Hard times for numbers bookies in the ’70s

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As the ’60s subsided and the ’70s ensued, the whole tenor of the numbers racket in Jersey City changed. Before, being a bookie to a large degree was a licensed profession. With the appropriate law enforcement tithing, arrests generally were avoided. And if someone with a badge saw themselves as the Hudson County Eliot Ness, judges were open minded — after the sight of an open wallet. This all changed when gambling cases began to go in front of Judge Lerner; suddenly jail time became expected instead of unknown. Locals in the biz thought that this was due to the state having started a legal lottery and so wanted to eliminate competition.

And for an aftershock there was a police officer with the dream of retiring as the richest man in Puerto Rico. To reach this goal, he squeezed bookies — now no longer with any reason to be optimistic about a day in court — for all that they were worth. As this wasn’t enough to fund a grandiose retirement plan, the crooked cop then took over the numbers betting himself. This he did by locking up the bookies who’d paid for protection. The mobsters valued honor and so said nothing.

Success didn’t satisfy the wayward policeman’s greed — if anything it increased it. A decade or so later there was big money to be had in cocaine and this seemed just as easy to grab as had been the illegal lottery. But this new environment’s compass was the law of the jungle, not the code of silence and the deceiver very quickly was himself deceived. Expecting to meet a “good” customer the holder of regal ambitions found himself greeted by a far from understanding group from the prosecutor’s strike force and was ordered by a superior officer to “empty your pockets.”

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