Justice takes a turn to noir
When the coroner put Jack Whalen’s body on a slab, it measured 72 inches, just 6 feet. For years, people had described him as 6-foot-2 or 6-4. But “the Enforcer” was smaller in death than life.
On the death certificate, his family gave his occupation as “actor” and listed as his employer a production company that had cast him in four episodes of a TV western, “The Restless Gun.” They were bit parts, but no one could laugh any longer at Whalen’s claim that what he really wanted was to make it in Hollywood -- he’d died with a SAG card in his wallet thanks to producer David Dortort, who had just launched a new series, the first ever in color, called “Bonanza.”
The last days of the 1950s were filled with conjecture about how the 38-year-old Whalen had come crashing down in Rondelli’s, with a bullet between the eyes, next to the table where Mickey Cohen dined with his crew and his bulldog, Mickey Jr.
The state attorney general’s office said an anonymous caller had suggested that Whalen was ready to blow the lid off the LAPD -- to identify cops who had taken “juice” to protect his operations.
But the dead man’s father did not blame the police. Fred Whalen had been a pool hustler, rumrunner and master con man. Fred was no fool. He said, “Mickey Cohen as good as pulled the trigger, and everybody knows it.”
Mickey said he heard that “Freddie the Thief” was out to kill him. “He has my invitation to come out and see me,” Mickey retorted, “any time.”
The Los Angeles Mirror-News lamented that the city had been transported back to when Mickey was the cocky boss of the Strip. He’d come out of prison playing the harmless ex-hood swooning over the floozies and selling plants, but here he was tweaking the cops again while “murder walks in his wake.” Suddenly 1959 felt like 1949 all over.
At least the wheels of justice turned quickly. They were set for trial in three months, and a bizarre trial it was, given that Sam Lo Cigno was the only one charged. Authorities considered him a “flunky and errand boy” for Mickey and were far from convinced he pulled the trigger. But he had confessed, and the only diner who admitted seeing anything at Rondelli’s was a horse bettor, Hollywood Al, who’d had 20 drinks.
That left Mickey’s table mates to describe a menacing Jack Whalen going “Dago-this” and “Dago-that” and all but begging for a bullet, though all insisted they never saw a gun. And though Lo Cigno said he did it, he couldn’t recall what became of his .38. “It’s one of those foggy things,” he said.
Mickey was the star witness, naturally, as prosecutors kept disbelieving his limited memory and he came back at them as the indignant innocent, “an associate author” who drove himself to Rondelli’s because “the dog couldn’t drive.”
If the defense had its whoppers, the government had its innuendo, as when prosecutors asked witness after witness whether Mickey had called out, at the critical moment, “Now, Sam, now!”
That fit their view of the night as a setup by a lynch mob of “human sewage” to eliminate the bothersome Enforcer. But when the judge pressed for the basis of the “Now, Sam, now!,” prosecutors revealed they’d been told that by a prostitute, who’d heard it from an off-duty maitre d’.
“You know it is false,” Mickey said. “Listen, am I on trial here?”
Sure he was, especially when confronted with the guns found in a trash can outside Rondelli’s.
Those were People’s Exhibits 18, 19 and 20, and prosecutors kept them on a table for the jury to see. Asked by Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Busch to examine an ivory-handled .38, Mickey said, “I wouldn’t put my hands on it for a million dollars. Are you kidding?”
But when he swore, “I haven’t had no guns,” he set the stage for rebuttal testimony that, in a normal courtroom drama, would have provided a vintage Hollywood ending.
Waiting in the wings was Sgt. Jack O’Mara, poised to let the world in on the crowning achievement of his career on the Gangster Squad, how he planted a mole inside Mickey’s home at the peak of the dapper gangster’s power.
On the witness stand O’Mara told how Neal Hawkins, the security guard who secretly was his informant, took seven pistols from Mickey’s home in June 1950 and brought them to a police range where “I marked them inside the butt plate.” O’Mara told how the guns were returned to Mickey’s home and he’d not seen any of them again until after Whalen’s shooting.
