Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Mickey Cohen, Frank Bompensiero (inset photo); Alley off Lamont St., south of Grand Ave. where Bompensiero was shot and killed.
Some evening soon, drive out to Pacific Beach. Be there about 8:15. The sun will have been down several hours. Across the sky every last orange and violet streak will be gone. Take a jacket. I was cold. Bone cold.
Back in 1977, a pay telephone stood along the side of the station. Some say Bompensiero talked to James Aladena (“Jimmy the Weasel”) Fratianno. Others claim he spoke to Joseph (“Joseph Bananas”) Bonnano.
Turn south off of Grand onto Lamont Street. Park along Lamont. Wander over to the gas station. The gas station on your right, as you face away from the traffic along Grand. Back in 1977, a pay telephone stood along the side of the station. It was an Arco station then. Frank Bompensiero made his last telephone call here. “Dialed,” someone told me, and then laughed a high-pitched crazy laugh, “his last number.”
Nobody knows what number Bompensiero dialed. Nobody knows to whom Bompensiero talked, or, if he talked to anyone. Whomever he called, he knew the number, by heart. No one found wadded scratch paper that had numbers scrawled across it in the pockets of his dark green trousers.
Frank and Thelma Bompensiero and Marie and Momo Adamo in early 1950s. Marie flirted with everyone. Momo in his broken English hissed at her, “Maria Mag-a-da-lena!”
Some people say Bompensiero talked to James Aladena (“Jimmy the Weasel”) Fratianno. Others claim he spoke to Joseph (“Joseph Bananas”) Bonnano, the former New York Mafia leader simmering in exile in Tucson. Fratianno insisted that Bompensiero was returning the call of Los Angeles’ Mafia overload, Dominic Brooklier (who in a fit of Anglophilia had changed his name from Dominic Bruccoleri). Still other people said — whispered — that Bompensiero called the FBI.
From the San Diego Union Friday, February 11, 1977. "We interviewed everybody in the neighborhood and there were no shots heard."
When you get right down to it, it’s hard to know much about Bompensiero. By the time I went that February evening to the spot where Bompensiero “Dialed his last number,” I had spent ten years off and on, asking people questions about him. I had read court records and old newspaper clippings. I had sorted through shoe boxes stacked with blurry photographs. I had sat outside houses and apartments where he’d lived in Little Italy and Kensington and Pacific Beach. I had snapped photos of houses where he lived. Many times I walked past his long obliterated bar — the Gold Rail — which had stood in the 1000 block of Third Avenue between Broadway Credit Jewelers, the States Café, Graf’s Exclusive Furs, the Hula Hut, and the Cuckoo Club.
Jack Dragna (head of table) and Frank Desimone (to Dragna’s left). In 1956 Frank Desimone, according to a police informant, raped the wife of Girolamo (Momo) Adamo in the presence of the shocked husband.
I visited San Quentin, where he stoically did five years. I went to church to sit behind one of his sisters, an elderly woman who had refused my request for interviews. I could hear her beads click as her fingers rushed across the Hail Mary’s strung between Our Father’s. I harried retired law enforcement guys, I harried the FBI. I filed endless Freedom of Information Act requests. When the requests were honored and papers arrived I was excited as any child at Christmas. I tore open the packages. I studied blacked-out redacted reports. I listened in those reports to the sound of Bompensiero’s gravelly voice.
4205 Lamont Street, Pacific Beach. On the evening of February 10, 1977, at 7:00 p.m., Bompensiero had only 90 minutes left to live. A Lassie rerun was shown on television from 7:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
I wrote obsequious letters in which I begged people to talk with me. I offered money, far more money than I could afford, to try to get people to talk. I went to the post office and bought money orders and mailed them off to a man in prison who had known Bompensiero. I ordered fiori di Sicilia and stirred the aromatic citrus-and-vanilla concoction into my old proud cake recipe. I bought a Sicilian cookbook and made pasta with peas, which someone told me was a Bompensiero favorite. I even considered flying to Sicily and boarding a bus to Porticello, from where Bompensiero’s parents came.
At Tops in 1948: second from left, Momo Adamo, Marie Adamo, Thelma Bompensiero, Frank Bompensiero, Mary Ann. Mary Ann said, “Marie flirted so much with my father. My mother [Thelma] would say to my father, ‘If anything ever happens to me, Marie is going to come after you.’ ”
I, who never read my own horoscope, looked up what the stars promised Bompensiero on February 10, 1977. “Don’t get too critical about the conditions at home or it gets worse. Do what you can to better conditions there quietly. Try to be more cheerful and lift the spirits of others. Handle money matters wisely.” Finally I read and reread his autopsy; as if what David M. Katsuyama, pathologist for the coroner, wrote about Bompensiero’s heart could tell me something about his soul. His heart, Dr. Katsuyama noted, “weighs 540 grams. Multiple sections reveal moderately severe sclerosis of the coronary vessels, reducing the lumen in some areas to 25-30% of original caliber. Complete obliteration or thrombosis is not encountered. Cut surfaces of the myocardium show no recognizable infarct. Valve appearances and sizes are normal. The aorta shows moderate to severe atherosclerosis.”
Thelma Bompensiero (second from left), Marie Adamo, and Momo Adamo. Mary Ann: "My dad [Frank] said to my mom, ‘Thelma, come on honey. She’s just a baby. Leave her alone. Get it out of your system. Hit me. Hit me, baby.’ ”
Even with all that and much more, I never knew—I do not know now—as much as I needed and wanted to know. I don’t know small personal details—how he smelled, how he kissed, if in his last years he (like LA’s Mafia boss Jack Dragna) wore dentures, if he slept well at night. I didn’t know how he felt when he put a rope around Frank Borgia’s neck and pulled and Frank Borgia crumpled to his knees. I did not know if he ever tried to quit smoking his big cigars. I did not know why he married his second wife, Marie. I did not know if he ever said the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t know what, other than newspapers and magazines, he read. I didn’t know how smart he was. I have a copy of his file from San Quentin; next to Intelligence Estimate,” a prison official printed “DULL NORMAL.” Entire years passed during which he seemed to disappear, to leave no spoor of arrest or statements to newspapers. Yet for all that I did not know, I felt some days, that I knew more about him than I knew about myself.
This not knowing got me interested in epistemology, that branch of philosophy “concerned with the definition of knowledge, the source and criteria of knowledge, the kinds of knowledge possible, and the degree to which each is certain, and the exact relation between the one who knows and the object that is known.” I became interested in this “exact relation between the one who knows and the object that is known.” By the time I started asking questions about Bompensiero, he was an object. He was to be known and I wanted to know him.
That February evening, as I stood in the dark on Lamont Street, hugging myself to keep warm, I was waiting for Paul Ybarrando, now retired from the San Diego Police Department, to show up. Ybarrando was the sergeant in charge of the investigation into Bompensiero’s murder. A murder, by the way, that never would be solved. So forget knowing who waited for him behind the fence that ran along the alley that intersects Lamont. Forget that.
But you might want to drive out there and look at where it happened. You might.
What we do know is that 8:00, on February 10, 1977, a Thursday night about three weeks after Jimmy Carter took the oath of office as our 39th president, Bompensiero had 20 to 30 minutes left to live. We can surmise that he was returning a call, or that he was keeping a promise to call someone at, or, about a time between 8:00 and 8:15. We can surmise that the person whom Bompensiero called is the person who ordered the old man’s assassination. I think we can make that surmise.
Bompensiero hadn’t wanted to use his own telephone. He lived at 4205 Lamont, two and a half blocks from the gas station. Three years earlier, soon after the building was furnished, he and his second wife, Marie, had moved from her Reed Street apartment to 4205. Set in among modest prewar houses, the four-story blue-and-white structure dominated the neighborhood. It was called “The Beach Club,” Among its amenities were security doors and an underground parking garage.
