William F. Roemer, Jr. (1926-1996)
By John J. Flood
Everyone in law enforcement lost a true partner this past year. Many might not realize nor have known the man but one of their own – a street guy – has passed from law enforcement’s midst. Bill Roemer, who retired from the Federal Bureau of Investigation after toiling 30 years ventured forth and became a book author and free-lancing attorney who specialized in assisting clients victimized by libel suits filed by organized crime associates, lost the toughest battle of them all and his life to that horrible disease – cancer of the lung. It took him down. It was not the syndicate hoodlum or the contract killers he relentlessly pursued and investigated as an agent who loved the day to day activities of being assigned to the F.B.I.’s Top Hoodlum Program that did him in, but rather, he met his maker from a terrible scourge that our government should spend a few more dollars funding a cure for. Bill Roemer was a great guy and a gentleman within law enforcement to say the least.
Soft spoken, pleasant of nature and flashing a disarming smile, Roemer also spoke with conviction and authority. He blended an academic background with the experience only years on the street can bring. He lived by a simple credo that placed honesty, integrity, and duty to friends and family above his own needs. He could work the street with the best of those that had gone before him and he wouldn’t back off tough matters when pushed in the belly.
His quiet dignity and firm resolution set an example for younger agents to emulate. Duty. Honor. Integrity and a respect for those who paid their dues on the job. With the passage of time he became somewhat of a legend within law enforcement circles, though some will steadfastly argue that the legend had a self-perpetuating bent. So what. True, Bill had a knack for self-promotion, but so did Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and of more recent vintage, Eliot Ness – an unknown G-Man who was wallowing in obscurity until author Oscar Fraley got a hold of him and built up the myth of the Untouchables around a few kernels of truth. In turn, the Ness myth gave rise to a cottage industry of films and books that still fascinate the public.
The legendary Chicago Police Officer Frank Pape was touted as such by columnist Nate Gross of the old Evening American and many other cop reporters. History often collides with fantasy and imagination. Ness was a freshly minted college grad assigned to the Secret Service when he came to Chicago in 1929 to do battle with Al Capone. Actually it was his street- honed agents recruited from various police departments who battered down the doors of the breweries and gathered the hard evidence that finally put Capone away with Ness absorbing much of the credit. But very often that is how our legends are crafted. Bill Roemer was the son of a former Jesuit seminarian, but as a young man, he opted for a legal career, beginning at the University of Notre Dame where he played rough sport and became an excellent amateur boxer. He earned the nickname “Zip” because of the speed and accuracy of his punches.
His motto, one that he carried through life, reflected his relentless, optimistic outlook. “Keep punchin!” he always liked to say and everyone who knew the guts of Bill Roemer also was aware that he subscribed to that ideal till his last. He was not the type to whine about unexpected reversals of fortune or back away from a challenge. He thrived on it. He was a law enforcement guy, and he respected his peers. Bill was personally selected by the late J. Edgar Hoover to participate in the Bureau’s Top Hoodlum Program, from its inception in 1957 when Hoover had to finally acknowledge the existence of a national network of organized crime – the Mafia as commonly known. Roemer’s task was to gather data and conduct intelligence surveillance on several of the top outfit bosses in Chicago – notably Murray “the Camel” Humphreys among others, and Sam Giancana, the foul-mouthed gangster who was designated by Tony Accardo to head Chicago operations in the 1950s and sixties.
One of the major reasons Giancana was hounded out of the country was due to the undaunting work of Bill Roemer and his colleagues who received a tremendous amount of their education from honest Chicago Police Officers. Roemer once said that it was his boyhood fantasy to become the nemesis of the Chicago mob, and after 21- years of doing this kind of work in the Windy City, there were more than a few hoodlums in town who would say he achieved the goal. Roemer and the agents with him planted microphones and conducted around-the- clock surveillance of the hoods as they gathered to discuss their criminal ventures in the back of a Michigan Avenue tailor shop. No simple task bugging these guys and the dangers were high. It was a black flag operation all the way, and Agent Roemer understood going in that if caught, his superiors from Hoover on down would deny any knowledge of the efforts to bug the wise guys leaving Roemer vulnerable to breaking and entering charges and the knowledge that his career could be over.
