Edna Buchanan’s Embarrassment
See also "Burdick, Mitchell, on Hart, Rice."
In 1990, Simon and Schuster published a book by Thomas Burdick, co-written with Charlene Mitchell, quite descriptively titled Blue Thunder: How the Mafia Owned and Finally Murdered Cigarette Boat King Donald Aronow. Crime writer Jerry Bledsoe reviewed the book on January 18, 2001, for The Washington Post. After summarizing it and telling us that the book’s revelation that the Blue Thunder boats sold by Aronow to the Customs Service were very expensive duds had already been reported by the Miami Herald and was thus old news, Bledsoe tears into the primary author thusly:
But Burdick goes several steps beyond the newspaper coverage. Not only does he place Aronow firmly in the Mafia, he also ties a former judge, a former state attorney, the former police chief of Miami Beach and many others to the mob. He even fingers two mob hit men from Illinois as the killers, and when Metro-Dade homicide detectives charge somebody else with the murder, he hints that the cops may be in the service of the mob too.
It could be that Burdick is right about all of this, but he makes his case as much with gossip, innuendo and speculation as with fact. And reaction to "Blue Thunder" in south Florida calls into question not only his reporting skills but also his fairness. At least two prominent former public officials whom Burdick ties to the mob have issued statements claiming that Burdick never even made an attempt to talk with them.
When Miami's Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter and author Edna Buchanan found herself quoted throughout the book and thanked in the acknowledgments, she proclaimed herself "horrified." Burdick presented himself to her using the name Thomas Mitchell, she said, led her to believe that he was seeking only background information, never used a tape recorder or took notes, asked her to hypothesize about people and situations, then quoted her as if she were stating fact.
"I never dreamed I'd be quoted," she said. After reading the book in galleys, she tried to have her name and the quotes attributed to her removed, she said, but the publisher told her that it was too late.
Burdick not only made many errors in the book, said Buchanan, he also conveniently left out information that didn't agree with his theories.
Edna Buchanan is a real journalist, one of the best. But don't be surprised if Thomas Burdick suddenly discovers that she's really tied to the mob.
Any reader of the review in The Washington Post has to be curious as to what Buchanan told Burdick that she wanted so badly to be purged from the book. Buchanan is, indeed, quoted throughout, but we think the long passage from pages 298-301 below is what might really have come close to giving her heart failure.
Many pages before that passage Burdick had told us that Richard Gerstein and Rocky Pomerance had offered their assistance to Aronow’s widow, Lillian, to get to the bottom of the mystery of her husband’s murder. With her blessings, they had engaged private investigators. Here’s how Burdick summed up their work on page 100:
While MetroDade was running into dead ends, Lillian’s private investigators weren’t getting anywhere, either, even though by this time she had four men managing the investigation: Gerstein, Pomerance, [William] Riley, and Warren Emerson, a detective who worked for Riley and was brought in to do the footwork.
Emerson’s methods puzzled a number of people. Many witnesses recall Emerson’s showing up on their doorstep within a few days of MetroDade’s questioning them. Emerson always asked the same questions of the witnesses: “What did MetroDade ask you? and “What did you tell them?” The interviews with Emerson rarely went any further; he seemed satisfied by just knowing what information MetroDade had acquired. None of those questioned by Emerson ever felt that he was interested in learning anything else or in discovering new information. It would be a while, but finally Lillian, too, would conclude that none of “her people,” as she called them, ever turned up information that led anywhere.
Here, now, is the lion’s share of what Burdick tells us that Edna Buchanan told him:
Did some OC (organized crime ed.) figures in the background “manage” the thrust of the investigation via an “in” with the top brass, attempting to make sure that this murder would go the way of other mob murders in Miami? In other words, go nowhere?
