Category Archives: Investigative Report
Friends of the Family : The Inside Story of the Mafia Cops Case – Tommy Dades and Michael Vecchione with David Fisher
On October 18, 1986, Betty Hydell answered the doorbell and her home and was confronted by a police officer looking for her son James. She politely told him that Jimmy not home and she did not know his exact whereabouts. At the time, she had no idea that she would never see her son James again. Several hours later, he was picked up by two men in what appeared to be an unmarked police car. However, he never arrived at the local precinct and no record was made of any arrest. It was if he simply vanished into thin air and to this day, his body has never been found. It became one of the many cold cases on file in Brooklyn South. His brother Frank, had is own encounters with the two and on one occasion Betty even confronted the officer looking for him as she drove her car past his unmarked vehicle. Frank was later murdered April, 1998 after visiting a gentleman’s club in Staten Island, New York.
On November 6, 1990, Edward Lino, a capo in the Gambino Crime Family, was shot execution style as he sat behind the wheel of his car after being pulled over on the Belt Parkway in South Brooklyn. Lino’s death became a cold case until it was learned that he was pulled over by two men in what appeared to be an unmarked police car. A photo of Lino slumped over in his car shows the execution style murder in graphic detail and for some, brings backs memories of the days when mobsters were killing each other across New York City with reckless abandon. Hydell’s disappearance and Lino’s murder remained cold cases for many years and no one then could have imagined that they would both come back to haunt those involved and help reveal one of the biggest scandals in the history of the New York City Police Department.
But who were the two men in what appeared to be an unmarked police car? Their identities nearly remained a secret for good if not for a book and a television appearance on Sally Jessy Raphael. Former NYPD Detective Louis Eppolito had written about his life on the force and his family background, appropriately titled ‘Mafia Cop’. He had starred in Hollywood films, including a bit part as “Fat Andy” in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (Warner Bros., 1990). On that fateful day of his television appearance, Betty Hydell was one of millions of viewers watching the former detective promote his book. I can only imagine the shock on her face as she watched the television screen listening to the former detective who once came looking for both of her sons. For NYPD Detective Tommy Dades, this was a major fire among the smoke that surrounded Eppolito and his former partner, Steven Caracappa, who died on April 8, 2017, while incarcerated in Butner, North Carolina. Dades’ investigation, supported by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, opened up Pandora’s Box, revealing a cast of characters who conspired to commit crimes that many thought to be unthinkable.
Michael Vecchione is a senior figure in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, and at age 63, continues to serve the City of New York. He and Dades go back a long way and when it became apparent that two cops had gone rogue, both knew that this case would be one they would never forget. This is their recollection of the development of the case and how and why it was then taken over by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. The story at first resembles an intricately woven puzzle with each piece coming into the picture as the story moves forward. And as each revelation comes to light, I was as shocked and confused as Dades and Vecchione were then. But the seduction of the case keeps them lured in and both are determined to do whatever they can to bring down the two corrupt cops who had since retired and moved to Las Vegas. But this was no ordinary cold case and it quickly became apparent that there was far more than meets the eye.
It should be noted that this is not the story of the lives of Eppolito and Caracappa. While the authors do provide some background information on them, they never go into extensive detail but provide the information when necessary to the narrative at hand. This is the inside story of the case to bring them to prosecution, a case which almost completely fell apart after a District Court Judge reversed his own ruling. At times the story seems surreal as we meet mobsters Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso and Burt Kaplan, who died in July, 2009. And like a Hollywood production, the story takes off as the mobsters reveal staggering numbers of robberies and murders. But the cream of the crop were their tales about the cooperation and services of two NYPD Detectives. To most people, the story seemed absurd and I remember reading about the trial in the newspapers. Hardly anyone though that two cops could have been pulling off hits for a crime family and shaking down criminals. But the truth is that we had seen it before with the corruption scandal of the 90s, Michael Dowd and through the testimony of Frank Serpico. But what was horrifying is that Eppolito and Caracappa had been accused of taking the corruption to a higher and far more deadly level. In short, this was a whole other ball game and both the Brooklyn DA and U.S. Attorney’s office knew this to be a cold hard fact.
Many of us would like to believe that the effort to bring the deadly duo to justice was the result of a concerted effort by law enforcement. But as the authors point out, this was far from the case and almost from day one, a web of suspicion developed as the FBI and U.S. Attorney began to see the payday in prosecuting the two cops. At that point it was game on and the cat and mouse spectacle between the State and the Government bordered on the unbelievable. They pull no punches in this book and lay out the case from start to finish. And while the government did get a RICO Act conviction that was later affirmed by an appeals court, the case nearly crumbled under its own weight. But the justice system worked as it was designed giving prosecutors the victory they desired. Today, Eppolito and Casso are still alive but will both spend their last days in prison. We can only guess as to how many more crimes occurred that were never revealed. Those are secrets that all of them will undoubtedly take to the grave. But this book by Vecchione, Dades and Fishers, gives us an inside look into what might possibly be a black hole of crimes between mobsters and law enforcement that have escaped prosecution. In fact, the crimes that are revealed are so mind-boggling that I found myself not wanting to put the book down at times because I could not wait to see where the investigation would lead next.
