The Real Gangster Squad’s Crusaders in the Underworld: The Stories Behind the Story

Mickey Cohen after booking/ Bruce H. Cox, L.A. TImes
Mickey Cohen after booking/ Bruce H. Cox, L.A. TImes
We’re just getting our feet wet (wingtips wet? brogues? Dapper haberdasher Mickey Cohen would know) with Gangster Squad. As a result, I’m diving into the original L.A. Times articles by Paul Lieberman upon which the movie’s based.

In case you’re a true crime/noir junky, or just love the period, there are loads of fascinating, specific only-in-LA anecdotes about what was nothing less than a local war, in fact, the Sunset Wars. So, if I may humbly offer links and some crib notes?

(UPDATE: These clips and pictures below come from the original articles, and they cover a lot of characters and journalistic ground over the whole life of the squad. But if you're interested in getting a more-gradual introduction to all the main characters and conflicts at work, I'd also suggest checking out our 3-chapter excerpt from the since-published book Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, The Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles.)

Part 1, Crusaders in the Underworld: The LAPD takes on Organized Crime

If they joined the Gangster Squad, their targets would be the likes of Bugsy Siegel, the playboy refugee from New York’s Murder Inc., and Jack Dragna, the Sicilian banana importer who quietly lorded over the city’s rackets…They’d have no office, only two unmarked cars. They’d almost never make arrests. They’d simply gather “intelligence” and be available for other chores. In effect, they would not exist…

The view was great from the hills off Mulholland Drive. So why not escort these hoodlums up there and, as [Sgt. Jack] O’Mara put it, “have a little heart-to-heart talk with ’em, emphasize the fact that this wasn’t New York, this wasn’t Chicago, this wasn’t Cleveland. And we leaned on ’em a little, you know what I mean?”…

Mickey’s crew did complain about the leader of the Gangster Squad, Willie Burns, and how some cops were harassing customers at his haberdashery. “It’s ridiculous,” Mickey said. “Anybody who they see leave the store they take right downtown.” Not long after, Burns’ wife received flowers at home, a funeral arrangement…

There’s also a lot about the bugging and intelligence gathering, including how the LAPD’s own bug man wrapped his shoes in burlap for quiet footsteps and perfumed himself with ammonia to deter curious dogs as he snuck through the neighborhood and into Cohen’s home.

Part 2, While Mickey Cohen Dodges Bullets, the Squad Seeks Revenge on Gossip Columnist Florabel Muir

She was the epitome of the hard-boiled newspaper dame: born in a Wyoming mining town, a veteran of New York’s tabloid battles and now, in 1949, author of a Los Angeles Mirror column that served up Hollywood news while mocking the LAPD as “cops a la Keystone.”

Her efforts, and especially her husband’s, on behalf of Cohen end up earning the squad some vindication, plus the upgraded monikker “Intelligence Division.”

Part 3, The Gangster Squad sets a Trap for Mickey Cohen

Over a full half-century, the Gangland Killings report showed 57 deaths and a single conviction. The rest were usually marked “No prosecution,” like the deaths of the Two Tonys from Kansas City. Jimmy “the Weasel” Fratianno had a solid alibi, however, rousting Nicola “Nick” Licata for the crime and making nice with him and his wife leads to a wedding…a mob wedding with an interesting guest list.

Part 4, Cop Befriends a Crook

New squad member Sgt. Jerry Wooters, an unrepentant rogue and gambler, befriends freelance contract killer Jack “The Enforcer” Whalen. Meanwhile Mickey devises a scheme to turn fake ferns into protection money.

Part 5, Fatal Advice to the Enforcer, “Don’t take any firearms”

Larger-than-life and twice as daring, Whalen even squired his society wife out to dinner with Jerry Wooters and his wife, who thought

Whalen was an actor, because he spoke of breaking into TV westerns, how they needed cowboys who knew how to ride. He was suavely good-looking too, with thick, black hair, a Robert Mitchum type, only bigger. To top it off, he’d been a flyboy in the war, the dashing pilot of a B-25…

Whalen was the most fearsome of the figures who had tried to move in on L.A.’s rackets while Mickey Cohen was off at prison [convicted in 1951 of tax evasion to serve five years]. Some on the Gangster Squad liked to say there were now three gangs in town: the Italians led by Jack Dragna and then Nick Licata, the Jews led by Mickey, and [homegrown son of “Freddie the Thief”] the one-man Irish gang who took bets himself, collected debts for others and shook down anyone he could.

Part 6, A Bullet Between the Eyes at Rondelli’s

Photo from crime scene at Rondelli’s in Sherman Oaks/ L.A. Times
Photo from crime scene at Rondelli’s in Sherman Oaks/ L.A. Times

“I never seen any gun,” Mickey said, describing how he ducked “from force of habit,” and stayed under the table, down there with the dog, Mickey Jr., and when he finally looked up, the restaurant was empty…

Chief William H. Parker and Capt. James Hamilton, head of the Gangster Squad, were there within an hour [of Whalen’s shoooting, December 2, 1959]. But the honor of questioning Mickey fell to Thad Brown, the cigar-chomping deputy chief who was familiar with the victim. “He’d been flirting with the undertaker for a long time,” Brown said of Whalen…

Only later did Wooters learn that an unmarked Intelligence car had gone to Rondelli’s as a result of his tip the night before. But the two squad members simply parked on Ventura Boulevard. They never went in…

So that’s what his years as the secret buddy of Jack Whalen had come to — him stuck in the jail, Whalen dead on the floor and two cops “sitting outside that goddamned place when the shots were fired.”

Part 7, Noir Justice Catches Up with Mickey Cohen

Mickey appears as a witness for his perceived errand boy, Sam LoCigno, who had confessed to Whalen’s shooting. What was treated as Cohen’s de facto trial ends with a mistrial and a bizarre dog-napping, that included a car chase with Jethro of The Beverly Hillbillies. Ah, La-La Land.

Just 2 years later, Cohen would be popped for tax evasion AGAIN, and a strange (revenge?) attack while he was in jail landed him in a coma. The Gangster Squad mostly wound down with their era, leaving the LAPD behind them. Jack O’Mara went straight to work as security at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, “chief of the racetracks” with a force larger than many municipalities.

It’s all great stuff—the photos are fabulous—so do go explore for yourself! Hmmm—I just wonder which aspect of the story will get the most attention in the film!

Check out more fun stuff in our Gangster Squad coverage, including an excerpt from the book by Paul Lieberman and our early review of the movie!

Crime scene image via L.A. Times blog The Daily Mirror.

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