An explosion of corruption between 1956 & 1965 exposed Reading ties to organized crime as never before By EDWARD A. TAGGERT
We start with unquestioned historical fact: The Democratic administrations of mayors Daniel F. McDevitt and John C. Kubacki were embarrassments to even the most broadminded citizens. The steady salvo of bad publicity the City of Reading endured during that era was summed up in a television documentary aptly titled The Corrupt City.
The June 1951 U.S. Senate Committee on Organized Crime had revealed that Reading law enforcement was, at best, lax regarding racketeering. Ralph Kreitz, the Berks slot machine kingpin, told the committee that anti-vice candidates could not get elected. That opinion was somewhat validated by the election of Republican James Bamford as mayor in November 1951. He didn’t say he would close all the gambling and prostitution joints in town, but he did promise to put the squeeze on organized crime in Reading.
Once in office, Bamford’s administration took a “pearly gray” stance on gambling and prostitution. There were no internal scandals or outside probes to indicate elected officials were taking graft. But the rackets did not go away. To believe there were no payoffs flies in the face of a long-standing theory that vice exists only through an exchange of money and political favors. Profits for out-of-town Mafia kingpins dwindled, but ties to the New York and Philadelphia “families” were not severed.
Abe Minker did not control City Hall during the Bamford administration. But an abundance of slot machine and number bank operators were providing gamblers with their daily fix. Illegal punch-boards could be found all over town. There were numerous bawdyhouse raids, but prostitution continued to thrive. As long as nobody tried to get too big, law enforcement was accommodating. Complaints were not ignored, however. Threats of arrest might convince a card operator to return a losing poker player’s stake if his wife groused to police. A social club risked closure if it allowed a fellow with five kids to drop his paycheck into a quarter slot machine.
“Everybody was happy under Bamford,” a former Schuylkill Avenue bar-room proprietor recalled. “We all made money, not like when the Minkers took over and wanted a piece of everything.”
The McDevitt Administration
Pearly gray became midnight black the day after Daniel F. McDevitt occupied the mayor’s office. Even before he was sworn in, McDevitt and Abe Minker had worked out a master plan for the resurrection of organized crime in Reading. Independent slot machine and pinball operators headed Minker’s hit list. McDevitt’s police force swung into action right away.
“The mayor called me into his office with a crowd of other people,” Bernard Dobinsky recalls. “I immediately was suspicious when I saw Abe Minker there.” Sixteen years later, Dobinsky would become Reading’s police chief, but on that eventful day in 1956 he was still a patrolman. “McDevitt told me I was being promoted to sergeant, and along with Robert Bitting we would be the vice squad. Our first assignment was to close down all the slot machine operations.
Dobinsky did as instructed, arresting one of the biggest of such operators, Charles “Chuck” Schwambach, who also owned a diner with his wife. Schwambach later told a reporter for The Corrupt City documentary: “The mayor made a statement to the newspapers that all pinball machines were illegal. So my telephone began ringing from my various customers: ‘Please take them out, we don’t want any trouble.’ I sent my employees to start pulling out machines. Sometimes as our trucks pulled away, trucks belonging to the mob backed up and installed their machines.”
Dobinsky quickly realized what was happening. He informed the mayor he did not want the vice job even if it meant losing his new stripes. McDevitt said no, he could remain a sergeant, and reassigned him. In Dobinsky’s place, Danny appointed his brother, Raymond McDevitt, to team with Bitting on the vice squad.
The next move by Minker was to have his nephew, Alex Fudeman, give a presentation to the Berks County Amusement Operators Association. The meeting was in Mike Carpin’s place of business in the 100 block of Penn Street that ran along and below the Penn Street Bridge. For many years the slots had been controlled by Ralphie Kreitz and Tony Moran. After Moran’s murder in 1945, Minker and others moved to fill the void. During the Pearly Gray interlude, numerous other slot and pinball operators edged into the lucrative business, even starting an association which lent some kind of legitimacy to what they were doing.
