April 2010

Shadow Caster

William H. Parker and Mickey Cohen’s L.A. cops-and-robbers tale is way stranger than fiction


Other cities have histories. Los Angeles has legends. For more than 40 years, from Prohibition through the Watts riots, politicians, gangsters, businessmen and policemen engaged in an often-violent contest for control of the city. Their struggle shaped the history of L.A., the future of policing and the course of American politics. In time, two primary antagonists emerged: William H. Parker, L.A.’s greatest and most controversial police chief; and the city’s most colorful criminal—featherweight boxer turned gangster Mickey Cohen.

In 1920, L.A. surpassed San Francisco as California’s largest city. It was a triumph for Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler. It was also the year that saw the emergence of a major threat from Prohibition.

For years, Chandler and the so-called business barons had supplied local politicians with the advertising, publicity and money needed to reach the city’s new residents—in exchange for power over the city government. But with Prohibition, a new force appeared with the money and the desire to purchase L.A.’s politicians: the criminal underworld. To suppress it, the business community turned to the Los Angeles Police Department. The underworld also looked to the LAPD—for protection.

Bill Parker and Mickey Cohen entered the drama as bit players. Two characters more different would be hard to imagine. Parker arrived in 1922 from Deadwood, South Dakota, an ambitious 17-year-old. He became a patrolman in the LAPD. Coldly cerebral (Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, a onetime LAPD officer and Parker speechwriter, reputedly based Mr. Spock on his former boss), intolerant of fools and famously incorruptible, Parker persevered—and rose.

Born Meyer Harris Cohen in 1913, by age six Mickey Cohen was hustling newspapers in Boyle Heights. At nine, he began his career in armed robbery with an attempt to “heist” a downtown movie theater using a baseball bat. His skill with a .38 took him into the rackets, first in Cleveland, then in Al Capone’s Chicago. In 1937, Cohen returned to L.A. to serve as gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s right-hand man. It was a job that put him on a collision course with Bill Parker.

For decades, the L.A. underworld and the LAPD coexisted—until the fall of 1948, when officers from the police department’s elite administrative vice unit attempted to shake down crime boss Mickey Cohen.

Mickey Cohen was not used to being shaken down. Threatened with handguns, blasted with shotguns, strafed by a machine gun, yes. But extorted, hit up for $20,000, no. Anyone who read the tabloids in post–World War II L.A. knew that extortion was Cohen’s racket, along with bookmaking, gambling, loansharking, slot machines, narcotics and union agitation. The tart-tongued, sharp-dressed, pint-size gangster, whom the more circumspect newspapers described as “a prominent figure in the sporting-life world,” hadn’t gotten there by being easily intimidated. Yet that is precisely what the head of the vice squad set out to do.

Cohen was no stranger to the heat. As Bugsy Siegel’s enforcer, he had been instructed to squeeze Eddy Neales, proprietor of the Clover Club, Southern California’s poshest gaming joint. It reputedly paid the L.A. County Sheriff ’s Department a small fortune for protection. The squad that provided it, led by Det. George “Iron Man” Contreras, had a formidable reputation. People who crossed it died.

Cohen was brought in: If he didn’t lay off Neales, the next warning would come in the form of a bullet to the head.

Cohen wasn’t impressed. A few nights later, he sought out Contreras’ top gunman, reportedly saying, “Let me tell you something: To me you’re no cop. I gotta right to kill you—so come prepared. The next time I see you coming to me I’m going to hit you between the eyes.” It was effective. “He felt I was sincere.” The cops backed down.

Parker’s war against Cohen and organized crime attracted the attention of a Senate investigator named Robert Kennedy. It also antag­onized J. Edgar Hoover and created an extra­legal, wiretap-driven style of policing that eerily prefigures the tactics of today’s war on terror.