Bompensiero’s two-bedroom, condominium—number seven—was on the third floor. His name, however, was not next to the buzzer that you stuck out your index finger and punched to announce your arrival. Frank Gavin was the name taped next to number seven’s buzzer. Patrick Gavin had been Marie Bompensiero’s third husband. Patrick Gavin was dead—cancer. Marie Bompensiero’s second husband, Girolamo “Momo” Adamo, was dead—self-inflected gun-shot to the head. Her first husband, whom she dumped for Momo, was dead. Someone told me about Marie, a red-haired Sicilian who looked not unlike Rita Hayworth, “She was a little bad luck, you know. She was married to four guys, they’re all dead. I used to tell her, ‘Gee, anybody goes with you gotta be crazy,’ I seen pictures of her when she first come out from Kansas City to California, she was a very beautiful woman. Very beautiful. And she dressed good.” Someone else told me about Marie, that indeed she did dress well, and, that underneath foxes and minks and sequined gowns and jet-bead trimmed dresses and bugle-beaded cashmere sweaters, she wore “all-silk underwear. She had sets of it, in every color.”
Bompensiero may have worried that the telephone in his apartment was tapped. That it was tapped would be a reasonable assumption. The FBI had tapped Bompensiero’s telephones off and on for years. On the floor of my bedroom closet I keep a box in which someone sent me two dozen Florida pink grapefruit. That box is packed with photocopies of transcriptions of telephone calls made by Bompensiero and recorded and transcribed by the FBI.
Then, again, maybe Bompensiero didn’t want to awaken Marie. Marie was asleep. Or maybe, Marie had passed out. Marie drank too much. She’d been drinking too much for a long time. No wonder.
This is the story on Marie Nee Caldarello. Marie was born in Kansas City in 1907. She married Frank Guererra in Kansas City in 1934. She divorced Guererra and married Momo Adamo soon after her son by Guererra was born. Marie, one of whose brothers married into a mob-connected Kansas City family, the Bacolos, was described as a high-spirited and tempestuous party girl who frequented Kansas City nightspots. Adamo was a dark, saturnine, and handsome playboy who did a mean tango and had a mean temper and a mean scar down one side of his jaw. He spoke a fractured, broken, heavily accented half-English, half-Italian. Marie loved Momo fiercely and by all accounts Momo loved Marie. “Adored her,” was what someone told me. I have that written in my notebook. “He said, ‘Momo adored Marie.’”
Girolamo “Momo” Adamo, born in Sicily in 1895 came to the U.S. in the early 1900s. He went first to Chicago. According to a man now long retired from Kansas City Law enforcement, Momo Adamo “was brought to Kansas City from Chicago by Johnny Lazia, leader of the Kansas City Italian organized crime syndicate.” In Kansas City during prohibition, Momo ran a speakeasy called the Garden of Naples. He was around town during the great Kansas City massacre, when on a summer Saturday morning in 1933 gangsters opened fire in front of Kansas City’s Union Station, leaving four policemen and their prisoner dead. Lazia ruled Kansas City’s northside until 1934, when he was shot down as he entered the park Central Hotel. Lazia lieutenants, men like Momo Adamo, believed a Kansas City upstart—Michael James LaCapra—determined to take over the Lazia domain, ordered Lazia’s killing.
In 1935 Momo packed up Marie and her son and left bloody-hot-in-summer-cold-in-winter-Kansas City behind. The Adamo’s arrived in Los Angeles where Momo aligned himself with LA’s mafia godfather, Jack Dragna. Momo rather quickly became second-in-command, or underboss to Dragna. He and Marie took up residency at 3911 Westside Avenue; not far from Dragna’s house at 3027 Hulbert. The west side LA neighborhood was a well-kept upper-middle-class enclave of prewar Spanish-style houses. Marie bought good furniture, good china, good sterling. She was known, I heard, for setting a “beautiful table.” She was a superb cook, and although she always hired in couples to serve her guests and wash up after dinner, she prepared all the food—fish soups, intricate stuffed pastas, veal, cannelloni. (“Nobody in that crowd,” someone told me, “had live-in maids. You didn’t want anyone in the house.”) Marie was a generous hostess. Her menus, I was told, were extensive and no matter how much everyone ate, leftovers always heaped the kitchen counters. At most houses, children ate in the kitchen. But not at Marie’s house, everybody, even children, pulled up chairs. Momo always governed at the table’s head, pouring Italian red wines and French champagnes, lighting the ladies cigarettes.
Marie was a prodigious shopper. She bragged to her friends about her ability to squeeze money from Momo. Someone said, “She never gave anything away. She used to say, ‘I told Momo, I want some money, we’re going to go shopping,’ and he’d say, ‘Marie you got a closetful of clothes.’ So what she’d do is she’d get rid of some clothes. She never gave them away to her cleaning lady. She never gave a thing away. She would take them down to the secondhand store and sell them and then she’d go out and buy new clothes.” So Marie bought the silk underwear, the furs, the gowns and suits and stylish hats from Mr. John. Her nose poked through the hats’ adorable veiling. She set bottles of Arpège and My Sin on her dressing table. She went twice a week to the hairdresser who arranged her auburn hair in marcelled waves. She kept her long fingernails polished a bright red. She was a student of her complexion. Even when she and Momo came home so drunk from LA nightclubs that they were stumbling, Marie sat down before her dressing table mirror and removed her make-up and massaged cold cream into her olive skin.
Momo and Marie partied. Marie got dolled up. Marie did not have what you would call a voluptuous figure. She did not have, the ladies said, behind her back, “a pretty bustline.” Pretty bustline or not, when evening came, Marie nevertheless displayed what bosom she had in daringly low-cut bodices. And always the sequins, the traceries of beads glittered on those bodices. Momo, no mean dresser himself, shrugged his broad shoulders into his tuxedo jacket and set his black homburg atop his thinning hair.
Momo and Marie like Ciro’s. Momo was a big tipper and Ciro waiters and cigarette girls paid him exorbitant attention. Momo learned to Cha-Cha. Momo and Marie drank and cha-cha’ed and drank. Momo flirted with busty blondes. Someone told me about an evening in the late 1940’s when Momo and Marie were visiting San Diego and entertaining in their suite at El Cortez. “Momo was in another room and Marie says to the ladies, ‘Did I ever tell you about when I was a blonde?’ Everybody said ‘No.’ ‘Well, son of a bitch,’ Marie says, ‘Momo was out late late late one night and I don’t know what time the bastard came home, and when he got home I got right up next to him and I said, “Where the hell were you, Momo?” He didn’t answer. I looked at his jacket and I saw a long blonde hair right there on the dark suit. I said, “So, you son of a bitch, you like blondes?” The next morning I went out to the beauty parlor and got myself made a blonde. I got home and Momo, he looked at me and started screaming. “Maria what are you doing? What are you doing?” ’ ”
Marie flirted with everyone. Momo in his broken English hissed at her, “Maria Mag-a-da-lena!” By which Momo meant to indicate that Marie was a whore. More than once, Momo slugged Maria. He blacked her eyes, left green bruises on her arms. She wore dark glasses.
Joe Adamo, Momo’s brother, also moved to California, settling in San Diego in the 1940s in a house on South Hempstead Circle in Kensington and setting himself up in the bar business as co-owner, with Momo, of a dark little sailor bar, the Gay Paree on Fourth Avenue. Momo and Marie were often in and out of San Diego during the years after World War II. They came to visit Joe and his family and Momo’s old friend from Kansas City, a murderous thug named William “Willie the Rat” Cammisano who’d bought a house at 4134 Lymer Drive in Kensington. Willie, when he bought the Lymer Drive house, opened the trunk of his car and took from his suitcase $25,000 in cash and counted it out into the hands of the house’s seller. Momo and Marie, in San Diego, liked to stay at the El Cortez and go out on the town to nightspots like Tops.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the Mafia’s old mahoofs gradually lost their hold on the city. Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel had come to town. Endless freelancers showed up. Jack Dragna wasn’t left with all that much, which meant that Momo Adamo, his lieutenant, wasn’t left with much either. Except lots of trouble with Los Angeles’ organized crime division. Those guys followed Dagna and his boys everywhere.
