History of the World According to the Movies: Part 86 – Crime and Law Enforcement in 1970s America

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The 2013 American Hustle starring Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence is a loose retelling of the Abscam scandal. This was a collaboration between FBI agents and con artists bringing down criminals and corrupt politicians. Of course, while it says that some of the events in this film were true, the real story is much bleaker than what’s depicted on film including the happy ending. Still, the bit about Jeremy Renner giving Christian Bale the microwave as a gift actually happened if it makes you feel better.

The 1970s is a popular decade in movies pertaining to crime in the United States. And the US has more crime stories than just Watergate. You have the story of gangster Frank Lucas also known as Superfly who started as a low ranking gangster to another lord and became a noteworthy drug lord in New York. You have law enforcement officials like Joseph Pistone and Serpico who investigated either the mafia or cops behaving badly within the New York City Police Department. Next you have some of most famous serial killers active at this time like the Zodiac Killer, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, BTK, David Berkowitz, and others. You have Clifford Irving who fooled McGraw Hill into paying him to write an autobiography of Howard Hughes. Then there’s the scheme which was a collaboration of criminals and the FBI called Abscam that would later lead to the conviction of 19 people including a US senator and 6 US congressmen. Still, while there are plenty of true crime to depict in Hollywood, there are plenty of inaccuracies contained in such films which I shall list accordingly.

Ted Bundy:

Ted Bundy flunked out of law school and psychology classes. (Contrary to the 2002 film about him, he was a poor law student but graduated with honors as a psychology major.)

The “cheerleader” victim’s name was Jane Gilchrist. (Her name was Nancy Wilcox who was leaving a cheerleading competition when Bundy snatched her.)

Ted Bundy’s first arrest and Caryn Campbell’s murder took place in 1976. (They took place in 1975.)

During his first prison escape, Ted Bundy jumped from a window at a lower roof. (According to The Stranger Beside Me, he jumped from the window to the ground.)

Colorado authorities sought the death penalty for Ted Bundy. (They didn’t contrary to the 2002 film.)

Ted Bundy lost total interest in his studies after his girlfriend left him. (Contrary to the film, his breakup led him to study and take even more classes to get into American politics even working in political campaigns for the Republican Party. Also, he and that girlfriend would get back together while he was seeing someone else but would later end that relationship without explanation while they were engaged.)

Ted Bundy hotwired a car. (Contrary to the 2002 film, he found the keys inside it to steal the vehicle. Guess the owner was a complete idiot.)

Ted Bundy’s final victim was a girl rope skipping in the park named Susan Moore. (Her name was Kimberly Leach who was returning to the school gym to retrieve her forgotten purse when Bundy abducted her. She’d never claim it.)

Ted Bundy’s Volkswagen was yellow. (It was tan.)

Ted Bundy’s final arrest for stealing a car in Florida took place in an open field in broad daylight. (Contrary to the 2002 film, it took place in 1978 in a residential neighborhood at 1:00 AM.)

Ted Bundy took a woman from her home by wrapping her in a large sheet and carrying her to his car in front of witnesses in a street. (Contrary to the 2002 film, he stated he was always careful about witness identification.)

Clifford Irving:

Clifford Irving used a Newsweek article “The Secret World of Howard Hughes,” as research for his fake autobiography of Howard Hughes in 1971. (The article came out in 1976 after Hughes died and included a sketch of the last few years of his life. Clifford Irving wouldn’t have access to this like he does in The Hoax. Also, though Irving himself criticized the film, there’s not much I can write about the accuracy since he’s a pretty unreliable person.)

Jimmy Burke:

Jimmy Burke was a nasty and ruthless mobster who loved hijacking trucks. (He was even nastier than Robert DeNiro’s expy portrayal of him in Goodfellas. In real life, he liked to shake down people by locking their kids in the fridge as well as cut his wife’s annoying ex-boyfriend into pieces and committed numerous other murders. He and Vario also ripped of the robbers and other guys involved in the Lufthansa, which nobody got more than a $50,000 cut and most got less {out of a $6 million robbery}. The robbers involved still got murdered for asking for a fair cut. Talk about being screwed royally.)

