In the summer of 1939, California’s new State Attorney General, Earl Warren, launched a campaign against illegal gambling, starting by an effort to shut down the four floating casino ships operating off the coast of Los Angeles.
At the same time, that August, the Los Angeles County grand jury announced it was reopening the unsolved Duckie Irvin murder case.
Bookmaker Weldon “Duckie” Irvin (aka “Big Bill, aka George W. Rogers and H.W. Currier) had been found dead in his car, parked on the 6000 block of Selma Avenue in Hollywood, on December 28. 1938. He’d been shot twice in the head with a .38 automatic, which police found nearby. Authorities suspected gang revenge, noting that Irvin had been arrested back on August 10 in a bookmaking raid by DA Fitts, and had allegedly “talked” about the operations of rival bookmakers. The city’s “big shot” gamblers, usual suspects Farmer Page and Guy McAfee, were sought for questioning. Page said he had no information to offer. Police were unable to locate McAfee. After a flurry of news reports of underworld intrigue and mystery blondes, the case languished.
Things heated up again in March 1939, after the LAPD was purged of 23 high ranking officers suspected of being on the payroll of the underworld- including two who had overseen the Irvin investigation. Subsequently, Police Commissioner Raymond Haight alleged that he had information that two officers had been involved in a “pay-off” to steer the Irvin case into false channels. A review of police reports on the case by the Commission revealed that Bugsy Siegel (spelled Seagal) was among those questioned. But Haight refused to tell what he knew, Page and McAfee reportedly upped stakes for Las Vegas, and the grand jury investigation went nowhere.
Meanwhile, having succeeded in shutting down the gambling ships, Earl Warren turned his attention to bookmaking. It was Warren’s idea that this particular scourge could be eliminated by going after it at its source: the race wire.
The race wire supplied customers with race entries, odds, running accounts, results and pay off prices, sent over a network of telegraph wires.
In the ‘teens and ‘20s, Zeke Caress and his protégé Farmer Page, operating out of the old Jim Jeffries bar at 326 S. Spring Street, had been the race book kings of Los Angeles. Pari-mutuel betting at race tracks was legalized in California in 1933, a huge gift to the underworld looking for a new source of income with the end of national Prohibition. According to the LAPD’s 1951 report on gangland crime, Guy McAfee and Tutor Scherer (still operating out of Caress’ property at 326 S. Spring), ran the largest books in the city, and that Jack Dragna demanded- and got– a cut. Then Bugsy Siegel arrived as the Mob’s Man in the West and took over, forging an uneasy alliance with Dragna, whom he put in charge of bookmaking operations.
Wire service operators could tell themselves they weren’t involved in anything illegal; that what their customers did with the information they supplied was their own affair. Bookies could operate without subscribing to a wire service, and get their track information by other means, but that left them vulnerable to a practice known as post-betting, in which gamblers with an “in” at a track could bet on a winning horse after the race had ended before the hapless bookie got the race results. They all subscribed. So in theory, shut down the wire and you shut down the bookies. It was also believed that the wire could be used for other criminal enterprises such as prostitution and narcotics trafficking.
Warren wasn’t alone in his anti-gambling effort in California.
In Chicago, the feds were trying to shut down the largest wire service in the country, Nationwide News Inc., owned by newspaper publisher Moses “Moe” Annenberg. As later concluded by findings of the Kefauver Hearings on organized crime, the wire service paid off the political machine and police. In 1946, Annenberg’s longtime associate James Ragen also told authorities that in 1933-1936, Nationwide News Service, of which he had been general manager, paid politicians $600,000 for political campaigns and “other reasons.”
On August 11, 1939 Annenberg was indicted for tax evasion, $3,258,809.97 for the Depression years of 1932-1936. Judge James Herbert Wilkerson, the same justice who had sentenced Al Capone fox tax evasion in 1931, sentenced him to 3 years in prison and levied an $8,000,000 tax fraud penalty. The feds cut a deal with Annenberg to not go after his son on similar charges if the senior Annenberg would shut down Nationwide.
So, on November 15, 1939, Annenberg abandoned Nationwide News, Inc. The following day, November 16, 1939, was the bookmakers’ “Black Thursday.” From Chicago came reports that the horse race betting market had crashed. Across the US, cities report wagering off 25-90 percent, Los Angeles representing the low end of the statistic. The results from Hollywood Park in Inglewood were received from persons stationed in an old tank house near the track, supplied with a set of binoculars and conveyed to bookies via short wave radio or telephone.
Nationwide News Service is Dead! Long Live… Continental News Service.
