Leo Parnell Bergin was not a gangster or a bootlegger, nor a professional gambler, but a chance encounter with all of the above led to his untimely death in 1931 and exposed the fact that the city had become, in the words of the city’s leading newspaper, a “mecca for gangsters and gamblers from the East.”
Bergin’s troubles began in September 1926, when he traveled east to attend the Dempsey-Tunney heavyweight title fight in Philadelphia. A 45-year-old married father of three, Bergin was a wealthy executive with the Los Angeles Soap Company, makers of White King (a competitor of P&G’s Ivory) and active in local charities. On the train he ran into a casual acquaintance, gambler Robert Goldenberg, aka Bob Goldie, a crony of Farmer Page and one of the original partners in the Clover Club, who was hosting a poker game in his stateroom. After the fight, Bergin went on to New York City, where he met up with Goldie again at the Almanac Hotel.
It was at the Almanac that Bergin got in on a dice game taking place in one of the hotel’s suites. Goldie later told Los Angeles County D.A. Buron Fitts that he warned Bergin to stay out of it, as he would be up against a bunch of high rollers and professionals, including Nick the Greek and Joe Benjamin, but that Bergin had ignored his advice and played on.
The game, run by a syndicate representing noted gambler Arnold Rothstein, went on for several days with at times sums of up to $100,000 changing hands. According to Bob Goldie Bergin confessed to him the next time they saw each other that he had lost $6000; the actual amount may have been even higher. Determining that the game had not been honest, the soap executive later stopped payment on some of the checks he’d given to Edward J. “Eddie” Rollins, representative of the syndicate.
A few weeks after returning to Los Angeles, Bergin began receiving phone calls demanding money. He was stopped on the street by a stranger, who threatened him if he refused to pay up. Another time his automobile, driven by chauffeur Eugene Boyd, was forced to the curb by men in another auto. At the point of a gun, Bergin wrote out a check. The extortionists continued to make threats, however, often arranging to meet on lonely stretches of highway, where, under duress, Bergin wrote out more checks. Eventually they totaled $7,000.
Rothstein was shot to death outside the Park Central Hotel in New York on November 4, 1928, ironically for reputedly refusing to pay a gambling debt incurred in what A.R. had concluded was a crooked game.
The persecution of Bergin, however, didn’t end there. In 1930 he went to D.A. Buron Fitts and detailed the whole story. He didn’t want Fitts to take any action, however, out of fear that it would prompt his tormentors to carry out their threats. They were, he told Fitts, gangsters from Chicago, and at least seven of them were currently in Los Angeles.
Coincidentally or not, on July 1, 1930, police picked up six men whom they suspected agents of the George “Bugs” Moran gang from Chicago’s north side. They gave their names as Marvin Alper (aka Marvin Hart), George Davis (aka Harry Kirchenbaum), Frankie Foster (aka Frank Foreman, Eddie Ryan, Frank Bruna, whose real name was Frank Frost), Frank Fisher and Herman Walters (aka Herbert Woellter).
Moran, a rival of Al Capone’s in gambling, liquor and possibly other rackets, had been targeted in the February 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that left seven of his gang dead.
Since, it had been rumored that Moran wished to expand his operation to the West Coast. Indeed, papers found on the arrested men included what was believed to be a rough blueprint of a brewery.
Foster/Frost was wanted in Chicago connection with the June 9, 1930 gangland-style murder there of journalist Alfred “Jake” Lingle as a gun found at the scene had been traced to him. Under great secrecy he was extradited back to Chicago for questioning.
On December 31, 1930, Bergin recorded in a letter, later found among his papers, that Eddie Rollins and some other thugs had come to his office demanding $2500. When he refused, the thugs threatened his children.
Back in Chicago, in January 1931, Leo Vincent Brothers was accused in the Lingle murder and on April 3, 1931 a jury found him guilty.
