Growing up, I was obsessed with The Godfather. (Only I & II; the third film was the "Fredo" of the trilogy.) I used to dream of living in Sicily with Sonny, Michael, and Tom as my older brothers, palling around, breaking knees. The usual. Despite Michael's Tahoe compound, and the beautiful Fredo scene on the lake, I never thought of California, where I grew up, as mafia country. The mafia still seemed a world away and more at home on the crowded streets of Little Italy and the Corleone olive orchards. Turns out the mafia was closer to home than I could have ever imagined.
My mother, Tanya Chalupa, an activist who passed laws in California (if you get a ticket for not wearing your seatbelt, Californians, thank her!) wrote a book about organized crime called A Rookie Cop vs. the West Coast Mafia. She and the book's real-life protagonist, former Sausalito detective William G. Palmini Jr., will be appearing at a book signing on May 22nd at 6:30 p.m. in Sausalito's famed Trident restaurant, the site of an infamous burglary connected to San Diego mob boss Frank "The Bomp" Bompensiero, considered to be the basis for HBO's Sopranos. Since my mother surprisingly turned out to be the closest connection I have to the real-life mafia, I wanted to explore the full story of how she got tangled up with the mob, at least in terms of researching this story.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
It bore fruit when I was managing and coordinating a federal traffic safety grant through the Albany Police Department, one of the cities in the San Francisco East Bay. My coauthor, Bill Palmini, was my main contact for the police department and more so, he was the project's "sizzle" known as Elvis the Lawman. He used Elvis Presley's show biz persona, singing original traffic safety songs mixed in-between with Elvis tunes, performing at schools, county fairs, and community events with other police officers and teens who joined our program as role models to promote teen driver safety. During this period a murder of a homeless Vet happened in Albany, which led to our first book, Murder on The Rails: The True Story of the Detective who Unlocked the Shocking Secrets of the Box Car Serial Killer. I wrote the storyline through Palmini's eyes and voice. The current book, A Rookie Cop Vs. The West Coast Mafia, followed mainly because of Bill. He wouldn't stop talking to me about this guy "William Floyd Ettleman" and what an impact he had on his life. I wanted to work on a Prohibition project, for which we collected enormous amount of data, but Bill kept going back to Ettleman. I finally acquiesced. The book is based on a case Bill had when he was a rookie detective that involved organized crime and the mafia. He secretly wired himself and never told anyone about it until he told me and we started working on the book.
How did the story change from what you initially set out to write?
I started out by reading transcripts of taped interviews, listening to the tapes of conversations between Bill and Ettleman, and others. There wasn't much of a story line then and much of it didn't make sense at the time. All I knew about the mafia was from what I read in Mario Puzo's books and Coppola's films. I must have read at least 20 nonfiction books on the mafia, just to get a sense of the organization and its key players, before I could start writing. I poured through countless law enforcement intelligence reports, which Bill was smart to save. We also ordered countless FBI reports through the Freedom Of Information Act, and we interviewed many individuals, from safe-crackers to mob lawyers to members of the law enforcement -- past and present -- who were familiar with the case. We both conducted extensive personal interviews and went over court documents. We did everything we could to go back in time and live it.
What was your craziest story from doing the research?
Don't tell your Dad (or show him this article), but it was when I was talking to a real bad dude and he threatened us. This man at one time oversaw the mafia's drug distribution throughout California and neighboring states during the '70s-'80s. I was talking to him on the phone and I just turned the receiver over to Bill when I heard him say that if we come near him he will "@*%@ shoot our heads off!" Years later Bill and I went for drinks and dinner with a criminal lawyer who knew this mobster very well. I complained to the lawyer about the mobster's attitude and his threats and the lawyer explained he was just a "hot head," but otherwise a "fun, crazy guy." So maybe we should have invited him out with us!
Did you learn anything that shocked you?
You mean besides having our lives threatened? Yes, but I'd rather not go into it. I covered much of it in the book.
Why was this time and place so significant?
Very little has been written about the west coast mafia. Yet it was a very colorful and fascinating period. Also, the ramifications of the fall of the mob in the west could be felt decades later, leading up to the arrest and prosecution of John Gotti. The techniques developed and used by the Federal Strike Force to bring the mafia down in California and other western states continue to be successfully applied and implemented today. And let's not forget that it was during this period that John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were fatally shot. If anyone doesn't think the mob was behind the killings of the President and his brother is naïve or simply did not look at the available information out there. I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I'm simply stating what I read in archives of government documents and other literature. Hopefully in the next decade historians will have greater access to much of the data that is still so carefully guarded.
What advice do you have for aspiring true crime authors?
Write fiction. It's easier. But if they insist on writing true crime, then they should be prepared to have storage space for all the documentation they will need, which by the way is also costly. On the other hand, if they follow the wonderfully successful writer, Anne Rule, whom I love reading even though her style and methods are different than mine, all they probably will need are the police reports, coroner's protocol, court records, interview notes, and a keen knowledge of the craft.
What's your next book?
It's a Gone With The Wind of true crime, based in the Prohibition Era. I can't wait to start. All the research has been completed. I know the story so well.
Hopefully there won't be any death threats this time.
It's nothing Bill and I can't handle.