In the end, the prosecutors and cops scored a victory, but on personal levels, many sacrifices were made and these are also revealed in the book, showing the human and personal side of the major players. Their lives are not glamorous and in fact, during the case, they would each go through their own personal dramas that might have pushed others over the edge. Incredibly, the remain dedicated to the case while trying to save marriages, professional relationships and even their sanity while the work on bringing two of their own to justice. Today as they look back on the case, I am sure they will smile with satisfaction at having achieved justice for Betty Hydell and the families of the other victims of the killer combination of gangster and cops. Eppolito has maintained his innocence from day one, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. As he sits behind bars, I can only assume that he has pondered his past and how it shaped the future he his now living. He will take many secrets with him to the grave but he and Caracappa will forever be known as the mafia cops. This is a story of crime, dishonor and the prevail of justice in the City of New York.
There are some who say that the City of Miami was never he same after Giovanni Maria “Gianni” Versace (1946-1997) was shot and killed on July 15, 1997 by Andrew Cunanan (1969-1997). The world-famous fashion designer had given the city new life with his bold designs, outlandish parties and mansion called the Casa Casuarina. At the time of his death, the Versace name was a juggernaut in the fashion world, dominating news headlines and magazine covers. Tragically, in less than ten seconds, Cunanan changed all of that in ways that no one could have imagined. After Versace’s death, trials and tribulations nearly brought the company to the brink of extinction but today it is still going strong. And its creator is regarded as one fashion’s greatest minds. The story of his death is well-known having been relived through the FX award-winning series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. But what may not be familiar to viewers is the story behind the public faces of the company; Santo, Gianni and Donatella. The three siblings put their minds and personalities together forming the company that became a legend and a legacy. This is the story of their genius, a murder and the survival of a business.
The Versace story begins in Reggio Calabria, a small coastal town in southern Italy, where Nino and Franca Versace, raised their three children who would go on to achieve world-wide fame. A fourth sister and their oldest child, Fortunata, who was known by her family as Tinuccia, died in her youth. As one would expect from a story about a simple family living in post-war Italy, poverty initially makes itself known, not just for the Versace family but for many in Reggio, who would later immigrate to Milan only to face discrimination from the northerners who viewed their southern neighbors with disdain. But what no one knew then was that Milan, would one day serve as headquarters for the Versace product and a stepping-stone to stardom for Gianni and his siblings. From a young age he begins to lean from his mother Franca, the intricate parts of sewing and fashion design. As he gets older, chance meetings, including one in Paris with Karl Lagerfeld, provided the change of fate Gianni needed and before long, he and his siblings began to set the foundation for the Versace empire.
The book contains a significant amount of information about fashion products, earnings, cat walks and an endless number of celebrities who came into the Versace inner circle. But at its base, the book maintains its focus on the personal story of the three siblings. Their minds were and are still brilliant but even they would not be impervious to the many seductive aspects of quick fame, endless money and an abundant supply of vices, one of which nearly caused the complete self-destruction of Donatella. Marriages, relationships and the Gianni’s sexual orientation play their parts in the book as components to the complex yet tragic story that unfolds. The highs are many but the lows open to the eye to the dangers of excess and the pitfalls that surround the rich and famous. At the top of the command chain was the creative Gianni, backed by the bookkeeper Santo and the publicity worker Donatella. Together they seemed unstoppable as they continued to pull in millions of dollars while spreading the Versace name across the world. But their strengths are also what helped contribute to the dysfunction that existed and increased after Gianni’s untimely death. Both Donatella and Gianni were known to be lavish spenders but what is revealed in the book is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The money nearly went out as fast as it came in.
No one will ever know why Cunanan decided to murder Versace. Ball states that clearly in the book. And while she covers the murder, she does not give it extensive coverage. For those who are interested in Cunanan and the manhunt that followed, I highly recommend Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth in which she tells Cunanan’s story from start to finish. Here, Ball focuses on the aftermath of the murder and how it affected all of those around Gianni, even his niece Allegra who could have imagined the way her late uncle would change her life without her knowledge beforehand. To her credit, she rises to the occasion, providing an interesting turn of events in the story that never lets up from the start. Regrettably, she did not provide an interview for the book and Ball states that she would have provided invaluable insight into the story of the company’s survival. Nevertheless, Ball has clinched it here through interviews with Santo, Donatella and hundreds of other people who work for or personally knew the Versace family. And the result is the definitive account of the House of Versace.
“I want to be a designer for my time” – Gianni Versace
I remember with vivid clarity the day that Giovanni Maria “Gianni” Versace (1946-1997) was shot and killed in front of his home in Miami, Florida. My friends and I were in shock and in the wake of the shooting, we kept hearing the name Andrew Cunanan (1969-1997). None of it made sense but from the news we did learn, Cunanan was a one man crime spree and through fate, he crossed paths with the world-famous fashion designer. Twenty-one years have passed since Versace’s death but the fashion line that bears his name continues to remain strong. Several days after Versace was shot and killed, Cunanan took his own life aboard a houseboat that was eventually seized by the City of Miami. In the days after his death, more information about his erratic and deadly lifestyle came to light and also revealed how law enforcement missed vital clues contributing to what Maureen Orth calls the largest failed manhunt in U.S. history. By all accounts, Cunanan should have been caught long before he walked up to Versace on July 15, 1997. However, miscommunication and in some cases prejudice against homosexuals, resulted in investigations crippled from neglect, allowing Cunanan to remain at large before committing his final murderous act. The world now new the name Andrew Cunanan and it would never be forgotten. But just who was Andrew Cunanan and how did he make the FBI’s Most Wanted List? The list is reserved for the most dangerous of criminals and typically a suspect such as Cunanan would not normally be found on the list. His use of extremedly deadly force rightfully earned him a place among the most deadly killers on the run in America at the time. Maureen Orth, a journalist for Vanity Fair, covered Versace’s murder and was familiar with Cunanan before the final events in Miami. In this chilling account of Cunanan’s path of rage, she recounts his life helping us understand how and why he descended into madness.
