Official corruption began in Seattle's early days and continued with only sporadic interference for more than 100 years. Territorial laws, and later state laws, banned various vices, but were largely ignored by local law enforcement. Most forms of illegal gambling were locally licensed and taxed, reaping much-needed revenue. Other vices, particularly those having to do with sex, could not be officially sanctioned; they flourished by bribing those whose job it was to enforce the laws. Finally, in the last half of the 1960s, an awakened press, some honest cops, a U.S. attorney, a reformed city council, and the voters' ouster of a long-serving prosecutor, brought it all down. A century-old tradition of entrenched corruption disintegrated with surprising speed, although most key participants avoided legal punishment.
The Seattle Times: An Unfortunate Start, But a Start
On September 21, 1966, Seattle Times reporter John Wilson penned a story with the headline "Seattle Homosexual Problem Reported To Be 'Out of Hand.'" He wrote with some alarm that an estimate of 12,000 homosexuals in Seattle was "conservative," and quoted the city's deputy police chief, M. E. "Buzz" Cook: "The word is out that Seattle is soft on homosexuals ... things just got out of hand" ("Seattle Homosexual Problem ..."). Wilson also wrote, "For several years off-duty policemen worked at the doors of several of the bars," something Chief of Police Frank Ramon (1914-1986) "learned of only a few months ago" ("Seattle Homosexual Problem ...") and claimed to have put an end to.
John Wilson and another reporter, Marshall Wilson (an unrelated duo later dubbed the "Wilson Twins"), kept digging. Seattle's licensing department blamed the Seattle Police Department (SPD) for approving a cabaret license by noting on the application that "it does not object to the granting of this license" to the applicant, who formerly ran a gay steam bath ("Police Made Mistake ..."). The licensing director explained, "We [the licensing department] move from the financial end and the police department from the moral end," ("HOMOSEXUAL CLUB ..."), an unintentional but fairly apt description of the root of the city's official corruption. In response to the Wilsons' exposé, Ramon said he would try to revoke the licenses of all gay bars and cabarets. Seattle's corporation counsel proposed a city ordinance prohibiting "homosexual dancing," a statement both homophobic and stunningly naive about the legitimate reach of the law. Neither threat was carried out.
Curiouser and Curiouser
On January 13, 1967, the Wilson Twins wrote about their stakeout of the Pacific Tavern in downtown Seattle, described as an "off-beat club," a euphemism for gay bars. Beat cops had a key to the place, passed on from shift to shift. When the tavern was closed, up to a dozen officers, on- or off-duty, sat around drinking beer and playing cards. Informants told of similar goings-on at other bars. Chief Ramon expressed shock, saying, "This is the first I have heard about this" ("Ramon Probes Report ..."). Mayor Dorm Braman, who had endorsed the city's Tolerance Policy in 1964, pleaded equal ignorance.
But there was something much darker than work-shirking beat cops going on. Gay bars were peculiarly vulnerable to police pressure. One Seattle ordinance outlawed "any practice or conduct tending to debauch public morals" (Ordinance 16046, Sec. 1), and another banned "any lewd or indecent act" (Ordinance 73095, Sec. 1), broad categories indeed. Sodomy, in all its forms, was illegal under state law (and would be until 1976). Apart from their own ranks, gay men had few allies, and fed-up gay-bar owners were likely the first to give the Wilsons detailed information about police harassment and payoffs. As the story developed, gay men were no longer depicted in the media as dangerous degenerates, but as especially vulnerable victims of police predation.
On January 16 the Wilsons reported that a year earlier the FBI had advised Mayor Braman, in writing, that bribes were being paid to SPD officers. Chief Ramon had not seen the report, but said he had earlier heard rumors and launched an in-house investigation using agents from outside the department, who "turned up nothing" ("FBI Sounded Warning ..."). All the rumors, Ramon claimed, "stem back to one man -- whose establishment was closed because it was operating illegally" ("Ramon: Tell Me ...").
The reporting indicated otherwise. One owner told the Wilsons, "A cop can ruin your business just by walking through your place eight or nine times a night. And that's what they do if you don't play ball" ("FBI Sounded Warning ..."). They wrote that "Particular targets for payoffs have been some of the downtown establishments catering to homosexuals." Three owners said they had made payoffs for eight years, the most recent requirement being $370 a month, approximately $3,000 in 2022 dollars. This was not nickel-and-dime, free-doughnuts stuff.
