Showing posts with label Mafia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mafia. Show all posts

24 February 2020

Centenarian mobster 'Sonny' Franzese passes

Colombo Crime Family big shot John "Sonny" Franzese died Sunday, February 23, 2020, at the age of 103, according to published reports. Family sources indicated that Franzese, a longtime resident of the Long Island Village of Roslyn, died following a brief illness.

(While it appears he was at least 100 at the time of his death, Franzese's age has been inconsistently reported over the years. He was widely reported to be forty-seven when indicted in March 1966, placing his birth in 1918-1919. Some government files point to February 1919 as the date of his birth. That birth timing was confirmed when he was arrested as a parole violator in spring 1986 at the stated age of 67. However, more recent reports have added a couple of years. The age of 103 noted in his obits puts his birth in 1916-1917. Other government files support that timing.)

The Neapolitan Franzese reportedly began his underworld career as an enforcer and hit man. Federal authorities believe he was introduced to organized crime through his father, Carmine. "Sonny" Franzese's power and influence were greatest in the 1960s, when as crime family lieutenant, he supervised Colombo rackets on Long Island and invested in "adult" night spots, Times Square peep shows and massage parlors, recording companies and pornographic movies.

Law enforcement began catching up with Franzese in the middle of that decade. He was indicted in March 1966 for acting as an enforcer for a lucrative Manhattan bookmaking ring, in the following month for leading a gang responsible for bank robberies across the U.S. and in October of the same year in connection with the 1964 murder of Ernest "the Hawk" Rupolo. Franzese once told Newsday that he felt the collection of charges in that period were due to a "conspiracy to get me."

Prosecutors got him only on the bank robbery conspiracy charge. For that federal offense, in April 1967 he was sentenced to up to fifty years in prison and fined $20,000. Franzese always insisted that he was innocent. He viewed the cases against him and the long prison sentence as government attempts to convince him to provide evidence against his underworld associates. He boasted of his commitment to the Mafia code of silence.

"They wanted me to roll all the time," Franzese recalled for an interview with Newsday. "I couldn't do that, because it's my principle. Jesus suffered; He didn't squeal on nobody."

Franzese remained free on $150,000 bail as his legal appeals in the bank robbery case were processed. (His attorneys argued that evidence against him had been obtained through the use of illegal electronic surveillance in the kitchen of his Roslyn home.) The appeals were unsuccessful, and he began serving his sentence on March 26, 1970, just three days before the Easter holiday. He was released on parole for the first time in 1978, but was sent back to prison on five different occasions for violating parole.

Franzese, then in his nineties, was convicted in 2010 of extorting New York businesses. He was sentenced to serve eight years in prison. He was last released from prison in June 2017.

In recent years, Franzese lived in a nursing home, needed a wheelchair to get around due to a broken hip and reportedly was fitted with a heart pacemaker and hearing aids.


Sources:

  • Brown, Lee, "102-year-old mobster: 'I never hurt nobody that was innocent," New York Post, nypost.com, March 27, 2019.
  • Burke, Cathy, "Colombo underboss Sonny Franzese looks back on 102 years with no regrets, and a boast that he's never been a rat," New York Post, nypost.com, March 27, 2019.
  • "Cosa Nostran held as robberies brain," Plainfield NJ Courier-News, April 13, 1966, p. 7.
  • "Crime figure seized on L.I.; Parole violations are cited," New York Times, April 29, 1986, p. 36.
  • Everett, Arthur, "Mob tightening grip on pornography," Vineland NJ Times Journal, Dec. 14, 1972, p. 21.
  • Failla, Zak, "Man who led Colombo Family's Long Island rackets dies," Suffolk Daily Voice, dailyvoice.com, Feb. 24, 2020.
  • "Franzese loses bid to upset verdict," New York Times, March 27, 1970, p. 37.
  • Kirkman, Edward, and Arthur Mulligan, "Put halter on big bookie 'muscle man," New York Daily News, March 25, 1966, p. 2.
  • Peddie, Sandra, "John 'Sonny" Franzese dead: Longtime Colombo underboss was 103, family says," Newsday, newsday.com, Feb. 24, 2020.
  • Pugh, Thomas, William Federici and Richard Henry, "Indict 5 Cosa hoods in killing of 6th," New York Daily News, Oct. 4, 1966, p. 3.
  • Sherman, William, "Mafia declares war, but porn king survives," New York Daily News, Dec. 13, 1972, p. 5. 
  • Walsh, Robert, "Franzese gets new suit; it's a jailstriper," New York Daily News, March 27, 1970, p. 24. 
  • Walsh, Robert, and Henry Lee, "Tag 9 guys & a gal in bank holdups, Inc.," New York Daily News, April 13, 1966, p. 3.

15 February 2020

Shotgun takes out Chicago's 'Scourge'

On this date in 1926...

Shotgun blasts on the evening of February 15, 1926, ended the underworld career of well-connected Chicago Mafioso Orazio Tropea.

Orazio Tropea (Chicago Daily Tribune)

Witnesses saw Tropea step off an eastbound streetcar at the corner of Taylor and Halsted Streets shortly after nine o'clock that night. As he walked east across Halsted, an automobile advanced on him from behind and nearly struck him. Tropea yelled angrily at the driver. The car stopped next to him, and a man emerged from it and raised a shotgun to Tropea's head. The Mafioso had just time enough to shout and raise his arms before the first barrel of the shotgun was discharged. The gunman then fired the second barrel.

Tropea absorbed much of the lead, but some fragments scattered, breaking through the windows of nearby businesses and wounding a bystander.

No shortage of suspects 
After spending some time in New York City and Buffalo, Tropea, known in underworld circles as "the Scourge," became a lieutenant in the Genna gang of Chicago in the early 1920s. He organized extortion rackets and extracted tribute payments from local businessmen.

In a relatively short time, Tropea accumulated an imposing list of enemies. Business owners resented his collection efforts. Adversaries of the "Terrible Gennas" had good reason to fear and hate him. Following the mid-1920s murders of brothers Angelo and Michael Genna, Genna relatives and the new underworld regime of Joseph Aiello quickly joined the enemies list.

Tropea's secret betrayal of the Genna clan and his allegiance to a breakaway Mafia faction became apparent following the January 1926 murder of Genna in-law Henry Spingola. Tropea and Spingola were playing cards at Amato's Restaurant on Halsted Street. Tropea stepped briefly away from the game as it was wrapping up. It was said that he either made a telephone call or raised a lighted match in front of a street-facing window. Spingola was then shot to death as he got into his car.

In February, Tropea was assigned with collecting money for the legal defense of Mafia gunmen John Scalisi and Albert Anselmi, charged in the shooting deaths of two Chicago detectives. That he was skimming from the collections could be deduced from his comfortable living arrangements at the Congress Hotel. And that, too, likely added significantly to his enemies list.

Tropea's personal life did not improve his popularity. With a wife and child in Catania, Sicily, Tropea married another woman and had another child while in Buffalo. After moving on to Chicago, he began a new relationship with a local teenager and sought to marry her as well (the wife in Sicily had reportedly died by this time, but he was still married to the woman in Buffalo). Her parents refused to permit the marriage, but Tropea continued seeing the girl.

Any of the individuals betrayed, hurt or terrorized by Tropea could have played a role in his murder.

Connections
Investigators discovered that Tropea had been carrying almost one thousand dollars in cash and wearing a large diamond ring when he was shot. They also learned that he was preparing to leave the city for a vacation in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Police also recovered Tropea's small addressbook. It included a number of personal and business contacts from the Chicago area, including Mafioso Antonio Lombardo and members of the Aiello family. It also had information for underworld figures in Buffalo, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Brooklyn.

Read more about Tropea's addressbook on Mafiahistory.us.

Divisions within the Chicago Mafia came to the attention of investigators. They learned that gunmen initially brought into Chicago to act as Genna enforcers had decided to break away. The resulting factional struggle resulted in the killings of several Gennas, "Samoots" Amatuna and others.

One mourner
Following the Tropea murder, according to the press, no one in the Chicago area had a single good word to say about "the Scourge." Many in the Italian-American community expressed relief at his passing.

