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Solid tip saves the crew

Facing a columnist's criticism and police chief's disapproval, the squad stays intact after an informant comes through with dirt on Mickey Cohen and a certain journalist's husband.

October 27, 2008|Paul Lieberman
  • L.A. mobster Mickey Cohen tells officers in July 1949 of the shooting outside Sherry?s cafe on Sunset Boulevard that left him with a wound to the shoulder and columnist Florabel Muir with a gunshot to her hindquarter.
L.A. mobster Mickey Cohen tells officers in July 1949 of the shooting outside… (R. L. Oliver / Los Angeles…)

Florabel Muir had the nerve to ask, "What does a Gangster Squad do?"

She was the epitome of the hard-boiled newspaper dame: born in a Wyoming mining town, a veteran of New York's tabloid battles and now, in 1949, author of a Los Angeles Mirror column that served up Hollywood news while mocking the LAPD as "cops a la Keystone."

To the cops, she was nothing more than a mouthpiece for the boxer-turned-hoodlum who zoomed about town in a caravan of Cadillacs while fighting for control of L.A.'s rackets.

Florabel wrote of the secretive police Gangster Squad: "Looks like they devote part of their time to trailing Mickey Cohen around . . . but they don't seem to be stopping Mickey from doing whatever it is he is doing."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 30, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Gangster Squad: In Monday's California section, the second installment of a series about the Los Angeles Police Department's Gangster Squad gave the address of Sherry's cafe as 9039 N. Sunset Blvd. The address is on West Sunset Boulevard.

What Mickey mostly was doing, though, was dodging bullets.

The Sunset Wars had begun when a man in a Panama hat fired a shotgun into Mickey's clothing store on the Sunset Strip, killing one of his cadre of henchmen dubbed the "Seven Dwarfs." Some suspected that Mickey had set up his own man because he ducked into the bathroom before the shooting -- not everyone understood that the gang boss suffered from an uncontrollable urge to wash his hands.

It became clear that Mickey himself was a target in July 1949, when he was shot in the shoulder outside Sherry's cafe at 9039 N. Sunset Blvd. The blasts killed another in his crew and sent two women to the hospital: a bit actress described in The Times as "Miss Dee David, a blond," and Florabel, who took a pellet in her hindquarter. Florabel said she'd been hanging around Mickey to get a story, "waiting for someone to try to kill him."

She got the cops boiling again by passing on to readers a theory "a lot of people have" -- that the ambush wasn't the work of Mickey's rival, Jack Dragna, but that the LAPD was somehow behind it.

Yet another of Mickey's Dwarfs disappeared Labor Day weekend after he was supposed to dine with Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno. One more vanished a month later.

By fall 1949, Mickey could claim a scalp of his own, that of Police Chief C.B. Horrall.

This episode began when vice officers arrested another of Mickey's men for illegal possession of a weapon. Enraged, Mickey arrived at his underling's trial with his personal bugging expert, 300-pound J. Arthur Vaus, and announced that they were going to blow the lid off the LAPD.

It seems that a vice detective working out of Hollywood had hired Vaus to eavesdrop on the Strip's leading madam, hoping to document her unholy relationship with a rival vice cop from downtown. But the madam insisted that she was paying off both cops, and Mickey's rotund bugger said he had the damning evidence on magnetic wire. They brought a recorder to court and plopped it on a table, daring anyone to call their bluff.

A grand jury did. It had the wire recordings seized and discovered they'd been erased. In one of the more bizarre chapters of a bizarre time, Vaus attended a Billy Graham crusade, found the Lord and confessed his sin -- he'd lied about the tapes.

The problem was, the grand jurors by then were convinced that LAPD officials had to be covering up something and indicted the chief and several others for perjury. Though Horrall was exonerated, he'd had enough of such intrigue and retired to his farm in the San Fernando Valley.

That left Mickey to gloat that he'd taken down the city's top cop -- and left the Gangster Squad without its founder and protector.

When the LAPD got its permanent new chief on Aug. 2, 1950 -- the one who would revolutionize police work in the U.S. -- he wanted to know what those characters were doing in his office. William H. Parker was a lawyer and distinguished soldier, having helped plan the detention of captured Germans after the Normandy invasion. As a cop, he was the great exponent of Internal Affairs, of policing your own tougher than you policed the city. No more vice cops helping themselves to a local madam. And perhaps no more Gangster Squad.

By then, the squad had advanced from meeting on street corners to a small office in the decrepit Central station to digs at the seat of power, in City Hall, right next to the chief's suite. Sgt. Jack O'Mara was smoking his pipe, perusing the Teletype, when the new chief stopped by. A few others were typing reports about who had been seen having drinks with various hoods the night before. "Parker came into our office, 'What the hell do we need "Intelligence" for?' you know. And his adjutant told us, 'He's going to derail you guys.' "

Parker put his aide, Capt. James Hamilton, in charge of the squad and prepared transfer orders for O'Mara and the others, pegging several for traffic duty.

The prospect was crushing to O'Mara, who'd done the dirty work of the Gangster Squad. He'd taken out-of-town hoods up to Mulholland Drive for a talking-to and a gun in the ear. He'd helped plant bugs in Mickey's shoe closet and TV. Now they were going to have him writing tickets for double parking.

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