Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: The Kitten Killers and How a Dog Guy Came To Adopt a Feral Kitten



While searching the Internet in hope of learning more about cats, I came across a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer from October about the death of Cuddles, a six-week-old kitten who was stoned and scorched.

The tortured kitten was rescued by an animal-control officer, who named him Cuddles, after the poor, injured animal climbed up his shirt and cuddled against his neck.

I recall that a 19-year-old knucklehead was later arrested for animal cruelty.

As a crime reporter and columnist I’ve covered some particularly heinous crimes in my time, including terrorism, murder and child abuse.

While accompanying Philadelphia police officers out on patrol, I’ve often witnessed the horrible acts that people do to people, but I can still be shocked by the cruel and senseless torture and killing of a defenseless kitten.

To be honest, for most of my life I’ve disliked cats. I thought them to be unfriendly, sneaky and sinister. I was, and am, a dog guy.

Cats were the arch-enemy of my late dog, Duchess, a half-German Shorthair, half Black Lab. She was trim, sleek and jet-black with small patches of white on her chest, legs and tail. She was the smartest, fastest and most lovable dog I’ve ever owned.

My wife’s grandfather is an accomplished carpenter among other skills, so I asked him to build a doghouse for Duchess. I thought he would simply slap some wood together, but he delivered an insulated doghouse with aluminum siding. The doghouse was built better than most houses.

The doghouse had a flattop roof and Duchess loved to lay there and bask in the sun much like Charles M. Schulz’s cartoon dog Snoopy. Duchess was a house dog, so during the winter months feral cats would sneak into the unoccupied and wonderfully warm doghouse to escape the cold, rain and snow.

This intrusion did not go unnoticed by Duchess. The cats drove her wild and she would let us know that she wanted out of the house fast in order to protect her territory.

When we opened our back door to let her out she would hit the yard like a rocket and chase the cats from her doghouse and her yard. I had to break up several scuffles between Duchess and the fleeing feral cats that she trapped.

Duchess lived to the grand old age of 18. And now I have one of her arch-enemies living in our house.

I began to appreciate cats two years ago when a feral litter in a vacant home on the other side of our yard produced two kittens. The kittens were named Circles and Little Girl by my next-door neighbors, a warm and caring woman and her equally warm and caring adult daughter. The two women left food and water out on their back porch for the feral cats.

Circles and Little Girl grew fast and as full grown cats they roamed and hunted in our backyards in my South Philadelphia neighborhood.

My area of South Philly has been called “the country in the city.” Perhaps because we live close to a park and have trees and small lawns not usually associated with urban living, we have an overabundance of squirrels, pigeons, and many other kinds of birds in the neighborhood. We even had a raccoon as a nocturnal guest.

Little Girl and Circles hunted the birds and squirrels. Perhaps they even confronted the raccoon at night while we slept. The two cats cleared our backyards of all of these pests. I began to see the cats as our backyard guardians.

I retired from the Defense Department in November of 2007 and I began to work at home as a full-time writer. Little Girl had a litter of five my first summer working at home and I, my wife and our next door neighbors observed the litter of tiny kittens scamper and romp with each other and their mother in my yard. Little by little, the kittens grew unafraid of us and we had a joyful summer watching them begin life.

Unfortunately, not all of our neighbors were happy with the kittens. Some neighbors complained about the cats and kittens roaming into their backyards. Some neighbors took actions to prevent the cats and the kittens from entering their yards, such as spraying water on them and by installing a wire fence (neither truly worked).

And then the kittens began to suffer terribly and die.

I was unable to do anything other than watch them suffer and die, one by one. I then had the grim task of disposing of the dead kittens. My wife found a piece of discarded pizza in our yard and we wondered if one of our cat-hating neighbors had poisoned the kittens.

One kitten, the runt of the litter, survived. My wife suspects that as she was still feeding from her mother, she did not eat the poisoned pizza like the others in the litter.

I called the police and an officer came and made a report, but we could not prove our suspicions and there was not much he could do other than write a report.

I later contacted the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA), to report the incident and to confirm that it was illegal to poison feral cats and kittens.

“Yes, it is illegal to poison stray and feral cats,” Helen Redfern, the Director of Outreach Programs for the PSPCA, told me. “These animals are protected by Pennsylvania Code 5511, which forbids cruelty to animals. Unfortunately, it is very hard to catch those who poison or cause other harm to feral and stray cats, as well as other stray animals.”

Redfern went on to state that they come across the poisoning of feral cats quite often. People who don’t want the cats in their gardens or near their homes often resort to using poison.

“Stray cats, because they are usually friendly and trusting of people, are more likely to be killed by some other method,” Redfern said. “Last spring, the PSPCA investigated a series of deaths in which stray cats were killed by even worst methods than poison. Some had sticks shoved down their throats.”

Redfern suggested that the best way to control the feral cat population is through “Trap, Neuter, Release, Management programs (TNRN). Cats are neutered and receive vaccinations before being released back to their colonies, she explained.

