Phil Van Cise: Scourge of Denver's Underworld
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.
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."
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.
"There's nothing named after Van Cise in Denver," says Larry Bohning, a longtime judge in Denver's county court. "No street names, nothing that I know of, except for a room in a bed-and-breakfast."
Bohning would like to change that. He wants to see some portion of the city's $315 million new justice center named after Van Cise, pointing out that the Colonel used the First Universalist Church as an impromptu hoosegow for the bunco men because the city jailers couldn't be trusted.
"I think a perfect name for the new detention center would be Philip Van Cise," Bohning says. "If it hadn't been for a few honest men like him, Denver might have gone the way of some eastern cities, like Chicago and Kansas City, that have this long history of corruption."
Mayor John Hickenlooper hasn't formally invited proposals for naming the new justice center. Sue Cobb, the mayor's spokeswoman, says a citizens' committee will consider candidates and submit the matter to city council for final approval before the center is completed next year. No doubt there will be several other contenders; Bohning suspects ex-DA Dale Tooley "has a strong advocacy group," as does former governor Ralph Carr. Then there's still-kicking former manager of safety John Simonet.
"John is a great guy, but I think you should have to buy the farm before you get something named after you," Bohning says, speaking from judge's chambers a stone's throw from the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building — and 22 miles from Peña Boulevard.
There will be more than one naming opportunity at the new center, which includes a courthouse, plaza and jail. And Bohning isn't the only ardent Van Cise supporter. Some of the Colonel's descendants have also joined the campaign, passing out fliers at the groundbreaking ceremonies and quietly lobbying.
"My grandfather was a very humble person," says Cindy Van Cise, daughter of the late Colorado Court of Appeals Justice Edwin P. Van Cise. "He took on cases not for publicity, but because something was wrong. For him, there was a right and a wrong, and there wasn't any in between."
"He was, in the best sense of the word, a righteous man," adds Cindy's husband, Simon O'Hanlon. "If you were doing something wrong, he was going to take you down, no matter who you were. He had an inability to become political, to compromise what he believed."
Even relatives of Van Cise's bitter nemesis are in favor of putting the DA's name on the justice center. Scott Johnson, an Illinois school association administrator, was doing some genealogical research a few years ago when he found a branch of the Belonger family that had headed west and changed their names to Blonger. In short order, he discovered that his great-great-great uncle was the king of Denver's underworld. Now he and his brother Craig have launched a website, www.blongerbros.com, devoted to unearthing the sordid history of Lou Blonger and his brothers. One section of the site, the Van Cise Project, urges visitors to sign a petition for the justice center campaign.
"We certainly don't feel any family affinity for Lou Blonger," Scott Johnson explains. "We just think he's interesting. It's a terrific story. The battles Van Cise had to fight to arrest these guys, getting no support from City Hall or the police — it's a story that shouldn't be forgotten."
It's a terrific story, all right, one the Colonel himself, with his reticence about the first person and the reputations of the unindicted, could only tell in pieces. There's much more to the rise and fall and rise of Van Cise that couldn't be told at all.
Long before he tangled with Lou Blonger, Phil Van Cise had a reputation for being headstrong. He didn't back down, and he wasn't easily bluffed. Anybody who tried to muscle him had better have a real gun in his pocket.
Van Cise was born in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1884. His family had the first copper bathtub in town, and his father's law practice thrived during the Black Hills mining boom. But in 1900, Edwin Van Cise pulled up stakes and moved the clan to Denver. Phil went to East High School and then the University of Colorado, earning a law degree while working as a cub reporter for the Rocky Mountain News.
Van Cise slipped easily into his dad's law firm after graduation, but he was restless. He organized an all-college-man unit of the Colorado National Guard, Company K, and became its captain. In the winter of 1913, the unit was sent to the southern Colorado coal fields to keep a lid on the tumultuous miners' strike there. Company K was relieved in the spring; a few weeks later, troops under the command of Lieutenant Karl Linderfelt opened fire on the Ludlow tent colony of striking miners. Twenty people were killed, including two women and eleven children who suffocated in a pit as the tents above them caught fire.
