Diary of a DA: The True Story of the Prosecutor Who Took on the Mob, Fought Corruption, and Won

Diary of a DA: The True Story of the Prosecutor Who Took on the Mob, Fought Corruption, and Won

by Herbert J. Stern


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In 1961, twenty-five-year-old Herbert Jay Stern, fresh from reserve duty, stood in his green army uniform in a New York County courtroom to be sworn in as an attorney. He could only guess what his life as a prosecuting lawyer would be. A dozen years later, in the wake of the national scandal of Watergate, Stern, draped in black robes now, would take the oath of office as a federal judge. In the years between, the idealistic young Stern would sharpen his skills in the realities of the criminal courts of New York City, to emerge as the lead trial attorney for the Justice Department, charged with breaking the back of organized crime in New Jersey.

Stern’s highly charged account of his outright war against powerful state government officials and the mafia takes us deep inside the mechanisms of law and order during a time when assassinations came fast and loose, cities were burning in race riots, and racketeering and graft were so prevalent in the Garden State that its own senator called it a “stench in the nostrils and an offense to the vision of the world.” Before Stern and his equally dedicated colleagues on the “strike force” out of Washington, D.C., are finished, they will have successfully prosecuted the mayors of Jersey City, Newark, and Atlantic City for being on the take; a congressman for conspiracy, tax violations, and perjury; and blackened the eye of organized crime.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620871676
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 09/01/2012
Pages: 576
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Herbert J. Stern is considered one of the most famous district attorneys in the history of the United States. He helped catch the killers of Malcolm X, indicted the head of the French CIA for shipping 100 pounds of heroin into the United States, prosecuted the real-life Tony Soprano, and convicted the mayors of Newark , Jersey City, and Atlantic City.

Read an Excerpt

The Complaint Bureau February– December 1962

AFTER THEY SWEAR you in as an ADA — assistant district attorney — they give you a badge a few weeks later with your name on it. It looks just like a detective shield, only it isn't. It is not official, and it entitles you to nothing. But it's good for showing friends, particularly girls.

A few months into my new job I'm riding on the subway, traveling from the courthouse to my walkup apartment in a brownstone on West 76th Street, when the train stops at 42nd Street. The doors open. I am right next to a woman standing with her bag over her arm. She is holding onto a pole near the open door. Quick as a flash, a guy jumps into the car, flips her bag open and takes her wallet out. He does it so fast she doesn't know it happened. He jumps back onto the platform.

Without thinking, I leap onto the platform just as the doors close, and follow him down the platform. The guy hustles to the stairs, which will take him up to the street.

He is chugging along. Fast walking. I keep following and looking — and praying — for a cop. This guy is on his way to the street level and I'm still following him, trying to look like I'm not. Still no cop. He hits the street, with me trailing. He takes out the lady's wallet from his pocket, goes through it, takes the cash, and I see him looking around for a trash can to dump the wallet. When he finds one there will be no evidence to corroborate that he stole anything. That is, if I ever do find such a thing as a policeman in Times Square, which has plenty of small shops selling "dirty" pictures, but no cops.

I'm trying to figure what to do, when I see that he has spied a trash can across another street and he starts heading for it. We are now two blocks away from the scene of his underground crime and I'm about to give it all up, when I remember my badge.

I run at him, grab him by the arm, show him the badge, and — trying to look like a cop — tell him he is under arrest. I hope he doesn't notice that the badge says "Stern," not "Detective." I quickly put the shield away and seize the woman's wallet from his hand. Now I have him with one hand and the wallet in the other, and still no cop. I'm plenty scared, but to my surprise he is docile, like he was expecting it, or has been there many times before.

Finally I see a patrolman. I walk the guy over, hand him to the cop, and say, "Officer, this is a DC (6)," which is code for a pickpocket, and give the cop the lady's wallet. I know this because one of my principal jobs as a new ADA is trying offenses like pickpocketing, smoking in the subway, bookmaking, and romances between men in public toilets. But on this case I am the complainant, not the ADA. That is not so good for the thief. He pleads guilty in that very court.

