YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Death of 'the Enforcer'

Jack Whalen follows the advice of his friend on the police force and calls on Mickey Cohen and his associates at a Ventura Boulevard restaurant . . . unarmed.

October 31, 2008|Paul Lieberman

SIXTH OF SEVEN PARTS — Jack Whalen's beef was not directly with Mickey Cohen but with a couple of his crew, and it revolved around familiar issues in their realm: Who was scamming whom? And who would back down first?

The dispute had its roots in Nov. 21, 1959, vice raids on the homes of five phone clerks who took bets for Al Levitt, a Woodland Hills bookie. With Levitt's records gone -- the cops had them -- a pair of bettors began clamoring for $390 they said they were due.

One of them was Sam Lo Cigno, who described himself as an unemployed bartender and asphalt salesman but managed to drive a new Cadillac. "I don't believe anyone can win on horses," Lo Cigno said, "but I was lucky."

He had grown up in Cleveland while Mickey was there, and after Mickey moved west to serve as muscle for Bugsy Siegel, Lo Cigno came too. But with only one jail term on his sheet, five days for speeding, he seemed little more than "a flunky and errand boy for Mickey," as a probation officer put it.

Now, the errand boy and his friend George Piscitelle were fixing to heist $390 from the just-raided Levitt until the bookie realized, no -- they'd lost their bets. On Dec. 2, he told them, "I am through with this. I am having J.O. call you," and they understood exactly: J.O. meant Jack O'Hara, a.k.a. Jack "the Enforcer" Whalen.

In minutes, Piscitelle said, the phone rang in his apartment and it was the "head-buster," declaring, "You Dago bastards" had better come up with what was owed.

Lo Cigno and his pals were getting ready for a night out, starting with supper at Rondelli's on Ventura Boulevard. The pint-sized lounge singer Tony Reno was coming, and so was talent manager Joe DeCarlo, who handled Mickey's two favorite strippers, Candy Barr and Beverly Hills.

Lo Cigno liked Rondelli's because they served him pasta without the spicy sauce that inflamed his nervous stomach.

He wore one of his perfectly tailored suits, with a side pocket just the right size for his .38. "It hung in there real nice," he said.


Tough as he was, Whalen wasn't about to confront them alone. He'd called his pal on the Gangster Squad, but Sgt. Jerry Wooters had been busted to night duty at the police jail.

So Whalen had his frequent helpmate Rocky Lombardi meet him at a seafood joint on the Strip. "He wanted me to watch his back," Lombardi said. Then they met a second backup, "Big Joe" Herrera, and headed to Sherman Oaks, those two in one car, the Enforcer in his own.

The backups got to Rondelli's shortly before 11:30 p.m. and took positions at opposite ends of its dimly lighted bar. Customers filled all the stools and a row of cocktail tables.

Rocky barely had time to order a drink before Whalen burst through the swinging doors of the kitchen. He'd come in the back from an alley. Now he strode toward the phone booth. "I knew that he wasn't there for pleasure," said a woman at the bar.

You couldn't see the dining area from the bar. They were separated by a planter filled with fake greenery rising nearly to the ceiling -- the sort of stuff that had been a staple of the nursery Mickey Cohen opened when he got out of prison.


Mickey had arrived between 8:30 and 9 p.m. in his new, black Caddy, accompanied by his bulldog, Mickey Jr. The dog had his own checkered bib so he could eat in style off a plate at his master's feet.

At a hearing a month before on Rondelli's application for a license to offer live entertainment, Mickey had taken the 5th when asked if he was a hidden owner. This night, he came early to meet with a black singing group seeking his help and with Roger Leonard, who fancied himself a writer-producer. Leonard was at Mickey's table to talk about making "The Mickey Cohen Story."

Sam Lo Cigno took the seat on Mickey's left and Piscitelle took a seat on the other side, where he could see anyone entering the dining room. Last to arrive was Mickey's date, Sandy Hagen, a model, full name Claretta Hashagen. She ordered the veal scallopini.

Mickey was constantly getting up, going to the office to make calls or the men's room to wash his hands. Lo Cigno flitted about too, schmoozing with two women at the bar. He wanted Jo Wyatt and Ona Rae Rogers to join them later at the Cloisters, on the Strip, where Mickey had reserved a table to see comedian Joey Bishop.

The tiny crooner, Tony Reno, kept getting up also, to go to the pay phone, to find his manager, he said. That's who he was trying to reach, he insisted, when an enormous hand lifted him out of the phone booth. He said Jack Whalen told him, "Show me where those bastards are.' "

Whalen prodded Reno into the dining area, but let him go when he saw who was there. Reno hurried back to the bar, where he couldn't see what happened. He only heard the shots. After that, he looked across at Rocky Lombardi, the big man's backup, and gave a hands-up gesture, like "What can you do?"


Los Angeles Times Articles