Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

May 5, 2000

A RECENT NEWS STORY out of Youngstown, calling the Ohio city "Crimetown U.S.A.," recalled half-century-old memories of my days as a hard-charging young reporter in that gritty, racket-ridden region where thriving steel mills belched orange flames, which were glowing symbols of a muscular economy featuring tens of thousands of good-paying union jobs.

Those steel mills have long gone dark, but organized crime still thrives. The press account said that some Youngstowners are tired of having their Mahoning River city dominated by organized crime and its pervasive political influence. But reforming Youngstown, with its endemic underworld element, may be an unattainable goal.

Fifty-some years ago there was a geographic belt of fiery steel mills running from Cleveland down through other Ohio cities, including Warren, Niles and Youngstown, extending on into Pennsylvania. Much of the region was racket-ridden, meaning that rackets of one kind or another permeated the municipal landscape, operated by racketeers who had many officials on their payrolls and in their pockets. Now, the term " racket-ridden" has given way to "mobbed-up."

MOBS THERE WERE aplenty a half-century ago, raking in big bucks from gambling, prostitution, loan sharking and other rackets. The nationally-connected mob was in Cleveland. Leaders of that one put up the "dough" or the "jack" that financed construction of the Desert Inn in the Las Vegas of half-a-century ago. Cleveland's three daily newspapers reported the casino's opening, one using a page-wide headline that called the gambling palace of yesteryear "The House That Cleveland Jack Built."

Youngstown's mob had connections to Cleveland's and also to Detroit's infamous "Purple Gang." Niles and Warren had their hometown gangs.

One place where Cleveland and Youngstown gangsters converged their interests was in setting up and operating a warehouse-sized gambling joint in a crossroads community near Youngstown and Niles. Lawyers for the mobs succeeded in incorporating the crossroads into a mini-municipality with its own mayor, council and one-man police force. That stratagem allowed a corrupt sheriff to say with a straight face when quizzed about the gambling joint: "I have no jurisdiction there because it's in a town with its own police."

To operate the gaming barn required a large workforce. So there was always enough room on the payroll to accommodate fugitives of Detroit's "Purple Gang," who hid out in Ohio while on the lam from police and prosecutors in Michigan.

GREED SPARKED friction between the gangs. The Cleveland mob coveted the lucrative action at a busy horse race and sports betting parlor in Niles, which was run by the locals. Until the Lake Erie goons moved in, the Niles police chief denied knowledge of a bookie joint in his town. But after the out-of-towners muscled in, the chief suddenly discovered that a stairway next to the state liquor store led to a large betting room above. He raided the joint and arrested the Cleveland gang's minions. For some peculiar reason, the local gang's people didn't show up for work on the day of the raid.

Grudgingly, the Clevelanders gave up on trying to get a piece of the Niles betting parlor's action.

A more brazen move was made by hoodlums from Cleveland some time later. One mid-week afternoon a big black sedan rolled into Niles with three dark-suited menaces inside. The car pulled up to a bar on the edge of town. While the driver remained at the wheel with motor running, his accomplices strode inside. One kept his right hand in his suit's side pocket from which a gun butt was visible to the bartender and his customers. The other man brandished a claw hammer which he used to smash the glass-topped pinball machines and glass-fronted slots. He also whacked the coin-operated cigarette vending machine. As soon as the intruders left, the bartender got on the phone to the second-in-command of the Niles mob. That guy hastily dispatched teams of locals in four trucks to scoop up gambling and cigarette machines from bars, taverns, pizza houses and restaurants before the intruders could do much more damage. The machines were then stored in a guarded warehouse while the locals held a sit-down meeting with Cleveland mobsters to negotiate a cut in the take to the lakefront hoods.

THE GOVERNOR OF OHIO, a conservative Democrat named Frank Lausche, grew increasingly angry that corrupt local officials permitted gambling, prostitution and other vices to hold sway with impunity. The governor ordered state liquor control agents to start raiding the vice joints. A team of plain-clothes state agents would swoop into a place on the pretext that they had a tip that liquor was being sold illegally there. If they found no booze, the agents would telephone the local sheriff or police chief to notify him that they discovered a gambling operation, a brothel or some other illegal activity and ask for help in making arrests. Because they were on the take or simply resented having state agents treading on their turf, local authorities often told state agents they were too busy or too short-handed to respond. But, over time, the bad publicity such a cavalier attitude engendered caused some sheriffs and chiefs to be more cooperative. In one egregious case of non-cooperation, a mob shotgun used to threaten a liquor agent disappeared from a sheriff's evidence room before it was needed at a trial. That shotgun had been wrested from a thug at the earlier-mentioned crossroads gambling barn when the casino boss ordered one of his gunsels to "shoot the s.o.b.," referring to the chief of the raiding liquor agents.

ALTHOUGH THE NILES paper, where I was a reporter, was one of the smallest dailies in the steel belt, I often scooped the bigger newspapers on the liquor agents' raids because I had developed a rapport with the chief agent. In return for updating him about the activity at the vice joints in the area, he would phone me early in the morning after a raid so that my newspaper would have the story first. He turned down my requests to accompany him on his raids. Years later after I'd left Ohio I was pleased to see a wire service election summary which reported that my old news source, who by then had become a prosecutor, had been elected the reform mayor of an industrial city less than an hour's drive from Niles and Youngstown.

To change Youngstown, the reformers face a daunting task. A few decades ago Youngstown had another sobriquet. Then it was known as the U.S.A.'s "Car-Bombing Capital."

Youngstown hoods used dynamite under car hoods to discourage rivals and to intimidate reformers. Alarmed by the proliferation of Youngstown car-bombings in the early 1960s, United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy assigned a Justice Department task force to investigate. But the feds were unable to undermine Youngstown's underworld.

Today, in addition to still being a crime capital, the once-proud Steeltown U.S.A. is becoming a capital of the low-paying privatized prison industry. A Tennessee-headquartered lock-up corporation is becoming the largest employer in 2000 Youngstown.


AFTER WASTING about $5 million in taxpayers' funds over a 23-month period, an independent prosecutor decided there was no substance to allegations of illegal kickbacks against United States Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman. The accusations, brought by a foreign businessman living in the U.S., dealt with a time when Herman was working in the Clinton White House.

After two years of having her reputation blemished by a baseless charge, Labor Secretary Herman now can get on with her life. But where does she go to get her reputation back?


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