A former heavyweight boxing champion is found dead from an apparent heroin overdose. Undertones of organized crime and racial tension rage in Las Vegas. A police informant points a finger at rogue policeman, then is found dead under mysterious circumstances years later. Maneuvering, wrangling and jealousy between the area’s two biggest law enforcement agencies run rampant.
Charles “Sonny” Liston’s death in January 1971 has been chalked up to that accidental overdose. But in The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights (Blue Rider Press; hardback; $27; 304 pages), author and investigative journalist Shaun Assael advances a more sinister theory. Liston, he asserts, was forcibly injected with an overdose of heroin.
“Can you tell me what happened to you, Sonny?” Liston’s widow, Geraldine shouted at his funeral.
That’s the question Assael attempts to answer. He builds his narrative slowly, step by step, taking the reader into the culture that Liston had thrived in during the late 1960s. There are so many seedy characters in this book, it would be easy to point the finger at a number of people — and Assael explores each “suspect” in detail.
But any mystery has a beginning, and Liston lived a hard life from the start. Born in Forrest City, Arkansas, and one of the 25 children fathered by a sharecropper named Tobe Liston — “a miserable miscreant of a man” — Sonny ran afoul of the law as a youth after his mother moved the family to St. Louis in the mid-1940s. He was introduced to boxing by a prison chaplain who was impressed by Liston’s fearsome jab, a left-handed punch that trainer Angelo Dundee compared to “getting hit by a telephone pole.”
But even though Liston had the biggest fists in boxing history, “his fate would always be in someone else’s hands.” Liston won the heavyweight title with a crushing knockout of Floyd Patterson in the first round of their 1962 bout and did the same in the return bout a year later. He lost the title to Cassius Clay (who would become Muhammad Ali) in February 1964, and in the May 1965 rematch at Lewiston, Maine, Liston was knocked out in the first round by what some observers called a “phantom punch.”
Assael writes about a “secret percent theory,” where Liston would receive a cut of Ali’s future earnings in exchange for him taking a dive in the rematch. It was plausible; Liston could settle into semi-retirement and still live a good life on the strength of Ali’s success. But nobody could anticipate Ali’s future controversy over his refusal to be inducted into the military.
Assael writes that Liston’s head told him to stay in his suburban Vegas home and keep his wife happy, but “his heart kept leading him to the boozy, shiftless soul” of the Las Vegas ghetto. He became an enforcer for a drug dealer named Robert Chudnick — also known as jazz musician Red Rodney. In February 1969, Liston was the only person released when police raided and arrested everyone in the home of a beautician/drug dealer named Earl Cage. Chudnick and others in the drug business began to view Liston with distrust, believing he might be a police informant. Apparently, Gage thought so, too.
Liston’s death in 1971 didn’t have the earmarks of a murder. The autopsy was inconclusive, and news reports at the time played up Liston’s descent into drug addiction. Death by overdose seemed to be a natural progression.
But in 1982, a police informant named Irwin Peters claimed that former Vegas cop Larry Gandy had killed Liston. Gandy had been a legend among Las Vegas law enforcement workers, setting up more than 100 drug dealers, gaining their confidence by “shooting up” heroin with them. But Gandy had substituted gel caps filled with maple syrup and swapped them with the real stuff.
He had been fired for insubordination and turned crook, and eventually would be sentenced to 10 years in jail. The sentence was suspended.
Peters, by the way, received an ominous postcard with a picture of a desert and a threat: “This is where you’ll be.” Peters would be found dead in his garage in 1987, his car engine running.
Gandy proved why he was a legend, taking the initiative when Assael knocked at his door.
“Gandy wrapped his thick arm around me and said, ‘So, you’ve come to ask me if I killed Sonny Liston,’” Assael writes.
Assael said Gandy then kept him “spellbound” for the next two hours as he talked about his career and the crimes he later committed. He pointed to Gage as the man who killed Liston.
“As Gandy leaned backward, calm as could be, it suddenly struck me that this was the reason he had invited me into his home,” Assael wrote. “He’d spent the last thirty years trying to outrun Irwin Peters’ allegations.
“Now, while he had a chance, he wanted to offer up his own suspect. A dead beautician.” (Gage died in 2000).
The Murder of Sonny Liston offers up plenty of theories, and Assael is thorough as he sifts through them. In the end, however, Assael is unable to prove anything.
“I believe that finding the killer of Irwin Peters will unravel the real story of what happened to Sonny Liston,” he writes.
That may never happen. But Assael has pulled back the glamorous veneer of Las Vegas to reveal its sordid, seamier side. It’s a fascinating read.