“Ten years?” he was asked.
The Hollywood ending would have tweaked a detail about the guns in the trash outside Rondelli’s, making one the actual murder weapon. But that had not been found, having apparently been ditched in the Hollywood Hills. Still, O’Mara could prove that Mickey and his crew were liars -- heavily armed liars -- if any of the guns in the trash came from Mickey’s cache.
He got a screwdriver to show that two of them did.
He screwed the plate off Exhibit 18, an ivory-handled .38. Underneath was a “K.”
He screwed the plate off Exhibit 19. “CX” was under it.
“Was the ‘CX’ for Cohen?” a prosecutor asked.
“No, ‘CX’ was just a random number,” O’Mara said.
The defense response? The cops planted those guns.
The jury began deliberating Thursday, March 24, and the next night Mickey led his entourage to the Cloister, where his reservation to hear comic Joey Bishop had gone unused the fateful evening. This time, the damnedest thing happened: Someone stole his dog. Actually, a drunk stole his Cadillac. Mickey Jr. was in the back. When the human Mickey and his crew left the club, they saw the car racing east on Sunset.
Max Baer Jr., son of the former heavyweight champ, gave chase. A would-be actor who’d not yet become Jethro of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” he’d joined Mickey’s crowd as a “mooch,” enjoying the prime tables and girls. When Mickey yelled, “Get that guy!” Baer gunned his Pontiac. He estimated they were going 100 mph on Sunset when “the guy, for some reason, I can never figure it out, we turn on Wilcox . . . right into the police station.”
The drunken dognapper had delivered himself to the Hollywood lockup -- a sign, if there ever was one, that the LAPD could get its man.
The jury came back March 29 and declared Lo Cigno guilty of first-degree murder, then recommended life in prison.
Dist. Atty. Manley J. Bower quickly touted the coup, the first conviction in an L.A. gangland killing in two decades. It was a perfect moment to toast the end of a losing streak, and an era, until their own case went the way of noir.
It took a year for a higher court to lambaste the guilt-by-association prosecution as “utter unfairness” and “billingsgate.”
“The case we are reviewing could truly be called ‘The trial of Mickey Cohen,’ ” appellate judges wrote, citing prosecutors’ suggestion that Mickey said “Now, Sam, now!” and the display of guns from the trash can, all hinting at a hit for hire. The guns may have been “deposited there by associates of Mr. Cohen,” but nothing tied them to Lo Cigno, the man actually on trial.
Thus did Jack O’Mara’s prized evidence help free the convicted killer.
Of course, prosecutors did not give up. If the judges said it seemed like the trial of Mickey, why not make it that? They got a new indictment, adding a conspiracy count against him and three of his dinner crew. Only after a hung jury did they settle for a face-saving deal in which Lo Cigno alone agreed to be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter in return for a one- to 10-year sentence.
Mickey waited until his end-of-life memoirs to boast how they’d worked the system.
“Sam Lo Cigno, who was accused of the hit, couldn’t hit the wall of an auditorium,” Mickey said in his last account of the night at Rondelli’s. This version -- to be believed or not, as with anything he said -- had Sam taking the rap for "$25,000 plus,” though Mickey declined to say which “expert shot” had done in the “vicious, bullying, rotten bastard Jack-this-so-called Enforcer Whalen.”
By the time Mickey said this, he was in no shape to be prosecuted. He was battling cancer and using a three-prong cane after having been bashed on the skull with a lead pipe in the federal pen in Atlanta.
Mickey landed there not for Whalen or any killing but -- again -- for tax evasion. As Lo Cigno’s trial ended, a grand jury began summoning his stripper consorts and others to testify to Mickey’s lifestyle of Cadillacs and nightclubs that was hard to reconcile with the $1,200 income he reported from selling plants and ice cream.
Mickey screamed double jeopardy -- he’d already done time for telling white lies to the IRS. But on July 1, 1961, U.S. District Judge George Boldt sentenced him to 15 years, more than Lo Cigno got for killing a man. Mickey was just 48, even if it seemed like he’d been around forever.