Although his wedding was only days away, Van Cise was summoned back to Ludlow to investigate and help end the spreading violence. He took statements from eyewitnesses, including fellow soldiers, indicating that three prisoners had been murdered. He was named to a review board that urged court-martial proceedings for two dozen members of the militia. The hearings ended in acquittal for every participant except Linderfelt, who was found guilty of assaulting union leader Louis Tikas. Linderfelt was reprimanded; Tikas died of his injuries, which included a fractured skull and several bullet wounds.
Van Cise became a strident critic of the Guard. He and other officers prepared an anonymous internal report denouncing several of their colleagues by name. Months later, Van Cise was called to testify at another court of inquiry. The presiding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Edward Boughton, who'd also headed the original review board. Boughton accused Van Cise of plotting with the United Mine Workers of America to discredit the National Guard. Van Cise responded that Boughton's investigation had been a "whitewash" of the Ludlow massacre and that the militia was drowning in incompetency, graft and cowardice.
"I have nothing to conceal about anything I did in the field," Van Cise said. "I had experience with you when at Ludlow, and I know how you deal and how crooked you are, and you are not going to get away with it here."
Boughton hurriedly ended the questioning. Recalled to the stand by other officers, Van Cise described his efforts to bring the murder of prisoners to the attention of the governor and the Adjutant General. The state's leaders were content to bury the matter, he said. It would stay buried for years — although Van Cise's testimony, part of a special collection of Ludlow materials at the Denver Public Library, would ultimately prove invaluable to future historians.
When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, Van Cise became a lieutenant colonel in the Army. He served with the infantry in France and as an intelligence officer on the general staff of the American Expeditionary Forces. He returned home in time to organize an American Legion post that helped keep the peace during the tense Denver Tramway strike of 1920. Then he decided to make a run for district attorney, using the slogan "A Fighting Man for a Fighting Job."
Van Cise was a dark-horse candidate at best. But a rift had developed between the City Hall machine's favorite son and a Republican senator's pick for the job; with the vote badly split, the Fighting Man won the GOP primary. As the Republican party hacks lined up to support his Democratic opponent in the general election, Van Cise was urged to meet with a fellow who could deliver at least 1,500 votes.
The kingmaker turned out to be Lou Blonger, a heavyset, bulbous-nosed but well-dressed fellow in his seventies. Blonger praised the Colonel's war record — he was a Civil War veteran himself, he boasted — and offered him a $25,000 campaign donation. "I like your style," he said, "and you are the only soldier on the ticket."
Van Cise struggled to keep his expression blank. At the time, the office of DA paid five grand a year. But Van Cise knew that several of his predecessors had left the job much wealthier than when they arrived, presumably because of generous supporters like Blonger.
He'd heard of Blonger during his days as a reporter. The man had mining interests in Cripple Creek and a huge cherry orchard west of Denver. He'd supposedly been a Texas sheriff and a close personal friend of famous private detective William Pinkerton. He'd blown into Denver in the 1880s and transformed a Larimer Street saloon, the Elite, into the flashiest joint in town. But he was also known as the Fixer, the go-to man who collected tribute from Denver's hustlers and kept the cops and politicians on a tight leash. Even Soapy Smith, the legendary scammer who sold bars of soap to suckers who thought they contained ten-dollar bills, was said to have paid half his profits to Blonger for the privilege of operating in Denver.
Van Cise didn't know much about Blonger's current operations, but he wasn't keen on joining the old dodger's string of marionettes. He thanked him for his offer and graciously turned him down. Blonger pressed; if he became DA, would the Colonel at least agree to not set high bonds for poor, innocent stockbrokers unjustly accused of unfair dealings? Van Cise declined. "As he went away," the Colonel later wrote of his younger self, "he wondered how much of a boob Blonger thought he was."
The Fighting Man won the election without Blonger's help. A few days later, he invited the Fixer to another sitdown. The two sat staring glumly at each other for several minutes. Finally, Van Cise asked Blonger his "honest opinion" of their previous conversation.
"That was the damnedest fool stunt I ever pulled in my life," Blonger replied.
"Well, Lou," Van Cise said, "I just wanted to give you notice to quit while the quitting was good."
Blonger protested. He wasn't running any gambling joints. He wasn't doing anything illegal. Quit what?
