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Jim Vaus - Wiretapper
It was 1946 and I had been recently discharged from the Army. I had opened my own business, “Electronic Engineering Consultants,” and was doing all right.
I was designing and installing elaborate electronic equipment for large homes. For instance, one of my jobs was for a prominent oil magnate. In his home I installed a custom-built radio with outlets in twenty rooms. Also, throughout the house, a complete intercom system. The gates and garage doors were fixed so they would open electronically. And around the thirteen-acre estate was a ring of light for trespass control. Also, I was doing some work with the aircraft industry, developing aircraft electronic components.
I was on my way up and would have kept on going but for the events set in motion by this girl, whose last name I don’t even remember.
I was still reading the paper when the three cops came back to my apartment. With a frown, Stoker said, “There’s someone with her all right. We could hear them talking but we couldn’t hear what they were saying. We think we might hear better from the outside. Do you have a ladder we could use?”
I took them to the rear of the apartment building and showed them a ladder which would reach as high as the window of the room in question. Back in my apartment again, I heard their voices and saw them at the side of the apartment house. One of them was up in a tree and the others were standing below. Pretty soon they returned to my apartment.
“I’m afraid we’re stymied, Mr. Vaus,” Stoker admitted with a worried look on his lean face. “There doesn’t seem to be any way we can either see or hear what’s going on, and in absence of evidence, we can’t act.”
“Oh no!” I objected, my feelings aroused. It wasn’t the actions of the girl which
prompted my interest. In those days I was a keeper of no man’s morals. Rather, I was challenged to solve the police problem by the use of electronics.
No matter how far up or down I went in life, electronics always fascinated me. It was an unexplored world in which I would lose myself. I’d spend hours, days, experimenting with an electronic device. And here was an opportunity to use it in a new way. I asked, “You mean the vice squad doesn’t have equipment that will enable you, in a case like this, to hear what is going on behind closed doors?”
“Nope, there’s nothing like that in the Department,” Stoker answered in a tone of voice that implied I’d asked him if he’d bought the license plates for his trans-planet rocket ship.
Dawson and Riley stared at me with “What do you think we are? magicians?” expressions on their faces.
“Why don’t you design some electronic equipment to do the job?” I asked. “There’s all sorts of stuff that could be made. In fact, if you’re interested, I’m certain I could design something that would enable you to get the evidence in this very case.” Already, half-formed in my mind was the equipment they needed, and a quiet excitement possessed me.
“What would it involve primarily?” Stoker still wasn’t convinced that it could be done.
“Some simple method of concealing a microphone, taking the conversation out of the room and recording it on wire.”
“How long would it take you to set it up?” Tom Dawson, getting interested, spoke up.
“Not too long. If you’ll come back tomorrow night I’ll have it set up and you can listen in.”
“Okay, give it a try. We’ll be back about this time tomorrow night.” The light in his eyes told how exciting the idea was.
As soon as they had left, I went over to my shop and through the quiet night hours I worked on the needed equipment. When they returned, I was short of sleep but ready for them. They were as delighted as kids to be able to listen to he conversation between Marge and one of her visitors, and arrested her for violating city ordinance MC 4107.
As far as I was concerned, that settled my business with the Police Department. I attended to my business. I had a few dates with Alice Park, a girl who was fast becoming the girl. I attended church, and often when the minister was preaching, I was working out a problem in electronics.
About a week later, Stoker, Dawson and Riley came back to ask me to go on another job with them. They had plenty of need for my equipment. Soon, it was a regular occurrence for me to go on cases with them.
I enjoyed working with the police. A chase is always fascinating and that’s what police work is. Your ability to out-guess a man is pitted against his ability to contrive to break the law.
Working with Stoker took time away from my business, sending my income into a tail spin. All I received for working with them was the occasional sale of a piece of equipment to the Department and the warm feeling which comes from a pat on the back. In those days, anyone could get a lot of work out of me, if he fed my ego or challenged my interest in electronics, as did Lieutenant Blair, officer-in-charge of the Vice Division of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Blair was about fifty and steeped in the tradition of the Police Department. He knew all the old ways and knew their limitations. Vice in Los Angeles was running too wide-open to do his reputation any good. Desperate, he asked, “You know, Vaus, you’ve been a big help to us in cracking some tough cases. But what I’d like now would b a tricky piece of mechanism. Could you develop equipment that would make it possible to listen in on a telephone conversation without anyone being wise to the fact that you were listening and also, to determine what telephone number had been dialed?”
