This article was last modified on June 2, 2017.

Prostitution in 1970s Milwaukee, an Interview with Thomas Schneider

I spoke with Thomas Schneider, a former prosecutor in Milwaukee, concerning prostitution cases he handled circa 1975. Despite the 40 year time lapse, and the fact he must have handled thousands of cases, his recall is amazingly sharp. As you can see, he needed very little prodding.

GS: Let’s start with a case involving Jimmy Jennaro and Leroy Bell around 1975…

TS: Alright, so there was an investigation into multiple suspects at that time, and the investigation was into organized crime’s role in organized prostitution in Milwaukee. If I recall correctly, there were 18 people who were ultimately convicted as result of that investigation. 18 individuals who were involved in organized prostitution. The central focus was always to determine to what extent traditional organized crime was involved, but the immediate focus was on Leroy Bell.

Leroy Bell was the owner of an establishment in the Riverwest neighborhood called the Tender Trap. It was alleged, and ultimately proven in court to be the center of operations for this organized prostitution ring. This worked in various ways. There were a number of women who were engaged in acts of prostitution who were based out of the Tender Trap. But whenever a customer came, and there was always a steady flow of customers, before he could leave with a prostitute he had to go over to Leroy and get a nod giving him the okay to leave. The customer would leave with the prostitute, not knowing that at the time they were under surveillance by the State of Wisconsin Department of Justice. They would leave, conduct their business, and shortly after be dropped back off at the Tender Trap. That was one aspect of it, and during the course of that, a John Doe investigation was convened.

The John Doe system is unique to Wisconsin. It’s like a grand jury, except that the testimony is taken in secret before a judge rather than a grand jury. The agents were taking photographs, so they could easily identify people through the photos of the customers, women and the license plate numbers. The customers were called in to the John Doe, and almost 100% of them were willing to testify. Which resulted in something like 10-15 cases against each one of the ladies. So next, the ladies were called in to the John Doe and given immunity for their testimony. So the case against Leroy Bell became very strong.

During the investigation, there were also other people who owned bars and restaurants in the Milwaukee area. These people were alleged to be tied to organized crime. When they had a customer who needed a woman to provide her services, they would call the Tender Trap and Leroy. He would then send over one of the ladies to these various businesses. So we had the testimony of these women, who could tell us about the various businesses, and in many cases we had surveillance.

With Jimmy Jennaro, it was alleged that a woman went to the bar and was introduced to a customer by Jennaro. The customer engaged in an act of prostitution, which resulted in Jennaro getting charged with the crime of soliciting prostitutes. The interesting part of that trial was that she testified, and during cross-examination was asked where she was living at the present time. I vigorously objected to this because she was in witness protection. We feared for her safety and didn’t want it known. But then something happened I’ve never seen happen before — the judge made her answer the question. So she then testified that she had been living in a convent, which was a little bit shocking to the defense. She moved shortly after, but it was not the answer they were expecting.

The other thing I remember is Jimmy Jennaro taking the witness stand and testifying that he had nothing to do with it. He claimed that he didn’t know who the woman was and said he had never met her before. When I was allowed to cross-examine, it was very short. I basically said, “You’re telling the jury that you have never met this woman, is that correct?” He said yes. “You didn’t even know her name?” Yes. That was all I asked and let him step down. We next called a rebuttal witness, an undercover agent with the State of Wisconsin Department of Justice. He testified that about one month after the incident was allege to occur, he (the agent) was having dinner with the woman at Sally’s Steakhouse. As they were leaving, Jimmy came over and said, “Oh hi, Angie, how are you?” They had a brief conversation. Let me tell you, the jury was not out for very long. He was found guilty.

Now, Leroy Bell was also convicted in another, much more elaborate case. I believe along with him were Tommy Piscitello and Angelo Fazio. And then there was Tony Pipito. His situation was a little bit different and involved a woman at the Center Stage, an establishment in downtown Milwaukee alleged to be operated by Frank Balistrieri. The customer who had been introduced to the woman was none other than comedian Sid Caesar. At that point, there were two other people involved in the investigation who agreed to testify and corroborate the story.

But we needed Sid Caesar’s cooperation, so I flew out to California and met with him and his attorney. Basically, I told him the same thing we told all the other customers. I told him we had evidence of his engaging in prostitution, but we weren’t interesting in charging him so much as having him tell the truth. We didn’t want the customers or prostitutes if we could get the higher-ups who were organizing them. He huddled with his lawyer and then told me exactly what happened. He ended up coming back and testifying at trial, resulting in the conviction of Tony Pipito.