Card rooms were targeted as well. One proprietor was told that $150 a month would allow him to operate illegal, high-stakes card games from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. When he asked the beat sergeant "how about between 4 and 6," he was told, "a new crew (police) came on at 4 o'clock and I would have to make my own arrangements with them" ("Tavern Operators Describe Payoffs").
One of the best-known poker parlors in Seattle was the Caledonia Bridge Club, upstairs from Bob's Chili Parlor at 608 Union Street. It hosted big-money games and drew professional dealers and high-stakes gamblers, some with such Runyonesque names as Fats Brown, Jew Mike, Big Six, Doodles, Lucky, and Louie LeBow. King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll (1906-2003) and Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) were just two of the prominent men who liked to stop by now and then for a game of low-ball. But the business was not risk-free -- in a dispute over a gambling debt, Bob Kevo, the club's co-owner, was shot dead in April 1968 by a man described only as "a hippy in blue" ("Man Shot Dead ...").
On January 18, 1967, in the wake of the Wilsons' disclosures, Mayor Braman named a three-man committee to investigate SPD payoffs. Two members -- Bill Boeing Jr. (1922-2015) and Victor Denny (1903-1979) -- were conservative Republicans from notable Seattle families. The third was Richard Harris, a onetime special deputy to prosecutor Carroll. One of the committee's advisers was SPD deputy chief Buzz Cook, who three years later would be indicted for perjury by a federal grand jury. The "blue-ribbon" committee was not constituted to do a deep dive into official corruption, and it didn't.
Another tier of payoffs came to light when Joe Rutten, a former owner of the popular Seattle music club Blue Banjo, told the Wilsons that Seattle police had advised him to make payoffs to liquor-control agents, who worked for the state, not the city or county. He added, "One of the funny things was ... police were always telling us to take care of the liquor inspectors. The liquor inspectors were always telling us to take care of the police" ("Blue Banjo Ex-Owners ...").
Braman's committee issued its report on April 11, 1967. Dismissing complaints by multiple bar owners, it concluded that, "there was no substantiation or corroboration that would permit a finding ... as to the truth of such statements," adding "Police officers who appeared before the committee denied receiving payoffs" ("Changes in City Police ..."). The committee's blanket disbelief of victims and unquestioning acceptance of police denials was not further explained. A few tweaks to SPD procedures were suggested, but only one recommendation would have future repercussions -- an external audit of the police department, but with the emphasis on organizational and staffing issues, not corruption.
Before the Internet matured, newspapering was a very competitive business. In Seattle, the morning Post-Intelligencer, part of the Hearst chain, was the more rambunctious, and loved few things better than a meaty scandal. The Seattle Times, owned by the local Blethen family, was staid and establishment and had several unflattering epithets, the kindest being "Fairview Fanny." But when it came to police payoffs, a very meaty scandal, the Times had scooped the P-I, badly. Newspaper people find few things more unpleasant.
The P-I bounced back after it caught wind of scandal at the county level. In November 1967, investigative reporter Orman Vertrees (1931-1981) probed the Farwest Novelty Company, a supposedly non-profit combine of several businesses. Farwest paid King County approximately $23,000 a year for a master license to distribute pinball machines, jukeboxes, punchboards, and other lucrative attractions. A daily series of follow-up articles was a grab bag of alleged corrupt practices, including lax regulation of card rooms, marked decks, rigged bingo games, prostitution, and Frank Colacurcio's involvement in various nefarious activities, mostly of a sexual nature.
The series was the P-I's first big salvo in the competition with its cross-town rival, but said not a single word about payoffs. The most serious allegations were weakened by such adverbs as "apparently" and "reportedly." More was to come, however. Working with KING-TV and Seattle magazine, the P-I was going after the seemingly untouchable county prosecutor, Charles O. Carroll.
On another front, Braman had commissioned an audit of the SPD by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). It released its findings in July 1968, and while it had scathing criticisms, including the department's dismal relations with communities of color, it took only an oblique swipe at the "permissive" attitude toward certain types of vice, including prostitution and gambling ("Braman Launches Top-Level Shakeup ..."). But the report made one fateful recommendation -- a reorganization of the department's higher echelon.
