Cocktails with the mob

New book recalls a wild era in Anchorage history

By HOWARD WEAVERApril 7, 2012 

Longtime journalist Howard Weaver in Sacramento, Calif.

PHOTO BY CARL COSTAS / CARLCOSTAS.COM

Editor's note: Former Anchorage Daily News editor Howard Weaver will return to his hometown this month, appearing at the annual Alaska Press Club meeting and promoting his book, "Write Hard, Die Free: Dispatches from the Battlefields and Barrooms of the Great Alaska Newspaper War" (Epicenter Press, $14.95). Much of the memoir covers his major accomplishments, scooping the then-dominant Anchorage Times, winning two Pulitzer Prizes and doggedly reporting stories that changed the course of Alaska politics. But the first chapters concern his early career at a time when Anchorage was a more wild and wicked frontier outpost. We reprint a portion with permission of the author and publisher.

WHEN I WAS A YOUNG, INEXPERIENCED REPORTER -- maybe 24 or 25 -- a source in the Alaska State Troopers showed me an intelligence report that said two Arizona men associated with the Bonanno organized crime family had moved to Alaska to scout opportunities during the pipeline boom.

Not content with checking court records, property tax rolls and other standard investigative data, I decided to play gumshoe and follow the two for a day to see what happened.

Abridged from my book, "Write Hard, Die Free," this is what happened:

I never had tailed anybody before, but I'd watched a lot of movies and TV shows where people did. How hard could it be? My plan was to spend the day shadowing the Arizona partners. My pulse raced a little when a large black sedan backed out of their garage and pulled away down the street heading away from me. Perfect.

I pulled out seconds later but slowed down quickly. Couldn't get too close. My VW was still slimed with mud from breakup, that delightful season in Anchorage when the winter snows finally melt, creating acres of mud and revealing a winter's accumulation of slowly thawing dog shit. Still, my car was bright yellow where it showed through, and VWs weren't that common in Anchorage then. Belatedly I wished that I had thought to borrow a more average-looking car.

They drove purposefully out Gambell Street and onto the Seward Highway, heading south out of town. They kept going past International Airport Road, already at the edge of the city. They kept moving until the last junky building along the highway disappeared and the view down Turnagain Arm opened up before us. The contrast between that vista -- the narrow fjord ringed with steep, snowy mountains -- and the trashy stores and bars on the outskirts of town could hardly have been greater. It was like lifting the lid on a dumpster and finding yourself in the middle of a park.

They turned off suddenly onto a small frontage road I recognized; it led to an old shooting range along the mudflats by the ocean there.

I drove past, turned around, and returned on a side road where I could look down at them. It was too far away to see them well, but they were both firing handguns. One sounded like a .45 or .44 Magnum; for sure it was an automatic, bucking and barking several times in quick succession.

Soon enough the men put the pistols back into the trunk and drove away. I had my scoop.

When they turned into a shopping center on the outskirts of the city, I pulled in and watched them drive through the lot. But they kept getting closer, driving slowly down the lanes, always advancing toward me.

Anxiety turned to cold fear when the car pulled directly in front of my parking space and stopped, blocking me in. The passenger's electric window lowered slowly to reveal a man smoking a cigarette, wearing sunglasses and staring straight at me. Seconds passed, though they seemed like minutes at the time. He raised a hand to his mouth, took out the cigarette and flipped it, hard, between his thumb and middle finger. It hit my windshield squarely and bounced off. His window closed and the car pulled slowly away.

I sat in stunned disbelief. My mind raced, but coherent thoughts wouldn't form. For a few seconds I'd actually expected to die, feeling the atavistic terror a rabbit must experience just before the wolf's jaws close. I wanted to cry like a schoolgirl, to run and hide, to find somebody bigger than them to protect me.

I was shaking and thought I might throw up. When I felt a little steadier I pulled away; instinctively I headed for home -- a ratty Spenard apartment in a former motel next to a liquor store. Impulsively, I walked straight to the bathroom and found an old razor, scraping my face in desperation, shaving off the beard I'd worn for years in the vague hope that a new look might disguise my identity.

Moments later the phone rang. I jumped at the noise and then answered.

"Ah, hello?"

"Why the f*** are you following us around?" a loud voice demanded.

"What do you mean, following you?"

"Don't play games, you little prick. Who are you? What the f*** are you doing?"

My mind was racing again. This time I actually thought of something.

