Sunday, October 18, 2015

Walter P. Reuther Assassination Attempt Foiled

Walter P. Reuther, recently re-elected to a second term as United Automobile Workers (UAW) president, lived with his wife May and their two small daughters in a modest ranch house on Appoline Street in Detroit, just south of Eight Mile Road.

In his 2013 book Built in Detroit: A Story of the UAW, a Company, and a Gangster, Bob Morris recounts the evening of April 20, 1948. After coming home late from a UAW meeting, Reuther prepared to eat his warmed-over dinner. He was opening the refrigerator door to get some peaches when he turned to answer a question from his wife and survived a 12 gauge shotgun blast through the kitchen window.

Four lead pellets lodged in his right arm, one in his chest, and the rest hit the kitchen cabinets. Reuther was taken to New Grace Hospital where doctors told him he might lose his arm. The labor leader was determined to save it. By working tirelessly at painful physical therapy, he was able to regain limited use of his arm. For the rest of his life, neither Reuther nor his family were without UAW bodyguards and traveled everywhere in an armored Packard.

The attempt on Reuther's life was not an isolated incident of industrial violence. Thirteen months later, Walter's brother Victor, met a similar fate. Bob Morris writes, "Late on the evening of May 24, Victor was reading in his living room when a shot gun blast blew threw his front living room window. The shotgun pellets ripped through the right side of his face and upper body tearing out his right eye."

Victor and Walter Reuther shaking hands left-handed with brother Roy between them.

At first the Detroit police dismissed the botched murder attempt of Walter Reuther as a power struggle among union Communists. The Red Scare was a popular and convenient scapegoat for corporate America and made good copy for the post-war press. A Detroit detective said, "Gamblers and crime syndicates have nothing to do with this. It's Communists."

But investigators began hearing underworld connections might be involved. Within five days of Reuther being shot, Detroit police--acting on a telephone tip--brought former vice-president of Ford UAW Local 400, Carl E. Bolton, in for questioning. He was charged with intent to commit murder.

Joseph W. Louisell and Carl. E. Bolton
Joseph W. Louisell, Detroit attorney known for defending suspected mob figures, argued Bolton had an alibi and was not at the scene of the crime. After three days in jail, Bolton was released and prosecutors dropped the charges. Bolton was free but still under suspicion.

During the Senator Kefauver Organized Crime Committee hearings (1951-1952), testimony suggested Walter Reuther ran afoul of the Detroit underworld.

Before the shooting, Reuther was aware a Sicilian gang, led by Santo Perrone, was acting as a strike-breaking agency for Detroit companies--big and small. Author Nelson Lichtenstein writes in The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor, "Reuther's assailants were paid by Santo 'the Shark' Perrone, an illiterate but powerful Sicilian gangster." The mid-century labor movement was the age of "the cash payoff, the sweetheart contract, and the gangland beating. It was part of the industrial relations system."

The Organized Crime Committee felt the Detroit police made no serious attempt to solve the crime or curb the anti-union violence. "The Detroit police saw industrial violence as little more significant than a bar brawl," Lichtenstein wrote.

Six years later, Wayne County Prosecutor O'Brien announced at a Detroit press conference that he had solved the Reuther shooting. Arrest warrants were issued for Santo Perrone, Carl B. Renda, Peter M. Lombardo, and Clarence Jacobs.

Donald Ritchie, an ex-con with connections with the Perrones, made a secret arrangement with UAW officials. Ritchie agreed to rat out the people involved with the Reuther shooting for a $25,000 payoff placed in escrow.

If he cooperated with authorities, he would get $5,000 after making the initial statement to the prosecutor and the arrest warrants were issued, an additional $10,000 payable when those named in the warrants were bound over for trial, and another $10,000 when convicted. If murdered before he could cash-in, Ritchie wanted the reward given to his common-law wife.

