I don’t know how in the first months of 1955 Frank Bompensiero managed to get himself out of bed to face the day. I don’t know how he slept at night. Frank and Thelma and their daughter Mary Ann and her son Frankie, in late 1954 moved from Estelle Street into temporary quarters on College Avenue and then early in 1955 into their new house on Braeburn Road in Kensington. So he had the worry of moving into the Braeburn Road house, onto which a builder was putting an addition. Then there was the Algiers, Bompensiero’s restaurant. Yale Kahn had built the building, on College Avenue, next to the Campus Drive-In, with its big neon sign that depicted an Indian-headdress-wearing majorette twirling a baton. Kahn put the restaurant in for Bompensiero. The specialty was Sicilian steak. The restaurant wasn’t doing well. “People don’t want good food,” Bompensiero told Thelma and Mary Ann. “They’d as soon eat hamburger.”
Worst, though, was the fallout from the liquor license inquiries. Bompensiero may well have thought how peculiar it was, how odd, that for someone who didn’t drink much, that the only big trouble he’d been in was trouble over liquor. Bompensiero and his younger brother Sam and his nephew Leo Patella, since 1954, had been fighting the State Board of Equalization; the fight was over the liquor license for the Spot. Bompensiero was charged with being secret owner of the Spot’s liquor license. Then, too, he was in difficulties over the Pirate’s Cave, his bar at 402 West Broadway. He was accused by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Department (in 1955, authority over liquor licenses was transferred from the State Board of Equalization to the new state Alcoholic Beverage Control Department) of “running a public barroom in violation of the State Constitution.”
If you had, as Bompensiero did, an on-sale general liquor license, you were required to serve food. The abc investigator charged that while the Pirate’s Cave had seats for 43 patrons, he found only 4 knives, 6 forks, 3 teaspoons, 1 soup spoon, 1 plate, 1 platter, 2 salad dishes, 14 cups, 11 saucers, and 3 mugs for serving food. Plus, the investigator said that while the kitchen was of proper size, it was dirty. Also, the investigator testified that from the food on hand, a cook could prepare only one of the eight offerings on Bompensiero’s menu.
Worst of the worst, the source, surely, of Bompensiero’s greatest woe and worry, was the indictment brought against him in late summer 1954, by a San Diego County grand jury. He was charged with bribery and conspiracy to bribe in connection with liquor licenses. The annual state fee for an on-sale liquor license was $525. However, under a barely clandestine system organized by State Board of Equalization member William “Big Bill” Bonelli, a license could cost as much as $15,000. What the extra-legal dollars bought was influence. The money, paid under the table, went to Bonelli and his middlemen. The latter were a rapscallion bunch: SBE employees, so-called business opportunity and liquor license brokers, and assorted bagmen. As one retired lawman said, “It was straight-out mordida. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, up to that time the people 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.” When the DA’s office completed its investigation into liquor license improprieties, they would discover that bar owners handed over at least $119,000 in bribes for 25 liquor licenses in the county between 1950 and 1954.
The indictment accused Bompensiero of receiving a $5000 bribe from Jacumba cafe owner Ernest Gillenberg on behalf of State Board of Equalization district liquor control administrator Charles E. Berry and of conspiring to ask for and receive a bribe on Berry’s behalf. A half-dozen other men, State Board of Equalization employees and liquor license brokers, faced with similar charges, already had been tried, convicted, and harshly sentenced. These men’s cases were heard in Judge John “Hanging John” Hewicker’s courtroom, the same courtroom toward which Bompensiero’s case was headed. Unbeknownst to Bompensiero, Hewicker had read with zealous interest Ed Reid’s 1952 The Mafia. Hewicker had been particularly attentive to the chapter entitled “Phi Beta Mafia” wherein Reid listed 83 men as Mafia members. Number 26 was Frank Bompensiero. Hewicker, someone told me, “was smacking his lips at the thought of getting himself the real McCoy. He finally had himself a big criminal, so he planned to really lower the boom on him.”
Through 1954 and early 1955, day after day, Bompensiero saw his name blazoned across San Diego newspapers. Reporters recapitulated the old stories — his year in McNeil Island federal prison for violation of Prohibition-era liquor laws, the accusations that he’d killed Phil Galuzo, his association with Los Angeles Mafia godfather Jack Dragna. Day after day he talked with lawyers — the dyspeptic Tums-chewing Frank Desimone in Los Angeles and C.H. Augustine in San Diego. Week after week, as Bompensiero’s businesses foundered, as he lost the Algiers and fell behind on payments to liquor suppliers, he paid lawyers. Paid them thousands of dollars.
Desimone tried every trick. He pled with the Fourth Appellate Court to quash the indictment. Arguing that the indictment, formally returned on September 1, 1954, referred to an act that took place on April 3, 1951, he asked the State Supreme Court to consider that a three-year statute of limitations nulled the indictment. Jack Levitt, the San Diego County district attorney’s office’s best “book lawyer,” argued before the state court that the statute of limitations did not apply since Bompensiero’s action was part of a continuing conspiracy. Desimone countered that insufficient evidence existed to show Bompensiero was a part of that conspiracy. Desimone further argued that Judge Hewicker was prejudiced against Bompensiero and that if his client’s case did come to trial, Hewicker should be disqualified from hearing it. (Bart Sheela, a deputy district attorney in the San Diego County district attorney’s office from 1951 to 1955, said recently when I asked him why Desimone wanted Hewicker disqualified: “Anybody that was defending anybody and had any sense at all would try to get Hewicker disqualified. He was a one-way judge.”) Desimone managed to get a continuance from January 10 to March 14 to allow time for the State Supreme Court to make its decision.