Basing at least part of my childhood memoir on FBI documents has created an interesting challenge for me as an adult writer. Sure, a large portion of my material comes from memories I’ve retained since I was a kid. However, given my father’s organized crime connections and my being present on several occasions when the FBI raided our home, it’s been fascinating to place the details I recall within a context that’s established by federal files and to use those memos and, in some instances, surveillance notes to fill in the details I don’t remember or never witnessed in the first place.
It’s also been informative to compare stories my parents told with the facts recorded in those documents, noticing when those details sometimes vary from what the feds noted at the time.
Frustrating, however, has been the degree to which I have not been able to make the kinds of comparisons I’d like because either the files I’ve received have been so heavily redacted or the material remains classified and outside the scope of material released by the Freedom of Information Act I filed. For example, when I submitted the paperwork requesting my dad’s FBI file, I was told more than 1,700 pages were available. However, only around 400 pages were ever released to me.
In a future post, I’ll share my personal reflections on memory and the nature of family stories—insights gleaned from comparing and contrasting both with the details established in the federal documents themselves. Today, however, I’ll publish below only the narrative I’ve drafted (a few details changed for the sake of dramatic impact), along with family photos and pages from FBI documents.
The chapter below draws on several sources: newspaper clippings from the 1970s, FBI documents, family stories, personal memories, Dick Thornburgh’s autobiography Where the Evidence Leads, and details about people’s appearance based on family photographs. Some of that material is inserted at relevant points in the narrative, so you can compare and contrast the story I’ve drafted with those documents, if that sort of thing interests you.
Most of what I’ve written about and posted below are events I did not witness myself. For example, I was not present when Dick Thornburgh approached my parents on the street in downtown Pittsburgh, a story shared in the opening part of this chapter.
The chapter goes on to describe an FBI raid that happened on November 21, 1970. That day more than 100 federal agents raided 22 locations across Pennsylvania, places that were associated with illegal gambling operations. The events described in the second half of this chapter involve a raid at the home of “Bobby I,” the primary target of federal agents. It just so happened that my father was locked in a secret room with Bobby, when that raid occurred. Simultaneously, another search warrant was executed at my parents’ house. As an 8-year-old, I was home during that raid and witnessed some of what happened. However, I will cover those events in a separate chapter.
The Mafia Verses the Big, Bad Wolf (Chapter 9 of Odds: A Childhood Gambled on God and the Mob)
Whether it was World Series tickets or PGA passes, my father was forever after the means of admission.
Any event deemed big, any venue that glittered—my dad wanted to go there–experience the sparkle, encounter the spin. And he wanted his family to be a part of it, as well.
So, here’s what happened on a summer night sometime during the ‘70s—
Daddy has taken my mother to see Hello Dolly in downtown Pittsburgh—a highlight of his July being the series of musicals that play at Heinz Hall during the longest and warmest evenings of the year.
My parents have just exited the theater, Daddy dashing in his cotton Brooks Brothers suit and striped silk tie, my mother wearing a quilted Dior jump suit, sleeveless in pink and teal, a matching fuchsia feather boa, and strappy silver sandals whose high heels clatter on the sidewalk.
Barely a block down Penn Avenue, my Dad opens the passenger door of his dark green Sedan d’ Ville, its newly-waxed finish reflecting his face in the overhead street light. My mother slips past him, a scent of Channel, lingering as she settles on the leather seat, a beaded hand-bag in her lap. But just as Daddy rounds the rear bumper, nearing one of those oversized pot holes that plagued Pittsburgh during that decade, Dick Thornburgh approaches, sauntering down the sidewalk from the south on Sixth Street, waving his pudgy finger and warning my dad, “I’m gonna get you, Tyce McCullough.”
“Sure, Dick,” Daddy responds, sliding into the driver’s seat and saluting the then attorney general for Western Pennsylvania, who sports a big grin and arrogant attitude, huffing and puffing the threat of federal prosecution—the big, bad wolf on a Pittsburgh street determined 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.
It’s true that Thornburg goes on to become Pennsylvania governor and then attorney general for both presidents Regan and Bush Senior, but back then he is public enemy number one, at least in my mind, as an 8-year-old, chronically ill-equipped to distinguish the good guys from the bad.
Still, Thornburgh, as Nixon’s senior law-enforcement officer for western PA, takes it upon himself to fight organized crime in the state, especially once he discovers that Mafia bosses are paying 4 to 6 million dollars annually to local law enforcement officials to turn their backs on organized crime.
The big, bad wolf doesn’t like this. He’s outraged. He huffs.
Then, Thornburg discovers illegal gambling is funding those payoffs, becoming what he calls the Mafia’s “cash register.” He doesn’t like that either. He puffs.
The first successful wiretaps in western Pennsylvania helped bring down the massive sports-gambling operation of . . . “Bobby I” . . . . After accumulating sufficient wiretap evidence, over 100 FBI agents staged a series of raids on twenty-two suspected gambling locations on November 21, 1970, seizing gambling records and paraphernalia. This action sent shock waves through the illegal-gambling community, which had thought only interstate activities were within the reach of federal investigators.
