By Allan May
“My parents told me never to retire.” Still following that advice in his 80s, former Cleveland Safety Director Alvin J. Sutton, Jr. goes into his Center Ridge Road office several times each week where he makes phone calls and keeps up with old friends.
When he’s not at his office he can sometimes be found at the Westwood Country Club, where employees treat him like royalty. Here Sutton brags that he’s the club’s worst golfer.
These are the twilight days of Big Al’s life. Things weren’t always this serene. Back in the late 40s and early 50s, Sutton created a legacy that was second only to Eliot Ness when it came to fighting crime in Cleveland.
On September 15, 1949 he was sworn in as safety director of Cleveland at the age of 31, the youngest in the city’s history. He brought a pit bull dog approach to dealing with criminals to the Cleveland Police Department.
The high point of Sutton’s career was his appearance before the Kefauver Committee which held hearings in Cleveland in 1951. Officially named the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, this crime investigating committee was the brainchild of Tennessee Democratic Senator Estes Kefauver. The committee, which rolled through 14 cities, focused largely on gambling and illegal casinos.
For one year, beginning in May 1950, Cleveland and America were treated to the hearings, which became the hottest show on television. Week after week, city after city, the road show continued. For the people who didn’t own a television during this period, retailers placed sets in display windows and piped the audio outside so viewers could follow the daytime crime-fighting drama.
The Cleveland hearings were a kind of Who’s Who of who’s left from the prohibition years, 1919 to 1933. Many colorful figures were called to testify including Mickey McBride, Tommy McGinty, Al Polizzi, and James Licavoli.
Testimony began on Wednesday, January 17, 1951. When Sutton took the stand he walked Kefauver and other committee members through 30 years of organized crime in Cleveland, from the beginning of prohibition to recent efforts to rid the city of gambling and police corruption. Sutton told the story of the dawn of the big gambling clubs and the efforts of Governor Lausche, Safety Director Ness and Prosecutor Frank Cullitan to rid the county of these operations. Intermixed in his narrative were tales of murder and incidents of police and political corruption. His testimony came to an end with Senator Kefauver thanking him for his “very splendid statement.”
In the end, the Kefauver hearings helped to put a face on organized crime in America, and introduced the phrase “taking the Fifth” into the country’s vernacular.
Sutton was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1918 and came to Cleveland by boat with his family when he was six years old. At Cleveland Heights High School he became a sports legend lettering in baseball, basketball, and football. The crowning glory for his high school athletic career was being named Most Valuable Athlete in 1936. Sutton was not merely a muscle bound jock. The 1936 year book shows him as president of the H Club, assistant captain of the corridor guards, a member of student council, a noon movie guard, and a member of the year book staff.
In high school, Sutton dreamed of a career in crime fighting and wrote letters to F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover about a future with the bureau. He had aspirations of being an agent of the magnitude of Melvin Purvis, who had personally overseen the demise of legendary bank robbers John Dillinger and “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Sutton always tuned into Purvis’s “Junior G-Men” radio show and wore his “Junior G-Man” badge proudly. Throughout his life Sutton remained a staunch supporter of the oft-maligned Hoover. When questioned about the sordid rumors of the F.B.I. director’s personal life, Sutton replies, “When the lion dies, the rats come out.”
After graduation, Sutton attended John Carroll University. In 1939, he played end on the Blue Streak football team, which won the “Big Four” championship. He also played basketball and hockey and in 1976 was elected to the John Carroll University Sports Hall of Fame. After John Carroll, Sutton studied law at Georgetown University in Washington D. C.
In 1940 he began a career with the F.B.I. that spanned seven years. As an agent, Sutton was stationed in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, Mississippi, Rochester, N.Y., Pittsburgh and Cleveland. While serving in Las Vegas, a town of 9,000 at the time, he once punched out a pimp who offended him. “Hoover would have fired me had he known,” Al confesses. But this was a time when it was common for law enforcement officers to “knock around” the bad guys. He recalls Gulfport and Jackson, Mississippi being particularly crime ridden during the 1940’s. Involved in several chases with bank robbers, Sutton described the pursuit. “Instead of trying to kill the crook, we’d hang out of the car windows and try to put a slug into the tire or gas tank to stop them.” Sutton says he “put a slug” into a number of criminals during his F.B.I. years, but never killed anyone. In return, he suffered gun shot wounds himself in his knee and hip.
Cleveland Mayor Thomas Burke named F.B.I. agent William F. Smith the new safety director in January 1947, but was considering leaving the assistant’s post vacant. Smith got his feet wet fast. The city was experiencing labor and policy bombings, a police department scandal involving the fixing of parking tickets, an investigation into private clubs that were granted illegal liquor licenses, and a front-page expose of an illegal bar and drinking scandal on the fourth floor of city hall. All of this occurred during Smith’s first month on the job. He needed help.
