Film Noir Friday, on Saturday: Wiretapper [1955]


Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is WIRETAPPER starring Bill Williams and Georgia Lee.

Mark Twain succinctly summed up my love of true crime with this wonderful quote: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”  This film is based on a true story with an ending that could only happen in real life.  Jim Vaus was associated with Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen, but his life took many unexpected turns–which explains why you see Reverend Billy Graham in the poster.  If you are interested in learning more about Jim Vaus you may want to read MY FATHER WAS A GANGSTER by Will Vaus — it’s available on Kindle!

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

During World War II, Jim Vaus, an army electronics specialist, is serving a prison sentence for having stolen equipment from the army. Because Jim has arranged for released prisoners to mail letters he has written to his girl friend, Alice, Alice thinks that he is still on active duty. When the war ends, the prison chaplain informs Jim that the President has reviewed his, and others’ cases, and that he is to be released. The chaplain, aware of Jim’s letters to Alice, strongly advises him to tell her about his past. However, when Jim returns to Los Angeles, he buys a captain’s uniform and some medals, then goes to visit Alice, her mother and younger sister Helen and lies that he has just finished active service.


Cops Behaving Badly: The Death of Stanley Beebe, Conclusion

Because it’s been a few days since we last visited the Stanley Beebe case I think that a brief synopsis is in order.

beebe death studiedIn December of 1942 Stanley Beebe was arrested for public intoxication. He was taken to LAPD’s Central Station where he later alleged he had been badly beaten. In a death bed statement to his wife, published in the L.A. Times, Beebe reiterated his claim. He died about ten days later of injuries that the coroner had determined were the result of a savage beating.

The Beebe case was a political hot potato–corruption and abuse by the cops terrified and enraged the citizens and just a few years earlier, in 1938, Angelenos had ousted Mayor Frank Shaw in a corruption scandal. Shaw was the first U.S. mayor to be recalled and the city was still reeling from the fallout of that national embarrassment.

The investigation into Beebe’s death was deftly stonewalled by a monumental lack of cooperation from LAPD. Finding the truth was going to be an uphill battle all the way, especially since people were being threatened if they didn’t drop the inquiry.

We’ll pick up the tale from there…


Deputy City Attorney Everett Leighton’s wife received a telephone call threatening her husband with death if he didn’t back-off the Stanley Beebe case. But it wasn’t just high profile city government types who were being threatened. Raymond Henry, 42, of 915 S. Mott Street was in jail when Stanley Beebe was allegedly beaten. If the D.A.’s investigators were looking for more info on Stanley’s case it wasn’t going to come from Raymond Henry. However, Henry did have a story to tell.  He said that there had been another case of police brutality in the jail at approximately the same time.

death threatThere was an alley leading into the booking office and Raymond said he had seen a man dressed in khaki work clothes lying there and he appeared to have been beaten. Henry received a mysterious telephone call from a man claiming to be a cop; but unlike the call Everett Leighton’s wife had received Henry’s unknown caller made him an offer.  The mystery man said he’d like to meet with Henry and offered to “pay all his expenses for a couple of days”.   It was clear that someone wanted Raymond out of the way so he couldn’t testify about what he had seen.

In mid-February 1943 Chief Horrall ordered several LAPD officers jailed for their parts in the death of Stanley Beebe: Compton Dixon, James F. Martin, John M. Yates, E.P. Mooradian, McKinley W. Witt and Leo L. Johnson. The case became even uglier when it appeared that the police report had been falsified. A copy of the report showed Beebe’s occupation as machinist, he was an accountant; and his address was “transient” — yet the telephone call he’d been allowed to make had been to his wife at their apartment.

Every politician from Los Angeles to Sacramento sought to make political hay out of the issue of police brutality. Newspapers continued to report on new and increasingly alarming allegations of abuse of authority. One former prisoner said that he had been beaten while handcuffed and that large quantities of water and brandy had been forced down his throat.

It was LAPD officer Compton Dixon who was finally accused of manslaughter in Beebe’s death. Compton didn’t fit Stanley’s description of his attacker, but there were several points on which Stanley had been understandably vague in his death bed statement to his wife. It was very possible he had incorrectly described his assailant.dixon rummel

Compton was indicted for Stanley’s murder on March 4, 1943, but he was immediately released on $10,000 bail when his Defense attorney Samuel Rummel and prosecutors stipulated that even if it was proved that Compton had beaten Beebe to death, it could possibly amount only to second-degree murder.

Because second degree murder carried a penalty of five years to life they decided he could be released on a bond.

