Friday, May 29, 2009

180 Years of Newsgathering at The Philadelphia Inquirer

This coming June 1st will mark 180 years of newsgathering at The Philadelphia Inquirer (

The Philadelphia Inquirer is the newspaper of record for the Philadelphia area.

I'm proud to say that I've been a contributor to the daily newspaper since 1999.

More to come.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Return to Elmoreland, Road Dogs is Elmore Leonard's New Crime Thriller

“They put Foley and the Cuban together in the backseat of the van and took them from the Palm Beach County jail on Gun Club to Glades Correctional, the old redbrick prison at the south end of Lake Okeechobee,” my friend and former editor, Frank Wilson, read to the audience at the Central Library in Center City Philadelphia prior to introducing crime writer Elmore Leonard on May 14th.

“That sentence, which happens to be the first one in Road Dogs, will signal to any reader who’s been there before that he is once again entering “Elmoreland,” a region whose inhabitants speak a language not taught in the schools — American.”

Wilson retired as the book editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and now runs Books, Inq (, a popular literary blog that The Times in London named as one of the 100 Best Blogs 2009.

Wilson told the audience that once you find yourself in Elmoreland you also find yourself hanging on those inhabitants’ every word.

“You just can’t help noticing that what they say and the way they say it is smooth and tangy, like good Bourbon,” Wilson said.

I ventured to the library to hear Leonard, who is one of my favorite crime writers. I enjoy his fast-paced and character and dialog-driven novels. His violent , quirky, often dim, but always human characters are always interesting. And they are, in a dark way, very amusing. Leonard is a very funny writer.

Leonard, 83, the author of 42 novels and two story collections, told the gathering at the library that night that his current novel puts together three of his favorite characters from previous novels.

There is Jack Foley, the handsome and charming bank robber from Out of Sight, played by George Clooney in the film version, and Cundo Ray from LaBrava, who is a diminutive and wealthy Cuban career criminal. The two become “Road Dogs” - friends and allies who have each other’s back in prison.

We are also reintroduced to Dawn Navarro, the beautiful con artist and “ordained” psychic from Leonard’s earlier novel Riding the Rap. Ray thinks of Navarro as his common-law wife and he is obsessed with her faithfulness to him while he is prison.

“I wasn’t sure if Cundo Ray was alive,” Leonard said. “I had to look through LaBrava and came to the scene where Joe LaBrava shoots him in the chest three times, but he has to leave quickly for some reason, so no one says he’s dead.”

“A couple of emergency guys find he’s still breathing and so they take him to the hospital and he’s in a coma for 60 days,” Leonard said. “Actually, he’s faking the coma while he looks around and finds out what’s going on.”

Leonard went on to explain that Ray eventually moves to Venice, California, invests in property at the right time and makes a lot of money. Then he is convicted of second-degree murder and he is in prison at the same time as Foley.

“So this was my opportunity to get a couple of characters that I thought needed a little bit more time on the page,” Leonard said.

Road Dogs also offers Little Jimmy, a homosexual Cuban criminal that Ray protected when they were in prison together. Jimmy now oversees Ray’s property and bookmaking interests in Venice. There is also Lou Adams, an FBI agent who is obsessed with placing Foley back in prison and then writing a true crime book about the bank robber who has robbed more than 100 banks.

Adams coerces a former gangbanger named Tico to watch Foley, who was released early from prison thanks to Ray’s $30, 000 payment to a sharp lawyer. Foley moves to Venice and stays at one of Ray’s homes across a small canal from another of Ray’s home where Navarro is living.

This larcenous cast of charactors comes together and waits for Ray’s release from prison.

Leonard read passages from the novel and he spoke of his beginnings as a writer, getting up at 5 AM to work on his stories for two hours before going to work in an ad agency. He also spoke of his early success and the film adaptations of his novels (the good ones and the very bad ones), and he spoke of his novel-in-progress.

Leonard listed several writers he reads and said that his all time favorite was Ernest Hemingway. He said he learned about being spare and showing restrain from Hemingway, but he added that Hemingway did not have a sense of humor.

