Listen to Mike Gray reading chapter one.
Goff is edgy about all the kids on the street. There are civilians all over the place and old folks on the porches even though it's been dark for hours. The temperature's barely into the 50s, but on the heels of a brutal winter in Chicago, any wind that's not from the north is an icebreaker.
Detective Frank Goff is in the back seat of a blue Chevy Suburban across from an aging brick six-flat on 113th Street. This is a lower-middle-class black neighborhood, mostly homeowners trying to keep their places up and not succeeding. The building Goff and his crew are watching is just a couple of blocks off State Street, "that Great Street," but when you get this far south - and this late in the 20th Century - it loses any resemblance to the boulevard of song and fable.
The van's windows are heavily tinted, but to be on the safe side Goff has added burlap curtains. He can still see through the mesh, but from the outside, the heavy cloth will shade any accidental kick of light from metallic objects. Scotty Freeman is at the wheel, and he's black, but Goff is staying out of sight. A white boy would look quite out of place around here. The two other guys on the crew, Fisher and Washington, are across the street in the vestibule of the six-flat. They're waiting for a coke dealer named Ramone.
It's been a long day. They started this morning cramped up in this same van, watching crack deals go down near a grammar school way out on the West Side. And that's what lead them here. This elite team is with the school unit of the Chicago Police Department. It's Goff's job to make some kind of dent, however small, in the gang and narcotics activity that is devouring the city's school system. "To stop guns and narcotics around the school. That's our specific assignment. To get the drive-by shooters, to get the narcotics away from the schools. "
Their target this morning was an area known as "K-Town" about fifteen miles northwest of here. Goff had been tipped that the area around the Marconi Grammar School was flooded with crack. He decided to drive a wedge in this operation. He got his team in position around 8:00 a.m. and what they saw over the next few hours would have left the average Chicagoan bug-eyed. But none of it was news to Goff. He sees this all the time. A car pulls up, a couple of guys get out, each one with a dozen "Sixty-packs" - sixty little vials of crack, about a fifth of a gram in each. These guys are the wholesalers. They round up their street dealers and front each one a single 60-pack. In about ten or fifteen minutes, the street dealer will sell out his supply at ten bucks a pop. He keeps $100, turns the other $500 over to the wholesaler, and gets another 60-pack. If you hustle at this game, you can be the richest kid on the block..
These street dealers, of course, are all quite young. They have to be. In Illinois it's a Class X felony to sell drugs within 1000 yards of a school, a park or a church - which covers most of the city - and that carries a mandatory 6-to 60-year sentence. But the maximum you can give a juvenile is 30 days in the Audy Home. Common sense dictates that the dealers would use these youngsters on the street and keep the adults out of sight. The youngest kid Goff spotted this morning looked to be about 11. He was not a full fledged dealer, he would just take over when one of the older boys went to take a piss or something. His main job was lookout. They paid him $50 a day to ride his bike up and down the street watching for the "Five-Oh!" (as in Hawaii Five-Oh).
As for the buyers in this open-air drug market, some of them were quite young as well. The youngest was probably in the fifth grade, but they weren't all schoolchildren. The oldest was in his 70s. There was a mailman, a CTA bus driver - they were white, black, Spanish, you name it. At one point Goff spotted a pregnant white lady carrying a baby in a papoose sling with a gallon of milk in one hand walking down the street. Goff said, "What the hell is she doing here?" She bought a $10 hit.
The impact of this kind of activity on an otherwise peaceful neighborhood is beyond belief. When the dealers move in, the most significant change, of course, is the guns. To protect their interests, the dealers bring with them a considerable amount of firepower and they like to flash it so that everybody understands they're not kidding. Dealing in contraband is an inherently dangerous business. There are mountains of loose cash all over the place and if somebody sticks you up, you have to deal with it yourself because you sure as hell can't call the cops. Along with the constant threat of bandits, there is the constant battle over the marketing franchise. The only contract you have to do business on this street corner - a business that may be worth $20,000 a day - is the enforcer you've got stuck in your belt. And when the competition shows up, a century of civilization is stripped away and the neighborhood is transformed into Dodge City, ca.1850. The toughest sonofabitch on main street runs the show and the good citizens keep their mouths shut. Imagine half a dozen teenagers in Chicago Bulls starter jackets with their caps on backwards and automatics stuffed in their pants transacting business in your driveway. You don't see a thing. And that's what impressed Goff this morning as he watched from the van. Here were ordinary folks, working stiffs, trying to keep up the neighborhood, sweeping sidewalks, washing cars, never making eye-contact with the dealers. The dealers might as well have been invisible.
