Chapter 7 Various Nefarious Friends Page I of II
For some reason or other I have met a large number of men of questionable reputation, some nationally known. Thanks to my better judgment, I have never become involved with any of them in any business dealings, except on a couple of instances when, as a real estate broker, I sold some land owned by one of them.
The first "big name" bad guy I ever personally met was Wyatt Earp, former Tombstone killer and later U.S. Marshal in Tombstone. My dad introduced me to him in front of the Old Pueblo Club when it was located on South Stone Avenue in Tucson. Earp was with Billy Breckenridge, who also had been a U.S. Marshal at Tombstone. This was in 1928. (Earp died in 1929 at the age of about 80.)
My reference to Wyatt Earp as a criminal, when many look upon him as a great frontier hero of yesterday, is explainable. None of the old timers who knew him and his gang had any use for him. He was a killer who made his living outside the law. It was true that later in life he reformed and was accepted, but this was with much reservation by the old timers.
We all had lunch together that day, and I enjoyed listening to the conversation about early Tombstone and Tucson. My dad later recalled that right after the railroad was built through Tucson, the Earp gang attacked the Clanton gang who had boarded the train at Tucson heading for California. As the train slowly pulled out of the station, the Earps rode up on their horses alongside the car where the Clantons were and shot through the windows, just like in the western movies. Two of the Clanton gang were killed. My dad said he remembers running down the street as a small boy, following the wagon that was hauling the two murdered men to the undertaker.
In the mid-thirties the John Dillinger gang came to Tucson while they were being sought throughout the Midwest. They specialized in bank holdups and didn't hesitate to kill anyone who got in their way.
A couple of Dillinger's henchmen, Makley and Clark, were staying at the Congress Hotel in Tucson when it caught on fire. The two gangsters were out of the hotel when the fire started, and when they got back, they couldn't get in their rooms. Consequently, they offered one of the firemen a very large reward if he could rescue their suitcases. The firemen did bring out their luggage, but, instead of accepting any reward, they quietly reported the matter to the police who started checking on who these guys might be.
The firemen were able to identify the men from photographs at the police station as Makley and Clark, two of Dillinger's men. And the search was on. One day Mark Robbins, one of Tucson's finest, spotted them driving at the corner of Stone and Congress. He followed them to a house on North First Avenue, but never approached them. Later they were picked up without firing a shot.
Harry Pierpont, another of the gang, was picked up by Frank Eyman, who at that time was a motorcycle patrolman. He had stopped him and was able to talk him into going to the police station with him as part of a routine check of cars with out-of-state license plates. Harry had a woman with him at the time. Frank got into the back seat and carried on a casual conversation with them, but he told me he was scared to death because he knew that Pierpont was said to have killed at least a half dozen men. Frank sat with his revolver in his hand between his legs. When they got to the station the police searched Pierpont and found three guns on him, including a very small revolver he had in his boot top.
Jimmie Hearon and Chet Sherman later that same day picked up Dillinger at the house where he was staying, again without a shot being fired. He was wearing a bulletproof vest.
When the police searched the house and the luggage, they found he had many thousands of dollars in stolen money, as well as a good-sized arsenal of weapons including a couple of submachine guns.
The news soon hit the papers, spreading across the country: the notorious Dillinger had been captured in Tucson. Several local attorneys became involved as representatives of banks and insurance companies, filing claims on the loot for their clients, who either had been robbed or had paid insurance claims filed by banks that had been robbed.
The Dillinger crowd were thoroughly disgusted with the fact that some "hick cops," had captured them without a shot being fired. Word got out that another of the gang, a man by the name of Hamilton, was due in Tucson, but they never found him.
The gang members were incarcerated in the Pima County jail, on the second floor above the sheriff's office, which was located in the north wing of the courthouse building. John Belton was sheriff at the time and decided that since so many people wanted to see the gangsters, they would have an open house on Sunday afternoon and allow people to visit the jail and see the big-time bank robbers. Several hundred people passed through to see them, myself included, although I had already had a private tour conducted by Sheriff Belton.
Later, after Dillinger had escaped from jails in the East and when his gang broke out others of his gang from small town jails, killing everyone in sight, it was realized how risky that open house had been. It was a wonder that others of his gang didn't show up to spring Dillinger and his pals.
I spoke with Dillinger for a few minutes that day, and I have never seen anyone who had the penetrating eyes he had. When I saw Makley and Clark, I remembered seeing them one night in a bar on South Stone when Frank O'Rielly and I were there having a drink. They were drunk and very noisy but really didn't get out of line.
Dillinger and his friends were claimed a few days later by officers from Midwestern cities and flown back to the Midwest. They all got out of jail, one way or another, to continue their rampage. A score of men were killed before the gang was rubbed out by the FBI and other law officers.