Fudeman invited the operators to employ him as their public relations representative. It was a hire-me-or-else offer. He guaranteed that City Hall and the courthouse would cause the operators no trouble if they paid their weekly fees. Alex was somewhat of a non-entity – he ran a grocery store – but he spoke for Uncle Abe and his audience listened.
When newspaper articles began appearing that multiple-coin pinball machines were as prevalent as before, Mayor McDevitt dragged out a 1943 law in which the State Supreme Court ruled the machines were legal. And he brushed off questions about the slot machine issue, claiming he was not aware of any complaints in that area.
Reluctantly, most of the operators began paying tribute to Minker, some as much as $500 a week. But there were holdouts. In June, Fudeman dropped off two bulky thugs at Mike Carpin’s place. One of the toughs announced to stragglers hanging out there, “Stand back fellas, if you don’t want to get hurt.” He grabbed Carpin, pushed him around and became genuinely ugly. “You been told to break up this association. Now, goddammit, do it!” He took Carpin to a back room and inflicted further damage.
One hanger-on slipped out of the building to call the police. The strong-arm pair was long gone and still no cops arrived. Carpin’s wife called Judge Warren Hess. Chief Bernard Richards, the mayor’s appointee, blamed miscommunication for his cops’ no-show. District Attorney Frederick Brubaker, when queried about the incident, said no one had complained to him. Carpin let the matter drop rather than face more harassment. However, the state’s attorney general’s office eventually learned of local law enforcement’s indifference to the incident and began its own investigation.
In the summer of 1956 the gambling machine operators faced trouble on another front. The IRS moved in, seizing 55 machines that did not carry federal gambling stamps. There were no federal laws prohibiting gambling, but one-arm bandits required $250 tax stamps and other mechanical games of chance, $50 stamps.
Of the places raided on July 5, the Reading House, 424 North 6th Street, was of particular note. The bar was owned by the mayor and operated by his brother, T. Nathaniel McDevitt.
Not for the first time – nor the last -Danny McDevitt took aim at the messenger spreading the bad news about the raid. He accused Reading Eagle Company newspapers of harassing him. And that set off a series of events that gained him even more embarrassment. Proof is contained in a synopsis of developments in just one week:
· McDevitt locks reporters out of City Hall pressroom.
· City Hall reporter Charlie Kessler borrows city-owned typewriter and poses for Reading Times photograph showing him typing a story on steps of City Hall.
· On the mayor’s orders, Police Chief Richards arrests Kessler for disorderly conduct. Kessler held in City Hall lockup for several hours.
· McDevitt orders police to ticket all Reading Eagle and Reading Times delivery trucks for illegal parking when they double-park to make deliveries at drop off points.
· Crime reports barred from reporters; press table removed from City Council chambers.
· Police continue ticketing trucks for three days until mayor halts his revenge campaign. City’s own solicitor files opinion that newspaper truck drivers did not violate traffic laws.
· Kessler found guilty in police court, but police magistrate’s decision later overturned by Berks judge and $50 fine returned; 73 traffic violations voided.
· McDevitt’s vendetta is reported in national newspapers and on network television.
Continued raids headed by IRS district supervisor Julian “Jules” Hanssens further annoyed Danny McDevitt. In addition to accusing the local press of persecution, the mayor insisted the Eisenhower Republicans were trying to embarrass Reading’s Democratic administration, hoping to secure a second term for the President! McDevitt harped that Reading was no worse than any other city of similar size.
With local law enforcement seemingly oblivious to the proliferation of gambling and prostitution, three Berks judges made a drastic decision to bring matters to a head. Judges H. Robert Mays, Warren K. Hess, and Forrest N. Shanaman petitioned Pennsylvania Attorney General Thomas D. McBride to come to Reading to review the situation. He agreed. Elected officials charged with law enforcement in Reading and Berks County were all called on the carpet, and made their excuses.
In an open warning to the mob to watch its step, the state police in September of 1957 announced that two of its officers were probing vice in Reading. Immediately, bordello and gambling operators were much more selective about admitting customers to their dens. But what was not announced was that the two undercover state troopers were looking into a matter that had received little publicity when it happened the previous year.
