“Behind every great fortune, there is a crime!” - Charles “Lucky” Luciano
Life was good on the West Coast for the Los Angeles Cosa Nostra. They had gotten rid of all the independent bookmakers and Mickey Cohen was doing time courtesy of the IRS. The Dragnas had infiltrated the garment center downtown and were now making big money. They had used their muscle and Union Connections with help from labor racketeer Johnny Dio to open up their own factory. The key to big money lay in the Unions. They controlled the needle trade, the trucking, the pressing and pattern makers. The New York Families would control almost every aspect of production in the garment center. It would cost consumers twenty five out of every hundred dollars spent on clothes. Here in LA, the Garment Center was smaller but they would still reap huge rewards from it. Johnny Roselli had been sent to Los Angeles from the Outfit in Chicago to oversee their extortion of the Movie industry, but that had ended with a short stay in a Federal Penitentiary. Johnny was out now and overseeing their gambling and the race wire. He would still advise and help the LA Family as a senior member of Cosa Nostra. Nick Licata, under Jack Dragna at the time, would take action off La Brea close to the studios. He still had his Five O’Clock club in Burbank where he ran his money clean. The Dippolito’s owned many acres of land and a winery in the Inland Empire. The life blood of Organized Crime is gambling and by extension loan sharking or Shylocking. The gambling leads to people who need cash and they will loan it to you at a price or the Vig or Vigorish. The Vig is the interest rate, usually 1 or 2 points a week. Sometimes they make what is called a knockdown loan where you pay in installments that include the principle. You pay the Vig every week until you have the whole sum at one time. So a guy could borrow five thousand dollars, pay one hundred a week for a year, and still owe the five thousand. Jimmy Frattiano had over one hundred and fifty thousand on the street at this time in Shylock loans.
Then things took a turn for the worse. Jimmy Frattiano was a Capo and one of the top killers in the Family when he was arrested for extortion. Jimmy had made an investment with some guys in oil and when they hit oil they decided not to pay Jimmy his share. This is common when mafia men do business with civilians, they feel like like they can take the bad guys money and run to the law. Once a civilian steals money from the mafia, the rule is now they are no longer civilians and they can be hurt. Jimmy had made a call to one of the wayward oilmen and threatened him over the phone. The LAPD had wired up the phone and this would cost him many years in State prison. The San Diego Capo Frank Bompensiro was caught up in a bribery case and given some years in State Prison. On top of that, Jack Dragna, the Boss of the Family had been picked up on immigration charges and was locked up for a year. While he was locked up his wife died. He was freed but moved to San Diego. On February 10th he drove to LA and took a room at the Saharan Hotel on Sunset Blvd. He was dealing with family business all over the city. On February 23, 1956 Jack Dragna died of a heart attack. Death of the boss is not such a big problem in the larger families of Cosa Nostra because they have a strong leadership with many strong Capo's. This is not true for Los Angeles, and it would be the start of a long slide down hill. Johnny Roselli should have been elected boss of the family after Jack Dragna passed. Jack Dragna's brother, the Consigliere and other powers in the Family wanted him to take over. Instead, the white collar faction of the family took over. They claimed they had a vote, and Frank DeSimone was elected boss instead of Roselli. Frank appointed Simon Scozzari, also known as Sam, to the underboss position. Frank also “broke” or demoted Capo’s including Jimmy Frattiano. Frank had gone to some of the guys who were locked up and asked them who should be boss. They all wanted Rosselli, but Frank still took over. This happened because workers like Frattiano and Frank Bomp were away at the time, and the rest of the family were followers. Frank and his guys were weak and this would doom the family.
The National Spotlight.
Things would explode for the Cosa Nostra in Appalachian, New York on November 14, 1957. On that day a state trooper named Edgar D. Croswell noticed a large number of well dressed men descending on the small upstate New York Town of Appalachian. He and some other troopers started taking down the plates of the cars parked at the estate of Joesph "Joe The Barber" Barbara. The men at the estate started get to take off in a panic, some running into the woods and others trying to flee in their cars. The cars were stopped and the men arrested. This was when the police could just haul you into the station on anything. They also picked up many of the guys running away in the woods. They arrested over 60 made men. They estimate that 40 or so managed to get away. This State Trooper had stumbled on a commission meeting with the heads of families from all over the US, Canada and even some from Italy. This was a meeting to anoint a new boss to take over for the recently shot but still alive Frank Costello. This was to be a big day for Vito Genovesse who was set to take over the family. They also needed to discuss policy issues for the whole Cosa Nostra. What it would become was a huge fiasco that would cause the FBI to finally take action. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, was so embarrassed that Appalachian made a mockery of his statement "there is no such thing as the mafia" in America. He quickly set up a new program called the “Top Hoodlum Program,” to go after the top gangsters across the country in their cities. This was bad for the Cosa Nostra and it was worse for the LA Family.
Back in Los Angeles.