"Listen, I don't want to talk about it on this phone," I said. "Can I come see you instead?"

"Huh." A pause. "Yeah, that might be smarter. You know where my nightclub is?"

"I can be there in an hour," I said.

"Be here, prick."

I'd bought myself an hour, but what now?

I couldn't think of a way to dodge or weasel my way out of this one. On the way to the bar I hatched a plan, the only one I could think of. It was bold, audacious, unpredictable.

I decided to tell them the truth.

There was nothing special about his club, the latest in a succession of bars that had been going out of business in the same location in Eastchester Flats for as long as I could remember.

I saw an older guy alone at a corner table when I walked into the dim room out of the bright daylight. He didn't look at me. I took a few breaths while my eyes adjusted to the light and then walked over.

"I'm Howard Weaver," I said.

"The f***?" he said with a puzzled look. I stood still while he stared. I couldn't think of anything else to do. Finally he grunted and shook his head. "You're here, sit down," he said.

"Didn't you have a beard this morning? I saw you had a beard."

"It was, uh, fake. You know, like a disguise."

"Huh?"

He stared in silence for a few seconds. "What the f***, Weaver? Why the f*** are you following us around?"

I stuck with my plan and told the truth. "I'm a newspaper reporter; probably you know that by now. I heard you guys were mobsters from Arizona and figured if I could get some big scoop on you, it would be good, you know, for my career."

He was silent and still. His face betrayed no emotion. Then a short bark of laughter erupted and his body shook as he tried to swallow it. A grin split his face and suddenly he was laughing again, mouth wide open. I sat in silence. He finally quieted down, looked up, and rubbed some tears from his eyes.

Then he spoke in short staccato bursts, head shaking as he did.

"Oh, f***. Mobsters. Newspaper. Oh, f*** me," he said.

He settled back and looked at me again. "So you wanted some hot story about the mobsters, yeah? Something to sell some papers, make you into a big shot?"

I looked down at the table. "Something like that," I said.

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph." He was quiet for a long moment. "I think you're telling me the truth, kid.

"You want something to drink, Howard Weaver?"

He waved and the listless bartender scurried over. I ordered a Tanqueray and Roses lime juice. Not much ice.

I began to think this might work out. "I'm sorry for following you, for acting like a punk."

"At least you did the right thing coming here face to face and tellin' me the truth. Not everybody would have done that."

Silence. Time passed.

"Tell you what. I accept your apology. Don't be a dumb ass no more, though. It's stupid following me around. You ain't gonna see nothing, and people don't like to be followed. You like to be followed, kid?"

"No sir," I said.

"Well, there it is." He slapped the table, rattling the ice in the drinks. "You don't like it. I don't like it. Don't do it no more.

"From now on, you want to know something, you come here like this, face to face, and you ask me like a man, right? Any legitimate question, you get the answer right from me. That way, you always get the truth, yeah?"

"OK, sure. I mean yes, I will. Ask you, I mean, if I need to. Sir."

"Any legitimate question, kid. Any time. In fact, you ask me something right now. What do you want to know?"

What the hell was I supposed to do now? Asking anything actually sensitive could be disaster, blow this whole kiss-and-make-up deal. If I asked something phony or stupid, that might piss him off, too. I was starting to realize this man was a lot sharper than he looked.

Well, one thing I'd like to know is this: How did you get my phone number so fast?"

His barking laugh echoed around the room again with that. "Oh, f*** me. I guess you are a newspaper guy after all.

"I ain't gonna tell you that. I said any LEGITIMATE question. That ain't what we call a legitimate question, understand?"

"Yes sir," I said. "I think I'm starting to understand."

(Editor's note: Salvatore Spinelli was later identified by the Arizona Republic as a member of the Joe Bonanno-Peter Licavoli crime group.)

Howard Weaver appearances in Alaska

7 p.m. Tuesday, April 17, Anchorage Museum

4 p.m. Wednesday, April 18, Fireside Books, Palmer

11 a.m. Thursday, April 19, Cyrano's

4 p.m. Friday, April 20, UAA Bookstore.

Monday, April 23, and Tuesday, April 24, several events at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Journalism; delivering the C.W. Snedden Lecture at Noel Wien Library at 7 p.m. on April 23 6:30 p.m.

Wednesday, April 25, Hearthside Books in Juneau

HEAR WEAVER READ FROM "WRITE HARD, DIE FREE" and find out more online at writeharddiefree.com.

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