February 17th, 2013
TODAY IN HISTORY:
Laredo D.A. Defends City’s Reputation: 1953. The District Attorney for Laredo, Texas, defended his fair city’s reputation against allegations made by a Mexican newspaper in Nuevo Laredo, just a cross the border, that there were homosexual activities taking place on the American side of the line. D.A. James Kazen was responding to a series of articles by El ManaÃ±a, a morning daily with wide circulation in both communities, which claimed that many prominent citizens of Laredo were involved in homosexual activities, and promised to run a list of names in a future article. Kazen denounced the stories as “wholly untrue,” and successfully appealed to Judge R.D. Wright to reconvene a grand jury to investigate the reports. Kazen did acknowledge that there were homosexuals on the streets of Laredo — but only four, and two of them were outsiders who had only recently moved to town.
“Chicken And Bulls” Blackmail Ring Busted: 1966. A massive, multi-state blackmail ring stretching from Chicago to New York To North Carolina was broken with the arrest of nine extortionists, with eight more being sought. As The New York Times reported, the gang employed “chickens” (including college students and at least one bodybuilder) who posed as young gay men who would allow themselves to be picked up by other gay men, usually travelling businessmen, to go back to the hotel. Once there, the “chicken” would beat and rob their victims and leave. A few hours later, other men — the “bulls” — posing as policemen would arrive at the hotel for another shakedown. Saying that they had arrested a homosexual prostitute with the victim’s wallet in his possession, the “police” needed to victim to go to the station to make a statement. Fearing exposure, the victim would often offer a bribe to the “police” to make the whole problem go away. In another version of the shakedown, “police” would burst into the hotel room just when the men were in a compromising state of undress, and the shakedown would begin with the threat of arrest.
The gang’s success hinged on several factors: homosexuality was illegal everywhere except Illinois, and even there the mere threat of being publicly exposed was enough to induce the victim to do just about anything to avoid having his reputation, career and family life ruined. The ring’s longevity — it would later be revealed that it had been in operation for about a decade — was further aided by the fact that none of the victims went to the police. And why would they? They already thought they were dealing with the police. Actual police corruption was so rampant, with many of them operating their own blackmail schemes using many of the same tactics, victims had no way to tell the fake cops from the real.
To further add to the confusion, some members of the gang actually had police connections, allowing the gang to imitate police officers with a great deal of precision. John J. Pyne, the ringleader of the gang, was a retired Chicago policeman. In his home, the FBI found police badges and identification papers for almost every state, along with a variety of blank arrest warrants, charge sheets and extradition forms from several jurisdictions. As the investigation and trials unfolded over the next two years, investigators would learn that millions of dollars were extorted from over a thousand victims. The victims themselves were no lo-lifes. They included university deans, professors, military officers (including a navy admiral and two generals), several well-known actors, TV personalities (including, it’s been said, Liberace, who refused to testify before a grand jury for fear of ruining his career), and at least one U.S. Congressman. Their boldness knew no limits. Twice, they confronted Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) in his Capitol Hill office, took him to a private plane to fly to New Jersey, and brought him directly to a bank where he paid a total of $50,000. They pulled a prominent surgeon out of an operating room, forcing his colleague to finish the surgery. They even went into the Pentagon and escorted Admiral William Church out of the building and to a bank where he handed over $5,000. Church later committed suicide to avoid testifying before a grand jury against his blackmailers.
Church’s suicide (and Liberace’s reticence) was indicative of the greatest problem that the FBI and New York Police Department faced in trying to break the case: almost none of the victims were willing to talk to police, let alone testify. If there is a silver lining in the whole affair, is is probably the fact that investigators had to figure out how to set aside their own prejudices, and through persistence and discretion, build a foundation of trust between themselves and the victims. The Mattachine Society was enlisted as a go-between so that victims might feel less exposed. Some judges, where they could, allowed victims to testify anonymously, or allowed victims to testify about the blackmail without going into any sexual details. These accommodations were a complete turnaround from the way law enforcement and the courts had dealt with gay people during the Lavender Scare of the 1950s. Press coverage was also markedly different. With the roster of victims including the cream of society, it was much easier to portray them with considerable sympathy. As one law enforcement official told The Times, “Extortion of money from well known persons who are homosexual or bisexual is a persistent problem. We want to alert these people who come from all walks of life that such extortion schemes exist and we want to impress upon them also that New York City detectives are no part of this disgusting racket.”
Over the next two years, various members of the ring were tried, with most found guilty and sent to prison. Pyne was sentenced to two consecutive 20-year federal prison terms. Weightlifter John Fellabaum, a ringleader who posed as a musclebound “chicken,” angered the judge when he forced a witness, an antiques dealer from Maine, to take the stand and publicly out himself, after which Fellabaum immediately changed his plea to guilty. The judge was outraged. “I have been sentencing people for twenty-seven years and it has been a a long time since I have come upon a case that was so revolting as your case. I think you are so steeped in filth that as I read the report I cringed, and my flesh crept as I read the depth of inequity to which you allowed yourself to sink.”
[Sources: William McGowan. “The Chicken and the Bulls” Slate (July 11, 2012). Available online here.
Angus McLaren. Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002): 239-242.]
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