The Chickens and the Bulls: The Rise and Fall of a Vicious Extortion Ring That Preyed on Prominent Gay Men in the 1960’s
On a sleepy Sunday morning in late July 1965, Detective 3rd Grade James McDonnell received a call in the upstairs squad room of midtown Manhattan’s 17th Precinct. There was a man at the Western Union office in Grand Central Station who might be impersonating a police detective, he was told. The man was in the company of a 14-year-old runaway and had contacted the boy’s father in Texas to wire plane fare so the son could fly home. The father had grown suspicious when the man had asked for $150—twice the needed amount. McDonnell quickly drove the 10 blocks to Grand Central, parking his unmarked black sedan on Lexington Avenue and hurrying down to the terminal’s lower level. Criminal impersonation of a police officer was an E felony—a “good collar,” as cops like to say, and if the perp had a gun, even better. There’d also been chatter on the detective grapevine about a number of recent cases of phony policemen, so McDonnell was eager to see what was up.
Inside the Western Union office, McDonnell saw a man who looked just like a New York detective—“calm, good looking, sharply dressed,” the now 89-year-old retired detective recalls. But when McDonnell flashed his gold shield to the “detective,” the man was slow to show his own, and was also reluctant to tell McDonnell what squad he was from, making McDonnell suspicious.
McDonnell asked the man if he had filled out an incident report, or a “5” as it was known in detective parlance. When the “detective” asked what a “5” was, McDonnell knew something wasn’t right. “I told the clerk to lock the door so we could sort everything out,” and handed the clerk a slip of paper with the precinct phone number on it so he could call for backup. Meanwhile, McDonnell kept his eyes on the bogus detective’s hands, just in case he tried to pull a gun. In a matter of minutes, four burly uniformed officers barged into the Western Union office, and McDonnell handcuffed the suspect without resistance.
Once restrained, 34-year-old John Aitken got panicky. He’d been arrested before for child molestation, and if he was charged with corruption of a minor, as he might be now, he could be facing a serious prison sentence. Aitken told McDonnell he was trying to do the runaway a favor. He had used the kid in a robbery scheme but “the kid was too green.” He felt sorry for him and had just wanted his “cut” for doing a good deed by helping him get home. If McDonnell could make sure he wouldn’t do heavy time for the charge he was facing now, Aitken said, he could give information on something much bigger, something that involved big names and lots of money.