Part of Ritchie's statement to Prosecutor O'Brien reads, "The night of the shooting, I was picked up at a gas station. The car was a red Mercury.... I sat in the back seat. Clarence Jacobs drove and Peter Lombardo sat in the front seat with Jacobs. The shotgun was in the front seat between (them)--a Winchester 12 gauge pump. I was there in case there was any trouble. If anything happened, I was to drive the car away.

"Jacobs did the shooting. He was the only one who got out of the car.... I heard the report from the gun. Then Jacob got back in the car and said, 'Well, I knocked the bastard down.' After the job, they dropped me off at Helen's bar.... I had some drinks and went to see Carl Renda. He got a bundle of cash and handed it to me. I took a taxi to Windsor and counted my money after I got to Canada. Exactly five grand."

As prearranged, when Ritchie came back across the international border, he was immediately placed under the protection of the Detroit Police Department. While waiting for the trial so he could give his star-witness testimony, he told the Detroit police detail assigned to protect him that he wanted to take a shower. Ritchie escaped from a bathroom window at the Statler Hilton Hotel on Grand Circus Park.  Ritchie was on the lam. Once again, he took a cab to safety across the United States/Canada border.

At the same time, Ritchie's common law wife was given the first installment of the escrow account. Ritchie delivered on the first part of the bargain. He made an initial statement and the suspects were charged. The UAW had no choice but pay off the first escrow installment. Ritchie dropped a dime from Canada and denied his entire confession to a Detroit Free Press reporter. He said he needed the money and was taking the UAW for a ride.

Without Ritchie's testimony, Prosecutor O'Brien's case collapsed leaving him with an embarrassing fiasco. He dropped all the charges. The UAW made the stupid mistake of paying a witness. The labor organization had been swindled out of $5,000 by an ex-con.


Seconds before the confrontation.
The assassination attempt was not the first time Walter Reuther ran afoul of the car companies. On May 26, 1937, Reuther and several other labor organizers were badly beaten by Ford Motor Company Security men in what history notes as the Battle of the Overpass. This was Ford's security chief Harry Bennett's opening salvo against labor organization inside the Ford empire. 

Bob Morris writes, "This was a public relations disaster for Ford, as a Detroit News photographer captured the beating of the labor leaders. The photos... were published around the world. The attack on Walter Reuther made him one of the most recognized labor leaders in Detroit and the country."

Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen
Arnold Freeman of the Detroit Times reported that Bennett assembled semi-permanent gangs of thugs known as outside squads. A member of one of those squads "Fats Perry" turned state's evidence in 1939. He testified,
"These squads were armed with pistols, whips, blackjacks, lengths of rubber hose called persuaders, and a variety of weapons, some of which made up by a department in the (Rouge) plant itself."

On May11, 1970, The New York Times reported Walter Reuther, his wife May, and four other people died in the crash of a two-engined Lear Jet on May 9th at 9:33 PM. The chartered jet--on its final approach to the Pellston Regional Airport, arriving from Detroit in the fog and rain--broke through the clouds short of the runway and clipped some tree tops sheering off both wings. The plane crashed and burst into a fireball a mile southwest of the airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration listed a faulty altimeter as the official cause. No charges were ever filed, but the persistent belief is the crash was not an accident. Reuther was sixty-two.

Silent clip of police investigating Walter Reuther's home after the assassination attempt. His wife speaks briefly to the press. Fingerprints are taken outside the Reuther home. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Detroit's Femme Fatale Nelle (Lassiter)

Nelle Lassiter faces newsmen-February 24, 1960.
On Tuesday, February 23, 1960, Mrs. Nelle Eaker Lassiter--a striking, thirty-eight year old, silver-blond and shapely former model--was arrested and charged with being the mastermind behind the April 7, 1959 murder of her husband, Parvin (Bill) Lassiter, co-owner of a successful automobile dealership in Royal Oak, Michigan. 

One newspaper account of the arrest says Nelle was on her way to Detroit's City-County building believing she was to be a prosecution witness at the murder trial of her husband. Another account reports police arresting her at an unnamed hospital where she was visiting her daughter and newborn grandson.