“Unneutered cats can produce thousands of offspring in just a few short years,” Redfern said. “Neutering is the best and most humane way to control the population.”

Redfern said that there are more humane ways to keep feral cats out of gardens, such as using coffee grounds or orange and lemon rinds to keep the cats away.

“Feral cat colonies are a part of living in a city,” Redfern said.

My next-door neighbors later trapped Little Girl and the runt kitten and, accompanied by my wife, they took the two animals to a vet to be neutered. When they returned with Little Girl and her kitten, I asked my wife if she wanted to take the runt kitten in and she said yes.

Little Girl, a true feral cat, would not enter my neighbor’s home, despite their best efforts to induce her.

The surviving feral runt kitten we named Kit is now roaming our house — a house that up to now only welcomed dogs. Kit initially lived in our back laundry room, hiding behind the enclosed radiator, and came out only to eat the food we set out. We used string to bring her out to play with us and she slowly warmed to us.

It truly pained us to hear Kit’s mother Little Girl call out for her surviving kitten and to hear Kit’s sad little call back from inside our laundry room during that first week. But we knew that we were offering the feral kitten a good life that could last more than 12 years. As a feral cat, she would be dead in about two years.

Today, Kit is an absolute treasure. She is a lovable character and her daily antics are amusing and endearing. She follows me around the house and she sleeps in a chair beside my desk as I work. She has become my pal.

Poor Duchess must be rolling over in her grave. I plan to buy another dog soon, thus giving equal time to dogs and cats in my house.

If you know of or suspect animal cruelty to cats, kittens, dogs or other animals, contact the ASPCA or your local police.

Note: Our cat Kit appears in the top photo. I'm holding my infant daughter and petting our dog Duchess in the other photo.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

You're a Terrorist, a Murderer, in Prison for Life, Called a Jackal, and You're Concerned About Your Image Now?

I read an interesting piece in the Washington Post about how Ilich Ramirez is suing a documentary film company over the “intellectual property” rights to his name and “biographical image.”

Ramirez, better known as “Carlos the Jackal,” is a former terrorist and murderer who is currently serving a life sentence in Paris, France for killing two French security agents.

Ramirez was, and apparently remains, an egomaniac. He was a rich, spoiled child who played at being a terrorist. He enjoyed being in the international spotlight in the 1970s and he didn’t mind having to bomb, shoot and kill people to be there.

Although he committed some truly awful criminal acts, this vicious coward was hardly “the most dangerous man in the world,” as some journalists, novelists and film makers made him out to be. He loved and encouraged the over-blown publicity, even adopting the name “Carlos the jackal,” which a reporter called him after finding a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s first-class thriller The Day of the Jackal in his abandoned belongings.

Forsyth’s character was a shadowy, highly efficient, professional assassin. Ramirez was none of these things. Perhaps Frederick Forsyth should sue Ramirez.     

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pernell Roberts Jr, TV Star, Dies of Cancer at 81

Pernell Roberts Jr, star of TV's Bonanza and Trapper John, M.D., died of cancer on January 24th. He was 81.

As a kid I was a big fan of Roberts when he was on Bonanza and I stopped watching the program when he left in 1965. I didn't watch Trapper John, but I caught up with Roberts again when he hosted and narrated FBI: The Untold Stories in the early 1990s.

You can read about Roberts' life and career via the below link:

http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv/2010/01/25/2010-01-25_pernell_roberts_star_of_bonanza_and_trapper_john_md_dies_at_81.html

Friday, January 15, 2010

My On Crime & Security Column: Travelers Should Remain Alert and Vigilant in Light of Terrorist Threats

The online small business magazine Businessknowhow.com published my On Crime & Security column today.

My column notes that in light of the attempted Christmas bombing of an airliner by a would-be-terrorist passenger with explosives in his underwear, and other terrorist threats, business travelers - indeed, all Americans - should remain alert and vigilant.

You can read my column here 

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story That Changed the Course of World War II

Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom is publishing Ben Macintyre's Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story That Changed the Course of World War II.

The incredible war story is more commonly known as The Man Who Never Was, the title of another book and film based on the World War II events.

A video trailer for Macintyre's new book can be seen via the below link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlbSZspTkTs

Bloomsbury, the publisher of the new book, writes: "This is the thrilling true story of the greatest and most successful wartime deception ever attempted. One April morning in 1943, a sardine fisherman spotted the corpse of a British soldier floating in the sea off the coast of Spain and set in train a course of events that would change the course of the Second World War.

Operation Mincemeat was the most successful wartime deception ever attempted, and certainly the strangest. It hoodwinked the Nazi espionage chiefs, sent German troops hurtling in the wrong direction, and saved thousands of lives by deploying a secret agent who was different, in one crucial respect, from any spy before or since: he was dead. His mission: to convince the Germans that instead of attacking Sicily, the Allied armies planned to invade Greece.