Jack O’Mara was 44. He also was no longer a cop.
He retired the day he hit 20 years on the force, not long after his ill-fated turn on the witness stand. “It just got to be no fun anymore,” he said.
That had been coming since the California Supreme Court, ruling on the Gangster Squad’s bugging of a bookie, prohibited the use of illegally obtained evidence, putting an end to anything-goes police work, on paper at least. Now you had to sit by while defense attorneys accused you of planting guns.
How lucky was O’Mara to have made it through without a single complaint, unless you counted the drunk he hauled out of a car in 1943? “I was living on the sharp edge,” he said, and he could have been speaking for more than himself.
Two of the Gangster Squad’s original eight were still on the force. “Get the hell out” was O’Mara’s advice. Their time was as past as Mickey’s.
He attended part of Mickey’s trial as a civilian and took pleasure in the absurdity of his getting 15 years for fudging his taxes. But O’Mara did not confuse that with justice. Real justice was what happened to Mickey behind bars.
Every account had it that a deranged inmate conked him from behind in the Atlanta prison, putting him in a coma for two weeks. There was inevitable speculation that someone else in the mob was behind it, but Mickey never believed that. The guy was a “ding-a-ling,” he said, a nut.
Back in L.A., however, O’Mara was certain what had happened: Whalen’s dad had it done. Didn’t the old man have connections all over from his lifetime of scamming? O’Mara had heard him with his own ears after the shooting.
“He told me that he was gonna get Mickey. ‘The last thing I do, O’Mara, I’m gonna get that son of a bitch.’ Freddie Whalen, he told me, ‘You won’t nail me.’ But he said, ‘I’ll have that done.’ ”
That was their world in a nutshell. Truth was found not in the sunlight, but in the shadows. Justice was found not in a marble courthouse, but off Mulholland Drive, or wherever you could get it.
O’Mara tied up his years on the Gangster Squad in a neat bow with this belief that the aging grifter Freddie “the Thief” Whalen had been able to reach across the continent to have some dippy-do bash Mickey Cohen in the head for what he’d done to his boy -- a pure noir fantasy if ever there was one.
Except maybe it wasn’t a fantasy.
If you were of the Whalen clan, you got educated in the rackets. John von Hurst was a toddler when his grandfather Fred Whalen took him for a walk in Hollywood and bookies abducted the family patriarch, demanding $2,900 he’d scammed from them as “Dr. Harry Moore.”
After von Hurst grew into a strapping teen, Fred used him as a straight man when he’d go to pool halls and pretend to be tipsy. The kid would nudge him, “C’mon, Grandpa, you’ve had enough” to lure the suckers into futile games of eight-ball.
So even if von Hurst was doomed to be a square -- an architect -- Grandpa didn’t hide who he was. Fred thus allowed him to hang close when two men came calling at the Whalen clan’s mansion in Los Feliz after Mickey went to prison. “Yeah. I was there,” recalled von Hurst, who was 15 at the time.
When he answered the door, “they asked if Fred Whalen was at home, and I said, ‘Yeah, just a second,’ and he came downstairs and they went to the living room. He sat on the couch and they sat on two chairs near him.
“They started out with ‘Haven’t seen you for a long time. How ya doin’?’ My grandfather said, ‘I’m doing fine.’
“They said, ‘You know, Fred, we’ve never really gotten right about what happened with Jack. We would like to, you know, even the score.’
“The idea was they were gonna kill him. So they said, ‘Do you have a problem with this?’ And my grandfather said, ‘No. . . . I don’t care what you do to the son of a bitch.’ ”
Von Hurst, who is 61 now, said his grandpa did not mention the visit again until they heard that Mickey had been bashed over the head in prison on Aug. 14, 1963. “All he said was ‘I guess those guys meant what they said.’ ”
Sgt. Jerry Wooters, who played the long odds all his life, ended his police career with four years of jail duty. “Couldn’t get out,” he said.