A few hours after the top gun dropped off the first shipment, he came back to pick up the cash receipts and replenish inventory. From the back seat, two guys stepped out with guns at the ready just like Brinks guards, and scanned the street while the money was counted, bagged, and sealed. Apparently it tallied up. These guys split and a few minutes later another car dropped off the next round of 60-packs. "They always keep it separate," says Goff. "The drugs and the money are never together."
Just like the Chrysler Corporation in a good year, this outfit was running three shifts a day, seven days a week. By noon, Goff and his team had seen enough to bust practically everybody in sight. He gave a shout over the radio and squad cars came screaming in from every angle, guys jumping out, guns all over the place, people running, handcuffs, faces on the pavement, everybody on both sides swearing Motherfucker-this and Motherfucker-that. They hauled ten kids off to the lockup, confiscated five automatics and a couple of Chinese AK-47s. And they shut down the operation, at least for the rest of the day. But Goff had no illusions that he'd made any permanent alteration here. "You know you ain't gonna stop it," he says. "It's a game."
It's a game, however, he can play with deadly skill. Unflappable, quick-witted and creative, Goff has all the essential ingredients of an undercover cop. Now in his mid-forties with over twenty years on the force, his close-cropped graying hair and trim salt-and-pepper beard frame the kind of small town good looks people trust at first glance. Cops and robbers alike say Frank Goff is a man of his word. He also reads the street better than most. "A lot of these guys that are users, they ain't bad guys. We see a lot of working guys, truck drivers and everything, people with jobs. They're not robbing people to buy this $10 bag. Why arrest all these people? You know, they got a problem. So instead of just getting this kid selling a bag or two or this guy who buys a bag or two - we work our way up the chain." As soon as the dust settled, it took Goff about five minutes of threats and promises to find out where all this rock was coming from. The locals fingered "Ramone," a Gangster Disciple and known dealer who's address on 113th Street came up on the computer. Goff and his team headed for the South Side.
By sundown, Scotty Freeman and Darren Washington, the two African-American half-backs on Goff's squad, are waiting in the darkened corridor of Ramone's apartment building as he comes in. When the hands reach out to grab him, he assumes he's a dead man. It seems that his little operation up in K-Town is a private sideline not sanctioned by the Gangster Disciples. Ramone thinks he's about to get whacked. He's so relieved when they say "Police!" he practically kisses them.
On the other hand, he has half-a-pound of rock cocaine in his pocket and a pair of Tech-9 assault weapons in his apartment. And since they've already checked his rap sheet, they know he has a major case pending. So in the time it takes to flip a coin, Ramone decides to become a C.I. - Confidential Informant - in return for a little slack. With Goff listening in, Ramone calls his supplier - "De-De" and asks him to come by with another kilo. Then Goff and his men take up positions in the vestibule and in the van across the street. They're expecting De-De any minute now.
Over the past decade, Goff says, he's seen a sea change in the drug war in Chicago. "Ten years ago, if you stopped a dope dealer and he had $2000 on him, that was a big deal. Today you can find that much in some kid's lunch bucket. And that's another thing that's changing. Before it was men. And they were mostly dealing reefer. Now, that's one of the hardest things to find is reefer. There's a big upsurge in heroin. Acid is back. Crack is all over the place. I absolutely guarantee that I could go anywhere in the city and buy dope within three or four blocks. Very easily done. For instance, there's place a block from the station house. This one operation maybe does fifteen or twenty thousand a week.."