While his mother-in-law in Buffalo considered having the body brought to western New York for burial, that plan seems to have been quickly abandoned. Only two visitors went to the funeral home: his wife and his young girlfriend.

Arrow shows Tropea as
pallbearer for Angelo Genna
(Chicago Daily Tribune)

Tropea was buried on February 20. There was no religious service, none of the gaudy trappings of Chicago gangland funerals (as seen in the recent funeral of Angelo Genna, for whom Tropea served as pallbearer). Only the girlfriend went to the gravesite for his burial. As Tropea's city-funded casket was placed there, she fell onto it and wept.

Killings continue
The murder of Tropea did not bring an end to the warfare in Chicago's Sicilian underworld.

Baldelli (left) and Bascone

One day after Tropea was buried, a friend of his was found dead in a field in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn. Vito Bascone had been shot in the head. It looked as though his body had been thrown from a passing automobile. Police knew that he had quarreled with the Spingola family and concluded that Bascone's murder was related to the ambush of Henry Spingola.


Three days after that, the body of Edward "the Eagle" Baldelli was found in a Chicago alley. Baldelli had been severely beaten and then shot twice through the head. Police believed that the body had been driven to the alley and left there to be discovered. In Baldelli's possession, police found a number of business cards, including one for a business partner of Orazio Tropea.

See also:

Sources:
  • "Certificate of identification," photograph, Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 17, 1926, p. 38.
  • "Deportation or death seen as gangster fate," Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 17, 1926, p. 2.
  • "Feudists slay Sicilian ally of Genna gang," Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 16, 1926, p. 1.
  • "Fight to free city of thugs given impetus," Belvidere Daily Republican, Feb. 16, 1926, p. 1.
  • "Forty-first victim of gang war," Buffalo Evening Times, Feb. 24, 1926, p. 15.
  • "Gennas' friend slain; spurs war on aliens," Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 22, 1926, p. 1.
  • "Latest slaying occurs during lull of one day in drive against gunmen," Rock Island IL Argus, Feb. 24, 1926, p. 1.
  • "List of names found," Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 17, 1926, p. 2.
  • "One dead in gang fight," DeKalb IL Daily Chronicle, Feb. 16, 1926, p. 1.
  • "Orazio the 'Scourge' buried without friends or clergy," Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 21, 1926, p. 4.
  • "Parents weep over clewless Mafia murder," Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 25, 1926, p. 4.
  • "Police raid Mafia; get 121," Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 23, 1926, p. 1.
  • "Raiders find old haunts of gunmen dark," Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 25, 1926, p. 1.
  • "Rival loves weep for Orazio but his real widow is sought," Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 18, 1926, p. 3.
  • "Say man killed in Chicago son-in-law of Buffalo woman," Buffalo Daily Courier, Feb. 17, 1926, p. 16.
  • "Sicilian gang kills again," Chicago Tribune, Feb. 22, 1926, p. 1.
  • "Son-in-law is killed by gang in Chicago row," Buffalo Morning Express, Feb. 17, 1926.
  • "Trace Sicilian killers in fight for deportation," Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 18, 1926, p. 3.

03 February 2020

'Joe Baker' gunned down on Belmont Ave.

On this date in 1931:

Mafia gunmen working for Castellammarese insurrection leader Salvatore Maranzano on February 3, 1931, ambushed Joseph "Joe the Baker" Catania in the Bronx. A key figure in the administration of boss of bosses Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria, Catania was gunned down in front of a candy store at 2373 Belmont Avenue. He was struck by slugs in the head, neck and upper body. He was rushed to Fordham Hospital, where he died the following morning.

Catania
The Mafia's Castellammarese War had been raging for months. The devastating loss of Catania occurred at a time when Masseria was insisting that his loyalists disarm to avoid provoking police. Convinced that the disarmament strategy would cause them to quickly follow Catania to the grave, Masseria's lieutenants began plotting his assassination.

Joseph Catania, twenty-eight,* was a nephew of Masseria group leader Ciro "the Artichoke King" Terranova. The married father of two children, Catania lived at 2319 Belmont Avenue, about two blocks from the scene of his murder. He was known as "Joe the Baker" or "Joe Baker" because of his involvement in the bakery business since childhood.

Catania reportedly was well liked by New York Mafiosi, but somehow managed to deeply offend Maranzano. The rebel leader felt that Catania must be killed before the end of the war. Maranzano sent hit teams to known Catania hangouts in the neighborhood of Arthur Avenue and 187th Street. (The Catania family had a bakery at 2389 Arthur Avenue in this period and years earlier lived in an apartment above it. The address is now home to an Italian restaurant and apartments.) These teams were unable to locate their target.

Maranzano next negotiated with Frank Scalise of the Bronx, a recent convert to the rebel cause, to eliminate the Baker. After two weeks, Maranzano gave up hope of Scalise taking care of things. The Castellammarese leader stationed a team, including Salvatore "Sally" Shillitani, Nick Capuzzi, Joseph Valachi and Maranzano's top assassin Sebastiano "Buster" Domingo, in a top-floor apartment across narrow Belmont Avenue from an office known to be used by Catania. The office was just a two-minute walk from Catania's apartment but was in a busier and more commercial setting.

Valachi later wrote about the assignment in his autobiography, The Real Thing, recalling that he personally liked Catania but hid that fact from his boss Maranzano.

New York Times
From the apartment windows, the team was able to spot and track Catania. They watched him go through the same routine at about nine o'clock every morning except Sunday - he appeared at the office, picked up some money, then came out and quickly walked a short distance to the corner, rounded the corner and disappeared. Each morning for weeks, Domingo prepared to take a shot at Catania as he reached the corner, but Domingo was too high over the street and Catania visible for too short a time to do so reliably.

Valachi became aware that a first-floor apartment in the building was vacant. He suggested that the team burst into that apartment one morning and target Catania from its windows. Maranzano approved the plan.

At eight o'clock on the morning of February 3, 1931, Valachi used burglar tools to open the door of the first-floor apartment, and the team members entered with guns drawn. Three painters were at work inside. When they saw the gangsters, they believed they were being held up and offered their money.

Valachi recalled, "I told them that we did not want their money, just go on painting the way you were doing and everyone will be happy and no one will bother you." The painters, whose names and home addresses were released to the press, later told the police that the gangsters entered with their faces masked with black scarves.

The other team members set up, but Valachi claimed that it was his job to go outside and start the getaway car. (With this claim, Valachi removed himself from the actual shooting of Catania. Interestingly, Valachi did not mention getting the car ready at any of the other times that Domingo had Catania in his sights.) In addition to putting six slugs in Catania, the shooters put numerous holes in the front windows of the candy store and an adjacent butcher shop.

Valachi estimated that he was in the car less than a minute when his associates arrived there. He did not recall whether he heard the gunshots. During their escape, Shillitani told him about the shooting:

He [Shillitani] felt bad because Joe Baker came out of the office and as he reached the corner his wife met him and she handed him something and they kissed and he went the other way and the wife just stayed there and was watching him go when Buster had to shoot... Solly said that he saw the dust come out of Joe's coat as the bullets hit him in the back.

A crowd gathered around the fallen Catania. One of the first to him was taxi driver Daniel Stefano. Catania was loaded into Stefano's cab and driven to Fordham Hospital. The Baker died of his wounds at ten minutes to eight the next morning.

Police questioned Daniel Stefano, Catania friend Daniel Iamascia and Catania's wife Louisa, but could not figure out the killing.

Catania (right) and underworld associates John Savino (left) and Daniel Iamascia

The New York underworld gave Catania a magnificent send-off. Press reports estimated that his funeral cost as much as $35,000, with about $10,000 said to have been invested in his coffin. (The coffin was bronze, according to the New York Times. The New York Daily News reported that it was silver.)

News from Catania's wake reached Maranzano through his spies: Ciro Terranova reportedly stood by the coffin, placed one hand on it and the other hand high in the air, and swore to avenge the killing of his nephew.

"When the old man [Maranzano] heard about this," Valachi recalled, "he sent someone at the funeral parlor to see if there was a chance to get [Terranova] at the wake. Naturally it was a spy but word came that it was impossible to do anything."

