Feature Articles

September 2001

The John Gotti of St. Louis

The Rise and Fall of "Dinty" Colbeck

By Walter Fontane

     John Gotti is one of the most famous underworld chieftains in United States history. He was young for a mob boss; he was ambitious; and he possessed many of the qualities of a good Godfather. However, this gangster loved the limelight. He dressed in the most expensive suits, rode around in fancy cars, owned a mansion retreat in the mountains, gained the support of celebrities, thumbed his nose triumphantly at law enforcement, and claimed to be a successful plumbing supply salesman. Although many people are quite besmitten by his flamboyancy, law enforcement and mob historians view John Gotti in a different light. These people see, not the epitome of a Mafia don, but an insecure, degenerate gambler who murdered his former boss and various associates under dubious circumstances, and ultimately destroyed the nation�s foremost crime syndicate because of his insecurities and his reliance on young aggressive thugs similar in ideology to himself. By placing people in positions of power based on personal loyalty rather than capability or merit, the Gambino Crime Family fell from the pinnacle of the underworld. Underworld historians can find a John Gotti in most criminal groups in cities all over the world. This is the story about the John Gotti of St. Louis, Missouri: "Dinty" Colbeck.

     William Patrick Colbeck was born in 1891 in Kerry Patch, the Irish ghetto of St. Louis. At that time there were no major citywide gangs. A large collection of street gangs terrorized individual neighborhoods. Among these was the Ashley Street Gang, the future Egan�s Rats. The Ashley Street Gang dabbled in robbery and thievery, but their real purpose (like that of most other gangs) was political. From the late 1880s until 1902, a consortium known as either "The Push" or the "Butler Machine" controlled St. Louis politics. It members insured votes by placing gangs of hooligans at the polls to protect supporters and discourage those who supported rival candidates.

     Col. Ed Butler ran a smooth operation until 1902 when the new Circuit Attorney, Joseph P. Folk, began a crusade against his former benefactor. Butler and his machine were destroyed. Without the machine, politics in the city became very nasty. There was little rivalry between the Democrats and Republicans. The city was firmly Democratic. The intense rivalry was between various Democrats trying to form a new machine. In 1904 Harry Hawes made a power play to seize control. The other Democrats banded together to defeat him. Desperate for control over the voting stations, Hawes spent a fortune recruiting supporters wherever he could find them. It is possible that an adolescent William Colbeck served as one of Hawes� Indians, but there is no record to support this. Hawes� reliance on recruiting juveniles reveals how desperate he was, but his efforts were to little avail; his army of rogues and juveniles failed him and he was defeated.

     After the fall of Harry Hawes, city politics fell to a triumvirate: Thomas Kinney, Frank Hussey, and Cornelius McGillcuddy a.k.a. "Cuddy Mack." All three ruled various wards of the city through the House of Delegates and supported by vicious gangs of cutthroats. After a swift gang war and a bloody election, Cuddy Mack lost power to Thomas Kinney. By 1910 Hussey had also been neutralized and Kinney dominated city politics. Now that he was firmly in control over city politics (Kinney had since become one of the state�s most popular senators), Kinney began to distance himself from gang affairs. Leadership over his gang of hooligans was relinquished to Tom Egan. Egan had all of the qualities of the ideal crime boss. He was quiet, powerful, patient, resourceful, connected, popular with the troops and public, imaginative, and often thoughtful about the future. When Tom Kinney died in 1912, Egan assumed control over city politics and crime. Unlike his predecessor, Egan had no qualms about connecting politics and crime. In fact, he almost seemed to flaunt his position. In an interview to a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Egan said that his gang numbered over 400 men. This was more than enough to tip any election in the city during those turbulent days. Undoubtedly William Colbeck was among the 400 gang members. The headquarters for the city�s crime and politics was Egan�s saloon. Whenever there was a gang murder, it was a police ritual to raid the saloon. The gangsters that infested the place were hauled off to jail with much fanfare, only to be quietly released shortly afterwards. One police officer that was bored with the routine simply called them Egan�s Rats when hauling them off to the city jail instead of listing their names and writing, "arrested for suspicion." The moniker stuck to the gang.