Rummel’s reputation as a mouthpiece for crooked cops and local gangsters was well known, and deserved. Sam was friendly with gangster Mickey Cohen among other bad guys, but rubbing elbows with crooks isn’t a smart move. Rummel lived the high life hanging out with Cohen and various corrupt policemen, he was even part owner of a couple of Las Vegas casinos, but it all came to an end when he was shot gunned to death in the driveway of his Laurel Canyon home during the early morning hours of December 11, 1950. His slaying remains unsolved.

Sam Rummel dead in his driveway. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Sam Rummel dead in his driveway. Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Archive.

Two rookie officers had testified at the Grand Jury hearing that they’d witnessed Stanley’s beating. They were quite clear in their statements; but when it came time for them to testify in open court they were both suspiciously vague. In fact each of them said they had seen Stanley and they’d seen a foot on his stomach, but they just couldn’t be sure whose foot it was!

rookies describe beatingOne by one, police officers who had previously admitted that they’d seen Compton Dixon beat Stanley Beebe retracted their statements. One of them, Leo Johnson, said that the statement he’d made at the LAPD training center on February 14th was made under duress:

“That statement is false.  It was not prepared by me and not written by me.  Words were put in my mouth and the statements are untrue.  I don’t ever remember seeing Dixon place his foot on anybody’s stomach.”

mrs beebeOfficers with amnesia and revised statements should have been expected in Dixon’s trial, but there was one courtroom shocker that knocked the wind out of some of the observers.

Deputy District Attorney Robert G. Wheeler, who handled the original investigation into the fatal beating, testified that after completing his inquiry he was of the opinion that Mrs. Maxine Beebe, widow of the dead man, could have murdered her husband!

When asked by Rummel on what facts he had based his conclusions, Wheeler responded:

“Only that Beebe was under her control from December 20 to December 27, and her evasiveness during the inquiry”.

I told you Sam Rummel was a mouthpiece for crooks.

Compton Dixon was questioned by Rummel about the alleged crime, quoted here verbatim from the L.A. Times:

“Did you strike Beebe?” Rummel asked.

“I did not,” Dixon replied with a firm voice.

“Did you kick him?”


“Did you jump on him?”

I did not.” Dixon said.

The case went to the jury and they deliberated for seven days before becoming deadlocked: 8 to 4  in favor of acquittal.

It was a disgusting miscarriage of justice. District Attorney Howser issued a statement in which he said the failure of the Los Angeles Police Department to solve the murder of the prisoner was due to:

“…concealed evidence and a misdirected investigation by members of the same department who were afraid disclosure of the truth would involve a member of members of the department.”

Dixon still had to face a police trial board–he had been suspended from duty since February.  The LAPD board of rights concluded its investigation in July 1943 and they found Compton Dixon not guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer for refusing to testify before the grand jury.  The board said that Dixon had been charged with manslaughter and the natural right of self-preservation, as well as his constitutional rights, superseded the general duty of an officer to testify before inquisitorial bodies.

get out of jail free cardDixon was returned to duty and his back pay was restored. He retired in 1946 and because he had spent 20 years or more at a jail duty station he was presented with silver keys (that wouldn’t actually turn the locks) to the main doors of City Jail. It didn’t matter that the keys were phonies–Dixon didn’t need the real thing, he’d been given a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in 1943.

None of the officers implicated in the various brutality cases being investigated at the time were punished, and no one was ever held accountable for Stanley Beebe’s death.

Benny “The Meatball” Gamson

Benny "The Meatball" Gamson

By the late 1940s mobsters from the East Coast were finally gaining a bit of a toe hold in L.A. They had been attempting to move-in and take over the city for years — but L.A. had a much different paradigm than New York or Chicago.

In L.A. corruption was a trickle-down affair with dishonest city government officials at the top of the heap in charge of vice, gambling, and (during Prohibition) liquor. A shadowy and mutually beneficial collective between the people in office and local bad guys was known as The Combination. With collusion among City Hall politicians, some members of local law enforcement (both LAPD and LASD), and vice and gambling lords like Charlie “The Gray Fox” Crawford and Tony “The Hat” Cornero, there was plenty of illegal loot to go around — not that that stopped anyone from trying to grab a bigger slice of the profane pie for himself.

I’ve lived in Southern California nearly all of my life, but I was born in Chicago, which I believe accounts in large measure for my fascination with crime. As a little kid I had an honorary uncle, a close friend of the family, not a blood relation — let’s call him Tommy. Whatever Uncle Tommy did for a living in Chicago was mysterious, at least to me. His real line of work became clear when he and his family departed for Las Vegas where he was made pit boss at the Stardust. Interestingly, the Stardust was conceived and built the previously mentioned Tony “The Hat” Cornero. The criminal world, especially back in the day, was a small one.


