In early 1979, The Evening Sun ran a full-page ad announcing a new columnist lineup, including a promised thrice-weekly offering from a puppy-faced young reporter by the name of Dan Rodricks.
“Dan Rodricks will slice bits and pieces of Baltimore and serve them up in a reporter’s stew. The column will tell stories about human events in every corner of town or country, big or small. It will be a catalogue of the chumps and champs, the mugs and the good guys, the young turks and the old crows, the ladies and gentlemen of the jury and the events that make Baltimore thrive. The column will talk … and listen.”
On Jan. 8, 1979, 40 years ago today, the first of what would prove to be thousands upon thousands of Dan Rodricks columns would appear under the headline, “A great title for her book?” Decades later, it’s still a heck of a read.
A great title for her book?
By Dan Rodricks
Louie Comi used to own a pool hall on East Lombard street and one day in 1973 the cops discovered that 8-ball wasn't the only game you could play there. The cops found loot, a short-ton of it, and accused Louie of running one of Baltimore’s biggest fencing operations. His son Gene, said the cops, had an interest in the family business.
About $330,000 worth of hot stuff came out of the pool hall and Gene’s home on South Ellwood Avenue, the East Baltimore rowhouse he shared with his wife, Jeanie. There were bags of coins, bracelets, pearl necklaces, television sets, silver mugs and bowls and wine cups, cuff links and tie clips.
Two machine guns. 150 revolvers and 50 shotguns and rifles. Big time stuff.
The cops said the Comis were fencing for drug addicts who ripped off houses from Guilford to Montgomery County. Louie and Gene made headlines. Louie and Gene went to jail. The cops grinned. Now comes the catch.
Knew Their Rights
Though the cops said a lot of nasty things about Louie and Gene, no one could prove all the property was hot. The cops traced only a small part of it to burglaries. Louie and Gene knew their rights and claimed that 492 leftovers belonged to them. They went to court, and last week Judge Paul Dorf ordered all the goods — except guns — back to Louie and Gene Comi. Back to Louie, this one-time numbers runner, this old timer with a record dating back 47 years. Back to Gene, convicted years ago of dealing in stolen government bonds and forgery. For the moment, looks like crime might pay, after all.
Now comes another catch — for the Comi clan.
Gladys Jean Bennett Comi. Call her Jeanie. Judge Dorf, in acting on a request by lawyers Jim McCadden and lrv Shaffer, said she too was entitled to the goods.
Jeanie is the wife of Gene Comi. They split up five years ago. Jeanie now lives far from Baltimore, but not so far she can't make a claim on the family fortune. In November, she came to town. The old man, old Lou Comi, heard this and wanted to discuss property rights, perhaps work out an agreement. He summoned Jeanie to a corner table at Haussner’s.
Jeanie and the Comis don't get along very well, so the encounter was tense. A priest was present. The priest drank Scotch. Louie made a peace offering. Jeanie said she’d think it over. Nobody signed anything. That’s how Jeanie tells it.
Now she is ordering a drink in the Club Room at the Lord Baltimore Hotel.
"Can you put a head on it honey? Do you have any confectionery sugar? You know what I mean?" The waitress offers to run the whiskey sour through a blender.
"And don’t forget the olive,” says Jeanie. “ I don’t like anything too sweet.” She takes off her rabbit jacket and leans across the table.
She's smoking. Earrings glitter through curly, frosted hair. She’s talking fast. She says she was introduced to the Comi family in 1968 by an East Baltimore lawyer named William A. Swisher. William A. Swisher is the state's attorney for Baltimore. “Bill Swisher was a good honest man and a friend,” Jeanie Comi says. "But when he introduced me he never said, ‘This Is Louie Comi, the racketeer.’ ... He just said, ‘This is Uncle Louie.’”
Louie Comi is famous in the cigar-smoked clubs of East Baltimore. He used to run a vending machine company and a nightclub. He contributes to churches and counts clergymen and politicians among his friends. At a parole hearing once, City Councilman Dominic Mimi Di Pietro called Louie Comi a “dear friend of mine.'' Since Louie and Gene were paroled, they’ve tried to run straight.
Different in 68
Things were different in 1968, and Jeanie says she didn't know what she was getting into. She had an art scholarship to the Maryland Institute. She married Gene Comi. She invested her inheritance in the Comi pool hall. Then in 1973 the police made their raids and brought Jeanie downtown. “They questioned me for six hours. This was when Sal and me were digging in the basement."
Sal is Salvatore Spinnato, an ex-shampoo salesman and con man who helped the FBI put former East Baltimore Del. George Santoni behind bars. As Jeanie tells the story, she and Sal dug a 10-foot hole in the basement of her home. “There was supposed to be money buried under the bricks,” she says.
They jockeyed a 70-pound air hammer around the basement floor, digging for money so Gene Comi could hire F. Lee Bailey for his appeal. Jeanie says she found coins under the water heater and diamonds under a bathtub. “There was supposed to be $200,000 buried in the basement of the house. I never saw it.”
Jeanie has moved on to other things. She wants to finish a book, paint, go to church, and take care of her 9-year-old son. And maybe get a share of the Comi leftovers. She is a little whiskey-sour about the whole thing.
“See, when I got married, I didn't marry Gene Comi. I married the Comi family. … I’m still scared. I’ve been told that if I keep talking I’ll get a place on the farm. I think that's a good title for my book, huh? ‘A Place on the Farm.’”