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L.A. Then and Now

Footpaths beneath L.A. echo history

The little-known tunnels have been used for transferring criminals and, once, a billion dollars.

March 09, 2008|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Nearly 70 years before the Red Line subway began whisking passengers under the Civic Center, Los Angeles was already a city with tunnel vision.

Beneath the busy streets of the City of the Angels is a complex network of pedestrian tunnels that stretch several blocks from Spring and Temple streets to 1st Street and Grand Avenue.

One of the tunnels existed in the early 20th century, connecting a long-gone county jail to a demolished red-sandstone county courthouse.

The surviving passageways run under a clutch of government buildings -- the Hall of Justice, the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, the Hall of Records and the Stanley Mosk Courthouse.

In their time, the tunnels have been used for the secret transportation of mobsters, murderers and more than a billion dollars in cash.

They have been designated as fallout shelters and homeless shelters -- for bombing that never happened and for the homeless who were invited in for a few nights during the rains of 1987.

The tunnels have served as a backdrop for movies, including "Ali," "JFK," and "Legally Blonde 2," and as the final resting place for files in the county archives.

Government employees sometimes jog through the lighted tunnels during lunchtime, and officials move documents and equipment through the tunnels on golf carts.

The tunnels also afford government employees the luxury of strolling from building to building below the hubbub of the streets.

While Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen was on trial for tax evasion in 1951, he was hustled from the cells in the Hall of Justice through a tunnel under Spring Street to the federal courthouse. Jimmy Lee Smith and Gregory Powell, who were ultimately convicted of the notorious "Onion Field" killing of a Los Angeles policeman, a crime documented in a bestselling book and a movie, were also ferried through the tunnel. For pretrial motions in the 1960s, they were shackled and escorted from the Hall of Justice to the old Hall of Records one street away.

"These tunnels are one of our city's hidden treasures, but you can't see them by car, you've got to get out and walk," said Evelyn Tapia, 71, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's receptionist.

Tapia, who recently walked the L.A. Marathon route in 8 hours, 7 minutes and 47 seconds, runs and walks the tunnels when it rains.

Inquiring tunnel walkers must first find the subterranean files at the county archives. The address is 222 N. Hill St., but the facility is underneath the county Hall of Records.

One entrance is hidden behind the Hall of Records -- an elevator set off by itself, near the sidewalk. Take it down to the bottom floor. Bring a sense of direction and a sense of adventure.

Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, worked out of the Hall of Justice as a reporter for City News Service in 1965. When it rains, she too takes the "tunnel route."

The lighted tunnels are about 12 feet wide and 10 feet high, big enough for a small bulldozer to drive through.

In 1987, Gibbons remembers, county officials unlocked the tunnel's restrooms and gave shelter to hundreds of homeless for a few nights during pummeling rains. Since then, some homeless people occasionally have found shelter there on their own.

Some say roaches and rats come out at night.

The tunnels have also been used to avoid prying eyes. On Oct. 2, 1960, police and sheriff's deputies staged "Operation Midnight" through the tunnels, according to Times archives.

The county had just moved into the present-day Hall of Administration, and there was a problem. It was right after tax time, and in those days many Angelenos paid their property taxes in cash.

The payments were sitting at the old Hall of Records, about two blocks away -- and $1 billion in cash and negotiable securities had to be moved safely from the treasurer's old offices to the new.

That Sunday morning, between midnight and 7:30 a.m., the big bundle was moved underground in pushcarts. Howard Byram, who was then the county treasurer and tax collector, and Sheriff Peter Pitchess "had worked three months on top-secret planning," The Times said.

Officers with submachine guns, shotguns and gas grenades guarded the loot while others pushed the carts.

As a sheriff's helicopter hovered, officers on walkie-talkies and bullhorns, above ground and below, kept close tabs on 16 underground checkpoints.

"The billion dollars moved as specified [by] a 42-page procedural manual prepared for this operation, the vault doors finally clanged shut in the new building after an uneventful transfer," The Times reported.

In the early 1970s, murderer Charles Manson's female followers held a daily vigil outside the Hall of Justice during his trial.

They shaved their heads and carved Xs into their foreheads. "When the [criminal courts] building was under construction, the workers sat up on the girders and told the girls about the tunnels," Gibbons said. "The girls thought it would be a swell way to get Charlie out of town."

Luckily, she said, their plan never came to pass.

The Edward Roybal Federal Building is still linked via tunnel to the Metropolitan Detention Center, where federal prisoners are housed.

But the federal courthouse on Spring Street and the county criminal courts building on Temple shut the tunnel doors to the Hall of Justice after that venerable building closed in 1994 because of earthquake damage.

They haven't reopened them, Gibbons said, and they won't -- for one reason:

"Tighter security after 9/11."

--

cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com

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