The evidence gathered in the raids was presented, and an indictment was returned against [Bobby “I”] and twenty-five others on federal gambling charges. All were subsequently convicted. We had struck out first effective blow at the rackets. (Dick Thornburgh, Where the Evidence Leads, 43-44)
Specifically tragic for my family is this. The biggest numbers operation in the state, the one Thornburgh sets his sights on, is run by my father’s boss. In fact, when on November 21, 1970, 100 federal agents raid 22 locations across the state, my dad is the only one locked in a room with the man many called “Bobby I,” the primary target of FBI investigators.
Talk about wrong-time-wrong-place.
Here’s how it happened.
It’s 12:25 pm on a cold, rainy Saturday before Thanksgiving, when four federal agents jump from an unmarked sedan at 315 Thompson Run Road, in Ross Township, a sleepy suburb just north of Pittsburgh.
The house, raised on small hill, slightly above the street looks like the Brady Bunch abode, brick with clean modern lines and a double wide, wood front door.
When over-coated agents knock, Dee “I” answers, outfitted in a ruffled pilgrim apron, and begins screaming as soon as Special Agent Scarborough flashes his badge.
“Bobby, Bobby, it’s the police!” She proceeds to hyperventilate, while, at the same time, blocking the officers’ access to the basement with her body. Bleached blonde, helmet hair and holiday baking notwithstanding, Dee swings a plastic spatula at a second agent who dares push her aside, so two others can rush down the stairs, two at a time.
The family’s white toy poodle nips at the heels of the officer removing Mrs. “I,” as cookie crumbs from her Tupperware weapon of mass destruction cover his overcoat in a dander of the maniacal, Betty Crocker variety.
While that second officer reads Dee her rights, a third proceeds up the steps through the kitchen and past that into the pool room, where the smell of chlorine eventually overtakes the aroma of fresh-baked cookies cooling on the counter.
In the meantime, Special Agent Scarborough and his partner follow the sound of paper shredding, football blaring and phones ringing through the basement wreck room and into the garage. There behind what appears to be a peg board hung with garden tools, Daddy and “Bobby I” lob whispered warnings at one another, stopping periodically to answer one of three phones, announcing only, “The police are here,” before hanging up and continuing to destroy as much paper as possible.
“So there’s a room back there?” Scarborough asks. “How the fuck do you get in there?”
“Must be a door hidden behind them tools.”
As Scarborough and partner begin ripping the peg board from the wall to reveal a wrought iron door bolted to both the cement floor and ceiling rafters, the bookies locked in the 3 by 8 foot cement room begin stuffing bets down an industrial garbage disposal. The sound of running water then accompanies the percussion of paper pulsed and grinding.
After blunt force alone fails to budge the door, another 15 minutes of dismantling with tools found on the garage’s opposite wall, reveals yet another door, this one constructed of steel.
“Shit, what’s up with this!” Scarborough curses.
Our friendly federal agents may feel frustrated at this point but Bobby panics, knowing there is now only a single barricade between them and the looming law of the land.
“Look on the bright side,” Daddy offers. “It’s taking them so long to get in here, they might as well walk around this place for 7 days like they’re the Jews circling Jericho. Maybe then the walls’ll come crashing down on their own.” He can’t help but mock the biblical scale of this ineptitude.
Then, when the garbage disposal clogs, Bobby brilliantly offers, “Let’s burn the shit.”
So my father turns off the faucet feeding the disposal, tosses the remaining papers in the sink, and lights a match to the pile now spilling over the edge, singing to himself the entire time a song we kids had learned in Sunday school, “And the walls came tumbling down.”
“God damn it, Tyce. You’re gonna exfixifate us before the feds even have a chance to stash our asses in the slammer,” Bobby bullies from the far corner, as Daddy climbs over him to turn on a fan, high on the wall, meant to pull air, and in this case, smoke, from the enclosed space.
It doesn’t work.
Daddy climbs down. “Don’t tell me you didn’t test the thing—wise guy. We’re gonna be toast here in a matter of minutes. Literally.”
So knowing their jig is up, Bobby pulls the key from his pants pocket and unlocks the door—
Opening it to the big, bad wolf, huffing and puffing, and fueling the flames.
But, what’s ironic to me now, more than 40 years later, is knowing that those papers—burnt, shredded, or otherwise—didn’t mean much in the end—at least, not as much as wiretaps would—especially considering the nearly concurrent illegal wiretapping the Nixon administration carried out on the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Office Complex.
It’s no wonder to me now, that as a child, I confused the criminals and their less-than-virtuous counterparts running the government. If the very administration indicting my dad was legally using wiretaps to accomplish that, while simultaneously using them illegally to win reelection, how did I as an 8 or 10 year-old stand a chance of discriminating between right and wrong?
Who was the enemy—my dad taking illegal bets or the president of the United States happy to hedge his own, unwilling to leave his reelection fate in the hands of American voters?
Would the real criminal please stand up?
So, would you read my memoir? Have you ever used government documents as a basis for writing creative non-fiction? Were your parents larger than life characters to you when you were a child?
This post was written in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge: Object. My FBI documents have proven enlightening objects to write about, not just for this particular challenge but for the larger challenge of writing a memoir about my childhood. For inspiration, check out these posts by other WordPress bloggers:
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