James F. “Jimmy” Utley,” alias James Baxter/James Bradley, known “Iowa Jimmy” and “Jimmy the Eel” was anther one of those mystery men like Nola Hahn Slim Gordon found knocking around Los Angeles after Repeal and embraced without question by Hollywood.
Born in Connecticut on December 4, 1902, by 1921 he was living in rural Atalissa, Iowa where he manufactured illegal liquor (Iowa had enacted dry laws in 1916, ahead of national Prohibition). He was arrested at his farm in August 1922 after Sheriff’s deputies confiscated a still, found at the railroad depot, addressed to Utley, sent to him by a Chicago manufacturer. The Muscatine County grand jury investigated. and on September 10, 1922, he indicted for manufacture of intoxicating liquor. But on November 24, 1922, the charges against him were mysteriously dismissed.
His wife Mabel divorced him in February, 1923. Married just two years, the union had resulted in one child. On June 8, 1923, he married Lillian Alborg in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Utley was working in Omaha, Nebraska for an “import” company. Mostly what he was importing was liquor to and from Chicago. A daughter, Audrey, was born in Chicago in December 1923. However, this second marriage did not last long, either. The couple divorced by 1930.
As of 1932, Utley was living in Los Angeles. In 1934 he was running a club in Hollywood, Chateau Madrid, which opened August 31, 1934. Film gossip columnists touted the star-studded gala event. No one asked “Who is Jimmy Utley?”
Club Madrid in any case didn’t last long; it was raided by the Sheriff’s vice squad in October for asserted violations of the gambling, liquor and zoning laws.
In February 1936, he was running another club, this time right on the Sunset Strip at 9131 Sunset Boulevard. Previously known as the Hangover and The Centaur, the location had an already checkered history of liquor ordinance abuses and Utley was denied a liquor license by the State Board of Equalization (SBE). He continued to operate it anyway and was subsequently raided and arrested by the SBE for selling alcohol without a license.
On January 23, 1937, Utley was arrested after delivering a packet of opium to an apartment house at 849 S. Normandie Avenue. He’d walked into a trap. The police had been tipped off that he was coming. Utley was arrested for violation of the State Narcotics Act as well as suspicion of robbery. Curiously, he was also found in possession of a police badge that could be altered to display the name of various major cities, as well as blank arrest warrants and bail bond applications. Even more curiously, Utley soon walked free. No charges were brought.
On June 29, 1937 he was in trouble again. Another club he operated, at 8230 Santa Monica Boulevard, was raided on orders of George Contreras, then head of the Sheriff’s vice squad. Utley would do a brief stint in the County jail for bookmaking.
It was around this time that Bugsy Siegel, with assistance from lackies Mickey Cohen and Jack Dragna, was attempting to take over the Los Angeles vice rackets.
The remnants of Charles Crawford’s old “Spring Street gang:” Farmer Page, Guy McAfee, Bob Gans and others, controlled LA’s bookmaking, prostitution and illegal table gambling with many clubs operating on the Sunset Strip, most notably the Clover Club at 8477 Sunset.
Jack Dragna had muscled in on the Spring Street gang’s bookmaking operations shortly after Prohibition ended. Then Bugsy Siegel had come to town and muscled in on Dragna’s rackets, forging an uneasy alliance with (now subservient) Dragna.
At the same time cafeteria owner Clifford Clinton, as a member of the 1937 county grand jury, was hearing a lot of criminal complaints about various vice operations. Realizing vice could not operate on that kind of scale without official protection, he tried to get his fellow grand jurists to take action but they had no interest. He formed a citizen group to investigate independently, allying his effort with that previously launched by some religious leaders, including Dr. A.M. Wilkinson (See my post The Angels Take A Bath). Clinton relied on underworld informants to gather data on the city’s vice activity. One of them was Jimmy Utley. Another was Bob Coyne, owner of a nightclub property at 8383 Sunset. Since 1933, Coyne had been complaining to a group of religious leaders and other concerned citizens about vice operating in West Hollywood (then unincorporated) under the protection of the sheriff’s office. George Contreras in turn accused Coyne of fronting for an underworld group that merely wanted to use the sheriff’s office to close up his competition and had “duped” the religious leaders into supporting his effort. That may well have been true! It is also likely that both Coyne and Utley were allied with Siegel in the effort to take over from Page and McAfee, and used Clinton’s sincere efforts for their own purposes. But the old Spring Streeters knew this game. They’d invented it.
