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"Arizona was a crazy, crazy place," remembers Otis Thrasher, one of Arizona's first narcotics agents. "Every kid who had a nickel could go down to Mexico and be a drug dealer."
— The Kansas City Times, February 12, 1983
THE CHICANO WITH the pockmarked face jabbed me hard with the butt of his gun, and I doubled over. The followup, his knee to my chest, put me on the floor gasping for air. Nearby, I could see the blood from Bob's split nose dripping steadily on the carpet of the Tempe apartment. This was supposed to be just a bunch of college kids throwing their money together to buy some weed, but somehow, we wound up in a room with three nasty-looking bad guys with a shotgun and a couple of .38s who were taking our money and kicking our asses.
I was in Sin City, Tempe's ghetto of student apartments — every one of them with a beanbag chair, an Easy Rider or Clockwork Orange poster on the wall, and a package of Zig-Zag rolling papers in a drawer. All the kids in this particular room, about ten of them, were older than me and clean-cut — chinos, Bass loafers, button-down Pendleton shirts — hardly the image of the doper in anti-drug commercials. I was a little rougher, more of the leather jacket rocker type, but none of us were tie-dyed hippies.
It was 1971 and the streets were full of kids like me, long-haired eighteen-year-olds who could vote for the first time and were protesting the war in Vietnam. We didn't simply question authority, we denied its existence. We wanted to be free to do what we wanted — and what we wanted was sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. I was just an upper-middle-class Jewish boy from Kansas, taking part in a cultural revolution.
I had no idea that getting ripped off that night would change my life forever.
Just fifteen minutes earlier, I had heard a knock on the front door and Bob, the gangly, awkward kid who lived in the apartment, answered with an easy smile. A big man with a red beard stood in the doorway, a Chicano on each side of him — one older with a scarred face, the other younger and smaller but just as tough-looking.
"Do you have the cash?" asked the big man.
Bob pointed to the table in the middle of the room. Stacked neatly were separate piles of bills, held together by rubber bands. My $300 was the smallest contribution to the pool of $10,000. My fellow student, Steve Asher, who brought me to the apartment, had the biggest pile. The big man, who looked like a cross between Ernest Borgnine of McHale's Navy and a red-bearded Viking, seemed pleased. He nodded to the scarred Chicano, who returned to the van they drove up in. In a few seconds, he came back lugging a burlap gunnysack that reeked of weed.
"Can we check the shit out first?" Bob asked.
The big man entered the room, followed by the Chicanos. Bob closed the door behind them.
"You want a sample?" asked the big man. "You don't trust me?" "Hey man, be cool. We've never done this with you before. Just to show it's good shit."
The big man slowly looked at everyone in the room.
"Okay," he told his compadres. The scarred Chicano opened the burlap sack and pulled out a shotgun, which he pointed at each of our faces. We were all too stunned to move. Almost simultaneously, the big man and the younger Chicano had both pulled out handguns.
I looked at my $300 on the table. My last $300. Damn.
My Sin City apartment was costing $175 a month. I was working as a salesman in a clothing store and a floor sweeper in a pizza parlor, but at $1.85 an hour, I wasn't making nearly enough money. I had asked my father for a loan but he said, "That's your problem to solve." He reminded me that tuition for out-of-state students was expensive and that it was my "stupid decision" to go to Arizona State University, so I had to live with it. "It's time you proved yourself," he said.
I had met Asher at a campus party. He graduated a couple years earlier from my high school, Shawnee Mission East in Overland Park, Kansas. Asher took me under his wing because he knew I needed money and he knew how I could make some. He called it "investing," which meant I was buying weed wholesale and selling it retail. My father was a businessman, so I understood the concept.
Asher didn't need the money. He had it all, and he knew it. He was blond, David Cassidy handsome, and living in the Lemon Terrace Club, the most expensive apartment complex in Sin City. The son of a wealthy electronics company owner, he had the best-looking girlfriends, credit cards from his parents, and drove a cherry red Trans Am. I was tooling around in the yellow Ford Galaxie Grandpa Bennie gave me as a going-away present.