Friday morning, February 24, 1956, the banner atop the Los Angeles Times’ front cover read: “JACK DRAGNA FOUND DEAD IN SUNSET BLVD. HOTEL.” Beneath the headline: “Reputed Ruler of Mafia in Los Angeles Apparently had a Heart Attack While Asleep.”
Frank Desimone, a scrawny and dyspeptic Los Angeles lawyer, a chewer of tums, succeeded Jack Dragna as LA’s Mafia head. Somebody told me that after Dragna’s death, Momo expected he would be made head of the LA family. Underbosses almost always moved up to the boss position after a boss’s death, particularly when the death was natural. Dragna’s death was natural. His body was found, clad in pink silk pajamas, in the hotel bed. It was said before his death he’d had the pleasure of female companionship. It was said that “Jack died under a whore.”
After Dragna’s death the LA family took a vote. By the time this vote was taken, Desimone already had muscled Momo out. Desimone, I was told, likely “made a move.” He likely promised the guys he’d do this for them and do that, they’d get moneyed up. Maybe he told them Momo was weak, that he was old and from the Old World, that he couldn’t do anything for them. Maybe he told them that Momo was sick. Even Momo’s brother Joe went against Momo in the vote. Maybe Momo was sick.
Joe Adamo, people will tell you, “was the quiet one. Pure Sicilian man that you would never dream was ever connected anywhere. Joe just seemed to have a bar. He was a like a regular family man.”
So, Momo and Marie packed up and moved to San Diego. Willie the Rat Cammisano went home to Kansas City. Momo and Marie took up residency on Lymer Drive. The neighbors, 40 years later, still remembered the couple’s noisy arguments.
Then on June 19, 1956, the San Diego Union noted, in a headline: Ex-Hoodlum Shoots Wife, Kills Himself, Attempted Slaying, Suicide Climax Quarrel in Kensington Park Home.
The report went on to say that Momo Adamo, part-owner of Gay Paree Tavern and a resident at 4134 Lymer Drive, Kensington Park, during a quarrel with his wife Marie, pointed a .32-caliber pistol at her head and shot her. The bullet entered, circled around the back of her skull, and came out over her eye. She dropped to the floor. Momo then stuck the pistol behind his right ear and pulled the trigger. He fell backwards. The gun dropped at his feet. He died.
Her head veiled in blood, Marie ran from the house. She collapsed in a front yard 150 feet away. Marie, the Union later would report, “was in critical condition at Mercy Hospital. She told police before lapsing into unconsciousness her husband attacked her during a quarrel, choking her and hitting her with a whiskey bottle….Mrs. Adamo did not disclose the cause of the quarrel.”
There is a story about why Momo shot Marie and then himself. This was not printed in the San Diego newspapers.
Ed Reid wrote in the Grim Reapers, “The Hoodlums have always prided themselves on their respect, not only for their family boss, but also for the women of the family. There are, however, any number of exceptions to the rule. And one such occurred in 1956, when Frank Desimone, according to a police informant, raped the wife of Girolamo (Momo) Adamo in the presence of the shocked husband, who had served the mafia longer and in more diverse capacities than Desimone. Desimone’s action, according to the informant, was undertaken to show Adamo who was boss.”
As I stood that chilly February evening on Lamont Street at almost precisely the moment, two decades earlier, that Bompensiero stood there, enjoying, I hope, the 10 to 15 minutes he had left to live, I wondered whatever possessed him to marry Marie. They plighted their troth in Imperial County on June 30th, 1969. He was 63, she was 61. Marie had shrunk from her five-foot, four-inch height. She stooped. Where Momo’s bullet made its entry, her face was scarred. She was frighteningly thin, her legs so emaciated that her stockings tended to billow about her shrunken calves. If you’d watched her walk, you’d be likely to describe her gait as a hobble. If you were a gentlemen you’d be likely to offer her your arm.
Bompensiero’s only child, his daughter Mary Ann, born in 1931 to Frank and his first wife, Thelma (née Sanfilippo) Bompensiero, remembered that her father walked into her Clairemont house one morning early in July 1969, “He had a key to the house. I was still in bed. He came in and stood at the door to my bedroom. ‘Honey,’ He said, ‘get up. I have something to tell you. I want to talk to you.’ He sat down and I put some coffee on. He looked across the table at me and said, ‘Marie and I got married,’ I said, ‘Why? Why did you marry her?’ ”
Mary Ann’s mother, Thelma died in June, 1955. She was 44. She died not quite two weeks after Superior Court Judge John A. (“Hanging John”) Hewicker sentenced Bompensiero to serve 3 to 42 years in prison and fined him $15,000 on charges of bribery and conspiracy in liquor-license transactions. Hewicker, addressing the court, noted that Bompensiero had a record dating back to 1928, and added, “I’ve seldom seen a case where a man has been arrested so many times without being prosecuted.”
Bompensiero was sent first to Chino State Prison and then, for five years, to San Quentin. “Thelma,” people will sigh and tell you, “Thelma died of a broken heart.”
Thelma Sanfilippo Bompensiero is another story. Thelma is a story all her own.
Years later, talking about her father’s second wife, Mary Ann said, “She was such a flirt, Marie was. She flirted so much with my father. My mother would say to my father, ‘If anything ever happens to me, Marie is going to come after you.’ ”
“My mother and Dad were invited to Momo and Marie’s house for dinner one time and they didn’t ring the doorbell because Momo and Marie were yelling and screaming at each other. My mother told me this, that she heard Marie say, ‘I’ll tell Frank.’ And so my mother said to my father, ‘What is she going to tell you, Frank?’ So the ladies were not crazy about her because she flirted with everybody. She got away with murder, so to speak, compared to what the other wives would do. In other words, she really wasn’t that much of a lady. She was but she wasn’t.”
Bompensiero had always told Mary Ann that he’d never remarry. On the July morning when he sat at the table with Mary Ann, explaining his marriage to Marie, he said, “My grandchildren are getting older.” He looked down at his hands. He said, “She knows the way of life.” Then he laughed, relit his cigar, pulled himself up out of the chair. “Besides that,” he said, “a wife cannot testify against a husband.”
By the time Bompensiero exchanged I do’s with Marie, he had murdered or attempted to murder or helped murder or helped plan the murder of perhaps a dozen men. Maybe a few more, maybe a few less. But he was not a serial killer or a thrill killer. Nor was he a “killer-for-hire.” He did not take money for killing. To kill, for the boss and for the family, was an honor. This was “the work.” People would say about Bompensiero, “he did some pretty good work in his time,” and what they meant by that he killed people. He killed them because from the point of view of the family, they needed to be dead. He did not see himself as a murderer or a killer, you and I can be sure of that. He saw himself as a worker. So that while he did have blood, euphemistic blood, on the short hands and stubby fingers that he studied as he sat at the kitchen table with his daughter, he did not see this euphemistic blood in the same way that you and I might see blood. He saw this blood as callus, as the hardened tissue that builds up on a worker’s hands.
His daughter adored him then. She adores him now. Frank Bompensiero was a good father, a good grandfather. If he’d been my father or your father, we would have loved him, murders and all.
For years I drew stories from reluctant and not so reluctant Bompensiero relatives and friends and employees and from law enforcement men. I will tell you two of these stories. One is a story Mary Ann tells. Another is a story of one of the murders. One reason I hate to tell you about the murders is that I don’t like Mary Ann to be reminded of them. Another reason is that I don’t like to be reminded. I like Bompensiero. I can’t help it. And I want you to like him too. I know I should not feel this way. But I do.
