(March 28, 2019) The following is an edited excerpt from my latest book, The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era. It is taken from Chapter 10 and concerns the shutting-down of illegal gaming at Hot Springs during 1966-67.
Despite losing the 1964 gubernatorial election to Orval Faubus, Winthrop Rockefeller was sufficiently pleased with his 44% share of the vote to announce immediately thereafter that he would run again in 1966. Both men realized that the growing number of voters who wanted to give up the futile fight for racial segregation would increasingly be drawn to Rockefeller during a rematch.
Partly to win incremental support from voters concerned with another issue, therefore, Rockefeller repeatedly assailed incumbent Governor Faubus for his failure to end illegal gambling. After Faubus announced that he would not run for a seventh term, the state’s Democratic Party nominated a rabid segregationist thereby enabling Rockefeller to win the 1966 general election with a combination of moderate white voters and about 95% of the black vote. Although ending the segregation fight was the chief campaign issue, Rockefeller’s repetitious pledges since the end of the 1964 to shut down illegal gambling if elected in 1966 was at least a high profile secondary one.
The day after his January 10, 1967 inauguration, however, Rockefeller curiously said that he expected local authorities to take care of the gambling problem. That led reporters to question him the next day at a news conference when he clarified, “If gambling again becomes flagrant . . . I will move of my own initiative.” Early in February he sent the state police on hunting expeditions to discover if illegal gambling in Garland and Pulaski counties was as flagrant as recent press reports had suggested. During one weekend the troopers visited a variety of establishments where they found nearly forty blackjack tables, a dozen crap tables, two roulette wheels and hundreds of slot machines.
As a result, the governor sent letters to law enforcement organizations in the two counties, as well as the mayors of Hot Springs and North Little Rock, giving them until 27 February to close down any gambling operations in their jurisdictions. The letter concluded by warning that any such business remaining open after the deadline was subject to state police raids. Thus, on 28 February Rockefeller told state police director, Colonel Herman Lindsey, to take whatever action was necessary to eliminate illegal gambling throughout the state. Since the governor realized that Lindsey might have been a source of the habitual advance raid warnings that casinos received during the Faubus era, Rockefeller announced that Lindsey was on probation until the end of April.
Meanwhile four state senators introduced a bill to permit state supervised gambling on a local option basis. The resulting bill proposed to create a state crime commission to police and license gaming clubs. There were to be five commissioners appointed by the governor with the consent of the senate. In order to enforce the applicable laws, the commission would be empowered to carry out investigations and subpoena witnesses. The bill would authorize no more than one casino per 15,000 residents in the affected counties. It also stipulated that the state would collect an annual $10,000 license fee from each business as well as a tax of 8% of its gross revenues.
In early March, the bill passed both chambers of the Arkansas legislature by the narrowest of margins. For several days its sponsors expected that Rockefeller would either sign it, or let it become law without his signature. On 8 March, however, he vetoed the bill. The sponsors immediately charged that Rockefeller had broken his word to them. All four claimed that they would never have introduced the bill if the governor had not privately indicated weeks earlier that he would let the bill become law should it get through the legislature. Other legislators who voted for the bill also claimed that they would not have done so except for rumors of the governor’s acquiescence, if not direct support. After the veto, a number of legislators that voted “Yea” renounced their votes in order to remain on the popular side of statewide public sentiment.
In response to accusations that Rockefeller broke his word, the governor denied that he ever promised to support the bill. He even claimed that he was unaware of it until it was formally introduced. He speculated that the misunderstanding might have resulted from an earlier meeting with selected legislators and others in which methods of revitalizing the Hot Springs economy were discussed. Although the meeting included conversations about the possibility of legalizing gambling, it also contained discussion about changing the laws governing mixed alcoholic drinks, which were also generally prohibited in Arkansas. Rockefeller replied to a proposal on the latter topic by saying that he would send it to an aide for further study. He did not, he avowed, make any definite statement about his stance on legitimatizing gambling.
The first sign of defiance against Rockefeller’s enforcement materialized with Hot Springs Municipal Judge Earl Mazander shortly after the state police raids started. Specifically, he ordered that all gambling equipment seized and taken to Little Rock during an 11 March raid be turned over to the Hot Springs police chief. Although the state police partly complied by sending some of the items intended for use as evidence to Hot Springs, Mazander issued an arrest warrant for the state trooper that led the raid. While the judge was eventually persuaded to dismiss the case, he ordered that no evidence captured on future raids could be removed from Garland County without the consent of local authorities.
