It was something the Colonel hammered into his investigators: Find out all you can about your target. Start by identifying his associates. You can learn a lot about a crook, he told them, if you discover who his friends are. By his friends you shall know him.
The same could not be said about an honest man. More often than not, an honest man will have few friends. A truly incorruptible one might have none. If the Colonel himself was ever to be investigated, you’d be better off studying his enemies. There were so many of them.
Consider a single confounding episode, long after the Colonel’s gangbusting days were over. Shortly before midnight on July 19, 1943, Philip Sidney Van Cise — also known as the Colonel, in recognition of his military service in World War I — takes the streetcar home after a long evening at his law office in downtown Denver. Fifty-eight years old, portly and balding, he bears little resemblance to the trim, dapper war hero who ran for district attorney 23 years earlier, proclaiming himself “A Fighting Man for a Fighting Job.” As he walks the last two blocks to his house in the Cheesman Park neighborhood, a stately, turn-of-the-century three-story, he notices two men keeping pace with him on the opposite side of the street.
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Van Cise reaches the steps of his house. The men break into a run and catch up to him on the porch. One grabs him by the tie and snarls, like a Hollywood hood, “We want you to come with us.” The other man keeps his hand in his coat pocket, pointing something at the lawyer’s belly.
Van Cise is dog-tired and having none of it. Croaking out half-strangled cries for help, he wrestles with the goon yanking on his tie. The other man joins in the struggle, pulling his hand out of his pocket.
Van Cise hollers and thrashes. The commotion sends dogs barking and neighbors to their windows. The men flee.
When the police arrive, Van Cise tells them he didn’t recognize the men. He doesn’t know why anybody would want to kidnap him — but this isn’t the first time it’s happened, either. Possibly, he suggests, it was an attempt at payback by someone he put away when he was Denver’s top prosecutor, back in the Roaring Twenties.
Two decades is a long time to hold a grudge. Yet District Attorney Van Cise did his job so well, with favor toward none, that the list of potential suspects is staggering. In addition to prosecuting murderers, rapists, and thugs of all stripes, the Colonel set out to smash two sprawling criminal conspiracies during his single eventful term in office. The first battle made him one of the most admired and feared gangbusters in the country. The second cost him his job and almost cost him his life.
Van Cise became Denver’s district attorney at a critical moment in the city’s history. It was a time when prostitution, gambling and bootlegging thrived under police protection, when Denver’s teeming underworld was ruled by Lou “The Fixer” Blonger — a shrewd ex-lawman who had something on everybody. Among the nation’s top con artists, Denver was known as the Big Store, the place where a well-connected grifter could fleece rich marks out of hundreds of thousands of dollars without any interference from the law, as long as the Fixer got his cut.
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Blonger attempted to buy off Van Cise even before he took office, a move he soon regretted. In defiance of the police and a mobbed-up city administration, Van Cise declared war on Blonger and his “Million Dollar Bunco Ring.” He embarked on months of secret, often perilous investigation, involving techniques that were decades ahead of their time: electronic surveillance, undercover operatives, around-the-clock stakeouts and communications intercepts, even counterintelligence measures — all to track and expose a confidence game so elaborate that some victims never realized that they’d been swindled. The effort brought down the gang, upended the state’s power structure and made national headlines.
At the time of the bunco ring trial, Van Cise was the most celebrated figure in Colorado, and powerful men pleaded with him to run for mayor or governor. When he left office two years later, he was, by his own account, “the most unpopular man in the state.” This reversal of fortune says less about Van Cise than it does about the great political and social upheaval that swept across the country in the years after World War I. After prosecuting Blonger, the emboldened DA went on to investigate the workings of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. Employing the tactics he’d developed for busting the confidence game, he sent undercover agents to infiltrate KKK meetings and launched a grand jury probe of the group’s well-cloaked leadership and political connections. He was grappling with a rapidly spreading disease, far more insidious than traditional crime syndicates. His audacious campaign to rid Colorado of the Klan exposed corruption at the highest levels of state government, but it had been largely forgotten by the time the two men tried to seize him from his porch.
It’s hard to believe that any member of the bunco ring or the KKK would still be gunning for the Colonel in 1943, so long after the main event. Con men don’t usually get involved in rough stuff like assault and abduction, and it seems unlikely that the few Klansmen who remained in Denver would attempt such a move. But Van Cise managed to attract trouble — and lasting rancor — simply by being his stiff-necked self. Just a few weeks before the bungled kidnapping, the Rocky Mountain News ran a short, begrudging profile of the former DA, comparing him to Julius Caesar. “Abrupt, incisive, a bit inclined to deal with people as if he were a drill sergeant,” the anonymous scribe observed. “A zealot and a crusader…Refused to be a candidate for mayor in 1923 when he could have been elected without question…The sort that repels familiarities…His back, even at times of triumph, is seldom slapped.”
Some people go along to get along and end up with slapped backs and testimonial dinners. Others follow their own moral compass, at great personal risk, and are ridiculed as “the sort that repels familiarities.” They might even be attacked on the street for no apparent reason. The mystery of the attempted kidnapping was never solved. It hangs there, unexplained, an echo of dangerous times, a grim reminder that a man who dares to do what Van Cise did will be looking over his shoulder for years to come.
The kind of criminal conspiracies he fought are still with us, in more sophisticated guises, and so are the deceptions that go with them. But we can learn a great deal about how to fight them from his example — the methods he employed, the determination he showed, the ways he snatched victory from defeat without getting snatched himself. He had a singular talent for sniffing out a con and exposing it, whether it was a stock exchange that existed only in the minds of its victims or a fat little man hiding behind a curtain, demanding that all bow and pay tribute to the Imperial Wizard. And, as his would-be abductors found out that summer evening long ago, if you showed up at his house uninvited, intending to take him by force, then that had better be a real gun in your pocket.
The Colonel was just the man to call your bluff.
From “Gangbuster” by Alan Prendergast, reprinted with permission from Kensington Books. Copyright 2023.
Alan Prendergast is the author of “The Poison Tree” and “Gangbuster.” His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Outside, the Los Angeles Times, 60 Minutes, Westword, and other publications, as well as The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Crime Reporting. He lives in Denver.