The Magazine

Rat-Lines and Stakeouts

My life under cover in 1960s San Francisco.

Jan 22, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 18 • By RICHARD W. CARLSON
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Patrick Buckman, a former San Francisco cop, was one of the more interesting of them. Pat was tall and muscular, a spiffy dresser in dark pinstripe suits and starched white shirts with large monogrammed French cuffs and huge gold links. Everything about Pat was big, he even had big teeth. He looked like Damon Runyon's idea of a successful race track habitué. Pat was friendly and outgoing, and he was a natural intriguer and adventurer. His police partner, Sergeant Sal Polani, was himself a hard case, which would be useful since he was on his way to San Quentin Prison.

Pat and Sal had been arrested in the spring of 1965 with two European safe crackers outside of Sally Stanford's imposing Pacific Heights mansion, two blocks from Lipset's house. Sally was a seasoned tax-evader. She had been running fancy San Francisco whorehouses for 40 years and now owned the lucrative Valhalla restaurant on Sausalito's waterfront, named after her finest San Francisco bordello.

Sgt. Polani and Officer Buckman believed the large walk-in safe at her Pacific Heights home was crammed with cash, claimed the authorities. They said the policemen had enlisted the aid of the two professional burglars to crack Sally's old-fashioned vault.

San Francisco police had been tipped off and were waiting. When cops with shotguns leaped from a closet in the darkened mansion, surprising Polani and the two burglars at Sally's safe, the three intruders bolted for the front door. Inspector Tom Fitzpatrick, head of Police Intelligence, ran up the walk, caught Polani by the throat, and, pulling his own pistol back, accidentally shot Polani in the face. Pat Buckman was grabbed on the sidewalk. The DA claimed he was serving as a lookout and had planned to accompany the safecrackers after the heist to make sure the money was divided evenly. Pat denied everything and said he just happened to be in the neighborhood.

Polani survived the shooting and was convicted, along with the safe crackers, and sentenced to San Quentin. Buckman, who claimed he didn't know what was going on, was acquitted.

What saved Pat with the jury was a question he had asked loudly of the wounded Sgt. Polani at the moment they were grabbed by police. It was: "Sal, what did you get me into?" I believe he said it twice. Polani had just lost a mouthful of teeth and wasn't answering. But all the milling, excited cops had heard Buckman, including the brass, Inspector Tom Fitzpatrick and the deputy chief, Al Nelder; and after Pat's lawyer put them on the stand to testify under oath as to what Buckman had said--a phrase happily characterized by the lawyer as "a reaction only an innocent man would make"--the jury set Pat free.

There was no money in the safe anyway. It had been emptied of valuables and held just three mason jars of strawberry jam, stewed by Sally's maid.

Pat never said whether he was guilty of the Sally Sanford heist. Lance and I didn't ask.

Hal once said to me, as part of a general PI tutorial, "When you plan something, first set your rat-lines." When I looked confused, he said, "Figure out how you're going to get off the ship before you get on board." He then explained that he had once been arrested for bugging a hotel room in New York City. He was convicted but avoided publicity after paying a fine. "But, I shouldn't have been caught at all. No rat-lines. That's what I'm talking about," he said. He offered Pat Buckman as an example. Hal thought Pat's "life-saving" statement in front of the cops who arrested him was a "great rat-line," meaning he figured Pat had thought it up ahead of time in case he needed it. I didn't know whether that was true, but, if it was, Pat was a clever fellow.

On some of the cases with Hal, I could only guess about the end game. None of your business, Hal would sometimes say if I asked. I once was assigned by Hal to tail a fellow when he left the Palace Hotel downtown in the morning, follow him, and photograph him. I never found out what it was for.

The man was due out of the New Montgomery Street entrance of the hotel around 9 A.M. An hour before, I perched at a table in the extruding window of the coffee shop across the narrow street from the Palace. I had my Nikon with a big telephoto lens, the guy's name, age, and description, and an 8 x 10 color portrait that I figured came from either his wife or his business partner, whichever was the paying client.

The trouble with surveillance based on one photograph is that everybody you see starts looking very much like your man, in this case a fellow named Larry. When my guy actually came through the revolving doors, after being preceded one at a time by a troupe of doppelgängers, I recognized him immediately--Hey, it's Larry.