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A few small victories

While underworld killings like the Two Tonys murders remain unsolved, the Gangster Squad savors Mickey Cohen's conviction for tax evasion and sets a trap for him.

October 28, 2008|Paul Lieberman

After the Two Tonys were shot dead and left slumped in their car in Hollywood, the LAPD prepared an internal report titled "GANGLAND KILLINGS, Los Angeles Area, 1900-1951."

The survey went back to when fruit peddlers fought over turf and the Black Hand shook them down for a cut of the action. Police were certain who committed the first gangland killing, in 1906, but "strong man" Joe Ardizzone was acquitted when "no witnesses . . . would talk." Ardizzone later made the list in a different capacity -- as a victim -- when he vanished in 1931 after leaving his Sunland vineyard to meet a cousin from Italy. No one was convicted in that case, either.

Even as the causes of underworld squabbles evolved over the decades -- from fruit carts to Prohibition liquor sales to control of illegal gambling -- there was one constant: how easy it was to get away with murder.

The "GANGLAND KILLINGS" report listed 57 over the first half of the 20th century. And one conviction. One. For the 1937 rub-out of Redondo Beach "gambling czar" Les Bruneman. And that case eventually unraveled.

What that left was half a century of gangland killings whose case summaries ended with "No prosecution" or the more optimistic "No prosecution to date." Time and again, there was no overcoming the underworld's code of silence, "omerta."

So it was with the Aug. 6, 1951, slaughter of the Two Tonys, a pair of losers from Kansas City who had raised the ire of the mob hierarchy by robbing the cash room at Las Vegas' Flamingo Hotel. "Wild-haired young bloods," Mickey Cohen called them.

Anthony Brancato and Anthony Trombino had been spotted meeting in L.A. with another Kansas City import, Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno. Hours later, Trombino was about to light a cigar in the front seat of his Oldsmobile, with Brancato beside him, when someone in the back blew their brains out, just off Hollywood Boulevard.

Jimmy the Weasel had an alibi, of course -- he'd spent the evening in Burbank, at a fish fry at the Five O'Clock Club owned by Nicola "Nick" Licata. After Licata and 12 others dutifully backed Fratianno's story, the cops tried to get a clerk at Schwab's drugstore to say that a stogie found at the murder scene was a brand that Jimmy the Weasel favored, but she said no, that was too cheap. He was a 70-cent-cigar man.

Thus did the double killing become another "No prosecution to date."

What you had to do, in Jack O'Mara's job, was settle for whatever small victories you could manufacture.

That's why the Gangster Squad sergeant volunteered to bring in Licata after the Two Tonys hit.

O'Mara didn't expect a miracle -- there was no way a mob higher-up would turn on a loyal triggerman. But he gave a polite nod to Licata's wife, allowed the man time to get his things and arranged for Licata's son to visit him in the police lockup.

You had to wait for your opening, and for O'Mara it came the next time he showed up at the Licata home, part of yet another roust for a crime that would never be solved. By then, he was like family, the kindly cop, and Licata felt comfortable asking a favor: "Look, Mr. O'Mara, my wife she's a-fixin' me a nice chicken dinner. Before I go downtown. . . ."

" 'Hey Nick,' I say, 'Go ahead and eat. I'm in no hurry. Do you mind if I use your phone?' "

The phone had a long cord so Licata could carry it into his private office. O'Mara carted it instead to the kitchen. Then he began to rummage, "looking," he said, "for anything I could steal."

That's how he stumbled upon paperwork from a wedding. The couple were Licata's son and the daughter of Black Bill Tocco, a Detroit Mafia boss who had a mansion with an 80-foot pool and knew how to stage a gala mob marriage. Many of the RSVPs had come back to the Licata home on Overland Drive.

"I got the phone and I'm watching him from the kitchen and I'm pulling out drawers, you know, taking the wedding invitations, and I shove them in my trench coat, you know. I'm bulging with all these RSVPs . . . all the goddamn Mafia in the country, see."

You could call it petty theft -- O'Mara wouldn't argue. But other law enforcement agencies had to settle for camping outside that Detroit wedding with cameras and binoculars, trying to figure out who was emerging from the limos. In L.A., the Gangster Squad didn't have to rely on fuzzy photos to add names to files that now filled a wall of cabinets in City Hall.

Small victories, that was their reality. Like when Mickey Cohen finally went on trial in 1951.

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