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Origins and Traditions

Ginza area of Tokyo
Ginza area of Tokyo (AP)

In a private club in Tokyo's neon-lit Ginza entertainment district, men in dark pinstripe suits drink, smoke and play cards.  A few of the men are huddled together in a corner, involved in hushed but animated conversation.  Others puff their chests out for the accommodating "comfort women" who adorn the smoke-filled room like well-placed flower arrangements.

The club is on the second floor of a small building where the constant whir and clang of a busy pachinko parlor on the ground floor can be heard upstairs.  Pachinko is the Japanese national obsession, a slot machine that sends tiny chrome balls through a vertical maze, like a pinball machine set on end but smaller in size.  The relentless chatter of hundreds of moving pachinko balls is softened by the club's sound system, which plays the theme from The Godfather, performed on traditional Japanese instruments, koto (Japanese banjo) and wood flute.

Pachinko machines in Tokyo
Pachinko machines in Tokyo (AP)

A squat older man sits toward the back of the room at a table surrounded by bowing young associates, who respond to every order and request he makes with an unvarying hail of "Hai!  Hai!" ("Yes!  Yes!").   The older man is flanked by two women—one in a short black cocktail dress, the other in a schoolgirl's pleated plaid skirt and white blouse.  Both women cover their mouths and giggle at the man's every gruff word.

A young man in a shiny sharkskin suit enters the room, his head bowed.  The other men immediately take notice and stop talking.  The young man approaches the older man's table.  He does not dare lift his eyes.  Without a word he formally presents an artfully wrapped object to the older man.  The package is no bigger than a small piece of candy, but the young man sets it down on the table ceremoniously with both hands.  His left pinky is heavily bandaged.  The old man stares at the offering, then stares at the young man's damaged hand.  The moment is tense until the older man nods, his face relaxing a bit, and orders one of his minions to remove the offering without opening it.  Everyone in the room knows what it is, the severed last joint of the young man's finger.  The gift is an act of appeasement.  Several men in the room have also lost parts of their pinkies.  It is one of the telltale signs of the Japanese yakuza.

Asian gang member holding gun
Asian gang member holding gun (AP)

In a society where conformity is highly valued, and outward signs of individuality can arouse suspicion, the yakuza, Japan's native organized crime group, deliberately goes against the grain; or, as they would say in Japan, the yakuza stubbornly refuses to be "hammered down," referring to the often quoted national proverb, "The nail that sticks up must be hammered down."

Japanese art showing ronin
Japanese art showing ronin (CORBIS)

The origin of the yakuza is a matter of some debate.  Some feel that its members are descendents of the 17th-century kabuki-mono (crazy ones), outlandish samurai who reveled in outlandish clothing and hair styles, spoke in elaborate slang, and carried unusually long swords in their belts.  The kabuki-mono were also known as hatamoto-yakko (servants of the shogun).  During the Tokugawa era, an extended period of peace in Japan, the services of these samurai were no longer needed, and so they became leaderless ronin (wave men).  Without the guidance of a strong hand, they eventually shifted their focus from community service to theft and mayhem.

Modern yakuza members refute this theory and instead proclaim themselves to be the descendents of the machi-yokko (servants of the town) who protected their villages from the wayward hatamoto-yakko.  The official yakuza history portrays the group's ancestors as underdog folk heroes who stood up for the poor and the defenseless, just as Robin Hood helped the peasants of medieval England.

Current yakuza members fall under three general categories: tekiya (street peddlers), bakuto (gamblers), and gurentai (hoodlums).  The peddlers and gamblers trace their roots back to the 18th century while the hoodlums came into existence after World War II when the demand for black market goods created a booming industry.  Traditionally the tekiya, medieval Japan's version of snake-oil salesmen, worked the fairs and markets while the bakuto worked the towns and highways.  The gurentai, by contrast, modeled themselves on American gangsters of the Al Capone era, using threats and extortion to achieve their ends.  After World War II, in the governmental power void caused by the Occupation, the gurentai prospered, and their ranks swelled.  They also brought organized crime in Japan to a new level of violence, replacing the traditional sword with modern firearms, even though guns were now officially outlawed in the country as a result of the surrender.

The yakuza are proud to be outcasts, and the word yakuza reflects the group's self-image as society's rejects.  In regional dialect ya means 8, ku means 9, and sa means 3, numbers that add up to 20, which is a losing hand in the card game hana-fuda (flower cards).  The yakuza are the "bad hands of society," a characterization they embrace in the same way that American bikers prominently tattoo the slogan "Born to Lose" on their biceps.

Japanese tattoo artist with Yakuza gang member (CORBIS)
Japanese tattoo artist with Yakuza gang member (CORBIS)

Yakuza members also favor tattoos, but theirs are elaborate body murals that often cover the entire torso, front and back, as well the arms to below the elbow and the legs to mid-calf.  Naked, a fully tattooed yakuza looks like he's wearing long underwear.  Dragons, flowers, mountainous landscapes, turbulent seascapes, gang insignias and abstract designs are typical images used for yakuza body art.  The application of these extensive tattoos is painful and can take hundreds of hours, but the process is considered a test of a man's mettle.

To a Westerner's eye, the yakuza's 1950s rat-pack style of dress can seem comically retro.  Shiny tight-fitting suits, pointy-toed shoes and longish pomaded hair—long out of style in America—are commonplace among the yakuza today.  They also favor large flashy American cars, like Cadillacs and Lincolns.  Unlike other organized crime groups around the world, the yakuza have no interest in keeping a low profile.  In fact, in most Japanese cities, yakuza social clubs and gang headquarters are clearly marked with signs and logos prominently displayed.

But despite their garish style, the yakuza cannot be taken lightly.  In Japan there are 110,000 active members divided into 2,500 families.  By contrast, the United States has more than double the population of Japan but only 20,000 organized crime members total, and that number includes all criminal organizations, not just the Italian-American Mafia.  The yakuza's influence is more pervasive and more accepted within Japanese society than organized crime is in America, and the yakuza have a firm and long-standing political alliance with Japan's right-wing nationalists.  In addition to the typical vice crimes associated with organized crime everywhere, the yakuza are well ensconced in the corporate world.  Their influence extends beyond Japanese borders and into other Asian countries, and even into the United States.

Oyabun-Kobun, Father-Child

Like the Mafia, the yakuza power structure is a pyramid with a patriarch on top and loyal underlings of various rank below him.  The Mafia hierarchy is relatively simple.  The capo (boss) rules the family with the assistance of his underboss and consigliere (counselor).  On the next level, captains run crews of soldiers who all have associates (men who have not been officially inducted into the Mafia) to do their bidding. 

The yakuza system is similar but more intricate.  The guiding principle of the yakuza structure is the oyabun-kobun relationship.  Oyabun literally means "father role"; kobun means "child role."  When a man is accepted into the yakuza, he must accept this relationship.  He must promise unquestioning loyalty and obedience to his boss.  The oyabun, like any good father, is obliged to provide protection and good counsel to his children.  However, as the old Japanese saying states, "If your boss says the passing crow is white, then you must agree."  As the yakuza put it, a kobun must be willing to be a teppodama (bullet) for his oyabun.

The levels of management within the yakuza structure are much more complex than the Mafia's.  Immediately under the kumicho (supreme boss) are the saiko komon (senior adviser) and the so-honbucho (headquarters chief).  The wakagashira (number-two man) is a regional boss responsible for governing many gangs; he is assisted by the fuku-honbucho, who is responsible for several gangs of his own.  A lesser regional boss is a shateigashira, and he commonly has a shateigashira-hosa to assist him.  A typical yakuza crime family will also have dozens of shatei (younger brothers)  and many wakashu (junior leaders).

A successful candidate for admission into the Mafia must participate in a ceremony where his trigger finger is pricked and the blood smeared on the picture of a saint, which is then set on fire and must burn in the initiate's hands as he swears his loyalty to the family.  In the yakuza initiation ceremony, the blood is symbolized by sake (rice wine).  The oyabun and the initiate sit face-to-face as their sake is prepared by azukarinin (guarantors).  The sake is mixed with salt and fish scales, then carefully poured into cups.  The oyabun's cup is filled to the brim, befitting his status; the initiate gets much less.  They drink a bit, then exchange cups, and each drinks from the other's cup.  The kobun has then sealed his commitment to the family.  From that moment on, even the kobun's wife and children must take a backseat to his obligations to his yakuza family.

Japanese Katana sword
Japanese Katana sword (AP)

If a yakuza member displeases or severely disappoints his boss, the punishment is often yubizume, the amputation of the last joint of the little finger.  A second offense will require the severing of the second joint of that finger, and additional offenses might require moving on to the next finger.  A man knows that he must commit yubizume when his immediate superior gives him a knife and a string to staunch the bleeding.  Words are not necessary.  The origin of this practice dates back to the days of the samurai.  Removing part of the smallest finger weakens the hand for holding the sword.  When a katana (the samurai long sword) is gripped properly, the pinkie is the strongest finger.  The ring finger is the second strongest, middle finger third strongest, and the index finger does almost nothing.  With a damaged hand, the swordsman became  more dependent on his master for protection.  Today this ritual maiming is entirely symbolic, but it serves to make a point with delinquent kobun, and it shows that the yakuza, like their Mafia counterparts, abide by the old saying: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

Like the Mafia, the yakuza in recent years have been forced to lower their standards when recruiting new members, and as a result some feel that they are neither as organized nor as powerful as they once were.  In the past, choice recruits came from the traditional bakuto (gambler) and tekiya (peddler) classes, but today a rebel spirit and a willingness to commit crime for an oyabun is all that is necessary to join the yakuza ranks.  Most new members currently come from the bosozuku (speed tribes), street punks known for their love of motorcycles.

This lowering of standards has led to the Japanese National Police Agency adopting the term boryokudan ({the violent ones}) for the yakuza, lumping them in with other criminal groups.  The yakuza, who treasure their ancestral ties to the old samurai, reject the term and consider it an insult.

The Yakuza Godfathers

In the years following World War II, yakuza membership increased dramatically to 184,000 members divided into 5,200 gangs throughout the country, making it larger than the Japanese army at the time.  Inevitably these gangs encroached on one another's territories, which resulted in  bitter and bloody gang wars.  The man who brought peace to the warring factions and unified the yakuza was the group's first 20th-century godfather, Yoshio Kodama.

Kodama's gift was his ability to balance his affiliations to both right-wing political groups and criminal gangs, using each to keep the other in check.  He was a political fixer who served his government through corruption, espionage and other dirty dealings, which the Japanese simply call kuroi kiri (black mist).  In the 1930s and 1940s, he maintained an extensive network of spies in China, feeding information back to the Japanese government.  He procured large shipments of materials, such as nickel, cobalt, copper, and radium, for the mounting war effort, sometimes bartering for these supplies with heroin.  A grateful Japanese government awarded him the title of rear admiral for his patriotic efforts, and by the time the war was over in 1945, Kodama was worth the equivalent of $175 million.

After the Japanese surrendered to the Allied powers, he was classified a Class A war criminal—a distinction reserved only for cabinet ministers, ultra-nationalists and high-ranking military leaders—and served two years in prison before being released as part of a general amnesty.  A fervent anti-Communist with access to valuable information regarding Communist movements in China and Japan and an army of street criminals at his disposal, Kodama became an attractive asset for the occupying forces.  Just as Lucky Luciano provided the Mafia's services to the invading Allied forces in Sicily during World War II,  Kodama acted as go-between for the G-2 section of the occupational forces and the yakuza, and was able to mobilize battalions of gangsters to carry out his political will.  The CIA paid him $150,000 in 1949 to use his underworld connections to smuggle a shipload of tungsten out of China, a shipment that never arrived, although Kodama kept his fee.

Kodama used the yakuza to suppress anything that might be considered a Communist initiative.  In 1949 Kodama ordered one crime group, the Meiraki-gumi, to disrupt a labor movement at the Hokutan Coal Mine.  A fervent nationalist, Kodama used his clout in the hope that the honor and glory of the Japanese empire could one day be restored.  To that end he modernized the bickering and disorganized yakuza gangs and brokered coalitions between the larger factions, throwing their combined support to the conservative, anti-Communist Liberal Democratic Party.    Personally Kodama detested warfare and abhorred street hoods, although they were an important part of his power base.   Ironically his dream was to insure a peaceful Japan.

Kodama was a pivotal figure in the notorious Lockheed scandal that emerged in 1976 when it was revealed that the aircraft giant had paid the godfather more than two million dollars to influence the Japanese market away from McDonnell-Douglas and Boeing and toward Lockheed.  To do this, Kodama sent a gang of sokaiya (shareholders' meeting men) to disrupt a meeting of All Nippon Airways stockholders.  The sokaiya spread rumors of an illegal million-dollar loan made to the president of the company, Tetsuo Oba, who had rejected Lockheed's bid for a new fleet of passenger aircraft.  The pressure mounted on Oba, and he was soon forced to resign.  His replacement was handpicked by Kodama, and the new president was more favorably disposed to purchasing Lockheed's wide-bodied jets.  In 1976 Carl Kotchian, Lockheed's president, was called to testify before a United States Senate committee investigating the Lockheed scandal.  The ripple effect of his shocking testimony reached back to Japan, spurring the national police to investigate Kodama's participation in the scandal.  Though the police could not uncover enough proof to prosecute Kodama on charges stemming from the Lockheed incident, they found that he had evaded taxes on more than  $6 million.  The public was outraged by the enormity of Kodama's tax-fraud scheme.  In fact, a distraught young actor who had been a great admirer of Kodama's attempted to crash a small airplane into Kodama's suburban Tokyo house. 

Kodama survived the kamikaze mission, but his empire was crumbling.  He was indicted for perjury, bribery and violation of the exchange laws, but was deemed too sick to stand trial.  He suffered a stroke and died quietly on January 17, 1984.

The other legendary godfather of the yakuza was Kazuo Taoka, oyabun of Japan's largest crime family, the Yamaguchi-gumi.  His reign lasted 35 years, ending with his death in 1981.  Under his leadership, the Yamaguchi-gumi membership grew to 13,000.  Their presence was felt in  36 of Japan's 47 prefectures, and they controlled more than 2,500 businesses, ran extensive gambling and loan-sharking enterprises, and invested heavily in sports and entertainment.

Taoka first came to power in the port city of Kobe, where his gangs rounded up unskilled laborers and sold their services cheaply to shipping companies.  Other yakuza clans competed for this lucrative racket, but under Taoka's guidance, the Yamaguchi-gumi took the lion's share of the labor business.

The harbour port of Kobe
The harbour port of Kobe (CORBIS)

Unlike Yoshio Kodama, who disdained street-level violence, Taoka had lived with it all his life and had no problem using it to his advantage.  Orphaned as a boy, Taoka was forced to work on the Kobe docks where he was taken in by a local gang leader named Noburu Yamaguchi.  As a young man, Taoka proved to be a fierce street fighter.  His signature move was to claw his opponents eyes with his fingers, which earned him the nickname Kuma (The Bear).   In 1936, at the age of 23, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for murdering a gang rival.

Upon his release in 1943, he was welcomed back into his old gang, and in 1946, at the age of 33, he became the new oyabun after the death of Yamaguchi.  Police arrests and the military draft had reduced the Yamaguchi-gumi to just 25 loyal kobun, but under Taoka the gang's ranks would soon swell.  His organizational genius and natural aggressiveness helped to make the Yamaguchi-gumi Japan's premier yakuza clan.  The cunning Bear made a pact with Kobe's largest bakuto gang, the Honda-kai, but in fact he was uncomfortable with sharing power.  The traditional gamblers were no match for his soldiers, and soon the Honda-kai was devoured by the Yamaguchi-gumi.

Osaka Castle, Japan
Osaka Castle, Japan (CORBIS)

A Korean gang from Osaka, the Meiyu-kai, was Taoka's next target, and its defeat gave the Yamaguchi-gumi a controlling share of the Osaka rackets.  Operating like a wartime commanding general, Taoka moved in on the Miyamoto-gumi next and swallowed their ranks into his own.  In the 1960s even the great Kodama had to negotiate with Taoka to keep the Yamaguchi-gumi from muscling into Yokohama.

Yokohama, Japan
Yokohama, Japan (CORBIS)

In 1972 Kodama brokered a historic pact between the Yamaguchi-gumi and Tokyo's powerful Inagawa-kai.  The deal was sealed at Taoka's home in a traditional sakazuki ceremony in which blood brotherhood was sworn over elaborately poured cups of sake.  After the sake was consumed, the empty ceremonial cups were wrapped in paper and put away inside the representatives' kimonos.  The men then clasped one another's hands, and a go-between declared the ceremony completed.  The Yamaguchi-Inagawa alliance created a yakuza behemoth with only four of Japan's prefectures free of their control.

Yoshio Kodama
Yoshio Kodama (CORBIS)

In July 1978, at the age of 65, Taoka survived an attempt on his life.  He was enjoying a limbo performance at the Bel Ami nightclub in historic Kyoto when a young man named Kiyoshi Narumi walked up to the godfather's table, pulled out a .38-caliber pistol, and started shooting.  Despite the presence of five bodyguards, Taoka was hit in the neck, and the assassin managed to escape.  Taoka was rushed to the hospital in his bulletproof black Cadillac.

Narumi was a member of the Matsuda syndicate, whose boss had previously been killed in a skirmish with the Yamaguchi-gumi.   Several members of the Matsuda gang, including Narumi, had eaten their oyabun's ashes, vowing to avenge his murder.   Taoka eventually recovered from his gunshot wound, but his attacker was found dead several weeks later in the woods near Kobe.

Three years later Taoka succumbed to a heart attack.  His funeral was a grand affair attended by high-ranking Yamaguchi-gumi members from all over the country, as well as a number of well-known celebrity entertainers.  Thirteen hundred police officers were on hand to maintain order.  The National Police Agency took advantage of the customary three-month mourning period and arrested 900 Yamaguchi-gumi members in the hope of weakening the gang after  the godfather's death.  Taoka had chosen a successor before he died, a man named Yakamen, but he was in prison at the time of Taoka's death.  In the chaos created by the power void, Taoka's widow Fumiko grabbed the reigns and prevented a divisive power struggle within the gang.  She was mainly a figurehead, as one would expect in a male-dominated society, but her strong presence nevertheless maintained order until a permanent successor was selected.

The Korean yakuza are  a powerful presence in Japan, despite the fact that Koreans suffer discrimination in Japanese society.  Although Japanese-born people of Korean ancestry are a significant segment of the Japanese population, they are still considered resident aliens.  But Koreans, who are often shunned in legitimate trades, are embraced by the Japanese yakuza precisely because they fit the group's "outsider" image.   The man who paved the way for Koreans in Japanese organized crime was the Korean yakuza godfather Hisayuki Machii.

Born Chong Gwon Yong in 1923 in Japanese-occupied Korea, Machii was an ambitious street hood who saw opportunity in Japan and seized it.  After the Japanese surrender, Machii worked with the United States Counter Intelligence Corps, which valued his staunch anticommunist beliefs.  While leaders of the Japanese yakuza were imprisoned or under close scrutiny by the American occupying forces, the Korean yakuza were free to take over the lucrative black markets.  But rather than trying to rival the Japanese godfathers, Machii made alliances with them, and throughout his career, he remained close to both Kodama and Taoka.

Pusan Harbor, South Korea
Pusan Harbor, South Korea (CORBIS)

In 1948 Machii established the Tosei-kai (Voice of the East Gang) and soon took over Tokyo's Ginza district, the Times Square of Japan's capital.  The Tosei-kai became so powerful in Tokyo that they were known as the "Ginza police," and even the Yamaguchi-gumi's all-powerful Taoka had to cut a deal with Machii to allow that group to operate in Tokyo.  Machii's vast empire included tourism, entertainment, bars and restaurants, prostitution, and oil importing.  He and Kodama made a fortune on real estate investments alone.  More importantly, he brokered deals between the Korean government and the yakuza that allowed Japanese criminals to set up rackets in Korea, a country that had been victimized by the Japanese for many years.  Thanks to Machii, Korea became the yakuza's home away from home.  Befitting his role as fixer between the underworlds of both countries, Machii was allowed to acquire the largest ferry service between Shimanoseki, Japan, and Pusan, South Korea—the shortest route between the two countries.

In the mid-1960s, pressure from the police forced Machii to officially disband the Tosei-kai.  He formed two supposedly legitimate organizations around this time, the Towa Sogo Kigyo (East Asia Enterprises Company) and Towa Yuai Jigyo Kumiai (East Asia Friendship Enterprises Association), which became fronts for his criminal activities.  He was widely believed to have helped the Korean Central Intelligence Agency kidnap then-leading Korean opposition leader Kim Dae Jung from a Tokyo hotel.  Kim was whisked out to sea where he was bound, gagged, blindfolded and fitted with weights so that his body would never surface.  The execution by drowning was abruptly cancelled when aircraft buzzed the ship, and Kim was mysteriously delivered to his neighborhood in Seoul.  American intervention is said to have saved his life.  A police investigation revealed that Machii's people had rented every other room on the floor of the hotel where Kim had been staying, but Machii was never charged with any crime in connection with kidnapping.  Machii "retired" in his 80s and was frequently seen vacationing in Hawaii.

Criminal Enterprises

The yakuza's tentacles reach into many different areas, principally corporate extortion, gambling, smuggling, loan sharking, money laundering, narcotics, real-estate, sports, entertainment, stock manipulation, tourist scams, sex tours, prostitution, slavery, pornography, and gun running.

Sex-related enterprises are the yakuza's bread and butter, and they cater to the wild side of Japan's overworked, buttoned-down "salary men."  The yakuza smuggle truckloads of pornographic films and magazines into Japan from Europe and America.  They control prostitution rings throughout the country, commonly holding young women from other Asian countries captive as indentured servants and forcing them to work as "comfort workers."  The Japanese euphemistically refer to the act of prostitution as "selling spring," and Japanese johns have a taste for very young women, as demonstrated by the national obsession with young women in school-girl outfits complete with short pleated skirts and knee socks.  The yakuza  buy unwanted female children from China--where the law restricts couples to only one child and the cultural preference is for boys--for as little as $5,000 and put them to work in the mizu shobai (literally the "water business"), the yakuza's network of bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

Asian prostitutes in a brothel
Asian prostitutes in a brothel (CORBIS)

China is not the yakuza's only source of young women.  Many of the yakuza's prostitutes come from the Philippines, where girls from impoverished villages are tricked into going overseas with promises of respectable jobs at good wages.  Once they arrive in Japan they are put to work as strippers and hookers by their yakuza masters.  Frequently these girls succumb to the demands of their yakuza pimps because they can earn much more money than they ever could in the Philippines.  The running joke among the Philippino streetwalkers in Japan's big cities is that whenever they send money home to their unknowing families, they write glowing letters, describing in detail their jobs as "receptionists."

Sex tours are also popular in East Asia, and the yakuza have their hands in that trade as well, organizing vacation tours to cities like Bangkok, Manila, Seoul and Taipei, where sex hotels offer prostitutes to suit any fantasy.

Yakuza also satisfy the desire of would-be gun owners in Japan, where guns of all kinds are prohibited.  Yakuza members themselves are the prime market for firearms, and they favor the sleekest automatic handguns from Europe and America, often trading drugs for weapons.  The yakuza specialize in the production and sales of methamphetamine (given the frenetic pace and competitive atmosphere of Japanese society, speed is the national drug of choice) and the yakuza frequently use it to barter with Western arms suppliers. 

The yakuza also make millions of dollars a year through corporate extortion, and the sokaiya (shareholders' meeting men) are the masters of this enterprise.  Sokaiya will buy a small number of shares in a company so that they can attend shareholders' meetings.  In preparation for the meeting, the sokaiya gather damaging information about the company and its officers; secret mistresses, tax evasion, unsafe factory conditions, and pollution are all fodder for the sokaiya.  They will then contact the company's management and threaten to disclose whatever embarrassing information they have at the shareholders' meeting unless they are "compensated."  If management does not give in to their demands, the sokaiya go to the shareholders' meeting and raise hell, shouting down anyone who dares to speak, making a boisterous display of their presence, and shouting out their damaging revelations.  In Japan, where people fear embarrassment and shame much more than physical threats, executives usually give the sokaiya whatever they want.  