Leonard said he learned how to use humor from Richard Bissel. He also liked the dialog-driven The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins. Leonard believes the novel is the best crime book ever written.

Leonard, unlike most crime writers, said he was not at all influenced by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Unlike these two giants of crime fiction, Leonard does not write in the first person of a private detective, and he does not, like Chandler, use similes.

An audience member noted that Leonard didn’t use similes and asked when he figured out he didn’t want to use similes. Leonard replied with his usual dry wit, “When I realized I’m not good at it.”

Leonard went on to say that he believes similes interrupt the story, especially the way Chandler used them, but he acknowledged that many people (me included) still read Chandler because of his language.

Chandler’s similes work very well, it seems to me, because Chandler wrote in the first person. The similes would perhaps not work as well for Leonard, as he writes in the third person. Also, Leonard’s street criminals are generally not the type of people who use similes.

Leonard is as clever and amusing a speaker as he is a writer, so I truly enjoyed hearing him speak that night. I recommend that you too return to Elmoreland and read Road Dogs.

My On Crime & Security Column: On Hotel Security & Safety

My On Crime & Security column at was published today.

The column may be of interest to business travelers as well as those going on vacation, as it deals with hotel security and safety. 

Friday, May 15, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Once a Prince of the City: My Q & A With Crime Writer & Former NYPD Detective Robert Leuci

Robert Leuci, the former New York City detective who was the subject of the book and film Prince of the City, is a crime writer who lives in Rhode Island, far from the mean streets of New York City.

Robert Daley’s Prince of the City: The True Story of a Cop Who Knew Too Much was a first-rate true crime book and Sidney Lumet’s film based on the book with Treat Williams portraying Leuci when he was a young detective and a member of the elite narcotics Special Investigating Unit (SIU) was brilliant and haunting.

The SIU narcotics detectives had city-wide jurisdiction and little supervision over their selected cases, which was unusual in a bureaucracy like the New York Police Department (NYPD). These “Princes of the City” were the most aggressive and talented detectives in the war on drugs in the 1960s and 1970s. And some of them were corrupt.

Leuci, as he recounts in his memoir All the Centurions: A New York Cop Remembers His Years On the Street - 1961-1981 (Harper), committed acts of corruption, but he came forward and volunteered to make cases for the prosecutors (including a young Rudolph Giuliani) against corruption in the criminal justice system.

He was not, he stresses, caught in a criminal act and forced to do, which is the path taken by so many crooked cops and assorted criminals.

And he says he was not an oddball and outcast like Frank Serpico, the NYPD undercover narcotics cop who was the subject of both the book and film Serpico. Leuci said he was all cop. He belonged.

He wanted to go after corrupt lawyers, political fixers and judges, but tragically for Leuci; he was ultimately forced by prosecutors to also testify against his former partners and other cops.

Leuci, now 68, retired from the NYPD in 1981. In addition to his memoir, he writes crime novels.

I contacted Leuci and talked to him about drugs, organized crime, crime fiction, and his life as a cop and a writer. Below is my Q&A with him:

Davis: I read two of your novels, Odessa Beach and Captain Butterfly and I read your memoir All the Centurions. I thought they were very good.

Leuci: Odessa Beach and Captain Butterfly are my early books. My later books are much better.

Davis: I’ll have to read them as well.

Leuci: My favorite is Fence Jumpers. It’s a bit autobiographical. For Odessa Beach I spent about nine months at Brighten Beach among the Russian immigrants. That was fun.

Davis: Was that as a detective or later as a writer?

Leuci: It was after I retired. I wanted to write something about these Russian immigrants, whom I found fascinating. I lived down there and wrote the book. Russian guys have been around since 1979. They left the old Soviet Union and were allegedly going to Israel, but they never got there. They are mostly Jews, but they were not Jewish in any sense. They knew nothing about Judaism and they knew nothing about Karl Marx. They were not communists, they were just Russians. They were tough guys. A lot of them were ex-prisoners who had been in jail for all sorts of different reasons. The first wave that first came here were some of the toughest guys you would want to meet. They are very violent and they are into almost everything. They are much more powerful today than the Italians.

Davis: Have the Russians become the bigger organized crime element in the country?