He tried to find refuge as a suburban dad, but fudged even there. He enrolled his oldest boy in an Indian Guides program where fathers and sons slept in tepees, “and invariably Jerry would . . . sneak out,” said Dr. Norm von Herzen, another father. “He’d go in the back of his station wagon on his soft mattress. That’s Jerry.”
During those trips, Jerry also shared his apprehension about life in “the so-called outside world” and how the gangsters mocked cops like him as suited to be security guards at best, minimum-wage hacks.
But just about the time Mickey Cohen was being conked in prison, an old war buddy asked him to try selling built-in vacuum systems. Why hadn’t he realized he could sell anything? “Hocked the house, hocked the car, got into the business.”
Wooters started selling garage doors, too, and kitchen “food centers” built into the counter, fancy blenders really. He began telling developers of huge Orange County subdivisions, “Look, I’ll take care of your intercom, garage door opener, build your alarm system.” By 1969, he was able to move his family into a house on the water in Newport Beach. Then he built an office park.
In later days, he joked that he put his LAPD pension to good use, all "$332 or something” a week. “Pays my liquor bill,” he said. He grew a wispy white beard, like other multimillionaire beach bums who whiled away days sipping drinks and watching the bikinis pass.
At Christmas 1998, when he was 81, he stumbled while putting on his pants before dinner. He told his wife, “I’ve got a headache.” He’d been shot down over the Pacific, drawn his gun on Mickey Cohen and nearly walked into the wrong restaurant with his pal Jack Whalen. But the brain hemorrhage took him out with little suffering for his sins.
Two old cops were on the boat that carried his ashes toward Santa Catalina Island. One was Bert Phelps, whose LAPD career had been stymied for being his partner. A bug man then, he was a judge now, Superior Court Judge Beauford H. Phelps. Tried murder cases, studied at Oxford. Also aboard was Robert Peinado, who worked for the LAPD from ’51 to ’63 and became a lawyer too. Jerry loved his singing, so he’d asked a favor, for when his time came. Jerry had a song in mind, made famous by Sinatra.
The boat was halfway to Catalina when they began struggling with the box of ashes, had to get pliers to rip it open. Then Jerry Wooters’ remains were sprinkled on the waves as Peinado sang “My Way.”
Jack O’Mara did not take a day off between his last shift at the LAPD and his first heading uniformed security at the county’s racetracks, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. That provided one of two work photos he hung on his wall the rest of his life. The first was of the Gangster Squad circa 1948, 15 plainclothes bruisers, some squinting under hats or with cigars in hand. In the second, O’Mara was the only one in a suit with 55 uniformed guards, more bodies than in many police forces.
“I think you’re a dummy that you didn’t go for chief,” his wife, Connie, said one afternoon, speaking of the LAPD.
“I had more fun than the chief,” he said.
But she could get him going by noting how his contemporaries Tom Reddin and Ed Davis had risen that far. Hadn’t he done as well as them at the Academy, or as Tom Bradley, his 1940 classmate who become mayor? “Hell, no, higher!” O’Mara said, and she had him.
They all were part of a generation that was supposed to remake the LAPD. But the others had not been given the chore that had been an obsession in L.A. for a century, of protecting this paradise from the evil outsiders of the underworld. Every decade or so, another shadowy unit was formed to wage a war that left even its most celebrated foot soldiers tarnished in the end.
You could go back to Frank “Lefty” James, who was shot in 1913 trying to rid the city of “Eastern crooks” and then headed the Gun Squad targeting Prohibition racketeers. Lefty quit twice before he was shipped to the Valley and retired. Or Ed “Roughhouse” Brown, who sent Al Capone packing in 1927, only to be indicted for hanging around a bookie joint. “Somebody’s gotta do the dirty work,” O’Mara said, and for him it meant settling for being chief of the racetracks.
He taught his youngest to drive in Santa Anita’s parking lot and she was a whiz. Everything came easy to Martha O’Mara, who went on to earn a doctorate in organizational behavior from Harvard, then taught in its business and design schools.
