Give yourself a gift this Colorado Day. Treat yourself to the best book of 2023: “Gangbuster: One Man’s Battle Against Crime, Corruption, and the Klan,” by award-winning Colorado author Alan Prendergast

The writing is superb, as expected from Prendergast. He’s long been a gem at Westword, and at his (and my) alma mater, Colorado College, where he has taught journalism for decades. 

My biases are plentiful. I’m partial to great writing, courtroom dramas, biographies, and history. After digesting “Gangbuster,” I want to grow up to be like its protagonist, early 20th-century Denver District Attorney Philip Van Cise.

Van Cise graduated Denver East High in 1907, went to CU, and then became a solid Denver lawyer, just like his dad. Van Cise was also a U.S. Army intelligence officer during World War I, and served decades in the Colorado National Guard. 

While in the military, Van Cise investigated vicious authoritarian strike-breakers at Ludlow (1914), and then again at the deadly Denver streetcar strike of 1920. Van Cise despised autocratic bullies. He saw people getting away with murder in the Mile High City.

Riled up, Van Cise mounted a last minute, long shot bid for Denver DA, and somehow won. His campaign slogan was “A Fighting Man for a Fighting Job.” He was a Republican, and conservative on many issues, especially when it came to crimes against persons. 

During his single term, it’s said he won 45 out of the 46 cases he personally tried. Van Cise did much more than merely win convictions. 

One hundred years ago, Van Cise was one of the few incorruptible people  in a city full of corruption. After his 1920 election victory, he consulted Hamilton Armstrong, who’d first become Denver police chief in 1894. 

Van Cise considered Armstrong honest but tired, especially after the veteran lawman explained this harsh reality to the incoming DA: “When officers get money for not seeing things, it takes an unusual man not to get blind once in a while.”

It was way worse than occasional willful blindness. Denver became renowned as the Big Store, a city where almost any ripoff was allowed, so long as Lou Blonger, the top organized crime boss, approved and got his cut. But Blonger, a Civil War veteran, got old and sloppy. 

Blonger also had his downtown Denver office electronically bugged by Van Cise, who transcribed every utterance. Denver’s DA outsmarted and incarcerated the Blonger gang, despite little help from DPD. 

Soon afterwards, Van Cise contended with a suddenly metastasizing Colorado Klu Klux Klan. Too many Denver cops and city officials were joining that corrupt “Hooded Empire.” 

When asked last weekend what motivated Van Cise, Prendergast told me, “He had a very strong sense of civic pride – like, I’m not going to let these guys take over my town. He was very offended personally by the idea of the Klan coming in and telling people of Denver we don’t have to respect the law, the Fourteenth Amendment, (and) that we don’t have to treat everybody equally.”

The Klan hit it big in Kolorado thanks to their strangely effective, evil leader, Grand Dragon John Galen Locke. Fifty thousand Kluxers picnicked at one Lakeside gathering. Big crosses were regularly torchlit on the foothills above Golden to intimidate Blacks, Jews and Catholics. 

An East High grad himself, author Prendergast admires Van Cise, telling me, “He’s the guy that you want to root for. And you know the odds are very much against him, because of how deep this corruption goes. But bit by bit, he does amazing things. And this is why these kinds of books are always important. He really made a difference – one public official who could stand up and say this is wrong.”

While dealing with serious subjects, and enriching our knowledge of Colorado history, “Gangbuster” frequently amuses. Authoritarian blowhards make pompous ridiculous mistakes. Mob insiders testified credibly against their former bosses. And lordy, the Denver DA heard everything said as mobsters conspired. Sound familiar?

The cast of colorful characters in “Gangbuster” includes well-known Colorado surnames like Phipps, Byers, Stapleton, Bonfils and Cranmer. We also glimpse several prominent Denver Jewish lawyers such as Charles Ginsberg and Philip Hornbein, both dedicated to defeating the Klan. 

“Gangbuster” taught  me about slippery Ben Laska, who gets introduced in Prendergast’s book as a victim. However, Laska’s amorality ascended as he  began representing Grand Dragon Locke and his ilk. But Locke ran out of the fortune he’d earned from Klan merch and dues

Laska then committed his own felonies, got caught and convicted, and sentenced to a federal  penitentiary. And if you check his appeal in 1935, and I did, Laska was represented by future Colorado Governor Ralph Carr. But those are other great Colorado stories.

Fine history books are like that. “Gangbuster” makes us crave learning more about Colorado a century ago. Perhaps we can see our way forward. 

“Gangbuster” will enhance any August vacation, and is a source of optimism. If Fani Willis (with state RICO law) and/or Jack Smith (with anti-Klan law) can perform like Phil Van Cise, America may thrive once more. 

When democracies are threatened by criminal masterminds, incorruptible prosecutors can be our salvation.

Craig Silverman is a former Denver chief deputy DA. Craig is columnist at large for The Colorado Sun and an active Colorado trial lawyer with Craig Silverman Law, LLC. He also hosts The Craig Silverman Show podcast.

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