In future posts I’ll introduce you to many more of the bad actors in the so-called Combination, and some of the mobsters who relocated to L.A. from places like New York, Chicago and Cleveland, but today I want to focus on one guy, a small-time hood with big ambitions, Benny “The Meatball” (aka “Little Meatball”) Gamson.

The Meatball was a Chicago transplant. It was there that he’d known Mickey Cohen who, in the 1940s, was beginning to rise in the L.A. rackets. When Benny came out to L.A. he expected his old pal Mickey to welcome him with open arms and introduce him to a couple of the city’s biggest players: Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and Jack Dragna.

Mickey was attempting to be a pal when he tried to explain to Benny that things didn’t work the same way in L.A. as they had in Chicago, but The Meatball didn’t like what he heard. In fact he pitched a fit and beat the crap out of one of Cohen’s longtime Boyle Heights buddies. Then Benny did something completely unforgivable, he went in to business with one of Cohen’s rivals, Paul “Pauley” Gibbons.

Gibbons may, or may not, have been a serious rival of Mickey’s but he was certainly a gambler on a life-long losing streak.  He was also a guy who didn’t pay his debts, and things never end well for welshers.

Whether it was for crossing Cohen, or reneging on a debt, Gibbons paid with his life. On May 2, 1946 at 2:30 a.m. the forty-five year old ex-con with an extensive arrest record, was shot and killed in an ambush.

Gibbons had parked his pricey sedan across from his apartment on N. Gale Drive. He had no idea that a gunman was waiting in the shadows. Witnesses said that as Pauley walked toward his apartment, a car came screeching out of the alley. Five shots rang out, Gibbons staggered and fell. The killer leaped from the car and as Gibbons begged for mercy he was lifted into a kneeling position and finished off with two more shots

Among the local thugs questioned in the slaying was Mickey Cohen, referred to in the newspapers as a “sporting figure”. Mickey denied knowing anything about the murder.

Benny was booked in Beverly Hills Jail on suspicion of Pauley’s murder, but he wriggled out of the net. The cops characterized the killing as a professional hit and Inspector Norris Stensland of the Sheriff’s office said:

“The job was too well done to have been thought up by any of our small-fry racketeers.”

If ever there was a small-fry it was the 5′ 1″ crook, Benny Gamson. Beverly Hills held him for two days and then kicked him loose.

bullets spray auto

A couple of weeks later two radio car officers, E.M. Kudlac and J.D. Wolfe, noticed The Meatball as he was driving on Beverly Blvd. between Ogden Drive and Genesee St.
The officers noticed that sprayed along the driver’s side of Benny’s car were five bullet holes — and another had punctured the rear window.meatball bullets flew

Old school wise guy that he was, Meatball knew nuthin’ about nuthin’. He told the cops a variety of different stories. My favorite of them was that he’d noticed the holes in his car two weeks earlier and had reported them to his insurance company as the attack of “vandals who tried to ruin my car.”

The Meatball should have seen the handwriting on the wall, but he wasn’t exactly a deep thinker.

In October 1946 Gamson, who was described as: “the pudgy 39 year old strong arm of many aliases”, and an associate, George Levinson, were shot and killed by unknown assailants.

Witnesses said that Gamson had stumbled from an apartment house on Beverly Blvd with blood streaming from five through and through bullet holes. He died on the sidewalk, screaming for help.

George Levinson dropped near the door of the apartment house with a slug through the back of his head.

A big, black sedan was observed fleeing the scene.

Mickey Cohen and his bullet proof car.

Mickey Cohen and his bullet proof car.

The police couldn’t get anyone to cooperate and nobody came forward with information on the murders.

Gamson’s wife clammed up — she knew better than to comment on the slayings.

Levinson’s wife also kept quiet. When asked by investigators if she would discuss the case, she replied:

“I got nothing to say.”

Dead Woman Walking: Barbara Graham, Part 3

shorter_davis_picOn March 26, 1953, five men were arrested and held for questioning in the slaying of Mabel Monohan. The men were: Solly Davis (a one-time Mickey Cohen lieutenant); William Upshaw and John Wilds (both Mickey Cohen associates); Joe Allen; and Baxter Shorter.

All five men were career crminals — Upshaw had been frequently arrested on gambling charges, Davis had been incarcerated in two Federal pens, Leavenworth and Atlanta, and in the New York State Prison, Sing Sing. Baxter Shorter had a record that dated back to 1927.

The men were acquainted with Mabel Monohan through her former son-in-law, Las Vegas gambler Tutor Scherer. It was the lure of $100k of Scherer’s cash, allegedly hidden in a safe in Monohan’s home, that had brought a gang to her doorstep resulting in her brutal murder.

