James Arthur Thomas: “Just after the war, there was a lot of money around town an ’ bookin ’ was right out in the open."
James Arthur Thomas is a San Diego institution.
And he's done time in most of them.
Thomas managed a Richfield service station at the corner of Kensington Drive and Adams Avenue. The bookies behind the station offered him a job as a runner.
You don’t see too many listings for his former line of work in the classifieds, though. Until his retirement three years ago, the seventy-five-year-old man was a bookie in this city for more than thirty years. He made book — and we aren’t talking the leather-bound variety here. He had it thrown at him more times than he can remember.
Thomas:“They didn’t come to buy no gas. People got to handicapping so much they couldn’t stop. All these cars, all over the place, an’ nobody’s goin’ into them stores."
There are certain things one expects to see when meeting up with a convicted felon. Art Thomas was not what I expected at all. When I approached his small, one-bedroom apartment located half a block down an alley from the shore of Mission Beach, I anticipated a shady character, always looking over his shoulder suspiciously, with that hard edge that comes from doing time in honor camps, prisons, and a stretch in a federal pen.
Work at Beach Area Clinic
Thomas has done all three — a total of seven years behind bars. Because he has spent half a lifetime in the San Diego underworld, I figured on him wearing Hollywood’s answer to the trappings of his trade: a dark shirt and white necktie, maybe a creased chapeau pulled down over his eyes, and for sure a foul-smelling stogie.
On the phone in Del Mar
“How ya doin’, kiddo?" this old man asked, with a wide, jack-o-lantern grin, as he shook my hand at the door and showed me to a seat in his cramped living room. “C’mon in an’ have a seat. I don’t know what you wanna hear. My family’s legit," he said of his four brothers and sisters, “outside of me.
“I’m just an ole broken-down exbookmaker, is about it. This won’t be no success story — like ‘local boy makes good,’ or something. I ain’t sayin’ this to be smartass or braga-doe-shuss, but I been arrested more than any other bookie I heard of. ’Course I was in the business longer, I guess. I’d just grind out a living in those days,’’ he said. “Nothin’ fancy, though, I never made a whole lotta money. As you can see, I don’t own no classy home an’ this place ain’t what you 'd Call palatial.’’
To supplement his social security benefits, Thomas works part-time as a janitor/gardener at the Beach Area Community Clinic on Mission Boulevard, about half a mile north of his apartment. Since he had his driver’s license revoked long ago — the man has an armada of 502s — he rides to work on a junior-sized bicycle that proudly sports a set of motorcycle handlebars. (Well, he doesn’t exactly ride. Because the bike is too small for his six-foot, one-inch frame, he sits astride the rickety vehicle with his feet on the ground and walks it down the boulevard.)
He got the job at the clinic as the result of “doin’ a little football business back in ’78,” which led to his last arrest. In the fall of that year, he was taking rectangular cards around to local bettors in the beach area. Printed on the cards were all the major college and professional football games for the coming weekend, along with the point spreads for each. His clients would select three teams to win. Thomas would collect the cards, with the picks penciled in, on Fridays and would settle accounts on the following Monday. “On the top of them cards it says, ‘Not to be used illegally,’ ’’ Thomas points out with a deadpan expression, “but my customers weren’t much for readin’ the fine print.’’
He ran out of cards early one week. “So I go to this zoo-rock machine place in P.B. Know what I mean? Zoo-rock? Copies things. Zee-rox? That it? Yeah, so anyway, so I go to this zoo-rock place an’ had the guy there copy me up some more of them cards.” The man told Thomas the job would take half an hour at least, and Thomas went out for coffee and a doughnut. In the meantime, the man phoned the police.
“So he calls ’em an’ next thing I know I’m ridin’ my bike down by the boardwalk in P.B. and — Jesus! — four cops an’ two women is swarmin’ all around me.” They escorted Thomas back to his apartment, searched it thoroughly, and found nothing. Two went outside and discovered a number of shredded football cards in a trash container in an alley near Jamaica Court. “So I says to ’em maybe twenty people use that dumpster, easy. They says nope, an’ off I go”
At his trial, according to Thomas, “the judge — can’t recall his name — thought I was too old to go to jail,” and he was given 200 hours of volunteer work, on a court referral, at the Beach Area Community Clinic. His task was to purge old files in the record room, a job about as stimulating to Thomas as a church buffet. Soon, however, he began to vacuum, water the plants, and prune the shrubs around the building. He also began to adopt the staff members at the clinic as his own. When his 200 hours were up, they baked him a cake (the frosting depicted prison bars, across which was inscribed, “You are now sprung”). Kamal von Essen, the administrator of the clinic, offered him a part-time job, from 8:00 a.m. to noon five days a week. He’s been there ever since.
