In a changing world, this officer did his duty

January 21, 2001|By Michael Olesker

GEORGE ANDREW, the old city vice squad cop who got away from us last week, at 86, won't need his trusty 16-pound maul to get through heaven's doors. The angels are waiting for George. He played by all the ancient rules of morality when he was barging in on Baltimore's bookmakers and porno theaters. The problem was the old rules had shifted, and the guys like Andrew had to work with them while society figured out new ones.

Into the 1970s, he went after a generation of guys taking bets on three-digit numbers - gambling was immoral, the state declared self-righteously - and he was flabbergasted when the state itself, checking the profit margins, decided to become the biggest lottery operator of them all. He staged raids on North Avenue on a theater showing the porno movie "Deep Throat" - and he never imagined a time when such a movie would seem tame compared to the stuff available on any home computer.

Andrew's was a police era that rang with the names of legendary gambling figures: Julius "Lord" Salisbury and Philip "Pacey" Silbert, Benjamin "Benny Trotta" Magliano and Louis Comi, the east-side bookmaker who was bequeathed a nickname by a city editor one night only because it seemed to fit the times (and might sell a few extra newspapers).

As head of the vice squad, it was Lieutenant Andrew who would lead the charge into what the newspapers used to call "bookmaker parlors." The phrase gave it a kind of aura. But sometimes it was just a guy's rowhouse living room, with a few extra phones installed to take bets.

Once, just as Andrew was about to wield his maul during a raid in Northeast Baltimore, he heard the voices of children behind the door. So he tapped gently, and the door was immediately opened by a 6-year-old boy, who looked at Andrew and his maul, and the cops lined up behind him, and declared, "Come on in."

Which Andrew did, and arrested the kid's father on bookmaking charges.

Much of the time, though, he was hammering his steel maul into doors - but, sometimes, not before alerting the local newspapers of the precise time and place, in case they wanted a nice snapshot for the next day's front page. It was a cozier era between the cops and some of the newspapers.

Take the night they busted Louis Comi. He had a pretty big lottery operation around Highlandtown. He was arrested on a Saturday night, and the cops immediately alerted Jack Ryan, the nightside city editor at the News American, knowing the paper would give it a front-page ride.

I was working rewrite there that night. Ryan gave the story to me. When he saw my lead, though, he blanched.

"Change it," he said. "Make it `Louis "Boom-Boom" Comi.'"

"But that's not his nickname," I said.

"I know," said Ryan, walking away. "But it reads better that way."

And the nickname ran the next day, and was attached not only to Comi, but to an enterprise. "Boom-Boom" gave Comi, and his profession, a little frisson of danger. But they were guys making a living taking bets from willing customers. In that same era, entire neighborhoods were beginning to fall to the heroin trade. Cheap guns were everywhere, and the homicide count was climbing fast.

George Andrew's job was to straddle two worlds: the old one, with its rigid guidelines on morality, and the new one, where things were falling apart. Were the gambling laws archaic and hypocritical? If they were, that wasn't Andrew's call.

"People will tell you there's no harm in any of those things," he said. "All I know is they're against the law, and if they're against the law, the people running them should be arrested."

Over time, the courts learned to wink at some of the old laws. Judges would slap small fines on bookmakers, who would be back in business the same afternoon. Getting busted was part of the cost of doing business, nothing more. The isolated showing of a movie like "Deep Throat," illegal here because it hadn't been OK'd by the anachronistic Maryland Censor Board (which was doing its own bit toward holding back the future), was only part of changing sexual mores across the country.

One time, he led a raid on a west-side prostitution operation. As vice squad cops arrested the ladies and their customers, the house madam told Andrew, "I don't care what you do with the girls, but don't hurt my dogs." She had 17 of them in one room. Andrew took all the canines back to headquarters.

"They thought I had raided a kennel," he said with a laugh.

He had a pretty good sense of perspective about the job: Play within the established guidelines. That's the first rule of any cop's job: not to question the law but to enforce it. He did it with good nature, and with a flair for a little publicity, and with honesty.

That ought to get him into heaven - and he won't need any maul to pound in the front door.

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