Bill James was one of the founding partners of the James Hoyer law firm. He was always known as a man of integrity, strength and fearlessness. It’s been 40 years since he battled Tampa’s mafia, despite the personal danger he faced as a result. Tampa Tribune writer Paul Guzzo takes a look back at Bill James and his brave role in that turbulent time:
Prosecutor Bill James helped nip Tampa’s ‘Murder Inc.’
By Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff
Published: September 15, 2015
TAMPA — They called it an “assassination vehicle,” a panel van with shotgun slits cut into in the sides.
On Sept. 17, 1975, in broad daylight, with men intent on murder sitting inside, the van cruised past a car driven by Tampa businessman Cesar Rodriguez.
Lucky for Rodriguez, their shotgun jammed. Before they could reload, Rodriguez figured out what was happening, pulled a pistol of his own, and chased them off with a hail of bullets.
But he knew they would be back.
It’s been 40 years since the underworld in Tampa, then considered one of the most powerful in the nation, tried to replicate “Murder Inc.” — the nickname given the enforcement arm of the New York Mafia in the 1930s and 1940s. Murder Inc. was blamed for as many as 1,000 contract killings.
Tampa’s version never approached that body count, topping out at one slain police officer and two men injured — thanks, in part, to the work of attorney Bill James. Thirteen men associated with the hit squad were taken off the street through investigation and prosecution led by James, chief assistant U.S. attorney in Tampa at the time and later, Hillsborough County state attorney. He passed away in 2008.
“On this sad anniversary of that time in Tampa, the accomplishments of Bill James need to be celebrated,” said Ken Larsen, an undercover investigator with the Tampa Police Department’s narcotics division during that era.
“Throughout history there are ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary things because they have the courage and integrity to do so. Bill James was one of those men. Tampa and Florida are better off because of him.”
His widow Gloria James, who now lives in Colorado, said that throughout his campaign, her husband would check his car for bombs and friends would only half-jokingly decline his offer of a ride.
“This was a real threat,” Gloria James said. “He was looking over his shoulder. He would not back down, and he succeeded.”
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Larsen, also marked for death, called James’ success the biggest legal assault on Tampa’s Mafia to that point.
“You cannot take that many bites out of the food chain without affecting it,” said Larsen, 67. “I don’t think it was the end of that criminal group, but it diminished their power for sure. And it was because of Bill James.”
The roots of this dark time were planted in the early 1970s.
Larsen and his partner in Tampa’s narcotics division, Bobby Pennington, were growing frustrated as defendant after defendant among local Mafia members walked free, even in cases where undercover officers bought directly from them.
Some received a slap on the wrist, Larsen said. Others had their charges dismissed.
They had friends among lawmen in high places, Larsen explained.
“These guys all grew up together in Tampa. They were connected for generations, going back to grandparents. They looked after their own.”
So Larsen’s boss, Richard Cloud, the no-nonsense head of the narcotics division, decided to bypass the local and state justice system and take cases involving organized crime to the federal level — straight to James.
“I remember that first meeting with Bill James like it was yesterday,” Larsen said. “I was maybe 24 or 25 — a kid. Bill was wearing a white-and-grey suit that day. He had a yellow-and-brown tie on and wiry glasses. I bet he was no larger than 5-foot-8 and maybe 150 pounds, but he was the most imposing man I had ever met.”
James’ message that day: Not only would his office prosecute organized crime cases in Tampa, but he would take charge of the prosecution.
“Bill James was the right man at the right time for that job,” said Jan Platt, a Tampa City Council member from 1974 to 1978. “He had no ties to Tampa and that was critical to getting justice done. He had no friends here doing wrong things who could try to compromise his integrity.”
James was true to his word and the Mafia defendants were finally being punished for their crimes.
“There was a new sheriff in town,” said investigator Larsen. “And his name was Bill James.”
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