In November, Abe Minker, Johnny Wittig, and Alex and Louis Fudeman, Minker’s nephews, were arrested. The beating of Mike Carpin 18 months earlier had come back to haunt them. They were all charged with conspiracy. Wittig and the Fudemans also were charged with extortion.
The state attorney general said conditions in Reading could not exist without the knowledge of Reading and Berks law enforcement officials. Therefore, the extortion case would be tried by his deputy, Victor H. Wright.
When the subpoenas went out to 13 gambling machine operators, the focus of the case became clear. Minker’s consolidation of power was about to go on trial. Extortion charges were based on Alex Fudeman’s demands for “public relations” protection. Victor Wright did not stall. At a preliminary hearing two days after the racketeers were arrested, he extracted incriminating testimony from several operators. Just as many others were reluctant to go against the mob.
George Reisnyder told Wright the shakedown had cost him $6,500. He said he also witnessed the Carpin beating. Chuck Schwambach testified that he had paid $9,250 in protection money since Fudeman became the operators’ PR man. Charles Kerns, Jr., said his $150 weekly tribute to mob totaled $2,225, which he declared on his tax reports as business expenses. One after another the angry operators detailed the bribes paid to Fudeman to keep local law enforcement from closing them down. Several had quit paying because Minker couldn’t prevent the IRS from seizing gambling machines that lacked federal tax stamps. The shakedown by Minker’s minions had amounted to more than $50,000.
A trial date for Minker and company was delayed for two years as lawyers for the foursome, Jacob Kossman and Samuel Liever, filed a steady stream of petitions and appeals after the preliminary hearing. Finally, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said enough is enough, get on with a trial. In December 1957, a Berks County jury was selected. But before witnesses were called, Alex Fudeman and Johnny Wittig pleaded guilty to extortion.
This was the first hint that the case was falling apart. Earlier, the gambling machine operators had been eager to tell their tales of woe to prosecutor Victor Wright. But during the numerous trial postponements, Minker’s henchmen, through threats and payoffs, convinced the operators to recant their previous testimony.
Wright was irate as he informed the court that he had no choice but to drop charges against Abe Minker and Louis Fudeman. The prosecutor said all his witnesses refused to testify against their racketeer brethren. A plea bargain had been arranged, so the case wasn’t a complete wipeout for the state. Wittig and Alex Fudeman, in pleading guilty, paid $250 fines and got short probation. It had been a costly and futile exercise in criminal justice for Wright. His parting shot to the people of Reading was bitter: “If you like this kind of situation, you can wallow in your own filth. You can’t try a case without witnesses.”
Although no one in the McDevitt administration was indicted while in office, the steady stream of federal arrests, and ensuing accusations by U.S. and State attorneys fueled considerable bad press. It was not a healthy climate for winning reelection but, with his usual bulldog tenacity, Danny McDevitt tried. His Democratic opponent in the 1959 primary was his longtime political nemesis, City Councilman John C. Kubacki. Campaigning on a reform platform, Kubacki won easily.
On the eve of the general election, a three-month IRS operation dealt local law enforcement another black eye. Undercover agents had been tailing Johnny Wittig to Abe Minker’s apartment nightly as “The General’s” top lieutenant delivered slips and receipts from daily numbers sales. The agents were compiling a catalogue of the city’s biggest numbers writers and the addresses of the central numbers bank and several collection drops where Wittig made his pickups of slips and money.
On October 3, 1959, U.S. Treasury agents seized 13 persons, including Minker and Wittig, on gambling charges. The headquarters of the big numbers operation at 728 Lancaster Avenue was raided. Hundreds of betting slips were seized along with $4,300 in cash.
Minker got into a shouting match with U.S. Magistrate Edward Furia at the arraignment that night: “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, making a big show on a Jewish holiday,” Abe yelled. Furia threatened to charge him with contempt if he didn’t quiet down.
