Robert Wiedrich, "one of the original watchdog reporters who went after Chicago's corrupt politicians and mobsters," died at the age of 85 last Saturday as reported by Erin Meyer for the Chicago Tribune.
Wiedrich was born to investigate wise guys and dirty cops.
The veteran reporter from The Chicago Tribune recently published his memoir Windy City Watchdog, and his nose for news was evident even as a boy growing up during the depression on the Near North Side when Al Capone still ruled the town.
He recounts as a kid watching a steady parade of men using a back staircase to an office over a neighborhood restaurant, and no longer able to contain his curiosity one day endeavored to get to the bottom of the mystery:
[A] couple of us kids snuck up the stairs and heard a man's voice calling out names and numbers over a loud speaker. We peeked into the large room, which covered the entire second floor, and saw a lot of men milling around exchanging green backs with other men who appeared to be clerks.
The juvie snoops dutifully told the neighborhood beat cop of their discovery -- an operation Wiedrich understood only years later as a book-making parlor -- who snapped back "mind your own business, you little bastards."
The reporter-in-the-making had his Chicagoland baptism, and the relationship between organized crime and public corruption would become a regular theme in his stories for the Tribune.
Wiedrich dropped out of high school when just a junior to join the military with a forged birth certicate during World War II, and after the war with no degree in hand got his start in the newspaper business as a copy boy.
By the late 1950s Wiedrich was covering the Outfit's rackets, and in 1959 investigated its infiltration of the restaurant industry through control over Local 450 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders Union. In pursuing the story Wiedrich and his colleague George Bliss talked with "several hundred waitresses, bartenders, cooks, and porters, plus owners of plush restaurants and of small greasy spoon hamburger joints," and he learned the sad truth about "how strong gangster influence can be and how difficult it is to uproot it." Indeed, Wiedrich writes "in the decades that separate the time of that series and the present day, the union has been continually investigated by federal authorities, has been placed under federal trusteeship, and is still being investigated for hoodlum influence."
The six-article restaurant series established Wiedrich as the Tribune's "resident expert on mob activities," and during the 1960s he "was in the paper about four or five times a week with stories on the vast enterprises that the mob had involving sports betting, loan sharking, and the infiltration of legitimate businesses."
Hits were a dime a dozen in Chicagoland, and Wiedrich covered a number of them. Among those was William "Action" Jackson who was whacked in 1961. The naked body of the 350-pound West Side enforcer was discovered in the trunk of a car, and Wiedrich uses the hit to illustrate the moral depravity of the mobsters and the violent world in which they lived:
Jackson was noted as a sadist who when he hired prostitutes would bite off their nipples. So the death that he met, however horrible, probably was appropriate. From evidence found at the scene, the police were able to determine that Jackson had been physically hung on a meat hook in a fat rendering plant on South Wentworth Avenue, which was owned by a hoodlum associate. Then an electric cattle prod had been repeatedly applied to his testicles and his body had been punctured by thirty ice pick hits. He had not died quickly or easily.
Other hits covered by Wiedrich included the 1973 murder of dirty cop and made man Richard Cain who got two shotgun blasts to the face. Wiedrich writes that "only a town like Chicago could spawn a creep like Richard Cain," and he does not hide his disdain for the "bum": "if you ever watched him in action, plying his sleazy trade, the warning bells sounded and just enough of the stench that was the real Richard Cain escaped for you never to forget it."
Wiedrich had good reason to despise Cain. Ten years earlier Cain, then the chief investigator for the Cook County Sheriff's Office, arranged a midnight meeting with Wiedrich at a cocktail lounge under the pretext that he had a tip for the reporter, but upon arrival Wiedrich and his associate quickly discovered Cain was attempting to lure them into a honey trap:
He tried to middle us with the loveliest looking creature in his stable, an incredibly constructed blonde who dangled lazily from a velvet swing over the heads of the assorted playboys, professional thieves, and crime syndicate thugs who frequented the joint.
Fortunately, we had the good sense to flee that saloon before Cain could keeo his whispered promise of a private showing of the swinging lady's charms in some plush Near North pad, undoubtedly equipped with a zoom lens movie camera and stereo recording gear.
That well could have proved the most expensive picture show in town for us, with the price our personal integrity at a time when we specialized in exposing gangsters, including Salvatore (Momo) Giancana, the mob's operating boss whom Cain would later join in exile in Cuernava, Mexico.
