“He was the most infamous person to come out of Fort Wayne nobody ever heard of,” Greg Swaim said of his father this week – a man he once hoped to kill but now serves as the subject of a forthcoming book about a shadowy figure whose alleged involvement in the death of boxing champ Sonny Liston and a series of other events involving mobsters and politicians alike even he knows sounds too incredible to be true.
When Dale H. Cline died in California in 1997 at the age of 70, his terse News-Sentinel obituary listed Swaim and a handful of other survivors but only one clue as to a colorful past: He had been an associate producer at Paramount Studios. But when Swaim inherited Cline's belongings, the treasure trove of official government documents, photographs, faded newspaper clippings, personal items and other records set him on a path of discovery that frightens Swaim almost as much as it fascinates him.
“I met him for the first time in 1980, when I was 30,” said Swaim, now 63, a retired Dana Corp. worker who now operates his own tree service. “He was always very secretive; he didn't want anybody to know his family was in Fort Wayne. He always said I would know all about it when I die, but he knew so many things I can never know now.”
Whether those records justify all of Swaim's suppositions and suspicions remains to be seen, but the public record alone paints a picture of a man who was in serious trouble with the law from an early age but for reasons not entirely eventually made friends in government, the mob and in Hollywood.
“Roanoke boy held in West,” read the News-Sentinel headline in August 1942 above a story reporting how Cline and Floyd Burton Loveless, both 15 at the time, had fled the Indiana Boys' School in Plainfield before being arrested in Nevada on charges of injuring and abducting a constable named A.H. Berning. Loveless was executed two years later but Cline, for reasons Swaim finds strange, seems to have escaped serious punishment. Cline's involvement in Berning's death was detailed in a 2010 book by Janice Oberding.
The News-Sentinel reported that Cline was implicated in about 25 local burglaries in 1945 a lone and by 1955, under the alias of James Warjac, he was in the Corpus Christie, Tex., jail on charges of participating in a crime ring. But he escaped again by making a rope from a blanket and lowering himself to the ground, precipitating a manhunt the local paper later said covered 30 states and several countries, including Mexico and Cuba. During the Cuban Revolution a few years later, the paper reported that a man looking very much like Cline/Warjac had been photographed with Fidel Castro's rebels.
Cline made the FBI's “most wanted” list in 1960 as a “master of disguise” who was known to hide firearms under his car seat, a Derringer strapped to his leg and tear gas in a fountain pen. He was arrested in Los Angeles that July while driving down Sunset Boulevard with his girlfriend in an expensive white convertible.
How much prison time his father served after that – if any – is uncertain, said Swaim, whose records include a 1968 pardon signed by Texas Gov. John Connelly. Cline was in the movie business by 1979 as an associate producer on “Tilt,” one of actress Brooke Shields' first films.
Does Cline's apparent ability to evade serious prison time and move freely while rising quickly to semi-prominence and wealth in Hollywood indicate he had friends in very high – or low – places”? Former Journal Gazette and South Bend Tribune reporter Ken Bradford, who is writing the book for Swaim, said research convinced him of Swaim's ties to the mob and Frank Sinatra's “Rat Pack,” a connection the Los Angeles Times referenced as far back as 1998.
As for other activities in which Cline may or may not have been involved, Bradford said he found Swaim's conclusions “100 percent credible, if not 100 percent provable.” The latter category includes Cline's alleged confession to Swaim that he had been present when the mob murdered Liston in 1970. Liston, a former heavyweight champion, has long been suspected of mob ties. Some have also considered his “suicide” from a drug overdose suspicious as well, in part because of his well-known dislike for needles and because authorities found no drug paraphernalia near his body.
Swaim said his father also professed involvement in the 1977 death of Sandra West, a would-be starlet who dated Sinatra and other prominent men before marrying a Texas oil baron whose death started a family fight over his multimillion-dollar estate. Her death also was listed also as a drug overdose, but Swaim's documents indicate his father knew West.
Growing up, Swaim blamed Cline for severely injuring his mother and believed his father also wanted to kill him. Swaim later learned differently and built a relationship with the man who called him “Sprout” but never apologized for anything he had done.
“As I read through (Cline's documents) I became sick to my stomach, afraid of what I might find,” said Swaim, who is seeking a publisher for “Warjac: Most Wanted” and suspects there are still powerful people who would prefer the full story not be told.
“I don't want money (for doing the book),” Swaim said. “I'm not ashamed or proud of what he did. I just want the information out there.”
Whether it's true, merely credible or very, very tall, it's a tale worth telling.