‘Barbary Coast’ was early crime neighborhood of GJ
The is the first in a series about a web of violence and vice in Grand Junction, or as some called it, “Little Chicago,” that came to a head in the late 1930s with the formation of a grand jury investigation.
Chicago and New York had their notorious crime lords in the 1930s — John Dillinger, Baby-Face Nelson, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Louis Kepke Buchalter — and lesser-known bad guys.
But, in one of the most colorful eras in its history, Grand Junction had its own gangland-style elements. In the area known as the “Barbary Coast,” located between First and Second streets on Ute and Colorado avenues, there were incidents of gambling, drug-dealing, prostitution and murder on a regular basis.
By the end of 1938, a grand jury had been convened to investigate not only those vices, but allegations of corruption among city and county officials. Grand juries were rare in Mesa County, which long has favored the preliminary hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to go to trial. But there was so much clamor for an investigation in view of criminal activity and corruption charges that a grand jury appeared to be the only solution.
In rapid succession, there were three spectacular murders in Grand Junction, beginning with the Aug. 14, 1937, strangling of 22-year-old Jeanette Morris in the Barbary Coast district.
It was followed by the Aug. 17, 1938, shooting of Jim Patsios by Pete Leventis, a Greek immigrant. That crime took place at Leventis’ coffee shop at 339 1/2 Main St., reportedly because Leventis blamed Patsios for telling the police about his gambling operation and arrest.
In a letter sent to The Denver Post, Leventis implicated then-police Chief Hardy Decker and District Attorney W. F. Haywood, claiming they had accepted bribes. He also accused Decker of accepting bribes, in an interview with The Daily Sentinel.
Haywood and Decker reacted quickly, pledging a full-scale investigation. A few days later, Haywood announced to the press that Leventis, in a private interview, had admitted he paid no money to city officials but only to other Greeks, including the man he had killed.
To add to the confusion, Deputy District Attorney Cecil Haynie interviewed Leventis several days later, and Leventis again charged that he had paid “protection money” to both Haywood and Decker.
Grand Junction citizens were outraged and became more persistent daily that something must be done. Some claimed there had been a “whitewash” of many previous cases.
On Dec. 17, 1938, Mesa County Judge Straud M. Logan signed an order calling for a special grand jury investigation. The jury was ordered to investigate allegations of conversion of county funds to personal use by public officials, alleged gambling and liquor violations, and law enforcement corruption.
Coincidentally, the third murder, this one of W. J. “Big Kid” Eames, occurred a day after the call for the grand jury. Eames was shot and killed in an apparent armed robbery on Dec. 18, 1938, at his gambling club on the second floor of the Reed Building, on the northwest corner of Fourth and Main streets. That crime, too, was to come under grand jury scrutiny.
The Mesa County Grand Jury met for the first time at 3 p.m. on Jan. 4, 1939. Judge Logan summed up by saying that there had been much concern about gambling and that the homicides were all connected to gambling, which had been going on for some time. He said the only punishment had been fines from the city court.
He added that he didn’t agree with one law officer, who said it was no more his business to enforce the anti-gambling law than it was that of a private citizen.
The first part of the jury’s investigation focused on alleged corruption in county offices. By Jan. 18, the jury was believed to be investigating the gambling-related homicides and the police department.
On Feb. 2, 1939, the grand jury took a two-week recess so that members could take care of their personal business.
In a related event that same month, the Grand Junction City Council announced that it had decided to investigate the Grand Junction Police Department, with Captain A.A. Lewis from the Wichita, Kan., Police Department being paid $400 plus expenses to do the evaluation. Lewis filed his report on Feb. 22, and the council’s consensus was that while a new police chief should be named, Decker could remain on the police force if he desired to.
Decker, according to a newspaper report, said “That’s all for me,” making a “futile gesture.” He resigned from office and was replaced by Marion H. Scott. He later resurfaced to fill the unexpired term of Sheriff Charles Lumley who died in office on Sept. 30, 1941. Decker did not run for re-election in 1942, when John Quincy Adams was the successful candidate.
In their report, grand jury members noted that they were convinced that Decker “did not receive the full cooperation of the city council, city manager and the public at large in the enforcement of laws and ordinances.” They added that the “recent change in the Grand Junction Police Force does not cast any reflection on the sincerity of Chief Decker.”
Public officials targeted by the grand jury snapped back that the jury did not go far enough into the actual facts. The community was not sympathetic, and petitions were circulated calling for the removal of the city manager, J. P. Soderstrum.
Although there is no evidence that Soderstrum left the job under any cloud of impropriety, he submitted his resignation to be effective Sept. 1, 1939. He and his family continued to reside in Grand Junction.
District Attorney Haywood, whom the grand jury cleared, vowed he would never serve in public office again, and he and his family moved to California shortly afterward.
Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel and involved in many preservation efforts, including the railroad depot and the North Seventh Street Historic Residential District.