Asher liked having a sidekick. He could tell me what to do and that made him feel better about himself. For me, at least it was better than being alone. Besides, one of his girlfriends was a high school senior with long brown hair named Karen Curtis. She reminded me of a Kewpie doll, a small body with big eyes. She was so perfectly pretty that everywhere she went, heads turned. I was a rocker and she was a little more straightlaced but I hoped that someday we might get together.
"If you need money, you can invest," Asher had said.
"This is cool?"
"As cool as an Eskimo's toilet."
Now I was about to lose it all.
"Okay kids, playtime's over," said the big man with the red beard. "Turn around and up against the wall."
We did what he said. The younger Chicano searched us, taking out our wallets and stuffing the cash in his pocket. He found a lot in Asher's wallet, but mine was empty. He threw it at the back of my head.
Meanwhile, the big man scooped up the pile of money from the table and shoveled the bills into the gunnysack. After he finished, he crossed the room and grabbed Bob by the shoulder, pushing him flat against the wall.
"You're a real smart-ass, ain't ya?" he asked, his face close to Bob's. He pulled a long bowie knife from his belt and continued berating Bob. "No sonuvabitch pussy like you asks me to do shit." He placed the knife tip under Bob's nose. "Someone oughta teach you some manners," he said. Bob's face was red with fear. The big man pressed the shiny blade upward and Bob tried to stand on his tiptoes so it wouldn't cut him.
"Don't hurt me," he whimpered.
The big man pushed the knife into Bob's skin. Bob would have been lifted off the floor except that the blade split his nose open first. He put his hands over his face, trying to stop the flow of blood and tears streaming down his cheeks as he crumpled to the floor.
I'm no saint, that's for sure, but no matter what I did later, and what anyone might think of me after reading about the life I've lived, I never hurt an innocent person and I hated it when other people did. Bob was just a naïve kid. The big man and his friends had their money. They could have just left it at that.
I turned from facing the wall and took a step towards Bob. It was just an instinct, and I didn't really have a plan in mind. It was that move that made the Chicano put me on the floor. "Chingo, you stupid, eh?" he asked as he looked down on me.
Yeah, it was a pretty stupid move. I was at the mercy of these assholes. Being helpless, unable to fight back, is the worst feeling in the world.
The three of them walked backward to the door and left. Nobody moved until we heard their van speed away. There was a rush of air as everyone let loose a sigh of relief at the same time. Bob ran into the bathroom. I pulled myself up, wincing with pain.
"We have to call the police," someone said.
"What the hell are we going to tell them?" answered Asher. "'Well, Officer, we were making a pot deal and these bad guys came in and took our money. Do you think you can get it back for us?'" End of discussion. Rip-offs happened all the time. They were never reported.
As I got into Asher's Trans Am outside the apartment, I asked if he knew the robbers.
"Forget about them."
"They took my last $300."
"What? You want to go after them? We're lucky we're alive. They've killed kids before, that's what I've heard — even when they get the money."
"So you do know them."
"Heard of them. They're called Prairie Pirates. Welcome to the real Wild West."
Nothing was going right. Asher could go back to his nice apartment and, after a beer, a bong, and a babe, shrug it off. But I had none of that waiting at home for me. I was a nobody — and now I was broke too.
I went to my shabby little apartment and sulked as I watched movies late into the night on my tiny black-and-white TV. I could always lose myself in the movies. Ever since I was little, I would imagine myself as the hero. Lots of kids do that. But I believed it.
Just days after getting ripped off, a movie came on that had me glued to the screen: The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, a gangster flick by Roger Corman that came out a few years earlier, in 1967. A true story, it was about a hit squad from Al Capone's South Side Chicago Italian Mob gunning down seven of George "Bugs" Moran's North Side Irish hoods; except this bloodbath wasn't one of those stand-up shoot-outs or a black sedan driving past a restaurant and spraying it with bullets.