     St. Louis had been regulating the liquor industry since the 1890s. The number of regulations had increased coincidental with the rise of the Temperance Movement. Expecting Prohibition to become a reality, Tom Egan took steps to insure the tranquility of the St. Louis underworld. Most of the other city gangs made deals with Egan to maintain the peace and remain in his good graces. Even his primary political rival, Edward "Jellyroll" Hogan Jr., agreed to Egan�s peace proposals. The relationship between Egan and Hogan is similar to that between Tom Pendergast and Joe Shannon in Kansas City, albeit on a smaller scale. At the time, Hogan was not a real threat to the Egan political faction, but he would become the archrival of "Dinty" Colbeck. When arrangements had been made to establish gang territories, Egan focused on building his liquor supply base. He sent henchmen to cities and town like East St. Louis, Terre Haute, Cincinnati, Detroit, and New Orleans. These cells were to arrange for liquor to be sent to St. Louis and supply security for the shipments. At the outset of Prohibition, liquor poured into St. Louis, so much so that there was hardly a decrease in the supply of good (safe) booze. Unfortunately, Tom Egan never saw how smoothly his plan operated. The Carlo Gambino of this story died in April 1918.

     Tom Egan was probably the most capable gang leader ever produced by St. Louis. With one eye on politics and another on the public, Egan tried to limit gangland activity by using the police to pursue rival, less powerful gangs. The incarceration of lesser gangs made the police look good to both the media and the public, and in return the police often let the Egan�s Rats carry on their activities without molestation. Using these tactics, Egan steadily increased his underworld power and influence. William Colbeck had been privy to the rise of Tom Egan; much like John Gotti had witnessed the rise of Carlo Gambino. However, in both cases, the spectator was a minor player in the underworld. Both would suddenly become powerful crime lords. Colbeck was a man of action and did not favor the slow and steady methodology used by Tommy Egan and Tom Kinney. Whether out of national pride or a thirst for adventure, Colbeck joined the American expeditionary force in World War I and was sent to France, allegedly serving in the Battle of the Marne. Upon his return to St. Louis, he was regarded as a full-fledged member of the gang.

     William Egan, brother of the late Tom Egan, took over the gang. Willie Egan kept the booze flowing to the city and generally kept the peace. An upstart Italian gang was causing trouble. Another gang had degenerated into civil war. Although he was efficient and clever, he was not as strong as his brother was. He continued to keep the law enforcement community from interfering with the Egan�s Rats as well as maintained Egan Gang supremacy over the underworld. In an ironic twist of fate, the city�s top crimeboss was also a constable, commissioned to fight crime! The power structure of the gang remained much like that created by Tom Egan. All of the top figures in the gang were primarily involved in the liquor business. However, there was a small faction of the gang that preferred to engage in high-risk crimes such as holdups and robbery. Willie Egan was able to keep the "red hots" under control as long as he was aware of their activities.

     The red hots were often the soldiers who were paid by Egan and his lieutenants to protect liquor shipments. In an effort to increase their pocket money, they often resorted to more violent crimes. A similar situation existed within the Hogan Gang. A small Southside gang, the Cuckoos, was more devoted to robbery than bootlegging, but active in both rackets. In consequence, the Egan red hots, the Hogans, and the Cuckoos formed comradery as they united in violent crime. The leaders of the Egan and Hogan Gangs could only frown upon the situation. Among the Egan red hots was William Colbeck. As a cover for his illegal activities, he became a plumber and hence the nickname "Denty" or "Dinty." Colbeck was imaginative and successful. Many young toughs including Thomas Hayes, Frank Wortman, and Peter and "Yonnie" Licavoli looked up to Colbeck as a role model. Despite his influence over the Egan Gang�s chief gunmen and enforcers, Colbeck remained firmly loyal to Willie Egan. In this regard he is unlike his New York counterpart of the 1980s. Colbeck probably was not one of Egan�s lieutenants. Egan�s gang was structured for liquor trafficking and Colbeck was unsuccessful in his liquor dealings. However, Colbeck was a perfect liaison to the troops, and therefore found a place at Egan�s inner circle of consultants.

