The big shakedown: Seattle's legacy of crooked cops

Raids on the Colacurcio family's strip clubs this week conjure images of gambling halls, go-go girls, crooked cops, and a grim chapter of recent Seattle history. Part 1
Crosscut archive image.

Pioneer Square, 1963.

Raids on the Colacurcio family's strip clubs this week conjure images of gambling halls, go-go girls, crooked cops, and a grim chapter of recent Seattle history. Part 1

First of two parts

A soggy September afternoon on Seattle's First Avenue. The drizzle seems to wick the Skid Road stench out of the gutters, suspending it in midair like a chlorine cloud. About 20 young Seattle cops in raincoats huddle on a side street until, on command, they file up First Avenue, striding across cracked concrete, past the honky-tonk bars and peep shows. They turn into Pike Place, file up the stairs behind DeLaurenti Foods, and enter the double doors of the Lifeline Club.

Scattered around the smoke-filled hall are some 80 bingo players, housewives and silver-haired ladies with Frederick and Nelson shopping bags propped alongside their folding chairs. They are studying rows of 10-cent bingo cards, waiting for their numbers to be called.

A lieutenant steps to the front of the hall, displays a warrant, and announces that everybody is under arrest. The bingo players are baffled, but they get written citations before being sent on their way, shopping bags in hand. Meanwhile, the cops arrest about 10 club employees, while investigators sift through office file cabinets, scooping manila files into cardboard boxes and hauling them to waiting cars.

The strange bingo raid, conducted Sept. 24, 1969, went off smoothly, quietly — a stark contrast to the FBI raids this week on the strip club empire of Seattle crime figure Frank Colacurcio. Back in '69, there were no sirens, no guns, no TV cameras. Charges against the bingo players were quickly dropped. And the city barely noticed.

But that little raid and its aftermath helped send several people to jail — not for playing bingo but for bribery and racketeering. What mattered was not the women with their dime bingo cards but those cardboard boxes, jammed with financial records and names that provided a glimpse into an intricate web of crooked cops and corrupt local officials.

And this week's raids leave us wondering once again: How much has really changed in four decades?

The 1969 raid was the idea of a wiry, maverick assistant chief named Tony Gustin, and his free-lance foray into the Pike Place Market helped bring down a corrupt regime that had reigned in Seattle since at least the 1920s. In a few short years, Seattle would learn some things about itself that it may not have wanted to hear, and that painful revelation would help lead to a profound transformation.

Four decades later, Gustin is 79, white-haired, and long-retired, living quietly with his wife in rural Grays Harbor County. He shuffles in gray sweatpants and T-shirt around his doublewide, which is filled with stacks of books and current issues of Mother Jones and The Progressive. He rarely discusses his 25 years as a Seattle cop, but when he does it is with a grim sense of irony that this once-pervasive, citywide empire was ultimately brought down by a gaggle of middle-class housewives playing bingo at the Pike Place Market. He grumbles at how quickly the city moved on and forgot a harsh, traumatic chapter in its recent history — a dangerously short memory that he warns could allow it all to happen again.

Seattle in the '60s was a middling-sized middle-class city with a liveable climate, nice neighborhoods, and plenty of well-paying jobs down at the Boeing plants. But the city was also afflicted with a sort of civic schizophrenia, with qualities both of a western Sun Belt town and of an aging Rust Belt city. If one foot was striding forward, toward a high-tech, ever-so-hip future, the other remained planted firmly in the politics and culture of the Great Depression. The city had built the world's first jetliners and had staged a futuristic world's fair that focused on the promise of technology in the next century. But it was also a conservative town run by balding businessmen who made their decisions from leather chairs in the paneled salon at the Rainier Club. Other than the Space Needle, only two buildings had gone up in downtown Seattle since World War II.

The city was also split racially, with blacks confined to the Central District, a pattern enforced by real estate agents who knew where black families were allowed to buy and where they weren't. Asian immigrants crowded into what was then known as Chinatown. Gays of any ethnicity were tolerated as long as they didn't stray from their bars around Pioneer Square.

City Hall also clung to an odd set of blue laws designed to keep a lid on booze, gambling, and sex. Bars were closed on Sundays, and gambling was ostensibly limited to charity bingo and nickel-ante card rooms. Even pinball games and pool tables were deemed offensive, and required city licenses.

Civilization ended abruptly west of Second Avenue and south of Yesler Way, leaving Skid Road, the Market, waterfront, and Chinatown to the seedy bars and cardrooms that catered to gamblers, sailors and other less-savory visitors.

A cadre of young Turks was beginning to agitate for change. One of these was Christopher Bayley, a young lawyer with an Old Seattle pedigree and a Harvard degree who was beginning to show some interest in politics. He and his friends were oblivious to any problems with the cops, but they thought the city had outgrown its blue laws.