As the Herald’s crime reporter, Edna Buchanan has seen the inner workings of Miami’s law enforcement agencies for two decades. “Richard Gerstein used to be the most powerful man in Dade County, and he’s still pretty powerful,” she says when I bring up the subject. “Gerstein’s always been on the edge, but they never, ever, nailed him. He’s always had connections. Connections to somebody. I assume it was Lansky. And Rocky Pomerance always knows what’s going on. He may never tell, but the Fat Man’s got his ear to the ground. Always has. And he does have access to everybody and anybody."
Buchanan thinks it’s a toss-up regarding the reason behind the stalled police investigation. She says there could be two theories. One is a “conspiracy of silence” with MetroDade detectives being told to back off. Edna believes she knows Rocky’s “top brass” contact, the “in” that [MetroDade detective Steve] Parr had mentioned. The Homicide Division is within his reach. “Quite honestly, I can see that guy fixing whatever Rocky wanted fixed,” she says. “And doing it in a second.” She adds that it might explain why I couldn’t get any top MetroDade PD officials to meet with me when I first identified [Aronow’s potential murderers] Frankie [Schweihs] and Wayne [Bock].
On the other hand, she says, the detectives could simply have a lax attitude. “MetroDade and lots of police departments have long had this attitude that if it’s an OC hit, it’s going to be impossible to prove,” she explains. “It’s hard—so why not go on to something easier?”
Buchanan also notes that the Aronow family isn’t really pushing the police to solve the murder. She points out their dilemma. The family has to push the police if they are to have any chance of nailing the killers—but then everything about Aronow would surface. If MetroDade doesn’t pursue the investigation, and the family tries any other law enforcement agency, the first step the outsiders will take is to call MetroDade. “And,” she sums up, “Metro’ll say, “Hey, it’s our case, forget it.’”
As far as prodding the investigation along, she tells me there’s little further that can be done. “In any other case, I’d say take it to the FBI,” she comments, “but the FBI’s got this Washington connection [George Bush] to worry about. They don’t want to rock any boats.”
It’s an interesting confluence of the interests of the “good guys” and the “bad guys” with the goal being the same: make the Aronow story go away, and most importantly keep the Mafia and the Vice President out of it.
Clearly the mob has the muscle to stop the investigation. For years MetroDade has had a massive Organized Crime Bureau that was well funded with millions of dollars in their budget. And yet, no one can remember if they ever arrested any major organized crime figures.
Talking about OC murders reminds Buchanan of a twenty-year-old homicide—one that was never officially solved, although everyone knew who the killer was. She recalls, “You know, one of the first organized crime killings I ever covered was a guy who got killed on St. Patrick’s Day on the [Miami] Beach in a parking lot. His name was John Biello, and he was gunned down. He was just getting into his car. It was eleven o’clock in the morning. Broad daylight—but guess what?—nobody saw anything. I was up there photographing the body.”
I tell her that Don Aronow knew the day before the murder that Biello was going to be killed.
“Wow,” she responds. “You know [at first] it seemed like the cops were gung ho on it, and then it became clear it was an organized crime hit. And I heard later through the department that they knew who did it. Knew the guy’s name. He was a hit man out of Boston. But like they just totally backed off. And you know who the chief of police of Miami Beach was then?”
“Rocky Pomerance,” she says, laughing. “You know I couldn’t figure it out at the time. Like all of a sudden they just totally backed off. And after that, if somebody had walked in and said, ‘I know who did it,’ they would’ve kicked him out of the station. They didn’t want to hear anything. Miami Beach was always safe, sort of a refuge for them. Gerstein, [David] Goodhart, Lansky, all of them. Maybe that’s why so many mob hits have taken place there over the years.”
She recalls that in the late 1960s, she had been very interested in Meyer Lansky. She had mentioned it in a conversation with Pomerance. “And Rocky said to me, ‘Oh, come on! He’s a little old man. He goes to Wolfie’s. He has a cup of coffee.’ He made fun of it [my interest] saying that Lansky was just this little old Jewish guy. A little harmless guy. That there was this big media hype about him and here he was just walking his dog on Collins Avenue and going to Wolfie’s for a bagel.” Edna shakes her head in amusement at Pomerance’s statements.