     The history of the St. Louis underworld would have been very different if Willie Egan had not been murdered in 1921. Based on the confessions of Ray Renard, the murder of Willie Egan was engineered by his chief lieutenant, Max Greenberg. According to Renard, Egan blamed Greenberg for swindling him out of $50,000 worth of booze. When it became clear to Egan that Greenberg would not pay him back the money, Egan tried to have Greenberg murdered. The assassination went awry and Greenberg escaped. Greenberg went to Jacob Mackler, "the mouthpiece of the Hogan Gang." In return for an alleged $15,000 three Hogan gunmen, James Hogan, Luke Kennedy, and John Doyle, murdered Egan on November 1, 1921. Colbeck was one of the first Egan gangsters on the scene and supposedly with his last breath, Egan told Colbeck the identities of the gunmen. Like John Gotti in 1985, Colbeck was present when his boss was murdered.

     Renard would later blame the Egan�s Rats for most of the gang murders (1920-1924), but he did not blame them for the Egan murder. It is unusual that Colbeck was present at the murder scene. More interesting is that the next gangland victim was George Ruloff. Ruloff was Egan�s shadow and bodyguard. He was at Egan�s side before Colbeck, and underworld gossip ran that Ruloff was killed "so that he couldn�t identify the slayers of Willie Egan." A final mystery added to the murder is that there were substantial rumors that John Doyle was in Ohio prison at the time of the Egan murder. Could Egan have mistaken the identities of his assailants? Were the gunmen really Hogan gangsters? How come the comradery between the lower echelons of the gangs had not revealed the murder plot?

     Although circumstantial evidence would suggest that Colbeck had been privy to what would happen to Egan on that fateful night, it is unlikely that Colbeck was behind the murder or even encouraged it. It is more plausible that he heard rumors of the murder plot, but he did not take them seriously. He did pursue a vendetta against the three Hogan gunmen, a vendetta that would become a full-fledged gang war. It is unlikely that he would have been so intent on killing these three men (and later other members of the Hogan Gang) had he been responsible for the murders. Furthermore, if a coup had occurred within the Egan Gang, news of who was responsible would have been circulated in the era of yellow journalism. Even if Colbeck had kept such knowledge to himself, Ray Renard, a member of his inner circle, would have divulged the details in his lengthy confession.

     Colbeck assumed control of the Egan�s Rats as an avenging angel. The old Egan lieutenants thought that Colbeck would crush the Hogan Gang hereby allowing them to expand their liquor operations, and generally increase the power and prestige of the gang. John Doyle was murdered in January 1922 and Luke Kennedy was slain shortly afterwards. "Jellyroll" Hogan was furious and scared. He was outgunned by a powerful and expansionistic new rival who had targeted some of his closest gang associates, including his brother, for death. After the Kennedy murder, Hogan reluctantly went to war. The two gangs followed very different strategies. The Egan�s Rats sought revenge, but their bloodlust had subsided slightly when Kennedy was slain. After the Kennedy murder, the Egan Gang pursued the gang war as either a pastime or an immediate retaliation after a Hogan attack. The Hogan Gang sought survival. Their energy was devoted to the defensive. Rarely did they venture from their territory along Cass Avenue to attack their foes.

