Frank Bompensiero (right) with Kansas City friends, Tijuana, 1950. Bompensiero began to drive back and forth to Tijuana to entertain guests from Kansas City and St. Louis and Sicily.
When 44-year-old Frank Bompensiero awakened at 5878 Estelle Street on the first morning of a new decade, he must have felt optimistic. He must have felt hopeful. He padded on his bare size-ten feet into the shower. He sang, as was his custom, in the manner of Al Jolson: “Mammy, how I love you, how I love you, my dear old Mammy.” As he sudsed his stocky short frame — he was built, more than one person said, “like a V-8 engine” — he must have added an extra warble, a rococo trill to Jolson’s paean to his dear old Mammy waiting for him, praying for him, way down along the Swanee shore. On this first morning of 1950, a morning on which Harry Truman was in the White House, Earl Warren was in the state house, and Jack Butler was the city’s mayor, Bompensiero had much to celebrate. More appeared to be going for than against him.
Sam and Frank Bompensiero. Frank suggested that Sammy quit fishing. “I’ll set you up in the bar business."
A quarter century earlier Bompensiero leapt off a freight train that brought him from Milwaukee to San Diego. He was penniless. He was in big trouble. A dead man on a dark road outside Milwaukee. Jack Dragna up in Los Angeles straightened him out with Milwaukee. He’d had to do things for Jack and he’d done them. He accorded himself well. He had long been one of the amici, one of the friends, one of the family.
Thelma (center), Frank Bompensiero, Mary Ann, and Dutch seated to her left. Mary Ann didn’t want Dutch at the Gold Rail at night; she wanted him home, with her. Bompensiero set Dutch up as collector for Maestro Music.
His fealty to Dragna had been and to this morning in January continued to be — utter, complete. He went where Jack sent him, he did what Jack said “Do.” No matter how heavy the load, if Jack said carry, he carried. He screwed up the Les Brunemann thing, but he and Leo went back to Redondo Beach and finished Brunemann. Sixteen shots Leo put into Brunemann. Sixteen. That cafe where Brunemann was sitting with his whore looked like a butcher shop when Leo got done. Then in 1938 Jack sent him to kill Phil Galuzo. He head-shot Galuzo. Left him head down in the gutter. After Galuzo he had to go into hiding. They shipped him from amici in Detroit to Kansas City to Tampa to New Orleans. He met good people.
Judge John Hewicker. "Old Bloody John, Hanging John - in his chambers he had a goddamned hangman’s knot - told Keller, ‘You better start doing something about this liquor license business.'"
Now people were not so good. It was not what it had been. Not in California. Maybe in Chicago and in New York and even in Kansas City and Detroit, men still were good workers. Here the younger ones, the new ones coming in, were not good. They did no work. Johnny Rosselli was a fool. He impressed Jack with his Chicago connections, with knowing Capone, with knowing Paul Ricca. Rosselli had gotten himself involved with Hollywood people and gone to prison. Rosselli, he should have been an actor. That’s what Rosselli wanted. Like the dead Jew Siegel. They wanted to be in movies. They pandered after the likes of George Raft and screwed blond American whores. Life to them was like movies.
Estes Kefauver (center) talks with Rudolph Halley. The senator identified men with whom Bompensiero “had conferences” at Caesar’s Restaurant: Francis Coppola, Sylvester Carrolla, Tony Lococo, Giacomo Bartolino, Carlo Sciortino, Anthony Lopiparo of St. Louis, and Sebastino Gallo of San Diego.
Fratianno was another one; Bompensiero never felt easy with Fratianno in a room. Fratianno had cheap feelings; his feelings did not run deep. But Momo was good people, Momo’s brother Joe was good people. Biaggio was good people. Leo was good people. La Porte was good people. Three-Fingered Frank was good people. The tailor was not good people. The tailor’s woman came to him many times. She begged him to do it. She showed him the marks on her arms. And Mirabile was shit. Mirabile was truly shit. A son of a bitch. All that bullshit playing the great don, the nod and smile when people addressed him as “Papa Tony, Papa Tony.”
Don Keller (right). “We got movies of detectives walking right by these bookies making book in the loading zone in front of the Turf Club on C Street. But nothing ever came of it because Keller didn’t want to take on the police department.”
Jack shamed some good money out of Mirabile, though, and everyone laughed. Laughed hard. “We will make you one of us, Tony, for a small consideration.” The consideration was not small. The consideration was many fat envelopes. The consideration would end only when Mirabile found his grave. Jack knew how to get money from guys. Jack was a sly one. He had in common with Mirabile, the chasing of women. Always chasing women and whores, Jack was. Always chasing women and whores, and girls, young girls, Mirabile was. The mother of one girl called Bompensiero at home. “Frank, Frank, get down here. Mr. Tony is going crazy, chasing my daughter.” Bompensiero rousted Mirabile out of that house. “What?” he said to Mirabile. “Are you crazy? Gone crazy?”
Mickey Cohen. Cohen ducked into the rest room. The little bastard was a compulsive hand-washer. Bompensiero ended up killing Cohen’s bodyguard Hooky Rothman.
Since 1946, Bompensiero had made significant money at the Gold Rail. Paydays for the sailors, you couldn’t get sideways into the 25-stool bar at 1028 Third Avenue in the midst of the downtown area known as sailor row and neon row. Although, the last few years, fewer servicemen came and went through the town; their absence was hard on business. But other ways exist to earn money, ways done in the dark. Bompensiero knows many ways, as he puts it, “to alibi” income. Skimming the bar cash was best: no taxes. Every buck you take in is yours. Running two tapes — the legit tape and your own tape — that also is good. Nowadays, Bompensiero’s trouser pockets always are lined with bills — 20s and 50s and 100s.
William Bonelli “I was put in charge of the liquor license case. Jack Levitt, who later became a judge, worked on it too. Levitt put together the theory you could get Bonelli and these other guys on a conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor, which makes it a felony."
Bompensiero was proud of the Gold Rail. Actually, if you are to believe the license and the Yellow Pages listing, the “Gold Rail Steak House.” No steak was served. Law said you had to serve food. Bompensiero didn’t serve food. Up in his office, he kept the little refrigerator, the hot plate. Evenings, when he was home, a call sometimes came from his pal on the vice squad. The pal tipped him that vice was going to swing by. Bompensiero had to rise up off the couch and change clothes and rub the oil in his hair — hair that was receding, thinning — slip into his jacket and shoes and then sort through the refrigerator and grab a few steaks and those fennel sausages from the butcher and get his wife Thelma to toss them in a grocery sack. Then he had to drive down to Third Avenue, park the Cadillac, and fill the refrigerator. One night he cooked a steak thick as two fingers and a dozen sausages and served them at the bar. Vice strolled in, the air was filled with the cooking smells of beef and fennel and everyone was laughing and eating. Vice rousted him several times, too, over bookmakers in the Gold Rail. Little stuff. Nothing to worry.
U.S. Grant Hotel. Ernest Gillenberg, in his Jacumba cafe, telephoned Bompensiero, who suggested that Gillenberg place $5000 in cash into an envelope. He suggested that they meet in the lobby of the U.S. Grant.
Beginning in the late 1940s, with various partners — Dr. Paul C. Hartman, Joseph Ernesto Matranga, Mirabile — Bompensiero owned varying numbers of shares in Southland, a company doing business as Maestro Music that leased jukeboxes in bars and cafes. He managed to buy a few lots. He was paying down the house on Estelle Street. Bompensiero’s furniture and cars no longer were being repossessed, as they had been more than once during the 1930s and early 1940s. Certainly, he did not feel desperate for cash as he had in the past. He no longer had to go out and do stickups, as he did in 1933 at the Fox Theater or the American Cut-Rate Drug Store or in the Trias Street home of Irvine M. Schulman, where Bompensiero and two buddies robbed Schulman’s guests of $847 and more than $2000 in jewelry. Bompensiero, in 1933, recently had returned home from a year in federal prison on a bootlegging charge. He was desperate. His daughter Mary Ann was two years old and Thelma, with her high blood pressure, was having to stand all day on her feet as a clerk in a dress shop, and his mother and sisters had been cleaning and packing fish in the canneries.
William Bennett (left). “The San Diego County grand jury yesterday indicted Al W. Bennett, 56, former city councilman, who is now a liquor license broker."
From the <em>San Diego Union</em>
On this first morning of 1950, while Bompensiero dried off from his shower, while he wrapped the thick towel about his hard, rounded stomach and stood before the mirror and brushed the shaving cream into his cheeks, and relit his cigar and steadied the big stogie on the sink’s edge, he may have continued to count his blessings. His mother, 70, had her health. Three of his four sisters and his brother Sam still were living; they had their health. His only child, Mary Ann, 19, eloped in the spring of 1948. Bompensiero wanted to kill the kid with whom Mary Ann drove off to Yuma, wanted the sob’s face open-mouthed and wheezing his last breath in a watery ditch. Like Galuzo. But Jack Roberts — “Dutch” they called him — turned out to be a great kid. He wasn’t Sicilian, true, but he wasn’t lazy and he did not lack courage. Mary Ann didn’t want Dutch at the Gold Rail at night; she wanted him home, with her. Bompensiero set Dutch up as collector for Maestro Music. He taught him the tricks. But he kept Dutch out of things. He didn’t want Dutch mixed up. He kept his little brother Sammy out of things. He didn’t want Sammy mixed up.
Bart Sheela, 1996. Bart Sheela led one after another tavern owner through testimony that showed a systematic attempt by Bennett and Berry to solicit bribes.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Cheeks shaved, skin aglow, the aroma of his lavender aftershave sharp in the steamy bathroom, Bompensiero would then have stepped into his silk boxer shorts and slipped into his paisley-printed maroon silk robe and shoved his square feet into his leather slippers. He was modest. Even before his wife of now some 21 years, he did not appear in the nude. Not even in the bed.
Bompensiero on this first morning of the new year, as he strode into his bedroom and began to slide his arms into a clean white shirt, might have pondered the miracle of his marriage. Thelma, more beautiful every year. No one but Thelma would have stayed with him. No one would have been as loyal. He told her little and she guessed everything. She understood everything. Between them, all was pure. For him, since Thelma, there had been no one. Other men in the bar business took women into back rooms. They made them perform ugly acts in order to get a job. They laughed afterwards and offered the women to the bartenders. To do such a thing, to even think of someone doing such a thing, turned his stomach. His only disappointment was that Thelma was unable to bear other children. Having Mary Ann, she almost died. She had the small stroke while Mary Ann was being born. Then when she became pregnant again, the doctor who delivered Mary Ann said, “Frank, I know you’re Catholic. But you’ve got a wife and a daughter, she can’t carry this pregnancy. Your wife will probably die and if the baby is even born, the child will have no mother and your daughter will have no mother.” So he and Thelma said to him to do the abortion. For many many days after the abortion he felt such sadness he could hardly hold up his head.
Bompensiero might have thought how good it was that Thelma had the dress shop. When Thelma’s mother, Felipa Sanfilippo, died last year she left money to Thelma and all Thelma’s sisters and brothers. Thelma used her money to go into business. Now Thelma had Santa Ann’s Moderate Shop on 30th in North Park (3912 30th Street). The dark thought about Thelma’s health might then have made Bompensiero frown. She suffered still from high blood pressure and the pills the doctor gave made her feel worse. She often would not take them. She said, “They make me sick.” The blood pressure worried him. Her brother Frank died at 44. Heart and blood pressure. Some evenings she was too weary to cook and her hands swelled and the diamonds on her fingers bit into her flesh. He would give his life for her. He would.
He might have said to himself that some days, now, Los Angeles seemed far away. This business of Jack’s, trying to kill the dumb-ass little Jew. Jews he did not dislike just because they were Jews. He did not trust them, any more than he trusted Americans or Neapolitans or Romans or Milanese. He trusted his own; he trusted Sicilians. The business between Cohen and Jack, this business was getting to be a waste of time. This trying to control LA’s bookmakers by killing the Jew, this was a waste of time. This was drawing attention. Bompensiero would have agreed with Cohen had he read what Cohen eventually wrote about the Dragna group’s attempts on his life: “I think it all came about with a lot of people prodding Jack and steaming him up about him losing face in the whole community, in our way of life. Different guys wanted to make themselves look good to him in every way they could. And actually they was nothing but a bunch that kiss other people’s asses, and the result was a lot of guys getting knocked off.” Five of Mickey’s guys were knocked off before Dragna called a halt to the war.
What we can be sure that Bompensiero thought about Jack’s repeated attempts to kill Cohen was that Jack tried too many times. Bompensiero might well have reflected on the day back in 1948 when he’d driven up to LA with Biaggio Bonventre to kill Cohen. In that first foray, not long after Mary Ann and Dutch ran off and got married, Bompensiero himself was shooter. Just when Bompensiero lined his shotgun up on Cohen, Cohen ducked into the rest room. The little bastard was a compulsive hand-washer. Could never get himself clean. Bompensiero ended up killing Cohen’s bodyguard Hooky Rothman.
Maybe this wasn’t how Bompensiero’s mind worked. Maybe it was. But surely, like all of us, as one year turned into another, Bompensiero played over his past, squinted and stared into his future. I know this: the attempt I make on your behalf and mine to enter into Bompensiero’s mind is not working. I find this pretense that we are hovering within Bompensiero’s mind a terrible strain. I suspect that you find it a terrible strain.