The brainchild of an eccentric RAF officer and a brilliant Jewish barrister, the great hoax involved an extraordinary cast of characters including a famous forensic pathologist, a gold-prospector, an inventor, a beautiful secret service secretary, a submarine captain, three novelists, a transvestite English spymaster, an irascible admiral who loved fly-fishing, and a dead Welsh tramp.

Using fraud, imagination and seduction, Churchill’s team of spies spun a web of deceit so elaborate and so convincing that they began to believe it themselves. The deception started in a windowless basement beneath Whitehall. It travelled from London to Scotland to Spain to Germany. And it ended up on Hitler’s desk.

Ben Macintyre (seen in below photo), bestselling author of Agent Zigzag, weaves together private documents, photographs, memories, letters and diaries, as well as newly released material from the intelligence files of MI5 and Naval Intelligence, to tell for the first time the full story of Operation Mincemeat. "

Macintyre, a columnist and associate editor with The London Times, wrote about Operation Mincemeat in the newspaper here
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Macintyre can be viewed talking about his new book via the below link:
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Harmony will publish the book in the U.S. this May. Below is the Harmony cover.

Monday, January 11, 2010

My Crime Fiction: "Cat Street"


The below short story originally appeared in The Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine in 2002:

They say that anything stolen during the night in Hong Kong will be on sale on Cat Street the next morning.

I heard that saying many years when I visited Hong Kong as a young sailor and it recently came back to me at a reunion with an old shipmate.

I knew Salvatore Lorino before we served together in the U.S. Navy, as we were both born and raised in the same South Philadelphia neighborhood. He was a minor hoodlum who dabbled in all of the rackets at the time. He was about six feet tall, lean, with dark hair and rugged features. He had a long face and a perpetual lopsided grin that served to alternately charm and menace.

Although he was several years older than I, we both entered the Navy in 1970. I enlisted at age 17 in a patriotic fever, coupled with a strong desire to see the world. Lorino told the judge he had a strong desire to avoid a term in the state penitentiary. So when the judge gave him a choice between prison and the military, he chose the Navy.

After boot camp we both received orders to report to the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. Both of us avoided mess cook duty, an awful job that all new seamen experience when they were first assigned to a carrier in those days. Thankfully, one of the petty officers in personnel was a Philadelphia native and he spared us the ordeal by assigning us to Special Services instead.

In Special Services we performed a number of odd duties - which included my covering the San Diego scene for Kitty Hawk sailors in my first published pieces in the ship's newspaper, The Flyer - but our main job was to help run the shipboard TV and radio cable throughout the ship. The Kitty Hawk was the first warship to have cable TV and radio.

After three months I was reassigned to the radio communications division and Lorino was reassigned to the deck department. In November of 1970 the carrier sailed from San Diego to the Gulf of Tonkin in Southeast Asia.

Lorino gained quite a reputation aboard the ship in a very short time. He was an aggressive and energetic predator. He conned naive and gullible sailors out of their pay. He gambled, cheated, hustled and stole. A large ship like the Kitty Hawk allowed Lorino to constantly be on the move, like a shark. I often followed in his criminal wake, sadly informing his victims that he was not truly representative of South Philadelphia.

Despite his criminal activities, he was a popular guy throughout the ship. Even the chiefs who failed to get much work out of him could not help but like him. He was gregarious and amusing, and most of the ship reluctantly accepted his larcenous bent.

His military career ended in 1971 when he left the ship in the Philippines, handcuffed and escorted by special agents from the Naval Investigative Service.

So when after all these years, I heard his rapid-fire, raspy voice on my voice mail, I was taken aback.

His message said he happened to see my column in the local paper and called the number listed. He suggested we meet somewhere for a drink and he left his telephone number. I was curious, so I called him back and agreed to meet him.

We held our reunion at a small bar in South Philly. The bar was typical of South Philly, friendly and unpretentious with relatively inexpensive and good Italian food. We ordered a bottle of wine and quickly dispensed with what we’ve done with our lives since our Navy days.

After the Navy, I went to Penn State for a year; he did two at the state pen. I went to work for the Defense Department as a federal civilian employee; he went to work for Federal Prison Industries as a federal prisoner. I was happily married with children; he was happily divorced without children. I went on to cover crime for the local paper; he went on to commit crime for the local mob.

We eat, drank and launched into swapping sea stories and reminiscing about our time in the Navy with boyish enthusiasm. Lorino, like most con artists, was very entertaining.

He had not changed all that much, it seemed, in character or looks. His once dark hair was now mostly gray, but he appeared to be the same old Lorino. After consuming several glasses of wine and a large serving of baked Zitti and Italian sausage, I sat stirring my cup of coffee and waited for his  pitch.

Lorino looked about the bar and then leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. He offered to tell me a story that would make both of us rich and famous. A tight smile was my only response.

