(Coverage of Murder of a City, Tacoma starts here.)
Murder of a City, Tacoma: Chapter 1
“After an extended absence during which I traveled about the nation, I returned to Tacoma for what I supposed was to be a short visit of a few weeks.”
—Fred L. Crisman, Murder of a City, Tacoma, p. 1
Chapter 1 of Murder of a City, Tacoma has Fred L. Crisman explaining how he found himself embroiled in one of the hottest political wars in Washington state history. It is, of course, his own account of what happened, and I’ve become increasingly suspicious of Crisman’s history the more I’ve researched it. However, in the spirit initiated in my starting coverage of this book, I will keep editorial comments to a minimum and let this book’s story speak for itself.
As one quick aside, however, I can’t allow the quote at the start of this post go without mentioning one very interesting bit I uncovered regarding this story. It was passed on to me by a fellow who only wants to be identified as Kirk K.
Kirk K. has been instrumental in my uncovering the full breadth of Crisman’s fascinating, bizarre history—a history that interconnects with many other fascinating, bizarre stories.
One thing Kirk uncovered was that Crisman was fired from a teaching position in Cascade High School for (get ready for it…) starting a secret society among students.
I shit you not, folks. As with much of Crisman’s life, this factoid is unbelievable-but-true. If it wasn’t for the newspaper clipping, I wouldn’t believe it myself, and I wouldn’t expect you to, either.
This occurred in 1966, which would have been just before the events of Murder of a City. I suspect Crisman was “travelling around the country” because he’d just been fired, though as of yet I cannot confirm that.
Enter Fred L. Crisman
In recounting what brought him back to Tacoma, Crisman says he’d come home to Tacoma to help care for his sick mother. He doesn’t identify her exact ailment, but says it required extensive surgery. After his mother regained health, Crisman elected to stay in the city.
Crisman explains that he had been a Special Investigator in Washington with the State Department of Veteran’s Affairs in 1946–47. This was how he made many contacts that would later show up again in the events recounted in Murder of a City.
His job, he says, was to investigate people who were ripping off veterans. In discussing this work, he also mentions that he was released from the military as a fighter pilot just before taking the assignment.
Here, Crisman begins introducing us to the characters that will play important roles in our story.
Enter Walt West
The first character we meet is Walt West, head of the Tacoma Better Business Bureau.
Crisman vaguely explains that he encountered West after being assigned to investigate him, but says that West had tried to flip the script and told everyone that it was actually he that was investigating Crisman.
Crisman doesn’t explain what either supposed investigation was for.
“What in the world has happened to this town?”
—Fred L. Crisman, Murder of a City, Tacoma
As he begins launching into these details of people involved, Crisman also bewails the state of Tacoma. Not just its physical condition (which was at that time in history a practical ruin by all accounts), but also the depth of corruption.
Enter Julio Grassi
One of the heroes we meet is Julio Grassi, car-dealership owner and a man Crisman calls his friend. Grassi is being sued by the State of Washington for “high-crimes.”
Crisman’s claim is that all the charges against Grassi were bunk and could have been leveled against any car salesman if the state chose to target them. They were routine occurrences that Grassi was being harassed for because he’d publicly supported a political opponent of the sitting establishment.
It was all a political hit job, more or less.
The main villain representing the State of Washington in this concern was attorney general John J. O’Connell, a man Crisman promises us will show up again throughout the book.
At the end of the trial, the state can’t get Grassi on anything except for not having the letters “O.A.C.” on his car dealership sign. These letters were an acronym for “On Approval of Credit.” The city required that they be included to clarify the “No Money Down” part of Grassi’s sign.
It’s a legal and moral victory for Grassi.
In every other way, though, it will prove to be a loss.
Enter the Tacoma News-Tribune
“There would come a time when I would believe that the men that operate the Tacoma News-Tribune were and are capable of any crime against their fellow man that can be thought of and acted upon.”
Though Grassi escaped the courts, he was brought down by a vicious slander campaign by the Tacoma News-Tribune (remember this is just Crisman’s account and has not verified).
Grassi’s reputation is so ruined that his business begins to suffer dramatically. He begs Crisman to take it over legally so as to deflect the bad publicity. Crisman initially refuses, but after reading yet another slandering article and becoming fed up with the injustice, he agrees.
Crisman then leaves town for a bit to write a story in California. He’s quite vague about this topic and doesn’t say much beyond, “and it was [a story] that I was to hear of, and still do hear of, from the lips of some of the real ‘kook’ fringe that live in and about the ‘Far right’ in Tacoma.”
Crisman returns to Tacoma to find that he’s now being slandered as a Mafia rat in league with Grassi, who himself has long been identified as a Mafia rat (totally unjustifiably so, in Crisman’s account…just another part of the slander campaign).
Enter Marshall Riconosciuto
This is where we meet the person of Marshall Riconosciuto, who Crisman calls “an odd guy” and “the perfect version of the ‘hustler’ in business.'”
Riconosciuto runs Riconosciuto Advertising Agency. He’s an old friend of Crisman’s from “right after” World War II. His advertising agency specializes in political campaigns.
Riconosciuto, according to Crisman, also expanded into “wholesale drug supplies and he operated a small lab where certain common drugs were bottled under a variety of house names.” It’s an exceedingly odd “side business” to have, but everything about this story is exceedingly odd.
Enter Slim Rasmussen
Rounding out our cast of characters is A.L. Slim Rasmussen, “one of the most honest people I have ever met,” as Crisman describes him. “He was soon to be Mayor of Tacoma and the real wars of the City Management would begin.”
After introducing us to Rasmussen, Crisman places us in scene with Riconosciuto.
“What in hell has happened to Tacoma?” Crisman asks.
“City Management,” Riconosciuto answers in rather dramatic fashion.
Crisman wants more answers, so Riconosciuto offers to drive him around Tacoma and explain.
With that, Crisman gets into Riconosciuto’s car, and we head into Chapter 2.