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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Yesterday’s Crimes: The SFPD Bunco Scandal

Posted By on Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 10:52 AM

  • Randy Heinitz/Flickr
The con artists of the 40 Thieves bunco gang thought that they had a good thing going with San Francisco police — the same cops who were supposed to be investigating them.

Starting around 1910, the con men or bunco men (spelled bunko in the San Francisco Chronicle and named for a crooked card game) had free reign to run their scams, bilking Italians and other unfortunate immigrants out of thousands at a time using what were basically low tech versions of the Nigerian prince email scams of today. The whole time, the bunco men paid off the cops, and the cops promised to keep the bunco men out of jail.

This arrangement seemed to work so well that the 40 Thieves still honored it even when their boss, Mike Gallo, was sentenced to five years in San Quentin in 1913. To smooth things over, the corrupt detectives paid Gallo’s wife $30 a month while he was in prison. Gallo agreed to “stay mum” in the hopes that the rest of his gang would remain free.

When con men Maurice di Martini, Frank Du Bois and Frank Corrogan alias Carlo Cardano were also found guilty and sent to the Big House, it was clear that “the bunco men themselves were being buncoed by the police” according to a May 17, 1913 story in the Pittsburgh Press. Realizing that they’d been double-crossed, the bunco men started talking to anyone who would listen.

With SF District Attorney Charles M. Flickert listening “in amazement,” Martini, Du Bois and Corrogan confessed to cash handoffs between police and crooks at “a popular grill” at 544 Broadway in North Beach, an area that was still referred to as the Barbary Coast in an April 23, 1913 Chron article. Money also changed hands at “the hotel of Lello Pellegrini” at 15 Pinckney Place, now known as The Basque Hotel at 15 Romolo Place, which currently boasts of once housing speakeasies and brothels on its website.

Chief of Police D. A. White and Captain of Detectives John Mooney, who also sat in on the bunco men’s depositions, “listened with mingled emotions,” according to the Chron, “as the names of police officers came in rapid succession.” It didn’t help the chief’s reputation that this level of collusion went on for years without him knowing about it.

Mike Gallo made a 40-page confession taken over several hours a few days later. At first, Gallo only had to pay $20 to Detective Frank Esola of the bunco squad, but as Gallo and his gang “had a chance to do two or three tricks a week,” Esola and his partners started to demand 15 or even 25 per cent of the take.

The Chron ran a detailed spreadsheet on April 26, 1913 listing victims, “bunko men,” the amount of money taken with the amount paid to police. When Du Bois fleeced Louis Dodere out of $7,700, he kicked back $1,115 to police. When Di Martini took someone named Massie for a grand, the cops got $250. In total the Chron and other news sources estimated that the 40 Thieves raked in $300,000 during their protracted crime spree, which would total $7 million today after adjusting for inflation.

In all, four detectives and four patrolmen were suspended from the force and later indicted on criminal charges. Five of the officers plead guilty to charges and were sentenced to nine months in the county jail in June 1913. Frank Esola, a fifteen year veteran of the force, was found guilty of selling protection and sentenced to five years in Folsom. Esola requested that he not be sent to San Quentin because he was once a guard there.
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Bob Calhoun


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