Gangster Squad Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2012-08-07
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin

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A harrowing, edge-of-your-seat narrative of murder and secrets, revenge and heroism in the City of Angels, GANGSTER SQUAD chronicles the true story of the secretive police unit that waged an anything-goes war to drive Mickey Cohen and other hoodlums from Los Angeles after WWIIthe real events behind the highly-anticipated Warner Bros. film starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. A full decade before J. Edgar Hoover's FBI even acknowledged the existence of the Mafia, the Los Angeles Police Department launched the real-life Gangster Squad with eight men who met covertly on street corners and slept with Tommy guns under their beds while combating what city fathers saw as an "invasion of undesirables." The squad planted bugs in mobsters' bedrooms and took visiting hitmen into the Hollywood Hills for a chat ... and a pistol in their ear. But for two cops, all that mattered was nailing Mickey Cohen, the strutting little gangster who for 15 years made a mockery of law and order in Los Angeles. Sgt. Jack O'Mara was a square-jawed church usher, Sgt. Jerry Wooters a cynical womanizer. About all they had in common was their obsession with the pint-sized Brooklyn-born prizefighter who rose to the top of the L.A. rackets following the murder of his mentor Bugsy Siegel then flaunted his stature by holding court every night along the Sunset Strip. So O'Mara set a trap for Mickey using his own guns -- to prove he was a killer. And Wooters formed an alliance with Mickey's budding rival, Jack "The Enforcer" Whalen, an intimidating figure with movie star looks and dreams of making it in Hollywood. Two cops -- two hoodlums. Their fates collided in the closing days of the 1950s, when "The Enforcer" stormed into Rondelli's restaurant to have it out with Mickey and his crew. Then a bullet between the eyes signaled that the Gangster Squad's time was up and so was a formative era in the city's history. Award-winning journalist Paul Lieberman's seven-part 2008 Los Angeles Times' series "Tales from the Gangster Squad" was optioned by Warner Bros. and became the basis for the feature film scheduled for release in the fall of 2012. One of the most highly anticipated movies of the year, it features Josh Brolin as Sgt. O'Mara, Ryan Gosling as Sgt. Wooters, Nick Nolte as Police Chief William Parker, Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen and Emma Stone as the love interest caught between the city's foremost mobster and the dashing Sgt. Wooters. An Executive Producer of the film, Lieberman spent well over a decade tracking down surviving members of the real police unit and conducted more than 300 interviews in all to write the book version of "Gangster Squad." He met countless times with the hitherto anonymous foot soldiers in L.A.'s war against organized crime but also with the families and associates of the mobsters they pursued and assembled thousands of pages of documents, including grand jury transcripts, voluminous crime reports, old family letters and photos, and the LAPD's own survey of every mob killing in the city from 1900 to 1951. The result is an in-depth look at the real characters and chilling events that inspired the movie in a tour-de-force narrative that will remind readers of LA Confidential.

Author Biography

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.