I didn’t answer, because already I was absorbed in the delicate principles involved.
He leaned across his desk, and in an anxious tone continued, “In other words, Joe Doaks walks into a drug store, uses a particular telephone to dial a number and says, ‘Joe, I’ll take two dollars on horse number four in the fifth race today at Rockingham.’
“Could the officer working on such a case hear the conversation and know the number that had been dialed? If so, we would be able to learn the inner workings of the bookmaking racket.”
“I think it can be done.”
So, prompted by Lt. Blair, I built what is known as the impulse indicator. Though police departments and investigating organizations do not publicize the fact, the impulse indicator is widely used by them today, as well as by sheriffs’ offices and federal agencies across the country.
After we had developed and applied for patents on the impulse indicator, I designed equipment which made it possible for the Police Department to listen in on a telephone conversation apart from any physical contact with the line. All we needed to know was one telephone number. And once our contact was made we could even determine the number of the telephone that had been called.
I had become a wire-tapper!
So far, I was on the right side of the law. The headlines were of the other fellow and some of the cases were interesting. For instance, I worked with Sergeant Stoker, Sergeant Dawson and Officer Riley on one which flared nationally as the Brenda Allen case.
I was smart enough to know no one could play on both teams of this cops and robbers game, but the money fit in my pocket as if it were printed exclusively for me. “What do you have in mind?”
He told me what he wanted and what he would pay for my services. It was with relief that I decided I could continue working for the law-enforcement agencies and for him at the same time.
For the next eight months or so I lived a double life, working for law-enforcement agencies one minute, and for Mickey Cohen a half hour later. For a time it worked out all right, but eventually there were too many close calls. By this time I had become accustomed to the new connections with Mickey and the resultant affluence. When it became obvious that I would have to move one way or the other, my decision had been made for some time. I began being “too busy” when a law-enforcement agency phoned.
I had become as LIFE afterwards dubbed me, “a henchman of Mickey Cohen.” Actually, what is a henchman? The dictionary says he is a faithful follower. But the connotation of the word is of a person who obeys sinister orders. My work, however, was not more sinister than it was when I worked for the Police Department. For them, I tapped wires I had no legal right to tap. For Mickey, I still worked with electronics, proving that it will defy known physical laws and hear the seemingly unhearable. I heard secrets of officials, politicians and men who didn’t list their professions in the city directory.
But you should understand that the newspapers caricature Mickey Cohen. They take sly delight in calling him “Czar of Hollywood’s Gangland” and with more innuendo than fact paint a picture of a man swaggering around, coordinating vice and corruptions.
They have built him up as a villain until Mickey Cohen has become a name which sells newspapers. By the way, it is one of our largest, richest industries. If a pal of Mickey’s disappears, or he takes a trip to Arizona and buys a drug store – that’s news! His life’s story has become a serial continued tomorrow. And curiosity buys the next edition.
NOTE: James Arthur Vaus, Jr. "went straight" in the early 1950's after hearing Rev. Billy Graham on the radio and "accepting Jesus." He quit the mob, confessed to perjury against a police officer (thus saving the officier's career), and made restitution for his crimes. He is now best known for his work with troubled young people through an organization he founded - Youth Development Incorporated. The camp was significantly expanded under the leadership of Jim Vaus’ son, Roger Vaus, and his wife Lorrie.
Jim Vaus died in 1997. He left a wonderful oral history about his life as a wiretapper - and his life after crime - can be heard by clicking here.
One of the most fascinating conversion stories of the 20th century, My Father Was a Gangster tells the dramatic life story of Jim Vaus, former associate of crime syndicate boss Mickey Cohen. In this book, son Will Vaus tells the inside story of his father's nefarious activities in organized crime and describes how close his father came to losing his life in a "Sting" operation. The author then describes the dramatic transformation that took place in his father's life as a result of attending the 1949 Billy Graham meetings in Los Angeles.
This story has been recounted in Time, Life and Reader's Digest, and was chronicled in a motion picture, The Wiretapper. Now it is told from a son's perspective, a son who watched his father reach juvenile delinquents across America with the same message of hope that changed his own life.