The funeral procession on February 7 was watched by about 10,000 people. It reportedly took forty cars to carry the floral offerings of friends, family and associates. Dozens of mounted and foot police officers kept order along the route and dozens of plain clothes detectives mingled in the crowd.

A Roman Catholic Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated by three priests at the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, about a block from the scene of the murder. Police frisked known crime figures, including Terranova, as they entered the church.

After the services, Catania's remains were placed temporarily in a crypt at Woodlawn Cemetery while a mausoleum was constructed at St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx.


* Different records point to different birthdates for Joseph Catania, ranging from March 1900 to November 1902, but the most reliable available sources point to between September 29, 1902, and October 1, 1902.

Sources:
  • "10,000 at funeral of 'Joe the Baker,'" New York Times, Feb. 8, 1931, p. 30.
  • "Bail runner shot in street ambush," New York Times, Feb. 4, 1931, p. 11.
  • Birth records of Palermo, Italy, vol. 455, no. 108.
  • "Gang shots fatal to Joe the Baker," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 4, 1931, p. 2.
  • "'Joe the Baker' dies of wounds," Brooklyn Standard Union, Feb. 4, 1931, p. 1.
  • "Machine gun pair in Bronx riddle thug," New York Daily News, Feb. 4, 1931, p. 38.
  • Miley, Jack, "$35,000 funeral puts thug in last spot," New York Daily News, Feb. 8, 1931, p. 6.
  • New York State Census of 1905, New York County, Assembly District 32, Election District Special no. 3.
  • New York State Census of 1915, New York County, Assembly District 28, Election District 2.
  • New York State Census of 1925, Bronx County, Assembly District 7, Election District 45.
  • Passenger manifest of S.S. Trojan Prince, departed Palermo, Sicily, on April 15, 1903, arrived New York on May 1, 1903.
  • United States Census of 1910, New York State, New York County, Ward 12, Enumeration District 341.
  • United States Census of 1920, New York State, Bronx County, Assembly District 4, Enumeration District 393.
  • United States Census of 1930, New York State, Bronx County, Enumeration District 3-552.
  • Valachi, Joseph, The Real Thing - Second Government: The Expose and Inside Doings of Cosa Nostra by Joseph Valachi, Member Since 1930, unpublished manuscript, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, p. 323-328.
  • Van`t Riet, Lennert, David Critchley and Steve Turner, "Gunmen of the Castellammarese War - Part 5: A lifetime of tangling with the law: Salvatore 'Sally Shields' Shillitani," Informer: The History of American Crime and Law Enforcement, April 2013.
  • World War I Draft Registration Card, serial no. 3655, order no. 736, Local Board 17, New York City, Sept. 19, 1918.

02 February 2020

'Lucky' out of prison, held at Ellis Island

Authorities prepare to deport NY Mafia boss

On this date in 1946:

New York Mafia boss Salvatore "Charlie Lucky Luciano" Lucania, age forty-eight, was removed from temporary custody at Sing Sing Prison on February 2, 1946, and placed in a holding area at Ellis Island, as authorities prepared to deport him to his native Italy.

Lucania
Lucania, leader of a powerful crime family (later known as the Genovese Family) and one of the architects of the Mafia's national Commission, was convicted about nine and a half years earlier on sixty-two counts of compulsory prostitution. On June 18, 1936, he was sentenced to a prison term of thirty to fifty years.

The case that put Lucania behind bars was handled by then-Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. Dewey also was responsible for Lucania's release. Entering the final year of his first term as New York governor, Dewey on January 3, 1946, commuted the remainder of Lucania's sentence on the condition that he be deported to Italy.

The governor issued a statement relating to the commutation, which revealed that the imprisoned Lucania rendered some sort of assistance to the U.S. military during World War II:

Luciano is deportable to Italy. He was a leader of a syndicate which supervised and gave orders relating to the operation of a vice combine which "booked" women for houses of prostitution and provided other service incidental to the operation of houses of prostitution. He has previously been convicted of the possession of drugs. Upon the entry of the United States into the war, Luciano's aid was sought by the armed services in inducing others to provide information concerning possible enemy attack. It appears that he cooperated in such effort, though the actual value of the information provided is not clear. His record in prison is reported as wholly satisfactory.

Wild stories quickly grew out of the news of Lucania's aid to the military. Just a few days after Dewey's statement, a New York Daily News entertainment page featured an article that claimed Lucania was single-handedly responsible for saving the lives of countless American servicemen. The article, by Robert Sylvester, quoted an unnamed underworld source:

Remember the Sicily campaign was one of the easiest of the war? Well, Charley made it that way. He turned over a whole Cloak & Dagger Crew which worked before and during the invasion. You can thank Charley Lucky for saving thousands and thousands of American lives.

Dewey
Some questioned Dewey's motivation for commuting Lucania's sentence. (The state administration conducted an investigation of its own decision-making.) Some years later, it was suggested that Lucania had obtained damaging information against Dewey. An autobiography of narcotics agent Sal Vizzini claimed that, while in exile, Lucania boasted about that: "I had a whole damned battery of lawyers. I told them I didn't care what it cost but I wanted them to dig into Dewey's background. They came up with a pile of information on him that might have put his ass in the can..."

SIx days after Governor Dewey's sentence commutation, Lucania was transfered from Great Meadow State Prison in the upstate New York hamlet of Comstock (just east of Lake George) to Sing Sing Prison at Ossining, about thirty miles from New York City.

The Board of Parole approved Lucania's release for the purpose of deportation on February 2. Immigration and Naturalization agents took custody of him on that date and brought him to the federal immigration facility at Ellis Island. While at Ellis Island, he was permitted to visit briefly with underworld associates Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Michael Lascari and with attorney Moses Polakoff.

His stay on the island lasted less than a week. He was taken to Brooklyn and put aboard the S.S. Laura Keene at Pier 7 of the Bush Terminal on February 8. The ship's departure was delayed by bad weather, but she sailed for Italy on February 10, reaching Naples seventeen days later.

Read the details of Lucania's imprisonment and release:
"When 'Lucky' was locked up," The American Mafia, mafiahistory.us

Sources:
  • Abrams, Norma, "Poor Italy: Defeat and now, Luciano!" New York Daily News, Feb. 9, 1946, p. 3.
  • "Charles Luciano, Anti-Racketeering," translations of Italian language articles appearing in the Jan. 11, Jan. 18 and Jan. 25, 1959, issues of L'Europeo magazine, FBI memo, Feb. 18, 1959.
  • Conroy, E.E., FBI teletype, file no. 39-2141-5, Feb. 26, 1946.
  • Conroy, E.E., FBI teletype, file no. 39-2141-6, Feb. 27, 1946.
  • Conroy, E.E., Letter to Mr. Hoover, Charles Luciano FBI file, no. 39-2141-8, March 1, 1946.
  • "Dewey commutes Luciano sentence," New York Times, Jan. 4, 1946, p. 25.
  • "A French payment," editorial, Brooklyn Citizen, Jan. 5, 1942, p. 4.
  • Herlands, William B., Report of the Commissioner of Investigation to Governor Thomas E. Dewey, Sept. 17, 1954.
  • Investigation of Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce (Kefauver Committee), U.S. Senate, 81st Congress 2nd Session and 82nd Congress 1st Session, Part 7, Meyer Lansky testimony of Feb. 14, 1951, p. 606-607.
  • "'Lucky' Luciano to be paroled and deported," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan. 3, 1946, p. 1.
  • Rosen, A., "Charles 'Lucky' Luciano," FBI memorandum to E.A. Tamm, file no. 39-2141-39, May 17, 1946.
  • "Salvatore Lucania...," FBI report NY 62-8768, file no. 39-2141-9, May 5, 1946.
  • Sylvester, Robert, "A B'way hoodlum lives a melodrama nobody would write," New York Daily News, Jan. 8, 1946, p. 27.
  • Vizzini, Sal, with Oscar Fraley and Marshall Smith, Vizzini: The Story of America's No, 1 Undercover Narcotics Agent, New York: Pinnacle, 1972, p. 77.