Paul Vario:

Paul Vario was a likeable capo who helped protect other gangsters from themselves. (Contrary to his Goodfellas expy, he had more direct involvement in the nastier and bloodier crimes committed by his crew. In Wiseguy, Henry Hill recalled Vario attacking a barmaid with a baseball bat after she told his wife they were having an affair. Yet, Wiseguy author Nicholas Pileggi writes, “He abhorred unnecessary violence {the kind he hadn’t ordered}, mainly because it was bad for business.” Oh, and he also had an affair with Henry Hill’s wife while he was in prison.)

Henry Hill:

Henry Hill never personally killed anyone despite being an accomplice in several murders. (He actually had killed three people, contrary to Goodfellas. Yet, he isn’t the most reliable narrator in the movie nor is he meant to.)

Tommy De Simone:

Tommy De Simone was a short violent pistol. (Contrary to the Joe Pesci expy portrayal in Goodfellas, he was about 6’2” and weighed over 200 pounds. Also, he was born in 1950 so he wasn’t the same age as Henry Hill. Not only that, he was a much nastier man than Pesci was in the film. What ultimately led to his murder was that he tried to rape Henry Hill’s wife when he was in prison {though killing Billy Batts may have also had something to do with it, too}.)

Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggerio:

Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggerio was Joseph Pistone’s faithful friend during his time as Donnie Brasco. (He was a genuine thug who Pistone despised. Most of his positive traits in Donnie Brasco were taken from the real life Sonny Black, the only gangster Pistone felt some kinship and considered to have a genuine good side.)

Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggerio was whacked. (Contrary to Donnie Brasco, he was arrested by FBI agents in 1981 and sentence to 20 years in prison thanks to Pistone’s work. He was released in the early 1990s and died of cancer on Thanksgiving 1995 at the age of 72. Yet, Sonny Black certainly was since he was found in a body bag with guns shot wounds and his hands cut off in 1982. Also, it was Sonny Black who removed his jewelry not Lefty.)

Angelo Sepe:

Angelo Sepe was a murder victim found hanging in a meat truck freezer for his involvement in the Lufthansa Heist. (Actually contrary to Goodfellas, this was a how a man named Richard Eaton was murdered {after being tortured by Jimmy Burke} for stealing $250,000 and skimming even more being laundered {he had no involvement with the heist}. As for Sepe, he wasn’t a victim in the Lufthansa Heist, but actually the one carrying out the murders. He’d later be killed by a hit squad for robbing a Lucchese affiliated drug trafficker.)

Sonny Black:

Sonny Black was ruthless and brutal gangster. (Contrary to Donnie Brasco, he was the only gangster whom Joseph Pistone felt any kinship and thought he possessed any redeeming qualities. In Donnie Brasco, his worst traits were taken from Pistone’s earliest mentor who was so notoriously nasty that he was feared and hated by other gangsters and eventually went into hiding, knowing that dozens of New York Mafiosi had been dreaming of putting a bullet into him for decades. His character is absent from the film.)

Frank Lucas:

Frank Lucas paid a cop off on the street for finding his drug stash in his trunk. (Unlike in American Gangster, Lucas paid off the guy at the station.)

Frank Lucas was in prison from 1976-1991. (Contrary to American Gangster, he was out on parole between 1981-1984.)

Frank Lucas kept his money in a doghouse. (He didn’t. Yet, Julie Lucas was said to throw suitcases full of money out the bathroom window during their arrest.)

Julie Lucas left her husband after he was arrested on drug charges. (Contrary to American Gangster, they have been married for over 40 years and are still together to this day. Yet, she did go back to Puerto Rico to raise her kids with her parents.)

Frank Lucas snitched on dirty cops, not drug dealers. (Unlike in American Gangster, he snitched on dirty cops, fellow drug dealers, and members of the mob. Yet, he didn’t do it out of the goodness of his heart.)