Leuci: For a hundred years Italian organized crime held sway in the streets in all the big cities, especially in eastern cities, and some in the west. New York alone had five major crime families. They were all over the place and they controlled drugs, gambling, prostitution, and a lot of stuff. But they’re done, pretty much.

Davis: Italian organized crime is still active around the country, including here in Philadelphia – I’m part-Italian and I live in South Philly - but you’re right, their influence has greatly diminished.

Leuci: I know a lot of people like to say that organized crime kept crime down, and without organized crime, disorganized crime would take over the streets, but these guys were responsible for most of the drugs that were in the streets. They were responsible for a lot of that street crime. I write about this in Fence Jumpers.

Davis: Have you written about anything other than crime?

Leuci: No, I’ve thought about it, but crime is what I know.

Davis: I find crime to be one of the most interesting of human endeavors.

Leuci: There can be a lot of really good things in a crime novel.

Davis: I truly liked Prince of the City, both the book and the film. Were the book and film accurate? Is there anything that you would change if you could?

Leuci: I had a certain amount of input there, but not a whole lot. The book was written by Bob Daley, who is a wonderful writer and a good friend, and then it was turned into a film by Sidney Lumet, who is a wonderful film director who made Serpico and Network and other wonderful movies. But you know it was not exactly an uplifting movie. I’ve never sat through the entire movie, but I saw bits and pieces of it - it’s too hard for me. People still say to me why did you do this? What was the reason? It’s not really explained very well in the book and it’s not explained at all in the movie. I mean it sort of gives you an idea of why I got involved in that investigation, but it was hard to do it, I suppose. In All the Centurions, I really do explain what brought me to that place and why I did what I did. I’m not sure it was a great decision, by the way.

Davis: That’s my next question. Do you think you did the right thing by coming forward?

Leuci: Certainly at the time. I was probably on the verge of a nervous breakdown and I didn’t even realize it. I was a bit loony and all kinds of things were going on in my life. I was very depressed about the work I was doing in the police department. I went into the police department because I very much wanted to be a cop. I found myself within a short period of time, after five or six years, behaving in ways that were foreign to my nature. I was behaving in ways that were much like the people I was investigating. It mad me sick and it started to make me crazy. The people I cared most about were the other cops I worked with, and most of them were great guys, but they were crooks. We all rationalize our behavior. It made sense to me at the time, but when I really thought about it and really took it all apart, I realized it was so hypocritical and so opposed to anything I believed in. I should have quit or transferred to another unit, but I didn’t do that and I got caught up in this crazy investigation that was a horror in many ways. It was a decision that changed my life certainly, and maybe changed it for the better in some ways, but the price I paid and the price that other people paid for my fucking feeling sorry for myself, was way too high.

Davis: Are there different levels of corruption? Is there a difference between a cop taking a meal and a cop taking drug money?

Leuci: For years many cops believed there was “clean money” like gambling, and “dirty money” like drugs, but the problem with that kind of mentality is that most of the money really comes out of drugs. It ends up in one big circle. I would never sell drugs. I would never sell to an informant. I had a line that said I would never cross. A lot of guys I worked with said they would never cross that line, but a lot of guys did. You can’t draw those lines; it’s beyond your control. You shouldn’t do that. Once you do it you’ve screwed yourself. It’s a sensual world you’re working in. It really rubs off on you. There is no cop born, ever, that changed the street. But the street has changed every single cop.

Davis: Drugs are rampant today, and they fuel many other crimes. Can you tell us what it was like to a narcotics detective in your day in New York?

Leuci: There was a heroin epidemic in the 1960s, 1970s, and part of the 1980s. The drug of choice was heroin, not cocaine or crack cocaine. Heroin killed thousands of drug addicts. The 60s and the 70s were a crazy time, and when you added this drug it made the whole world seem topsy-turvy. But there was less violence as that drug doesn’t produce violence. People go out and rob to get the drug, but heroin is an opiate. It makes people tired, it makes them sleep. Heroin addicts are not threatening people. When the drug of choice changed to crack cocaine it became extremely violent. That drug produces violence and paranoia. Meth is another violent drug.