Days later, on November 20, Attorney Weymouth Kirkland reported to USAG William J. Campbell that Annenberg had closed the doors of Nationwide News Service’s 28 offices across the US, and all employees were discharged.
Nationwide was no sooner pronounced dead, however, when a new coast-to-coast race wire was born: Continental Press Service, founded by Arthur B. Mickey McBride of Cleveland and managed by James Ragen, formerly of the Ragen’s Colts gang and, of course, a longtime associate of Moe Annenberg at Nationwide.
Earl Warren had the idea of cutting off the “news” wire itself at its source- the telegraph and telephone companies. He applied California’s anti-bookmaking statute to these legitimate, legal businesses, whose lines and equipment aided and abetted the illegal bookie business by conveying the race information. Pacific Telegraph & Telephone Co. and Western Union cooperated with the AG to deny service to the race wire.
On December 20, Warren reported that the major horserace bookmaking agency in Los Angeles, “Los Angeles Journalist Publishing Co.,” run by Russell Brophy (James Ragen’s son-in-law) and Leonard Nevins would be closing, as was the San Francisco branch.
It never happened. Meanwhile, there was a national push to shut down bookmaking using the telephone and telegraph companies as Warren was trying to do. A federal grand jury in Chicago was investigating the use of wire and radio services to disseminate horse race information. USAG William Campbell was also going after “bootleg” services that had started up since Nationwide (theoretically) disbanded. In January 1940, federal agents arrived in LA from Chicago and interviewed Brophy and Nevins to determine if their wire service was really the Annenberg service in disguise, or if not, whether it was a substitute.
A few months later, on April 26, 1940, the federal grand jury in Chicago, interpreting the transmission of pari-mutuel betting odds etc. as “lottery prize lists,” returned an indictment charging the Western Union telegraph company with willfully conspiring with individuals to violate lottery laws that forbade the carrying of prize lists across state lines. Western Union maintained that it was innocent of wrongdoing even if a patron might be using its service illegally.
Only 10 days later, on May 6, 1940, Earl Warren and his chief criminal deputy, Warren Olney, issued a sweeping indictment naming nearly 900 suspected bookies (one Mickey Cohen among them) and 100 defendants, from racing news service providers to printers of racing forms, “scratch sheets” and other pamphlets used by bookies, including Russell Brophy and Leonard K. Nevine, Leonard Brophy, and Moe Annenberg. Both Continental Press Service and Nationwide News Service were also named. The petition alleged that the contents and personnel of Nationwide had simply switched to a new organization named Continental Press Service. A restraining order put the defendants, their companies and corporations, out of business until the court’s decision.
Hobbled but not down, the race wire limped on. On November 16, 1940, police rounded up “undesirables” in San Diego in a sweeping investigation that netted Russell Brophy, his brother Leonard, and a “John Roselli,” who were ordered by the San Diego county grand jury to appear in court on grounds that they were behind a “newly organized” racing news service offered to local bookies at $1,000-$1500 a week. Nothing much came of it.
Then, federal and state efforts to shut down the race wire started to unravel.
On December 19, 1940 a federal court in Chicago threw out the April 1940 indictment against Western Union and 11 others, ruling that it did not charge the commission of a crime.
In California, Earl Warren’s bookie drive, too, hit a snag. He had managed to obtain a court order in Los Angeles superior court arguing that bookmaking was a public nuisance, therefore persons supplying bookmakers with information were equally guilty of committing a nuisance. But the court ultimately ruled that bookmaking did not constitute a “public nuisance.” On November 27, 1941, the California Supreme Court denied Warren’s petition for a rehearing in the case and that seemed to be that.
While most of the country were preoccupied with the US entry into World War II, mobsters increasingly turned their attention to the race wire. The Chicago Outfit, Capone’s old mob, wanted control of it. Unable to loosen James Ragen’g grip on Continental News Service, they tried to start a rival service.
Bugsy Siegel, having beaten murder charges in the Big Greenie murder case, sent his enforcers Joe Sica and Mickey Cohen to intimidate and disrupt service at Continental’s local branches. The pair entered Al Green’s office at 1057 S. San Pedro St. in July 1942, ripping out the telephones where four female employees were receiving information on horse race bets over the wire. Then they went to Russell Brophy’s place at 208 W. Eighth St., where they brutally assaulted Brophy and yanked out his telephone equipment as at Green’s.
Cohen laid low for a month surrendering to authorities only after his attorney, Sam Rummel, had worked out a deal with D.A. John Dockweiler. But neither Brophy nor any other witnesses appeared in court for the preliminary hearing. The judge, suspecting witness intimidation, requested a grand jury investigation. In the end, Cohen and Sica were let go with a fine.
