Thursday, February 02, 2012

Vegas Rag Doll: A True Story of Terror & Survival as a Mob Hitman's Wife

My personal memory of hitman Tom Hanley dates to November 1979, when I was covering a federal court trial where he was a critical witness.

Just before leaving to spend Thanksgiving in San Diego, I told a friend that Hanley wasn't as ill as he claimed on the witness stand.

I thought he had been faking some of his confusion when he testified in a firebombing trial for four days. At 63, Hanley, a former sheet-metal union official turned hitman, seemed frail and had trouble hearing the questions put to him. He complained about his health so often, the judge ordered him to stop it.

Oops.

The day after Thanksgiving, he died of natural causes.

Hanley really was sick when he complained about his ailments while testifying against Ben Schmoutey, then the secretary-treasurer of Culinary union Local 226, charged with ordering non-union restaurants firebombed.

I've been thinking of that trial because over the holidays I read "Vegas Rag Doll: A True Story of Terror & Survival as a Mob Hitman's Wife," co-authored by Hanley's former wife, Wendy Mazaros, and Joe Schoenmann.

I could hardly wait to get to the part of the book covering the trial, the part I knew personally. Except by that time, Mazaros was married to Robert Peoples, the second murderer she wed. I never saw her at the trial, and she didn't attend Hanley's funeral a few weeks later.

Since the trial received scant mention in the book, I pulled out old clips of the trial and saw the screaming blue headlines that used to mark front-page banner stories in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

"Hanley switches story," one screamed. He had testified before the grand jury that Schmoutey paid him for the firebombings. In court, he said meant to say Al Bramlet paid him. Well, that didn't help the Las Vegas Strike Force case.

Hanley and his son, Gramby, were the key witnesses against Schmoutey. The father and son had confessed to killing Bramlet, Schmoutey's predecessor, in 1977. Bramlet's nude body was found with six bullets in it, one in each ear, one in the sternum and three others in the area of his heart.

The Hanleys both testified about their own roles in firebombing nonunion restaurants that the Culinary union sought to organize. They were successful in three out of the five firebombings, which occurred between 1975 through 1977. It was long thought that Bramlet was killed because he refused to pay the Hanleys for the two failed firebombings. But there were other theories as well.

One was that the Chicago mob ordered Bramlet hit because they wanted to take more control over the Culinary union's $42 million pension fund and Bramlet was resisting. Another was perhaps Bramlet was stealing from the pension fund. Mazaros' book didn't provide a definitive answer, nor did Tom Hanley provide details during the trial.

At one point, he confessed he was answering questions though he couldn't hear the questions. Schmoutey's attorney, Oscar Goodman, didn't even bother to cross-examine him, leaving that job to other defense attorneys representing four other men also charged in the case.

U.S. District Judge Harry Claiborne threw Hanley's testimony out, saying, "Hanley's testimony may go down in history as the most confusing testimony ever given in a criminal case."

On Nov. 20, 1979, Claiborne ordered all the defendants except one minor player acquitted saying the federal prosecutors hadn't proved their case. (The guy left was later acquitted as well.)

Three days later, Tom Hanley died.

Five months later in April 1980, it became public that the judge was being investigated by the Strike Force.

Claiborne later speculated that the Strike Force investigated him relentlessly partly because he dismissed the Schmoutey case.

Those were the glory days for those of us who covered federal court.

Union corruption. Political corruption. Judicial corruption. Mob murders. Scams. Some proven, some not. All intriguing.

Thanks to Jane Anne Morrison

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