Onetime 'Liquor Czar' Ended Life a Fugitive

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A radio minister called him one of the "criminals who spoil paradise." Before World War II, he was a powerful presence in L.A.'s smoke-filled rooms, where political deals were made. His fall from the pinnacle to disgrace was as dramatic as his climb, and today his name--William George Bonelli--has virtually disappeared from the history books.

Bonelli rose from the Los Angeles City Council to head the far-reaching state Board of Equalization. He was accused of using the job to collect protection money and sell liquor licenses to suspected mobsters and ex-cons, or of swapping the licenses for political favors.

During the early 1950s, when government hearings enthralled television audiences, Bonelli was grilled on nationwide TV about his reputed connections with organized crime.

He died a fugitive in Mexico, where he had fled to avoid another of his many indictments.

Bonelli built the first tract homes in the Santa Clarita Valley and turned a piece of land in Saugus from a rodeo arena into an auto raceway. But his notoriety surpassed those accomplishments; he was the central figure, the "Liquor Czar," in scandals that reached all the way to Sacramento.

Born on his family's ranch in Kingman, Ariz., Bonelli came to Los Angeles about 1912. He graduated from USC, then pursued a master's degree at Occidental College and a law degree from Southwestern University. In 1927, as a professor of political science at Occidental, he was elected to the City Council.

Early on, rumors of Bonelli links to organized crime began to surface. In his popular radio broadcasts, the Rev. "Fighting Bob" Shuler spoke out against Bonelli. In 1931, when his broadcasting license was revoked, Shuler used his pulpit to help drive elected officials such as Bonelli from office.

Bonelli vaulted onto the ballot to run for mayor against John Clinton Porter in 1929. He lost. But in 1931, Bonelli won a seat in the state Assembly and, three years later, he worked on acting Gov. Frank Merriam's election campaign.

Reportedly as payback for helping Merriam raise $10 million to wage a highly charged smear campaign to defeat socialist Upton Sinclair, Bonelli got a $6,000-a-year job as director of what is now the state Department of Consumer Affairs. In that capacity, he regulated contractors and construction companies, all the while working as an attorney and director of a construction company that he and his friends owned.

Through the company, Bonelli acquired loans to buy up failed ranches in the Santa Clarita Valley and elsewhere, eventually becoming a prominent landowner. He developed the area's first tract, a set of 300 houses still known as "Bonelli homes."

In 1939, the year after Merriam appointed Bonelli chairman of the Board of Equalization, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Buron Fitts indicted Bonelli and five others on charges of bribery and payoffs involving skid row saloons and "B-girls"--women who enticed men to buy drinks. Fitts accused them all of owning stock in Hillview Oil Co., an alleged front for a multimillion-dollar Los Angeles gambling syndicate.

Bonelli retorted that he didn't know whether he owned a share of stock in Hillview, but that he had put about $5,000 into the company and had never gotten anything in return.

Huffing and bluffing before the trial, he publicly banned corrupt B-girls but did nothing to revoke the licenses of those violating the ban.

For 16 sensation-packed weeks, prosecutors accused Bonelli of running an army of men, including legislators and law officers, who contributed regularly to his election campaign.

One of Bonelli's foes testified that the payoff scheme helped finance Bonelli's campaign fund. Several scheduled witnesses received death threats and either refused to testify or were placed under armed guard. One, a saloonkeeper, had his liquor license revoked, presumably on Bonelli's orders.

On May 27, 1940, Judge William J. Palmer concluded that the prosecution had failed to link four of the defendants, Bonelli among them, in the purported graft plot. He issued a directed verdict of not guilty.

Bonelli donned his white Stetson for his getaway before confidently calling the charges a "$10-million political hoax by the district attorney, which cost the taxpayers approximately $300,000."

Bonelli kept landing on his feet. Two years later, he was reelected to the Board of Equalization.

From his office in the Black Building at 4th and Hill streets, he continued to hand out liquor licenses for the state fee of $525--reportedly in exchange for much pricier campaign contributions and other payoffs. These licenses were routinely resold for up to $12,000.

When reporters challenged him, Bonelli retorted, "Sure, there are hoods and criminals in this business, but not any more than there are in the newspaper business."

Those who didn't want to jeopardize their liquor licenses, including the maitre d' at Billy Gray's Band Box, a flashy comedy club, reportedly paid a hefty price to Bonelli and his cronies to stay open after hours. Bonelli often frequented the restaurants and clubs, usually with an attractive woman on each arm and always getting the best table.

The war years turned much of the government's attention elsewhere, but in 1951, Bonelli was put on nationwide TV in front of the federal Kefauver Commission and grilled about his alleged connections with organized crime.

He was also asked about involvement in a license scandal in which more than $1 million was paid under the table in Los Angeles County. Bonelli used his charm and intelligence to circumvent the questioning and put into the record the three-hour ruling Judge Palmer had written in his favor more than a decade earlier.

In the wake of the investigation, a federal grand jury indicted Bonelli on charges of income tax evasion. He was not cleared of that until 1966.

During most of his early political career, he was a buddy of Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times. But when Dorothy "Buff" Chandler, wife of new Publisher Norman Chandler, who sometimes steered corporate decisions of the Times-owned Los Angeles Mirror, gave the go-ahead, reporter Art White investigated Bonelli.

In October 1953, a series of eight explosive articles accused "Big Bill" Bonelli, the "Cowboy Saloon Czar," of overseeing a Southern California liquor empire, using kickbacks and contributions to his political campaigns to buy land and fund his courtroom defenses. The articles also linked him to known and suspected underworld figures.

Bonelli fired back with a $1.5-million libel suit. He attacked the Chandler family in his 1954 book, "Billion Dollar Blackjack: The Story of Corruption and the Los Angeles Times." Rumors flew that the Chandlers corralled all the copies and burned them, but according to retired Times Publisher Otis Chandler, the book was so unsuccessful that Bonelli started that rumor to increase sales.

But it was already too late for Bonelli. He had lost his seat on the Board of Equalization in 1954. That was the year voters approved Proposition 3, a Times-Mirror-endorsed initiative stripping the Board of Equalization of its power to grant liquor licenses.

On Feb. 25, 1955, Bonelli was at his Arizona ranch when he was arrested and charged with violating California's election laws for allegedly receiving $250,000 in bribes from the liquor industry.

Rather than return to California, Bonelli slipped across the border into Mexico, where he was promptly arrested at the request of the U.S. government. In May 1959, after he'd spent almost four years in a Mexico City prison, authorities refused to extradite him, and set him free. For the last 15 years of his life, he stayed in Mexico, a fugitive from justice or, as he liked to say, "from injustice." He died of emphysema in Hermosillo in 1970. Seven years later, his widow, Mary, sued the state for his $167,000 pension. She won on appeal.

Bonelli's homestead on the Saugus Speedway was torn down in 1987. The track closed in 1995. (Another site that carries the Bonelli name, Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas, was named for the late Los Angeles County supervisor, who was not related to William G. Bonelli.)

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