Whatever it took - that was the mantra of Don Herion, who busted Chicago mobsters for more than 40 years. Now in retirement, he's telling Hollywood moviemakers how to portray Chicago crooks and criminals.
In his day as a Chicago vice cop, Herion seemed like a one-man police force who happily labeled himself a vigilante who did "whatever it took."
Herion still sounds and swaggers like Clint Eastwood. But don't even think about calling him Dirty Herion. Long before Herion became a movie cop, mouthing off to Patrick Swayze, decades before he played a tough detective in a Tommy Lee Jones film. From the late '50s in Chicago until the new millennium, Herion was the real thing.
"Probably in 1957, I was in uniform and there was some gambling," said Herion.
Almost 51 years ago on Chicago's West Side, Herion vividly remembers an assignment that changed his life. He was told to stand in a pool hall, in uniform and watch for people illegally booking bets.
"There's guys walking through the back door and they're dressed like in the Goodfellas. 'Yo, how you doin'?' 'Fine, what's up wit' you?'" he said.
Herion says his police superiors at the time made it clear he was just window dressing and to look the other way, which he did. But he promised himself to someday get revenge on the pool hall. "And I got even with him, I took the phone booth out and locked him up and I got him three times after that. That's when I started not liking these people," Herion said.
"These people" are the hundreds of Chicago Outfit figures that Herion pursued with a passion during his 38 years on the Chicago police force and eight years with the Cook County Sheriff's Police.
Sometimes, just as the mob did, Herion made up the rules as he went. "Normally, you should have a warrant and all of that stuff, but I didn't even know how to type out a warrant," Herion said.
Herion's headlines and TV appearances reveal the story of a bygone era where Outfit gambling was rampant but rarely resulted in long jail terms. Back then, bookmakers either ended up in a car trunk after a gangland hit or subjected to Herion busting down their back door.
"You'd screw them up. You'd blow a joint on them. They'd have to find a new place, new phones. It disrupted it and they didn't like that," he said. And if you were a wagering customer, the mob had a rule, which is also the title of a book Herion has written. "You pay. You can quit or you're gonna die," he said.
Herion says as he turned the screws on the mob, Outfit assassin Butch Petrocelli once threatened to kill him. "He was telling me he knew where my kids went to school. And I said a few things to him and that if he had a dog I'd fry his dog," Herion said.
Petrocelli ended up murdered by fellow mobsters with a blow torch. Even as Outfit bosses were toppled in last summer's Operation: Family Secrets prosecution, Herion says mob tactics have changed. Violence is less common. A gambler who doesn't pay may not have his legs broken.
"They would put his wife out in the street hookin' or something," Herion said.
Herion's colorful descriptions of mob lore have made him a valued Hollywood consultant. He consulted with Johnny Depp during the recent filming of Dillinger in Chicago. But for all his glory, the moment in time that 79-year-old Herion remembers most is that first gambling bust in 1957.
"From that pool hall, I never forgot it," he said.
In 2008, if Herion was still on the police force doing "whatever it took," he would probably have some explaining to do. But in retirement, Herion says he has come to realize being a vigilante doesn't make him Dirty Herion.
Thanks to Chuck Goudie
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