Phil Van Cise: Scourge of Denver's Underworld

Fearless DA Phil Van Cise cleaned up Denver — and it cost him his career. Can a new justice center right an old wrong?

You can learn a lot about a crook, the Colonel knew, if you discover who his friends are. By his friends you shall know him.

But in the case of an honest man like the Colonel, it may be better to consider his enemies.

Start with a single desperate moment late in the game, long after the main event. It's pushing midnight on July 19, 1943, and lawyer Philip Van Cise — known as the Colonel in recognition of his military service during World War I — takes the streetcar home after a long evening at his office in downtown Denver. As he walks toward 1062 Lafayette Street, he notices two rough characters trailing him on the opposite side of the street.

The Fighting DA: To bring down the bunco ring, Philip Van Cise used surveillance methods borrowed from military espionage.
Denver Public Library, Western History Collection
The Fighting DA: To bring down the bunco ring, Philip Van Cise used surveillance methods borrowed from military espionage.
The Big Store: Lou Blonger (top) ran Denver's underworld for decades;  his partner, Adolph Duff (below), called the shots for dozens of top con men.
Mark Manger
The Big Store: Lou Blonger (top) ran Denver's underworld for decades; his partner, Adolph Duff (below), called the shots for dozens of top con men.

Details

Click here for a rogues' gallery of the Blonger gang that Philip Van Cise busted, and click here to read "Love Crazy," another crime story from Denver's Roaring Twenties.

Van Cise reaches the steps to his house. The two men rush over and catch up to him on the porch. One grabs him by the tie and snarls, like a Hollywood gunsel, "We want you to come with us." The other man keeps his hand jammed in his pocket, pointing something in the lawyer's direction.

The Colonel, 58 years old and dog-tired, is having none of this. Croaking out half-strangled cries for help, he wrestles with the goon yanking on his tie. The other meathead joins the struggle, pulling his hand out of his pocket. No gun. Van Cise hollers and thrashes. The commotion sends dogs barking and neighbors to the windows. The hoods flee.

Van Cise tells the cops he didn't recognize the men. He doesn't know why anybody would want to kidnap him — but this isn't the first time it's happened, either. Possibly, he says, the snatch job is payback from someone he sent away when he was Denver's district attorney, back in the Roaring Twenties.

Two decades is a long time to hold a grudge. Yet DA Van Cise did his job so well, with favor toward none, that the list of potential suspects is staggering. This particular crime will never be solved. It hangs there, one more piece of damning evidence that a man who serves justice in a city on the make will have far more enemies than friends.

Just a few weeks before the bungled kidnapping, the Rocky Mountain News ran a short, begrudging profile of Van Cise, comparing him to Julius Caesar. "Abrupt, incisive, a bit inclined to deal with people as if he were a drill sergeant," the anonymous scribe observed. "Refused to be a candidate for mayor in 1923 when he could have been elected without question...The sort that repels familiarities...His back, even at times of triumph, is seldom slapped."

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Van Cise became Denver's district attorney in 1921, a critical moment in the city's history. It was a time when prostitution, gambling and bootlegging flourished, when the city's teeming underworld was ruled by Lou Blonger, a fat, shrewd ex-bartender who had something on everybody. Cops and judges took payoffs to look the other way; reformers were intimidated into silence, corrupted or sent packing. Among the nation's top confidence men, the town was known as the Big Store, the place to fleece rich tourists out of hundreds of thousands of dollars without any interference from the law.

In defiance of a mobbed-up mayor and dirty cops, Van Cise declared war on Blonger and his "Million Dollar Bunco Ring." Using sophisticated law enforcement techniques decades ahead of their time, he brought down the gang, upended the state's power structure and made national headlines. The book he wrote about the case, Fighting the Underworld, became a true-crime classic and served as source material, in a roundabout way, for one of the most popular movies ever made — the cutesy Newman-Redford vehicle The Sting.

Van Cise's demolition of Blonger's organization ended in a sensational trial, riddled with treachery and brazen jury-tampering. The emboldened DA went on to investigate the workings of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan in Colorado, a beast whose tentacles would soon stretch from the mayor's office to the governor's mansion. The effort cost him his job and almost his life. Years later, when the Colonel reflected on his sudden reversal of fortune, he saw it as a parable of the public's fickleness.

"His political career is an excellent illustration of mob favor," Van Cise wrote in a short biographical note — referring to himself, as always, in the third person. "At the conclusion of the bunco case he was probably the most popular man in Colorado. Two years later, when he went out of office because of his fight against the Klan, he was probably the most unpopular man in the state."

Unpopular, shunned — and soon forgotten. Van Cise's father, Edwin, was a prominent attorney and judge; his son, also named Edwin, served as an appeals court judge. But there was no job on the bench waiting for the Fighting DA. Nothing but long hours at the law office, battles with forces even more powerful than the Klan, inexplicable brushes with danger, and the punishment of oblivion. When he died, in 1969, at the age of 85, the obituaries were so bare-bones that Gene Cervi devoted a column in his weekly paper to denouncing the editors of both Denver dailies as gutless wonders.

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