Headlights sweep the street as a car turns onto 113th at the corner. Through the burlap, Goff watches as the guy parks in the spot they've saved for him in front of Ramone's six-flat. "That's the wrong car," says Freeman. De-De's supposed to be in a Dodge Shadow. This is aFord. Freeman and Goff get out and approach the driver cautiously. They don't want to scare him to death. They flash their badges and politely ask him to move on. The startled citizen is gone in a flash. They get back in the van and wait.
A few minutes later, Bob Fischer comes out of the building. Goff cracks the window. Fischer says Ramone just got a call from De-De. "He wants Ramone to come down and pick the stuff up because he's having problems with his starter. He can't shut the car off." Just then another car turns onto the street. Fischer jumps in back of the van with Goff to get out of sight. They watch the car roll up to them and pull into the open slot in front of Ramone's building.
"Blue Honda," says Freeman. Still the wrong car. They get out again. Goff crosses the street and moves up the sidewalk as Freeman and Fischer approach on the driver's side. No sudden moves. They don't want some poor taxpayer jumping out of his skin. The guy is half out the door when he spots them. He's got what looks like a pizza in a plastic bag in one hand and a sack of flour in the other. Goff says, "Sir, we're police officers, would you mind -
" BRRRRRRRUP! He's cut off by 25 rounds from the machinegun inside the plastic bag. Goff is hit in the neck. Scotty Freeman is down. Fischer, narrowly missed, blasts away with his weapon as De-De jumps back in and jams the Honda in gear. Goff, bleeding at the neck, empties his Baretta at the fleeing car.
Frank Goff has this recurring nightmare - he knows a lot of cops who have this dream - where he's firing and firing and nothing's happening. The bullets are just falling out of the gun barrel. Now he's living the nightmare. He can see the windows shattering, but these soft-point police bullets flatten on impact to prevent a ricochet. They're penetrating the glass but without enough force to do any damage to the driver. De-De, on the other hand, is using armor piercing ammo. The round that grazed Goff's neck also went through both sides of a car half a block down the street. But while Goff's bullets aren't drawing blood, they still hit like a sledgehammer, and De-De is stunned. The windshield is so riddled he can't see out of it and he's bouncing off cars on both sides of the street. Goff jams in another clip and takes off after him on foot as the other guys look after Scotty Freeman.
Crashing his way down the street, De-De is not making very good time. Goff is gaining on him. De-De pitches a handgun out the window. Goff scoops it up on the run. It's a "throw gun" an old pistol he tossed out so that Goff would think he's unarmed. But at the end of the block De-De's luck runs out. He hits a truck and careens across a front lawn and into a house. The startled folks on the front porch are apparently so used to neighborhood gunfire they don't connect it with this smoking wreck in their yard. They think it's a traffic accident. As Goff approaches at a dead run, his nightmare is suddenly compounded. Three little kids rush down from the porch to the driver's window, look in at De-De slumped over the wheel, and shout for momma to call an ambulance. Goff is yelling, "Get away from the car!" but they're paralyzed. De-De lifts his head slightly, eases his hand down to the Ruger 9mm lying on the seat beside him, and without lifting the gun, fires ten rounds through the door.
The sound of the gunfire is contained inside the car so Goff doesn't even realize he's being shot at until he's hit. One slug nicks his forearm, another his shoulder, but he can't fire back because of the kids. De-De meanwhile has recovered his senses. He jams the Honda in gear and roars off across the lawn. Goff blasts away at him as he careens around the corner, but De-De's taillights vanish in the distance. At this point in an otherwise spectacular getaway, De-De makes his first mistake. He calls his girlfriend on the car phone and says he's been hit in a shootout. He tells her to open the front door. But he doesn't say anything about the cops, so she assumes it was rival gangbangers. She dials 911.
Meanwhile Goff and Freeman are getting their wounds tended by the paramedics. They were lucky. Aside from several 9mm holes in his jacket, Goff's three wounds are superficial. And Scotty Freeman was saved by his bullet-proof vest. The shell just nicked the edge of it and deflected up under his collarbone. They're on their way downtown in the back of an ambulance when they happen to overhear a 911 call on the radio. A man with a gunshot wound needs an ambulance. Goff looks at Freeman. "That's gotta be the guy."