Meanwhile, SPD's vociferous denials and the grudging concession that there may have been a little penny-ante filching by low-level officers worked as intended. The issue almost disappeared from the pages of both daily newspapers -- between September and December 1968 even the Times, which broke the story, mentioned the word "payoffs" only six times, and then in passing. The bulwarks had held; vice had again weathered the storm. But a now-energized press smelled blood, and it was not going away.
The Prosecutor and the Pinball King
By 1968 prosecutor Carroll had been in office for 20 years, usually reelected by a wide margin. A conservative Republican, he was the most powerful political boss in the region, feared much more than loved. He was a pure, old-school political animal -- a giver of favors, fierce avenger of disloyalty, and demanding boss who required his deputies to devote official time (and their own money) to his quadrennial election campaigns. Many of his deputies went on to become judges, politicians, and successful establishment lawyers, so his influence pervaded not just King County politics and law enforcement, but those of Seattle as well. Only Carroll's office could decide who should be charged with felonies, and only rarely did those with influence receive such harsh treatment. For years a darling of the press, particularly The Seattle Times, Carroll was not often criticized, and simply shrugged it off when he was.
Ben Cichy (1897-1969), a longtime friend of Carroll, was president of the aforementioned Farwest Novelty Company. With a waterfront manse on Yarrow Point and a sizable yacht, Cichy was accepted in most precincts of Seattle society. If he and Carroll had been spotted lunching together in a downtown restaurant, there would have been no story. That is not what happened.
Vertrees and fellow P-I reporter Dee Norton (1931-2008) were tipped that Cichy made regular late-afternoon visits to Carroll's Capitol Hill home. They began shadowing him, stayed at it for three months, and found that the visits came "once a month, at about the same time each month" ("Pinball King Is Tailed ..."). On one visit, P-I photographer Dave Potts (d. 2018) hid in a laurel bush across the street from Carroll's driveway to take photos, which showed Cichy parking his car up the street, walking to Carroll's home, entering through the backdoor, and staying about an hour. Although some sources later said Cichy was carrying a briefcase, there was no mention of that in the P-I articles. That hardly made it less suspicious.
The newspaper planned to dedicate its August 21, 1968, front page to the story, with a huge-font headline running from edge to edge and several of Potts's photographs. History had other plans -- moments after the presses began to roll on the evening of August 20, major Cold War news came clattering though the teletypes: Russia had invaded Czechoslovakia. The front page had to be tossed and recast, half going to Carroll and Cichy, half to Czechoslovakia.
Even so, the story, documented by Potts's photos, created a sensation. Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925), a Republican, and state attorney general John O'Connell (1919-1998), a Democrat, both called for investigations. Neither Carroll nor Cichy would respond to questions. Carroll claimed he had to be out of town at a convention of prosecuting attorneys, which he didn't attend, then said he was going on his annual vacation, which he had already taken.
Neither the story nor the pictures proved anything illegal, but they implied a whole lot. Carroll's reputation was seriously dented, and his refusal to respond to the story didn't help. Coincidentally, a "rogue" Seattle cop, David Jessup, was making waves about corruption in the SPD. With heat coming from several directions, Buzz Cook, the deputy chief who sat atop the pyramid of payoffs, passed the word down that they had to stop, at least until things blew over, as they always had before.
Less than a month later, Seattle magazine (despite threats of a libel suit by Carroll's attorneys), ran an unflattering, mugshot-like photo of the prosecutor on its cover with the headline "REMOVE THE COUNTY PROSECUTOR." The lengthy article inside, while touching on corruption and Carroll's "indifference to vice" (p. 22), primarily was a withering criticism of almost every aspect of his management of the prosecutor's office, including a documented practice of recommending longer prison sentences for Black defendants than for others.