But Japan is also a society where directness is considered rude, and even the criminals make their threats known in a circuitous, outwardly polite manner.  Threats come in many disguises.  Some sokaiya pose as business magazine publishers who encourage their targets to take out ads or buy subscriptions in exchange for favorable reporting about the company.  Since these sokaiya will follow through on their threats and print a magazine or newsletter filled with condemning articles, company executives usually pay up rather than face the bad press.

Another sokaiya scam  is to set up booster clubs that solicit donations for non-existent causes.    They also throw gala events to which the invited businessmen are expected to bring cash gifts for their hosts.  Such events have been known to net more than $100,000 in a single night.  The sokaiya have also organized beauty pageants for the purpose of shaking down corporate "sponsors," and sokaiya  golf tournaments come with pricey entrance fees for their corporate players.  These corporate racketeers have also been known to sell blocks of tickets to theater events at grossly inflated prices.  Anything to extort money out of legitimate companies in the most polite and indirect way possible.

The Yakuza in America

On October 3, 1991, William Sessions, then-director of the FBI, testified at a hearing on Asian organized crime before the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. "The Boryokudan," he said, referring to the yakuza, "have built one of the world's largest criminal organizations ... According to a publicized report of the National Police Agency of Japan, the Boryokudan, in 1988, grossed almost 10 billion U.S. dollars in revenue, one-third from crystal methamphetamine, a relatively new and powerful stimulant known on the street as 'ice.' The Boryokudan control an estimated 90 percent of the 'ice' flow into Hawaii. The Boryokudan also smuggle guns from the United States into Japan "

The yakuza have made their presence felt in the United States principally in Hawaii, but also in California, Nevada and even New York.

Hawaii has a natural appeal for just about everyone, but criminal opportunities attract the yakuza there more than the exquisite beaches and lush flora. Yakuza members blend in easily in Hawaii because tourists from Japan and other Asian countries flock there. They invest in high-priced real estate, one of their favorite enterprises, and use the island state as a way station for crystal meth headed for the American mainland and firearms head back to Japan. They also work with local crime gangs, funneling tourists from Asia to gambling parlors, sex shows and bordellos in exchange for kickbacks from locals.

The yakuza have also put down roots in California where they have made alliances with Korean and Vietnamese gangs and furthered their traditional partnerships with the Chinese triads. Los Angeles is particularly attractive because of the influx of young actresses desperate to get their big break in the film industry. Yakuza shills have become adept at luring these vulnerable women into porn films and prostitution. Japanese men, whether on sex tours or at home in Japan, often desire western women, particularly blondes.

Like most American organized crime groups, the yakuza love Las Vegas, where gambling—both legal and illegal—is everywhere. Showgirls and hookers are also plentiful in Vegas, and the yakuza are instrumental in steering Asian tourists to establishments owned by Americans who pay substantial "finder's fees."

Yakuza members have even been spotted in New York City, where they have made loose alliances with the American Mafia. Although cultural differences and the language barrier make a strong bond nearly impossible, the two groups have been able to cooperate in illegal gambling operations, with the yakuza channeling Japanese tourists to illicit after-hours casinos around the city.

Decline of the Yakuza

Because Japan's National Police Agency has traditionally been reluctant to release complete reports on their native crime group, it is difficult to say whether the yakuza, like the American Mafia, are currently in a period of decline.  Perhaps Japanese authorities do not want to risk losing face by giving a true picture of the yakuza's power.  Avoiding international embarrassment could also be an incentive because the yakuza are so intimately entwined with business and politics in Japan.

Nevertheless, there are signs that the yakuza's influence is diminishing. Japanese citizens are fighting back, banishing yakuza social clubs from their neighborhoods.  For example, the Ichiri Ikka gang led by oyabun Tetsuya Aono set up shop in the Ebitsuka neighborhood of the town of Hamamatsu, 130 miles southwest of Tokyo.  The gangsters' headquarters was a green-painted building that the outraged locals renamed burakku biru (the black building).  The residents videotaped everyone who went in and out of the building and presented the tapes to the police.  The gangsters were naturally upset with this degree of disrespect, and in retaliation they stabbed the town's lawyer, slashed the throat of a town activist, and trashed a local garage.  But the people of Ebitsuka persisted, and in an out-of-court settlement the yakuza agreed to leave, not wanting to create negative publicity and set a bad precedent for other anti-yakuza activists in Japan. 

Another sign of the yakuza's weakening grip on Japanese society is that legitimate companies openly offer jobs and rehabilitation programs for yakuza members who wish to renounce their lives of crime.  Unlike the Mafia, in which a member is a member for life and a mid-course career change can have severe repercussions, former yakuza thugs are now applying to become salaried workers.  It is hard to imagine General Electric or IBM recruiting for employees among the ranks of Gambino or Genovese crime families, but this is essentially what's happening in Japan.

But these signs of decline can be deceptive, and more anecdotal than systemic.  Yakuza membership remains huge, and their secretive nature may be serving them well, as they become more entrenched and harder to locate.  For an organization so large, little is known or written about it.  Today they could be more active—and more careful—than ever, broadening their bases, infiltrating new territories and working new scams.  Like the fabled ninjas of ancient Japan, they can be everywhere and nowhere, but they're always lethal.

The "Loanshark King"

On August 5, 2003, the Mainichi Shimbun news agency reported that Japanese police had launched a nationwide search for the man who oversaw a number of loansharks "falling under the umbrella of the Yamaguchi-gumi," Japan's largest yakuza gang.

The report described how Susumu Kajiyama, the chairman of the TO Group of Yamaguchi-gumi affiliated loansharks, had been placed on a nationwide wanted list after being accused of breaking investment laws.   Kajiyama is referred to as the "Loanshark King."   Until the spring of this year, the 53-year-old yakuza gang boss had been living in a Minato-ku apartment where the monthly rent ran into a staggering 900,000 yen-plus figure.  Police suspect Kajiyama diverted a considerable sum to the Goryo-kai, a Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate linked closely to the TO Group.

Case investigators are looking into the TO Groups activities and suspect that it is involved in large scale, organized loans given with extortionate rates of interest.  The actions followed a series of police raids of a dozen locations, including the Tokyo office of the Goryo-kai.

Another man, Toshikazu Matsuzaki, has already been arrested for the same crime.

Police said that Matsuzaki and his associates extended 49 loans amounting to just 526,000 yen to six people, then collected an astounding 1.25 million yen in interest and on occasions charged over 380 times the legally acceptable limit.  According to the police, the interest that Yakuza debt-collectors picked up had to be transferred to stores run directly by the underworld group or to three bank accounts in the names of bosses running loanshark operations.

Allegedly, once every month, Matsuzaki would meet with the bosses of the gang's loanshark operations and "demand that they increase business."  Each loanshark operation is alleged to have picked up about 300 million yen in interest annually.

Investigators later found over 8 million yen in cash in an apartment where Matsuzaki had been hiding until his arrest. Police also seized another 20 million yen in cash that had been secreted away in a safety deposit box held in a Toshima-ku credit union.



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Logo for Death Row Records
Logo for Death Row Records

The logo for Death Row Records is a blindfolded black man strapped into an electric chair at the moment of execution. Death Row is the label that made rappers such as Snoop Dog, Dr. Dre, and Tupac Shakur famous, and its logo is emblematic of the violent posturing adopted by many gangsta rap artists—not just Death Row artists—in their quest to sell their music. A rapper's public face is frequently a gangbanger's scar face, whether he has a genuine gang affiliation or not. But as rap's popularity grew in the 1990s, the violent posturing turned real. Tales of beatings and public humiliations surfaced. Rappers slandered one another with increasing viciousness and frequency. An East Coast-West Coast feud developed, pitting Death Row Records, which is based in southern California, against New York's Bad Boy Entertainment. The feud eventually escalated from a battle of words to a bloody war. Its two most prominent casualties were the rival rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.

Tupac Shakur, '93
Tupac Shakur in 1993

The circumstances of these two deaths were remarkably similar. Both young men were shot multiple times while sitting in the front passenger seats of their vehicles. Both victims were rushed to the hospital by their own entourages. Notorious B.I.G., who was born Christopher Wallace and was also known as Biggie Smalls, was dead on arrival. Tupac Shakur lived for six days and endured multiple operations before succumbing to his wounds.

Notorious B.I.G
Notorious B.I.G.

Both incidents followed major public events and took place on crowded streets. Shakur was killed in Las Vegas. Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in Los Angeles. In both instances, witnesses refused to come forward and help the police. Gang enmity between the Bloods and the Crips appears to have played a part in both murders.

More Similarities

Both rappers were very successful and among the most popular artists in rap music. Tupac Shakur was the top-selling artist for Death Row Records. Notorious B.I.G. enjoyed the same status at Bad Boy. Ironically, just before their deaths, both men had become disillusioned with the industry. Shakur was taking steps to sever his relationship with Death Row. B.I.G., who had two small children, was talking about getting out of the business entirely.

Marion Suge Knight
Marion "Suge" Knight

Top record executives were present at both murders. Death Row CEO Suge Knight was behind the wheel when Tupac Shakur was gunned down. A bullet fragment grazed Knight's head. Knight camped out at the hospital with Shakur's family while the rapper fought for his life.

Similarly Bad Boy founder Puffy Combs (a.k.a. Puff Daddy and P. Diddy) was in the vehicle right behind Notorious B.I.G.'s car when B.I.G. was shot. Combs ordered their caravan of vehicles to go directly to L.A.'s Cedar-Sinai Hospital, and he was with B.I.G. as he was wheeled into the ER. Combs got down on his knees and prayed for God to save B.I.G.'s life.

Sean Puffy Combs
Sean "Puffy" Combs

Posthumously released recordings by both rappers have sold in the millions and continue to sell.

Despite exhaustive police efforts and investigative reporting in the press, the murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. remain unsolved. Rumors and theories have proliferated in the years since their deaths. Some believe that Shakur's murder was ordered by B.I.G. who in turn was murdered by Death Row loyalists and carried out by members of the Bloods, some of whom were also California police officers. Others feel that the murders were a deliberate attempt to escalate the East Coast-West Coast feud and keep rap in the headlines in order to sell records. It has also been suggested that Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. were innocent bystanders and that the intended targets were actually the CEOs, Suge Knight and Puffy Combs. And the ultimate conspiracy theory holds that the record executives conspired to have these artists killed because dead rappers—particularly rappers with legal problems that cost their companies money—are more profitable than live rappers.

The deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., just six months apart, are without a doubt related. But the question remains: Who killed them? And why?

Rival Companies

Competition between rival record companies is natural, but when it came to the premier rap labels, Death Row and Bad Boy, the rivalry went from nasty to vicious to deadly in short order. Despite many denials and explanations issued by both companies, the antagonism between the labels was at least partly fueled by their larger than life founders, Suge Knight of Death Row and Puffy Combs of Bad Boy.

Tupac Shakur (left) and Marion Suge Knight
Tupac Shakur (left) and Marion "Suge" Knight

Marion "Suge" Knight was raised on the same streets in Compton, California, where the infamous street gang, the Bloods, made their name. His parents called him "Sugar Bear" as a child because of his sweet nature, and the nickname stayed with him, later shortened to "Suge." He didn't run with the gangs when he was in high school, preferring to play sports and capitalize on his extra large size. He grew to be six-foot-three and weighed over 300 pounds, and eventually played professional football with the Los Angeles Rams during the strike-plagued 1988-89 season. He worked as a bodyguard for singer Bobby Brown, then in 1990 started promoting gangsta rap acts. Two years later he formed Death Row Records in association with Interscope Records. But according to Ronin Ro in his book Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records, the seed money for Death Row came from a convicted drug dealer named Michael Harris who put up $1.5 million. Death Row went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars, but allegedly Harris never saw a return on his investment.

As the prime mover behind gangsta rap, Suge Knight was able to walk the walk, reportedly doling out beatings to whoever crossed him. Though he had avoided the Bloods when he was growing up, he embraced them when he became head of Death Row, allying himself with the Mob Piru Bloods (named after Piru Street in Compton) and proudly wearing the Blood color, red. He had red suits and fedoras made for himself and even had his house painted red.


Bad Boy founder Puffy Combs was a straight arrow by comparison. Though Combs often said that his father was a Harlem drug dealer, according to Randall Sullivan in his book LAbrynth, Combs's father died when Puffy was two and a half years old. Combs had attended an all-white Catholic school and became an altar boy. At age 11, his family moved to suburban Westchester County, north of New York City, where Combs worked two paper routes. He later went to an all-boys prep school in Manhattan, then enrolled at Howard University where he majored in business administration. His drive to succeed and knack for discovering musical talent earned him a job with Uptown Records where at the age of 22 he became vice president for A&R. Threatened by the up-and-comer, the president of Uptown fired Combs, but the young entrepreneur bounced back a few months later, signing "a $15 million distribution deal with Arista Records." (Combs would later brag that his company, unlike Death Row, was founded with legitimate money.)

The former altar boy did have his problems with the law, a condition that became de rigueur for anyone who was anyone in the rap world. In December 1999, Combs was arrested and charged with gun possession and bribery after a shooting incident at Club New York, a Manhattan night club. Victims testified that they had been shot by Combs who fled the scene with his then-girlfriend singer/actress Jennifer Lopez. He allegedly offered his driver a bribe if he would claim that a gun found in Combs's Lincoln Navigator belonged to him. Combs, who was represented by attorney Johnnie Cochran, was ultimately acquitted on all charges.

Bad Boy Entertainment logo
Bad Boy Entertainment logo

Over the years Bad Boy Entertainment has been rumored to have an affiliation with the Crips gang, the arch rivals of the Bloods, using them for security work, but Combs has always denied any official alliance between his company and the Crips.


East Coast VS. West Coast

The East Coast-West Coast feud had largely been a war of public insults and nightclub brawls until November 30, 1994. Death Row superstar Tupac Shakur and Bad Boy newcomer Notorious B.I.G. had been friends despite the bitter rivalry between their labels. Shakur, a wiry bantam weight, had been brought up in New York, Baltimore, and San Francisco, and though he declared his allegiance to the West Coast, it didn't keep him from associating with East Coast rappers. Notorious B.I.G., as his name implies, was a rotund man who weighed over 300 pounds and was known for his quick wit and clever rhymes. While Shakur was in New York  in November 1994 awaiting sentencing on a sexual-assault conviction, he'd been invited to record with another East Coast friend, Little Shawn, at Quad Studios in Times Square.

Quad Studios, which takes up five floors of a midtown office building, was a busy place that night. While Little Shawn was recording on one floor, Junior M.A.F.I.A., a teenage rap group sponsored by Notorious B.I.G., was recording on another floor, and B.I.G. and Puffy Combs were working on a video on yet another floor. Tupac and his entourage arrived at the building shortly after midnight  on November 30. As they were getting into the elevator, three armed black men ambushed them and stole their jewelry. Tupac's alone was worth over $35,000. Tupac lunged at one of the gunmen in anger and was shot five times—in the head, groin, and left hand. Despite his wounds, Shakur was able to get upstairs where he paced and ranted that he'd been set up. He was taken to Bellevue Hospital where he underwent surgery.

The next morning Notorious B.I.G. visited him there. Against his doctors' advice, Shakur checked himself out and continued his convalescence at actress Jasmine Guy's apartment. He made it to court for his sentencing the next day and was ordered to serve four and a half years at the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York. While imprisoned, Shakur had time to think about the ambush and came to the conclusion that it was ordered by Puffy Combs and B.I.G. He went public with his feelings. B.I.G. defended himself, calling the accusations insane and offensive, and demanded an apology from Shakur. He didn't get one. Suge Knight's publicist issued a statement, calling the incident "the result of jealousy between immature rappers." In the meantime, Shakur's album Me Against the World became the number one recording in the country.

Album cover: All Eyez on Me
Album cover: All Eyez on Me

The next fall Shakur cut a deal with Suge Knight. The rapper agreed to sign a three-year contract with Death Row Records in exchange for Knight putting up the bail money for Tupac's release pending an appeal of his conviction.

A Fatal Blow

On September 24, 1995, the West Coast contingent suffered another blow, and this time it was fatal. The occasion was a late-night birthday party for a record producer at the Platinum House in Atlanta. Suge Knight and Puffy Combs were in attendance with their respective entourages. A fight broke out outside the nightclub and shots were fired. Jake Robles, a Death Row employee who was also a Mob Piru Blood, lay on the ground, seriously wounded. Robles was a close friend of Suge Knight. Witnesses accused Puffy Combs's bodyguard of the shooting, and Knight immediately put the blame directly on Combs.

A few days after Jake Robles's death, Mark Anthony Bell, an independent record promoter from New York, was contacted by a mysterious stranger who promised him a record deal if he "cooperated." According to Randall Sullivan in LAbyrinth, Bell had gone to high school with Puffy Combs and had done some work for Bad Boy. The stranger asked Bell to write down the home addresses of Combs and Combs's mother on a piece of paper and drop them on the ground where it could be retrieved. The stranger assured Bell that his "help" would never be revealed. Bells refused to give out any information about Combs, suspecting that the stranger was in some way connected to Death Row.

Three months later Bell attended the Death Row Christmas party at Chateau Le Blanc in Hollywood. When Suge Knight arrived, he went over to Bell and asked, "Why didn't you cooperate when you had had the chance?" Bell told him that he didn't know Combs's home address. Knight invited Bell up to the V.I.P. room for a little talk. Six other men accompanied them, including rappers Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur.

In the V.I.P. room, Knight continued to question Bell about Puffy Combs. When Knight didn't get the answers he wanted, "an especially scary-looking Blood" punched Bell in the face several times. "This is for Jake," the Blood said, then promised to kill Bell .

Suge Knight left the room and went into the bathroom. When he returned, he was holding a champagne flute filled with urine. He ordered Bell to drink it. When Bell refused, the Blood hit him again. Bell took the glass as if he was going to drink it, then suddenly dropped it and ran for the balcony, intent on escaping. The others caught him as he tried to leap over the railing. They hauled him back into the room and beat him savagely, taking orders from Knight who shouted, "'Body blows only!'" Bell finally played dead and the beating ended, but not before his assailants stripped him of his wallet and jewelry.


Suge Knight awarded special friends with expensive Death Row medallions that featured the company's electric-chair logo in gold and diamonds. In July of 1996 a Mob Piru named Tray Lane was wearing his medallion while shopping with two fellow Bloods at the Foot Locker at the Lakewood Mall in California. A group of seven or eight Crips entered the store and jumped the three Bloods. During the melee one of the Crips took Lane's Death Row medallion. It was a relatively minor incident in the ongoing gang war, but it would prove to be the spark that touched off an explosion in the East Coast-West Coast feud, resulting in the murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.



At 8:45 P.M. on September 7, 1996—two months after Tray Lane was robbed of his Death Row medallion—Lane was in the lobby of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. He was with Tupac Shakur, Suge Knight, and a group of Mob Piru Blood bodyguards. They had just attended the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon prizefight at the hotel—one of Tyson's many Round 1 knockouts—and were on their way out when Lane spotted a young man across the lobby. The young man's name was Orlando Anderson, and Lane recognized him as one of the Crips who had beaten him and stolen his medallion. Lane's group rushed Anderson, knocked him to the ground, and proceeded to beat, kick, and stomp him. The 30-second incident was caught on tape by the hotel's security cameras. It showed Shakur and Knight participating in the assault, Shakur throwing the first punch. By the time the police arrived, the Death Row contingent was gone. Anderson refused to press charges.

Later that night a caravan of luxury vehicles was wending its way through the congested streets of Las Vegas, heading for Club 662, a known Blood hangout. (662 is California penal code for death row). It was a Death Row Records caravan, and Suge Knight was behind the wheel of the lead car, a black BMW 750. Tupac Shakur was sitting in the front passenger seat. At around 11:17 P.M., Knight pulled to a stop at a red light on Flamingo Road. The streets were jammed with tourists. Shakur was flirting with a car full of girls to the left of the BMW so he didn't notice the white Cadillac with four black men inside pulling up on their right. A hand holding a gun emerged from the Cadillac's backseat through the driver's window. Shots were fired into the BMW.

When Shakur realized what was happening, he tried to jump into the backseat for cover, but he was hit four times in the chest. A bullet fragment grazed Knight's head, but he still managed to maneuver the BMW around the stopped traffic, making a u-turn and heading back toward the Strip. The other vehicles in the Death Row caravan followed him. He finally stopped when he ran his car into a curb. When the police arrived, they called for an ambulance for Shakur and ordered everyone else out of their vehicles, treating the Death Row entourage as suspects. In the meantime the white Cadillac slipped away into the night.

Shakur was rushed to the University Medical Center where doctors performed emergency surgery to save his life. In an effort to stem the internal bleeding, surgeons removed his right lung. Suge Knight stood vigil at the hospital with Shakur's family, waiting for hopeful news. His heart stopped beating several times, and doctors revived him. Finally Shakur's mother Afeni decided not to resuscitate her son if he went into arrest again, explaining to reporters that "it was important for his spirit to be allowed to be free." Six days after he was shot, Tupac Shakur died.

When Shakur's body lay face up on a gurney about to be autopsied, his infamous tattoos were fully displayed, including his signature phrase, THUG LIFE, in large letters in a semi-circle around his abdomen.


"Hit 'Em Up"

In "Who Killed Tupac Shakur?" a controversial two-part article published in the Los Angeles Times, journalist Chuck Philips presented evidence that Notorious B.I.G. was behind the murder of Shakur. According to Philips, after Orlando Anderson's beating at the hands of the Death Row Bloods, Anderson went back to his hotel room and called his brother Crips who hastily put together a retaliation plan. The Crips, figuring that they could make some profit off a hit on Shakur, sent an emissary to Notorious B.I.G. who Philips contends was in Las Vegas for the Tyson fight, staying at a hotel under another name. The emissary negotiated a $1 million fee for the murder of Shakur whom B.I.G. had allegedly come to despise not only for being a staunch member of the West Coast rappers who disparaged him regularly in public but also for releasing a song called "Hit 'Em Up," in which he boasted of having had sex with B.I.G.'s estranged wife. But according to Philips, B.I.G. agreed to pay the fee on one condition: the hit had to be done with his own gun. In Philips's scenario Notorious B.I.G. gave the Crips' emissary his ".40-caliber Glock pistol."

In the meantime the Crips had organized a team to hunt down Shakur. Philips writes that they had two cars, a late-model white Cadillac and an older yellow Cadillac driven by a lone Crip armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. Their plan was to take out Shakur at Club 662, but when they happened upon the Death Row caravan on Flamingo Road, they seized the opportunity and struck.

Vibe magazine, however, cast doubt on this scenario when it presented a time line of the events as Philips describes them. On fight nights, the streets of Las Vegas are always jammed with vehicle and pedestrian traffic. The shooting occurred two hours and thirty-two minutes after the beating of Orlando Anderson. According to Vibe, the Crips couldn't possibly have gotten a hit team on the street in that time. They would have needed at least another 22 minutes and probably much more.

Furthermore, Notorious B.I.G. claimed he was not in Las Vegas on the night of Shakur's shooting, and he had an alibi. Witnesses swore that B.I.G. was in a studio in New York recording new songs that night. His best friend, rapper Lil' Cease, claimed that they both went back to B.I.G.'s home in New Jersey after the recording session to watch the Tyson fight on television. As Sam Anson points out in his Vibe article, it should have been relatively easy to confirm that "a 6'3", 315-pound black celebrity with an entourage" was present in Las Vegas on the night of the shooting, but the Las Vegas police have been unable to confirm B.I.G.'s whereabouts that night.

The murder of Tupac Shakur remains an unsolved homicide.

So is Notorious B.I.G.'s.

"Life After Death"

Six months after the death of Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G. was in Los Angeles for the 11th Annual Soul Train Music Awards at the Shrine Auditorium and Expo Center. When he took the stage to present an award, the audience booed him.

He leaned into the microphone and tried to lighten the mood. "What's up, Cali?" he said.

The booing increased and continued through his presentation of an award to singer Toni Braxton.

B.I.G. left the stage deeply embarrassed. He had been trying to distance himself from the rap feuds and just make music, but rumors were circulating that he was in some way responsible for Shakur's murder.

