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Abraham Ruef Trials: 1906-08

Reformers Begin To Battle Ruef

But Ruef had also made political enemies along the way, people who wanted to put an end to graft, clean up the city government, and put Ruef behind bars. Chief among them were Fremont Older, managing editor of the San Francisco Bulletin; the former mayor, James Phelan; and Rudolph Spreckels, a sugar tycoon whom Ruef had once crossed, who now offered to underwrite the cost of Ruef's prosecution. With the cooperation of President Theodore Roosevelt, these men brought in the incorruptible federal prosecutor Francis J. Heney to take on Ruef. Heney, in turn, hired the great detective William J. Burns to help him.

William Langdon, the city's honest district attorney, quickly appointed Heney as a special prosecutor. Just as quickly, Ruef got Mayor Schmitz to fire Langdon and to appoint Ruef in his place, but a judge blocked the maneuver as illegal. A few months after the massive earthquake, with the city still in ruins, Heney filed bribery charges against Schmitz and Ruef in connection with the licensing of several "French restaurants"—in reality, brothels. After pleading not guilty to the charges Ruef jumped bail and went into hiding. However, Detective Burns and court officers soon found him and brought him back to court to face trial.

By now the reformers had decided to go after not only the politicians and bosses, but also the businessmen who had bribed them. After all, one can't be bought off without someone doing the buying. Among these were many prominent and popular San Franciscans, and the reformers began to lose public support. Heney offered Ruef a plea bargain in exchange for information about those who had bribed him. Ruef eventually agreed to the plea bargain, but then refused to give Heney any names. Heney retracted the offer and instead charged Ruef with several more counts of bribery and extortion, which caused a public outcry.

At this point, things took a violent turn. Fremont Older, the Bulletin's editor and Ruef's strongest critic, was kidnapped and later released; a prosecution witness's house was blown up; the officer who had discovered Ruef's hideout was found dead floating in San Francisco Bay. During the trial a former convict whom Heney had rejected as a juror, walked up to the prosecutor in the courtroom and shot him in the face, although Heney survived the attack. While he recovered, a young prosecutor named Hiram Johnson filled in for Heney; this was the start of a career that would take Johnson to the governor's office and ultimately to the U.S. Senate.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Abraham Ruef Trials: 1906-08 - Reformers Begin To Battle Ruef, Ruef Is Convicted