Confessions of an Old School Private Eye
Following a thirty-year career working as an investigator for criminal defense attorneys I wrote a book called Not Just Evil. The book describes the arrest and trial of William Edward Hickman for the kidnap and murder of Marion Parker. Hickman abducted Parker from her school in Los Angeles on December 15th 1927 in what the L.A. Times described as “the most horrible crime of the 1920’s.” Within a week after picking up the ransom and delivering the mutilated body of the victim, Hickman was arrested by Echo Oregon Chief of Police Tom Gurdane and Oregon State Highway Patrol Lieutenant Buck Lieuallen. The day after his arrest the suspect made a full confession.
The facts in this case were never in dispute. The point of contention was Hickman’s mental state at the time he committed the crime. He was the first murder suspect in California to plead innocent by reason of insanity. The basis for this defense was the claim of his attorneys that Hickman lived in a fantasy world created by an addiction to the cinema. They argued he led a life of crime to get access the money he needed for his daily trips to the cinema.
The book NOT JUST EVIL tells the story of the extraordinary lengths initiated by the film industry to discredit Hickman’s defense. The trail was ground zero for the idea of the celebrity criminal, the need for commentary about ongoing trails by media generated pundits, and literally the influence of Hollywood on the decisions made by Los Angeles District Attorney Asa Keyes.
My interest in the relationship between Hollywood and criminal justice was a part of my life from early childhood. Both my mother and father were Los Angeles Police Officers. My mother attended Hollywood High School with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. She was hired to work as a police woman during World War II when female officers wore skirts and were not allowed to carry guns. My father joined her on the department when he returned from serving in the Pacific under General McArthur. He was an expert in communications technology and went directly from the police academy to a position working for what was known as the “Gangster Squad.” His assignment was to monitor the actions and activities of Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno. In the early days of the formation of a national crime syndicate Jimmy Fratianno was one of the founding members of “Murder Incorporated.” His job was to arrange for out of town killers to handle contract murders that could not be traced back to local gangsters.
My father followed that assignment working as a technical advisor for the television series Dragnet. In that position he became friends with Jack Webb, Burt Reynolds, Telly Savalas and Hugh O’Brien. In this assignment he worked with a Los Angeles police officer named Gene Roddenberry who reviewed the scripts for the series for authenticity. Roddenberry also offered officers a $100 for ideas that could be used as story lines for the series. At a time when police officers were earning $400 per month this was considered a generous offer.
While still working for the LAPD Roddenberry attended a meeting of television producers who were having lunch at the Brown Derby restaurant to consider new series for the upcoming year. Roddenberry attended the meeting in full uniform and tossed the pilot script for Star Trek on the table. When Star Trek was picked up by a network Roddenberry took a leave of absence and for the entire filming of the series he remained an active duty police officer working as the first LAPD press officer.
It would be fair to say that a significant part of my childhood was spent listening to adult conversations comparing true crime as it was represented in the entertainment industry and true crime as it was experienced by those who were directly involved in the investigation of crime. Based on this experience while I was attending the University of California at Berkeley I meet a hod carrier named Luke O’Reilly. A hod carrier is essentially someone who clears rubble or moves cement in large construction projects. Luke told me stories about the violent and corrupt influence of organized crime within his local union. These conversations led to a meeting with other hod carriers. The meeting was the first day in a two year investigation resulting in the trial and conviction of the hod carrier’s union president on charges of racketeering.
During the course of that investigation I discovered in the bay area the major trucking company for moving cement was owned by Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno. This discovery opened a window into organized crime leading to both an interest in working as a private investigator as well as an interest in writing articles on the organized crime for alternative media. At the same time I discovered a cheaply produced magazine called Computer Science. The last article in each issue was an analysis of the Warren Commission. This analysis was written by a group of investigators and lawyers who believed the facts related to the assassination of President Kennedy as presented in the Warren Commission report did not support the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
A number of the organized crime figures mentioned in the Warren Commission report matched names I encountered in my investigation of organized crime in the bay area. I wrote the group to share some of the results of my efforts. As a result I was contacted by Bill Turner who was to become a close friend and my mentor as a private investigator.
Bill Turner started his career as an investigator working for the F.B.I. On his first day at work his supervisor gave him a long list of fugitives and told him to try to locate anyone on the list. The assignment was designed to keep new agents out of trouble and to avoid the possibility of embarrassing J. Edgar Hoover. At the end of the day Turner arrested eight names on the list. When asked how he located them, Turner said he found their addresses in the phone book. His efforts immediately caused jealously and distrust among his peers and five years later Bill resigned as an agent out of sheer frustration with the restrictions placed on his efforts.
A short time later, Turner went to work as an investigator for New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. Bill was placed in charge of the investigation of Clay Shaw on charges of conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy. During the initial stages of the investigation Turner traveled to Dallas Texas and stood in the window where Lee Harvey Oswald was alleged to have shot President Kennedy. Bill discovered that the window was behind a tree completely blocking any view of the Presidential motorcade. The day after he held a press conference to announce his discovery, the F.B.I. ordered agents to cut down the tree. His efforts in this investigation were documented in the Oliver Stone film JFK.
While learning the craft of private investigation from Bill Turner I worked with him on the defense teams for Sirhan, Sirhan, James Earl Ray, and Arthur Breamer. Bill wrote extensively about his work on these cases and came to the inclusion that each of these political assassins were part of larger conspiracies.
When Bill turned his attention to writing full time I went to work for Hal Lipset who was the inspiration for the film “The Conversation”, starring Gene Hackman. While working for Hal, I was part of the initial team hired by Congress to investigation the burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. This case led to the resignation of Richard Nixon and was directed by a young republican attorney named Hillary Clinton. Her partner was a lawyer named Fred Thompson who was both a U.S. Senator and the actor who plays the district attorney in the television series Law and Order.
Following my tenure with Lipset I opened my own business as a private investigator and was active in defending clients who were political active including leaders of the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement and the Latino labor movement. At the same time I developed a specialty of defending clients charged with homicide.
I am often asked the question how can you defend criminals? The answer is simple; it is the function of a criminal defense team to insure the system functions based on the tenants of law, and the principle of justice as established by the Bill of Rights.
Having finished the book on William Hickman I am currently writing the story of the Gangster Squad as told to me by my father. Not surprisingly his story is significantly different from the movie by the same name. As someone interested in literature related to true crime, I believe it is important to understand this discrepancy.
David G. Wilson worked for thirty years in the San Francisco Bay area with his own company providing investigative services. He was hired twice by the US Senate to investigate political corruption involving elected officials. In 1989 he made the first of seven trips to the West African Rain Forrest where he studied the philosophy, theology and rituals of the indigenous shamans. Based on these studies he has written ten books on traditional Yoruba culture and has lectured extensively on the topic. He lived for five years in Mexico where he studied the system of pyramids built throughout South America. He is currently living in New Mexico exploring sacred sites and working as a Jazz musician. He has three children and four grandchildren. NOT JUST EVIL is available now at Amazon, B&N, IndieBound, and wherever books are sold.