In its survey of Gangland Killings 1900-1951, the LAPD lists Les Bruneman as the unlucky first victim of the post-bootleg era.
George L. Bruneman was born in California in 1897 and spent his youth in the San Francisco area. By the summer of 1923 he’d arrived in the Los Angeles area and was co-proprietor with a man named Jesse Orsatti of the Cabaria Cafe at 745 N. Main Street. Bruneman and Orsatti were arrested by LAPD vice squad officers for liquor violations in September 1923. It would not be the last time the two men were linked in association with a crime.
In 1925, Bruneman was part of a crew working for gambler Milton “Farmer” Page, who also headed the politically-connected “bootleg trust.” All that summer, the Page faction was engaged in an escalating liquor war with independent bootlegger Tony Cornero that culminated in a shootout on the beach in early August, during which Bruneman and Page’s bodyguard were wounded.
While still recovering from his injuries, in late August, Bruneman was named among those local law enforcement called an “undesirable element” of gamblers, gunman, and bootleggers to be driven from the city, along with Nick “the Greek” Dandelos, Eddie Nealis, Ross Page (brother of Milton), and Frank Orsatti (brother of Jesse).
Brunemen didn’t leave L.A., however. As of December 1930 he was managing a Hollywood roadhouse, the Cortez Club at 8428 Sunset Blvd., when he got involved in the bizarre, so-called kidnapping of his friend “Zeke” Caress, a longtime Spring Street bookmaker, now part-owner of the Agua Caliente gambling resort. According to Caress, three masked men took him, his wife and a male servant at gunpoint from their Hollywood Hills home, demanding $50,000 ransom. Caress agreed to pay, but he didn’t have the cash on him. The kidnappers agreed to take a check. Caress arranged for Bruneman to escort the trio to the Rose Isle, one of the gambling ships anchored off Long Beach, in which Farmer Page had an interest, where the checks could be cashed. They picked up Brunman at 6th & Spring streets. Near the ship’s dock, however, the kidnappers got in an altercation with local police. Patrolman William H. Waggoner took a near-fatal gunshot that left him paralyzed. Brunman, who had Caress’ checks on him, was taken into custody. He was brought to trial on assault with a deadly weapon charges and acquitted. Later he was indicted for his part in the kidnapping.
In May 1932, Jesse Orsatti, Bruneman’s former café partner was convicted for the kidnapping and sent to San Quentin along with “Eastern gangsters” Ralph Sheldon (alias James Sherman), Louis Frank and others. Jimmy Doolen (aka James Gatewood), one of the gang, turned state’s evidence.
Bruneman spent most of the short remainder of his life in and out of court on charges related to the kidnapping. He hired mob lawyer Jerry Giesler to defend him. But even Giesler’s usual courtroom antics couldn’t get him off. Once again, Doolen was a key witness, testifying that Bruneman had been involved in the (so-called) kidnapping plot from the beginning, while the “victim,” Zeke Caress, maintained that his old pal Bruneman had only acted as a go-between to help get the checks cashed. In May 1934, Bruneman was found guilty. Giesler appealed the conviction. This time he was luckier. Geisler made the case on a technicality, that Bruneman should have a new trial as the original trial had involved 14 jurors (12 regular and 2 alternates), and that the extra jurors were a violation of the “age-old right” to a trial by 12 peers. (Mob lawyers always find some angle to work. It’s what they’re paid to do). It worked. A new trial granted. This time, Bruneman was luckier. The case landed in the courtroom of Judge Fricke, for one thing. Geisler argued that Doolen’s testimony, as an accomplice, ought not to be relied on. The judge agreed. Without it, there was little to tie Bruneman to the entire kidnapping. Again exploiting a technicality, Geisler argued that the crime of a kidnap is completed when the person is snatched. Anything that happens after that is, he maintained, not kidnapping. Judge Fricke agreed. Bruneman was finally acquitted in October 1935.
With national Prohibition and his legal problems at an end, Bruneman’s career as a gambler took off. He ran illicit clubs at Redondo Beach and bookmaking operations headquartered at the old Montmartre nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard. On July 19, 1937 gunmen shot Bruneman outside his Redondo Beach Surf Club while he strolled with one of his blonde “hostesses.” Bruneman survived. True to the code of the underworld, he refused to say who shot him.
Pressured by citizen reform groups, the county Grand Jury promised a sweeping investigation. The “captains of the Los Angeles underworld,” like Guy McAfee, Tutor Scherer, Farmer Page and Jack Dragna were subpoenaed but they scattered to the wind and the official inquiry went nowhere.
