Peak of notoriety: 1950s-2000s
Virgil Ogletree organized bets in Cleveland’s black neighborhoods for 50 years, partnering with Don King and Shondor Birns, making up to $30,000 a day, driving a pricey custom-made Cadillac and buying condos in the Bahamas with cash. Put on trial many times, imprisoned at least twice, Ogletree was indicted again in 2003 at age 81. Alzheimer’s left him unable to mount a defense, so the judge let him go.
The Line: It is unwise to bet against Virgil Ogletree.
Peak of notoriety: 1901
Czolgosz, an unemployed mill worker in Cleveland, heard anarchist Emma Goldman speak at a club here, read about an anarchist killing Italy’s king and decided the best way to throw off the shackles of government was to shoot the president. So he went to the Pan-Am Expo in Buffalo and killed President William McKinley, a Northeast Ohioan himself. New York state quickly electrocuted Czolgosz.
The Line: Minor president, minor assassin.
throws chair at Mike White
Aug. 20, 1999
When an infuriating mayor and his hot-tempered nemesis meet, missiles fly. Mayor White and NAACP President Forbes met at Bratenahl’s Shoreby Club to make peace, but started arguing again about White’s handling of the next day’s Ku Klux Klan rally. White insulted Forbes, and an angry Forbes threw a chair, a tray, a coffeepot and a sugar bowl at the mayor.
The Line: Like a great heavyweight bout, this one’s going down in history.
Peak of notoriety: 1920s-1930s
Even though Moe Dalitz cut his teeth with the Jewish Purple Gang, which ravaged Detroit at least as badly as Capone ravaged Chicago, he pioneered a more professional style of organized crime in Cleveland. While staying friendly with other Mafia groups, Dalitz’s Cleveland Syndicate used bribes, not bloodshed. After Prohibition, Dalitz switched from booze to casinos, eventually relocating to Las Vegas. By the time he died in 1989, he was rich, free and legitimate.
The Line: Represented Cleveland well among the ranks of national organized crime.
Naked news anchor
Peak of notoriety: November 2004
Many people took it all off for Spencer Tunick’s June 2004 mass-nude photo installation near Cleveland’s lakefront. But only WOIO’s Sharon Reed took a Channel 19 camera crew with her. In becoming the first anchorwoman to appear nude on the news (in a segment held five months for ratings sweeps), she stripped another layer of dignity from television journalism.
The Line: Chances of going far are as skimpy as Reed’s Tunick attire.
Rock ’n’ roll hotel
Peak of notoriety: 1970s
Believe it or not, the Comfort Inn downtown was once a lavish hotel that played host to everyone from Elvis Presley to Led Zeppelin. Owner Jim Swingos put up with antics other hoteliers would not, such as Who drummer Keith Moon roaring through the lobby on a motorcycle. One guest described a typical party, a record-company soiree after a Queen concert, where men lined up outside a hotel-suite bathroom waiting on a generous groupie.
The Line: A monument to rock ’n’ roll debauchery important enough to be included in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous.”
Murder of Menompsy
First documented murder in Cleveland
1802 or 1803
Sometime in 1802 or 1803, Seneca warrior Big Son took his sick wife to Menompsy, an Ojibwa or Ottawa medicine man. When she died, Big Son blamed it on Menompsy’s malpractice. The two men met at David Bryant’s Flats whiskey still, where hard words escalated and Big Son fatally stabbed Menompsy. The murder threatened to trigger warfare between the two tribes until Major Lorenzo Carter, Cleveland’s leading settler, brokered a peace treaty, allegedly well lubricated by two gallons of whiskey.
The Line: Fighting words gone bad may lean toward a first-round exit.
Alex "Shondor" Birns
Peak of notoriety: 1930s-1975
Shondor Birns was Cleveland’s most infamous gangster, even before his fiery murder. Did he deserve his notoriety? Two noted Cleveland crime writers offer different takes on the Birns legend.