Frank Lucas smuggled heroin from Vietnam in the coffins of dead American servicemen. (Though this is in American Gangster, this is highly disputed. Though Lucas claims this, he could sometimes exaggerate the numbers. US Sergeant Lesley “Ike” Atkinson claimed he used teak furniture and military luggage to smuggle the heroin.)

Julie Lucas was well aware of her husband’s business but was uninvolved. (Though she’s shown to be this way in American Gangster, she was certainly an accomplice since she was arrested and convicted for her involvement in Frank’s drug business.)

Frank Lucas and his wife were childless. (Though it’s seen in American Gangster, they actually had seven kids.)

Frank Lucas’ wife Julie was a former Miss Puerto Rico. (Contrary to American Gangster, there was never a woman listed among the Miss Puerto Rico’s winners list by the name of Julie Fariat. Yet, Lucas did meet his wife there while on a retreat to dream up “business” ideas.)

Frank Lucas gave himself away when he wore a fur coat. (Well, it’s kind of exaggerated in American Gangster but the cops already knew who he was by then.)

The Zodiac Killings:

Robert Graysmith was the hero in the Zodiac case. (Contrary to Zodiac, his analysis isn’t universally accepted, though the film doesn’t present him as perfect. Yet, casting Jake Gyllenhaal in that role makes him a more sympathetic character, no matter what he does whether it’s trying to match killings to lunar cycles, badgering witnesses, getting carried away with his own fame, neglecting his family, naming suspects based on unorthodox investigations, quit his job, and gets obsessed with a serial killer. Also, he was cartoonist for God’s sake.)

There were no surviving witnesses in the Zodiac killings. (There were two but they weren’t much help. Still, though the Zodiac killer boasted about killing 37 people, there was only enough evidence to confirm 5 and there were 2 survivors.)

Rick Marshall may have been the Zodiac killer. (Zodiac leaves this open though he certainly wasn’t since the hypothesis was disproved by fingerprint analysis.)

Allen Leigh may have been the Zodiac killer. (This is what Graysmith believed in Zodiac but the evidence against him was seen as circumstantial and his candidacy as a suspect was disqualified due to handwriting analysis and DNA tests.)

The Zodiac killer was responsible for killing 12 people. (He was only confirmed in killing 5 people unlike what Curse of the Zodiac says. And, no, the case wasn’t officially closed in 2004 by the San Francisco Police Department. It’s still open.)

Law Enforcement:

Ritchie Roberts:

Detective Ritchie Roberts was the prosecutor and lead investigator in Frank Lucas’ case. (This wouldn’t be allowed in the United States. Yet, Roberts was the prosecutor but he wasn’t the lead investigator.)

Ritchie Roberts was the main figure in the Frank Lucas investigation. (Contrary to American Gangster, he was relatively minor figure and among a whole squad of guys who worked on it. Ex-New Jersey cops Ed Jones, Al Spearman and Ben Abruzzo played a much bigger role and weren’t happy when they were left out in American Gangster. Jones said, “We spent nearly two years risking our lives on that case, and then we see a guy who had no interest before we made the arrests take the credit. We’re angry.” Yet, Lucas did have a hit on Roberts and Roberts did pay for one of his kids’ education and is his son’s godfather. Yes, they’re still friends to this day.)

During his time in the Frank Lucas case, Ritchie Roberts was in a heated custody battle with his ex. (Sorry, but unlike what American Gangster shows, Roberts never had any children with his first wife. In fact, he told the New York Post that the depiction of his relationship with his first wife was offensive.)

Ritchie Roberts arrested Frank Lucas while the latter was leaving church. (Contrary to American Gangster, the Lucases were arrested in their New Jersey home.)

Joseph Pistone (a. k. a. Donnie Brasco):

The FBI agents working with Joseph Pistone were useless fools. (One of the clownish characters in Donnie Brasco was actually an FBI agent posing as a dangerous mob turf boss during the operation. Also. Pistone was an FBI agent.)

Joseph Pistone was a good looking guy. (Contrary to Donnie Brasco, he looked nothing like Johnny Depp.)