Next, Q. Byrum Hurst, who had become a state senator, introduced a bill to abolish the Criminal Investigative Division (CID) of the state police, which was the enforcement arm Rockefeller was using to raid the illegal businesses. Hurst dubiously suggested that the state’s highways were becoming unsafe because too many troopers were involved in anti-gambling activities. Traffic fatality statistics later discredited Hurst’s allegation when they revealed that Arkansas might have been the only state in the country to report a decline in traffic deaths in 1967. After Hurst’s bill was voted down he tried to tack it onto the state police appropriations bill, but the legislature also rejected that tactic.
During April, Garland County authorities decided it was better to pretend to be cooperating with the governor rather than resisting. Thus, Sheriff Bud Canada assisted state troopers on a number of raids. In May he told reporters that he would “use the full facilities of [his] office to carry out this [enforcement] policy,” concluding insincerely, “as I have in the past.” He did not clarify that some of the seized gaming equipment supposedly stored in his office was trickling back into circulation instead of being destroyed as intended.
In June Governor Rockefeller conceded that illegal gambling was mysteriously returning to Hot Springs even after the raids. After futilely asking that local authorities increase their vigilance, he reasoned that the state police would need to become even more involved. Equally important, he concluded that the state organization needed a new commander.
Lindsey had basically failed his probation. For the preceding twenty years the colonel had become habituated to erratic anti-gaming law enforcement, which fluctuated from governor to governor and year to year. Given such a pattern, casino owners too readily presumed that Lindsey’s enforcement under Rockefeller would also prove to be only temporary. Therefore, Rockefeller announced before the end of June that an outsider would replace Lindsey, who decided to retire.
Early in 1967 Arkansas native and thirty-three year old FBI agent Lynn Davis requested a transfer from Los Angeles to Little Rock in order to be closer to his ailing mother. Before the Bureau acted on the request a previous college classmate, who worked for Rockefeller and was aware that the governor was looking for a newcomer to lead the state police, contacted Davis. About two weeks later Davis met with Rockefeller in Little Rock. The day after Davis returned to Los Angeles the governor phoned him to offer him the top slot at the Arkansas State Police. Davis eagerly accepted.
Although Davis would take decisive action against the gambling businesses, he would also face entrenched resistance and unexpected obstacles. Even before he arrived his appointment provoked resentments among some incumbent state police employees and politicos who benefitted from the habitual corrupt methods of enforcing anti-gaming laws. Since nothing in his seven years at the FBI suggested that he was unqualified to accept Rockefeller’s offer, gambling interests looked for other ways block Davis. The first one took the form of a technical objection raised by Democratic Attorney General Joe Purcell.
Specifically, Arkansas law required that anyone appointed as director of the state police had to have been a state resident for the preceding ten years. The requirement was adopted shortly after World War II in order to protect Colonel Lindsey who might otherwise have been displaced by a returning war veteran since former soldiers were popularly respected among the public, as the “GI (McMath) Revolt” in Hot Springs would demonstrate.
Rockefeller responded to Purcell by noting that Davis had always remained an Arkansan at heart and was therefore eligible. Surprisingly, an initial court ruling upheld the governor’s liberal interpretation. But Purcell promptly appealed the case, which would eventually land at the state Supreme Court. Nonetheless, Davis took his oath of office on 1 August and stated that he would not accept a salary while his qualifications were under appeal. He added, however, that he would not let doubts about his eligibility inhibit his plans to act.
Since Davis could not know how long the appeal might take, he quickly moved against the gamblers. His first objective was to destroy gambling equipment instead of arresting casino owners or customers. Gaming could not continue if the equipment was demolished whereas the prosecution of alleged violators was subject to delays and uncertainties through a historically corrupted legal process. Once the gaming equipment was destroyed, any attempts to replace it from sources outside the state would likely trigger violations of interstate commerce laws, thereby authorizing additional enforcement by federal marshals and FBI agents.
His first raid took place in Hot Springs less than three weeks after taking office and was executed without notifying local authorities. After plainclothes officers observed gambling at four casinos, Colonel Davis placed men at parade rest in front of the building entrances to prevent any equipment from being removed. Next he surprised the local prosecuting attorney at one-thirty in the morning with a request for the search and seizure warrants required to raid the businesses. As a result, gaming equipment was confiscated at each location.
