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 According to the rules of The Layover, protection was rescinded if a fugitive committed any crimes within the city limits.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.


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.

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.

Creepy Karpis
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.


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.


It’s Dark in the Closet

I wrote a story about a double murder in a small Wisconsin town that went unsolved for more than two years because no one – not the investigators, not the victims’ families, not the townspeople who were keenly interested in the perpetrator’s identity because of the scary theories making the rounds – could believe what should have been obvious from day one, that a priest at the parish where one of the victims worshiped was the killer. The way the priest covered up the crime was clumsy and the motive was right there for everyone to see, but nobody wanted to look. At first I attributed that to the killer’s vocation. Who wants to believe a priest is a murderer? But it was way more complicated than that.

The killer became a priest because he was gay. In rural Wisconsin in the 1970s the priesthood was the only closet he could find, but the longer he hid the darker it got. The proximity of adolescent males and the confessor’s role he played proved too tempting when he tried to stifle his sexual urges. He assaulted several boys in their early teens and got away with it because they were ashamed, but the more he sinned the guiltier he felt, and the more false identities he assumed. By the time he committed murder he was pretending to be a virtual saint, living in imitation of Christ; a born-again church conservative on a mission to bring discarded rituals back to the mass; an outdoorsman who lived to hunt and fish; a heterosexual Lothario by nature, whose vows were the only thing between him and a career as a small town Don Juan; and a pedagogue with a calling to teach children about salvation and masturbation.

A cult formed around him, which should have been a clue, and there were many people who saw through him, yet he practically had to confess before it dawned on anyone that he was guilty of murder. The story is “The Hanged Priest” in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night published by Calumet Editions.


The Used Insurance Business

Pierre Collins, 33, faces murder charges in the death of his nine-year-old son Barway. Pierre was smart enough to buy insurance, but too dumb to disguise his intentions about collecting on it. He had $20,000 worth of life insurance on Barway as part of a family policy, but when his financial situation worsened he took out a separate policy for $30,000 on Barway alone. A day before the child disappeared he asked his agent about raising it to $50,000. According to investigators, he drowned his own son in the Mississippi river, evidently assuming that the insurance, and his inquiries about increasing it, wouldn’t raise suspicions. He was also smart enough to use a smartphone (no mean feat), but too dumb to realize that his whereabouts could be traced using his phone records, which place him at the scene of the crime. He is currently awaiting trial.

Leonard Richards was a pathological cheapskate who graduated from storefront church tax scams to what a friend of his described as “the used insurance business.” He got himself appointed legal guardian of his sickly half-sister May Wilson, then collected more than $700,000 on 50 different health insurance policies he took out in her name, most of which paid cash for lost income when she was hospitalized. When Wilson’s health improved he took out several million dollars worth of insurance on her life, named himself beneficiary and murdered her.

Richards was so skilled at routing ill-gained loot through bogus trusts and corporations that it took a long time for the law to catch up to him. His lawyer eventually realized that he was defending a guilty man, so Richards murdered him too. He represented himself in court and tied the system in knots for years, but he spent most of that time in custody, and when it was over he was sentenced to life in prison. When I wrote about him he was behind bars, still busy pursuing his real calling, forming corporations with weird names for purposes that ranged from fraudulent to incomprehensible. He had just finished incorporating the May Wilson Lectures In American Penology when I published my story.

A used insurance scam appeared to be behind a murder I wrote about in a story called The Key Man, but there was also evidence suggesting that it was a crime of a very unusual passion that had nothing to do with insurance. That tale is told in an anthology of my true crime stories, The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, published by Calumet Editions. The saga of Leonard Richards and his used insurance business will be in an upcoming anthology.


Bad Guys Make Good Sources

Cops, criminals and drug addicts are the best sources for crime stories. Especially addicts. They’re always on the hunt for drug money, and the way they slide into one easy dodge after another to get it puts them in the middle of everything illicit. I cultivated the acquaintance of addicts when I first started writing, but I got older and most of them didn’t. By the time I reached middle age they were all dead, and the younger ones scared me. That left cops and criminals.

The type of criminal who is all business will rarely serve as a source unless it suits some agenda of his. Ditto for cops, only more so. The kind of criminal who will give you information is the type that drifts from caper to scam to rip-off for the drama, and money is just a bonus. I knew a lot of them, still do. They love to talk. Sometimes they talk so much you have to use what they say judiciously, so they don’t get in jam.