A party hosted by Vibe and Qwest Records was scheduled for the next night at the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard. According to Cathy Scott in her book The Murder of Biggie Smalls, B.I.G. wasn't in the mood for partying after being booed at the awards ceremony, but he agreed to go "because Puffy Combs had asked him to go." They were both eager for the release of B.I.G.'s next album Life After Death 'Til Death Do Us Part later that month, and being seen at the party would be good promotion.

Witnesses reported that B.I.G. had a good time at the party. He spoke to old friends and met several flirtatious women. Some asked him to dance, but he was walking with a cane, still on the mend from a leg injury due to a car accident, so a few of the women danced suggestively in front of him as he sat and watched. The party was the place to be that night as 2,000 people crowded the museum space, and outside 200 more jostled to get in. By midnight fire marshals decided that the museum was dangerously overcrowded, and at 12:35 A.M. they shut the party down and ordered everyone out. The crowd disbursed, disappointed guests heading for the doors. B.I.G. was moving slowly with his injured leg, so he, Puffy Combs, and the rest of the Bad Boy entourage hung back and let the others go first. They walked to their two rented G.M.C. Suburbans, a black one and a dark green one, which they'd parked on the street because the valet parking lots were full by the time they had arrived. B.I.G. got into the front passenger seat of the dark green Suburban along with two friends and his driver. Puffy and his friends piled into the black Suburban. At night, the two vehicles looked identical.

Puffy's vehicle pulled out first, followed closely by B.I.G.'s and then a Ford Blazer carrying their bodyguards who were all off-duty Inglewood police officers. All three vehicles drove to the intersection of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard where they stopped for a red light. They were heading for an after-party. The stereo in Biggie's car was pumping, playing his new album.

While they waited for the light to turn, a man called out to the green Suburban. Thinking it was a fan who just wanted to wish him well, B.I.G. rolled down his window. Then, a dark-colored Chevrolet Impala pulled up along the right side of B.I.G.'s vehicle. The driver—a black man wearing a suit and bow tie—pulled out an 9mm automatic pistol and opened fire on the rapper. B.I.G. was hit several times in the chest. Puffy got out of his Suburban and ran to B.I.G.'s side as the Impala sped off, but B.I.G. had already lost consciousness. They raced to get him to the hospital, but B.I.G. was already gone.

The Hitman Vanishes

Composite of suspect in B.I.G. shooting
Composite of suspect in B.I.G. shooting

LAPD detective Russell Poole was assigned to the case, and his tireless investigation led him to believe that the man in the bow tie who fired the shots was Amir Muhammad, a.k.a. Harry Billups, a southern California mortgage broker and close friend of former LAPD police officer David Mack, who witnesses also put at the scene of the crime. Mack might have been the "fan" who had enticed Biggie to roll down his window. Detective Poole discovered that as well as being a police officer, Mack was a member of the Mob Piru Bloods and had a close association with Death Row founder Suge Knight. Poole learned that Mack was one of many LAPD officers who were also gang members. When police obtained a warrant to search Mack's home, they found a "shrine" to Tupac Shakur. But by the time investigators caught up with Mack, he was serving a 14-year prison term for bank robbery, and he refused to cooperate. Police efforts to find Amir Muhammad were unsuccessful. He had simply vanished.

Officer David Mack
Officer David Mack

Notorious B.I.G.'s body was flown back to New York where he was given a grand funeral in his native Brooklyn. To this day his mother, Voletta Wallace, demands to know who killed her son, but the case remains unsolved. Was his murder payback for the killing of Tupac Shakur? Or, as Detective Poole came to suspect, were the motives for both murders more insidious than that?



Detective Russell Poole
Detective Russell Poole

In 1999, Detective Russell Poole resigned from the LAPD in anger and frustration over what he perceived to be the city's deliberate unwillingness to let him get to the bottom of the Notorious B.I.G. murder. The shooter, Amir Muhammad, was connected to Mob Piru cop David Mack who was connected to Suge Knight. The evidence Poole had collected increasingly pointed the finger at the Death Row founder. But Knight had friends in high places.

Amir Muhammad
Amir Muhammad

According to Randall Sullivan in LAbyrinth, Knight had a guardian angel in LA County Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Longo. When Knight was facing sentencing for the brutal beating of record promoter Mark Bell, Longo "recommended a nine-year suspended sentence, with five years of probation" even though ten months earlier Knight had pleaded guilty to felony assault. (In Have Gun Will Travel, Ronin Ro reports that   in July of 1992 Knight had "pistol-whipped" George and Lynwood Stanley, a rap duo, then forced them to strip naked and robbed them because they had dared to use a pay phone at the Death Row offices when Knight was expecting a call.) Knight served a one-month sentence at a halfway house as a result of the Bell assault. A few months later, Deputy DA Longo's daughter became Death Row Records' first white recording artist, and Suge Knight moved into Longo's Malibu Colony home, renting it for $19,000 a month.

Have Gun Will Travel
Have Gun Will Travel

But if Knight in fact was the man who ordered Notorious B.I.G.'s murder, what was Knight's motive? Some have speculated that it was simply payback for Tupac Shakur's murder. Knight had lost the best-selling rapper in the Death Row stable, so he wanted Puffy Combs and Bad Boy Entertainment to suffer an equal loss -- an eye for an eye.

Others believe that the Crips were responsible for both murders. One theory holds that Notorious B.I.G. had agreed to pay the Crips for killing Shakur, then changed his mind and reneged. His punishment for stiffing the Crips was a death sentence. Another theory claims that Bad Boy Entertainment had asked Crip members to work as bodyguards while they were in L.A. for the Soul Train Music Awards, but the gang's price was more than Puffy Combs had wanted to pay, so he hired off-duty Inglewood cops instead. Killing Biggie was the Crips' response to getting their walking papers.

"Worth More Dead Than Alive"

But the most sinister theory fingers Knight for both murders. Before his death, Tupac Shakur was becoming a problem for Knight. The star was questioning Death Row's method of bookkeeping, which indicated that Shakur owed the company $4.9 million even though he had earned the company $60 million in record sales. Unhappy with his Death Row contract, Shakur was rumored to be looking for a new label once he'd completed his three-album obligation. Shakur also had a burgeoning acting career after having appeared in several movies, including Juice, Above the Rim, and Gridlock'd. Shakur's allegiance to Death Row might have been slipping, but Death Row possessed tapes of 200 unreleased songs recorded by Shakur, raw material for future albums. In the record business, death has a way of increasing public interest in an artist. As Cathy Scott quotes one unnamed record industry insider: Tupac was "'worth more dead than alive.'"

According to this theory, the killing of Notorious B.I.G. was a cover for Tupac Shakur's murder, meant to make both killings appear to be the products of the East Coast-West Coast feud. The fate of 19-year-old Yafeu "Kadafi" Fula appears to add some credence to this theory. Fula, who was one of Shakur's backup singers, was the only witness willing to come forward and identify the killers. The Las Vegas police declined to interview Fula thoroughly and released him. Two months later Fula was shot to death in a housing project in Orange, N.J. "Execution style" is how the police in Orange described Fula's killing. Like the murders of the two rappers, Fula's murder remains unsolved.

The Murder of Biggie Smalls
The Murder of Biggie Smalls

Author Cathy Scott in The Murder of Biggie Smalls suggests that Puffy Combs might have had Notorious B.I.G. killed for the same reason that Suge Knight might have had Tupac Shakur killed—money. It was costing the impresarios more and more to keep their stars happy, and dead stars sell records without the bothersome upkeep. In the weeks after their deaths, both stars had albums that shot to the top of the charts. Notorious B.I.G.'s posthumous release Life After Death debuted at number one and   sold 690,000 copies in its first week.

Album Cover: Life After Death
Album Cover: Life After Death

But if Suge Knight actually had ordered a hit on Tupac Shakur, would he have put himself in the line of fire, behind the wheel of the BMW just a few feet from the intended target? Thirteen bullets were fired into that car, and Knight was hit by one.    It seems highly unlikely that Knight would have chosen a plan this risky.

It has also been suggested that Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. were not the intended victims of their killers and that Suge Knight and Puffy Combs were the real targets. But again, common sense makes this theory implausible. In Shakur's case, would a shooter actually mistake the whippet-thin Shakur for the king-sized Knight? Conversely, would B.I.G.'s murderer have confused the 300-pound rapper for the trim and fit Puffy Combs who wasn't even in the same vehicle? Unlikely.

So who did kill Shakur and B.I.G.? Police in Las Vegas and Los Angeles continue their investigations, but the cases have grown cold. Unless a surprise witness comes forward, the prospects of solving these crimes grow dimmer as the years go by. Nevertheless, Notorious B.I.G.'s mother, Voletta Wallace, is determined to find out who killed her son, and she has filed lawsuits against the City of Los Angeles and the LAPD in her quest to get answers. Tupac Shakur's mother, Afeni Shakur, also wants answers, and she rejects the theory that her son's murder was simply gang retaliation for the beating of Crip Orlando Anderson.

Sean Puffy" Combs
Sean "Puffy" Combs

Suge Knight spent almost five years in prison on a parole violation for taking part in the beating of Orlando Anderson. He is free now and continues to run Death Row Records, which he renamed Tha Row Records in 2001. Puffy Combs, who now calls himself P. Diddy, remains the head of Bad Boy Entertainment. In 1998, he branched off into men's fashion with his Sean John collection. In 2003, he donated $2 million to the "children of New York City" for their "health and educational needs."



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Nick Markowitz

On August 6, 2000, Nick Markowitz, a handsome 15-year-old boy with an endearing widow's peak crowning his dark brown hair, ambled down a street in West Hills, California. It was just after noon on a searing hot Sunday that would top off at 99 degrees before sunset, and Nick was in a foul mood.

The night before, he'd had a run-in with his parents when he came home at midnight with something suspicious bulging in his back pocket. His parents had good reason to be concerned — they'd caught Nick with Valium and marijuana in the past. When his father demanded to see what was in his pocket, Nick bolted out the door.

The Markowitzes were relieved to hear him return in the middle of the night, and resolved to talk to him in the morning. But when his mother knocked on his bedroom door at 11 a.m. the next day, he was gone. They would never see him again.

Around the same time that Susan Markowitz found her son's bedroom empty, four young toughs were prowling the neighborhood in a white van looking for Nick's older half-brother, Ben. Instead, they saw Nick.

Nick Markowitz
Nick Markowitz

Little did the 15-year-old know as he walked down the street on that quiet Sunday that he was on a collision course with something far more unpleasant than another confrontation with his parents.

Feuding Friends

This is the twisted tale of how a group of middle-class friends in Southern California fell under the spell of a charismatic and disturbed leader with the improbable name Jesse James Hollywood. The young men's actions would lead to the murder of a child, Nick Markowitz, leave a community reeling from grief and shock, and spawn a four-year international manhunt.

Hollywood, 20, and Ben Markowitz,22, had once been good friends. They grew up together, playing in the same junior baseball league as kids and working out together in the same Malibu gym as young men.

But on that hot August day, they were sworn enemies.

Ben Markowitz
Ben Markowitz

Ben had been part of a network of friends that Hollywood used to sell dope on consignment, but the older Markowitz boy had recently cleaned up his act. He'd moved back into his dad's house, got a job as a machinist in the family aerospace business, and was engaged to be married, the Los Angeles Times reported.

But Ben's decision to fly straight didn't erase the $1,200 debt he owed Hollywood for "merchandise." Nor did it assuage Hollywood's anger that his former friend had foiled an insurance-fraud scam he was working: Hollywood reported one of his cars missing in an attempt to collect $36,000 for it, but Ben had alerted authorities to the scheme.

Jesse James Hollywood
Jesse James Hollywood

The two men carried on a months-long feud punctuated by threatening voice mails. Hollywood went to the restaurant where Ben's girlfriend worked as a waitress and stiffed her on a bill. In return, Ben drove to Hollywood's house and smashed a window.

On August 6, the hostilities took a sharp turn when Hollywood and his crew were driving around in another futile attempt to find Ben — who had gone into hiding — and spotted his little brother.

A few minutes earlier, Nick had turned down a ride from his uncle and cousin — who lived a few doors down from his house — as they returned from the gym. He waved them on, perhaps wanting to delay the difficult talk with his parents.

Then the white van came to a squealing stop beside the startled youngster, and four young men jumped out.

911 Calls Ignored

The last two days of Nick Markowitz's life are cobbled together here from newspaper accounts, police reports, court testimony, and a 750-page grand jury transcript.

Shortly before 1 p.m. that Sunday, Pauline Ann Mahoney was driving home from church with her children when she saw a group of young men punching and kicking a boy who was cowering on the sidewalk.

"They were beating him up pretty badly," she testified before the grand jury. "(Then) the lot of them threw him into the van, and then they jumped in, shut the door, and the van started moving."

The family repeated the van's license plate number aloud as they sped home, calling 911 as soon as they got in the door. An officer from the Los Angeles Police Department later visited the family with further questions. The transcripts also show that a second 911 call was made by someone who saw the abduction, but there were no details about what the witness saw, or the police response.

In one of the many distressing what-ifs that plague the case, authorities failed to track down the van until a month later.

Inside were Hollywood, William Skidmore, 20, and Jesse Rugge, 20, at the wheel. Hollywood ordered a frightened Nick to empty his pockets, taking his wallet and his pager, which bleated repeatedly as Nick's mother tried to call him. The van stopped to pick up Brian Affronti, 20, another friend/dealer of Hollywood's, who later testified that he quickly realized the 15-year-old was not a willing passenger.

Jesse Rugge
Jesse Rugge

"If you run, I'll break your teeth," he overheard Hollywood threaten Nick. "Your brother is going to pay me my money right now."

The van drove up the Ventura highway toward Santa Barbara, where the group planned to go to a party. They stopped at a house, where Nick was taken to a bedroom and blindfolded, gagged, and bound with duct tape as music thudded through the walls. Several people peeked into a bedroom during the party and were shocked to see the young captive, the Los Angeles Daily News reported.  But all of them chose to close the door and party on, ignoring the terrified teen. The boys from Los Angeles had a bad reputation, and no one wanted to get on their bad side.

Hollywood got in the face of one guest as he was preparing to leave.

"Hollywood walked up to me and kind of like whispered to me...'Keep your fucking mouth shut, you don't say nothing,'" he later testified.

The young man, and countless others, blindly followed Hollywood's orders.

"You sit back and say, but for this person, but for that person...any one of them could have altered the horrible outcome of the situation simply by picking up the phone," Santa Barbara County Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Zonen later told the Los Angeles Times with disgust.

Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen
Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen.

"Stolen Boy"

A few hours after the abduction, Hollywood contacted his lawyer, Stephen Hogg, according to court papers. Hogg told him the maximum penalty for kidnapping with extortion in California was a life sentence.

"He became spooked by it, and the decision was made that they weren't going to return (Nick)," prosecutor Zonen later told the grand jury.

Over the next two days, Nick was driven from house to house in Santa Barbara and frequently stayed at the family home of Jesse Rugge. At least two dozen people knew Nicholas was being held at various locations but did not call the police, the Santa Barbara News-Press reported.


"I mean, I just didn't want any involvement at all," said Richard Hoeflinger, one of the youths.

His captors fed Nick a steady diet of Valium and marijuana to keep him calm, but witnesses later told police that Nick appeared to take the drugs willingly, and that he walked freely around the house.

Jesse Rugge's father, Barron Rugge, told the Los Angeles Times that he saw Nick watching television with his son when he returned from work one day, and that the boy appeared relaxed.

"I thought Nick was up here visiting," he told the paper. "When I saw him, I saw him just to say 'Hi,' and 'Yeah, you can stay here if you want.'"

Friends of the kidnappers later described a kind of roving party that moved wherever Nick was being held. People dropped in to smoke pot, drink booze, drop Valium and watch television alongside Nick, whom they nicknamed "the stolen boy."

Many of the young partiers were offered immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony.

At one point Hollywood's father, Jack, met with Jesse to try to persuade him to let Nicholas go, but was unsuccessful, according to the grand jury transcripts.

At another point, Nick was brought to the home of a 17-year-old girl who dressed a cut on his arm. Although she knew Nick had been kidnapped, the party-like atmosphere surrounding his abduction belied any sense he was in real danger, she later testified.

Back in Los Angeles, the Markowitzes were frantic. Susan made a spreadsheet with the addresses and phone numbers of Nick's friends and started contacting them, the Los Angeles Times reported, while Jeff scoured local parks looking for his son.

A few exits down the freeway from the Markowitz home, the Hollywood family was also distraught. Jack Hollywood had heard from Jesse's lawyer that his son was in deep trouble. He called Jesse and demanded to know where Nick was being held, but his son refused to tell him, the paper reported.

The 17-year-old girl who cleaned Nick's arm also became worried. She invited one of Hollywood's crew — Graham Pressley,17 — to go for a walk with her and asked him point-blank whether they were going to kill Nick.

Graham Pressley
Graham Pressley

"Of course not," Pressley's responded, according to the girl's testimony. But he did mention that the idea had come up: Hollywood offered Rugge money to kill Nick, but Rugge had refused it.

On August 8 — the same day the Markowitz's filed a missing person's report with the LAPD — Nick was brought to the Lemon Tree Inn in Santa Barbara, to what would be his final party.

"I'm Going to Get You Home"

On the evening of August 8, Nicholas was starting to relax.

The past 48 hours had been bizarre. He'd been terrified when his brother's nemesis and two other guys jumped out of the van and started hitting him. But after Hollywood left the scene, things relaxed a bit, and Nick was free to wander around the houses where he was being kept, to raid the fridge and watch television. Sometimes it felt like he was more of a guest than a captive. They gave him booze and pot and it all seemed like a surreal party. He could have walked away from it all several times, but he was certain his big brother, whom he adored, show up anytime and drive him back home.

One of his abductors, Jesse Rugge, reassured him over and over again: "I'm going to take you home. I'll put you on a Greyhound ... I'm going to get you home."

Nick made the mistake of believing him.

The Lemon Tree Inn
The Lemon Tree Inn

At the Lemon Tree Inn, Nick swam in the hotel's large outdoor pool and flirted with girls. It was a night of teenage debauchery, the sensual atmosphere thick with pop music, rum-and-cokes, cigarettes and pot. A breeze played through the palm trees circling the illuminated blue pool. Nick was the center of attention, and he enjoyed it.

"He seemed happy," one teenage girl later told the grand jury. "I talked to him about it, and he said that he would tell his grandkids about it someday."

Another girl asked him why he didn't simply leave. After all, it was dark, and there were tons of people around — the hotel was located on Santa Barbara's main thoroughfare. He could tell the hotel employees or adult guests what was happening, and they'd take care of him, she suggested.

"I've taken self-defense and stuff. It's not like I couldn't do anything right now. I just don't want to," he responded. "I don't see a reason to. I'm going home. Why would I complicate it?"

Perhaps his budding male ego was bruised by the suggestion that he couldn't protect himself. Perhaps he wanted to appear tough to impress a sympathetic audience of teenage girls. But for whatever reason, Nick stayed put in a situation that was growing more treacherous by the moment.

The girls eventually left the party to meet their curfews and return to the safety of family life, and a short while later, there was a sharp knock on the door of the hotel room where Nick was being held.

Lizard's Mouth

A newcomer from Los Angeles had arrived at the scene — packing a TEC-9 automatic pistol. Ryan Hoyt, 21, owed Hollywood $1,000 for drugs. Hollywood called him with an offer: He'd erase the drug debt if Hoyt murdered Nick. Hoyt accepted the trade without flinching.

Ryan Hoyt
Ryan Hoyt

So late that night, after the guests retired, the pool closed, and silence spread through the carpeted hallways of the hotel, the stranger arrived. Lord knows how Hoyt was introduced to Nick, or what reason was given for his sudden presence. One imagines Nick looking searchingly at his kidnappers — who'd grown somewhat fond of the boy over the past couple of days, despite themselves — but that they turned away in burning shame. They knew why Hoyt was there: to take care of Jesse James' business.

When Rugge, Hoyt and Pressley accompanied Nick to the red Ford Escort parked in the inn's lot, he was heavily sedated with marijuana and Valium, according to testimony. He had a hard time sitting straight as the car drove 30 minutes up Highway 154, a scenic route that winds through a lush bucolic landscape of orchards, ranches and vineyards.  The car turned into Los Padres National Forest and stopped beside a trailhead.

Los Padres National Forest sign
Los Padres National Forest sign

Pressley knew the spot well — he frequently hiked there with friends, and earlier that day he'd been there with a shovel to dig a hole. While Pressley waited in the car, Rugge and Hoyt dragged Nick up a rugged dirt trail to a popular campsite called "Lizard's Mouth" that affords sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. There, under a clear starry sky, the two men used duct tape to cover Nick's mouth and to bind his hands behind his back. They guided him to the shallow grave that Pressley had dug beneath a large manzanita bush.

Only his executioners know if Nick was lucid enough during his final moments to comprehend what was happening to him. He didn't have much time to contemplate it. One of the men hit Nick over the head with a shovel, according to media accounts, and then Hoyt took out the semiautomatic and stood over him. He squeezed the trigger, drilling nine bullets into Nick's abdomen and chest, before the gun jammed. The two men dumped Nick's body and the gun into the grave, threw dirt and leaves over it, then ran back to the car. Police would later paint an eight-foot boulder that loomed over the spot with a large orange X to mark the scene of the crime.

Rugge got physically ill after the shooting, but Hoyt marveled at how easy it was.

"That's the first time I ever did anybody. I didn't know he would go that quick," Hoyt said when he climbed back into the car, according to a detective who interviewed the suspects.

At the time his followers were killing Nick, Hollywood was in Los Angeles, celebrating his girlfriend's birthday at an Outback Steakhouse, investigators later learned.

Four days later, hikers noticed a stench beside the trail in Los Padres National Forest, as well as pieces of clothing poking out of the forest litter. They called the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department, which identified the body as Nick's.

It took more than a week before anyone familiar with the "stolen boy" contacted authorities. Finally, one of the teenage girls who saw Nick alive at Rugge's house saw a news report about the murder and talked to an attorney, who in turn notified the police.

All-American Kids

The suspects grew up in an affluent and close-knit community west of Los Angeles called "West Hills." Hollywood and Markowitz were in the same junior baseball league together, and Jesse James' father, Jack, was their coach. His mother, Laurie, attended most of her son's games and practices. It was the kind of apple-pie environment where parents dote on their children, cheering in the stands and taking turns flipping burgers in the snack bar.

The Hollywoods moved to Colorado briefly to start a restaurant in the mid-1990s, but returned to their old neighborhood in 1995, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Jesse James Hollywood is a little guy — only 5'4 tall and 140 pounds. But he compensated for his frame with arrogance and swagger.

His former baseball coach at El Camino Real High School described him as an "emotional kid" who was expelled from school for blowing up at a teacher at the end of his sophomore year.

"Let's just say his behavior was ... very extreme and out of line," Bob Ganssle told the paper.

After the incident, Hollywood transferred to Calabasas High School, where he played on the varsity baseball squad until he injured his back and leg and was forced to quit.

Investigators believe Hollywood started selling dope at least a year before Nick's murder. Soon, his business was booming to the point where he recruited his friends to peddle pot for him.
To be continued...

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Very Extreme

At 19, he bought a 3-story white stucco home for $200,000, just a few blocks away from the Markowitz family, making the $41,000 down payment in cash. He drove a black Mercedes and a blue sports car.

Neighbors often saw him in the front yard hanging out with a group of young men similarly dressed in jeans and tank tops, smoking in the shade of large elm tree. In the backyard, he kept two pit bulls. They also noticed strange goings-ons, cars that would pull up to the house night and day, drivers who would dash inside for a minute before leaving again.

"Everyone knew it was drugs," a young man who lived in the neighborhood told the Los Angeles Times. "I mean, all the nice cars. He didn't really go to work or nothing."

Despite the apparent drug activity, detectives said Hollywood had no drug record, although he had been charged as a minor with possessing alcohol and on another occasion with resisting arrest. That a boy named "Jesse James" would grow up to be an outlaw seems less than ironic, although his family told the press he was named after an uncle, not the infamous gun-slinger.

