Dog Day Afternoon

Forty-six years ago today, I covered the climax of one of the great crime stories in a New York that was very different from the safe, gentrified city it is today.

When I was a reporter in my hometown, much of Gotham was grimy, sleazy and dangerous.

It was the New York of Mean Streets and Midnight Cowboy, Serpico and The French Connection.

My last year in city – 1972 – working for UPI, I covered a cop killing and near-riot at a Black Muslim mosque in Harlem, the murder trial of a dirty detective,and the final act of a wild bank robbery in Brooklyn that became the movie Dog Day Afternoon (1975).

The robbers were memorably portrayed by Al Pacino and John Cazale, right after they had been seen on screen as Michael and Fredo Corleone in the first two Godfather films.

Sonny and Sal

John Wojtowicz – played by Pacino, his character called Sonny – and Sal Naturale (Cazale) entered the bank, filled a bag with cash, and emerged to find their getaway car gone and the street filled with cops.

Over many hours, they held bank employees hostage, taunted the police, drew huge crowds of onlookers – many cheering support – and had pizza delivered.

Finally, the robbers and their hostages piled into a van for the 45-minute ride to JFK airport and the promise of making their escape in a jet.

In this except from my memoir, The Expat Files, I recount my day:

On August 22, 1972, I was at City Hall, where I sometimes helped out the reporter assigned there full time. I was checking in with the desk, when I was told, “Can’t talk now. There’s a bank robbery in Brooklyn, and it looks like they’ve got hostages.”

“What bank?” I asked.

“Chase Manhattan, on Avenue P, at Third Street.”

The desk editor hung up. I flipped through a Brooklyn phonebook, found the number for the bank and called it.

“Hello,” a man answered.

“Hi,” I said. “Who’s this?”

“This is the bank robber.”

“What’s your name?”

“Sorry, I can’t talk no more,” he said, and hung up.

I called back – the line was busy – phoned the desk and reported my brief conversation with the robber.

“You want me to go to Brooklyn?” I asked.

“We’ve got it covered,” I was told. “Just hang in there for now.”

I followed the news reports on the radio until the desk called.

“You got your car?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, it looks like they might be leaving the bank soon, going to the airport. Get out there and see if you can follow along.”

It didn’t prove difficult. As night fell, it seemed like everybody in Brooklyn had piled into their cars and joined the convoy heading for JFK – led by the bank robbers and the FBI. Kids in convertibles were blasting music – School’s out for summer!– honking their horns. It was like a pep rally for the robbers.

I knew my way around JFK and went straight to the press room in the main terminal. Some reporters were already there, and this was where we learned thatone of therobbers had been shot dead and the other captured – fourteen hours after they entered the bank.

Sal Naturale, 18, was shot and killed by an FBI agent when the van stopped on the tarmac and a plane was rolling up.

Salvatore Naturale

John Wojtowicz, 27, surrendered.

John Wojtowicz

He served five years of a 20-year sentence in prison and died in 2006 at the age of 60.

The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism is available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

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Ballplayer uncensored and unzipped

Forty years ago today, while in Milwaukee covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Sun, I witnessed an incident that would get Toronto outfielder Rick Bosetti fined. My story in the next day’s paper would be a turning point in my relationship with the players.  

Here, in an excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files, is what happened:

Earlier in the season, I could have been mistaken for Bosetti’s press agent. In my setup story for opening day in Toronto I wrote: Bosetti is a truly free and refreshing spirit. A flamboyant dresser – the other day he was wearing a rabbit-skin fur coat and shiny knee-length boots – Bosetti seems to cheer up a room with his chatter.

But, as the season went on, I couldn’t help noticing Bosetti was a serial sleaze. We all know ballplayers play with themselves on the field, in front of thirty-thousand spectators and TV cameras. But at least most keep their privates in their pants.