Mary Ann said that this must’ve happened before she started grade school. “I had done something bad, misbehaved in some way. I can’t tell you, now, what I did. But I remember my mother was chasing me around the house. I was probably driving her nuts. She wanted to smack me. She never beat me, but sometimes she would smack my butt. My father looked up from his newspaper and stood up out of his chair. I ran behind him and grabbed onto him around his knees. He said to my mom, ‘Thelma, come on honey. She’s just a baby. Leave her alone. Get it out of your system. Hit me. Hit me, baby.’ ”
I will tell you about one of the murders. Many people already knew about this murder. They know about it because it appears in Ovid Demaris’s bestseller, The Last Mafiosa. This murder took place in June. 1952, in a pretty little house set along South Hampstead Circle in Kensington. I drove by this house one day. I pulled over and stopped and looked at it and thought about the story I’m about to tell you. The house according to Demaris’ book, belonged to Momo’s brother Joe.
Anyway, a fellow named Frank Borgia, who’d made significant money as a “sugar man,” supplying sugar to makers of whiskey during prohibition, was invited to San Diego to a wedding of the daughter of a family friend. He got in his black Buick Roadmaster and drove from Los Angeles to downtown San Diego. He took a room at the U.S. Grant and drove to St. Joseph’s Cathedral. After the wedding, guests stood about the cathedral’s portal, tossing rice. In one of the photographs, Borgia can be seen, smiling. This would be the last photograph taken of Frank Borgia. Unbeknownst to Borgia, Jack Dragna had ordered him murdered for his refusal to “cut up his money” with a family member. Dragna had assigned Bompensiero to organize the killing.
Wedding over, Borgia returned to the Grant. According to what Jimmy the Weasel Frantianno years later would tell Demaris, this is what happened. Early that June evening, Tony Mirabile, a local San Diego bar owner, reputed to be San Diego’s mob boss, came by to take Borgia out for the evening.
Demaris writes, “Seated in Bompensiero’s office at the Gold Rail, Jimmy was listening as Bompensiero went over the plan he had worked out for the hit. ‘I’ve got Tony Mirabile to set him up. He’s his best friend. That way Frank won’t suspect nothing. Tony will take him to Joe Adamo’s house and we’ll be there waiting for them. We get the rope around his neck and that’s it.’”
And that, according to Demaris’s Last Mafioso, is just what happened.
“At eight o’clock, Jimmy and Bompensiero were standing on either side of the door when Tony Mirabile brought his best friend, Frank Borgia, to Joe Adamo’s house. Jimmy had the rope in his hands and as Bomp kicked the door shut, Mirabile wrapped his arms around Borgia just as Jimmy dropped the garrote over his head, handing the other end of the rope to Bompensiero. Within ten seconds, Borgia was sinking to his knees. Mirabile released him and he fell on his face, with Jimmy and Bompensiero dropping to the floor with him, lying beside him and holding the rope firm, squeezing out the last breath of life. Like all the other victims of the Italian rope trick, Frank Borgia dies with a surprised expression on his face.”
Five days later, when Borgia had not returned to his room at the Grant, a hotel employee called the police. Borgia’s Roadmaster was impounded. Borgia’s body was never found. Never. “It’s probably out there buried in some vineyard,” someone told me.
I asked a friend of Bompensiero, a good friend, a man who knew Bompensiero as an older man and knew him well, if Bompensiero ever expressed remorse about the murders. This man snorted. “Frank said that if God hadn’t wanted ‘em dead, he would’ve stopped the bullets. That’s what Frank said.”
While I waited for Paul Ybarrando, I walked south from the gas station toward what had been Bompensiero’s apartment. I was walking toward the spot where Bompensiero would have taken his last step. This is the walk I hope you will want to take. I looked up. Lights were turned on in the third-floor corner windows where Bompensiero had lived. I imagined he was walking along Lamont, puffing on a cigar. I’d never smoked a cigar. Did you puff? Or inhale? I imagined the dimes left from making the telephone call, the thin silver discs warm in his wide palm. I’d wondered if he’d had dinner that night. The autopsy didn’t mention stomach contents.
I had arrived, I realized, only feet away from the fence, that 20 years earlier was described as “a tall picket fence.” This would be the fence behind which Bompensiero’s assailant or assailants (but probably assailant) was hiding — hiding in wait — that night. He would have held the gun in his hand. When Ybarrando arrived, I would ask him how, if you were the assailant, and were waiting, you would hold the gun. The weapon. In a way, I was not anxious for Ybarrando to arrive. Because when he did pull up and jump down out of his truck and walk to where I stood, shake my hand, and say, “Good evening,” then Bompensiero would begin to seem truly dead. We would talk about the murder. I wanted to think about, to try to understand, the life. I was not as interested in the death. But only when he died did he become fully who he was. I knew that, too.
Giuseppe and Anna Maria (née Tagliavia) Bompensiero were born and raised in Porticello, Sicily, a fishing village 13 miles outside Palermo, between Palermo and Messina. (“The way I understand it,” said someone whose grandparents were born in Porticello, “is that Porticello is to Palermo like Mission Beach is to San Diego.”) Giuseppe and Anna Maria both were children of fisherman and, according to one of their surviving daughters, “My mother and father knew each other from the beginning.”
In 1904, soon after they married, the young couple, together with members of the Balistrieri family, left Porticello and sailed to New York. They were not alone. Between 1901 and 1910, some 2,045,877 Italians and Sicilians fled economically troubled Italy for America. By 1910, so many Italians had left that Italy’s Supervisor of Emigration noted that in certain parts of southern Italy, where economic conditions were direst, “It amounts to a general exodus. In some places the village priest and the doctor, having lost their flock, have followed them to America. Certain municipalities have had to be reconsidered and the parish church abandoned.”
From New York, the Bompensieros and Balistrieris made a two-day train trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, located on the shore of Lake Michigan, some 80 miles north of Chicago. First settled by non-Indians as a fur-trading post in 1795, Milwaukee was a major center of German Immigration during the last half of the 19th Century and noted for its breweries and meat-packing plants. Strange that this icy city on the banks of Lake Michigan, where snowfalls could measure six feet and temperatures drop below zero and stay there for days, lured Sicilians. These were people accustomed to olive, fig, citrus, and almond trees, to grapevines, to waters that offered up tuna and silvery sardines, to weather not unlike that of Southern California.
Giuseppe Bompensiero may have gone earlier than 1904 and then returned to Porticello and brought back his new wife. The 1902 Milwaukee telephone book shows a John and a Joseph Bompensiero, laborer, living at 154 Huron Street.
Most of the southern Italian immigrants had few skills, little if any schooling, and could not read and write even in their own language. Few, before leaving for the United States, had ever been outside their native village. Most were from the peasant class — cafoni — rubes, hicks. Some say that Giuseppe Bompensiero shoveled coal for the railroad; some say he worked in one of Milwaukee’s breweries. He may have done both. The 1913 Milwaukee telephone book lists a Joseph Buonpensiero (one of the name’s earlier spellings) as living at 331 Cass, and next to employment—Saloon. Neither Giuseppe nor his wife spoke much, if any, English.
Frank Bompensiero was born September 29, 1905, in Milwaukee, his parents’ first born. Whether he was born at home, with a midwife’s help, or in a hospital, I don’t know. Likely, he was born at home. During this time, Italian immigrant women were delivered at home by Italian midwives. Neither the state of Wisconsin nor Milwaukee has any record of Frank’s birth. His sister Josephine was born two years later.
We do know this. As a toddler, Bompensiero was a brown-eyed-blonde. His loose curls were so extraordinarily blond that his parents and their friends and neighbors called him “figlio d’oro,” “son of gold.” Although no records exist to prove whether or not Frank was baptized, surely, he was. His mother, who would live to be 92, attended Mass daily until she was felled, at 90, by a broken hip.
Southern Italian immigrants, unlike the Irish, tended not to send their children to parochial schools. Southern Italians were wary of the institutional church, in part because of its association with Rome and the Italian government. Once arrived in America, these immigrants found new reason for discomfort. American clerics were predominantly Irish. The Irish priests tended to look down on their Italian parishioners, feeling that the Italians’ worship emphasized pageantry and pagan custom over piety. The Italian parishioners, for their part, tended to be immune to sermons whose language they barely understood.