Almost six months had passed before Mayor Burke realized the enormity of the problem. One of Smith’s partners in the F. B. I. was the aggressive Sutton. Both grew up in Cleveland Heights and later worked together as agents in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Sutton was currently serving as the liaison agent between the Cleveland F.B.I. office and the police department. Burke asked Sutton to serve as Smith’s assistant.
Sutton accepted the position of assistant safety director in July 1947. The newspapers reported he took an $800 pay cut in doing so. Sutton took the job with one stipulation -- that he be given a free hand to investigate the bribery and protection reports he had heard about in the Cleveland Police Department.
Sutton stated, “I told the mayor that everywhere I went, I heard stories about (Police Lieutenant) Molnar. I heard them from members of the department. I heard them from newspaper reporters.” Retired Cleveland Police Captain Carl DeLau in describing Lieutenant Ernest Molnar’s role states, “If he wasn’t running the (policy) operation he was a partner. He always had a smile and a handshake for everybody,” not to mention an extravagant wardrobe and an expensive automobile.
Policy is a form of gambling similar to today’s state lotteries. Originally introduced to Cleveland by southern blacks, players selected a three-digit number and placed money on it. Depending where it was played, the winning number was derived from horse race results or stock market results printed in the daily newspapers.
Sutton’s first project was launching a one-man crusade to put Molnar behind bars. Over an eight-month period, working mostly at night, Sutton logged some 1,200 hours, in addition to his regular workload. He spent over $700 of his own money – the Safety Director’s office had no budget for this type of work.
The investigation sometimes resulted in late night telephone calls to the Sutton residence with Big Al leaving to meet someone in the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes Sutton brought along a reporter to interview policy operators and document police payoffs.
On March 23, 1948, police Lieutenant Ernest Molnar was called to Safety Director Smith’s office where the accusations were presented to him. His resignation was demanded and when he refused, he was suspended. A few days later he was officially fired from the force.
During July 1948, the Molnar trial filled the front pages of the newspapers. The prosecution paraded a host of convicted policy racketeers before the jury to testify that the police lieutenant was being paid off to the tune of $1,500 a week. A picture began to form that Molnar actually ran the numbers rackets with all of the major players reporting to him. Molnar was so close to the policy operators that he served as best man at one’s wedding, and was an honorary pallbearer at the funeral of another.
Sutton’s investigation uncovered telephone records showing Molnar’s calls to the policy people. Perhaps the most telling of the physical evidence was Sutton’s detailing of Molnar’s spending. His digging revealed that during a three-year period, when Molnar earned an average salary of $3,600 a year, he spent $17,000 on tuition for his son to attend college, $7,000 on clothes, and several thousand more on property purchases in nearby Geauga County.
Molnar’s lawyers tried to convince the jury that the money came from relatives and his son’s gambling winnings, but to no avail. The jury convicted Molnar and he was sentenced from 6 to 60 years in prison.
Sutton’s dogged determination would result in several threats on his life. One time the F.B.I. picked up a conversation from a tap on the telephone of Nick Pannardo in which he offered a Chicago hood $50,000 to kill Sutton. The Safety Director and two trusted officers went out to Pannardo’s home. Sutton stared Pannardo in the eye and said, “Hey, Nick, if you kill me, I’ll have these men kill you, your wife, and your whole family.” Sutton claimed, “That put an end to that nonsense.”
Sutton's next attack was on policy racket kingpins Willie Hoge and Arthur (Little Brother) Drake. In his first attempt to put the two away the jury failed to return a verdict and the pair were acquitted. During Sutton’s investigation for the second trial he even dragged Mayor Burke out to several midnight encounters with underworld characters.
Just as the previous July’s headlines were full of stories of the Molnar trial, July 1949’s headlines would carry the Willie Hoge-Arthur Drake policy trial, both trials instigated by Sutton.
The trial proved to be a vicious one and opened with a bitter clash between defense lawyers and prosecutors. Prominent Black Cleveland defense attorney, Norman Minor, accused Sutton of protecting the policy racketeers who were testifying for the prosecution. Early in the trial the jury was asked to leave the courtroom during a heated exchange between lawyers and prosecutors who each accused the other of hiding witnesses.
The extortion charges against Hoge, a white man, and Drake, his black partner, centered on their muscling into the Goldfield, a profitable policy house run by black mobsters. The defense lawyers pulled out all stops, even accusing Sutton of coaching witnesses and prompting prosecution testimony with threats and promises. Police corruption was disclosed when a patrolman testified that a note had mysteriously disappeared from police department files. The note had been wrapped around a stick of dynamite that had been sent to one of the Goldfield partners as a warning.
