DTLA’s Civic Center tunnels have been used for the secret transportation of mobsters, murderers and more than a billion dollars in cash.
Beneath the busy streets of the City of the Angels is a complex network of pedestrian tunnels that stretch several blocks from Spring and Temple streets to 1st Street and Grand Avenue.
Some of the sections have been fenced off due to earthquake safety issues.
One of the tunnels existed in the early 20th century, connecting a long-gone county jail to a demolished red-sandstone county courthouse.
The surviving passageways run under a clutch of government buildings — the Hall of Justice, the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, the Hall of Records and the Stanley Mosk Courthouse.
Spanish Hall of Records that way.
While Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen was on trial for tax evasion in 1951, he was hustled from the cells in the Hall of Justice through a tunnel under Spring Street to the federal courthouse. Jimmy Lee Smith and Gregory Powell, who were ultimately convicted of the notorious “Onion Field” killing of a Los Angeles policeman, a crime documented in a bestselling book and a movie, were also ferried through the tunnel. For pretrial motions in the 1960s, they were shackled and escorted from the Hall of Justice to the old Hall of Records one street away.
Inquiring tunnel walkers must first find the entrance to the subterranean portal at The LA County Archives and Records Center. The address is 222 N. Hill St., but the facility is underneath the county Hall of Records. One entrance is hidden behind the Hall of Records — an elevator set off by itself, near the sidewalk. I took the other way which is down a loading dock next to Grand Park.
The lighted tunnels are about 12 feet wide and 10 feet high, big enough for a small bulldozer to drive through.
The tunnels have also been used to avoid prying eyes. On Oct. 2, 1960, police and sheriff’s deputies staged “Operation Midnight” through the tunnels, according to Times archives. The county had just moved into the present-day Hall of Administration, and there was a problem. It was right after tax time, and in those days many Angelenos paid their property taxes in cash. The payments were sitting at the old Hall of Records, about two blocks away — and $1 billion in cash and negotiable securities had to be moved safely from the treasurer’s old offices to the new. That Sunday morning, between midnight and 7:30 a.m., the big bundle was moved underground in pushcarts. Howard Byram, who was then the county treasurer and tax collector, and Sheriff Peter Pitchess “had worked three months on top-secret planning,” The Times said. Officers with submachine guns, shotguns and gas grenades guarded the loot while others pushed the carts. As a sheriff’s helicopter hovered, officers on walkie-talkies and bullhorns, above ground and below, kept close tabs on 16 underground checkpoints. “The billion dollars moved as specified [by] a 42-page procedural manual prepared for this operation, the vault doors finally clanged shut in the new building after an uneventful transfer,” The Times reported.
In the early 1970s, murderer Charles Manson’s female followers held a daily vigil outside the Hall of Justice during his trial. They shaved their heads and carved X’s into their foreheads. When the criminal courts building was under construction, the workers sat up on the girders and told the girls about the tunnels. The girls thought it would be a swell way to get Charlie out of town. Luckily, their plan never came to pass.
The Edward Roybal Federal Building is still linked via tunnel to the Metropolitan Detention Center, where federal prisoners are housed. But the federal courthouse on Spring Street and the county criminal courts building on Temple shut the tunnel doors to the Hall of Justice after that venerable building closed in 1994 because of earthquake damage. They haven’t reopened them, and they won’t — for one reason: Tighter security after 9/11.
The chute to nowhere or maybe somewhere?
I only passed three people while making my way through the tunnels. One was a female county worker doing her afternoon underground walking exercise and the other two were county Sheriff’s Deputies making their way to court. None of them seemed to concerned that I was down there snapping photos.
In 2000, I was lucky to get a chance to check out LA’s first subway tunnel underneath 4th and Main (and only four blocks southeast from here) during Heidi Duckler’s Collage Dance Theatre performance, ‘subVersions’. While getting access to that tunnel has become more difficult, these Civic Center tunnels are much more accessible and contain just as many fascinating stories.