A Burning Cold Morning (Part 47)

Leo started by trying to find a willing accomplice which proved to be a little bit harder than he initially thought it would be.  It turned out that the group of hard-core criminals in the area had deep suspicions of outsiders and were wary to engage in work with them unless they came with a good recommendation from another criminal in the area.  Clark Mason proved to be of no use in that regard and actually told Leo to not even try to get back in with his operation if he decided to go through with the robbery.  “We’ll have nothin’ to do with you after that, nothing at all,” was the exact way he had put it to Leo.

He was determined to do it though and eventually, after another two days of working at it, Leo did find someone who seemed willing to join up in the scheme.  Tom Brinnegan was a short, stocky Irishman who had a face full of freckles and walked with a limp that he said came from a childhood incident with a horse.  They had crossed paths while Leo was visiting a speakeasy and, although Brinnegan had been just as wary of Leo as everyone else, he soon was convinced to overlook that initial caution.  Leo told him quite a story, full of enough truth that it could be verified if looked into, along with a new version of his gunshot wound in which Leo was hit in the course of a getaway during a bank robbery.  Tom shared his own story, much more simple than Leo’s, in which he stated he had done a few, “stick up jobs on people at night and robbed a small gift shop about a month ago.”  That did not exactly inspire much confidence in Leo, but he really wanted to get his plan into action and Brinnegan was the only willing participant he could find.  So the two of them entered into what Leo hoped would be a very temporary alliance to pull off the robbery and get him enough money to leave the area.  

Hamilton Texaco Station courtesy Water & Power Assc

Hamilton Texaco Station courtesy Water & Power Assc

The next time they met, when Leo had planned to take Tom and go look at some potential targets, the Irishman arrived with a place already picked out.  He told Leo that it was a place he knew from a time when he lived a little closer to the central part of Los Angeles, and that is did a good amount of business due to its location.  The station, Hamilton’s Texaco, was right outside of the main business section of the city and was surrounded by commercial enterprises that kept traffic flowing in and out of the area.  It was, however, quite a distance from where Leo was currently staying and he was reluctant to target a place so far away, especially as it would make the planning very difficult.  Brinnegan had an answer for that also, indicating that his brother owned a motel in the area and would let them stay there for cheap and not ask any questions.  Still uncertain, Leo agreed to go look at the place if Tom could figure out a way to get the two of them over to the area.

The next day, June 8th, the Irishman pulled up to the Waverley, picked Leo up and they drove to the station, pulling in to get some gas when they arrived.  As the attendant filled up their tank Leo wandered around the station’s lot and out onto the road, having to admit that he was impressed.  It was indeed a very commercial area with much traffic and he observed two cars turn into the Texaco just in the few minutes he stood there watching the road.  There were several employees on duty also, further backing up that the station stayed busy, and none of those people seemed especially concerned with security or the possibility of crime.  Once they were fueled up Tom drove around the area for another twenty minutes and then Leo agreed that the Texaco could make a good target.  Tom took him back to Van Nuys where he packed up, checked out and by three p.m. they had settled into the motel run by Brinnegan’s brother which was just 5 blocks from the gas and oil station.  

Over the next six days the two of them were very busy as Leo took over the planning of the operation.  Brinnegan had told him that his brother knew the sister of a man who worked at the station and Leo set him to tracking that man down to see if he could get any information that might be useful.  Leo took on the job of doing all of the scouting, spending twelve hours at a time out on the streets near the Texaco, carefully watching everything that happened.  He carried a small notebook with him and wrote down everything; the times when he saw police cars, the busiest and slowest periods at the station, when deliveries usually arrived and he also tried to figure out when the owner went to the bank.  That last item was difficult to determine exactly from a distance, especially as the man came and went from the business often during the day.  Leo hoped that Tom might be able to come up with that information but he was disappointed in that regard.  In fact, Tom returned every night with nothing to share other than that he had not been able to figure out a way to meet the man from the station in a way that would not seem suspicious.  Leo pressed him to try harder and specifically mentioned that they needed the bank information.  By the late afternoon of June 14th Leo had a good plan in place that was just missing that one vital piece of information.

“You need to talk to that guy, one way or another, I don’t care anymore if it looks suspicious.  I need to know about when they take the money to the bank!” Leo exclaimed to Tom after another report of failure from his partner.  “We’re going to look like idiots if we rob the place ten minutes after most of the cash is taken to the bank!”

“I just can’t figure out what to do.  I mean, I tried, but he won’t talk much.  I did what you asked and tried harder, I caught him at Lefty’s, he was pretty spliff’ed too but he still wouldn’t talk,”  Tom replied defensively.

“Damn it!  This is the only thing you had to do.  It’s important.”

“I know, but I tried.  I mean we could wait, you know, I could keep working on it.”

“No, no, no!” Leo snapped back.  “We need to get this done.  We’ll just have to make due with my notes.  I think I have a pretty good idea when would be best, but that information would have helped make me certain.   Still, look at this and see what you think.”