“Art’s one of a kind,” says von Essen. “He works hard, never misses a day, and is incredibly generous. He treats the people at the clinic as if they were the kids he never had. A lot of young people around the beach use him. I saw a woman talk him into giving her twenty bucks. He knew he was being used yet he couldn’t resist. It makes me angry to see that. But he’s such a soft touch — which is probably why he’s lasted so long, I guess, given the life he’s led.”
For his first thirty-five years, all but seven in San Diego, Thomas lived a relatively clean life — that is if you don't count his teen-age days during Prohibition when he ran bootlegged gin from Jamul to his father's burlesque house, the Colonel Theater, around Fourth and B Street downtown. He worked for Standard Stations, Inc., and did a little amateur boxing on the side. In 1932 he tried out for the Olympics as a welterweight — 147 pounds — and made it to the trials in Los Angeles. But, having to fight three times in one day, he got beat by “some hotshot” from U.C.L.A. named Lee Ramey. ‘‘Heard of him? Fought Joe Louis twice. Got clobbered both times, but he fought him.”
When he wasn’t at work managing service stations in the San Diego area, Thomas would wager on an occasional boxing match or would ‘‘play the ponies pretty regular,” down at Caliente. Pearl Harbor, indirectly, began his new career. A few days after it was bombed, filled with the spirit of patriotism (and also because he was classified IA-H, which meant he might be drafted), Thomas joined the Navy. He was made fireman first class and was assigned to the U.S.S. Dreadnaught. “I figured it to be some kind of big battleship. Turns out it was just some old tug that was anchored in the bay all day with an eighty-ton submarine net that went between Point Loma and North Island. Hell, the only time that tug’d move is when the tide moved.” Thomas served on board the Dreadnought for two years. It was good duty, he says. “Every other night we got liberty. My mother says to me, ‘Are you really in the Navy? You’re home more now than when you had the service station.’ ”
In 1944 or 1945 (though usually quick with numbers, Thomas has trouble with specific dates) he was shipped to Iroquois Point in Honolulu, where he served fifteen months at a receiving station for new recruits. He remembers a row of tents, just outside the base where he was stationed, and there would always be long lines in front of them. What he thought were payroll or food lines turned out to be a prostitution ring that charged three dollars for three minutes, which was fine with Thomas. “You’d line up, drop that flap, go to town, an’ still’d have time to talk with a pretty lady.”
Toward the end of his duty, after he was demoted in rank for being absent without leave for a day “on account of a nice old gal an' a bottle,” Thomas began his long walk on the shady side. He opened up a crap table in a shower room at Iroquois Point, next to an open-air show for the servicemen, and took a commission for running it. He would collect a dollar for every three rolls a player would make. When they wouldn’t be able to pay, he would take wristwatches as collateral. “All told,” he recalls, “I made a few dollars over there in Honolulu, you might say. Even ended up givin’ some of them watches away.”
Between 1938 and 1942, before he entered the Navy, Thomas managed a Richfield service station at the corner of Kensington Drive and Adams Avenue in Kensington. The property was part of a small shopping center and at the time was technically located in unincorporated county territory; thus, it was not patrolled by San Diego police. On weekends a crowd would assemble in back of the station and would place bets on the day’s handicap races. The operation was run by two bookmakers, “Todd and Sid,” and though Thomas was aware of what was going on, he would merely turn his back and look the other way. When he came out of the Navy in 1946, however, he was encouraged to seek employment behind the station.