Orth takes us back in time to the Cunanan home were Modesto “Pete” Cunanan (1930-2005) and his wife Mary Ann (1938-2012) raise their several children. Andrew quickly becomes his dad’s favorite, but even his charm would not be enough to keep the family together as his father fled to his native Philippines in 1989. The event would have a profound effect on the young child and unbeknownst to many, the seeds of chaos had already been planted. What is evidently clear in the book is that from an early age Cunanan displayed many of the characteristics that would be shown in adulthood and vividly remembered by those he encountered. And as he makes his way to manhood, he becomes more immersed in his homosexuality and it is at this point in the book picks up speed and Orth takes us deep inside the world of gay men. I should point out that Cunanan was not a “gay killer”. While he did commit murder, it was not based off of his orientation nor were his victims targeted because of their orientation. And I also believe that readers uncomfortable with homosexual subject matter should avoid the book altogether. But for those who have been fascinated by the Versace murder and Cunanan’s story, it is necessary to understand this world to understand Cunanan. Further, the misunderstanding of this world is one of the factors behind the failure of authorities to capture Cunanan earlier in their investigations.
If Bret Easton Ellis had not written American Psycho in 1991, he could have easily used Cunanan as the model for the book’s central character Patrick Bateman, but with a few minor tweaks. Every killer has that one moment where something snaps and they begin their rampage. Cunanan was no different and once he began his murder spree that would spread across several states, he left a trial of violence that will undoubtedly shock many readers. At times the book may seem like a Hollywood production but this is not fiction, the events were real and the aftermath devastating. Selfishly, Cunanan chose suicide instead of standing trial for his crimes. He did not leave behind any journals or notes explaining his motives. In fact, it seems that his own goal was to kill. Orth does an incredible job of taking us through the events as we follow him across the U.S. From one city to the next, he adds a new victim leaving law enforcement in the dark as to why and how he was able to keep evading authorities. Tensions ran high and even the FBI, drawn into the case through cross-state crimes, found itself deeply wanting to apprehend the monster. When Cunanan was found dead, authorities and the public breathed a sigh of relief. His death would not bring Versace back but it did mark the end to a path of destruction that surpsisingly did not claim many more victims.
If you want to know the story behind the hunt for Cunanan and the crazy yet glamorous lifestyle he lead, then this is the book for you. It is not a biography of Versace although she does include a good of information on the Versace empire. This is Cuanan’s story and the deadly path he took as he slowly made his way to the home of the world’s most popular fashion icon.
There are many questions about the origin of man, the human race has yet to find conclusive answers for. We know that ancient civilizations existed and flourished before some mysteriously ceased to exist. Relics, structures and writings have survived giving us clues about their lives. Of all of the ancient civilizations, the most inspiring and sought after remains Ancient Egypt. The pyramids and Sphinx are marvels that have puzzled engineers for thousands of years. Without the benefit of blueprints, we can only offer guesses as to how and why the structures were created. But from the temples, mummies and monuments that have survived, it is evidently clear that ingenuity was one of its greatest traits. Africa has been cited as the cradle of civilization, serving as the home to the oldest tribes known to man. The Christian Bible and Hollywood have done their part in bringing the stories to life, and in the process put Ancient Egypt on center stage. The Pharaoh Ramses II in The Ten Commandments, beautifully played by the great Yul Brynner, has become a commonly accepted image of the real life Ramses II. But how accurate was Brynner to his real life counterpart? And what did the Ancient Egyptians look like? It is tempting to think of them based on those we see in Egypt today. But we should know that history often includes many surprising facts, some which we may have never guessed without revisiting the past. Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-1986), of Diourbel, Senegal, was a noted historian and anthropologist, who studied the origin of the human race and in his eye-opening account, he seeks to find the truth about the role of Black Africans in the origin of civilization.
Any reader considering this book must be able to clear his/her mind of images today of the continent of Africa. Not only are the images typically disheartening, but they have no resemblance to the time period of which Diop is speaking. Here we go back in time thousands of years when Egypt was the most powerful nation of earth and home to knowledge sought by truth seekers from afar. Among these was Herodotus, credited as the first historian of the modern world. The famed scholar recorded a journal of his travels and with regards to the Egyptians, made note of their negro appearance. But Diop does not stop there and revisits the words of other scholars who visited the ancient kingdom and saw with their own eyes, the Egyptians and Ethiopians described by many of them as Negroes.
