The 1944 murder of Phoenix Police Officer David "Star" Johnson by Detective "Frenchy" Navarre is well-known to regular readers here (if you're new, you can read this real-life-pulp-fiction tale here). For years, the police department and city tried to forget the incident — and subsequent retribution by Johnson's partner in killing Navarre — not least because of its racial component. Johnson and his partner, Joe Davis, were black. Navarre was white.
Now that it's more in the open, Johnson deserves to be recognized by the department as an in-the-line-of-duty death.
But mysteries continue to linger about the shooting on May 2, 1944 in the Deuce, and the cascade effect it had, resulting in two trials, Navarre's acquittal, and Davis taking revenge inside police headquarters. For example, how did Navarre post bail of $10,000 after his arrest on a city detective's modest pay?
A big part of the answer is that Navarre was friends with Gus Greenbaum, the high-ranking member of the Chicago Outfit who had been posted to Phoenix in 1928 and later became infamous at Las Vegas casinos and the victim of a high-profile assassination in Palmcroft in 1958.
Indeed, Navarre was friendly with the Phoenix underworld and perhaps even a part of it. The relationship went back to Prohibition, when the Outfit was gaining control over Phoenix organized crime and Frenchy became friendly with a prominent bootlegger. He was one of several detectives who watched over the red-light district, making sure the brothels and gambling dens paid their protection money.
At one time, he lived above a bar with a gambling — technically illegal in Arizona. Yet he vouched for the establishment, went downstairs to watch people gamble, but told superiors if such activities were going on he would know about it. His stepdaughter told me, "Frenchy told (my mother) the people who complained to the police were losers who felt they had been ripped off. He said the winners never complained and nobody made the losers gamble, so if they lost it was their own fault."
He dressed in the finest suits, silk ties, and shoes, picked out at Goldwater's or custom made by a tailor — and he never had to pay for them. Barry and Bob Goldwater, along with their friend jeweler and political powerhouse Harry Rosenzweig, were long rumored to have mob connections. At the least, as one historian told me, Barry reveled in running with the fast crowd.
Leonce Navarre was nicknamed Frenchy because he came from New Iberia, Louisiana, and still spoke in a Cajun accent. He didn't drink or smoke. When he set his cap on an attractive young woman working at as a waitress, he called her "cher." He was married at the time, and although a Roman Catholic he divorced his wife to marry her.
Her daughter (Frenchy's stepdaughter) said she never saw evidence of Frenchy having a temper or being more racist than any white American of his era. Indeed, when his scorned wife came to the young woman's house and threatened them with Frenchy's .38, he calmly disarmed her. An aside: When Frenchy and his soon-to-be-wife went to Reno for a quickie divorce, they saw Gus Greenbaum lose $30,000 on one turn of the wheel.
When Frenchy was arrested following the shooting of Johnson, several men were seen arguing at police headquarters. The dispute: Who would get to pay cash for Frenchy's bail. In mob world, it is an honor to be the one who actually bails out a comrade. Cash was paid for his lawyers, as well.
"Frenchy never paid a cent for his defense," his stepdaughter wife told me. "Men would come to the house late at night, and, with their faces shielded, would hand Frenchy or Mother wads of bills and leave without saying a word."
After he was killed, the Outfit paid for an expensive spray of flowers on his coffin.
Another mystery is the rumor that Frenchy had a contract on him and Johnson and Davis were carrying it out. In the trials, Navarre claimed self-defense, saying Johnson was going for his service revolver. (Remember, however, that Navarre didn't simply fire once but followed the wounded Johnson down Jefferson Street and into the El Rancho Cafe, repeatedly shooting him in the back).
If true, was the source of the hit organized crime or high-ranking members of the police department? Apparently Navarre had made enemies. His stepdaughter maintains the hit came from elements in the Phoenix Police. On the other hand, at one point before the 1944 shooting, the chief put Navarre in uniform walking back and forth in front of Valley National Bank, to protect him in one of the most well-trafficked part of downtown.
After he was killed, Frenchy's new wife attended Davis' trial. "She said she felt very sorry for Davis BECAUSE Johnson and Davis held a contract to kill Frenchy," the stepdaughter said. "When Johnson and Davis saw Frenchy on the street as they were walking their beat, Johnson said, 'There's Frenchy. Let's get him.' Davis backed out and said he would watch from the drugstore, which he did." By this telling, both men would face retribution if they didn't kill Frenchy.
Much of this contradicts some of the facts brought out at Navarre's trial, which seemed to indicate the argument with Johnson was spontaneous. And that Johnson approached him because he allegedly ran a stop sign. Later, Davis said he couldn't have faced the black community if he didn't avenge Johnson's murder.
It could, however, help explain Davis' extremely lenient sentence.
The preponderance of the facts, however, indicate that Johnson and Davis, two popular uniformed officers, were "making waves in a dirty little business” of prostitution and gambling protected by the detectives, as Joe Island, an African-American officer put it.
The result was two dead cops, another's career ruined, and lingering questions.
My book, A Brief History of Phoenix, is available to buy or order at your local independent bookstore, or from Amazon.
Read more Phoenix history in Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.