19 January 2020

St. Louis's Pillow Gang gets their quirky name

Ninety-two years ago tonight, a triple shooting in St. Louis's Dogtown neighborhood gave one of the city's three Mafia factions one of the more quirky nicknames in American criminal history. The main target of the attack, a powerful mafiùsu named Charlie Fresina, was struck by a .45 caliber submachine gun bullet in his lower hip. In the preceding weeks as he recovered, Fresina used a pillow to cushion his rear end when he sat down, leading sarcastic St. Louis police to dub his crew "The Pillow Gang."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Mafia dicìna (crew) that would eventually be known as the "Pillow Gang" got its start in the early 1910s as a small-time Black Hand extortion ring run by Pasquale Santino, a Sicilian immigrant who used threatening letters to separate wealthy Italian businessmen from their money. After a series of arrests, Santino left St. Louis briefly and worked as a railroad foreman in eastern Ohio. After returning to town around the start of Prohibition, Santino began putting a crew of tough Sicilian mobsters together; like Pasquale himself, most of them were from the southern province of Girgenti (modern-day Agrigento). The one exception was Charlie Fresina.

Born Carmelo Frisina in 1892 in Castiglione di Sicilia, a small town located in the shadow of northeastern Sicily's Mount Etna, he immigrated to America at the age of sixteen. Frisina worked his way up from a vegetable peddler to a steamship agent and from there into the local Mafia. As he and the Santino crew began making big money in the illegal alcohol business, Frisina anglicized his name to Charles Fresina in order to shield his wife and children from his criminality. He would also later use the alias of "Freese" (pronounced Free-zee). Fresina was brilliant and industrious, quickly working his way into the number-two position in Santino's dicìna. By the early 1920s, the Santino crew had joined forces with the so-called "Green Ones," a crew of ex-Black Handers from western Palermo province led by Vito Giannola and Alfonse Palazzolo, to wrench control of St. Louis's Mafia family away from incumbent boss Dominick Giambrone.

In the aftermath of their victory, the Green Ones appropriated leadership of the family for themselves, with Giannola becoming càpu (boss) and Palazzolo suttacàpu (underboss). Their actions immediately created tension with the Santino crew. Also now added to the mix was a bootlegging gang headed by the Russo brothers, who were known as the "American Boys" because they were all native-born. While the St. Louis mob family had a traditional pyramidal leadership structure, the three different factions operated with a degree of autonomy not seen in other American Mafia groups of the era. Indeed, this peculiar arrangement led to constant bickering amongst the crew's leaders. Their organization as a whole suffered a big black eye in the view of other Mafia bosses around the country after losing a violent gang war to the South City-based Cuckoo Gang in 1926; Vito Giannola and the rest of the family's leaders were forced to give humiliating reparations to the Cuckoos as a condition of peace.

Their gangland defeat resulted in increased inter-family squabbling, as blame was shoved from faction to faction. The St. Louis Mafia inevitably devolved into civil war in the late summer of 1927 after two key members of the Russo Gang, Anthony "Shorty" Russo and Vincent Spicuzza, were lured to Chicago and killed by a Green Ones hit squad led by Alfonse Palazzolo. The Santino crew joined forces with the Russos to fight the Green Ones. Pasquale Santino was instrumental in luring Palazzolo to his demise at the hands of the Russos on Tenth Street, but he himself would die on November 17 after being shot in a grocery company office at Seventh and Carr streets. Police believed that he was killed by a Mafia assassin brought in from Chicago by the Green Ones specifically to do the deed.

Pasquale Santino (NARA)

The murders, nearly a dozen in all, continued throughout the fall. Three days after Christmas, two members of the Russo Gang caught Vito Giannola at his girlfriend's North City house, chased him into an attic crawlspace, and proceeded to empty a Thompson submachine gun into St. Louis's Mafia boss. Giannola's dramatic assassination momentarily put leadership of the family up for grabs. What follows is an excerpt from my 2010 book Gangs of St. Louis;


At the beginning of 1928, the Sicilian underworld was in a state of flux. The Russo Gang and its allies were waxing victorious after their decisive strike against the Greens. Fully aware that the war wasn't over yet, they stayed vigilant but were puzzled as the days rolled by with no retaliatory strikes from the opposition.

The Green Ones held a conference soon after Vito Giannola's funeral. John Giannola stepped down from his position in the crew, either by choice or with some persuasion. At this meeting, twenty-six-year-old Frank Agrusa was dubbed the new boss. Having spent many years under Vito's tutelage, Agrusa was a perfect choice. Learning from his predecessor's mistakes, Frankie knew that low profile was the way to go. While Vito liked to swagger down the street and let everyone know he was a gangster, Agrusa was the exact opposite. Frankie's new right-hand man was his longtime friend and partner Vito Impastato. Advising the new boss would be Tony Fasulo, who had taken Ben Amato's place as consigliere after Pasquale Santino's murder. Dominick Italiano replaced John Giannola as the Green Ones' East Side liquor distributor.

Despite these leadership changes, the Green Ones were depleted and demoralized. Most observers were unsure if they could prevail in a protracted shooting war, especially now that the deadly Tommy gun had been added to the mix. For the time being, they seemed to be out of the fight. Machiavellian twists and turns are at the core of any Mafia war, and the St. Louis strife was no different. The deception and double-crossing is limitless. While Charlie Fresina was ostensibly allied with the Russo Gang, he was going behind its back and extorting wealthy merchants connected to the Russos. When Jimmy Russo got word of Fresina's shenanigans, he promptly began planning his murder.

St. Louis gangster Jimmy Russo.


On the night of January 19, 1928, Fresina visited the Dogtown home of Charles Spicuzza at 6129 Clayton Avenue to exact a heavy tribute. The gang boss was backed up by Dominick Cataldo and Tony DiTrapani; the latter packed a sawed-off .12 gauge autoloader. A cousin of the late Vincent Spicuzza, Charles worked as the manager of the M. Longo Fruit Company on Commission Row, the store formerly owned by Charles Palmisano. While his wife and four children waited quietly in other parts of the house, Spicuzza talked with his visitors in the parlor and eventually gave Fresina over $1,000 cash.

Charles Spicuzza's home at 6129 Clayton Avenue as pictured in the St. Louis Star

A little after 10:00 p.m., the three men exited the front door and were just starting down the stairs when they noticed a strange Studebaker sedan at the curb. Even stranger was the fact that two men appeared to be sitting in their Chrysler sedan. One of the Santinos blurted, "Someone's in our car." Since the house sat high above the street, Fresina and his men couldn't clearly see the faces of the strangers. The mob boss immediately grabbed Spicuzza and forced him to walk down to the street to find out just who these fellows were.

The fruit merchant slowly walked down his steep steps with the Santinos trailing far behind him. When Spicuzza got close enough to recognize the familiar faces inside the Chrysler, he immediately broke right and ran for cover. As soon as he was clear, a fusillade of shotgun and submachine-gun fire erupted from the Chrysler. Fresina instantly turned to go back inside the house, only to be shot through the lower hip by a machine-gun round. DiTrapani was struck in the abdomen by the same stream of bullets (a slug chipped away the handle of a .38 revolver stuck in his belt). Tony spun around, stumbled inside the foyer and fell facedown on top of his unfired shotgun. Cataldo tried to follow Spicuzza but was hit by a .45 caliber bullet in his stomach.

The machine-gunner then exited the Chrysler and dashed up the stairs onto the porch. After strafing the fallen DiTrapani with a quick burst, he briefly scanned the house for any sign of Fresina. The mob boss suddenly popped around the corner of the living room wall and turned loose with a pistol. The machine-gunner briefly returned Fresina's fire and then, with his weapon either empty or jammed, quickly retreated down the steps. Charlie hobbled onto the porch and emptied his gun at his fleeing assailants, scoring a few hits on the parked Chrysler. Nevertheless, the killers made a successful getaway.