Jesse James Hollywood
Jesse James Hollywood

On Wednesday, August 16, four suspects — minus Jesse James — were arrested. At their arraignment at the Santa Barbara Superior Court, all four pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping and murder. Hollywood was charged in absentia under a California law that allows any participant in a kidnapping that ends in a homicide to be charged with murder.

William Skidmore, who was convicted three times in prior years — twice for being under the influence of controlled substance and once for resisting arrest — was eventually sentenced to a nine year term for his part in the crime.

Jesse Rugge — who was convicted in 1996 of a felony for carrying a concealed knife to school and in 2000, for driving under the influence — was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in five years.

And 17-year-old Graham Pressley — who had no prior criminal record and was turned in by his parents — was sentenced to the California Youth Authority's Ventura facility until his 25th birthday.

Triggerman Ryan Hoyt — who also had no prior criminal record, not even a speeding ticket — was found guilty of first-degree murder in November 2001. Today Hoyt sits on Death Row at San Quentin, waiting to die by lethal injection.

On the same day that Hoyt was sentenced, two Los Angeles cops were disciplined for their shoddy work in handling the case. The LAPD found officers Donovan Lyon and Brent Rygh guilty for failing to appropriately investigate the 911 calls related to the kidnapping.

Meanwhile, police fanned across the region to search for the posse's leader.

Cat & Mouse

Astonishingly, only three days after he ordered Nick's murder, Hollywood appeared in a Ventura courtroom on charges of possessing alcohol, the Ventura County Star reported. Court records show he was cited on May 25 for underage drinking at Sycamore Canyon State Park. He pleaded guilty and was fined $265.

Soon afterward, Hollywood was seen dragging luggage from his home, the Los Angeles  Times reported. He told a neighbor he needed to leave in a hurry "because too many people know where I live."

Nervous that the cops were closing in on him, Hollywood withdrew $25,000 from a bank account, bought a model-year Lincoln Town car, and sped out of California with his girlfriend. The couple stayed at the opulent Bellagio Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas on August 15. The next day, they drove to Woodland Park, Colorado, where Hollywood's godfather, 48-year-old Richard Dispenza, taught physical education at a local high school and coached football and girl's soccer.

His girlfriend flew back to California, and Hollywood stayed with Dispenza for at least one night, according to the Rocky Mountain News. The next morning, Dispenza drove Hollywood to a Ramada Inn off Interstate 25 in Colorado Springs. He stayed there for three days and, after checking out that Sunday morning, would not be seen for four and a half years.

"The longer this goes on, the more dangerous he becomes," Detective Susan Payne of the Colorado Springs PD told the Colorado Springs Gazette. "The concern [is that] anyone who crosses his path could be in danger. Each hour that goes by, he becomes more dangerous because he's that much closer to being caught."

A Fugitive & a Funeral

Nick Markowitz
Nick Markowitz

More than 300 mourners attended Nick's memorial service at Eden Memorial Park chapel in Mission Hills in 90-degree heat, stunned that a 15-year-old boy had been killed over his brother's drug debt. People packed the chapel and spilled outside, listening to the service over an intercom.

"There are deaths such as this when we can't shake an angry finger at God and say, 'Why?' We can only look at ourselves," Rabbi James Lee Kaufman told the crowd.

Six young pallbearers, three of them sobbing, carried the casket up a grassy hill to the grave site, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"You were always a call away when I needed you," Zach Winters, 16, told the assembly. "Things aren't going to be the same without you. All I can say is, I love you, man. We'll always be friends for life."

Ben Markowitz skipped the funeral out of respect for his stepmother, he told KNBC-TV Channel 4.

"I wish I was the one who was gone," he told the news station. "I couldn't even fathom anyone doing that (to him), especially people that I grew up with, laughed with, cried with," he said, struggling to compose himself. "I mean, these are, like, my friends."

Later, police learned that on August 22, Hollywood was driven from Colorado to California by a childhood friend, whom they did not identify. On the morning of August 29, Santa Barbara sheriff's detectives confiscated several bags of evidence from the home of Hollywood's parents. That evening, a Los Angeles SWAT team surrounded Hollywood's house in a quiet San Fernando Valley neighborhood, blocking streets and using bullhorns to warn neighbors to stay locked inside their homes. Police helicopters buzzed the rooftops as police called out for Hollywood to surrender.

Sheriff Jim Anderson of the Santa Barbara Police Department
Sheriff Jim Anderson of the Santa Barbara Police Department

At one point, a drunken man stumbled out of the front door with his hands over his head. It was not Hollywood, but one of his acquaintances, who was crashing at the house.

"This is nuts, just nuts," one neighbor told the Daily News, as she waited several hours behind a police barricade. Her two teenage sons were trapped inside their home half a block away.

Police fired tear gas into the house at sunset and forcibly entered it, but found it empty. They did, however, discover the white 1991 Chevy van they believed was used to kidnap Nick.

A Mother's Outrage

A knock on their front door shattered the lives of the Markowitz family.

Susan Markowitz, 41, the second wife of Jeffrey Markowitz, described herself to the Los Angeles Times as a "stay-at-home mom whose job had been taken away." She was very close to her son Nicholas, and the two even kept a journal together.

After learning that more than two dozen people saw her beloved son alive during his last two days, yet failed to call the cops, she became outraged, then despondent. She tried to kill herself twice, she told the paper, but eventually found strength by focusing on the capture of her son's killers.

Nick's parents hold a photo of him
Nick's parents hold a photo of him

The Markowitzes sued Hollywood and 31 others over Nick's death, alleging that dozens of people could have helped Nick escape. They settled with 14 defendants, including the LAPD, for $350,000.

She tacked up "wanted" posters for Hollywood around town. The Markowitz family offered a $50,000 for information leading to his arrest, adding to the $20,000 award offered by the FBI.

Police released these photos of Jesse
Police released these photos of Jesse

She attended hundreds of courtroom proceedings for the captured suspects, clutching her son's leather bomber jacket as a kind of security blanket while she listened to testimony maligning her son's character or detailing his brutal death. The only proceeding she missed, she told the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, coincided with what would have been Nick's graduation from El Camino High School, which she attended to pass out "In Memory of Nick" key chains.

The stress of her ordeal at manifested itself in severe back pain that sent her to the emergency room. She also gained 65 pounds. After his death, she turned the family home into a shrine to her only child, hanging up poster-sized pictures of her son and displaying his personal belongings around the house, including his baby toys and bar mitzvah gifts.

She told the Journal that it was hard for her not be bitter toward her stepson, Ben, and admitted there was friction in her 18-year marriage because of it.

"Nick died for his brother Ben," Markowitz told the paper. "He did nothing to escape, because he felt his brother would come and save him. In my opinion, Ben has done nothing in memory of that."

On the Lam

The Jesse James Hollywood case aired on the true crime television shows "America's Most Wanted" and "Unsolved Mysteries," and although the shows generated hundreds of leads, none of them panned out.

But the FBI, which was monitoring phone calls made by Hollywood's parents, did get a solid lead in March 2005 when they learned that Hollywood's cousin, a woman he hadn't seen in years, was planning to pay him a visit — in Brazil.

Brazil has long been a haven for international fugitives. Nazis, former dictators and disgraced mafiosos have all been drawn to the South American country, where the living is easy and the extradition laws are lax. Included in this dubious roster is Josef Mengele, the so-called "Death Angel" who performed hideous experiments on children at Auschwitz concentration camp, and who drowned while swimming at a Brazilian beach in 1979. Ronald Biggs, who robbed $50 million from a mail train traveling between Glasgow and London in 1963 in a crime that became known as "The Great Train Robbery," was another. (In 2001, an old and decrepit Biggs voluntarily returned to England — and prison — in exchange for free health care and a chance to see his family.)

Ronald Biggs
Ronald Biggs

Authorities soon learned that Hollywood was living under the alias Michael Costa Giroux and claimed to be a native of Rio. He and his girlfriend Marcia — a woman 15 years his senior — first lived in Copacabana, Rio's glitzy beach and nightlife district immortalized by the Barry Manilow song, where he subsisted by passing out promotional fliers for a local bar.

Life on a Beach

At some point, the couple moved to a fishing village called Saquarema, an internationally known surfers' paradise an hour east of Rio. They lived in a yellow house with a high wooden gate, and Hollywood was seen jogging along the idyllic white beaches with his two pit bulls.

He tried to keep a low profile, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"He liked to socialize, but he had an explosive temper," said Wanderley Martins, a Federal Police inspector and local Interpol agent, told the Associated Press. "He fought with bar owners over his beer tab. He was like that."

Neighbors told the Los Angeles Times that he often quarreled with his girlfriend.  Apart from barbeques held with out-of-town guests, Hollywood rarely talked to his neighbors.

"He always had his head down ... he never said anything," Walma Lindberg da Silva, who lived next door, told the paper. "I told my husband I thought there was something wrong with him."

After learning he was in Brazil, the FBI sent photographs and videos of Hollywood to local authorities and the trap was set. Hollywood arranged to meet his cousin at an outdoor mall in Saquarema. Hollywood, now 25, and his then 7-months-pregnant girlfriend, had just sat down at an outdoor table when a plainclothes policewoman walked toward him, smiling and calling his name. When he stood to greet her, she identified herself to the dismayed Hollywood as a cop.

Hollywod in custody in Rio
Hollywod in custody in Rio

As the Brazilian police drove the short blond man to their headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, it became clear from his fumbling Portuguese that he was not Brazilian. At the station, they confirmed his ID card was fake, but he insisted for two hours that there had been some kind of terrible a mix-up.

"Portuguese is a difficult language," Federal Police agent Kelly Bernardo, who made the arrest, told the Daily News. "He didn't speak really well, but we could understand what he said. He tried to maintain his story that his name was Michael. Then, in the end, he said he was Jesse James Hollywood."

In interviews, Brazilian police said they believed Hollywood had been living under an assumed name in their country for four years, and supported himself by teaching private English classes and walking dogs. But his biggest cash flow, they said, came from his father, who wired him $1,200 a month.

On the same day that Hollywood was arrested in Brazil, his father was arrested in Santa Barbara on suspicion of manufacturing GHB, the so-called "date-rape drug." Although the case was eventually thrown out — the 50-year-old had the ingredients to make GHB and a recipe, but no evidence of the finished product was found — he was kept in custody on a 2002 arrest warrant from Pima County, Arizona, for a marijuana-related charge.

Jesse James Hollywod, cuffed, transported to court
Jesse James Hollywod, cuffed, transported to court

On March 10, 2005, Hollywood landed at Los Angeles International Airport and was immediately taken to the Santa Barbara County Jail. He appeared briefly in the Santa Barbara Superior Court the next day, where he pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.


Alpha Dog

Of course the Hollywood story had to be made into a movie. Sex, drugs, murder, teenagers gone wild: the tale had it all. Director Nick Cassavetes took up the challenge, telling the New York Times he became interested in the story because his eldest daughter was a student at the same high school Hollywood attended.

Director Nick Cassavetes
Director Nick Cassavetes

Beyond the superficial drama, he told the paper, he was interested in exploring how boys who want to appear tough can box themselves into behaving that way. That's what he imagines happened during Nick's kidnapping — that the young men egged on each others' tough-guy images until finally someone took it too far and murdered Nick Markowitz.

"We watch violent images on TV, we revere violence, but we're not raised violently," he told the Times. "And when we're put in a situation, we act how we think we should act, as opposed to how we've been trained to or how we have a history of acting."

After he finished shooting half of the $13 million flick "Alpha Dog" — which stars Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis, and Sharon Stone — Hollywood was arrested in Brazil, and he had to go back and revise the storyline based on the emerging facts.

But the setbacks didn't end there. He was subpoenaed by Hollywood's defense lawyer, James Blatt, who accused prosecutor Ron Zonen of misconduct for showing Cassavetes nonpublic documents related to the case. Blatt asked the California Supreme Court to have Zonen removed from the case; the court is slated to make a decision on the case by May 2.

Furthermore, Blatt has threatened to seek an injunction against the release of the movie, saying it would taint potential jurors.

"Names are changed, but they advertised it as a true story and everyone's going to know it's the Jesse James Hollywood story," Blatt told USA Today.

Alpha Dog movie poster
Alpha Dog movie poster

"Alpha Dog" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January to mixed reviews. New Line Cinema had originally scheduled the release for April, but now says the date is "to be determined," according to press reports.



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Ervil LeBaron Story - Introduction

Ervil LeBaron middle-aged
Ervil LeBaron middle-aged
Ervil LeBaron grimaced as he looked down at the body of his pregnant daughter in the trunk of his car. Rebecca's neck was chafed raw from the rope her killers had used to strangle her, and a stream of blood had dripped from her nose onto the mat under her head. He slammed the trunk shut.

The green-and-white Ford LTD was new, and it was the spiffiest car Ervil had ever owned. Not only had his daughter's blood soiled his precious car, it was also an indication of sloppy work by the murderers -- whom he'd contracted.

"That's inexcusable!" he roared at his goons. "It's just stupidity. We can't have any more of it."

Ervil LeBaron had his daughter killed because God told him to do it. God had told the fundamentalist Mormon to do a lot of peculiar things over the years, and Ervil always obeyed without question.

When the Almighty commanded him to "be fruitful and multiply," Ervil took 13 wives and sired over 50 children.

When God told Ervil to kill, he did that too. His followers slashed a bloody trail across Mexico and the American Southwest that left 25 to 30 people dead. Among the victims were Ervil's wives, his brother, former members of his church, leaders of rival polygamous clans, and his 17-year-old pregnant daughter Becky.

Even after Ervil LeBaron died in a jail cell in 1981, the violence didn't stop. He left behind a long hit list, and his children picked up his bloody mantle, hunting down their father's enemies far and wide and eliminating them.

To this day, former members of the LeBaron cult whose names are on that list are still in hiding.

Killing for God

To understand how a polygamous psychopath killed in God's name, you've got to dig down  to the roots of the Mormon faith itself.

Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith
In 1823, a young farmer named Joseph Smith claimed that an angel named Moroni showed him gold plates engraved with ancient scriptures.  These would later be known as the Book of Mormon.

Among other things, the tablets held that Jews emigrated to the Americas from Israel in 7 B.C. and were the ancestors of the Native Americans, and that a resurrected Jesus Christ appeared in the New World before ascending to heaven.

Smith formed a religion around these tablets.      

Smith's beliefs evolved over time to include the practice of polygamy, in which a man takes more than one wife. Smith figured that God allowed the Old Testament patriarchs to wed multiple women, and it was the holy duty of Mormon males to continue that tradition. (The Church of Latter Day Saints forbids women, however, from engaging in polyandry - the practice of taking more than one husband.)

But mainstream Christians condemned Smith's polygamous teachings as immoral and Smith publicly denied he practiced it, all the while amassing a harem of 33 wives and secretly urging his disciples to follow his example. Thanks to the many births produced by these unions, the ranks of the Mormons quickly swelled to one of the largest religions in America.

But polygamy didn't sit well with the U.S. government either, which officially outlawed the practice in 1862. Caving in to pressure from Washington, the Mormon church renounced it in 1890.

This ruling failed to deter fundamentalist Mormons, who split with the Church over the issue of starting churches that allowed an ongoing collection of wives.  Faced with constant harassment from their neighbors and law enforcement, many Mormon fundamentalists fled to northern Mexico, where they formed polygamous colonies in remote regions of the desert and were largely ignored by the local government.

LeBaron Lunacy

Young Alma Dayer LeBaron
Young Alma Dayer LeBaron
One of the men who made that journey was Alma Dayer LeBaron. In 1924, Alma loaded his two wives and eight children into covered wagons and rumbled over the sandy border into Mexico. A year later, in a destitute encampment set among sagebrush and barrel cacti, one of his wives gave birth to a boy who would one day be called the "Mormon Manson" by the international press.

Like Joseph Smith, the LeBaron family had a history of revelations from God, which they alternately referred to as voices, callings or commands. Alma Dayer LeBaron had a revelation to take a second wife - prompting the clan's move to Mexico - and another telling him not to register for the WWII draft.

The 4 OClock Murders
The 4 OClock Murders
Many members of the LeBaron clan claimed to hear voices, and many suffered from insanity, Scott Anderson writes in The 4 O'Clock Murders.

Alma Dayer LeBaron's daughter Lucinda grew so violent during her bouts of psychosis that her parents chained her by the ankle to a hut. Son Ben drifted in and out of mental hospitals for years after hearing voices tell him he was God; he committed suicide in 1978 by jumping off a bridge. Son Wesley frequently called Salt Lake City radio talk shows to expound his belief that Jesus Christ would one day return to earth in a spaceship. The voices told nephew Owen to have sex with the family dog, and he was also committed to a mental hospital.

These are just a few examples of LeBaron lunacy; erratic behavior and beliefs seemed to plague the entire clan, but no one more than Ervil LeBaron, who believed he had the God-given power to kill.

The Wives

Joel (top) & Ervil LeBaron as youngsters
Joel (top) & Ervil LeBaron as youngsters
In Mexico, the family started its own settlement, called Colonia LeBaron. There   they eked out an existence as subsistence farmers. As a child, Ervil worked in the fields alongside the brothers he'd later want to kill. As a young adult, he traveled with his brothers throughout Mexico, seeking to win converts to the family's polygamous brand of Mormonism.

Before Alma died in 1951, he passed his ministry on to his son Joel, who incorporated the "Church of the First-Born of the Fulnes (sic) of Time" in Salt Lake City. Ervil was his big brother's right-hand man.

The proselytizing efforts worked, and the colony grew. They opened a nursery and primary school as well as a community kitchen and laundry. Ervil drew up the work schedules, deciding who did what on the communal farm.

Prophet of Blood
Prophet of Blood
According to Ben Bradlee Jr. and Dale Van Atta in Prophet of Blood, Firstborners viewed the soft-spoken, considerate Joel as "saintly," although Ervil was anything but. Unlike his brother, Ervil rarely lifted a hand to participate in physical labor, saying it was his job as a spiritual leader to study scripture and pray instead.

This didn't wash with some Firstborners, who started gossiping about Ervil's penchant for expensive clothes, flashy cars, and women.

Ervil LeBaron as a young man
Ervil LeBaron as a young man
As a young man, Ervil LeBaron was handsome in a hyper-masculine way. He stood 6'4 and had a square jaw and a strong nose. His hair was thick and sandy brown, his eyes were a penetrating blue. In addition to his physical charms, Ervil projected an air of confidence. He leaned into people as he spoke to them, his eyes boring into theirs as he quoted at length from both the book of Mormon and the Bible.

His masculinity and high position in the colony hierarchy made women desire him, and Ervil desired them back. He was a sexual carnivore, doggedly pursuing married women, sisters, pre-pubescent girls and middle-aged matrons alike. He would tell each one that God had told him to marry her.

One of Ervil's twisted beliefs was that the Virgin Mary had become the mother of Christ at age fourteen, and it was therefore acceptable for him to take adolescent girls as wives, according to Bradlee and Van Atta.  The colony joyfully supported their leader's pedophilia by giving him their young daughters as brides.

"If you're going to raise up a generation in a plural marriage, it is very important not to let young girls get romanticized in the worldly sense," a woman who married her 13-year-old daughter to Ervil told the authors.

Although his adolescent brides were more interested in playground flirtations with boys their age, their parents convinced them that great rewards awaited them in Heaven if they consented to the marriage.

He was an ardent suitor, but Ervil was a coolly indifferent husband and father. In Colonia LeBaron, women were babymakers and caretakers, banished to the periphery while men made the important decisions. More often than not, he acted as if his wives were a necessary nuisance. Their wombs served to produce more church members the children who would later become his footsoldiers.

Some of Ervil's 13 wives eventually grew weary of living in the Mormon harem and left him, taking their children back to the United States. Others stayed by his side to the bitter end. Two killed for him. And two died because of him.


In the mid 60s, Ervil began to lust after power. He and the reserved Joel had come to loggerheads over Ervil's antics many times over the years, including Ervil's appropriation of other men's wives, Anderson writes.

Joel LeBaron as young man
Joel LeBaron as young man
The physical location of the brothers' power play was a beachfront settlement in Baja California called Los Molinos, which Joel founded in 1964. The property consisted of 8,500 acres, including nine miles fronting the beach. Several dozen Mexican and American Firstborners lived on the property, where they constructed adobe huts, planted wheat fields, and raised goats.

Joel and Ervil had clashing visions on how to use the land, according to Bradlee and Van Atta. While Joel envisioned it as an agricultural paradise where poor Mormons could work on a communal farm, Ervil saw its potential as a tourist paradise.

Despite Joel's opposition, Ervil wooed investors with his millionaire's dream, meeting with moneymen in the States and flying them down to tour the oceanfront, pointing out where the resorts and yacht club would go.

Ervil LeBaron's home in Colonia
Ervil LeBaron's home in Colonia

The church had been broke for years because Ervil had brought in truckloads of Mexican converts at a faster rate than the colony could feed and clothe them. He tried a number of get-rich-quick schemes to support the LeBaron ministry over the years, including a gambling trip to Las Vegas, a fish-selling business, and harvesting pine nuts from national forests in California.

Once, when a potential deal was going sour in Utah, Ervil told a man he'd throw in a couple of nubile women from his flock if he'd "join his ball team," according to Bradlee and Van Atta. The offer deeply offended the man, a mainstream Mormon and family man, who walked away from the negotiations.

But while the money schemes failed one by one and cult members were forced to wear rags and eat meals of porridge, Ervil, who was skimming funds from church coffers, was zipping around the colony's dirt roads in a gold Impala and wearing flashy suits.  Cult members who held outside jobs were required to tithe 10% of their wages to the ministry, and Ervil was the one who collected these payments.

When Firstborners questioned him about the car - which they'd dubbed the "Golden Calf"- he said God told him to buy it because it would impress potential converts.

After a while, Ervil's quest for power took a dark turn. When he wasn't chasing skirts or spending the flock's money on new shoes, he was nose-deep in the Old Testament, and he'd come to believe that he had the right - like the prophets of old - to strike down people who disobeyed him.

In Moses' time, breaking the 10 Commandments was punishable by death, and Ervil reasoned that the same rules should apply in the LeBarons dusty Baja California fiefdom as well. He came up with a series of decrees based on the 10 Commandments, which he called Civil Law, and appointed himself the law's chief enforcer.  He decreed that people would die for breaking Civil Law.

His congregation noticed the cold gleam in Ervil's eye as he detailed the ancient death rituals he would apply to transgressors - disembowelment, stoning, and beheading - and shrank bank in their pews. They were getting their first glimpses of Ervil's derangement. It would only get worse.

Blood Atonement

A time-honored method of making people obey is by threatening them with physical violence. The concept is simple: If you disobey, you will feel pain. Fear of spanking keeps children in line. Fear of torture makes prisoners talk. Fear of hell keeps Christians on the straight and narrow.

Brigham Young, portrait
Brigham Young, portrait
Fear of death kept many Mormons compliant under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Church's second prophet.  Young believed that if someone strayed from his flock, the only way that person could gain entry to Heaven was if he or she was killed by a righteous assassin.

He called this concept "blood atonement," and he explained it to his followers in a sermon he gave on September 21, 1856:

"There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins; and the smoking incense would atone for their sins...

"I know, when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it is strong doctrine; but it is to save them, not to destroy them..."

In a nutshell, the Church killed you for major disobedience, e.g. raping a child, murder, especially murdering a child, etc., but it was for your own good. If you were murdered by your brethren, you were assured entrance into Heaven.

In the 1850s, historians say, Young frequently resorted to blood atonement to eliminate both his spiritual and business rivals. The Church renounced the bloody doctrine in the late 1800s, but a hundred years later, Ervil decided to reinstate it.

Rulon Allred
Rulon Allred
The first person Ervil wanted to kill was Rulon Allred, a rival polygamist from Utah, who refused to tithe to Ervil and had derided the Firstborners in public. In one of his typically long and tedious screeds, Ervil decreed that Allred was guilty of character assassination, an offense "punishable by the death sentence under the Civil Law given by God in the days of Moses," according to Bradlee and Van Atta.

Curiously, Rulon and Ervil had once been pals; in the 1950s, Rulon evaded an arrest warrant in Utah for cohabitation by hiding out at the Colonia LeBaron in Mexico. But that didn't stop Ervil from killing him some 20 years later.