“Think about Biello,” I suggest. The word came down from the mob to the cops: this was an officially sanctioned hit, bug off. Sounds incredibly like the Aronow case, doesn’t it?
“Sure does,” she agrees. “And lots of others, too.”
Buchanan also covered the Miami hit on Johnny Roselli, the Chicago mafioso who was killed after testifying before a Congressional committee investigating the Kennedy assassination. She was at the scene when they found the oil drum floating in Biscayne with his partially dismembered body in it. (Rigor mortis had set in, so his legs had to be hacked off and stuffed in beside him to make the body fit in the drum.) Edna knew it was Roselli before the cops did. She says they were astonished when the fingerprint check came back that night and it turned out she was right.
“The lead detectives, they were just plodding along, like they didn’t know what was going on," she recalls. “I had talked to Roselli’s lawyer in Washington, and I was eager to help. So I said [to the detectives] come on into the office. I said, ‘Look, you need all the help you can get. It’s big, the picture is big.’ I said, ‘This thing could even be linked to the Kennedy assassination.’ And they’re sort of looking at each other and sort of looking at me. And backed off. They never wanted to find out who killed Roselli. And they never did.”
She smiles and remembers, “I’ll never forget the looks on their faces. They’re rolling their eyes at each other and wanting to be someplace else. So that’s how a lot of these guys are. If it looks too hard, or too big, too much shit hitting the fan, they just want to back off and investigate some ‘mom-and-pop' shooting. It’s a lot simpler.”
John Biello was a prominent Miami businessman with hidden Genovese crime family connections. Donald Aronow was a prominent Miami businessman with hidden Genovese and Lansky connections. Was history repeating itself? The 1968 Biello investigation conducted by Pomerance’s Miami Beach PD and Gerstein’s Dade County State Attorney’s Office never went anywhere. The Aronow investigation seemed to be heading in the same direction.
One can well imagine what Edna Buchanan, the "real journalist," felt upon reading what she would never put in her newspaper column, right there in the pages of an upcoming book. That she would want to disassociate herself from the observations and the man who quoted her as making them is thoroughly understandable. It doesn't mean that she is exactly tied to the mob. It just means that she wants to continue to have access to the Miami law enforcement community so she can continue with her work. In short, she wants to keep her job. What she told Burdick, she thought, in confidence, was far different from what she would ever write for publication. Consider, for instance, these words from page 350 of her 1987 non-fiction book, The Corpse Had a Familiar Face: Covering Miami, America's Hottest Beat: "The judge appointed Dade County's respected former state attorney, Richard Gerstein, to investigate...." Whatever she might know or strongly suspect, very nearly the last thing in the world Buchanan would have written was that this "respected" man, after whom Dade County's Justice Building is now named, might have been mob connected.
It's much the same with Jerry Bledsoe. The Washington Post is not in the business of reporting the truth about the powers that be, and Bledsoe knows where his bread is buttered, as well. Welcome to the real America.
February 17, 2009
p.s. Edna Buchanan is not the only public figure to have suffered an embarrassment from something said "off the record" when he had no idea that the person with whom he was speaking might repeat it. In a telephone conversation, Kenneth Starr's assistant, Brett Kavanaugh, admitted to Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media that everyone at Fort Marcy Park saw a brown car and not Vincent Foster's silver-gray car at the scene, just as the witness, Patrick Knowlton adamantly maintained that the car he had seen parked there was brown, even reddish-brown. Officially, Foster drove his car to the park and killed himself.
"Well, it all comes down to that brown car issue, right?" Kavanaugh asked. "All the police and medical personnel that were in the park also described it as brown."
Irvine did better than just repeat what Kavanaugh said, he taped it. See part 3 of the Irvine tapes. Kavanaugh's faux pas received no publicity, though, and President George W. Bush made him a federal judge.