Davis: I’ve long been interested in your era, as I was a young guy then, and I read Robin Moore’s The French Connection in 1969, and went on to read a lot books and see a lot of films about crime in New York, including Prince of the City, and your books. In your era the SIU produced many legendary detectives like Eddie Egan, Sonny Grosso, and Joe Nunziata. Nunziata was an interesting man who came to a tragic end with his suicide. Even though he was apparently corrupt, my heart went out to him and his family when I saw Prince of the City.

Leuci: Joe Nunziata looked like Dean Martin. He was a very handsome, a very gregarious guy. He was all those things. There were a lot of good things about him and I was one of his big admirers. Joe made some big mistakes. We all did. I think the film did him justice. I talk to his son every now and again. Papa's Game is a great book that tells the story of that time and the French Connection rip-off. That was the most horrendous thing imaginable.

Davis: Yes, after confiscating all that heroin in the French Connection case, the biggest drug bust at the time, someone simply stole it from the NYPD property room. Did you know the people written about in Papa's Game, the criminal Vincent Papa and Detective Frank King?

Leuci: I knew Frank King pretty well. Frank King was a good cop in a lot of ways, but he was thoroughly corrupt. He was a gangster as a cop.

Davis: How are you treated by law enforcement officers today?

Leuci: It depends on where they are and who they are, what generation they are from. I lecture at every police department in the country, with the exception of New York, on corruption, ethics and morality. The cops are very nice. But what old school guys say, and it’s true, is that you violated something that can’t be forgiven. When you turn in a cop for whatever reason, it’s unforgivable. I understand it as I come from that generation. That has changed nowadays. It exists in cases of police brutality, but I think that if there is a cop out there who is going off on his own and doing corrupt things, other cops will report it. Police today have different kinds of education, background and world views. I don’t think you can get away with that kind of stuff today.

Davis: I have one last question about your era. Did you see the film American Gangster? It has been reported that the corrupt detective was based on you.

Leuci: I won’t go see it. I read the magazine piece and this guy has got to be kidding. Josh Brolin called me up and said he was playing me in a movie. I said you’re not playing me.

Davis: Did you know the Black heroin dealers Frank Lucas or Nicky Barnes?

Leuci: I never worked in Harlem and I didn’t know Lucas. I worked in Brooklyn.

Davis: I talked to a retired DEA agent who worked in New York at the time and he said the movie was false and Lucas is a liar. Lucas never did any of that stuff he claimed. When he was caught he ratted out his gang and family members, but he never made any cases against corrupt cops or DEA agents. The writers and filmmakers naively believed everything Lucas told them.

Leuci: The people who wrote that spent no time doing any kind of research on it. They had this great story and they turned it into a movie. This guy Jacobson, who wrote the magazine piece and wrote the screenplay, is totally full of shit. I had federal protection during the time he was talking about. I know the detective he was talking about, a guy named Albano. He was a real bad guy who worked Harlem. He was involved with the French Connection case. But if they didn’t spend any time trying to get it straight, if they didn’t get my story straight, how can they get the rest of that movie straight?

Davis: Do you think Lucas used your name because you are known?

Leuci: Yes, of course. My daughter wanted to sue, but I said no.

Davis: They didn’t use your name, but they used your street name “Babyface.”

Leuci: No, when he gives Lucas his card, that’s my name on it.

Davis: I didn’t catch that.

Leuci: I’ve never seen it, but people told me about it. I was working for Giuliani at the Southern District of New York, and if any of that was true, Giuliani would have crucified me. Those guys should be ashamed of themselves. It’s all bullshit.

Davis: One of the things I liked in your memoir was your portrayal of Sean Connery, one of my favorite actors. You wrote that at a party people were smoking pot and Connery told them to respect you and stop. “This man is a police officer.” I can hear his commanding voice.

Leuci: Sean Connery is a very straight shooter. He was very kind to me when I was out of my level in Hollywood with these characters. He was very supportive. Some guys started smoking pot in front of us and he got pissed off.

Davis: Who influenced you as a writer?

