The last of Sonny Liston
The final days of Liston’s life, and the controversial police investigation into his death that left critical questions unanswered
On January 5, 1971, Sonny Liston, the former heavyweight champion of the world, was found dead in his home in Las Vegas. In this excerpt from his new book, The Murder of Sonny Liston, ESPN senior writer Shaun Assael recounts the final hectic days of Liston’s life, and the controversial police investigation into his death that left critical questions unanswered.
At about 7:30 p.m. on December 16, 1970, a California Highway Patrol officer was sitting in his cruiser on the San Bernardino Freeway in when he noticed a Cadillac swerving in and out of the eastbound lanes. Flipping on his flashing lights, he pulled behind the Caddy and brought it to a stop on the side of the road. He must not have known who Sonny Liston was, because after he asked for his license, he asked, “What do you do, sir?”
It was then, according to an account in the Los Angeles Sentinel, that Sonny provided the answer “I’m a boxer. Unemployed.”
What a thing to say to a cop! Sonny didn’t say that he was a celebrity, or a businessman, or even an actor, which is what everyone said in L.A. He said he was unemployed. It was a depressing statement, the kind that someone who’d been drinking hard and wallowing in self-pity would say. In fact, the cop described him as being “moody.” That evening he was brought to the Los Angeles PD’s central booking unit and charged with drunken driving. He paid $308 in cash to get out.
Why was he moody? Why wouldn’t he be? Ever since the accident, he hadn’t felt quite right. Not frail, exactly, but not the same intimidating force that he had been. In a weirdly prescient metaphor, Sonny once told The Washington Post: “Fighters are just like cars. You get in a car and put your foot on the pedal down to the floorboard and that car’s not gonna last long. If the car has just one owner and that owner takes it easy, then that car’s gonna last a long time.”
The foot was about as far down on that floorboard as it could go. Sonny had been arrested and hospitalized twice in the space of a month and was probably in California to get the cocaine he’d promised Sutton that he’d bring back. Moody? Damn right he was moody. Here he was, hustling fifty-dollar bags of coke to support himself, and every time he heard another dollar figure thrown around about the Ali-Frazier fight, he got moodier.
Even Geraldine, who managed Sonny better than anybody, was at her wit’s end with his mood swings. Shortly before Christmas, one of his oldest friends, Lowell Powell, a retired St. Louis policeman who’d worked as a bodyguard for Sonny over the years, stopped by the Listons’ home to wish them happy holidays. Sonny wasn’t there. He was at the International. So Powell found himself getting an earful from Geraldine. As he’d later recall to Nick Tosches, Geraldine confided to Powell that she didn’t know what to do anymore because “Sonny has gotten unruly.”
Unruly. There was another word. After all they’d been through together, it must have taken a lot for Geraldine to call her husband that. It suggested that he’d crossed another threshold, perhaps to a place even she couldn’t reach.
The weeks before New Year’s Eve were the one time of year during which the small-town side of Las Vegas came out. The casino executives showed off their families, and celebrities dropped checks on worthy charities as hedonism was put on hold. The showrooms went dark so the show people could rest up for New Year’s and the socialites and clergy briefly took back their town. Amid all the caroling and caterwauling, the Listons tried hard to act like a family. Keeping to tradition, they visited their friends Davey Pearl and Lem Banker, trading gifts and tidings for the coming year. Banker remembers his friend as being upbeat and optimistic.
Yet at the same time, Sonny was having his loudest, most argumentative meetings with his former promoter, Ash Resnick. According to various accounts, the men were seen almost coming to blows at the Stardust Country Club and huddling intensely at the Thunderbird, possibly to negotiate a separation that would end their milky alliance once and for all.
The backdrop to those meetings couldn’t have been coincidental. On Sunday, December 27, the first reports began to surface that Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had agreed to fight at Madison Square Garden for the $2.5 million Perenchio and Cooke guaranteed to each. It was crazy money. And Sonny had to have been feeling flush about it. According to an account rendered by the writer Paul Gallender, he called his old friend in Chicago, Barney Baker, and told him that he was about to come through town with $20,000 to repay an old loan. “He said, ‘Barney, be at the airport because from there I gotta be someplace,’” Baker recalled.