Although not discussed in Wiedrich's memoir, in 1959 Cain murdered Harry Figel who used underage teenage boys to shake down chicken hawks in the Greyhound Bus terminal. Cain claimed he shot Figel in self-defense in an attempt to arrest him pursuant to an undercover investigation into the sextortion racket. However, Figel's murder likely was the resullt of a failure to pay street tax to the Outfit. Indeed, a witness alleged that a week earlier Cain and another detective beat up Figel for not making payments, and after Figel's murder dirty cops and mob thugs took over the so-called chicken-and-bulls extortion racket until the feds busted it in 1966. Cain was forced to resign from the Chicago police force in 1962 once several of his crimes came to light, and very few shed a tear with his murder a decade later.
Wiedrich regrettably had to write about more than a few dirty cops, and during the 1970s reported on pervasive corruption within the police force. Dozens of cops in multiple districts were indicted by the feds for not only taking bribes to protect mob interests but further shaking down legitmate businesses including taverns and restaurants on the Far West Side and nightclubs on the Near North Side. When Wiedrich reported about proprietors complaining they had been threatened by police officers not to cooperate with the federal investigation, he even got a visit from a district commander asking for their names. Of course, Wiedrich refused the request: "It was obvious that if I had done so, the informants would have suffered dire consequences." Unfortunately, the 1970s were a time when many cops were not your friends.
Wiedrich long had reported on the dirty role that mobsters and cops played in the nightlife industry. For example, in the mid-1960s Wiedrich exposed the role of the Chicago Outfit in the gay bars on the Near North Side. Johnny Gattuso, a Cook County sheriff's deputy and nephew of Rush Street crew boss James "the Monk" Allegretti, had convinced dozens of tavern owners to convert their strip tease joints and B-girl dives into gay watering holes, and "he would receive 50 percent of the profits" in cash and half of the tavern's corporate stock was "placed in the name of a mob front man" as Wiedrich reported in a May 15, 1966 Tribune article:
In the last year, mobsters have been using force or the lure of high profits to convert at least 14 financially foundering taverns into lucrative hangouts for homosexuals. Investigators estimate that these places are putting at least one million dollars a year into crime syndicate coffers.
Moreover, the cops were involved with the Outfit's gay bars as Wiedrich reported nearly a decade later in a September 30, 1973 Tribune article:
In a certain North Side police district, crime syndicate operators of a network of homosexual bars have been cavorting with vice detectives and some of their bosses for almost a decade. * * * If anyone doubts such illicit liaisons, listen to what has occurred in the lives of two former vice dicks bounced for shakedowns: Both are now employed as managers of crime-syndicate-owned gay bars. One is suspected of sharing a hidden interest in a joint with the mob's New Town vice merchant.
Following the death of Allegretti in 1969, Joseph "Joey Caesar" DiVarco became the Rush Street crew boss to whom Gattuso reported, and Wiedrich expressed outrage over the suspected relationship between the gangster and the police in allegedly trafficking drugs, skimming profits and blackmailing homosexuals out of the gay bars. In an October 4, 1973 Tribune article Wiedrich reported the following:
Scholars seeking a textbook example of the unholy alliance between crooked police, politicians, and mobsters need look no further than Chicago's North Side. For there, in a network of 20 nightclubs and bars catering to the specialized recreational needs of homosexuals, the mutually avaricious interests of these groups are interwoven in a tragic tapestry of corruption. In short, thieving lawmen and politicians have joined forces with crime syndicate gangsters to prey upon some of society's most vulnerable—the gay people. * * * From the Chicago River to the northern city limits, the Justice Department men have spent two years probing a cesspool of extortions and blackmail, not only of tavern owners, but successful and prosperous homosexuals fearful their secret will be exposed to business associates. Also involved in the inquiry is an estimated multi-million dollar rip off of state, local, and federal taxes thru the illicit "skimming" of profits from certain gay bar operations in which gangsters are known to have a hidden interest, plus a flourishing traffic in narcotics. * * * Probably the most tragic victims of the widespread shakedowns, investigators report, are the well to do homosexual businessmen who have submitted to continuing blackmail under threat of arrest on real or trumped up charges.
Investigating the mob back in the day involved a lot of old-fashioned gumshoe-style detective work. Wiedrich recounts pounding the streets of Gary, Indiana in 1959 to uncover the Outfit's prostitution and and gambling dens which operated behind pizzeria fronts, and trailing the Outfit's floating crap game in the mid-1980s to take "licene plate numbers in an effort to identify some of the participants."
Bob Wiedrich viewed his mission to expose wise guys and dirty cops as a public service, and in Windy City Watchdog he makes no bones about taking sides in his coverage: he was on the side of the good hardworking people of Chicago.
Further reading that may be of interest: