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The Squad the Bad Guys Feared : Hat-Wearing Foursome Was Legendary at LAPD

March 29, 1987|JACK HAWN

Word went through the underworld that they were tough. No question about it. They were intimidating just by their appearance. The hat was their trademark.

--Lt. Dan Cooke, Los Angeles Police Department

It was slightly past noon, a typical working day almost three decades ago.

A nondescript sedan pulled alongside a curb and parked on Hope Street in downtown Los Angeles.

Four young, impeccably dressed men--in dark, tailor-made, single-breasted suits, wide-brimmed hats, and polished shoes--piled out and approached a hot dog stand. All were well over six feet tall and collectively they weighed more than half a ton.

Momentarily, a Brinks armored truck appeared and rolled to a stop in front of a nearby business. The guards got out and went inside. As they emerged minutes later with a sack of money, they observed the four men at the hot dog stand, looking toward the truck.

Instinctively, the guards spun around and quickly retreated, disappearing inside.

"Well," one of the four said, "it'll probably be about three minutes. . . ."

As he had predicted, police cars--sirens wailing--soon converged on the scene. The officers confronted the suspicious foursome--all munching hot dogs and enjoying a good laugh.

It was not the first time this group had been mistaken for criminals--purely because of their size and dress.

They were, in fact, detectives.

Working out of the robbery division of the Los Angeles Police Department through the 1950s and early '60s, the four became a legend.

They were labeled the Hat Squad--an elite team that quickly gained a national reputation among law enforcement agencies as well as in the underworld.

"They were the most impressive group I ever knew in my 25 years with the department," said Joe Deiro, a retired LAPD detective. "They were tough with criminals but very compassionate people, respected in the underworld."

The squad was led by Max Herman Sr. The others were Clarence A. (Red) Stromwall, Harold N. Crowder and Edward F. Benson.

"We were always together," recalled Crowder, now a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge who supervises the Hollywood branch. "If one guy went to the john, all four of us went to the john. And we always had our hats on."

Stromwall, now a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, chuckled. "We played it to the hilt," he said, "and chasing bandits in those days was fun."

An old, scarred police baton with a leather strap hangs on a wall over the bar of his La Canada Flintridge home, along with plaques, citations and a cherished photo of his father, Albert C. Stromwall, in a police uniform.

"He joined the police department in 1924 and retired in 1948," Clarence Stromwall said. "I came on in 1946."

Smoking a Honduran cigar slightly smaller than the baton he once carried while walking a beat, Stromwall, 62, was visiting one recent afternoon with his ex-partner Crowder, 61.

The judges drank coffee and talked for two hours about when they roamed the city as members of the Hat Squad, the last five or six years of which they were badge-carrying lawyers.

Their words were frequently punctuated by bursts of laughter as they recalled a few of the "thousands of cases" they worked on--a mood that contrasted drastically with that of the previous day.

That was the day--Jan. 30--Max Herman was buried.

The team's leader was eulogized by attorneys Roy Loftin and Morgan Rodney, a former detective.

'Strong, Tough, Gentle'

"Max defended his clients with . . . a ferocity that was absolutely frightening," Loftin told the overflowing congregation of more than 200.

Rodney praised Herman as "the strongest of the strong, the toughest of the tough, the gentlest of the gentle--always a giver, rarely a taker. He will be missed."

Later, he said that Herman had defended about 30 men accused of homicide. "I don't believe anyone he represented was ever convicted of the original (more serious) charge."

Benson, the fourth member, died of natural causes in 1970. He had played football for Fordham University and later earned $100 or so a game as a professional with the New York Giants. He had also boxed professionally. During World War II, he was a paratrooper, making jumps in Italy and France.

Much in Common

Benson joined the police department in the late 1940s and soon found much in common with the men who became his partners--particularly Stromwall, who also had a fling as a professional boxer.

"I had 13 fights, won three, drew one and lost nine," the judge said, laughing. "I was not the Great White Hope."

Like Benson, the others also saw plenty of action during the war--Herman and Stromwall with the Marines, Crowder with the Air Corps.

Later, during the Korean War, all four went on active duty with the 40th Infantry Division and served in the same battalion. Herman, Crowder and Stromwall were company commanders; Benson was a first sergeant. Stromwall remained in the reserve and retired as a full colonel.

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