When the gang unit arrives at De-De's house to nab him, they find seven flattened bullets on the pavement beside his car. They apparently fell off his jacket when he got out. This time the slippery dealer offers no resistance.
As soon as Goff gets stitched up, he and Bob Fischer take a ride to the impound yard for a look at the unstoppable Honda. It's riddled with holes and all the glass is shattered but the damn thing still runs. "Quite a testament to Honda," says Goff. But a look inside the trunk reveals one of the reasons - a sheet of boilerplate steel mounted at the forward wall. Goff recognizes this setup. It's what they call a "trap car." Behind that bullet-proof wall there's usually a hidden compartment.
He checks the driver's side in front and spots a slight bulge under the carpet next to the rocker panel. It's a floor-mounted switch. Goff clicks it with his foot and the back of the rear seat falls forward. And there it is - bagged and ready for sale - 17 pounds of rock and powder cocaine. Along with bundles of cash. Tens and twenties mostly. It takes a quarter of an hour to count it. It totals $53,000.
Goff is impressed. "The day's receipts," he says. And a glance at De-De's ledger bears him out. The account book they found with the dope gives a glimpse of the incredible scale of the problem facing Frank Goff and his colleagues. In the first ten days of March, this mid-level delivery man for the Gangster Disciples took in $451,000.
He personally pocketed 45 grand. How many other delivery jobs on this planet pay $1.5 million a year? If this story were fiction, we would now expect Frank Goff to get some kind of commendation. Maybe even a promotion. But three days later he got a blunt warning from his superiors: "Don't ever do that again." While it's true that Goff and his men recovered a dozen weapons, confiscated seven-and-a-half kilos of coke and $53,000 in cash and shut down a major crack operation, all in one 18-hour day that wasn't their assignment. Their assignment was to keep crack away from the schools. And while Goff can argue that it makes a hell of a lot more sense to go for the roots of the vine rather than plucking the grapes one at a time, his superiors don't see it that way.
First of all, there were a total of 72 rounds blasted off in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It's a miracle there weren't six or eight bodies on the pavement, Frank Goff's among them. The brass isn't interested in this kind of wild-west gunplay, no matter what the results. To make sure Goff gets the message, they order him back into uniform. No more undercover work. From now on he and his men will ride in marked squad cars and stick to busting teenage dealers with dime bags.
Goff is disgusted, but not surprised. They have a saying downtown: "Big dope, big problems. Little dope, little problems. No dope, no problems." Downtown, they look on narcotics as a swamp, a sink-hole that can suck your career under in an eye blink. The river of money flowing through the streets, splashing over the curbs, and into the pockets of everybody in sight is unlike anything they've ever seen before. There are opportunities for disaster at every turn. Says Goff, "You walk in a room - you're making $45,000 a year - and there's a million dollars in cash, and the guy jumps out the window. Do you chase him? Or do you figure this is far enough?" But you don't have to be a police commissioner to see the possibilities. The headlines are full of it: TALES OF CORRUPTION AGAIN TAR N.Y. POLICE... 9 NEW ORLEANS OFFICERS INDICTED ON DRUG, GUN CHARGES... U.S. CHARGES 12 D.C. OFFICERS WITH A DRUG-PROTECTION RACKET... WIDESPREAD CORRUPTION IN L.A. NARCOTICS SQUAD... In one brief period, over twenty officers from Brooklyn's Seventy-fifth Precinct were implicated in drug dealing, gunrunning, and murder. In neighboring Brownsville, ten officers from the Seventy-third were tagged with running their own drug ring. In the Thirtieth up in Harlem - "Dirty Thirty - two dozen officers were charged with shaking down dealers and selling the drugs themselves. Investigators said at least ten of the seventy-five precincts may be involved. In Los Angeles, one of the sheriff's elite narcotics squads went down in flames when its members were videotaped stealing drug money from a hotel room. No sooner was this team dispatched to jail than three deputies from another squad were busted with over a million dollars they shook out of dealers and money launderers.