     The war was at its peak in 1922 when the two gangs waged vicious gun battles from speeding automobiles along St. Louis streets. Bystanders were run down and injured more often than the feudists. Several children were hit by cars and public outrage grew with every confrontation. In March 1922 Hogan gunmen ambushed Colbeck in his plumbing shop. They riddled the storefront with bullets and shotgun slugs, but no one was injured. Greatly perturbed, the Egan chief struck back violently. A cavalcade of at least four touring cars full of gunmen slowly drove past the Hogan residence and poured a fusillade into the house. Again, no one was injured.

     After the plumbing shop incident, Colbeck moved his gang to the Maxwelton Club and Racetrack on St. Charles Rock Road in the wilderness of St. Louis County. From this location, the gangsters could easily be alerted to the presence of Hogan gangsters. Egan gunmen also practiced their marksmanship at the club. Cans and bottles were placed in the center of the track. Gunmen from the grandstands or in cars racing around the track fired at the targets. The Egan gangsters also terrorized local residents. One time they waylaid a farmer and his family. Evicting them from their car, the gangsters cartwheeled it into a ditch. The farmer called Colbeck at the club and demanded reparations. Colbeck was not only a gangster, but he was also a politician. Previously he had been a committeeman in the fifth ward. At the height of his power, he was the Sargent-in-arms of the St. Louis Democratic Committee. Despite the public outrage at the gang war, he knew it was in his best interests to keep the people happy. Colbeck sent the farmer enough money to purchase two cars.

     During the early phases of the war (1922) Colbeck became increasingly distracted from the gang�s bootlegging activities. He began to rely on young gunmen and thieves for advise about gang matters. Although such men were in abundance in the gang, few of them had any lengthy expertise, especially in the alcohol industry. David "Chippy" Robinson, Eddie Linham, and James "Sticky" Hennessey were fearsome gunmen, but poor lieutenants. Slowly the liquor interests of the Egan Gang were usurped by the Italian crimeboss, Vito Giannola. The Egan gangsters outside of St. Louis (in Terre Haute, Cincinnati, Detroit, etc.) operated their own rackets and ceased to obey the Egan hierarchy. The old lieutenants of the era of the Egan Brothers faded away into obscurity. The money that had supplied Colbeck and his vendetta against the Hogan Gang was quickly dwindling. The new gang chief and his lieutenants needed to find a new means by which to support themselves. Once they had to work for a living, the gang war began to subside.

     Ray Renard joined the gang in 1920 by being acquainted with one of the red hots, Gus Dietmeyer. Renard demonstrated his skill as a get-away driver for the gang during the glory days under Willie Egan. Renard became increasingly valuable to Colbeck when around 1923 the crimelord had to resort to robbery as the gang�s chief source of money. At first the gangsters held up banks, jewelry stores, and anything that had a large bankroll. Then, almost suddenly, Colbeck learned that company payrolls were sent by cash through the mail. The gang could get $50,000 cash by simply holding up a few postal inspectors.

     St. Louis firms often employed policemen to guard their payrolls when transferring from a bank to an institution. These transactions had become speedy, efficient, and routine. It would have been dangerous to try to rob the St. Louis post-office, especially when similar prizes were awaiting the gang in Illinois at far less risk. During the first half of the twentieth century, Illinois possessed some large mining communities. Colbeck and his gang had to learn when the mining companies would deliver their payrolls. This was easily learned by bribing miners or lounging around taverns frequented by miners. Ray Renard, in his confessions, goes into elaborate detail on how the gangsters planned and rehearsed a crime before they went through with it.

     It will never be known how many crimes Colbeck and his gang performed. Since the fall of the Egan Gang in 1925, the popular press mentions that the gang collected "at least $2.4 million from robbery;" but in just one crime alone, they escaped with $2.1 million. Renard says that he was privy to crimes that collected over $44 million, but this seems too high. The Egan Gang became increasingly disorganized as Colbeck isolated himself within a core group of gunmen. The vast rings of lesser members and associates including Tommy Hayes, Pete Licavoli, and Frank Wortman, began to associate with the Cuckoos, Italians, and Eastsiders respectively and drifted away from Colbeck and his criminal empire.

