Chester Wheeler Campbell’s entrance onto the public stage nearly 40 years ago had a made-for-the-movies quality about it.
Speeding down Orchard Lake Road in suburban Detroit in the early morning hours of Feb. 6, 1975, Campbell nearly crashed into an oncoming Keego Harbor police car and kept going. After Campbell exited his rented Olds 98 Regency following a brief chase, squad cars from two other police departments in Oakland County showed up, and he was arrested.
The contents of Campbell’s vehicle made it clear that a very dangerous man had stumbled into police custody.
The haul including pistols, rifles and shotguns, some loaded, some with the serial numbers removed; shoulder holsters, boxes of ammunition, a police scanner, heroin, fake ID, and nearly $4,000 in cash. Inexplicitly, Campbell also had copies of grand jury transcripts.
Even more worrisome to police, however, were the notebooks found in Campbell’s car.
Among the roughly 300 hand-written names was L. Brooks Patterson, the current Oakland County Executive who was then the county’s prosecutor. Was this Campbell’s hit list? The news media, encouraged by the police, turned speculation into fact.
As Cipollini writes, Campbell’s diary was “…a collection of lists, addresses, properties, license plate numbers and phone numbers…”
“The notes contained locations of witnesses, dealers, safe houses, and details for homes of law enforcement officers.” The names of unsolved murder victims were also in Campbell’s diaries.
This is the strongest section of the book. It is nearly matched by the telling of a similar bust 12 years later, when police found another potent arsenal in Campbell’s car. (One new toy: A fake pen loaded with a .22 caliber round.) That arrest was Campbell’s undoing. He died in prison in 2001.
Unfortunately, “Hit Man” spends those intervening years wandering through a wide-ranging series of events and cast of characters that are often unrelated to Campbell. Anyone around town in those days will certainly remember the 10th Precinct corruption trial, Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, court cases involving Frank “Nitti” Lee Usher, and “Watusi Slim,” plus Detroit Police Commissioner John Nichols, Judge James Del Rio, etc. Most of it is interesting, but eventually the book is no longer about Campbell, but about every other criminal that made headlines in 1970s Detroit.
But what really hurts “Hit Man” are its typos, awkward sentences and factual errors.
If a single sentence can describe an entire book, then the following 12 words will tell you a lot about “Hit Man”:
“Both East and West Detroit was feeling the effects of gang warfare.”
A couple of things should jump out at you.
First, there is the subject/verb disconnect. Next, while East St. Louis and West Palm Beach are real places, East Detroit and West Detroit are not, as any Detroiter knows. You’re either from the east side of Detroit, or the west side.
Cipollini misfires in other ways: “Years of intelligence gathering, really from the moment he exited the gate of Jackson Prison, Chester was not one to sit idle.”
“For years authorities new dope was coming from New York…”
Cliche’s abound: “Campbell…gave them plenty of evidence — served on a virtual silver platter…” And, “The government wanted to leave no stone unturned, no cutting corners in this investigation.”
Eventually, Cipollini acknowledges that “The law never actually put [Campbell] away for being a ‘hit man’…” Crime buffs may want to put this book away and wait for a better retelling of life on the streets in Detroit during the ’70s.