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Published: 12/20/2008

Part 14: Public's distaste brought era to end

BY KENNETH R. DICKSON
AUTHOR OF SOMETHING FOR NOTHING

Last of 14 parts

Aronoff and the Club Devon, with its brazen flaunting of the gambling regulations and the apparent complicity of law enforcement, became interchangeable with many Toledoans.

"Benny was incapable of moderation in anything. Benny had to have the biggest crap joint and make the most money. Benny actually enjoyed the publicity and the fact that he was known to all of the inhabitants of Northwestern Ohio," said Dan McCullough, one of Aronoff's lawyers, in his memoirs.

The story carried by the Wednesday, Jan. 5th, 1944, late edition of The Blade and subsequent papers all carried the same message: "George D. Wilcox a Detroit advertising executive, was found dead, apparently of a suicide, in a downtown hotel room shortly after 2 p.m. after having written several prominent business men that he intended taking his life as the last act in a lost fight against gambling in Toledo."

The letters were offered "to initiate a campaign of cleanup of Lucas County's gambling."

Aronoff greeted the 1944 New Year suicide of Wilcox as just one more attempt by a down-and-out gambler to recover his losses and never gave it another thought.

Wilcox, was for all accounts, an unemployed advertising executive for McCann & Erickson. His wife and two children resided in Birmingham, Michigan, and apparently were unaware of the extent of his gambling debts.

Without a settlement or offer of one in sight by Aronoff, Wilcox went to The Blade on January 4th and told his story to Kenneth D. Tooill, who at that time was managing editor. Wilcox said he had lost $30,000 within a two-year period in Toledo to Ben and Joe Aronoff, John Arrington, Dave Applebaum, Al Schaub, and Lefty Kisner.

Later, Wilcox admitted that he had lost between ten and fifteen thousand dollars at Detroit's Hazel Park race track.

On the 5th of January Wilcox sent a six-page letter to Tooill and with it was a copy of a telegram sent on the 3rd of January to Aronoff.

The contents of the telegram were: "Will expect prompt 11:00 telephone call from you tonight to arrange immediate meeting and restitution of funds discussed with Applebaum some time ago. If you fail in this and do not make the refund on Tuesday morning, I shall present my evidence of your interstate operating in my case to the Federal Government. I demand the return of my money without further quibbling."

When Wilcox did not receive a reply from Aronoff on the 4th at 11 p.m., Wilcox began to compose his suicide letter on his portable typewriter. Wilcox sent letters late on Tuesday January 4th to The Blade's Tooill, Toledo's Chief of Police Allen, and U.S. District Attorney Openlander.

All of the letters were received in the 5th's morning mail, and the first one to open the letter was District Attorney Openlander who notified the police immediately.

Detective Ralph Murphy of Toledo's homicide squad, along with John Sabrey and two hotel detectives entered Wilcox's Commodore Perry Hotel room where they found Wilcox's decomposing body with a Gideon Bible on his chest. On the bed's night stand was a whisky bottle and a box of pills.

•

George Wilcox's six-page letter to Kenneth Tooill damning Toledo's gambling community had the desired impact, as The Blade's readers read his letter with their evening coffee. Prominently displayed in bold type on their front page and punctuated with numerous pictures, The Blade and Times, titillated their readers with the latest suicide morsel:

"I am giving my life today for a cause worthy of your attention and relentless campaigning to rid this section of the country of gambling racketeers who have preyed upon the weaknesses of such persons as myself and who are destroying whole families," Wilcox wrote to The Blade.

"After writing the foregoing I took a powerful sleeping dose last night that I might gather some strength ... Time is running out for me. Will The Blade crusade over my dead body and see that some justice comes out of my sacrifice?

"I hate to die branded as a coward and a weakling. God knows I have prayed for my own healing in time to avoid it. But now I can only think of the doing and, in the present calm, I am unafraid."

•

The Toledo police and the Lucas County sheriff were bending to the groundswell of public indignation that was being fostered by the newspapers. While The Blade carried front page pictures of Wilcox, Aronoff, and the Club Devon, the police raided all the known gambling houses, arresting gamblers and players alike.

Aronoff totally misread the anti-gambling surge that was cresting. As fast as the Club Devon was raided Benny would reopen it. By January 7th after three consecutive raids Benny was signaling that he would close.

Less than a week later after repeated raids to close the Club Devon and the Webster, Judge John Q. Carey granted Prosecutor Joel Rhinefort's petition restraining Benny Aronoff and 26 of his associates from using the Club Devon for gambling purposes.

Not satisfied with just Aronoff and the Club Devon, Judge Carey granted similar injunctions against Ed Warnke, Joe Morrissey, Harry Levine, and E.R. Rhinehardt the alleged operators of the Academy Club. By the end of the month safety director and special deputy, Ed DeAngelo, was sworn in by Gordon Jeffery the current Clerk of Courts as receiver for the Academy Club and the Club Devon.

The Lucas County Grand Jury led by DeAngelo returned indictments of 12 counts each against Benny Aronoff, Joe Aronoff, Al Schaub, Joe Fretti, Joe Morrissey, Pat Morrissey, and 19 other defendants.

Charged with conspiracy to violate Ohio's gambling laws, Attorney McCullough said that he expected the defendants to appear at the courthouse for arraignment. When asked if the indictments surprised them, the impeccable dressed Aronoff said "We're always surprised."

•

On April 10, 1944, with the trial about to get under way before Judge Lehr Fess, Benny Aronoff thought that he had a lock on the trial's outcome.

As the trial unfolded, jury, defendants, judge and counsel viewed the Webster Inn, Club Devon, and a warehouse on Dorr Street where gambling equipment was stored, to acquaint the jurors with the scene of the crime.

Prosecutor Rhinefort also told the press and reporters that were following along that when they entered the Club Devon everything was still in place awaiting the expected gamblers. When they opened the safe, DeAngelo and his special deputies found thousands of dollars in specially constructed canvas sacks, $12,723 to be exact.

Those Toledoans that were carefully following the trial couldn't believe Benny's arrogance in not removing the card and dice tables, roulette wheels, horse racing boards, and other gambling paraphernalia from the Club Devon. But more to the point, why leave the stacks of silver coins that would most certainly be offered as evidence.

Over the weekend Aronoff and several others of the defendants met with Rhinefort and struck a deal.

Benny Aronoff was sentenced to 150 days in the county workhouse and was fined $3,500. Joe Aronoff was given 120 days and a $3,500 fine. Joe Fretti received 90 days and a fine of $2,450. Tony Paul, Dave Applebaum, Al Schaub, and Joe Arrington were sentenced to serve 30 days and fines of $1,400 each. The remaining six defendants were all sentenced to 30 days and fines of $1,000 each.

As a parting gift to Toledo, an enterprising reporter sharpened his pencil and filled in about one inch of very small print in The Blade.

"Elimination of gambling in Toledo also will mean elimination of a lucrative, if left-handed source of revenue. Municipal Court records indicate that in 1941 the city realized $142,932.40 in fines for gambling and in 1942 a total of $140,676.45 from the same source. Approximately 96%, or $270,000 of the total for the last two years were fines levied on numbers charges," The Blade wrote on April 1, 1943.



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