True Crime: A Prosecutor Travels Through Life

Don Cohen Don Cohen  |  03.06.2014

Inside the Meanderthal’s front door is a destination map of North America that’s almost completely filled in (including Nova Scotia and Alaska!).  As Bob Thaller points to each state it’s pretty clear that there’s going to be at least one or two stories about an adventure there.  And with so many stories and so much information, it’s not surprising that between a small traveling notepad and his equally engaging wife Esther, that any gaps in memory will be quickly filled in.

Bob and Esther live a life that their non-RV friends describe as heroic.  It’s hard to argue.  How about motorhoming in Australia and New Zealand?  The New Zealand trip also included swinging hammers for a Habitat for Humanity project.  Sky diving? Check.  Scuba diving? Yep. Bungee jumping? Of course.

With a pleasingly resonant voice, Bob eases into one of many stories, “Our first RV experience was years ago. We had to go to a wedding in St. Louis one summer and thought it would be fun to take the kids in a motorhome.  They hated it and we loved it.”  Finishing the sentence, Esther adds, “So it was something we always felt we’d do someday when we retired.”

For Bob and Esther, the defining moment came years later as they stepped out of a movie theater after seeing “American Beauty.”  In the film Kevin Spacey asks Annette Benning, “Are we having fun yet?”  And using those exact words Bob turned to Esther, set retirement plans in gear, and the hunt for their first motorhome began (a Itasca Suncruiser).  They’re now on their second coach and are equally at home in their Itasca Horizon as they are in their Los Angeles home just a couple of blocks from the 20th Century Fox studios where Bob spent the final part of his law career as head of the litigation department.

Of course there are stories of Hollywood deals and names like George Lucas and Linda Evans find their way into Bob’s tales.  All the while Esther smiles, nods and occasionally interjects to adjust the facts or block off a left turn into another equally entertaining story.

The Hollywood stories are fun, but the richest vein of tales to be mined is during the time where Bob spent the bulk of his career as a federal prosecutor.

One of his first assignments was the result of a political deal cut between Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen.  The last vestige of the McCarthy witch hunt still lingered on with the Subversive Activities Control Board to which Bob had been assigned.  There was some political pressure to keep that board alive for prosecuting communists who, ironically only remained so in name only because the FBI was paying their membership dues.  America had moved on, but the old prosecutorial machinery still occasionally cranked the rusting teeth of its gears around with pointless results and Bob made a courageous decision to say: enough!  Fortunately his superiors at the Justice Department agreed, the gears stopped, and Bob was reassigned.

Bob was part of the team that prosecuted the bribery case of WW Baron, the former governor of West Virginia.  Of all the people tried, all were found guilty except the governor. Save for the governor’s acquittal it was a reasonably successful outcome. Shortly after the trial the jury foreman was spotted driving a new Cadillac.  Something didn’t add up and sure enough it turned out that the governor’s wife had bribed the foreman to insure a not guilty verdict for her husband.  Ultimately, a deal was cut that put the governor in prison instead of his wife where he ultimately died behind bars.

Few can also lay claim that they shut down the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas which is another great story in Bob’s collection.  The Feds had uncovered a skimming operation that was concealing casino revenue that they were making off of high rollers.  The hotel was raided and the credit data seized making it impossible to operate the casino.  The hotel manager pleaded to keep access to the credit records open while the investigators went through the files.  Bob reluctantly agreed, and only after the records were secured, hours later, the casino re-opened.  After the skimming was exposed the manager committed suicide.

There were the cases of the astronaut who fronted a shady Central American business deal and of organized crime prosecutions in Miami.  The most famous of those was Bob’s indictment of famed “accountant to the mob” Meyer Lansky.  Though Lansky never lived long enough to be prosecuted, he was ultimately arrested when he was forced to return to the US.  Because of poor health, Lansky was never tried and ultimately died.

Of all of Bob’s stories, there is one that stands out about a hood named Gerald Di Nonno.  It’s a tale worthy of a Hollywood screenplay about a guy with movie star good looks and an a penchant for homicidal solutions. A car blows up outside a bank in Las Vegas killing the driver.  A notorious madam is burned alive tied to a chair in the desert.  A wealthy widow shows up in pieces packed in a suitcase dredged up in a trawler’s net off the coast of Florida. And a Tijuana dentist selling heroin gets busted by DEA agents, all of whom, in turn, get arrested by the Mexican police.  Death penalties are on the table.  Deals are cut. And Di Nonno seemingly vanishes from sight.  Now that’s a story.

At moments Esther looks as if she wants Bob to reel in his long string of tales, but in other moments she’s happy to prompt him to continue.  In their nearly fifty years of marriage one can easily see that it’s been a great life adventure.  And there’s a lot of love there too as Esther gently sets her hand on Bob’s arm or shoulder and he occasionally turns to her for a quick memory prompt. And just like you’d expect in someone’s home, there are magnets holding family pictures fast to the refrigerator door inside their Itasca Horizon.  Mixed in with snapshots from their travels are pictures of their grown children Laura and Eric.  It’s clear that they’re a close and very handsome family.

Traveling to Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and all across North America, the Thallers have lived, by any measure, a full and rich life.  They have learned what many of their globetrotting peers have not, about the richness, personal connections and deep friendships that comes with travel by motorhome. And the stories.  Oh the stories!  Bob thinks there’s a book’s worth, and upon hearing just a few of them one would agree.  But the book’s still on the back burner as there are miles ahead and new stories yet to be collected and soon to be told.

 


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