Frank attended Andrew Jackson grade school. I talked with a woman in Milwaukee who remembered Frank as a child. “He was a nice little boy, quiet, with a big round face,” she said, adding that he always had clean clothes and good manners and that she was surprised when, years later, she heard that he became “such a bad, bad boy.” Frank attended school through the third grade and then quit. (According to an FBI report acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, Bompensiero, when filling out a prison form at San Quentin penitentiary in May, 1955, listed, in the blank that asked for “education,” that he “completed third grade at Andrew Jackson Elementary School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”) Milwaukee city directories for this time show a Frank Bompensiero working in a bar. This, too, wasn’t unheard of in those days. Young Bompensiero might have been washing glasses or sweeping up.
An elderly Milwaukee resident, a man born in Milwaukee to Sicilian parents who also came from Porticello, told me that Sicilians began arriving in Milwaukee in the late 1890s. The Cravello family, whose home was near Porticello, was among the first Sicilian settlers. From Palermo the Alioto Clan, the same clan that eventually would produce a mayor of San Francisco, Joseph Alioto, who would successfully sue Look magazine for its insinuations that he associated with known mafiosi, came and settled both in Milwaukee and San Francisco. The huge Balistrieri family, one of whose descendants who for many years would be considered Milwaukee’s Mafia overlord, sent many of its members to Wisconsin.
“People would come to Milwaukee,” the elderly Milwaukeean said, “and then write back and say, ‘Come here. There’s work.’ There were jobs, menial work for the monolingual Italians. They worked for the railroads laying track, worked for the coal companies and ice companies, then also they worked for the sanitation department and they worked for the steel foundries that were here in Milwaukee on the near south side.”
He said that gradually, other Sicilians, many from Porticello, made their way to Milwaukee—Guardalebenes, Busallachis, Catallanos, Tagliavias, Sanfilippos, San Filippis, Cravellos, Carinis, more Aliotos, more Balistrieris, Bompensieros. “Those guys who came to America were the more adventurous.”
Once in America, immigrants moved into neighborhoods already settled by family and friends. In these Little Italys, immigrants replicated institutional arrangements that had held together their home villages—the mutual aid society, the padrone system, the parish, the criminal society. While the larger culture regarded anyone from Italy as simply “Italian,” the immigrants, particularly among the first generation, took identity from distinctions rooted in village, provincial, and regional origins.
The Sicilians settled, my Milwaukee informant said, in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. “The Third Ward was nestled right behind the downtown area in Milwaukee. It was bounded by the Milwaukee River on the west and Lake Michigan on the east. The Irish had been in first, then the Italians came. They followed the same pattern, regardless of what city they went to. They lived together. The people from my dad’s hometown, Porticello, lived on Van Buren Street. They would group themselves. The Third Ward had the ambiance of a Little Italy, a grocery store on every corner, taverns, the Italian church—Our Lady of Pompeii. It was a beautiful church, which in 1957 they knocked down for urban renewal. The church went down, that was the last stand of the old Third Ward.
“These people lived only a block away from the lake. They could fish. However, they could not make a living with fishing. They would go there on their own to catch fish for themselves. All that freezing ice in the winter sent many back to Italy or to California because the winters are so harsh here.
“Once they got to Milwaukee, they started gardens. They were small, very small gardens. There wasn’t much space in that Third Ward in backyards. They would have a duplex in front and then a small cottage behind. What they did was they would rent space from a farm and they would go out every Sunday or in the evenings and work theses patches of land. They would get loaded up in a wagon with a horse, it takes only ten minutes in a car now, but then, God, how long it took.”
Some Sicilian immigrants said the Milwaukeean, began to sell produce. “Some of the biggest produce houses here in Milwaukee were founded by Italians’. They cornered the produce market. My grandfather in the summer, he and his brothers-in-law, made ice cream. They would make it and sell it on Saturdays and Sundays. They built up quite a business in ice cream.
“Then there was lighter industry. Many Third Ward residents walked to work. Only two blocks away from Milwaukee Street there were factories that manufactured clothing and shoes. They made a lot of shoes! There were many little candy companies. My mother came to Milwaukee when she was two years old. She told me that factory managers actually came into the Third Ward and went house to house, recruiting young grade-school girls to work in the candy factory. Also to work in the shoe factory.
“The women, a lot of them, supplemented the husbands’ income, by doing odd jobs. Some of our stores, department stores, especially those that catered to high society, used to sell lacy tops. My grandmother worked at home, making those tops. She tatted and crocheted. Many women did that kind of work—making lace for underwear, for bedspreads, curtains. Also, some families started little corner stores and while the husband was out working on the railroad, which many of the men did, the women minded the store.
“Our Lady of Pompeii was where they met, got married, baptized, courted, buried, everything. Right across from the church was Andrew Jackson school. It was a three-story building with a tower, built in the 1870s. The ceilings must have been 15 feet high. It was a cream-colored brick. Milwaukee brick.
“Milwaukee led the country in encouraging its immigrants to go to school. We had manual training courses and citizenship classes. Most immigrant parents worked hard to keep their kids in school. Maybe there were some parents who pulled their kids out of school to help supplement the family income. They shined shoes and sold newspapers downtown or worked on the railroad alongside their fathers. If an Italian or Sicilian youngster left school early, rest assured, it was because he had to work.”
My Milwaukee friend explained that as in other American cities, there was tension between Italians from northern Italy and Sicilians. “The northern Italians lived on the south side. The majority were Piedmontese. There were also Italians from Venice and Padua and from Predappio, where Mussolini was born. They considered themselves superior to the southern Italians and Sicilians. They didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Even back home they didn’t want to have anything to do with them. The northern people figured southern people were backward, that they all carried knives, the usual prejudices.
“The northern Italians were pretty well settled in here by 1910. What added to the tension between the northern Italians and Sicilians was that the Irish priest on the south side where they lived refused to marry and bury them. He said, ‘You’ve got your own church. You go down there to the Italian church.’ So the south side Italians all went to Our Lady of Pompeii. In 1917, the Sicilians from the Third Ward, they were antagonized by the people on the south side and the Sicilians went over there and had a big shoot-out. Well, then a couple of them died. There was an evangelistic church in the Third Ward. They were Sicilians from the Third Ward who were disillusioned with the priest and had bad experiences with the church in Sicily. These people got involved in this Methodist evangelistic church. They would get together and go over to the south side and play their portable organ and sing Methodist hymns. The south side Italians didn’t like this. They said, ‘We don’t want you here. Get out.’ That’s when that fight ensued.
“Somebody put a bomb outside the Methodist church. It was Saturday afternoon. The cleaning lady found it. She didn’t know what to do with it. She had a son and went to him and told him to take the bomb to the police station, which was three blocks away. He did. The police started looking at the bomb and it blew up. It killed nine policemen, right there in the building. It also killed some detectives, how many I don’t know. But there was pandemonium after that. They arrested people in the Third Ward. They went to the south side and got those people all riled up. Oh it was bad.”
Almost half the Italians who came to the United States early in the century eventually returned to Italy. Like many illegal and legal Mexican immigrants today, these Italians had come to America to make money. Once they had acquired their “nut,” they went home, bought land, and stayed. Both of the Bompensieros, however, became American citizens. So that it seems likely that they had intended to remain.
Mary Ann wishes she knew more about her father’s early years. What she does know, she said, is that “By 1915 my grandfather Bompensiero was getting ill or wasn’t feeling good, because of the weather, because it was so cold in Milwaukee, so the family went back to Porticello. After that, my father never did go back to school again. He started, in Sicily, working with his father as a fishermen.”
The Bompensieros returned to Porticello and moved into a two-story house, “a pretty house,” someone said, “an old-timer’s house with a beautiful marble stairway.” Four more children, a son, Sam, and three daughters were born.