Van Cise wasn't sure. But in his first few weeks on the job, he discovered that fighting crime in Denver was a complicated business. He went to see the chief of police, Hamilton Armstrong, who ordered a reliable captain to take the new DA on a tour of the city. The captain showed Van Cise gambling rooms tucked inside of pool halls, guarded by elaborate lookout systems; brothels that had moved from the now-shuttered red-light district to small downtown hotels; rampant bootlegging operations; fan tan and lottery dens in Chinatown.
The Fighting DA was stunned. Chief Armstrong, a brutally candid man, laid it out for him. The town was wide open. None of this could happen without graft, and there was graft everywhere. Men on the force, men in the jails and the courts, men in the DA's own office were paid to tip off any enforcement action and thwart it. And Lou Blonger and his partner, a man named Adolph "Kid" Duff, were at the top of the pyramid.
Van Cise asked why the chief couldn't simply "cut loose," raid the whole mess and put the grafters on the spot.
"Say, you are green," the chief replied. "My raids would all be tipped off, and I'd arrest a lot of people but have no evidence. And Denver would have a new chief of police."
Denver soon did have a new chief; Armstrong died shortly after that conversation, and Van Cise was left to find his own way. He figured out how to defeat the gambling lookouts and raided a few parlors, only to see judges deal leniently with the owners. He closed nineteen brothels in one day, but they quickly re-emerged in a less concentrated fashion. The bootlegging problem was hopeless. He knew he was just scratching the surface.
His raids had done no damage to Blonger and Duff. Their real power was elsewhere, in something more lucrative than hookers, dope, roulette wheels or even booze. And Van Cise was beginning to understand what that something was: Blonger had given him a clue by talking about his stockbroker friends.
Fighting Denver's underworld, the Colonel realized, meant paying attention to what was happening on 17th Street. In the downtown financial district, Blonger and Duff had perfected a con game far beyond anything Soapy Smith could have imagined.
The letters arrived from all over — Oklahoma, Nebraska, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Texas, Great Britain. But the story was always the same.
It went like this. A visitor comes to Denver to sell some livestock or possibly just for a little vacation. In the lobby of the Brown Palace (or a newsstand at the Albany Hotel, or in Civic Center Park), a stranger strikes up a conversation with the visitor. The stranger is from out of town, too, and soon they're seeing the sights together. At some point the visitor's new friend recognizes another man on the street. That man, he says, made a killing in a stock deal back east; it was in all the papers.
When approached, the newcomer denies he's that person. Then, reassured that the fellow who accosted him isn't a reporter, he becomes friendly, too, even sharing a news clipping about his stock triumphs — with much of the photo missing. Since he's on his way to the local exchange, he agrees to take five bucks from the stranger and invest it for him. The investor returns a few minutes later, handing ten dollars to the stranger and ten to the visitor, even though the latter didn't risk anything.
Before long the visitor and his new friend are invited to see the stock exchange for themselves. The investor produces a membership card that gains them access to a bustling office on 17th Street equipped with phones, a blackboard full of stock quotes, special purchase slips, the works. Their generous host makes a few big-ticket trades in the names of his new friends. Substantial profits, soaring into six figures, are made. But when the visitor tries to collect his share, the clerk behind the counter learns he doesn't have a local bank account and balks. The gentlemen made the trades on credit; how does the clerk know they're good for it?
Much discussion follows among the three friends. It's decided that each man will transfer money to a local bank from their home accounts — never less than five thousand dollars, usually fifteen or twenty-five grand. This takes time, and then there's another complication — something about an error in the purchase slip that requires bringing the cash to the exchange and depositing it there. The visitor is told that if he does this, he can collect his winnings without risking a dime.
But then something goes terribly wrong. The stranger decides to take a plunge on one more surefire stock tip and ends up using the money the visitor has deposited, too. He gets the tip wrong and loses it all. The investor curses him for his idiocy, and the two men get into a raging fistfight. The clerk kicks them all out of the exchange. The investor tells the visitor not to worry, he will get his money back, and puts him on a train to Chicago or Kansas City to await further instructions.
If the sucker squawks — that is, if he goes to the police — he's taken all over town on a wild goose chase. The cops don't seem to know how to find the exchange. Frustrated, the sucker finally heads home. Sometimes he writes an angry, embarrassed letter to the Denver district attorney.