Leuci: Robert Stone is a big influence and he is my mentor. I like Joseph Wambaugh, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price. There are so many writers that I really like.

Davis: Any last thoughts?

Leuci: I’ve written seven books, taught at the University of Rhode Island for ten years, and I’ve lectured around the world. I’m a much more complicated character than you see in the movie.

My Crime Beat Column: A Look Back At Robin Moore's Classic Vietnam War Story, 'The Green Berets'

I recently spoke to a retired Green Beret about his early influences and why he chose to spent most of his life training foreign soldiers and performing combat and espionage operations in several wars overseas.

Like me, he came of age during the Vietnam War, and he served several tours of duty in Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He said he was heavily influenced by Robin Moore’s The Green Berets. (The above photo is of Robin Moore while in Vietnam in 1964).

As May is National Military Appreciation Month, I wanted to look back at Moore’s classic novel of combat, espionage, intrigue and heroism.

The novel was based on his true experiences with the Green Berets in the early 1960s in Vietnam. Moore’s book, along with the hit song Moore co-wrote with Barry Sadler, The Ballad of the Green Berets, and the John Wayne film based on Moore’s book, influenced scores of young men who went on to become Green Berets or served in the military in other capacities.

In the 2007 updated edition of The Green Berets (Skyhorse), Moore wrote that it was heartening to hear men tell him that they read the book in high school and then decided to become a Green Beret. Moore wrote that his reaction to state,"Then I have not lived in vain."

Moore also knew what he called "the equally discordant experience" of having women tell him that their son read the book, joined Special Forces, and were killed in action.

In addition to inspiring future Green Berets, Moore also inspired many young, aspiring writers who went on to cover the military. I was one.

Moore died last year at the age of 82 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, which is home to Fort Campbell and the U.S. Army's 5th Special Operations Group.

Moore was born Robert L. Moore, Jr. in Massachusetts in 1925. At 19 Moore served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a nose-gunner on a B-17 bomber during WWII. He attended Harvard University after the war, graduating in 1949. While a student at Harvard, Moore wrote a series of articles on post-war Europe for the Boston Globe. Although he initially worked for his father, a co-founder of the Sheraton hotel chain, Moore left to become a writer.

After publishing a book on Cuba, Moore wanted to write about the then-little known Green Berets. At age 37 Moore graduated from the U.S. Army's Airborne School and the Special Warfare Center - the first and only writer to do so. He arrived in Vietnam on January 6, 1964 and spent six months with the Green Berets in combat.

Moore said he planned the book to be a factual account based on personal experience and firsthand knowledge, but he later decided that there were disadvantages to a straight reportorial approach. Although he noted that he stories were based on fact, he offered his tales of the Green Berets in the form of fiction.

Writing the forward to the 2007 edition of the book, Major General Thomas R. Csrnko noted that there were many accounts of the Green Berets by historians, scholars and writers. He stated that bystanders watching the men in action barely scratch the surface.

“Robin Moore is not a bystander,” Csrnko wrote. “He is the first and only civilian to have the unique understanding of the men of the Special Forces because he was granted the opportunity to complete a year of Special Forces training by a leader now known as the ‘Father of the Modern Green Berets,’ Lieutenant General William P. Yarborough.”

Csrnko wrote that Yarborough credited Robin Moore with making the term “Green Beret” a household word both among his fellow Americans and around the world.

Moore’s fact-based novel reads like a thriller. Moore offers stories of Green Berets defending remote outposts against overwhelming odds. He also tells of a lone Green Beret who “went native” and lived and fought alongside the Meo tribesmen in Laos against the communist Pathet Lao.

Moore also tells the tale of how the Green Berets recruited a beautiful Vietnamese woman whose parents had been slaughtered by the Viet Cong. Using her as bait, they captured a Viet Cong Colonel in a daring snatch operation. The novel is part adventure, part history.

Moore went on to write another classic book, the true crime story, The French Connection, as well as other books, but he often returned to the Green Berets. With co-author Michael Lennon, Moore wrote The Wars of the Green Berets: Amazing Stories from Vietnam to the Present (Skyhorse), and even with advancing age and illness, Moore traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq and wrote The Hunt for Bin Laden (Random House) and Hunting Down Saddam (St. Martin's Press).