Joseph Pistone began to identify with the members of the Bonnano family during his undercover work as Donnie Brasco. (Contrary to Donnie Brasco, Pistone only had a real relationship with Sonny Black. He found the rest of the gangsters only superficially charming, having to deal with their brutality and lack of any basic humanity day in and day out more or less reinforced his negative views on the Mafia. So, no, he didn’t turn away from the FBI and became a gangster at heart.)

During his time as Donnie Brasco, Joseph Pistone conspired to commit a murder and assaulted a civilian. (Unlike what you see in Donnie Brasco, Pistone wouldn’t have done either since such activities would’ve sent him to jail {though he had 4 contracts to whack people but he claims to have never followed through}. Yet, he and undercover agents did stage fake whacks with the police but the targets would be admitted in a witness protection program. He actually went undercover as a jeweler.)

Abscam:

Melvin Weinberg had been living a life of crime since he smashed windows for his father as a child. (Contrary to American Hustle, he only began working for his father as an adult and after his first marriage to a woman named Mary who had three kids with him {absent from the film and not even mentioned} but David O. Russell you wouldn’t find an overweight Christian Bale {who gained over 40 pounds and avoided the gym for his role} smashing windows as anything adorable. But yes, Weinberg did smash windows to drum up his dad’s business though a later report says he did it at behest of a local union to punish businesses that used non-union glaziers. Not only that but the glass business was heavily corrupt at the time in which companies bribed unions and cheated customers.)

Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti was a selfless politician who only got involved in Abscam to provide jobs to his constituents. (Like his Jeremy Renner expy, Errichetti did care for the people of Camden, New Jersey, and was widely praised for it. However, he had a reputation for committing crimes. During the Abscam operation, he offered to get the fake sheikh into illegal business such as money counterfeiting and drug smuggling. Oh, and he asked for a $400,000 bribe. Still, at least they got his hair style right.)

Melvin and Cynthia Marie Weinberg were a young couple during the Abscam operation. (Though their expies were portrayed by a pushing 40 Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence who’s my age, the real Weinbergs were much older with Melvin in his 50s and Cynthia Marie in her late 40s. However, there was no love pentagon between them that included a mobster and an FBI agent. Still, Weinberg kind of looked like a more or less cleaned up version of Salman Rushide or an Iranian ayatollah in a 1970s business suit.)

Tony Amoroso was a crazy coke head FBI agent involved in Abscam who wore curlers in his hair. (Unlike his expy in American Hustle, Amoroso was only one of a number of agents involved in the scam. Also, there’s no evidence he wore curlers, went nuts, beat up his boss, snorted cocaine, or carried on an affair with Weinburg’s mistress. Bradley Cooper’s character is also an expy for FBI agent John Goode who came up with the Abscam idea in the first place.)

Melvin Weinburg was a kind man who was conflicted between shacking up with his mistress and being a dad to his adopted son. (He abandoned his first wife and their three biological children for his then mistress and later wife Cynthia Marie. Thus, he was more of a scumbag than his Christian Bale expy in American Hustle.)

Cynthia Marie Weinberg nearly blew her husband’s cover and left her husband for a mobster. (Unlike her expy in American Hustle, Cynthia didn’t almost blow her husband’s cover by accident {since she wasn’t involved} or shacked up comfortably with a mobster. In fact, contrary to the Jennifer Lawrence expy she wasn’t a ditz according to columnist Jack Anderson. Rather she was seen as a whistleblower, yet she was devoted to her husband that she sold her engagement ring to bail Mel out when he was arrest for fraud. Yet, she wasn’t aware that her husband was cheating on her even after Mel’s story was told in The Sting Man. Rather, Mel insisted her that the mistress was a figment of journalist-author Robert W. Greene’s imagination just to add sex to the book so it would sell. She fell for it. But she later did find out eventually and confronted Evelyn but it didn’t take place in a ladies’ room nor did it end with a kiss. Nor did her marriage with Melvin end in an amicable divorce. Rather, Melvin abandoned her for his mistress and she hanged herself in 1982 weeks after going to the press claiming that he profited from Abscam and accused her husband of taking bribes and gifts including a microwave oven. She was 50.)

