Very few of those with whom I work, or with whom I associate after hours, remember the television program I’ve Got a Secret. It was a panel show in which a group of semi-celebrities asked questions of a guest and tried to puzzle out some secret that only the guest and the television host knew. A couple of those episodes bore some historical significance.
One, aired in 1956, reminds me even today of how close we remain to the history we learned from textbooks as kids. The secret of 95 year old Samuel J. Seymour was that he had been in the theatre audience when President Lincoln had been shot in 1865. Samuel had been 10 years old. He lived to tell about it on national television.
The other episode became part of a different side of history. The show itself resulted in two murders involving organized crime.
The guest on that show in 1952 was Arnold Schuster, a clothing salesman from New York. His secret was that, while riding on a subway from work, he had recognized a wanted criminal. The fugitive was the famous Willie Sutton. Sutton is famous for his answer to a simple question: Why do you rob banks? His answer was simple, “That’s where the money is.”
Willie Sutton had escaped from prison. Arnold Schuster saw him, ran to find a police officer, and pointed him out.
After the secret was finally revealed to the television celebrity panel, and the audience applauded their civic minded guest, Arnold Schuster was murdered on a New York City street.
There was never enough evidence to charge crime boss Albert Anastasia. But one informant told authorities the mobster had happened to be watching the popular television show and had experienced a Donald Trump level of anger. “I can’t stand squealers!” he reportedly shouted. “Hit that guy!”
Public anger was intense and sustained. Nobody knows how much income was lost by crime families, but the crackdown on revenue centers was severe. The financial cost had to have been substantial enough to hurt a lot. Crime bosses had good reason to get really angry at Albert Anastasia for killing that civilian.
When Anastasia was himself assassinated a few years later, that lost income was thought to be the main reason. He should not have had Arnold Schuster killed.
In those days, crime families did not allow the killing of innocent civilians. The cost was too high. The only curb on violence that was stronger than that against killing a civilian was that against killing any member of law enforcement. Public retribution would have been high and profits would go way down for a long, long time. When other crime figures discovered in 1935 that Dutch Schultz had put a contract on the life of New York prosecutor Thomas Dewey, Lucky Luciano and others ordered the execution of Dutch Schultz.
Those were the days, weren’t they?
Times change, and so do the practical calculations of criminal ethics.
Years later, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and future mayor, Rudy Giuliani took down pretty much every top crime leader in New York. To me that, more than 9/11, makes Rudy Giuliani a genuine hero. I would not vote for him, but he is a hero none-the-less. By that time, assassination had become a distinct, though distant possibility.
For some public figures, the possibility of murder has been more distinct and less distant. Harry Reid was chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission when he refused to back down to organized crime. His outburst became legend when one figure offered him $12,000 for casino licenses. He yelled, “You son of a bitch, you tried to bribe me!” as he tried to choke the life out of the culprit. Reid was wearing a wire and had federal authorities listening in an adjoining room. FBI agents had to pull Reid off. The suspect was tried, convicted, and sent to prison.
When Harry’s wife Landra experienced car trouble a while after that, she looked under the hood and found a bomb that was improperly grounded and had failed to explode. Even family station wagons, and the families inside, were no longer out of bounds. That was 1981.
Harry Reid eventually became a United States Senator.
20 years later, the trajectory of danger had continued upward. The Chief of the United States Narcotics Enforcement Division had decided to go further than most investigators had ever gone. The agency did not simply cooperate with Mexican authorities in attacking drug cartels. They did not stop at assigning investigators to work on cases in Mexico. The head of the Division traveled to Mexico himself and sat across from thugs with some of the biggest reputations in violent crime.
Although he was born and raised in Indiana, his parents had come to the United States from Mexico more than 50 years before. He was familiar with Mexico, the language, the customs, the nuances of culture. He used that knowledge to hit drug kingpins where it hurt.
And he made progress.
Some of those on his side of the table, Mexican law enforcement officials, were marked for assassination. Some died. With each death, Mexican public opinion turned angrily against the drug trade. That gave law enforcement the pressure they wanted to apply.
As he and his Mexican law enforcement allies destroyed most of the infrastructure of the Arellano Felix cartel in Tijuana and closed in on the leaders, a wiretap picked up a key conversation. It was startling. He had personally been targeted for assassination. The Chief of the United States Narcotics Enforcement Division, Gonzalo Curiel, had been marked for murder by the Mexican drug cartel.
That is how Gonzalo Curiel began operating the United States side of the anti-cartel campaign from hiding. Nobody knew where he was, or when he would briefly show up. It was as if he was some sort of Saturday morning television hero. His orders were consistent. He was in control. His surprise appearances kept the criminal enterprise off-balance.
In the end, he survived and the Tijuana cartel died. Its leaders ended up in prison.
Gonzalo Curiel now presides over the United States Court for the Southern District of California.
One case has become the focus of national interest. A class action against Donald Trump’s Trump University has not been going well for Mr. Trump. He and his lawyers had demanded that most of the documents presented in evidence against him be kept sealed in order, they insisted, to protect trade secrets. Judge Curiel instead ordered that documents in the case be made public.
It is difficult to see the trade secrets. In fact, the documents seem only to demonstrate multiple instances of deceptive practices that overlap into fraud. The victims range from ordinary middle class people to those on the ragged edge of financial desperation.
A furious Donald Trump says Gonzalo Curiel is not a real American. Curiel was born and raised in Indiana. But because his parents came from Mexico in 1946, he should be considered a Mexican. Because he is a Mexican, he should be prohibited from judging any aspect of the fraud case against Donald Trump, who is an American.
It strikes me as unlikely that the seasoned veteran of that dangerous law enforcement battlefield could be intimidated by no more than the angry bluster of a Presidential contender.
Gonzalo Curiel was a hands-on prosecutor in the fight against a major drug cartel, a cartel famous for the ruthless murder of law enforcement officials. He was not intimidated by the cartel or its orders to assassinate him.
But this public spectacle is not about a powerful group of furious drug lords engaged on a battlefield of violence, and murder, and professional contracts to carry out more assassinations.
This angry attacker is a wealthy businessman accused merely of the mean and petty crime of massive fraud against the financially vulnerable.
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