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April 14, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 15
 
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SEATTLE GAY HISTORY: The police pay off system ca. 1970
SEATTLE GAY HISTORY: The police pay off system ca. 1970
by Don Paulson - SGN Contributing Writer

PART 2:The police pay off system was a constant irritation to the Gay bar owners who had to pay to continue in business. Their heroic complaints to the police department and to the F.B.I. began to bring the historic system down and the trials began.

Bill Parkin was one bar owner who had to testify: "Bobby Snyder, owner of the Silver Star Tavern got so mad at paying off that when he had to testify, he named every cop on the beat that he was paying off. He got so many death threats that he had to sell everything and move to Colorado.

"When I had to testify at the Captain Cook trial, I was scared to death. I was promised that there would be no mention that my bar, the Pike Street Tavern, was a Gay bar or that my customers were Gay. But the prosecutor still asked, 'What kind of people came to your bar?'

"My fear turned to anger. I said most of them work downtown and stop to have a beer before going home. 'Well what are they like?' he asked. 'Well they work at the big department stores, insurance companies, banks etc.' Finally he asked, 'Was your clientele Gay?' I said, 'If they were, it's none of my business.' Then he asked, 'You gave pay offs?' 'Yes I did.' 'When did you make them?'

" 'Regular as clockwork. On the first of the month two officers would come into the bar, go to the back room and I'd hand them an envelope with $100 in it and they were gone.' 'Well what were their names?' 'I never asked them.' 'You never asked them?' 'I don't ask people their names when I'm handing them money.' 'Did you ever pay off Sergeant Zeke or Smith?' 'No I never did.' 'Are you sure?' 'I told you I never did.' 'Well did you give any gifts to these two men?' 'Yes.' 'Oh, what was it?' 'It was usually at Christmas or New Years. I gave them a bottle of booze.' 'Is that all?' 'Do I have to repeat myself. I told you it was a bottle of booze at Christmas and New Years.'

"I was not about to give out names. If I did, I shutter to think what would happen to me. The pay off system was doomed anyway.

Bob Bedord: "I got a call from the Attorney General's office asking if he could send someone down to my bar, the Mocambo, to talk to me about the pay off system. I said I didn't know much, but of course I knew a lot. Later, I and others got a subpoena to appear before a grand jury. We met at the Federal Building where they took us to the basement and put us in an armored truck, drove us to the Court House and up a private elevator to the grand jury - all this so the media could not get to us.

"There, we sat all day as they as they called us to testify. The tension was awful, you're one man against a formidable police system. We felt so vulnerable, like we were the ones on trial. It was intimidating, like we were homo freaks, my nerves were raw. I was on the stand for an hour and tried to answer as best I could, but I avoided certain facts because I felt my life was in danger. I was told I wouldn't have to testify again, but later I got a subpoena to testify at the Captain Cook trial.

"I decided I was not going to go through that again. I had done enough. I sat home for a few weeks with the shades down, but Tommy, one of my roomates, left the door open one day and an agent from the federal government came in and caught me. 'I'm looking for Bob Bedord,' he said. 'Oh he's in San Francisco,' I said.

" 'I have a subpoena for him, who are you?' 'I'm Tom, I rent a room from him.' 'Well when you see him tell him there is a subpoena out and he must respond or else.' I went upstairs and screamed at Tommy for leaving the door open.

"The Cook trial ended, so I went back to the Mocambo to be met by a man who handed me a subpoena to appear before the grand jury again, for lying to the federal marshall for saying I was someone else. I nearly fell apart. On the stand I was asked why I lied and I said I was told I didn't have to and I feared for my life.

"A Black man on the jury stood up and sympathized with me. I will never forget this wonderful man. I testified for an hour and was dismissed. Later, I was told the grand jury came back with an indictment against me. I was stunned, just stunned! All my life I have never been in trouble, I couldn't believe this was happening.

"I went back to court. They intimidated Tommy and he spilled the whole story. I didn't speak to him for years after that. We went back to the Mocambo to wait for the jury's decision. The charge was giving false information and I was found guilty of Statue 1000H. The judge set a date for me to appear before a cold, uncaring pre-sentencing officer and, then, to San Francisco for a court appearance. Along with me in court was this huge Captain on the police force. The judge who looked like a bulldog said, 'I brought these two cases together as they relate to the pay off system, do you have anything to say?' I said I do not, but the Captain burst into tears. I could see myself in jail for years but the bulldog's decision was probation. I was greatly relieved even though I was $5,000 in debt to three lawyers. To everyone involved it was a job, but to me it was a nightmare, still is."

Bob McFerron remembers: "It was a pretty scary time, we didn't know what kind of retribution was in store for us. When we left the bar at night we looked around to spot anything threatening, especially when we took money out. We kept our protection group the 'Queen City Business Guild' going after all the trials because of all the bomb threats to the Gay bars, especially at Spaggs. We got them all the time and we had no clue who was behind them. They'd call and say a bomb was going to go off at a certain time, so we'd call the police and they would come down and search the place and our patrons would have to get out. It was very disruptive to our business.

"Finally, one night after so many other calls, the person said the bomb would go off at eleven. Good I said, then I don't have to clean the place up tonight, and hung up. The bartender asked, 'shall I call the police?' 'No,' I said, 'there's no bomb in here.' We looked in the obvious places like the waste paper basket and the toilet tank in the men's room. No bomb, but it kept us alert.

I called a special meeting of the Guild to discuss this very matter at Spaggs and the bartender said, 'Everyone out, there's a bomb threat.' I said, 'To hell with them.' We continued our meeting. We didn't believe the threats came from any policeman, more likely from some homophobic nut. Eventually, they stopped. After the pay off system ended, city hall had what they called 'The Mayors Alliance,' that if any cop suggested some kind of pay off, we were to call Mayor Wes Uhlman."

I asked Mac and John how they mustered the courage to act out against a mafia - like pay off system. They could have hurt you bad. Their reply was a brisk, "We don't like anyone pushing us around.'

I called one of the Wilson brothers who broke the story in The Seattle Times. He said: "My brother and I pursued the Pay Off System for about ten years. Some have said we were brave to have exposed the system, but I would say, we had a good time. I don't really want to talk about it, however, it would open too much. I'm retired now and into new things. We got a number of upsetting calls about it, so, we had to get an unlisted number. Six months ago we had our number listed again after 25 years and you're the first to call about the system."

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