Cleveland’s most overrated gangster
Organized crime is an excruciatingly boring business. Like dry cleaners or hardware merchants, organized crime figures do pretty much the same things every day: Focus on the bottom line and eliminate their competitors. When they kill each other, it’s generally not for intriguing motives such as sexual jealousy. As the line from innumerable movies goes: It’s nothing personal — it’s just business.
This is especially true of Alex “Shondor” Birns, Cleveland’s most overrated and overexposed 20th-century criminal. Mainly concerned with the numbers racket and prostitution, Birns committed an embarrassingly modest number of known murders in his half-century career. For all of his alleged miraculous skill at beating the rap, he spent a fair number of years in cells and many decades fighting to stay out of them — or worse yet, trying to avoid the Internal Revenue Service.
The best Birns’ champions can claim is that “nothing so became his life like the leaving of it.” Say what you will about Birns’ chronic vulgarity and near-suicidal lust for the limelight — his demise in the spectacular bombing of his Lincoln Continental on March 29, 1975, remains the most visually compelling moment in the annals of Cleveland criminality.
The chief perpetrator of the gaseous Birns legend, as in the oddly parallel case of Sam Sheppard, was Louis B. Seltzer, longtime editor of the Cleveland Press. All of Cleveland’s papers gave ample space to Birns’ misbehavior, but Seltzer’s barrage of headlines, editorials and venomous cartoons pillorying him as the fearsome Public Enemy No. 1 cemented Birns’ legend as our gangster’s gangster. The million free drinks and dinners Birns lavished on reporters probably didn’t hurt either. — John Stark Bellamy II
Celebrity hit man
If Alex “Shondor” Birns didn’t kill you, he would charm you. When he was blown to Kingdom Come in 1975, newspapers filled with quotes about his graciousness and generosity. Lawyers and businessmen used to stop by his table at the Theatrical Lounge on Short Vincent Street to shake the famous criminal’s hand.
Rudy Duncan hadn’t been charmed. Soon after a run-in with Birns in 1934, he was riddled with bullets in a movie theater parking lot while his 11-year-old foster son crouched on the floor of their car in terror.
Financier Mervin Gold wasn’t charmed. In 1968, he disappeared after making a late-night appointment to meet Birns. His body was found in the trunk of his car.
Birns was popular with reporters, for whom he would buy drinks. He had learned that stories about his brutality as an “enforcer” helped business. He worked mainly for numbers racketeers, who ran illegal lotteries in black neighborhoods. Occasionally he allied himself with Mob leaders, though he was never a member.
A young hood named Danny Greene, unimpressed by Birns’ reputation, stiffed Birns on a $175,000 loan. When Greene found an unexploded bomb at his home, he said, “I’m going to return this to the old bastard who sent it.”
He did — in the parking lot of Christy’s Lounge on Holy Saturday, 1975. Parishioners of nearby St. Malachi’s Church arriving for the 8 p.m. Easter Vigil Mass found patches of Birns’ clothes hanging from a churchyard tree. — Fred McGunagle
The Line: Birns went out with a bang. It will make him tough to top.
Peak of notoriety: 1964-1989
In the early 1960s, Reuben Sturman discovered selling magazines with sexual content brought in far more cash than his comic book business ever could. He was an industry kingpin by the end of the decade, but also had his share of snags with the police. His connections to organized crime helped Sturman circumvent two and a half decades’ worth of heat from authorities, until he was nabbed for tax evasion charges in 1989. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but his later attempts to bribe a juror tacked on an additional 19. He died in a Kentucky federal prison in 1997
The Line: Larry Flynt multiplied by the Gambino crime family — he’ll make it far.
