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Van Cise Project
Van Cise Project

Campaign to Commemorate the Philip S. Van Cise Detention Center

About Col. Philip S. Van Cise


Philip S. Van Cise (October 25, 1884-December 8, 1969), was a U.S. Army colonel, crimebusting district attorney, and private practice lawyer in Denver, Colorado. He is best known for arresting and prosecuting the notorious "Million-Dollar Bunco Ring" headed by Lou Blonger, a story he recounted in his book, Fighting the Underworld.

Philip S. Van Cise

Early Life

Philip Van Cise was born in Deadwood, South Dakota and moved to Denver at the age of 16. He graduated from the University of Colorado in 1907 and received his law degree two years later.

From 1910 to 1914 he was a member of the Colorado National Guard, where he attained the rank of captain. During World War II he served as an intelligence officer in France and remained in the Officer Reserve Corps as a colonel until 1942.

Philip S. Van Cise

Career as District Attorney

Van Cise took advantage of a split in the Denver's Republican Party to win the office of district attorney in 1921. He immediately set out to clean up the con men who preyed on Colorado's summer tourist trade. The gang was well connected with politicians at all levels, but had no control over Van Cise, who was not beholden to the political power structure. At the same time, Van Cise received little backing in his effort from either the mayor, Dewey C. Bailey, or law enforcement officials, many of whom, it would later be shown, were in league with the con men.

In 1922 Van Cise set up an independent investigation of the Blonger gang, secretly funded by a group of wealthy Denver citizens and employing a handful of former federal agents and others. On August 24 of that year, Van Cise used a special force of Colorado Rangers to capture 33 suspects in a single day. Fearing that Denver police would tip off the gang once the first suspect was taken to jail, Van Cise detained the gang members in the basement of the First Universalist Church, where he was a member, until the sweep was complete. In Colorado's longest and most expensive trail to that time, 20 con men, including Lou Blonger, were convicted and sent to prison, effectively busting the "Million-Dollar Bunco Ring."

Van Cise also waged battled against the Ku Klux Klan during his four-year term in office. His life was threatened, crosses were burned in his yard, and one attempt was made to kidnap him. Van Cise refused the call of many citizens to run for mayor to replace Bailey in 1924 and returned to private practice in 1925.

Philip S. Van Cise

Life as Private Attorney

Returning to private life, Van Cise formed a law partnership with his former assistant district attorney, Kenneth Robinson. In 1936, he wrote and published his memoir of the gang-busting saga, Fighting the Underworld, which became an influential book in criminology circles.

Drama followed Van Cise into private life. For more than 20 years, he served as an attorney for the Rocky Mountain News, and during this time aggressively defended the paper when it was sued for libel by Fred Bonfils, publisher of The Denver Post. Bonfils died before the case was tried. In 1943, two men tried to kidnap Van Cise from his front yard. Then in 1945, the husband of a woman Van Cise represented in a divorce took two shots at him in his law office, to no effect.

Previous Honors

In 1949 Philip Van Cise was honored with the very first Award of Merit ever given by the Colorado Bar Association. The statewide award is the highest award given by the Colorado Bar Association. The Award of Merit has been given to one outstanding judge or attorney every year since 1949, and the list reads like a who's who of Colorado judges and lawyers.

Every year for many years the Colorado Lawyer, the official publication of the Colorado, in its July issue has featured six of the greatest lawyers and judges in Colorado history.

The Colorado Lawyer

In 1996 Philip Van Cise was selected as one of the "Six of the Greatest," and this biography by his son and Colorado Court of Appeals Judge, Edwin ("Ned") P. Van Cise, appeared in that issue.

Retirement and Death

In the words of the Colorado Bar Association: The Award of Merit shall be awarded annually to a member of the association for outstanding service to the association, outstanding service or contribution to the legal profession, outstanding contribution to the administration of justice, or outstanding service or contribution to the community.

Van Cise retired from practice in 1967 and died in Denver's St. Luke's Hospital on December 8, 1969, after a month-long illness.


  • Rees, Tom. "Crime-fighting ex-Denver DA Dies", Rocky Mountain News, Dec. 9, 1969.
  • Van Cise, Philip S. Fighting the Underworld. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press, 1936)


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