Alan A. Block was at the time he published his 1994 collection of articles, Space, Time and Organized Crime, second edition, a professor of criminology at Penn State University. In the following passage from chapter 11, which was originally an article published in 1992, two years after Blue Thunder, Block provides some corroboration for the suspicions of Burdick and Mitchell, and, yes, Edna Buchanan, about Richard Gerstein and David Goodhart. Block has no references to Blue Thunder, seeming to have been unaware of the book:
By 1973 the investigation into local corruption had turned a corner. The Miami-Dade Organized Crime Bureau investigators found evidence linking Meyer Lansky, the most infamous organized crime figure in South Florida at the time, with Richard Gerstein, the Dade County State Attorney, and David Goodhart, a Circuit Court Judge who had been Gerstein’s executive assistant. (I should remind readers that Gerstein was one of those supposedly wrongly targeted figures mention in David Wise’s account.)* Most of the connections between them were managed by Hymie Lazar, a casino manager, bookmaker, and a long-time Lansky associate, and Jack Cooper, another Lansky associate who was part owner of the West Flagler Dog Track. In all, the Organized Crime Bureau developed approximately twenty-five targets including several bookmakers, former FBI agents who moved into private security work at mob-connected race tracks, the mayor of Miami Beach, a former criminal court judge, the owner of a hotel used to sequester juries, several of Cooper’s partners in the dog track, and members of the 1973 spring term grand jury seen together with organized crime gamblers…
The Organized Crime Bureau concluded that “criminals connected to organized crime figures openly associated with Circuit Court Judge David Goodhart and State Attorney Gerstein.” Although the Bureau was not yet certain why the payoffs were made, it suggested six possibilities: “Tacit acceptance of gambling in the community and lax prosecution of same; gambling debts; fixing grand juries; political contributions for favors; case fixing; and political influence buying for business ventures such as casino gambling.”…
Suspicions about State Attorney Gerstein’s possible illicit activities and relationships with known organized criminals went back as far as 1957. In a communication between Florida’s Assistant Attorney General in Miami to his counterpart in Tallahassee, at that time, the following was stated:
As you are well aware, it is not my policy to cry “wolf.” Nevertheless, it is my opinion that insofar as gambling matters here in Dade County are concerned, we will have to be cautious in our dealings with the State Attorney’s Office. Dick Gerstein has surrounded himself with some questionable characters indeed. Dicks’ Chief investigator is none other than Hal McIntyre, who was Sheriff Sonny Henderson’s Chief Criminal Deputy. I, for one, remember those days and would not trust him with a common lead pencil.
In addition to McIntyre, Dick has employed as his assistant in charge of investigations, Attorney Leonard McMillen. This is the man that Steve Fisher, investigator for the Hotel Commission, reported to us approximately a year ago approached him to join the hoodlum’s payroll, and subsequent thereto we had a meeting in the Governor’s office regarding the same.
Furthermore, reports have been consistently coming to me from all quarters that the office in question is lining up members of the gambling fraternity in a manner reminiscent of the old days.
Several years later, a confidential report to Florida Governor Claude E. Kirk, Jr. by crime reporter Hank Messick who was “designated to act on my [Kirk’s] behalf as a special consultant on crime and corruption in South Florida,” detailed Gerstein’s activities on behalf of organized criminals such as Alvin Ira Malnik, a younger member of the Lansky entourage. Malnik was one of the new generation racketeers. Born in St. Louis in 1933, he was sophisticated and educated, earning a B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis and a law degree from the University of Miami in 1959. While in law school Malnik worked in a fraudulent second mortgage business. Just out of school he was employed by Alfred Mones a major layoff bookmaker in Miami Beach who had investments in the Casino de Capri in Havana and several Vegas casinos. Mones was also a “loanshark’s loanshark,” lending money at reduced rates to retail level sharks. Barely four years out of law school, Malnik was recognized as a major organized criminal. (pp. 360-362)
*Reference here is to the probably spurious allegations of an informant to the Crime Bureau that the Bureau had engaged in illegal and unwarranted surveillance of a number of people, including Gerstein. Publicity given to these allegations by the press effectively torpedoed the Bureau’s efforts.
March 24, 2009