So we — you and I — will try this. We will stand together outside Bompensiero’s mind. We can make believe we are on a highway that begins in 1950 and ends in 1955. We can make believe that historical markers line that highway. Each of these markers is a moment in Bompensiero’s life, a moment attested to by a document or a person who knew him or an event in which he became caught. We can stop at each of those moments. We can try to imagine Bompensiero — five foot eight, or, nine inches, and weighing in 1950 perhaps as much as 180 pounds, his hair beginning to thin — as an actor in these moments. That is all, now, that I know to do.
Bompensiero, like all businessmen during this era, every morning, put on a white shirt with wide French cuffs, cuff links, and a dark suit. As he walked out the door in winter, he would have placed his black homburg on his head. In summer, he would have worn his panama. He drove in his 1950 green Cadillac from Estelle Street to Columbia Street, where he began each day by drinking coffee with his mother. She spoke almost no English. She and Bompensiero spoke, always, in the version of Italian spoken then by Sicilians. After 15 minutes with his mother, or 30 minutes, after he peeled off bills for her day’s shopping and urged her to buy herself something or to get something for the grandchildren, he stepped back into the Cadillac and drove to the Gold Rail. Other men in other cars also would have worn suits and hats. When Bompensiero parked in front of the Gold Rail and stepped out, there would have been no parking meters. The occasional woman who walked along Third, perhaps to shop at Graf’s Exclusive Furs, would have been dressed in three-inch heels, nylon stockings, a dark or light dress or suit, depending on the season, and gloves and hat. Beneath the dress she would have worn a brassiere with strong “lift” to the cups, a slip, a girdle of some sort, perhaps one of the then-new Playtex panty girdles. Unless the woman were bold she would not have permitted her glance to meet Bompensiero’s nor would Bompensiero openly have gazed at the woman. If Bompensiero knew the woman, he would have doffed his homburg, nodded, said, “Good morning.”
Bompensiero, in early 1950, surely would have had worries. In January, 1948, Governor Earl Warren set up a commission to study organized crime. Warren’s first charge to the committee was to scrutinize bookmaking organizations operating with the use of Western Union wires in Palm Springs. The investigations soon led to Dragna’s and Cohen’s Los Angeles bookmaking operations and the battle between Jack and Cohen.
I don’t know what Bompensiero would have made of the announcement that on the 3rd of January, the United States Senate approved, 69 to 1, the creation of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. I don’t know what, if anything, he made of Senator Estes Kefauver, a Democrat from Tennessee, who was named the committee’s chairman. In 1950 Bompensiero’s Estelle Street home became one of the 3.1 million American homes that had television sets. Mary Ann said that her father bought a large mahogany console fitted with a television screen. She said her father watched television with great fascination. She said that when a newsman ventured opinions with which her father disagreed that he hissed “Dumb bastard,” “Stupido,” “What a pain in the fisterus” at the face staring out from the small screen. She said that “fisterus” was a word she thought her father made up. She said that “fisterus” was his word for “ass,” a word he did not like to say in front of her or her mother. She said that if anyone even began to tell an off-color joke in front of her mother or herself that her father pulled what Mary Ann calls his “funsha,” his long face. “And,” said Mary Ann, “if anybody said the wrong thing in front of my mother, he would just glare at them. If anybody even started to say a dirty joke in front of my mother or me. Forget it. I mean there was cussing that went on in the house, but no one ever, ever cracked a dirty joke. They’d start a joke, and boom, they’d stop dead in their tracks. They always, then, changed the subject. Those stories never got finished.”
I asked Mary Ann if her father sat at the kitchen table in the morning and read the newspaper. She said that she rarely saw her father read newspapers or magazines at home, that he did his newspaper reading at his office in the Gold Rail.
This office, by the way, which was upstairs above the bar, served as physical locus for Bompensiero’s growing power. Men, many with Italian surnames and pasts that intrigued local police and the new Crime Commission, strode up the stairs to that office. What was said, we will never know. Anyone who has read transcripts of FBI tapes of mafiosi chitchat will know that these men gossip — who has a new Cadillac, whose daughter has married, who is having trouble with a woman, with an errant son, with the vice squad, with ulcers. Money rather endlessly is discussed — how to get it, keep it, make it grow, collect it from deadbeats. The words and phrases made familiar through films and television — “whack,” “clip,” “go to the mattresses” — rarely are heard.
Bompensiero in 1950 could not have guessed how far into his life the Kefauver Committee eventually would reach. The committee itself would not make much of him. But the committee’s creation would cause other committees to be created. These other committees would hire investigators. The other committees’ creation would provoke deputy district attorneys in the offices of San Diego County’s district attorney to hire more investigators. These investigators sat on stools in dark bars and listened to conversations that drifted between English and Italian and Sicilian-inflected Italian dialect. They questioned neighbors and business associates and bartenders and waitresses. They tailed Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals. They sorted through documents and police records stored in courthouse filing cabinets. They traded gossip with one another about who had learned what about whom. All this eavesdropping, document study, cruising up and down highways, sorting through garbage, querying, were the base metals that investigators transmuted into the gold they called “intelligence.”
A gentleman, long retired from the San Diego Police Department, explained to me that as soon as the Kefauver Committee came into being that “we got word to get ready and gather intelligence and document it as best we could in preparation for that Kefauver hearing coming to Los Angeles. We were told that if we got enough down in San Diego that Kefauver might conduct a second hearing in San Diego and reveal the problems we were having here. But the local politicians talked them out of that. Their attitude was, ‘We don’t have any real problem here.’ That was the attitude, too, of Don Keller, the DA at that time. Keller wasn’t corrupt, he was just a naïve blue blood.”
A second man, also retired from various arms of law enforcement in San Diego County said to me about this period, “All of a sudden the Kefauver Committee is in Washington and all the states were getting into the act. Don Keller was DA then, a real political animal Don was. Everything he did had a political motivation: ‘How is it going to look?’ is the question he asked himself before he did anything. Don Keller was a cya guy, no matter what you do make sure that cya — cover your ass — is in place. But he had two deputy district attorneys, two good guys, real fighters. One of them was a lawyer fellow named Bart Sheela. Those guys were learning things. I was learning things. There was an ATF — Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — guy here who was learning things. There was an IRS guy here who was learning things.”
I do know that Bompensiero on the morning of February 6, 1950, certainly could not have been amused, indeed must have pulled his funsha when he got this news: Jack Dragna once again sent a team to tuck dynamite under Mickey Cohen’s house. After this latest escapade, the Los Angeles Police Department gave orders to their Intelligence Unit to pick up on suspicion of conspiracy with intent to commit murder Jack Dragna, his brother Tom, Jack’s two sons and one of Tom’s sons, and Dragna’s consigliere, Bompensiero’s friend, Momo Adamo.
Bompensiero would have chomped down hard on the cigar habitually resting on his back molars, when he discovered that at Adamo’s house, the police confiscated Adamo’s address book and a miscellany of paper ephemera. The list of what LAPD took includes a nightclub photo of Adamo from Ciro’s in Hollywood and a “snap of Mr. and Mrs. G. Adamo and small son taken in what appears to be a living room of a residence.” In Adamo’s address book were telephone numbers and addresses for men all across the country; the majority had criminal records. Included were Joseph Bonanno, next to whose name Adamo had written “Joe Bananas”; Joe Batters, whose given name was Joseph Accardo, a one-time bodyguard to Al Capone, considered a top man among Chicago mobsters; John Priziola in Detroit, whose daughter San Diego’s Joseph Ernesto Matranga married; Santo Trafficante Sr., head of Tampa’s mob; Frank Desimone, the LA attorney who in college, at usc, founded a friendship with San Diego’s William Lipin; Jasper Matranga in Upland. Adamo also had the telephone number for Bompensiero’s home and for the Gold Rail, for Tony and Paul Mirabile and for Tony’s Rainbow Garden, for Momo’s brother Joe’s house in Kensington. Also in Momo’s book were Jimmy Durante, 1218 Coldwater, Apt. 263; Paramount Studios; George Raft; Fay Wilson — showgirl; and a Phil Maita, next to whose name Adamo printed, in parentheses, “dope peddler.”
Additional lapd Intelligence Unit operatives went to the home of Jack Dragna’s brother Tom at 3943 Gillis Street in LA. Among items confiscated was Mrs. Tom Dragna’s address book. Mrs. Dragna’s lady friends’ addresses and telephone numbers were listed: Mrs. Momo Adamo, Mrs. F. Bompensiero (5878 Estelle, San Diego, RAndolf 5539), and Mrs. Sam Corrao (2306 Union St., San Diego, FRanklin 2495).
Then, on Saturday morning, February 18, Bompensiero again must have hissed and sputtered and muttered about pains in the fisterus, when he perused the San Diego Union’s front page:
DRAGNA GANG GETS TOEHOLD IN SAN DIEGO
NAMES OF MOBSTER's SON, NEPHEW ON SMALL BAR'S LICENSE
“The Dragna gang, one of the two mobs the Organized Crime Commission reported is fighting for control of Southern California rackets, has at least a toehold in San Diego through a noisy 25-stool Third Avenue bar. The Bar, The Gold Rail, at 1028 Third Avenue, sells liquor by virtue of a license issued to Frank Dragna, 26, and Louis Dragna, 29. Frank is the son and Louis the nephew of Jack Dragna, the 55-year-old mobster the Crime Commission labeled the Capone of Los Angeles and a member of the secret Italian Mafia.
“Third name on the license is Frank Bompensiero, a San Diegan who lives at 5878 Estelle Street. According to San Diego police records, a Frank Bompensiero served 12 months at McNeil Island for violating the National Prohibition Act and was wanted here in connection with the holdup of two theaters, a drug store and of a poker party in a private residence, all in 1933, and on suspicion of robbery and assault with intent to murder.”
That morning, Bompensiero’s son-in-law gave a statement to a San Diego Evening Tribune reporter, which was printed that afternoon beneath the headline:
DRAGNA RELATIVES HOLD LIQUOR LICENSE FOR DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO BAR
“Frank Bompensiero, through a relative, today insisted he is running a respectable business. His son-in-law Jack ‘Dutch’ Roberts said he was authorized to speak for Bompensiero. ‘Frank’s bar is well conducted. There’s no shady business or misbehavior. Everything is on the up and up. Frank says the only real rap against him was for bootlegging during prohibition and they got a lot of people for that. He claims he’s innocent of all the other things mentioned in the police report. Nothing has been proved against him. And there’s nothing against the Dragna boys.’ ”
Again, the next day, February 19, the Union headlined Bompensiero:
DRAGNA TIEUP DEFENDED BY TAVERN OWNDER
“Any blame from the activities of Dragna, described by the State Commission on Organized Crime as the ‘Capone of LA,’ should not be reflected on his relatives unless it is proved they are Dragna’s associates in illegal activities, Bompensiero observed.
“Bompensiero admitted serving a year in a federal prison for violation of the National Prohibition Act in 1931 and 1932. But he denied being implicated in any of several crimes committed during the 1930s about which he was questioned by police.
“ ‘Sure, I sold a little whiskey during prohibition when I was a punk kid, and I went to jail for it,’ the stocky 44-year-old tavern keeper declared. ‘I wasn’t ever convicted of anything else and I wasn’t involved in anything else. I learned that if you keep breaking the law you’re going to get caught.
“ ‘We run a clean, respectable business,’ Bompensiero declared. ‘We’ve never had any trouble. Once a fellow tried to book bets while sitting at the bar. I ran him out as soon as I found out what he was doing. It’s possible that a few bets have been booked in the place, but I didn’t know anything about it and I won’t stand for it. I want to keep a good business.’
“Bompensiero characterized his business partners as good Americans. He said Frank Dragna lost an eye fighting in the Philippines and Louis Dragna suffered a smashed kneecap in service. Like the younger Dragna, Bompensiero served four years in the Army. They obtained the liquor license a few months after their discharges from the service, he said. Neither of the young Dragnas has been convicted of a crime, he said.”
Bompensiero, of course, did not serve four years in the Army. He served a tad over one year. Whether the reporter got the years wrong or Bompensiero was engaging in patriotic hyperbole, we will never know.
In the midst of all this, Bompensiero began to drive back and forth to Tijuana to entertain guests from Kansas City and St. Louis and Sicily. Quite why these fellows in the late winter of 1950 were hanging about Tijuana, no one ever will be sure. We can be sure they were not simply getting away from wintry Kansas City blizzards. We do know that since early in the century Kansas City had been what the FBI described as a “hotbed” of vice and violence. We know that in Kansas City many of the purveyors of illegal liquor, the overlords of the bookie joints, the providers of whores, were men from villages in Sicily and Italy. We know, too, that beginning during Prohibition, these men battled one another for power. Bompensiero’s friend Girolamo “Momo” Adamo left Kansas City and came west to Los Angeles to get away from these often fatal skirmishes. We know that Charles Binaggio was the most likely suspect in the 1934 killing of Kansas City boss Johnny Lazia. We know that the ruthless and inordinately crude Binaggio, soon after Lazia’s death, took over the Kansas City rackets. We know, too, that at some point before World War II Binaggio added drugs to the list of items his group had for sale. These drugs came through France to Mexico and thence into the United States. Binaggio’s group, by World War II’s end, was making a significant amount of its money from drugs. Something of a cheapskate, Binaggio was not cutting up the money in what was perceived as a fair manner. Students of the Kansas City family hypothesize that the men in Binaggio’s family who felt cheated began to plot Binaggio’s death. Not wanting to be in town when that death took place, they betook themselves to Tijuana, out of reach of American lawmen and Binaggio loyalists. Another story, that told by reporter Ed Reid in his 1952 book Mafia, is that Binaggio, after gathering from bookmakers some $50,000 for the campaign purse of the Missouri governor Forrest Smith, was unable to convince Smith to “open up the state like a melon to the Mafia.” Whatever the reason for the order to kill Binaggio, he ended up dead. On April 5, 1950, two gunmen entered Kansas City’s First District Democratic Club, where Binaggio regularly held court. The gunmen left four bullets in the heads of both Binaggio and his bodyguard, Charles Gargotta. The shooter would never be identified, at least by Kansas City police.