Some may be asking what is the point of proving that the Egyptians were negro? That is a very good question and I do believe the book speaks for itself. But I will say that the reason is that for thousands of years, the negro has been viewed as substandard and Africa has historically been viewed as a land of savages that needed “culture”. Those who study history will readily know how imperialism wreaked havoc across the continent as tribes were decimated while Christianity and Islam fought for converts. The late Harry S. Truman once said “the only new thing in this world is the history you do not yet know”. True words indeed. What is key to keep mind while reading this book is that history has for too long, been written to make those of color look inferior. But truth typically reveals much different pictures. For those readers who are African or Black American, you may find this book hits close to home. Personally, it confirmed many things I learned in high school regarding African culture. But sadly, across most history textbooks, you will be hard pressed to find these facts. Every Easter, The Ten Commandments is played on television. The film is a cinematic masterpiece regardless of what one believes about Christ, and the performances by Charlton Heston (1923-2008) and Yul Brynner (1920-1985) made the film legendary. But the film ignores the truth about the Ancient Egyptians and the role of Africans in the origin of civilization. The revelations in the book in no way seek to negate the contributions to society of Ancient Greece, Germany, the Sumerians or Mesopotamia. But the crux is that nearly all of these societies took their cues from the Egyptians who were much different from what many of us have believed for thousands of years as history was redacted or re-written.
The book is not an attempt to disparage other nations. Diop seeks only to highlight the truth which has been hiding in plain sight. And the artifacts, hieroglyphics and statues he uses in the book give credence to his words. Without question, he proves that there was more to the Ancient Egyptians than many have been willing to acknowledge. It might be worthwhile to brush up on world history, in particular the periods before Christ to keep up with Diop. His scholar background resulted in the book being on the heavy side with dates and names. A chart might be necessary for those readers who intend to continue down this path of research. Nevertheless, any reader can follow along and understand the concept of the book. Admittedly, there are many things about Ancient Egypt that we may never answer and Diop does not profess to have all of them. How and why the pyramids were built is still a mystery. We may never known how Egyptian architects made exact measurements without the aid of modern technology. Notably, in our lives today, we have many things that come from them that have been retained over time. In short, we owe our lives to them for they are our ancestors along with the Aztecs, Mayans and other ancient civilizations that possessed incredible knowledge and customs which still amaze us today.
The civil war the engulfed the small Central American nation of El Salvador from 1980-1992 caused the deaths of over 75, 000 people. The violence, heartache and oppression felt by millions of El Salvadorans has reverberated over the years as a reminder of dark times for the country known as the “Pulgarcito” (Tom Thumb of the Americas). The conflict forced millions of people to flee, many of them settling in the United States. For those that remained, they faced years of more turmoil but also slow and steady healing. The nation still has a long way to go and for the youth, there is much to tell about growing up in one of the most violent countries in the world.
Jim Winship is a Professor of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewate and was once a Fulbright Scholar in El Salvador and Colombia. By his own admission, he has traveled to El Salvador well over a dozen times. It has become a second home for him and his fondness for the country is evident in his words. This book by Winship takes a different approach to El Salvador and in comparison to Joseph Frazier’s El Salvador Could Be Like That, the story here is about the youth of the country and what it means to come of age in a place without many sources of hope. The book is set in two parts, the first tells the history of El Salvador, introducing or re-introducing facts to the reader. I believe many Americans will be surprised at some of the things that can be found in the book. And I will go a step further and say that there may be some people who could place the small country on a map. To some, it is an afterthought or just another Latin American nation plagued by corruption and violence. But to take a such narrow-minded view disregards the complicate and tragic history between El Salvador and the United States. In fact, El Salvador’s existence for the last forty years is directly related to U.S. foreign policy. The truths are uncomfortable but necessary in understanding the decline of a beautiful country with some of the nicest people who I have met.
The second half of the book moves on to the stories of young people who have grown up in El Salvador, some of them through the civil war. This is the crux of the book and drives home the author’s points about coming of age in El Salvador. The words are sharp and the stories moving, leaving readers to question what they thought they knew. Person after person, we learn of the despair and income inequality faced by young men and women making life in El Salvador perilous. Unsurprisingly, nearly a third of El Salvadorans live in the United States. Some are legal, others illegal, but they all have their stories of how and why they left the only home they knew. Some will go back either on their own accord or by deportation. What they will bring back to their home nation could be a blessing or a curse. As Winship relays in the book, the deportations carried about the U.S. Government helped set the stage for one of the largest crime waves in El Salvador’s history. And that same crime wave is now spreading across American cities. I believe many readers will shake their head in bewilderment at the revelations in that section. The old adage holds true that we do reap what we sow.
No book about El Salvador would be complete without a discussion about violence there. Winship discusses this to give readers an honest analysis of violent crime. Latin America is a hotbed of revolution and has been for over a century. The late Simón Bolívar once said “when tyranny becomes law, rebellion is right”. Across the continents of Central and South America, violent protests and removals of presidents sometimes by military force, have etched into the fabric of the many nations found on both continents, a lingering distrust of government and vicious cycles of corruption that may never be broken. Whether El Salvador can leave both of these in the past completely, remains to be seen. The future for some is bleak but others never give up. And one day they may reach their goals of prosperity, health and happiness. But their stories will always remind of days past when there was no shining light.