In closing arguments, the prosecutor ripped into Hoge and Drake for not taking the witness stand. He told the jury, “Innocent men would jump at the chance to clear their names.” Defense lawyers responded by continuing their anti-Sutton campaign calling the assistant safety director a “gullible youth whose policy racket probe had flopped.” The jury decided that the probe was not a flop, and Hoge and Drake were found guilty and sentenced from one to five years in jail.
Shortly after the Hoge-Drake trial William Smith resigned as safety director to go into private business. Sutton proudly accepted the open position.
In the wake of the Kefauver hearings, it appeared as if Cleveland law enforcement had done a commendable job in cleaning out the gambling dens as well as the corruption in the police department. If there was any euphoria in that, it was short lived. In February 1951, Louis Selzer, famed editor of the Cleveland Press, began an expose into the gambling joints in the city that operated with police impunity. After the second of these articles Sutton called a meeting of the top police brass and in a blistering confrontation the incensed safety director threatened them with suspensions and Civil Service action if they failed to close the gambling houses and cheat spots.
“Go into those places, damn it, and smash them,” Sutton demanded. “If there’s anything in there that looks like a dice table, smash it. If you’re convinced the place is a cheat joint, smash the whole damn place up.”
Sutton was aware that many of the officers in the room knew what was going on, and where. Reporters eavesdropping outside his closed office could hear Sutton barking. “You’re cheating … you are making phony reports,” the Safety Director contended. When it appeared to Sutton that one of the officers was not paying attention, he pounded his fist down and screamed, “You lieutenant! Don’t you like it here? If you don’t, then get the hell out. What I’m saying is for your benefit, not mine. Pay attention or leave.”
One of the things that infuriated Sutton was that over a three-year period he had received reports of gambling taking place in a “barboot” joint at Bolivar and East Ninth. Three times police raided the place and reported that no gambling was going on. “How come you can’t find gambling and newspapermen can?” Sutton scornfully inquired.
The media attack on the police department got worse. On Valentine’s Day 1951, the Press re-printed a letter they received in reference to a West Side gambling house on the front page. Starting out, “Dear Mr. Selzer,” the writer defined one of the real moral issues of the gambling epidemic. “It should be closed because of the high cost of living – women with a husband like mine take their pay checks there and don’t feel any responsibility towards their young children, while these racketeers ride around in shiny Cadillacs.” The writer signed off, “Just an indignant mother.”
Through February and on into March and April, Selzer and the Press continued to pressure Sutton, Burke, and the Cleveland Police Department. The daily editorials, and cartoons depicting Burke, Sutton, and Police Chief Matowitz as buffoons, did generate attention to the gambling problems and resulted in increased raids, police suspensions and a departmental shakeup. But in the long run it would lead to bitter differences at the top of the police administration and eventually to Sutton’s leaving the department the following year.
After more than a decade of law enforcement, the years were beginning to take a toll on Sutton and his family. He was constantly frustrated with police department politics. His wife was upset with the constant threat of danger, with the number of bombings taking place in the city, and the late night phone calls. In addition, Al wasn’t becoming a rich man on his salary and he was raising two children.
In leaving the department an editorial said of Sutton, “His career has often been tumultuous. Sometimes he may have seemed too eager, too anxious to jump. But his mistakes were mistakes of action, not inaction, and he had produced results … he leaves the safety director’s job he had filled faithfully, tirelessly and, on the whole, effectively.” Sutton went to work for Hugh O’Neill of Transportation, Inc., a trucking firm (which later became Leaseway). Sutton began his new job the day after he left as safety director. According to Hugh O’Neill, “Al started out at the bottom. He didn’t know one end of a truck from the other.” But Sutton applied the same doggedness in the trucking business that he used in law enforcement. “He was responsible for running several trucking companies and he made a hell of a lot of money for the O’Neills and Leaseway,” O’Neill states. “He was one super salesman and he brought us more business.” In 1983, Sutton “unofficially” retired from Leaseway at the age of 65. But he continued to help Hugh O’Neill for many years.
Today the athlete that once graced gridirons, baseball fields and basketball courts, has slowed to a shuffle. But he still remains active. In addition to going to his office and to Westwood, Sutton attends weekly Rotary Club meetings as well as meetings of the Cleveland Police Historical Society, John Carroll Alumni, and Georgetown Alumni. He also meets monthly with a group of retired F.B.I. agents.
On his last day with the Cleveland Police Department, Big Al handed out honorary safety director’s badges to his friends. Perhaps they reminded him of the “Junior G-Man” badge he wore in high school when he dreamed of putting away the bad guys. It was a childhood dream he fulfilled and he left behind a legacy in the department yet to be equaled.
Copyright A. R. May 1999