In September 1937, the County grand jury did, at last, launch an investigation. Not of vice racketeers but of religious leaders accused of shaking down the vice racketeers! Dr. Wilkinson was accused of accepting $4400 from Guy McAfee. On September 10, 1937, Coyne was indicted by the grand jury on extortion and bribery charges, accused of having shaken down two Huntington Park café owners for $500 each and trying to bribe Santa Monica’s Mayor Gillette and Police Chief Dice into letting him run a bookmaking operation there.
The day before the indictment was handed down, Utley, still serving time in County on the bookmaking charges, swore out an affidavit stating that one of the café owners visited him in the jail and told him that D.A. Buron Fitts’ office was trying to frame Coyne. Then on November 17, 1937- the eve of his trial- Coyne suddenly pleaded guilty. He was not eligible for parole due to having served a prison term in 1896 for the “malicious use of dynamite,” even though he received a pardon for that conviction when another man confessed to the crime.
But if the Spring Street gang thought they had succeeded in silencing Coyne, they were mistaken.
The 1937 county grand jury concluded its service at the end of the year. Clinton’s report on his vice investigations, it seemed, would never see the light of day.
January 14, 1938 changed that. Former detective Harry Raymond was nearly killed in a car bomb, soon traced to the LAPD and the Mayor’s office.
On September 16, 1938, Superior Court Judge Fletcher Bowron defeated Mayor Shaw in a recall election that Clinton had championed.
Many a mayor before him had promised reform. Shaw himself had run on a reform platform. Up until now it had been a joke. Bowron, however, meant it. He was going to clean up the city. Bowron was unaware that his reforms were helping Siegel get rid of the competition.
The Spring Streeters made a big show of leaving town, but didn’t go quietly. LA Times reporter, Ben Ezra Kendall, formerly a crime reporter from Chicago, got himself hired by the Bowron administration as a “public relations” rep, although his salary was covered by Clifford Clinton.
In March, 1939, the Bowron administration began purging the LAPD of 23 high ranking officers suspected of being on the Spring Streeters’ payroll. As later revealed, Mayor Bowron had secretly (or so he thought) sought the help of ex-bootlegger Tony Cornero in identifying the supposed bad apples within the department. Cornero supplied a list. An investigator for Bowron, Alexander Jamie (whose uncle had been a lawyer for Chicago’s “Secret Six”) followed up and verified Cornero’s allegations.
But, it seemed the Mayor’s office had a mole, who revealed Bowron’s meeting with Cornero to the press in an attempt to make the mayor look corrupt. Kendall was the mole. Having discovered the traitor in his midst, Bowron fired Kendall.
On April 10, 1939, Jimmy Utley was arrested for extortion, accused of shaking down people who’d been arrested at Hollywood night clubs by presenting himself as a “fixer.”
Two days later, D.A. Fitts brought additional counts against Utley, dredging up his old, January 23, 1937, narcotics and robbery arrest, telling reporters that 3 policemen who had a hand in helping secure Utley’s release back then might be questioned. Of course, Fitts had been D.A. in January 1937. It’s unclear why he didn’t pursue the charges himself at the time. Now, Fitts himself was under fire from Clinton for his lack of action in going after the underworld (Fitts had, for example, never followed up on any leads from Clinton’s vice investigations) and would in fact be unseated the following year by the Clinton-backed candidate John Dockweiler.
On April 25, 1939 Ben Ezra Kendall was arrested on bribery charges. He used the opportunity to try to smear both Bowron and Clinton, claiming they were beholden to eastern gambling interests.
One of the 23 purged LAPD officers was called as a witness for Kendall, and he too was keen to smear the mayor and his allies. The prosecution noted that the officer had been the one who secured James’ Utley’s swift release following his January 23, 1937 arrest for narcotics peddling and robbery. The officer admitted that he had, but insisted it was only for the robbery charge, and further asserted that Utley had been an informant to the robbery squad since 1936 and as such had helped the department on a number of cases. He claimed Clinton tried to bribe him to leave Utley alone, and it was his “belief” that Utley was using his connections to Clinton to protect 1520 vice resorts in Hollywood for which Utley received a percentage of the payoff. His characterization of Utley as a police informant was later found to be “inaccurate,” a contender for Understatement of the Year.