Six days later, Abe wasn’t so belligerent when Furia shocked U.S. Attorney Joseph McGlynn and everybody else by discharging Minker. This was after Furia listened to testimony by the undercover agents who said they had seen Wittig hand Minker paper bags which they believed held numbers tallies and money. That was not sufficient evidence to hold Minker, the magistrate said, because the agents could not prove what was in the bags. Charges against Abe were dropped.
Berks District Attorney Fred Brubaker, chafing because the feds had invaded his turf again, reacted to Minker’s dismissal with a display of cutting sarcasm: “Attention all agents who testified. The Young Republican Club invites you to put on your show at their club in Reading before the election.” Fred rejoiced again in November when he was reelected. John Kubacki swept into the mayor’s office, beating Republican J. Edgar Hilgendorf by almost a 3-to-2 margin.
Brubaker used state and local police to upstage the feds for a change by arresting Charlie Lucchese, operator of a numbers and bookie operation in his Cumru Township home. Lucchese was seized on St. Patrick’s Day, 1960. Township Police Chief George Balthaser said he had been investigating complaints from neighborhood residents since 1957. Lucchese, after pleading guilty to six gambling charges, served four months in Berks County Prison and was fined $500. That latter was about one-third the amount of hisdaily $1,500 take from horse and numbers bets.
The IRS was aware of Lucchese’s independent operation but had set its sights a bit higher. A week after the Cumru raid, Treasury agents zeroed in on a Minker numbers bank in Exeter Township. Four men were arrested, including John Hyneman, operator of the money bingo game at Pheasantland Park almost three years earlier. A federal grand jury was formed in April 1960, with U.S. prosecutor McGlynn still hoping to prove Minker’s control of gambling. Abe’s accountant, his wife and daughter, and local businessmen were subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury.
In May, Minker and seven others were charged with evading excise taxes on numbers bets totaling $1.3 million. The tax owed was $130,000. The other suspects were charged with failure to buy $50 federal stamps for gambling machines. Adding to the intrigue at the hearings was the appearance of Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, New York’s numbers baron in East Harlem. Years later, when he headed the Genovese crime family, Fat Tony told a Boscov buyer on a business trip to Manhattan about his longtime friendship with Abe Minker. Again, organized crime was linked to the Reading mob.
On the eve of the tax trial in September 1960, all the defendants except Abe Minker and Johnny Wittig pleaded guilty. Those sentenced to prison terms ranging from nine months to a year were: Tony Bonanno, Dominic Quartieri, John Hyneman, Michael Augustine, Charles DeCamillo, and Earl Borrell. Their fines ranged from $2,500 to $5,000. Seven lesser lights were just fined.
On March 6,1961, the tax trial of Minker and Wittig finally commenced. IRS agents testified about their intense investigation of the defendants, including picking through Minker’s trash barrel to obtain lists of public officials he was bribing. It also came out that Abe’s number banks were offering only 400-to-1 odds, about as low as it gets.
Before the case went to the jury, U.S. Judge C. William Kraft, Jr. acquitted Wittig of all charges. Kraft said the evidence against Wittig was insufficient to convict. Minker was not so lucky. A jury found him guilty on five counts. While he appealed, his bail was set at $30,000 and his passport was lifted. At the same time, the government filed a civil suit to recover $2 million in unpaid income, special occupation, and excise taxes, with interest and penalties dating back to 1956.
The government opened safe deposit boxes held under Minker’s name in New York, Scranton, and Reading, but found only $900. The IRS even seized Abe’s last weekly paycheck of $231 as secretary of the White House Market in Mt. Penn. Uncle Sam was relentless, questioning just about everybody who associated with “Uncle” Abe.
Through his Philadelphia lawyer, Jacob Kossman, Minker demanded a new trial. His new evidence, Kossman claimed, was that Abe was framed by his nephew, Alex Fudeman. The attorney said Alex admitted forging adding machines tapes found in Abe’s trash can. This and other ploys failed. On October 25, 1961, the 63-year-old racketeer received a four-year jail sentence and a $35,000 fine. After still more appeals failed, Abe Minker began serving his term the following year.
