► “Boise Underworld” Anti-Gay Witchhunt Begins: 1955. Terrible crimes were being committed in Boise, Idaho. Vernon Cassel, Ralph Cooper and Charles Brokaw were arrested and confessed to their crimes: sex acts wth at least ten local underage teenagers. Cooper, 33, had an arrest record that went back twenty years. He was quickly sentenced to life in the state pen, without the benefit of a lawyer. Ada County probation officer Emery Bess told the local newspaper that the investigation had only “scratched the surface” of a larger ring of several adults allegedly molesting hundreds of teens.
Boise was a rather quiet town of 50,000, the kind of place in which everyone knew just about everyone else. News of the arrests sent shock waves through the city. The next day, an editorial in the normally mild-mannered Idaho Evening Statesman quickly amped the panic:
Crush the MonsterDisclosure that the evils of moral perversion prevail in Boise on an extensive scale must come as a distinct and intensely disagreeable shock to most Boiseans. It seems almost incredible that any such cancerous growth could have taken roots and developed in our midst. … the situation is one that causes general alarm and calls for immediate and systematic cauterization.The situation might be dismissed with an expression of regret and a sigh of relief if only one could be quite sure that none other than these three men and these 10 boys have been infected by the monstrous evil here.But the responsible court officer says that only the surface has been scratched and that “partial evidence has been gathered showing that several other adults and about 100 boys are involved.” So long as any such possibility exists, there can be no rest. …Until the whole sordid situation is completely cleared up, and the premises thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, the job is one in which the full strength of county and city agencies should and must be enlisted. That’s what we demand: and that’s what we expect.
The three more arrests followed two weeks later: a respected lawyer, a teacher, the vice president of Idaho First National Bank, the city’s largest bank. With the second round of arrests, the Statesman followed with another alarmist editorial:
This Mess Must Be Removed
The decent foundations of the Boise community were jolted beyond description recently withthe arrest of three local men on morals charges involving young boys. It did not seem possible that this community ever harbored homosexuals to ravage our youth. Yet it was true as confessions of both men and young boys made disgustingly clear.…It might not be a bad idea for Boise parents to keep an eye on the whereabouts of their offspring. To date a number of boys have been victimized by these perverts. The greatest tragedy of all is that fact that young boys so involved grow into manhood with the same inclinations of those who are called homosexuals.No matter what is required, this sordid mess must be removed from this community.
Parents did respond, by calling the police and high school officials with names of men they found suspicious: the man who paused to look at a football practice, men who were involved with youth groups, single men with no girlfriends. Calls overwhelmed the switchboards for the police, sheriff’s office, prosecuting attorney’s office, and the Statesman. Those calls led to more arrests. On December 12, Time magazine took the panic nationwide. In a story titled “Idaho Underworld,” Time wrote that the city “had sheltered a widespread homosexual underworld that involved some of Boise’s most prominent men and had preyed on hundreds of teen-age boys for the past decade.” On December 22, the city council hired William Fairchild, who had previously worked at the State Department rooting out gay people as part of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “lavender scare” a few years earlier, to head up Boise’s witch hunt. Fairfchild quickly expanded the investigation with a list of five hundred suspected gay men.
More arrests followed, and with each arrest came more names and more arrests. The terror among gay men led many of them to abruptly pack up and leaving town. (In one famous example, a teacher left so quickly upon reading the news that he left his half-eaten eggs on the breakfast table.) And by now, there was little concern whether the crimes were with teens or between consenting adults. In the end, sixteen were arrested and charged, and only four of them were charged with crimes against minors. The others were charged with “infamous crimes against nature” with other consenting adults. As for the minors themselves, most of them ranged from high school age up to twenty-one years old. Court testimony revealed that they were gang members, either hustling, robbing, or blackmailing their sexual targets. This gave rise to numerous proposals for social programs to rehabilitate the youths and provide them with more respectable means of earning money.
But the sentiment was very different for the men who were caught up in the witch hunt. For them, the cry was the lock them up and throw away the key. Fifteen of the sixteen were found guilty and given prison terms. Meanwhile, accusations and counter-accusations mounted, and many of them took on darker political undertones. The Statesman entering a running battle with the reform-minded mayor and specific members of the City Council. But by mid-1956, the investigation wound down, partly because of a lack of evidence to support some of the wild accusations, partly because of credibility problems with some of the gang members whose testimony was critical, partly because the national attention paid to Boise was becoming an embarrassment, and partly because Boiseans themselves began to feel that the investigations were going too far.
In the end, 1,472 people had been interviewed, countless lives were ruined, and a generally threatening cloud hung over Boise. That cloud would not go away for many more years to come. When CBS broadcast its 1967 hit piece, The Homosexuals (see Mar 7), Boise was singled out for “illustrat(ing) the fact that homosexuality cannot be stamped out; that it is everywhere, not just in the big cities.”
The scandal may have had a lasting effect of another kind. Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), left the Senate in disgrace after his arrest for soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport mens room, was ten years old and growing up on a ranch about an hour and a half northwest of Boise. When asked to respond to allegations that while attending college at the University of Idaho in 1967, he hit on another male student who was pledging to Craig’s fraternity, Craig denied it: “I’m not gay, and I don’t cruise, and I don’t hit on men. … don’t go around anywhere hitting on men, and by God, if I did, I wouldn’t do it in Boise, Idaho! Jiminy!”