The fact was, Cohen was in an uncharacteristically vulnerable position. Bugsy Siegel, his mentor and former boss, was dead. Cohen had taken over, but some elements of the underworld were clearly dissatisfied. Two months earlier, on August 18, three gunmen had charged into Mickey’s swank men’s clothing shop and opened fire, wounding two henchmen and killing his top gunman. Cohen himself was in the bathroom washing his hands, something the obsessive-compulsive gangster did 50 or 60 times a day. Instead of checking to see if they’d gotten their man—item number one on the professional hit man’s checklist—the gunmen fled. Minutes later, the driver saw Cohen scurry out the front door.

Cohen survived, but great damage had been done. He looked weak, and in the underworld, weakness attracts predators. So when the head of the vice squad called weeks after the attempted rub-out to inform Cohen they “had him down for a $10,000 to $20,000 contribution” for the upcoming reelection campaign of mayor Fletcher Bowron, Cohen knew what was happening. This was not an opportunity for good old-fashioned graft: Bowron had devoted his career to eradicating the underworld. Rather, it was a sign that he was now viewed as prey rather than predator.

“Power’s a funny thing,” Cohen would later muse. “Somebody calls your hole card, and it’s like a dike—one little hole can blow the whole thing.”

Paying would only confirm his weakness. Cohen refused.

Administrative vice’s response was not long in coming. Just after midnight on the evening of January 15, 1949, five officers watched two Cadillacs depart from Michael’s Haberdashery. They set off in pursuit. At the corner of Santa Monica and Ogden, the police pulled over a Cadillac containing Cohen, his driver and Harold “Happy” Meltzer, a sometime Cohen gunman. A firearm was conveniently found on Meltzer, who was arrested. (It later disappeared, making it impossible to determine whether the gun had been planted.) Days later, Cohen received a call offering to settle matters for $5,000. The vice squad was sending him one last message: Hand over the cash, or the gloves come off.

Cohen was furious. For years he had helped cops who got injured on the job and given municipal judges valuable horse tips. He’d wined and dined the administrative vice squad’s commanding officers, Lt. Rudy Wellpot and Sgt. Elmer Jackson. The police had responded by breaking into his new house in Brentwood and stealing his address books. It was time to teach the LAPD a lesson about who was running the town. The vice squad called his hole card; now Cohen would show them he was holding the equivalent of a pair of bullets (two aces)—in the form of a recording that tied the vice squad to a 36-year-old redheaded ex-prostitute named Brenda Allen.

Allen was Hollywood’s most prosperous madam, in part because she was so cautious. Rather than take on the risks that came with running a “bawdy house,” Allen relied on a telephone exchange service to communicate with clients who were vetted with the utmost care. She prided herself on serving the crème de la crème of Los Angeles. By 1948, she had 114 “pleasure girls” in her harem. She also had a most unusual partner and lover: Sgt. Jackson of the vice squad, the same policeman who was trying to shake down Mickey Cohen.

Needless to say, Jackson’s connection to Allen was not common knowledge. Even someone as well informed as Cohen might never have learned of it—but for the fact that another member of the department had recently blackmailed Mickey with a transcription of certain sensitive conversations he had conducted at home. The shakedown tipped Cohen off to the fact that the LAPD had gotten a bug into his house. So he asked his friend Barney Ruditsky for help. A former NYPD officer, Ruditsky was now Hollywood’s foremost private eye. He brought in electronics whiz Jimmy Vaus. Vaus found the bug, and Cohen hired him on the spot. Soon, Vaus let Cohen in on a little secret: He was also a wiretapper for a sergeant on the Hollywood vice squad. Vaus told Cohen he had recordings linking Jackson to Allen. That information was Cohen’s ace in the hole. He decided to play it at henchman “Happy” Meltzer’s trial.

The trial began on May 5, 1949. In his opening statement, attorney Sam Rummel laid out Meltzer’s defense. “We will prove through testimony that the two men first sought $20,000, then $10,000, then $5,000 from Cohen in return for their promise to quit harassing him,” he declared. As a defense, this was ho-hum stuff: Gangsters were always insisting they’d been framed. But when Cohen appeared with “sound expert” Vaus and a mysterious sound-recording machine, the press took notice, especially after Cohen confidentially informed them he had recordings that would “blow this case right out of court.”

