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The original wiretapper

The Pellicano case recalls Jim Vaus, eavesdropper to the stars in the '40s.

April 01, 2008|Will Vaus | Will Vaus is the author of "My Father Was a Gangster: The Jim Vaus Story."

The trial of private detective Anthony Pellicano, who is charged with 110 counts of racketeering, wiretapping, conspiracy and other federal charges, has been capturing headlines for quite some time. No wonder. Its connections to the mob, eavesdropping on Hollywood conversations and the revolving door of movie industry personalities make for a good read. However, for me and my family, it is deja vu.

Why? Because my father, "Big Jim" Vaus, was the original Hollywood wiretapper. He launched the practice of listening in on the stars in the 1940s and gained the same sort of notoriety then that surrounds Pellicano now. He was written up in the L.A. papers, and his story has been featured in Time, Life, Reader's Digest and in a 1955 movie, "Wiretapper."

The main difference between my father's work and Pellicano's alleged deeds is the computer technology used today. And, because of an unusual turn of events in my dad's life, he was never prosecuted for wiretapping.

Jim Vaus was known as being very proficient in his clandestine communications work. In fact, one of his clients, organized crime boss Mickey Cohen, called him one day in 1974 during the Watergate scandal to tell him: "The only mistake the White House made about Watergate is they didn't get you to do the tapping. They got a bunch of amateurs, boys to do a man's job. They should have got you to do the work. The country wouldn't have gotten into this mess."

My father first got involved in wiretapping innocently enough. At first he only used his electronic expertise to "bug" a conversation between his sister and her boyfriend on a date, and to record a conversation in the girls' dormitory at his college.

But eventually Dad found himself using his phone-tapping skills working for the Los Angeles Police Department, helping to bust Hollywood madam Brenda Allen.

From there it was on to work with private detective Barney Ruditsky. My father assisted Ruditsky in his work with high-profile clients such as Mickey Rooney, who was then seeking a divorce from one of his many wives. Dad got the dirt on Rooney's wife, who was fooling around with another man. Having this information on tape enabled Rooney to obtain a divorce without having to split his assets equally with his ex-wife. My father struck gold with the Rooney case, which led to work for other famous Hollywood names of the day. He also performed wiretapping services for notable politicians and business people.

These activities led to Dad being approached by mob boss Cohen in the late '40s. Cohen summoned my father into his plush haberdashery office on the Sunset Strip to ask him if he had planted a microphone in his home.

"No, Mr. Cohen, I don't even know where you live," replied Dad.

"Well," said Cohen, "if there was a microphone hidden in my house, could you come and find it and remove it?"

"Mr. Cohen, you misunderstand. I'm in the business of installing hidden microphones; I don't ever remove them."

Cohen reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of hundred dollar bills and began to peel them off one by one. "Does this change your mind?" Cohen queried.

My father quickly replied, "I think my business is about to expand!"

And expand it did. For a while, my father worked for the Police Department and Cohen at the same time, but eventually he gave up working for the LAPD. Cohen paid more, and it was all in cash, so no need to report it to the Internal Revenue Service. His work for Cohen consisted of protection and electronic surveillance during the battle of the Sunset Strip, as rival mob bosses duked it out for control of the L.A. crime scene following the murder of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.

Through Cohen, my father met other leaders of organized crime from across the country. One day, he was approached by a man known as "St. Louis Andy." Andy wanted my father to design an electronic system for holding back horse racing results coming over the Continental Wire Service. My father accepted the job and put together a system of Teletype equipment and other electronic components so they could withhold race results for about 90 seconds, during which time they would flash the winners to co-workers, who would place illegal off-track bets in other parts of the country. For example, Andy and my father tried out the system in Arizona and withheld all the race results coming into Southern California. They cleaned up.

Dad was supposed to go to St. Louis on Nov. 10, 1949, to set up a system to control illegal off-track betting in the Western half of the United States. However, my father never made that meeting, because on Nov. 6, he happened to attend a revival tent meeting at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles, where a young preacher named Billy Graham was speaking.

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