The next day there is a brief story in the paper about the incident, which quickly makes the rounds in the Complaint Bureau where I work, and I am a celebrity for a few hours. I never hear from the victim, but I do get a letter from somebody who had been pickpocketed on a subway and wrote that she wished I had been there at that time. I also get chewed out by David S. Worgan, the executive assistant district attorney to Frank S. Hogan — the DA — who told me not to do that sort of thing again. So that is the last time I pull my badge until the day Malcolm X is assassinated — but that comes much later.

Facing Worgan is humbling. He has been a member of the office since 1938. That means he was part of the original group headed by the legendary Thomas E. Dewey, the biggest racket buster in New York history. After hitting the mob, including Lucky Luciano and the corrupt pols, Dewey was elected DA of New York County — that's Manhattan — in 1937, then governor. He then parlayed it all into two presidential nominations, the first against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1944, and the second against Harry S. Truman in 1948. On his way out of the DA's office to the governorship of New York in 1941, Dewey pushed Frank Hogan into his spot.

Now, 21 years later, not only Hogan but also other Dewey men are still there.

"Let me tell you," Worgan says, "assistant district attorneys are not vigilantes. We don't arrest people. We can and do order the police to make arrests, but we do not make them ourselves."

"I understand," I say. What I don't say is that I was not going to permit that bozo to commit a crime under my nose. And I'd do it again. But I just nod, which he takes for a yes.

"Good," he says, nodding towards the door.

I get out quickly, but as I glance back I see he is grinning, so I figure it is all right. I go back to my job in the Complaint Bureau.

* * *

The Complaint Bureau is where all new ADAs start. We begin by taking complainants, often off the street. And you never know what will walk in cold from the streets of New York.

Joe Stone, the ADA in charge of the bureau, another Dewey original, greets and breaks in new assistants. You get the lecture about how you are going to hear about "swindles."

"There's no such a crime as a swindle," he waves his finger at me, in his office for the first time. "We prosecute larceny, we prosecute fraud," he intones, "but when they say they have been swindled, out they go." And he lays out how the bureau works.

Sometimes complainants have an appointment, sometimes not.

Sometimes they have no place else to go. They complain about neighbors, even radio waves coming through the walls. But occasionally you get a real one, he explains.

Stone makes it clear that everyone, nuts or not, gets a courteous hearing. That means you sit, you listen, and then you try to ease them out. If you have a real problem, you call upstairs to the DA's office squad of detectives and you ask for assistance from one of those old hands who are capable of ending problems gently, but efficiently. And if you have a meritorious complaint, you get one of the detectives assigned.

Just a few weeks into the job, sitting in my office, the telephone rings.

"Stern," I answer.

"I'm Dr. Hugh Davidson."

"Yes, Doctor, what can I do for you?"

"I need to see you as soon as possible," he says, in a tight voice. Like the lips are moving but the vocal cords are kind of frozen.

I can't resist asking what the trouble is. He tells me he's married to a famous opera singer at the New York City Metropolitan Opera, whom he thinks is being ripped off. At least he didn't say "swindled." So I ask him how. "Well, there is this gentleman named Charles Kingsley," he tells me, "who claims to be the heir to a two hundred million dollar fortune." My ears perk up, but so does my disbelief.

This Kingsley, the husband reports, is an opera lover who has promised the good doctor and his opera star wife $105,000 each — only they each have to give him $3,200 for the gift tax first.

I can't believe this Dr. Davidson is serious. I ask him if they gave this Kingsley the money. Oh yes, says he. And by the way, he says, Kingsley did the same thing with another "opera star."

Now I have my doubts about this Dr. Davidson. What kind of nut would believe such bullshit? And not just one, but two opera stars? He sounds like one of Joe Stone's promised crazies. What can I do? I make the appointment. I tell him to bring the two "stars" with him. I ask what their names are. "My wife's name is Nell Rankin," he says. The other singer is Margherita Roberti. I set the appointment for later in the day. I also call the Met and ask about Rankin and Roberti — if there are any such people. The ladies are not only for real, I'm told, but while Roberti's just started with the Met, Rankin is one of their leading singers — a mezzo-soprano who usually plays the lead in Carmen. I am excited and can't wait for their arrival. I even start sprucing up the office in anticipation. These are my first celebrities. I also call the DA's office squad and ask for detectives to be assigned to sit in on the interview.