The timing of Cohen’s accusation was potentially explosive. Mayor Bowron was up for reelection on June 1. The mayor had based his entire campaign on his record of keeping L.A.’s underworld “closed” and the city government clean. Now Cohen was claiming he had evidence that would show senior police officials were on the take. Fortunately for Bowron, most of the city’s newspapers strongly supported his reelection. So did the county grand jury impaneled every year to investigate municipal wrongdoing. A mistrial was hastily declared. Cohen’s allegations received only light coverage, and Bowron was handily reelected. Only then did the Los Angeles Daily News break the story: BIG EXPOSÉ TELLS VICE, POLICE LINK: INSIDE STORY TELLS BRENDA’S CLOSE RELATIONS WITH THE POLICE, BY SGT. CHARLES STOKER!

It turned out Vaus’ contact on the Hollywood vice squad—Sgt. Stoker—had gone before the criminal complaints committee of the county grand jury the day before Cohen and Vaus showed up in court with the wire recordings. There, Stoker had told the committee about overhearing Brenda Allen’s conversations with Jackson. It then emerged that Sgt. Guy Rudolph, confidential investigator for the chief of police, had gotten wind of Jackson’s connection to Allen 14 months earlier and had asked police technician Ray Pinker to set up a wiretap. But that investigation mysteriously stalled, and the recordings disappeared.

Spurred by these revelations and by Cohen’s charges, the county grand jury opened an investigation. It began subpoenaing police officers. Chief Clemence B. Horrall insisted he had never been informed of allegations swirling around the vice squad; high-ranking officers stepped forward to insist he had been. Brenda Allen volunteered that Sgts. Stoker and Jackson had been on the take. The head of the LAPD Gangster Squad abruptly retired.

Every day brought a new revelation. The Daily News revealed the LAPD had broken into Cohen’s house in Brentwood and installed wiretaps. Columnist Florabel Muir accused Mayor Bowron of personally authorizing the operation and implied that the transcriptions were being used for blackmail. Shamefaced, Bowron and Horrall were forced to concede that they had okayed a break-in. Worse, no charges against Cohen had come of it. On June 28, Chief Horrall announced his retirement. One month later, the grand jury indicted Lt. Wellpot, Sgt. Jackson, Asst. Chief Joseph Reed and Chief of Police C.B. Horrall for perjury. Cohen had won his bet—if he could only survive to collect.

There were at least two additional attempts on Cohen’s life—at least one of which left fingerprints that pointed back to the LAPD. One attempted hit was witnessed by columnist Muir, who actually got buckshot, later determined to be consistent with the type used by the LAPD, in her backside. The gunplay thrilled the newspapers (“THE BATTLE OF THE SUNSET STRIP!”) but mystified insiders. Everyone from crime bosses to the LAPD was blamed. As for Cohen, he knew one thing: He could deal with underworld rivals, but in order to thrive as a crime lord in L.A., he needed a friendly—or at least tolerant—chief of police.

For the moment, that was impossible. In the wake of Horrall’s ouster, Bowron appointed, on an emergency basis, a former marine corps general named William Worton to run the department. One of Worton’s first acts was to reconstitute the LAPD’s intelligence division. Its top target: Mickey Cohen.

Fortunately for Cohen, Worton was only a temporary appointment; civil service rules required the police commission to hire from within the department. That meant Cohen would have a chance to put a more friendly man in the position, and the diminutive gangster already knew exactly who he wanted: Thaddeus Brown, a former detective who’d headed the homicide department before winning promotion to deputy chief of patrol in 1946.