Melvin Weinberg left his wife, Cynthia Marie for Evelyn Knight and lived happily ever after. (Contrary to American Hustle, Weinberg abandoned his wife for Evelyn. Yet, while he and Evelyn did marry and adopted a son {who’s now a cop}, they later divorced. They still live near each other but they aren’t on speaking terms.)

Melvin Weinberg was just a big time con artist before he was recruited as an FBI informant for Abscam. (Contrary to his expy in American Hustle, he had already been an FBI informant for years and had a reputation for always delivering. In fact, he was so good as an informant, he thought he could make a living from it and did it only for the money and legal benefits. He also liked to outsmart corrupt politicians whom he called, “a bunch of perverts, drunks, and crooks.” He managed to get six US congressmen and a senator convicted of bribery {he tried to bribe Larry Pressler and John Murtha but they were too smart to take the case of money he offered them}. Still, many Americans and the US government were ambivalent about Abscam and some called it entrapment. Yet, the fallout of Abscam didn’t make the political figures appear corrupt, just stupid and the American people weren’t happy about it that the Justice Department was forced to issue new guidelines restricting undercover operations against politicians.)

The fake sheikh in the Abscam operation was played by a Mexican American agent who spoke no Arabic. (Contrary to American Hustle, he was played by three agents. First, by FBI agent Mike Dennehy who’s the brother of the Tony and Golden Globe award winning Brian who spoke no Arabic and perhaps made an even less convincing sheikh than a Mexican. Second, by a Lebanese American who probably did. They even added another fictional sheikh promoted to full emir.)

Evelyn Knight was an American woman impersonating a British aristocrat who was involved in Melvin Weinberg’s scams. (Unlike the Amy Adams expy in American Hustle, Knight was actually British but she was involved in her boyfriend’s scams but to a lesser extent and she didn’t know what Melvin did until one of his victims sued him and the Feds had an arrest warrant out for her. Weinberg would agree to help the FBI with 4 cases if charges against her were dropped. Still, she was said to be very beautiful that Melvin called her “Lady Evelyn” though nobody thought she was nobility. Also, she wasn’t involved in Abscam or with an FBI agent {yet she did almost leave Melvin for Wayne Newton}.)

Melvin Weinberg felt so bad for Mayor Errichetti that he tried to engineer a reduced sentence for him. (Like their expies in American Hustle, Weinberg did have a fondness for Errichetti but he made no attempt to protect him from prosecution. Yet, the admiration had more to do with Errichetti being the biggest crook of them all. Also, contrary to Jeremy Renner, Errichetti got a 6 year stint in prison {and served 2 ½ years, not 18 months. Still, Errichetti helped open Abscam wide and connected Weinberg with a whole host of US congressmen.)

Miscellaneous:

Detective John Trupo blew his brains out during the 1970s before his fellow cops could arrest him. (Contrary to American Gangster, Frank Lucas said that he didn’t know what happened to him and is still alive as far as he knows.)

FBI informant Danny Greene was killed in a Cadillac. (Contrary to Kill the Irishman, he was killed in a Lincoln Continental.)

Gangster Carmine Galante was killed during the winter. (He was killed in July 1979, unlike what you see in Donnie Brasco.)

Charles Manson was a serial killer. (Not exactly, but he had a tendency to enable them since his followers certainly were. He’s only know to may have killed one person personally.)

Jeffrey Dahmer was sentenced to 957 years in federal prison. (Contrary to the Jeremy Renner film about him, he was convicted of 15 murders at a state trial in Wisconsin and served his sentence at a state correctional facility.)

Son of Sam was a serial killer in the Bronx. (He was active in Queens.)

Louis Cafora and his wife were found dead in a Pepto-Bismol pink 1979 Coupe DeVille Cadillac by kids playing in a parking lot. (Contrary to Goodfellas, their bodies were never found and the car was a Fleetwood but it was pink. The guy drove it to an FBI investigation in that.)

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