Van Cise started getting the letters as soon as he took the job. There had been numerous complaints about the stock con over the previous few years, none of them properly investigated. The Colonel talked to postal inspectors and others familiar with big con operations and soon figured out why.
The man who picks up the mark is called the steerer. When the time is ripe, he signals a lookout; the second stranger, known as the spieler, soon appears. Of course, the stock exchange clerk who handles "the boodle" — stacks of flash money consisting of one-dollar bills, with hundreds on the top and bottom — is in on the scam, too. The exchange can be set up and disassembled in minutes, because everything, including the phones, are fake.
The game is a version of the Payoff, the most lucrative of all confidence games (except, possibly, the Nigerian e-mail scam). Federal agents told Van Cise the same gang operated in Florida and Cuba in the winter, sometimes using the Wire, a rigged horse-betting parlor swindle, instead of the stock exchange. But Denver was the Big Store, the place with "ironclad protection," in part because the con men who flocked there every summer were careful not to trim locals. That made it easier for the bunco detectives, who were in on the take, to cool the suckers and hustle them out of town.
Van Cise began building files on the bunco ring. There appeared to be dozens of steerers drifting in and out of town over the summer, working downtown and the Capitol grounds, as well as a few accomplished spielers and clerks — maybe fifty to seventy-five top con men in all. The reported swindles in 1921 alone came to close to a quarter of a million dollars, and that was just what he could document. Some suckers never filed a complaint, and others refused to testify in public court. They couldn't handle the disgrace.
The DA had been in office only a month when a minister in Indiana committed suicide after being fleeced out of church trust funds by bunco men in Denver.
Breaking such a well-entrenched gang of thieves was going to take mounds of evidence, Van Cise realized. He had to tie the seemingly random scores back to Duff and Blonger and the cops. And he had to do it outside the usual channels of law enforcement. He decided to approach this covert operation as if he were still tracking the enemy in wartime intelligence — using observation posts, surveillance techniques, spies and feints to gather all the information he could before launching a frontal attack.
But first he had to raise a war chest for a private posse. He went to thirty prominent, civic-minded princes of the city, including Claude Boettcher, William Iliff and George Cranmer, a classmate at East High. Swearing them to secrecy, he raised $15,000 and used it to hire top investigators and ex-federal agents with no ties to the Denver police. One undercover operative was assigned to identify the steerers working the streets downtown and tail them to their nests. Another spent long hours in speakeasies and pool halls frequented by the con men and their business associates. A third posed as a hosiery salesman and rented an office across 17th Street from the "insurance agency" where Blonger and Duff spent their days.
But visual surveillance was only the beginning. Van Cise went to the telegraph and telephone companies and handed out subpoenas. He wanted a copy of every telegram Blonger and Duff sent or received, a record of every long-distance call. With the help of the building manager, he arranged for a janitor to deliver the daily contents of Blonger's wastebasket to the DA's office.
Most daring of all, the Colonel sent his men on a late-night raid of Blonger's office, during which they installed two Dictaphones, one in a chandelier and one in the attic above. The machines required a hundred pounds of wet batteries that frequently gave out, and a phone company engineer had to be brought in to string wires to the stakeout room across the street. But when it was done, the stakeout man could see Lou Blonger blowing his enormous nose — and hear the trumpet blast through earphones at the same time. A stenographer was assigned to take notes and try to make sense of the bugged conversations, dense with grafter slang about "going fishing" or "putting the bee" on someone.
For months Van Cise collected intel, matching faces to mug shots and getting positive IDs from victims of the con. The operation was far from flawless; Lou Blonger was no dummy, and exposure was always one misstep away. Early on, Blonger got a vague tip that his office was bugged. He had the phone checked and found nothing, but he and Duff started lowering their voices anyway.
Fortunately, while the gang had their tipsters, they'd sprung a few leaks, too, including an anonymous letter writer who teased Van Cise with intimate details about Blonger's pals on the force and in the press. And even the gang's informants could be used to advantage; Van Cise fired one spy in his office and kept another around, the better to feed false information to Blonger.
The Dictaphones whirred. The evidence mounted. Sensing trouble, Blonger delayed the opening of the 1922 "fishing season" in Denver. Van Cise announced plans to summer in the mountains and sent out other signals that his office had little interest in the shearing of tourists. Reassured, the con men came to town and went to work. Monitoring the situation from a command post near Mount Audubon, the Colonel prepared to attack.
