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L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

Rampart Site Was Noir Landmark

September 26, 1999|Cecilia Rasmussen

This being Los Angeles, it probably is only a matter of time until somebody introduces the notion of "geographic karma." When they do, Exhibit A might be the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division station, which happens to sit on exactly the same spot as the Roost Cafe, once one of the city's most notorious gangland hangouts.

In fact, the mob-style murder of gambling czar George "Les" Bruneman occurred there 62 years ago, turning the Temple Street site into something of a local landmark.

In the 1920s, before L.A.'s legendary gangsters Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and Mickey Cohen hit town, gambling chieftains Jack Dragna, "the Al Capone of L.A.," and Mafioso Johnny Rosselli engaged in a sometimes bloody rivalry with crime overlord Charlie Crawford, "the Wolf of Spring Street," for control of the lucrative local bootlegging trade. Meanwhile, Bruneman--one of Dragna and Rosselli's allies--was busily pilfering results from their newly installed West Coast racing wire service, which posted gambling odds and results of horse races and other sporting events.

By 1937, Dragna, who controlled the gambling, and Rosselli, who managed the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the working backbone of the film industry, joined Siegel--not by choice, but on orders from Eastern mob bosses. Siegel was sent out from New York (where he and Dragna had been colleagues in Murder Inc.) to take over Los Angeles' crime organization.

At a big closed-door meeting, when Siegel announced to syndicate members that he henceforth would be taking a cut of all the city's gambling proceeds, the former hit man Bruneman was the only career criminal to walk out.

Soon afterward, Bruneman was shot and wounded. When he recovered, he was ambushed at the Roost Cafe and, this time, the killers' eight shots did the job.

That gangland assassination contributed to the corrupt atmosphere then enveloping the City of Angels, which already was nationally notorious for its 600 brothels, 200 gambling dens and 1,800 bookie joints.

Bruneman's name and picture first hit the newspapers in December 1930, when he was implicated in the kidnapping of a low-key bookie named Ezekiel "Zeke" Caress, along with his wife and chauffeur.

Although Caress was the syndicate's top accountant, who neither drank, smoked nor chased women, no one thought he was worth the $100,000 demanded by the mobsters. That is, no one except Caress himself. Indignant and low on cash, Caress negotiated a deal, cutting the ransom to $50,000. He then wrote four separate checks and called his good friend Bruneman, who he knew could get the checks cashed at the Rose Isle gambling ship moored off Long Beach.

But Bruneman never made it that far. He was sitting with Caress' abductors in a car, waiting for a water taxi, when two Long Beach police officers walked up and began questioning them. When the cops asked Bruneman and his companions to get out of the car, all hell broke loose. One of the reckless men inside the vehicle fired his pistol. One bullet struck Officer W.H. Waggoner in the back, crippling him for life. Still, the wounded cop helped his partner hold the mobsters off until help arrived.

Later, Bruneman skipped town while out on bail, but the five kidnappers were tried and convicted. Returning in 1934, he called famed defense attorney Jerry "Get Me" Giesler, who lost the first trial but won a new trial on the grounds that the two alternate jurors (a new concept in California) deliberated along with the original sitting jurors, negating the age-old right to trial by 12. Bruneman was acquitted in a second trial.

By 1937, Bruneman had muscled his way back into the gambling scene, making enemies as he opened more bookmaking rackets, and refused to give a percentage of his take to the L.A. mob.

But when Dragna heard that Bruneman had threatened Rosselli's life, he put out a contract on him.

Fearless, Bruneman strolled arm-in-arm along Redondo's moonlit beach with a female employee from his nearby Surf Club. Just as they glimpsed two men approaching, shots rang out. One bullet hit the fleeing Bruneman in the back. The hit men ran, and Bruneman staggered to a nearby theater to await an ambulance.

Bruneman was rushed to Queen of Angels Hospital, where he recovered under the watchful eyes of a bodyguard and a beautiful blond 24-year-old personal nurse named Alice Ingram.

Three months later, the same bodyguard sold him out by informing the L.A. mob of his boss' whereabouts.

On Oct. 24, 1937, Bruneman and nurse Ingram dined at the Montmartre cafe in Hollywood, where Bruneman--who had a penchant for high-stakes gambling--was making plans to open another bookmaking club downstairs. After dinner, they headed east to the less pretentious Roost Cafe for more drinks.

Walking into the roadside cafe, Bruneman threw a $20 bill on the bar, saying, "Money's made to be spent. Everything is on me."

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