Jack Catain is a 56-year-old San Fernando Valley businessman whose name has a peculiar effect on some people.
They whisper when they say it.
"Jack is organized, " whispered H. Daniel Whitman, a West Hollywood restaurateur. "Jack is very heavy."
Whitman's description, secretly recorded by federal law enforcement officers three years ago, jibes with the views of many of the officers themselves.
They have long speculated in and out of court that Jack M. Catain Jr. is a major organized crime figure, with links to the highest levels of Mafia "families" in Chicago and Philadelphia.
They say they suspect that he has been involved in a variety of criminal enterprises--money laundering, extortion, trading in stolen securities and counterfeiting.
But they have been unable to parlay their suspicions that he is an important mob businessman into any convictions.
Catain's first trial ever, for counterfeiting, is scheduled next week.
Over the last 10 years, he has been the focus of much police effort. "There could be literally dozens of police agencies interested in Mr. Catain," said Edwin Gale, a Justice Department lawyer who heads the Organized Crime Strike Force in Los Angeles. Gale made the comment in court last month in fending off a request by Catain's lawyer for all government surveillance photos.
But Catain said he has "never done anything illegal." He explained the extraordinary law enforcement interest in somewhat circular fashion. "They know I've never done anything wrong because they constantly surveil me," he said. "Since they cannot prove I have done anything wrong, they want me out of the way to save face."
Catain's reputation as a powerful mobster emerged as a factor recently in the court case against Dominic Frontiere, songwriter-husband of Los Angeles Rams owner Georgia Frontiere.
Dominic Frontiere is awaiting sentencing Dec. 8 in federal court in Los Angeles for filing a false income tax return and lying to Internal Revenue Service agents to cover up his role in scalping Rams tickets to the 1980 Super Bowl game.
He claims that he lied about his profits from the ticket sales in part because a friend of Catain--who was either acting at the behest of Catain or purporting to--extorted most of the profits from him.
Frontiere told this story to the Justice Department in 1985 before he was charged. He admitted through his attorney in a document later filed in court that he scalped the tickets through Raymond Cohen, an old friend of Catain.
Frontiere said he met Cohen through his friend Whitman, the restaurateur, and gave this account:
After Cohen sold the tickets and gave Frontiere his share of the proceeds, $100,000 in a paper bag, Cohen called him and told him Catain wanted to see him. Frontiere balked. Then Whitman called and told Frontiere he had no choice: Catain was the head of the Mafia in Los Angeles.
They met at Cohen's business in Woodland Hills. Catain said he had done Frontiere a favor and wanted to be paid. The favor was a visit to a dissident Rams executive and a warning to him to be more docile. Frontiere was scared. He had not asked Catain to visit the executive, who had been causing "problems" for Frontiere's then-fiancee, Georgia Rosenbloom. But he was afraid of challenging Catain. He told Catain he paid his debts. Catain told him that Cohen would let him know how much he owed. Cohen did.
Government prosecutors did not believe Frontiere and immunized Catain to force him to testify before the grand jury that indicted the composer.
Denies Any Role
Catain, in an interview, denied any role in the scalping. He said he may have met Frontiere once but was not even sure of that. It was at a restaurant where Cohen introduced him to a man Cohen said was Frontiere, he recalled. Catain said he had nothing to do with any tickets. "I didn't even go to any games." He also said he had nothing to do with any extortion.
He added: "I am not a member of organized crime or the Mafia . . . and I do not believe that any of my friends and associates are members of organized crime."
As for Whitman reportedly telling Frontiere that Catain was the head of the Mafia in Los Angeles, Catain had a possible explanation:
"When the papers constantly pound away and keep referring to me as a 'major organized crime figure,' people have a tendency to believe what they read--especially junk like that," he said. "Therefore, it's my opinion Dan Whitman, whom I met and have been in his company maybe three or four times, started believing that."
Convicted of Plot
Whitman was later convicted of plotting unsuccessfully to murder Cohen, after Cohen became a government informant.
Catain does not appear threatening. Short and heavyset, he has artificial hips and a bad heart. He dresses casually and walks with a cane.