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James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette: Milwaukee Vice

February 15, 2020

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the sixth instalment in Jason’s series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin.

Milwaukee first felt the corrosive effects of the Great Depression in the beginning of 1930. The national wave of bank failures trickled down to local businesses who began layoffs that would eventually affect more than 50,000 workers over the next three years.  Foreclosure, eviction, homelessness and malnutrition skyrocketed.

Many families turned to public assistance, and the private charities and government officials overseeing the distribution of this welfare were quickly overwhelmed. Those who did receive aid often complained that it was grossly insufficient.

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The Milwaukee Leader Reported on how the Cream City Economy was Severely Affected by the Depression

Vincent Crupi ran vice for the Guardelebene family, particularly the brothels of Milwaukee’s East Water Street.  In 1930, reports surfaced of Crupi starting fires to eliminate competition from neighboring brothels. Detectives Ralph Hostettler, John Carnell, and Patrolman George Broder raided the Green Light Brothel in October, 1930.  Crupi was arrested for running the brothel and released on $750 bond. Four local girls were arrested for prostitution. The very next evening, the Milwaukee vice squad raided five establishments and made 13 arrests. Crupi was arrested yet again for running a brothel.

Following the raids, Police Chief Jacob Laubenheimer ordered Detective Sergeant Burt Stout removed from the head of the vice squad and placed on regular night duty. Stout was charged with neglecting official duty following allegations that he protected Crupi.  The accusations alleged that Stout told the district attorney to drop his case against Crupi.

Chief Laubenheimer both defended and berated his detective when speaking to the press: “In the 20 years that Detective Sergeant Stout has been connected with the vice details, he made the acquaintance of many underworld habitues, obtaining information from them which greatly aided the department in arresting other criminals…  [However,] he failed to use good judgement. […] To permit a house of ill fame to operate merely because a lead might be obtained that would enable the police to arrest other criminals is not, in my judgement, good police work.”

As native Milwaukee chronicler Gavin Schmitt details it, the Milwaukee vice squad then underwent a complete shakeup: Detectives Hostettler and Carnell were made permanent vice officers, while all others involved in the raids were replaced with 10 new officers.  Sergeant Arthur Schiefelbein was appointed the new head of vice and was ordered to report directly to Inspector Joseph Bernard Drewniak. Chief Laubenheimer said internal investigations revealed that favoritism was shown in the vice squad to certain repeat offenders, and especially to Crupi.

To eradicate the favoritism, Laubenheimer ordered that offenders only be arrested once under city ordinances, which carried with them nominal fines, while officers could respond to repeat arrests with state charges, which implied jail time.

The police board, led by Inspector John Bauschek, met to hear testimony on the ousted officer Burt Stout. Though Crupi was called to testify, he never appeared. Stout himself testified for more than two hours and was allowed to cross-examine other witnesses.  The police board ultimately found Stout guilty of incompetence and neglect, and Chief Laubenheimer, who held the final decision, demoted the 18-year vice veteran.

Crupi was convicted on charges of running a brothel (known in court jargon as “operating a disorderly house”) in December, 1930, and sentenced to a term of 1-3 years in the house of correction.  The vice lord’s time there would earn the House of Corrections the dubiously apt moniker “House of Corruption”.

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Mafioso and Vice Lord Vincent Crupi

Chief Laubenheimer was content with the verdict, saying afterwards, “I hope [this] will act as a warning to all the other vice mongers in the city.”

As Gavin Schmitt notes, former guard Charles Lappe kept a diary of daily activities for ten years. It was in these pages where Lappe documented frequent scandal in the house of corrections, including a wild 1933 party on New Year’s Eve involving a nude woman and large makeshift fans.

The next day, guards painstakingly cleaned up the debris, which included broken glass from 42 smashed windows and countless broken benches and chairs. As you may expect, Vincent Crupi sat at the epicenter of the chaos…

Former inmate Joseph Gapinski was subpoenaed before the Milwaukee County Board Committee on Institutions. After serving 38 months in the house of correction on a robbery charge, he began telling stories of inmates receiving favorable treatment through bribes. According to Gapinski, guards were paid to smuggle love letters out of the prison for Crupi, who in turn supplied the guards with liquor and tobacco. Also, Gapinski stressed in his testimony that House of Corrections Inspector William Henry Momson was unaware of such daily circumvention.

Inspector Momson was relieved of duty and suspended without pay following Gapinski’s testimony. Civil Service Commission Chief Examiner David Vincent Jennings charged Momson with permitting federal prisoners to leave the workhouse without the proper authority. Specifically, Jennings referenced the allegation that Momson personally chauffeured infamous Green Bay bootlegger “King George” Kolocheski (under the guise of retrieving a deed from a safety deposit box) to Green Bay’s posh Northland Hotel for several wild parties which Momson eagerly participated in.

In response to the testimony, District Attorney William Zabel asked the county board to replace Inspector Momson with Sheriff Joseph Shinner. Deputy Inspector Gillette Benson, Assistant Deputy Matt Ebert, and nine guards were also suspended for misconduct.

It would be far from the last time that scandal tainted the Cream City’s vice squad.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…

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