|Gabriel Vigoritto, from National Archives, Notorious Offenders File|
Monday, February 16, 2015
Organized Crime and Automobile Theft -- 1940s to 1960s
Stopping the Professionals?
In response the post-World War II crime wave, the FBI coordinated their efforts with local and state authorities to stem the tide, but the FBI’s major endeavor was far more focused on the organized crime side of the auto theft industry. With the FBI laboratory cooperation, VIN and engine block alteration could be detected using the agency’s metallograph. And the FBI also shared information from its national automotive paint file that correlated make and model with color and pigment. One visitor to the laboratory in 1949 described FBI scientists at work:
I stood in a room about 20 feet square. The blinds were drawn and the room was dark, except for a single light over the center of a workbench. Its powerful rays focused on two square magnetic terminals from which thick cables ran to a black switchboard.
An F.B.I. agent in a smock threw a lever and a heavy humming filed the room. . . . The assistant handed him a sample bar of cast iron about a foot long which had been cut from a larger piece of metal.
“Notice there isn’t a mark to indicate where the stamped number has been ground off,” the agent said. I ran my fingers over the metal. There was not a scratch.
“Now watch,” he said, placing the bar between the terminals. The humming rose to a whine. The assistant picked up a rubber hose and poured an oily, red fluid on the metal. “Magnetic oxide of iron in oil solution,” he explained.
Thin curls of blue smoke arose from the ends of the bar where they touched the terminals. The agent pointed. I saw nothing but soupy red riffles on the bar. Then, suddenly, numbers appeared, faint at first, then clearly visible. There they were; 456-431. The agent scribbled a note and turned off the current. The numbers vanished.
“When the serial number was tamped on the metal, molecules were disturbed,” the agent explained. “This magnetic flux sends a powerful electric current the bar, and the impulses are interrupted en route by the same molecular disturbances. You might say the impulses are forced to detour, upward and downward. In doing so they agitate the magnetic oxide of iron we poured on the bar. The agitation takes the outline of numbers making them visible."39
The demonstration of scientific instrumentation impressed the journalist, but in fact it did little as a quick fix. Car theft rings were big business, and it often took luck, happenstance, or human frailty rather than systematic science-based criminology to break the work of a well-organized gang. Particularly during early post-World War II years, cars were in short supply, both in the United States and also in South America and Europe. Auto theft rings proliferated in America, and their membership could be as small as three individuals or as large as twenty or more. One organization exported between 300 and 400 cars a year in 1949. Indeed, between the late 1940s and early 1950s the New York Times was replete with articles of smashed auto theft rings, centered not only in New York City but also elsewhere.40 For example, one ring was located in the south and specialized in 1949 and 1950 models, while another gang in California consisted of ten Air Force privates who stole only new cars. Often, key figures in these organizations were used car dealers, perhaps because they had access to bills of sale and other materials that could be used as proof of ownership. Other key gang members who were garage attendants could acquire duplicate keys, and of course mechanics and car painters played a crucial role in vehicle alterations. The foot soldiers behind these operations were everyday people, including butchers, cab drivers, electrician’s helpers, dock checkers, railway policemen, musicians, and housewives. And despite all of the science at the FBI’s disposal, these gangs were often discovered after a chance traffic violation, or a report of a car for sale well below the market price.
Organized car theft was also potentially violent, and this aspect was captured in Clyde Edgerton’s regional novel set in 1950, The Bible Salesman.41 This work is a humorous, homespun, Piedmont tale, in which car theft is one focus. The story is about a 20-year old Bible salesman by the name of Henry Dampier, and the place is the hard-scrabble red clay south, with its marginal poor and those who prey upon them. Henry, a con man in his own right, obtains free Bibles and then sells them. But as it turns out, he is conned by someone much more experienced and at times violent--Preston Clearwater, who is a part of a car theft gang. Attracted to Clearwater by the latter’s new 1950 Chrysler, Henry becomes a driver of the Chrysler and then later stolen cars. In spite of these events, Henry thinks that he is actually doing good, convinced by Clearwater that he is working for the FBI in an effort to break up car theft rings! Car theft is definitely a part of this novel, but only peripherally, as the author’s thrust is far more on faith, love, doubt, and human foibles. Clearwater and his cronies employ more muscle than guile, and only chop shop operations are described in any detail. If one learns anything about auto theft from this work it is painting operations at the chop shop. The application of a special rubbing compound that was applied to a freshly repainted car produced a patina, thus decreasing possible suspicions that the worked-over car was hot. In the end, Henry is absolved of guilt and is rewarded by finding love, while Clearwater met a violent end.
