I know I probably shouldn’t, but—
—try as I may, I can’t help but hate Dick Thornburgh.
Yes, “hate” is a strong word—maybe even the wrong word. Perhaps, the intensity of my dislike isn’t justified. I’ve admittedly been known to over-react. (Just ask Sara.)
But the family story is this—my parents were in downtown Pittsburgh, my mother in Daddy’s Cadillac, my father just outside it on the sidewalk, when Thornburgh, then the US Attorney for western Pennsylvania, approached my dad on the street, warning, “I’m gonna get you, Tyce McCullough.”
No one in the family seems to remember more than that—
—just Thornburgh, huffing and puffing the threat of federal prosecution—the big, bad wolf on a Pittsburgh street threatening to blow our house in—and in some cases, doing so quite literally—sending FBI agents to break down our steel-reinforced, never-secure-enough front door.
Now, more than forty years later, I’m reading Dick Thornburgh’s autobiography, Where the Evidence Leads.
Now Daddy’s dead, the big, bad wolf’s an old man, and I’m all grown up, learning a bit about the historical context surrounding my very personal Dick-Thornburgh-meets-the-Mafia, family tragedy.
Before he went on to become Pennsylvania governor and the US Attorney General under both presidents Reagan and Bush Senior, Thornburgh, Nixon’s US Attorney for western PA, took it upon himself to fight organized crime in the state.
Early in his tenure, the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, on which Thornburgh served, released a report indicating that Mafia bosses were paying 4 to 6 million dollars annually to local law enforcement officials to turn their backs on organized crime.
According to Ray Sprigle, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Racket bosses elect and finance alderman and constables. The ward chairmen then maintain and protect the operation of the racket bosses in their wards through control of the police department and police inspectors. (Thornburgh 41)
The big, bad wolf didn’t like this. He was outraged. He huffed.
Though these payoffs were obviously illegal, it was the 1970 Organized Crime Control Act that allowed Thornburgh to do what he did. Before this legislation, federal officials were only allowed to intervene in interstate organized crime activity. Before 1970, this, along with bribes paid to local law enforcement, allowed folks like my father to do what they did and get away with it—make mountains of money and avoid federal income tax.
Illegal gambling was what the big, bad, wolf called the Mafia’s “cash register.”
What was specifically tragic for my family was this. The biggest numbers operation in the state, the one Thornburgh set his sights on, was the one run by my Daddy’s boss. In fact, when on November 21, 1970, 100 federal agents raided 22 locations across the state suspected of housing illegal gambling operations, my father was the only one locked in a steel room with the supposed king pin of it all—a man I’ll call Uncle B.
Talk about wrong-time-wrong-place.
According to Pittsburgh newspapers that covered the trial, FBI agents who broke down the front door at that Ross Township house (decked out with what to me at the time seemed an amazing indoor swimming pool), encountered Uncle B’s wife screaming and blocking access to the basement room in which Daddy and Uncle B had locked themselves.
Agents reported hearing grinding behind the door of that steel reinforced room. According to my mom, the room was equipped with a 1970s shredder, but when my Dad and Uncle B were unable to shred incriminating documents fast enough, they began putting papers down a garbage disposal, and when that failed, began burning the stuff. Though agents were never able to break into that space, Daddy and Uncle B nearly exfixiated themselves trying to start a fire in the small, windowless room.
My mom says this is what ultimately forced they themselves to open the door—
—to the big bad wolf on the other side—huffing and puffing and fueling the flames.
Daddy, Uncle B, and more than twenty others were arrested that day.
But the big, bad wolf was only getting started, and those papers—burnt, shredded, or otherwise—wouldn’t mean much in the end.
—to be continued—