The Establishment clung jealously to power. The average age on the City Council was 66, and most had been in office for 12 years or more. They managed things.

How they managed things was Seattle's ugly secret.

Gustin learned that secret early. He grew up in rough-and-tumble Aberdeen, where his father managed a sawmill. He studied psychology and the classics at the University of Washington and in 1952 joined the Seattle Police Department, where he thought he could practice some street psychology. He may have been the city's best-read cop, a college kid who could quote Cicero or issue a string of profanities, often in the same sentence.

He was on the streets a few months before he realized that many of his pals were on the take. First it was just idle talk around the precinct house, then the occasional envelope, stuffed with cash, passed discreetly up the chain of command.

"I was down at Precinct 3, the South End," he recalls. "There wasn't a lot of money down there. That's where guys got sent if they didn't want to be part of the system, or if they were being penalized for not splitting their take properly."

Bit by bit, he became acquainted with what was called the Tolerance Policy. The city's prudish laws ran counter to a street culture that thrived on one vice or another, be it booze, gambling, sex, or some combination. A bar could play by obsolete laws, or break the rules and pay the cops to look the other way. Most paid.

It worked. The city got its entertainment, the cops saw their meager paychecks enhanced by steady gratuities. And nobody got hurt. The old guard genuinely believed the Tolerance Policy was good for the city, good for business. The most common rationale was that it kept the East Coast mafia out of Seattle.

To keep things orderly, ringleaders maintained an odd system of "double accounting," Gustin recalls. Most businesses had to pay twice — once to the beat cops, once to the vice squad, which collected separately. Any cop who failed to split the proceeds could be detected by the second set of accounts. It also ensured that the vice detectives were the best-paid cops in town.

The vice dicks tracked their business on pink index cards, with coded lists of who owed what. "Rudy 3" reminded the cops that an operator named Rudy pays $300 a month for his Chinatown club.

The enforcement wasn't Chicago-style intimidation, with bodies stuffed into car trunks. A recalcitrant tavern owner simply got frequent visits from the local beat cops, who discouraged customers with nightly ID checks and jaywalking tickets. In that way, a policy that posed as tolerance had descended into bold-faced shakedowns. Businesses paid the money, or paid the consequences.

The beat cops collected the cash, usually just after the first of the month. The rules of distribution were simple and clear: The beat man would pocket half and pass the other half along to his sergeant, who split it again and passed half to the lieutenant. By the time all that cash climbed to the top of the pyramid, it was real money. Gustin recalls one SPD major who routinely kept at least $35,000 cash stashed in the ceiling of his home.

There were payoffs throughout the city, but the big money was downtown — the Chinatown gambling joints, the Pioneer Square clubs, First Avenue cardrooms, the Central Area speakeasies.

Guys like Gustin, who didn't take bribes, got sent to Siberia — the Georgetown precinct, where the payoffs were more scarce.

"I suppose I should've turned to the other side," he says, surveying his modest retirement digs. "I would've made a lot more money.

"But hell, I was never really motivated by money. I remember one kid who wanted to start running games on top of his tavern, and wanted know how much it would cost to take care of the cops. A million bucks, I told him. They all thought I was nuts."

Whacko or not, Gustin rose quickly to sergeant and in 1956 was assigned downtown. "That didn't last," he chuckles. "They told me: 'If you're gonna work here, you have to play with the big boys.' And I didn't fit in."

Sometimes things would go wrong. Local cops had all heard the story, perhaps apocryphal, of several hundred thousand dollars gone missing from a downtown safe, a theft that could not be reported because it was payoff cash.

The system had been going on so long, nobody could remember a time when the cops weren't on the take. It had persisted at least 40 years — through the Great Depression, the war, the Boeing boom, the World's Fair. Nobody ever talked about it — least of all the press.

Gustin says he considered blowing the whistle. He would meet secretly with like-minded friends, discuss what it would take to break the system. But they had no solid evidence. And the Blue Line was solid; cops don't rat on cops. And even if they did, who do they talk to? Who isn't on the take?

"Everybody knew what was going on," Gustin insists. "The chief knew it. The mayor knew it. The newspapers knew it, or they were brain-dead."

Not everybody. Much of the city knew nothing of bribes. To get in on the secret, one had to cross the line into one of those urban subcultures that had been so carefully set apart from respectable society.

Now and then, somebody would venture across the line. In 1962, a young criminology professor named William Chambliss began hanging out in Skid Road bars in the name of sociological fieldwork. "I thought I'd get a different view of crime if I looked at it from the other side," says Chambliss, now a professor at George Washington University. "And people talked to me."

Seattle, they told him, was crooked as a dog's hind leg. Cops were on the take. Prosecutors were on the take. Everybody was on the take.

At first he was dubious. But Chambliss persisted. Sitting in a Pioneer Square bar, he asked about the card game in the back room and was invited to sit in at $5 a bet. Later, he watched the local beat cop walk into the manager's office and leave with an envelope. Chambliss had witnessed his first payoff.