Maybe this was justice -- what became of him and the other Gangster Squad alums. Lindo “Jaco” Giacopuzzi became as rich as Wooters, with a shopping center on 10 acres. Jack Horrall became military liaison to the governor. And how about the judge? And him, O’Mara, with that brilliant daughter in Cambridge?
They all lived to see a crippled Mickey Cohen die in 1976, at 62, leaving an estate valued at $3,000.
In his own last years, O’Mara tended his rose garden in La Verne and fished the Sierra. He decided it was time to tell the tales of the Gangster Squad, though his wife thought it was a mistake. “You might put your foot in it,” Connie O’Mara said.
He was the first to admit, “I’d go to jail today,” but did she really think they’d haul him off for having taken the hit man Marshall Caifano up Coldwater Canyon for “a chat” in 1949?
“Oh, Daddy, don’t go into that,” she said.
“Leave it alone a minute, will you boss?” he said, convinced it was time to tell it all.
After she had her stroke, he lifted her in and out of bed, until he got weak from lymphoma. Then he picked their grave site in the San Gabriel Valley, on a slope with a tree to shade visitors. That’s where his daughter read his eulogy after he died in June 2003, at 86. Martha O’Mara called it “A Good Life,” and spoke of how he’d been “part of a team that really did keep organized crime out of Southern California.”
You could make that case, for L.A. had never gone the way of Chicago or Philly, and its mob was derided now as a Mickey Mouse Mafia.
“To my father, there was good, there was evil,” Martha O’Mara said. “He fought evil.”
Then she looked around the cemetery. She noticed stones with disturbingly young faces etched into the marble. One to her folks’ right showed a smiling fellow in a T-shirt, dead at 17. One down the lane showed an 18-year-old with a mustache. Then it hit her: “It’s the gangbanger cemetery. These young men get blown away in the gang wars and then these families put these monuments up.”
So many now died that way, their killings rarely made the news. The world never learned their nicknames as it had with Bugsy and Jimmy “the Weasel.” Still, Mickey would’ve been proud of how they flaunted who they were on those stones.
It sure looked to Martha O’Mara as if her dad would be spending eternity alongside a new generation of gangsters. There was no escape, not for Jack O’Mara or for Los Angeles.
Times researcher Maloy Moore and former researcher Tracy Thomas contributed to this series.
(BEGIN TEX OF INFOBOX)
CAST OF CHARACTERS
MAX BAER JR.
The future “Beverly Hillbillies” actor became part of Mickey Cohen’s entourage after the shooting of Jack Whalen.
A rising bookie after Mickey Cohen went to jail, Cahan prompted a Gangster Squad investigation and a court decision that changed the ground rules for policing in California.
Hired as a security guard at Cohen’s home, Hawkins secretly served as a Gangster Squad informant.
The squad’s original bug man, Keeler knew Navy experts whose eavesdropping systems did not require telltale wires.
He came from Cleveland to serve as a flunky for Cohen and told police “I’m the man” after Jack Whalen was shot.
One of squad’s original members, he took out-of-town hoodlums into the hills for “a little heart-to-heart talk,” and became obsessed with proving Cohen a killer.
WILLIAM H. PARKER
A legendary disciplinarian and LAPD chief from 1950 to the mid-'60s.
Phelps gained a reputation as a bugging genius when he joined the squad in the 1950s and partnered with Jerry Wooters.
JOHN VON HURST
A grandson of Fred Whalen, he witnessed the visit of two men offering to help get revenge on Cohen.
A booster of the LAPD through the TV show “Dragnet,” Webb turned to the Gangster Squad for help when going through a divorce.
World-class pool player and hustler, as “Freddie the Thief” he became an enterprising con man, but hoped for better for his son, Jack.
A dashing figure who played polo at an elite military academy, he eyed a Hollywood career but instead became “Jack the Enforcer.”
After barely surviving World War II, Wooters joined the Gangster Squad and forged a secret alliance with Jack Whalen.
Previous installments, photo galleries, videos and an interactive map to complement this series are online.