At an hour past midnight on Aug. 31, 1950, two Texas Rangers woke the boss of the Los Angeles underworld from a deep sleep to give him a simple choice: go home or go to jail.
Mickey Cohen had hoped to slip into the Lone Star State, conduct a little business and slip back out unnoticed. But the trip did not go according to plan for the West Coast mobster.
Meyer Harris Cohen was born in 1913 into an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn. Looking for a way to keep Mickey and his brothers out of trouble, their widowed mother moved the brood to the “City of Angels” in 1922.
The change of address failed to improve Mickey’s behavior, and he wound up being sent to reform school. It was in the juvenile joint that the pugnacious pipsqueak, who stopped growing at five inches over five feet, took up boxing.
With dreams of a career as a professional pugilist, Mickey left sunny California for chilly Cleveland where he won his first bout as a pro. But he lost the next five along with his interest in the fight game and retired with a lifetime record of seven victories, 11 defeats and one draw.
Cohen relocated to Chicago in search of dishonest work and found it with the Capone organization. “Big Al” was already doing federal time for income tax invasion when the aspiring hoodlum arrived in the Windy City, but his successors liked what they saw in the ex-boxer – so much so that in 1937 they picked the ambitious 24 year old to open a “branch office” in Los Angeles.
Cohen made the most of the opportunity becoming the king of organized crime in southern California. He shrewdly combined legitimate enterprises such as a haberdashery, jewelry stores, dinner clubs and ice cream trucks with loan-sharking, shake-downs, gambling and blackmail.
Even though he had the backing of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, Cohen had to fight to stay on top of the LA rackets. At least ten attempts were made on his life by rival gangsters causing him to turn his mansion into a full-fledged fortress complete with floodlights, alarm systems and an arsenal of weapons for his bodyguards.
Cohen and his traveling companion, a Hollywood writer named Denny Morrison, flew into Odessa on Aug. 30, 1950. The pair rented a car and drove to Wichita Falls, where they checked into a local hotel for the night.
As soon as he discovered the identity of the infamous guest, the sheriff of Wichita County tipped off the Rangers. An hour or so later, two state lawmen opened the door to Cohen’s room with a pass key, brought him to his senses with a shake and presented their ultimatum.
The dapper gangster, who took excessive pride in his appearance, was more upset by how little time he was allowed to dress than being booted out of the state. Later he was infuriated by photographs taken during the deportation showing him unshaven and wearing a rumpled suit and bedroom slippers.
The Rangers paused at the Wichita Falls police station to have Cohen and Morrison fingerprinted before driving the sullen detainees to the airport in Fort Worth. They made sure the undesirables boarded a westbound commercial flight and asked authorities in Odessa and El Paso to keep a close eye on them during scheduled layovers in those cities.
Cohen was his usual chatty self while waiting for his last connection in Texas’ westernmost town. He said in an interview with an El Paso reporter that the purpose of his visit was to close an oil deal.
“I got to have more money,” the garrulous gangster explained. “I have a beautiful wife, but she spends a lot of money. I (also) got about 18 persons on my payroll and they make $75 to $100 a week.”
The newspaperman informed Cohen that his story was at odds with the reason Denny Morrison gave for the quick trip to Texas. According to the writer, they were hunting one of Mickey’s missing henchmen who skipped town after the mobster posted his $25,000 bail.
The comment clearly angered Cohen. “That’s utterly ridiculous,” he bristled.
A few days after Cohen’s highly publicized eviction, the Dallas police chief claimed the criminal kingpin in league with Big D fugitive Benny Binion wanted to “open up” Texas to big-time gambling. The sinister first step was to establish a toehold in the West Texas oil boom communities of Midland, Odessa and Snyder.
If that was in fact Mickey Cohen’s dream, it never came true. After his run-in with the Rangers, he steered clear of Texas for the rest of his life, which stomach cancer cut short in 1976 following two prison terms for tax evasion.
As for Benny Binion, he did just fine with his world famous casino in downtown Las Vegas.
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