The week before her arrest, The Miami News reported, "Nelle Lassiter sobbed and became hysterical with apparent widow's grief while testifying against the three men on trial for bludgeoning and shooting her husband."

Gordon Watson
Several hours after her arrest, Nelle Lassiter's lover--and her husband's business partner--was arrested in Los Angeles on a fugitive warrant. Gordon Watson moved to California with his wife and children shortly after Parvin Lassiter's fatal beating and shooting.

The arrests of Nelle Lassiter and Gordon Watson were the result of the defense attorneys for the accused men asking the prosecution in open court if they had investigated the possibility this was a murder-for-profit case. That left the door open for a second-degree murder plea for their clients Roy C. Hicks (37), Richard Jones (27), and Charles Nash (43) who were being tried on first-degree murder charges. The three men were former employees of Parvin Lassiter. The charges against Mrs. Lassiter and Watson stemmed from statements made by Jones and Hicks to their attorneys.

Mrs. Lassiter and Watson were named in the warrant as "the principal perpetrators and procurers of this evil crime." Both denied any knowledge of the killing. The Buffalo Courier-Express reported "Mrs. Nelle Lassiter pleaded innocent on charges she had her husband slain in a murder-for-hire plot to grab his fortune and clear the path for her romance with his business partner. She looked tired and drawn after spending the night in county jail instead of her fashionable home (in Beverly Hills, Michigan)."

Parvin "Bill" Lassiter
The body of Parvin Lassiter was found on a private estate near Willow Run Airport. Investigators discovered Parvin had returned from a trip to Arizona when he was lured into a waiting car, beaten behind the head, shot in the eye, and thrown in a ditch.

At Nelle's pretrial hearing in a Dearborn Township courtroom, Richard Jones took the stand. He testified, "Gordon Watson took a one-inch stack of bills from Mrs. Lassiter in the summer of 1958 which Watson called the down payment for the assassination of Parvin Lassiter."

The transaction took place in the office of the Royal Oak dealership where Watson and Parvin Lassiter were co-owners. Jones added, "Mrs. Lassiter told Watson 'It won't be long now, Darling, before we can be together forever'."

The Kentucky New Era reported "Nelle Lassiter wailed loudly 'That's not true, that's not true!' The high-strung blond broke into sobs and clutched the arm of her defense attorney--Joseph Louisell.

"The judge was unable to restore order and called for a recess. After Mrs. Lassiter regained her composure, the hearing resumed twenty minutes later. Forty-five year-old Watson sat calmly in the courtroom throughout the disturbance."

Roy C. Hicks testified the three men were promised $50,000 worth of automobiles to procure the slaying. When Hicks' girlfriend Barbara McCommon testified, she told the court that Nelle Lassiter said Parvin was mean to her and treated her badly. She did not love him anymore. Under prosecution immunity, Miss McCommon suggested Mrs. Lassiter get rid of her husband and contact her boyfriend--Roy Hicks.

Mrs. Lassiter shouted out, "That's a lie! Why are they saying these things? I didn't kill my husband." She whipped herself into a frenzy and had a nervous breakdown in court. This was the fifth time the pre-trial hearing had been interrupted. Defense attorney Joseph Louisell requested Judge Joseph G. Rashid order Mrs. Lassiter to be examined by qualified mental health professionals to judge her competency to stand trial.

The Detroit Free Press reported Nelle Lassiter's sanity hearing took place at her bedside in Jenning's Memorial Hospital. "Mrs. Lassiter, wearing a standard white hospital gown, lay motionless on a narrow bed. Two of three psychiatrists who examined Lassiter found her to be insane within the scope of the law and were prepared to testify to that in open court.

Judge Rashid ruled, "I have no choice but to declare a mistrial and turn Mrs. Lassiter over to the sheriff for removal to Ionia State Hospital until she is restored."

The murder trial of her co-conspirator and co-defendant Gordon Watson continued without "the trim, blond grandmother." He got a life sentence. Joseph Louisell was eventually able to get Nelle Lassiter acquitted. Afterward, she vanished from the scrutiny of the public eye.