In Chicago, they seem to have figured out how to avoid all this untidyness. This is a city that understands corruption, and they have a biblical fix on it: "Lead us not into temptation." All ongoing narcotics investigations are handled by the narcotics squad, and the narcotics squad itself is focused entirely on small-time buy-bust arrests. There's almost zero chance of anybody in the lower ranks stumbling into a roomful of cash or a truckload of coke. And any serious attempt to follow the trail upward is discouraged. As they told Goff, "You're going after the right guys and somebody's gonna get hurt."
Of course, there are a couple of ways to read that statement. It's clear the department has a legitimate concern about holding down the level of mayhem. But any time the boss says, "Don't open that door," your average Chicago cop is going to suspect there's something behind the door. "I have a good idea," says Goff. "You can't really nail it down, but a lot of guys are thinking somebody's making bread somewhere."
Could it be that the "Chicago solution" is to intercept the corrupting cash at the highest level, and thus prevent it from trickling down and infecting the troops? Whether it's true or not, nobody argues that it's inconceivable. The Gangster Disciples - just one of half a dozen drug empires in Cook County - take in tens of millions a year and their overhead is peanuts. They pay no taxes, no benefits, no rent. They handle their own insurance, make their own collections, and the raw materials are so cheap they get a 300 percent return on the dollar. Which means the G.D.s could spend several million dollars a year in bribes to Cook County public officials, and it would be considered a modest cost of doing business.
But despite all the talk of high-level payoffs, Frank Goff has lately come to fear an even more ominous development in the ongoing battle. The Gangster Disciples have discovered politics. After a decade of learning how to manipulate the levers of power through surrogates, the G.D.s are beginning to look directly at the levers themselves. "It's just like the old mob days," says Goff. "We're talking about a street gang that can intimidate people, put up your flyers, tear down all the other people's flyers, get people to vote and register and come to the polls. This group can control a lot of votes. They finally realized that. They can elect whatever politician they want."
The political power of the G.D.s spilled into the open one fall afternoon in 1993 at a downtown protest rally over school funding. Mayor Daley and his colleages were watching from the fifth floor of City Hall when Loop traffic suddenly ground to a halt as the march was joined by hundreds of orderly, disciplined young African Americans. What impressed the seasoned City Hall onlookers more than anything was the fact that the troops on the streets below had apparently been fielded at a moment's notice. They carried signs that said "21st Century V.O.T.E." According to the mayor's aides, that's the political arm of the Gangster Disciples.
"They've already elected certain people," says Goff, "Once you get that, once you can get the judges and the lawmakers elected, you can control everything."
In the courtrooms of Chicago, as in the creaking justice system throughout the country, the mills of the gods grind slowly. By the time the details have been worked out with De-De and his lawyers, twenty-one months have slipped past and it's winter again. The sentencing is finally set for December 8, 1994, and Frank Goff makes it a point to be there - but not with any sense of vengeance. Although De-De did his best to blast Goff full of holes, the even-tempered cop makes it a point not to take any of this personally. On the other hand, given all the back room orchestration he's already witnessed on this case, Goff just wants to make sure the guy doesn't slip through the cracks.
The Cook County Criminal Courts building at 26th Street and California Avenue is five miles southwest of the Loop and light years from the experience of the average citizen. The seven-story limestone facade with its chisled motifs - VERITAS...PUBLICAS...JUSTITIA - speak of another era, and the broad steps rising to meet the fluted Doric columns no longer lead anywhere. The ornate bronze doors are permanently sealed. The entrance is now in the glass lobby to the south, which is able to accommodate something the original architects could never have forseen - metal detectors.
The third floor courtroom has also made a concession to the times: a wall of bullet-proof windows now separates the officials from the onlookers. Inch-thick panels of Lexan angle upward from steel framed partitions in front of the spectators, and the judge's words come to them through speakers in the ceiling. It would be hard to imagine a more telling symbol of the apprehension that permeates the criminal justice system.