Joel watched his brother scare Firstborners with his gruesome threats and continue to hawk his Mormon utopia to investors. Eventually, he got fed up. When Ervil told him in the summer of 1972 that God said he and Joel should run the church as equals, Joel put his foot down. Not only would he not share the Firstborn leadership with Ervil, he was removing Ervil from a position of leadership altogether. From that point on, Ervil would be sitting in the pews, not standing behind the pulpit.

Ervil was stunned by the news and wept openly before the congregation when the announcement was made. He walked away alone from the temple that night and began plotting against Joel.

Like Cain, he would strike his brother down.

Mormon Mafia

The four LeBaron brothers (Ervil, Joel, Verlan and Floren) with Alma LeBaron
The four LeBaron brothers (Ervil, Joel, Verlan and Floren) with Alma LeBaron

The LeBaron brothers' split also divided the colony. Families chose sides, arguing whether Joel or Ervil was the "true prophet."

Ervil started another church in San Diego, the Church of the Lamb of God. He began to issue angry proclamations against his brother, according to Bradlee and Van Atta.  Joel's disregard for his authority was an "act of treason against heaven that carries the penalty of death in this world," Ervil declared.

Joel LeBaron
Joel LeBaron
Joel was slain on a parched August day in Ensenada, a slow-moving beach town in Baja California. Joel and his 14-year-old son Ivan had gone to the house of a Church of the Lamb disciple to pick up a car, and while Ivan waited outside the residence, Ervil's thugs jumped his father inside. Ivan heard someone yell "Kill him!" and gunshots, Anderson writes. The hit men sped off in a station wagon and the boy ran inside to find his father lying face-up on the floor, blood pooling around his shoulders and two bullet holes in his head.

After murdering his brother, Ervil thought that the Firstborners would flock to him like so many sheep. Instead, they filed murder charges against him and chose a new leader - the youngest LeBaron brother, Verlan.

After Joel's funeral - attended by his seven widows and 44 children - Verlan reluctantly took up the reins of the church. Like Joel, Verlan had a quiet demeanor. He preferred to tool around his farm or spend time with his nine wives and 50-plus children than deliver pulpit-pounding sermons.

Certain that he was next on Ervil's hit list, Verlan kept a low profile, traveling constantly, frequently changing cars and residences, and otherwise keeping his whereabouts in question.

In December, Ervil walked into the police headquarters in Ensenada flanked by two lawyers and demanded that the murder charges against him be dropped. He was tired of dodging cops and needed to travel freely to win more converts to his church. But the police were flabbergasted at the sudden appearance of the murder suspect they'd trailed for months and immediately threw him in prison.

When Ervil finally went to trial nine months later, he was found guilty of homicide but only sentenced to 12 years in prison because the prosecution couldn't place Ervil at the crime scene, Anderson writes.

He only served one day of his sentence. Like Lazarus stumbling from his tomb, Ervil walked out of the dank Mexican cellblock on February 14, 1974. A Mexican supreme court had overturned the verdict because Ervil's co-defendants - the church thugs who actually killed Joel - were not present for the trial. 

After getting away with murder, Ervil met with a core group of his followers in Yuma, Arizona, according to Anderson. They began to call their leader by a number of honorary titles, including Lord Anointed, One Might and Strong, and Prophet of God. Ervil grew paranoid that the Firstborners would strike back against him, and started carrying a gun and requiring his wives and children to take marksmanship classes from a loyalist who'd served in Vietnam.

Verlan LeBaron
Verlan LeBaron
As Ervil paced back and forth in front of them, telling them they could all be slaughtered at any moment, the group started to act more like a Mormon mafia than a church. They took aliases and had driver's licenses and birth certificates drawn up in their new names. They only made calls from pay phones that couldn't be traced to their location.

Meanwhile, Verlan, also fearing fratricide, was hiding out in Nicaragua. The paranoid cat-and-mouse game between the two brothers who'd chummed around the Mexican countryside together as boys would drag out for years.

Day of Vengeance

Ervil had too much time to think and plot while he was locked up, and shortly after he was released, he published a new fire-and-brimstone essay called "Hour of Crisis - Day of Vengeance."

Hour of Crisis
Hour of Crisis
Written in pompous-sounding King James English, the tract was barely coherent.  Only after the Firstborners read and reread it were they able to eke out its meaning.  It was essentially a list of demands on the Firstborn church. Among other things, he demanded that the congregation fork over their tithes directly to him, according to Bradlee and Van Atta.

"It is a criminal offense, punishable by death, for an enlightened people to pay tithes and offerings to thieves and robbers (and other fundamentalist leaders), Ervil wrote. "The sword of vengeance (will) hang over the heads of all those who should fail to hear the word of the Lord. Willful failure to comply with (the book's) minimum requirements constitutes the crime of rebellion against God."

In other words, anyone who didn't pay dues to Ervil should die.

While Ervil was in prison, his mother wrote him that he "should not be in jail, but in a mental hospital," and from his latest diatribe, it certainly appeared that Ervil was suffering from delusions of grandeur.

His ultimatum was met by a wall of silence, and Ervil decided the apostates must be punished. He told his followers that he'd had yet another revelation: they must destroy Los Molinos.

The day after Christmas, he sent his footsoldiers across the border into Baja under cover of night, bearing firebombs and assault weapons. As some 30 Firstborn families gathered around their wood-burning stoves or tucked their children into bed, a pickup truck and a Fiat turned onto the dirt road leading to the quiet farming commune, cut their headlights, and slowed to a crawl. The temperatures hovered near freezing that night, and smoke rose from the chimneys of the cozy homes into the dark blue sky.

The peaceful tableau was shattered by a Molotov cocktail crashing through the window of the town's largest house, according to Anderson. Within seconds, the wood-framed house was engulfed in fire. The occupants ran outside, and in the confusion that followed, Ervil's thugs sprayed bullets over the people racing to form a water brigade, their figures silhouetted against the dancing orange flames. 

The assailants barreled through the settlement throwing more firebombs into homes as they made their way toward their primary target: Verlan's abode. The Firstborn leader wasn't home, but his wife Charlotte and six of their children were. When they saw the truck with five armed men in the back making an erratic beeline for their house, they ran to hide in a dark orchard while the men shot up their house and set it on fire.

The 20-minute onslaught left two men dead, 13 people wounded, and Ervil spitting mad because his brother was still alive.

To be continued...

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Total World Domination

Ervil's plans kept getting bigger. After taking over Los Molinos, he wanted to take over the governments of Mexico and the United States, and eventually rule the world.

He decided to finance his bid for total world domination by killing his religious rivals and stealing their business.

At this point, the Lamb of God church consisted largely of his Ervil's wives and progeny. But there were also enough outsiders to keep the baby propagation going, and like an ancient king, Ervil controlled the "romantic" liaisons in his realm. He had first dibs on the females, arranged marriages between subjects, and gave away his daughters to men he wanted to cement relationships with or reward for good behavior.

The ever-expanding clan moved to Utah, where Ervil dropped in on the patriarchs of other polygamous tribes and demanded they give him 10% of their earnings... or die.  The patriarchs told him to get lost.

Meanwhile, back in Los Molinos, the Firstborn families were sleeping with guns by their sides and had organized patrols to watch their property. Verlan was living in a safe house in San Diego.

Ervil had moles firmly planted amid the Firstborners who reported back to him on these activities.  But some of these people started getting nervous after the raid. One of them was Noemi Zarate, a plural wife of one of Ervil's close associates. Noemi got a bad case of loose lips and complained about the violence, threatening to tell the police the location of Ervil's whereabouts. With the full blessing of Noemi's husband, Ervil decided to shut her up once and for all, and dispatched one of his wives, Vonda White, to assassinate her, Anderson writes.

The two women had known each other for years, so it wasn't hard for Vonda to convince Noemi to go for a spin in her car on a chilly January evening in 1975. They drove to a canyon in the foothills of the rugged San Pedro Mountains. In that dark canyon, Vonda pumped the mother of five full of bullets before she could beg for mercy. Another of Ervil's wives, Yolanda Rios - who would herself be murdered a decade later - helped Vonda dig a shallow grave among the creosote bushes, into which they dumped Noemi's body. It has never been found.  "You don't know how pleased the Lord is that that traitor is dead!" Ervil rejoiced when he heard the news.

He was still leaning on other fundamentalist leaders in Utah to cough up money and still getting no results. "Repent ye therefore or suffer destruction at the hand of God!" he thundered in one letter to his polygamous rivals. Again, they ignored him, but some beefed up their security measures.

One of the men Ervil tried to extort money from was Bob Simons, who lived on a 65-acre ranch near Grantsville, Utah, with his two wives.  Simons, who had spent time in mental hospitals when he was younger, believed he was a prophet destined to convert Native Americans to the Mormon faith. He refused to cave into demands to join the Lamb of God church. Ervil was itching to get his hands on Bob's bucolic spread.

Using a false name, Ervil paid Simons several visits as a supposed disciple of the church.  The two men argued for hours over their theological differences. At one point, according to Bradlee and Van Atta, the argument turned into a fierce wrestling match, and the two men groped and grappled about in the dirt as Simons wives wailed and wrung their hands.

By the time Ervil started hitting on one of his wives, Simons was beyond annoyed, and he told Ervil to keep off his property.

Ervil realized the game was up. He gathered his henchmen around him and revealed that God wanted blood atonement for the false prophet. 

"We are going to blow him up like a balloon," he railed, according to Anderson.

The men bided their time for a couple of months before paying Simons a last and   fatal visit.  On the drive out to Simon's ranch, Ervil's goons stopped by a gardening store to buy pickaxes, shovels and a bag of chemicals that hasten the deterioration of human flesh. They stopped again to dig a coffin-sized hole in the desert hills.

Simons knew they were coming - one of Ervil's emissaries, Lloyd Sullivan, had called on him a few days a before, claiming he now believed Simons was the true prophet after a conversation he'd had with some Indian chiefs. The chiefs had been searching for the white prophet who would lead them to salvation for a long time, the emissary said. Simons was ecstatic.

"How soon can I meet them?" he asked Lloyd.        

Simons paid the gas money for the ride to his grave on the night of April 23, 1975. The moon-washed landscape was barren and forlorn, but the Indian chiefs had picked the time and the place and Simons wasn't about to protest. He leaned forward in his seat, peering through the windshield. For so many years, he'd sought to make contact with the elusive Native Americans, and now it was happening. He could hardly believe his good fortune and smiled as Lloyd pulled the car up beside a pile of rocks. Lloyd cut the engine, but left the headlights on.

Bob Simons
Bob Simons

Simons stood in front of the car, a hand raised to his brow as he peered into the distance, looking for his Indian flock. He was too focused, his heart pounding too hard, to notice two young men creeping up behind him. One of them raised a shotgun to the back of his head and squeezed the trigger, and the self-proclaimed Indian prophet slammed to the ground, dust swirling over him in the headlights glare.


The Pregnant Assassin

Standing 6'8 and weighing in at 260 muscle-popping pounds, Dean Vest was a physically intimidating man.  He was a Vietnam vet living in San Diego when he followed his father's footsteps to the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times and had stayed on after his father grew disillusioned with the church and left it in the late 60s.

Ervil made him the church's military general, and he taught Ervil's foot soldiers the explosives and weapons tactics he'd used in the jungles of Vietnam. Dean laid out the blueprint for the Los Molinos raid.

But Dean's wife Cheryl was never gung-ho about the chauvinist teachings of a church where a woman's primary value was her breeding potential. After years of asking Dean to leave the church, she left him and moved to Washington State with their two children.

The 36-year-old was devastated and started reconsidering his allegiances. He started to spend more and more time fixing up a rusted-out barge he'd bought and less time in church. Then he made the mistake of telling people his dream of sailing up the coast in his barge for a joyful reunion with his wife and kids.

He should have known better. There was no way that Ervil would let his military commander simply walk away. It would make him look bad. He didn't want Dean to prompt a mass defection. According to Civil Law, Ervil said, Dean must be blood-atoned.

Ervil chose one of the least suspicious people in his clan to kill the weapons expert, his 10th wife, Vonda White. Vonda was living near San Diego with a "sister wife" - as the wives called each other - and a houseful of children, and Dean often stopped by frequently for a home-cooked meal or company.  He'd never suspect that Vonda - who was barely 5'3 and six months pregnant - would kill him. But Vonda had already proven herself a lethal asset to the Lamb of God church when she'd murdered her sister wife Noemi Zarate the past January.

On June 16, 1976, Dean learned his wife and daughter had been injured in a car accident and immediately booked a flight to Seattle, according to Anderson.  Before heading to the airport, he stopped by Vonda's house to pick up some things he'd stored there and give her the news. When Dean knocked on the front door, Vonda was playing the role of the loving mother, preparing lunch for six children.  But she switched to killer mode as soon as Dean said he was leaving for Washington. She was worried that he'd reconcile with his wife and never come back from the trip. Ervil told her to kill him, and it was now or never.

But first she had to feed the kids. She chatted with him while the young ones ate. When the kids were done eating, she shooed them upstairs, telling them to stay out of Dean's way as he packed. Then she pulled out a loaded .38 Colt revolver from a dresser drawer, tucked it into a pocket of her maternity dress and went back downstairs.

Dean was getting ready to lug his baggage to his car when White asked him to look at her washing machine, according to Bradlee and Van Atta.  She told him it wasn't working right and he needed a man to check it over.  Dean couldn't find the "problem," but he did get his hands grimy fiddling with the motor. As he washed up at the kitchen sink, White stepped behind him and raised the gun. She was wearing rubber gloves. She tiptoed toward Dean's massive back and squeezed the trigger. The first shot ripped through his liver, and Dean straightened over the sink and started to turn right. The second shot pierced his lung, and as he continued turning toward his attacker, blood spewed from his mouth in a five-foot arc. Vonda quickly ducked to avoid the torrent.

After Dean collapsed on the linoleum floor, she delivered the coup de grace behind his left ear, then washed up and called the police, Anderson writes.

"Shots have been fired," Vonda White - wife, mother, murderer - calmly told the dispatcher.

A Man and His Car

After the police grew suspicious of Vonda's story and told her to stick around town, she fled to Denver, where Ervil had moved his clan to keep one step ahead of his real and imaginary enemies.

The Church of the Lamb members were running an appliance repair business and barely making ends meet, despite running a sweatshop where children, women and men alike worked 16 hour days without pay. They crammed into tiny rental homes, dressed in rags, and went hungry. At night, they resorted to digging through supermarket dumpsters for bruised produce and day-old bread.

In 1977, however, their hardships paid off and the business finally started to become profitable.  The clan started appliance stores in cities in several other states, including Dallas, where a group of cult members moved that winter.

Despite achieving financial success, Ervil had other nagging problems - such as his daughter. When Rebecca was 15, Ervil had given her in marriage to Victor Chynoweth, a wealthy disciple.  But Becky wasn't happy in her marriage; Vic was a distant husband and his first wife made Becky's life hell. When the cult split between Utah and Denver, she was sent to the Mile High City and was forced to leave her baby behind. She was bitter about it. She sniped at her customers and coworkers and threatened to go to the cops, thinking that as the cult head's daughter, she was safe from harm. How wrong she was. Fed up with her antics, Ervil had a revelation from God.

Duane Chynoweth
Duane Chynoweth
One day in April, Ervil told Becky she could retrieve her baby, Victor Jr., from Denver, according to Anderson. She was elated.  On the appointed day, she sat in the back seat and chatted with the two boys driving her to the Dallas airport, happier than she'd been in months. She was three months pregnant, and she planned to take her baby boy to Mexico and stay with her mother. She'd give birth to her second child there and raise it with the help of her doting mother. But the boys in the front seat weren't listening. Duane Chynoweth and Eddie Marston were doing a mental rehearsal of a new trick they'd been practicing for the past several weeks: how to strangle someone with rope.

Eddie Marston
Eddie Marston
On an isolated road outside the Dallas suburbs, Duane pulled the car off the road and Eddie reached down to grab the coiled rope at his feet. It took a long time for Becky to die, longer than they'd planned on. She was young and strong and had a tremendous desire to see her baby boy again. She kicked and thrashed about on the back seat as the two boys tugged at the ends of the rope. Ultimately, the pregnant 17-year-old was no match for two boys afire with the evil gospel of Ervil.

Their boss was livid when her blood stained the trunk of his LTD and he chewed out the boys for being so careless. A short while later, he traded the car in for another, more pristine, LTD.

As for Becky, her young killers dumped her body in an Oklahoma state park. It was never found.

Rena: Child Bride

In the midst of his murderous rampage, Ervil received a revelation to take another wife, and married Rena Chynoweth - his 13th and last wife - in February 1975.

Rena Chynoweth
Rena Chynoweth
She was 16, he was 50. In her memoir The Blood Covenant, Rena says Ervil molested her for four years before she finally gave in to making it "legal."

Nevertheless, the aging stud couldn't get it up on their wedding night, Rena writes, or for many nights thereafter. When he finally did manage to consummate their relationship, she was utterly repulsed.

"...had to close my eyes and pretend I was somewhere else or he was someone else," she writes. "I would often turn my head away or hold my breath so I wouldn't have to smell his breath. It always reeked of something awful, usually coffee. He kissed like a fish, very stiff-lipped, in a way that really disgusted me."

Rena didn't want to kiss Ervil, but she did want to kill for him.

Frustrated by his inability to eliminate his little brother and take over the Firstborners, Ervil came up with yet another plan to assassinate him, one of many he'd concocted over the years.

Verlan was in constant motion between safe houses in Mexico, California, and Nicaragua, so Ervil came up with a must-attend event that would lure Verlan into the open: Rulon Allreds funeral.

Rulon had refused to tithe to Ervil and had to die anyway, Ervil figured. His brother would no doubt attend the funeral of the man who had been a legendary Utah polygamist, and the Lamb of God assassins would cut him down during the service. It was the perfect plan, Ervil thought. Two birds, one stone.

Ramona Marston
Ramona Marston
On May 10, 1977, Rena and another young woman, Ramona Marston, walked into Rulon's homeopathic clinic on the outskirts of Salt Lake City wearing cheap wigs and fake glasses. Rena spotted Rulon as he stepped from a back room and walked toward him. He nodded at her.

"He was exactly as he had been described to me," Rena would later write in her memoir. "Tall, slender, gray-haired - a nice, pleasant-looking man... He was no more than three to five feet from me. I knew the moment had come to do what I was sent there to do."

Without a word, Rena pulled a .25 caliber pistol from her jacket and fired, emptying all seven bullets into the old man's chest. He tried to deflect them with his hands before falling.

Rulon Allred's funeral
Rulon Allred's funeral

Rulon Allreds funeral at Bingham High School was a huge event. Over 2,600 people from around the country traveled to the school for a final goodbye, as did the police and news media, according to Anderson. Ervil's goons drove into the parking lot, took one look at the scene, and aborted their plan to hunt down Verlan among the mourners.

Once again, Ervil had failed to kill his younger brother. He was in a foul mood for days.

The End of Ervil

Ervil used many classic cult techniques to keep his followers in line, Rena writes. He isolated them by limiting their contact with people outside the church. He exhausted them with his hours-long sermons that broke down their mental resistance. He scared them by telling them that they were being hunted by religious and government assassins and that they would only survive by banding together.

The cult's children were normally pulled from school after fifth or sixth grade, because Ervil feared contact with secular playmates might prompt them to question their cloistered lifestyle. Knowledge of the outside world was a dangerous thing.

From age 10 onward, the children were put to work doing chores around the home or in the family business. Ultimately, they had nowhere else to turn once they came of age - no education, no skills, no network of support.

But when Ervil started killing, some of the cult members finally shook themselves from their stupor and realized their honcho was a certifiable nutcase. A few managed to tiptoe away from the cult houses and take their incriminating tales to the police. Eventually the law caught up with the cult killers.

Rena Chynoweth
Rena Chynoweth
At the Rulon Allred murder trial, Rena testified. A jury decided there was insufficient evidence to convict the sweet-faced gun-slinging teen and her cohorts in crime, and they walked free.

Vonda White didn't have the same luck. She was sentenced to life imprisonment on May 13, 1979 for the murder of Dean Vest.

And on June 1, 1979, the Mexican police finally captured the cultmaster himself, Ervil LeBaron.  He'd been hiding in the mountains south of Mexico City. Anderson writes that Ervil was bruised and limping by the time Mexican cops shoved him across the international bridge at Laredo into the grip of waiting FBI agents; apparently the police had used him as a punching bag during the six-day trip to the U.S. border.

Ervil LeBaron
Ervil LeBaron
Ervil was held at the Salt Lake County jail until May 12, 1980, when he went on trial for masterminding Rulon Allred's murder.  After a steady stream of ex-cult members testified against him, he was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison at the Point of the Mountains State Prison in Draper, Utah.

Point of the Mountains State Prison
Point of the Mountains State Prison

But his imprisonment didn't end Ervil's appetite for vengeance.  Caged as he was between steel bars and cement, he managed to write his magnum opus, the Book of the New Covenants, at a small desk in his cell. It was his last work, and it would be his most famous. He wrote furiously, scribbling until his fingers cramped and his eyes got blurry.

The 500-page screed contained a hit list of more than 50 people whom Ervil decided needed to be blood-atoned, among them cult defectors, police investigators, and prison officials. He distributed copies of the manuscript among his followers.

Ervil died in prison on August 16, 1981, of an apparent heart attack; prison guards found him keeled over in his cell, a hand clutching his throat. In an uncanny twist of fate, his brother Verlan was killed in a car crash in Mexico a few hours later.

If Ervil's death made everyone sleep a little easier at night, it shouldn't have.  The Book of New Covenants contained a line of succession of men who were to carry on his ministry after he died.

One by one, the people on his hit list began to fall, as Ervil continued to orchestrate murderous mayhem from beyond the grave.


The Hit List

On June 21, 1983, his son Isaac, 20, who testified against Ervil, died in a suspicious "suicide" while staying with cult-member relatives in Houston.

In the fall of 1983, the plans of Ervil's wife Lorna to defect from the cult were cut short when the mother of eight was strangled and buried in a shallow grave in Mexico. Her body has never been found.

On December 28, 1983, Ervil's oldest son, Arturo, 33, was gunned down in Mexico by Leo Evoniuk, a rival who disputed his claim to the prophets mantle.

After Arturo died, the cult leadership fell to Heber LeBaron, Ervil's 20-year-old son. Heber had inherited his towering physical beauty from his father, but he'd also inherited his insanity. His first move was to purge Los Molinos of traitors who'd aligned themselves with Evoniuk.

In the early months of 1984, he shot Gamaliel Rios in the face with a .45 automatic. His body was buried in the desert and never recovered.

Yolanda Rios
Yolanda Rios

Neither was that of Yolanda Rios, Ervil's twelfth wife, who was strangled to death in May 1984 and buried outside of Dallas.

On May 21, 1987, Leo Evoniuk was murdered near Santa Cruz, California. Only his dentures, lying in a puddle of blood, were found.

On October 16, 1987, Dan Jordan was shot in the head while on a hunting trip in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in Utah with his family and some LeBaron kids. His murder was never solved.

Mark Chynoweth
Mark Chynoweth

But June 27, 1988 was the single bloodiest day in the cult's history. Ervil had raged for 15 long paragraphs in New Covenants against Mark Chynoweth, Duane Chynoweth and Ed Marston, demanding they be slain as traitors. At 4 o'clock that afternoon in simultaneous murders hundreds of miles apart, his wishes were carried out.

Duane Chynoweth
Duane Chynoweth

All three men were former cult thugs who were trying to pursue normal lives in the appliance-repair business. But that wasn't their destiny.

At 4 o'clock in Houston, Duane Chynoweth was gunned down when he drove to pick up a used washer at a private home. It was a setup. His 8-year-old daughter Jennifer was with him that day, and she screamed when her daddy was shot.

Jennifer Chynoweth
Jennifer Chynoweth

The assassin turned when he heard the child, and walked back to the truck to shoot her in the mouth and forehead, not wanting to leave a potential witness. Across the state in Irving, Eddie Marston was also mowed down by bullets at 4 o'clock after replying to a similar appliance pickup request. And police found Mark Chynoweth in the back office of Reliance Appliances in Houston, his lifeless body sprawled on the paperwork on his desk and riddled with .45 bullet holes. He'd also been executed at 4 o'clock.