At this time, my office was in the Safety Building. The court house is a separate building, but there is an underground garage that connects the two. I was at a bail hearing, discussing with a judge about reducing bail on a case. And as I was walking back, there was a reporter with the Milwaukee Journal there. His name was Sam Martino. Tony spat at me and started screaming. I don’t remember his exact words, but something like, “I’m going to get you!” Luckily, Sam was there taking notes. During this rant, Pipito spouted that he knew who had killed Louis Fazio and Isidore Pogrob. “But now I’m not going to tell you anything!” Sam printed this as a story the next day, and of course Pipito never did cooperate. On the day of sentencing, Joseph Balistrieri was sitting in the back of the courtroom watching the proceedings. There was speculation at the time that Balistrieri was there to make sure that Pipito didn’t cooperate in exchange for leniency. That’s just speculation, but he had no other reason to be there. Pipito never cooperated, and in fact never even bothered to file an appeal.

The belief was that Leroy Bell was working for Frank Balistrieri. Undercover officers had spotted Bell with Balistrieri on several occasions. This struck them as a bit unusual. They also saw Bell pass an envelope to Balistrieri. The speculation is, of course, that this was Balistrieri’s cut of the prostitution money. But it was never proved. When Leroy was in prison, we brought him back to Milwaukee and to my office and offered him the opportunity to become a witness. He basically told me, “Mr. Schneider, I know exactly what you want. But there’s no place in this country you can hide a 6’5″, 250-pound black man from the mob. So I’m just going to do my time.” That may be word-for-word exactly what he said. That was the end of the conversation and he went back to prison.

GS: Would you be able to talk about any discussions you had with the FBI regarding these cases?

TS: I know the FBI was interested in what I was doing because it coincided with investigations and things that they were looking at. I was always willing to work with them. We had a pretty good relationship, at least with the agents assigned to organized crime. I was with the organized crime and white collar crime unit, so we covered much of the same ground.

There was a case where Sally Papia had a cook that left her employment and opened up his own restaurant. She was furious. I think a lot of cooks dream of opening their own restaurants, but not all cooks work for Sally Papia. So he opened up the Northbrook, and some time thereafter there was an arson. We were able to establish who set the fire. In Wisconsin at that time, there was something called a “one party consent overhear”. Basically, having someone wear a wire. It was legal to do, but the tape was not admissible in court. That law has since been changed and today such recordings are admissible in Wisconsin. They always were in federal court, but not in state court. So I had a case of one co-conspirator recording another. It was great evidence, but I couldn’t legally use it, so I turned it over to the US Attorney. They prosecuted the case using the tape, and Sally was convicted. So there was a lot of cooperation between federal and local law enforcement.

GS: The interesting thing about that is, when you read the FBI reports, you are left with the impression that the police are happy to help the FBI, but the FBI is very guarded with what it tells local authorities.

TS: Well, you have to go back a bit here. You’re talking about the mid-1970s. The police chief was Harold Breier. Under Breier, the police were not very good about communicating with the FBI about organized crime. The chief denied its very existence. Which is why we had to set up the organized crime unit in the district attorney’s office. Much of what we handled was given to us by the state Department of Justice rather than the local police, though of course we were the prosecution for both. It was pretty hard to get the police to investigate something that they said doesn’t exist. Ultimately, with the convictions of Frank, Joe and John Balistrieri, it had to be conceded that organized crime was very much a presence in Milwaukee. But there wasn’t much sharing between local police and federal authorities. The sharing was really between the district attorney’s office and the federal authorities. There were no city police officers involved in the cases we just talked about. I could be wrong on that, but I don’t recall any. We were working primarily with state and federal investigators.

I haven’t been a prosecutor in many years. I left the DA’s office in 1993 when I was appointed US Attorney for the eastern district of Wisconsin. And then in 2001, the end of my eight-year term, I was appointed to head a youth organization. Now I’m helping children on the front-end so they don’t end up involved in this sort of garbage on the back-end.

Also try another article under Organized Crime
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

One Response to “Prostitution in 1970s Milwaukee, an Interview with Thomas Schneider”

  1. Drew Hunkins Says:

    Enthralling interview.

    Prostitution between ADULTS should be legalized. I’ll never forget a few passages from Gore Vidal’s seminal book “United States Essay,” he mentions how most men essentially buy their wives and that prostitution is very much NEEDED in society for those over a certain age.

    No one has the chutzpah to get up on the bully pulpit and say what truly needs to be said: prostitution between consenting adults must be decriminalized/legalized.

    In and of itself prostitution is a victimless crime. I know the law-and-order, police-state types like to conflate this issue by protesting that other crimes go along with prostitution, of course this is nothing but a red herring. The prostitution act in and of itself is VICTIMLESS! The robberies, larcenies, burglaries and batteries that in small doses once in a great while accompany the process of prostitution already rightfully have laws on the books against those offense.

    Adults engaging in prostitution will eventually go the way of weed and be decriminalized/legalized but it’ll be many decades before we see it. Enlightenment is slowly spreading, thankfully.

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