Lorino asked if I remembered Nichols and Johnson from the ship and I replied that I remembered Johnson very well. An amiable Northern Californian who grew up on a ranch, he was the only person I ever met, over the age of ten, who wanted to be a cowboy. He was murdered in a robbery in Hong Kong. Nichols, I recalled, was a sad sack who deserted the ship in Hong Kong with his new bar girl bride.

Lorino did not contradict my recollection, but his grin widened above the rim of the glass as he drank his wine. If I agreed to write his peripheral tale of the Vietnam War, Lorino said he would confess his involvement in a three-decade-old case of kidnapping, espionage and murder.


The USS Kitty Hawk sailed into Hong Kong Harbor in February of 1971. The 80,000-ton aircraft carrier had just completed 70 days on "Yankee Station" in the South China Sea, performing combat operations off the coast of Vietnam. During that time the ship’s 90 aircraft dropped a record tonnage of ordnance on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong supply routes, which were collectively called the "Ho Chi Minh Trail."

During that 70-day period, the crew worked long, hard hours during flight operations and the radio division stood eight hours on watch and eight hours off watch continuously. We lost track of all time until the upcoming visit to Hong Kong was announced.

When the carrier dropped anchor in Hong Kong Harbor, a loud cheer rose from the crew and carried across the water. Heads must have turned towards the roar for at least ten nautical miles. Sharing the harbor with the American warship that day were freighters, ocean liners, British destroyers, Soviet cruisers, commercial speed hydrofoils, sampans and junks. The contrast between the splendid modern ships and the ancient and decrepit fishing boats was striking.

Visible from the carrier’s flight deck was Victoria City, the capital and business center of the
then-British Crown Colony. Dark clouds circled Hong Kong’s famous peak mountain. Looking down from the flight deck we saw the approaching Chinese motor launches, which were called Walla Wallas. The water taxis lined up along the starboard side of the ship and waited to take the eager American sailors ashore.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to have liberty that first day in port were ordered to assemble on the hanger bay prior to our departure. A third of the division would remain aboard the ship in the event of an emergency and the watch bill would change two days later.

Chief Petty Officer Lionel Shaw stood sandwiched between the noses of two chained down F-4 Phantom Jet Fighters. As security officer for the division, he was tasked with presenting a briefing to the first batch of sailors preparing to leave the ship for the exotic streets of Hong Kong.

The chief radioman truly loved the Navy. He left a poor family and a bad neighborhood in Chicago when he enlisted in the Navy and there was no going back for him. When he entered the Navy black sailors like him were restricted to orderly duties and he was enormously proud of the trust the Navy now bestowed upon him. He held, as did all of the men assembled before him, a top-secret security clearance.

Shaw was only 5’6" but appeared to be much larger due to his muscular torso, his ever-ready fighter’s stance and a great, booming voice. A model sailor, his khaki uniform and black boots were immaculate.

He briefed the crew on-route to Hong Kong as well, advising them not to wear their uniforms when they went ashore. Adorned on the left arm of their uniforms were lighting bolts, the distinctive occupational batch that identified them as radiomen who handled highly classified war information. This was bad OPSEC, or operations security. Now that the sailors were about to go ashore, he was pleased that they had heeded his warning. The concept that none of the men wanted to wear their uniforms in any case, was alien to a proud sailor like him.

"Listen up," Shaw bellowed. "Hong Kong is the Goddamned spy capitol of the world, so don’t be yakkin’ about your job or what the ship does, or what we’re goin’ to be doin’ next month."

"Remember that we’re only a few miles from Red China, the ally of our enemy, and ain’t nothing better them communists would like, then to haul your drunken, silly asses over the border."

He paused for breath, and perhaps for dramatic effect, and then added "And if one of them barhogs ask you what you do on the great, big ship, tell em’ you’re a Goddamn cook!"

The people of Hong Kong were given the impression that American sailors lived really well. On a ship with 5,500 men, 2,000 of them were cooks.

Not known to Shaw or any of us at the time, another Navy radioman, Warrant Officer John Walker, was feeding the Soviets a steady diet of vital information on Navy communications. The Communist Chinese intelligence apparatus, the MSS, was also in the market for a source of information. They wanted a U.S. Navy radioman to call their own.


Petty Officer Third Class John Nichols was one of the men assembled before Shaw. He had been in the Navy for more than three years and this was his second combat deployment aboard the carrier. Returning to the combat zone was common for carrier sailors during the 12 years of the Vietnam War. Many of them made two or three 11-month-long Western Pacific (WESTPAC) combat cruises during their four-year enlistments.

During the war there were always three 7th fleet carriers in Southeast Asia. Two remained off Vietnam, taking turns pounding the enemy in support of ground combat troops, while the third carrier went on R&R or made a port-o-call to Subic Bay, the American naval base in the Philippines.The carriers went to Subic Bay to take on weapons and supplies, do repairs and to release the bent-up sailors who went wild in the wide-open sin city of Olongapo. After ten or eleven months in Southeast Asia, a stateside carrier would relieve one of the 7th Fleet carriers in rotation.