In the spring of 1931, suffering a nervous breakdown, Leo Bergin checked himself into the Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, where he died on May 29, 1931.
On June 19, 1931, Chicago courts dropped murder charges against Frankie Foster.
A few days later there were renewed reports that the Moran gang was moving into the West Coast.
That fall, Bergin’s extortionists began sending his widow threats, demanding payment in a series of letters that read like something out of a bad gangster movie:
Dear Mrs. Bergin,
You will no doubt be surprised to get this at this time but it is very necessary. This is an honest debt and we must collect, but we are giving you every consideration. Send at once $2000, all in greenbacks. Send it the same old way, and remember the fact that it is between you and us. No double-crossing goes. You understand.
Mrs. Bergin notified D.A. Fitts after receiving the first such missive on September 6. Fitts sent his investigator Harry Leslie to stay at the Bergin home, 650 Muirfield Rd., posing as a “cousin.”
The following week, another letter arrived:
Dear Mrs. Bergin,
After being patient since your receiving our letter last week, nothing has shown up. We want to be good fellows, and expect a payment Tuesday or Wednesday of this week. Remember we want to be fair.
P.S. We are notifying the Big Boy.
It was believed that chauffeur Eugene Boyd, who had made payments for Bergin previously, was the “big boy” referred to. He made arrangements to rendezvous with “the Boys” at midnight, September 17, 1931, on a remote stretch of the Ridge Route (Highway 99).
With Leslie and another investigator hiding in the backseat, and additional men stationed at various points along the highway, Boyd set out. All went smoothly until he started down the grade past Sandberg’s resort. A car darted out of a side road, just as another car came up from behind and passed. Thinking they meant to box the Bergin car in, Leslie attempted to extract himself from his cramped position. His gun accidentally went off. Leslie was struck in the hip. The mission was abandoned as the investigators sought medical attention for Leslie. They later determined that the two cars were unrelated to the extortion plot.
Bob Goldie, having since ostensibly quit gambling to open a pawn shop at 6th & Main streets, told Fitts about his running into Bergin in New York. Eddie Rollins, he added as an aside, might have started a “cleaning and dying business” in Los Angeles.
Authorities made several arrests over the next two days. Eddie Rollins along with his brother Pat, Marvin Hart and Frankie Foster were arrested in connection with the case and booked into the County Jail in the Hall of Justice.
The Bergin case, the Times noted, proved that “the lid on gambling, liquor and vice and other forms of racketeering in Los Angeles has been tilted to an angle where it may entirely slip off at any time.”
In addition to the four arrests, the Times asserted that Bugs Moran was also in town, but had “not made any public announcement of his presence.” Fitts, armed with intel provided by Chicago’s “Secret Six,” warned that eastern gangsters were pouring into Los Angeles not only to engage in crimes but to involve legitimate businesses in protection rackets. A proposed city and countywide ordinance that would require felony ex-convicts to register upon arrival was given the green light.
Foster, Hart, and the Rollins brothers were released on writs of habeas corpus within hours. The investigation stumbled when Boyd, for whatever reason, was unable to positively ID any of the suspects as men he’d seen meeting with his late employer. The four were eventually released for lack of evidence. No one was ever held accountable in the Bergin case.
In October 1931, returning from an intelligence-gathering trip to Chicago, Fitts initiated another hunt for “public enemies.” Frankie Foster was believed to be allied with Bugs Moran in his Los Angeles activities.
In November, Marvin Hart surfaced again. With others he had been operating the “Hollywood Voice & Screen Test Syndicate” at 5241 Melrose Avenue, a front for a wholesale liquor operation. On November 12, 1931 Hart entered a plea of guilty in federal court to violation of the Volstead Act and received probation.