Police found Tony DiTrapani dead at the scene and Dominick Cataldo groaning in pain from a wound that soon proved fatal. Charlie Fresina was talking on the telephone in Sicilian when the cops arrived. The gangster stopped in mid-sentence and hung up, proclaiming that he didn't know who shot him. Charlie then went to the bathroom to wash him wound. Charles Spicuzza denied that he was being extorted, saying that he and Fresina had met to discuss the sale of some apples. Police initially suspected that the Green Ones were responsible; it wasn't until much later that they discovered that the true culprits were the Russo Gang. Now, all three Mafia factions were at war with one another.

Carmelo Frisina in a formal portrait taken not long after the shooting. Visible on the lower right side of the photo is the corner of the pillow in question. 

Postscript

Charlie Fresina eventually recovered from his wound and resumed his place at the head of the "Pillow Gang." Fresina often held court with his men at a Central West End restaurant at 8 South Sarah Street run by Armando Pacini. The mob boss would make headlines in August 1929 after firing a shotgun at federal agents who were in the process of raiding his Semple Avenue home. A year later, Fresina would be convicted of assault with intent to kill and sentenced to prison time. Just before he was due to head to jail, on May 8, 1931, Fresina was found shot to death behind the wheel of his car in an isolated forested area outside of Edwardsville, Illinois.

Dominick Cataldo and Tony DiTrapani were buried side-by-side in St. Louis's Calvary Cemetery.

Jimmy Russo continued his attempts to avenge the murder of his younger brother Shorty. Six months after the Dogtown ambush, Russo was lured to a meeting with the ostensibly neutral Cuckoo Gang in a disused chicken yard at Plymouth and Sutter avenues in what is now Wellston, Missouri. The Cuckoos sprung a ferocious trap and shot Russo and Mike Longo to death. Their companion, Jack Griffin, was wounded six times but managed to survive the attack.

Charles Spicuzza was reportedly inducted into the St. Louis family and worked as a bail bondsman for a number of years. Police questioned him after the May 1946 murder of Alma Ahlheim, who was reportedly Spicuzza's girlfriend; the mobster was apparently upset that she was seeing other men behind his back. No charges were filed. Spicuzza died of natural causes on January 19, 1978, the fiftieth anniversary of the shooting which gave the Pillow Gang its name.

Sources 

Waugh, Daniel. Gangs of St. Louis: Men of Respect. The History Press. 2010.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 1928, May 17, 1946, January 22, 1978.

St. Louis Star, January 20, 1928.


13 January 2020

Crime bosses receive hundred-year sentences

Judge hands out 740 years in prison terms, $1.75 million in fines

On this date in 1987...

Rockland County NY Journal-News

Seven leaders of New York-area organized crime families were sentenced January 13, 1987, to hundred-year prison terms. The Manhattan federal court sentencing concluded the Commission Case.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Owen recommended that none of the defendants ever be paroled. "These defendants deserve permanent incarceration," the judge stated. "Their crimes cry out for extraordinary punishment. The defendants occupied the highest ranks of the Mafia, and their offenses were of the utmost magnitude." Without that recommendation, parole could have been considered after ten years had been served.

Three of those sentenced to a century behind bars were believed at the time to be bosses of Mafia organizations:
  • Lucchese Crime Family - Anthony "Tony Ducks" Corallo, 73, of Oyster Bay Cove, New York.
  • Colombo Crime Family - Carmine "Junior" Persico, 53, from Brooklyn.
  • Genovese Crime Family - Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, 76, of Rhinebeck, New York. (Salerno was later found to be acting as a screen for the actual Genovese boss, Vincent "the Chin" Gigante.)

Corallo was also fined $250,000. Persico and Salerno were fined $240,000.

Corallo, Persico, Salerno
 Also sentenced to hundred-year prison terms:
  • Salvatore "Tom Mix" Santoro, 72, of Bronx, underboss of Lucchese Family. Fined $250,000.
  • Gennaro "Jerry Lang" Langella, 48, of Staten Island, underboss of Colombo Family. Fined $240,000. (Langella's attorney asked for a leniency, as Langella was already serving sentences of ten years and sixty-fine years from other cases and, according to the attorney, did not have "much left to give to his country." Judge Owen made the hundred-year term concurrent with the other sentences.)
  • Christopher "Christy Tick" Furnari, 62, of Rockville Centre, New York, consigliere (counselor) of Lucchese Family. Fined $240,000.
  • Ralph Scopo, 58, of Howard Beach, Queens, former labor leader and soldier of Colombo Family. Fined $240,000.

An eighth defendant, Anthony "Bruno" Indelicato, 38, of Manhattan, member of the Bonanno Crime Family, was sentenced to a lesser term. Convicted on two racketeering counts, including participation in the Commission-ordered killing of Bonanno big shot Carmine Galante, but not of holding a leadership position in the underworld, he received the maximum sentence of forty years. He was also fined $50,000.

Courtroom scene at sentencing. New York Daily News.

All the defendants were present in court for the sentencing. Judge Owen addressed them one at a time.

Salerno, believed at the time to be the wealthiest and most powerful underworld leader, was the first to be sentenced. Judge Owen remarked, "You sir, in my opinion, essentially spent all your lifetime terrorizing this community to your financial advantage."

Most of the defendants remained silent at sentencing. But Persico, who had acted as his own attorney at trial, charged that "this case was prejudiced from the very first day." He said the convictions and sentences were the result of "Mafia mania." Persico was already serving a thirty-nine-year sentence from a different case.

After four defendants had been sentenced and Judge Owen called the name of Salvatore Santoro, Santoro remarked, "Give me my hundred years and we'll get it over with."

Judge Owen explained that the sentences were intended as "a statement to those out there ... who are undoubtedly thinking about taking over the reins" of organized crime.

Rudolph Giuliani, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, told the press that the sentences would be "devastating to the mob."

Thomas L. Sheer, head of the FBI's New York office, was cautious in his assessment: "The worst mistake we can make is to declare a final victory."

The Commission Case began with the unsealing of a fifteen-count indictment on February 26, 1985. The original defendants, nine in number, did not include Persico or Indelicato but did include Bonanno Crime Family boss Philip "Rusty" Rastelli and Gambino Crime Family boss Paul "Big Paul" Castellano and his underboss Aniello "Neil" Dellacroce. In June prosecutors added Carmine Persico and Stefano Cannone to the list of defendants.

That list was reduced over time. Dellacroce and Cannone died of natural causes. Castellano was murdered. Rastelli was severed from the case because he was being tried on a separate matter in Brooklyn. Indelicato was added.

Trial began with jury selection on September 8, 1986. The court proceedings lasted for a month and a half.

An anonymous jury of five men and seven women returned guilty verdicts against the defendants on November 19, 1986, following five days of deliberations. All eight defendants were convicted of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy. All except Indelicato were convicted of extortion, extortion conspiracy and extorting and accepting labor payoffs. Corallo and Santoro were also convicted of loansharking conspiracy.

Maximum possible sentences were 326 years for Corallo and Santoro; 306 years for Persico, Salerno, Langella, Furnari and Scopo; and forty years for Indelicato.

See also:


Sources:

  • Doyle, John M., "Commission bosses get 100 years," Poughkeepsie Journal (AP), Jan. 14, 1987, p. B5.
  • Doyle, John M., "Eight mobsters convicted of all counts in Mafia Commission trial," AP News Archive, Nov. 19, 1986.
  • Jacobs, James B., with Christopher Panarella and Jay Worthington, Busting the Mob: United States v. Cosa Nostra, New York: New York University Press, 1994, p. 86-87.
  • Lubasch, Arnold H., "Judge sentences 8 Mafia leaders to prison terms," New York Times, Jan. 14, 1987.
  • Lubasch, Arnold H., "U.S. jury convicts eight as members of mob Commission," New York Times, Nov. 20, 1986.
  • O'Shaughnessy, Patrice, "100-year terms for 7 mobsters," New York Daily News, Jan. 14, 1987, p. 7.
  • "In brief: Mafia bosses are sentenced to centuries," New York Times, Jan. 18, 1987.
  • "Lawyer for Mafia boss shows lighter side of sentencing," Rockland County NY Journal-News, Jan. 14, 1987, p. B6.
  • "Mafia bosses get 100 years each," Rockland County NY Journal-News (AP), Jan. 14, 1987, p. B6.

