The mob-style rub-out of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel 50 years ago today at the Beverly Hills mansion of his street-wise, auburn-haired mistress has endured as one of Los Angeles' most romanticized murder mysteries.
The case was sensational: a fusillade of shots through the window of a mansion once owned by George Jessel, a voluptuous mystery woman who spent money like water and was conveniently out of town, and a dapper, larger-than-life gangland figure who prowled posh nightspots and ran with Hollywood's fast crowd.
As an entire mythology grew up around the Hollywood-handsome gangster with the explosive temper and expensive tastes, three main theories were advanced to explain why the 41-year-old Siegel met his end:
The Bug, as he was known (but never to his face) was whacked by East Coast mob cronies who suspected him of skimming from the $6-million Flamingo Hotel casino in Las Vegas. Or, he was bumped off in a mob war over control of California's sports betting wire service. Or, he was taken out because he was the odd man in a love triangle involving gal pal Virginia Hill and a top Chicago mobster.
"We spent many man-hours investigating the Siegel case and were convinced that he was killed by his own associates," wrote Clinton H. Anderson, longtime police chief of Beverly Hills, in his autobiography. "But there was never sufficient evidence to pinpoint the identity of the assassin."
On the 50th anniversary of Siegel's murder, the case file rests on the desk of Det. Les Zoeller. Although there was never a shortage of people with a motive to kill Siegel, over the years the list of actual suspects always has been on the thin side.
Which is what makes the latest chapter of the saga--call it Bugsy and the Cat Man--so intriguing. It began 10 years ago with the deathbed confession of a self-described retired mobster, who told a Herald Examiner reporter and two federal agents that he killed Siegel.
The tale spun by Eddie Cannizzaro, who lived with his elderly mother and three dozen cats in Agoura Hills, can neither be verified nor disputed. Anybody who knows anything is either dead or isn't talking, Zoeller said.
The detective's investigation did verify that Eddie Cannizzaro was indeed "connected." He had worked as a gofer for gambling chieftain Jack Dragna, once described in a state crime commission report as "the Al Capone of California."
Dragna and Siegel had been colleagues in New York for Murder Inc., as the team of underworld "torpedoes," or hit men, was known. Later, they became rivals for control of California's lucrative racing wire service, which posted gambling odds and results of horse races and other sporting events.
During the late 1930s, mob chieftains Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky dispatched Siegel to Los Angeles to oversee their West Coast operations, and he was immediately star-struck. His boyhood pal, actor George Raft, offered entry to Hollywood's circle of glitterati.
In 1941, Siegel's social life was temporarily derailed when he was jailed while awaiting trial for the murder of Hollywood mobster Harry "Big Greenie" Greenberg, who had squealed about mob business to the FBI. Siegel's treatment in captivity created a scandal. Because prison food didn't agree with him, Siegel was allowed his own chef. He had unlimited phone privileges, and constant female companionship in his cell. He was allowed out 19 times under the pretext of seeing the dentist. In fact, he was going to lunch with an aspiring actress.
Just a few weeks after Siegel's incarceration began, the key witness against him abruptly died under mysterious circumstances. He never stood trial for killing Greenberg.
Zoeller inherited the Siegel slaying when he was assigned to look into Beverly Hills' unsolved murders. Cannizzaro's claim was the only new development in a long-stalled investigation.
"It's the only information I've gotten," said Zoeller, who has built cases that resulted in murder convictions against some of Beverly Hills' most notorious modern-day killers--the Menendez brothers and members of the infamous Billionaire Boys Club.
"I've run up the flagpole and slid down again," Zoeller said. "I couldn't get any more information to confirm what he's saying, or to disprove it."
These are the facts of Siegel's murder:
At 10:45 p.m. on June 20, 1947, four slugs fired from a .30-caliber military rifle slammed into Siegel's head and body. He and three others had just returned from a trout dinner at a popular Ocean Park restaurant, Jack's at the Beach. Killed instantly by the blasts, which destroyed one eye and most of his nose, Siegel slumped on the chintz sofa in the living room of Hill's Moorish-style mansion at 810 Linden Drive, the early edition of the next morning's newspaper in his lap.
He had $108 on him. His gun was upstairs. The drapes had been left open. It smacked of a setup.