This being Los Angeles, it probably is only a matter of time until somebody introduces the notion of “geographic karma.” When they do, Exhibit A might be the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division station, which happens to sit on exactly the same spot as the Roost Cafe, once one of the city’s most notorious gangland hangouts.
In fact, the mob-style murder of gambling czar George “Les” Bruneman occurred there 62 years ago, turning the Temple Street site into something of a local landmark.
In the 1920s, before L.A.'s legendary gangsters Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Mickey Cohen hit town, gambling chieftains Jack Dragna, “the Al Capone of L.A.,” and Mafioso Johnny Rosselli engaged in a sometimes bloody rivalry with crime overlord Charlie Crawford, “the Wolf of Spring Street,” for control of the lucrative local bootlegging trade. Meanwhile, Bruneman--one of Dragna and Rosselli’s allies--was busily pilfering results from their newly installed West Coast racing wire service, which posted gambling odds and results of horse races and other sporting events.
By 1937, Dragna, who controlled the gambling, and Rosselli, who managed the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the working backbone of the film industry, joined Siegel--not by choice, but on orders from Eastern mob bosses. Siegel was sent out from New York (where he and Dragna had been colleagues in Murder Inc.) to take over Los Angeles’ crime organization.
At a big closed-door meeting, when Siegel announced to syndicate members that he henceforth would be taking a cut of all the city’s gambling proceeds, the former hit man Bruneman was the only career criminal to walk out.
Soon afterward, Bruneman was shot and wounded. When he recovered, he was ambushed at the Roost Cafe and, this time, the killers’ eight shots did the job.
That gangland assassination contributed to the corrupt atmosphere then enveloping the City of Angels, which already was nationally notorious for its 600 brothels, 200 gambling dens and 1,800 bookie joints.
Bruneman’s name and picture first hit the newspapers in December 1930, when he was implicated in the kidnapping of a low-key bookie named Ezekiel “Zeke” Caress, along with his wife and chauffeur.
Although Caress was the syndicate’s top accountant, who neither drank, smoked nor chased women, no one thought he was worth the $100,000 demanded by the mobsters. That is, no one except Caress himself. Indignant and low on cash, Caress negotiated a deal, cutting the ransom to $50,000. He then wrote four separate checks and called his good friend Bruneman, who he knew could get the checks cashed at the Rose Isle gambling ship moored off Long Beach.
But Bruneman never made it that far. He was sitting with Caress’ abductors in a car, waiting for a water taxi, when two Long Beach police officers walked up and began questioning them. When the cops asked Bruneman and his companions to get out of the car, all hell broke loose. One of the reckless men inside the vehicle fired his pistol. One bullet struck Officer W.H. Waggoner in the back, crippling him for life. Still, the wounded cop helped his partner hold the mobsters off until help arrived.
Later, Bruneman skipped town while out on bail, but the five kidnappers were tried and convicted. Returning in 1934, he called famed defense attorney Jerry “Get Me” Giesler, who lost the first trial but won a new trial on the grounds that the two alternate jurors (a new concept in California) deliberated along with the original sitting jurors, negating the age-old right to trial by 12. Bruneman was acquitted in a second trial.
By 1937, Bruneman had muscled his way back into the gambling scene, making enemies as he opened more bookmaking rackets, and refused to give a percentage of his take to the L.A. mob.
But when Dragna heard that Bruneman had threatened Rosselli’s life, he put out a contract on him.
Fearless, Bruneman strolled arm-in-arm along Redondo’s moonlit beach with a female employee from his nearby Surf Club. Just as they glimpsed two men approaching, shots rang out. One bullet hit the fleeing Bruneman in the back. The hit men ran, and Bruneman staggered to a nearby theater to await an ambulance.
Bruneman was rushed to Queen of Angels Hospital, where he recovered under the watchful eyes of a bodyguard and a beautiful blond 24-year-old personal nurse named Alice Ingram.
Three months later, the same bodyguard sold him out by informing the L.A. mob of his boss’ whereabouts.
On Oct. 24, 1937, Bruneman and nurse Ingram dined at the Montmartre cafe in Hollywood, where Bruneman--who had a penchant for high-stakes gambling--was making plans to open another bookmaking club downstairs. After dinner, they headed east to the less pretentious Roost Cafe for more drinks.
Walking into the roadside cafe, Bruneman threw a $20 bill on the bar, saying, “Money’s made to be spent. Everything is on me.”
Within a few minutes, gangsters Leo “the Lip” Moceri and Frank “the Bomp” Bompensiero calmly walked into the Roost. Bompensiero guarded the door while Moceri walked over to Bruneman’s table. Drawing both his guns, he shot Bruneman in the left eye, toppling him from his chair and killing him instantly. Just to make sure Bruneman was dead, he fired seven more shots into the body. In the chaos, patrons dived under the tables. Ingram kept screaming as Moceri began backing out of the tavern, firing off more shots, four of which hit Ingram in the legs.
A brave employee, 21-year-old Frank Greuzard, ran after the gunmen to get their license plate number. Moceri turned and shot him three times in the stomach, killing him.
Almost two years later, the district attorney’s office, eager to close these unsolved murders, arrested bank robber Peter Pianezzi and charged him with double murder. On the testimony of eyewitnesses--planted by the mob--Pianezzi was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and spent 13 years of a life sentence in prison before being exonerated. The real story of Bruneman’s murder emerged in 1977, when mobster Aladena “Jimmy the Weasel” Fratianno turned government informer and laid out the long-buried secrets of the L.A. mob.
Meanwhile, fate was equally unkind--or perhaps just--to the other participants in the killing: In 1947, four shots tore through the window of the Beverly Hills home of Siegel’s mistress, killing him instantly. Dragna died of a heart attack in 1956 at a Sunset Strip motel, alongside a female FBI informant. Rosselli’s dissected body was found inside a 55-gallon oil drum floating off Florida in 1976. Cohen died of stomach cancer and Moceri was murdered that same year. Bompensiero was finally gunned down in 1977. The public’s fascination with violence made the Roost Cafe an instant landmark that fans of L.A. noir continued to visit until it was torn down to make way for the LAPD’s Rampart station in 1966.