11 January 2020

Mysterious St. Louis mob figure brutally murdered in Detroit

One hundred years ago tonight, a mysterious St. Louis underworld figure was found brutalized and near-death just outside of the southwestern edge of Detroit. The man was able to speak briefly with police and claimed that his name was Angelo Russo and that he had recently come to the Motor City. A century later, the man's true identity and the reasons for his violent death are uncertain. The following is an excerpt from my 2019 book Vìnnitta: The Birth of the Detroit Mafia.


Sometime around 1:30 on the morning of January 12, 1920, an anonymous Detroit police patrolman was walking his beat along Michigan Avenue just west of downtown. On this cold winter’s night, the streets were nearly empty, so the officer’s duty mostly consisted of staying warm and keeping his eyes and ears open. The officer noticed a westbound sedan headed towards him and in the direction of the Southwest Side. The vehicle caught his attention because of a burnt out headlight and the loud bursts of singing emanating from its interior. The words were in Sicilian, which the officer did not understand, but he thought it sounded nice as he idly watched the car pass by and disappear down the avenue. It was only later that this officer learned that the loud singing he had heard in the car was drowning out the strained sounds of a man being murdered within. 

Almost an hour later, John Stricki (or Striettzki) and his wife were awakened inside their home on Southern Avenue by a loud banging on their front door. As Stricki listened in, a Sicilian man pled in broken English for him to open the door. When Stricki refused, the caller swayed to the right (knocking over an oil lamp as he did so) and broke one of the front windows. The noise fully roused Stricki’s wife and five children, but a look through the broken window showed that the caller was no threat. The man was covered in blood and now lying on the front lawn, moaning in pain. As his ill wife cared for the wounded man, Stricki left to summon the police.

At Receiving Hospital, doctors took stock of the victim’s gruesome condition. Defensive wounds on the arms and wrists indicted that the dying man had fought fiercely for his life, and had received over forty stab wounds all over his torso in the process. During this frenzied attack, the victim had also been beaten about the head with a hammer hard enough to fracture his skull. The man had then been shot in the abdomen, neck, and a third time straight through his mouth. As if all that wasn’t enough, the victim was found to have an older, partially healed bullet wound in his back. Despite his tremendous injuries, the still-unidentified victim was not only still alive but willing to talk. Black Hand Squad head Inspector William Good and Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Robert Speed quickly got to his bedside to take a statement.

Although his mouth wound made speech difficult, the wounded man managed to say that his name was Angelo Russo, that he was thirty-two years old, and had recently arrived in town from St. Louis. Russo said he was currently rooming at 51 Trumbull Avenue. The wounded man claimed he had been shot in the back by three men in front of 460 E. Fort Street on New Year’s Eve night. The wound was minor enough for him to leave the hospital just a few hours after it was inflicted.

Earlier on this particular evening, Russo was at Salvatore Randazzo’s poolroom at 152 St. Aubin Street in the company of five men, all of whom he apparently named to Inspector Good and Prosecutor Speed. They eventually left in a sedan with a burnt-out headlight to grab a bite to eat at an all-night restaurant downtown. The party then headed west on Michigan Avenue; it was at this point that the horrific attack began. Russo was dumped out of the car on Southern Avenue between Cabot and Miller roads; about 180 feet outside of what were then Detroit’s southwestern city limits. Somehow able to keep his feet despite his wounds, the bloodied Russo staggered over a block away until he stumbled up to John Stricki’s front door. Roughly two hours after giving this statement to police, the victim died from his injuries. 

Santo Pirrone was questioned in the murder of Angelo Russo.
Acting on information gleaned from the dying man, police arrested twenty-five year old mafiùsu Santo Pirrone at his home at 779 McDougall Avenue.  Also taken into custody was a young woman that Pirrone identified as his wife. Russo’s statement was bolstered by the recovery of Pirrone’s blood-stained automobile on West Jefferson Avenue around the same time. A key member of Peter Mirabile’s Alcamesi dicìna, Pirrone was noted as a longtime friend (and eventual brother-in-law) of Salvatore Catalanotti, who had taken on a much bigger role in the affairs of the burgàta upon the ascension of John Vitale to càpu. Pirrone admitted being with the victim on the night of the murder and even conceded to driving him to the Southwest Side, but only to drop off his “wife” at the home of her father on Cabot Road, not far where Russo was dumped from the car. Pirrone claimed to have absolutely no idea that the brutal attack was taking place right behind him in the back seat.

Despite his implausible claims and the fact that he admitted driving the murder vehicle, Santo Pirrone managed to beat the rap. Angelo Russo’s body lay unclaimed for nearly two weeks until it was interred in a pauper’s grave at Woodmere Cemetery at city government expense. The ferocity of the attack earned Pirrone the underworld nickname of U Bistìnu (The Shark). Just who Russo really was, as well as what he was doing in Detroit and why he would be killed in such a grisly manner are questions that have never been satisfactorily answered. It is possible that new càpu Vitale, hypervigilant against threats, came to believe that Russo was a hired gunman brought in from St. Louis to kill him. Whether this was true or not, it is a likely motive behind the killing.

Postscript

The author was unable to find any solid record in St. Louis or elsewhere of Angelo Russo and has doubts that this was the man's true name. Just who he was and why he was killed are mysteries that may never be solved.

Angelo Russo's death certificate

Santo Pirrone eventually anglicized his name to Sam Perrone and made a fortune in the bootlegging business while a member of the Detroit Mafia. In later years, Perrone would move into the scrap business and become a noted union buster. Perrone was later charged with leading an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate UAW President Walter Reuther in the spring of 1948. By the early 1960s, Sam Perrone had begun feuding with mobster Anthony "Tony Jack" Giacalone, who got permission from the family's bosses to kill his rival. Perrone survived a subsequent car bombing, though he lost his left leg to the blast. After this incident, the contract on Perrone's life was cancelled with his retirement. Perrone died of natural causes on Christmas Day, 1973, his seventy-eighth birthday.

Sources

Waugh, Daniel. Vìnnitta: The Birth of the Detroit Mafia. Lulu Publication Services, 2019.

Detroit Free Press, January 12, 1920.

Detroit News, January 12, 1920.

Michigan Department of Heath, Certificate of Death, No. 1126, 1920.

Sam Perrone article on gangsterreport.com

05 January 2020

New Orleans killing linked to Mafia feud

On this date in 1888...

A single pistol shot echoed along New Orleans' St. Philip Street at about ten o'clock in the evening of Thursday, January 5, 1888.

Times-Democrat
Private watchman Jacob Seither, stationed at the Old French Market at the foot of St. Philip, called for police assistance and then moved up the dark street toward the sound. Midway up the block, in front of a lodging house, Seither found twenty-eight-year-old Antonio Bonora, clutching a wounded abdomen and murmuring in Italian.

Police Officer Frank Santanio soon arrived and summoned an ambulance. He determined that Bonora was calling for his mother and asking for her blessing. Santanio asked Bonora who shot him, but the victim gave no answer. Bonora died before the ambulance arrived.

A stretcher was assembled from available materials, and it was used to take Bonora's body to the Third Precinct Station for examination. Police found a gaping wound in the upper abdomen and severe powder burns on the surrounding clothing and flesh. That indicated that the pistol had been placed quite close to the body when it was fired.

Investigators gained little helpful information from questioning residents of the Italian neighborhood where the killing occurred. In the front room of Salvatore Buffa's saloon, which looked out onto the street where Bonora was killed, police found several men gathered. Those men claimed they had been singing together and neither saw nor heard the nearby shooting.

Daily Picayune
Police learned that Bonora had been in the Buffa saloon earlier that night, sharing wine with local residents Sam Caruso, Vincent Pellegrini and Frank Demar. Caruso and friends reportedly tried to convince Bonora to take a drive with them uptown, but he refused. They parted a short time before the shooting.

Caruso, Pellegrini and Demar were rounded up by the police and brought to the police station. They viewed Bonora's body, but provided no useful information to investigators.