Where would he have suddenly gotten $20,000 when he was hustling fifty-dollar bags of coke?
Geraldine was itching to get out of town, possibly so she wouldn’t have to see whatever her husband felt that he had to do next. On Christmas Eve she flew to St. Louis to be with her family. When she landed, she called Sonny to tell him she’d arrived safely.
The next day Sonny made a round of calls to family and friends, then bought himself the Christmas Day present of two buxom white showgirls he brought to the Town Tavern on Jackson Street. In a corner booth he spied Clyde Watkins and strolled over to him with the girls. “What are you doin’ later?” Watkins asked him.
“Coming to your house to eat,” Sonny joked, placing his huge hands on his back.
“He looked like he always looked,” Watkins would recall, waiving off any suggestion that his friend was strung out. “I didn’t see much different about him.”
To judge from Watkins’s recollection, Sonny was feeling good, possibly for the first time in months. Not only was he expecting some kind of windfall, new opportunities were opening up for him in Hollywood.
More than forty years later, a post in a chat room thread would offer a detailed accounting of his next few days. The poster, using an anonymous handle, would recall that Sonny had breakfast on the morning of Monday, December 28, with Pearl at Harry’s, a breakfast joint on the east side, at which time they went over plans for him to referee a fight in Japan.
According to the post, he returned back home later that morning and called his sparring partner Gary Bates to tell him he was leaving for Los Angeles but that they should get together when he returned in a couple of days. (In an interview before his death in 2014, Bates confirmed this to me.) In the early afternoon, he set off for L.A. in his new Cadillac.
The anonymous post cited phone records from Sonny’s car telephone as showing that he made two calls to Geraldine, one to Paramount Studios, where he was headed for a meeting, and several to the International. By 8:30 in the evening he’d reached L.A. and had dinner at the Biltmore Hotel with his talent agent. According to what the poster said he was told by the hotel’s bartender, the men had their last drink at about 11:30 p.m.
The post also cites “hotel valet records” as showing that the next day Sonny took a cab to Paramount Studios, where he attended a 3:30 meeting with the casting director, Jim Merrick. According to the poster, Merrick’s office confirmed the meeting and the studio’s front gate logbook showed that it lasted until 5:30 p.m. Sonny then took a cab back to the hotel, where front desk records purportedly showed that he checked out after midnight for the long drive back to Las Vegas.
If the information is true—and it seems too weirdly specific to be made up of whole cloth—Sonny would have been back at his house by the time the sun was rising up over the desert on Wednesday, December 30.
At this point the plot thickens, because according to a story that was subsequently printed in the Sun, one of the last persons to see Sonny alive was an “undercover narcotics agent” who stopped by Ottawa Drive on December 30.
The story doesn’t identify the agent, much less what was said. When I asked Dick Robinson, then the head of the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs’ office in Vegas, what he thought, he replied, “Maybe it was something simple, like a guy just wanted to shoot the shit about boxing.” His tone, however, suggested he didn’t actually believe that.
“There weren’t but ten people who were working drug cases back then,” Robinson went on, and he included himself. But he said he wasn’t anywhere near Sonny’s home on that day, and the BNDD field agent who was working for him, John Sutton, was already back in Los Angeles. Karl Albright, then a sergeant with the sheriff’s department who worked closely with Robinson, told me that he didn’t visit Liston. And Gary Beckwith, one of the deputies who worked for him, insisted that he wasn’t near Ottawa Drive that day and didn’t know anyone on the sheriff’s force who ever admitted that he was.
There were a half-dozen people on the Las Vegas Police Department who also could have fit the description of an “undercover narcotics agent.” But in the end, the candidate who makes the most sense is the one who’d fallen the farthest.