And the race wire continued. Siegel, through his front man, Moe Sedway, expanded his reach to Las Vegas as Nevada had recently made off track betting legal. By late 1945/early 1946 he was living in the desert city more or less permanently, involved in building the Flamingo Hotel and trying to set up the western branches of TransAmerica, a mob-run rival race wire. It was understood that Siegel could pocket his share of the profits, some $25,000 a month from Las Vegas alone.
Back in Chicago, tough old James Regan, fearing for his life, swore out a 98-page affidavit to States’ Attorney William Touhy on May 2, 1946, documenting the efforts of the Capone mob, led by Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, to take over his race wire service and muscle in on every horserace handbook in the US. The following month, on June 24, Regan was the victim of a drive by shooting on the South Side of Chicago. A fruit truck covered with a tarp concealed the gunmen, later identified by witnesses as members of the Guzik mob. Ragen survived, and offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of his attempted assassins. It went uncollected. On August 15, 1946 he died in the hospital, not of his gunshot wounds but mercury poisoning.
That fall, on November 24, 1946, Earl Warren, now Governor of California, made another attempt to crush the industry by again going after its source- businesses that aided and abetted bookmakers by providing race track information. He got little cooperation however from Fred Howser- the former L.A. County D.A. had just been elected to Warren’s old position as State Attorney General.
Continental’s owner came to an amicable arrangement with the Chicago Outfit, who then had no need for TransAmerica. Siegel, however, resisted shutting down the lucrative service in his territory.
The impasse continued up until Siegel’s execution, gangland style, in Beverly Hills on June 20, 1947. The race wire was one of the first motives floated in the case. It was asserted that Siegel and his associates had a “showdown” at the Flamingo two weeks before his death, at which it was agreed Siegel would keep his “bootleg” race wire service, but “someone” apparently didn’t like that. As of June 23, Beverly Hill police, the L.A. County Sheriff, and the D.A. were said to be seeking a man who helped to kill racing news czar James M. Ragen, whose “name is being kept secret.” In July Deputy D.A. Ernest Roll said that they’d questioned Russell Brophy and had a record of the conversation in the files. Brophy hastened to publicly deny he’d done any singing to anyone on the Siegel matter. Identified as the head of Continental’s SoCal branch, he insisted he was merely a customer. Other motives were floated, but they kept coming back to the race wire and the possible Ragen connection.
Spurred by the Siegel murder, Governor Warren formed a State Crime Commission on Organized Crime in October 1947. On February 18, 1948 the Commission asked AG Howser to make an investigation of the race wire services but again found Howser’s results less than impressive. Later that month, Warren Olney, now attorney for the Crime Commission, conducted a hearing of the State Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Prime witness Western Union explained in detail how the race wire operation worked:
Information “hot from the tracks” was flashed to California from Continental Press Service to “pooling agents.” From them, information was released over Western Union wires to smaller agents (bookies) via teleprinters. Bookies could then service their smaller operators by telephone.
By police order, Western Union temporarily disconnected the teleprinters, which local wire service operators rented from them. Brophy’s “Los Angeles Journalists” service was said to be moving to territory vacated by TransAmerica. Western Union maintained its stance that it had no knowledge that its service was used for illegal activity.
Subsequently, in April 1948, the PUC required public utilities to deny service to wire services. Continental fought it, but on March 6, 1949, the US 9th Circuit Court ordered Western Union to end its leased wire service to Continental Press. The Crime Commission announced that Capone Outfit’s control of the racing news wire service had been “shattered,” calling Continental’s set up a “framework for reaching every sizable community in the country up on which a whole series of criminal rackets can be organized and operated.”
The verdict came one day before the Crime Commission finalized its Second Progress Report, outlining its extensive findings on the race wire.
It was in 1949 that rivalries between former Siegel minions Jack Dragna came to a head on the Sunset Strip, a year that also saw the exposure of a massive bookie operation fronting as an insurance company called “Guaranty Finance Co.,” in which local law enforcement was deeply involved, and a foiled attempt organized by a powerful gambling syndicate to recall Mayor Bowron. Los Angeles drew an unwelcome national spotlight as a gambling and crime center, the likes of which it hadn’t seen since Liberty’s “Lid off Los Angeles” series in 1939- the year Earl Warren’s war on bookies began.