Frank DeSimone, a lawyer and the new boss of the family, was arrested along with Sam Scozzari the underboss. This was very bad for Sam who had for many years had a popular Italian Resturant in Los Angeles.The Feds would make a case that he was a habitual criminal and deport him back to his native Palermo. Frank had become very paranoid after the whole fiasco and would rarely go out after dark. As a result, he appointed Nick Licata as his underboss because Nick had strong connections with the Detroit Family. Johnny Roselli had seen enough so he packed up and moved to Las Vegas where he became the Chicago Outfits man in Las Vegas. He would make sure the skim and other operations ran smooth. He was also given a couple of gift shops in Casino’s. The leadership duo in Los Angeles was weak and they were afraid of guys who were strong and do work. The family became weak at a time when they needed force. The LA Family would only kill one guy who was running from a family back East. Even then, it was set up by a guy from a Family back east. The hit was James Delmont and they dumped him in Ontario. He sometimes went by Sam Bruno, but he was not the same Sam Bruno who served time in San Quentin, owned a bar in Los Angeles and attempted to kill Mickey Cohen.
Demise of Jack Whalen.
There was another headline gangland killing in LA, taking place shortly after, in 1959. This killing was not done by the LA Family or by Mickey Cohen himself. Jack "The Enforcer" Whalen, also known as Jack O'Hara, was a tough guy who didn’t need a pistol. Jack used his fists to beat his victims into a submission. He was a large man and movie star handsome, in fact he had been cast in several movies and TV shows. He was freelance muscle and he would do the heavy work. He ran with his own crew of heavy guys who took action and had bookies paying them. The LAPD liked him because he was Irish and he would stomp the Jews and Italians into shape.
Jack had a charmed life as a gangster because he had an inside man in the Gangster Squad who would feed him information and often accompany him on his beatdowns. As a result, he was not afraid of made men. Jack would go after anyone in Los Angeles when he was owed money. One time he was paid to go after Jimmy Frattiano, but he never did do a thing to Jimmy. He just kept the money. Another time he got into a fight with Mike Rizzi, who was not yet inducted into the LA Family, and he beat Mike up badly.
On this particular night of December 2, 1959 he was told a few deadbeats who owed him money would be at Rondelli's on Ventura Blvd. Mickey was a silent investor in the restaurant, and he was sitting at a booth with George, the man Jack was looking for, on that night. Jack had done this kind of work hundreds of times. He had two guys with him as back up, mainly along to watch from a distance. He often brought police backup on his missions, but he had none with him this night. Jack entered the restaurant through the kitchen and made his way to the phone booth where he encountered Tony Reno, the club’s singer. Jack grabbed the singer by the neck asked him where the guys he was looking for were sitting, then tossed him aside. Jack entered the dining room in a rage, screaming, “Do you have something for me?” at George Piscitelle, one of the deadbeats on his list, as he sat beside Mickey Cohen and Sam Lo Cigno. Jack smashed George in the face and he hit the floor dazed. Jack then turned to face Mickey Cohen and Sam Lo Cigno, and screamed, “You Dago bastards, you’re next!” Sam quickly pulled out a pistol and fired twice. The first shot missed and the second hit Jack between the eyes. That would be the end of the Enforcer and his fists. When the Police went through his pockets they found cash, a few odds and ends, and a new Screen Actors Guild Card in his name courtesy of a new show he was working on, “Bonanza.” Mickey was brought up on murder charges, but the only one to go away for the crime was Sam Lo Cigno.
Like father, like son.
An interesting side note. Jack Whalen’s father Freddie "The Thief" Whalen had made a point of sending Jack to expensive schools because he wanted something more for his son, than the life of crime he had chosen for himself. The problem was Jack had gangster in his blood. As a result of his choices in life, his son Jack died young, at 38 years old. After his son died, Freddie went on to run pool tournaments in LA. He was even a pool hustler in the movies. In Disney’s 1978 "The Cat From Outer Space" he played Sarasota Slim.
It has been said over the years that when Mickey Cohen was smashed in the head in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary its was payback sent by Freddie for the loss of his son. I have no idea if it is true. Since so much of Cosa Nostra history is passed on as oral history and not written down, it changes with each person telling the story. One thing I will not do is change history like the writers did in Gangster Squad. Freddie did not like Mickey and he blamed him because he was sitting right there when Sam shot Jack, an it happened in Mickey’s restaurant. He often said "Mickey Cohen as good as pulled the trigger, and everybody knows it." He also was reported to have said to Jack O’Mara of the Gangster Squad “The last thing I do, O'Mara, I'm gonna get that son of a bitch.” Mickey Cohen did not kill Jack Whalen in an apartment complex courtyard pool as shown in the movies, he did not even pull the trigger.
The upheaval in 1956 Los Angeles was one example of how a bad change in leadership can lead to the fall of the Family. In the Cosa Nostra, an elected Boss is the Boss, and you take orders from the top. Most changes in leadership are very smooth and the rank and file never see a change. Another exception would be in 1985 when a young man named John Gotti, a Capo in the Gambino Family, had his Boss Big Paul Castellano shot dead in the street alongside his Underboss Tommy Bilotti. This did not help the Gambino Family, it hurt it. When Gotti took over the family had 23 street crews, today they have 9 street crews and no Gotti’s in power.
Did you spend your Sunday watching the Hollywood stars walk the red carpet?
Two blondes pictured at the Oscars in 1956: Jayne Mansfield, Cleo Moore.
1956 was the first year in history all the Oscar nominated pictures were in color, and the top movies included "Around the World in 80 Days" and "The King and I."
For more information check out Anthony Fiato