In a few hours the divas show up with Rankin's husband, and I have two of the largest detectives of the DA's office squad — Henry Cronin and Joe Feeley — not only waiting, but filling half my small office. Soon I have five people stuffed around my desk/conference table, which makes for close quarters.

We go over their story. Kingsley, apparently ensconced in the social world of the opera, met Rankin first, then Roberti through her. Pretty soon they were all hanging out together, often being driven in Kingsley's chauffeured limousine, with him pointing out various buildings that he claimed to own as they drove by them on their Manhattan jaunts. Then came the bite. Everybody gets $105,000 each. How he got to that amount is confusing — but what is clear is that everybody had to write him a check for his or her gift taxes. Rankin wrote the check, but her husband explains that he stopped payment on the way to the DA's office. By the way, he says, Kingsley just announced that he is leaving for his ranch in Brazil tomorrow.

Everyone goes quiet. The complainants are looking at me. Worse, the two senior detectives are too. What am I supposed to do now? Arrest Kingsley? What if this guy really is a multi-millionaire? I see the detectives looking back and forth at me, and then at each other, and Cronin asks Davidson to repeat the part about a ticket to Brazil. I finally get the clue and tell the detectives to go to Kingsley's hotel and invite him to my office. I figure that there is nothing to lose there: If Kingsley is for real, I'm just checking stuff out; if he isn't, I will lock him up. I tell the detectives to be sure to be polite. They nod, with their most serious faces on.

In an hour they are at Kingsley's hotel. The two giants arrest him in the lobby and drag him out to the street with him screaming and crying, his hands cuffed behind his back. By the time they get him down to the office, he has blabbered out a full confession, and I breathe a great sigh of relief.

* * *

On the days we are not catching complaints upstairs in the office, we are in court. And that is some court.

The organizational plan of the DA's office is quite clever. New ADAs catch complaints and lead investigations, if the complaint is worthy of it, using New York City detectives from the DA's office squad. The other part of the job is to try offenses in the magistrate court, where we cut our trial teeth, until ready to move up. The next step is the Indictment Bureau, then Special Sessions Bureau to try misdemeanors, and then, if we are lucky, on to try felonies in the Supreme Court Bureau. The idea is that you get better and better at trial work by doing it in volume, in progressively more serious courts. There is no formal training. You learn from your mistakes.

What are these offenses in the magistrate court? Along with smoking in the subways, pickpocketing, and men soliciting each other in public toilets — usually a cop claiming to be solicited — the vast majority of these prosecutions are for gambling, in the form of either bookmaking or numbers running.

We spend a lot of time and a lot of the public's money going after the various runners operating in the gambling syndicates. We view these offenses as serious violations, to the amusement of the cadre of defense lawyers, who are often teamed with bail bondsmen, providing a full line of services to various "illegal" gambling organizations.

The defense attorneys, typically older men who have been at it for years, kid us about how silly it is to prosecute people as criminals for providing a service that the public wants. It is wrong to use the criminal laws as expressions of false piety and insincere morality, they say, based on the made-up claim that gambling activity is harmful to society.

Most ADAs reject that argument. At least I do, at first. I buy into the idea that I am protecting society by vigorously prosecuting gamblers. Perhaps I should have remembered my Uncle Benny and his encounter with the blue laws, way back in the 1940s.

When I was a little boy, my Uncle Benny was a barber. He was in his sixties, a little guy who wore a beard and a yarmulke, because Uncle Benny was a big-time Orthodox Jew. He followed all the rules. His problem was that his faith forbade him from working on Saturday. His next problem was that the laws of New York forbade him from opening his barbershop on Sundays because in the view of the majority of the voters, it was immoral to allow stores to open on the Lord's Day, which for them was Sunday. They were so serious about it that they not only personally refrained, they made it an offense for anyone else to work in a store on Sunday. Oh, they found a reason to justify the prohibition without saying out loud that working was immoral. Instead, they said they were protecting the quiet enjoyment of their day of rest. But Uncle Benny could not support his wife and nine children working just five days a week. On top of it his shop was located directly across from the Pitt Street police stationhouse. However, he found a way to solve all his problems. He snuck into his shop on Sundays.