He was living in Golden Hill and working downtown as a bouncer at the Cobra Club on Fourth and Island, earning only twenty-five dollars a week, and one night, “when them bottles was flyin’ around somethin’ furious,” it dawned on him that bouncing wasn’t his proper calling. He had been contacted by Todd, the bookie behind the Richfield station, who had offered him a job as a "runner” for the Kensington operation. (A “runner” or “outside man” made collections and payments for a bookie and delivered racing forms.) Thomas accepted the job, was paid twenty-five dollars a day, plus expenses, to make daily rounds and work the phones on weekends. He carried individual sheets for each customer. On the sheets would be that person’s wagers for the day plus a tally of where he or she stood for the week. Once a week, usually on a Monday or a Tuesday, he would pay or collect for Todd — most often the latter — from the twenty-five or so customers on his roster. He received no “lay-off” — a percentage of the take — in those days. He was merely a clerk for Todd. But he liked the work, especially the hours and the absence of broken bottles flying at his head, and it seemed like suitable employment to him. “It was a pretty good job,” he says, looking back. “You’d make your rounds an’ chat with your customers, an’ be through ’bout three in the afternoon. It never crossed my mind that what I was doin’ was what you’d call illegal back then. People’d just walk in an’ out like we was runnin’ a store.
“Just after the war, there was a lot of money around town an ’ bookin ’ was right out in the open. You’d hang out in bars with them racin’ forms an’ nobody’d pay you no nevermind.” Thomas’s customers had code names nonetheless. These were usually numbers. They would phone and ask for “Baker or Joe Blow” and say, “This is number six calling,” and Thomas would know who it was. Some gave themselves nicknames. The only one Thomas can recall is a man from Denver whose alias was KOA, which he took from a radio station there. “Ole KOA was a good ole guy. Always paid pretty regular, too.”
Many of his clients didn’t. Most of them, Thomas says, were “working stiffs or retired — small-scale stuff.” They would make two- or five-dollar bets and often would come up empty at collection time. “Lot of ’em’d give you the shorts an’ couldn’t pay. Wasn’t much you could do. If you shut ’em off, you ain’t gonna get nothin’ anyway, so you’d just let ’em keep going an’ collect down the line. Some of ’em never did get caught up, though. ...”
The bookies themselves had less economic freedom. The largest bet Thomas remembers happened during his days with Todd. A horse called “Turgid” was running at Caliente. “This wasn’t no ‘boat race’ — meanin’ it was fixed — an’ it weren’t even a classy horse, just a pretty good one that not too many people knew about.” Thomas was working the phone that day and Todd was paying track odds, which can range higher than those normally offered by a bookmaker. Four clients, including Todd’s brother-in-law, each bet a hundred dollars “across” for the horse — a hundred to win, a hundred to place, and a hundred to show — four $300 wagers. “So the damn horse won 200 to win, a hundred to place, an’ fifty to show. Even-figure mutuals — never seen that before, is why I remember ’em.” Todd had to pay out more than $15,000 that day for the combined bets. “He tells me ‘Go pay ’em,’ an’ gives me the money. I just carried the cash, is all, on that one.”
The Kensington operation lasted approximately four years. By 1950, however, things got way out of hand.
According to Thomas, more than 500 bettors would assemble behind, around, and in the gas station on weekends — waving money around, shouting for the odds, placing bets with Todd and Sid, or demanding a piece of the action. Thomas and two other clerks were stationed in nearby pay phones doing business with those unable to drive up the hill from downtown. The entire scene — a frantic blur of bets and wagers — looked like an outdoor stock exchange . . . until the parking problem did it in.
The Richfield station was near a small shopping center: a Piggly Wiggly market next to a Safeway store, a theater, a drug store, and a bar. On weekends cars would line both sides of the street and would flood the parking lot at the shopping center. Some gamblers would arrive early in the morning to grab the best seat in the house. They would drive up to the pumps at the station, shut off their engines, and whip out their racing forms. “They didn’t come to buy no gas. People got to handicapping so much they couldn’t stop,” says Thomas. “All these cars, all over the place, an’ nobody’s goin’ into them stores. There’s no way the sheriff’s office didn’t know what was goin’ on. Maybe they was takin’ the juice — gettin’ some cash, you know — from Todd an’ Sid. But the store owners an’ people in the neighborhood must've complained, ’cause the cops finally closed up the operation. Didn’t pinch nobody, just closed 'em up.”
Todd moved his book to a bar in National City. Thomas stayed in Kensington and, for a short period, went into business for himself. He went around to some of Todd’s old customers in the area and gave them a new phone number. “These people’d tell about another guy wants to bet an’, before you know it, you got a clientele goin’.” Thomas worked in partnership with a husband-and-wife team — which, he says, was very common in those days. The man would make collections and the woman would work the phones. “Things went good for a while,” he recalls, “then they’d put the heat on. We’d move our phones, this an’ that, and be back in business. We was always fumblin’ with the money somewheres.”
