“Gangbuster,” tells the story of crusading Denver D.A. Phil Van Cise,

It’s hard to believe that in the 1920s, Denver was one of the country’s biggest crime centers. Under the heavy hand of a mug named Lou Blonger, dozens of grifters operated freely, fleecing dupes in intricate schemes. (Think “The Sting” without Robert Redford and Paul Newman.)

The city was so corrupt that when newly elected District Attorney Phil Van Cise took office, he didn’t tell public officials or the police department about his plan to clean up Denver. Instead, he enlisted the help of Denver’s prominent businessmen to pay for his crusade and hired outsiders to infiltrate gangs and arrest the conmen. He even used a church basement as a lock-up, fearing guards at the local jail would be bribed to release prisoners. Van Cise’s “sting” was intricate enough — and funny enough — to be its own movie.

“Gangbuster” is a two-part story. First, Van Cise successfully cleaned up Denver’s vice. Next, he took on the Ku Klux Klan, and in that he was less successful.

In the mid-1920s, the KKK was powerful enough to elect a governor, a mayor and numerous members of the legislature. These officials promptly fired city and state employees and replaced them with Klan members. Legislators were instructed how to vote. While Van Cise, a one-term DA, failed to make much inroad into the KKK, the Klan, nonetheless, was short-lived in Colorado. Its demise was mostly self-inflicted.

Award-winning author and journalist Alan Pendergast, who wrote investigative stories for Westword for many years, draws heavily on Van Cise’s own book in this engaging and well-written history. The story takes place a century ago, but there are alarming parallels to the rise and power of the Klan to today’s right-wing extremism.

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