By Stephan Benzkofer
January 15, 2012
Al Capone was a scourge of the city of Chicago. The brutal gangster controlled not only many illegal enterprises, namely beer and booze, but also influenced the legal ones through bribes and threats. It took the full weight and power of the federal government, working on multiple fronts, to bring him to justice.
No one man took down Al Capone. On Dec. 18, Flashback focused on Chicago Crime Commission chief Frank Loesch and his efforts to turn the public sentiment against Public Enemy No. 1. That was a vital weapon in the fight, one that was also wielded by U.S. attorney George E.Q. Johnson, who railed against the evils of gangsterdom from almost the day he was appointed in 1927. Johnson vigorously took the fight to Capone and his henchmen, successfully prosecuting Capone's brother Ralph, Frank Nitti, the Guzik brothers, and the beer barons Terry Druggan and Frankie Lake.
Internal Revenue agent Frank J. Wilson gets credit for doing most of the investigative work that led to the tax evasion conviction.
Eliot Ness, on the other hand, was the bulldog. Starting in 1927, he raided Capone breweries, seized thousands of gallons of booze and arrested dozens of gangsters. His work was instrumental in the big indictment reported in the Tribune on June 13, 1931, that named the gang chief and 68 of his top men in a $200 million illegal beer business.
But it was U.S. Judge James Wilkerson who defied not only the power of Capone but also the wishes of the federal government in handing down the unprecedented sentence. Wilkerson famously lectured Capone that "it is utterly impossible to bargain with a federal court" and refused a plea bargain agreement that forced the tax evasion trial.
Each played an important role in ending the gangster's iron grip on Chicago, often in the face of death threats, bodily injury or attempts to smear their good names.
The United States attorney
Johnson, who was born and raised in Iowa, started practicing law in Chicago in 1900. The first big salvo in the gang wars came in November 1929 when the U.S. indicted Ralph Capone, Druggan and Lake on tax fraud charges. The Tribune noted it was the first use of the new weapon — income tax evasion charges — which would prove so very effective. Over the next two years, Johnson worked his way through Capone's organization, winning convictions or guilty pleas and sending gangsters to prison for one, three or even five years.
Al Capone was indicted twice, on two consecutive Fridays in June 1931. The first was the tax fraud case, the second was the massive, 5,000-count Prohibition case. And then Capone pleaded guilty. Yes, just four days later, he admitted he did everything the government accused him of doing. The Tribune story speculated that the gangster calculated that he would go to prison for a short time — he hoped for as little as 11 months — get released just as the Depression was ending and take back the reins of his criminal enterprise.
Johnson would be publicly embarrassed by the plea deal and leniency showed Capone, though approval of the deal reportedly went up to the U.S. attorney general and possibly the president. But Johnson felt he had good reasons: His case wasn't great, and he said later he was worried that key evidence wouldn't be admissible.
Wilkerson wouldn't go along, allowing Capone to withdraw his guilty plea. The case went to trial.
While Johnson's assistant, Dwight H. Green, who would later be elected Illinois governor, was the lead lawyer during the trial, Johnson handled the closing arguments. The Tribune reported, "Mr. Johnson was earnest, so much so that he was almost evangelical at times, clenching his fist, shaking his gray head, clamping his lean jaws together as he bit into the evidence and tore into the defense theories." Johnson eviscerated defense arguments comparing Capone to Robin Hood.
"Did this Robin Hood buy $8,000 worth of belt buckles for the unemployed?" he said. "Was his $6,000 meat bill in a few weeks for the hungry? Did he buy $27 shirts for the shivering men who sleep under Wacker Drive?"
The Prohibition agent
There has been much debate lately over how much Ness contributed to bringing down Capone. He is one of the most famous crime fighters of the 20th century. But Ken Burns' "Prohibition" documentary last year shed doubt on his importance. While it is true Ness played a smaller role in developing the tax evasion case that finally put Capone behind bars, the Chicago native's work was still crucial to the case. As Johnson himself explained, each brewery raid netted more evidence, more papers and a better understanding of how Capone's gang operated. Each conviction led to the next indictment. "This squad from the district attorney's office was led by a very capable young man by the name of Ness, who is a graduate of the University of Chicago, and he selected the squad," Johnson said. "The plan was to cause the Capone gang to lose money, and this squad took brewery after brewery."
Finally, although Ness' work technically may not have put Capone in prison, it very well may have kept him there. In March 1932, Johnson announced a reindictment of the gang chief on Prohibition violations based on evidence found in post-trial raids. The point? With another indictment pending, Capone would not be eligible for parole.
The Internal Revenue agent
Wilson is credited with breaking the code of Capone's impounded ledgers, then tracking down the low-level gangsters who could testify to how those ledgers proved Capone made money, which was the trick. Officially, Scarface didn't have a bank account, own anything or make a dime. One of Wilson's biggest assets in that work was Edward O'Hare, a wealthy racetrack owner who was inside Capone's gang. (O'Hare's son, Butch, was the World War II pilot whose name would end up on the airport.) The senior O'Hare fed Wilson a constant stream of information, including the tip that the gangster had bribed members of the jury pool.
On Dec. 31, 1936, Wilson was named chief of the U.S. Secret Service. The headline labeled him, "Capone nemesis." He retired in 1947. He wrote or co-wrote a number of articles in the Tribune about the effort to get Capone.
The federal judge
In the end, it all came down to the judge. The U.S. attorney and the officials in Washington were willing to settle for a plea deal of 21/2 years. Capone was counting on that. And gloating about it. And Wilkerson couldn't stand it. He ignored the plea deal, embarrassing Johnson and his D.C. superiors, and forced the trial.
Wilkerson also deftly handled a crisis just as the proceedings were starting: Wilson's tip about the bribed jury. Wilkerson's solution was Solomonic but unlikely the dramatic gesture portrayed in nearly every book or movie about the trial. In those accounts, Wilkerson told the bailiff from the bench to swap his jury with that of another federal judge. But if that happened in open court, it was missed by the reporters from not only the Chicago Tribune, but also the now-defunct Chicago Daily News and Chicago Herald-Examiner . More likely, the maneuver was ordered more quietly. Significantly, the swap involved the entire jury pool, not an already impaneled jury. The news reports from that day exhaustively detail the voir dire process that must have occurred after the swap.
A week after his conviction, the gangster stood before Wilkerson for his sentencing, still hoping for the leniency many of his fellow hoodlums had received. It was not to be.
"Let the defendant step to the bar," Wilkerson said. After detailing each count and sentence, Wilkerson summed it up for the man who was once far above the law: "The result is that the aggregate sentence is 11 years and fines aggregating $50,000."
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