THE WIRE IS CUT
The message on my telephone recorder was from Wally Pritchard.
This is your old pal, Wally," the voice said. I'm back on the street again. But things aren't going too good for me here in Chicago. I'm thinking about coming out to Phoenix to settle down. Give me a call." I knew what the message meant. Wally had just been released from federal prison. It had been his second term. I didn't return his call right away.
A few days later, I saw Wally's picture on the obituary page of the Chicago Tribune. The tongue-in-cheek piece accompanying the photograph was written by the Trib's crime expert, John O'Brien. He wrote that Wally was best-known as Wally the Wiretapper." Wally had died instantly of a heart attack. He had been sitting on a barstool in his favorite tavern on Diversey Avenue on the city's north side when it happened.
Wally had lived his life on the other side of the law. It was a colorful existence, but there was a price. He had a long arrest record and served two terms in prison. Although he preferred to be known as a wiretapper, every time he was stopped the cops found burglary tools in the trunk of his car.
He came to me once in the mid-1960s when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading daily marches through the streets of Chicago.
A critically important meeting had been set up between King and Mayor Richard J. Daley in the Palmer House hotel.
How much would it be worth if I could bug that meeting for your paper?" Wally asked.
I saw the possibilities-and the dangers. After meetings of this type, the principals always step before the cameras for a press conference. But they reveal only the things they want to about what was said inside.
Usually, the most fascinating and critical elements of the meeting remain unknown to the public. At first my editor thought it was a fantastic idea. Then he got cold feet.
We can't be involved directly in paying money for something like this," he said. We'd love to have this story. But no one must ever know how we got it." The picture was plain. If I wanted to go along with Wally, I was on my own. If anything went wrong, the people in the middle would be me and Wally, not the editors of the newspaper.
But it was just too good a chance to turn down. Wally was no great proponent of civil rights. In fact, at the time, he boasted of being a contract wiretapper for Sam Giancana and the so-called Chicago Mob.
His steadiest source of income, however, came from acting as a private detective for the town's leading criminal trial lawyers.
The income that came from both sources was substantial enough to provide him with a new Caddy every year, a fur coat and enough rent money for flashy high-rise apartments on the lakefront.
At the same time, the instability of his lifestyle brought frequent changes of wives and others that he always classified simply as roommates.
Funny thing, they all looked alike. They all seemed to have platinum-blond hair and black fur coats. They all seemed to chew gum a mile a minute.
Wally set out to place bugs under the table in the meeting room in the hotel where Daley and King were to meet. I waited in the office for word.
I've got some very disturbing news," Wally said over the telephone. It was two hours after the meeting between Daley and King ended. He told me he was waiting for me in the bar at the Palmer House.
The news was disastrous. Wally had gone into the meeting room after everyone left. He headed right for the spots where he had carefully planted the bugs under the table.
Here was the problem. The mayor's meeting was set up on an emergency basis. Another hotel event was scheduled for the same room that night. So the tables and chairs were all removed to storage as soon as the meeting closed down.
Do you think they found the bug?" Wally asked. Maybe they only moved the tables and didn't notice it underneath.
After all, it isn't like the moving job was being done by the police bomb squad. These were just hotel guys. Nobody was looking for nothing." Then Wally did something that was unpredictably brash. He went to the house telephone and called for the hotel's chief of security.
Look," Wally said into the telephone, I'm not gonna tell you my name. But your people may have a piece of my property that's very valuable to me.
On the other hand, I have something even more valuable to you. It's a complete tape of this afternoon's meeting between Mayor Daley and Dr. King." I couldn't hear the other side of the conversation. I thought you might be interested," Wally said. My proposition is that I give you my tape and you give me back my equipment. We call it a draw and go on our way. Do we have a deal?" Once again, I couldn't hear the other side. No," Wally said, you can't call me. I'll call you back in half an hour." Wally hung up the telephone.
Pretty smart move, eh?" Wally said. Wally," I said, I thought you didn't have the tape of Daley and King. Do you actually have it?" As a matter of fact, I don't," Wally said. Something went wrong. I never got a sound out of that room." Then aren't you forgetting something?" What?" he asked.
You don't have anything to bargain with." Wally shrugged his shoulders.
They don't know that," he said. They're gonna think I have the tape and that I'm about to blow it all over town." So where does that leave us?" I asked. My bet," Wally says, is that neither the hotel nor the cops will say a word. Neither of them want to risk having the mayor find out that someone was able to bug that meeting.
They know damned well if Daley hears about this, heads will roll all over the First District. So I think we'll never hear another word about this. It's a stand-off." Wally was right. I never heard another word about the bugged summit meeting.
As for Wally's expensive equipment?
A few years later, Wally admitted, after one of his frequent stops by the cops for possession of burglary tools, that it was against his principles ever to pay for that kind of thing.
It was Wally's sense of theatre that caused most of his troubles.
There was the time he was on trial before a jury in federal court for tax evasion. Wally was so convinced the jury was about to come back with a not guilty" verdict that he announced to the press he was throwing a champagne party right after the judge dismissed him.
Wally's prediction ran in the newspaper on the morning the jury returned its verdict. Wally arrived in court wearing a flashy new suit and a fur coat. He was ebullient.
However, the verdict was guilty."
Instead of holding his champagne party, Wally was sent directly to Sandstone Federal Prison in Minnesota, where he became editor of the prison paper for the next three years.
Julius Lucius Echeles, probably the best and certainly the most flamboyant criminal attorney in Chicago, met with Wally about a week before his death. Wally had worked for Echeles, off and on, for more than 20 years.
Wally was in trouble again. He had been stopped, once again, by the police. He was, of course, driving a van which contained burglary tools. Of course, Wally insisted the van was borrowed and the tools belonged to a friend.
You know," said Echeles, Wally always wanted everyone to believe he was an important part of the outfit. He was just a fringe guy, a charming Irishman who drank too much for his own good.
I'm afraid that many of Wally the Wiretapper's most flamboyant achievements took place only in his mind. But he certainly was a charming raconteur." As Echeles talked, I remembered how Wally had successfully bluffed the Palmer House security head over the Daley-King meeting. Certainly, on that day, Wally was as good as he pretended to be.
What happened after his death?" There was no money," Echeles said. He was really alone at the end. He had created an aura of money and criminality about himself. But he was broke and so they cremated him two days after his death."
WHO'S ZOOMING WHOM? MIKE MCGRAW'S DREAM... v4-08-92
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.