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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Yesterday's Crimes: A Car Bomb, Al Capone, and a Dead Sportsman

Posted By on Thu, Oct 22, 2015 at 1:37 PM

click to enlarge RANDY HEINITZ/FLICKR
  • Randy Heinitz/Flickr

Chicago-style gangland violence erupted in suburban San Mateo on the morning of Feb. 5, 1952 when Tom Keen started his brand new Cadillac. Once the engine turned over, the car exploded before Keen could even back out of his garage.

The explosion sheared off Keen's legs and blew his upper body through the front seat of the car, wedging it into the backseat upholstery. The blast was so powerful it hurled the Cadillac's big-block V8 engine through the wall of the garage, which was fortunately separate from the five-bedroom Spanish-style home. Being in the main house, Keen’s wife Emma was spared from the blast — at least physically.

The Chicago Tribune reported that "the front end of the auto was shredded." First responders on the scene were sickened by the magnitude of the carnage. The direction of the blast indicated that three or four sticks of dynamite were placed under the steering column and wired to a sparkplug.

"It looks like one of those gangland killings you read about," San Mateo County Assistant District Attorney Fred Wykoff told the Tribune.

Described in the San Mateo Times as a "wealthy and prominent sportsman," Tom Keen owned dog-racing tracks in Belmont and near Geneva Avenue in Daly City until California banned the spectacle in the 1930’s. At the time of his murder, he owned the International Totalizer Company in Belmont, the manufacturer of electronic tote boards that Keen leased to racetracks for a portion of the betting proceeds. Keen had recently made trips to Florida and Arizona to install his equipment before being blown to bits in his garage.

While the San Mateo Times painted a picture of Keen as a pillar of the Peninsula who rubbed elbows with local police chiefs and mayors, the Chicago Tribune dished the dirt on his mobbed-up past.

Keen got his start in dog racing in the 1920’s by running tracks in Florida for the one-and-only Al Capone. By the end of the decade, Keen made his way to Chicago where he fell in with Edward “Easy Eddie” O’Hare, a St. Louis lawyer who ran the Sportsman's Park racetrack in Cicero, Ill., a Chicago suburb controlled entirely by the Capone mob. O'Hare soon turned on Capone and helped federal prosecutors convict the gangster of income tax evasion in 1931.

With Capone in prison and O’Hare responsible, Keen hightailed it to the Bay Area in 1932. Ironically, he’d find himself closer to his old boss two years later when Capone was shipped to Alcatraz in 1934, but it’s not known if the two were ever in contact during the 4 ½ years Big Al was on The Rock. News reports of the time maintained that Keen had severed ties with Capone years earlier.

As for O’Hare, he was gunned down while driving from his Cicero racetrack on Nov. 8, 1939, a week before Capone’s release from prison. Capone died on Jan. 25, 1947, after years of syphilis had taken their toll.

According to a Feb. 8, 1952, UPI story, Keen had taken out a $66,000 loan with “unusually strong terms” to finance a new totalizer system for dog tracks. San Mateo Police Chief Martin McDonnell announced that a “special crime council” would investigate the bombing, but it uncovered nothing but rumors and false leads.

The murder of Tom Keen is currently open with the cold case unit of the San Mateo Police Department. 

"Yesterday's Crimes" revisits strange, lurid, eerie, and often forgotten crimes from San Francisco's past. 

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Bob Calhoun

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