Since this is a plea-bargain there's no jury, so Goff takes a seat in the box next to Scotty Freeman. When De-De is brought out from the holding cell, they're surprised to see that he's lost about 25 pounds. Goff leans to Freeman. "Doesn't look like jail set well with him." For his part, De-De fixes on the judge as the charges are read, never once glancing at his tormentors in the jury box. The judge asks him if he actually did all this. "Yes." Do you have anything to say? "Nope."
The sentence, of course, has already been hammered out among the lawyers. In Illinois, trying to kill a police officer will get you 6-to-30 years, so the state's attorney initially asked for 25. But De-De is well spoken, well mannered, and his family is well connected to the church. Over a hundred letters came from all over the community saying what a fine young man he is, that his parents are decent churchgoing people, that he got off on wrong track and got crazy, that he should be released, that he was set up. And then the case was assigned to a liberal judge. The state's attorney said this particular judge could conceivably give De-De the minimum. Goff thought that was bizarre. "I just got some fifteen-year-old kid six years for selling twenty grams of coke." Now here they were talking about giving the same rap to a guy who had just tried to blow away three police officers. Goff said, "Okay, if the judge tries to give him six, I'll have his whole courtroom filled with Fraternal Order of Police members." Goff and the boys agreed to go down to twenty years. In the end everybody settled on fifteen.
Like a slave in the dock, De-De stands in prison garb, hands behind his back, head slightly bowed, as the judge hands him 15-years for each attempt on 3 counts - Goff, Freeman, and Fisher - plus 15 years for the dope and the pistol he pitched out the window - plus 15 years for the dope and pistol in the car - a total of 75 years. But the sentences will run concurrently. Since he's already served 21 months - and since he's eligible for parole at the half-way mark - De-De will be back on the streets in five and a half years.
"It was good for De-De," says Goff. "In his gang he'll be elevated in rank. One: he kept his mouth shut - two: he did hard time in the joint - three: he tried to kill police. He'll be elevated substantially and he was pretty high to begin with. He'll be a regent. Or they may make him a governor." That would be good fortune indeed. A governor for the Black Gangster Disciples answers only to the top guy, Larry Hoover, the eminence gris who runs the show from a cell in Joliet. If De-De becomes a governor he will control an entire section of the city, and through his hands will pass an unimaginable torrent of cash.
Who gets what in the BGDs is determined with absolute dictatorial authority by the lithe and enigmatic Hoover, the 45-year-old founder of the gang, now doing 150 years for murder. To some people, it may seem a little bewildering that a man behind bars can operate a major drug cartel as efficiently as if he was working out of a Michigan Avenue office suite. But if you're in the drug business it's self explanatory. Sooner or later everyone in the trade, like De-De, will wind up doing a little time. If De-De has been straight with the organization and has not messed with the money, he'll be in good shape. When he arrives in Joliet, instead of getting his throat cut, he will find protection, comraderie, and cash. And in prison as in the world at large, if you've got the cash you can have anything you want.
As Goff and Freeman are leaving the courtroom, it becomes clear why the Lexan panels were installed between the crowd and the court officials. The boy's mother is waiting for them and she's enraged. She berates Goff, but rather than waste her wrath on the white boy, she aims most of it at Scotty Freeman. "You should be ashamed to be in the same race as us!"
There was a final sinister sidebar to the events leading up to De-De's capture. "Everybody that was involved with that is now dead," says Goff. "All the players. The guy's house we went to - they killed, like, five or six people. They were trying to find the informant. They never did get him."
To an old Chicago hand like Studs Terkel, all this murder and mayhem has a slightly familiar ring to it. Studs has spent the last seven decades coursing the streets of the city recording the images that would emerge in best sellers like WORKING and HARD TIMES and DIVISION STREET. He says the last time the streets were this full of dead bodies, he was a teenager, and the man calling the shots was a punk from Brooklyn known affectionately as Big Al.