I was running the Fox at the time. There was a motion picture cameraman in town by the name of Jack MacFarland. Since he took pictures of local happenings which we inserted into the newsreels we showed, I had him take some shots of Dillinger in his cell, being taken to the court to be arraigned, etc. We used them the following week, and, together with shots of the local police who had participated in their capture, shots of the Congress Hotel, and the house on First Avenue, we put together a nice little feature and we promoted it a bit.
A few weeks later when Dillinger's name was in the papers across the country every day, I had calls from a couple of studios asking if we would sell the footage we had on Dillinger. They had somehow heard about it. If I had been half smart and had taken a little more footage of Dillinger, I could have made a pretty penny. As it was, we got only a small price for what we had because it really wasn't enough to be very useful.
Mickey Cohen spent some time in Tucson when he was at the peak of his career in the Los Angeles area. Some of the people he was here with were acquaintances of mine, and they brought him around to the theatre for me to meet. They wanted me to have dinner with them but I ducked out. Later that evening, they were at the Santa Rita and I happened to be there also. Mickey came over and sat down with me and my party. I wasn't too friendly, and he got the message and left -- much to my relief.
Al Capone was in Tucson one night in the late twenties, and I remember seeing him at the old Western Union office on Congress Street. He and some of his burley buddies were sending a telegram at the same time I was in the office. He smiled and nodded in a friendly gesture which I returned. Apparently he blew town the next day, without traces left on our desert community.
During Hollywood's heyday, a labor organizer by the name of George Brown became someone to contend with. He was a quiet, retiring sort of individual. He dressed generally in dark suits, always wore dark glasses and was soft-spoken. He represented the International Association of Theatrical Stagehands and Electricians, known in the industry as the IATSE.
This union was highly organized on a national basis and for years was a powerful organization with chapters in every city of any size, including Tucson. Our projectionists and stage hands belonged to the local unit. Generally, the leadership were a responsible, reasonable group of men, but in some cities, the IATSE was hated by theatre owners.
Hollywood had always been an "organized" area and for years on a strictly legitimate basis, with arm's length contracts negotiated, executed and observed. During the recession, however, undesirable elements began to take over this union in, some of the larger cities. Chicago was one of the places where racketeers" gained a foothold in the leadership positions of the IATSE. Later New York also became a profitable hunting ground for the crooks who were using the union to line their own pockets. They would take payoffs from theatre owners, under threats of physical beatings and long interruptions in business operations.
Willie Bioff was the top man in the nationwide operations. He brought a lifetime of experience in various types of criminal activities to his new-found business bonanza. George Brown was his west coast lieutenant. For several years, he operated quietly and successfully. Seldom was his name mentioned in the press although he was well known by the heads of all of the studios.
There was a man by the name of Sam Kontas who had moved to Tucson because of his health. He was a stage hand and a projectionist, and had been active in the IATSE organization in Chicago. He soon made his presence felt in the Tucson unit, eventually becoming the "walking delegate," or business agent who handled all relations between the employer and the union.
He had known Bioff and Brown before he came to Tucson. George Brown visited Tucson quite often to visit his old friend Kontas. Whenever he was in town, he would usually have a party for the members of the local IATSE chapter and the theatre managers. I got to know him quite well, and, while he wasn't a very friendly or warm person, he was likeable and a good host.
One time I got on the evening train in Los Angeles to return to Tucson and found George Brown sitting in the parlor car. He was reading the paper and when I sat down next to him and said hello, he whispered to me, "Don't talk to me now. I'll explain later." I moved away and ignored him.
After the train had been out of L.A. about an hour, he looked me up and explained that a process server was looking for him. He was trying to get out of town before they found him and was heading for Tucson where he could avoid service.
He and Bioff milked hundreds of thousands of dollars from the studios under threats of interrupting production schedules. The matter finally surfaced, and some of the top executives in the motion picture industry were involved in the payoffs to these racketeers. They naturally pocketed the money without the union members benefiting at all. It created quite a stink not only in Hollywood but also throughout the country, eventually even in Washington.
Brown was convicted, and was fined as well as sentenced to prison. Bioff also had some serious problems with the law over the matter.
Bioff later changed his name to William Nelson, moved to Phoenix and became an accepted member of society there. Some of the top businessmen became his close personal friends, entertaining him in their homes, playing golf with him and enjoying his hospitality. I was introduced to him twice.
They were shocked when he was blown into the great beyond one morning after stepping on the starter of his automobile in his carport. Some professional "hit" men had caught up with Willie Bioff, known in Phoenix as Bill Nelson, and settled an old grievance. The police thoroughly investigated the matter, of course, but never found any valuable clues. Shock waves reverberated throughout Phoenix and its top businessmen for many weeks.