The images that were published in Jet magazine of Emmett Till’s (1941-1955) mutilated corpse still cause readers and viewers on the internet to recoil in shock. With their graphic detail and macabre detail, the pictures of Till’s face become burned into the memory of anyone who has seen them. The story of Till’s murder at fourteen years of age because of allegedly “whistling or cat-calling a white woman” is a dark reminder of the ugly history of racism that prevailed in American culture. Today such a crime is unimaginable, but in 1955 it was not only very real but also encouraged by rabid racists with a vendetta against people of color. In January, 2017, Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman at the center of the Till story, allegedly admitted that her claims were false. Regardless, the mere thought of such an act was more than enough to get a Black American lynched at that time and Till became one more victim on a long list of senseless murders carried out by maniacs emboldened by racist ideology. Till’s murder was creepy, appalling and downright shocking but another part of the story which is just as dark is the execution of his father Louis Till (1922-1944) by the Unites States Army in Civitavecchia, Italy, after being convicted of being part of the rape of two Italian women, one of whom was murdered during the crime. Till never gave any statements about his innocence nor did he confirm his guilt but the army had what it needed and he fell victim to the hangman’s noose taking any facts with him to his grave. After his death, details of the execution were withheld from his widow Mamie but were revealed ten years later. His final resting place is at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Fère-en-Tardenois, France.
The thought that both father and son were executed because of perceived slights against white women is chilling and it is impossible to escape the aspect of race. Two young Black men accused of having committed crimes against white females could not and would not be permitted to survive. Their deaths are reminder of the misguided belief of the pursuit and dominance over white females by black males. Sadly, it is a misconception that still exist to this day. But what exactly did happen in Civitavecchia? Undoubtedly a crime did take place and most likely by the hands of U.S. servicemen. But there is always the requirement of conclusive evidence and in this case, there is much we do not know. But author John Edgar Wideman decided to take another look at Till’s case, even requesting and receiving a copy of the military’s case file by way of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the book he does not include the entire file and moves between excerpts of it and his own story which is recounts as he writes about Till. The style of writing might confuse some readers but I believe Wideman presented it that way because of the parallels between his life and Emmett’s. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Wideman is presenting to the reader an idea of the struggle of many Black American families during a time of fierce racial prejudice. But the focus of the book is on Louis Till and it is here that I think it falls just short of hitting its mark.
Wideman’s personal story is highly interesting and he does a great job of showing the plight of Black families in America during his and Emmett Till’s childhood. But I think that more of the Louis Till file should have been presented. He concludes that he could not save Till from either prison or the hangman but from the portions of the file that he does include in the book, it is clear that reasonable doubt exist as to whether Till actually did the crime. And this is where the book should have reached its pinnacle. But this does not happen and the book’s slightly abrupt ending makes the reader yearn for more or some sort of closure. Sadly it never comes. And we are left to wonder about what actions, if any, Till did take on that night. In Wideman’s defense, the Army’s file had no index and was disorganized. I would not be surprised if some portions of it were removed or lost over the passage of time, making a definite conclusion beyond the reach of anyone today. None of figures involved with the case are alive preventing us from having the benefit of spoken words from those that were there. We are left to rely on the case file and our own beliefs. But I think one area where Wideman may have succeeded is igniting interest in Louis Till’s case in those that have read this book. I believe that there is more the Till’s case than we currently know and some day, another independent investigator may uncover the truth about his conviction and execution.
The book is a good read and just enough to get an idea of what did happen to Louis Till. But I believe it could have been much more effective with the inclusion of more of the file and some sort of definite conclusion even if it were the author’s belief. I do not know if Wideman will publish another book on the file but time will tell. For those looking to know more about Till’s sad and tragic life, this is a good resource to have.
At the height of 1930s era crime and depression, criminals that under normal circumstances would be looked upon with scorn, became larger than life iconic figures whose daring bank robberies and shootouts with policy became stuff of legend. The brazen thefts in the middle of broad daylight accomplished with the use of the Thompson Sub-machine Gun (Tommy Gun) and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) catapulted America into a new and deadlier form of crime. In response, the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) stepped into the foray and within a one-year stretch, arrested or executed America’s most wanted. At the top of this list was the late John Herbert Dillinger (1903-1934).
John Beineke has captured the outlaw’s life in this straight to the point biography of his life of crime and sudden death. It is neither praise or vindication of Dillinger but a look at the life of the legendary figure. The story begins in Indiana, Dillinger’s home state. After the death of his mother, the young boy slowly makes his way into a life in crime resulting in stint at Indiana State Prison after a conviction for robbery and assault. Paroled nine years later, it would be the last time that Dillinger served time in prison. In fact, he vowed never to return to a prison cell, a vow he kept until his final moments. But what is it about Dillinger that captivates people even today? In 2009, director Michael Mann brought Dillinger’s life to the big screen again, enlisting Johnny Depp in the starring role. The film was released under the title Public Enemies, and also portrayed the FBI’s pursuit of Lester Gillis, a.k.a George “Babyface” Nelson (1908-1934) and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd (1904-1934). Christian Bale stars as FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (1903-1960), tasked with capturing the outlaws at all costs. The film was solid and with an all-star cast, Mann recreates the feel of depression era America.