Moore's books shine a light on the battles fought by the Special Forces in Vietnam and elsewhere and how their special skills, training and insight into counterinsurgency won them friends as well as the respect and fear of their enemies.

"Forty-odd years after the publication of Berets and the Warner release of John Wayne's movie, the worst fears of the 1960s and early 1970s Pentagon have become reality," Moore wrote in his introduction of the 2007 edition of the book. "Special Forces has become a branch of the U.S. Army like artillery, signal corps, engineers and infantry, among others," Moore continued. And, as the reader will discover, the final chapter of this revised edition is a short biographical sketch of former Green Beret, General Henry Hugh Shelton, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest post in the U.S. military."

Today, thanks in part to Robin Moore's book, U.S. Army Special Forces and other Special Operations groups are in the forefront of the war on terrorism.      

Note: The above column originally appeared at

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Thursday, May 7, 2009

My Q & A with Former Delta Commander LTG William Boykin (Ret)

Counterterrorism magazine published my interview with LTG William Boykin, the retired deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and the former commander of the U.S. Army's elite Special Operations group, Delta Force.
General Boykin (seen above in the DoD photo) is the author of Never Surrender: A Soldier's Journey to the Crossroads of Faith and Freedom.
You can read my Q&A with General Boykin via the below:

Note: You can click on the above to enlarge.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, The Man Who Claimed to Murder Jimmy Hoffa

I read that director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro, who teamed up to make the classic crime films Goodfellas, Mean Streets and Casino, are returning to the scene of organized crime in an upcoming film.
Scorsese and De Niro are planning to make a film based on the book I Heard You Paint House: Frank 'The Irishman" Sheeran and Closing the Case On Jimmy Hoffa. The book, written by former prosecutor Charles Brant, is based on four years of taped interviews of Frank "the Irishman" Sheeran, a Philadelphia native, Teamster union official and self-confessed hit man for Cosa Nostra crime families.
With the urging of his daughters, the elderly and ill Sheeran visited a Monsignor in Philadelphia and received absolution, which allowed him to be buried in a Catholic church when he died. After visiting the Monsignor, Sheeran agreed to make another "confession" by talking to Brant. Sheeran admitted to committing several murders, including the murder and dismembering of his close friend, former Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa.
"I heard you paint houses," was the first thing Hoffa said to Sheeran when they met. The expression "painting houses" was a criminal euphemism for murder, suggesting the blood that is sprayed on walls when a man is shot and killed.
Some of the story takes place in South Philadelphia, where I was raised and still live, and according to Sheeran, his first "hit' was ordered in a South Philly restaurant by Philadelphia Cosa Nostra boss Angelo Bruno. Bruno simply told Sheeran, "You gotta do what you gotta do."
Sheeran was a World War II veteran, truck driver and small-time crook, who went on to work alongside Hoffa in the International Teamsters. he also committed murder for his Padrone, Russell Bufalino, the Cosa Nostra boss for Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Sheeran offers an inside-story of Hoffa's battles with the union, the mob and the law. The law won and Hoffa was sent to prison. After Hoffa was pardoned by President Nixon he tried to regain control of the union, which ultimately led to his murder by mob bosses who controlled the union. According to Sheeran, Bufalino ordered the murder.
Sheeran told Brant he regretted killing his friend and resorted to drinking heavily afterwards. Although he was long a suspect, he was never arrested for Hoffa's murder. He died in 2003.
Hoffa's murder has been a mystery that has fueled conspiracy buffs for decades. This book answers many questions, but the probelm with I Heard You Paint Houses and many other true crime books, is they are based primarily on the word of a career criminal.
And considering that criminals steal, cheat, kill and lie for a living, one should be skeptical. Sheeran may very well have killed Hoffa, but he offers scant hearsay evidence that Hoffa paid off Nixon for his pardon, and that the mob killed President Kennedy.
But having said that, I found the book to be a good crime story and a compelling tale of betrayal and redemption. These are themes that interest Scorsese and De Niro, so I'm looking forward to the film.
Note: The above column originally appeared at