A few months after he went into business for himself, in 1950, he was arrested for the first time. His habit in those days was to go to the Streamliner, a bar and restaurant at Oregon Street and El Cajon Boulevard, and have a cup of coffee in the morning before he began his day’s work. For about a week, a young man would meet him at the Streamliner and would talk bookmaking. “Looked like a college kid,” Thomas remembers, “innocent, you know? Not like a cop.
He’d hang around and hang around, an’ I thought the guy was gettin' awful chummy with me for some reason.” One rule Thomas adhered to was never take a bet from a stranger. At the end of the week the kid had a scratch sheet with him and wanted to bet on a horse:— two dollars to win and two to place. At the time, this struck Thomas as a bit odd. “I thought that was damn strange. Here he’s got himself a scratch sheet, an’ he'd only bet four measly bucks!” But Thomas took the money, and on his way to Hillcrest, to settle up with another customer, a car pulled him over to the side of the road. Three men got out, grabbed his wallet, and found the four dollar bills. Each was marked and the serial numbers recorded. “I got a ride downtown, thirty days in honor camp, an’ a $250 fine. How was I to know the kid was nothin' but a damn stool pigeon cop? That’s the way they’d do.”
Thomas admits that his business in Kensington was small time and adds that the real action in the early Fifties was in the bars downtown. Most of the bookies were local boys, according to Thomas, but on occasion he did bump into a major-league mobster named Frank “Bomp” Bompensiero — alleged capo, family leader of San Diego in the middle Fifties, and later a boss in Los Angeles in the Seventies. (In 1977 Bompensiero was murdered near his Pacific Beach apartment, four .22 caliber bullets in his head.) Back in the early Fifties, he owned the Gold Rail Bar on Third Avenue, between C Street and Broadway. There were six bars on the west side of the street in those days, says Thomas, and they attracted bettors like filings to a magnet.
As far as Thomas was concerned, Bompensiero was just another bar owner. He’d stand out in front of his bar on sunny days and smoke a fat cigar. “He was a big guy, goin’ bald. I figured he was kinda on the shady side of the bottom, but I didn’t know for sure.” Bompensiero charged bookmakers fifty dollars a day to work the Gold Rail. He called it his “overhead.” One day an intrepid Thomas tried to reason with the man, explaining that the rent was at least twice as high as the other bar owners on the street were asking. He contended that bookies were good for business since they brought all kinds of customers to the bar. His reasoning, however, was lost on Bompensiero. “When I told him that, he give me a frozen look. He didn’t think I was bein’ what you’d call funny, you know?
“He was a bad guy, yeah. I think he got really had later on. Then he started squealin' to the feds to protect himself, an' finally got bumped off. But he was the only one I knew who was connected.”
Thomas claims there was never any violence to speak of. “In the old days, people used to meet in a bar or behind a garage an' make book. Now they hop on planes an’ fly to Vegas. If you couldn’t pay, you couldn’t. I never heard of a bookmaker that got in a fight, even. They might put the finger on another guy, but that was about it.” The only time this happened to Thomas was the day Lo-ball Johnny thought Thomas was moving in on his territory. A tall, well-dressed man, Lo-ball Johnny claimed his turf was the downtown area around the Monte Carlo, a hotel with a downstairs bar at Third and E. He had seven or eight runners working under him. Thomas would come downtown from Golden Hill to see Eleanor — this was after his first wife "run off with some guy name of ‘Peaches' ” — who worked as a bookie’s clerk on phones from the Pickwick Hotel. One night around three in the morning, the police raided her room at the Pickwick and took them both to the station.
“Boom! Boom! They’re bangin’ on the door. They didn’t need no search warrant in those days. They’d just knock down the door. It was just to roust me,” Thomas says, convinced that Lo-ball Johnny was behind it. “They couldn’t have pinched me for making book at three in the morning. Hell, nobody’s makin’ any book at that hour.
“I heard later that Lo-ball put the finger on me for chiseling in on his business downtown. Ole Lo-ball. Hell. I wasn’t doin’ no business. I was just there to see Eleanor. So one day I asks Lo-ball. I says, ‘Jesus Christ, what are you doin'? He says, ‘Nothin’. I didn’t do nothin!'That was the only time I heard of anybody lay in’ the finger on somebody else.”
