Thursday, October 30, 2008

The mobster who died in pink pajamas

By Paul Lieberman
The Gangster Squad got to Jack Dragna by bugging his mistress' bed.Dealing with him was the flip side of dealing with Mickey Cohen. Sure, Mickey ranted about the Los Angeles Police Department in public, but if squad members drew stakeout duty outside his Brentwood home on a hot day, his wife, Lavonne, would send out beers or invite them in for slices of chocolate cake.
With Dragna, icy distance was the rule when the squad members camped outside his banana warehouse or the Victory Market, where he held meetings in a concrete-walled back room. The squad's bugging expert, Con Keeler, did once get in between the rounds of a night watchman, but he didn't have time to fully conceal his bug. Dragna's men found it, carried it outside and smashed it on a curb.Dragna was cautious to a fault -- that's how he'd remained unscathed for decades, despite being branded the "Capone of Los Angeles"by Gov. Earl Warren's crime commission. A native of Palermo, Italy, he had arrived in California in 1914 and generally lay so low that one bookie was said to have asked, even in the 1940s, "Who the hell is Jack Dragna?"He was imprisoned once for extortion but won his freedom on appeal. By mid-century, his record was eight arrests, no convictions.
He knew how to go on the offensive, too, like after the 1950 dynamiting of Cohen's house, when the Gangster Squad hauled in Dragna's entire inner circle, and well as his son Frank, who had gone to USC and lost an eye in the war. The son then filed suit against the head of the squad and the "John Doe" officers who rousted him, seeking $350,000 for false arrest and humiliation, the latter for inviting photographers into the lockup.The younger Dragna's suit was pending in 1951 when the squad bugged the bed of his father's mistress. She was a secretary for the dry cleaners union, in which the mob had its hooks. If a dry cleaning shop didn't sign up, Dragna's men would send over suits with dye sewn inside so all the clothes in its vats turned purple or red.The secretary had a wooden headboard with a sunburst pattern. While she was out, Keeler picked the lock to her apartment and hid a mike in the center of the sun. Amid the pillow talk, the bug picked up occasional mentions of mob business, including plans for a new casino in Las Vegas. But that wasn't what the police used against the 60-year-old Dragna. Their ammunition came from other bedroom goings-on. If they couldn't get him for ordering hits on Cohen and his men, why not for "lewd/vag," lewd conduct and vagrancy?Dragna's lawyers could argue that the police didn't have a warrant to eavesdrop, but to no avail -- back then authorities could use illegally obtained evidence. The misdemeanor case earned Dragna a mere 30-day sentence, but how and where he was bugged stood to cost him respect in the mob. More significantly, the morals conviction could get him sent back to Italy.Indeed, Dragna was still fighting a deportation order when he died in 1956. They found his body in a Sunset Boulevard motel, in pink pajamas, with $986 in cash and two sets of false teeth nearby, his Cadillac parked outside. In his luggage was a small statue of Jesus and a newspaper clipping about his son's lawsuit, which had been dismissed.Paul Lieberman is a Times staff writer