Table of Contents


The Dusty Road Con

Fred Whalen learned to scam along the Mississippi, the river that divides America, at pool halls and revivals. He was born in 1898 in Alton, Illinois, just upriver from St. Louis, and by the time he was a teenager he had figured out the traveling evangelists who set up shop in tents, barns, and occasionally, even, in real churches. He saw the people writhing in divine ecstasy out in their congregations and sensed immediately what was up: they were phonies, plants, shills for the preachers. Little Freddie was barely able to see over the pews but he knew they were fakers, those folks writhing in the aisles. So he’d take his coat and cover them up and spoil the show … until the preachers began paying him $5 to stay away.
Freddie had another tactic for evangelists who didn’t have Holy Rollers shaking with the spirit. He didn’t need a hymn book—he knew all the words to standards such as “Are You Washed in the Blood?” so he’d rise with the crowd and belt it out, through the closing lines,
Are your garments spotless?
Are they white as Snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
The evangelist then would signal everyone to sit, eager to get down to business, and the flock would do as told, except for Freddie. He’d remain on his feet and start it again, “Are you washed in the blood?” and everyone would rise back up and join him, singing it over, first verse to last. Then the preacher would gesture once more for all to be seated, only to have Freddie launch into the refrain once more, “Are you washed in the blood?” His deal with those preachers was the same, five bucks and I go away.
As for pool, he was a true prodigy—there was nothing fake about him being able to beat anyone in Alton by fifth grade. An old shark known as Tennessee Brown saw the Irish kid toying with some pretty fair players for a jar full of pennies and begged Freddie’s parents to let him tutor the boy. Freddie’s father worked as a railroad switchman for the Illinois Terminal but had grown up in Ireland amid the potato famines, and he knew the value of a little extra money. So little Freddie soon was giving trick-shot exhibitions in which he wowed the crowds by hitting balls off the top of Coke bottles. But the real payoff wasn’t in showing off. It was in looking as bad as possible while still beating the other guy, making him believe it was his fault he lost. Freddie dropped out of school to hit the road with his cue and his mentor, who guided him through the pool parlors and dives along the river, perfecting his hustle. Sometimes Tennessee Brown would offer to play people using one pocket, they got the other five. Once he took their money he would treat himself to a 25-cent cigar and tell the loser, “Bet you can’t even beat that kid.”
Freddie’s childhood officially ended when his railroad worker father got consumption and couldn’t shake the cough. John Whalen took off without his family for that beautiful and distant place called California, having heard of its miracle cures, only to return to Alton four weeks later, homesick and still coughing. Freddie was fourteen when his father passed in 1912.
He moved up to Chicago to put all that he’d learned about human nature to work as a door-to-door salesman. He was slender but close to six feet tall and looked grown-up in a gray suit and vest. He had an oversized smile, a natural salesman’s smile, and if it looked fake to some people, so be it—most liked how he lit up a room. Freddie convinced two rival photo studios in the Windy City to let him represent them. For $1, families got a certificate they could bring in, good for an 8-by-10-inch formal portrait. He never let either studio know he was selling for the other.
In no time Freddie was peddling a more elaborate product, a check writing machine. People were fearful that someone would alter checks they wrote to raise the amount, so the typewriter-like device punched down and perforated the paper to form the number. It literally cut a check, the origin of that phrase. He found it easy to convince customers they were in great peril if they didn’t have one of his check protectors. Before long, the company that made the machines offered to send him to New York, to sell there. He declined because of a girl.
Whalen family lore offers two accounts of how Freddie met Lillian Wunderlich. One version was pure Americana, sweet, romantic, and innocent. In this telling, his selling took him back down to St. Louis, where he’d stop at a teeming boarding house run by Lillian’s mother. The Wunderlich clan was huge, with sixteen kids, many raised doing chores on a family farm in Pacific, Missouri. Perhaps that’s why the boys were so strong—one, Augustus, “Gus,” could hoist the heaviest wooden chair in the house with one hand. But the eldest girl was why Freddie kept coming back. Born in 1899, the year after him, Lillian was just fourteen when they went out for the first time, with several Wunderlichs along to chaperone, eager to keep an eye on the pool-playing salesman with the oversized smile.