Alphonse Capone was born in the shadow of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the last year of the Nineteeth Century. His parents, a young immigrant couple from a village on the Bay of Naples, were unable to deflect him from the allure of street life and by the time he was sixteen he was an enforcer for the Five-Points gang. In the summer of 1919, he suddenly needed to get out of town for health reasons, so he took a train to Chicago and got work as a bouncer at the Four Deuces, a famous saloon-whorehouse on South Wabash.
The Four Deuces was owned by Johnny Torrio, a dainty little immigrant from Naples with tiny hands and chipmunk jowls - hardly the image of a gangster. But his head, too large for his body, housed a first rate criminal mind. Torrio may have been the first mobster of the modern era, the first real gangland businessman. He hated violence - "There's enough for everybody, boys." But if push came to shove, he always had a cage full of gorillas like Alphonse Capone to handle the pushing and shoving.
The event that would transform these two men from local pimps to international icons had taken place a few months earlier when Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the 18th Amendment to the Constitution: "... the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation therof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States... is hereby prohibited." It would take effect just after the new year in 1920. "For John Torrio," writes biographer Robert Schoenberg, "Prohibition was an answered prayer. He always strove to turn crime into a regular business; now the fools had obliged him by making a regular business criminal."
By erecting an artificial barrier between alcohol producers and consumers, the government had created a potential bonanza that can only be likened to the Gold Rush. No talent or capital was required, just guts and muscle. But the scale of the logistical problem was something the criminal element had never confronted before. While a speedboat full of Canadian whiskey might turn a tidy little profit, it made no dent in the thirst of fifty million drinkers. Supplying thousands of clandestine taverns on a daily basis called for organization, manpower, fleets of trucks, breweries, distilleries, warehouses - all the components of major corporations - and since they were dealing with contraband, they could only hire criminals. This simple dictate brought together thousands of muscle men, cutthroats, gamblers and con artists who otherwise would never have spoken to each other, and welded them into a panoply of efficient law-breaking machines. It was this demand for integrated operations that would create the crime syndicate as we know it today. As historian Andrew Sinclair put it, "National prohibition transferred $2 billion a year from the hands of brewers, distillers, and shareholders to the hands of murderers, crooks, and illiterates."
The seeds of organized crime had been in place since the Civil War. In the 1870s, professional gamblers began banding together to defend themselves against civic minded reformers and other do-gooders. Men like John Torrio, who ran gambling and prostitution operations, had already planted seeds of corruption in city hall and the police department. Torrio was in a position to fertilize those seeds because he had what the others lacked: vision.
Nearly thirty years the Anti-Saloon League had lobbied for Prohibition and on the eve of their triumph, they issued a statement to the press: "At one minute past midnight tomorrow a new nation will be born... tonight John Barleycorn makes his last will and testament. Now for an era of clean thinking and clean living!" For Bishop James Cannon, who had devoted his life to the temperance crusade, this was a moment of ultimate victory. For John Torrio and Al Capone, for the Purple Gang in Detroit, for Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello, for Charlie "King" Soloman in Boston and Max "Boo Boo" Hoff in Philly, for Samuel Bronfman and for Joe Kennedy and hundreds of other incipient millionaires across this great freedom-loving land, it was indeed the dawn of a new day. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the bootleggers instead of the bishop who had the most accurate fix on human nature.
Laying hands on the booze itself proved to be the least of their problems. A Niagra of whisky began flowing over the Canadian border, which proved to be as porous then as now, and clandestine mother ships plied the seas off both coasts, off-loading European and Latin American produce onto high-powered motor launches for the midnight run to shore. And onshore, illegal distilleries and breweries of all sizes flourished everywhere. The "Terrible Gennas" who controlled Little Italy on Chicago's near West Side organized alcohol cooking as a cottage industry. They installed hundreds of stills in tenement flats and spare rooms, supplying the mash, yeast, and sugar, paying $15 a day to the man or woman or child who stoked the fire. At the other end of the spectrum there were huge distilleries operating openly wherever they could arrange political cover. Breweries were still allowed to make non-alcoholic beer and a sizeable draft of the product was either diverted before the alcohol was taken out or had the alcohol put back in later. But the most common ingredient in booze was industrial alcohol, which is used for manufacturing everything from paint and printing ink to plastics and cosmetics. To discourage people from drinking it, industrial alcohol was laced with poison, but this poison could be boiled off through redistilling. Industrial alcohol was siphoned into the illegal market at such a phenomenal rate that it ultimately accounted for half the booze drunk in the 1920s. To give it the taste and color of scotch, you added caramel, prune juice, and creosote .
