George Les Bruneman

George (Les) Bruneman appears in court in Los Angeles on May 18, 1934. (Credit: Los Angeles Daily News archives, UCLA Library Special Collections)

Redondo Beach’s reputation as an entertainment and recreation mecca in its early 1900s heyday took several hits during the 1920s.

The passage of Prohibition in 1919 hurt major resort spots, such as the Hotel Redondo, which closed for good in 1925. Then the Great Depression hit, starting with the stock market crash of October 1929, resulting in fewer people having the disposable income to spend on the beach city’s amusements.

Perversely, those and other factors — including the city’s relative laxity toward gambling activity in its seaside tourist district, on El Paseo Avenue — all combined to make the city more attractive to organized crime. The El Paseo area included the Horseshoe Pier, the Pavilion, the saltwater plunge and amusement park rides.

We wrote in 2010 about the gambling ships that plied their trade offshore from the city, especially Tony Cornero’s The Rex, which operated for several years until Cornero was forced to shut it down in 1939.

Before then, several land-based gambling operations also thrived in Redondo, including one controlled by mobster George Leslie “Les” Bruneman.

He was part of a mob faction in L.A. that conducted running battles with Cornero in his early days as a liquor bootlegger, and was shot and wounded during a Long Beach gun battle with Cornero’s men in August 1925.

His involvement in the Zeke Caress kidnapping/extortion plot in 1930 made headlines in L.A. newspapers and entangled him in legal proceedings for years.

Bruneman, who had operations in several Los Angeles nightclubs, began spending more of his time in Redondo Beach. He ran bookmaking and gambling activities out of his Surf Club, based in the back of a beach restaurant/bar in the El Paseo district.

It was one of several operations that thrived in the seaside amusement zone, including a casino that ran its gaming activities in the Wagon Wheel restaurant in a corner of the Pavilion building.

He and his female companion, 28-year-old Patricia Eatone, a hostess at the Surf Club, were visiting a friend at his house, nearby on the Strand, on the evening of July 19, 1937, when they were called to go back to the club by persons unknown.

As they walked along the Strand toward the club, two gunmen fired three shots at Bruneman, one of which hit him in the back and pierced his lung. The other two went 8 feet over his head, according to police.

He was taken first to Torrance Memorial Hospital for several days. Soon after his arrival, his room was surrounded by a phalanx of his men for protection. He later moved to Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles, where he would continue to fight for his life for several weeks.

The shooting seemed to jar law enforcement officials into action. Five days after it happened, L.A. District Attorney Buron Fitts, fearing a full-scale gang war, announced a coordinated police crackdown on gangster-operated gambling activities.

Police conducted major raids in dens of iniquity throughout Los Angeles County. Though concentrating on Los Angeles city and Redondo Beach, three men also were arrested in Manhattan Beach.

As for Bruneman’s assailants, police first suspected rival mobster Victor Costini, but he was cleared when witnesses failed to identify him.

Bruneman himself refused to identify his attackers, whom the Los Angeles Times identified as two Italian-looking men who had rented a room at the New Columbia Hotel on Pacific Avenue in Redondo Beach. (Both the hotel and the street no longer exist.)

Deputies searched the room and found evidence the men had indeed been there, but couldn’t subsequently track them down.

Redondo Beach’s gambling activities continued for a few more years. But then the Rex shut down in 1939, investigators closed the Wagon Wheel in 1940, and an anti-gambling slate of candidates took office following the 1941 municipal election.

Brunman eventually recovered from his gunshot wound.

He returned to his L.A. haunts, but his days were numbered. He told police and sheriffs he was living on “borrowed time” when he unsuccessfully applied for a gun permit from them.

Years later, former Mafioso-turned-informant Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno would claim that Bruneman was targeted for refusing to cut L.A. crime boss Frank Dragna in on profits from his gambling operations.

On the morning of Oct. 25, 1937, Bruneman was having breakfast at the Roost Cafe on Temple Street in downtown L.A. when two gunmen opened fire. They shot Bruneman eight times, killing him on the spot, as well as cafe employee Frank Greuzward, who was attempting to get their car’s license number.

Police arrested Peter Pianezzi and convicted him of the two crimes. He served 13 years in prison, and spent the rest of his life attempting to prove his innocence.

In 1981, the California exonerated him, declaring him innocent of both crimes — 44 years after they were committed.

Pianezzi died in 1992 at 90 years old, and ended up being buried in the same Bay Area cemetery as Bruneman.

Neither the two gunmen in the Redondo Beach shooting nor the two gunmen in the Roost Cafe killing of Bruneman ever were found and brought to justice. Their identities remain a mystery.

Sources: “Fun, Frustration and Fulfillment: An Historical Study of the City of Redondo Beach,” by Ken Johnson, self-published, 1965; “Les Bruneman,” by J.H. Graham, J.H. Graham blog, March 23, 2017; Los Angeles Times files; Redondo Reflex files; Torrance Herald files.

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