On May 21, 1969, Ben Cichy's body was found floating in five feet of water by the dock at his Yarrow Point home, his glasses still on his face and his slippers still on his feet. After a three-day delay while he returned from vacation, King County Medical Examiner Gayle Wilson (Charles O. Carroll's brother-in-law) performed an autopsy and concluded that Cichy had drowned after a heart attack. Many did not believe it. Cichy held many secrets, and on the day he died he was scheduled to meet with an investigator. Sociologist William J. Chambliss, who studied Seattle's vice underground while at the University of Washington, later claimed that an unidentified informant told him that Cichy had been murdered in "a desperate move on the part of desperate men" to prevent further damaging disclosures (Chambliss, 130).
On July 8, 1969, the Seattle City Council voted 6-3 to end the licensing of multi-coin pinball machines and public card rooms, effectively outlawing them. One of the no votes was cast by Charles M. Carroll (1907-1985), the longtime head of the council's powerful licensing committee (no relation to Charles O. Carroll).
An Inside Job
Even the flap created by the P-I/Seattle magazine/KING-TV investigation eventually petered out, in part for lack of shocking new disclosures and perhaps in part due to outrage fatigue. But a year later something remarkable happened -- a good-cop revolt that was impossible to ignore or evade.
In November 1968 Mayor Braman had reorganized the upper echelons of the police department pursuant to the IACP recommendations. The position of deputy chief, held by Buzz Cook, was vacated and replaced with five assistant chiefs (Cook was one), each with responsibility over a new bureau. At least two of the new men, Eugene Corr (1923-2005) and Anton C. "Tony" Gustin (1927-2014), were veteran officers who had always refused to accept bribes. When Braman left in March 1969 to take a federal position, he was replaced by city council president Floyd Miller (1902-1985), who pledged not to run for the office in the next election and had no further political ambitions.
Gustin, a graduate of the FBI Academy who was later described as "a man of strong opinions and personal integrity coupled with a devious mind" (Bayley, 93), became head of the new Inspectional Services Bureau, handling internal investigations and controlling the department's vice division. He began 1969 by purging the entire vice squad and manning it with officers he trusted. Then, in great secrecy and supported by fellow assistant chiefs Corr and George Fuller, Gustin organized a raid on the Lifeline Club, a supposed charitable bingo operation in the Pike Place Market. It was one of three bingo parlors operated by Charles Berger (1898-1979), who was suspected of maintaining detailed records documenting years of payoffs and political contributions. Gustin and 34 hand-picked officers executed the raid on September 24, 1969. Berger and a few employees were arrested, and 86 bingo players, mostly elderly women, were cited for gambling.
What Gustin really wanted were documents. He found cartons of them, including Berger's records of costs and expenses. One listed a $3,000 monthly payment to Frank Colacurcio to "protect against police harassment" (Bayley, 95). Berger later testified that those payments were only $2,000 until he was instructed to open a third bingo parlor on the opposite side of Pike Street, where a different police beat wanted in on the action. The payoffs were not that painful -- Bergers three clubs grossed more than $1.5 million a year, while paying an average of less than $3,000 in legitimate prizes. Almost all significant money prizes at the establishments went to plants who, through the manipulation of bingo cards and numbered balls, were the only possible winners. For running this scam, the records indicated that Berger was paid a salary in 1968 of $42,000 (more than $350,000 in 2022 dollars).
The Unraveling Begins
There is disagreement about whether Chief Ramon was told of the planned raid in advance, but none about what happened immediately after. He ordered Berger released after only minutes in custody, and forbade Gustin from making any additional raids. This and other interference led to a confrontation on October 6 at which Gustin, Corr, and Fuller demanded that Ramon either resign or demote them to captains, which would restore their civil-service protections and cause a major public-relations disaster. Mayor Miller was in attendance too, and later in the week either requested, or at least accepted, Ramon's early retirement.
Ramon had had a long and distinguished career on the force, but he could not have been unaware of the payoff system controlled by his deputy chief, Buzz Cook, and was clearly complicit in the coverup. There is no indication that he personally benefited, and four years earlier he had threatened to close down the Lifeline Club, objecting to "the size of the operation, and how much of the profit was actually going to charity" ("Letter Bares Berger Bingo Negotiations"). Even Corr, Fuller, and Gustin defended him. Said Fuller, "There was never any accusation about his honesty. There was never any evidence he was on the take, and we do not want to crucify him now. He was trying to do his job" ("'Traumatic' Episode Detailed"). But the prospect of betraying those he had worked with for decades must have weighed on him, and in the end he chose to retire under a cloud, his reputation forever sullied.