Unfortunately, the troopers were not permitted to destroy the captured gear because the warrants only authorized search and seizure. Consequently, the colonel turned the equipment over to Hot Springs officials who were expected to destroy it. In later raids Davis would be angered to learn that at least some of the relinquished gear had been recycled to other casinos instead of destroyed.
Unsurprisingly, Sheriff Canada was incensed that Davis did not seek local cooperation during the August raid. But despite the sheriff’s complaint Davis remained firmly resolved to exclude Canada’s men in future raids as well. In a 2008 interview near the end of his life Davis indicated that he did not know anyone in a position of authority in Garland County at the time who was trustworthy.
Davis’s raiders returned to Hot Springs in October and confiscated $250,000 worth of slot machines. They also located secret casino equipment repair shops where they found one hundred functioning machines and parts enough to build an additional two hundred and fifty. A rental truck full of slots was also captured. When the machines in the truck were destroyed Davis discovered from some of the serial numbers that almost twenty of the slots had been seized in earlier raids but never demolished as intended.
Angered by the discovery that gaming equipment was being redeployed instead of demolished, Davis decided to openly pinpoint the responsible Garland County enforcement officials. During an October address to a Little Rock civic group he accused the Hot Springs police chief and his assistant of helping the casinos. Moreover, he warned that if a Garland County grand jury would not indict the two men, he would take matters into his own hands. The speech triggered the Hot Springs Civil Service Commission to urge an investigation. Since Judge Mazander was presiding he predictably concluded that Davis’s accusations were based on rumors instead of facts.
Nonetheless, Davis’s well-publicized raids and his rising public profile seemed to be promoting a new resolve in favor of enforcement throughout many of the state’s localities. For example, local authorities confiscated about twenty slots long known to be operating at clubs on North College Avenue in Fayetteville where the University of Arkansas is located.
Before long both Davis and Rockefeller received death threats. In early December the police chief of San Angelo, Texas notified Arkansas authorities that a prisoner claimed to know of a plot to assassinate Rockefeller. At least one newspaper reported that the prisoner told a Texas official that Hot Springs gamblers intended to kill Rockefeller by sabotaging one of his jet planes. Upon investigation Lynn Davis dismissed the San Angelo threat as mere jailhouse talk. Nonetheless, he indirectly messaged the Hot Springs underworld that there would be revenge if any attempts were made on his life, or the governor’s. He even hinted that Rockefeller had already contracted for vigilante justice in case of such an eventuality. Lest there be any doubt about the vengeance, Lynn hinted that the vigilante justice might be performed through contracts with underworld figures instead of the state police.
Although the colonel downplayed the Texas rumor, Davis recalled years later that the governor did, in fact, once come close to losing his life in an airplane accident. It happened on a flight to Memphis with his staff. As the plane approached the airport Rockefeller’s Falcon Jet pilot was unable to lower the landing gear. The jet burned low on fuel as the crew tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to lower the wheels. Without them, the pilot would need to try a belly landing, which could easily end with fiery deaths for everyone on board.
Eventually, someone suggested that the crew phone the manufacturer for recommendations while the plane circled to exhaust its fuel. Sure enough, Falcon personnel said that the crew could lower the gear with a manual crank after removing a metal plate on the floor to get at the mechanism. Although ripping up the carpet gave them access to the floorboard, they had no screwdriver to remove the metal plate. Fortunately, a dime proved to be a satisfactory substitute and the landing gear was cranked down manually after the floorboard was removed.
Perhaps because he sensed that his residency status appeal would be decided against him, Davis continued to move quickly and relentlessly to stamp out illegal gambling before he might be told to vacate his office. It was too much to expect that the politicos who secretly benefitted from the status quo for so long would watch silently while their ox was gored. The inevitable front-page confrontation unexpectedly occurred in Little Rock instead of Hot Springs.
Partly to placate resentment in Garland Country, undercover troopers soon raided eleven clubs in Pulaski County, which encompasses Little Rock and suburbs such as North Little Rock. At Barney Levine’s Club Westwood, for example, the raiders discovered 30,000 pairs of dice. In a suburb near that club they found a semitrailer full of gambling equipment that was supposed to have been confiscated by Hot Springs police.