The end came sooner than he'd hoped, before he could collect all the evidence he needed of police payoffs. But he risked losing most of the gang if he delayed any longer. A lengthy list of suspects had found its way to Denver police detective George Sanders, who'd taken it straight to Blonger's office.
"What of it?" Blonger blustered into the Dictaphone. "You fellows are still with me, and that fellow can't make an arrest without using the police."
Not all of Blonger's associates were so confident; only the need to collect on several cons-in-progress was keeping the slickers in town. Van Cise hurried back to town to spring the trap.
At five in the morning, August 24, 1922, he unlocked the doors of the First Universalist Church on the corner of Colfax and Lafayette. Van Cise was a member of the church, which at the moment "had no minister, was temporarily closed, and was ideally located for a jail," he wrote. He handed out assignments to his investigators, several armed volunteers and a team of state police — some in uniform, some in plainclothes. Not a single Denver cop was among them.
It was time for the king of Denver's underworld to come to Jesus.
Roy Samson, the ex-fed Van Cise had put in charge of the roundup, scooped up Kid Duff as he left his apartment house on Lincoln Street. In Duff's pocket was the highly classified list of suspects Samson had sent to a trusted Colorado Springs police captain. Blonger was quietly arrested in his office, all his files and papers seized.
Leon Felix, alias R.C. Davis, sleepily opened the door of his room in the Metropole Hotel and found a gun in his face. He was surprised to learn that the sucker he was in the process of trimming was actually Frank Norfleet, a Texan who'd been wreaking havoc on con men all over the country after losing $45,000. Norfleet had tracked his prey to Denver and cheerfully gone undercover for Van Cise in order to help with the roundup.
"Dapper" Jackie French, one of the top phony stock clerks in the business, was cuffed at the fashionable Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. Infamous steerer Elmer Mead, "the Christ Kid," was found rooming with a man he was about to skin that very day for $50,000. The sucker was outraged at his friend's arrest and tried to post bond for him.
Some of the con men tried to bribe the state rangers with cash or jewelry. No dice. By nightfall Van Cise had 33 of the world's smoothest operators locked up in the church basement, where they would be held incommunicado until hefty bonds could be set. They sat in chairs designed for children's Sunday school lessons, using their straw hats to shield their faces from pesky reporters and photographers. Above their heads, the wall bore quotations from Scripture:
THE WAY OF THE TRANSGRESSOR IS HARD
THE WAY OF THE UNGODLY SHALL PERISH
"This is the goddamnedest jail I've ever been in," one of the gang muttered.
Lou Blonger sat apart from the rest, keeping his own counsel. There would be no low bail to post this time, no way for the Fixer to spring his pals. The larger question was whether he could extricate himself.
News of the arrests hit the city like a bomb. Embarrassed police officials spluttered about vigilantism. Mayor Dewey Bailey said it was all a plot by wealthy stockbrokers to persecute the little guy. At a bail hearing, Van Cise slugged Jackie French's lawyer in the eye after the shyster called him a liar. The punch was "the most commendable act of his official career," the Denver Post burbled, eager to jump on the crimebuster's bandwagon.
The defense soon got Van Cise banned from the courtroom, citing a tenuous connection between him and one of the victims' attorneys. Special prosecutors were appointed, and Van Cise was forced to work behind the scenes. He seethed in silence as the bunco attorneys defamed him repeatedly in open court, insinuating that he was at "the bloody battle of Ludlow" and other canards.
Twenty defendants went to trial in early 1923. Several others had been turned over to other jurisdictions or jumped bond; one had been declared insane. The smart money in the Larimer gin mills was running 2-1 in favor of the gang walking free. Sure, Van Cise had his spies and machines, but money counted more than evidence. And word had it that cash was already being waved in front of the jury pool: five thousand for a hung jury, ten thousand for acquittal.
The bunco prosecution was the longest criminal trial the state had ever seen. The parade of witnesses marched on for weeks, a relentless presentation of a sprawling conspiracy to defraud. It was front-page stuff — startling, contentious, lurid.