It was February 14, 1929, and Moran's gang was holed up in a small garage at 2122 North Clark Street. Shortly after 11 a.m., they were surprised by two men in police uniforms, accompanied by two men who seemed to be undercover cops. Moran's men outnumbered them and outgunned them, but they gave up without a struggle, since taking down cops was not a good thing, not even for gangsters. Besides, the Chicago Police Department was there to be bought, so the hoods thought they had nothing to fear. They figured that someone must have made a mistake somewhere, that maybe these cops were rookies and didn't know what was what. Moran's men even felt lucky, because if their captors were Capone's men, surely they'd be dead already.
So when the seven were instructed to put their hands on the brick wall inside the garage, they did as they were told without any resistance. When they turned their backs, the two men in street clothes ripped open their long coats. Moran's men never saw the two tommy guns. It took just a couple of minutes to riddle their bodies with 140 bullets. With only four men, and in broad daylight, Capone's men mowed down the opposition without a fight.
It was the badges that got them, not the guns.
I had a crazy idea.
ASHER and KAREN came by to take me to Fridays & Saturdays on Scottsdale Road, Phoenix's main strip. With pitchers of beer running ninety-five cents apiece, the bar was a college student's favorite hangout. Being underage didn't stop me or anyone else from drinking. Vermont issued ID cards to all residents over seventeen, and these could be easily copied and altered. Surprisingly, considering that it's such a small state, on any given night there were an awful lot of people in Phoenix who claimed to be residents of Vermont.
Rather than go downstairs where a band was playing and watch Asher and Karen dance, searching Karen's eyes for anything that said I'd be a better partner, I walked upstairs to the bar and ordered a beer.
"One of the boys up front trips a mine and it takes out him and the two guys behind him. Their guts get blown on top of my helmet."
The blond man playing pool had captivated the dozen college kids around him. His audience was dead silent. The only sound you could hear was the squeaking as he chalked the tip of his stick. Vietnam was scary and serious, especially to college kids with student deferments that would expire upon graduation. To me, that was too far away to even worry about. To me, Vietnam was a war movie set in a jungle.
"I'm a Navy guy, a squid with these jarheads, and now we're runnin' back the way we came. I was the tail, now I'm the lead, and now there's a bunch of slopes waitin' for us. They open fire."
Tall, tanned, and looking much older than his twenty-three years, he coolly dropped a combination into a side pocket.
"Woulda thought I was a dead man except there was no time to think. I jump off the trail with two of the Marines behind me. I'm hit in the leg. They get it in their backs. I'm draggin' one of 'em by his belt and he's bleedin' so much my hand keeps slippin' off. I'm hopping on one leg and the gooks are closing in."
I was mesmerized. Here was a guy who had really fought "bad guys." He took his time sinking another ball. I wanted to yell, "GO ON!"
"Pop! Pop! Pop! One by one, the Charlie motherfuckers go down." He surveyed the situation on the table. "Three in the corner." The ball goes in.
"What happened?" one of the college kids asked.
The man raised his cue and pointed it at a wiry, seedy-looking guy seated on a bar stool a few feet away. He reminded me of Jim Morrison from the Doors, with those same small snake eyes. "Milwaukee Jim was sitting in a sniper's nest. He blew them away. Pop! Pop! Pop! Saved my sorry ass."
Milwaukee Jim, aka James Wojt, former forward observer, second lieutenant, United States Marine Corps, snapped off a salute.
"Got me a Purple Heart and," the tall blond man said, pausing long enough to sink the eight ball for the win, "a Bronze Star."
"What'd you get, Jim?" another kid asked.
He spoke slowly, as if he were fighting a speech impediment. "Didn't ... get ... shit."
The tall blond man sounded tougher than anyone I'd ever seen this side of Charles Bronson.
I found Asher and Karen at the downstairs bar and asked who he was.