The Kubacki Administration
As Mayor Kubacki completed his first year in office, the Reading Times ran an expose on prostitution. Investigative reporter Donald Barlert, a future two-time Pulitzer Prize winner with the Philadelphia Inquirer, revealed in a seven-part series that five bawdyhouses were operating with only rare interference from law enforcement. Barlett, with the help of other reporters, detailed the longtime activities of Mabel Jones and Josephine Maione, two of the better known madams for more than a decade.
But even as the series ran in the newspaper for a week, the houses did not close down, and Kubacki’s police continued to ignore them. The inmates in these bordellos came from distant places such as Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, even California, indicating they were on the organized crime circuit.
Mabel Jones complained to her TV repairman that protection money was cutting into her profits. She claimed the mayor was making personal visits demanding $300 a week. Mabel usually had four to six girls at her Lemon Street house. Since Kubacki made a bid to collect $100 from Angie Wilkerson, who had a one-girl operation, Mabel’s story sounds reasonable.
While the Barlett series was still running in the Times, District Attorney Brubaker was conducting an equity proceeding to restrain the property at 111 North 7th Street from being used as a house of prostitution. The dwelling, owned by Mabel Jones, was named by Barlert as a bawdyhouse, with Claudia Glenn as its madam. The reporter was summoned to the hearing, but would not testify, refusing to identify his news sources. He was charged with contempt, but the charge was dropped in March when he agreed to testify at a prostitution trial for Claudia Glenn and an inmate.
As Brubaker and the Times became embroiled in a war of words, the district attorney filed a civil suit against the Reading Eagle Company in February 1962. The following year a jury ruled in Brubaker’s favor, but the conviction was overturned on the basis of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a New York Times libel case.
The dust hadn’t settled from the prostitution scandal when organized crime gave Reading another black eye, with the help of the Federal Bureau of lnvestigation. In January 1962, a force of federal raiders broke into a casino-like gambling parlor on Cherry Street. Dice tables and other gambling paraphernalia added to the reputation Reading had gained as a gambling mecca.
Since the early years of the McDevitt administration, a gambling palace in what later became the Genesius Theatre building on 10th Street was attracting heavy hitters from all over the East. Luggers from Philadelphia and New Jersey were running a nightly shuttle service. Times managing editor Dick Peters frequently mentioned the place in his “Old Pete” column on page one. It was no secret to anyone, especially the City Hall clique friendly with Abe Minker.
When John Kubacki moved into the mayor’s office he staged a raid on the place. “The General” was notified in advance. When the new police chief, Charles Wade, led his cops into the building, they found nothing but a few fellows playing pinochle. But on other nights, the games were so successful that a larger location was sought.
In 1961 the big game was moved to the first floor of a building at 235 Cherry Street. Upstairs was the Calabria, a nightclub considered one of the town’s hotspots at the time. Because the Calabria drew good crowds every night, the heavy flow of traffic into the casino below was not as noticeable as it had been at 10th and Walnut. The casino was open seven days a week with social matinee sessions on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Although local law enforcement ignored the big-bucks operation, it did not go unnoticed in Washington, D.C. United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy picked Reading as the place to test new laws giving the federal government more control over gambling. J. Edgar Hoover, in spite of still denying the existence of organized crime, sent a brigade of more than 50 FBI agents, the largest federal raiding force since Prohibition.
The 1 a.m. raid went off without a hitch on January 20, 1962. After breaking into the building at 235 Cherry, agents found three craps tables handling heavy action. More than $55,000 was seized and 112 men were herded away in buses to the U.S. Marine Corps Reserved Training Center and processed. Not a single Reading policeman showed at the Cherry Street site for more than an hour after the raid. Most of the gamblers were from out of town.
The only locals among the 14 men who would face trial were Benny Bonanno and Alfonso “Fonzie” Comito. Bonanno, whose rackets record dated back to the Tony Moran era, was a close associate of Abe Minker. Comito was owner of the building housing the gambling casino and the Calabria Club, managed by Santo Damiano.