Taxmen hound grieving John D. Rockefeller
The tax officials must have thought they were really clever when they sent John D. Rockefeller a bill for $1.5 million. Instead of heading to his New York home for most of 1913, the billionaire had spent half the year with his dying wife at their East Cleveland estate. Aha! they thought. Now we can tax his whole fortune. Rockefeller, who’d paid his state tax in New York, fought the law and won, but first he had to postpone his wife’s funeral to avoid process servers. “Cleveland ought to be ashamed to look herself in the face,” he declared. He refused to contribute to building the Cleveland Museum of Art and held a grudge against the city for years.
The Line: Cleveland’s class-envy streak strikes again.
Dec. 15, 1978
Cleveland had misused bond money for general operations for years. Now banks, angered at Mayor Dennis Kucinich’s business bashing, refused to “roll over” their loans. Kucinich wouldn’t sell Muny Light. Council rejected Kucinich’s plan. So, on Dec. 15, 1978, with the nation watching, the council chamber clock ticked down to midnight, and Cleveland became the first major city to default since the Depression. Despite dire predictions, the city survived with little real damage — except to its bond ratings and image.
The Line: Perfectly embarrassing — the really unfunny Cleveland joke.
Rand Cancer ‘Cure’
Aug. 19, 1966
In the dog days of August 1966, The Plain Dealer’s financial editor, John E. Bryan, filed a story that shook the nation — for a moment. The Rand Development Corp., a local company, claimed it had created a vaccine that would cure cancer. Bryan’s story touting the claim went national. The FDA got a restraining order to stop production of the “vaccine,” and cancer patients lined the halls of the federal courthouse to try to get it lifted. The cure never materialized. James Rand was indicted on charges of manipulating the market price of company stock with the vaccine publicity campaign.
The Line: Quacks meet hack. Good for a round or two.
Peak of Notoriety: 1988-2000
The Flats grew into a French Quarter-style party paradise during the ’80s and ’90s thanks to a Higbee’s executive named Herb Strawbridge, who in the 1970s converted the old Cleveland Crate and Trucking Co. building into a disco. The area became a nightlife destination that lined both sides of the Cuyahoga River, reaching its finest moment in 1996 when it hosted the city’s bicentennial party. But a string of closings and accidental drownings in 2000 hampered the Flats’ image. It hasn’t been the same since.
The Line: Scott Wolstein’s $230 million comeback plan has helped bury the Flats’ former infamy.
Former mayor of Brook Park
Peak of notoriety: August 2004
Attention, politicians: If you’re going out for a night of drinking, make sure you have a ride home. When Tom Coyne tried to hoof it in August 2004 following an evening at a North Olmsted restaurant, police found the former Brook Park mayor passed out with his pants down. With his public image still recovering from an earlier DUI charge and jail stint, TV news feasted on the embarrassing police dashboard camera footage of Coyne’s compromised state. During his probation, he tested positive for cocaine.
The Line: Coyne’s no-worries approach to his media spectacle makes him a true character.
Countess Marie Louise von Castell
Peak of notoriety: 1991-1993
The German countess was just one of many aliases for Barbara King, who scammed two businessmen and a Florida woman out of $78,000. She managed to disappear for more than two years before police caught up with her near Los Angeles. In 1994, she was sentenced to two years in a palatial Ohio prison.
The Line: Captivated the program directors at “Unsolved Mysteries.”
The Cleveland Tong Wars
Peak of notoriety: 1911-1925
The Chinatown Tong Wars between Cleveland’s rival On Leong and Hip Sing organizations erupted in November 1911, with the shooting of Woo Dip, who had refused to pay “protection” to the Hip Sings. The tongs’ hostilities, part of a nationwide tong war, climaxed in September 1925 when Yee Chock of On Leong was decapitated with a meat cleaver. Yee’s slaying provoked Safety Director Edwin D. Barry to order the arrest and detention of every Chinese male in Cleveland, while City Manager William Hopkins moved to have Chinatown razed. International protests ensued, the males were returned to their still intact dwellings, and the tong wars petered out by the 1930s.
The Line: Brutal turf battles and paranoid politicians could be a powerhouse combo.