The prosecutors used victim testimony and captured stock equipment to explain the scam. They introduced surveillance reports and documents seized from Blonger's office, including his own address book, to tie the Fixer and Duff to the steerers and spielers. The defense attorneys postured and provoked; tempers soared, and esteemed members of the bar invited each other to step outside. But each day the noose of evidence tightened.
Van Cise had two aces in the hole. The first, the Dictaphone, was mostly bluff; the hard-to-decipher snatches of conversation his team collected were never actually introduced into evidence. But they were useful as a deterrent, to discourage defendants from taking the stand and spinning their own version of what went on in Blonger's office.
The second ace was a killer.
After the arrests, Blonger had failed to bail out one of his top men, Len Reamey, alias J.K. Ross, a former racetrack tout who'd worked his way up from steerer to top "bookmaker" — the clerk who handles the boodle. Aggrieved and suffering the pangs of opium withdrawal, Reamey cut a deal with Van Cise for complete immunity in exchange for sharing his knowledge of the inner workings of the gang. And Reamey knew plenty.
He knew who'd played what part in dozens of scores. He knew that no con man could operate in Denver without Duff's okay. He knew how the dough was divvied up — about 40 percent to the steerer, 15 to the spieler, 5 to the bookmaker and nearly a third to Blonger and Duff for "overhead," including the cop payoffs. Reamey figured the bosses pocketed 10 percent apiece and spread the rest in graft.
The defense attorneys attacked Reamey mercilessly. They called him a liar and his wife a whore. They professed shock at his arrest record and his dope use. Reamey shot back that the pipe and smoking materials found in his safety-deposit box belonged to Kid Duff and Jackie French. (GAY OPIUM PARTY BARED, a Post headline declared.)
Van Cise's book doesn't dwell on the danger Reamey faced by testifying. But Reamey's own version of a conversation he had with French, which has survived in a little-known manuscript collection dealing with the bunco ring, clarifies matters. French visited Reamey at the county jail before the trial began. "Looks like you are going to send everybody to the pen," he said. "Would you consider going out on bond?"
"I would not go out if the back door was open," Reamey replied.
"We will give you money to leave the country."
"Absolutely not. I will not consider it."
"You may not go to the pen in Colorado," French went on, "but you know Duff can frame up a sucker and get you brought back to Omaha, and the fixers can bury you there. And if he can't do it in Omaha, Joe Rush and I can do it in Chicago."
Reamey told French to do what he liked. He was going to testify. And he did, burying Duff, Blonger, French and the rest. At least one of Blonger's associates tried to bring a gun into the courtroom while Reamey was on the stand, but he was frisked and arrested.
Still, it might have all come to nothing if not for an honest juror named Herman Okuly. A shady figure appeared at Okuly's door one night to offer him five hundred bucks for a not-guilty vote. Okuly pretended to play along, but he had his employer contact Van Cise. Okuly believed that three other jurors had taken the money.
The oddly confident defense declined to put on a single witness or even offer a closing argument. While the jury deliberated, deputy sheriff Tom Clarke allowed Blonger, Duff and French to hold a drunken party in a vacant courtroom. A pretty widow was observed in a "prolonged osculatory exchange" with Jackie French. The uproar over the empty whiskey bottles and puke left behind cost Clarke his job.
The jury was split 9-3 for conviction. On the fourth day of deadlock, Okuly decided to rattle the three men who were trying to hang the verdict. "The difference between me and you three sons of bitches is that I turned my five hundred dollars over to the judge and you've still got yours," he said.
Feeling the noose around their own necks, the trio soon reversed their votes. At a quarter to five in the afternoon of March 28, 1923, guilty verdicts were returned against the entire Tricky Twenty.
It was the end of the Blonger mob — and of the cops and power brokers who'd thrown in with them. A hasty attempt was made to draft Van Cise for the mayoral election, now less than two months away. He declined.
Mayor Bailey was toast. A grand jury report issued days after the verdict declared that the city administration was "rotten," including eight officials who were "totally unfit to hold any offices in this city." George Sanders, the police detective who'd worked most closely with the con men, retired a week later, claiming a disability.
The con men became convicts. Most of the key players received sentences of seven to ten years. A few of their wives followed them to Cañon City, only to be accused of stealing furs from the poshest store in the little prison town.