The raid opened a wider rift on City Council. Mayor Kubacki was charged by Councilman Harold Guldin with laxity in his management of the police department. Kubacki’s answer was a proposed ordinance that would require all visitors with police records to register at City Hall when arriving in Reading, to state their reason for visiting and how long they intended to stay. That idea fell flat. A few days later the mayor ordered his police to crack down on all types of gambling and vice. Police Chief Charlie Wade also made a public vow to clean up the city. But when his cops checked out complaints about poker games a few days later they found nothing amiss, just pool and pinochle.
Regarded as the top man at “the biggest craps game on the East Coast” was George Barrow, far better known as Skinny Barrett. The 57-year-old Yeadon resident petitioned the government for the return of gambling equipment and $38,000 seized in the Cherry Street raid. The government countered with a federal tax lien of $281,887 it claimed Skinny owed for unpaid taxes on his employees’ salaries.
The real purpose of the September 1963 trial for the 14 gamblers was about more than just their innocence or guilt. The government was testing a law passed by Congress in 1961: persons involved in interstate gambling faced prosecution. Many of the Cherry Street casino customers were being transported by syndicate luggers across state lines, constituting a violation under the new law.
Benny Bonanno was convicted as one of five bosses running the casino. Angelo Bruno, the Philadelphia Mafia boss, was not charged in the case although several members of his crime family were.
Citizens of Reading had been barraged with a steady stream of news about racketeers and defiant politicians as the 1963 general election approached. The Democratic party was split wide open. Before the primary election that previous Spring, a reform group, Berks Independent Democrats, was formed. BID won two council nominations. Councilman Harold Guildin defeated John Kubacki to become the Democratic nominee for mayor. But the voters finally wanted a change and elected Republican Eugene Shirk, a popular Albright College professor and coach. Republican W. Richard Eshelman was elected district attorney. Instead of defying the federal law enforcement agencies he began working with them.
Although Minker was in prison, the federal government continued to pursue him. Kubacki and Charlie Wade at first stone-walled the federal grand jury. As more and more witnesses implicated them in crooked deals, Wade cracked when he was charged with perjury. Before the Democrats were voted out, Wade began taping face-to-face and telephone conversations with Kubacki, Minker, and Wittig. Offered immunity by U.S. special prosecutor Thomas F. McBride, the police chief laid bare the way business was conducted under the Kubacki-Minker reign.
A mind-boggling array of overlapping cases in federal and county courts were held during 1964 and 1965. Reluctantly, businessmen, city officials, and private citizens had been squeezed by investigators and federal prosecutors to reveal what they knew about local corruption. McBride gradually drew up detailed cases against the ringleaders.
By the Spring of 1963, Abe Minker was back in federal court seated next to Johnny Wittig and John Kubacki at the defense table, all three charged with extortion. The most damaging witness in that two-week trial about kickbacks paid in the purchase of parking meters was their former colleague, Police Chief Wade.
A few of the highlights:
· Wade admitted paying Abe Minker $5,000 to become chief of the Reading Police Department.
· Instead of accepting lower bids, Minker and Kubacki conspired to extort $10,500 and a grandfather’s clock in 1960 from two companies that sold parking meters to the city.
· Wade admitted getting $300 in one of the meter deals.
· Kubacki testified, denying all charges.
· Minker did not testify.
The former mayor and the two rackets kingpins were found guilty. As a first-time offender, Kubacki served a one-month jail term and was fined $5,000, most of which was later rescinded by a sympathetic federal judge. Minker’s lawyer, Sam Liever, succeeded in a plea to have his client serve his two-year sentence concurrently with his previous conviction on tax evasion charges. Wittig received a two-year sentence that was eventually cut to six months.
That trial was just the beginning of a series of spirited legal actions that were to follow. With the help of evidence provided by the federal government, newly-elected District Attorney Eshelman brought the city into respectable focus. Local court fans were treated to some pretty good shows the next couple of years. Eshelman’s main targets were the ex-mayors.
