2005-04-15 23:39:34 UTC
Bourbon Street hustler plays last con game
93-year-old career criminal dies on day of his sentencing
Friday, April 15, 2005
By Michael Perlstein, Staff writer
The long arm of the law caught up with Mitchell Schwartz Sr. many times
during his eight-decade criminal career, but it could never quite keep
its grip on him. His final run-in with authorities was no different.
Schwartz, 93, died Wednesday, the same day he was to be sentenced in
federal court for running a French Quarter con game and paying police
for protection. It would be the last scam in a lifetime of them, the
final act of lawlessness in a career that began with bootlegging in the
early 1930s and ended in a Bourbon Street souvenir shop that served as a
front for a tourist hustle known as "Razzle."
Family members said Schwartz passed away peacefully at a nursing home
at about 9 a.m., about the same time he would have been forced to
shuffle up to the bench of a federal judge to take his legal medicine.
Schwartz pleaded guilty in July to conspiracy to protect illegal
gambling, confessing that he paid bribes to at least one New Orleans
Given Schwartz's age and infirmity, it was likely that he would have
received probation, but the effects of a stroke he suffered shortly
after his guilty plea didn't allow it. His final days were spent
awaiting one last court date as he went from his home to the hospital
and, finally, Ferncrest Manor in eastern New Orleans.
Schwartz's wife of 36 years, Irene, was with him the night before he
died. She said he was remorseful, mainly for putting her through the
tough times of having a criminally inclined husband who spent much of
his life in prison.
"He kept worrying about whether I was going to be all right," she said.
"His last words, I'll never forget, 'Are you going to be all right?' And
he kept talking about money. That's Mitch, talking about money up until
the last words. He wanted to make sure I was taken care of."
A slight man with a sharp cynical wit, Schwartz was a classic old-school
"wise guy," sporting a rap sheet that included a 1930 burglary arrest, a
1942 sodomy conviction, a 1946 conviction for possession of a Thompson
machine gun and a 1976 conviction for selling drugs stolen in pharmacy
burglaries. He was sentenced at the age of 64 to 40 years on the drug
conviction -- which surely would have been, in effect, a life sentence
-- but he was pardoned by then-Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1984 because of his
He did not spend his remaining 20 years idling away in an easy chair.
Shortly after his 1984 release from prison, he opened Happy Days, a
souvenir shop at 335 Bourbon. He worked 365 days a year trying to make a
living selling T-shirts and Mardi Gras beads, but a combination of
boredom, temptation and his con-artist connections lured him back to the
wrong side of the law.
So, along with co-defendant Terrence "Scotty" Border, he set up a
gambling game in the back of his store to fleece tourists. Razzle Dazzle
is an old arcade scam that lures unwitting victims into a rigged betting
scheme. Once popular at old-style carnival midways, the game relies on
slick-talking barkers to convince players that a big payoff is just one
bet away. Of course, being a scam, the big payoff never comes.
After a string of complaints by victims and a series of gambling arrests
in the mid-1990s that never went anywhere in court, the Louisiana State
Police and FBI began investigating the game last year. Using undercover
state troopers posing as victims, authorities infiltrated the game and
developed information that the scam was being protected by New Orleans
As a result, four officers were reassigned while under investigation,
but two of those officers were eventually cleared. Patrol officers
Charles Loescher and Michael Eskine remain under investigation and
assigned to desk duty pending the outcome, spokesman Capt. Marlon
Defillo said Thursday.
Border, 63, a career "carny" with 15 aliases, five Social Security
numbers and convictions in at least seven states, was sentenced in
December to 36 months' probation on the federal conspiracy charge. In
state court, Border was sentenced to eight months in prison after
pleading guilty to theft, racketeering and illegal possession of
Schwartz never made it back to court, but he constantly complained about
his illness and the stress he felt as a result of the case. His wife
thinks Schwartz's agitation came more from the fact that his lifestyle
was hampered because he was, yet again, under the scrutiny of the law.
"Not being able to get around and work, that did him in right there,"
she said. "He liked to go 24 hours a day. That was Mitch. He lived a
long life, full of action. It's been a roller-coaster ride the whole way."
As Schwartz himself said in an interview last year, "I used to a
gangster. So what? I did what I wanted to do."