Reid writes, about the Binaggio killing:
“It was actually committed by an assassin brought in by the Mafia from Tijuana. The man was one of a group of Mafiosi holed up at a tourist court on Revolution Street. They had come there after a previous conference at Acapulco, where members of the U.S. Mafia often meet to discuss official business. The assassin, the same one who later bumped off Willie Moretti in New Jersey, is known as ‘Little Joe’ to the Mafiosi because he always tries to use no more than four shells in doing any single job.
“After the assassination of Binaggio on April 5, the 14 Mafia members at the tourist court scattered to all parts of Mexico and the United States. Before they scattered they were questioned by the alert Chief of Police Francesco Kraus, who found that two of the men were recent immigrants from Palermo. One of those at the Tijuana confab was Frank (Three-Fingered Frank) Coppola, alias Frank Lamonde, brother of the infamous Trigger Mike Coppola of New York City.
“Frank, deported New Orleans gangster and friend of Frank Costello, Dandy Phil Kastel and Carlos Marcello, Mafia and narcotics king of Louisiana, is forced to live across the border but, through the good graces of his Mafia pals, gets a cut of various racket interests.”
Three-Fingered Frank Coppola’s brother Trigger Mike, according to Jay Robert Nash’s The Mafia Encyclopedia, “had a reputation as one of the most vicious Mafia enforcers in New York City. In the 1930s, after Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano went to prison, and Vito Genovese fled to Europe to avoid a murder charge, Coppola took over the lucrative drug trafficking empire. With the addition of the artichoke racket, a legitimate business front involving the distribution of artichokes to groceries, and the Harlem numbers racket, Coppola pushed his annual profits to $1 million.”
The Kansas City Star wrote about Coppola in 1950 that “Coppola has been deported twice. Originally a New York gunman, he later was active under the name of Frank Lamonde in St. Louis and still later in New Orleans in association with Frank Costello. Before his last deportation in 1949, he reportedly spent several months in Kansas City, to get the help of Binaggio in staving off deportation. Binaggio, it is said, promised aid and made efforts to save Coppola, but had no success. In the summer of 1949, Binaggio, as part of a trip to California in which he visited Kansas City gamblers and racketeers who had migrated there, went to Tijuana to see Coppola.”
Mary Ann recalled that as a teenager, on more than one occasion, she was with her parents when they visited in Tijuana with Francis Coppola. “Three-Fingered Frank, we called him. I remember him as a tiny guy, very funny, a great storyteller who spoke a really broken English. I remember his talking about what life was like when he lived in Sicily and was just starting out. He said, ‘Back in those days, we were like Robin Hood. We steal from the rich and give to the poor. Then we got smart and we steal from the rich and we keep it for ourselves.’ He lived in Tijuana. He stayed in a hotel there. He’d been deported, I think, from Sicily, and wasn’t allowed into the United States either. He also told a story about having been gone so long from Sicily that he hadn’t seen his wife in many many years. She flew to Mexico. He went to the airport to meet her and coming down from the plane he sees this beautiful, beautiful woman. He said he thought to himself, ‘Oh, my wife is so gorgeous.’ He sees behind her this ugly skinny woman, an old woman. He runs toward the beautiful woman and she runs toward him. They embrace. He says, ‘Darling, darling,’ and she says, ‘Daddy, Daddy.’ It’s his daughter and the ugly old woman behind her, of course, was his wife.”
Bompensiero would have mixed feelings in late June, 1950, when North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea and President Truman ordered combat forces deployed to Korea. The good news, for Bompensiero, was that downtown San Diego quickly filled up with servicemen and the lull in the bar business ended. The bad news was that Mary Ann’s husband Dutch, an Army reservist, was called up and sent to Korea. Mary Ann was pregnant and frightened. Bompensiero and Thelma continued to pay rent on Dutch and Mary Ann’s Kansas Street house but they moved Mary Ann home to Estelle Street, back into her old room so that Thelma could keep an eye on her.
After Labor Day, 1950, the Kefauver Committee began to show interest in the Binaggio killing, the association of the Kansas City and St. Louis mob groups in narcotics sales, and the Dragna-Cohen battles. Committee investigators began to call on Bompensiero, Dragna, Cohen, Cohen associates, and Johnny Rosselli. Figuring that local attention lighting their activities would only do harm, Rosselli, through connections in the film industry, made arrangements for Dragna and himself to testify before the committee in Chicago rather than Los Angeles.
Then, early in November the Kefauver Committee subpoenaed Bompensiero to appear in closed session. According to an old friend of Bompensiero’s, Los Angeles lawyer Frank Desimone (who in 1956, after Jack Dragna’s death, would become head of the Los Angeles Mafia) prepared Bompensiero to testify before the committee. Wearing a dark gray suit, white shirt, and dark tie with white polka dots, Bompensiero comported himself with dignity; he was elaborately polite, humble, and almost obsequious. Even a rapid perusal of Bompensiero’s testimony shows that almost every answer he gave Rudolph Halley, Kefauver’s chief investigator, was either evasion or deliberate lie. But the lies and evasions worked. When Senator Kefauver, after Bompensiero’s testimony, spoke with the press, it was clear that Bompensiero succeeded in deflecting the committee’s interest in him. Kefauver repeatedly referred to Bompensiero as a “San Diego cafe operator, who was a business partner of Frank and Louis Dragna.” Kefauver told assembled newsmen that questioning of Bompensiero disclosed that he met some of the “alleged narcotics operators during a series of trips to Tijuana.” The senator identified men with whom Bompensiero “had conferences” at Caesar’s Restaurant: Francis Coppola, Sylvester Carrolla, Tony Lococo, Giacomo Bartolino, Carlo Sciortino, Anthony Lopiparo of St. Louis, and Sebastino Gallo of San Diego. Kefauver went on to say that while the meetings of Bompensiero with these men took place “shortly before Binaggio was killed in Kansas City, we don’t know if there was any connection.”
An article from the San Diego Union dated November 20, 1950, quoted Bompensiero as explaining his acquaintance with the so-called narcotics figures he met at Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana the previous spring by stating: “I go to Caesar’s all the time. I was there last night, after I got back from Los Angeles.” “I’ve got nothing to say. I didn’t have anything to say up there in Los Angeles. I’m in the business of selling drinks, and that’s all.” He also stated that he had no dealings with Jack Dragna and hadn’t seen him for years.
Early in 1951, Ernest Gillenberg, proprietor of a Jacumba cafe, walked into the El Centro office of the State Board of Equalization and made application for a general sale liquor license that would permit him to serve beer, wine, and mixed drinks. Gillenberg, by all accounts an honest man, a man whose name never entered police blotters, was refused a license. Gillenberg drove to San Diego and walked into the San Diego offices of the State Board of Equalization and asked several clerks why he was unable to acquire a liquor license. He was told none were available.
Why Ernest Gillenberg was refused a liquor license is a complicated story that has its beginnings in America’s ambivalent relationship to liquor. When Prohibition ended in the United States in 1933, the federal government and the states passed laws to regulate liquor sales. These laws varied widely from state to state. In many states, both liquor industry lobbyists and representatives and voters from Protestant temperance groups influenced these laws’ contents. California’s laws grew as a coral reef will, through one after another assembly session. Newly passed laws accreted, year after year, atop skeletons of old. The laws grew increasingly complex. In the mid-1930s, issuance of licenses to sell liquor became one of the perquisites of the four-man nonpartisan State Board of Equalization (SBE). This board was originally set up as a taxing and assessment agency that acted as supervisor over California’s 58 county assessors. The board also fixed valuations on all corporate interests. Membership on the SBE was attained by election. Board members stood for election every four years, with each member running in his own district.
William G. Bonelli, known as “Big Bill,” was first elected to the SBE in 1938. The “big” in Big Bill referred both to Bonelli’s size — 200 pounds on a 5'8" frame — and his immense power. By 1950 he was chairman of the SBE, with the clout to determine tax assessments of businesses, statewide. He was also the board member representing eight Southern California counties, from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. This position gave Big Bill final say over who got liquor licenses. In the eight counties controlled by Bonelli, there were 4500 general on-sale licenses of the kinds issued to bars and about 14,500 other classifications of permits for selling liquor. A USC graduate who sported his Phi Beta Kappa key, and a lawyer, Bonelli taught political science before entering politics. A conservative Republican, Bonelli campaigned with the support of the Los Angeles Times’ Chandler family. Bonelli’s SBE position made him a wealthy man. But he was not getting rich on his SBE salary. He was getting rich on graft. He boasted publicly that his $14,000 a year state salary was insufficient to pay even his federal income taxes. In 1940 he was tried and acquitted on 23 counts of bribery, bribe solicitation, and criminal conspiracy.
In 1950 Bonelli sponsored a resolution limiting the number of liquor licenses issued in California to one per 1000 persons in each of three types of liquor license. As population grew, more licenses could be issued. The 1950 census showed Southern California counties eligible for 1300 new bar permits. This resolution’s successful passage immediately increased the resale value of licenses issued years earlier. Although bribery had always been used to obtain licenses, the passage of Bonelli’s resolution opened up fresh areas for graft in the acquisition of new liquor licenses and the conveyance of existing licenses from old owners to new.
Application for a liquor license for a bar like Bompensiero’s Gold Rail or Ernest Gillenberg’s cafe in Jacumba was a labyrinthine process. A number of men, some with law degrees, set themselves up in various cities, including San Diego, as liquor license brokers, ostensibly to sell their services to people who needed help with liquor license applications. The State Board of Equalization had its San Diego offices at 3621 Fifth Avenue. In the early 1950s the San Diego and Imperial County SBE offices were overseen by Charles E. Berry. Berry’s official title was SBE district liquor control administrator. A former San Diego city councilman (1929–1937), Al W. Bennett, was one of San Diego’s liquor license brokers. Bennett set up camp at 3635 Fifth Avenue, only a few doors down from the SBE. The annual state fee for an on-sale liquor license was $525. By the time an applicant visited a liquor license broker, the cost could rise to as much as $15,000. What, in fact, you paid the extra thousands for was influence. Who, in the end, you paid, were Big Bill Bonelli and his middlemen, the liquor license brokers and an assortment of bagmen. As one retired lawman said, “It was straight-out mordida. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, up to that time all the people who were in the liquor business were bootleggers, speakeasy owners, and other people who were used to paying off for protection. They didn’t see this as much different.”
So that the law-abiding Ernest Gillenberg, when he initially applied at both the San Diego and El Centro SBE offices for a liquor license, was acting in the way that law-abiding citizens thought one acted. Soon after Gillenberg failed to receive his license, a Long Beach bar owner named Al Tosas called on him. Tosas explained to Gillenberg that he had been dispatched to San Diego County to rally the troops and raise funds for Big Bill Bonelli’s upcoming election campaign. Tosas, according to Gillenberg’s later sworn testimony, indicated that there were ways that he, Tosas, could help Gillenberg obtain his license. Gillenberg declined Tosas’s offer. Several weeks after Tosas’s visit another knock came at Gillenberg’s door. Ira Provart, an SBE employee in the El Centro office whose immediate superior was Charles E. Berry, had come to call. Provart was bearing a message from Berry to Gillenberg. For $5000 Gillenberg could acquire a seasonal license. After a year’s time passed, Gillenberg could “trade up” on this license for a general license. Gillenberg argued with Provart. Five thousand was too much. Provart suggested that Gillenberg give the matter some thought. He said that a gentleman named Frank Bompensiero soon would be coming to see him to discuss the matter further. In January, 1951, Bompensiero showed up at Gillenberg’s Jacumba cafe. Bompensiero reiterated the message brought by Gillenberg’s earlier visitors: $5000 would get him a license. Gillenberg and Bompensiero haggled over price. Bompensiero assured Gillenberg that he was getting a bargain, that licenses were selling for as much as $12,000. Gillenberg, determined to continue to try to acquire a license in the prescribed manner, again demurred.
The Kefauver Committee, through 1950 and 1951, moved from one U.S. city to another, holding hearings, both closed and open. The open hearings were televised. On March 7, 1951, Kefauver began the first of eight days of open hearings in the august Foley Square federal courthouse in New York City. All across America people stopped what they were doing to sit in darkened living rooms or to stand outside store windows and watch as Senate committee members and their investigators queried tough-looking guys in sharp suits. Witnesses repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment. On March 13, Frank Costello was queried. Costello refused to permit the cameras to show his face. His face was cropped from the necktie up. The cameras focused on Costello’s hands. “Those hands,” David Halberstam writes in The Fifties, “relentlessly reflected Costello’s tension and guilt: hands drumming on the table, hands gripping a water glass, fingers tightly clenched; hands tearing paper into little shreds; hands sweating.” On March 15, the late Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend, Virginia Hill, was questioned. She left the courtroom after testifying, and slugged a female newspaper reporter. She screamed at a cameraman, “I hope the atom bomb falls on you.”
Life magazine reported: “The week of March 12, 1951, will occupy a special place in history. The U.S. and the world had never experienced anything like it.… All along the television cable [people] had suddenly gone indoors into living rooms, taverns and clubrooms, auditoriums and back offices. There in eerie half light, looking at millions of small frosty screens, people sat as if charmed. For days on end and into the nights they watched with complete absorption.… Never before had the attention of the nation been so completely riveted on a single matter. The Senate investigation into interstate crime was almost the sole subject of national conversation.”