Eddie Marston
Eddie Marston

One by one, the authors of the quadruple murder were caught, caged, and hauled into court.

  • In May 1993, Heber LeBaron, Patricia LeBaron, and Douglas Lee Barlow were sentenced to life in prison without parole for their part in the slayings.
  • Richard LeBaron, who was only 17 when he shot Duane and Jennifer Chynoweth to death, was sentenced to five years in prison.
  • Cynthia LeBaron was granted immunity and testified against her half-siblings at that trial.
  • In June, 1997, Aaron LeBaron was sentenced to 45 years in prison for racketeering, racketeering conspiracy and conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the victims.
  • Jacqueline LeBaron, whom police say helped to orchestrate the murders, remains at large. She is presumed to be living in Mexico or Belgium.

Still Hiding

Despite the fact that the killers were jailed, many former cult members still live in fear. It's unclear who the new leader of the LeBaron cult is or whether that person intends to continue checking names off Ervil's hit list, but Rena Chynoweth isn't taking her chances.

She split up with Ervil when he was in jail for the Rulon murder, and that won her a place on his list. Twenty years later, she's still in hiding.

"During our five-year marriage and for many years afterward, I had to live with some ghastly memories," writes Chynoweth. "I killed a man in cold blood, acting on my husband's orders which he claimed were 'commands from God.' I spent a year and a half running from the law, five months in jail awaiting trial for murder, and many years afterward trying to block out my past.        

Video cover: Prophet of Evil
Video cover: Prophet of Evil
Rena ends her book with a plea to her readers:

"These last remnants of Ervil LeBaron's flock are still a risk to the rest of society. They are the last ones who may still feel bound by his blood covenant that has claimed so many innocent lives. They have grown up around violence and violent teachings, and there is grave danger that they will pass these values on to their own children. I want the killing to stop. Only by finding those still out there and getting them the help they need can we stop the bloodshed. "

In her final paragraph, she asks readers who come into contact with the LeBaron children to please turn them in to the police.



I'd rather be hated for what I am, than loved for what I am not".

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Harry Strauss was frustrated.

Strauss, better known to his chums as "Pep" or "Pittsburgh Phil," was on a contract job in Jacksonville, Florida but the bum he was supposed to take out wasn't making it easy.

A fashion conscious man who always traveled with a clean shirt and spent an hour with his barber each morning, Pep had flown down from New York at the request of the Florida mob to take care of a wiseguy who had been causing some problems for the underworld. Phil had been told by his local contacts that it would be an easy job.

"He comes out of his house same time every day," the local hoodlum who met Pep's plane told him. "You're lucky, it's an easy pop."

But Phil wasn't convinced. There was no escape route; no hot getaway car; no plan. The man left his house at the same time each day, sure, but it was 11 o'clock in the morning and his house was on a busy street.

"These guys are farmers," he said to himself after dismissing the local hood. They had no idea how an artist like Pittsburgh Phil liked to work. After all, wasn't he the guy who had mugged Harry Sage with an icepick and dumped his body in an upstate New York lake? And wasn't he the one who had buried Meyer Shapiro, the boss of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, while Meyer was still alive?

Yeah, Pittsburgh Phil was a real artist with a taste for blood and a talent for killing. It didn't matter how the target was killed when Phil was involved. He was an expert with a icepick (that's how he offed George Rudnick, a New York hood who was suspected of being a stoolpigeon), the gun (he killed Joe Kennedy, another gangster), and rope (he strangled Puggy Feinstein and then set him on fire).

"It's okay to do murder," Pep once said. "As long as I don't get caught."

And for a long time Pittsburgh Phil didn't get caught. He had been arrested 29 times in 13 years and "had never been convicted of so much as smoking on a subway platform," wrote Burton Turkus, the assistant D.A. who finally sent Phil to the chair.

But this Florida bum — gangland victims were always referred to as "bums" by their killers — was making Phil's job difficult. Phil followed the guy from his house, sat next to him while the man ate lunch and generally turned himself into the guy's shadow, but the opportunity to do a little murder never presented itself.

It frustrated Phil, but he wasn't ready to give up.

"Even if it takes all day, I'll tail him and find the right spot," he pledged.

Finally, the mark went into a movie theater. It was crowded, but Phil was up to the challenge. He wasn't carrying his gun on him and this wouldn't be the right place for an icepick or rope job.

Pittsburgh Phil (left) and Buggsy Goldstein
Pittsburgh Phil (left) and Buggsy

Phil looked around...there, against the wall was his weapon: a fire axe.

"I take the axe and sink it in the guy's head in the dark," he thought. That would cause a huge racket and in the ensuing commotion, Phil — who was a stranger in Jacksonville — would just run out with the rest of the panic-stricken crowd. Typical Pittsburgh Phil brilliance.

But, as Pep would later tell his friends, the guy was "a seat-hopper." Just as Phil was ready to do the job, the man jumped up and moved to a better seat. For Phil, that settled it. This was a bad job and he wanted nothing to do with it. He left the theater, flew home to Brooklyn and admitted failure.

Whether that meant a reprieve for the man who had brought down the wrath of the Florida mob will never be known. Phil might have been disappointed on this trip to Florida, but he certainly got more than his fair share of kills. According to Turkus, Phil killed more than 30 men in a dozen cities. He begged for contracts and took great delight in a job well-done. Pittsburgh Phil wasn't a serial killer, though. He was just another slayer in the stable of Murder, Inc., the enforcement arm of America's crime Syndicate. With mobsters like Bugsy Siegel, Joey Adonis, Albert Anastasia, and Kid Twist Reles, "Pittsburgh Phil" formed the firing squad of a national underworld cartel that controlled gambling, unions, loansharking and narcotics from the end of Prohibition through the 1950s.

This is the story of Murder, Inc. from its beginning as the brain child of Johnny Torrio and Lucky Luciano to the death of Albert Anastasia, the "Lord High Executioner" of the Syndicate in 1950s.

At the height of its efficiency, Murder, Inc. was probably responsible for a thousand killings from coast to coast. Guns and knives were used, of course, but so were more imaginative methods like cremation, slow strangling, quicklime and live burial. Some killers liked the icepick — properly inserted into the ear, a skilled killer could scramble a bum's brains and make it look like a cerebral hemorrhage. One gangster who had cheated his compatriots out of their take of a gambling operation was stabbed and then tied to a pinball machine and dumped into a lake. Until it was broken by a stool pigeon with first-hand knowledge of dozens of killings, Murder, Inc. operated quietly and ruthlessly, rubbing out gangsters who had run afoul of the cartel and lawmen who threatened its existence.

This is a story of remorseless killers and tough, fearless lawmen; of unbelievable brutality committed in the name of greed and of devotion to the rule of law.

Lucky's Dream

"The protection that clears a killer of murder in New York cannot get Mr. Milquetoast out of a traffic ticket in Kansas City. But Lucky had the key to transform local crime into a national menace that would make the Borgias look like Sunday-school teachers and the Medicis angels of mercy. And this key was syndication." ( Sid Feder and Joachim Joesten, The Luciano Story )

"Joe the Boss" Massaria

By 1922, Giusseppe Masseria had become the head of the Mafia in New York City. Riding high on the fruits of the liquor rackets, "Joe the Boss" had ruthlessly murdered his rivals and consolidated his power by assembling a crack team of bloodthirsty killers. Masseria, who had stepped in to fill the shoes of Ignazio "Lupo the Wolf" Saietta, was a stumpy, stern-faced killer who had been patient enough to wait until his army was strong enough to withstand an all-out gang war before making his move to replace Lupo. But Masseria was also a "Mustache Pete" — an old-school Mafioso — who did not have a vision for the future and believed that Sicilians should only do bsusiness with Sicilians.

Sal Marazano
Sal Marazano

Not all of Masseria's lieutenants supported their boss's view of things, however. Men like Lucky Luciano, Lepke Buchalter, and Joe (Joey A.) Adonis had been talking of a cartel of sorts to keep bloodshed between gangs to a minimum and to ensure that supply of liquor did not exceed demand.

Joe the Boss's chief lieutenant was Charles "Lucky" Luciano (born Salvatore Lucania) and he had a plan. Like Lupo, Joe the Boss and Sal Maranzano, Lucky believed that New York needed a single boss to keep the rackets moving smoothly and to halt the internecine warfare between the various clans. And Lucky knew that one day, he would be that boss.

As the Roaring 20's ended, the various gangs came together in a liquor cooperative they called "The Big Seven": Masseria's mafiosi were represented by Lucky, with Joey Adonis and Johnny Torrio for help; Irving Bitz and Salvatore Spitale — who later played a role in the Underworld's fruitless search for the Lindbergh baby — represented the New York independents; Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky were members, as were Longy Zwillman of Newark and King Solomon, Danny Walsh and Cy Nathanson.

"Lucky" Luciano

Together, the Big Seven controlled all rumrunning on the Eastern Seaboard. The group had its own ships and trucks, set up offshore loading bases in the Bahamas and had an extensive radio communications network. Everything, including the price of booze and the bottles that would be used were controlled by the Big Seven. And Lucky was the nominal head of the group.

This monopoly was a far cry from the national Syndicate which would control all aspects of organized crime in later years, but for bright guys like Lepke, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, it was clear that they were on to something. Cooperation, not conflict, was the way to go.

But Joe the Boss didn't see the advantage of working in cooperation with these other gangs and his ignorance sealed his fate. His credo was "An organization works on its own and knocks off anyone who gets in its way," wrote Sid Feder and Joachim Joesten in The Luciano Story. Joe would have to die and it was up to Lucky to take action.

After a traditional Italian dinner at Masseria's favorite hangout and a couple of games of cards, Lucky excused himself from the table and went to the bathroom. While he was in washing his hands, three gunmen, reportedly Joey A., Bugsy Siegel and Albert Anastasia, walked into Scarpato's restaurant and opened fire on Joe the Boss. More than 20 bullets were fired by the three men, five of which found their mark.

When Lucky emerged from the bathroom, he found Masseria slumped over the card table, his outstretched hand still gripping the ace of diamonds like he was ready to make a play. But Lucky wasn't boss yet.

While it was clear to most that the younger faction of the mob was taking over, there were still several Mustache Petes — especially Sal Maranzano — who had to go. Maranzano and Masseria had been at each other's throats in what came to be known as the Castellamarese War — named for Maranzano's backwater home village in the mountains of Sicily. With Masseria dead, Lucky assumed control of the Mafia and made "peace" with Sal. The peace didn't last long and just five months after Masseria died, Bo Weinberg and four other gunsels from the Bug and Meyer mob entered Maranzano's real estate office in New York City and eliminated the elderly Sicilian. Now, Lucky was boss.

A Summit is Held

Wiith Prohibition gone, the mobs had to turn to new ways to make a buck. Lepke was making a mint extorting money from labor unions and business; Dutch Schultz was doing well with a restaurant protection racket and everyone was running gambling houses. Narcotics was big, too. The Bugs and Meyer Mob was cleaning up as an unofficial murder-for-hire organization.

Johnny Torrio, who had gotten his start in the New York rackets, moved to Chicago and then turned that operation over to Al Capone, had an idea: the time had come for a national crime Syndicate. Before a group of the most powerful mobsters in the country, Torrio shared his vision.

"See what you think of this," he told the assembled hoods. "Why don't you guys work up one big outfit?"

Wait a minute, came the reply. Didn't we just go through two top bosses in less than a year? We're independents, the mobsters argued. We don't work together. One big gang wouldn't change anything and no boss wanted to take a backseat now.

"You don't have to throw everything into one pot; each guy keeps what he's got now, but we make one big combination to work with," Torrio countered.

Lepke Buchalter
Lepke Buchalter

Lepke and Luciano jumped on the idea. In order for such an idea to work, the inter-gang warfare had to stop. No independence would be sacrificed, and no one would be the capo di tutti capo — the boss of bosses.

The Syndicate would work like a corporation of sorts. There would be a board of directors where everyone was equal and such a board would moderate disputes between gangs, set general policy and have the final say over inter-mob dealings. Each mob would have its own territory, its own soldiers and its own rackets. Inside the mob's territory and operations, the head of the gang ruled supreme. No killings would be allowed unless he gave his okay, and no one could crowd in on his action unless he approved. The only time when the boss's word was not inviolate was when he was overruled by the board of directors. And even then, no decision would be made until after that boss had presented his side of the beef.

Lucky, Frank Costello, Lansky and Siegel, Joey A., Longy Zwillman and Lepke Buchalter all signed on to the new cartel. The only one left out was Dutch Schultz, who was regarded by his colleagues as a loose cannon who could not be trusted and whose "mad dog" reputation would only bring down heat on the new Syndicate.

Later, meetings would be held around the country and everywhere the response was the same. Detroit signed on and the Purple Gang was integrated into the Syndicate. Kansas City joined up, so did Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, New Orleans. The Syndicate quickly went nationwide. It was a brilliant set up, one which Burton Turkus called a "more perfect union — for crime."

Brooklyn, Inc.

Killing is an essential part of an organized crime racket — for criminals understand only the law which comes from the barrel of a gun. Every mob must, from time to time, mete out its own justice, either to a member of the gang or someone who threatens the gang's security. But sometimes, a local gunman isn't right for the job. It could be because the killing will immediately point to the mobster who ordered it or for some other reason that makes it inopportune for the local killers to take the contract. Over the years, various mobs had traded favors by sending someone to take out the bum, like Pittsburgh Phil and his trip to Florida. Other times, freelancers could be found to take the job.

The Syndicate board of directors needed the ability to enforce its edicts. Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky had a number of hired guns, but they had other interests, as well. The Bugs and Meyer mob wanted more than just to do the crime Syndicate's dirty work. It was essential that such an enforcement arm be skilled, relentless and willing.

Thanks to Joe Adonis, the dapper gangster with the movie star looks who sat on the national Syndicate board of directors, a group of killers in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn began to pick up some of the contracts. And over time, the Syndicate members began to realize that the Brooklyn gang was almost always successful.

"The precision-like technique they had perfected came to be looked on with great respect and approbation by mob moguls the country over, for the painstaking attention to detail and its neat finality of accomplishment," Turkus wrote.

Lepke Buchalter, for example, used the Brooklyn boys exclusively, paying a flat-rate $12,000 annually for their services. "Those kids in Brooklyn got it taped real good," Lepke once told a pal. "That Reles and Pittsburgh Phil, and that Maione know how to cover up a job so nobody knows a thing."

Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, one of the killers whom Lepke so admired, was a cunning, wire-haired fireplug of a man, a bootlegger who rarely touched alcohol and was tough enough to take two bullets — one in the gut and another in the back — as he ascended to his leadership role in the Brownsville mob. Kid Twist had hands that could strangle a man — and often did. His fingers were broad and flat at the ends and "one could almost imagine this low-browed bandit driving rows of nails into a board merely by snapping the fat heads of his fingers down, one by one," Turkus recalled.

Abe "Kid Twist" Reles

Kid Twist and his mobster buddy Buggsy Goldstein had been living a charmed life, by crime standards. Together, they had been arrested more than 70 times and had only served 50 months behind bars between the two of them. Unlike Pittsburgh Phil and Happy Maione, who killed merely because they liked to kill, Kid Twist only killed when necessary. He was Brooklyn's Public Enemy Number One from 1931 to 1940, when he strolled into a borough police station and started what would become the downfall of Murder, Inc.

Kid Twist was small in stature, but large in ego. He wasn't afraid of the law and was often openly defiant when he appeared before a court. In 1934, when he was sentenced to three years for assault, the soda-jerk-turned-crime-lord was castigated by the judge.

"Reles is one of the most vicious characters we have had in years," said the judge. "I am convinced he will either be sentenced to prison for life or be put out of the way by some good detective with a couple of bullets."

Reles sneered at the judge and whispered to his attorney, who then turned to the court. "I will take on any cop in the city with pistols, fists or anything else," Reles said. "A cop counts to fifteen when he puts his finger on the trigger before he shoots."

He was, Turkus claimed, a moral imbecile. Reles admitted to 11 killings and the law could link him to 14 others. In one of those, Reles protested, he had only held one end of the rope and didn't pull it, so it couldn't possibly be considered a murder count against him.

Reles and Buggsy had taken over Brooklyn, Inc. in 1931, after killing the Shapiro brothers, who had visciously raped the woman who would later become Reles's wife, to send the headstrong Kid Twist a message. Meyer, the elder of the Shapiros and the reigning gangster in Brownsville, escaped the Reles death squad a remarkable 19 times but succumbed in the end. He was found under the beach in Canarsie; an autopsy revealed sand in his lungs. Reles had buried the gangster alive.

Judge Lepke

By the mid 1930s, Luciano's national Syndicate had almost complete control over the rackets in New York City. Prostitution had been organized, as had hijacking and extortion, and the unions of New York's garment workers, longshoremen and restaurants were under the control of the gangs.

At the same time, Murder, Inc. was running at full steam. Luciano had sent Bugsy Siegel out west to organize the Los Angeles mob and integrate Jack Dragna's gang into the Syndicate. Lucky appointed Lepke Buchalter as head of Murder, Inc. and named Albert Anastasia as the boss of the Brooklyn boys.

Buchalter had been a member of the Amboy Dukes — so named because they came from Amboy Street in Brownsville — and was the dominant player in the mob that ran the city's garment industry. Born Louis Bookhouse in 1897, Lepke (Yiddish for "Little Louis") had never known an occupation other than crime.

Albert Anastasia
Albert Anastasia

Lepke's police record stemmed back to 1913, when he was arrested with his partner Gurrah Shapiro for shaking down pushcart operators in Brooklyn. He had served an apprenticeship with Li'l Augie Orgen in the 1920s and helped Li'l Augie gain control of the garment workers unions. In 1926, the bantamweight Lepke decided with the help of Gurrah to push out Orgen and his lieutenant Jack "Legs" Diamond. They succeed in killing Orgen and wounding Legs Diamond, who would eventually be killed by some of Dutch Schultz's gang in 1931.

(in front, left to right) Pittsburgh Phil, Vito Gurino, Abe Reles, and Happy Maione
(in front, left to right) Pittsburgh Phil,
Vito Gurino, Abe Reles, and Happy

Lepke was not just an industrial mobster, he had his fingers in other traditional mafia areas, as well. During Prohibition, Lepke was a rumrunner (or rather his gangsters were), and had developed an intricate narcotics smuggling operation, receiving a cool 33 percent of the profits from any drugs brought into the country. Once the drugs were in the U.S., they belonged to Lucky Luciano

As the supreme head of New York's industrial rackets, Lepke needed a stable of gunmen to preserve order. That's where gunsels like Kid Twist, Mendy Weiss, Happy Maione and Buggsy Goldstein came in. Lepke culled his gunmen — mostly Jewish — from other mobs. By the time his good friend Lucky Luciano became capo di tutti capo, Lepke had an army of more than 200 of the most vicious killers in the city.

And kill they did.

Lepke's overseas buyer Curly Holtz, who once arranged six quick shipments of morphine and heroin and earned his boss $3 million profit in just 10 days, got greedy. He pocketed part of the buy money on a trip to Europe and tried to cover up the theft by tipping authorities to the shipment. He was caught by his friends and paid for his greed with his life.

Lepke had been one of the early proponents of a national Syndicate to bring "peace" to the rackets, but he was greedy, too. A cartel, he had argued at the summit meeting with Johnny Torrio, would make intergang warfare a thing of the past. But that didn't mean that he didn't covet things belonging to other gangsters.

Thanks in part to the efforts of a an ambitious prosecutor and a precocious New York County grand jury, Judge Lepke (who earned that moniker as a result of his seat on the national Syndicate's tribunal), got his chance to move in on Dutch Schultz's operations.

Dutch Gets His

Thomas E. Dewey
Thomas E. Dewey

The Dutchman, excluded from the Syndicate because of his uncontrollable nature, was in trouble. He was on the lam from a sharp federal attorney named Thomas E. Dewey who wanted to put Schultz away because of income tax evasion. Dewey was as ambitious in the political arena as his targets were in the underworld and he knew that nailing a big time hoodlum like Schultz would go a long way toward furthering his own career.

In 1934, with Dutch underground, the Syndicate went to the acting boss of the Schultz operation, Bo Weinberg, and told him to bring his mob under the control of the crime cartel. Bo, who never expected Dutch to beat the federal tax rap, didn't need to be told twice. Lepke took over the Dutchman's restaurant shakedowns and Lucky got the Harlem numbers rackets.

But thanks to some expert legal maneuvering, which got his trial moved out of New York City to upstate, and some creative philanthropy on his part, Dutch beat the tax rap and returned to find his empire in a shambles. He took out his rage on poor Bo Weinberg, who reportedly rests at the bottom of the East River in New York wearing a cement overcoat.

Dutch, settled in Newark and powerless against the Syndicate and Murder, Inc., began to operate a number of small rackets with Longy Zwillman's permission. Dutch wasn't broke, either. He reportedly had millions stashed away from the salad days of Prohibition, when his Needle Beer was one of the bestsellers in the City.

Dewey, who had been embarrassed by his failure to convict the stocky former printer-turned-bootlegger, got a second chance to save his political career. In 1935, a grand jury in Manhattan decided it wasn't getting the cooperation from District Attorney William C. Dodge, who reportedly received a $30,000 campaign contribution from Dutch Schultz's mob.

Dodge had pulled an effective assistant D.A. off the case just as the grand jury was ready to hand up some indictments against "important" people. Dodge took over the case himself and the investigation bogged down. The grand jury, which had the power to order the prosecutor to pursue any matter it feels necessary, demanded that Dodge be replaced.

Governor Herbert Lehman appointed Thomas E. Dewey who immediately began looking into Dutch's numbers rackets.

The Dutchman was livid.

"That Dewey," Schultz cried. "He's my nemesis. He's got to go. He's got to be hit in the head."

The Syndicate board listened to Schultz, and some members agreed with the bootlegger, but in the end decided to table the matter for more discussion. The board assigned Murder Inc.'s Albert Anastasia to track Dewey in case the order came down to rub him out. Weeks later, Anastasia reported back to the Syndicate directors that the hit was do-able. Dewey was a man of routines and there was an opportunity every morning to kill the special prosecutor as he made his way to work.

In the end, it was the limitations of Dewey's mandate that saved his life from Albert A.'s plan. "The best Dewey can do is try to go after the New York rackets," Lepke argued. "He can't touch anything outside of New York."

Besides, Lepke continued, his investigations will collapse when the witnesses disappear.

Lepke went on, "If we knock him off, even the federals will jump on the rackets. We'll be chased out of the country." Killing the prosecutor would be bad for business, the Syndicate decided. Dewey would not be hit. Dutch went ballistic.

"I still say he oughta be hit," Schultz screamed. "If nobody else is gonna do it, I'm gonna hit him myself. Schultz boasted further that the D.A. would be dead within 48 hours. He stormed out of the meeting

"This is no good," Lepke said. "The Dutchman is just daffy enough to do it." Lepke then moved that for the sake of the Syndicate, Dutch Schultz should die. The motion carried.

Mendy Weiss
Mendy Weiss

Killing the Dutchman would require a special touch because he was always heavily armed and on guard. Two of Murder, Inc.'s best killers would be required for this job. Lepke contacted Mendy Weiss and Charlie "The Bug" Workman for the rubout.

Mendy Weiss was a strangler and had worked his way up through the strong-arm labor rackets. A flashy dresser, Mendy was a thick-lipped, redheaded bruiser who liked diamonds and new cars and acted as underboss for Lepke when Judge Louis had to go underground.

Mendy stayed by the door to cover the Bug's exit and Workman made his way into the restaurant. The Bug strolled through the diner and went to the men's room in the back. He opened the door and saw a man washing his hands. Something about the guy looked familiar — one of Dutch's bodyguards, he guessed — so Charlie opened fire. The man dropped in his tracks.

Charlie "The Bug" Workman
Charlie "The Bug" Workman

Emerging from the bathroom, the Bug moved to where Schultz and his gang had been meeting. He started shooting at the men sitting there and killed Lulu Rosencrantz, Dutch's chauffeur, Abbadabba Berman, his numbers expert and Al (Misfit) Landau, a gunman for Schultz.

