The story begins in a smoke-filled beer parlor in October 1937, when a woman stood up to put a coin in the jukebox half past midnight. That was the moment two gangsters stormed the Roost Cafe in Los Angeles and riddled a local gambling boss with more than a dozen bullets.
It was a mafia hit job that, more than 81 years later, would become one of the catalysts leading California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to end the state’s death penalty, granting a reprieve to 737 prisoners on death row.
Elaine Huddle was the woman at the jukebox, right by the door, as the San Francisco Examiner would later report. She told police she could remember clear as day the face of the lead gunman as he barged inside with the .45 pistol, killing the gambling boss and a bartender. The police showed her a lineup. She pointed to Pete Pianezzi.
Pianezzi had a reputation. He was an ex-con who had done time at San Quentin State Prison for holding up a drugstore with a gang of armed men in the 1920s. And so when a young mobster looking for leniency in a narcotics case threw out Pianezzi’s name to police, they didn’t question the tipster’s credibility. It didn’t matter that two of the other men the informant named were in another state or in jail on the night of the shooting, or that Pianezzi’s attorney presented numerous witnesses during his trial to confirm his alibi at a Hollywood hotel bar that night. Huddle was confident that he was the one. He was sentenced to two life sentences for the double murder, escaping the death penalty by a single juror’s vote.
This was the story that Newsom grew up hearing from his father and grandfather, one that all three generations of Newsom men could never forget.
Pianezzi wasn’t the killer.
“This has been a 40-year journey for me,” the California governor said Wednesday. “This is a journey that began with an introduction to an elderly man named Pete Pianezzi.”
The governor was about 10 or 11 when he first met Pianezzi in the late 1970s, he said. His grandfather Bill Newsom was the one to introduce him. By then, Pianezzi was almost 80. He was still trying to clear his name, having served 13 years in prison before being released on good behavior in 1953. He later earned a commutation. But he hadn’t yet earned a full pardon. William Newsom and Bill Newsom, the politically powerful father and son, had been trying for nearly 40 years to help him do so.
“My grandfather had made it a life pursuit to address the injustice of Pete’s arrest and prosecution for a crime he did not commit,” Gavin Newsom said Wednesday. That pursuit, he said, “led to these halls here at the Capitol.”
The Newsom family connection to Pianezzi is one of happenstance.
The son of Irish immigrants, William Newsom Sr. was a popular building contractor and local Democratic figure when he first heard Pianezzi’s story in the 1940s, while he was still in Folsom State Prison. As chance would have it, William Newsom had given a job to Pianezzi’s then-girlfriend and future wife, Frances, according to the San Francisco Examiner’s 1981 account. Frances’s obituary says she worked as a telephone operator for most of her life.
Every weekend, William Newsom soon learned, Frances traveled to Folsom Prison to visit Pianezzi, who spent his days there working in the rock quarry in dire heat. William Newsom grew curious. So Frances gave him a 100-page binder laying out the case.
“Little by little,” William Newsom told the Examiner in 1981, after Bill had passed, “my father got convinced there were some extremely dubious aspects to this whole thing.”
He wasn’t the only one. As early as 1941, just one year after Pianezzi’s conviction, a government informant came forward to tell police that the real killers were “walking the streets while another man takes the rap,” an February 1941 Los Angeles Times article reported. Pianezzi had been “railroaded," the informant said, a victim of a setup by the Cosa Nostra mafia.
He became known in the papers as the “Bum Rap Kid."
Pianezzi’s first pardon finally came in 1966, while Pat Brown was governor of California. Brown was a friend of William Newsom, who had urged the governor to review the case. But Brown gave him only a rehabilitative pardon, stopping short of clearing his name. To set aside his conviction, stronger evidence would be needed.
It came in 1977, around the time Gavin Newsom first met Pianezzi — and the same year William Newsom died.
That year, a mob boss named Jimmy “the Weasel” Frattiano started talking. He told authorities what really happened: The gambling boss who was killed at the Roost had been invading the Los Angeles crime family’s territory, led by a Sicilian bootlegger. Two hit men -- Frank “the Bomp” Bompensiero and Leo “the Lip” Moceri -- were sent to kill him, the informant said.
With this new evidence, Bill Newsom Jr. carried on his father’s fight for Pianezzi. Some questioned whether it was appropriate for a California Court of Appeal judge to be so heavily involved in proclaiming a man’s innocence. But the judge told the Examiner in 1981 that he didn’t care what people thought.
“This is a labor of love,” he said. “I don’t care about the consequences. . . . It makes me so furious to find this apathy. It’s indecent that there is no countervailing zeal for innocence.”
Bill Newsom started bugging Gov. Jerry Brown, a childhood friend and the son of Pat Brown, so much about Pianezzi’s case that “I literally drove him to distraction,” Newsom said. Finally, Brown gave in. He granted the full pardon in 1981, which was affirmed in the California Supreme Court. In his letter, Brown wrote that the new evidence “cast grave doubt on his guilt.”
Pianezzi was thrilled, but at the same time “depressed,” he told the AP later. His wife, Frances, who had stayed by his side since his arrest in 1939, had died just months earlier.
Pianezzi died in 1992 at age 90. He had reflected, in his later days, about how it seemed that he managed to escape death. What would have happened, he reflected in one interview with the Examiner, if the last juror voted to execute him rather than spare him?
It was a question that Gavin Newsom, from a young age, spent a lot of time thinking about, he said Wednesday.
“I was a young man learning that life story,” he said. “I also got to know Pete up until his dying days, and I had the opportunity to start thinking and reflecting on the death penalty, on its purpose and on the passion that arises when we debate the issue.”