The Lifeline Club raid set off an avalanche of disclosures that just got worse and worse. On October 9, KOMO-TV investigative reporter Don McGaffin (1926-2005) added fuel to the fire, displaying canceled checks on the air showing Berger had made sizable campaign contributions to 17 city, county, and state officials.
A First Reckoning
The federal government can only prosecute violations of federal laws. In January 1970 U.S. Attorney Stan Pitkin convened a grand jury, purportedly to present evidence that Berger had violated a federal statute prohibiting the possession of gambling equipment (bingo cards) shipped across state lines. But he had wider aims, and his first witness was Tony Gustin. He also called Buzz Cook, who denied that there was any such thing as a payoff system. In April Cook was charged with perjury, along with former King County Sheriff Tim McCullough. Berger, Frank Colacurcio, and someone named Harry Hoffman were charged with conspiracy and violation of federal gambling laws.
After a lengthy trial, Cook was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Testimony during the trial brought immediate calls for a county grand jury, which prosecutor Carroll simply ignored. But his aura of haughty invincibility had not survived the cumulative negative disclosures. In the primary election of September 15, 1970, Chris Bayley, a former deputy state attorney general and moderate Republican, trounced Carroll. In the November general election, Bayley defeated Democratic candidate Edward Heavey (1928-2019), and he took office in January 1971.
Cook had shut down the payoff system, but there remained in city and county law enforcement many who had profited from it. Bayley believed these remnants of a corrupt past had to be extirpated, root and branch, and he quickly asked the superior court judges to convene a grand jury. It started hearing testimony on April 12, 1971.
There is an old courthouse saying that prosecutors have so much influence over grand juries that a competent one could get an indictment against a ham sandwich. Getting convictions is an entirely different matter, as Bayley was to learn.
On May 5, 1971, the grand jury indicted two SPD officers, a lieutenant with the county sheriff's department, one liquor-control agent, and a Seattle criminal-defense attorney. In June, two more SPD officers and one liquor agent were indicted, and in July, 11 more Seattle cops. Finally, on July 27, the grand jury indicted 19 men who were the prosecutors' primary targets, including Charles O. Carroll, City Councilman Charles M. Carroll, the already once-convicted Buzz Cook, former King County sheriff Jack Porter, and former SPD chief Frank Ramon. There was only one charge: Conspiracy Against Governmental Entities (1961 Wash. Laws, ch. 211 (1961).
Before it was done, 54 men were charged -- almost all police, politicians, or bureaucrats -- and to some a few of the indictments had the aroma of "ham sandwich." Due to legal delays and maneuverings, the trial against the 19 principal defendants would not start until April 1973. By then one defendant had died and another had moved to Mexico and could not be extradited. On January 31, 1973, the prosecution dropped the charge against city councilman Charles M. Carroll, based on a state law that granted immunity to those who testify in "a grand jury proceeding investigating bribery, corruption, and related offenses" ("Indictment of Charles M. Carroll ..."). One week later, veteran King County Superior Court Judge James Mifflin (whom the prosecution had earlier and unsuccessfully asked to recuse himself) dismissed the indictments against six additional defendants, including Ramon, all of whom had also testified before the grand jury. Now there were 10.
After further delays, on April 30, 1973 the remaining key defendants went to trial before Judge Mifflin, sitting without a jury. On May 17 the judge heard defense motions to acquit them all. He dismissed the charges against eight, including former county prosecutor Carroll and former county sheriff Jack Porter. Of the 19 alleged principals in the conspiracy, only two remained on trial -- Buzz Cook and SPD inspector Lyle LaPointe. On May 22 Mifflin found them guilty. He imposed lenient sentences, praising LaPointe's "honor" for not "ratting on the other rats" ("LaPointe Gets a Pat ...").
Thus ended the region's longest-running scandal and a long, convoluted, and inconclusive legal saga. If the aim of it all was mere punishment, it fell far short. But the overarching goal was to break the grip of institutional corruption in Seattle and King County and reform the political and law enforcement cultures. By that measure it was an unqualified and enduring success.