Of the four or five years Frank spent in Sicily, one can learn next to nothing. From 1914 to 1918 the war that began as a fracas between Austria-Hungary and Serbia became a global war that mired 32 nations in battle. Italy joined forces with Great Britain, France, the United States, and Russia to oppose Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria. Frank could read and write. Mary Ann reports that he always was interested in the news. Certainly, he must’ve followed the war’s progress. Perhaps he was aware that in Milan, after the war’s end, Mussolini founded his Fasci di Combattimento party, a party that would by 1922 have gained sufficient power that Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III would invite Mussolini to form a coalition government. Perhaps he was not interested in what went on up north. Like many Sicilians, he would always be somewhat distrustful of northern Italians. And northern Italians, of course, looked down on the Sicilians, derisively referring to them as “Africans” and worse.
Mary Ann, talking about this distrust, one day said, “The Bompensiero side was so fair, that people thought we were from Rome, northern Italy. They’re blondes, redheads, they have blue eyes. My father always said that on the Bompensiero side of the family, there was an illegitimate child born from royal blood. This duke or whatever, along the line, got somebody pregnant and that’s where the blond came from. He used to say, and this will kill Italians to hear this, but he regularly would say, ‘Don’t you ever be ashamed of what you are. Whatever you are, be a good one and don’t ever be ashamed.’ And he said, ‘We’re not Italian, we’re not goddamn spaghetti benders, we're Sicilians and don’t ever be ashamed of it.’ ”
A San Diegan of Sicilian extraction told me, one day, about differences between northern and southern Italian, “The northern speak a different dialect. Sicilians speak Sicilian, not the real Italian. We have a dialect. If someone talks to me in the real Italian, I could not understand them. The old language, the Sicilian dialect, I understand. The northern part of Italy, they are more to themselves, they stick with their own group. The Sicilians are more warm than northerners. What we got, we give it to you. We are really friendly.”
Bompensiero would have absorbed the attitudes of his fellow Sicilians. The Sicilians at the toe of the boot of Italy, had been occupied, century after century, by foreigners. Their loyalties tended not to be parties or powers but to the family and to institutions, like the Mafia, founded in the family. A Harvard University professor described the ethic produced by utter fealty to family and distrust of outsiders as an “amoral familism that placed family ahead of society.” This ethic, he wrote, produced “excellent criminals.”
The Mafia was strong in Palermo. Bompensiero would have heard stories. He would have met, or seen, from a distance, the “men of respect.” He would have been interested in them, interested in the stories. He might well have felt drawn to them.
“When I was growing up,” Mary Ann said, “I used to ask my father, ‘Daddy, what is the mafia?’ and he’d say, ‘Honey, what are you talking about? That’s the olden days. No such thing anymore as the Mafia. No such thing. All a bunch of bullshit.’ He would say things, drop things, to me. Like in 1974, when Patty Hearst was kidnapped, he told me, ‘The FBI contacted us to get help finding Patty Hearst. We have some connections and we asked around, but she doesn’t want to come home.’ And when Hoffa was missing, along in 1975, Daddy said, ‘They’ll never find him.’ But he never said, ‘There is or isn’t a Mafia,’ only that there used to a Mafia, that it was in the olden days, and that it was no more.”
Had congress in 1919 not ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” within all 48 states and the passed the national Prohibition Act, which provided for enforcement of the 18th Amendment, Frank Bompensiero might well have become a fisherman and died in his sleep in the back bedroom of a little house on Columbia Street. You may not want to read the next few paragraphs about Prohibition and prohibitionists, but they are important to understanding how Bompensiero came to do what he did.
From the time of the settlement of the American colonies, there had been movement to end the sales of spirits. By the first quarter of the 19th Century, alcohol abuse had come to be considered a serious social problem in the United States. Statistics gathered during the 1830s indicate that Americans were heavy drinkers: per capita, hard liquor consumption was 7.1 gallons (given that male abstainers, and women, children, and slaves would not have consumed their per capita portion makes likely that drinkers drank far more that the 7.1 gallons). More and more of the nation’s leaders began to comment publicly on the evils of drink. Abraham Lincoln while still serving on the Illinois legislature, noted with more eloquence than most, that during his youth alcoholic beverages “had come forth like the Egyptian angel of death commissioned to slay, if not the first, the fairest born in every family.” By 1852, prohibition laws that permitted cities and countries to vote for dry states as a local option had been enacted in Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Thirteen of the 31 states including New Hampshire, Delaware, New York, Michigan, and Iowa had such laws by 1855.
After the Civil War’s end, women increasingly involved themselves in temperance activities. In 1869, the National Temperance Convention met in Chicago and formed the Prohibition Party. In 1874, delegates from 17 states met in Cleveland, Ohio, to form the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the first national broad-based women’s group in America. The union’s president, Frances Willard, encouraged women (who would not be given the vote in all states of the union until 1920) in their roles as protectors of the home to take to the streets and demand that saloon doors be closed. They did, and WCTU women held prayer vigils in streets outside saloons in almost every major American city. They marched from churches to saloons and demanded that saloon owners close their doors. They got husbands down on their knees and made them “take the pledge” to never again let liquor pass their lips. Hatchet in hand, Carry Nation, in 1890, began leading groups of similarly armed women through Kansas saloons and spirit shops where they smashed glasses and bottles.
More than alcohol fueled temperance movements. As immigrants to the United States increased in number, so did criminal activity, unemployment, out-of-wedlock births, wife-beating and general mayhem. Many of the new immigrants were from countries where the Roman Catholic Church held ascendancy and where wine, regularly, was drunk. These new immigrants and drunkenness quickly became associated in the minds of American’s older, more settled Protestant majority.
Prohibitionists gradually transformed themselves from reform groups to political activists. The Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in 1895 held its first national convention. ASL leaders enrolled mainline Protestant churches in the prohibition effort, encouraging local political action on the part of individual congregations. Guided by ASL leadership these congregations organized support for pro-prohibition political candidates and succeeded in electing dry men to Congress and the state legislatures. By 1900 millions of women and men in the Unites States were expressing hostility toward alcohol use and had come to regard alcohol beverages as the most dangerous threat to the nation.
As Americans became increasingly concerned about social instability, moral decline, and the growing numbers of immigrants (in 1911, 637,003 immigrants entered the United States), there was no political question as treacherous for politicians as prohibition. And, too many voters, there was then no more important political question. Prohibitionists organized noisy and effective campaigns for state and local bans on liquor sales. More than half the states, led by the South and West, had dry laws of varying degrees of strictness. Congress outlawed liquor sales on Indian reservations and in the District of Columbia. In 1916 national elections returned a Congress in which dry members outnumbered wets two to one.
April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked congress to declare war on Germany. “The World,” he said in a phrase upon whose irony Americans would long reflect, “must be made safe for democracy.” As one after another American unit was landed in France (180,000 American soldiers were fighting in Europe by the end of 1917), prohibitionists added to their numbers by equating prohibitionism with patriotism, anti-prohibitionists with anti-Americanism, and German brewers with the German enemy. A wartime temperance pamphlet vociferated against “the foreigner, alien to the principle of Americanism” who “sets a trap for the boy and girl and cultivates the appetite that is later exploited by the owner of brewery stock in Germany who uses his tainted wealth to buy poison gas or liquid fire to torture the troops of the allies.”
Before the year was out, Congress had passed the War Prohibition Act, forbidding sales of alcoholic beverages to members of the armed forces and restricting alcohol production as a grain conservation measure. So strong then had prohibition fervor become that by December, 1917, nine months after President Wilson declared war on Germany, Congress had adopted a resolution providing for submission to the states of a national prohibition amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting manufacture, sale, or, transportation of beverages containing more than one half of 1 percent alcohol within the United States, and sent the measure to the states for ratification.
January 16, 1919, three months after the Great War ended, when Nebraska cast its vote for prohibition, the amendment had been adopted by ample majorities in all but two states (Connecticut and Rhode Island). Prohibition throughout the United States then was slated to come into effect exactly one year later, on January 16, 1920.