Torrio originally entered the market as a wholesaler, and with Capone as his right arm, they set up arrangements with importers in Detroit, New York, New Orleans, and Florida, with brewers from Joliet to Racine, and illegal distillers throughout the Midwest. They trucked the booze from all points to warehouses in Cook County and delivered it to hundreds, and then thousands of retail outlets. While the prices were two to ten times what they had been - a keg of beer now went for $50.00 - that figure included protection. To ensure peace in the marketplace, Torrio offered the perfect arrangement. The small-time operators were simply put on the payroll. The big-time operators were offered dependable supplies and protected territory. Everybody would respect everbody else's turf. No outsiders could move in. No speakeasy could buy from anybody but the designated chief of that territory.
Unfortunately, lucrative high-risk enterprises tend to attract the ruthless and greedy, which meant that Torrio's business partners included such volatile lunatics as the Terrible Gennas, Claude "Screwy" Maddox, and Dion O'Banion, a cherubic little Irishman who might either buy you a drink or shoot you in the back depending on his mood. O'Banion once set Torrio up by selling him the Siebens Brewery on the Near North Side just a few hours before it was scheduled to be raided. Initially, Torrio refused to go after O'Banion, prefering diplomacy to slaughter in the interests of business. But the nature of the business demanded violence. There was no way to prevent it. All arguments, whether about territory, profits, or management philosophy had to be settled by force. In short order, the streets of Chicago were red with blood, as were the streets of Kansas City and Detroit and almost every other major American city. The Cook County State's Attorney, trying to stem the crimson tide, added a thousand men to the police force, got the county to triple the number of judges, and had absolutely no impact whatsoever. Over 200 gangsters were gunned down, blown up, or knifed to death during the first two terms of his watch - on at least one occasion there was a machinegun duel in broad daylight right in front of the Standard Oil Building on Michigan Avenue but not a single gangster was sent up for murder. In court, witnesses contracted a disease called "Chicago Amnesia," and one prospective juror told the judge straight out he wouldn't vote guilty because he didn't want to get beaten to a pulp.
In January of 1925 a serious attempt was made on Torrio's life. Remnants of the O'Banion gang, rightly convinced that Torrio had signed off on the murder of their erratic leader, waited for Torrio outside his house with shotguns. They blew four holes in him as he was getting out of his car. Somehow he survived, but for a man who liked to hum opera to himself, this was no way to make a living. He turned the operation over to his less sensitive side-kick, Big Al.
At this point Capone took total command of an army of some 500 men, and his ruthless approach to marketing soon eliminated or co-opted almost all of his competitors. He travelled through the city of Chicago in a seven-ton armored Cadillac with cars ahead and behind full of young men openly displaying submachineguns. Aldermen, senators and judges took orders from Capone over the telephone, and his annual tax-free income was about to make him one of the richest men in America.
He was 26 years old.
And that is the striking thing about these Prohibition-era public enemies that jumps out at you from the old photographs. All the faces are so young. Street punks with machineguns.
But there's one other thing that resonates with our time. If you look at a gangland map of Chicago from the 1920s, you find a chilling similarity with the map of today. On the Near North Side where the O'Banion gang once slugged it out with the Terrible Gennas, you now find the Vice Lords facing off with the Latin Kings. And where Terry Druggan and Frankie Lake once peddled synthetic scotch whiskey and needled beer, the Mexican Mafia now provides cocaine and heroin. And there can be no doubt who is the successor to Big Al. The vast territory that sweeps from the South Side and arcs around the Loop to the West is owned and operated by Larry Hoover and the Black Gangster Disciples.
Updated: 19 May 2018 |
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