Over the years prior to Davis’s Pulaski County raid the eleven Little Rock area bookies had been charged a total of 118 times with gambling related felonies but the charges were generally reduced to misdemeanors and sometimes dropped altogether. As a result over ninety percent of the time the ensuing fines were only fifty dollars. Since the habitual pattern strongly implied a corrupt legal apparatus, Davis told a group of Little Rock business leaders during a speech, “[I]t is time we insisted again that law enforcement officers, prosecuting attorneys, judges, and juries do their duty.”
His complaint annoyed prosecuting attorney Jim Adkisson who was assigned to the grand jury investigating the eleven bookies. As a result, Adkisson told Davis to disclose the name of the informant who had told the colonel about the Pulaski County gambling locations. On 5 December he called Davis before the grand jury where the colonel was repeatedly asked to reveal the name, but he repetitively declined. After several iterations, the jury foreman turned to Adkisson and said, “If he will not tell us the name . . . let’s take him before the judge. The judge will make him tell.”
Addressing Davis, Adkisson said, “Colonel, I am just going to have to take you before the judge to order you to tell us your informant.”
Davis replied, “Surely you have enough [evidence] to make a good case…without knowing the name of the informant.”
Adkisson did not reply but merely took Davis into the courtroom where Circuit Court Judge William Kirby addressed the colonel, “The prosecutor tells me you will not give him the name of your informant.” Davis confirmed the validity of the statement but again said he would not provide the name. Kirby then made a technical error by failing to ask Davis to give the name to him (the judge) as opposed to Adkission, and held Davis in contempt of court for declining to tell Adkisson. Kirby told the bailiff to put Davis in a prison cell until he was ready to divulge the name to the prosecutor.
Public reaction soon demonstrated that Adkisson and Kirby had overplayed their hand. The Associated Press later listed the colonel’s incarceration as the top news story out of Arkansas that year, ranking it even higher than Rockefeller’s election as the state’s first Republican governor in a hundred years. The New York Times interviewed Davis over a prison payphone. The chairman of a chiefs-of-police lobbying organization in Washington, D. C. wrote a letter supporting Davis. Governor Rockefeller asked the Arkansas State Supreme Court for an emergency ruling the next morning.
The Supreme Court overruled Judge Kirby on the technicality that he failed to ask Davis to reveal the name to him and had instead instructed Davis to disclose it to the prosecutor. The essentially comical distinction was good enough to get Davis released without bail after only a single night in jail. Rockefeller staged a press conference at the jailhouse upon Davis’s release, pledging his full support for the director. He labeled Kirby’s action as political harassment that nobody but gamblers and criminals could celebrate.
But less than three weeks later the state Supreme Court ruled against Davis on the residency matter. Since the decision basically rendered Davis ineligible to be state police director, he was forced to vacate his office on December 23, 1967.
Despite the ruling, the publicity from Davis’s brief imprisonment and the corruption implied by it, proved to be a turning point in the battle against illegal gambling in Arkansas. Rockefeller replaced Davis with an assistant director who proved to be a caretaker for a year before retiring. Next the governor selected another outsider. This one had twenty-eight years of FBI experience and renewed Davis’s aggressive enforcement. A final indication that sentiment had turned decisively against illegal gambling came in 1969 when a Hot Springs grand jury indicted twenty-five residents for gaming violations.
Although Lynn Davis was director of the Arkansas state police for less than five months he effectively ended illegal gambling in the state. He could not have done it without Rockefeller’s commitment, which partly reflected the governor’s financial independence. There was not enough money in the state to turn his head.
Soon after Davis was forced out of office, Rockefeller hired him privately to help conduct an investigation into alleged abuse of prisoners at the state’s prison farms. Although circumstances were bad enough, they were not as awful as depicted in the Hollywood movie, Brubaker, which was inspired by exaggerated narratives of the authentic situation. The true problems resulted from parsimonious efforts to minimize the cost of operating prisons by permitting trusties to function as prison guard assistants. When the trusty system was abolished many trusties tried to escape. They feared for their lives because the ordinary prisoners hated them.
Following the prison investigation Davis became director of the governor’s crime commission. He advised Rockefeller on reorganizing the National Guard, the Alcohol Beverage Control Board and other agencies. Before Rockefeller left office in January 1971 the governor persuaded President Richard Nixon to appoint Davis as the U. S. Marshal for eastern Arkansas where he remained five years. Davis earned a law degree while in the marshal service and thereafter became a practicing attorney for about thirty years.