But the other account of their meeting suggests that the Wunderlichs understood exactly who they were letting into the family. Young Gus also loved the spectacle of the revivals on the sawdust circuit and attended one in a barn, then dragged two of his sisters back the next night, telling Lillian and Florence, “You gotta see this.” They sat up in the loft, looking down on the preacher imploring the crowd, “I KNOW there’s a sinner out there—a gambling, drinking, womanizing sinner. And if we all bow our heads, he’s gonna come to the lord TONIGHT. Come forward, sinner, COME FORWARD!” With that, a lanky young man, dark-haired and duded up, jumped to his feet. “It’s me!” he shouted while marching up front to be saved, on his knees, in tears. It was Fred Whalen, of course, and after the service Gus guided his sisters to the back of the barn and again said, “Watch this” as Freddie and the preacher shook hands and something green passed from the man of the cloth to the night’s repentant sinner, no longer the enemy of the traveling evangelists.
Lillian Wunderlich was smitten on the spot. She liked to point out that her grandmother had gone to dances with the train-robbing James boys, Frank and Jesse, in the mid-1800s. It was in her blood, an eye for a certain kind of man. She was sixteen when she married Fred. He was seventeen. They honeymooned at the Mineral Springs Hotel in Alton, which touted the therapeutic powers of the waters bubbling up below its basement and sold the stuff by the bottle.
The couple had a daughter first, Bobie, then a son, Jack. Decades later, the family insisted that the baby boy was huge, ten pounds out of the womb, or maybe fourteen pounds, or sixteen. Family legends vary that way. But the State of Missouri birth certificate did not list a weight, reporting only that Jack Fredrick Whalen was born just after midnight on May 11, 1921.
*   *   *
THE NEXT YEAR, Fred Whalen led the clan’s migration west, he and his young wife, their two kids and a slew of Wunderlichs. He showed up at their boarding home with $26, his pool cue, his fancy clothes, and two vehicles. “Everybody that wants to go to California, pack your stuff, we’re leaving,” he announced, and a dozen of them stuffed into two cars waiting outside. One was a let’s-hope-it-works black sedan made by the Dorris Motor Car Company of St. Louis (“Built Up to a Standard. Not Down to a Price.”), soon to go defunct. But the other was eye-popping, a Marmon Touring Car made by the Indianapolis company whose yellow one-seat speedster had won the first 500-mile race in that city. Now Marmon offered discerning motorists “The Major Car of the Major Class” featuring a large rear seating area set well back from the driver, running boards on each side, the first rear-view mirror, and a front grill topped by a silver ornament you might see on the car of a millionaire company president, which is exactly what Fred pretended to be in the small towns en route.
They’d stop at a dusty roadside camp on the outskirts of Anywhere U.S.A., where everyone got out but Fred and his young wife and the iron-muscled Gus. An aunt would take charge of baby Jack, who traveled in a makeshift cradle they suspended on a rope inside one car, hanging down behind the front seat. While other Wunderlichs wandered off to find a nearby farm, searching for a stray chicken to poach, Fred put on his three-piece suit and Lillian her frilliest dress, with a hat to match. Gus got ready in a white shirt and vest … and a chauffeur’s cap. Then they rode in toward Main Street in the imposing Marmon, the couple in back, Gus up at the wheel. Fred called him “kid” and “palie,” but Gus was an ideal chauffeur, having driven farm vehicles, and rebuilt their motors, from the day he quit the sixth grade.
In each town, Gus would look for the busiest tavern and stall the Marmon in front of it. By the time he got out and lifted the hood, a crowd would be gathering to gawk at the car that sure wasn’t a Ford and at the regal-looking couple inside, dressed to the nines. Gus would examine the engine and shake his head and ask if anyone knew where he could find tools. Then he’d walk back to tell Fred, “Excuse me sir, it’s going to take a while to fix. Why don’t you go inside where it’s cool and have some refreshment?”
Fred would take Lillian’s hand and stride into the tavern and as soon as they disappeared a local would ask, “Who’s that?” Gus-the-chauffeur then would tell of the finance company Fred ran, consolidated or associated something-or-other, and then he’d asked the locals, “Do you have any pool tables in there?”
“Yeah, sure.”
“Well, my boss fancies himself a pool player. He thinks he can play.”
Gus would glance side to side to make sure his boss was gone then confide that if anyone knew what they were doing, and stayed sober, they could beat him easy. All Gus asked was that they share some of their take with the kindly servant who had tipped them off, slip him a token of appreciation after they took his boss to the cleaners. The news spread quickly that there was a rich, easy mark in town.
That’s how the Whalens and Wunderlichs financed their trek west, with Fred’s winnings from all the suckers in America’s heartland.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul Lieberman


“Willie Burns called,” Connie O’Mara said when her husband, Jack, came home.
“What did he want?”
“He wants you back at the station.”
“OK, boss.”
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.

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