The big shakedown: Going after a conspiracy

Following a breakthrough in the case against Seattle's system of cops on the take, the feds jump on the paddywagon. Part 2
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The King County Courthouse (then known as the City-County Building), left, and Seattle Public Safety Building (police headquarters), right, in 1955. This is looking south on Fourth Avenue. (Seattle Municipal Archives)

Following a breakthrough in the case against Seattle's system of cops on the take, the feds jump on the paddywagon. Part 2

Second of two parts
(Part 1: Seattle's legacy of crooked cops)

The Lifeline Club raid yielded boxes of potentially incriminating records, and the mayor had fired Police Chief Frank Ramon over evidence of corruption throughout the ranks. The feds, meanwhile, were busily harvesting the fruits of the raid. Doug McBroom, now a Superior Court judge, was then a young federal prosecutor trying to investigate the payoffs. "There was bingo all over town, and it was legal if they were benefitting a church or charity," McBroom recalls. "They were frequented by retirees, a major social thing. The Lifeline Club was the biggest, and they had to have that charitable hook, so they passed along 10 bucks a week to a church. But the money was unbelievable, thousands of dollars a night. And the vice squad was being paid off bigtime to keep it going."

Since the feds couldn't count on King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll, who was implicated in the corruption, Seattle Police Department Assistant Chief Tony Gustin and his allies needed to make it a federal case. The club records provided that, as well.

"They were using beans to cover the numbers on the bingo cards," McBroom says. "Can you imagine running a game worth thousands a night, and they're using beans? But Charlie Berger had found this company in Colorado that makes bingo cards with little shutters. So they mailed off and ordered up a bunch of those cards."

Bingo. The Lifeline Club was doing interstate commerce. The new U.S. attorney, Stan Pitkin, launched a full-scale investigation, calling witnesses to testify before a grand jury. For weeks, newspaper and TV reporters haunted the hallways of the old marble courthouse, trying to track the comings and goings of police commanders, beat cops, nightclub operators, and city officials, some of whom were secreted in and out of the basement in a rusty, nondescript van.

In February, 1970, the first federal indictments came down, charging Frank Colacurcio, Berger, who ran the Lifeline Club, and several cops with conspiracy to use interstate commerce to run the gambling business. Eventually, Berger cooperated with the feds, testifying that he believed that Colacurcio's police contacts had the power to close down his operation. Colacurcio was convicted and went to jail.

Buzz Cook, the assistant chief who had served on the mayor's blue-ribbon panel two years earlier, was indicted by the federal grand jury for perjury; he had testified under oath that he knew nothing about the payoff system. That summer, Cook went on trial at the old federal courthouse — the first public airing of the Tolerance Policy. Within days, more than 100 past and present Seattle cops were implicated in open court.

"I think the city was surprised by what they were seeing," McBroom recalls. "Police corruption was supposed to happen in Chicago and New York, not Seattle."

Still, despite the growing investigations, Charles O. Carroll maintained his grip on the courthouse. There were obvious doubts whether the prosecutor would or could investigate his own system. One by one, local civic groups and newspapers called for a county grand jury to investigate.

Early in 1970, a group of young Republicans began talking about a challenge to Carroll, and they anointed Chris Bayley their candidate. He had good party connections, deep Seattle roots, a Harvard Law degree, and a cadre of support. In June, Bayley decided to pay a courtesy call to the prosecutor.

"I was ushered into his enormous conference room with the big, leather couch that had supposedly been Warren Magnuson's," Bayley recalls, referring to the legendary Washington senator. "Carroll was sitting at one end of that long conference table, flanked by the chairman of the party and Bill Boeing, sort of like the Holy Trinity."

Bayley admits to feeling a bit intimidated by the scene. He's a smart fellow but has none of Gustin's physical bearing or macho. He used the deepest voice he could conjure up to explain: "Well, some of us think it's time for new blood."

"Carroll huffed: 'Do you understand how tough this job is?' And the power guys nodded. There was just a disbelief that anybody could take him out."

Bayley ran anyway, and won. The czar had fallen.

When he arrived to take the office, Carroll's files had been cleaned out. But there were loose wires under the boss's desk — remnants, Bayley believes, of a recording system similar to that which eventually help bring down Richard Nixon's presidency.

Bayley's first task was clear. While the city was finally aware of the Tolerance Policy and payoffs, the young lawyers knew few details — certainly nothing on which to base any charges. So the new prosecutor began preparing for the grand jury inquiry he had promised, recruiting a cadre of young lawyers who moved across the street to the 29th floor of the Smith Tower. There they began trying to locate and sway witnesses — cops, tavern operators, gamblers, anybody who could help them penetrate the network. Convincing witnesses to cooperate was tough. Even honest cops were reluctant, or downright terrified, to testify against fellow cops. Tavern owners feared turning on cops who had the power to close them down.

Former prosecutors recall driving the streets with witnesses in the back seat, coats pulled over their heads, nervously pointing out who did what and where.

"We were told we were under police surveillance, so we couldn't talk to people in the office," recalls Evan Schwab, a Seattle lawyer who was recruited by Bayley. "I talked to one guy in the woods on Vashon Island. And I remember interviewing a police major who was in uniform, wearing his gun, and sweating heavily."

On April 12, 1971 — more than four years after the initial press reports — a 17-member grand jury was seated by Judge Stanley Soderland while a throng of reporters and TV news crews clustered outside in the drab, gray-marble hallway. Even though reporters were barred from the courtroom, the supposedly secret proceedings dominated the local news for weeks. By early summer, more than 100 past or present cops had been implicated, some of them for bribes dating back as far as 1936.