Utley was nevertheless branded as a rat. Mickey Cohen, long after the fact, would brag in his “as told by” memoir of having delivered a beating to Utley on Vine Street for being a stoolie.
In July 1939, Utley went on trial for the April 1939 extortion charges and was acquitted by the jury on August 2, 1939. More good luck followed on September 11, 1939 when the narcotics charges against him were quashed in LA Superior Court.
Things turned sour for Jimmy on September 20, 1939. He was indicted by a federal grand jury on the same narcotics peddling charges. His lawyer, Bringham Rose (who also represented Clifford Clinton) called the case a frame up engineered by Fitts as payback for Utley having investigated Fitts on Clinton’s behalf. Which it probably was. Nevertheless,this time, the Utley luck didn’t hold and he was convicted. It wasn’t too bleak, though. Utley remained at large, free on $5000 bail, while the case was appealed.
Meanwhile, the County grand jury was again investigating Bob Coyne.
As noted earlier, the old Spring Street gang did not go quietly, nor had they removed themselves from Los Angeles as they would have the public believe. For, while Mayor Bowron had been effective in cleaning up the city, his jurisdiction did not extend to the unincorporated county areas where gambling, prostitution and other vice still flourished, notably on the Sunset Strip. Siegel was still trying to take over those interests.
In February 1940, the County Board of Supervisors voted to regulate pinball machines, marble games and devices as gambling apparatus. Bob Coyne appeared before the board on February 27 and accused George Contreras of having a controlling interest in some 2000 slot machines operating within county territory and was prepared to go to the grand jury with his evidence. Contreras hotly denied the charge and smeared Coyne as an ex-con, submitting his prison record to the Board (failing to note that he’d been pardoned after someone else confessed to the crime he’d been convicted for). Utley (“one-time aide of Clifford Clinton”) was called by the grand jury as a witness to tell what he might know of gambling in the Sunset Strip area but refused to testify on the grounds that it might harm his appeal in the narcotics case.
Utley’s appeal was denied anyway. He immediately filed a petition for his case to be reviewed by the US Supreme Court, but this too was denied, on January 6, 1941. With all other avenues closed to him, Utley then made a plea for probation in lieu of jail time. Clifford Clinton wrote to the judge on Utley’s behalf that he believed Utley was the victim of political persecution by D.A. Fitts. The probation request was denied, however, and finally later that month he would at long last begin serving his 2-year sentence at Terminal Island
After World War II, Utley settled once again in the city of LA and was aligned with Dragna, who operated Siegel’s race wire service for him. In March 1946, Utley was arrested on the charge of failure to register as an ex-convict- a requirement dating back to 1933. The charges were later dropped. He also ran the lucrative bingo concession for Tony Cornero’s floating casino, The Lux, which opened on August 6, 1946. The ship’s operation was shut down two nights later, Utley and Cornero arrested and charged with conspiracy to violate state gaming laws.
Utley was released on $2000 bond. A few days later he had the misfortune to run into Mickey Cohen again. Cohen, like Dragna, worked for Siegel, who was then busy in Las Vegas trying to do an end-run around federal restrictions on non-essential construction in order to complete his Flamingo resort hotel-casino. On the afternoon of August 16, Utley entered the popular Lucey’s restaurant at 5444 Melrose Avenue near Paramount Studios. Cohen followed on his heels and severely beat Utley as another low-level hood, Joe Sica, held a gun on the horrified celebrity crowd. Then the pair escaped on foot. Utley suffered a fractured scull and other injuries but in the code of the underworld, refused to identify his attacker, telling police he wouldn’t press charges even if they caught a suspect. “I’m no stooge. I’m no copper,” Utley said.
Authorities speculated that the beating may have been administered by an “out of town” gang trying to muscle in on the Lux’s profits expected “when and if” it resumed operation (The Lux did reopen during Labor Day weekend, continuing through mid-September). Or it might be related to a bookie war, like the murder of Pauly Gibbons in May of that year.
Less than a year later, on April 18, 1947, Utley suffered another beating at his home, 7143 Hollywood Boulevard, and supposedly had a gun pulled on him. This time, a suspect was arrested: Herbert Robertson of 1907 W. Sixth Street.” But they had to let him go when Utley again refused to sign a complaint.