Bosetti bragged that he regularly unzipped during a game, that his quest was to piss in every outfield in the American League. I was also told by a flight attendant on a Jays’ charter that Bosetti – she pointed him out – was fondling himself on the darkened DC-9 as she passed him in the aisle.

I didn’t write these stories, since I didn’t know them to be true and believed a player’s conduct out of uniform, unless criminal, was probably his own business. But that summer at County Stadium, I witnessed something shameful and wrote about it.

MILWAUKEE – Rick Bosetti proved yesterday that he can be just as rude and vulgar on the road as he can be at home.

Bosetti, who earlier this year at Exhibition Stadium cursed and made an obscene gesture at an adult, yesterday made an equally disgusting remark to a group of kids seeking autographs.

Seated in the visitors’ dugout before the Blue Jays-Milwaukee game, Bosetti was asked: “Sir, could I have your autograph please.”

Apparently unaccustomed to a polite request, Bosetti responded in his usual manner: “There ain’t no fucking sirs in here, kid.”

After word of my story got back to the team the next morning, (manager Roy) Hartsfield phoned my hotel room and said he wanted to talk to me when we got to the ballpark. I didn’t have to ask what it was about.

We had moved on to Minneapolis, billeted at the rundown Leamington hotel, which I recognized from some night shots on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

I was to meet Hartsfield in the visitors’ clubhouse at ugly old Metropolitan Stadium. But I first ran into some angry players. When I entered the locker room, and Bosetti saw me, he let loose with a stream of expletives and charged toward me. He was tackled and held back by a couple of other players, notably Roy Howell, the red-headed third baseman.

When things calmed down, Howell cornered me. “You showed some guts walking in here,” he said. “But nobody in here trusts you any more.”

The code of the clubhouse says that a writer who criticizes a player in the paper is required to stand up to that player and his teammates before the next game. I really didn’t care what Bosetti thought, but I hadn’t expected his teammates to condone his behavior. I was wrong. “You can’t take money out of a player’s pocket,” Howell went on. “You’re messing with people’s careers – their lives – when you write stuff like that.”

Hartsfield and I huddled in the tunnel between the clubhouse and the dugout. “Are you sure you got it right?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I wrote exactly what he said.”

“Okay,” Hartsfield said.

“Did he get fined?” I asked.

“Yup – two-fifty,” Hartsfield said.

In 1978, the minimum salary for players was $21,000. While the Reggie Jacksons were raking in about a half-million a season, players like Bosetti were making about the same salary as a newspaper reporter.

* * *

Postscript: Bosetti, who turned 25 that August, was never much of a ballplayer. Within four years, he was out of baseball. He returned to his hometown of Redding, California, where he became a Republican politician and mayor of the small city about 200 miles north of San Francisco.  

The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism is available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Rogue cop

Forty-six years ago today, as a young reporter for UPI, I was in a courtroom in New York covering the final act of a sensational murder trial. (The defendant is pictured above, under arrest.)

From the beginning, as I recount in this excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files, the show’s stars lived up to their billing:

Bill Phillips, a New York City police detective, was charged with killing a pimp and a prostitute, and wounding her john, in a posh East Side apartment on Christmas Eve 1968.

A cop charged with such a crime would have been big news under any circumstances. But Phillips was also a celebrity of sorts, having been the star witness at the Knapp Commission hearings into corruption in the NYPD.

Phillips - Knapp

For days during the fall of 1971, Phillips testified, live on television, about his fourteen years on the force pursuing payoffs and perks to support his playboy lifestyle. He bragged of owning five airplanes, driving a fancy foreign sportscar, frequenting the hot nightspots and fine dining establishments on Manhattan’s East Side, jetting off with stewardess girlfriends to ski weekends in Colorado and golf vacations in Palm Springs – all either on the house or on the proceeds of the graft he took from mobsters and other criminals – while his clueless wife in Queens thought he was out making cases as a police detective.