On March 19, Edward R. Murrow told the nation on CBS radio and television: The Kefauver Committee is proving that the United States has a “government within a government,” and that this hidden, inner government is “organized crime.”
Not as much was made, in the national news, of organized crime in California. Indeed, Dragna’s little group soon became known as the Mickey Mouse Mafia. William R. “Billy Dick” Unland was a member of the Los Angeles Police Department Intelligence Unit. “Watching Italians and Sicilians,” Unland told me, “that was sort of my specialty.” Unland tailed them all — the Dragnas, Frank Desimone, Simone Scozzari, Charley Battaglia, Joseph “Joe Dip” Dippolito, Sam Bruno, Nick Licata and his son Carlo, Angelo Polizzi, Bompensiero, and Momo Adamo.
“This Mafia in California,” Unland said, “never was like it was in New York, Chicago, Detroit, or Cleveland.” Unland suspected that, in part, the Intelligence Unit made life difficult for mobsters. “We treated them pretty rough when they came here. Tony Accardo came out and the squad met him at the train station and took him to a plane and told him to get his ass out of here and not come back. We treated ’em pretty rough.
“Also, they were so mixed up. Sometimes the same ones that worked for Mickey Cohen worked for Dragna too. Mickey had his gambling places around Hollywood, every bookmaker in LA had to pay Mickey so much for every phone he had. If they didn’t pay, Mickey’s Seven Dwarfs would get out and work them over, so of course they all paid up. But they were a mixed-up bunch.”
Since February 6, 1950, when Jack Dragna sent his crew to bomb Cohen’s house, Unland and other Intelligence Unit men had been following Dragna. “My partner and I,” said Unland, “decided to make a lifetime job out of Jack. We found he was going out on his wife with a girl and we found out he had her in an apartment and bugged her and bugged him. They had some rather risqué events. Simone Scozzari and his girlfriend — Simone wasn’t married — they’d get together in the apartment and play canasta. So we had ’em bugged and we knew if we could get them in some kind of sex thing, they could be deported. We caught them doing some 288-a’s, it was French love, and it was against the law then.” Dragna was charged and convicted of vagrancy and lewd conduct and sentenced to six months in jail. This sentence was reduced to 30 days in the county jail, which Dragna served.
Frankie, Mary Ann’s first child and the Bompensieros’ first grandchild, was born on Thursday, March 29, 1951, at two o’clock in the afternoon. “Dutch was in Korea with the paratroopers,” Mary Ann said. “We’d kept the Kansas Street house but I had moved home, late in my pregnancy, and was living with my mom and dad. I was on one of the love seats when my labor started. I didn’t say anything at first. My dad was on the couch taking a rest before he went back down to close up the Gold Rail. My dad and mother drove me to Mercy Hospital. For the first eight or ten hours, they thought it was false labor. Then, they realized it was the real thing. Mom and Dad, of course, never left the hospital. Dad paced the floor. Never took that cigar out of his mouth. Chewed it and chewed it. He’d go out and buttonhole the doctor and talk to him in that Edward G. Robinson voice of his. ‘Listen, Doc, nothin’ better happen to my daughter or to the baby, they better both be all right.’ He’d sit by the side of the bed and hold my hand and say, ‘Baby, I don’t want you to have to go through this.’ He was suffering right along with me. Pacing back and forth. Mom would say to him that it was going to be okay. But he just couldn’t sit still. He’d get up and go pace the hall and come back and sit by me again.
“Thirty-six hours after I went into labor, Frankie was born. You’d think my father was the father. He was so proud. ‘Look at that little guy,’ he kept saying. ‘He has the V-8–engine body, he’s got those narrow hips and broad shoulders.’ ”
The next few days were fateful for Bompensiero. He and Thelma on Monday, April 2, took Mary Ann and Frankie to Estelle Street. “What I will always remember about that day,” said Mary Ann, “is that when we got the baby home, my mother stood at the crib with my father and looked down at Frankie and she turned to my father and said, ‘My new life, my new life.’ ”
Ernest Gillenberg, in his Jacumba cafe, fretted for several months. Finally, in late March, Gillenberg surrendered. He telephoned Bompensiero, who suggested that Gillenberg place $5000 in cash into an envelope. He suggested that they meet in the lobby of the U.S. Grant.
Frankie was six days old on Tuesday, April 3, when Ernest Gillenberg and his wife Gladys arrived shortly after noon in the U.S. Grant lobby. They had brought the $5000 Bompensiero said would be required, but they had not brought it in cash. They did not feel comfortable carrying that much cash. They brought a Bank of America cashier’s check payable to E.M. Gillenberg and endorsed by Gillenberg. Bompensiero strolled into the lobby and took a position behind a post. The Gillenbergs approached. Hands were shaken, greetings exchanged. Gillenberg then handed over the envelope into which he’d placed the check. Gladys Gillenberg noted that Bompensiero seemed not to want anyone see him take the envelope, that Bompensiero seemed to try to hide behind the post as the envelope moved from her husband’s to his hands.
The Gillenbergs’ understanding, when they delivered the check to Bompensiero, was that the $5000 would allow them to obtain their long-sought-after seasonal liquor license. Gillenberg had been promised that this seasonal liquor license, eventually, could be converted into a regular or general license. Bompensiero, taking the check, assured Gillenberg that he would be able to apply for a regular liquor license at the end of a year’s time without paying any additional amount. The Gillenbergs, we can presume, were happy then, when they left the downtown hotel and headed back to Jacumba. Bompensiero, check in his inside jacket pocket, walked down the street to the Gold Rail. In his office he stamped the endorsement: “The Gold Rail, 1028 Third Avenue, San Diego 1, California.” Beneath the stamped endorsement, Bompensiero rapidly penned his name. Ira Provart, the SBE employee who had visited Gillenberg in Jacumba, came by later that day to pick up Gillenberg’s money. Bompensiero met Provart on the sidewalk outside the Gold Rail. Bompensiero was peeved. “That stupid sob,” he said, “handed me a check instead of cash.” We do not know and won’t ever know precisely what Bompensiero’s cut of the $5000 was. What we do know from later sworn testimony by Provart is that when Provart set up the initial meeting between Bompensiero and Gillenberg, Bompensiero asked how much of Gillenberg’s money he would receive for dealing with the Jacumban. Provart testified that his boss, Charles E. Berry, told Provart not to expect too much as his share of the $5000 because the money would have to be cut up 11 or 12 ways. Provart would say that for his work as a bagman, SBE liquor administrator Berry paid him $400. “This is your share of the Gillenberg case,” Berry said as he passed over the money.
What we also know is that shortly after Gillenberg gave Bompensiero the aforementioned check, Gillenberg received a seasonal liquor license. We also know that Bompensiero, again, according to Provart’s testimony, was not happy about his dealings with Gillenberg and said, “I hope that so-and-so sells his place; he talks too much.”
Mary Ann, a month or so after Frankie was born, moved back into the home she shared with Dutch on Kansas Street. Dutch was still in Korea. Mary Ann recalled that she and her mother had “decorated the back bedroom for the baby. It was like a little picture — white shag carpet, cradle, rocker. My mother and father would come over and spend the night there in the guest room, so I wouldn’t be afraid. My dad would stretch out on my couch and have me put Frankie on top of him and Frankie would fall asleep on my dad’s big barrel chest and my dad would be absolutely cooing, ‘Frankie boy, my baby, my little boy, my Frankie baby.’ Mama and I would just stand there and admire the two of them. But forget changing diapers. My dad wouldn’t do that. He said he was too scared. And he would never ever be alone with Frankie. He said he was afraid he’d do something wrong. So if my mom and I were going to the store, my dad wanted to be there with Frankie, but he also wanted a baby-sitter. But he didn’t want a sitter to be alone with Frankie. Never. ‘Get a baby-sitter,’ he would say, ‘and I will be here with him.’ When Frankie was a few months old he got a terrible cold. My father would come home from the Gold Rail and rock him. He would say to Frankie, ‘Let Papa take that cold away from you. Give Papa your cold so I can have it for you.’ My mom’s store was just around the corner from the Kansas Street house and she would run over at lunchtime to see the baby and then come, after the store closed, and fix dinner for all of us. Those months my mom and dad were so happy. They adored that baby.
“Frankie was five months old when Dutch got out of the Army. August or September, it was, in 1951. He right away went back to work again for my dad collecting for the jukeboxes for Maestro Music. He was only home about six weeks and he called me and he was spitting up blood. We took him to the doctor and he had tuberculosis. He had to go to the VA Hospital in San Fernando Valley where they had the TB hospital. The baby and I and Mom and Dad and half the family, we had to be tested, all of us, patch tested. None of us had any signs of it. Dutch was prescribed what they prescribed for TB back in those days: bed rest. I would drive up and see him every weekend and Mom and Dad would take care of Frankie.”
Mary Ann recalled about the first few months after Frankie’s birth that Leo Moceri and his wife stayed for a time in the Kansas Street house. Mary Ann, all her life had known Leo “Leo the Lip” Moceri as Uncle Jimmy and his wife as Aunt Marie. Mary Ann said that only years later would she learn that Moceri was a Mafia member. She said that at the time, her innocence about her father and her father’s friends was so complete that when Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Marie went out and Uncle Jimmy, even on cloudy days, counseled Marie to keep on her sunglasses and put up the top of the convertible they were driving, Mary Ann thought Uncle Jimmy was being protective of Marie’s complexion.
In August, 1951, two young ex-FBI agents walked into the offices of Sheriff Bert Strand. They were investigators for the state attorney general’s office. The attorney general, together with the almost four-year-old California Crime Commission, was interested in the use of bribes to acquire liquor licenses. A now elderly retired San Diego policeman told me, “That’s when it started. That was the genesis of the police intelligence work in San Diego. We already had the techniques, the technology in those days. We just had never had the support of the powers that be.”
The state crime commission, in the fall of 1951, began to nose around to learn what it could about how liquor licenses were being bought and sold. In sworn testimony given in 1958, Captain James E. Hamilton, head of the Los Angeles Police Department’s intelligence division, was questioned:
Q. During your work for the Crime Commission did you have occasion to investigate a series of bar licenses owned by Mr. Tony Mirabile, or in which he had an interest?
A. One of our projects was to investigate the distribution of liquor licenses in the State of California. During that investigation down here in San Diego in 1951 and 1952 we had access to the State Board of Equalization records here in San Diego. Those records were made available to the various organizations, and in there it gave the names and addresses of all individuals who had liquor licenses.
Q. Didn’t you have occasion to inquire into 30-odd licenses, whatever the number was, to go to the State Board of Equalization at that time and look over their files on those?
A. Yes. I had complete access to their records.
Q. What happened to those records right after you looked at them?
A. The information was taken from their records and was dictated on the Soundscriber discs. The information was transcribed. I was informed shortly thereafter that those records were destroyed within about 48 hours. So I have been informed that those records do not exist after the information had been taken out of them, such as who owned these licenses, and how they were issued; investigators; reports, and that sort of thing.
Q. These records were destroyed, according to your information, on orders from who?
A. The information I had is that the order came down from Mr. William G. Bonelli, from Los Angeles, to destroy those records.
Q. Didn’t you actually look at them on, like a Friday, and they were destroyed the following Monday?
A. Yes. I looked at them Friday and Saturday, and I was told that they were destroyed on Monday.
The State Board of Equalization was not the only source of corruption. My retired San Diego policeman friend said that during the early 1950s intelligence gathered about San Diego “vice” — bookmaking, whores, illegal liquor sales, irregularities in bar and alcohol management —was cautiously traded among various law-enforcement organizations. He said that it was “not uncommon knowledge” that during the 1940s and 1950s certain members of the sdpd vice squad were on the take. He said that among other investigative agencies and these agencies’ intelligence arms there was an agreement that certain members of the sdpd vice squad regularly tipped off bar owners and bookmakers about upcoming raids. The gentleman who was telling me this went on to say that he himself worked vice for several years after World War II and then asked for transfer into another department. “I removed myself from vice because what I saw I didn’t want to be a part of. I knew I was a puppet, allowing bookmaking to go on.”
Another person in law enforcement said to me, about this period, “I got some money out of District Attorney Don Keller’s secret fund and I planted a private detective in a hotel overlooking C Street because there was bookmaking going on at the Turf Club and we got movies of detectives walking right by these bookies making book in the loading zone in front of the Turf Club while they go in to get their morning toddies. But nothing ever came of it because Keller didn’t want to take on the police department.”
Mary Ann, one day, talking about her mother’s dress shop — Santa Ann’s Moderate Shop on 30th in North Park — began telling a story that had to do with the police. She said, “My mother was way ahead of her time. She wanted to be kept busy, so she opened the dress shop. She was going to specialize in large women. She was going to do this even though she was tiny; she wore her dresses in a size seven or eight when sizes were real sizes and everything was zip-up and fitted. She was open for a while, but the ladies would drop by and say, ‘Don’t you have anything in a smaller size?’ My mother said, ‘Okay, I’m going to look for a line and I’m going to bring it in.’ Dresses were a headache, so she went into separates. She brought in skirts, sweaters, blouses, and catered to the working girl. Mayfair Market was across the street on 30th Street. All those girls from Mayfair, every time they got their paycheck, they’d come in. My mother said, ‘Forget about the people that have a lot of money, they don’t shop as often as the working girl.’ She was a success in that store.
“So my mother’s got her shop and Christmas comes. My father said to her, ‘Honey, give me a stack of your cards.’ And she said, ‘Okay.’ Everything was aboveboard with my mother and her shop. My father says to her, ‘Anybody comes in with my name on the back of your card, give them whatever they pick out, gift wrap it, and don’t charge ’em, just keep the receipt,’ he says, ‘and I’ll pay you.’ They were the cops my father was handing out these cards to. I was working in the shop then, so this is not from my mother’s mouth only or my father’s. I saw this myself.
