The notion of police offers stealing from the very people they were sworn to protect seemed like the perfect crime. Yet most of Denver’s corrupt cops found themselves in handcuffs by the end of 1961.
As I described in a previous blog, the two arrests of patrol officer Art Winstanley for burglary began to unravel the massive corruption. He spilled the names of two other dark riders. Further investigation turned up five more.
Interestingly, one of those officers, brought in for routine questioning, promptly confessed: “Put me down for two.”
Unsettled by the growing evidence of widespread corruption, Denver police established a special investigative squad to hunt for more suspects. Oddly, their next break came from Los Angeles, not Denver.
A Denver police officer and two civilians were caught breaking into an LA supermarket and charged with burglary. But only the cop got out on bond. (He was caught later in Denver committing another burglary.) Pissed at being left in jail, one of the civilians ratted, leading to the arrest of more Denver officers.
Arrests soon climbed to a dozen, yet more kept turning up.
The state attorney general’s office entered the investigation. Charges were soon filed against a county sheriff. Yet by August 1961, Denver police officials considered their investigation pretty well exhausted—despite rumors of more dirty cops.
“Incredible Criminal Incest”
Following reporting by The Denver Post, city officials asked the state governor for help and he appointed an ex-FBI agent to lead an investigation. On September 30, Governor Steve McNichols announced that state investigators had uncovered an “incredible criminal incest” of at least 35 Denver police officers. Their crimes included not only safecracking, but gambling and prostitution.
Minutes after the announcement, 14 suspects were paraded into the state capitol, stripped of their badges, and booked.
That day became known as Black Saturday for the Denver Police Department.
Headlines splashed across the world. Even Communist nations got in on the act, gloating that the scandal highlighted American decadence.
A copy of one of the publications headlining the scandal sits near my desk: the November 3, 1961, issue of then high-profile Life magazine. It’s one of numerous research sources that provided tidbits I gleefully “stole” for my plot, characters, dialogue, and enriching details.
(Confession: many of us writers steal from research. But we hope we do a better job of disguising our thefts than did Denver’s burglars in blue.)
The two-page Life article, “How Denver’s Cops Turned Burglar,” is chock full of insights into why so many cops turned corrupt, events leading to their arrests, and several great quotes. So great, I borrowed—okay, stole—a quote for my novel’s title, The Big Dive. (Sorry, you’ll have to read the book to learn the significance of the title).
Bigger and Uglier Police Scandals
After Denver’s burglars in blue, America went on to bigger and uglier police corruption scandals.
In New York City, officials created the famous Knapp Commission in the early 1970s to go after widespread corruption within the police department. That case stemmed from revelations by Patrolman Frank Serpico and Sergeant David Durk.
More infamous was the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles’s anti-gang unit. Their corruption involved shootings, beatings, planting false evidence, robbery, and the theft and sale of narcotics. It is arguably the most widespread case of police corruption in American history.
Both scandals spawned several movies, including Serpico and Training Day. (And for good measure, read James Ellroy’s masterful L.A. Confidential, drawing on police corruption in LA in the 1950s.)
Denver’s 1961 police scandal has never made it to film or TV mini series. It’s never achieved the notoriety of the New York and Los Angeles scandals, or the more recent widespread racism rampant in some police departments.
Still, Denver’s burglars in blue have the dubious honor of being the first among major police corruption cases in America.
In my next blog, I’ll turn to a darker stain on American history that served as yet another inspiration for my book: the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Bruce Most is an award-winning mystery novelist and short-story writer. His latest novel, The Big Dive, is the sequel to the award-winning Murder on the Tracks, which features a street cop seeking redemption while investigating a string of murders in 1949 Denver. His award-winning Rope Burn involves cattle rustling and murder in contemporary Wyoming ranch country. Bonded for Murder and Missing Bonds features feisty Denver bail bondswoman, Ruby Dark.