I loved to go there for a haircut. Not only was it free, but Uncle Benny would also give me a quarter for each haircut. The role reversal amused me, even as a kid. But what I really loved, if I was there early, would be to see my Uncle Benny sneaking into his shop, making sure all the window shades were down so that the cops would be shielded from his illegal activities of haircutting and shaving on Sunday.

It did not take me long to figure out that with all these comings and goings every Sunday, the cops across the street would have had to be deaf, dumb and blind not to know what was going on. And yet these cops — undoubtedly mostly Irish and Italian Catholics — never bothered Uncle Benny. Even as a kid, I figured out that he knew they knew, and his window shade activities were designed to make it possible for them to let a guy who wasn't hurting anyone practice his trade and keep to his faith, law or no law. It was a humane arrangement.

But as an ADA, I prosecute the violations the cops bring to me. It takes me a while to figure out that maybe it is not such a good idea to always strictly enforce all the laws; that our society relies on prosecutors to have enough common sense to know when to look away or at least to overlook. This is dangerous talk, I know, raising fear of anarchy, but I have come to learn that prosecutorial discretion enables a system to work that would otherwise be broken by its own weight. You just have to know when to do that sort of thing. And when you must not.

Gambling, we are told, is a vice harmful to society and we can stamp it out by vigorous prosecutions. Never mind that houses of worship are openly running lotteries and sponsoring gambling nights. Never mind that the newspapers publish not merely the results of the horse races at the tracks, where people can bet at will, but also the details of the pari-mutuel betting, which horse paid what, enabling bookmakers to pay off horse bets and policy banks — that is numbers organizations — to select winning lottery numbers. We even see the corruption of law enforcement by senseless prohibitions of conduct that the public wants, but is reluctant to legalize. We do not understand that because some policemen see no point to enforcing these gambling laws, they are willing to corruptly refrain from enforcing them. Unfortunately, the gates are then lowered, and the mob owns those cops.

In all fairness, novice ADAs can hardly do other than prosecute, given an office's commitment to enforcing laws against gambling, homosexuality, and, as I soon discover, "obscenity."

* * *

On the days I'm not in the office catching complaints, I'm in one of these tiny magistrate courtrooms trying six, eight, sometimes more cases a day. Only trouble is that I am terrible at it. At least in the beginning.

The court itself runs on an assembly line basis. Cops wait in the hall for their turn. And when it comes up, the cop hands me the complaint he has previously filed as we stand in the hallway.

Bzz, bzz, bzz, he whispers in my ear, giving me the essence of the case in a few sentences. I bzz, bzz, bzz back a question or two. In five or ten minutes we are ready for trial. In these cases, there is often just one witness: a vice squad cop.

However, the proceedings themselves are not informal. Small though the quarters are, there is a real judge in a robe. I get to say, "Herbert J. Stern for the People," which of course is short for "The People of the State of New York." The oath the witness takes is real, and all the rules of evidence and all the constitutional rights apply. The problem is that I don't know anything about how rules and rights apply in practice. All I have is theory.

The University of Chicago Law School, from where I graduated a half dozen months before, is a great law school. Like other great ones — Harvard, Yale, Virginia, and so forth — it taught me how to think about stuff, but not how to actually do any of it. For instance, I studied the concept of wills, but never saw an actual will. The other classes were more of the same: I never saw a search warrant in Criminal Law. I never learned how to avoid leading questions on direct examination, or how to use them on cross-examination, in a class called Evidence. I took and passed the bar exam without knowing or being tested on any practical skills. Even that exam I could not have passed without going to a special bar review course.


