Cigar city confidential
The mysterious slaying of Charlie Wall, who was linked to Ybor’s shadiest enterprises, has long captivated author Ace Atkins.
By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published May 9, 2006
The ghost of Charlie Wall has haunted Ace Atkins for years.
Now, Atkins has brought him back to life, and with him the Tampa of 50 years ago.
Wall was born into a distinguished Tampa family; his father was a prominent doctor who served as mayor. But tall, talkative Charlie became one of the kings of crime in Ybor City in the 1920s and ’30s. He bootlegged booze and fixed elections and ran brothels and bolita, an illegal lottery. Several of his rivals ended up mysteriously dead.
Legend has it that during a strike by cigarmakers, he spirited money to the strikers to keep their families fed. That earned Wall, who often sported white linen suits, the nickname that gave Atkins the title of his new novel: White Shadow.
One April day in 1955, long after Wall had been pushed out of the rackets by the Sicilian Mafia, his wife called a horde of lawmen and reporters to his rambling bungalow in Ybor. They found the old man in his nightclothes on the bedroom floor.
His throat was cut, and he had been badly beaten. On the carpet, they found one bloody footprint and a scattering of buckshot and birdseed.
It was details like that one that hooked Atkins on Wall’s story — hooked him so powerfully that, although he had already published four well-received novels, he switched agents and publishers to be able to write White Shadow.
His previous agent called the book “a stupid idea,” but “I couldn’t think about writing anything else,” Atkins says by phone from his home near Oxford, Miss.
“Charlie Wall with his white suit, throwing coins to the kids — I couldn’t make that up.”
Atkins’ novel is populated with many other real Tampa area characters: gangsters like Santo Trafficante Jr. (one of Wall’s chief rivals) and Johnny “Scarface” Rivera, sideshow performers Al and Jeannie Tomaini, police detectives and city officials, wrestlers and restaurateurs.
And it is full of the sights and sounds and flavors of a Tampa that has nearly vanished. Atkins’ characters crisscross an Ybor City full of families, a Beach Park still under construction and stretches of orange groves between downtown and Gandy Boulevard.
They grab a bite at the Big Orange sandwich shop and drink at the Hub.
Atkins, 35, came across the story of Wall’s unsolved murder while working as a crime reporter at the Tampa Tribune (he also wrote for the St. Petersburg Times).
He was working on a story about another cold case, the 1956 death of socialite Edy Parkhill. That would turn into a seven-part series, published in 2000.
“Edy Parkhill kind of indirectly led me to Charlie Wall, because her husband (defense lawyer John Parkhill) represented him,” Atkins says.
At the time, he envisioned writing a series of newspaper stories about cold cases and expected Wall to be the subject of the next one.
Then he quit reporting for fiction writing. He published four novels — Crossroad Blues, Leavin’ Trunk Blues, Dark End of the Street and Dirty South — about the adventures of music historian and freelance investigator Nick Travers. Set in New Orleans, the books are rich with steamy atmosphere, colorful characters and Atkins’ love for blues music.
But Charlie Wall was still hanging around, his straw hat tilted back, a highball in his hand, whispering in Atkins’ ear.
“When I moved here, I had no intention of writing about Florida. I moved here so I could write about Louisiana,” Atkins says.
He was feeling burned out on writing “hero-driven fiction, a kind of Southern-accented Raymond Chandler. I had fun writing those books, but I wanted to do something more challenging.”
He also found that he missed reporting. He expected to enjoy “sitting around in a room making things up all day,” but it palled.
One day, he was talking about his frustration with his wife, Angela Moore, who had been a police reporter for the St. Petersburg Times.
“She asked me, 'What’s the best story you know?’
“And I said, 'The killing of Charlie Wall.’
“And she said, 'Why don’t you write it, then?’ ”
Soon, he was calling the Tampa Police Department to request the case file. “I always start with the police reports.”
This one consisted of almost 2,000 pages, many of them “copies of copies of copies,” but that didn’t matter.
“It read like a book,” Atkins says. “It read just like a noir movie.”
Given all that material, why not write Wall’s story as a true crime book instead of fiction?
“If I could have written a true crime book like In Cold Blood, I would have done it that way,” Atkins says.
But Truman Capote wrote about a case that was solved. He had a trial, convicted killers, executions — resolution.
No one was ever charged with Wall’s killing. The investigation stopped cold in less than a month.
“I didn’t have an ending,” Atkins says. “There were too many holes, too many gaps, too many threads.”
What he did have was the chance to talk to several detectives who worked the case, as well as reporters who had covered it.
“There were four main people who made this book possible,” Atkins says: retired reporters Leland Hawes (well-known as a historian of Tampa) and Bob Turner, and retired detectives Al Ford and Ellis Clifton.
Turner was a reporter and columnist for the long-defunct afternoon newspaper, the Tampa Times, and was the first reporter on the scene of Wall’s death.
He contributed so much, Atkins says, that one of the book’s main characters (and one of its few fictional ones), reporter L.B. Turner, is based “about 85 percent on Bob.”
“Bob doesn’t do e-mail, so he would send me these incredible handwritten letters. I have over 50 of them,” Atkins says.
“I’d ask him, 'Tell me what your workday was like’ or 'What was it like to shop on Franklin Street?’ or 'What was your impression of this person?’
“His memory is impeccable.”
Ford, he says, helped him understand that real detectives aren’t like the tough guys in movies and on television. “You want to talk to the guy who wins your confidence.”
And Clifton, who worked for both the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, with stints as a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune in between, was his “field guide to the criminals of Tampa.”
Atkins says that, although he had written a great deal about crime, “I didn’t understand the Mafia, how it worked, what its goals were.”
When he talked to Clifton about who was connected to whom in 1955 and who might have been responsible for Wall’s death, Clifton said, “No, no, no, no, no.”
And when Atkins wondered why the case was never solved, Clifton said, “You don’t understand. This stuff is never solved.” But his knowledge helped Atkins work out a credible fictional resolution for the murder.
Atkins says he has “two more Tampa books in my head. If this one does well, I get to write them. If not, I just get to think about them.”
His next book is another 1950s-era novel based on true crime, set in Phenix City, Ala.
Atkins, an Alabama native, says he grew up one county over from Phenix City but never knew how infamous it was until he read about it in a book about ’50s films.
During World War II, it became a center of prostitution, gambling and drugs for Fort Benning, Ga.; magazines called it “the wickedest city in America.”
Atkins says, “It was so awful the Sicilian Mafia wouldn’t go in there. They were afraid.”
He jokes that a friend says with books about New Orleans, Tampa and Phenix City, he’s becoming “the historian of sin cities.”
But, he says, writing historical crime fiction plays to his reporting skills as well as his talent for fiction. And it’s an endless mine of material.
“Ellis Clifton told me they were doing surveillance on Charlie Wall about a week before the murder. They had had a tip that he’d be killed.
“They were pulled off two days before it happened.
“You can’t make this stuff up.”
If you go
Ace Atkins will sign White Shadow at 7 p.m. Wednesday at King Corona Cigars, 1523 E Seventh Ave., Tampa. He will also sign at 1 p.m. Thursday at Circle Books, 478 John Ringling Blvd., Sarasota.
For information on Atkins and his books, go to www.aceatkins.com.
To read a review of “White Shadow,” go to www.sptimes.com/Books.shtml.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified May 9, 2006, 07:43:52]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]