Leo put down a hand-drawn map of the area along with notes on the police patrol pattern, the slowest traffic times, a side drawing of how they would get in and out,  and two periods during each day when he thought the owner might be going to the bank.  They talked back and forth, with Tom mostly worried about the police and getting caught.  Leo allayed those fears by telling him that the patrol pattern seemed pretty regular and they would stick to that since, “police can’t help themselves you know, they just drive around in the same circles everyday.”   That seemed to convince Brinnegan and they agreed to do the robbery at three p.m. the following day.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 46)

For the next two days Leo did not do much, choosing to linger around the motel and try to make a friend out of the manager.  He was not the most social of people but was also out of money and needed to build up a little bit of goodwill.  His hope was that he would be able to transfer that goodwill into being allowed to stay in the room on credit while he figured out a way to start generating some income.  It seemed to work as Margie, the thin, chain-smoking blonde who ran the place told him that she would give him two weeks before he needed to pay her.  Leo was pleased, both by the offer and at his own skill in pulling his plan off, although he learned on his third day there that Margie was expecting a few favors in addition to his eventual payment for the room.  Over the next three days these favors included handyman work around the property but by Thursday night she had propositioned him for sex and it was clear that refusing her was not going to be an option.  She proved to be a rather eager and energetic lover and the following morning, March 11th, an exhausted Leo realized he had to get some money together, pay her off and then leave.  He then collapsed into his own bed and slept for much of the remainder of the day.  

That weekend, in between trying to avoid Margie, he started to work on a plan.  Although he did not know anyone in the area, Leo started walking around to scout for opportunities.  This part of Los Angeles was  known as Van Nuys and, although having only been founded sixteen years prior, had a growing population and an established criminal element.  After a couple afternoons and evenings of asking around Leo made contact with a man named Clark Mason who needed some assistance with his numbers game.  Establishing his bona fides with this man through a series of discussions over cigars and whiskey, Leo found himself part of the operation a few days later.   It vexed him a bit, having to join up as a small time player in someone else’s scheme, but he knew he needed to get some cash together so he could move out of the motel.  Another week passed, long days followed by equally long nights meeting Margie’s demands, Leo trying to catch naps between pick-ups for the Mason operation.  Finally, he was set and he gladly marched into the motel office, plunked down the money he owed, demanded a receipt and walked off down the street.  

Cloud 9 Motel sign

Cloud 9 Motel sign

He only went six blocks away, to another cheap motel which was called the Waverley although the decrepit sign out front read Cloud 9.  Leo kept working for Mason while trying to develop a scheme that would, if not be as big as his Bakersfield operation, at least allow him to work for himself.  He also continued to be a voracious reader, finishing three more textbooks on civil engineering by the beginning of June 1927, and self-testing himself via the example exams in those books.  It was at this point that Leo believed himself to be fully educated in the field and he would claim at various points later in his life to be an actual civil engineer.  

He tried a few small schemes but quickly learned that all of the grifting, stolen goods trafficking and numbers operations in the area were tightly controlled by a consolidated group of criminals known as the Valley Boys.  Clark Mason was a member of that group and, once word reached him about Leo’s activities, had cautioned him strongly against running any further operations of that kind in the area.  That limitation, and Leo’s inability at the time to leave Van Nuys due to financial restrictions, were what pushed him into the next level of his criminal career. 

In the past he had of course pushed against such constraints, having been a bit of a maverick up to this point.  It was an interesting list; the theft of the money from the owner’s of his father’s baseball team, stealing goods from his own Army unit, embarrassing a well-known gangster in Kansas City and turning down Jerry Salazar’s offer to work together in Olympia.  Leo had definitely not been bound by conditions or restrictions that other people may have found reasonable to take into consideration.  This time though he did heed them as Clark Mason had made it a point to show Leo an example of the treatment that awaited those who infringed on the Valley Boys territory.  That example, delivered via a baseball bat to a man named Stan Liberman, had left an impression on Leo that he would not forget.  

Instead he decided to move into armed robbery, an area which he had made sure was not covered by any of the Valley Boys operations.  Mason had even told him specifically that his group only dealt in non-violent crimes as it allowed them to keep the police at bay as long as they were paying them off regularly.  Leo saw that as an opportunity and, although he did not have much experience in the area, started to formulate a plan for an armed hold up.  Although his initial thoughts were about banks and trains, he eventually realized that he needed to start much smaller and decided on robbing an oil and gas station.  He figured that such a place would have few complications as there was likely to be only a couple of employees on duty and he would be able to get in and get out quickly.  He also recalled something that his cellmate at McNeil, Robert Markword, had taught him about armed robberies.  He had told Leo that figuring out the patterns of the local police was important, as all law enforcement operations tended to operate in a routine way.  If you can figure out where the police are going to be at any particular time then you can plan the robbery, and your escape, accordingly.  Police, Markword stressed, are creatures of habit and almost never break out of their established routines.  Get them figured out and you will be in the clear.  Leo took that advice to heart along with another bit of Markword advice, which was to always have a second man there with a gun just in case you needed to control more people than anticipated.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 45)