     Distrust ruptured the Egan�s Rats as it did with the Gambino Crime Family years later. During the years of the Egan-Hogan feud, around twenty-three feudists were slain. Well over half of those were Egan gangsters killed by their own comrades. Some were minor members of no importance. Others were at the top of the gang. In 1922 "Chippy" Robinson and Eddie Linham were vying for the position of the gang�s premier gunman. If we are to believe Ray Renard, Robinson killed Linham so that he could become Colbeck�s chief lieutenant and enforcer: the Sammy Gravano of the Egan�s Rats. It should be noted that although "Chippy" Robinson was regarded by many as the city�s most fearsome gangster after the Linham murder, he was not as bloodthirsty as Sammy the Bull. According to Ray Renard, Colbeck had poor control over his henchmen and used Robinson to kill them for questionable motives.

     The beginning of the end for the Egan�s Rats began in south St. Louis with the Cuckoo Gang. Roy Tipton, the leader of the gang, walked a fine line between bootlegging and robbery. Sometime in early 1923 an associate of the Cuckoos, Max Simmonson, approached Tipton with a proposition. As a dealer in stolen bonds, he had learned through his connections that on a given date an armored car carrying over $2 million in negotiable bonds and cash would be traveling between various businesses in downtown St. Louis. Tipton did not believe that the Cuckoos could pull off such a crime by themselves and so Tipton took the information to Colbeck. On April 2, 1923 the gangsters held up the armored car at the intersection of Fourth and Locust in downtown St. Louis.

     The gangsters split about $260,000 in cash and awaited Simmonson and other fences to sell the stolen bonds. However, many of the stolen bonds were seized in several police raids. Quickly identifying the Egan Gang with the crime, the police and the postal inspectors began to increase their harassment of the gang. Despite increased police pressure and public outrage at the gang war and blatant crimes, Colbeck was at the height of his power. Unbeknown to Colbeck, the Egan Gang was on the verge of ruin. Father Timothy Dempsey was able to arrange for the two gang chiefs (Colbeck and Hogan) to meet and sign pledges that the gang war was over. These pledges were later published in the newspapers with their photographs. The truce lasted only a few months when James Hogan was spotted by a group of intoxicated Egan red hots. Remembering orders to kill Hogan in revenge for Willie Egan, the red hots opened fire. Hogan escaped unharmed, but William McGee, a member of the state legislature was critically wounded and John P. Sweeney, a lawyer loosely affiliated with the Hogan political faction, was slain. Colbeck shrugged off the murders as "some of the boys got a little hot with whiskey." After the Sweeney murder, the gang�s political protection turned its back on Colbeck causing many Egan gunmen to flee the city.

     Tired of continual police harassment and fearful of his associates, Ray Renard, the gang�s wheelman, fled the city to avoid prosecution for robbery. Renard was just one of many Egan gangsters in the growing exodus from the crumbling empire of the Egan�s Rats. Hunted by the authorities, Renard was captured in Los Angles. On the train ride back to St. Louis, Renard was accompanied by Harry Brundidge who managed to elicit a confession from Renard. Renard said that the reason he was breaking the gang code of silence was that he was tired of constantly being broke. "I spent everything I got." He said that he wanted to start a new life. Renard would be sentenced to five years for robbery. He obtained leniency for testifying against his former comrades in the robbery trials.

     In November 1924 Colbeck, Robinson, Gus Dietmeyer, Louis Smith, Stephen Ryan, and Oliver Dougherty were convicted of a mail robbery in Staunton, Illinois. Colbeck received fifteen years. It had been a victory for postal inspectors. However, their most notable victory against the underworld would come the following year. In January, a motley assortment of Egan and Cuckoo gangsters was brought to trial for the armored car robbery. Most of the gangsters received a sentence of twenty-five years to run concurrently with their previous convictions. Another batch of Egan gangsters was convicted of a mail robbery in Pocahontas, Illinois in which they made their escape by airplane.

