The mob-style rub-out of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel 50 years ago today at the Beverly Hills mansion of his street-wise, auburn-haired mistress has endured as one of Los Angeles’ most romanticized murder mysteries.
The case was sensational: a fusillade of shots through the window of a mansion once owned by George Jessel, a voluptuous mystery woman who spent money like water and was conveniently out of town, and a dapper, larger-than-life gangland figure who prowled posh nightspots and ran with Hollywood’s fast crowd.
As an entire mythology grew up around the Hollywood-handsome gangster with the explosive temper and expensive tastes, three main theories were advanced to explain why the 41-year-old Siegel met his end:
The Bug, as he was known (but never to his face) was whacked by East Coast mob cronies who suspected him of skimming from the $6-million Flamingo Hotel casino in Las Vegas. Or, he was bumped off in a mob war over control of California’s sports betting wire service. Or, he was taken out because he was the odd man in a love triangle involving gal pal Virginia Hill and a top Chicago mobster.
“We spent many man-hours investigating the Siegel case and were convinced that he was killed by his own associates,” wrote Clinton H. Anderson, longtime police chief of Beverly Hills, in his autobiography. “But there was never sufficient evidence to pinpoint the identity of the assassin.”
On the 50th anniversary of Siegel’s murder, the case file rests on the desk of Det. Les Zoeller. Although there was never a shortage of people with a motive to kill Siegel, over the years the list of actual suspects always has been on the thin side.
Which is what makes the latest chapter of the saga--call it Bugsy and the Cat Man--so intriguing. It began 10 years ago with the deathbed confession of a self-described retired mobster, who told a Herald Examiner reporter and two federal agents that he killed Siegel.
The tale spun by Eddie Cannizzaro, who lived with his elderly mother and three dozen cats in Agoura Hills, can neither be verified nor disputed. Anybody who knows anything is either dead or isn’t talking, Zoeller said.
The detective’s investigation did verify that Eddie Cannizzaro was indeed “connected.” He had worked as a gofer for gambling chieftain Jack Dragna, once described in a state crime commission report as “the Al Capone of California.”
Dragna and Siegel had been colleagues in New York for Murder Inc., as the team of underworld “torpedoes,” or hit men, was known. Later, they became rivals for control of California’s lucrative racing wire service, which posted gambling odds and results of horse races and other sporting events.
During the late 1930s, mob chieftains Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky dispatched Siegel to Los Angeles to oversee their West Coast operations, and he was immediately star-struck. His boyhood pal, actor George Raft, offered entry to Hollywood’s circle of glitterati.
In 1941, Siegel’s social life was temporarily derailed when he was jailed while awaiting trial for the murder of Hollywood mobster Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg, who had squealed about mob business to the FBI. Siegel’s treatment in captivity created a scandal. Because prison food didn’t agree with him, Siegel was allowed his own chef. He had unlimited phone privileges, and constant female companionship in his cell. He was allowed out 19 times under the pretext of seeing the dentist. In fact, he was going to lunch with an aspiring actress.
Just a few weeks after Siegel’s incarceration began, the key witness against him abruptly died under mysterious circumstances. He never stood trial for killing Greenberg.
Zoeller inherited the Siegel slaying when he was assigned to look into Beverly Hills’ unsolved murders. Cannizzaro’s claim was the only new development in a long-stalled investigation.
“It’s the only information I’ve gotten,” said Zoeller, who has built cases that resulted in murder convictions against some of Beverly Hills’ most notorious modern-day killers--the Menendez brothers and members of the infamous Billionaire Boys Club.
“I’ve run up the flagpole and slid down again,” Zoeller said. “I couldn’t get any more information to confirm what he’s saying, or to disprove it.”