Deputy Coroner Stanhope Jones performed an autopsy on Bonora's remains on Friday morning. He found that death resulted from hemorrhage caused by a bullet that entered the body four inches above the navel and cut through the liver, spleen and right lung. The bullet traveled upward inside the body and lodged beneath the right armpit.

The local press reported that Bonora was a member of the Tiro al Bersaglio organization and the Fruit Laborers Union. Tiro al Bersaglio was an Italian-American benevolent society that hosted marksmanship events and had a paramilitary quality. Some of its more influential members, including Joseph Macheca and Frank Romero, were later linked with the local Mafia.

Related to Mafia conflict?

Bonora's murder was unsolved. But historians have pointed to Mafia enforcer Rocco Geraci as his killer. In the 1880s, the Sicilian underworld of New Orleans was divided into warring factions built around the rival Provenzano and Matranga families. It appears likely that Bonora's murder was related to this conflict. Geraci is also believed responsible for the earlier murder of Vincent Raffo in the same neighborhood.

The Provenzano group, known as the Giardinieri (or Gardeners) included Bonora's drinking buddies Pellegrini and Demar (a Provenzano brother-in-law) and, for a time at least, members of the Caruso family. Geraci was aligned with the Matrangas, known as the Stuppagghieri (or Stoppers). The Carusos appear to have abruptly abandoned the Provenzanos to side with the Matrangas, but they may have been secretly allied with the Matrangas all along.

The Provenzanos for years held a virtual monopoly over Sicilian dockworkers in New Orleans, controlling the Fruit Laborers Union. (In the later 1880s, Provenzanos held the posts of union vice president and financial secretary, while Victor Pellegrini served as union grand marshal.) A Provenzano-aligned stevedore firm held contracts to unload produce ships reaching the city docks.

In this period, a rival Matranga-Locascio firm sprang up and quickly seized control of the docks. A local newspaper report from summer 1888 indicated that the new company's "quick work and careful handling of the fruit" earned it high marks from importers and ship owners. At that moment, the Matranga business was said to include Charles Matranga, Antonio Locascio, James Caruso, Vincent Caruso and Rocco Geraci.

The Provenzanos did not accept the setback gracefully. More violence resulted, and local police, courts and political organizations were pulled into the gangland war.

See also:

Sources:
  • "From Spanish Honduras with fruit," New Orleans Times-Democrat, Aug. 26, 1888, p. 11.
  • "Fruit Laborers' Union," New Orleans Daily Picayune, Jan. 29, 1888, p. 6.
  • "Rocco Geraci," New Orleans Daily Picayune, July 27, 1890, p. 6.
  • "Slain," New Orleans Daily Picayune, Jan. 6, 1888, p. 2.
  • "The Benora autopsy," New Orleans Times-Democrat, Jan. 7, 1888, p. 3.
  • "The fruit laborers," New Orleans Times-Democrat, Jan. 29, 1888, p. 3.
  • "The Italian murder," New Orleans Daily Picayune, Jan. 7, 1888, p. 3.
  • "The vendetta," New Orleans Times-Democrat, Jan. 6, 1888, p 3.
  • "Trial of Garaci," New Orleans Times-Democrat, July 27, 1890, p. 10.

26 December 2019

Flamingo opens with three-day gala

On this date in 1946...


The Flamingo casino, financed in large part by underworld investments funneled through racketeer Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, opened its doors for the first time on December 26, 1946.

Cugat and Durante
A three-day opening event, December 26-28, featured entertainment by orchestra leader Xavier Cugat, singer and comedian Jimmy Durante, Broadway performer Tommy Wonder (a veteran of some Our Gang films) and singer Rose Marie.

At the time of the opening, the Flamingo's hotel section was still under construction, and management hoped it would be completed by March 1, 1947. Advertisements for the three-day opening urged southern California visitors to "fly up any day and come back the same night." Chartered planes departed for Las Vegas at 5:30 in the afternoon and returned guests by 1 a.m.

The Flamingo was billed as the "most luxurious night club in the world." Its advertisements vaguely (and somewhat conservatively) placed its construction cost at "better than $5,000,000."

That figure had risen dramatically in the months leading up to the opening, and it would continue to rise. Back in early October, the final cost had been estimated at between $2.5 million and $4 million.

The exterior of the casino was beige and brown. It was lined with bushes illuminated with red and blue lights. Numerous potted palm trees were placed around the establishment. An artificial green lake stood at one side. The large bar had green leather walls with many mirrors, a black ceiling and "tomato-red furniture."

Not the first

Flamingo may have been the "most luxurious night club" at that moment, but it was not the first Las Vegas hotel-casino to cater to wealthy gamblers.

El Rancho Vegas (opened on The Strip in 1941), El Cortez (1941), Nevada Biltmore (1942) and Hotel Last Frontier (1942) were already in operation and reportedly doing good business. Columnist Erskine Johnson noted in June 1946 that those ventures, set in motion before U.S. entry into World War II, remained "jammed" with visitors:

Movie stars, millionaires, socialites and plain John Does are standing two deep at the roulette and dice tables. Every gambling casino in town - and there's one on almost every corner - is grossing from $3000 to $5000 a night. And every night is like New Year's Eve.

Johnson reported rumors that the funding for Flamingo construction was coming from Barbara Hutton, heiress to portions of the Woolworth retail and Hutton financial services fortunes. According to Johnson, Hutton was "sinking a small fortune" into the project, "which will be a gilt casino with hotel attached."

Los Angeles Times, Dec. 24, 1946

Priorities

Flamingo construction was repeatedly delayed for various reasons. At least twice in the summer and fall of 1946, the project was halted for a review by the federal government's Civilian Production Administration (CPA).

The year-old CPA, a postwar version of the War Production Board, was tasked with prioritizing the use of construction resources. In spring 1946, CPA had put a temporary stop on all non-essential commercial building not already started in order to concentrate resources on the housing needs of returning U.S. servicemen.

Columnist Hedda Hopper called attention to the Flamingo construction and a wider building boom in the Las Vegas area in a September 10 column. She also mentioned financial backer Siegel by name:

A huge night club, backed by Bugsy Siegel and called the Flamingo, was started only a few months ago. It features four swimming pools, and reservations are already being taken for a November opening. Yet our returned soldiers can't even find a shed for shelter.

The "only a few months ago" remark was a problem, as it suggested the building effort began after the March 26 effective date of CPA's Veterans Housing Project No. 1 regulation. A federal compliance commissioner reviewed the project in mid-September and announced that work on the night club had started before March 26 and that the planned hotel and connecting shops of the horseshoe-shaped complex were merely phases of the project already underway and not separate projects.

That decision was pushed aside in early October, as the CPA ordered a halt to the project and conducted a further review. At that moment, reports indicated that just $400,000 - about one-tenth of what was then the expected project cost - had been spent on construction.

Focus on casino

Resources appear to have been channeled into the completion of the casino before year-end. The casino was mentioned regularly in the press during the month of December.

  • Columnist Leonard Lyons wrote on December 19 that the movie and radio comedy team of Abbott and Costello had committed to work at the Flamingo for pay of $15,000 a week.
  • Columnist Louella O. Parsons commented a few days later: "Quite a lot of people are goig to Las Vegas the 26th and 27th for the opening of the Flaming." Parsons mentioned that Cugat and Durante had been booked as entertainers.
  • Columnist Hedda Hopper immediately expressed surprise: "I can't believe Jimmy Durante will give a two-week guest shot to the new Flaming gambling casino in Las Vegas."
Benjamin Siegel and George Raft
Opulent playground

One of those covering Flamingo's opening was journalist Bob Thomas. He reported that "a covery of movie names flew over for the opening, including Lon McAllister, George Sanders, Sonny Tufts, Charles Coburn, Vivian Blaine, George Raft, Eleanor Parker and George Jessel."

Thomas said the older hotel-casinos in the area responded to the big-name talent booked at the Flamingo by providing their own entertainment. El Rancho Vegas, he reported, hired comedians the Ritz Brothers and singer Peggy Lee.

He noted that Las Vegas at that moment had "more big-time entertainment than one could find in a week of touring Hollywood night spots."