There was an unwritten rule that there were only two ways to get off a carrier during the Vietnam War: one way was to be discharged from the Navy, and the other was to die. Unlike other men who resented not being reassigned to shore duty or a non-combat ship after their initial cruise, Nichols was thrilled. It meant that he would be seeing Hong Kong again.


Originally from a small town in Ohio, Nichols joined the Navy after graduating from high school. An only child, Nichol’s father had deserted the family when he was an infant. An alcoholic and inattentive mother raised him.

He had been a below average student, a poor athlete and he had few friends. Looking forward to the great Navy adventures that lay ahead, he was soon disappointed when he discovered that he was as unsuccessful with women in San Diego as he had been in Ohio.

Nichols was of average height, but his poor posture made him appear to be much shorter. With stooped shoulders, a slight paunch, balding brown hair and nondescript facial features, Nichols was certainly not a matinee idol. No clothes horse either; Nichol’s uniforms and civilian attire were always unkempt and unflattering. While looks aren’t everything, Nichols also lacked what one would call a personality.

Nichols’ disappointing young life changed one night in 1969 while he was on his initial cruise. On leave for two days in Hong Kong, he met a girl named Nancy Chen in the Wanchi District. The red-light district was made world famous by Richard Mason's fictional character Suzy Wong.

Like Suzy Wong, Nancy Chen was alluring in her black silk Cheongsam, a long slit rising invitingly up her left leg. Her long straight black hair, sleepy black eyes and doll-like figure were intoxicating to Nichols.

In her limited English, she told him that her family had escaped from China and came to Hong Kong when she was a young girl. As the family had no money, she was forced to work the bars. Touched by her story and madly in love, Nichols spent three months pay romancing her in two days of liberty. As he prepared to return to the ship, he grew bold and asked her to marry him.

"You crazy!" was her curt response to his heart-felt proposal. Undeterred, he said he would come back for her when the ship again visited Hong Kong during the next WESTPAC cruise.


A little more than one year later, the Walla Wallas pitched and rolled across the choppy, blue-gray water as the boats carried the Kitty Hawk sailors ashore. Nichols’ wedding party was aboard one of the boats. His wedding party sat on the immediate right and left of him. Nichols had invited the entire radio communications division to his wedding, but only seamen Dennis Johnson and Lorino accepted.

Nichols was not popular with the crew. It was well known that his request to marry a foreign national was denied by the Navy. She still had family behind the "Bamboo Curtain" and that presented a security risk. Nichols didn’t care what the Navy said, he was getting married. He talked of nothing else since the cruise began. His shipmates constantly ridiculed him. Sailors in close quarters aboard a ship can be crueler than children.

Johnson was Nichols only friend and that was due primarily to Johnson being everyone’s friend. A cheerful 22 year old, Johnson was a real "cowboy" who amused everyone with his tales of growing up on the range in California. He enlisted in the Navy to avoid being drafted in the army.

Lorino, who often visited me in our berthing area, accepted Nichols' invitation as he had no other plans.

Nichol’s wedding was set to take place above a store in Hong Kong’s commercial section. The happy couple would spend the night in the Hong Kong Hilton. Nichols had been informed of these arrangements by his bride-to-be in a letter.

The trio of sailors piled into a taxi at the pier and were driven to Ladder Street. Ladder Street was not really a street in a traditional sense, but rather a series of wide steps spread out between rows of shops. At the bottom of Ladder Street lay Morlo-Gai, or Cat Street. The area was locally known as the "Thieves Market."

Cat Street was a bustling market where tourists and locals alike were herded through the ubiquitous shops and wooden street stands. Under colorful Chinese banners and signs, the merchants screamed out the praises of their wares and haggled over prices with their customers. Trinkets and inexpensive products, mostly manufactured in the People’s Republic of China, were laid across counters and tables. Pickpockets, beggars, prostitutes and lunatics fought openly over territory.

Passing through the crowd, store touts and street urchins frequently accosted the sailors, but they brushed them off in good humor. Nichols paid a small boy to take them to the address written in his letter. They were led up a set of back stairs and into a room where the Americans faced the waiting bride and her Chinese "family."

Music from the American band Chicago blasted from an elaborate stereo system. A ten-foot wooden bar, amply stocked with bottles of liquor, stretched across the room. Three round tables were set up to create a small dance floor. On the tables were dishes of crabmeat with sweet-corn soup, fried prawns, crabmeat Fu-Young, sweet and sour pork and fried garoupa. Two young women huddled with Nancy Chen and giggled. Three Chinese men stood in the center in the room.

The sailors stood in the doorway, momentarily overcome by the sights, sounds and smells of the scene. Nancy Chen walked towards Nichols and embraced him. He began to cry and she laughed at him, making a comment in Chinese to her girlfriends. One of the men announced in English that he was Jimmy Lung and that he was the bride’s brother. He introduced the women as Lucy and Wendy.

The two lean and gaunt men in white shirts and dark slacks were introduced as the Woo brothers, cousins to the bride. They were also serving as the bartender and waiter for the affair.

