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Los Angeles | L.A. THEN AND NOW

Onetime 'Liquor Czar' Ended Life a Fugitive

'Big Bill' Bonelli was a powerful deal-maker in pre-WWII California, but wound up fleeing the law into Mexico.

March 03, 2002|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A radio minister called him one of the "criminals who spoil paradise." Before World War II, he was a powerful presence in L.A.'s smoke-filled rooms, where political deals were made. His fall from the pinnacle to disgrace was as dramatic as his climb, and today his name--William George Bonelli--has virtually disappeared from the history books.

Bonelli rose from the Los Angeles City Council to head the far-reaching state Board of Equalization. He was accused of using the job to collect protection money and sell liquor licenses to suspected mobsters and ex-cons, or of swapping the licenses for political favors.

During the early 1950s, when government hearings enthralled television audiences, Bonelli was grilled on nationwide TV about his reputed connections with organized crime.

He died a fugitive in Mexico, where he had fled to avoid another of his many indictments.

Bonelli built the first tract homes in the Santa Clarita Valley and turned a piece of land in Saugus from a rodeo arena into an auto raceway. But his notoriety surpassed those accomplishments; he was the central figure, the "Liquor Czar," in scandals that reached all the way to Sacramento.

Born on his family's ranch in Kingman, Ariz., Bonelli came to Los Angeles about 1912. He graduated from USC, then pursued a master's degree at Occidental College and a law degree from Southwestern University. In 1927, as a professor of political science at Occidental, he was elected to the City Council.

Early on, rumors of Bonelli links to organized crime began to surface. In his popular radio broadcasts, the Rev. "Fighting Bob" Shuler spoke out against Bonelli. In 1931, when his broadcasting license was revoked, Shuler used his pulpit to help drive elected officials such as Bonelli from office.

Bonelli vaulted onto the ballot to run for mayor against John Clinton Porter in 1929. He lost. But in 1931, Bonelli won a seat in the state Assembly and, three years later, he worked on acting Gov. Frank Merriam's election campaign.

Reportedly as payback for helping Merriam raise $10 million to wage a highly charged smear campaign to defeat socialist Upton Sinclair, Bonelli got a $6,000-a-year job as director of what is now the state Department of Consumer Affairs. In that capacity, he regulated contractors and construction companies, all the while working as an attorney and director of a construction company that he and his friends owned.

Through the company, Bonelli acquired loans to buy up failed ranches in the Santa Clarita Valley and elsewhere, eventually becoming a prominent landowner. He developed the area's first tract, a set of 300 houses still known as "Bonelli homes."

In 1939, the year after Merriam appointed Bonelli chairman of the Board of Equalization, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Buron Fitts indicted Bonelli and five others on charges of bribery and payoffs involving skid row saloons and "B-girls"--women who enticed men to buy drinks. Fitts accused them all of owning stock in Hillview Oil Co., an alleged front for a multimillion-dollar Los Angeles gambling syndicate.

Bonelli retorted that he didn't know whether he owned a share of stock in Hillview, but that he had put about $5,000 into the company and had never gotten anything in return.

Huffing and bluffing before the trial, he publicly banned corrupt B-girls but did nothing to revoke the licenses of those violating the ban.

For 16 sensation-packed weeks, prosecutors accused Bonelli of running an army of men, including legislators and law officers, who contributed regularly to his election campaign.

One of Bonelli's foes testified that the payoff scheme helped finance Bonelli's campaign fund. Several scheduled witnesses received death threats and either refused to testify or were placed under armed guard. One, a saloonkeeper, had his liquor license revoked, presumably on Bonelli's orders.

On May 27, 1940, Judge William J. Palmer concluded that the prosecution had failed to link four of the defendants, Bonelli among them, in the purported graft plot. He issued a directed verdict of not guilty.

Bonelli donned his white Stetson for his getaway before confidently calling the charges a "$10-million political hoax by the district attorney, which cost the taxpayers approximately $300,000."

Bonelli kept landing on his feet. Two years later, he was reelected to the Board of Equalization.

From his office in the Black Building at 4th and Hill streets, he continued to hand out liquor licenses for the state fee of $525--reportedly in exchange for much pricier campaign contributions and other payoffs. These licenses were routinely resold for up to $12,000.

When reporters challenged him, Bonelli retorted, "Sure, there are hoods and criminals in this business, but not any more than there are in the newspaper business."

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