     Within the winter of 1924-1925 the core membership of the Egan Gang had collapsed. Colbeck and most of his lieutenants were incarcerated in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. The lone exception was Fred Burke, destined to become infamous as one of the gunmen in the St. Valentine�s Day Massacre. The destruction of the Egan Gang was complete. After the convictions, there were few Egan gangsters who could fill the power vacuum. Most of the Egan gangsters still alive and free were leaving the city or joining other gangs. A small shadow of the gang remained active for a few months, but was quickly crushed by the police.

     Even after his incarceration, Colbeck remained a media sensation. In 1926 there were close to twenty Egan gangsters incarcerated in Leavenworth. Colbeck�s lawyers were busy appealing the convictions and made headlines when they found new evidence in favor of their clients. Eventually Colbeck hit on the idea that his henchmen should write confessions absolving him of the crimes. This did not sit well with his followers, and two distinct camps existed among the gangster clique. Hostilities became so bad that several of the combatants (including Colbeck) were transferred to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Colbeck and the other gangsters convicted with him would make headlines whenever they came up for parole.

     Beginning in 1940 those convicted of the armored car robbery were slowly released one by one from prison. All were at liberty by mid-1944. "Dinty" Colbeck was released late in 1940. He immediately resumed his former role as a plumber and opened a shop. He was soon involved in election fraud and petty racketeering. As a former rackets boss, he had little difficulty in finding employment in the underworld. Within a few years, however, he was trying to reassert his control over the underworld. Unfortunately for him, things had radically changed since he was a big shot. The East St. Louis gambling halls, not the St. Louis political clubs, governed the underworld. When Colbeck learned that some of his old henchmen were running some of the gambling clubs, he began to demand a cut of the profits. This did not sit well with any of the established underworld groups operating on the Eastside.

     On February 17, 1943 "Dinty" Colbeck was driving on a lonely road outside of East St. Louis when another car pulled along side of him and a man with a machine gun straffed Colbeck�s car. The notorious crime chief was dead. Scores of hoodlums were arrested for questioning. Among these were former Egan gangsters affiliated with a gang that had the support of the Chicago mob. Others arrested were members of the Shelton and Italian gangs. There were no substantial leads and there were no prime suspects. Some historians blame the embryonic Wortman Gang, but they did not gain power until after World War II. The Italians were too engrossed in their own internal power struggles to exert any great control over the Eastside gambling community. The most likely perpetrators were members of the Shelton Gang. The Sheltons were the real masters of the Illinois underworld until Wortman successfully challenged them. The Shelton Gang had the most to loose from Colbeck�s latest activities.

     This time, the Egan gangsters did not rally around a concept of revenge. Instead they did nothing. Chippy Robinson, Stephen Ryan, Gus Dietmeyer, and other former Egan gangsters offered their loyalty to the new crime syndicate being organized by Frank Wortman and Elmer Dowling, both formerly associates of the Egan Gang during its heyday under Colbeck and Willie Egan. The flashy bravado of this hoodlum was visible in the powerful Wortman Gang. Colbeck�s former associates formed the backbone of the organization and remained fixed on using blatant gangster tactics to achieve their desires. Their high profile served as a beacon to law enforcement members and especially the IRS who devastated the Wortman Gang. Similarly, the highhandedness of John Gotti in the 1980s attracted the attention of the FBI. Both the Gambinos and the Wortmans snubbed their government pursuers and were burned in the end. Wortman hoodlums who had not been influenced by the Egan�s Rats and Dinty Colbeck remained more elusive to prosecution. Instability plagued the Wortman Gang, as it was a huge assortment of poorly organized thugs, much like the Egan�s Rats. It was hard to control and internal rivalries split it apart. The audacity and bravado that haunted Frank Wortman can easily be seen in the Egan�s Rats who shot whiskey bottles while they whizzed around a track at the old Maxwelton Club.

Contact: Walter Fontane

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