Catherine Eva Kaber
by John Stark Bellamy II
Peak of notoriety: 1919
No Cleveland homicide comes close to the Kaber murder for daring, ferocity or sheer entertainment value. Indeed, the only thing more surprising than the fact that there’s no full-length book about the Kaber killing is the fact that no one has yet written an opera about it. It has all the elements: jealousy, family tensions, fortune-tellers, false friends, poisoning, stabbing and hired assassins, not to mention three strong voices for women.
Catherine Eva Kaber was bad from the get-go and just kept getting worse. After a youth of juvenile crimes and two failed marriages, she managed to snare the affections of Lakewood’s Dan Kaber, the gentle scion of a prosperous publishing clan. Ten years later, in 1918, alarmed by fears that Dan would cut her out of his will, Eva began systematically dosing his desserts with arsenic. She obtained the poison from Little Italy’s Erminina Colavito, who specialized in helping aggrieved wives dispose of unsatisfactory husbands.
When her poison crippled but did not kill Dan, Eva decided to take more drastic action. Enlisting the aid of her doormat mother, Mary, and her daughter (by her first marriage), Marion, Eva hired two inexpensive assassins and left Cleveland to establish her alibi.
Two nights later, the killers entered the Kaber mansion on Lake Avenue and stabbed the helpless invalid 24 times — 11 of the unkindest cuts coming to his scrotum. Having previously arranged faked evidence of a burglary gone awry, Eva returned to Cleveland, buried her husband, bluffed her way through the inquest, cashed in Dan’s assets and departed for a life of pleasure.
She almost got away with it. Had it not been for her former father-in-law’s money (used to hire the private detectives) and Eva’s betrayal by her “best friend,” Ethel Berman (recruited by authorities to winkle the truth out of Eva), the case might never have been solved.
Defended at her 1921 trial by the able William J. Corrigan (later the unfortunate first attorney for Sam Sheppard), Eva escaped the electric chair and continued to plot a bloody, vengeful comeback until she died in prison in 1930.
The Line: A murder conspiracy involving three generations of women from the same family will be tough to top.
Lorenzo Carter Commits first crime in Cleveland
Peak of notoriety: Late 1790s
With no form of civil government in pre-1800 Cleveland, Lorenzo Carter, with his imposing frame and direct nature, was the law to white settlers and Indians alike. But among Carter’s list of Cleveland firsts (permanent white settler, wedding, ball, school and warehouse), he also gets tagged with its first instance of crime: punching another frontiersman. Not surprisingly, when Carter’s Law sets the rules, breaking them isn’t so bad: There is no record of Carter being punished.
The Line: Fighting in the Flats? Please. We predict a first-round beating.
Peak of notoriety: January 2006
Shaker Heights native James Frey had Oprah in tears as she praised his drug addiction-and-recovery memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” naming it her newest book club selection in September 2005. But on Jan. 8, 2006, investigative Web site “The Smoking Gun” announced many facts in the best-selling “nonfiction” book simply weren’t true. Frey initially stood by his work, but was back on “Oprah” Jan. 26, taking a verbal beating from the talk show icon and admitting portions of the book were fabricated.
The Line: Ho-hum arrest isn’t nearly as exciting as drug-induced melee with the cops, but Frey already knows that.
Broker gone bad
Peak of notoriety: January-March 2002
For years Frank Gruttadaria showed his clients nonexistent gains in their investment portfolios, while he stuffed around $50 million into his own pockets. But the former SG Cowen Securities Corp. and Lehman Brothers investment broker’s elaborate shell game of moving money to cover up his 15-year scam was uncovered in 2002. Armed with a friend’s driver’s license, he went on the run in January before turning himself in a month later, saying he “didn’t know how to live as a fugitive.” He was sentenced to seven years in prison for bank fraud, securities fraud, wire fraud and identity theft.
The Line: Going on the run should get him past the first round. Turning himself in won’t get him much further.
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