After his humiliating loss to Lamb, there was nowhere for John Sleeper to go but down. Not only was he demoted to a desk job on the graveyard shift, he got demoted again, this time to a mere patrolman. In a few weeks he was going to quit the force to manage a gas station.
It’s easy to imagine him stopping by to break the news to Sonny and tell him something like “You’re going to be on your own now.” But given what was about to happen, maybe there was more to it. Maybe he’d heard something that he felt he had to tell Sonny—something urgent. Sleeper may have been a marked man on the police force, but he still had his ear to the ground. Maybe he’d heard that someone was planning on having Sonny killed.
It’s not nearly as far-fetched as an undercover narc just dropping by to talk boxing. And it would tie together a lot of loose ends. But whether the secret source was John Sleeper or not, this much is clear: Sonny had a lot to worry about.
He was worried about whether his body could handle another fight and, if not, what he was going to do next. He was worried about his junkie mistress and the drugs they were doing together. He was worried about Red Rodney and Earl Cage and, now that Sleeper was out of the picture, whether he could still count on friendly treatment from the LVPD. He was worried about his gambling debts and his bank account and whether Ali was going to keep his end of whatever bargain they’d struck. When he was sober enough to remember he had a seven-year-old kid, he worried about Daniel and how he was growing up. And, Lord knows, he worried about Geraldine, who worried enough for the two for them. By the afternoon of December 30, Sonny had a great deal of worry on his mind.
There is a famous story that Geraldine would tell about being asleep at her mother’s home on December 28 when she was startled awake by a dream. “[Sonny] was falling in the shower and calling my name, ‘Gerry, Gerry!’” she told the writer William Nack. “I got real nervous. I told my mother, ‘I think something’s wrong.’”
But how worried was she, exactly?
As she explained it, she kept trying and trying Sonny without success through New Year’s Eve. But despite the fact she hadn’t heard from him in three days, it took her another five days to fly home with Daniel.
Other odd events prevented Sonny from being found. His trainer, Johnny Tocco, claimed that he was excited that Sonny had promised to come to a New Year’s Eve party he was throwing at his gym for boxers and their wives instead of a glitzier one that Sonny had been invited to at Caesars. But when Sonny didn’t show close to midnight, Tocco said he called him without getting an answer and tried again at 2:00 a.m. Yet he also didn’t seem to be in any rush to get to Ottawa Drive. Instead, the discovery of Sonny had to wait until Geraldine flew home with Daniel on January 5 and stepped into the living room thinking the foul smell that hit her was food left burning on the stove.
“I went in the kitchen and didn’t see anything,” she’d say. “So I went a few more steps up to the bedroom.” And that was when she saw her husband lying against the bed, blood covering an undershirt that barely covered his bloated body.
While no one has ever suggested that Geraldine had anything to do with the death of her husband, in the decades that followed she never gave an entirely convincing account of why she reacted as she did, either. According to a report from the Las Vegas Police Department, she dashed out of the bedroom and drove a half mile to a friend’s home, where she “was observed by the people there to be in a very hysterical manner.” According to the LVPD, she spent more than ninety minutes trying to reach Sonny’s doctor before heading back to Ottawa Drive with her friend.
It was not until 11:00 p.m. —more than two hours after she found the body—that Geraldine finally reached a doctor. And twenty minutes later he was in the Listons’ bedroom, looking over the body and confirming what she already knew: Sonny was way past dead.
Geraldine’s first call to the police did not come until 11:59 p.m. Clyde Watkinsan old friend who worked as a bellman at Caesars, says that he heard about it from a friend on the police force not long after. He claims that he grabbed up Joe Louis and Ash Resnick from the floor at Caesars and raced to Ottawa Drive in time to meet the cops.
“Me, Louis, Ash—we all went to Sonny’s house,” Watkins told me. “Ash drove because I was in shock, and when we got there, there were nine or ten people there, mostly police. Ash and Joe went first and I went behind them. I got to peek up the stairs [as paramedics were lifting Sonny onto a gurney] and I could see Sonny’s leg and his arm was all swollen.” The men stayed about twenty minutes and then left.
