When Tampa was a hotbed of organized crime from the late 1800s through mid-1900s, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office charged the Vice Squad with cleaning up what the federal government deemed one of the most corrupt cities in the nation. The Tampa Bay Times has obtained a cache of Vice Squad reports from the 1950s and 1960s, which offer insight into their investigations and what they were up against.
TAMPA — In 1954, a deputy did what he thought was needed to stop a moonshiner seeking to outrun law enforcement.
He fired a shot at her tire.
He missed, but it was enough to convince the woman to pull over.
The deputy then had a revelation.
The vehicle belonged to the service station and car lot that he owned.
That led to an investigation into the deputy identified only as Smith in a file that is part of the cache of Vice Squad reports obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
An allegation of a law enforcement officer being part of a moonshine operation back then is not shocking, historian Gary Mormino said.
Organized crime ran rampant in Hillsborough County, so it was widely accepted that some law enforcement officers worked with the criminals they were supposed to arrest.
“You cannot operate a vast” criminal “empire without police protection,” Mormino said.
He provided examples told to him firsthand, such as the time a police officer witnessed a teenager carrying heavy jugs of moonshine into a cafe. According to the teen, Mormino said, the officer “admired the young boy’s pluck and work ethic” so much that he helped.
Mormino knows of another man who was supposedly arrested 60 times for moonshining but did not have a criminal record.
“He would arrive at the police department and the officer would say, ‘What name do you want to be arrested under?’” Mormino said. “He’d supply an Italian-sounding name and pay his fine.”
Mormino also told of a Tampa police officer who admitted to picking up organized crime bribes for politicians and a man who went to the police to complain that his bolita dealer skipped town without paying on a winning ticket for the illegal lottery.
“The officer motioned for him to walk to the policeman in charge of vice and gambling,” Mormino said. “What happened? The Tampa police paid him every penny of his bet.”
Deputy Smith’s story in the Vice Squad file played out like this:
Two highway patrolmen were chasing a Chevrolet with speeds up to 85 mph through Ruskin when Smith joined in and fired the shot. The car pulled behind a juke joint near the Manatee County line.
“Deputy Smith displayed little interest and did not leave his car to assist the other officers,” says the report.
And, despite 15 empty moonshine jugs being found in the car, Smith told the patrolmen, “He didn’t think they would get anywhere on a moonshine case.”
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Suspicious, one of the patrolmen traced the car’s tag. It was among those being sold at Smith’s lot.
During questioning, the woman said one of Smith’s employees often loaned her cars being sold at the lot and fixed at the service station.
Smith’s employee was later arrested.
Questioning was a “He Said, He Said” scenario.
The employee said he was part of an illegal operation run by Edgar Parsons, better known as Big Tiff, the Black, one-armed moonshine kingpin.
He also implicated Smith for knowing for what the car was being used.
The deputy admitted that he did, but said it was part of an investigation that he hoped would lead to a big bust. Smith then said he lied at the scene because he realized the car could falsely implicate him.
The employee later told investigators that the deputy had previously tried to catch him “bringing in moonshine” but also said that Smith never questioned him about the destinations of the jugs.
Smith was suspended “pending a further investigation.”
It’s unclear what that investigation concluded but, during it, the Vice Squad received a tip falsely implicating another law enforcement officer.
Smith, they were told, was also linked to a Wimauma moonshine still that was protected by Vernon Jameson, a state beverage agent who often worked with the Vice Squad.
“It turned out to be a still actually found and destroyed by Jameson nearly a year ago,” according to the report, and the tipster was a moonshiner who was angry because the agent turned down his proposition to work together.