The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
Law and a little disorder under police supervision
In an era when forensics was still a foreign word and scientific crime investigation had not yet become fodder for television drama, the Darien Police Department was typical of the constabulary that served small towns in America.
Back in the 1950s, making sure doors were locked after stores closed, perhaps occasionally coming to the rescue of a toddler who had locked himself in a bathroom, keeping traffic moving as smoothly as possible -- these were the typical function of gendarmerie hired to keep an eye on suburban towns.
Oh, it wasn't that we were crime-free. There always were some mailbox vandals to hunt down, or some sticky-fingered shoplifters to apprehend, maybe a bar-room fight to break up once in a while and in Darien a half century ago there were even a couple of shootings.
Things were peaceful, however, compared to the wild times of prohibition when Amos Anderson, a police lieutenant on patrol in Darien, duked it out with bootleggers on the Post Road. So heroic was he in frequent exchanges of gunfire that he was touted in a national magazine as "The Lone Wolf of the Post Road" and preachers all over the country praised him for stemming the illicit flow of Demon Rum.
Alas, suspicions were aroused by his incredible record and a state police detective was assigned to check it out. The investigation determined the "Famous Amos" was himself on the payroll of rum-runners who tipped him off on when a rival would be trucking a shipment through town. He also allegedly had ties with a brothel on Ring's End Road.
The detective who unraveled The Wolf's career was Ed Mugavero of Norwalk and, after his work on the case, he was appointed to succeed another Ed, Tinker, as chief in Darien.
"Muggy" was a professional. A swarthy man with grey streaking his wavy black hair, he clearly was not a person to be trifled with. He had a gimpy arm, the "souvenir" of a gun-fight he himself had once with rum-runners.
He assembled and directed a force that met what an upscale suburban community perceived as its needs and Darien became a sort of Camelot where law and order prevailed.
Mugavero's police instincts also led him to solve a murder committed in San Francisco decades earlier. A vagrant picked up by local patrols insisted that he had killed a woman and tried to confess to various police as he bummed across the country, but nobody paid attention to a babbling drunk until Mugavero decided to listen. A check with San Francisco authorities determined that the man in the Darien lock-up, John Crozier, was indeed the killer.
There were troublesome times as well. In 1955, a Noroton Heights shoemaker named Vincenzo (he was called "Jimmy") shot and killed his landlord in a dispute over rent. He was sentenced to seven to 12 years in the state prison, then in Wethersfield.
Most arrests, however, when there were any, were run of the mill and witnesses were called to headquarters to identify suspects. Sgt. Pete Zwart would cruise through town, stopping at Nick Cardelle's luncheonette next to the firehouse, to pick up a few men to stand in a line-up viewed by witnesses through a one-way window at headquarters.
Walt Berquist, a lieutenant, was Mugavero's second in command and always was regarded as a big tough Swede. He had an infectious laugh, however, and a love for practical jokes that belied his reputation and the serious gold bars on his uniform.
We gained insight into his soft heart one evening. Walt had been called after a train hit a car at the Camp Avenue crossing, killing two young women who had just driven out of the cemetery where they had tended to their mother's grave.
Later, his work done and the ambulance gone, the lieutenant sat in his patrol car, his eyes misty, and he choked back sobs as he talked softly about those two young women, strangers to him.
And there was the time in Cherry Street where a distraught young mother bludgeoned her bawling baby to death and then thrust a shotgun into her mouth, pulling the trigger with her toe. We soon joined Officer Cliff DeForest and other police on the scene in tears and we too retched. DeForest was called "Ghost" because he always seemed to appear out of nowhere whenever there was a problem.
Then there was the night police were called to a home in Hollow Tree Ridge Road where a woman had shot her husband, a well-known artist, and the bullet had just grazed his neck. A bloody towel was wrapped around the superficial wound and she was still in her petticoat as Hugh McManus led her to a police car and him to an ambulance driven by Officer Jim Dance.
It was the only time we saw McManus' feathers ruffled, perhaps by the presence of the press. Hugh never lost his cool even when the guys kidded him unmercifully about building a boat in his basement and then not being able to get it out. He never denied or confirmed that story.
McManus, a big smiling Irishman, called everybody "Pal" and he was as much a teacher as a cop. He had taken over the detective bureau after Sgt. Harold Curtis retired and then became chief. It was no coincidence that two of his protégés, John Jordan, and then his son, Hugh Jr., later also became chiefs.
On the day he was appointed a patrolman, Jordan was widely regarded as sure to become chief, a prophecy that materialized after he worked with "Big Mac" in the detective bureau.
Curtis was a sergeant, but we called him "Cap" because he was the manager of the police department fast-pitch softball team. The team was supposed to be all-cop in its games against other departments, but "Cap" recruited John Roth, fireballing pitcher, from the fire department and the Review editor to be his catcher. To make it more legitimate, Mugavero gave the editor a "Special Police" badge.
Frank Mason, a quiet gentlemanly guy who excelled in sports as well as police work, was part of the force's two brother acts. The other Mason was Vinny, who later became a lieutenant. Two burly guys with solid war records and unlikely names, Bill and Chauncey Dance, were the other brothers. Anderson, a former semi-pro football player, is remembered for the quick and efficient way he administered curb side justice to those who ran afoul of the law.
The department also had a roster of bright young cops like Gerry Kennedy, who became a captain with an expertise widely respected through the state, and Angelo "Tod" Toscano, who became chief in Wilton.
Over the years, too, the department had men like Allan Cottrell, who moonlighted as a security guard for Martha Raye when that actress was appearing in a show at the Westport Country Playhouse. He had such a good time that he quit the force and joined the Raye entourage.
And there was tall, lanky Dick Borneman, who took a ribbing for his heroics on the night of the flood in October 1955. Guys on the force said it was easy for him; water that was over the heads of most was only belt-high for him.
Swiss-born Rene Buchs delighted in talking French to Bill Guillotte, Review reporter, who was of French-Canadian heritage. And there was bowlegged Charlie Murphy, the Tokeneke "chief," quiet Charlie Slade and Joe Turturino, breathlessly rushing from one moonlighting job to another.
All said and done, it was an organization of decent men who did a tough job because their dedication more than offset the minimal training municipal police received in those days.
Ed Chrostowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.