“For Christmas, my mother had lingerie, she had a little bit of costume jewelry. These men, all men, came in and they’d look around and pick out things and they’d present the card and they’d say some version of ‘Frank sent me.’ My mother would say, ‘Fine, thank you,’ and gift wrap whatever they’d chosen and hand it to them and out they’d go. I don’t know how many of these guys came in and did this. But there was one cop I waited on, only one, who was the exception to the rule. He asked for a box of hosiery. Then he said, ‘Frank sent me in,’ and gave me the card. I said, ‘Would you like it gift wrapped?’ He said, ‘How much do I owe you?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He says, ‘I came in because I know Frank and I want to pay you.’ I said, ‘I’m not supposed to take your money.’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t want them then.’ When I told my dad about what happened, he said, ‘I know who that guy is. He won’t even take a cigar.’ ”
In December, 1951, Bompensiero and Jimmy Fratianno, Nick Simponis, Joe Peccaro, and Nick and Carlo Licata joined forces in a business — Gold Enterprises — designed to sell and distribute fruit juice, colas, and snacks in bars and taverns. Simponis and Peccaro were local fellows, not in any way connected to Mafia circles. Fratianno and the Licatas were another matter. Fratianno, an ex-con who came originally from Cleveland, in 1947 had been made a member of the Los Angeles Dragna group. Fratianno, by late 1951, had been the shooter (or strangler) on at least four Mafia killings. Nick Licata, originally from Detroit, had been brought into the Los Angeles family by Dragna. Carlo Licata, Nick’s son, had been one of the three shooters who gunned down Mickey Cohen’s lawyer.
FBI files on Bompensiero obtained through the Freedom of Information Act note the following about Gold Enterprises.
“Investigation conducted in 1953 in the case entitled: GOLD ENTERPRISES, San Diego, California; Frank Bompensiero; criminal rackets survey, reveals that on December 31, 1951, Gold Enterprises filed Articles of Incorporation with the Secretary of State, State of California, and the County Clerk, San Diego, California. Directors were named as Frank Bompensiero, 5878 Estelle Street; Nick Gust Simponis, 4796 Panorama Drive; James Albert Fratianno, 2930 Dove Street; and Carlo Licata, all of San Diego, California.
“Information was developed that this concern was set up to ‘take over’ the sale of citrus juices to all bars in the San Diego area, by intimidation if necessary.
“The concern began operations in 1952 and (_) found that he had lost a number of customers to this concern. (_) reported that he had lost his accounts with My Place, Java, Barbet, Patrick’s, Hi-Seas, Frolics, China Doll, the Gold Rail, and other places. All places of business which discontinued business with (_) and subscribed to service of Gold Enterprises stated they had not been intimidated.
“The investigation reflected that most of the bars which subscribed to services of gold enterprises were owned by Italians. After about one month of operation, the gold enterprises ceased operations because of failure to make expenses.”
I talked many times with a retired San Diego lawman. I will call him “Mr. Willis.” Mr. Willis, sipping at a tall glass of iced tea, talked one afternoon about Bompensiero. “He was very cool, had a sardonic attitude, was never contemptuous of cops, but once in a while he could be kind of sarcastic.”
I asked Mr. Willis what he knew about Gold Enterprises. “Well,” he sighed, “they were starting in those days, Bompensiero and his friends, to feel like big shots, like they were going to be able to take control of the city. Gold Enterprises started in 1951, the intent was to take over the condiments and all the fruit juices, not the liquor, all the related things that go into a bar, and there were a number of other companies already doing this and they cannot have been all that pleased. But you can see how for these bar owners that such a distribution plan, controlled by them, would become attractive. These dagos knew what was good to get into. So anyway, Fratianno and Licata were both living in Nate Rosenberg’s house at 2930 Dove Street. This is when Rosenberg had the Navy Club and Carlo Licata was working there as some sort of manager. They opened up Gold Enterprises in a building on India Street on the east side of the street between Cedar and Date. We were getting rumbles about this. So we began tailing the delivery truck driver, Joe Peccaro — Joe Pec, old stupid Joe the Dummy.
“Joe Pec told Frank about how we were following him. Frank called the PD and started denigrating this guy who had been following his guys. The guy who answered told him to call the guy himself. Frank was at the Gold Rail. I happened to come into the PD office a short time after the call came in. The guy on duty asked me, ‘Do you know this Bompensiero?’ I said, yes, I did. So I called him up on the phone. Got the bartender. Told the bartender I wanted to talk to Bompensiero. You want to talk to me, Bompensiero? Any place, any time.’ Course I was younger in those days. He said, ‘Yeah, I will meet you out in front.’ So I drove over there on Third Street and got out of the car and Bompensiero was standing out front of the Gold Rail and you could tell he was ready to blow. I said, ‘Do you want to see me?’ And he said, ‘Yes. Why are you following my guy?’ I said, ‘Because I don’t like him.’ He said, ‘Well, don’t do that.’ I said, ‘Well, are you going to try and stop me?’ He said, ‘Well, I will get my lawyer.’ I said, ‘You get your goddamned lawyer. Is there anything else?’ He said, ‘No.’ I was ready to go to fist city right there. I got in my car. That was the only time I ever saw Frank Bompensiero even remotely out of control. Frank was always controlled. That was the only time I can remember Frank being less than lucid and not having control. The guy was very perceptive. Frank was no dummy. You couldn’t help but like the guy because he was man, this guy was all man. Oh boy, he was a little short guy but he must have weighed 220 pounds on a 5'8" frame. I mean built right straight up from the ground, tougher than hell. A great dresser. He was always well dressed. A lot of difference between him and Tony. I liked the guy. I knew he was a hood, a crook. We always knew about the 211 at the Fox Theater, that he did it, but I liked the guy. Who wouldn’t?
“Bompensiero was the only local man who had the connections and the moxie to do things. This was a center of power, you just knew it. I can remember one occasion, 1952, when Eisenhower came to town. I’d never seen General Eisenhower. All I knew about Eisenhower was I’d seen him in the Movietone. I am standing out on Front Street where they had that park, 1000 block, and they’ve got this political parade, because Eisenhower came to town, and he was sitting up in this open car, westbound on Broadway, and, boy, people are down there. I got about halfway down, alongside the old courthouse, and here comes Eisenhower. He didn’t say word one to me and he didn’t look at me and I’m a half a block away but there’s like a physical impact of this man on me. These people, leaders, who have so much personality that it just thrusts itself at you. I said, ‘My God, Eisenhower. Smilin’ Ike, smiling like he always was.’ This impact he made, just looking, no wonder he was the leader he was in World War II. And Frank Bompensiero, he had it too. You look at the guy half a block away and he’d be walking along the street, not even talking to anyone, and you just knew it, here’s power. He had such good control over himself and I don’t know of anybody else that ever saw him any different. Except that one occasion when he called me on following old Joe Pec and he was a little hostile and about to lose it but good sense told him he’d go to jail and the hard way. He knew it, I was not about to take a physical beating from a dago hood. I would have killed him. But you like the personality anyway even though you knew what he was. I had no personal animosity toward him at all. I would have killed him if I had a chance, but hell. I liked Frank Bompensiero, you couldn’t help from it.”
The California Crime Commission, set up by Governor Earl Warren in 1948, was still going strong in 1952. On May 11, they issued their third formal report. Bompensiero found himself named several times. Allusions were made to the 1938 Phil Galuzo murder and Bompensiero’s arrest and questioning, in 1941, for that killing. “Bompensiero,” the report noted, “is now located in San Diego, operating a cafe and bar, and poses as a legitimate business man. He is a partner of Tony Mirabile and an associate of Jack Dragna.… Jack Dragna and his associates were all connected with the notorious L’Unione Siciliano (Mafia).” The Crime Commission report also claimed that Gold Enterprises’ true objective was “to gain control over the cooks and waitresses union, the bartenders union and the tavern owners association, which would have given them virtual control of that industry for shakedown purposes.” When reporters from San Diego’s Union and Evening Tribune called the Gold Rail to query Bompensiero about these allegations, Bompensiero insisted that the Crime Commission reports about him and about Gold Enterprises had no basis in fact.
Mr. Willis reminded me, about Bompensiero’s activities in 1952, that “Bompensiero still was running this outfit called Maestro Music. Jukeboxes. It was kind of a unique deal for those days, his jukeboxes were. You punched a button and a voice would ask you what you wanted to hear. So this fellow, Hal Sherry was his name, a heavyset fellow who wore glasses, came to town along in May of 1952 from the union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the ibew. Hal Sherry began to make a nuisance of himself, trying to organize all the people who installed these jukeboxes and serviced them and other vending-machine operators that operated God knows what else. He was told, ‘Now be a nice gentleman and leave this area alone. We don’t need your help. As a matter of fact, we don’t want your help.’ And he was told this by Frank Bompensiero. As a matter of fact, Frank later said, ‘I told the guy to stop this stuff. We don’t want it.’ But Mr. Sherry didn’t pay attention to Bompensiero’s warning. As a result Mr. Sherry got the name ‘Cucumber Kid.’
“Sherry stayed in town for three or four days, trying to set up a little local, after Bompensiero spoke to him. Apparently, Bompensiero lost patience with Sherry’s continued presence. Sherry was staying at the U.S. Grant. What would turn out to be his last evening in town he came back from his dinner about eight o’clock and lo and behold here are two Siciliano gentlemen in his room, waiting to talk to him. And the last thing Hal Sherry knows, he got punched. The last thing he remembered was, ‘I went down.’ And he was told to leave town. He woke up and felt an excruciating pain, he didn’t know what it was, but he discovered he was not wearing any trousers or undershorts. The pain he felt was unbearable. He put on his clothes, and he grabbed his valise and his briefcase, he ran down, threw his money down at the desk for his room, took off in his car, and he drove all the way to the Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena and from there at that point his doctor extracted from his anus, a cucumber. That’s how he got the name, the Cucumber Kid.
“It’s the lowest form of degradation. Anal penetration. It’s the ultimate in degradation, degrade them right down to it.
“The event came to our attention several months later. Hal Sherry told our offices that after he left town he’d been sent a wire, from San Diego. So I went to the telegraph office on the south side of the plaza on the corner of Fourth and I went in and talked to the manager and said I had heard about a telegram and the manager said, ‘Here’s a copy of the telegram sent to Hal Sherry in LA.’ I remember it as saying something about ‘my condolences, I hope you had a good time in San Diego, Frank.’ Hal Sherry never came back here in his organizing efforts as far as I know.”
Mr. Willis laughed. “Oh, yes, we used to laugh about this. The Cucumber Kid. He did come back here once, but with a bodyguard.”
Bompensiero’s brother Salvatore, or Sam or “Sammy,” as friends and family called him, was eight years younger than Bompensiero. Sam, by 1952, had been a resident in San Diego for a quarter century. He had earned his living as a fisherman. Fishing, year after year, wears out the body. By the early 1950s Sammy was having back trouble and problems with hernias. Bompensiero suggested that Sammy quit fishing. “I’ll set you up in the bar business,” he told his brother. “Sammy,” a retired San Diego city policeman told me, “was a straight. He only ran that bar for his brother. Bompensiero pulled Sammy in to run the joint.” Sammy agreed to his older brother’s proposal and on June 10, 1952, Bompensiero, Sam, and Leo G. Patella, a fisherman who was one of Thelma’s nephews, formed a partnership to open the Spot Cocktail Lounge. The bar stood at 1046 Third Avenue, a few doors from Bompensiero’s Gold Rail. The three men signed a ten-year lease on the property and a contract for $10,000 in remodeling the facilities, which previously had been a short-order greasy spoon. They acquired a liquor license that was issued in the names of Patella and Sammy.
The method by which the Bompensiero brothers acquired the liquor license for the Spot is tortuously complicated. I have accumulated my understanding of this method through newspaper clips, Crime Commission reports, and talks with Mary Ann, Mr. Willis, and Bart Sheela, a deputy district attorney in the San Diego County district attorney’s office from 1951 to 1955.
During the 1950s Arthur Warnock and John Griffin owned the Turkey Inn and the Valley Inn in Ramona. The two men needed a liquor license for the Valley Inn. How Bompensiero and Patella came to meet and talk with Warnock and Griffin, we do not know. But meet and talk with them they did. Bompensiero and Patella agreed to procure a liquor license for the Valley Inn and to operate the inn as an apparently secret partnership among the four men. Griffin and Warnock’s contribution to this deal was that they would supply the building and equipment. But nothing turned out as Griffin and Warnock hoped. Several days after July 25, 1952, when the license was issued to Patella, Patella returned the Valley Inn’s keys to the two men. He told them he had no more use for the keys. Patella and Bompensiero, on August 28, 1952, transferred the liquor license originally issued to the Valley Inn to the Spot. Griffin tried to talk with Patella about the transfer of the license. According to later sworn testimony by Griffin, Patella told him that he and Bompensiero never had any intention of using the liquor license at the Valley Inn. Furthermore, according to Griffin’s testimony, when he asked Bompensiero and Patella to pay their half of the rent on the Valley Inn, Patella and Bompensiero refused.