While the entertainment brought publicity to the Vegas establishments, Thomas reminded his readers that the casinos' wealth was generated through constant gambling. He noted that in the Flamingo casino, patrons at roulette, crap, 21 and chuckaluck tables were busily helping "to defray the $5,000,000 cost of the place." And he confessed, "I made my contribution at a nickel slot machine."

In a United Press report of the opening, the financial backers of the casino were named as Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel; Harry Rothberg, vice president of American Distillers; Billy Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter; and Joe Ross, Hollywood attorney.

Problems ahead

The enthusiastic contributions made by gamblers were not sufficient to please Flamingo's investors. In the weeks following the opening, there were reports that the casino's income was not close to covering its expenses and there was evidence that Siegel was scrambling to keep the business afloat. Newspapers said he took out a $1 million loan in order to pay off a contractor.

Siegel's underworld friends expressed their unhappiness with his management of the casino on June 20, 1947. On that evening, less than six months after the Flamingo's opening gala, Siegel was shot to death.


Sources:

  • "An evening in Las Vegas," Los Angeles Times, advertisement, Dec. 24, 1946, p. 4.
  • "Flamingo hotel permit allowed," Nevada State Journal, Sept. 15, 1946, p. 21.
  • "Las Vegas club building halted," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 1, 1946, p. 6;
  • "Nevada politics," Nevada State Journal, Oct. 20, 1946, p. 19.
  • "New colossus on the desert," Des Moines IA Register, Jan. 1, 1947, p. 5.
  • "State boss of bookmaking slain in south," San Mateo CA Times, June 21, 1947, p. 1.
  • "Work halted on Las Vegas club pending probe," Santa Cruz CA Sentinel, Oct. 3, 1946, p. 8.
  • "Work is halted on Vegas club," Nevada State Journal, Oct. 3, 1946, p. 4;
  • Hopper, Hedda, "Hedda Hopper in Hollywood," Miami News, Dec. 23, 1946, p. 11.
  • Hopper, Hedda, "Looking at Hollywood," Los Angeles Times, Sept. 10, 1946, p. 11.
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23 December 2019

Calamia caught, called killing conspirator

Despite D.A. claims, DeJohn murder remains unsolved

On this date in 1948...

San Francisco Examiner, Dec. 24, 1948.
A fugitive, indicted for conspiring in the May 1947 San Francisco gangland murder of Nick DeJohn, was captured in New Mexico on December 23, 1948.

The FBI and Bernalillo County sheriff's deputies arrested Leonard Calamia, aged thirty-two, on a federal warrant. Acting on a tip received from San Francisco, authorities sought Calamia at his new place of employment, the driver's license department of the New Mexico State Revenue Bureau in Albuquerque, but he was not there. They found him next door in the State Highway Department building adjoining the offices of the New Mexico State Police. They learned that Calamia, under the assumed name of Len Tallone, had held two government jobs in the year and a half he lived in New Mexico.

Calamia admitted his identity and his criminal history - he was an ex-convict, former narcotics peddler and Chicago hoodlum. Police determined that Calamia returned to Chicago briefly after the DeJohn murder and then relocated to Albuquerque, adopting his wife's maiden name of Tallone as his own surname.

He was placed in the Bernalillo County sheriff's office lockup. Bail was set at $50,000. Calamia waived a removal hearing and was turned over to San Francisco police on December 29.

Nick DeJohn
The plot against DeJohn

Calamia was one of five men indicted one month earlier for conspiring in the DeJohn murder. Two of his codefendants, Sicilian immigrants Sebastiano Nani and Michele Abati, were arrested in November. Two others, Frank Scappatura and Tony Lima, remained at large. (There were rumors that Lima was prepared to surrender to authorities at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, but that did not occur. Scappatura and Lima were never arrested in connection with this case.)

According to prosecutors, Nick DeJohn, a former member of the Capone Outfit in Chicago, had been trying to take over underworld rackets in the San Francisco area and was killed by rivals. DeJohn's body was found stuffed into the trunk of his Chrysler Town & Country convertible on May 9, 1947. Evidence indicated he had been strangled to death two days earlier.

Prosecutors believed that Calamia, known to be a close friend of DeJohn, was called upon to serve as the "finger man" in the murder, leading DeJohn to his killers. Calamia reportedly spent much of May 7, 1947, with DeJohn. The Calamia and DeJohn families had dinner together at the Calamia residence. Leonard Calamia and Nick DeJohn went out for drinks to the Poodle Dog restaurant and bar at 1125 Polk Street and then to LaRocca's Corner at 957 Columbus Avenue in the North Beach section. They parted at LaRocca's Corner. DeJohn was last seen alive as he was walking from the tavern.

Reports, later disputed, claimed that at the time of DeJohn's murder, Calamia was home having coffee and cake with DeJohn's son.

Calamia had been arrested almost immediately after the discovery of DeJohn's body. But he had been released May 31, 1947, due to insufficient evidence.

Authorities insisted for some time that the DeJohn murder was essentially solved. They claimed to know where DeJohn was killed, why he was killed and who was responsible. But assembling a convincing case proved to be a problem.

Trial

Prosecutors thought they had a winning case when Calamia, Nani and Abati were brought to trial. But they found that some of their important witnesses were unreliable and could not withstand cross examination.

Leonard Calamia

As jury deliberations started in early March 1949, the district attorney admitted that he did not believe the testimony of some of his own witnesses. Judge Preston Devine denounced witnesses from both sides for giving obviously false testimony.

After thirty hours of deliberations, the jury stood deadlocked and Judge Devine declared a mistrial.

No retrial

The most inconsistent prosecution witness also was the key witness in the grand jury proceedings that resulted in the original indictments.

Mrs. Anita Rocchia Venza claimed that she had overheard the five men plotting to kill DeJohn. She was in a basement apartment near La Rocca's Corner at the time and heard the conversation from an adjoining room. She claimed that the plotters learned of her presence and offered her $500 to forget what she heard and leave the state.

When her statements were determined to be unreliable, the original indictments were quashed, any chance of a retrial was lost and the fugitive warrants against the two at-large defendants, Scappatura and Lima, were voided.

The murder of Nick DeJohn remained officially unsolved.

See also:


Sources:

  • "Calamia arraigned here with two other suspects in De John slaying," San Francisco Examiner, Jan. 1, 1949, p. 5.
  • "Calamia ask high court for freedom," San Mateo Times, Jan. 20, 1949, p. 1.
  • "Calamia faces further quiz," San Francisco Examiner, June 1, 1947, p. 3.
  • "Calamia loses plea," San Mateo Times, Jan. 21, 1949, p. 5.
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  • "DeJohn case jury dismissed; stood 7 to 5 for acquittal," San Francisco Examiner, March 9, 1949, p. 1.
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  • "Delay granted in DeJohn trial," Oakland Tribune, Dec. 30, 1948, p. 17.
  • "FBI nabs Calamia, accused as 'finger man' in DeJohn case," San Francisco Examiner, Dec. 24, 1948, p. 1.
  • "Five indicted for De John murder; woman testifies that she overheard plot," San Francisco Examiner, Nov. 30, 1948, p. 1.
  • "Hunt pushed for trio in DeJohn case," San Mateo Times, Dec. 1, 1948.
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  • "Police hunt 4 suspects in De John case," San Francisco Examiner, Nov. 24, 1948, p. 1.
  • "Police move to wind up De John case as 'solved,'" Oakland Tribune, Nov. 22, 1948, p. 7.
  • "S.M. man held brains of Nick DeJohn murder," San Mateo Times, Nov. 22, 1948, p. 1.
  • "State to use Calamia story to police at gangland trial," San Francisco Examiner, Feb. 7, 1949, p. 17.
  • "Third DeJohn fugitive caught," San Mateo Times, Dec. 23, 1948, p. 1.
  • "U.S. warrants issued for 2 in DeJohn hunt," San Francisco Examiner, Nov. 23, 1948, p. 1.
  • "Warrants voided in DeJohn case," Santa Rosa CA Press Democrat, April 20, 1949, p. 5.
  • Pearce, Dick, "Calamia dislosures key to De John trial," San Francisco Examiner, Jan. 29, 1949, p. 1.