Excerpted from "Diary of a DA"
by .
Copyright © 2012 The Herbert J. Stern Corp., Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter One: The Complaint Bureau February–December 1962,
Chapter Two: The Indictment Bureau 1962–1963,
Chapter Three: The Criminal Court Bureau 1963,
Chapter Four: "Why Did You Prosecute Him?" 1963,
Chapter Five: The End of the Beginning 1963–1964,
Chapter Six: The Homicide Bureau 1964,
Chapter Seven: "Get Me out of Here" May–December 1964,
Chapter Eight: The Beginning of the End December 1964–February 1965,
Chapter Nine: Time to Move On January–February 21, 1965,
Chapter Ten: The Murder of Malcolm X February 21, 1965,
Chapter Eleven: The Murderers February–April 1965,
Chapter Twelve: "The Kid Had the Key" April–August 1965,
Chapter Thirteen: A New Beginning April–September 1965,
Chapter One: The Department of Justice November 1, 1965,
Chapter Two: Peter Weber November 1–December 31, 1965,
Chapter Three: New Jersey January 1966,
Chapter Four: Operation Pipeline January 1966,
Chapter Five: Price Tower January 1966,
Chapter Six: The Special Grand Jury January–May 1966 104,
Chapter Seven: The Visits June 1966,
Chapter Eight: The Best Lawyers in America July 1966–February 1967,
Chapter Nine: Motions and Riots February 1967–November 1968,
Chapter Ten: Voir Dire November 13–14, 1968,
Chapter Eleven: The Opening Argument November 19, 1968 135,
Chapter Twelve: "That Was Very Good" November 19, 1968,
Chapter Thirteen: Simon Hirsch Rifkind November 1968,
Chapter Fourteen: "The Dirty Bastards are Shaking us Down" November–December 1968,
Chapter Fifteen: "The Meat of the Coconut" December 1968,
Chapter Sixteen: "I Swear Before My God" December 1968,
Chapter Seventeen: Final Argument January 1969,
Chapter Eighteen: "Political Money Is Cash Money" January 1969,
Chapter Nineteen: The Thing We Have to Fear January 1969,
Chapter Twenty: Verdict January 23, 1969,
Chapter Twenty-One: Dead Man's Testimony January 23–April 15, 1969,
Chapter Twenty-Two: Mugs, Jurors, and Openings April 15–18, 1969,
Chapter Twenty-Three: "Déjà Vu All Over Again" April 17–18, 1969,
Chapter Twenty-Four: A Dead Man Testifies April 18–May 28, 1969,
Chapter Twenty-Five: "You Were Out with a Blonde" April 22–May 28, 1969,
Chapter Twenty-Six: The Most Important Witness May 28, 1969,
Chapter Twenty-Seven: A Union Man May 29, 1969,
Chapter Twenty-Eight:The Miss Mitzi May 30–June 5, 1969,
Chapter Twenty-Nine: Verdict June 5–7, 1969,
Chapter Thirty: "No One May Pay a Public Official"—Simon Hirsch Rifkind June 9–27, 1969,
Chapter One: Jersey Boys June 27–August 14, 1969,
Chapter Two: Henry and Me August 14–21, 1969,
Chapter Three: A Letter from the Grave August 22–September 2, 1969,
Chapter Four: "Hughie Gave Us the City" August 28–September 2, 1969,
Chapter Five: "A Stench in the Nostrils" September 2, 1969,
Chapter Six: Stepping on Toes September 3–December 3, 1969,
Chapter Seven: "Let's Go" December 4–5, 1969,
Chapter Eight: "The Biggest Secret" December 5–7, 1969,
Chapter Nine: "An Efficient and Effective Government" December 7–17, 1969,
Chapter Ten: Gerald Martin Zelmanowitz December 17, 1969–January 5, 1970,
Chapter Eleven: Trials and Tapes January 5–6, 1970,
Chapter Twelve: A Beating and a Stipulation January 7, 1970,
Chapter Thirteen: Trial Within and Without January 8–28, 1970,
Chapter Fourteen: Confrontation, In Court and at the Bar January 1970,
Chapter Fifteen: The Don January 1970,
Chapter Sixteen: "Even the Nice People" January 29–February 10, 1970,
Chapter Seventeen: "A Frame Up All the Way" February 10–March 5, 1970,
Chapter Eighteen: "We'll All Have to Stay Home" March 4–May 12, 1970,
