By the time Joe ‘Peg Leg’ Morgan joined the Mexican Mafia, he was already a jailhouse legend. Because of his reputation, which included murder, bank robberies and jail escapes – he became the unofficial Godfather of the Mexican Mafia – a race-based prison gang that calls the shots in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), despite his ethnic background. On the streets, he’d already been breaking bread with Hispanic gang members anyway, in places like East Los Angeles and San Pedro, and carried himself as one of them. An American kid of Slavic descent who was fluent in Spanish and grew up in the Maravilla Projects, Morgan’s ascent in the gang was the inspiration for the James Edward Olmos film, American Me.
“In Joe Morgan’s case, his Croatian background was never a concern and never impeded his ability to steer the organisation in a specific direction because he was never really considered an outsider,” Rodrigo Ribera D’Ebre, author of Urban Politics: The Political Culture of Sur 13 Gangs, tells Penthouse. “Joe Morgan was known to be a leader. He had a high IQ and had diplomatic relations with the Italian Mafia and Mexican drug cartels. According to Mexican Mafia dropout, Rene Boxer Enriquez, Morgan was a bloodthirsty hardliner, yet he was also feared, personal and maintained somewhat of a celebrity profile.”
In the mid-1940s, Morgan did camp time as a teenager for smoking marijuana, and shortly thereafter he was arrested and convicted for murder. While in custody he escaped from jail, but upon getting caught he was sent to Folsom Prison. When he paroled in 1955, he robbed a bank and was caught in 1956 and sent back to Folsom. A few years later, he masterminded the largest prison break in Los Angeles County and was featured on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Upon his arrest, he was sent to San Quentin in 1961.
“Joe Morgan had two personalities,” Richard Valdemar, a retired 33-year Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department veteran gang investigator, tells Penthouse. “One level-headed and diplomatic who intended to do business the right way, but if you crossed the Mexican Mafia, he’d be the first to go to war. He did his share of killing. When he killed he became a different kind of person. He was very, very violent when he wanted to be and participated in plenty of stabbings. It’s not like he was the financial arm, or the diplomatic arm, he was just a good soldier for the Mexican Mafia. Just as violent as any of the other gang members.”
“YOU HEAR ABOUT THE ITALIAN MOB SOMETIMES BREAKING YOUR LEG OR INTIMIDATING YOU OR THREATENING YOU, BUT THE MEXICAN MAFIA GUYS JUST KILL YOU.”
Morgan read books on Mexican history and culture, socialism, the military, war, and besides speaking Spanish, he also spoke Nahuatl. Overall he was disciplined, well-read, and used cunning, rather than overt force, to outmanoeuvre opponents. American prison officials gave him the name ‘Peg Leg’, but that wasn’t his moniker. Boxer, the Mexican Mafia turncoat, wrote that Morgan was shot in the leg during a bank robbery in his book, The Black Hand: The Story of Rene “Boxer” Enriquez and His Life in the Mexican Mafia. However, according to police officer and writer, William Dunn, Morgan was shot in the leg while hiding out from law enforcement when he was wanted for murder. Nobody called him ‘Peg Leg’ to his face.
“He was the one legged man that you hear about in the ass-kicking contest,” Valdemar says. “He was a champion on the prison handball courts. He was physically fit and very able to move around and fight. He was a ‘gabacho firme’. A good, strong soldier for the Mexican Mafia. He just happened to be in the era of the Mexican Mafia when it was growing in reputation. He rose to the top as one of the leaders.”
Morgan also forged ties with Mexican drug dealers in prison and set into motion an operation that smuggled dozens of kilos of ‘black tar’ heroin into Southern California. When Morgan got out in the mid-70s he preached the Mexican Mafia gospel, “Buy our dope and pay us a tax or die,” Valdemar tells Penthouse. “You hear about the Italian mob sometimes breaking your leg or intimidating you or threatening you, but the Mexican Mafia guys just kill you. There were all these deaths that were occurring on the streets in the 70s and that was the Mexican Mafia taking over the drug industry in East LA and the surrounding areas.”
Joe Morgan’s legacy is one of diplomacy and discipline, Ribera D’Ebre says. “His ability to forge relationships with the Italian Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood, and Mexican drug cartels was due to his people skills, while his influence on the organisation to learn history, culture, languages and military strategy in order to gain and maintain power was directly related to discipline.”
On November 9, 1993, during a torrential downpour, when it was apparent that Morgan was on his death bed and finally succumbing to the cancer that had slowly been killing him. There wasn’t much to say, and the two correctional officers watching over Morgan, sensed the end and summoned a priest. But even as the priest walked in to give Morgan his last rites, the career prison gangster kept true to character and dismissed him, preferring to die a gangster.