The sheriff’s department report makes no mention of Resnick, Louis, or Watkins being at the scene. Craig Lovato, who was part of the first-response team, recalls that three officers were present when he arrived and was directed to the bedroom. “Sonny was loaded up real bad,” he told me. “His feet were still on the ground and the gases that built up all went into his penis so it was all swelled up and standing up straight.”
Lovato said he looked in the bathroom and found a case of works, leading him to believe that Sonny had shot up and then stumbled back before collapsing backward on the bed. But the overdose theory didn’t really gain currency until a detective sergeant identified as S. Lemmon went to the kitchen to use a wall phone and claimed to see something on the kitchen counter: A “small green balloon partially open” with a “white powdery substance.”
What’s odd about the discovery is that Geraldine had been in the house for nearly three hours, with ample time to remove anything incriminating. Why would she leave a balloon of heroin out in plain view in the kitchen? The most plausible answer is that she didn’t: one of the cops planted it.
Why would they do that? Robinson, the BNDD’s Las Vegas station chief, told me that he knew Sonny kept drugs outside the house, in a loose stone in the outdoor fireplace, because one of his informants told him so. Others in the sheriff’s department and the LVPD knew it, too. Cops cut so many procedural corners back then, no one would have thought twice about planting a balloon of heroin so they could get a search warrant for Sonny’s real stash. It would also explain why Geraldine, faced with this final indignity, didn’t lift a finger to help them. “Due to Mrs. Liston’s apparent shock over the death of her husband, [we] were unable to interview her for further information,” one of the officers wrote.
While the cops were hovering around Geraldine, paramedics struggled to get Sonny’s corpse from the bedroom to the ambulance below. After they fit it on a gurney, one of the paramedics slipped going down the stairs and it went tumbling off. By the time they got outside and started to lift it into their ambulance, a crowd of neighbors began to form. Once again Sonny’s weight proved too much, and the gurney tipped over, sending him into a sewer grate.
The patrolman Max Huggins was making his way through the crowd that had gathered when he ran into the neighbor of the Listons who’d previously complained to him about the raucous parties that Sonny threw when Geraldine was away. “I told you he’d wind up in the gutter,” she said, snarling at Huggins.
On Tuesday, January 5, the Clark County coroner announced that his official autopsy couldn’t pinpoint a cause of death for Sonny. While there could be a link to “possible” needle marks on Sonny’s arms, he said, toxicology tests needed to be done before he could be any more conclusive. The Sun, with its taste for scandal, cut to the heart of the matter with a blaring headline, “Probe Reveals Liston Possible Narco Victim,” and this story:
The lonely death of former world heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston, 38, may have been caused by an overdose of heroin, the Clark County Sheriff’s Department reported yesterday.
Dept. Capt. Gene Clark said punctures, which may have been needle tracks, were noticeable on Liston’s brawny arms. A quarter ounce of heroin in a balloon was found in the kitchen of his home, and a half an ounce of marijuana in the pocket of a pair of pants near his body, said Clark. There was no evidence of foul play, Clark added . . .
An autopsy yesterday did not immediately disclose the cause of death. Tissue and body fluid samples were taken for toxicological and microscopic examination, but these tests will not be completed for several days.
At the funeral on Saturday, January 9, Geraldine was inconsolable. “I can’t even see his face. Oh, Jesus,” she said, rocking back and forth in an anteroom of the chapel behind her husband’s silver casket with Daniel at her side. Then she broke free and screamed, “Can you tell me what happened to you, Sonny?”
It was just the beginning of the strange goings-on over Sonny’s lifeless body. The funeral itself was a crush. Between seven hundred and a thousand mourners were trying to get seats in a mortuary that fit four hundred. Joe Louis, one of six pallbearers, was the only heavyweight champion there and came late because, as he explained, he was shooting craps and “Sonny would understand.”