As it turned out, Stanley did have the nerve to do it, and he quickly left town after taking all of the money he could find in the room, not just the cash that was sewn into Leo’s valise.  He was not sure exactly what prompted him to look through every drawer, every pocket and every piece of Leo’s belongings, but he did it and managed to secure a total of five hundred and eighty-five dollars.  Afterwards he would realize that he was angry at how he had been used, his talent with metals corrupted by a criminal and turned into something bad.  That act had now made it necessary for him to abandon his father and a relatively simple life, making him into a fugitive.  He would understand later that he was scared about the future and that the money made him feel at least a little bit more secure.  In the moment though, rifling through the room at the Mayfair, he just did what felt right and that was to take all of the cash he could find.   Right before he left he paused at the door, reached into the small burlap sack in which he had collected all of the money, and put a twenty dollar bill on the table for Leo.  That way he was not leaving him totally broke.

twenty dollar bill as issued until 1929

twenty dollar bill as issued until 1929

Leo healed slowly at the hospital, experiencing a few complications in the days immediately after Stanley left which had the result of denying the police the opportunity to talk to him.  In the moments he was awake and lucid Leo spent most of his time thinking about how angry he was with Lester and planning out a way to get back at him.  He knew that although the police were currently cutting him some slack due to doctor’s orders, that this would change soon enough and legal trouble could follow.  The remainder of his time was spent doing more reading on civil engineering, his books and other personal belongings having been brought to his room when the hotel officially kicked him out.  Upon the delivery of his property he had soon figured out that all of his money, save the twenty dollars, was gone but he had kept his own counsel about that issue.  It was something he would deal with later.  It was January 3, 1927 when a detective, different from the one who had first spoken to him, next sat down for an extended discussion with Leo.  

“Feeling better?” the detective, a heavy-set, green-eyed and balding man in a black suit, asked. 

“Well, a little but not much.  I’ve had some other issues.”  Leo had decided he was going to play out his injuries for all they were worth, trying to gain extra time to effect some kind of an escape.

“Yes, we were told, but they say you are now healing up pretty quickly.”

“We’ll see,” Leo replied slowly, trying to look as feeble as possible.

The detective went over his story again, pressing him for more personal details and not being as easily dissuaded as the last officer.  After a few minutes of verbal sparring about this the detective closed his notebook.

“Look Leo, you’re going to have to start being straight with me.  I’m going to track down the info on you and something tells me it’s not going to be all charity work and honest employment.”

“You have such little faith in me?”

“I’m not new to this game.  Besides, the Bakersfield PD already called down and want to speak with you.  That surprise you?”

“What do they think I did?” Leo asked.

“Well, they just said they have some questions for you, that’s all.  I guess if they really thought they had something on you, well then they’d be down here to arrest you.  But they do definitely want a chance to talk.”

“Hmm, well, I guess I’ll try real hard to get better than,” Leo replied sarcastically. 

He feigned drifting back to sleep and the detective left, although not before announcing rather loudly that he would be back soon.  Leo did his best to remain in the hospital’s care, coming up with a continuing list of ailments for them to check out, none of which proved to be medically significant.  None, except one that is, as a nurse had informed him that they thought he might be a diabetic but a few more tests would be required.  As all of this was going on, the questioning by the Pomona police continued and then, one day in late February, a Bakersfield officer accompanied the detective.  That interview was difficult for Leo as they did seem to have a good amount of information on his scheme but just not quite enough to arrest him.  He did his best to seem cooperative while not giving them any information that could seal his fate, a plan which worked because the Bakersfield officer left with only an admonition to Leo that he had better never return to the city.  After that, Leo knew his time was running out and he needed to get at least a little bit of distance away from Pomona.  

In his last interview with the heavy-set detective on March 3, 1927, Leo spent most of the discussion stressing that he wanted everything possible done to track down and arrest Lester for attempted murder.  Although he could not know where his old partner had run off to, he did provide what information he knew about his time Washington, Hawaii, and California, just in case that helped in finding him.  As they were talking a nurse came in, telling Leo that it was time for him to go for the additional diabetes tests, but Leo waved her off stating that he felt fine and did not want to have any more needles jabbed into his body.  She protested for a few moments but then withdrew, stating that a doctor would need to come speak with him.  Leo then told the detective that he was planning to move to Los Angeles but would stay in touch and be ready to come back once they apprehended Lester.  Later that day the doctor did speak with Leo, telling him that it was critical that he take part in the tests as an untreated case of diabetes could be deadly.  Leo promised to be more cooperative the next day and then, late that night he packed up his belongings and slipped out of the hotel during a few minutes when there was no one at the nurse’s station. 

van nuys blvd 1926 courtesy ciclavalley.org

van nuys blvd 1926 courtesy ciclavalley.org

He checked into a cheap motel on the outskirts of LA the next morning, registering as Leo O’Malley.  

…to be continued