Here, Dillinger is the star and he has his own supporting cast of criminals, each of whom would meet their own violent ends. To say that Dillinger’s life was extraordinary would be an understatement. As we learn in the book, not only did he excel in knocking over banks, but no jail could seemingly contain him and incredibly, he often hid from authorities in plain sight. It is literally a story that no filmmaker could write. The pace of the book picks up early and it never slows down. And with each heist, Dillinger becomes more infamous to authorities and more a folk hero to thousands of Americans who believed the banks were the real enemies, profiting off the misery of the average citizen. In comparison to some biographies, mundane information is excluded leaving the reader with the facts peppered with occasional sub-stories between the major characters. Politics inevitably enters the story as America grapples with a rising crime wave and Washington reconsiders the tenure of the FBI’s longest-serving director whose job might have ended if not for the apprehension of Dillinger and others.
Less than one hundred years ago, John Dillinger used Midwestern banks as his own personal ATM. His escapades filled newspapers, filled with tales of crimes by fellow outlaws such as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Flood and part-time accomplice, Baby Face Nelson, who enters and leaves this story on multiple occasions before parting ways with Dillinger for good not long before both would be gunned down. Today such a crime spree is unthinkable but in Dillinger’s era, a time before two-way radios, cellphones and social media, bank robberies and shootouts with cops were common occurrences. Beinecke has taken us back in time to relive the decade that Dillinger made a name for himself. Curiously, although the end of his story is widely known, the story still pulls the reader in with its engaging descriptions of the Dillinger gang’s exploits and graphic descriptions of the deaths that occurred as a result. The outlaws will always be romanticized in American culture. In fact, they are as American as apple pie. Dillinger has been dead for more than eighty years but if you research depression era gangsters, his name will appear on every single list. He lives on in infamy and is idolized by some as a rebel who fought against the corrupt banking establishment as a modern-day Robin Hood. To the FBI, he was a public enemy whose capture was more important than anything else. In the end, they would get their man but not before Dillinger left his mark and became part of history.
On May 23, 1934, citizens across America tuned into news broadcasts coming from Bienville Parish, Louisiana that outlaws Clyde Barrow (1909-1934) and Bonnie Parker (1910-1934) had been shot and killed by law enforcement officials after a carefully laid trap to snare the wanted fugitives. Their deaths bring an end to crime spree that left several police officers dead and put the couple on the list of America’s most wanted. At the time of their deaths, both were under the age of twenty-five and their story has been both romanticized and distorted in films and books. The film taken of their car following the shooting can easily be found online. It is a chilling piece of a postmortem recording with Bonnie’s body sitting limp inside the front passenger side seat still clutching the partially eaten sandwich she had ordered for breakfast that morning. In death, they would become part of American lore from an era in which banks were robbed, V-8 engines ruled the road and the middle of the country was home to nearly every outlaw known to authorities. But who were the real Bonnie and Clyde? And how much of their story is truth and how much is fiction?
Author Jeff Guinn has investigated these questions and others as he presents to us the untold truth of the story of the couple. The story beings and takes place mostly in Texas with West Dallas serving as home base for both of them. But their life of crime spread out across several states, earning them the wrath of law men determined to see their demise. Without questions, their exploits are what attracts people to them. Like Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd (1904-1934) and George “Baby Face” Nelson (1908-1934), Bonnie and Clyde are poster figures produced in a time in which the depression was in full swing, cars were easy to still, guns plenty and an organization known as the FBI was developing under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972). The past seems distant but it was less than one hundred years ago when these notorious figures traversed America on paths of destruction before meeting violent ends. But to understand these figures, it is necessary to understand their lives and this is where Guinn excels in revealing the truth to the story of Parker and Barrow.
The tendency we have when examining a person’s life is to seek a moment that explains their evolution to a new level of greatness or infamy. But with Parker and Barrow, it was not so much a moment but a series of events in each of their lives that led to the development of the most dangerous couple in American history. And what Guinn tells us might surprise readers expecting to find tragic childhoods for both. In fact, although poverty was an issue in rural Texas, both the Parkers and Barrows found ways to make ends meet and maintained strong bonds with the couple until the time of their deaths. Barrow’s mother Cumie, is perhaps the most pitiable for throughout her life she never stops loving her son. Bonnie’s mother Emma, is cut of the same cloth, never-ceasing to love her daughter even as she sinks deeper into a life of crime. And through Guinn’s words, they appear not just as violent outlaws, but as a couple deeply in love, dependent on each other and unable to keep their families’ hearts from breaking. Theirs’ is a tale of tragedy and violence that could not possibly end with redemption and a second chance.
In addition to presenting their story, Guinn clears up many erroneously reported facts, setting the record straight once and for all. In an era before television, the internet and social media, word of mouth spread quick and with each crime, Parker and Barrow grew into larger than life characters that put fear in the hearts of anyone they crossed. Clyde is rightfully credited as the leader of the Barrow Gang and the reason for Bonnie’s descent into a life of crime. But to understand the dark mind of Clyde Barrow, a visit to his past, in particular his time at Eastham prison, is necessary for his transformation from small time crook to feared outlaw begins there. That section of the book, like the shootouts with authorities, may not be an easy read for some. The descriptions are graphic leaving no stone unearthed so that the reader can fully understand the presence of death that was formed and remained with the Barrow Gang. The full nature of their murder spree and their willingness to gun down law enforcement officials was a times shocking and at other times jaw-dropping. In fact, as I read the book, I felt as if I were transplanted back in time looking over the shoulders of the gang as they slept in cars, traveled back roads a high-speed and allowed their minds to become filled with delusions of grandeur about a life together in tranquility after their life of mayhem was over.
