective. "We had different types of criminals in those days. Holdup men were fatalistic. They played the game, and if they got caught, they got caught."
Evidence of that respect was apparent at Herman's funeral, attended by a number of ex-convicts the squad had sent to prison.
"Three of them I talked to did collectively 56 years (behind bars)," Stromwall said. "We never put a guy away mad."
The judges remembered an incident involving a gang the four had chased through a hotel off Temple Street.
"There were four guys and three gals," Stromwall said. "They ran out of a side door to their parked car at the end of a cul-de-sac, maybe 50 yards. They had rifles and handguns."
In pursuit, Crowder took one side of the street, Herman and Benson the center, and Stromwall the other side. Like a scene out of the Old West, they approached in broad daylight, weapons holstered.
"It was very rare you pulled your gun," Stromwall said. "You only pull your gun when you want to kill somebody. They saw us coming. They just put their rifles on the hood of their car and put their hands up."
The squad's most complex and perhaps toughest case took eight months to crack. The crime--which began as an abortive holdup of More's Inc., a discount store in West Los Angeles--occurred July 29, 1960.
"It was a robbery, murder, kidnaping-type thing," Crowder said. "It involved the FBI. (A special agent was assigned to each member of the Hat Squad.) It was a hair-raiser."
Two parolees from Alcatraz ultimately were convicted and sentenced to the gas chamber, but neither was executed. One died on Death Row; the other was paroled and now is back in federal prison, the judges said.
A key witness in the case was a citizen who chased the criminals in his car. He was shot through the windshield with a .357 magnum revolver, the bullet striking him between the eyes. Incredibly, he lived to testify.
However, much of the credit for the convictions went to the Hat Squad, which had uncovered countless bits of evidence, including a gun that had been discarded in the desert--"a million grains of sand," as Crowder called the painstaking investigation.
By then, Herman, Stromwall and Crowder had become attorneys, and their more sophisticated knowledge of the law proved extremely beneficial.
"That was about the time all these exclusionary rules became popular," Stromwall remembered, "and we could foresee what was coming down the pike. One hundred fifty-six pieces of evidence went through trial on two separate occasions, and we didn't lose one of them."
Law School Not Popular
Stromwall believes there were only seven attorneys in the police department at the time, "and the chief (William H. Parker) was one of them."
"Going to law school was not a very popular thing to do for policemen. . . . It was difficult for people on the police department in those days to understand that there's a relationship between the law and law enforcement."
All attended night classes at Southwestern University College of Law, Herman and Stromwall graduating together in 1955, Crowder a bit later.
An 18-hour day was not uncommon, the judges said, nor was it uncommon to miss classes because of police work.
Crowder's memories of his bar examinations remain vivid.
"The first time I went in to take the bar," he said, "my mother and father were out here visiting with me. I got up at 5:30, had breakfast and kissed my folks goodby. They congratulated me and said good luck. And as I walked out the door, I saw my dad sitting on the couch drinking coffee.
"I had just finished my second question at the bar exam when the doctor walked across the room and tapped me on the shoulder. 'Mr. Crowder,' he said, 'would you step outside?' And I said sure. He said, 'Your father just dropped dead.' "
Crowder was unable to continue, but took the exam later and passed.
The squad disbanded when Herman resigned from the police department in 1962 after 17 years of service, three shy of retirement. Forfeiting his pension money, he began practicing law in Los Angeles and did so for 24 years.
The future judges retired from the police department, then launched their legal careers.
Moved Up to Judgeship
Crowder practiced law with Herman, Morgan Rodney and another partner in their own L.A. firm from 1967 to 1974, when he was appointed a Municipal Court commissioner. In 1985, Gov. Deukmejian appointed him judge.
Stromwall served briefly in the District Attorney's office, became a commissioner of the Municipal Court, then was appointed judge in 1972 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. In 1985, he was elevated to the Superior Court.
Recently, the judges and their wives traveled to Mazatlan on a week's vacation--their first together since the Korean war.
"It was a time to collect and reflect," Stromwall said. "We looked up some retired LAPD friends who live there and talked about the good old days."