Bompensiero, also in later sworn testimony, explained events in this way. He and Sam were busy remodeling the premises that would become the Spot at about the same time that Leo Patella applied for a liquor license for the Valley Inn. Bompensiero insisted that for several months he had been trying to acquire a liquor license from license broker Al Bennett. Bompensiero claimed that he made a down payment to Bennett of $500. Bennett, however, according to Bompensiero, wanted $13,500 to $14,500 to get a license for Bompensiero whereas Bompensiero was willing to pay between “$12,500 to $13,500.” At the same time that he and Bennett were dickering over the $1000 difference, Sammy Bompensiero and Leo Patella decided to go in together on the Spot and transfer Patella’s Valley Inn license to the Spot. “There wasn’t enough for three of us so I stepped out,” said Bompensiero.
While all the above was going on, Bompensiero helped kill Frank Borgia. In June, 1952, Borgia was invited to a wedding of the daughter of a family friend. He got in his black Buick Roadmaster and drove from Los Angeles to 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 hit for his refusal to cut up his money with a family member.
Wedding over, Borgia returned to the Grant. According to what Fratianno years later would tell Ovid Demaris for Demaris’s best-selling book The Last Mafioso: The Treacherous World of Jimmy Fratianno, early that evening, Tony Mirabile 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 The Last Mafioso, is just what happened. Fratianno quotes Bompensiero, after the murder, as telling him, “Borgia goes back a long time around here. He was bootlegging with Jack [Dragna] and Tom [Dragna] back in the Twenties, and did some work of his own in those days. Him and Jack used to be good friends. Frank made lots of money in recent years, but he was an old stingy Mustache Pete. It cost him his life.”
Five days later, when Borgia had not returned to his room at the Grant, the police were called. The Roadmaster was impounded.
Mr. Willis, talking about the Borgia killing, said that while he does believe that Borgia was murdered he wasn’t sure that he believed the story that Fratianno told of the killing. “Oh,” he said, “I think Fratianno was tied in with it. Borgia was Mirabile’s best friend but that Mirabile brought him to them, I can’t buy this. I keep thinking of Fratianno, ‘the Weasel’ they call him, and for good reason. Yeah, he’s a sneaky devil. I think the way he tells the story is bull, but maybe Tony Mirabile did bring Borgia to them, maybe he did, I don’t know. I do know that they never did find the body. They have all these wineries and vineyards out there in San Bernardino, grape land. I suspect they dumped him there.”
Ernest Gillenberg, the gentleman who, with Mrs. Gillenberg, stood in the lobby of the U.S. Grant Hotel and handed Bompensiero a Bank of America cashier’s check for $5000, at this point reenters Bompensiero’s story. Shortly after Gillenberg gave Bompensiero the $5000 check, Gillenberg received his seasonal liquor license. In late summer, 1952, Gillenberg applied for the general liquor license promised him by Ira Provart and Bompensiero. He was turned down. On October 24, 1952, former city councilman turned liquor license broker Al W. Bennett telephoned Gillenberg and said that he understood Gillenberg was now applying for the general liquor license. Gillenberg allowed that yes, he was. The next day Bennett showed up at Gillenberg’s Jacumba cafe. He explained to Gillenberg that yet another payment — $2500 — would have to be made if Gillenberg wanted to move up from a seasonal to a general sales license. Gillenberg argued with Bennett and then, finally, Gillenberg relented. He got out his check register and started to write a check. Bennett stopped him. He wanted cash. Gillenberg and Bennett then drove to the Bank of America in El Centro. Gillenberg took $2500 from his account and handed the cash over to Bennett. In less than a week’s time Gillenberg received a telephone call from the El Centro SBE office telling him that he could come in to fill out his general liquor license application. Gillenberg prepared his application and received the license. He had paid out $7500 for what, according to state law, should have cost him, annually, $525.
Later sworn testimony before a San Diego County grand jury and in criminal trials held in San Diego courtrooms show that Gillenberg was by no means the only bar owner caught in the liquor license squeeze. San Diego County SBE administrator Charles E. Berry in 1952 alone carried some $14,000 in bribes to Big Bill Bonelli. According to Berry’s testimony Bonelli told him early in 1950, that from that time on, people desirous of liquor licenses would have to pay $7000 in bribes in addition to the $525 state fee. Bennett in 1952 had handed Berry an envelope containing $7000 from Lyman Lucore, owner of Lyman’s at 442 West Broadway, to get a liquor license. Berry took this envelope to Bonelli in LA. Later in the same year, Berry testified, Bennett gave him another envelope with $7000 that was paid by Max Goldfarb to get a liquor license in La Jolla. Again, the envelope was delivered to Bonelli.
Ed Reid’s 1952 The Mafia in a chapter entitled “Phi Beta Mafia” listed 83 names that Reid alleged were Mafia members; number 26 was Frank Bompensiero. Bompensiero continued in 1953 to expand his empire. On September 25, 1952, Bompensiero had formally removed himself from partnership in the Spot and purchased the Pirate’s Cave, at 402 West Broadway. He now, not on paper but in fact, owned three bars. Where he acquired the money, we can only surmise. We know that Jimmy Fratianno told Ovid Demaris that in April, 1953, Bompensiero helped carry out Jack Dragna’s contract on a gambler known in Los Angeles and Vegas as Russian Louie Strauss. Russian Louie’s killing, according to Demaris’s The Last Mafioso, took place in a house in Upland. “Joe Dippolito reached out with one huge hand and whirled Russian Louie around while Bompensiero dropped the garrote over his head, tossing one end of the rope to Jimmy. If Louie had not been struggling so desperately to breathe, he would have been surprised at the number of men interested in his execution. Besides Philly Alderieso, seated around the room were Angelo Polizzi, Charley Battaglia, Louie Dragna.”
On September 29, 1952, an article in Neil Morgan’s column “Crosstown” appeared in the San Diego Evening Tribune. Morgan’s column stated that not one drink was sold at the Valley Inn in Ramona and that a liquor license valued at $14,000 was transferred to the Bompensieros’ bar, the Spot, from the Valley Inn. Morgan implied that the liquor license for the Ramona area was obtained through subterfuge for the purpose of transferring it to the Third Avenue location.
Jack Dragna’s 1951 conviction on lewd conduct — “French love” — led to his arrest in 1953 by federal immigration authorities on a charge of having illegally entered the United States. Dragna spent much of 1953 fighting the deportation order. Dragna’s wife Frances in the summer of 1953 was dying of cancer. Mary Ann said that her mother regularly drove up to Los Angeles to sit with Frances. “My mother would come home from those visits and cry. She felt so sorry for Frances, in all that pain, and for the life Frances had with Jack. He had always gone out on her, Jack had. And Frances was dying and Jack wasn’t even there. He was in jail. My mother would sit by the bed and hold Frances’s hand and Frances would cry, ‘Thelma, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.’ ”
Mary Ann’s godmother and Thelma’s best friend, Josephine, lived in LA and knew the Dragnas. “Frances,” Josephine said, “was a nice woman. She deserved better than Jack. Every time Jack went to New York or someplace, he would always bring her a fur or jewelry, to appease her. She didn’t have a good life with him. He was a chaser.”
July 23, 1953, while Dragna was in the Terminal Island detention center awaiting deportation, Frances Dragna died. Mary Ann recalled that her parents went up to Los Angeles to the funeral. She also recalled that after Frances’s death, her mother began to talk about her own death. “My mother and I were sitting on the patio. You looked out and you just saw canyon. We were having coffee. Mama said, ‘When I die, I don’t want to be buried in some negligee-like thing.’ My mother, not long before that, had been to a wedding.” Mary Ann struggled to remember the names of the people who’d married, and couldn’t. She laughed. “I think my father hid out there one time with the groom’s parents, you’d think I’d remember their name. They had grapes. They had a big ranch. Anyway, my mother wore an off-white, creamy white ballerina-length dress to the wedding party. Ballerina-length was fashionable then. It was a gorgeous dress. It was strapless, all bugle beads across the bodice. They wore tiaras then, too, and Mama wore a tiara. She wore pearl drop earrings. She looked better than the bride. She said, that day when we were sitting out on the patio, ‘That’s the dress I want to be buried in. I don’t want that stiff stuff all the way up to my neck. I want to look like a princess lying on the couch. I want my tiara in my hair. I want my casket silver. I want’ — she loved lavender and purple — ‘the casket softly draped in lavender.’ ”
Big Bill Bonelli was a longtime friend of the Los Angeles Chandler family, owners of the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Mirror. In 1952 relations between Bonelli and the Chandlers soured when Bonelli set a higher tax rate on Chandler real estate than the Chandlers believed fair. The Chandlers retaliated. On October 12, 1953, Los Angeles Mirror investigative reporter Art White went after Bonelli.
BONELLI'S SALOON EMPIRE
“Has organized crime — particularly the sinister Mafia — moved into BIG BILL BONELLI’s far-flung Saloon Empire?
“Has it run away from the controls which bonelli as elected member of the State Board of Equalization, Southern California area, is supposed to lay upon the liquor business?
“Is trouble — big trouble — brewing?
“Let’s drop down to San Diego for some hints, clues and possible answers to these questions of huge civic importance.
“For here functions what one high State law-enforcement officer terms ‘the best illustration of today of an “organization” of known and suspected criminals and their associates.’
“Anthony (T) Mirabile, husky, big-jawed, white-haired, is the ‘poppa’ of the ‘organization.’ Tony’s alias is Rizzo. He has admitted, according to San Diego police, that he once served with the Italian ‘muscle’ element which took over Detroit’s evil Purple Gang years ago.
HERE IS THE ROSTER
“His name, momentarily, leads all the rest on a roster that includes Bompensiero, Dragna, Licata, Romano, Adamo, Matranga, Vitale, Pipitone, Fratianno, Secunda, Licavoli, Dia, Rizzo, Cusenza, Cavesina. All interwoven into this remarkable Saloon Empire pattern. All doing business within Big Bill Bonelli’s domain.
“(note: Here, however, the Kefauver Crime Committee’s windup remarks anent the Mafia should be recalled: ‘It would be most unfortunate if any inferences were erroneously drawn in any way derogatory to the vast majority of fine law abiding citizens of Sicilian and Italian extraction.’)
“Poppa Tony holds three bonelli-okayed saloon licenses for his Rainbow Gardens, Barbet and Senator, all in the dank heart of San Diego’s noisome ‘Jungle,’ which is comparable to Los Angeles’ own equally villainous Skid Row.
“Additionally, Poppa Tony is reliably known to pull the strings on at least 25 more joints besides his trio of ‘on the record’ dives.
“You perceive his widespread operations as you check into mirabile’s astonishing financial setup that dates back to the mid-1930s, when he made arrangements for his friends to borrow cash without red tape from the Security Trust and Savings Bank, 904 Fifth Avenue, San Diego. poppa tony obligingly fixed up a $50,000 fund for the boys.
“Photostats of mirabile’s account — in The Mirror’s possession — show hundreds of loans ranging from 20 to $10,000.”
WHO GOT THE LOANS?
“Police files observe crisply that this dossier ‘contains the names of practically every known hoodlum in the San Diego–Los Angeles area.’ But it also reveals loans to such persons as Lt. Nevadomsky of the San Diego Police Department (1942), Rudy Schmoke, California Highway Patrol inspector (1948), A.W. bennett, a leading San Diego liquor license broker and (when he got his loan in 1936) a City Councilman.
“Tony Mirabile owes his start as ‘Poppa’ of the syndicate to the notorious Nick Licata, of Dragna and Eastern Gangland ill fame, who now lives in ostensible quiet at 3523 Overland Avenue, Los Angeles.
“Because in the Great Repeal Year, 1933, Nick loaned Poppa Tony $7,000 to go into the saloon business.
“Now mirabile’s grasp is slipping.
“Up-and-coming power in the ‘organization’ is frank (bompy) bompensiero, who once served 18 months for a prohibition rap and who has an arrest record ranging downward from murder.
“Today he rejoices in a bonelli-granted license for the Gold Rail saloon, another San Diego ‘jungle’ watering hole. His partners are frank and louis dragna, son and nephew of Los Angeles’ Mafia chieftain, Jack Dragna.
“Bompy has other interests. He owns a piece of The Spot, just down the street from his Gold Rail, which has a brand-new bonelli-okayed saloon license in the name of leo patella. With gaspare matranga, also a licensee, and leo dia, poppa tony’s nephew-in-law, he runs Maestro Music. This pipes juke-box ditties into most of the ‘organization’s’ dives.
“Remember Hal Sherry’s painful adventure in San Diego?
“Last year Bompy, Charles Cavesina, and others of the syndicate held a powwow at the Gay Paree bar. (Which just happens to be saloon-licensed to one Jasper Curia, who has a long arrest record, and Mary J. Adamo.)
“They told Poppa Tony he was getting a little old for his heavy ‘organization’ responsibilities.
“Reservations were made for a vacation trip for poppa — to Italy — but he took sick. So he’s still in San Diego and, on the surface, still the poppa.
“Here are some of the other offshoots of this amazing syndicate, involving many families with (according to police files) Mafia connections:
IN WITH LUCKY
“The Matrangas, Gaspare, Frank, Joe, Leo, and their sister, Catherine Vitale. She lists herself as a ‘widow.’ But her husband, Salvatore, is very much alive, though very much incarcerated at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. A former runner for Dope King Lucky Luciano, Salvatore entered the United States illegally and got caught.
“Gaspare, in addition to his Maestro Music deal with bompy, has a saloon license with Brother Joe at Kelly’s Club. This ‘jungle’ joint used to be owned by joe miceli, now somewhat out of the picture owing to detention in San Quentin on a second-degree murder rap.
“Frank holds the Java Cafe saloon permit and, with Brother Joe, the Buccaneer.
“The Adamo girls, Maria and Mary J. The former is the wife of Girolamo (Momo) Adamo, associate of Jack Dragna and sundry other known hoodlums. Momo is wanted by Federal immigration agents for questioning on his re-entry into the United States, though he’s been seen around San Diego lately.
