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.
Right after the war, my cousin Oliver sold his Tucson Steam Laundry to an attorney from Cleveland by the name of Robert Brickman. Brickman explained that he was tired of the big city rat race and Cleveland's bad weather and wanted to live in the West.
A few months after the sale, it was revealed that Bob Brickman was actually a "front" or representative, for Cleveland's well known gambler, Tommy McGinty. One of McGinty's investments was the Mounds Club, a large nightclub and gambling operation on the outskirts of the city. It was one of Cleveland's favorite night clubs because of its high powered entertainment which included the biggest names on the nightclub circuit.
Tom and his very lovely wife spent a lot of time in Tucson and, through Oliver, I became well acquainted with him. He was a very friendly and nice guy, despite the fact that Life magazine pointed out in a series of articles on America's gambling operations, that Tommy was one of the nation's four top gamblers.
He was one of the original owners of the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas. He was its largest investor and invited Oliver and me to come up to the opening of the Desert Inn as his guests. We accepted and had a great time. We were told to just sign for drinks and food. I also bought a sweater and some neckties, which I charged to my room. When I checked out, about a week later, I was told that there was no bill for me. I explained that I had bought some clothes which I had charged to my room and for which I insisted on paying. The cashier disappeared for a few minutes and returned to advise me that they would not accept payment. That was the kind of guy Tommy was.
While there, I met all of the partners including Moe Dalitz. Tommy asked me if I could help them in obtaining a mortgage on the hotel. The place was paid for in cash put up by the investing partners. But Tommy explained that they wanted to arrange for a loan so that it would appear to be a normal operation. No one builds anything with his own money!
I assured them I would go to work to attempt to arrange a loan. They wanted to borrow only $500,000, although the place had cost a little over $3,000,000. I told them that before I could do anything I would have to have some figures on the operation to submit to a lender.
The hotel opened about the 24th of April. I told them to send me the figures at the end of May, showing their operating profit for the five or six week period. After I made a contact with a man by the name of Watson, who was the head of the mortgage loan department of the American National Life Insurance company in Galveston, he confirmed the fact that he would have to have operating figures to consider the loan.
American National took unusual loans in those days, and I recognized that none of the other larger companies would have anything to do with a loan on a hotel and gambling casino in Las Vegas..
Right after the first of June, I received the statements for six weeks' operations of the Desert Inn. It had made a profit of $685,000 during that period! I called Watson and told him I was sending the information he wanted. He said I would hear from him in a couple of weeks. I waited and waited for a reply. The people in Las Vegas were pressing me for an answer. Finally, I called him to ask what was holding up the confirmation of the loan.
He informed me that the loan had been turned down by the committee because the place was making too much money, and, anyway, "they don't need $500,000 anymore. They've already made more than that since they opened." I didn't have much of an argument, and never could arrange the loan for them.
While Oliver and I were in Las Vegas, Tommy told us he had to borrow some money and wanted us to help negotiate a loan with one of the Tucson banks for $100,000. He said he'd pay us $5,000 as a fee for arranging the loan. For security, he would put up $100,000 cash. When we asked him why he would do such a thing, he said something I had never heard before or since, "The trouble is that all my money is tied up in cash!" He explained that much of his money came from "black market operations," as he called them, and he had to show some legitimate sources for as much as he could.
We returned and did try to get the loan for him from Jack Sakrison, then president of the Southern Arizona Bank and Trust Co. in Tucson. Jack smiled and said that he had been approached before by other people wanting to borrow money and willing to deposit as security the full amount of the loan. He declined the loan and we forgot about the matter, advising Tommy of our failure.
A few years later, I was attending the World Series games in New York City and sat amid the Cleveland contingent because of friendship with Bill Veeck, president of the Indians. Tommy and Mrs. McGinty were sitting nearby, and we visited every day before and during the games.
At the game on Sunday, we learned that the Mounds Club in Cleveland had been held up the previous night by a gang in a commando-type operation. They not only took all the money on the tables, but also lined up the guests and took their money and jewelry.
Peter Lind Hayes, the comic, was the star of the show that evening, and had just started his act when these masked burglars interrupted the show and forced Hayes to get in line with guests. Hayes had made light of the holdup at first, thinking it was some kind of a gag, but he soon learned that they were for real. He was dressed in his stage tuxedo, which had no pockets, so he had nothing to drop in the sack as the burglars came down the line. He borrowed twenty dollars from the guy next to him so he would have some kind of contribution to make. After all, he didn't want to further offend them.
Tommy told us all about the burglary since he had been on the phone several times talking with his Cleveland associates. He said, "The first thing I asked was did they get the B.R., and they told me that they took everything, including the B.R." When I asked him what the hell the "B.R." was, he told me disgustedly, "The bankroll! The bankroll!"
Tucson, like every town, had its local gamblers. In the twenties, we had the bootleggers who were without question breaking a law; however, it was a law that was very unpopular. The whole fabric of law enforcement was not quite the same during that period, and there were quite a few gambling houses which operated from time to time in the Tucson area. Law enforcement officers obviously knew about the operations, but for one reason or another continued to permit them to remain open much of the time.
