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PAUL LIEBERMAN spent 24 years as a writer and editor at the Los Angeles Times and before that was projects editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has won dozens of journalism honors, including the Robert F. Kennedy Awards Grand Prize, a George Polk Award, Gerald Loeb Award and American Society of Newspaper Editors Award. He also shared in two team Pulitzer Prizes at the L.A. Times, as a writer on its coverage of the Los Angeles Riots and an editor of its reporting on the Northridge Earthquake. A native New Yorker, Lieberman is a graduate of Williams College and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied law and social history. He lives in Westchester County with his wife, Heidi, a school administrator.
“Willie Burns called,” Connie O’Mara said when her husband, Jack, came home.
“What did he want?”
“He wants you back at the station.”
It was a cool fall evening in Los Angeles so Sergeant John J. O’Mara retrieved his topcoat from the closet and his snap-brim fedora from the rack by the door of the garden apartment they had been renting since he got back from the war. His revolver still was in his shoulder holster.
Their old Plymouth was parked across from Saint Anselm Catholic Church, whose priest already had roped him in as an usher, finding the young Irish sergeant ideal for passing the collection basket—Jack O’Mara would give ’em his withering blue-eyed stare and that was it.
Their apartment was only three miles from the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Street Station, on the edge of Watts, so the drive didn’t give him much time to ponder why Lieutenant Burns might be calling him in after hours. O’Mara had been getting grief in the department for busting a burglary ring that included the teenage son of a police commander. Some old-timers thought he should have let the case file disappear. He hadn’t.
When O’Mara reached the station house, eighteen men were gathering in the squad room, many of them enormous, the largest cops he’d ever seen. This wasn’t about any burglary case. Most all wore topcoats and hats just like his. Lieutenant Willie Burns kept his hat pulled down low, over his eyes, like the bad guys.
Burns was waiting at the far end of the squad room. He was a tough little fellow who had been shot early in his police career and had served as a gunnery officer in the Marines. He was standing behind a bench. On it sat a Thompson submachine gun.
“We’ve been asked by the chief to form a special detail,” Burns said as his hands effortlessly took apart the Tommy gun and reassembled the pieces.
That’s all he called it then, the special detail. Burns later told a grand jury, “My primary duties were to keep down these gangster killings and try to keep some of these rough guys under control.” Now he gave these eighteen men the particulars: If they joined him, their targets would be the likes of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the playboy refugee from New York’s Murder, Inc., and Jack Dragna, the Sicilian banana importer who quietly lorded over Los Angeles’ illegal gambling and related rackets. Most of the cops had never heard of Dragna, the man they were told ran the rackets in their city.
Most had at least heard the next name, if only because Mickey Cohen had killed a man the year before, a fat bookie. Mickey was almost a local boy too. Born in Brooklyn, as Meyer Harris Cohen, he had been brought west by his mother as an infant and had grown up in L.A.’s poor Boyle Heights neighborhood. He fought first for street corners as a newsboy then moved away to fight for pay, as a flyweight, five foot five at most. Mickey was a little man, but one of the breed who learned that a gun could make him bigger. He gravitated from boxing to running dice games and sticking up joints around Cleveland and Chicago until he drew the attention of the old Capone mob, becoming “the Jew kid” to them. They encouraged him to take his moxie back west where he might learn some style from the cashmere-suited Ben Siegel, and perhaps help Bugsy muscle aside L.A.’s second-tier hoods. But Mickey had gained little notice until 1945, when 250-pound Maxie Shaman stormed into his thinly disguised gambling parlor in a Santa Monica Boulevard paint store. Mickey said big Maxie had come at him with a .45, the one found by the body, so he had no choice but to plug the burly bookie with the .38 he kept in his desk.
Since then another bookmaker, Paulie Gibbons, had been shot seven times on a Beverly Hills street. Next to fall, in 1946, were Chicago natives Bennie “The Meatball” Gamson and George Levinson, that dual execution generating the GANGSTERS IN GAMBLING WAR headline that was the last straw for Los Angeles officials—and the reason Lieutenant Willie Burns assembled eighteen hand-picked candidates for a secretive new squad that October.
