The money car, a tan-colored Cadillac coupe, left the luxurious and booze-soaked Tijuana gambling resort on a Monday morning in 1929. It never made it to its destination.
Before it could get to a San Diego bank, robbers in a Model A Ford cut it off just past National City.
Those were machine guns, the kind that belonged in Chicago with Al Capone and John Dillinger. Not in San Diego, not this kind of town. At least not until then.
In a flash, three words made the news across the country: Murder. Mobsters. Manhunt.
Who robbed the money car? Where’d they hide? And were the men who owned Agua Caliente — known as “Satan’s Playground” — actually behind the fatal robbery?
These mysteries intrigued Paul Vanderwood, a professor emeritus of Mexican history at San Diego State. In a new book, he examines both the crime and the Agua Caliente resort — notorious, celebrity-infested, stunningly beautiful — that inspired it.
In an interview not far from his La Mesa home, I asked him what he discovered about Tijuana (then a tiny town of a few thousand people) and the corruption-riddled world of San Diego politics while writing “Satan’s Playground: Mobsters and Movie Stars at America’s Greatest Gaming Resort.”
What was Agua Caliente like in the 1920s and 1930s, when it was the place to go in North America?
If you ask most people in Tijuana what it’s most famous for, historically speaking, they’ll say Agua Caliente.
It was a beautiful resort and spa that had many different types of entertainments going on at once: horse racing, dog racing, ostrich racing, bridge tournaments, golf tournaments, just a whole bunch of things at once.
The idea was to get people down there, give them something to do and at the same time give them every opportunity to go into the casino and lose their money.
Agua Caliente helped inspire Las Vegas, right?
It was the prototype for the idea of the complete complex. It had a magnificent swimming pool, bungalows, a large hotel connected to the premises, and you could get there pretty easily by car, by train or even airplane.
This was partly during Prohibition in the United States, when liquor sales were essentially banned.
A lot of people went down there just to have a drink. It was easy to cross the border, and there were lots of things you could buy: the best whiskeys and the best coats. And people devised ways to get them back into the United States.
How luxurious was the resort?
People said it was better than Monte Carlo. The architecture was magnificent. They spent anything that needed to be spent to import chandeliers from Italy, antique furniture from France, hand-painted tiles from Spain. It was a real showcase.
Movie star Mabel Normand was going to the swimming pool and it was rather late at night. By that time, the groundskeepers had spread manure on the grass leading to the swimming pool, and she slipped and fell in it. She said, “I’ve never seen so much shit.” And the gardener answered saying, “Yes, but it’s the best shit that can be found in the world.”
That tells you what Agua Caliente is like: Even the manure is fantastic.
Was it sleazy?
They tried to maintain a fairly upscale atmosphere. But if people went to Agua Caliente in order to live on the low side a bit, they’d go to downtown, to Revolución. That’s where everything was that we think of when we think of the black legend of Tijuana.
What was going on behind the scenes?
The mobsters, who had come out to California about this time from Chicago, had their eye on Agua Caliente.
When one of these criminals gets caught after killing a couple people, he said this money-car robbery was part of a plot launched by the owners of Agua Caliente. They were concerned that the Mexican government might crack down on gambling, so they came up with a plan to rob themselves.
This was a pretty convoluted plot.
Whether this guy was telling the truth or not, we can’t know. What I do in the book is try to examine whether it’s possible that this fantastic story is true — of the owners trying to rob themselves and setting up this scheme to do it.
Could cops be bribed and politicians brought in the fold? I started examining San Diego politics at the time, and sure enough, it was pretty darn corrupt.
What were San Diego politics like back then in terms of corruption?
It was apparently very easy to pay off some politicians. You get a sense that this was going on openly.
In one case, the American Legion was coming to town, a huge convention. But you can’t have the American Legion here without having booze. So it was set up that they’d be provided booze.
It all unraveled when bootleggers who thought that they had the concession to deliver the booze to the American Legion found they’d been circumvented, and they said “Hey, we’re supposed to be giving booze to these guys!”
That led to a grand jury investigation.
The Agua Caliente resort vanished in the late 1930s when the Mexican president banned gambling. What happened?
The new president was a leftist reformer who wanted to change the culture of Mexicans. He wanted them to have good work habits to get out of what he considered to be this lazy attitude and stop drinking.
We can take his word and think that’s what he was trying to do. But his main rival, a former president, was directly connected to Agua Caliente. Closing down Agua Caliente would deprive his major rival of an important source of money.
What do you think about Agua Caliente now?
It’s a place I would like to have known and visited.
— Interview conducted and edited by RANDY DOTINGA