While juvenile joy riders were responsible for the majority of auto thefts during the 1950s, during every decade of the twentieth century, organized gangs played a significant and at times a leading role in this criminal activity. The 1956 film Hot Cars opens with handsome car salesman Nick Dunn demonstrating a Mercedes 190SL to the beautiful Karen Winter (Joi Lansing).42 Despite his charm and a drink, Winter drives away without purchasing the vehicle. Later that evening Dunn again fails to close a sale, this time with prospect Arthur Martell (Ralph Clanton). Dunn lets his customer know that the MG-TD he had been looking at was previously in a rollover wreck, and by doing so ostensibly impressed Martell by his honesty. Dunn’s failures lead to his firing at the end of the night, but the next day Martell summons him to his office, reveals to the salesman that he is in the car business and was just scouting the competition the night before. By offering the now-unemployed but honest Dunn a job, he takes the beleaguered salesman out of a tight financial spot, especially so because Dunn’s young son is grievously ill and in need of a major and costly operation. The job with Martell turns out to be a bust, however, because in reality his car business is a front for a multi-state stolen car operation. Yet, after initially quitting, Dunn returns to the job due to his son’s health issues, knowing full well that it is a dirty business. But it pays well, and Dunn is a family man in financial distress. Dunn, with his life now sold away, quickly rises in the organization, and gains enough trust that he is taken to the “refrigeration plant,” where hot cars are moved to “cool down.” At the shop, serial numbers on motors are filed, and cars are given new paint jobs and reupholstered. Dunn is informed that papers are no problem either, for a printing and engraving business exists within the Martell organization. There is one fly is this ointment, however. State police investigator Davenport (Dabbs Greer) starts snooping around the car lot, and later gets too close to breaking the ring when he attempts to buy a hot car.
As ring leader Martell states to Dunn, stealing cars amounted to “not hurting anyone,” as insurance covered the loss and the “buyer gets a good deal.” But when Detective Davenport is murdered, Dunn is implicated. It was Smiley Ward (Mark Dana) and not Dunn who did the killing, but initially that is not what the police surmised. Dunn, who had a loving wife (and also forgiving as it turns out), was without an alibi after a one-night affair with Winters, who all along was in the employ of Martell. As the investigation unfolds, the lid is finally blown off, and Dunn is seen for what he truly was, a pawn in a complex game. A subsequent confrontation between Dunn and Martell assistant Smiley Ward resulted in a spectacular fight on an amusement park roller coaster, with Ward plunging to his death, and Dunn ultimately vindicated. Whatever its shortcomings as a B-grade film with a largely unknown cast, Hot Cars portrayed car theft as a crime involving hardened criminals who were not averse to resorting to violence when forced to do so. Car theft has victims up and down the line, and is more than victimless; it is an evil that touches on behavior beyond a direct connection with the automobile.
In reality, the head of a ring was rarely brought to justice. It took from the 1930s to 1950s to end the career of “the king of car thieves” Gabriel Vigorito. Vigorito had served a ten-year sentence during the 1930s for violating the Dyer Act, when, with letters of support from New York congressmen and Senator Copeland, he was given a conditional parole in 1939.43 The intervention of Senator Royal Copeland is most puzzling given Stephen Fox’s characterization of Copeland in Blood and Power: Organized Crime in Twentieth Century America.44 Paradoxically, Copeland conducted the first congressional hearings on organized crime in 1933! Fox described Copeland as “hard to place in the political landscape: a big-city Democrat, but conservative; a county doctor, always friendly and helpful in personal contacts, but tied to the Hearst and the Tammany machine.”45 After his 1933 anti-crime campaign, however, Copeland returned to other interests, particularly to pure food and drug legislation. His support of Vigorito raises the question of whether Copeland the crusader ultimately became Copeland the corrupted by the end of the 1930s.