Tim Nordelli, brother of his bootlegging brother, Bob, was one of the Old Pueblo's most consistent operators of gambling joints. For twenty-five or thirty years he was on the local scene, operating for a while, then being raided and closed down. He was a sleazy man, who always drove a big car, wore a big diamond ring on his pinky and usually had a tough-looking woman with him. But he never seemed to bother anyone and contributed to local charities until he finally disappeared.
Red Chitwood was another man who operated gambling houses here. For years he had a place out on the Nogales Road just south of the airport. He, too, behaved himself generally, and was much more of a gentleman than was Tim Nordelli.
Oliver and I used to visit occasionally a Chinese joint that used to operate in the old part of Tucson off Meyer Street. I never gambled, but Oliver loved to shoot craps and play 21 with the Chinese, who during the day operated or worked for legitimate businesses. This Chinese place was like something out of the movies. Dark, dingy, filled with the smell of incense, and difficult to get into unless you were known, this joint was an exciting change from Tucson's rather drab existence.
These and other gamblers were people I knew well. They all attended the theatres, were "night people," as was I in those days, and patronized the same restaurants, usually late at night. They filled a need in the community and had their counterparts in every city in the country, I am sure.
Two well-known men said to be associated with the Mafia, have resided in Tucson for many years. Joe Bonanno is by far the better known of the two, but Pete Licavoli is said to be very important in the Detroit area, where he is credited with heading up the "Purple Gang."
Joe Bonanno has lived in Tucson for over twenty-five years, raised his children here and has as yet to be arrested for any of his acts in the Old Pueblo. For several years, right after WWII, Joe used to come into our real estate office to see one of my salesmen, Barry Walker. Barry sold Joe several properties, and he was one of his regular customers.
In the early fifties, after the famous raid by the FBI and other law officers on the Appalachia headquarters of one of the Mafia Dons, where the national leaders of nefarious operations were assembled, there was a grand jury investigation, and one of the members of the federal grand jury, Mark Stuart of New York City, was a good friend of mine whom I usually saw when I was in that city. One evening he said that one of my neighbors from Tucson was one of the biggest names associated with the Mafia, according to testimony received by the jury.
When he told me his name was Joe Bonanno, I said that I knew a man by that name, but was sure it was not the same guy. However, when Mark described him, I had to agree that it was one and the same. It was very difficult for me to accept the fact that Joe Bonanno, who was always so soft spoken, so handsome, so very nice, could be the one by that name who had been picked up in the dragnet spread by the FBI to catch leaders of the Mafia.
Joe's son, Bill, had gone to Tucson High School and was in the same class with my son, Manny. Joe has a home in one of the very best residential areas, and his identification as one of the Mafia came as a shock to many people who had known him in Tucson for years.
We never saw Joe in our office after that. He seemed to sense that people would have treated him differently. We could not continue to do business with him, at least we could not sell him any property since to do so would be a violation of the Realtors' code of ethics.
When Joe Bonanno was kidnapped on the streets of New York, I was in Paris. I had bought a copy of the European edition of the Herald-Tribune and picked up my mail at the Meurice Hotel. As I handed the paper to my wife, I saw Joe's picture on the front page. Without reading the caption, I asked, "Did someone kill Joe Bonanno?" My wife said no, he had been kidnapped. I predicted that he would never be seen alive again, but, of course, I was wrong.
Later, I told Joe about seeing his picture on the front page of the paper in Paris and that I had predicted that he would be found in the Hudson some day with a cement cast around him. He smiled and said that he was glad to be back in Tucson. He had a couple of men with him when I saw him on the street in Tucson, one of whom was murdered while in the East a short time later.
There have been reports and rumors that he and his family were leaving Tucson, but he still calls it home, much to the discomfort of the local police. They watch him like a hawk. Whenever he catches a plane to go somewhere they know about it and are there to see him off. When he returns, they are there to see who is joining him. So far as I know, however, he has never actively pursued any of his business operations in the Old Pueblo.
Pete Licavoli owns and lives at the Grace Ranch, a psuedo-ranch on the eastern border of Tucson. He's lived in Tucson almost as long as the Bonanno family has been here. At one time he owned much more acreage than he has now.
He came into my office one day to see me, and, after introducing himself, said he wanted to list some of his property for sale with us. I took the information and thanked him for thinking of us.
A few months later I sold sixty acres of his land to Jack and Mabel Weadock, long-time friends. They offered cash for the property and signed the offer on a Sunday morning. I called Pete Licavoli, and he asked me to come out late that afternoon to present the offer.
I drove to the Grace Ranch, which I had formerly known as a guest ranch, and found Pete in the recreation room. It was a large room of about 20 by 40 feet, with a large table in the center set for dinner. Pete had about a dozen friends present to whom he introduced me. They were having a party and enjoying themselves. The girls were running around the table, "doing roadwork," I was told in a joking manner by one of the men.