Brown was a teddy bear of a man, popular with detectives and well regarded by the underworld, too. Brown had an even more influential backer in Chandler, the publisher of the Times. Chandler’s support was not purely rhetorical. The Chandler family had long maintained a special—almost proprietary interest in the LAPD. For more than two decades, L.A.’s dominant newspaper had made it clear that a voice in police affairs was the sine qua non of the paper’s political support. It was widely known that Chandler controlled three of the police commission’s five votes—and that he expected them to vote for Thad Brown as chief.

In short, Brown’s ascension seemed inevitable. However, it was not automatic. The police commission could not simply vote to promote the “master detective.” Since 1923, the chief of the LAPD had been chosen under the civil-service system, determined by an elaborate exam. The police commission was allowed to choose from among the top three candidates.

To no one’s surprise, Brown got the top score. What was surprising was who came in second: Deputy Chief William H. Parker, head of the Bureau of Internal Affairs. A decorated veteran of the Second World War, wounded in Normandy during the D-day invasion, Parker helped to denazify municipal police forces in Italy and Germany as the Allies advanced.

He now wanted to purge the LAPD of corruption—and Los Angeles of organized crime—in much the same way. Cohen was determined to make sure Parker never got that chance. “I had gambling joints all over the city,” Cohen later explained. “I needed police to make sure they ran efficiently.” Parker would not make things go smoothly.

One of the things any crime lord needs is a line on the police commission, and Cohen had it. His contacts assured him three of the five commissioners— Agnes Albro, Henry Duque and Bruno Newman—favored Brown. That left only Irving Snyder and Dr. J. Alexander Somerville, the sole African-American, in favor of Parker. Cohen was convinced “the fix” was in and that Brown would be the next chief of police.

The only obstacle Brown faced, Cohen’s connections informed him, was that his selection might be seen as a personal triumph for the gangster. On their advice, Cohen decided to leave town for the decision making period—“just to blow off any stink that could possibly come up,” he’d later say. Along with his sometime bodyguard Johnny Stompanato (also known as one of Hollywood’s most notorious gigolos) and his Boston terrier, Tuffy, L.A.’s underworld boss set off on a leisurely road trip to Chicago.

Cohen arrived there to shocking news. The day before the vote, Brown supporter Albro had unexpectedly died. The following day, the commission voted Bill Parker chief of police. The battle for control of L.A. was about to begin in earnest. Though Cohen didn’t know it, it was a fight Parker had been preparing for his entire life.

For three decades, from the Great Depression to the Watts riots, Parker and Cohen—the policeman and the gangster—would struggle for power, first as lieutenants to older, more powerful men, then directly with each other and finally with their own instincts and desires.

In 1956, Chief Parker’s war against Mickey Cohen and organized crime in L.A. attracted the attention of a young Senate investigator named Robert Kennedy. It also antagonized FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and created an extralegal, wiretap-driven style of policing that eerily prefigures the tactics of today’s war on terror.

In the 1960s, it would incite the Watts riots and help propel Ronald Reagan into the governor’s mansion. Their contest would involve some of the most powerful—and colorful—figures of the 20th century: press magnates Harry Chandler and his nemesis, William Randolph Hearst; studio head Harry Cohn of Columbia; entertainers Jack Webb, Frank Sinatra, Lana Turner and Sammy Davis Jr.; and civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The outcome of their struggle would change the history of Los Angeles, set race relations in America on a dangerous new path and chart a problematic course for American policing.

Parker and Cohen’s struggle for control of the city also changed them. Ultimately, like any good noir tale, the rivalry between the hoodlum with a second-grade education who became king of the L.A. underworld and the obstinate young patrolman from Deadwood who created the modern LAPD brings us back to the question that Los Angeles always seems to pose: Is Our Lady the Queen of the Angels the dark angel, or do we simply bring our own darkness to her?

JOHN BUNTIN, a former SoCal resident who lives in D.C., writes on crime and urban affairs for Governing magazine. This piece is adapted from L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, due out in paperback on April 6. Copyright © 2009 by John Buntin. Published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House Inc..