By Allan May
Radio commentator and crusader Gerald E. “Jerry” Buckley campaigned bitterly for the recall election and the citizens of Detroit responded. When the recall vote was counted Detroit was due for a new mayor. Less than two hours after signing off the air waves, Buckley was dead after two gunmen fired eleven slugs into his body as he sat in a hotel lobby.
In July 1930 Detroit was suffering through a wave of unsolved murders. Buckley’s was the eleventh during a nineteen-day period. It began, ironically, at the place where he lived, with a double murder at the side entrance of the La Salle Hotel, which Buckley himself witnessed. The double slaying took the lives of George Collins and William Cannon, two Chicago area hoodlums.
Detroit Mayor Charles Bowles was asked about the rash of killings. He responded, “It is just as well to let these gangsters kill each other off, if thay are so minded. You have the scientists employ one set of parasites to destroy another. May not that be the plan of Providence in these killings among the bandits.”
Bowles campaigned in the fall of 1929 advertising himself as the “dry” candidate. Prohibition was still one of the important issues in the eyes of the voters and by Bowles claiming to be “dry” he received the support of the churches in the city.
After Bowles took office, speakeasies and gambling dens flourished and Detroit started to become a “wide open” town. In addition, Bowles raised eyebrows when he appointed Joseph Gillespie to the position of Commission of Public Works. Gillespie had been police commissioner during the teens, but was removed when vice conditions in Detroit were considered the worst in the city’s history.
Bowles’ police commissioner, Harold Emmons, refrained from making raids for fear of infuriating the new mayor. When criticism of his efforts began to escalate in the newspapers, Emmons decided on a plan of action. On Kentucky Derby day 1930, Mayor Bowles was in Louisville attending the race. Emmons allowed local newspaper reporters to take police officers into the betting parlors where arrests soon followed. What else soon followed was the return of Bowles and the removal of Emmons as police commissioner.
These and other incidents provoked Buckley into action. Buckley had begun his broadcasting career at WMBC in 1928. As a radio crusader he campaigned for old age pensions, and jobs for the unemployed, as well as humanitarian and liberal causes. His efforts prevailed in obtaining hundreds of jobs for unemployed workers.
When Buckley began to criticize the gambling that was taking place, and attack both Mayor Bowles and Sheriff Wilson, the public began to take notice. His broadcasts included “inside” stories of alleged collusion between organized crime figures and public officials. He even went as far as to give the location of the gambling houses on the air.
Buckley was the first to suggest that a recall election be held. As the recall movement gained support he soon told his audience that he had been offered $25,000 to “layoff” his recall campaign efforts and instead devote his time at the station to the anti-recall forces.
As his popularity boomed, Buckley became known to thousands of Detroit radio listeners for his caustic commentaries on city politics, and his attacks on Mayor Bowles, Public Works Commissioner Gillespie, and new Police Commissioner Thomas C. Wilcox. In his criticisms, Buckley claimed that, “Gillespie was the real mayor of Detroit and that Bowles was following his instructions; that Mayor Bowles tolerated lawlessness; made pledges which he never kept; directed that public records be kept secret; had hindered Police Commissioner Emmons in his enforcement of the law; and hinted at unlawful graft.”
During the days leading up to the recall election on July 22, 1930 Buckley urged his audience to get out and vote “Yes.” When the day arrived, Mayor Bowles was removed from office by a vote of 120,863 to 89,907. That evening Buckley had gone with his personal secretary, Evelyn O’Hara, to broadcast election returns from city hall. Buckley had given his listeners the final results of the recall vote around 11:30 p.m. and then Buckley and O’Hara dined together.
After dinner Buckley went back to the LaSalle where his broadcast studio was located on the hotel’s mezzanine. Buckley also maintained a residence at the hotel. Arriving around 1:30 a.m. he found the lobby nearly deserted. He grabbed a newspaper and sat down near a stranger in the center of a long corridor. Buckley was waiting for a woman who had telephoned him earlier with the promise of a story if he would meet her.
At 1:40 three men entered the LaSalle Hotel lobby. While one stood watch near the doorway, the other two walked to within a few feet of the unsuspecting Buckley. Both men drew revolvers and emptied them into Buckley, killing him instantly. The assassins then ran out of the hotel and across Woodward Avenue where they disappeared into a theatre.
Incensed by the cold-blooded killing of the radio crusader, Michigan Governor Fred W. Green flew to Detroit and ordered the state police to investigate the murder “independently” of the Detroit Police Department. Green then threatened to call out the Michigan National Guard “if necessary” to stop the killings in the city.
In an attempt to smear Buckley’s reputation, Police Commissioner Wilcox claimed he had a signed affidavit from a bootlegger who swore that he paid Buckley $4,000 for protection. Wilcox then reasoned with reporters that Buckley had probably been murdered by someone else he had tried to extort money from. Two days after Wilcox’s statement, Frank Chock revealed that he had signed the affidavit, “under the implied threat of being placed in jail.” It was further discovered that Chock could neither speak nor read English.
Paul Buckley, brother of the slain crusader, and a former assistant prosecuting attorney, believed Jerry was murdered because of his efforts to have the mayor recalled. He discounted the theory that his brothers’ killing was to eliminate him as a potential witness to the murders of Cannon and Collins.
Police arrested Angelo Livecchi, a Licavoli Gang member, shortly after the shooting and charged him with being the “fingerman” who pointed out Buckley to the killers. Jack Klein, a motion picture operator, was identified as the stranger seated near Buckley in the lobby. Both men were held as material witnesses. Police were also seeking the woman who called Buckley to get him to the lobby that night. Prosecutor Harold Toy had Licavoli gunmen Ted Pizzano and Joseph Bommorito arrested, and issued warrants for Pete Licavoli, Frank Cammarata, and Joseph Massei. A raid on the home of “Cockeyed Joe” Catalanotte produced one of the murder weapons. Catalanotte would later be deported to Canada.
No convictions were ever obtained in the Buckley murder. Livechi and Pizzano were later convicted in another murder. Klein was released when the prosecutor’s office could find no evidence linking him to the killing. Pete Licavoli was brought back to Detroit after being captured in Toledo in October 1931, but charges against him were dropped due to lack of evidence. Police believed that it was Pete’s girlfriend that lured Buckley to the hotel lobby that night with the promise of a story.
Years later the gunmen were identified as Russell Syracuse, Joseph English, and John Mirabella. The three men had fled to Youngstown, Ohio. Mirabella continued his criminal career there living under the name Paul Mangine.
Jerry Buckley’s death was not in vain. His murder caused a public outcry that law enforcement could not ignore. The police began closing the gambling dens and speakeasies in record numbers. The Licavoli Gang was forced to move out of Detroit and settle in Monroe, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio.
On July 26, 1930, ten thousand mourners braved a thunderstorm to say good bye to the martyred radio crusader. The funeral service was held at St. Gregory’s Catholic Church, followed by burial at Detroit’s Mount Olivet Cemetery. Although there were judges, politicians, and police officials in the crowd, most of the mourners were Buckley’s loyal radio audience who knew him only as a voice coming through their radios to champion their causes and ideals.
Copyright A. R. May 1999