Adolph Duff did his time like a stand-up guy. But he couldn't face the hard luck and penury that greeted him upon his release. His wife left him, and in 1929 he was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage on Clarkson Street.
Blonger didn't last that long. He'd sat apart from the rest at trial, cool and aloof, as if this was all somebody else's worry. But the 73-year-old man who showed up at Van Cise's office after the verdict to plead for mercy was feeble, haggard and scared. He begged the Colonel to intercede, to not let him die behind bars. Van Cise thought of the preacher who killed himself because of a Blonger swindle and turned him down flat. "Neither your sickness nor your impending death should be considered," he said. "I will fight to the last any attempt to give you leniency."
Blonger died in prison five months later. He was widely eulogized as a picturesque character, generous with his friends — and, according to one obituary, "ever ready to lend a helping hand to the man in need."
Smashing the bunco ring had unseen consequences. For one, it effectively killed a campaign to recall the now wildly popular district attorney. Blonger's bunch had supported the recall, but it had actually been launched by the Colorado Law Enforcement League, a front organization for the Ku Klux Klan.
The reborn KKK had made its pointy-headed presence felt in Colorado shortly after Van Cise took office. They firebombed the houses of three black families who moved into white neighborhoods and posted scurrilous fliers in Catholic and Jewish areas. The incidents coincided with a national surge in Klan membership, but Denver seemed particularly receptive to the group's exotic mix of pageantry, secrecy and racism.
Van Cise got interested in the group early in 1922, after a black janitor received a threatening letter on Klan stationery that accused him of "intimate relations with white women" and declared, "Your hide is worth less to us than it is to you." The Colonel took the matter to a grand jury. The investigation led to no charges, other than a contempt-of-court finding against a stockbroker who refused to discuss the Klan's finances, but it was only the first volley in what would soon become a bitter struggle against the group's rapidly growing political clout.
Cleaning the crooks out of the city administration had created a power vacuum, and many citizens tired of the corruption readily embraced the Klan, which promised to purge Denver of pernicious influences — including Jews, blacks, atheists and papists. Ben Stapleton emerged victorious in the 1923 mayoral race amid rumors of Klan backing. Stapleton appointed one Klansman as his manager of safety and another as his chief of police. Protestant cops who joined the group were swiftly promoted, while their Irish Catholic brethren found themselves pounding the least desirable beats. A recall was soon launched against Stapleton, who turned to the Klan for help in defeating it.
Van Cise knew about Stapleton's deal. He sent undercover agents to attend Klan rallies on Table Mountain in Golden, which drew thousands of white-robed enthusiasts. Many of his agents' reports have survived. Stapleton tended to stay away from the packed cross-burnings in Golden, but he did attend a smaller hootenanny in Denver on June 23, 1924. "He took an oath that if the Klan stayed back of him in the recall election and he was elected, he would clean out all the Catholics in the city of Denver," Van Cise's man reported.
The district attorney himself was a frequent topic of conversation at Klan gatherings. Grand Dragon John Galen Locke, a pudgy osteopath who ruled the state's sheeted mob, attacked him with gusto, saying the Van Cise family had been chased out of Deadwood and then had "tried to show the people of Denver how the city ought to be run." Locke thought the Fighting DA ought to be sent packing to godless California.
Van Cise hoped to find a way to indict Locke, but the Klan was a more formidable opponent than Blonger. There were boycotts against businessmen who refused to join, pressure on candidates to get on board, torchlight parades past synagogues. An influential Denver judge, Clarence Morley, was the state's Grand Cyclops. At one point the DA was locked out of grand jury proceedings run by Morley; Van Cise had to go to the Colorado Supreme Court to gain entrance to his own grand jury room.
Otto Moore, one of Van Cise's deputies and later a supreme court justice himself, tried to take down license plate numbers at one Table Mountain meeting. A team of "special officers" showed up, bodily picked up his Model T and put it behind a Stutz roadster, which pushed it up the mountain at a dizzying speed. Moore prudently retreated.
The climax of the duel came in the fall of 1924. Van Cise, trying to mount an anti-Klan ticket in time for the Republican primary, held a public meeting at the city auditorium to discuss "Morley and the Klan in the Courts." The audience was mostly Klansmen. So were the cops sent there to keep order. For more than four hours, Van Cise tried to speak over the hooting, jeering crowd. He put slides of Klan documents on a big screen; hecklers sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "California Here I Come" and drowned out his commentary.