Lo-ball Johnny? According to Thomas, he went to Las Vegas for a while, then to Gardena, California, where he tried to open up a card room. “That’s the last I heard of ole Lo-ball,” says Thomas, with uncharacteristic anger. “Oh, he was a gambler. A bookmaker an’ a gambler too. You can get caught in the switches doin’ that. Can’t go both ways.”
About the time Lo-ball split for Vegas, Sam Manas, known as “Sam the Greek,” had become one of the most successful bookies in the area. He came to California on a luxury liner working as a waiter. Manas began hanging around the Saddlerock Bar, next to the California Theatre, and started making book. By 1951 he had a large business, with two women working the phones at the Savoy, on Fourth Avenue between C and Broadway, and with eight runners collecting bets on the street. After having been arrested a few times too many working on his own, Thomas joined up with Manas and his partner George Gordon. He worked for them during what he calls the “Golden Age of Book in San Diego.”
“Thing with Sam and George was no worry,” says Thomas. “They juiced the cops good back then. Paid ’em 800 a week — that money was goin’ someplace — an’ other guys’d pay ’em too. Sam’d give the cops the names of people connected with him an' they’d let ’em go. I never got arrested working for Sam. He an’ George would always cover everything, an’ they kept it straight. All you had to do was go out an’ hustle up some business.”
Thomas had a deal with Manas and Gordon where he shared fifty percent of his profits with them. In return, they would cover all his losses and would pay his expenses. If it was a losing week, Manas would pay up and Thomas would work for nothing until they were back to even again. “There were a few times when I had to get money from Sam,” says Thomas, who averaged $600 a week, his fifty-fifty share in those days, “but not many though. I’d have thirty players bettin' twos and fives. No way they’re gonna win anything over a week’s time.’’
It was during this period that Thomas made book for a man who bet a lot more than twos and fives. “Guy name of Sherwood, or something. He was a bigwig for some company in town.” Whenever there was a horse running in America, Sherwood would bet twenty across — sixty dollars a race, on at least sixteen races a day. In the morning, he would start early, betting on the races in the East, and by late afternoon he would work his way to the racetracks on the West Coast. “He never lost a lot of money any one week,” says Thomas, grinning to beat hell, “I mean like thousands of dollars. But for consistency, there was nobody else quite like him. He'd owe five or six hundred dollars every week, rain or snow." This practice went on for four years. There would be weeks when Sherwood would come out ahead, but not over the long haul. Every Monday, they would settle up with a check. “Don't know what happened to him, but for those four years, makin’ book with Sherwood was like an annuity — like gettin' royalties every week!"
The early Fifties were also the years Leonard Brophy ran the “service." Brophy had a man on the hill behind the track at Del Mar. Using binoculars, the man would steal the results of a race from the track's board and would phone them to Brophy — who in turn would relay them within minutes to the twenty-five or so bookies doing business in the downtown area. Brophy's operation reported nationwide results, as well. The service was necessary, Thomas says, because racetracks would lock up their phone booths during the races, and the results would come in late each evening. With the service, for which bookies paid fifty dollars a week, a bettor could know the outcome of the race before betting on the next one. “Ole Leonard was a good guy, far as I know,” says Thomas. “He got busted an’ quit the ‘service’ around ’53, I figure it was. Then he shot himself on a Christmas morning. Some love affair went sour, I hear — wasn’t anything to do with the Mafia or the mob — is why he killed himself.’’
One way of getting around the service, of course, was to go to the track itself. But Thomas says officials at Del Mar discouraged bookies from working there. “They wanted the money bet with their machines — not let the bookmakers have it. Can’t blame 'em on that one, really.” And thus known bookies, Thomas on two occasions, were asked to leave. Max the Goose had better success, though, probably because he didn’t hang out with his own kind at the track.
The Goose would take about six or seven of his good customers and would put them in a box seat at Del Mar. Instead of going up to the window before each race, they would place all their wagers with the Goose. “All the time they was bettin’! ” says Thomas, “even during the race — first horse to the turn, stuff like that. They wouldn’t even let ole Goose go to the john! The Del Mar people frowned on the Goose’s activities, you might say. But they never did catch him.”