These are the facts of Siegel’s murder:
At 10:45 p.m. on June 20, 1947, four slugs fired from a .30-caliber military rifle slammed into Siegel’s head and body. He and three others had just returned from a trout dinner at a popular Ocean Park restaurant, Jack’s at the Beach. Killed instantly by the blasts, which destroyed one eye and most of his nose, Siegel slumped on the chintz sofa in the living room of Hill’s Moorish-style mansion at 810 Linden Drive, the early edition of the next morning’s newspaper in his lap.
He had $108 on him. His gun was upstairs. The drapes had been left open. It smacked of a setup.
The shots were fired from a rose-covered pergola through a side window, thudding into the walls, shattering a statuette of the Greek god Pan and puncturing a painting of a nude holding a wine glass.
Not present was Hill, Siegel’s lover, a 30ish, thrice-divorced former dancer who had become a trusted mob courier and party hostess. She and Siegel had quarreled 10 days earlier, and she was on her way to Paris.
For years, law enforcement officials have wondered whether Hill’s other mob associates had advised her to leave town for her health.
According to one version, their final falling out came over the actress Marie “The Body” MacDonald, who had been spending time with Siegel in Las Vegas.
Told in Paris of Siegel’s death, Hill swooned. Questioned later, she played coy, denying their relationship.
“If anyone or anything was his mistress, it was that Las Vegas hotel. I never knew Ben was involved in all that gang stuff. I can’t imagine who shot him or why,” she sobbed.
She was called before a congressional committee to testify about the mob in 1951. Fifteen years later, she gobbled some sleeping pills and wandered into a snowdrift in Austria and died. She once said she considered Siegel “the love of my life.”
Police found nine shells outside the window of her house, which she had rented from Rudolph Valentino’s former agent for $500 a month. A neighbor told police he heard a car speeding toward Sunset Boulevard after the shots were fired.
One of the details that bothers Zoeller about Cannizzaro’s story is his claim that the getaway car drove him in the opposite direction--toward Wilshire Boulevard.
Cannizzaro, who claimed to be a former bodyguard and chauffeur to Dragna, was 66 when he died March 6, 1987, of heart failure. But before he expired, Cannizzaro summoned federal agents and a reporter to his bedside and confessed to seven underworld hits, including Siegel’s, which he said allowed him an early retirement.
After the Siegel hit, Cannizzaro said, he settled in west Los Angeles County, where he took care of his mother and, at any given moment, about three dozen stray cats. The Cat Man spent his final years crusading on behalf of his feline friends, even trying to line up his Las Vegas cronies as investors in a plan to develop a birth control serum for cats.
“I just get mad when I see what people do to little animals,” he said during a 1973 interview with The Times. “They just toss them out anyplace, on the road, in an empty field, in an alley, and leave them to die without thinking about the pain and suffering they’re causing.”
In his confession 15 years later, he described how he executed the legendary gangster:
“I had a semiautomatic carbine with a full magazine,” Cannizzaro recalled, according to a 10-year-old newspaper account of his confession, which at times more closely resembled a boast.
“I moved up on the lawn and could see clearly through the bay window. Siegel had his back to the window next to the side table. . . . I nestled the barrel on a branch and took my time before I squeezed off the shots in rapid fire. . . . It was a clean hit. I was picked because I knew Siegel and wouldn’t make a mistake.”
The reporter who heard the deathbed confession died earlier this year. One of the investigators has suffered a crippling stroke. The other could not be located.
Siegel put Las Vegas on the map. But the coroner’s office misspelled his name--"Seigel"--on the identifying toe tag. And only a half-dozen people attended his funeral, which lasted five minutes.
Police have no record of Cannizzaro being questioned in connection with the Siegel hit, as Cannizzaro has claimed.
“If it happened in reference to the Bugsy Siegel case, it would be in the Bugsy Siegel file. It should be there. I can’t say one way or another because I wasn’t alive yet,” Zoeller said.
Will the case ever be solved?
“Who knows?” Zoeller said. “It’s been 50 years. If anyone has that information that gives me that extra boost, yes, it could be solved. It also takes somebody taking the time--being given the time--to try and find out who in that era is still alive, to contact them, and see what they know.”