BROPHY IN PICTURE
“With Peter Montana, Maria holds Bonelli-granted licenses for the Panama Cafe and the Arizona, both ‘jungle’ saloons. Montana is listed by police as a ‘suspected member of the Mafia.’
“Mary J., of course, co-owns the Gay Paree.
“Then there’s Vic Pipitone, another ex-convict with a long arrest record (including murderous assault), who bought the Frolics cafe for his wife and son. Mrs. Pipitone held the saloon license, then peddled the place to a trio including Leonard J. Brophy, of the race wire Brophys.
“And now she and son charles operate the B&L bar, China Doll and Singapore Room, all with bonelli-blessed licenses, with vic hovering solicitously in the background.
“The list is almost endless.
“Poppa Tony’s niece, Josephine Mirabile, has the bonelli-okayed saloon permit for Martels. Her married name is Mrs. Leo Dia. And Leo is Bompy’s other Maestro Music partner.
“Poppa Tony’s brother, Paul, has the Bonelli-approved license for the Saratoga Grill.
“As another fascinating offshoot of the ‘organization’ you find Gold Enterprises, Inc., ‘distributors of daisy fresh products.’ This was dreamed up by Jimmy (The Weasel) Fratianno, the well-known ex-Cleveland Hoodlum, Stanley Secunda, Carlo Licata and Nick Simponis.
“They supplied citrus juice to the ‘organization’s’ bars. Later they provided this same lucrative service to others.
“But Gold Enterprises blew up when The Weasel left town suddenly — at Bompy’s urgent request. San Diego police threatened to roust all of the ‘organization’s’ dives if this unsavory character didn’t vamoose.
“Right now The Weasel, with two liquor store licenses, is awaiting trial in Los Angeles on extortion charges.”
White’s article continued, listing members of Dragna’s LA family and their connections to the liquor business and through the liquor business, their connections to Bonelli.
Bonelli responded to White’s charges with an announcement that he had changed his registration from Republican to Democrat. “Political, economic and social enslavement is being accomplished by the aggressive Chandler family through the Republican Party and its kowtowing leadership — the picture of this scheming Chandler family…is frightening.… But, what the hell. Somebody has to have enough guts to kick a few sacred cows around here, or a man won’t be able to brush his own teeth without getting the Chandlers’ permissions.”
We cannot know what Bompensiero thought when he read Art White’s exposé of Bonelli. I would guess that he pulled his funsha, that he paced and hissed about sobs and people who were “a pain in the fisterus.” I would guess that he dropped many dimes in pay telephone boxes and made many telephone calls. He may have called Frank Desimone in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles lawyer whom all LA Mafia family members called first. But we do not know. And Mary Ann, who for various reasons was at this time beginning to find her marriage to Dutch Roberts untenable and was, therefore, unhappy and preoccupied with her unhappiness, now recalls nothing about these articles or her parents’ response to them. So we do not know what Thelma Bompensiero felt when she read that her husband was the “Up-and-coming power in the ‘organization.’ ” I do know this. The only people who spoke of Bompensiero as “Bomp” or “Bompy” were not friends or “organization” associates. “If you were a friend or family member,” said Mary Ann, “you called my father ‘Frank’ or ‘Uncle Frank.’ If you knew him only casually, you addressed him as ‘Mr. Bompensiero.’ Nobody except the police and the media ever called my father by those absurd names.” Mary Ann almost sneered, then, as she said, “Bomp, Bompy,” and added, “Why, no one would have dared.”
What I can tell you and what you certainly have already guessed is that something bad was about to happen to Bompensiero. The bad thing that is about to happen would center on that Tuesday afternoon, six days after Bompensiero’s first grandchild was born, when Ernest Gillenberg handed over to Frank Bompensiero a $5000 cashier’s check.
In 1953 Caspar W. “Cap” Weinberger was a young San Francisco attorney serving his first term in the California State Assembly. Toward the end of 1953, he was made chairman of a five-man subcommittee of the Joint Legislative Interim Committee on Government Organization. The subcommittee’s charge was to investigate liquor law enforcement and the work of the Board of Equalization.
By February, 1954, Weinberger’s subcommittee had held hearings in various California cities, including San Diego. At the hearings’ conclusion, Weinberger announced that there was strong evidence of a breakdown of liquor law enforcement. He suggested that one of the first steps in cleaning up the state’s liquor law enforcement should be removal of the State Board of Equalization from any dealings with liquor law and the creation of a new department to handle these functions. According to Weinberger, it was in Bonelli’s Southern California district that the subcommittee noted the greatest problems. In Los Angeles and San Diego Counties his subcommittee heard numerous complaints of illegal trafficking in liquor licenses. Attorney General of California Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, in response to Weinberger’s findings, announced, “These indicated irregularities may form the basis of legal action directed toward cancellation of licenses fraudulently obtained.”
Bart Sheela was a deputy district attorney, working in the office of DA Don Keller, from 1951 to 1955. Over several days’ time, Sheela did his best to explain how the bad thing happened to Bompensiero. “I had done a couple of little cases for the man in charge of intelligence in the sheriff’s office — Bob Newsom. We were talking one day. I was getting tired in the DA’s office of what I was doing. I had prosecuted a couple of murder cases, but the bulk of the work was minor narcotics cases coming out of Logan Heights and sailors who were disenchanted, who wanted to get away and see the world and then all of a sudden decided they wanted to go home, so they would rob a liquor store or steal a car. I was talking to Newsom about it and he told me about this liquor thing. He said it was an open secret that you had to pay a bribe to get a liquor license. So about that same time that Newsom and I were talking, Bonelli had his big run-in with the Chandlers over equalization on some Chandler property. You should never get in a pissing match with a skunk and that’s what Bonelli did. So the Chandlers put Art White, who was a fine investigative reporter, on to Bonelli. White really was the one who caused this liquor license thing to get going.”
Another of my retired San Diego law-enforcement friends told me this: “Everybody in town who kept an eye on things knew damned well that this liquor license thing was going on. Several of us finally went to Judge John Hewicker — Old Bloody John, Hanging John. In his chambers he had a goddamned hangman’s knot. Hewicker was one hell of a judge. Hewicker was the most powerful judge here. And he told Keller, ‘You better start doing something about this liquor license business. If you don’t, I can guarantee you that judicial council is going to be talking to you.’ So Don Keller then became very happy about being willing to put Sheela and his guys on to the liquor license investigation. Bonelli had to run again in 1954 and Keller knew Bonelli was going to get beat anyway that time around, so he didn’t care as much what happened to Bonelli.”
What Sheela refers to as this “liquor license thing” began to be brought before the county grand jury early in 1954. Keller’s office trained its sights on Bonelli, to, as Sheela said, “get some pressure on him.” Sheela explained how this was done. “I was put in charge of the liquor license case. Jack Levitt, who later became a judge, worked on it too. Levitt was a good book lawyer, which I was not. He was the one who came up with the idea that eventually got Bonelli. There was a provision of law in which it was a misdemeanor for any licensee to give a gift to the Board of Equalization man who had control over the liquor licenses in this area and that man was Bonelli. So Levitt put together the theory you could get Bonelli and these other guys on a conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor, which makes it a felony. This, eventually, is what we convicted some of these guys on. Levitt was one smart lawyer.
“Shorter-range, we figured that if we could convict somebody of perjury in connection with the liquor licenses then we could get the legitimate people who had restaurants but had to pay bribes to come over to our side, which was what happened. About that time, after we started that, there was a restaurateur-tavern owner named Jack Millspaugh who had the Silver Spigot out on Moreno Boulevard and was trying to get a license. Millspaugh was represented by a lawyer named Cliff Duke and Duke had been in the DA’s office and so he knew about this ‘open secret’ of bribery to get liquor licenses.
“So Duke sent Millspaugh in, wired for sound, to talk to the Board of Equalization local chief, Charlie Berry, and to Al W. Bennett, the so-called business-opportunity broker who had his offices next door to the Board of Equalization offices. Millspaugh and Bennett talked and Bennett relayed that you had to come across with some money — a bribe — if you wanted a liquor license.
“Of course, they had Bennett and Berry on tape with Millspaugh. Anyway, they were using very rudimentary equipment and the recording wasn’t that great. They were afraid to turn the tape over to law enforcement at first because this graft was so pervasive that you didn’t know where you would be safe. Smith, Cliff Duke’s investigator, put it into a closet. It was one of those big tape belts and he had a little child who got into it and chewed on it, so that didn’t help the quality any. Finally, they brought the tape to me at the DA’s office. Duke and I were classmates at Stanford and he trusted me. I gave the tape to our chief investigator. He was one of those people who had a penchant for time-stamping everything and he put it into one of those manila folders and time-stamped it. He stamped the tape. He did it so hard, he broke the goddamned thing. When we pulled it out to get ready for trial, the damned thing was a mess. We put it together and I must have listened for 30 hours until I finally could repeat word for word the first 15 seconds of this recording. I used that in my opening statement to the grand jury as a bluff.”
Sheela led Millspaugh through questioning before the grand jury. Millspaugh explained that in November, 1953, he had written a letter of application to Charles E. Berry for a general on-sale license. After three weeks passed and Millspaugh received no response, he went to see Berry, who told him that the SBE was “intending to peruse all the letters carefully and all the ones they felt were the proper applicants.”
Sheela: What is the next thing that happened in connection with your efforts to obtain a liquor license?
Millspaugh: Approximately three or four days later I received a call from Mr. Bennett and he wanted me to come up. I went up I think the same afternoon and he said that he had talked with Mr. Berry and that I was a No. 1 prospect for a license providing that I had four grand to give him.
Sheela: By four grand you mean $4,000?
Millspaugh: $4,000. I said, “Well, what’s the $4,000 for? I either deserve a license or I don’t. I have been in the business 11 years and I haven’t any markers of any kind against any of the places that I have owned or that I do own.” And I didn’t see any reason why I should be forced to pay anybody extra money for it. He said, “Well, that’s the word that we got from the top and that’s the only way anybody can get a license.”
“Once we had that one, had Millspaugh,” Sheela told me, “we started to get the other witnesses in. Finally the case was getting so cumbersome, there were so many witnesses, we set up a special subcommittee in the grand jury. Some of the people we called would claim Fifth Amendment privileges. We had told them, of course, that we would not prosecute them if they told the truth, the standard prosecutorial ploy. But still, many of them claimed the privilege. So, first, we would take some of these people before this subcommittee. But if somebody we called was willing to talk and if what he had to say was something live and good, then we would bring them back in front of a full grand jury, so we wouldn’t waste the grand jury’s time.
“We started to run into some resistance, more and more of the licensees would seek lawyers and claim the privilege and not come forward. So then I planted a story that we had talked to the attorney general and that he was writing an opinion that any licensee who claimed his constitutional right and refused to testify about how his license was issued, well, that would be ground for revocation of licenses and that caused more of them to come in so by then we pretty well had it down.”
On May 18, 1954, the San Diego Union reported: LIQUOR LICENSE THREAT POSED
“Attorney General Brown yesterday told Keller his staff will study the legal possibilities of penalizing liquor license owners who refuse to testify before the county grand jury.
“The promise was made at a press conference with Keller and Brown in Keller’s office. The question of penalizing the reluctant witnesses had been posed to Brown earlier. Brown said he couldn’t give an opinion at the moment. ‘We believe liquor license holders should cooperate with the authorities. We take the position that liquor licenses are a privilege accorded by the state.’
“Keller told Brown in the presence of reporters he is interested in learning how many new licensees have paid more than the statutory $525 for their permits.
“ ‘We’ll go as far as we can to determine if refusal to give full particulars to the grand jury about the procuring of liquor licenses is grounds for asking the State Board of Equalization to revoke the licenses,’ Keller said.
“Brown said Keller is doing an able and courageous job in bringing liquor license matters before the grand jury. He said no other DA in California has taken this step, although some may be planning to do so.
“Brown has asked the Board of Equalization to revoke 29 licenses, including 11 in San Diego County, on grounds they were obtained under irregular circumstances. Brown said he can appeal to the Superior Court any requests the board might reject.”
Sheela and his investigators in the DA’s office, by May 19, 1954, were able to get their first big indictment.
The San Diego Union’s headline on May 20, 1954, read:
INDICTMENT ACCUSES FORMER COUNCILMAN OF SOLICITING BRIBES
“The San Diego County grand jury yesterday indicted Al W. Bennett, 56, former city councilman, who is now a liquor license broker, on charges of irregularities in liquor license transactions here. Bennett was arrested at his home last night and booked at the county jail. He was released later on $15,000 bail.
“Bennett was accused in the indictment returned by the grand jury yesterday of three counts of bribery, one count of grand theft, one count of conspiracy of bribery and two counts of attempted grand theft.
“He was councilman and at times vice mayor from 1929 to 1937. He has specialized in handling liquor license transfers in SD. He told a San Diego Union reporter he handles 80 percent of the traffic in this area. ‘This is very embarrassing,’ he said when taken into custody.”