Then, in the wee hours of October 25, 1937, Bruneman, only just recovering from the injuries he’d sustained in July, was dining at The Roost Café, 2700 W. Temple St., with his nurse, Alice Ingram. Two men armed with automatics came in and fired. A bullet shattered the lens of Bruneman’s eyeglasses. He dropped. The shooters fired a dozen more times or more. Miss Ingram sustained injuries to her legs. A café waiter was also killed when he ran outside to get the license number of the gunmen’s car.
Rumors and theories abounded as to the motive for the shooting. At first there was talk in the out of town papers that Bruneman had been dabbling in extortion and the movie extra racket in Hollywood. This explanation received little attention in the local press and was quickly squelched. After all, who had the market cornered on the movie shake-down racket? One Johnny Roselli.
Other reports surfaced that he had lately been seen around Phoenix in the company of a beautiful woman (possibly Barbara Davis, who came forward to claim a valuable jewel collection found in Bruneman’s safety deposit box), who had recently shaken down a movie executive for $100k. Arizona underworld sources also revealed that Bruneman had talked of opening a gambling resort in Palm Springs.
Another theory was that he’d been “finished off” because he was about to sing. Undersheriff Arthur Jewell revealed that Bruneman had asked him for a gun permit and had offered to exchange “valuable information about the racket” for it.
Ultimately, the authorities turned to the usual suspects- “eastern gangsters.” D.A. Fitts dispatched two of his operatives to Chicago to question suspects there, while Chief Davis’ newest gangster squad rounded up all the eastern gangsters in Los Angeles and sent them packing (1).
No serious suspects emerged from any of it (2). The Bruneman case seemed destined to go down as another unsolved gang shooting.
Then on December 15, 1939, while Hollywood police were involved in another gangland murder, that of Harry Schachter, aka Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg (3), Peter Pianezzi, a suspect in a national bank robbery ring, was arrested for the Bruneman murder.
Pianezzi maintained his innocence from the beginning. Though witnesses placed him at the Montmartre at the time of the shooting, he was convicted on April 20, 1940. A few days later he was also found guilty of robbing the Yokahama Specie Bank at 120 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles, and a Long Beach bank in 1939. He got 24-to-life on the bank robbery and murder charges.
Doubts about Pianezzi’s guilt in the Bruneman case were first raised by the new L.A. County D.A. John F. Dockweiler in February 1941. Dockweiler hinted that “new clues” had come to light and that Pianezzi had been “railroaded” to “take the heat” off someone else, but was “ready to sing.” Nothing came of it. Dockweiler died suddenly in office on January 31, 1943.
Pianezzi- who was doing time for the bank robberies anyway- remained in prison. He was paroled in May 1953 after serving 13 years and settled in the Bay Area, continuing to maintain his innocence for the murder charge.
As was standard practice, in 1966 Pianezzi received a pardon from Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown after successfully demonstrating that he had been rehabilitated. But Pianezzi still wanted to clear his name of the murder charge. The break came after mob hitman Aladena “Jimmy the Weasel” Fratianno turned government witness in the late 1970s and claimed that fellow hitman Leonard “Lips” Moceri had once confessed to him, while Pianezzi was still in prison, that he (Moceri) had carried out the Bruneman hit aided by Frank “The Bomp” Bompensiero, on orders of Jack Dragna. Based on the revelation, Governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. granted Pianezzi a full pardon on October 1981 (4). There were no further prosecutions in the Bruneman case. Dragna had died in 1956. Moceri disappeared in August 1976 and was believed dead; Bompensiero was killed in February 1977.
Top image: Bruneman in 1934. UCLA.
(1) They missed at least one: the same month Bruneman was rubbed out, a tiny item in the papers noted that work had begun on the North Delfern Drive estate of a Ben Siegel in Beverly Hills’ exclusive Holmby Hills section.
(2) Guy W. Finney’s 1945 account of civic corruption in Los Angeles, Angel City in Turmoil, curiously calls the Bruneman case “one of Los Angeles’ unsolved mysteries,” noting, “If police chief Davis ever got to the bottom of it, he failed to take the wondering public into his confidence.” He asserts that the unofficial explanation at the time was that “Mayor Shaw’s good friend and campaign contributor, Eddie Nealis, while sorry for his slain comrade, did not want the case investigated.” At the time of the murder, Nealis was involved in the Clover Club on the Sunset Strip along with Farmer Page.
(3) It’s believed that Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, having settled permanently in Los Angeles as of 1937, as the New York mob’s “man on the coast,” came to a grudging if amicable arrangement with Dragna over the L.A. gambling rackets, which Siegel effectively now controlled. Siegel’s name indeed surfaced briefly during the Bruneman investigation but nothing came of it. Gangland Killings records only that his takeover of West Coast gambling interests at the time was “highly resented” by the Italians.
(4) Pianezzi died February 1992 at age 90 and is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, near San Francisco, which also happens to be the final resting place of Les Bruneman.