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Omaha’s Early Criminal Underworld

Omaha’s Early Criminal Underworld

OMAHA (KPTM)-  It may seem strange to associate ‘Mafia’ with Omaha, but 100 years ago people connected to famous mobsters brought bootleg liquor-gambling-and crime into the city.

Before Omaha was crowded with new restaurants and businesses, shops were fronts for shadier operations that was run by underworld criminals.

“Once upon a time your dad’s business partner was murdered, and five days later he took over the company,” said John Atkins Jr.

Power, infidelity, and money could be some of the reasons why Clarence Hanfelt was killed on his front porch in 1934.

“I’m not saying your dad had anything to do with the murder, but,” said Atkins.

Atkins’ said his father and Hanfelt were in business back in the early 1930s.  The two sold Al Capone’s beer around Omaha until the night Hanfelt was killed.

“Dad and the deceased had an argument at 11:15 that night in their office over $1165 short in the cashbox,” said Atkins.

So who killed Hanfelt?  Was is a disgruntled business partner? A revengeful girlfriend?

Or was it someone else?

“The deceased had two or three ‘friendly females,’ so it could have been a distraught lover,” suggested Atkins.

 In the early 1900's, Omaha was a hot spot for illegal gambling and drinking and was run by Tom Dennison.

“There was a lot of dealing with control-control of the illegal liquor and basically paying tribute to the Dennison machine. And the people that were killed were part of the independent group,” said Jon  L. Blecha.

Blecha recently wrote ‘Cigars and Wires.’  It’s a book that focuses on “Omaha Underworlds early years.”

Blecha said that no crime in the city happened without Dennison knowing it.  Dennison’s path to power was littered with unsolved murders, and he even had connections to the 1919 race riot that killed Willie Brown.

“Corruption naturally reached top police officials, and it also reached prosecutors and judges,” said Blecha.

It wasn’t until 1992 when Dennison and his ‘associates’ were arrested for a liquor scheme, however none were found guilty.

“There was a push to clean up the Dennison machine he just was stepping on too many people’s toes,” said Blecha.

Dennison fell from power and moved out of Omaha.

During the early 1930’s, Atkins’ father’s business was getting more successful, but his partner, Hanfelt was getting harder to manage.

To get the beer into Omaha, it had to go from Canada, to Detroit, and then to Chicago.  Hanfelt and Atkins had an idea to skip all the middlemen.

“Dad and him were going to buy an airplane and bypass the source of beer in Chicago and fly it in from Canada,” said Atkins.

Hanfelt was left for dead for hours on his front porch because one of his girlfriend’s took a secret tunnel into the house.  Atkins’ said there was plenty of time for the murderer to get away.

“The only thing they found were two spent shotgun shells on the front porch where the shotgun laid on the brick wall,” said Atkins.

He said his father took over the business the next day and became wildly successful.

“Dad sold more Hamms beer than Storz brewery,” said Atkins. “More than all three local breweries combined.”

Atkins’ father eventually got out of the beer business, but the murder of his business partner has never been solved.

“Chicago just preferred to do business with dad rather than Clarence,” said Atkins.

Changing attitudes after WWII helped run a lot of the underworld crime out of Omaha. Big bookmakers took their business to Las Vegas.  Many historic night clubs and speakeasy’s are gone, but if you know where to look, there are hints of Omaha’s underworld around today.

To purchase a copy of Blecha’s book, you can visit the Douglas County Historical Website or call Atkins at 402-502-0514.
FOX 42 would like to send a special thank you to the Douglas County Historical Society for its help on this story.

Written By: Maureen Wurtz

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