Happy Hooker

He admitted he would have still been shoveling in the cash if he hadn’t been caught on tape trying to take protection money from an East Side madam – Xaviera Hollander, The Happy Hooker – and turned into an informant for the commission in exchange for immunity from prosecution and round-the-clock protection by U.S. Marshals.

Phillips said being charged with an old unsolved murder was a frame-up to get back at him for informing on other cops and to discredit testimony he was scheduled to give against them. He hired F. Lee Bailey, probably the best known and most flamboyant lawyer in the country, to defend him.

Considering the players and the case – rogue cop, celebrity lawyer, pimp and hooker shot in the head, on Christmas Eve, no less – it was a dream for my first murder trial.

It began in late June 1972 in a large, stately courtroom on the thirteenth-floor of the Criminal Courts Building at 100 Centre Street in downtown Manhattan. Behind the bench was State Supreme Court Justice John Murtagh, silver-haired and square-jawed, right out of Central Casting.

For the prosecution was Assistant District Attorney John Kennan, wiry, combative, in an off-the-rack suit, looking every bit the honest and overworked civil servant.

Bailey, appearing older than his thirty-nine years, led the defense team, his ruddy complexion well scrubbed after a night of scotches and manly bravado, his chunky build packed into a well-tailored three-piece suit.

F. Lee Bailey

And then there was the defendant, forty-two-year-old William R. Phillips, every hair in place, fashionably long sideburns, conservative suit, Windsor knot in his silk tie, fresh shine on his Gucci loafers …

The prosecution’s case was based primarily on eyewitness testimony. Four prostitutes, who the courthouse wags christened “Hogan’s Hookers” – Frank Hogan was the longtime Manhattan district attorney – each testified that Phillips had been a frequent visitor to the apartment of their pimp, Jimmy Smith, also known as James Goldberg. (Only in New York would someone named Smith use Goldberg as an alias.)

They didn’t say they saw Phillips on the night of the murders but that he’d come by occasionally – not for sex – that they knew he was a cop, and they assumed Jimmy was paying him protection money.

The doorman and another employee identified Phillips as the man who entered the building at 157 East 57thStreet and went to Smith’s apartment, 11-F.

Then Charles Gonzales took the stand. He was the forty-year-old john who had just finished having sex with nineteen-year-old Sharon Stango when the killer arrived.

Gonzales said he was sitting on a living room couch with Smith and Stango when the visitor pulled a .38 from his coat pocket, shot Smith once and Stango twice – both in the head – and fired a bullet through Gonzales’s arm, into his gut, before walking out of the apartment.

Gonzales was a pathetic excuse for a man, a father of four who had spent Christmas Eve drinking with his buddies before going to have sex with a teenager. But, though Bailey at times seemed to shake the sweaty witness, Gonzales insisted that Phillips was the shooter.

The prosecution alleged Phillips killed Smith because the pimp was holding out on a $1,000 payoff. Why did it take three years to identify Phillips as the shooter? The prosecution said it was a lucky break, that the homicide detective on the case was watching Phillips on TV, testifying before the Knapp Commission, when he realized Phillips fit the description of the suspect in the Smith-Stango murders.

The defense countered that the detective was angry at Phillips for portraying the NYPD as institutionally corrupt, and fit Phillips for the frame. Bailey relied mainly on alibi witnesses – Phillips’s wife and other family members – who said he spent Christmas Eve with them.

The main event came when Keenan cross-examined the defendant. Phillips freely admitted he’d been a crook with a badge, that he’d lied and cheated and abused his authority at every turn to feed his greed. But he never flinched when it came to the murders.

Didn’t do it. Wasn’t there.

It was an impressive performance by a truly repulsive man. I believed him.

But, in the end, on August 9, 1972, after 22 hours of deliberations over two days, the jury announced it could not reach a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial.

I interviewed Phillips the next day in his motel room, guarded by U.S. Marshals, and again seven years later, in Attica, after he was convicted at a second trial. He served 32 years in prison before being paroled in 2007 at the age of 77.