Lung was as thin as a child’s crayoned stick-man. His hair was a dark mop and sunglasses hung precariously on his skeletal face. He wore an open collared silk shirt under his expensive suit and his silver snakeskin cowboy boots drew Johnson’s envy.

When Nichols stopped crying, they all took seats at the tables and began to eat and drink. The women danced seductively with Johnson and Lorino. During the festivity, Nichols put his arm around his future brother-in-law and asked him why he and Nancy had different last names. "Chinese custom," Lung replied bluntly. Nichols did not question the dubious explanation.

The party ended abruptly when Lung leaped up and screamed "No one move!"

Swiftly extracting a foot long knife from his left sleeve, Lung placed it roughly under Nichols’ chin. The waiter also drew a long knife and the bartender vaulted over the bar holding a long barreled revolver. The three women huddled into a corner.

"We are moving this party across the Shumchum," Lung announced. The Americans didn’t know that this was the name of the river that separated Hong Kong from Red China, but they got the idea when Lung added, "My friends on the other side want to talk to you about your little American Navy secrets."

Johnson sat still and cursed to himself softly. Lorino casually crossed his legs and took a long draw from his cigarette, trying to look as cool as a South Philly gangster ought to under these extreme and unusual circumstances. Nichols was frozen and bug-eyed in Lung’s grip.

To Lorino, who had personal experience in the field of armed robbery, Lung made two critical mistakes. The first mistake was that he took time to brag to his captive audience.

Lung told them proudly that he was a member of the Nine Dragons Triad, one of the oldest secret criminal societies in Hong Kong. He explained that in addition to routine criminal pursuits, he also gathered information that his girls extracted from American servicemen and passed it on to the Red Chinese. The pay for the information was generous, considering that he was dealing with communists.

Lung's second mistake was that he took his eyes off Lorino for just a second when he turned his head towards a crash.

Johnson caused the noise when he jumped up from his chair and tackled the Woo brothers. All three men slammed into the bar, causing it to split down the middle as if hit by a giant karate chop.

Lorino leaped from his chair, hit Lung with a solid and hard overhand right, and without losing momentum, bolted through the door. Lung collapsed from the blow and dropped to the floor with Nichols still in his grip.

Like the thief that he was, Lorino jumped down the stairs, ran out into the street and quickly waded through the crowd for several blocks. He later stopped at a bar, had a drink, and hooked up with a bar girl for the night. He returned to the ship the following day and kept his mouth shut. Lorino was a survivor.


I recall that next day on the Kitty Hawk vividly. Nichols was reported to be UA, unauthorized absence, which surprised no one. The news that Johnson was murdered in a robbery was a surprise and the story quickly spread throughout the ship.

There was much talk of "dungaree liberty," a time-honored naval tradition in which sailors donned working uniforms, armed themselves with knives, pipes and clubs and went ashore to wreak havoc on an offending liberty town.

The captain wisely canceled all water taxis. A British police inspector came aboard and addressed the crew over the ship’s public address system, known as the "1MC."

"I wish to inform you that your Seaman Dennis Johnson was indeed found murdered last night on Cat Street," The inspector said in an accent most of the sailors found familiar from old movies.

"A known criminal, one Jimmy Lung, was apprehended and I assure you he will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

The crew’s anger was quelled. Johnson was given a memorial service and the carrier returned to Yankee Station and the war. After 30 days, Nichols UA status was upgraded to AWOL, absent without leave, and he was declared a deserter. The paperwork was processed and Nichols was forgotten.


As I write this and reflect on the unhappy life of John Nichols, I hope that he escaped with his bride and lived happily ever after. But my guess is he was taken to Red China, where they drained him of his classified information and then shot him. My source for this story, Salvatore Lorino, was unable to furnish the story’s ending.

I recently received a letter from my source, who is now incarcerated at the Federal Prison in Lewisburg, PA. A simple case of interstate theft, he assured me. Still the survivor, Lorino claims he can handle the prison stretch.

"I get along in here," he wrote. "I wear a uniform and I’m told when to work, eat, sleep and shit – just like the Navy."

© 2002 By Paul Davis

Thursday, January 7, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: A Look Back at Joseph Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, and His Undercover Life in the Mob


My wife and I recently watched Donnie Brasco on cable TV. We’ve seen the film about four or five times, but we like it so much we watch it again every couple of years.

The 1997 film, stars Johnny Depp as "Donnie the Jeweler,” Brasco, aka Joseph Pistone, the FBI Special Agent who went undercover in 1976 in the New York Bonanno Cosa Nostra crime family, and Al Pacino as mobster Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero.

In my view, the film is one of the two most realistic films, along with Goodfellas, about organized crime.

Depp is very good as Pistone. Who can forget Depp’s explanation of the New York all purpose term ”fugettaboutit” to his fellow FBI agents?