Despite the support of many citizens of New York City and Brooklyn who wrote on his behalf, it took only a few years before Vigorito was in trouble again, charged with illegal trafficking in untaxed alcohol, extortion, coercion, and the selling of black market gasoline. Beginning in 1948, Vigorito and his gang stole Cadillacs and exported them to South America and Europe. It was only when a number of FBI agents infiltrated the gang that the full extent of its operations emerged. Later, the New York Times reported that Vigorito’s operation handled more than $1 million in stolen cars in 1952.46 Since Vigorito was isolated from the operation, it was difficult to pin illegal behavior directly to him. Finally, his fortunes faded after 1954, when 49 witnesses lined up to testify against him.47 However, even then, along with three of his sons and two nephews, “Blah-Blah” still managed to run his ring from Fort Leavenworth prison.48 Finally caught writing communication letters directing lieutenant “Buck” Murray, Vigorito spent the remainder of the 1950s tightly locked up, ever proclaiming that he was “framed.”
As Vigorito served his time, other masterminds or kingpins working independently quickly replaced him in the New York City metropolitan area with operations of their own. Harold Wapnick, a small-time money lender when he was first arrested for auto theft in 1956, was one such businessman. Unlike Vigorito, whose only education had come from the street, Wapnick was an accountant with degrees from St. John’s University and Columbia University.49 By 1962 Wapnick had put together an acquisition, modification, and distribution production line that was described in the New York Times:
At one time, Wapnick had sixteen men working for him. In the six-month period before their arrest, the ring’s members disposed of at least sixty cars. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and city detectives said the gang handled 20 per cent of all the cars stolen here.
The ring operated in this way. Charles Gersh, Jose Monteiro and MacAlan Gladding ran junk yards where late-model wrecked cars were stripped of their identifying numbers and license plates. George Dooley, Dominic Schiavo and Walter Bedell stole cars corresponding to the models in the yards.
Philippe Roy and Harmon Gripper ran an outfit called Automotive Reconstruction Enterprises, where the stolen cars were equipped with the identification of the wrecked vehicles and repainted to conform with them. Then James LaFazia and David Brill delivered the cars to points in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California.50
News stories about organized auto theft rings abound during the 1960s and 1970s, and there often were common elements associated with each case, regardless of where the thieves called home.51 While not new, some rings stole cars to order, and in one case their customers included a professional football player, an entertainer, and a screen star. Another gang stole to order lemons in the possession of their owners, a remedy before lemon laws were enacted. Cadillacs and Lincolns were the preferred marques, although one New Jersey gang specialized in Volkswagens. Particularly during the 1960s, there were accusations of mafia involvement in the auto theft business, usually involving lower-level functionaries tied to major crime figures including the Columbo family. Due in part to the construction of interstate highways during the decade, the radius of operations expanded considerably, and in the case of the New York City area, Florida became a major destination for stolen cars. Police were integral members of a number of these groups, as were department of motor vehicles employees who processed new registrations. Finally, stripping cars was commonplace, as thieves worked with wrecking yards to crush the body shell, thus destroying the most important piece of evidence. The transition from joy rider to hardened criminal is best illustrated by Table 2-10.
Interstate highways proved to be analogous to the great rivers in nineteenth century America, and to counter the flow of hot cars between states, police departments and the insurance industry introduced electronic communications and computers during the 1960s. The teletype machine, first used by law enforcement in 1927, was tied to local and then regional networks in 1963. Although they proved limit deterrence due to the lack of a standardized data format, in 1965 a nationwide information system was proposed that later became the Law Enforcement Teletype System (LETS) in 1966. Western Union machines used punched paper tape, transmitted license and registration information twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. However, access was limited as more and more users availed themselves of the system. Switching devices located in Phoenix, Arizona were the first step in developing a more elaborate system that was proposed in 1966 by the FBI and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The following year, two IBM 360 computers housed at the FBI’s National Crime Information Center were put into use, containing records that were capable of being accessed on demand. Consequently, the NATB’s 3x5 card system located in Chicago was translated onto 80 column punch cards. The NATB developed its own computer capabilities by 1970, starting first with an IBM 20 machine and then upgrading to an IBM 370 in 1973. This development resulted in the North American Theft Information System (NATIS), a technology that allowed NATB regional divisions to communicate via cathode ray tubes. Information could now be sent to offices in seconds, which was critical given the rise in auto thefts during the 1970s.