Mickey Cohen, left, flanked by attorney Norman Sugarman, visits Sam LoCigno… (Los Angeles Times file photograph )
When the coroner put Jack Whalen's body on a slab, it measured 72 inches, just 6 feet. For years, people had described him as 6-foot-2 or 6-4. But "the Enforcer" was smaller in death than life.
On the death certificate, his family gave his occupation as "actor" and listed as his employer a production company that had cast him in four episodes of a TV western, "The Restless Gun." They were bit parts, but no one could laugh any longer at Whalen's claim that what he really wanted was to make it in Hollywood -- he'd died with a SAG card in his wallet thanks to producer David Dortort, who had just launched a new series, the first ever in color, called "Bonanza."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, November 05, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Gangster Squad: An article Saturday in Section A, the final installment of the series "Tales From the Gangster Squad," identified the prosecutor in a 1950s gangland murder case as Manley J. Bower. His last name was Bowler.
The last days of the 1950s were filled with conjecture about how the 38-year-old Whalen had come crashing down in Rondelli's, with a bullet between the eyes, next to the table where Mickey Cohen dined with his crew and his bulldog, Mickey Jr.
The state attorney general's office said an anonymous caller had suggested that Whalen was ready to blow the lid off the LAPD -- to identify cops who had taken "juice" to protect his operations.
But the dead man's father did not blame the police. Fred Whalen had been a pool hustler, rumrunner and master con man. Fred was no fool. He said, "Mickey Cohen as good as pulled the trigger, and everybody knows it."
Mickey said he heard that "Freddie the Thief" was out to kill him. "He has my invitation to come out and see me," Mickey retorted, "any time."
The Los Angeles Mirror-News lamented that the city had been transported back to when Mickey was the cocky boss of the Strip. He'd come out of prison playing the harmless ex-hood swooning over the floozies and selling plants, but here he was tweaking the cops again while "murder walks in his wake." Suddenly 1959 felt like 1949 all over.
At least the wheels of justice turned quickly. They were set for trial in three months, and a bizarre trial it was, given that Sam Lo Cigno was the only one charged. Authorities considered him a "flunky and errand boy" for Mickey and were far from convinced he pulled the trigger. But he had confessed, and the only diner who admitted seeing anything at Rondelli's was a horse bettor, Hollywood Al, who'd had 20 drinks.
That left Mickey's table mates to describe a menacing Jack Whalen going "Dago-this" and "Dago-that" and all but begging for a bullet, though all insisted they never saw a gun. And though Lo Cigno said he did it, he couldn't recall what became of his .38. "It's one of those foggy things," he said.
Mickey was the star witness, naturally, as prosecutors kept disbelieving his limited memory and he came back at them as the indignant innocent, "an associate author" who drove himself to Rondelli's because "the dog couldn't drive."
If the defense had its whoppers, the government had its innuendo, as when prosecutors asked witness after witness whether Mickey had called out, at the critical moment, "Now, Sam, now!"
That fit their view of the night as a setup by a lynch mob of "human sewage" to eliminate the bothersome Enforcer. But when the judge pressed for the basis of the "Now, Sam, now!," prosecutors revealed they'd been told that by a prostitute, who'd heard it from an off-duty maitre d'.
"You know it is false," Mickey said. "Listen, am I on trial here?"
Sure he was, especially when confronted with the guns found in a trash can outside Rondelli's.
Those were People's Exhibits 18, 19 and 20, and prosecutors kept them on a table for the jury to see. Asked by Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Busch to examine an ivory-handled .38, Mickey said, "I wouldn't put my hands on it for a million dollars. Are you kidding?"
But when he swore, "I haven't had no guns," he set the stage for rebuttal testimony that, in a normal courtroom drama, would have provided a vintage Hollywood ending.
Waiting in the wings was Sgt. Jack O'Mara, poised to let the world in on the crowning achievement of his career on the Gangster Squad, how he planted a mole inside Mickey's home at the peak of the dapper gangster's power.
On the witness stand O'Mara told how Neal Hawkins, the security guard who secretly was his informant, took seven pistols from Mickey's home in June 1950 and brought them to a police range where "I marked them inside the butt plate." O'Mara told how the guns were returned to Mickey's home and he'd not seen any of them again until after Whalen's shooting.
"Ten years?" he was asked.
The Hollywood ending would have tweaked a detail about the guns in the trash outside Rondelli's, making one the actual murder weapon. But that had not been found, having apparently been ditched in the Hollywood Hills. Still, O'Mara could prove that Mickey and his crew were liars -- heavily armed liars -- if any of the guns in the trash came from Mickey's cache.
He got a screwdriver to show that two of them did.
He screwed the plate off Exhibit 18, an ivory-handled .38. Underneath was a "K."
He screwed the plate off Exhibit 19. "CX" was under it.