The Laredo Marijuana Racket

The scam was elegant in its simplicity. It rested on the complicity of federal judges who ignored the Constitution, while prosecutors and defense lawyers conspired to force people who were busted taking small amounts of marijuana across the border at Laredo to plead guilty to a legal fiction – violation of The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

Small time smugglers who were caught at Customs in Laredo in the 1960s were routinely charged with smuggling, possession and violation of the Tax Act. Smuggling and possession carried mandatory five year minimum sentences without the possibility of parole, but there was no minimum sentence or parole restriction attached to the tax charge, which rested on the assumption that upon crossing the border a rational person would present himself to a Customs officer, state that he was in possession of marijuana and ask to pay the tax. You’d be ratting on yourself, that was obvious, but the only advice local lawyers offered was make the deal. Most violators paused long enough to do the math and agreed, even though it sounded fishy.

Parole-eligible sentences were the carrot. Long sentences were the stick. There were dozens, sometimes more than 100 busts for marijuana every week at the Laredo crossing, and they all had to be processed smoothly through the legal system. Those who didn’t take the deal often received draconian sentences.

Parole was abolished in the federal prison system in 1987. That would have been curtains for the Laredo marijuana racket in any case, but it was squashed long before. Read about it in A Note on My Sources, one of the true crime stories in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, published by Calumet Editions.

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Crime is a Window Into History

The time and place I’ve written about, St. Paul in the 1930s, is so familiar it’s (almost) mundane, especially to me since I grew up there not too many years later. But the closer you look at what went on, the more remote and foreign it seems.

“The Layover,” a protection racket that the St. Paul police ran for high profile gangsters, unimaginable today, was a fact of life in Depression era St. Paul. Once a gangster paid the requisite fee, the police could guarantee him (very few hers – Ma Barker, a couple of John Dillinger’s girlfriends) city-wide, foolproof immunity from capture by the feds. And the gangsters didn’t have to lay low either. The practical impediments that the police put in place made arrests by the feds impossible in St. Paul. When the feds got so frustrated they simply had to make a move, they tried setting up ambushes and killing the fugitives they were after. That didn’t work either, because the police came to the rescue, but it made for some dramatic shootouts.

Police protecting gangsters wasn’t the only way justice was turned upside down in 30s St. Paul. According to the rules of The Layover, protection was rescinded if a fugitive committed any crimes within the city limits. That should have made St. Paul virtually crime free, but it actually served to increase the frequency of low-end robberies and other instances of what we call street crime today. The presence of celebrity criminals around town spawned a cadre of acolytes whose determination to make headlines trumped any common sense they might have possessed. Car thefts and grocery store holdups became common. Small banks were hit so often that many of them hired armed guards. The situation these wannabees created made the gangsters uneasy, and they often turned in groupies who tailed them around bragging about their exploits.

The feds tried to kill Dillinger at the Lincoln Court apartments in St Paul in 1934, and a wild gunfight ensued. I put it in a novel titled Smoke, published by Calumet Editions. Dillinger escaped with a leg wound. It’s hard to imagine in these days of GPS systems, drones and instant communication, but he and his girlfriend Billie Frechette got away in an easily identifiable blue car by weaving their way down side streets to Minneapolis, where a doctor who specialized in treating gangsters patched Dillinger up. He laid low awhile longer, then headed for Chicago and his rendevous with fate at the Biograph Theater.

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Strange Days in the Saintly City

A gossip columnist who wrote until the 1970s was the last newspaper man to use the appellation The Saintly City to describe St. Paul, but that was the tongue-in-cheek term that everyone, including cops and judges, once used in reference to what was a wide open town in many respects. The protection racket that the St. Paul Police ran for gangsters in the 1930s, and the peculiar culture it spawned, turned the Depression era into St. Paul’s own jazz age. Some of that attitude persisted for decades.

