Rose City Vice: Portland in the ’70s — Dirty Cops and Dirty Robbers (Feral House, 2017) is the latest viscerally engaging and viciously entertaining chronicle of vintage Pacific Northwest true crime by journalist and author Phil Stanford. RCV is a follow-up to Stanford’s 2004 classic Portland Confidential that focuses, this time, on pimps, prostitutes, pushers, and the powers-that-were during an era when, as the book itself describes it:
“The narcotics cops are the most dangerous drug gang in town, a working majority of the city council is high on coke, and the mayor is carrying on a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl.”
The author brings these sin-soaked situations and the perverse players involved to vivid life, writing in a style that evokes both pulp novels and grindhouse films. Best of all, it’s true crime — all the insanity here actually happened.
Phil Stanford kindly answered a few questions for us regarding this new knockout work and the city that made it all possible.CRIMEFEED: What is it about Portland? Why does this city seem to be so conducive to vice, decadence, and the industries that cater to such trades?
PHIL STANFORD: Actually, I’m not so sure that Portland is any worse than other cities. Just under the surface of civic respectability, here, there and everywhere, there’s always a certain wildness. But what sets Portland apart from all the others, I think, is that here they like to maintain the fiction that we’re somehow an exception to the rule. In the end, maybe that gives more intensity to the wildness, I’m not sure.The characters in Rose City Vice invoke pulp novels and exploitation movies come to life. Who among them were you most charmed or intrigued by? The colorful madam Ginger Cardwell seems especially beguiling.
PS: I never met Ginger, although I understand she could be a pain. Maybe because I spent so much time talking to her, my favorite is probably the woman they called “the Duchess” – little lost girl who started out as a singer and dancer and ended up being the town’s top call-girl madam. Tough and acquisitive, too, but everyone fell in love with her. I also liked the gambler Buddy Moore who’s featured in a special story at the end of the book, “Xmas at Dinos.” He was a charmer.
Which of the figures in Rose City Vice would you deem the most frightening?
That’s a hard one, because there are different kinds of frightening. Vince “The Ice Man” Capitan was dangerous because, at least as I saw him, he was comically insecure — small timer who fancied himself as a major-league gangster. If you called that into question, though, he’d probably kill you. Jack Rowlands, the arsonist and snitch, is more frightening in an intellectual way, because his view of right and wrong was entirely situational. Come to think of it, sort of like most of the top people in law enforcement.In the course of the book, a number of reformers set out to “clean up” Portland. Was that simply a fool’s errand?
It’s always a fool’s errand when it comes to vice enforcement, because the only way to do it is team up with half the crooks and give them a free ride in exchange for turning in their competitors. The sociologist William Chambliss is very good on this. See his book On the Take.
In what ways has Portland vice changed since the time chronicled in the book?
The nature of vice has always evolved over the years. I think the biggest difference now is that more and more of the traditional vices have been taken over by the state. In Oregon, for example, the state sells the booze; the numbers are now called the lottery, which is run by the state; marijuana is legal and, of course, taxed. The really big scams all involve the manipulation of city and state codes.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a couple of things. One is [about] the 1989 assassination of the state director of corrections Michael Francke, who was trying to root out a snakes nest of corruption in his department at the time. They railroaded a patsy for the crime and the cover-up continues today. The other is something about my merry adventures as a private investigator in Miami in the 1980s.
Main photo: Rose City Vice book cover [Feral House]