"What you are doing tonight is a better argument against the Klan than any I could possibly make," Van Cise shouted. "Tonight we see the mob, and we see what mob rule means."
Only a few people in the front rows heard him. The police refused to interfere. It was after one in the morning when Van Cise and his chief investigator made their retreat out a rear door, narrowly ahead of a tar-and-feather party. Their car was chased, shots fired.
Klan-backed candidates swept the primary and the fall elections. Judge Morley became governor. Van Cise didn't run for a second term, but he didn't go out quietly, either. One of his last official acts was to charge Grand Dragon Locke and six of his men with the abduction of a nineteen-year-old East High student, who was forced to marry his pregnant girlfriend under threat of castration. The kidnapping case was eventually thrown out by a Klan judge, but it brought ridicule on the KKK leader. Soon the tax men were on Locke, too, and the group's power in the state began to fade.
Van Cise's own battle with the goons in white continued well after he left office. In 1926 the Klan staged a parade in Denver on Memorial Day. At a service for military vets, Van Cise denounced the group for usurping a holiday dedicated to the "heroic dead." A few days later, as seven-year-old Edwin Van Cise watched with uncomprehending delight, a cross was burned on the front lawn of the Colonel's home.
Other feuds proved to be even more enduring. The Denver Post had omitted Blonger's name in initial reports about the bunco arrests because he was an old chum of Harry Tammen, the paper's co-owner. In 1932, Van Cise defended the Rocky Mountain News against a libel suit filed by Tammen's surviving partner, Fred Bonfils. Van Cise insisted on deposing Bonfils at length about his colorful life, packed with flimflams and swindles — revelations the News plastered on its front page.
Bonfils fought the process strenuously and died before the lawsuit got to court. The Bonfils family blackballed Van Cise for decades afterward, insuring that his name wouldn't appear in the city's largest paper and that he would never be a viable candidate for a judgeship in their burg.
"My mother wasn't allowed in Junior League," Cindy Van Cise recalls. "Helen Bonfils was the one who kept it going for years after Fred died, but eventually it was settled."
Drama still occasionally visited the Colonel during his long banishment. In 1943, the two hoods tried to snatch him off his front porch. Two years later, the wealthy husband of a client stormed into his office while Van Cise was discussing her divorce case. The husband pulled out a gun. Van Cise wrestled him for it. One shot grazed the attorney's leg.
In the 1950s, Van Cise surfaced briefly as a special prosecutor investigating the Smaldone crime family. But he had few opportunities to tackle the black-and-white world of prosecuting crooks; he was mostly consigned to the gray world of civil litigation. His own son, a junior member of the firm, had to step in to settle cases when the old Colonel proved too inflexible in his views of what was right and wrong. In his spare time, the senior Van Cise built what was said to be one of the most impressive stamp collections in the country.
Even more remarkable is his contribution to the annals of crime literature, Fighting the Underworld, published in 1936. David Maurer, a professor of linguistics who became fascinated with con men and their slang, consulted with Van Cise while preparing his own survey of large-scale American confidence games, The Big Con, a seminal 1940 work that provided ample inspiration for The Sting a generation later.
Van Cise's book has been out of print for decades. Historian and University of Colorado Denver professor Tom Noel hopes to persuade his fellow university press boardmembers to republish it soon. "I was amazed when I read it," Noel says. "You don't think of this kind of gangland warfare and police corruption as standard for Denver. We like to think we're a cleaner, more moral place."
The story behind the Colonel's book is even darker, with a less satisfying ending. It's a cautionary tale about the Mob and the mob, about daring crusades and personal sacrifices too quickly forgotten. Van Cise knew that justice sometimes needs help to be just.
His admirers hope that some day there will be justice for Van Cise — perhaps even an entire justice center dedicated to a man who made it possible in this city for there to be such a thing.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Reader: Landlords Are Overcharging Marijuana Businesses Because They Can
Thu., Sep. 3, 7:00pm
Fri., Sep. 4, 7:00pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:00am
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:30pm
- Remembering the Denver Wax Museum and Nine More Long-Gone Local Landmarks
- Dear Mexican: Was Jimi Hendrix Part Mexican?