Nationwide, various loosely and not so loosely organized groups who engaged in criminal activity were already in place when Prohibition closed down saloons and ended liquor sales. As immigrants arrived in the United States from Ireland, China, from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Italy, and settled in American cites, some among these immigrants found illegal ways to earn money. The Irish had the Plug Uglies and Dead Rabbits. The Chinese had their Tongs. From Italy associates of Neapolitan Black Hand and Sicilian Mafia continued in America what they had learned back home. Many early ethnic criminal groups grew out of protection and influence-peddling systems. The Irish or Italian or Jewish gang member would sell “protection” to shops in his neighborhood and help find jobs for his newly arrived kinsmen or place bribes in the hands of the proper authorities in order to get a young man out of trouble. Stolen goods might be fenced through such groups and murders and disappearances arranged. But all this was petty and local compared to what happened with the advent of Prohibition. The illegal sale of liquor promised—and quickly delivered—enormous fortunes.
Mary Ann believes that her father returned to the United States at some point in 1921. “My father’s youngest sister, Patrina, is the one who was born last,” said Mary Ann, “in 1921. Soon after Patrina was born, my father came back to the United States, to Milwaukee, and then, later that year, to San Diego. He was 16.”
Bompensiero lived in San Diego for most of the next 56 years, give or take a few years here and a few months there. He did time on McNeil Island. He was gone for a year or two; hiding out after a murder he helped commitment in Los Angeles. He served for a year in his nation’s armed forces during World War II. He spent five years in Chino and San Quentin. He lived, briefly, in El Centro.
By 1977 many years would have passed since Bompensiero last wrapped a garrote around someone’s neck. He was an old man who slowly maneuvered about town in a battered light brown mustang. He and Marie drove the Mustang the few blocks to Pacific Plaza where they shopped at Vons. Back in 1977 you could smoke just about anywhere except for church, and Bompensiero, as he pushed the grocery cart down Vons’ aisles, always had a cigar clamped between his teeth. He chewed his cigars, hard, left teeth marks in the brown leaf.
His heart wasn’t great. According to the autopsy of his body, his kidneys weren’t so good either. He had high blood pressure, for which he took medication. He wore heavy black-rimmed eyeglasses with thick lenses. He had problems with cataracts. He tired easily. Afternoons, he stretched out on the couch and napped.
Bompensiero, in January, 1977, had cataract surgery. Mary Ann remembered that he was in the hospital during Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. “He called me up. He said, ‘Baby, I’m watching television with my bionic eye.’ Then he’d stop talking a minute and you’d know something on the TV had gotten his attention. Then he said, ‘I’m watching them walk down the street….’ ” After Bompensiero got out of the hospital, he made an effort to walk around the neighborhood during the day to get back his strength.
Early in February, columnist Neil Morgan saw Bompensiero in the elevator of a Sixth Avenue medical building. According to Morgan’s account in the San Diego Evening Tribune, Bompensiero “quickly put out his hand with his old bright smile: “I’m just an old man now, Mister Neil,’ he said, ‘No harm. No trouble. Just an old man.’ ”
Monday, February 7, Bompensiero met friends for lunch at Tarantino’s on North Harbor Drive in Point Loma. He’d been eating at Tarantino’s for years. He liked Tarantino’s cracked crab. He liked the service. He liked his big table near the bar. He liked the view, out on the water.
According to a report written, after Bompensiero’s death, by the San Diego Union’s Mitch Himaka,
“From 12:55 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., five men sat in a booth at Tarantino’s Restaurant in Point Loma enjoying their lunch and talking. The subject under discussion was a federal grand jury indictment which named two of the men.”
At lunch that day, with Bompensiero, were Chris Petti, now in prison; a fellow named Robert Bertram Benjamin; David Gottlieb; and Larry Saunders, also known as Erwin Goldstein.
Himaka noted that “Benjamin and Gottlieb, along with Arthur F. Schulman and Earl John Rodde and Beach Cities Coatings and Construction Co., 722 Genevieve St., Solana Beach, had been indicted three days earlier by a federal grand jury. They were charged with one count of conspiracy and 10 counts of causing false statements to be filed in loan applications to federally insured lending institutions. The five men were discussing the actions that would be taken with regard to indictment, according to intelligence sources.”
Thursday, February 10, Bompensiero got up early. The sun was shining. It was going to be another pretty day. He cared about pretty days. He liked good weather. He dressed in dark green slacks, a white, short-sleeved shirt, and a rust brown cardigan. Nobody remembers what Marie wore that day, or, what her mood was, or whether she cared about the weather. Bompensiero walked around the neighborhood, smoked his cigar. At noon, he met his lawyer, Nicholas Depento at Tarantino’s. They sat at Bompensieros’ usual table. In November, 1976 DePento had accompanied Bompensiero to Los Angeles for an appearance before a federal grand jury that was investigating pornography and pornographers. Bompensiero refused to testify. DePento said, after the hearing, “I never advocate talking freely to any police agency without benefit of counsel.” He said, about Bompensiero, “He totally objects to pornography and he wouldn’t even watch an R-rated movie in his motel room.” I think that’s accurate, that Bompensiero would not willingly have watched pornographic films.
Mary Ann said that her father never missed Lassie. “He would lie on the couch and watch Lassie on Sunday nights and cry like a baby. Absolutely would cry. Tears would roll down his eyes. I’m not kidding you. We had these love seats. My mother’d be on one side of the fireplace. I’d be curled up on the other side, and my dad stretched out on the couch. My mother would nudge me, to look over at Daddy. He would just be absolutely tearful. There would be Lassie’s human ‘mom,’ June Lockhart, whose name on the show was Mrs. Martin, and Jon Provost, who played this orphan who was called, I think, ‘Timmy,’ was the kid in the show. There’d be maybe a weird noise that Timmy would hear or he’d smell smoke, and he’d say, ‘Lassie, what is it, girl?’ And then Lassie would save somebody, a person or an animal. While Daddy watched all this, tears would roll down and then when the show was over, he’d get up and chew on a cigar and go to the bathroom and come back, and something else was on and that was that.”
On the evening of February 10, 1977, at 7:00 p.m., Bompensiero had only 90 minutes left to live. A Lassie rerun was shown on television from 7:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. I hope that Bompensiero stretched out on his couch and watched it. I hope he had a good cry.
When he walked out on the street that evening to go to the Arco Station, skies were clear. You could see the stars. Temperatures were in the mid-50s. Lights were on in the small houses along Lamont Street. Television sets glowed from windows. People were watching the Waltons and Mobil Oil Presents. Bompensiero dialed whomever he dialed. They did or did not answer. He turned, then, and started walking south, on Lamont, back toward the Beach Club.
Somewhere, nearby, the parked car, motor humming, waits for him. The gunman, surely, by now, has stepped out of the “getaway car.” He lurks, in the dark, most likely behind the fence. Gripping the .22-caliber automatic, he waits. “Gunman,” “getaway car,” “gripping,” this, to me, is like the black-and-white gangster movies that, as a child, I watched on Saturday afternoons. Just the words “getaway car” make me smell popcorn. But for all that this moment is a cliché movie moment; it is not uninteresting to think about. What, for instance, goes through the gunman’s mind? What does he see as he stands here, maybe behind the fence, peering out perhaps, toward Grand Avenue? Can he see Bompensiero walk toward him? Can he hear his footsteps? Can he smell the smoke from Bompensiero’s cigar? Does he think that soon he will do to Bompensiero what Bompensiero did to so many men?
Always when I get to this point, I want to slow down the action. I want to keep him alive for a few more minutes. I want him to hear a suspicious noise or see the gunman’s metallic glint. I want him to say, “Lassie, what is it girl?” So, for another moment, I let him warm the three dimes in his meaty palm. I urge him to take another puff on the cigar. I suggest that he pull the rust-colored cardigan closed against the chill. I am so cold.
Even if we went back 20 years and yelled, “Run, Frank, run!” it would be too late. Besides, Bompensiero was too old to run.