The book is well-researched and well-written. Much has been written and said about the duo over the past seventy years but Guinn’s book stands as a complete and unbiased account from start to finish of the lives and deaths of Bonnie and Clyde. From the day I started it, I could not put it down as I was pulled into a masterpiece about two of America’s most dangerous and idolized historical figures.
It is sometimes called the forgotten war, the conflict which remains in the background as World War I, World War II and Vietnam take center stage as the wars that defined the United States Military and U.S. foreign policy. Unbeknownst to many Americans, the Korean war never officially ended. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 bringing a halt to the firing from all sides. But the armistice did not permanently resolve the conflict and to this day the 38th parallel, instituted after World War II, remains as the dividing line between the Communist North and the Democratic South. Recently, U.S. President Donald J. Trump attended a peace summit with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. Washington claimed the summit a success but only time will tell if the Korean War will officially come to an end and peace is finally obtained. For veterans of the conflict, feelings run deep and mixed thoughts on the summit are bound to exist. Two years ago, a veteran of the war close to my family died after several years of declining health. Curiously, he never spoke of the war, preferring to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself for more than 50 years. And as he went to his grave, he took with him, knowledge of the war and memories that most people would never want to have. But the questions still remain, what caused the conflict and why did war wage for three years? Furthermore, why did the fighting eventually cease?
Author T.R. Fehrenbach (1925-2013) served in the Korean War and was later head of the Texas Historical Commission. In 1963, this book was published, ten years after the fighting had ceased. His memories are crisp and the reporting second to none. He takes us back in time as history comes alive, letting us step inside the war beginning those fateful days in June, 1950 when the North Korea People’s Army invaded its southern neighbor. Under the direction of Kim Ill Sung (1912-1994), North Korea initiated the opening salvo in a war that claimed over two million lives. News of the invasion sent shock waves through Washington and President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was faced with a decision that would change the course of history. On June 30, 1950, he ordered ground troops into South Korea to assist the Republic of Korea Armed Forces (ROK). At the time no one could have imagined what lay in store.
From the beginning the story pulls the reader in as Fehrenbach recounts the Japanese occupation of Korea and the long-lasting effects of Japanese rule on Korean society. In fact, to this day, influences of Japanese culture can still be found in Korea. Following the falls of the Japanese Army in World War II, Korea found itself in a position to chart a new course. But similar to Germany and Japan, the country became a pawn in the chess match between the United States and the Soviet Union. Unsure of what to do with South Korea, the nation remained in a vulnerable position until the North made its move. And once the fighting began, the speed picked up and refused to die down. North Korean and U.N. forces lead by the United States, engaged in deadly combat that saw casualties climb exponentially on both sides. but what was clear from the beginning as we see in the book, is that Korea was an entirely new type of conflict for America.
Savage is the adjective that comes to mind to describe the fighting between opposing nations and ideologies. Beyond brutal, the Korean conflict was akin to hell on earth for all of its participants. And just when we think that the war might swing in the favor of the U.N. forces, the war takes a darker and more dramatic turn as the People’s Republic of China enters the fray changing the scope and the rules of the Korean War. At the time China enters the story, the fighting has already claimed thousands of casualties. But it is at this point that the battle reaches a higher and more deadly level. Quite frankly, the world stood on the verge of the next holocaust. Today we know that did not happen. But why? America had the troops and the money to fund the war but what was it that held back the United States from entering into a full-scale ground assault? The answers are here and this is the crux of the book. Following World War II, American attitudes towards war began to change and Korea was the first testing ground for the gaining influence of politics over armed conflict.
What I liked most about the book is that aside from the statistics of casualties and the descriptions of the deaths that occur in the book and POW internment camps is that Fehrenbach explains how and why events progressed as they did and also why Washington was committed to fighting on a limited scale. The fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was still fresh in the minds of nations across the world. President Truman gave the order to drop the bombs and I believe no one doubted his willingness to use them again if necessary. Whether he would have eventually given the order is unknown as his time in office came to an end and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower succeeded him. But for the new president, the conflict still raged and opinion towards the war had become negative. And while peace did come during his term, the body count climbed up until the very last day.
The story of the Korean War is one that is rarely mentioned in textbooks and never discussed today. But this book by Fehrenbach truly is a classic study of the war. In a meticulous and chronological order, he tells the story from start to finish and along the way, incorporates relevant parts of American society and world history into the story. Although not a “textbook” in the classic sense, the book very well could be for it gives a concise explanation for the causes and effects of the war and how it was eventually resolved. If you are interesting in expanding your knowledge of the Korean War, this is the perfect place to start.