It’s hit and miss with cops. An arson investigator who was all business once put me on to a story about an arsonist, because he had an agenda. The arsonist had recently been sentenced to prison, and the investigator wanted that sentence upheld on appeal. He gave me copies of police documents, and happily took me on a tour to show me scorch marks on dozens of homes the arsonist had tried but failed to set on fire.

Another kind of cop, a brutal, narrow-minded racist detective, gave me a solid tip. He had an agenda too. His partner had been shot to death in the line of duty, and he’d spent weeks pressuring every criminal he knew every way he could to find out who killed him. Some criminals – white guys who shared his values – were his buddies. He just put out the word to them. Others, gangsters in general, black gangsters in particular, were not his buddies. He hated them, not so much for what they did but for what they were, and he used various threats to find out what they knew, which turned out to be nothing.

Eventually one of his mob-connected pals, a gifted burglar who did 2nd story work for the Chicago Mafia, fingered the killer. A short time later the cop called me, and in effect fingered his informant. I was glad for the tip, but I could never figure out why he gave it to me. Years later a former prosecutor told me. “He didn’t want anybody he owed that big a favor around town, so he gave you his name, then told him (the tipster) that the press knew what he’d done, so he’d better leave. And it worked.”

The detective who gave me the tip is a central figure in a story titled “The Key Man” in my new anthology of crime stories, The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, published by Calumet Editions.


A True Psychopath

“If you want to write about crime you have to meet Dickie,” said Chester Z, a friend from a former life, and that was how I met a true psychopath.

Richard Cain was sitting at the bar with a flashy looking gal in a club called The Scotch Mist, on Rush Street in Chicago. “Pleased to meet you,” he said. He could tell from my garb and demeanor (that of a mere journalist, not even a gossip columnist) that there was no point introducing me to the gal. Fixing important guys up with showgirls was one way Cain made friends in the right places.

He and I exchanged a few pleasantries, nothing memorable. By then he’d been a Chicago cop and a Mafia enforcer (at the same time), a CIA operative, a troubleshooter for U.S. corporations in the Caribbean, and a double-triple- sometimes quadruple agent acting on behalf of, and contrary to, the interests of those entities and others. According to a U.S. Senate committee, Cain made several attempts on Fidel Castro’s life. Cuban intelligence put together a compelling case that he was involved in the plot to assassinate President John F Kennedy. He served time for armed robbery under the name Enrico Scalzetti, one of his many alter egos, and immediately went back to work for the Cook County Sheriff’s Dept when he got out of prison. By the time I met him he was playing the final role of his life, bodyguard and financial adviser to the mobster Sam Giancana.

In retrospect, the only thing that struck me as pathological about Cain was his physical presence – handsome almost pretty, flawlessly groomed, not a wrinkle in his suit, not a scuff on his alligator shoes, hanky peeking out of his breast pocket just so, mild whiff of aftershave that hung in the air like a force field. He was a little too perfect. I got the feeling that spilling beer on his suit, or stepping on his exquisitely shod foot, would be a bad mistake.

I met Cain in 1971. He was murdered in 1974, a crime that was said to be the result of a Mafia quarrel. By sheer coincidence I’d begun looking into another seemingly unrelated murder around that time, and that was how I discovered who really killed him and why. Read it in “Danny’s Boat”, a story in an anthology of true crime stories – The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night – published by Calumet Editions.


Dirty Cops

Just watched a TV series called Low Winter Sun. Here’s an excerpt from a review: “Anytime the focus shifts to crooked cops Frank Agnew (Mark Strong) and Joe Geddes (Lennie James), Low Winter Sun proves to be a gripping drama.”

Not really. They’re good actors, especially James, but the plot is so convoluted and superficial that I ended up wondering what all the hullabaloo was about most of the time.

Dirty cops are at the heart of most of these morality plays. Their angst and their tortured souls are what juices the drama. The plot involves crimes they either solve or cover up according to some code they’ve devised amongst themselves, and the really dirty ones go down because they violate said code, usually by preying on the helpless. Sometimes this formula makes for interesting viewing, but it doesn’t have much to do with the truth.