The cops had to kick the bad guys loose, they didn’t have enough to hold them; but the arrest was enough to convince Baxter Shorter that his best chance for staying clear of the gas chamber at San Quentin was to turn State’s evidence before any of the other members of the gang were busted and could beat him to it. There’s usually only one get out of jail free card available in a capital case, and Baxter grabbed it.

Baxter told the cops he’d gone along on the Monohan job as a look-out. Of course that was a lie, he was there to crack the safe supposedly hidden in the house. Shorter further stated that he’d seen Perkins slug Mrs. Monohan on the head with the butt of a gun. He also said that he’d been horrified to witness the murder. That may have been the truest statement he made. He was undoubtedly terrified to have become involved in a death penalty case.

Shorter probably would have walked on the Monohan murder, and lived to commit other crimes, if details of his statement hadn’t been leaked by someone close to the investigation. Once his duplicity became public Baxter Shorter’s days were numbered.

Only a few weeks after the Monohan slaying Baxter Shorter was kidnapped at gun point from his Bunker Hill apartment at 121 North Flower Street. Shorter’s wife, Olivia, identified the two kidnappers as Emmett Perkins and Jack Santos.

The building from where Baxter Shorter was kidnapped.

The building from where Baxter Shorter was kidnapped.

Shorter’s kidnapping left the Burbank cops with a huge problem. He was an eyewitness to the Monohan murder and had been willing to testify in court to save his own sorry ass. If he had really been kidnapped the chances of him being found alive were slim to none.

The car believed to have been used in the kidnapping was found abandoned near an apartment at 5124 Imperial Blvd; and that’s where Emmett Perkins, Jack Santo, and Barbara Graham were busted.

The sedan was owned by one of Jack Santos’ girlfriends, Brenda Pearney of Grass Valley, California. It had recently been repainted and the mat in the rear trunk compartment was missing. Police Chemist Ray Pinker turned up some small pieces of wood and a little yellow flower in the car that he took to the Los Angeles County Museum for identification.

yellow flowerThe wood was ribbon wood, found only in Southern California and usually in the San Jacinto Mountains at an elevation of between 2500 and 3000 feet. The flower had no common name, but was identified as metzelia affnis and it too could be found at elevations of between 2500 and 3000 feet.

If Baxter Shorter’s remains were buried off a lonely mountain road at an elevation of 3000 feet then he was likely as close to heaven as he would ever get.

Emmett Perkins was arraigned on charges of kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon in Shorter’s kidnapping. Barbara Graham was charged with seven counts of forgery. She’d gone on a shopping spree in March and April and had passed $266 worth of rubber checks. Santo was released on the kidnapping beef and walked out of court into the waiting arms of Burbank cops who cuffed him and took him in for questioning on the Monohan slaying. They had to release him for lack of evidence, but he wasn’t free for long. He was soon rearrested and charged with forging a fictitious telegram to Baxter Shorter’s mother. The telegram read:

“Sorry to have been away. See Olive (Olivia) and tell her not to make the mistake ’cause I have to return one of these days. All my love. Baxter”

Circumstantial evidence was beginning to mount.

To add to the drama a new witness in the Monohan case came forward. The witness was an ex-con named William Upshaw. He’d voluntarily surrendered to police when he heard that he was wanted in connection with Shorter’s kidnapping.

Upshaw  was cleared of any involvement in the Shorter kidnapping, and he was the first witness called to testify before the grand jury in the slaying of Mabel Monohan. Cops were understandably edgy because of Shorter’s abrupt disappearance, and they weren’t about to lose another witness. Upshaw was heavily guarded around the clock. He testified that he’d been with the gang: Graham, Perkins, Santo,True and Shorter when they’d cased the Monohan home on the night before the crime. He knew all about the plan and had opted out. He decided that he wanted nothing to do with robbing Las Vegas bigwig Tutor Scherer. He remembered what had happened to Tony Trombino and Tony Brancato back in 1951.

The Two Tonys

The Two Tonys

Trombino and Brancato, known as the Two Tonys, were murdered in a car after cheating Las Vegas gambler Sam Lazes out of $3000 by posing as collectors for a local syndicate gambler. Upsahw had no desire to mess with Vegas and end up like the Two Tonys.indictments headline

On June 3, 1953 Perkins, Santo, True and Graham were indicted by the county grand jury on charges of conspiracy to commit burglary, robbery and murder in the death of Mrs. Mabel Monohan.

The cops and the D.A. lucked out when John True decided to turn State’s Evidence in exchange for his freedom. Apparently the indictment in a capital murder case scared John True straight — or as straight as he could be. Taking no chances with this witness, cops guarded John day and night against possible retaliation.

NEXT TIME: The trial and aftermath.