I recently corresponded with a filmmaker who made a documentary on the case called Patrolman P. and remains in touch with Phillips.

There is much more on the trial and my experiences with the main characters – including a sexy blonde who was my seatmate at the press table – as well as other cops and crooks, in The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Bringing up Brady

My dog Brady is supposedly eight years old this month. I say supposedly because I’m not sure of his birthday. I’ll explain later.

He’s our third dog, probably our third standard poodle – “probably” will be explained as well – after Yaz (1978-1991) and Jasper (1991-2004).

Yaz was named for Carl Yastrzemski, who helped me get over the loss of the Dodgers from New York and turned me into a Red Sox fan. Jasper was named for my favorite Canadian national park.

Brady was named for Brady Coyne – not Tom Brady – the  fictional Boston lawyer in William Tapply’s fine series of mystery novels.

Brady, the dog, was born the year after Tapply died at the age of sixty-nine. I sent his widow an email, told her how much I’d enjoyed Tapply’s books and that I’d named my dog after Brady Coyne. She said that pleased her and would have pleased her husband.

But, as I wrote in The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, bringing up Brady has been a trial.

Brady2

Brady was a surprise Christmas gift from the kids in 2010. He’s a standard poodle, we think. He’s nothing like Yaz or Jasper. For one thing, he’s white. For another, he’s nuts.

I still have the pedigree papers for Yaz and Jasper. Know who their parents were. With Brady, I’m just guessing. Son of Rain Man and Sybil?

He arrived at about four months old – again, just guessing, no papers. He was scared of everything. Flinched when I raised my hand to pet him. Obviously abused. Probably the inbred spawn of an outlaw puppy mill or the House of Windsor.

A crack of thunder still leaves him shaking with fear. He also is spooked by bicycles, kids on skateboards, most men, and people with Eastern European accents.

While Linda goes to her real estate office or elsewhere, Brady follows me from room to room. Never out of sight. I talk to him constantly. He never argues or contradicts.

Brady:Book1

Brady concedes the Rain Man reference. He’s a big fan of Dustin Hoffman, especially in Wag the Dog.

He’s less keen on the suggestion he’s the son of Sybil, with her sixteen personalities. Brady is loath to recognize his multiple personalities. He figures it’s up to the rest of us to adapt and accept.

In the year since I wrote about Brady in the last chapter of my book – and since I briefed him on the content – he has worked to overcome some his phobias.

While thunder still leaves him trembling uncontrollably, he is less afraid of bicycles and skateboards. He no longer growls at the chattering of the Eastern Europeans down the street.

On the flip side, his outbursts of barking and growling have increased along with his list of canine enemies.

From his second-story lookout at the sliding glass door in our kitchen, he has always barked hysterically at the sight of a neighborhood husky and others his own size.

But, lately, he also goes berserk when certain little dust-mop-looking dogs come into view. When I tell him to cut it out, he runs into the living room to wind down. But it takes him a while to switch off his barking engine.

When Yaz or Jasper misbehaved, which wasn’t often, I’d command: “Give yourself a shake and change your disposition.”

It usually worked.

I’ve tried it with Brady, who responds to “give yourself a shake” but pretends not to hear or know what “disposition” means.

It’s the same when I tell him to “stop obsessing” – which he does often when catching a scent on a walk or staring at a closet where he suspects a tennis ball is hiding.

I just checked OCD on PET MD.

Whew! No clear internet diagnosis.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Brady.

In his quiet time, after I take him for a nightly walk, he is a wonderful companion.

As I type this, he is under the desk, resting his head on my right foot. Later, when I move to the couch, he’ll snuggle at my side.

When I go upstairs to bed, he’ll follow, and assume his place, his head beside my pillow.

If I’m lucky, after Linda feeds him an early breakfast in the kitchen, Brady won’t get a whiff of one of his enemies and wake me up.

I write a lot more about my dogs in The Expat Files, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.