Having the results from the service a few minutes after the race was over increased a bookie’s business, Thomas claims. But there were other attempts to speed up the process even more. A few tried to fool with time itself. The service would announce the start of a race within a minute or so. But ingenious networks of communication were rigged — usually a phone system — which enabled observers to tip bettors about the early leaders in a race. These “past-post” bets would beat the service and often meant some large dividends. “Past-posting” worked better the farther away the bettor was from the track and, according to Thomas, it was not a common occurrence at Del Mar, but San Diego still saw some of it. The most creative example of past-posting Thomas remembers involved a guy who came from Los Angeles. In four days the man experienced both the thrill of victory and the agony of a faulty electronic system. “He’s posing as a fake doctor in the parking lot of I think it was Mercy Hospital. He’d sit there in a big Cadillac dressed in a white cape or apron — like he just come out of surgery.” A bookie friend of Thomas’s named Mike would meet the man around noon. They would make three or four quick bets. What Mike didn’t know at the time was that the phony doctor had a modified broadcast receiver wrapped around his leg.
“It was a radio deal somewheres. Guy’d send him the results of a race long before they’d come over the radio, see? An’ the thing on his leg’d jab him — four jabs, fourth race; three jabs, third horse. So this fake doctor would win an’ win an’ win.” This went on for three days, and Mike was down several thousand dollars to the parking lot M.D. “Then the guy showed up, still looking like a doctor, on the fourth day. His wire thing was on the blink, ’cause he lost a bundle to Mike — six or seven thousand at least — an’ then told Mike about the hookup. Never heard of the guy since. He skipped town as fast as he come in.”
The Golden Age of Book in San Diego came to an end by the middle Fifties. Caliente racetrack began to offer new freedom of movement to bookies just across the border; it was needed because there was also a shake-up in the San Diego vice squad. An investigation, conducted by agents of the United States Justice and Treasury departments, revealed areas of misconduct on the part of several vice squad officers. Five members of the squad either lost their jobs or were encouraged to retire. The initial investigation created little public scandal, but in 1970 another investigation — led by the State Attorney General’s Office and reported in the January 24 edition of the San Diego Union —-“resulted in evidence of wrongdoing on the part of some officers who are no longer with the force.” These included receiving payments and bribes (one officer confessed to having received $12,000in “payments’’during the Fifties, the report stated) from bookies and operators of card rooms and pawn shops, as well as selective enforcement of bookmaking laws. Since the statute of limitations had run out on the offending officers, none was prosecuted in 1970.
After the first shake-up, around 1955, the purged vice squad “really put the heat on,” says Thomas, and they scattered the downtown bookmakers; some sought new turfs in town, many went to Caliente, and others apparently left town altogether. “Once they booted out them juiced cops,” contends Thomas, “practically everybody in the business folded — all the guys with connections, even Sam an’ George.”
George Gordon bought a cabin in Julian and retired. One afternoon, while pruning a tree, he fell out of it and died. Sam Manas went home to Athens, Greece. “I hope he’s okay,” says Thomas. “You know. Sam wasn’t tied to organized crime or nothin'. Just a businessman an' a square John. Everybody liked ole Sam. He never gambled much, an' didn't drink, an’ was trustworthy as far as everything went. When the big crunch hit, Sam just packed up an’ took his bundle with him.”
Along with the loss of protection provided by Manas and Gordon, several other changes had occurred by 1955. Once a misdemeanor, bookmaking had been reclassified as a major crime. Because of this change, Thomas’s second wife — of three years — left him. He was never home, he says, and every time the phone would ring she was afraid to pick up the receiver. A felony might be lurking at the other end of the line. “She wouldn’t stand still for that,” Thomas says. “She was a nice gal. Got two fine kids now, too. An’ she was worried in those days, I guess. But she had another guy then, too. She wasn’t gonna jump out the window without havin’ a soft place to land.”
Thomas switched over from horses to football, using the cards that led to his last arrest in 1978. The cards, invented in Texas in the early Fifties, began to include professional games by 1955, and Thomas liked booking the pro games, he says, because they were much more unpredictable than the horses. “I don’t know why people bet at all — really don’t. With football, they bet with all kinds of emotion, an’ the variables of the game do ’em in every time.” In the years that followed, the loss of protection provided by Manas and Gordon, the reclassification of bookmaking as a felony, and a different, less sophisticated breed of bettors all combined to “do in” Thomas — more times than he can count. The Golden Age of Book was gone. For the next twenty-three years, Thomas lived in an Iron Age, much of it spent behind bars.