Chapter Nineteen: "The Kind of Thing Americans Don't Like" May 12–June 1, 1970,
Chapter Twenty: "A Reign of Terror— Like the French Revolution" June 2–9, 1970,
Chapter Twenty-One: Hero and Heroine June 8–16, 1970,
Chapter Twenty-Two: "The Spaghetti Is On" June 16–July 1, 1970,
Chapter Twenty-Three: "You May Sit … Mr. Guilty" July 1–22, 1970,
Chapter Twenty-Four: "For the Greater Good" July 23–August 31, 1970,
Chapter Twenty-Five: "No Ordinary Crimes" July 27–September 22, 1970,
Chapter Twenty-Six: "That Great Jewish Lawyer" September 22–October 29, 1970,
Chapter Twenty-Seven: "Let Me Finish" October 30–November 1970,
Chapter Twenty-Eight: "The President Is Entitled to the Lawyer of His Choice" November 4–16, 1970,
Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Commission November 16–December 31, 1970,
Chapter Thirty: Acting U.S. Attorney January 1–31, 1971,
Chapter One: United States Attorney February 1–19, 1971,
Chapter Two: Washington, Trenton, and Paris February 19–March 31, 1971,
Chapter Three: "An X Will Be Fine" March 31–May 17, 1971,
Chapter Four: "A Way of Life" May 17, 1971,
Chapter Five: Trashcans and Florida Bank Accounts May 17–31, 1971,
Chapter Six: The Boss Is Out May 31–June 22, 1971,
Chapter Seven: "Quite a Saver. Quite a Housewife." June 22–July 3, 1971,
Chapter Eight: He Built the Garden State Parkway July 3–4, 1971,
Chapter Nine: Heroes July 3–4, 1971,
Chapter Ten: "Do You Want Me in This Job?" July 5, 1971,
Chapter Eleven: "You Have Eighteen Months" July 7–August 18, 1971,
Chapter Twelve: South Jersey Republicans and Lefties August 18–September 1971,
Chapter Thirteen: "Still Want the Job?" September 1971,
Chapter Fourteen: Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum September 15–28, 1971,
Chapter Fifteen: The Jersey Shore October 1–November 2, 1971,
Chapter Sixteen: Jersey City; Atlantic City; Paris, France November 2–15, 1971,
Chapter Seventeen: Come and Stand Trial November 15–December 3, 1971,
Chapter One: Full Salary December 3, 1971,
Chapter Two: Newsmaker December 3, 1971–January 15, 1972,
Chapter Three: "Foaming at the Mouth" January 15–March 27, 1972,
Chapter Four: "Why that's Bullshit, Mr. Gallagher." "Try to Prove it, Mr. Stern." March 27–April 14, 1972 428,
Chapter Five: Under Attack April 11–21, 1972,
Chapter Six: "I'll Have to Investigate" April 21–26, 1972,
Chapter Seven: A Nation of Men as Well as Laws May 1972,
Chapter Eight: A Stench Lingers May 2–23, 1972,
Chapter Nine: A Matter of Privilege May 23–July 1, 1972,
Chapter Ten: "Sealed with a Kiss" July 1–August 1, 1972,
Chapter Eleven: Ghosts August 1–November 9, 1972,
Chapter Twelve: Looking Ahead September 1–November 9, 1972,
Chapter Thirteen: A Private Inquiry and a Christmas Gift November 9–December 1972,
Chapter Fourteen: "Mr. Stern and his Staff Merit Cooperation" January 1–9, 1973,
Chapter Fifteen: "We Will Summon the Wind" January 10–February 28, 1973,
Chapter Sixteen: Off to the Races March 1–20, 1973,
Chapter Seventeen: "We are Going to Tell the Truth" March 20–April 1973,
Chapter Eighteen: "Don't Tell Me That!" April–May 15, 1973,
Chapter Nineteen: "Cleansed Climate" May 15–June 5, 1973,
Chapter Twenty: Watergate and Washington May 15–June 5, 1973,
Chapter Twenty-One: Law and Order June 5–30, 1973,
Chapter Twenty-Two: "Something Smells" July 1–September 1, 1973,
Chapter Twenty-Three: DeCarlo Still Speaks September 1–October 22, 1973,
Chapter Twenty-Four: The Flaming Pen October 22–31, 1973,
Chapter Twenty-Five: I Want You to Be Attorney General October 31–December 7, 1973,
Chapter Twenty-Six: A Promise December 7, 1973–January 18, 1974,
End Notes,

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