“In that first case with Bennett,” said Sheela, “we had Millspaugh as a witness, so we had enough. Then it all started to come in and then it got hot and Governor Goodwin Knight allocated a lot of money for this investigation and of course the attorney general — Pat Brown — came into it too. The DA’s office back then was small, we had 8 to 12 deputy district attorneys and four investigators. The attorney general assigned us two more: Ray McCarthy and a guy named Martino. I had Eugene Allen in our office. Part of my job was channeling where people went to talk to people. I sent McCarthy and Martino out to talk to a guy named Ernie Gillenberg in Jacumba. I could tell when these guys came back from Jacumba that they had really found something big, something they weren’t telling me. I figured they were going to get it over to Pat Brown’s crew, so finally I separated McCarthy and Martino and I cracked them and they told me about Gillenberg and this cashier’s check he’d given Bompensiero. So that’s how we got Bompensiero and we put him in the conspiracy with Bennett and Berry. Our argument to the jury was that they let Bompensiero go in and do this collection from Gillenberg because that would give the licensees the idea that the connected people were here and that would lend some muscle in case they thought about talking. I don’t know if that would have happened. But that was the theory we argued to the jury.”
All through the summer of 1954, the liquor license scandal produced headlines. On June 3, 1954, the San Diego Union reported:
CHARLES E. BERRY, FACES 7 BRIBERY, CONSPIRACY COUNTS MORE PROSECUTIONS YET TO COME, DA SAYS AS JURY ACTS
“Berry appeared in Judge Howard Turrentine’s court with his attorney, Leonard Wilson. He sat quietly while 16 members of the grand jury handed the indictment to Turrentine.
“After the judge signed a bench warrant, Berry surrendered to Sheriff Strand who also was in court. He was taken to county jail for booking and fingerprinting and was released on $7,500 bail.”
On July 2, 1954, Charles E. Berry was suspended from his job as district liquor control administrator for the State Board of Equalization. The board met and voted four to one to suspend him for refusing on June 2 to testify before the grand jury. The board ruled this refusal was against public policy. Only Bonelli voted against Berry’s suspension, a suspension Bonelli later would claim was the result of “police state and fascist action.”
During the spring and summer of 1954, while the county grand jury continued to meet behind locked doors in the Civic Center building and investigators from various agencies continued to sift documents and interview potential witnesses in connection with the Bonelli and the liquor license bribes, Bompensiero found himself in difficulty. Cap Weinberger’s subcommittee hearings had led to State Attorney General Pat Brown’s office beginning investigation into liquor license fraud. That investigation uncovered the license that Bompensiero and Leo Patella had acquired in 1952 through their dealings with Arthur Warnock and John Griffin, then-owners of the Turkey Inn and the Valley Inn in Ramona.
On July 17, 1954, the San Diego Union headlined its front page with:
FRANK BOMPENSIERO NAMED IN BAR CASE
“William M. Bennett, deputy state attorney general, yesterday charged that Frank Bompensiero, San Diego bar and cafe operator, is actually the owner of an on-sale liquor license held in the names of Salvatore Bompensiero and Leo G. Patella.
“Bompensiero, who figured in the 1953 California crime commission report as having alleged connections with the notorious Mafia, and denied them, was called as a witness in Superior Court by Bennett in a move to establish Bompensiero’s connections with the license held in the name of his brother and brother-in-law. The case went to court when the Patella–Salvatore Bompensiero attorneys sought to block a license revocation hearing before Joseph Akers, Board of Equalization hearing officer. They alleged improper service of accusation notices.
“Frank Bompensiero was termed by Superior Court Judge Elmer Heald as a ‘very evasive and hostile witness. The place to question him is before the grand jury,’ Judge Heald said.
“Frank Bompensiero denied ownership of the liquor license and denied he bought supplies for The Spot, where the license is in operation.”
Early in August, 1954, a retired lawman with whom I spoke was sent to deliver a subpoena to Bompensiero to appear before the county grand jury. “I subpoenaed him out of his bar. I knew he was in there. One of the Matrangas was with him, and Sammy Siegel, a bookmaker. Bompensiero manifested surprise, but he didn’t lose control. He was perfectly polite, a gentleman. ‘Here, Frank,’ I said, and handed him the subpoena. He just shrugged his shoulders, took the subpoena, and thanked me and walked me to the door.”
On August 4, 1954, Bart Sheela questioned Bompensiero before the grand jury. “Bompensiero,” Sheela told me, “was hanging tough. He could have gotten a free ride if he’d have talked to us. All he was in that Gillenberg thing was a delivery man.” Questioned by reporters after his appearance, Bompensiero said only, “I don’t know what they could want me for.”
Six days later, the grand jury again called Bompensiero. Again, said Sheela, “Bompensiero hung tough. We didn’t have him in there even five minutes. He claimed the privilege and that was that.” Sheela sighed, added, “He was on the fringes of this and had he been willing to talk to us and said to us, ‘I passed this money on to Berry,’ he would have gotten a free ride. No doubt about that.”
Early in August, Attorney General Brown called for a “sweeping investigation.” Brown and Governor Knight issued a joint statement in which Knight promised $100,000 for hiring investigators, auditors, and accountants. Bart Sheela and his assistants continued to run one after another witness before the grand jury meeting in the Civic Center. In the Chamber of Commerce Auditorium, the state attorney general’s deputy William M. Bennett, at a Board of Equalization hearing, continued to hear charges that liquor licenses were issued fraudulently in San Diego County. Even then-mayor Jack Butler for a short time found himself accused of dabbling in liquor licenses. On August 17, Mayor Butler, at a city council meeting, denied the charges: “This is the first meeting of the council since the unsavory charges were made against me. I deny any direct or indirect interest in any liquor licenses. I ask that the public withhold judgment until all the evidence is in.” In the end, nothing came of the charges against Butler.
On Monday, August 16, SBE liquor administrator Charles E. Berry and liquor license broker Al W. Bennett were on trial in superior court in Judge John “Hanging John” Hewicker’s courtroom. Both Bompensiero and his brother Sam, during this same week, were being questioned in the Board of Equalization hearings. Bompensiero was charged with being the secret owner of the liquor license for the Spot. Bompensiero was represented by C.H. Augustine and Sam Bompensiero was represented by Frank Desimone. Leo Patella, with Sam Bompensiero, the other licensee for the Spot, was at sea on a fishing boat. The San Diego Union reported: “William M. Bennett, deputy state attorney general, said he had heard that Patella, who left here as a seaman on the tuna clipper Far Famed June 12 and is reported homeward bound, might be transferred to another vessel at sea to avoid appearance at the local hearing.”
On Wednesday, August 18, Ernest and Gladys Gillenberg were brought into Hewicker’s courtroom under guard. They claimed that their lives had been threatened. Bart Sheela presented the Gillenbergs as witnesses for the prosecution. The Jacumba cafe owner testified that he handed over $5000 to Bompensiero and $2500 payoff to Al Bennett, to obtain two licenses. Mr. and Mrs. Gillenberg testified that they paid Bompensiero with a Bank of America cashier’s check. The check was shown to Judge Hewicker and the jury.
A sheriff’s deputy walked into the Chamber of Commerce Auditorium and subpoenaed Bompensiero to appear in Judge Hewicker’s court. (The San Diego Union noted that Bompensiero wore “contrasting gray slacks and coat, and black and white shoes.”) The Board of Equalization hearing was recessed to permit Bompensiero to testify at the trial. Sheela questioned Bompensiero, who politely gave his name but refused to answer any of the questions put to him.
Sheela showed Bompensiero the check and asked, “Is that your name on this check?”
“I stand on my constitutional grounds and refuse to testify.”
Hewicker asked, “On grounds it might tend to incriminate you?”
“Yes,” said Bompensiero, “that’s right.”
Wednesday evening Bompensiero was served with another subpoena. This subpoena came from the county grand jury. The grand jury had indicted Bompensiero on charges of bribery and conspiracy to bribe in connection with liquor licenses.
Thursday, August 19, in Judge Hewicker’s courtroom, Bart Sheela led one after another tavern owner through testimony that showed a systematic attempt by Bennett and Berry to solicit bribes from applicants for liquor licenses. Bompensiero and C.H. Augustine, acting as Bompensiero’s attorney, appeared in Judge Howard Turrentine’s courtroom, in answer to the grand jury subpoena. Turrentine set bail at $15,000. Augustine asked for bail reduction and his request was denied. Bompensiero was booked, posted bail, and was released. Bompensiero was to appear again on September 1 to enter his plea.
By Thursday, August 26, Sheela had called 19 witnesses. Nine testified that in order to acquire liquor licenses they paid the defendants a total of $31,000. Five testified that the defendants had asked them for $11,000 in bribes which they, the defendants, were unable or unwilling to pay.
A witness whose story is typical was Ernest Esslinger, owner of the Roma Inn at 1753 India Street. Esslinger testified that he had unsuccessfully applied for a liquor license. He was then approached by Al Bennett, who suggested that $7000 was needed for a license. Esslinger gathered the money in cash, went into Bennett’s office, and dropped the money on Bennett’s desk. Several days later Esslinger applied for and received his license.
The jury deliberated for nine hours and delivered a unanimous verdict. They declared Bennett and Berry guilty of 17 counts of conspiracy and committing bribery in the issuance of liquor licenses. Bailiffs hustled the two men off to jail to await sentencing on September 1.
I am told that when Judge Hewicker on Wednesday, September 1, sentenced Berry and Bennett that spectators gasped. Hewicker was not known as Old Bloody John, and Hanging John for nothing. Hewicker, according to the account in the San Diego Union, “sentenced Berry and Bennett to serve one to 14 years for each of seven counts and directed that terms for five of the counts run concurrently, recommended that Berry and Bennett each serve at least 25 years, and ordered them to pay individual fines of $14,750.” Hewicker denied bail and ordered that the two men be delivered immediately to the state prison in Chino.
That same day the county grand jury returned indictments against six people, charging them with bribery, grand theft, attempted grand theft, and conspiracy to bribe. There were new indictments against Berry and Bennett and Bompensiero. Three other men were also named.
Meanwhile, Bonelli campaigned throughout his eight Southern California counties, seeking to retain his seat on the Board of Equalization. Although Bonelli, a newly minted Democrat, had managed to win the Democratic nomination in the June 8 primary, party regulars turned their backs on him. The League of Democratic Women announced that they did not even want his name on party literature. Other Democratic nominees caucused and voted to ask that their campaigns be detached from Bonelli’s. And now that Bonelli was no longer a Republican, he lost support not only of his old friends the Chandlers and their Los Angeles newspapers, but he also lost support of San Diego’s two Copley dailies. Bonelli added the Copley family to his list of people out to get him.
Bonelli lost his fight to hold his seat on the State Board of Equalization. He was defeated by Robert McDavid, an Altadena Republican. Bart Sheela recalled this period. “Three weeks before the election I wanted to put three subpoenas before the grand jury for Bonelli. Keller kiboshed this. He said, ‘It is too close to election time, it will look like we were playing politics.’ But he okayed it a week after the election, which Bonelli, after all this heat, of course lost.”
February 9, 1955, the San Diego County grand jury indicted Bonelli on three charges of conspiracy in connection with issuance of liquor licenses. “We sent out the subpoena,” said Sheela, “but Bonelli fled, to Arizona, where he had a ranch. We finally found him there and started extradition proceedings.”
On May 16, 1955, Bart Sheela and District Attorney Don Keller and a sheriff’s deputy flew to Phoenix for Bonelli’s extradition hearing. “The statehouse in Arizona,” said Sheela, “wasn’t any bigger then than our own county courthouse. Bonelli was on the stand, testifying before Governor McFarland. Bonelli was saying, ‘Look, these things may have happened, and if they did happen, they were all done by my underlings without knowledge on my part.’ He said, ‘Candidates have agreements not to publicize the sex life of their opponents or the supporters who supply them with campaign funds.’ ”
Bonelli talked for many minutes. He complained about his bad press. He told the story of his run-in with the Chandlers. He noted that as a State Board of Equalization member he had demanded that the Copley estate pay inheritance taxes. “I haven’t,” he said, “had a friendly press in San Diego County now for seven or eight years.”
Sheela said that Keller, while Bonelli talked, kept nudging him. “He wanted me to ask this question, ‘Why didn’t you come to Keller and tell him this, if that is your defense, Mr. Bonelli?’ I don’t like to ask questions unless I know what’s coming, but my boss is nudging me, so what else can I do? So finally I asked, ‘Why then didn’t you come to Mr. Keller and tell him this?’ Bonelli was a genius. Bonelli, said, ‘Well, I thought I did. I’d heard that the man closest to Mr. Keller in San Diego was C. Arnholt Smith and I did go to C. Arnholt Smith and ask him to talk to Keller and explain this and say I’d like to talk to Keller.’ I looked at Keller and thought, ‘What’s wrong with you, asking this question?’ Because it had happened that way.”
As the hearing went on, Sheela repeatedly objected that Bonelli’s statements were immaterial to the point at issue — Bonelli’s extradition. “We had a bail of $50,000 on the thing, and Bonelli thought that was outrageous, so I said, to Bonelli, ‘Why don’t you come back to San Diego and we’ll reduce the bond?’ Bonelli said, ‘I don’t appreciate an angel with an axe.’ ”
Governor McFarland, at the hearing’s end, refused to permit Bonelli’s extradition. “I could not live with my conscience if my judgment was swayed by arguments in the California newspapers,” said McFarland.
After Labor Day, 1954, C.H. Augustine, Bompensiero’s lawyer, began filing a series of pleas. Augustine sought to have Bompensiero detached from the other men named in the two sets of indictments. He also sought to have the number of charges reduced. As 1954 ended, though, it must have been apparent to Bompensiero that eventually he would go to trial for receiving the $5000 bribe from Gillenberg. When Judge Hewicker handed down the harsh sentences to Bennett and Berry, it also must have been apparent to Bompensiero that eventually he might do time.
Mary Ann and Dutch had separated. Mary Ann was living at home with her parents. “My father came home one night and he said to my mother, ‘Honey, we can leave. We can go to Mexico and we can live like kings and queens for the rest of our lives.’ ”