"Where's the Dutchman?" the Bug asked himself. "I gotta get him."

Then he realized...the man in the washroom had been Dutch Schultz.

The Bug returned to the bathroom and after rifling through Schultz's pockets for any cash the gangster might have been carrying, made his way to the front of the restaurant. Mendy was gone. So was Piggy and the getaway car. Charlie ducked into an alley, hopping over fences and running through fields, and eventually made his way back to New York.

Dutch Schultz dead
Dutch Schultz dead

Dutch Schultz wasn't killed that night in the Palace Steakhouse. It took him 48 hours to die, and he raved like a mad man as he hovered near death. Even in periods of lucidity, he refused to name his killers, only saying that "the Boss" had ordered it.

Mendy had some explaining to do. As a staff gunman for Murder, Inc. it was a capital offense to run out before a job was complete. A trial was convened before the Syndicate tribunal but Mendy had an excuse.

"When the Bug went back to rob Schultz, that made it personal business," he explained. "I was there through the hit — which was Syndicate business. I did my job. But when Charlie decided to rob Schultz, that was personal. I didn't have to stay."

His argument held sway, even the Bug couldn't argue with it.
To be continued...

I'd rather be hated for what I am, than loved for what I am not".

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Lepke's War

Thomas E. Dewey
Thomas E. Dewey

Having taken over a good chunk of Dutch Schultz's operations, Lepke became a prime target of law enforcement. But that didn't concern Judge Lepke too much, for he had friends in high places. Buchalter and Gurrah Shapiro were two of 158 people named in a 1933 federal indictment on racketeering charges. They were quickly tried and convicted of the crime and immediately appealed the verdict. The trial judge denied bail, but U.S. Circuit Court Judge Manton overruled the judge and allowed Lepke to post $3,000 bail. The Honorable Martin T. Manton would eventually be removed from the bench because "his decisions were frequently influenced by something more than legal merits," Turkus wrote. Lepke wasn't too worried by the appointment of Thomas Dewey as special prosecutor and he always seemed to be one step ahead of the law. A bug in his office was thwarted by a loud radio; he would meet his underlings only after he was sure he had lost the tails that Dewey set on him; he only answered his phone when someone called for "Murphy." And Lepke was a firm believer in taking care of problems at their source. If there was a potential witness and that witness couldn't be trusted, eliminate him.

But by 1937, the heat was on Lepke and he decided to lam. He turned over day-to-day operations to Mendy Weiss and decreed an all-out "war of extermination" to halt the Dewey probe. With no canaries to sing, the D.A. would have no case, Lepke believed.

"What followed was a bloodbath," Turkus wrote. "That was when he was officially labeled 'America's most dangerous criminal.'"

Throughout the Northeast, gangsters scrambled for cover like cockroaches when a light is turned on. Not only were they on the run from the law, they were looking over their shoulder lest another mobster be gunning for them. In 1939 alone, Lepke ordered the boys from Brooklyn to make more than a dozen hits, Turkus said. Sometimes he would have two Murder, Inc. crews on the road at a time looking for mobsters who might squeal.

Ironically, it was Judge Louis's bloodbath that helped Dewey and Turkus the most. Low-ranking mobsters who had been marked by Lepke for death ran straight into the arms of the law for protection.

Joe "The Baker" Liberto, the night attendant at a garage owned by Vito Gurino, a Murder, Inc. soldier and friend of Lepke's, wasn't a mobster, per se, but he knew where the bodies were buried. Sometimes Joe the Baker helped Murder, Inc. get a hot car for a job and as such was dangerous to Lepke. He was one of the many walking dead who turned from being a Murder, Inc. helper into a target. Happy Maione, picked up in one of the early raids on Murder, Inc., ordered his brother-in-law, Joe Daddonna, to silence Joe the Baker before Liberto could talk. Daddonna kidnapped Liberto and held him in a house in rural Long Island, but Liberto managed to escape by diving out a window. The Baker made his way back to Nassau, Long Island where his mother lived, but Daddonna tracked him down. However, before Daddonna's Murder, Inc. buddies could show up to finish the job, the cops — tipped by someone — showed up and took the Baker into protective custody.

Even in custody, Joe the Baker wasn't safe from the long arm of Murder, Inc. Vito Gurino showed up several times at the Queens County Civil Jail wanting to know if Joe had talked and telling him that "if he wanted to go for a ride, that could be arranged." Gurino had carte blanche access in the Queens County jail, but he knew his face was too well known to pull the job on Joe the Baker himself. He hired a helper for $100 to fulfill the contract. The accomplice went straight to the D.A. instead and that was the last time Murder, Inc. had a shot at Liberto.

Armed with the knowledge that Gurino was gunning for Liberto, Turkus was able to offer protection in exchange for testimony. "The mob itself had unlocked the lips of the Baker," Turkus said.

Big Julie Catalano was another low-level mobster who rushed to the law for help. Picked up on vagrancy charges early in the Dewey probes, Big Julie was bailed out by his brother against his wishes and put back on the street. He was outside for three weeks before Turkus realized that Julie was more valuable dead than alive to the mob because of what he knew.

A day after his brother posted bail — the mob forced him to do so — Big Julie received a visit from Gurino who told him that Happy Maione, languishing in the Tombs, wanted to see him.

"Vanish," Hap told Big Julie. "Make yourself scarce from the neighborhood."

Big Julie wasn't too bright and the last thing he wanted to do was leave home. So he went home and sent Happy a wire telling him he had no intention of taking it on the lam. His suspicions aroused, Happy told Vito to silence Big Julie.

Vito showed up at a wedding where Big Julie was celebrating. "Let's go for a ride," he said. "I'm gonna help you hide out."

Big Julie knew what that meant and stalled for time. "I'm going to tell my wife I'm leaving," he said.

"No," Vito told him. "Don't tell her anything."

"Then I need some clothes," Julie replied. Vito acquiesced and told Big Julie to go home, get his stuff and meet him in an hour.

As he was weighing his options at home, salvation arrived in the form of two policemen acting on Turkus's orders to pick him up. Big Julie nearly leapt into their arms, he was so overcome.

The Long Arm of Murder, Inc.

Gangsters on the lam presented no problem for the gunmen of Murder, Inc. Even when the law couldn't find a hoodlum, the tenacious killers from Brooklyn could track down anyone who was hiding out — either from the police or from fellow gangsters.

Witness the death of New York bootlegger Abe Wagner.

In 1932, Wagner and his brother Allie controlled a modest, yet profitable bootleg operation on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Faced with rising competition from the upstart Mazza Gang, Wagner had survived a blistering barrage of gunfire on crowded Suffolk Street and was anxious for peace.

"Wagner was not a trigger-happy gangster who would immediately start a gory underworld war because of such pointed animosity," wrote Turkus. "His maxim was that it was better to be a live coward than a dead gang boss."

Wagner decided to sue for peace and sent his brother Allie to meet with the Mazzas who had the backing of Luciano. Instead of peace, Allie turned up dead and Abe decided to take it on the lam. He packed up a few possessions and with his wife, Goldie, decided to head west.

Ironically, the police gave the Mazza gang its first tip about Abe's whereabouts. While searching for clues about the Lindbergh kidnapping, New Jersey State Police commander Norman Schwartzkopf (father of the Gulf War general) made it known that Wagner had been seen around Hopewell, New Jersey. The Mazzas sent a gunman to finish the job on Wagner, but the bootlegger was wary and spotted the killer first. Instead of making a contract, the Mazza killer wound up dead himself.

Abe and Goldie then fled to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Wagner changed his name and occupation. He was found by Murder, Inc. operating a fruit stand in the Midwest capital and slain while he ate dinner in the Midway, between St. Paul and Minneapolis.

"Deliberately, the gunmen pumped seven bullets into the incognito bootlegger," Turkus wrote. "And as he lay there, they clobbered his head with pistol butts. They were unhurried. They had orders to get the job done; get it done, they did."

The gunmen — reportedly members of the Bugs and Meyer Mob — were so intent on their work that they were caught in the act by local police. A fortune was spent on saving the men from the electric chair and they both received life terms in Stillwater Penitentiary.

Murder, Inc. is also responsible for the first "real" organized crime slaying in Southern California. The killing of Big Greenie, nee Harry Greenberg, demonstrates the inherent danger of a gangster knowing too much for his own good. Lepke's admonition that "investigations collapse when no witnesses are around," is a double-edged sword in gangdom, for many times the only witnesses to crimes are criminals themselves. This is good if the witnesses can be trusted to keep their mouths shut, but when powerful mobsters realize that the small fry can be convinced by law enforcement to spill their guts, odds are that the small fry will pay with their lives.

The 1939 slaying of Big Greenie was one such case. Greenberg — who also went by several other aliases, including Harry Schacter and Harry Schober — had been an insider in Lepke's union operations and was a Bugs and Meyer gang alumnus. When Dewey began his probe of Lepke's operations, Big Greenie was sent underground and was hiding out in Montreal. But the cost of lamming is expensive. If the reward posted by the law is high, there is a great incentive on the part of cohorts to sell out their hidden brethern. Big Greenie started to run low on money and warned his gangland buddies not to forget him.

Mendy Weiss, who had taken over the day-to-day operations while Lepke hid, viewed Greenberg's note as a threat — pay up, or else. He ordered his gang to take out the union goon. Allie Tannenbaum took the contract and headed to Canada to rub out Big Greenie.

But the bird had flown. Perhaps Big Greenie realized that his note had not been well-received, or he had heard that Lepke was ordering a general purge of prospective witnesses. Nevertheless, Greenberg fled west to Detroit, where he had friends in the Purple Gang. The Motor City mobsters gave Greenie a warm welcome, a little too warm for his tastes; he suspected a set-up.

Greenie fled further west to Southern California, where Bugsy Siegel had established a Syndicate franchise. Allie boarded a plane in Newark and headed to Hollywood, where Greenie had been spotted. Frank Carbo, a former boxing manager and mobster was asked to help out and Bugsy added his own specialist, Whitey Krakow, Siegel's brother-in-law.

Things went well this time, and "Big Greenie, lamster, became Southern California's first important gang cadaver," according to Turkus. Despite eyewitnesses and corroborating testimony, no one was ever convicted in the Harry Greenberg killing.

The Unraveling

Burton Turkus
Burton Turkus

The handwritten note held by Burton Turkus didn't look like much, but it was the thread that, when pulled, would eventually unravel the fabric of Murder, Inc. Written on the stationary provided to inmates at New York's Riker's Island City Workhouse, it read:

"Dear sir:

I am doing a bit here. I would like to talk to the District Attorney. I know something about a murder in East New York."

It was signed "Harry Rudolph." Rudolph was well known to the New York law enforcement community. Detectives called him "a full mooner" someone whose mental faculties are not all together.

Harry was serving a short stint for a misdemeanor, so he wasn't looking for a sentence reduction in exchange for cooperation. Turkus and his investigators, who had been working on nearly 200 unsolved homicides believed to be connected to organized crime, decided to talk to Rudolph. "We have nothing to lose," Turkus thought.

"Those rats killed my friend Red Alpert," Rudolph alleged. "Those Brownsville guys — Reles and Buggsy and Dukey Maffetore. They took Red when he came out of his house."

Nineteen-year-old Alex "Red" Alpert, a small time hood had been shot at the edge of his house in 1933. He apparently had been involved in a jewel heist and tried to fence some goods to Pittsburgh Phil. The two men had been unable to agree on a price for the gems and Pep was angry over Red's insolence.

Murder, Inc. was called in and Red paid with his life. For more than six years the crime had remained on the unsolved list.

Rudolph's allegations were good enough to allow Turkus to get a grand jury indictment of Reles, Dukey and Buggsy Goldstein. Turkus didn't hold out a lot of hope of getting a conviction of the men on just the testimony of a "full mooner" like Rudolph, but he got the indictment because "at least it would keep them off the streets — until a trial anyway."

The cops picked up Dukey the afternoon the indictments were handed up. Word went out that Reles and Buggsy were wanted men and surprisingly, they turned themselves in the next morning.

"The same old crap," they crowed. "Here we are. This is the old walk-in-and-walk out."

Ironically, the two men who had beaten so many raps before turned themselves in on the one murder charge that stuck.

Maffetore wasn't the brightest bulb in the Brownsville mob. A "sleek young flyweight," Dukey was an avid reader of Li'l Abner and Superman comics, but like the rest of the gang wasn't afraid to kill. His English left a lot to be desired and he was more comfortable talking in Italian. Turkus and the police decided to lean on Dukey because they were convinced Kid Twist and Buggsy would never talk. But Dukey was tough. The law tried everything to get him to open up, but Dukey knew what happened to stoolpigeons. Nowhere would be safe if he squealed. A guy could get a shiv in the neck in the prison exercise yard just as easy as he could go down in a burst of gunfire in the street.

A break in the case came from Harry Rudolph.

"It's worth five grand to me if I pin this on Dukey and square it with Kid Twist and Buggsy," he told Turkus. There were corroborating witnesses who also told Turkus that Reles and Goldstein planned to sell out Dukey.

The assistant D.A. lost no time in telling Dukey how his friends were willing set him up. That broke Maffetore's will and he sang for more than an hour about what he knew of the mob and Murder, Inc. But it was clear that Dukey was a fringe player and a higher-up was needed to fill in the gaps.

"You should go get Pretty," Maffetore told the law. "He's smart. He knows a lot more than me."

Pretty Levine, a killer with big blue eyes and curly hair, had been involved in half-a-dozen slayings by the time he was 23. A newlywed, Pretty and his wife Helen tried to make a break from the underworld and had almost made it when Helen gave birth to their first child. Pretty had been driving a truck and hauling garbage, but he wasn't rich. When the hospital demanded payment before it would discharge his wife and child, Levine was forced to go to Pittsburgh Phil and borrow $100 at "6 for 5"— $1 a week interest for every $5 borrowed. Of course, over time, Pretty couldn't make his "vig" — interest payments — so he was forced into working back for the gang to stay alive.

When Turkus went out to pick up Pretty, Pep was gunning for him, as well, because he thought both Dukey and Pretty would be valuable to the law. Fortunately for both men, Turkus and the New York City police beat the Murder, Inc. gunmen to Pretty's house.

Downtown, Pretty was putting up a good front. He stonewalled Turkus for days and forced the assistant D.A. to take desperate measures. Turkus knew he was onto something big — just what and how big he didn't know — but he was determined not to let Pretty set the agenda.

"Bring in his wife," Turkus told his investigators. The lawmen picked up lovely Helen Levine and with her 16-month-old daughter, and took her downtown to see her husband. Helen begged her husband to tell what he knew, but Pretty stayed tough.

"They'll kill me if I talk," he told her. But then he relinquished a little. "I'll talk about what I've done. I won't talk about anymore than that."

As his wife stood by and his daughter, Barbara, played at his feet, Pretty spilled his guts about the crimes he and Dukey had done, including one in which the two punks stole a car for someone and had it returned with a body in it.

"Now send me to jail," he challenged.

Turkus played his trump card.

"You'll go to jail all right," the D.A. said. "And so will your wife. She heard your confession and now she's a material witness." Turkus ordered the woman sent to the Women's House of Detention.

It took Pretty another couple of days before he finally cracked and implicated Pittsburgh Phil, Happy Maione, Dasher Abbandando, Louis Capone (no relation to Al) as well as Buggsy and Kid Twist in a number of slayings.

Pep, Reles, Louis Capone and Buggsy had killed Red Alpert, Pretty told the law. Pretty, Gangy Cohen, Pittsburgh Phil and Jack Drucker, a Brooklyn killer murdered Walter Sage, who had been skimming off the gang's slot machine rackets. Sage was strangled, icepicked and tied to a pinball machine which then dumped into a Catskill Mountain lake.

Kid Twist Reles
Kid Twist Reles

While this stuff was good, Turkus needed a big fish to start talking. He figured Buggsy or Happy Maione would break sooner or later and implicate their cohorts.

Imagine his surprise when Mrs. Abe "Kid Twist" Reles walked into his office and announced that her husband wanted to talk to the law.

If anyone knew where the bodies were buried, it was Kid Twist. After all, if he hadn't been in on the slaying, he knew who did it and why. Turkus and Dewey wanted Kid Twist's scalp and were slowly gathering enough evidence to pin something on him — probably something that would send him to the chair. The law never expected that Kid Twist would sing, even if the alternative was a one-way trip to the Sing Sing death house. Reles was tough, he was egotistical and he was smart. He knew the law better than most gangsters and felt he was a match for any attorney or detective.

Kid Twist had a long police record, but few convictions. He had six times been charged with homicide and never convicted. He was arrested nine times on assault charges and had one conviction. Between 1932 and 1940, the lisping gangster was arrested on the average once every 78 days, but his longest sentence had been two years for assaulting a parking attendant with a bottle. From 1932 to 1934, the law had picked up Kid 23 times but he had spent just 30 days in jail.

Despite having a string of call girls, Reles was reportedly a devoted family man. When his gangland career ended, he had a six-year-old son and his wife was pregnant.

Kid Twist voluntarily surrendered along with Happy Maione for the slaying of Red Alpert, confident that once again, he would walk. "Don't worry," he told Hap as they were separated in police headquarters, "it'll be all right."

After sitting in the Tombs in downtown Manhattan for a couple of weeks, Kid Twist got a visit from one of his lawyers who told him that Murder, Inc. was unraveling. Realizing that the next stop on the Murder, Inc. express was Sing Sing's electric chair, Reles sat down and wrote a note to his wife, Rose, telling her to seek out the D.A.

Abe Reles was still cocky when he sat down with Turkus and Brooklyn D.A. William O'Dwyer. He was without remorse and laughed out loud when Turkus started talking about the Alpert killing.

"You think any jury would convict even a cat on what that bug Rudolph says?" he asked. "You ain't got no corroboration."

Reles demanded to speak to O'Dwyer alone.

"I can make you a big man," the criminal told the prosecutor. "But I walk."

O'Dwyer and Turkus knew that Kid Twist would give them enough to break the murder mob, but they were reluctant to deal with such a cold-blooded killer. Eventually, though, a deal was reached. Kid Twist would testify before grand juries and at trials, but he would not waive his immunity from prosecution. The law couldn't prosecute him for the killings he admitted, but if something else came up, it was fair game.

"Reles' song was a full-length opera," Turkus wrote. " 'I can tell you about 50 guys that got hit,' he said. 'I was on the inside.'"

Kid Twist talked for two weeks straight. His memory was amazing. He remembered who was hit, who hit them and why. No details were left out. Before he was finished, Reles helped the police close the books on 85 separate killings in Brooklyn alone and for the first time revealed the organization and structure of the national Syndicate. He testified at trials in Los Angeles, Newark and New York City; his information would send four men directly to the chair — including the biggest fish of them all, Lepke Buchalter.

Lepke Gets Crossed

Lepke Buchalter was on the run, both from the feds, who wanted him for a narcotics charge, and the New York authorities, who were desperate to nail him for his Murder, Inc. and Syndicate activities. From time to time reports would surface that Lepke was in Cuba, or that he had been seen in South America on a yacht or in Poland at a spa. There was a $50,000 reward out for Lepke, but for two years he remained free. Once he had escaped a sure pinch when ignorant cops busting a nickel-and-dime bookmaking operation didn't recognize him. As police around the world searched for Lepke, he was hiding out right under their noses, for Judge Louis had never left Brooklyn.

Then, Lepke turned himself in.

The authorities were confounded. Why would a smart guy like Buchalter do something so stupid? After all, his New York activities could land him in the death house.

Lepke was a cool customer as he hid out with Reles and Albert Anastasia. Unlike many mobsters who tended to get a little buggy when they were on the lam, Lepke was smart enough to know that as long as he kept a level head, controlled who had access to him and tied up loose ends, he would be all right. But Lepke was also smart enough to know that he was causing a lot of gangsters a lot of discomfort. As long as he was hiding out, doing Syndicate business was hard. Many of his friends were already in custody and others were forced into hiding by the pressure that Dewey and J. Edgar Hoover were applying. Sooner or later, the Syndicate board would have to give him up. After all, the cartel was a utilitarian organization — the good of the many clearly outweighed the good of the one. And even if that one was Louis Buchalter, the guy who helped Lucky Luciano build the Syndicate, the national crime cartel would survive at any cost.

Moey Dimples, the Saratoga numbers man who had been a friend to Lepke since their days strong-arming cart vendors, was one of the few people who Lepke still trusted. So Lepke had little reason to doubt Dimples when he approached Judge Louis with some good news.

"A deal has been struck," Moey told his old pal. "If you surrender to Hoover, the feds won't turn you over to Dewey."

Lepke was ecstatic. He was facing a ten-to-15-year sentence in Leavenworth if he gave up to the feds, but that sure beat the electric chair. He agreed to turn himself in directly to the FBI.

With Albert Anastasia at the wheel and Louis Capone's sister-in-law and her son as cover, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter left his Coney Island hideout and traveled over the Brooklyn Bridge through the Manhattan warehouse district. It was a hot August evening and to any observers the quartet looked like a group of city dwellers out for a ride. Anastasia, who had cautioned Lepke against surrendering, navigated through the streets until he spotted the car he was looking for. Anastasia pulled over and parked.

Lepke walked over to the waiting car and sat in the back. Waiting for him was Walter Winchell, the syndicated columnist for the New York Daily Mirror. From nearby, a heavy set man joined the newspaperman and the racketeer in the car. It was J. Edgar Hoover, himself.

Then the other shoe dropped. Hoover informed Lepke that he had been set-up; Dimples never worked out a deal with the feds and that it was very likely that once Lepke finished his term in Leavenworth, the sovereign state of New York would be waiting for him.

Moey Dimples, the man who had been with Lepke from the beginning, had sold his friend a bill of goods. He owed Lepke, and it was a debt Judge Louis would make sure was paid with interest. Lepke was on death row when it happened, but one evening in 1943, a gunfight erupted in a New York restaurant and a man would die. Moey Dimples and Louis Buchalter finally were even.

Lepke's Mistake

The quiet of the dawning Sunday morning was broken by the sound of firecrackers as the man leaned over his sleeping son. Louis Stamler, a tailor, was waking the boy so he could go to work, when he heard the sharp reports. Stamler rushed to the window of his Brownsville home in time to see a large, black sedan rush away from the front of the candy store across the street.

Curious, Stamler quickly dressed and crossed the still dark street. Looking in the window of Rosen's Candy Store, he saw the figure of a man lying on the floor of the store. Stamler ran down the block where he saw an approaching policeman and brought the flatfoot to the store. Inside, 46-year-old Joe Rosen, a former garment industry trucker, lay covered in blood, 17 holes in his body. He was quite dead. The gunmen had been good shots; a man's hat could cover the 10 entry wounds, police reported. The date was September 13, 1936. Rosen, who was not known to police and appeared to be unconnected to the mob, was, in fact, a Murder, Inc. rubout. Eventually, Lepke Buchalter would forfeit his own life for Rosen's.

Lepke was in Leavenworth serving a fourteen-year term when he was turned over to Dewey for the first time. The prosecutor quickly put together a case on Louis's union rackets and managed to get a 30-year sentence. Then New York turned the racketeer back over to the feds. It looked like Lepke was going to prison for a long, long time.

But that was before Kid Twist started singing and mentioned a Joe Rosen contract.

Quickly, the New York authorities brought Reles before a grand jury and got an indictment on Lepke, Frank Costello, Louis Capone and Pittsburgh Phil, who was already in the Sing Sing death house with Happy Maione, the first victims of Kid Twist's aria of murder.

It took sixteen months of legal wrangling between the feds and New York before Lepke was brought from Kansas to stand trial for Rosen's slaying. When the case finally went to trial, more than five years had passed since Joe Rosen was gunned down in his candy store.

Rosen, it seemed, was not as clean as he led people to believe. And he wasn't very smart, either. He had owned a trucking firm that brought garments to non-union shops in Pennsylvania when Lepke announced that there would be work stoppage.

"Louis," Rosen protested. "That will cost me my business."

Lepke promised Rosen that he would be taken care of. But Rosen was right; the work stoppage, which helped Lepke gain control of a garment trucking firm, forced Rosen out of business.