I have often wondered why my uncle and many other veterans that I have met, were sent to Vietnam. He and others never speak of the war, choosing instead to internalize their memories and feelings. But from the few things about being Vietnam that my uncle has told me, I cannot image what it was like to be fighting a war in a jungle 13,000 miles away from home. Today he is seventy-two years old and his memories of Vietnam are as sharp today as they were when he left the country to return home. And there is a part of him that still remains in Vietnam, never to leave its soil. He is one of five-hundred thousand Americans that served in a war that claimed fifty-eight thousand lives.
The reasons for America’s involvement in Indochina have been muddled and in some cases omitted from discussions. Secrecy became the standard method of communication in more than one administration in Washington as the United States became deeper involved in a conflict with no end goal in sight. Daniel Ellsberg gained fame and infamy when he revealed the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the country. The New York Times later published a review of the documents and today it is available in the form of a book titled The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War. The book is enlightening and contains a trove of information regarding how and why decisions were being made in the White House as control of the government passed through several presidents. Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) published his own memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. The book has its fans and critics. McNamara has often been blamed for the war and the vitriol towards him was so strong that in later years he declined to talk about the conflict. True, he was a participant in the events leading up to the war, but many other players had a hand in the game which became deadlier as time went on. To understand their roles and the policies enacted, it is necessary to revisit the complete history of U.S. foreign policy in Indochina. David Halberstam (1934-2007), author of The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy, conducted his own research into the war’s origins and the result was this New York Times bestseller that is nothing short of mind-boggling.
Halberstam admits that he knew Ellsberg and in fact, he reviewed the Pentagon Papers as he wrote the book. In addition he conducted hundreds of interviews but was careful not to reveal any of their names. When Ellsberg was indicted and had to stand trial, Halberstam was subpoenaed to give testimony, unaware then of how Ellsberg came into possession of the documents. But what started out as a look at the life of former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996), grew into this definitive account of the reasons for the Vietnam War.
The book follows a carefully guided timeline and the story of Vietnam begins in China before moving on to Korea and eventually Southeast Asia. These parts are critical for they set the stage for foreign policy decisions in the years that followed and explain many of the mistakes that were made. As President Eisenhower winds down his time in office, a new young Catholic Democrat gripped parts of the country as he declared himself the next person to occupy the White House. By the time John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) took office, the road to Vietnam had already been paved. It is at this point in the book where the pace picks up and never slows down. The concept of the best and the brightest came to Halberstam as he thought of a phrase for Kennedy’s cabinet of intellectuals who were set on reshaping Washington in the image they believed was right to push the country forward. One by one he introduces us to all of the characters that have a role in the story, tracing their origins and helping us to understand how they reached their positions in the government. Some of them are as mysterious as the country’s then paranoia about communism taking over the world. But as they come together, something still is not quite right and Vietnam becomes the issue that will not go away. And for the thirty-three months Kennedy was in office, the American involvement would grow in Indochina but the nation had not yet entered a war. The growing crisis however, had begun to cause a rift in the White House and the deception employed by those loyal to the military and war hawks is eye-raising and chilling. I also believe that it helps explain Kennedy’s murder in November, 1963. We can only guess what would have happened if he had lived. There are those who strongly believe we would have withdrawn from Vietnam. I believe that is what would have happened, probably sooner rather than later. But Kennedy was gone and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, inherited the nightmare of Vietnam.
As Johnson settles in to being the new Commander-In-Chief, Indochina becomes a thorn in his side and he becomes conflicted with the decisions he will eventually make. This part of the book is the crux and the key to the final push by the military for a war. Many of Kennedy’s cabinet members continued to stay and at first worked under Johnson. But as time passed and the ugly truths about Vietnam came back from Saigon, they would fade out as Johnson led the nation down the path of escalation. Halberstam is a masterful story-teller and the scenes he recreates from his research are spellbinding. Nearly everyone in the book is now deceased but as I read the book I could not help but to scratch my head at their decisions and actions. The warning signs of Vietnam loomed ominously large but tragically were ignored or discounted. Washington suffered from a tragic twist of fate: although it had the best and the brightest in Washington, they still made mistakes that literally made little sense. And that is a central theme in the book. The war’s architects were all brilliant individuals with endless accolades yet they failed to understand what was considered to be a peasant nation far away from home. Many of them would suffer in one way or another. For Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam eventually became the final nail in the coffin that sealed his chances at reelection.
During the reading of the book, I also noticed at how Halberstam explained the actions of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong. In order to understand why Vietnam became a stalemate, it is not just necessary to understand the failures of Washington, but the strategy of Ho Chih Minh and the generals under him. The small peasant nation took on a colossus and refused to give up. And the battles of Vietnam changed warfare and showed the world what many believed to be impossible. Arrogance and in some cases, racist beliefs laid at the base of some foreign policy decisions regarding the war. History has a strange way of repeating itself and the repeated warnings from the French fell on deaf ears as American troops landed in a place many of them knew nothing about. Looking back with hindsight, the critical failures are clearly evident and although Halberstam shows us how we became involved in Vietnam, we are still baffled about why. How could so many minds filled with so much knowledge make such rudimentary and baseless decisions? The answers are here in this book in the form of official cables that withheld information, overzealous military advisors, an unstable South Vietnamese government, National Security Action Memos and the idea that the United States could solve any of the world’s problems. This book is a must-read for those who are interested in the history of the Vietnam War.