In December 1964, Kubacki was indicted on successive days in two extortion cases. The first, tried the following month, involved the purchase of two city police emergency trucks from the A. W. Golden automobile agency. The principal prosecution witnesses were Charlie Wade and Carl Ensslen, a Golden salesman. Wade claimed Kubacki wanted a $350 kickback on each truck, but eventually settled for $250. Ensslen testified that he paid the money directly to the mayor. Kubacki denied having asked for the money or accepting it. The local jury found him not guilty.
The second case against Kubacki was of a more juicy nature. The unlikely star attraction was Angie Wilkerson, a feisty prostitute out for revenge. Angeline Martin Wilkerson worked for the storied Dutch Mary Gruber earlier in her career, but by the 1960s was an established madam of one-girl operations. She first made headlines when state police arrested her and Kim Hammer, Angie’s girl-of-the-week. The short, stout Angie readily admitted she had been operating for several years. In 1964, the D.A. was informed by Charlie Wade that Kubacki had been shaking down Angie for weekly payoffs. Questioned, Angie admitted as much.
On the belief that he had two solid witnesses, Eshelman charged Kubacki, Abe Minker, and Bennie Bonanno with extortion. Wade was ready to testify, but Angie waffled just before the defendants’ preliminary hearing by not showing up. Johnny Wittig and Joe Fiorini, another of Minker’s top lieutenants, had paid Angie a visit, urging her to back off. She did for a few days, but eventually resurfaced and testified that Kubacki came to her 904 Penn Street apartment in 1961, demanding $100 a week if she wanted to remain open.
At the March 1965 trial, Wade detailed how Kubacki first pressured him to bring Angie in line. Not satisfied with Charlie’s progress, the mayor went to her himself. His offer: pay up or face closure for disturbing the peace. Angie complained to Police Chief Wade; he, in turn, complained to Abe Minker. “The General” ordered one of his underbosses, Benny Bonanno, to work out a deal. The final arrangement was for Angie to pay Benny $75 a week; $25 for him and $50 for the mayor. Kubacki and Angie agreed. After about six weeks, Charlie told his friend Angie to stop paying. In this small greedy war of wills, Angie and Wade won. Kubacki did not retaliate, but from that time on he didn’t trust his police chief.
A Berks County jury believed the ex-chief and the madam, convicting Kubacki, Minker and Bonanno. Each of the trio was sentenced to a prison term of 6 months to 1 year. The case dragged on in appeals courts for two-and-a-half years before the State Superior Court ordered a new trial. By then, Angie had been in and out of Berks County Prison after a few more arrests. And by now she hated the state police more than she did Kubacki. The aging madam refused to testify at a scheduled retrial in June 1967. The charges against Minker, Bonanno, and Kubacki were dropped.
Almost five years after he left the mayor’s office, Danny McDevitt seemed to have survived the upheavals and accusations of those stormy years. A year after his reelection defeat, he ran for the State Legislature and won. After serving a second term, the past returned to bite him. Sandwiched between Kubacki’s September and November arrests for extortion, Rep. McDevitt and former Democratic City Councilman Bruce Coleman were seized on similar charges.
Assistant District Attorney Samuel Russell, who had served with McDevitt on city council in 1954-55, had been appointed special prosecutor by D.A. Eshelman. It was Russell who would take on Kubacki and McDevitt in court.
Although Kubacki will be remembered as the only Reading mayor to serve a criminal sentence in jail, McDevitt was the first to spend a night behind bars. Danny was charged with conspiracy and aiding and abetting extortion by color (power) of office in the purchase of three city fire trucks while he was mayor in 1959.
Just before he was due to appear for his preliminary hearing, McDevitt popped up in court, handed back his $1,000 bail bond, and demanded a habeas corpus hearing. Representing himself in court, Danny claimed the charges against him were politically motivated. Judges Warren Hess and Albert Readinger said he could have such a hearing to review the freedom petition, but only after his preliminary hearing on the extortion charges the next day.
Danny yelped again about politics but the judges said: get an attorney, renew your bail and come back tomorrow. The defiant defendant said he was too poor to pay for a high-priced lawyer. His noisy argument bordered on contempt. Playing the martyr, he chose a night in Berks County Prison rather than enter bail again.