Time, for Thomas, begins to blend together the closer we come to the present. His memory of events and their sequence springs out of sync, and the years after 1955 seem to him a series of book and busts, a repeated pattern, itself a routine, with few variations. One incident, however, stands out in his mind.
In 1961 he was arrested on bookmaking charges, and although his lawyer assured him he could “fix a deal" and get him off with just another Fine and a few months in honor camp, Thomas had the book thrown at him. Adding up three prior arrests for similar charges, the judge gave Thomas two years in a state penitentiary. His first stop was Chino.
Thomas’s cellmate at Chino was Bernard Finch, the doctor who allegedly murdered his wife in the early Sixties. Finch would oversee surgery at Chino, with a dexterity that impressed Thomas. “He couldn’t do the carving himself — they wouldn’t let him do that — but he’d tell ’em where to do the cuttin’. Finch was a hell of a nice guy. I just can’t understand how he thought he could get away with killin’ his old lady.”
After Chino, Thomas was sent to a minimum security facility at Soledad, where he served "good time” — a shortened sentence of nine months. He holds the distinction, dubious at best, of being the only man up to that time who was in the state penitentiary for bookmaking. ‘‘They didn’t know what booking was in the joint then,” he claims, “so I pretty much had my run of the place.” And when the 1961 World Series rolled around, Thomas went to work, laying two-to-one odds on the Yankees, one of the most powerful teams in major league history. “A man come up to me an' asked, ‘Youse the man puttin’ up two-to-one?’ Sure, I says — an’ made thirteen cartons of cigarettes off that series. The Yanks won four in a row. I give all them cartons away when I left.
“Making book all them years — it was a business. You just read the paper. It says — boom! — you win or lose. After you get into that business, it’s all you know. You hope it’ll be different next time. But then you make some money an’ get busted. Money an’ busts. Then you get a record an' nobody’ll hire you. After I left Soledad, I though seriously about quittin’ — an’ did for three years. But I wandered back eventually.”
Over the years, Thomas has been arrested more than twenty times for making book. His seven-page rap sheet is crammed with charges such as “332 VC & S Bookmaking” and “Susp. BKMG” — plus a swath of 502s and a few errant arrests for disturbing the peace. “I always kept enough money around to bail out an’ pay my fines,” he says with almost civic pride, “just like I always paid off the bettors. An’ I always served my time without complainin’.
“I was steady,” Thomas says with a grin. “The reason I got pinched so many times is I was always working for somebody else on them phones. When the heat’d come on, the cops’d come into the place an’ there you are. I was the clerk, usually, an’ the bosses was never around, so off I’d go for another ride downtown with the cops. But I never told ’em, you know, who I worked for. Naturally you didn’t do that. Got pinched a bunch of times but never squealed on anyone.”
With respect to current bookmaking in San Diego, the old veteran claims to know very little. “There’s nobody left from those old days now. I just don’t know any of the new people or what they’re up to. I don’t go downtown or keep much in touch these days — and don’t know anybody in the business, so I couldn’t tell you. Football’s pretty big, I guess.”
It is, according to Lt. Ken Moller of the police department. “There’s no one kingpin making book in San Diego,” Moller says, “and you can’t define a specific location where it occurs. But someone will take a bet, others will follow, and the next thing you know you’ve got a bookmaker.” One of whom, alias “Jay Diamond,” was nabbed two weeks ago. The police estimated that Diamond was doing more then $300,000 a week in booking bets.
Thomas hit the roof when he heard the news. “How much? Three hundred . . .? The total handle? I can’t imagine anybody doin’ that much business! Hell, we’d do 'bout six, eight hundred a week on the average. I never had that much action my entire life. Times have changed considerable, I guess.
“There’s lots of things goin’ on out there worse than gamblin’ — robberies, shootin’ — lots of weirdos out there, really," Thomas muses. “An’ I don’t think I was doin’ anything wrong. Against the law, sure. On paper, accordin’ to what they call ‘procedure,’ I must of looked like a pretty bad guy to them, I guess. But it wasn’t like I’d stick a gun in somebody’s gut an’ tell ’em to place a bet. Hell. They’d look you up!”