Never mind if the hoods caught him in the act and turned him into trunk music. But the pineapple-sized microphone over- hearing mob activities was never detected by the wise-guys and over a period of months Little Al, as the device was dubbed, revealed a remarkable tale of political corruption, contract murder, and syndicate mayhem in metropolitan Chicago and throughout the country. A plethora of job action was opened to the government prosecutors. Despite being an F.B.I. agent, Roemer was extremely generous with his praise for the courageous street cops and detectives who worked in the Chicago Police Department – they had acquired a sophisticated knowledge of the mob long before the F.B.I. jumped on the band-wagon and he readily admitted that without them, the agents would not have found an elephant in a phone booth.
Bill turned down several promotions to remain in Chicago environs working mob activities. He was always the street guy and liked being where the action was. He savored every moment of it – the constant intrigue, the danger, the challenges of working in one of the most mobbed up cities of the United States. Chicago was his kind of town.
He had many friends – and enemies – as many in law enforcement who stir the murky waters always have. Roemer cultivated a string of high-placed informants including the late and infamous Richard B. Cain, the rogue cop who went to jail in the 1960s for his complicity in all sorts of mobbed up activity.
Bill maintained that even while Cain was in the employ of Sam Giancana as his point man chauffeur and confidante he was funneling information back to the G-Man in a double-agent role. In the parlance of street agent of the time, Cain was a friend. A friend could be very useful in building an intelligence profile on a mobster, reveal the trail of corruption and payoffs, and in some instances help circumvent an impending murder. Bill had many such friends as most who are knowledgeable in law enforcement cultivate along a very gray line. He was never very far away from the action, even after he moved to Tucson in order to be closer to his son.
In Semi-retirement, Roemer began a new career as a private attorney, consultant to the Chicago Crime Commission, and book author while keeping close tabs on one of his Arizona neighbors – former top New York City crime boss Joseph Bonanno and all else that was happening with La Cosa Nostra. The accolades and recognition became more public after Bill testified as a witness before the U. S. Senate rackets committee held in Chicago in 1983. Suddenly Bill Roemer burst through the clouds as the newest media celebrity, and with it he cemented his reputation as the Man Against the Mob. In 1989, Bill’s first and best book, appropriately titled: Roemer: Man Against the Mob, was published and it chronicled his exploits as an F.B.I. agent in Chicago.
It was an eye opener and must reading for any law enforcement type who wants to know what is going on to this very day. Two fiction-based-on-fact novels followed: War of the Godfathers and Mob Power Plays and a pair of non-fiction books including biographies of Tony Spilotro (The Enforcer) and Tony Accardo (The Genuine Godfather). In the last decade of his life, Roemer was a frequent guest on TV and radio programs enlightening the public on organized crime influence. He appeared on such major news documentary programs as American Justice, on the A & E cable network and many more radio talk shows of local origin in addition to writing articles for numerous publications including the Illinois Police & Sheriff’s News. He enlightened the public with his knowledge. His opinions were sought out by the major media, and as the nation’s reigning mob watcher Bill lent his insights and talents to a variety of projects including the made-for-TV movie Sugartime, which aired in 1995.
Teaming up with the daughter of his old mob nemesis, bill and Antoinette Giancana formed an unlikely alliance, but they were designated as the major consultants to the producers of Sugartime. Roemer appeared in the movie in a cameo walk-on-role. His life’s work now complete, Bill Roemer, a man for all seasons, has gone to his maker. He has been laid to rest along side of his parents at the Cedar Grove Cemetery in South Bend, Indiana, not far from his alma mater and the site of his youthful accomplishments in the athletic realm. He will be missed but never forgotten. Quite simply a great law enforcement guy and I am proud to say my friend. To his family, I would like them to know that I am a far better man because of my acquaintance with Bill Roemer.