Bootlegging was a bloody business. Hijacking a competitor’s shipment of booze or encroaching on his territory were considered acts of war. During the 1920s, police became accustomed to finding the bodies of dead gangsters–victims of rough justice. According to LAPD Detective Lieutenant Aldo Corsini by mid-August 1928: “One thing was certain. Either some of the gang killings had to be solved, or somebody was going to get transferred to the sticks. People on the streets were beginning to talk.”
At five past midnight on August 7, the homicide detail in Central Station received a phone call. There had been a shooting at 767 New Depot Street and it looked like another gang job. Detectives Corsini and Frank Condaffer jumped into a call car and drove out to the scene. When they pulled up to the house Detective Corsini recognized it as the home of Gaetano Binetti. Binetti was a known racketeer. If he’d been snuffed out it was likely the result of an underworld disagreement.
The detectives entered the house and found Binetti dead. He’d taken two shotgun blasts to his chest. Next to him his wife, Concetta, lay moaning in agony. Some of the buckshot had entered the back of her head. Gaetano was obviously the target, his wife was collateral damage.
The murder weapon, a shotgun belonging to the dead man, lay on the floor next to the bed. That was odd for a professional hit, but not unprecedented. Concetta was rushed to the Pasadena Avenue Emergency Hospital and her husband’s body was removed to the morgue. Two children, belonging to Gaetano’s cousin Maria, were taken from the home by relatives.
Maria and her two kids lived with Gaetano so police questioned her first. She said that four men had forced their way into the house by breaking in the back screen door. The noise had awakened her and the next thing she knew she was being held at gunpoint by a man wielding a large blue steel revolver. The other three intruders made their way back to Gaetano’s bedroom. Moments later Maria heard gunshots.
The men escaped through a window in the living room. Strange that they didn’t just run out through one of the doors to the home. Maria told the cops that she thought she recognized the assailants, or at least could offer an informed guess as to their identities.
Three months before the hit, Gaetano had been “taken for a ride” by four men who had accused him of hijacking a truck load of illegal hootch from a small farm near Sawtelle where a huge still was located. It may have been one of the few times in his life when Gaetano had been accused of something he hadn’t done. He was able to convince his kidnappers that he hadn’t taken their liquor, and didn’t know who had. Remarkably they believed him and he was released.
The incident had sparked a gang war and Gaetano was the leader of one of the warring factions. Maria was convinced that the same four men who had taken Gaetano for a late night drive had been the ones to kill him. She gave Detectives Corsini and Condaffer the names of the men. Louis B. Williams, 30 years of age and Gentry F. Watkins, 27, were former police officers who had turned to bootlegging. The other two were Japanese gardeners, George Kunisawa and Henry S. Okamoto, both of them 24.
The police rounded up the quartet and took them to Central Station for questioning. None of the men hesitated to admit to the “ride” on which they’d taken Gaetano; but there was no way they were going to cop to a murder of which they insisted they were innocent. Even so, they were coy to the point of refusal when asked where they’d been at the time of the slaying.
Concetta had been critically wounded in the attack that killed her husband. If she lived she faced the possibility of total blindness. The detectives were hopeful that if she regained consciousness she could reveal the identity of the shooter. When Detective Corsini was finally allowed to get a few words with her she had nothing to offer. She had been sound asleep when the killer entered the dark bedroom. She knew that her husband had enemies but whether or not they had been the ones to murder him, she couldn’t say.
The detectives turned their attention back to the men they had in custody. Williams had joined the LAPD on July 23, 1923 and resigned “under pressure” on May 12, 1925. Watkins became a cop on June 22, 1925 and was discharged on January 4, 1928 because of suspicions that he was hijacking bootleggers.The disgraced officers owned a barbecue stand at 12000 Pico Boulevard where it was believed they sold more than sandwiches. The gardeners, Kunisawa and Okamoto, rented the former officers a barn on their Sawtelle ranch. They knew it housed a still and were well paid to keep quiet.
The only one talking was the eye-witness, Maria. She said that as she was being held at gunpoint, she heard one of the men shout: “You stole the liquor!” followed by the fatal gunshots.
Unless they got a break Gaetano’s murder might be added to the growing list of unsolved gang hits; but then someone confessed.
NEXT TIME: A surprising confession and case wrap-up.