At the extortion case preliminary hearing the next day, the short-timer continued to represent himself. A Reading Mack Distributors salesman testified that after he had been awarded an $80,000 contract for fire equipment, McDevitt asked him for a $2,000 campaign contribution. Members of the Democratic campaign committee testified they had no record of the $2,000 contribution the salesman claimed he had paid to Councilman Coleman. McDevitt and Coleman were held for grand jury action.
McDevitt testified he had only asked for a campaign contribution, not a bribe. He told the court he was not guilty of extortion because he had not threatened the salesman, nor had the prosecution introduced any evidence to show he had received any of the $2,000.
A few days before Christmas, the Berks court handed down a 2-1 decision freeing Danny of both charges. The dissenting vote was cast by Republican Judge James Bertolet. Judges Hess and Readinger were Democrats. They ruled that the testimony presented at the hearing would never hold up at a trial, but if the district attorney wanted to appeal their decision, he could. But Eshelman never did. Nine months later McDevitt, at 49, died of a heart attack.
Coleman’s case was tried in June 1965, but after a day-and-a-half of testimony, Judge Readinger ruled the commonwealth had failed to meet its burden of proof. He discharged the case against the former councilman.
Although the Republicans had sprinkled around plenty of dirt and doubt how the Democrats had run the city business during the rackets’ glory years, the reformers won only a single temporary conviction. That was John Kubacki’s extortion case involving madam Angie Wilkerson. And even that eventually fell through when a state appeals court ordered a new trial. But the Republicans had wrested local government from the clutches of the mob by refusing payoff overtures.
When Abe Minker finished serving his four-year term in the Federal Correctional Institution at Allenwood, he and his wife moved to their spacious home in Phoenix, Arizona. He didn’t attempt to become an absentee ruler of his now shattered organization. In October 1985 he died in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the age of 87.
Although the Republican administration of Mayor Shirk and District Attorney Eshelman made a concerted effort to reduce racketeering, the roots were too deep the complete the job.
Indeed, the numbers racket continued to flourish until Pennsylvania adopted a state lottery. Even now, on the eve of the 21st Century, a clique of numbers bankers and their writers in local industrial plants still do a lucrative business by offering better odds than does the state.
The rebirth of Atlantic City as a “recreation” mecca reduced Berks County’s slot machine trade to a trickle. Reading books linked to Matt Whitaker’s horse book operation in Pottsville still find customers willing to operate outside the law. But again, the state politicians cut into the racketeers’ source of income by opening Pennsylvania’s first Off Track Betting parlor in Exeter Township.
Street prostitution certainly didn’t disappear with Abe Minker’s flight, but the old established bawdyhouses were torn down or closed. They were replaced in the 1980s by a few massage parlors operating in the suburbs for years with big returns. The state attorney general’s office finally arrested the out-of-town operators of these places in 1997.
Traffic in illegal drugs now presents Reading with a far greater crime problem than illegal gambling, extortion, and prostitution ever did. Murders, gun battles, and drive-by shootings have become all-too-regular occurrences in the 1990s. Before the proliferation of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, only a handful of murders were attributed to racketeering in Berks County. There were headline killings such as Ben Myers’ during Prohibition, Tony Moran’s in 1945, and Joe Donato’s in 1963. But the mob violence in those eras pales in the gory glare of today’s youthful drug wars. Most of today’s drug racketeers don’t live long enough to establish reputations.
The mounting casualty figures of the present generation gives rise to complaints from sentimentalists who claim Reading was better off when the old racketeers controlled crime and politicians. Big money is being made by the pushers and dealers of illegal drugs today, but there’s no evidence to date that local law enforcement or elected officials have risen to payoff bait.
Maybe the “good times” did roll when Max and Tony and Abe and Johnny and Jack and Danny and John and Charlie ran things. But a 1967 document, Wincanton: The Politics of Corruption, a federally-financed study about Reading under the dominance of racketeers, should give serious pause to any notion of turning back the calendar.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Edward A. Taggert, retired Editor of the Reading Eagle-Times, is at work on a book on the criminal history of Reading and Berks County.