As the system unfolded, prosecutors were impressed by its tidiness. "In time, we could predict how much a guy was making, based on where he was working and how long he'd been there," says Dave Boerner, who was Bayley's chief deputy.

"It sort of ran itself," Boerner says. "It required agreement by a lot of individuals — the prosecutor, the police chief, the sheriff. But it was all understood. That's the way the world worked."

As the testimony spilled, Seattle police nervously watched from across the street. At times, detectives sat in the courtroom, taking notes.

Nobody was sure what they were doing with the information. There were rumors of retaliation. Pinball king Ben Cichy had drowned mysteriously in five feet of water next to his Lake Washington home in 1969. At least one other drowning death was rumored, but never proved, to be linked to the scandal. "Drowning was the method of choice," says Dee Norton, who covered the scandals for The Seattle Times. "As we understood it, they'd put somebody face down in the water and then plant a foot on their back."

Over the years that he covered the scandal, Norton says, he never felt threatened, but occasionally squad cars would park for hours at a time in front of his Wedgwood home — "more harassment than intimidation," he says.

Three months after it began, the jury indicted 19 police and other public officials for "conspiracy against government entities." The list included Charles O. Carroll and Charles M. "Streetcar" Carroll (no relation to the prosecutor), the affable city council member who had chaired the license committee that was of interest to clubs and taverns.

The indictments, however, proved to be the prosecution's high water mark. Over the months to come, Bayley's office dropped several indictments, including the case against Streetcar Charlie. Others were dismissed by judges, or acquitted in trials. The final fizzle came May 17, 1973, when a judge dismissed for lack of evidence eight of the 10 remaining defendants, including former prosecutor Carroll and several high-ranking cops.

In retrospect, Bayley says, he and his team were young and inexperienced — especially at trying to prove complex conspiracy charges. They were handicapped by witnesses who demanded immunity from prosecution or who were either discredited, reluctant to testify, or both. "Proving a conspiracy, that individuals were knowingly in on it, was tough," he says.

Still, the damage was done. Dozens of suspect public officials took early retirements, their careers over. Most important, the payoff system was abolished.

Regardless of the court results, Seattle changed profoundly during those few years of the late '60s and early '70s. The city adopted a new charter, which transferred budget authority and other power to the mayor's office, who theoretically could be held accountable. Fueled by the police scandal, CHECC candidates wrested control of the City Council in the course of just three local elections. The old system was on its last legs, and exposing the corruption only hastened its demise.

Bayley and his contemporaries took on the task of rebuilding the system on a new model — an enormous challenge for a cadre of young lawyers with little political experience.

Despite their grim record of convictions, Bayley and the rest of the prosecutors went on to successful careers. He served two terms, then practiced law. In 1983, he took a job as a senior vice president at Burlington Northern, where he worked on mergers and acquisitions before retiring in 1992. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1998, lost in the Republican primary, and started Stewardship Partners, which promotes voluntary environmentalism by farmers and other landowners.

Norm Maleng, one of Bayley's assistants, took over the job in 1979 and held it for more than a quarter century until his death last year. He was respected but was never considered a power broker. Boerner became a law professor, McBroom a judge.

William Chambliss, the young UW criminology professor who had explored the world of the Tolerance Policy before it was broken, went on to a distinguished academic career at George Washington University, where he has published several books, including his memoir of Seattle's crooked cops, On the Take: From Petty Crooks to Presidents (Indiana University Press, 1978 and 1988).

Gustin's career took a very different course. He stayed on for seven more years at the Police Deparment. "I was too damned obstinate to leave," he says.

But the bitterness lingered. He was demoted twice — ostensibly because he refused to name his department informants, including those who had been on the take. "I'd sworn I wouldn't name names," he says. "It was a question of integrity."

The demotions, he says, "helped me understand what I was made of."

While few cops were actually convicted, many others lived to regret taking bribes. Gustin recalls one old friend who had to sit down with his daughters and explain why he'd been on the take. "The money was poison. It just about killed him.".

Eventually, Gustin destroyed all his notes and files from his experience. It was all too sordid and painful, he says.

"Still, I was a pariah, of course," he says with a shrug. "I'd get nasty notes in the mail. In their eyes, I created disorder. And, as Caesar said, man can't tolerate disorder. I suppose there were guys who would have liked to shoot me, but I knew they didn't have the guts."

When he finally retired in 1977, "they could have held my retirement party in a phone booth."

Gustin finally got to be a police chief — first in American Samoa, then in Sandy, Utah, where he ran things his way, "like a total asshole," he says. "You don't accept so much as a free cup of coffee. The guys on the street didn't like it, but when I left, I think they respected me for it."

Eventually, he retired to Grays Harbor County, a few miles from where he grew up. He has slowed down but remains engaged, an avid reader. When he reads of a round of vice raids such as this week's, he winces and shakes his head.

The lesson of Seattle's grim history is nothing new, he says. "Power corrupts. We elect people and then we ignore them. There is no limit to human greed, nor to human cruelty. It is our curse."

This article, originally published last year by Seattle Metropolitan magazine, won a first-place award from the Pacific Northwest Society of Professional Journalists last weekend.


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Ross Anderson

Ross Anderson is a former Seattle Times reporter who now lives in Port Townsend.