Pete offered me a drink while we talked about the offer. He poured Chivas Regal from a gallon bottle held on a cradle, something I had never seen before. The smell of the soon-to-be served spaghetti dinner was almost irresistible, but I declined his invitation to dine with them. We discussed the offer, which Pete signed, and I departed. He had proved to be a pleasant guy to do business with.
A few months later we sold another piece of his property to Art Pollard, where he established his quarter horse ranch. Again Pete Licavoli performed as he should. Shortly after that Pete was tried on some charge by a federal court in the Detroit area, was found guilty and was sentenced to serve time. While he was in the penitentiary, I had a couple of letters from him telling me that when he got out he was going to see me about investing money in any venture I would recommend. He even said that I could be a silent partner without investing any of my own money.
When he returned he came to see me a couple of times, again offering to invest in any deal I was going into myself. He said he could get large amounts of money if it was needed; however, I haven't seen him in several years.
Not long after the Second World War, I made a trip to Los Angeles on business and to visit my mother who had gone there for the summer. Right after arriving there, I went to her home, where I was going to stay, and called a friend I had met during the war. His name was Lew Kerner. I met him when he was the business manager for an Air Force show, "On the Beam," that was touring air bases. Freddie Brisson, husband of Rosalind Russell, was the general manager of the company which featured Peter Lind Hayes and his wife, Mary, as well as others who later made it big in show business, including Mario Lanza.
The troupe was in Tucson for nearly a week, and, in my job as manager of the Tucson Sunshine Climate Club and because I had been in the theatre business, I was asked to assist them. I was with them night and day. They put on a couple of performances which attracted sellout crowds. The show was great and later toured the nation.
Freddie Brisson, a captain at the time, was bucking like hell for recognition and a promotion, but the man who really ran the outfit was Lew Kerner. The Tucson showing was the first one for the production, and both Brisson and Kerner wanted to make certain that it got off to a good start. Brisson suggested that we have the mayor attend and say a few words of welcome. I said that I thought it would be more appropriate if we got the governor. Sid Osborne was a good friend of mine, and he gladly agreed to be present.
Brisson was excited as it would give him an opportunity to blow his horn about his accomplishments while handling the Air Force show. He asked Governor Osborne to write him a letter of commendation which I presume he used later to get a promotion to a higher rank.
However, when I was in Los Angeles, I made a date to see Lew Kerner for lunch. In about an hour he called back and said he had to see me immediately, and would I please come to an apartment in Hollywood to meet him and a friend who needed a favor.
I drove over to the address given me. It was a garden apartment building. The particular apartment was on a second floor. Lew met me at the door and introduced me to Mr. and Mrs. Allen Smiley. He was a man of about forty years, with prematurely white hair and a beautiful young wife.
Lew explained that Smiley had a problem on which he thought I might be able to help him. Smiley took over and told me his story. He said he had been born in White Russia and had been brought to the United States by his parents when he was a year old. He said he had been picked up by the police in numerous gambling raids in many cities since he was in the gambling business. He had always given the police the information, as a routine matter, that he had been born in this country. However, during the past year he had been arrested and had given the same story to the police, but this time they charged him with violation of a federal law regarding giving false information to police about his place of birth.
He had been tried, found guilty and was scheduled to appear before the judge for sentencing within a couple of weeks. Judge Dave Ling, a long-time Arizonan and one of two federal judges in the state, had presided at the trial and was to impose sentence on Smiley.
He asked me if I would be willing to intercede for him with Judge Ling. I explained that while I knew Judge Ling and knew some of his family, I was not the one who could be of any help. In fact, I knew very well that about the most stupid thing I could do would be to try to influence a federal judge. The judge would probably have sentenced me for two years and Smiley for one year.
I knew that Richard Harless, then a congressman from Arizona, was in Los Angeles because I had an appointment to see him while there. I suggested that since Harless was also an attorney, as well as a congressman, that Smiley should contact him regarding the matter. Anyway, that was a way for me to get out of an embarrassing situation.
In pleading for my help, Smiley said, "I know that they'll probably send me to Leavenworth, where it is hot as hell, for the next few months. Besides, how would you like to leave a beautiful young wife like this to those wolves in Hollywood?" I had to agree with him that she would not be lonesome very long.
Smiley left the room and returned with a white jacket which he brought over to show me. He explained that the hole in the shoulder of the coat was made by a bullet fired when Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was killed in Las Vegas a few months before. Smiley was seated on the settee next to Bugsy when his killers fired through the window behind them at close range. Smiley had not been wounded but he missed by less than an inch of being shot that night.
Another gambler that I got to know was Gus Greenbaum, who lived in Phoenix for many years. He operated gambling houses there from time to time when the local lawmen turned their faces the other way. He eventually became involved with the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, in which Bugsy Siegel also had an interest.
One night while Gus Greenbaum and his wife were in their home in Phoenix, some "hit" men paid them a visit. The next day their bodies were found with their throats cut. Police never solved the mystery of "who" or "why."