According to Lem Banker, Ash stayed away from the funeral because he wanted to avoid questions. There was no sign of Sonny’s tall white mistress, although she may have been on the fringes, her junkie eyes hidden under thick mascara and her big breasts covered by the mink coat Sonny had bought her. Sonny’s friends from Jackson Street said their good-byes to him over shots at Love’s Cocktail Lounge. None of them wanted to be around because they were all afraid they would come under suspicion. But suspicion of what?
The service was conducted by one of Sonny’s most ardent believers, Edward Murphy of the St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Denver. It had been Father Murphy who’d taken Sonny under his wing a decade earlier, after he’d run into trouble, and watched him train at the Mother Cabrini Shrine. Those inclined to be suspicious of boxing thought of Father Murphy as a “house priest” whose job was to clean Sonny up so he could face Patterson in 1962. But he was earnest and caring and one of the best friends Sonny ever had, and certainly he was the only one to ever say, “Sonny will do very well. I have no worries about him at all. I just have that confidence.”
From the dais, Father Murphy gave a moving account of their friendship. “I was able to help Sonny several times,” he said, wiping back tears. “I was able to help him so many times that I was criticized by some of my closest friends. I got some praise. I care little for praise, and not at all for criticism. It was my privilege to show my friendship. We should only speak good of the dead: it is a dogma of the Church and Almighty God is all-merciful.” He ended by saying: “Sonny had qualities most people don’t know about.”
After the ceremony was done, a procession of Cadillacs followed Sonny’s hearse down the Strip. Noticing that the police were escorting it through stoplights, Mike Parkhurst, who’d finished filming the last scenes for his movie, Moonfire, turned to Joe Louis and quipped: “Sonny would appreciate we’re going through red lights without getting a ticket.”
At the gravesite, Geraldine was still so shaken that she stayed in the car, entrusting two of her friends to hold Daniel’s hands as he watched the only father he had ever known lowered into the ground. It was a somber moment, but when planes taking off from McCarran Airport drowned out the prayers, Parkhurst turned to Louis again. He’d already scribbled out his own epitaph for his friend—one that would also serve as promotional copy for his movie: “Liston could scowl as hard as any man in or out of the ring. And, of course, he invented the big stare. . . . But Sonny’s humor, warmth and smile, known only to those close to him, come through [on film]. The audience can now share a part of The Man who was all-too-human out of the ring and off the screen.”
His capitalization of “The Man” wasn’t accidental. He suggested to Geraldine that Sonny’s gravestone simply read “A Man” because he felt it summed up all his simplicity and contradictions. His hope that audiences would flock to what he described as Liston’s “first and last dramatic role” was a bit optimistic. Still, he felt lucky for the friendship.
“I know why Sonny liked this spot,” he told Louis. “From here, he can look up the stewardesses’ skirts.”
It took until January 19, 1971—precisely two weeks after Sonny’s body was discovered—for this press release to be issued:
Clark County Coroner Mark E. Herman, M.D., ruled today that former heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston died of natural causes and listed lung congestion as the immediate cause of death. Dr. Herman . . . said the pulmonary congestion and edema was due to probable myocardial anoxia or poor oxygen supply to heart muscles and a coronary insufficiency, or insufficient supply of nutrient blood to heart muscles. “The autopsy and microscopic and toxicological examinations failed to provide an exact cause of the shortage of nutrient blood and oxygen to the heart muscles,” Dr. Herman said.
The coroner acknowledged that “traces” of morphine and codeine, the by-products of heroin, were found in Sonny’s body tissue. He also conceded that needle punctures “could not be excluded as a cause” of the scars. But he decided that the drugs in Sonny’s system were “not in sufficient amounts that could be considered as causing death.”
There it stood. The official finding was natural causes.
And it would stay that way until, a decade later, an unlikely figure would come forward with an account that would reveal an even more sordid chapter of crime and corruption.