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Los Angeles | L.A. THEN AND NOW

Officers in Elite Team Did Things Their Way

August 08, 2004|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

They were as tough as they looked.

Dets. Ellis Bowers, Richard J. Lucas and Charles D. Hoy worked out of the Los Angeles Police Department's robbery and vice divisions in the late 1920s. Along with Capt. J. Frank Williams, they were immortalized in a 1927 newspaper photo showing them with a machine gun, a shotgun and a large-caliber revolver that they had used in a car-theft case. Lucas even kept his own private arsenal, including a shotgun that had belonged to Pancho Villa.

The elite team chased mostly bank robbers and car thieves, although Lucas also became known for extracting a confession from a man who had kidnapped, murdered and dismembered a child. They filled hundreds of jail and prison cells with criminals.

In those days, police didn't need to worry about video cameras capturing the way they treated suspects. They usually didn't need to worry about critical newspaper coverage, either; by and large, the press and populace took an officer's word for the way something went down.

Take the events of April 21, 1927 -- which led to that newspaper photograph. Bowers, Lucas and Hoy were determined to collar Harry "Mile Away" Thomas, who owed his nickname to the fact that whenever he was arrested -- at least nine times -- he would say he was a "mile away" at the time the crime occurred.

The detectives had been tipped that Thomas might hit a West 35th Street garage that was filled with bootleg liquor and a shiny automobile. They staked it out three nights running.

On the third night, they heard someone climb over the 6-foot-high wooden fence, remove the garage padlock with bolt cutters and swing open the double doors. When an intruder cast a flashlight inside, Lucas shouted, "Stick 'em up!"

Thomas "made for his gun and shot twice," all three officers told the coroner's jury. "That's when we let him have it."

Riddled with machine-gun bullets, buckshot and revolver slugs, Thomas staggered to the front of the adjacent house and into the arms of a uniformed patrolman who had happened by.

The patrolman testified at a coroner's hearing that Thomas "made no complaint of how he was handled, asking only that he be hurried to the hospital."

Lucas testified that he told Thomas in the ambulance, "You are dying."

"Everybody has to fall sometime," Thomas supposedly replied. Then he died.

The coroner's jury deliberated just 20 minutes before declaring that the officers' conduct was justified.

"Thomas was bent on crime, was ordered to stop by officers of the law, responded by shooting at them, and so compelled the officers also to resort to gunplay," The Times reported.

Case closed. Years later, however, a police lieutenant would testify that the trio had planned to kill Thomas because they were sure he had killed a stockbroker but they couldn't prove it. The lieutenant was no angel; at the time, he was charged with trying to kill a former colleague with a car bomb.

Wild and Woolly

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles wasn't what you'd call a squeaky-clean city. Bribes and vice were common. There were 1,800 bookmakers, 600 whorehouses and 200 gambling dens here, according to a member of a 1937 grand jury, and the crooks who ran them often paid off police and politicians.

A wave of civic reform in 1927 put Lucas in an advantageous position. In July of that year, Police Chief James Edgar "Two-Gun" Davis reorganized the department in response to accusations that his war on crime was "inefficient and neglectful." Lucas was promoted to head the LAPD's elite Intelligence Squad, which oversaw gambling and vice enforcement.

By August, Lucas was working directly for the chief and reputedly was close to gangster Albert Marco.

Marco wanted to discredit City Councilman Carl I. Jacobson, who was on a tear against gambling and prostitution. First, according to court testimony, he offered Jacobson $25,000 to focus on parks and recreation.

When that failed, Marco called Lucas who, according to testimony, set up what's known in the spy world as a "honey trap."

A beautiful divorcee in Jacobson's district was hired to lure him to her home to discuss her property taxes. Lucas, two reporters and three other detectives, including Harry Raymond, waited in the shadows.

One thing apparently led to another, and the woman signaled the cops to move in. They found Jacobson unconscious, clad only in his red underwear, a bottle of whiskey nearby. The newspapermen snapped pictures.

Jacobson was encouraged to sign a confession rather than face charges for lewd conduct. He refused. At trial, he testified that the woman must have pulled down his pants after she hit him over the head. The jury deadlocked amid allegations of jury tampering, and the charges were dropped.

But two years later, the woman's monthly stipend stopped, according to testimony, and she switched sides.

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