Utley was again shot at in November 1947 and again refused to name names. By now, Siegel was gone- murdered on June 20, 1947. Dragna and Cohen were supposedly fighting it out for crime boss of LA. In July 1949, Utley was questioned in the alleged attempt on Cohen’s life outside Sherry’s restaurant at 9030 Sunset on the Sunset Strip.
In November 1949, there was a bogus effort to recall Mayor Bowron. Utley was involved. It failed in a landslide.
In February 1950, Utley was questioned in the bombing of Cohen’s Brentwood home but denied all knowledge.
In April 1950, the US Senate Crime Investigative Committee (aka the Kefauver hearings) named Utley as one of several persons trying to establish a bookmaking syndicate among Nevada, Eastern gangsters, and local gamblers. Jack Dragna was another. John “Curley” Robinson (coin-op games vendor affiliated with Bob Gans) was another.
On November 18, 1950, Utley testified before the Kefauver Committee in Los Angeles. Other witness had previously testified that the attempted recall effort against Mayor Bowron in 1949 was backed by underworld gambling interests. Asked about this, Utley said he became interested in the recall after the LAPD revoked his bingo license, having classed such games as gambling operations, but later “lost interest” in the recall bid. Utley, who had indeed ran a bingo parlor in Venice, insisted it was perfectly legal. He claimed he was currently in the “jewelry business.” His name had came up in Cohen’s earlier testimony to the Commission about the 1946 beating of Utley at Lucey’s restaurant. Utley told the panel he did not know who beat him, nor did any of his friends who witnessed the beating. But did note that shortly after the incident, Cohen called him to ask for a “loan” of $3000, which Utley claimed he refused.
In January 1951, it was revealed that Utley, along with Jack Dragna, was one of the “Big Five” gamblers, who had planned the 1949 recall of Mayor Bowron. The 5 had been secretly recorded discussing the effort and how Los Angeles would be organized into territories, Chicago style, after Bowron was gone.
In March 1951, he was arrested for running a dice and poker game in rural Imperial County. He was fined $200 and let go.
In August 1951, Utley was questioned in the “Two Tonys” double murder in Hollywood. He huffed to the press that he was a “usual suspect,” blamed for every underworld crime in town.
Legal troubles continued to follow Utley. On February 22, 1953 he was hit with a tax lien. On December 23, 1954 he was arrested on a burglary charge, accused of stealing jewelry, but released the next day. In April 1955 his name cropped up in yet another gambling inquiry.
Then on August 31, 1956, Utley was arrested in Long Beach, accused of running a $500,000 a year abortion ring along with “Dr.” Leonard Maxwell Arons, who was practicing without a medical license. Abortions, known in the family press at the time as “illegal operations” had been outlawed in California since it became a state in 1850. It was, in fact, the first law enacted by the new State (all male) legislature.
It was an extremely profitable enterprise for the underworld.
This time the charges would stick. Utley and Arons were convicted on December 18, 1956. On January 26, 1957 Utley was sentenced to 10 years in state prison. Exit Jimmy.
It got worse for Utley. On June 6, 1960 a judge ruled that he would have to serve 6 months in federal prison after his state time was up for failure to report thousands of dollars in income made in 1956 off his illegal abortion operation.
In a way, Utley would beat the system one last time. He never served that federal term. He died in Folsom Prison of natural causes on October 19, 1962. He was buried in Potter’s Field. No one attended his funeral.
His death certificate erroneously records his birthplace as Colorado. His 1923 marriage certificate and responses to the US Census of 1940 indicate Connecticut. These sources also list his parents names as John Utley and Marion nee Andrews.
Mabel Utley filed for divorce in Atalissa, Iowa in February 1923. She said they’d been married on February 28, 1921 and had one child. His marriage certificate to Lillian that June in Council Bluffs, Iowa, lists this as his “first” marriage, which was false.
Mickey Cohen states in his “as told by” memoir that Utley was a henchman of Jack Dragna.
Utley served part of his term in LA County jail and at Terminal Island prison, in LA Harbor near San Pedro. The prison was taken over by the Navy in February 1942 following the US entry into World War II.
It is probable that Utley and Coyne knew each other before this. A nightclub on Coyne’s property at 8383 Sunset was at times affiliated with Eugene Jarvis, who also operated out of 9131 Sunset, where Utley had managed a club in 1936. Both addresses operated for a time as “Club U-Gene.”
3 thoughts on “Jimmy Utley: LA’s Utterly Underrated Criminal”
Comments are closed.