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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Russian-Born Soldier of Fortune Thrived in West

Emilio Kosterlitzky captured and released Geronimo, chased Pancho Villa and later went after rumrunners for the FBI during Prohibition.

December 18, 2005|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

On Aug. 12, 1913, Kosterlitzky and a train-load of Mexican prisoners rolled into San Diego. They were transported to Ft. Rosecrans, now a housing development and national cemetery, where they lived in tents for nearly a year.

Kosterlitzky was still on parole, living with his family near the fort, but responsible for his countrymen's conduct. But Mexico refused to pay for their upkeep. Southern California newspapers' headlines read: "Paid Vacations Courtesy of Uncle Sam."

Homesick and tired of bad press, 65 prisoners escaped. Kosterlitzky took it as a personal affront. He mounted up with American troops to hunt them down and persuaded most to return to Ft. Rosecrans. Others turned themselves in.

On Oct. 2, 1914, the prisoners were repatriated after Mexican immigration agents assured Kosterlitzky that "no further threats hung over the heads of his men," Smith wrote. Kosterlitzky decided to stay in the United States, because he had been on the wrong side of the revolution. But he never gave up his Mexican citizenship.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 01, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 322 words Type of Material: Correction
Emilio Kosterlitzky -- The L.A. Then & Now column in the Dec. 18 California section, which was about Emilio Kosterlitzky, a Russian imperial sailor who enlisted in Mexico's army and later spied for the U.S. while living in Los Angeles, did not credit some of the sources used. In addition to those cited -- Times articles published during Kosterlitzky's lifetime and a 1970 biography by Cornelius C. Smith Jr. -- sources included an article by Samuel Truett, assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico, from the 2005 fall/winter issue of Huntington Frontiers magazine, a publication of the Huntington Library. The Times column said that during Kosterlitzky's last days at Ft. Rosecrans in San Diego, an FBI agent offered him a job in Los Angeles. Truett's article provided the specifics of that job offer, including the name of the federal agent who hired Kosterlitzky in 1914 to spy on refugees in the U.S. The column called him an FBI agent, but in 1914 the agency was known as the Bureau of Investigation. The column also said that when Kosterlitzky and his soldiers in Mexico surrendered to U.S. troops to seek American sanctuary from rebels, "according to international law, the neutral U.S. had to hold them as prisoners of war until they could be repatriated." That information should have been credited to Truett. The column said some called Kosterlitzky "a man without a nation in search of a good fight," language that also should have been credited to Truett. Other sources used in the column were Times articles published after Kosterlitzky's death, a dispatch from the El Paso Times and the 1935 book "Los Angeles, City of Dreams," by former Times columnist Harry Carr. In addition, the column reported that Kosterlitzky captured Geronimo but released him because he thought the Indian was an honorable adversary. Kosterlitzky told at least one other version of the Geronimo story; the truth is in doubt.

During Kosterlitzky's last days at Ft. Rosecrans, an FBI agent offered him a job in Los Angeles: To mingle with Mexicans and flush out any revolutionary activities against the U.S. He moved with his family to L.A., where he continued working for the FBI, as an undercover agent and a translator.

By now, Kosterlitzky was well into his 60s. His clandestine service included wearing sunglasses and casual clothes and sunning himself on benches at Pershing Square, where he engaged strangers in talk about the war in Europe. He "occasionally turned up a dyed-in-the-wool German sympathizer," Smith wrote.

Even before the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Los Angeles was a hotbed for German agents working to enlist Mexican aid in the war against the United States.

As the war unfolded, the nation's anti-German sentiment prompted many Germans to change their names to find and keep work. Kosterlitzky distributed "Beware of Spy" cards, asking citizens to watch their neighbors and report suspicious activities. Angelenos reported smuggling, tunnel-digging and even a supposed Morse code message on a clothesline using socks and underwear. Kosterlitzky followed up on all leads, most of which came to naught.

In 1922, Kosterlitzky was assigned to a so-called Prohibition team that hunted down bootleggers, rumrunners and gunrunners. His last official act for the U.S. government was investigating gunrunning from the Imperial Valley into Mexico, in a supposed plot to take over Baja California. On Aug. 15, 1926, Kosterlitzky and three other federal agents arrested eight Mexicans and one American. He retired the next month.

Kosterlitzky, who had married three times and fathered 10 children, died in 1928, at 74. On his deathbed, he supposedly told the offspring who had come:

" ... I can leave you nothing except the most wonderful fortune in the world: your mother, a jewel beyond price, and a name you can be proud to bear."

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