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Crime Lord Dan Hogan

In the 30s, any gangster could pay local crime lord Dan Hogan a fee that varied from $2000 to $30,000 depending on the payer’s means and notoriety, good for two years immunity from arrest and renewable at the discretion of the parties. Hogan split 50-50 with Police Chief John O’Connor. He pocketed the lion’s share of his end, but saw to it that all his men down to the lowliest turnkey at the city jail got a little something. That way they had skin in the game, and when an emergency arose, i.e. an attempted bust by the Bureau of Investigation (predecessor to the FBI), the cops functioned like a well-oiled machine to protect their wards.

“The Layover,” as the racket was called, was common knowledge among the citizenry. They also knew about the upside for them. Protection was a privilege not a right, and any crime committed within the city limits of St. Paul meant revocation. Thus, St. Paul was spared the robberies and deadly shootouts that plagued the rest of the Midwest. Relations were cordial between the likes of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly and the local citizenry. Daring young folks even pestered the gangsters for autographs, and bought them drinks in local saloons in hopes of hearing tales of their exploits.

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Alvin “Creepy” Karpis

Alvin “Creepy” Karpis got his nickname from his unique autographing style. When a pretty girl approached him at a saloon like The Green Lantern or The Wabasha Caves, he would offer to sign her thigh if she would hike up her skirt while he knelt and slowly wrote his name. According to local legend, John Dillinger witnessed one of these signings, took note of the lip-smacking grimaces and lewd faces Karpis pulled while he was en flagrante graffito, and muttered “Creepy.” The name stuck, mostly because Alvin had a wry sense of humor that his semi-literate colleagues couldn’t appreciate. He also had a bone-chilling smile.

Sometimes the BI tried to ambush gangsters in St. Paul, but the Police usually managed to rescue them. I put a famous shootout between John Dillinger and the Feds into Smoke, a novel I wrote that is set in 1930s St. Paul, published by Calumet Editions. Dillinger escaped with a leg wound thanks to the cops, but the Feds killed him in Chicago a few months later. He never should have left The Saintly City.

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Martin McDonough, Private Eye

I was on the verge of deleting an email in 2005 when something, maybe divine providence, stayed my hand.

I delete emails unread from people I’ve never heard of. Good idea generally – although one that I opened by mistake came in handy in respect to crime writing (“Please forgive my intrusion into your privacy, I am Dr. Ozagaga Oba, and I am a banker”). The email I didn’t delete turned out to be a request for a submission from the editor of an anthology in the making, Twin Cities Noir — one in a series of anthologies from various locales, San Francisco Noir, Dublin Noir, etc.) — published by Akashic Books. I’d never written noir-style fiction, but I decided to give it a try.

To me, noir meant black and white movies about world-weary private eyes, and gals who are either jaded and lethal or fetching and helpless. I customized that formula and used it for the story I wrote, Smoke Got In My Eyes. The plot was based loosely on a true crime story I’d published, which involved rumors that a millionaire had paid to have a journalist murdered. There was something about that murder I knew to be true, but couldn’t prove to the satisfaction of a magazine editor. I guess that’s what fiction is for. Smoke Got In My Eyes was nominated for the Shamus award in 2006. A few years later I used the plot for a novel, titled Smoke.

Martin McDonough is the private eye in Smoke, in several stories published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and another novel, The Key Man. He operates in St. Paul in the 1930s when gangsters like John Dillinger and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis paid the police for safe haven from the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI. McDonough’s MO is simple: He turns a personal liability, alcoholism, into an asset. He drinks with Irish cops, gets them talking and uses what he learns to solve murders.

The historical characters who appear in the Martin McDonough novels are identified as such, not given pseudonyms. McDonough is invented but he bears the proud name of the McDonough clan, a long line of St. Paul rogues, rounders and politicians. He drinks at a joint called Tin Cups, a real saloon that closed just a few years ago. Tin Cups began as a low end speakeasy, where you brought your own drinking vessel and paid 10 cents to dip it in the still. It was a cop hangout, and it always will be as long as Martin McDonough novels are published.

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