"Don Woodbeck," Asher said. "Says he was in Nam. Now he's a smuggler. Goes back and forth across the border."
"Does he know the guys who ripped us off?"
"Can you introduce me?"
"I don't really know him and I don't want to."
"Maybe he can help get our money back."
"Are you nuts? That's over. It never happened."
Asher took Karen by the arm and led her away. I went back upstairs to the pool table, where Don waited for a new player to rack the balls for the next game.
I nervously approached him.
"And you are?"
"Craig Glazer. I have a business proposition for you. Can we talk in private?" Don looked around and waved his hand. "Can't you see this is my office?" Everybody laughed. I was being embarrassed and I didn't like it. I grabbed a cocktail napkin, wrote down my phone number and dropped it on the pool table.
"When you're through with your games and want to make some real money, call me." I walked away.
"So, TELL ME how you're going to make me rich," Don said over the phone.
I was glad he called. As things eventually turned out, maybe it wasn't so fortunate for Don. Or maybe we ended up exactly where we were supposed to.
"Some college kids and I got ripped off a few days ago," I told him.
"Live and learn."
"I want to get my money back. Maybe you can make some money too."
"Don't see how so far."
"Thought maybe you'd know something about a big guy with a red beard."
Don was silent.
"Hello? You still there?"
"You're too young to be a cop," he said. "And you're too stupid to be a dealer, at least for long."
"I'll be at the Eight Ball Apartments in Mesa. Bungalow 6."
I drove over and knocked on the door. Don and Milwaukee Jim were waiting inside the converted motel room. I learned later that Jim didn't come out of the war as well as Don. Shot in the back, he had suffered through numerous operations in Army hospitals. Doses of morphine relieved the pain but he walked and talked noticeably slower than most people. He was quiet but deadly. He was also fiercely loyal to Don, whom he looked up to as the leader of the pack, and because Jim had saved his life, Don would do anything for him in return.
"So you know the man with the red beard?" I asked.
"Oh yeah. J.D."
He told me that the last time he saw him, J.D. had a gun pointed at the head of a pollo, what locals called an uneducated Mexican who spoke little or no English. He had forced the pollo to kneel down next to Don on the desert sand in a remote area outside Gila Bend, Arizona. Then a bullet from J.D.'s gun buried itself in the skull of the Mexican.
"Why was he going to kill you?"
"Shit happens," said Don. Jim nodded.
I wasn't sure I believed anything Don said, including his Nam story, but it didn't matter. Don had the same kind of power and the same kind of presence as Charles Bronson. They say some guys have a swagger about them, but I never met anyone who actually had a swagger until I met Don — and I haven't met any since either.
"Ever see The St. Valentine's Day Massacre?" I asked.
"I don't go to movies."
I told him the story.
"Kid, you're in fantasy land."
"But it happened. I mean, it was in a movie but it really happened."
Don shook his head. I kept talking.
"J.D. won't remember me. I set up a deal. We use other people he wouldn't know. While it's going down, you come in, say you're the law, show badges. I turn around and do the same thing, like I was undercover. We arrest J.D. and everybody else!" "We'll have to read them their Miranda rights." He was making fun of me again. I plowed ahead.
"They don't fight back because we're cops. They even think you're a cop now. They think there are dozens of other cops all over the place. They figure they'll just go through the system. We take their guns, their money and their grass. And then we just leave them."
Excerpted from "The King Of Sting"
Copyright © 2008 Craig Norton Glazer and Salvatore John Manna.
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
1 - Higher Education,
2 - A Portrait of the Con Artist as a Young Man,
3 - Flash for the Cash,
4 - A Life of Crime,
5 - Bullets and Bikers,
6 - Kill or Be Killed,
7 - Undercover Cop,
8 - Outlaws and Outsiders,
9 - Going Hollywood,
10 - Blood in Redondo Beach,
11 - No Trust in Tinseltown,
12 - Dope and Duplicity,
13 - Getting Stung,
14 - On Trial,
15 - Behind Bars,