The Crime Commission’s third progress report, dated January 31, 1950, included further details the race wire in California, including Mickey Cohen and Joe Sica’s trashing of Russell Brophy’s office in 1942, Siegel’s operations in Nevada, and the Guarantee Finance scandal. Quoting the late James Ragen, it refers to Dragna as “the Capone of California,” noting that he had been associated with Siegel in the operation of TransAmerica but withdrew from this activity two weeks before Siegel’s murder, adding that Dragna and Mickey Cohen were now bitter rivals for control of bookmaking in Southern California. The report concludes that Dragna was actively trying to “reestablish and monopolize” bookmaking communications services in Southern California via radio, long distance telephone networks and tapping Western Union’s interstate wires.
By then, the federal government had formed its own Senate Crime Investigating Committee to investigate interstate organized crime, chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver (D-TN).
On April 21, 1950, LA’s Mayor Bowron and LAPD Chief of Police Worton testified before the committee about wire recordings that captured Dragna, Russell Brophy and Al Green discussing the failed attempt to recall Mayor Bowron, which evidence showed was linked to a plot to set up a statewide gambling syndicate through longtime local underworld figure Jimmy Utley. Control of the race wire service was a keystone of the plan. In his testimony the following week, Russell Brophy maintained that his “Los Angeles Journalists Publishing” news service was completely legal under California court rulings. He claimed he hadn’t subscribed to Continental since April 1948 (when Continental was cut off from Western Union), and scoffed at the suggestion that he was a front man for Al Green and Jack Dragna. Kefauver asked Brophy to confirm whether he serviced an estimated 4,000 bookmakers in Southern California. Brophy replied that he didn’t know what his subscribers did with the information he supplied, and if 4,000 bookies were indeed operating, that was on law enforcement.
On June 14, 1950, Hollywood film producer Frank Seltzer testified before the Kefauver Committee about being threatened and run out of Las Vegas during the filming of his “expose of the race wire service-bookie racket,” 711 Ocean Drive (originally titled Blood Money). In the film, telephone company employee Mal Granger (Edmond O’Brien) is recruited by the mob to help with their book-making operation. Mal develops a radio signaling system to convey information from the track and later takes over the works. Larry Mason (Don Porter), a Siegel-like figure, arrives in LA to run the Syndicate’s “Western Wire Service” and, like Siegel, is later shot with a rifle at close range.
In April 1951, Kefauver named Continental Press race wire service “Public Enemy No. 1” and said legislation to put the company out of business would be the Committee’s top recommendation. As a result, the following year, on March 11, 1952, Continental Press Service announced it would cease operation the following day, complaining that its business had dropped off since the Kefauver Committee publicity. New federal gambling tax laws, which had gone into effective in November 1951, were also a factor.
Continental is Dead! Long Live…other race wire services
It was not exactly the end of the race wire but it was something.
The California Crime Commissions final report, issued May 11, 1953 (which includes as an appendix the LAPD’s list of gangland killings 1900-1951), building on documents the LAPD gangster squad sized from Jack Dragna in February 1950, included further details of his takeover of the bookie racket in Southern California. At the time, rival Mickey Cohen was doing a 3-1/2 year stretch in prison for tax evasion. Dragna himself was facing potential deportation and would be investigated for tax evasion the following year.
Under the Kennedy Administration and USAG Robert Kennedy, another US senate investigation looked into race wire services in Los Angeles in the summer of 1961. By then, Jack Dragna was dead, and Mickey Cohen had been convicted on yet another charge of tax evasion and sentenced to 15 years. That fall, President John F. Kennedy signed a series of interstate anti-racketeering bills, including the Federal Wire Act.
But bookmaking lived on.
In 1941 it was reported that “new clues” may warrant the reopening of both the 1937 Les Bruneman murder and the 1938 Duckie Irvin murder cases under D.A. John Dockweiler, who had succeeded Buron Fitts, but nothing came of either. Dockweiler died suddenly in offic in 1943 and was succeeded by Fred Howser.
Annenberg died in prison in 1942.
Cohen getting off in the Shaman murder is sometime presented as an “acquittal.” In fact, he wasn’t acquitted because there was no trial. The grand jury likewise refused to investigate the case further.
Touhy later “lost” Regan’s 98-page affidavit, which columnist Drew Pearson (who was involved in a libel suit with Fred Howser) later said named high level political figures and corporate figures such as the Hilton hotel chain as backers of the race wire. No one was ever prosecuted for Ragen’s murder.
The Siegel murder, like Duckie Irvin’s, was never solved.
Russell Brophy was for a time married to James Ragen’s daughter Patricia. For reasons unknew to the official record, he was beaten in front of his home in Los Angeles in June 1954. He never fully recovered from his injuries and died of a heart condition at age 58 on February 2, 1962.