Joe Morgan — of the Mexican Mafia

Article by Seth Ferranti

Folsom Prison“While awaiting trial for murder in the L.A. County Jail, Morgan keyed in on his cellmate William Westbrook, another 16-year-old who was being transferred to a juvenile forestry camp,” says Chris Kasparoza, author of the mob novel For Blood and Loyalty. “Morgan posed as Westbrook and escaped, making it no shock that he went on to become a leader in what the government has alleged is the most dangerous prison gang ever.”

How did a teenager hoodwink prison staff and actually gain his freedom for a time? In an early display of his craftiness, brains, and daring, Morgan studied Westbrook’s mannerisms, practiced his signature, and threatened his cellmate’s life if he didn’t go along with the young killer’s ruse. When guards came to transfer Westbrook to the camp, Morgan impersonated his cellmate and Westbrook stayed silent. After forging his signature on a booking slip, Morgan, sans handcuffs, got into a car with a probation officer.

At San Fernando Boulevard and Colorado Street in Glendale, Morgan jumped from the car, took off, and escaped. The sheriff’s department didn’t realize a cold-blooded homicide suspect had gotten away until hours later. The young criminal was now a fugitive, a wanted man, and he made page two of the Los Angeles Times with his ballsy escape.

It was the beginning of Morgan’s outlaw legend. And unlike many prison escapees, this canny 16-year-old from the mean streets of East L.A. wasn’t immediately recaptured.

“They got him a couple weeks later,” says Christian Cipollini, an organized-crime historian and founder of the site Gangland Legends. “Cops got a tip on his whereabouts, and when they showed up, Morgan took off. An officer shot him in the leg, shattering bone, and stopping Morgan in his tracks. Due to complications, his leg was amputated just below the knee and Morgan ended up with a prosthetic. That led to the authorities and media dubbing him ‘Pegleg,’ although prison lore holds no one ever called him Pegleg to his face.”

Convicted of second-degree murder, Morgan was sent to Folsom State Prison instead of a juvenile facility, due to his “criminal sophistication,” as the judge put it. Despite being the youngest inmate to ever hit the yard, Morgan received mad props at the prison, where he served nine years. With his story and Elvira’s photo in the newspapers often, Morgan became a jailhouse celebrity. (To his fellow prisoners, having sex with an attractive woman twice his age was a grand caper.)

Gangster Report’s Burnstein picks up the story from here.

“In July of 1955, Morgan was paroled, but he wasn’t out in the world for long,” Burnstein recounts. “On November 30, 1955, he robbed a West Covina bank of $17,000 with a machine gun. The FBI arrested him at a bar in Long Beach a week later. He was sent back to state prison — a convicted murderer, bank robber, and escape risk.”

When Morgan was apprehended following the bank heist, the Los Angeles Times headline read, “Hammer Slayer Held in $17,000 Bank Hold-Up.” The press coverage reminded everyone that the same guy who walked into a bank with a rapid-fire weapon like some kind of golden-age gangster — John Dillinger, say, or Machine Gun Kelly — was the teenage Romeo who took a hammer to the head of his married sweetheart’s husband.

Incarcerated at San Quentin, Morgan continued to build his criminal legend. Though in terms of daily prison life, Morgan was known for conducting himself as a gentleman around jailors and fellow prisoners, when it came time to enforce or expand his gang’s power, he could flip a switch, and — like Dr. Jekyll becoming Mr. Hyde — become capable of killing someone with his bare hands or otherwise do what was needed to get the job done.

Despite the prosthetic leg, he was not limited much physically, and was one of the better handball players on the yard, an aptitude which only added to his status.

At meals, Morgan sat with Latino prisoners and formed ties with those who would form the core of the Mexican Mafia. He became a mentor of sorts to members of the newly born La Eme, teaching them how to do time at San Quentin.