“You’ll be working with these,” Burns told them as he hoisted the Tommy gun and slid in its circular 50-round drum.
The deal was: If they joined him, they would continue to be listed on the rosters of their old stations while operating out of two rusted old Fords. They would not make arrests. If someone had to be booked, they’d call in Homicide, Vice, or Robbery. They would also be available for other chores, as Chief C. B. Horrall saw fit. They would have cash at their disposal, a Secret Service Fund to pay informants who might help them gather intelligence on the likes of Bugsy, Dragna, and Mickey Cohen. But they would have no office. They’d meet on street corners, in parking lots, and up in the hills. In effect, they would not exist.
Burns gave the eighteen men a week to ponder his invitation and some advice from an old lieutenant at the 77th who said an assignment like that could get you in good with the chief, or even make you a hero, “Or you could end up down in San Pedro, walking a beat in a fog.” Sergeant Jack O’Mara puffed on his pipe as the old lieutenant cautioned them, “Whatever you do, keep your nose clean.”
After the week to think it over, only seven came back to join Willie Burns, making a Gangster Squad of eight. One was O’Mara, who had to explain to his wife, Connie, what was in the stylish black violin case he began keeping under their bed.
* * *
SERGEANT JERRY WOOTERS came on board later. He was not a church usher or a pipe smoker. He went for cigars or cigarettes, which he dangled from the corner of his mouth. Gerard “Jerry” Wooters was lean and angular—he was all about playing the angles. He was the son of an itinerant gold miner who had come to California following its oldest get-rich-quick fantasy, but mostly stayed poor. Jerry tried to avoid the war but couldn’t, then got shot down over the Pacific and was left floating in a raft. If a Japanese boat found him first, he was dead. If an American ship found him, he’d come home with medals. After he came home with his medals, he kept photos of himself with the comely nurses who helped him recover. As a policeman he displayed the same screw-you defiance to the crooks and his bosses alike. On his first case for the Gangster Squad, he led the investigation that changed the ground rules for policing in California.
Jerry Wooters and Jack O’Mara had nothing in common except for their rank as sergeants, and their shared obsession with Mickey Cohen.
In time, O’Mara set a trap for Mickey, using his own guns, to prove he was a killer.
Wooters forged an alliance with Mickey’s budding rival of the 1950s, Jack “The Enforcer” Whalen, a powerhouse of a man who took pride in never needing a gun—his fists were enough—and had dreams of making it in Hollywood.
Neither cop told the other what he had done.
* * *
ON THE JOB a decade before J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI acknowledged the existence of the Mafia, the Los Angeles Police Gangster Squad took an anything-goes approach to making life hell for Mickey Cohen and his ilk. Squad members faked drive-by shootings to confound their targets and took out-of-town hoods up to Mulholland Drive for chats designed to scare them back home. They posed as termite men and telephone repairmen to plant hidden microphones—to hell with warrants. They bugged TV sets and a mistress’ bed. They neutralized a pesky newspaper columnist and did hush-hush favors for Jack Webb, who glorified the LAPD with his Dragnet television show. They stole guns and address books from mobsters and left anonymous messages, not loving chocolates, on their pillows.
There were close calls—grand jury investigations, lawsuits, and a skeptical police chief or two—but they endured through the ’50s. That’s when one of their cases reached the State Supreme Court and one of their own, the defiant Jerry Wooters, got a bit too reckless, setting the stage for the deadly night in the Valley when a bullet between the eyes signaled that the Gangster Squad’s time was over, and so was a defining era in Los Angeles’ history.
They operated at a time and place where truth was found not in the sunlight, but in the shadows, and justice found not in marble courthouses, but in the streets. That was their Los Angeles, the sun-washed city of palm trees and self-invention, the city that spent a long century pretending that evil came from afar.