The trucker went to his friend, Max Rubin, who had been with him when Lepke announced the stoppage.

"You and Lepke promised you would take care of me," he said. "Everyone is back at work and I'm on the streets."

Lepke got Rosen a job with Garfield Trucking, but Rosen was fired in less than a year.

"This is no good," Rubin told Judge Louis. "We've got a desperate man on our hands."

Rubin and Lepke once again helped out Rosen to keep him quiet. They set him up in the candy store, where he and his wife were able to eke out a small living. But Rosen wasn't a businessman and the candy store soon ran into trouble. Rosen pressed his luck and demanded more help from Lepke and Rubin. He was told to get out of town and to keep his mouth shut. Sadly, Rosen didn't listen and he ended up dead that Sunday morning.

But Lepke, the man who had helped build the national crime Syndicate, the racketeer who had his fingers in nearly every New York union — from the bakers to the garment workers — the killer who had overseen a murder squad that was responsible for nearly a thousand deaths around the country, had made a very simple mistake. Lepke, the man who had insulated himself from the lower echelon killers and who took pains never to talk when someone he didn't trust implicitly was in the room had screwed up. He had lost his temper over the gall of a small candy store owner who threatened to talk and didn't realize that an underling had heard him issue the order to take care of Rosen. Lepke had broken his own cardinal rule and left a witness.

When Allie Tannenbaum, the killer who had stalked Big Greenie, took the stand in Lepke's murder trial, Judge Louis wasn't concerned. After all, Allie had nothing to do with Rosen's slaying and couldn't help the prosecution's case. But Lepke was wrong. Allie was a hanger-on in the scheme of things; he reported directly to Lepke, but he took his orders from Mendy and Gurrah. Lepke might have wanted Allie to do a job and might want to know how it turned out, but he never directly told Allie to kill anyone.

But in court that day, Allie dropped a bomb on Lepke.

He told the story of the hit on Irv Ashkenaz, a Lithuanian taxicab driver who was talking to the law about Lepke's involvement in the taxi rackets. The order for the contract came from Mendy Weiss, but Allie was required to report to Lepke about the results. He was confident that day in the fall of 1936 when he reported to Lepke's office. The hit had gone well and he was sure the soft-eyed, quiet ganglord would be pleased. Allie was surprised by what he encountered when he strolled into the office.

Lepke on trial for Rosen's murder
Lepke on trial for
Rosen's murder

"Lepke was yelling that he gave this Joe Rosen money to go away, and then he sneaks back into a candy store, after he tells him to stay away," Allie testified. "Lepke was hollering: 'There is one son of a bitch that will never go down to talk to Dewey about me.' Max (Rubin) was trying to calm him down. He was saying, "take it easy; take it easy Louis. I'll handle Joe Rosen; he's all right.'"

"What did Lepke say to that?" Turkus asked.

"He says, 'You told me that before.' He says 'This is the end of it. I'm fed up with that son of a bitch.' He says, 'and I'll take care of him," Allie recalled.

Two days later, Allie testified, he read in the morning papers that "Joe Rosen" had been killed in his candy store in Brooklyn. The papers said Dewey had been looking for Rosen. In Allie's mind, that clinched it. Lepke had killed the shopkeeper.

The testimony of Allie Tannenbaum was good enough for the jury. Four hours after they were handed the case, at 2 a.m., the verdict came back against Lepke. The co-founder of the national Syndicate was guilty of first degree murder. The penalty for murder at the time in New York was death by electrocution.

Divine Retribution

Kid Twist Reles after plunge
Kid Twist Reles after plunge

Kid Twist Reles probably would have gotten a kick out of testifying in Lepke Buchalter's trial. After all, it was front page news and Reles would have been a star witness, if he had been around. It would have been the kind of coverage he would have loved. But before Lepke went to trial, Kid Twist was dead.

Conspiracy theorists had a field day with how Reles died. He was in a hotel in Coney Island, surrounded by five, maybe six cops who never left his side, but he still managed to take a dive out a sixth story window. Two bedsheets were found tied together and lashed to a heating register with a piece of wire. Even Assistant D.A. Burton Turkus believed that Reles had somehow been murdered while he was under police protection.

In his book, Murder, Inc., Turkus discounts several of the leading theories, including suicide, accidental death due to an escape attempt and accidental death in the course of a prank.

However, sometime after Kid Twist's plummet from his sixth story hideout, the FBI analyzed the wire found on the radiator in his room and compared it to the wire next to his body. The break in the wire was due to stress, the FBI ruled. It was capable of holding 130 pounds and at the time of his death, Kid Twist weighed more than 160 pounds which was sufficient to cause the stress break.

It appears unlikely that anyone was able to penetrate the protective gauntlet that shielded Kid Twist and Reles probably died trying to climb down the makeshift rope to the room below. For what reason we will never know; divine retribution is as good a reason as any.


A big gangster doesn't go down without a fight, and at the time there was no one bigger than Lepke Buchalter. Louis might have been safely behind bars, but if he had his way, he would never see the inside of Sing Sing's death chamber. Lepke had connections, and more importantly, he had knowledge that could make a lot of people uncomfortable. And not just gangsters; Lepke was well-connected in political circles, too. Judges, prosecutors, even Senators were beholden to the Brooklyn crime lord. In the fight of his life, Lepke would pull out all of the stops to cheat justice one more time.

Lepke was convicted of murder in December 1941, but it would take another three years before justice would be meted out. New York's judicial system requires that the NY State Court of Appeals hear and review any murder case involving the death penalty, and Lepke's was no exception. The court upheld the conviction in October 1942. Lepke was in federal custody at the time, serving out his racketeering conviction and New York demanded that he be turned over to the state for execution. Not surprisingly, Lepke opposed the transfer and put up a valiant fight. He called in most of his markers with his federal friends in the Justice Department and the court system and managed to stay out of New York's hands until January 1944.

The Sing Sing executioner was ordered to report for work at 11 p.m. on Thursday, March 2, 1944 to carry out the executions of Louis Capone, Mendy Weiss and Lepke Buchalter. That night, the men all ordered the same meals: steak, french fries, salad and pie for lunch, roast chicken, shoestring potatoes and salad for dinner. The trio were shaved, dressed in typical execution garb — slippers, black slacks with a slit on the left leg to make it easier to attach the electrodes and white socks. Then they were moved to "the Dance Hall," the pre-execution cells just 25 feet away from the chair.

Mendy was tight-lipped and silent, Capone, who had a weak heart, appeared nervous, but Lepke was confident.

"Something is gonna happen," he told his friends. "I can feel it."

By 9:40 p.m., nothing had happened. Lepke's wife came in and spent a tearful few moments with her husband, then left to go back to the city.

When she arrived back in New York, the bulldog editions of the newspapers were trumpeting the news that Governor Thomas E. Dewey — the man whose probe had helped put Lepke in the chair — had offered a 48-hour reprieve while the state's highest court looked over the case one more time.

At least that was the reason the newspapers gave for the delay.

Eventually, word leaked out that Lepke had information that could rock the U.S. political system. What Lepke knew could help Dewey, who was running against Roosevelt for president, become an unbeatable candidate. Facts would be revealed that Lepke had enough information to make "a noted public official of New York City" face a conspiracy charge, could tie a "nationally prominent labor leader" in with a murder, and show that "a close relative of a very high public officeholder" was a front for two mobsters who ran national rackets. In return for what he knew, Lepke wanted to live.

"Whether Lepke's revelations would have altered the course of history will, of course, never be known," Turkus wrote. "However, to aspire to the presidency and be handed information of such national implication that it might swing the tide was as great a temptation as a man ever had. To the credit of Dewey, he did resist and he did reject. He would not do business with Lepke, even with the greatest prize on Earth at stake — the Presidency of the United States!"

On Saturday, as the final hours of the stay ticked away, the men were moved back to the Dance Hall. Once again they ordered their last meals and said their goodbyes. The open line to the governor's mansion was checked once again, but this time there would be no stay. Lepke had run out of luck.

Louis Capone was the first to go. He said nothing as they strapped him into the chair. At 11:05 it was over. Mendy Weiss came next. He sat down in the chair and as the attendants made the preparations, Mendy once again protested his innocence. He asked the warden to pass along his love to his family and was silent. Three minutes later, Mendy was taken out on a gurney.

Lepke was last, as befits a gang leader. His eyes were hard as he surveyed the assembled witnesses and he acknowledged the ones he knew. The last thing he saw was the attendant lowering the hood over his eyes. The 2,200 volts of current pushed his body against the eight restraints on the chair. After the current ceased and the doctor declared him dead, the hood was lifted from his face. Perspiration covered his brow, drool appeared at the sides of his mouth and Lepke's face was discolored. Louis "Lepke" Buchalter was dead.


Lepke's execution signaled the end of the halcyon days of Murder, Inc. The murder troop had been decimated by prosecutions and Lepke's war of extermination, and alternatives had to be found to enforce Syndicate policy. Albert Anastasia, who had miraculously escaped both the mob purge and the law, continued to act as Lord High Executioner for several years, but in the end, he too, would face mob justice.

In the late 1950s, the first generation Syndicate boys were in decline. Joe Adonis had been deported, as had Lucky Luciano. Frank Costello had been forced into retirement by Vito Genovese, leaving Anastasia in charge of the Vincent Mangano crime family. True to form, Vito Genovese wanted to be capo di tutti capo of the New York families and saw Anastasia as standing in his way. Don Vito worked a deal with Mangano underboss Carlo Gambino in which Gambino would take over the Mangano family when Anastasia was gone.

Albert Anastasia dead
Albert Anastasia dead

On October 25, 1957, Anastasia walked into the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York, sat down in a barber chair and closed his eyes. Two men, reportedly Carlo Gambino and Joe Biondi entered the barbershop, told the barber to get lost and proceeded to open fire on Albert A. Anastasia, a bull of a man, leapt from the chair, but the gunmen kept firing. He died on the floor of the barbershop in a classic mob rubout.

With Albert A.'s slaying, the face of mob activities changed forever. No longer would there be a national enforcement arm of the Syndicate. The mob had evolved into a more business-like enterprise, with less unification and more internal strife.

There are those who would argue that this was always the case with organized crime, and who doubt the romantic notion of a stable of killers sitting around waiting for orders from a national board of directors. They say mobsters only killed when necessary for the course of business. That may be the case. But for a ten-year period after the ascension of Lucky Luciano, there did exist a small band of killers who reveled in their work, who took pleasure in killing for business, who saw the gun as a means to further commerce. These were the killers of Murder, Inc.



I'd rather be hated for what I am, than loved for what I am not".

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The Krays? They were both gay - and both brainless! Train Robbers, nice people! 60's gang boss Eddie Richardson sings like a canary about his time at the heart of London underworld


Eddie Richardson is standing outside London’s Old Vic theatre. From a distance, he looks a twinkly old chap in a smart suit, with wild eyebrows and a drift of dandruff, and is proudly clutching a copy of his autobiography in a crumpled Tesco carrier bag.

But this is the man once described by not one but two Home Secretaries as ‘one of the most dangerous men in Britain’. He was the dark lord of the Sixties London gangland scene and, together with his brother Charlie, was as infamous as Ronnie and Reggie Kray and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser.

Under cover of his scrap metal business, he dabbled in torture, drug dealing, protection and extortion rackets and was sentenced to a total of 46 years in prison.

Gangland boss Eddie Richardson in his 60s heyday, standing next to his Rolls-Royce

Gangland boss Eddie Richardson lived a good life in the 1960s, and is seen here with his Rolls-Royce

Today, he is 75, lives in a £2.5 million house in Beckenham, Kent, drives a big, fat silver Mercedes, holidays in Marbella, organises charity golf competitions and paints pricey portraits of friends and, occasionally, their dogs (‘so much easier than people’).

He also hires himself out for ‘nostalgia lunch dates’ — £300 for a slap-up fish and chip lunch and a ‘nice chat about the good old days’ — courtesy of a bizarre website called Gangland Memorabilia.

This online shrine to Sixties gangland sells everything from Ronnie Kray’s personal prison radio (£500) to a ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser autographed U.S. dollar note. Business is alarmingly brisk and lunch with ‘the legend who is Eddie Richardson’ is the star attraction.

Today I am Eddie’s lunch date. He grins wolfishly, kisses me on both cheeks and escorts me to ‘the best fish and chips in London’ and what he promises will be a ‘good chat’.

He is true to his word.

Over our (very excellent) fish and chips, we veer from the Wild West that was London in the Sixties and Seventies — ‘people think things are bad now, but back then the police were so corrupt that a straight copper would never have made it onto the Flying Squad’ — to the £70 million drugs deal that earned him a 35-year prison sentence in 1990. ‘That was a bit daunting, aged 54. That’s when I took up art.’

Daily Mail writer Jane Fryer gets the lowdown on London gangster life from Eddie Richardson

Daily Mail writer Jane Fryer gets the lowdown on London gangster life from Eddie Richardson

We have a gossip about some of Eddie’s pals. There are the Kray brothers (‘both gay and both brainless of Britain’ he says. ‘Reggie used to get The Times every day, but never once opened it’). And Frankie Fraser (‘Game for anything you asked him and now in an old people’s home in Nunhead’).

Not forgetting the Great Train robbers (‘really nice men’), the prison reformer Lord Longford (‘always scruffy but he never rammed religion down your throat’) and Brian Keenan, then head of the armed council of the IRA (‘lovely fellow but not brilliant at bridge’).

It’s all a bit surreal and disconcerting — chatting cosily about hardened criminals who wrecked countless lives and terrorised great swathes of London.

The only thing he isn’t too keen to discuss is the ‘torture chamber’ where ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser (the Richardsons’ enforcer) allegedly punished anyone who crossed the brothers, using pliers, electrodes, nails, electric fires, knives, axes and anything else he could lay his hands on.

‘It’s ridiculous!’ Eddie growls, suddenly not quite so twinkly or cosy. ‘There was no torture. How can you pull a tooth out with a pair of pliers?’

With a great deal of force, presumably. Fraser, who has admitted murder, was given a ten-year prison sentence for torture in 1966 and, with typical rogueishness, charges royally to tell of his horrific deeds.

But Eddie’s favourite subject, other than his autobiography (‘it’s so good some people have read it 20 times’) is prison. Which isn’t surprising given he’s spent over a third of his life behind bars (or ‘away’, as he calls it) as a Double Category ‘A’ prisoner.

Eddie Richardson called Ronnie and Reggie Kray 'brainless of Britain'

Eddie Richardson called Ronnie and Reggie Kray 'brainless of Britain'

‘That’s one step up from Category ‘A’,’ he says, absurdly proudly. ‘You have to have two screws with you everywhere you go. They were scared of me. I was always working out how to crack the system.’

Which he did. And soon boasted an array of special privileges that included his own TV, constant access to the prison yard and a steady stream of epicurean delights and post prandial brandies.

‘A few of us took turns to cook for ourselves — I once did a Christmas dinner for 16 with a 20lb turkey and I always had an after-dinner brandy. In one prison we had so much food —legs of lamb, joints of beef, chickens — that we couldn’t get it all in the prison fridge. I had to apply to the governor for permission to buy another fridge.’

Permission was granted.

There were the endless bridge games with IRA man Brian Keenan.

‘We’d be playing a nice game of bridge and someone would come rushing in and Brian would have to leave the table and go and sort out some crisis in Ireland.’

Frankie Fraser was game for anything, now he's in an old people's home in Nunhead'

And football matches, jellied eels and strawberries and cream with the Great Train robbers. Not to mention countless teas and biscuits with the Krays (‘though they were both so brainless you couldn’t have a decent conversation with them’) — until Ronnie was certified and sent off to Broadmoor.

He was also involved in a prison mutiny, a six-week hunger strike, countless assaults and a failed escape attempt which left two guards in hospital. ‘We were supposed to be making a nice wooden cabinet in the woodwork class, but actually made two 26ft ladders and no one noticed’ — until the bungled break-out.

Eleven years later, including an extra 450 days for bad behaviour, Eddie returned home to his scrap metal business, all his old friends and, funnily enough, sufficient funds to pay for a glamorous life skiing, bobsleighing and jet-setting around the world.

It was only a matter of time before he was caught out again — when cashflow slowed down and a £70 million cocaine and cannabis heist caught his eye.

‘I used to turn down loads, but this one looked too good. I knew the people this end, I knew the South Americans. I thought I could trust them. If we’d got away with it, we’d have made a lot of money. But c’est la vie.’

Instead, he got 35 years (eventually commuted to 13), bringing his total served years to 26.

Does he feel any remorse, as he tucks into his cod and chips?

Charlie Richardson can been seen 2nd right, with associates Eddie Richardson (3rd right-holding face). Also in the picture are Alfred Berman (right) and Lawrence Bradbury (extreme left)

Charlie Richardson can been seen 2nd right, with associates Eddie Richardson (3rd right-holding face). Also in the picture are Alfred Berman (right) and Lawrence Bradbury (extreme left)

‘Remorse? No!’ he looks outraged, leg jiggling in protest. ‘I’ve been given more than enough punishment.’

Would he ‘go near’ anything again, aged 75, or has he finally retired?

‘No. I don’t need the money. At least I don’t think I would . . .’

He’d be risking a lot. Today he leads a very genteel life in Beckenham. He lives with his beloved 85-year-old Auntie Dorothy (‘She can’t cook so I do all that’), eats in expensive Italian restaurants with his 56-year-old girlfriend June, meets up with some of the Great Train Robbers once a month. It all seems rather outrageous.

Aren’t those paid-for nostalgia lunches morally repugnant, I ask him. ‘So what? I don’t care. I really don’t,’ he snaps.

And despite all his cosy chat about his Auntie and his doggy portraits, I get a unpleasant glimpse of the thug glowering beneath. So was he really one of the most dangerous men in Britain?

Eddie lives a more genteel life these days, and has even taken to painting, which he took up in prison

Eddie lives a more genteel life these days, and has even taken to painting, which he took up in prison

‘I probably was. I was full of adrenaline and dangerous. I wouldn’t want now to meet myself as I was then. And the daft thing is, I was a bright boy — not like most of the others. If I’d put my mind to it I bet I could have made more money honestly than I did through crime. But I’m not complaining.

‘I’ve been to some of the best restaurants in the world and I’ve been in some of the worst solitary confinement blocks. So I’ve had a bit of variety.’

And with that he gives me a big dandruffy hug and a scratchy kiss on both cheeks and I try very hard not to think about pliers and electrodes and all the crimes that he wasn’t caught for

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Gangnam Style dance-off escalates into gang shootout in Bangkok

West Side Story-esque show of rivalry stokes Thai debate over gang violence and demonstrates wide appeal of K-pop video

Psy performs Gangnam Style
Psy performing Gangnam Style live on NBC's Today show in New York. Photograph: Jason Decrow/AP

The dance has inspired a host of parodies, the song has hit the top of the charts in South Korea, Malaysia, Finland and Latvia, and the YouTube video has accumulated more than 227m views. Now, according to Thai media, Gangnam Style, by the K-pop star Psy, has inspired a West Side Story-esque show of rivalry between two Bangkok gangs who are said to have had a dance-off before engaging in a gun battle.

The TRUTH is out there...........

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A man is shot dead in a school playground in Italy in a battle between the Scissionisti gang and its rival Girati.

The TRUTH is out there...........

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Violent biker gangs from Australia, Canada and the US have arrived in Europe prompting fears of a battle for organised crime markets throughout the continent.

Britain has been warned that turf wars could break out as 'Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs' fight for control over the drugs, weapons and human trafficking criminal markets.



Warning: Hells Angels are among the biker gangs that are expanding, according to Europol

The TRUTH is out there...........

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I had the delightful and disgusted time reading extracts from Scotlands Sunday Mail , where an ex cop was plugging his new book on Glasgows underworld .

In his 7 pages that the Sunday Mail gave him , he spoke of how to gain promotion in the police you had to be a mason , and non masons were overlooked and that there was mass bigotry in Scotland police force against Catholics (surprise , surprise it is Scotland after all).

He also spoke of how gangsters were given a free reign to basically do what they liked I.E. Arthur Thompson was a security services asset .

Tam McGraw was also heavily involved with the police .

Here is part of the seven pages that the Sunday Mail gave him to promote his book in their sister paper the Daily Record

Please have a read ...........................

I'll give some who are not from Glasgow or Scotland a run down on who Arthur Thompson was and what they let him get away with , Arthur Thompson was given a free reign over Glagows drugs , extorsion and many other ILLEAGAL money making scams , where people where beaten , maimed , slashed and murdered . His reign of power was prominent throught the 60's , 70's , 80's and 90's , ans was involved in many high profile shootings , car bombings and murders etc. .



Also the copper spoke of the police help a Mr Thomas McGraw had from the police .

Here is some strange things about McGraw

He had risen through the ranks from robbing post offices , ice cream vans selling drugs to being a very substancial drug dealer also involved in maimings , shootings etc .he was also tipped to be involved in one of the most horrific crimes ever in scotland which there was a massive cover up of the truth and a miscarrage of justice when two innocent men spent 20 years behind bars , for the murders of several members of the Doyle family (Ice Cream Wars) .

dun dun duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuun

Both of these men who had deep connections with the security services and the police died peacefuly in their sleep , or did they ? They certainly knew a lot .

What realy should happen with this book that this copper has written is , it should be disected and he should be grilled in what he knows and certain people in power should be brought to book for aiding organised crime , simple .

The fact that the masons and police are involved in organised crime in Glasgow/Scotland in no secret to me , as I have suffered tremendously by them .
The TRUTH is out there...........

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Aslan Usoyan, one of Russia's most notorious criminal bosses, has been shot dead in a street in Moscow

One of Russia's most notorious crime bosses has been shot dead by a sniper in broad daylight in central Moscow.

Aslan Usoyan, 75, who has survived time in Soviety jails and previous assassination attempts, is thought to have been murdered in a war between two mobs.

He was shot in the head yesterday outside a restaurant on a snowy street about half a mile from the Kremlin in the middle of the afternoon.

Georgian-born Usoyan, also known as 'Grandpa Hasan', is said to have been the head of one of the region's most powerful criminal gangs

The federal Investigative Committee said an unidentified gunman hit Usoyan with a single bullet and he died shortly afterwards in hospital.

It said a woman at the scene also suffered two gunshot wounds.

A committee statement said six 9mm bullet casings were found on a stairwell in a building across the street from where Usoyan was hit.

Authorities, it said, were conducting ballistics tests and considering potential motives 'connected to the criminal activity of the victim and possible conflicts with other representatives of the same milieu.'

After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, there were almost daily killings across Russia as criminal gangs battled to gain control of lucrative businesses and carve up territory.

According to Russian media reports, Usoyan headed a crime network in the years after the Soviet collapse.

The TRUTH is out there...........

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The American 'supercop' who slashed crime on the streets of Los Angeles and New York wants to take over at Scotland Yard now foreigners can run British forces for the first time.

Changes: Supercop Bill Bratton, pictured running
LA police, says he would love to run the Met as
Downing Street is changing rules to allow
foreigners to run British forces

The American 'supercop' who slashed crime on the streets of Los Angeles and New York wants to take over at Scotland Yard now foreigners can run British forces for the first time.

Bill Bratton, 65, was David Cameron's preferred choice to become Metropolitan Police Commissioner when Sir Paul Stephenson resigned over the phone hacking scandal in 2011 - but the rules prevented it.

Home Secretary Theresa May is now ripping up the directive that says chief constable candidates must be British citizens.

Mr Bratton, who crushed gangs and reformed policing in America, said last night that running the Met would be one of the biggest jobs in world policing - and he wants it.

'There are three Western police agencies that have great significance in international policing — London, New York and Los Angeles,' he said.

'I've had the privilege of leading the two police departments in the US that have that international impact and that is something that is part of my interest in the Met, the impact of things you do in that department reverberates well beyond the immediate area of responsibility.'

Mr Bratton was police chief in Boston, New York and Los Angeles and won acclaim for his zero-tolerance policy to beating crime.

The Prime Minister wanted him to replace Sir Paul Stephenson but instead brought in as an adviser on gangs after riots tore through Britain's major cities in the summer of 2011.

The TRUTH is out there...........
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