Al Pacino, a great actor, but one who often plays characters way over the top, is understated and dead on in this role of a not particularly bright, low-level mob guy.

This role is the other end of the crime structure from the brilliant and evil mob boss Michael Corleone Pacino portrayed so well in The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II and The Godfather, Part III.

I would have cast another actor in the important role of “Sonny Black” Napolitano, the Bonanno captain of the crew Pistone infiltrates. Michael Madson and his perpetual scowl gives him a look of being constipated rather than tough. Imagine what a fine actor like Robert De Niro could have done with this role?

The film, like Pistone’s 1987 book the film was based on, accurately portrays organized crime at the street level and debunks the popular myths surrounding the mob. There is little glamor or honor here. The film also accurately portrays the stressful and dangerous life of an undercover agent.

Pistone chronicled his extraordinary six years undercover in the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, written with Richard Woodley. Pistone successfully infiltrated the mob using the cover of Donnie Brasco, a jewel thief. He went on to become an associate member of the Bonanno crime family and in the end he was offered the opportunity to commit murder and become a full “made” member.

He was subsequently pulled out by his FBI bosses and his evidence and testimony was responsible from more than 100 organized crime members going to prison.

I reviewed Pistone’s second book, The Way of the Wiseguy for The Philadelphia Inquirer (http://www.pauldavisoncrime.com/2013/08/my-philadelphia-inquirer-review-of_2031.html). As I wrote in the review, The Way of the Wiseguy is an insider’s guide to the world - or perhaps one should say, the underworld - of organized crime.

With stories and anecdotes that revel how wiseguys get their nicknames, how and why they are murdered and such minutiae as how they treat woman and what they eat, the book is everything you ever wanted to know about wiseguys, goodfellas mob guys and gangsters. Pistone’s blunt and colorful language adds to the book’s gritty realism.

“When you’re a wiseguy, you can steal, you can cheat, you can lie, you can kill people - and it’s all legitimate,” Lefty Ruggiero said to Pistone, explaining the tangible benefits of being a wiseguy.

I spoke to Pistone over the phone a few years ago and I met him when he came to Philadelphia on a book tour. He told me that he has many Philadelphia connections, including his close friend, actor Leo Rossi, who is from Philadelpha.

Pistone also worked for the Naval Investigative Service (now called NCIS) down at the old Navy Yard in South Philly and he also knows FBI agents assigned to the Philadelphia office.

Pistone, who still looks like he can handle himself in a tough situation, comes across as regular neighborhood guy. He grew up in Paterson, New Jersey and he knew wiseguys growing up, but law enforcement officers interested him far more.

“I knew a couple of cops and detectives and their lives intrigued me,” Pistone told me.

He said he became an FBI special agent because of the officers he met and not by the influence of TV or films.

Pistone said that Cosa Nostra has lost much of its power because of the RICO (Racketeer Influenced an Corrupt Organization) Act and the strict federal sentencing guidelines.

“At one time, you’d get 3 to 5 years in prison,” Pistone explained. “The standard line among wiseguys was I need to go on vacation - three squares a day, I work out and get back in shape. Now, with the guidelines, the judges don’t have much wiggle room in their sentences and they get 15 to 20 years. And you’re going to the time in the federal system.”

Pistone noted that in the Commission Case they convicted all of the New York mob bossess and they received 75 to 100 year sentences. Now, he said, when wiseguys are convicted they know they will never see the light of day again, so they make deals with prosecutors.

I mentioned to Pistone that being part-Italian and having grown up in South Philly, the hub of the Philadelphia-South Jersey mob, I can recall when mob guys looked at their time in prison proudly, in much the same way I view my time in the U.S. Navy. Their time incarcerated was considered a right of passsage and they were proud that they didn’t become a rat and they did their time “like a man.”

Pistone said that one does not see that attitude too often with today’s wiseguys.

Many people look at the mob and see a sense of glamor in the criminal lifestyle with their money, girls, clothes and cars. I asked Pistone if during his six years undercover he saw this as a glamorous life.

“No,” he replied. “You see the cars, the nice clothes and the guys don’t work, but what you don’t see is the inter-workings of mob life, the killings and stuff.”

“Every day is spent scamming, scheming and wondering how are they going to make money,” Pistone explained in his gruff, street-wise voice. “It’s a stressful life. The two things these guys worry about are going to jail and getting killed.”

Pistone went on to explain that there is a lot of tension in mob life, especially when there is a war going on in the family. A mob guys worries about getting killed or who who they they will have to kill.

“What kind of life is that?” Pistone asked. “Every day is a struggle. You’re worried about money coming in, money going out, who’s cheating you and who are you going to cheat.”

I told Pistone that what I especially liked about his book and the film was the accurate portrayal of the scheming and the tension he mentioned, and I also liked that the protagonist - thinking Pistone might be uncomfortable witht the term hero - was a law enforcement officer rather than a criminal like Henry Hill, Tony Soprano or Michael Corleone. I further liked that the protagonist was an Italian-American law enforcement officer.