I’m working on a true crime story about an actual dirty cop who thrived for years in possibly the most corrupt big city dept there is (i’ll let you guess, send a comment).  He epitomized everything that can go wrong with policing, and made a very lucrative career of putting himself in situations in which he could leverage the great moral hazard of his profession, his gun and the authority to use it, for monetary gain. I put him a notch below someone like Officer Michael Slager, who shot a fleeing man in the back 8 times, probably because the victim was black, but certainly because Slager thought he could get away with it and he enjoyed killing.  The guy I’m writing about shook down criminals for cash by threatening to pin murders and other crimes they had nothing to do with on them. He committed some of those crimes himself, probably including a few murders. Why is he worse than Slager? Because he didn’t even harbor a nasty passion like the urge to kill. He was devoid of passion, more like a coin counting machine than a human being.

Thanks to some good reporting by traditional media we’re in the midst of finding out how many cops like Slager there are. Way too many, that’s for sure, but percentage-wise fairly small, that’s my guess. As for cops like Frank Agnew and Joe Geddes, I doubt if they exist in the real world. Some cops are on the take from drug dealers, but the take is drugs in the situations I’m familiar with, and the cops are what you’d expect a junky with a gun to be – dangerous if provoked, but easy to work around. What interests me as a writer is whether the cop I’m writing about is sui generis. Maybe there are versions of him in all big departments (his racket simply wouldn’t work in a smaller department, it requires lots of serious crimes being committed on a daily basis).

The dirtiest cop I’ve written about to date plays a role in The Key Man, a story in an anthology of my true crime stories – The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, published by Calumet Editions.


My Next True Crime Story


The next true crime story I write won’t be about the Robert Durst saga. I’m sure there are books about him in the works right now, even though he murdered the last person who tried to write one. In fact, at this very moment competent authors are struggling to write something about Durst that isn’t a yawn. It’s not their fault that all the dramatic stuff has been dribbling out piecemeal for years. If I’m not mistaken there have also been some well-written, carefully researched feature articles about Durst since he started murdering people, decades ago. The cable media vultures ripped the articles off to produce Entertainment Channel-level crap long before HBO aired their feature, in which Durst confessed to killings that everyone knew he committed, dating back to 1982. So despite the recent headlines, Durst is yesterday’s news.

Don’t try to write a book or even a magazine-length true crime story if all you can do to ramp up the drama is put a lot of blood and guts on display, that’s my advice. TV has the advantage there because it’s a graphic medium. Anyway, I see unmistakable signs of Durst-fatigue setting in.

Here’s what I’d like to write:

I had the opportunity to spend to couple of days in the company of two Las Vegas mobsters in 2013. I’m still trying to figure out how to use what I learned. Not because I’m afraid of what they’d do. They don’t care what I write. The problem is, no crime was committed. They got some money from a friend of mine’s chump brother, but he turned it over willingly and received value for dollar as far as he was concerned. They tried but failed to get my friend’s money when he and I went to Las Vegas to straighten out his brother’s affairs, but they quickly saw that their scheme wouldn’t work and there didn’t seem to be any hard feelings. They even showed us around the city.

The MO they used on my friend’s brother revealed how loan sharking and prostitution have evolved. I suppose I could write what I found out straight 1st person. It wouldn’t be the dread “memoir” because it wouldn’t be about me. It would be about the convoluted way that both crimes, if that’s what you want to call them, have turned into something unpredictable. My friend’s brother, for example, never paid for sex, but he fell victim to a prostitution-based racket anyway.

Maybe that will be my next true crime story. – Here is a link to an anthology of earlier true crime stories, The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night.


Danny’s Boat

Danny-300x198Not much of a photo, but interesting because the two guys in the middle murdered the other two about an hour after the picture was taken.  The victims didn’t know they were going to die, but the killers knew exactly what they were going to do. They’d done it several times before, and it was a well-planned crime. The boat belongs to the guy on the left. The other victim, on the right, is an American kid the boat’s owner hired on for crew after his girl friend and some other people he’d been sailing with left. The kid on the right knew the murderers, and may even have been in cahoots with them on a previous crime. The FBI files hint at this.

The killers are French. They’d been using hijacked boats to smuggle drugs for about two years when this photo was taken, in 1973. Their MO was to sign on as crew, then murder every one else aboard ship as soon as they set sail. This picture was taken in the port of Cartagena, Colombia, shortly before their departure. You can read the story of this crime and what happened to the Frenchmen after they committed it in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, published by Calumet Editions. The story is called “Danny’s Boat”.