Bompensiero strolled. He wasn’t a rapid walker.
Bompensiero translates roughly, into English as “beautiful thought.” Tagliavia, Bompensiero’s mother’s maiden name, in English, can mean “short street.” When I first learned these meanings was when I began to think about how the “beautiful thought” and the “short street” sought each other out in the dark of Maria Tagliavia Bompensiero’s womb and how on this dark night the “beautiful thought” would breathe his last breath on the comfortless “short street.”
Now, it is too late. He steps from the curb at the intersection of the alley and Lamont Street.
No priest will hear his dying confession. Mary Ann said that many Sicilian men went to church every Sunday and every holy day. “But my father never did. Never saw him in church, except when I got married, and when my mother died. I never saw my father pray. He used to say that he and J.C. talked, though, all the time. This is what he said, ‘J.C. and I have a talk all the time. He understands me. I understand him.’ He always called him ‘J.C.’ He didn’t say much else about religion except that.”
Everyone with whom I talked said that Bompensiero was a “fatalist.” They said that he knew if it was going to come to him, it would. They said he knew he could not hide. They said that he was too proud to hide. He did not say, but must have thought, that men had hidden from him. He found them. He always found them.
The gunman fires his first shot into Bompensiero’s head from behind. Does the gunman whisper, politely, “Good evening, Frank”? Does the gunman hiss, “So-and-so-sent-me”? We are not going to know.
The first shot is followed quickly by three more. The shots are fired into the side of his balding head, high, above his ear.
These shots brought Paul Ybarrando to this same spot some 20 years ago and these shots were what brought him out to meet me. We stand together on the sidewalk at the head of the alley that runs west from Lamont Street, about halfway between Thomas and Reed Avenues.
Ybarrando, in 1977, was a sergeant with the San Diego Police Department and the officer in charge of the investigation of Bompensiero’s murder. Ybarrando was at home when the call came. “Just fooling around. I got called at 9:05. From the watch commander. A pager call.”
Ybarrando shone his flashlight down on the spot where Bompensiero fell. “Right here in the center part of this alley between the two curbs here.” He scuffed loose dirt with his boot tip. “By the time we got here the patrol officers had secured the scene. One of the men who responded that evening had worked vice. He recognized the victim as Bompensiero.”
I asked Ybarrando what, at the time, he knew about Bompensiero.
“Everybody in San Diego, police officers especially, knew who Bompensiero was.”
“Did you think of him as associated with organized crime?”
“Sure. That had been understood for years, that he was organized crime. And some people said he was the top guy in San Diego.”
I asked what was going on when Ybarrando drove up.
“It was dark. Certainly very dark when we got here. Police car was parked across the sidewalk here. They had this roped off. I think they were still letting traffic go on the other side of the street. They had another car blocking the sidewalk. They had a couple of cars down at the other end of the alley to keep you from coming this way and another one blocking the head of the alley.”
Ybarrando indicated the area in the alley, near where we stood, “There were footprints, but they looked like kids’ footprints. Small tennis shoes and also a bicycle track along here. All the evidence was lying right here in the alleyway. Four shell casings. The officers had taken coffee cups, white cups, and put them over the shell casings. There was a piece of his eyeglasses, three dimes. A dime is what a phone call cost then. Most likely he was carrying them and they fell out of his hand. There was the cigar, half-smoked cigar. Couldn’t tell you what kind that was. It was an off brand. I never heard of it before. A Miami brand, a Florida brand.”
I asked Ybarrando if he knew what time Bompensiero left his apartment to walk to the gas station.
“Not specifically. The patrol units got the call about 8:30. Basically, what happened was that a woman at one of the apartments or houses along here was taking out her trash and an elderly man approached her and said, ‘Hey, there’s a guy lying in the alleyway.’ So she called the police. That guy took off, so we never got to talk to him. He was just a passerby. The units arrived shortly after 8:30. At that time we had our own in-house ambulances. They thought he was still alive, which I doubt, and transported him. Before they took him, they’d chalked the body, so we had an outline of where the body was lying.”
“How long had he been down?”
“I wouldn’t say it was very long at all. He looked real fresh.”
“How much blood was here when you arrived?”
“Pretty good puddle.”
“How much blood comes out? A cup?”
“Oh, way more that. Head shots usually bleed pretty good. So there was probably quite a bit of blood. Bleeding also depends on whether they live for any period of time. Because as long as the heart’s pumping, you’re pumping blood. Once the heart stops—no more.”
“How long do you think he lived, down here in the alley?”
“Not more than a minute. Died pretty instantly.”
“Is there a time you figured was pretty much the time he was killed?”
“No. We can’t pinpoint it any closer than 8:30 because we don’t have anybody that actually saw or actually heard the shots.”
“Which way was he facing?”
“So his head was down there, headed toward home?”
“Yeah. The way we diagrammed it, he was face down. All the shots were fired into the right side of the head and they indicated that the suspects probably hid behind this fence or the fence that was in existence at that time and stepped out and shot him as he came by.”
“Was there one shooter or two?”
‘No way to tell. Really don’t know. One weapon. But there was probably somebody that was driving for the guy, the shooter.”
“Yes, a .22.”
“Well, we’re assuming that. There was some indication on the bullets that there could be marks that were left by a silencer. But there was no real way of telling. We don’t really know. Nobody heard any shots. We interviewed everybody in the neighborhood and there were no shots heard. One guy who lived in one of these apartments thought he heard somebody running a stick across the picket fence, poppity-pop-pop. And there were a couple of other people that heard noises, but nothing that they would take to be gunshots.”
I asked Ybarrando if he thought Bompensiero saw his assailant.”
‘I wouldn’t think so. All the gun shots were close range.”
“Within 18 inches. Powder tattooing in his ear. You only get that from a very close-range shot.”
“Do you think he knew who killed him?”
We stood quietly then, for minute, in the darkness. We hugged ourselves against the cold.”
“Basically, it was a simple crime scene. It wasn’t very complicated. We didn’t have a lot in the way of evidence except the four shell casings, all the same brand. We never got the gun. The gun was never recovered although if we had the gun we could have made the gun. He was probably walking along, smoking his cigar. Just walking along and somebody steps out and shoots him. According to the pathologist, three or more shots would have been instantly fatal. One of them he probably could have survived. They might have stood there and fired the other three after he was down, actually. The only one that showed powder tattooing was the one in his ear but that was exposed skin, where the other ones had hair and stuff around it. It was difficult to see.”
“Somebody,” I said, “told me that he fought.”
“Well, he had some buttons torn off his shirt. So there is a possibility that he struggled, but there’s nothing definite to show that other than the fact that there’s some buttons off his shirt. That easily could have been caused by falling. He had his glasses on, a piece of the plastic from the glasses frame was here. But that was the only sign of struggle. He had bruises on his knees, which was from the fall. He had a half-smoked cigar that he was smoking when it happened and the cigar was just kind of lying there in the puddle of blood. We don’t know if anything was said or not.” Ybarrando looked around, again, at the fence. He looked south toward the Beach Club and north toward Grand Avenue. “I think it was total surprise. They were lying in wait for him.” Ybarrando was quiet for a moment, before he spoke again. “I think maybe the ear shot was the first one because that had him by surprise. The one in the ear—that probably downed him.”
“So it kind of sounds like, correct me if I’m wrong, it kind of sounds like some of those other shots may have been at a little more of a distance.”
“Could have been.”
“And that one was up pretty close?”
“Could have been the one in the ear, that could have been the number-one shot, where the guy just stepped out and popped him, he goes down, and the guy stands back and shoots him. The ones in the ear, there was a couple just behind the ear, and there’s one kind of at the base of the neck back in the back. All on the right side.”
“Would you have to be a good shot to do that?”
“Not from that distance. You walk by, you just walk over, you’re at an arm’s length away. You shoot.”
“Does it burn?”
‘I’ve never been shot in the head so I don’t know.”