The same month, Frank Fisher (arrested with Marvin Hart and Frankie Foster back in July 1930) and Pat Rollins, brother of Eddie Rollins, were arrested for questioning in the bombing of the Capital Cleaners in Culver City, which had been hit with a “Chicago pineapple.” Nothing came of it. Ralph Sheldon, another Chicago gangster charged in the December 1930 “kidnapping” of gambler Zeke Caress, was said to be publicly boasting of running a cleaners’ and dyers’ “protection” organization here.
On December 14, 1931, John “Roy” Stockman, a 65-year-old night watchman of the White Way Cleaners’ & Dyers’ Shop, 1552 E. Adams St., was shot to death. His murder was believed to be related to the cleaners’ and dyers’ extortion racket, though owner W.J. Fairchild insisted he’d received no threats.
A few nights later, on December 22, 1931, Marvin Hart was shot to death as he stepped out of his car in the garage of 453 N. Orange Dr. Police initially theorized that Hart was threatening to “put the finger on” his eastern liquor partners. The case went unsolved.
On February 26, 1932, Frankie Foster, as Frank Frost, was arrested in Los Angeles again, this time on charges of suspicion of robbery and carrying a concealed weapon. Having established himself as a bail bondsman with offices in the Klinker Building at 1st & Broadway, kitty-corner from central police headquarters, Foster supplied his own bond and was released the next day. He was found guilty on March 29 but sentencing had to be delayed until Foster’s lawyer could be present. Foster subsequently failed to show up in court.
Foster eventually resurfaced in San Francisco, where on April 10, 1932 he was arrested with Eddie Rollins and onetime oil promoter C. C. Julian in connection with the theft of $100,000 worth of jewelry from a guest of the Palace Hotel. Foster quickly obtained his release in the robbery case but was brought back to Los Angeles and on April 14 sentenced to six months’ in county jail for the concealed weapon offence. On July 6, the appellate court reversed the conviction. Eddie Rollins, released in the San Francisco jewel robbery case, was arrested in Los Angeles with Johnny Roselli for suspicion of robbery on July 3, 1932. The case was later dismissed.
With Repeal, the Prohibition-era gangsters seemed to lay low for a few years.
Frankie Foster was next heard of in Reno, when in April 1936 he was arrested in connection with a jewel theft. The charges were later dropped.
Frank Fisher, last heard from in connection with the cleaners’ and dyers’ war of 1931, surfaced again in March 1938 when he was arrested in Los Angeles on federal narcotics charges, ostensibly penniless. Found guilty, he was transferred to San Quentin.
Then, on September 14, 1938, Eddie Rollins, Pat Rollins, Frank Fisher, and four others were indicted by D.A. Fitts for the 8-year-old murder of night watchman John Stockman on December 14, 1931. Eddie Rollins was picked up in Chicago on October 2 and extradited to Los Angeles.
In April 1939, the Rollins brothers and Fisher were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Pat Rollins won a new trial, and the charges against him were dismissed in June 1939. Fisher, who was already serving time for his narcotics conviction, sought parole in August but was denied. Both Fisher and Eddie Rollins were paroled in February 1944.
The full text of Bergin’s 12-31-30 letter appears in the Los Angeles Times 7-18-1931. Bergin’s version of events tallies with Goldie’s.
Whether the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was about beer distribution or Capone and Moran’s expansion into the “protection” racket aimed at legitimate businesses such as cleaning and dying firms, is still being debated.
It was widely held, then and now, that Brothers was merely a fall guy in the Lingle Case.
Newspapers made no mention of it at the time, but the LAPD’s survey of Gangland Killings 1900-1951, records that Eddie Rollins was believed to have visited the winery of “wealthy vinyardist” Frank Baumgarteker along with Jack Dragna and Joe Ardizzone shortly before Baumgarteker’s November 25, 1929. Ardizzone himself went “missing” in October 1931.
Ralph Sheldon, often linked to Frank Fisher and Eddie Rollins with regard to the cleaners’ and dyers’ protective association racket, died in San Quentin in July 1944, still serving time for the Zeke Caress “kidnapping.”