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L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

Mall Is Legacy of '20s Crime, Corruption

October 03, 1999|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

Along Hollywood's famed Sunset Boulevard is one of the city's eccentric architectural gems: a development that, in classic Los Angeles style, has a past both colorful and murky.

Cross Roads of the World, one of the nation's first shopping malls, is shaped like a cruise ship and topped by a spinning globe. It was built in 1936 by the widow of vice kingpin Charlie Crawford (a model for some of Raymond Chandler's juicier villains), on the very site linked with the alleged gang warfare in which Crawford died.

Crawford, nicknamed "the Gray Wolf of Spring Street" and "Good Time" Charlie, was a "reformed sinner" who gained notoriety after dropping his $3,500 diamond ring on the collection plate and then lavishing a $25,000 donation on the minister at St. Paul's Presbyterian Church. The church used the gift to erect the Amelia Crawford Parish House in honor of Charlie's mother.

Although physically imposing, Crawford had an effeminate voice and an Adam's apple that bobbed uncontrollably. His notorious viciousness and cunning helped take public corruption to a new level in Los Angeles city government in the 1920s.

Crawford's loosely organized crime syndicate, known as the City Hall Gang, gained an important ally when George Cryer defeated Meredith "Pinky" Snyder for mayor in 1921.

With Cryer in office, real power passed to another Crawford chum, former USC football star and law school graduate Kent Kane Parrot. He was known as the "de facto mayor" and virtually ran the Harbor Commission and the Los Angeles Police Department, going so far as to transfer personnel without bothering to consult the police chief.

Although money from Crawford's vice operations greased Parrot's political wheels, they were rarely seen in public together. Parrot preferred to entertain Crawford and other favor seekers at his Biltmore Hotel apartment.

Before Prohibition, Crawford made a bundle in dance halls and saloons in Seattle during the Klondike gold rush. When a probe of his activities led to the conviction of a city official and the recall of Seattle's mayor, Crawford fled to L.A. and opened the Maple Bar, an upscale watering hole at 5th Street and Maple Avenue on the outskirts of downtown. The lavish bar and casino--with a bordello upstairs--attracted local politicians, judges, public officials and those with ties to Parrot, who confided their secrets to Crawford.

As he dazzled customers with his flamboyant wardrobe, flashy diamonds and listening skills, Crawford soon had more and more people saying: "See Charlie about it."

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Admirers praised his political savvy as he forged an alliance with other vice lords: Joe and Bob Gans, former wholesale tobacco merchants, ran the slot machines; Zeke Caress oversaw the bookmaking and betting operation; Guy "String Bean" McAfee, a former railroad fireman and LAPD officer, supervised the casinos and gambling section of the syndicate. McAfee was discharged from the LAPD in 1917 for running a crap game in the police assembly room, then reinstated and assigned to the vice squad. Before a big raid, other officers often noticed McAfee whistling into the phone and, when the cops got there, the evidence had mysteriously disappeared.

Crawford soon brought in a former Seattle crony named Marco Albori, a.k.a. Albert Marco, to oversee prostitution at his 65 local bordellos. Albori, a barrel-chested bully with a macho sneer, was known for his tight pinstriped suits and taste for fast living. He once lost $260,000 at a Bunker Hill rooming house while playing cards with the legendary Nick "the Greek" Dandolos. Later, during a drunken brawl at the Ships Cafe on the Venice Pier, he shot and seriously wounded another patron. Albori was convicted of assault and attempted murder before being deported to Sicily.

By mid-1930, Crawford's empire had begun to crumble. He'd had too many close brushes with the law, such as being accused of conspiracy to frame a councilman on a morals charge and indicted on bribery charges in connection with the Julian Petroleum stock swindle. Meanwhile, Cryer and Parrot lost control of the city.

Crawford fled to Europe. In his absence, control of the syndicate passed to McAfee--or most likely his wife, who long had been rumored to be the real power behind her husband's seedy throne.

When Crawford returned, he managed to have all charges against him dropped. He toned down his flashy wardrobe and opened an insurance and real estate office on Sunset Boulevard. After bankrolling a scandal sheet called Critic of Critics with political gadfly and former newspaperman Herbert Spencer at its helm, Crawford also took to the airwaves by financing the Rev. Gustav Briegleb's radio show, which the onetime vice lord used to attack McAfee and his other former cronies.

On May 20, 1931, former deputy district attorney and judicial candidate David Clark--who prosecuted Albori--walked into Crawford's Hollywood office and fired two shots, killing Spencer and Crawford.

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