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How gay men were set up in elaborate blackmail stings in the 1960s

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In almost every case, after making contact, the chicken would accompany the mark up to his room, or suggest another hotel where they could go instead. Once in the room, one of two scenarios would follow.

In some cases, the bulls would wait until the two men had gotten themselves into a compromising position before bursting into the room and identifying themselves as vice squad detectives, capitalizing on the fear, panic, and surprise they induced in the victim as they initiated what they referred to as the play. At the Hilton, where Skull Murphy was head of security, the timing was made easier by the inch or so Murphy had shaved from certain room doors, into which he inserted a small dental mirror taped to the end of a cane, the better to see exactly when to pounce.

The bulls would explain the penalties for violating sodomy laws or corrupting a minor, then demand an outright bribe, or as they did to the Princeton professor, suggest that the victim pay “bail money” as a way of avoiding making his arrest public, or prison. In some cases the bulls might induce a payoff by putting a victim together in a room with another man they pretended to have arrested for the same thing elsewhere in the hotel. That other man might say something like: “Hey, I can’t afford to be arrested. I’m going to offer them money, what about you?” Having the victim induce the payoff, rather than demand the money outright, lowered the criminals’ exposure in court.

With all the right clothes and the right police jargon, some of the blackmailers appeared “more detective than real detectives,” the FBI’s Paul Brana said. The official paperwork—warrants, affidavits, arrest forms—was convincing too.
They specialized in targeting the rich and powerful:
They played this long game with chutzpah too. On two occasions they marched New Jersey Congressman Peter Frelinghuysen, who sat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, right out of his Capitol Hill office and onto a private plane for a trip to his New Jersey bank where he paid them $50,000 in total, according to the FBI’s Paul Brana. Admiral William Church, who, among other duties was in charge of the New York Naval Yards at the time, was escorted from the Pentagon, handing over $5,000, as was an Army general who paid $2,000. The criminals also rushed a prominent surgeon right out of an operating room, forcing his colleague to finish the procedure. They didn’t miss a chance to see a bit of the world either, flying to London to nick a well-known British producer for $3,000.

Once successful in obtaining a payoff, the culprits often returned for more. A Midwestern teacher paid $120,000 over a four-year period. A Kansas City businessman handed over nearly $150,000 until he pleaded with the criminals to kill him because he had no more money. If denied, the criminals made good on their threats, often destroying lives. The Times reported that “The marriage of one victim who refused to be intimidated was wrecked when the gang informed his wife.” According to Time magazine, the fiancé of another victim broke off her engagement.

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