When he tried to report what he had seen, nobody wanted to listen, he says. Even Chris Bayley and his reform-minded friends were focusing their efforts on the blue laws, not corruption. And the press was looking the other way.

And besides, it was all happening on the other side of the line.

In January 1967, the silence broke. Nobody seems to remember why The Seattle Times, the establishment paper, finally decided to pursue the story. The Times ran a series of front page stories laying out complaints by gay clubs around Pioneer Square — "Tavern Operators Describe Payoffs." One owner claimed he was coughing up $370 a month, essentially for protection. Another reported that when he refused to pay up, the police harassed his customers.

The stories spurred a brief flurry of activity downtown. Chief Frank Ramon shuffled some beat cops and suspended a few more — not for payoffs, but for drinking and gambling on duty. And Mayor Floyd Miller appointed a panel of outstanding citizens to investigate, a panel that included Assistant Chief M.E. Buzz Cook, who later turned out to be a ringleader in the payoff system. They set up a post office box, published the address, and waited for complaints.

Nothing happened. City Hall and the press were distracted by other things — anti-war protests around the university and civil rights unrest in the Central District. By all accounts, the payoffs continued.

But things were stirring uptown. Chris Bayley and friends had organized as CHECC (Choose and Effective City Council) to press for turnover and reforms at City Hall. The CHECC set managed to get two younger, progressive candidates, Tim Hill and Phyllis Lamphere, elected to the Council — hardly a revolution, but a beginning.

The next volley came more than a year later, in mid-1968, when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published its own report, including a grainy photograph that purported to show Ben Cichy, head of a local game company that held the licenses for some 1,500 local pinball machines and pool tables, delivering money to the home of King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll.

The P-I had picked a big target. A former All-America halfback at UW, Carroll was the titular head of the local Republican Party and perhaps the most powerful politician in town. He drove around in a big Pontiac with flashers behind the grill so he could rush to the scene of a crime. Even in his 60s, he was handsome, barrel-chested, and physically imposing, reigning from a spacious, paneled office in the county Courthouse.

But the P-I story suggested that he was also player in the rackets. Whether or not he was on the take, Carroll was clearly in control, manipulating people a la FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. "His modus operandi was to have something on everybody," Bayley says.

Still, nothing changed. A young, rookie cop who joined SPD in 1969 recalls walking First Avenue with his veteran partner, who found a couple of whiskey shots waiting for him at each bar; the old bull tossed both down both. Rounding the corner onto Pike Street, he collected a couple of cigars and an envelope full of cash. The young rookie had no choice but to tag along.

In the summer of 1969, the system began to show cracks. CHECC was pushing more council candidates, and the newspapers were beginning to focus on the cops, Carroll, and the Tolerance Policy. Emboldened, Gustin teamed up with two like-minded assistant chiefs, Gene Corr and George Fuller, and took their story to the genial old mayor, Floyd Miller. SPD, they told him, is laced with corruption, and Chief Ramon has to go.

Still, nothing happened. The city would not act, Gustin figured, until it was forced to. So he concocted a plan, piecing together a squad of young cops, handpicked to avoid anybody who had been on the take, and began planning the raid at the Lifeline Club.

"They had this nice Christian woman who was their accountant, and she told us where to find the records," Gustin recalls.

Gustin assumed he was being watched, his desk searched each night by crooked cops. As he planned the raid, he and his co-conspirators planted memos indicating a raid up in the Central Area. The actual target wasn't revealed — not to the chief, not even to his own squad.

"It was fun," Gustin smiles. "We finally got what we needed. We didn't want to hurt anyone, least of all those nice ladies who were just playing a little bingo. We wanted those records."

A lot of people did. Federal prosecutors combed through those boxes, and the Internal Revenue Service photographed them. They were laced with names and numbers, concise accounts of who paid what to whom going back as far as the 1920s. There were accounts naming prosecutors and city council members, Gustin says. The club payroll included the wife of the former county sheriff, Tim McCullough, though she rarely actually worked. And McCullough himself, who served on the state Parole Board, was alleged to be the bag man.

It turned out that Charlie Berger, the squat little man who ran the place, was grossing more than $1 million a year on bingo. To keep the cops at bay, he paid $3,000 a month to one Frank Colacurcio, who, even then, ran a string of nightclubs and strip joints from Alaska to Seattle and Tacoma, and who knew how to work with the cops.

The chief, however, was not pleased. He threw a fit, Gustin recalls, for failing to tell him in advance and ticketing the bingo players. But the damage was done; two weeks later, the mayor fired Ramon and hired the first of a series of interim chiefs who paraded in and out of the office for several years.

Next: Seattle corruption becomes a federal case.

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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About the Authors & Contributors

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Ross Anderson

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