This article first appeared in The Broomfield Enterprise.
A century ago, Denver was a notorious haven for a well-organized machine of hucksters, thieves, and bunco artists. When summertime hit, thousands of tourists came to Colorado, looking for sunshine, recreation and fresh air. These folks were followed by dozens of crooks who wintered in Florida and migrated to Denver at the invitation of the local kingpin, Lou Blonger.
Each summer’s fresh supply of “suckers” was scoped out by the gang. Those with the right amount of gullibility and greed were befriended by a “steerer,” who then introduced them to a “spieler,” or “mysterious stranger,” who then offered the tourist an amazing win-win proposition, usually involving a phony stock exchange or betting parlor in an office space rented and furnished by Blonger. These elaborate schemes were highly scripted, and often relieved the mark of tens of thousands of dollars (think back to the film, “The Sting.”)
Blonger’s buddies in city government, the police department and even among the city’s press were well paid to protect his “business,” and he operated for years without trouble.
That is, until 1921, when voters elected a new district attorney named Philip Van Cise. The story of how Van Cise brought down the Blonger gang is a fascinating tale of extreme secrecy, outside operatives, moles, bugs, and a clandestine jail created in a church basement. It also involves a couple of prominent citizens with ties to Broomfield – Philip Zang (of Broomfield’s Elmwood Stock Farm) and John K. Mullen (of Broomfield’s Colorado Milling and Elevator Co). So many Denver officials were on the take, Van Cise trusted almost no one, but he secretly raised money for his operation by canvassing a group of 50 or so honest citizens. This was no easy task — even the owner of the Denver Post, Harry Tammen, was a “best friend” of Blonger, who also claimed close relationships with the mayor and police chief of detectives.
Both Zang and Mullen contributed generously to Van Cise’s efforts. Furthermore, Lou Blonger kept his office in the same building where Philip Zang had an office. Van Cise wanted to install what was then called a “Dictaphone” (a bug) in the overhead lights of Blonger’s office. Zang, who had once managed the building, gave Van Cise a passkey to all the offices and introduced him to the janitor, who was recruited to swipe and deliver Blonger’s trash. Van Cise’s men also used Zang’s office as an entry point to access the wiring in Blonger’s office on the lower floor. The bug remained in place through most of the trial and when it was finally revealed during testimony, detectives were waiting in Zang’s office to pull the equipment out at a moment’s notice.
At the end of Van Cise’s carefully orchestrated attack, pulled off without the aid of the police department, Blonger and most of his henchman were escorted down to Cañon City for a long “vacation.” You can read the whole amazing tale in Van Cise’s well-written and sometimes hilarious, “Fighting the Underworld.”