I recalled that in 2004 TIME reviewed Pitone’s earlier book and Henry Hill’s book, Gangsters & Goodfellas together. The reviewer stated that Pistone “ratted out” the Bonanno family. For the record, Pistone was not a rat. He was an FBI special agent on offical duty. Hill, on the other hand, was a criminal informant. TIME did not see the distinction between the two.

“They didn’t see the difference between an undercover agent doing his job and an informant, a criminal,” Pistone said. “I get that all the time in interviews and I have to correct them.”

I asked Pistone what he believed his primary accomplishment as an undercover agent and he replied that he was able to show that the mob could be penetrated by law enforcement.

“We broke the myth about the mob being honorable and all these other fantasies.”

I mentioned the TV program Wiseguy (1987-1990) to Pistone and I said that I truly liked actor Ray Sharkey, who looked and acted like many of the guys I grew up with. The undercover FBI agent in the show, Vinnie Terranova, portrayed by Ken Wahl, came to be fond of Sharkey’s character Sonny. Terranova knew he was a wild and violent criminal and murderer, yet he saw likeable human qualities as well.

I asked Pistone if he, like his TV undercover FBI counterpart, had those same conflicting feelings for any of the mob guys he knew.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” Pistone replied. “I felt that way with Sonny Black Napolitano and even Lefty Ruggiero, who was a hardcore mobster. You see these guys every day for 10-12 hours and you see a side of them with their kids and grandkids. Yet, here is a guy who loves his grandkid, but a half hour later he goes out and whacks a guy he has known for 15 for 20 years.”

“This is the subculture and mindset of mob guys,” Pistone said. “One of the questions you’re asked when you get made is would you kill your brother or cousin if you had the contract? The answer has to be yes or you’re out.”

In addition to Donnie Brasco and The Way of the Wiseguy, Pistone has also written another good book on organized crime called Unfinished Business: Shocking Declassified Details From the FBI's Undercover Operations and a Bloodly Timeline of the Fall of the Mafia.

If you’re interested in organized crime, I recommend all three books, as well as the film Donnie Brasco.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Poverty Causes Crime? A Crime Theory Demolished


As Heather MacDonald notes in her piece in the Wall Street Journal, the recession of 2008-09 has undercut one of the most destructive social theories that came out of the 1960s: that the root cause of crime is poverty and social injustice

MacDonald goes on to state that the crime free fall continues a trend of declining national crime rates that began in the 1990s, during a very difficult economy.

As any cop will tell you, most crimes are committed by a small group of career criminals. When these career criminals are released early from prison, they go on to commit more crimes.

I agree with MacDonald that an increase in criminals incarcerated has largely caused the lower crime rate. I also agree with her view that the innovative policing of former LA police chief William Bratton and New York City Ray Kelly has helped reduce crime.

Their use of COMPSTAT has brought crime way down in their cites, as well as other cites across the country. The COMPSTAT police system is a simple one, yet it is highly effective. Identify the specific areas where crimes are committed and place more effective police resources in those high crime areas. COMPSTAT also aids police chiefs in holding police captains accountable for their crime statistics.

I attended a COMPSTAT meeting at the Philadelphia Police Academy when John Timoney was the Philly police commissioner.

A huge COMPSTAT computerized map was on the wall and the crimes committed that week were represented by little symbols. A small car represented stolen autos.

I recall Timoney making the comment that the district looked like a used car lot. Everyone laughed except the captain of that district. The district captain was told in no uncertain terms by Timoney to crack down on those car thieves.

I also recall Timoney telling reporters at one meeting I attended that the police can lock criminals up, but if the prisons won’t hold them, they will simply be back out on the street committing the same crimes.

I’ve heard more than one commentator lament our large number of incarcerated persons, but I’m thankful that career criminals are behind bars.

And even though we are in a tough economy, our crime rate lowers because poor people don’t cheat, rob, rape and kill — criminals do.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Philadelphia Police Marine Unit Covers Crime, Safety and Homeland Security On the River

On assignment for Counterterrorism, a quarterly magazine for law enforcement, government and military people around the world, I recently went out on the Delaware River with the Philadelphia Police Marine Unit.

I went out on the river in the unit's 31-foot Munson (seen in above photo). I interviewed the unit's commanding officer, LT Andrew Napoli, and a couple of the other men in the unit. In addition to being police officers, the men in the unit are also small boat sailors and divers.

The Philadelphia Police Marine Unit has been in operation since April 9, 1859. The Police Marine Unit patrols the city's rivers and they cover crime, safety and homeland security issues.

Their mission is to respond to all water related emergencies and they conduct search/rescues and recoveries of persons, properties and evidence from the water.

The Police Marine Unit is coolocated with the U.S. Coast Guard at Front and Washington Ave in South Philadelphia and the unit works closely with the "Coasties." (The below photo shows Coast Guard and Police Marine Unit response boats working together on the river).

My magazine piece should be in the upcoming spring issue.