Detroit Heroin

Detroit, February 21, 1962. It was two in the morning and Gerlando was locking up his bar for the night. Walking out the back door of his establishment, the bar owner was horrified to find a dead pig blocking his exit. Seeing its front and hind legs bound by rope, he inspected the animal and concluded the swine had died from asphyxiation. Gerlando knew that the pathetic animal was placed there as a warning. By the next day, patrons of the bar were already gossiping about the dead pig. Gerlando owned Frankie G’s, a popular hangout for wiseguys in Detroit. Well acquainted with underworld symbolism, customers recognized the pig carcass as a message: squealers die.

Earlier in the week police had visited the bar, asking patrons about Roy Calabrese, a local pimp, numbers runner, and regular at Frankie G’s. Although not a made guy, Roy was nevertheless a very connected figure in the Detroit underworld. Specifically, he was tied into the Partinico faction of the local Italian crime syndicate. A few nights earlier—Valentine’s Day to be exact—police found Calabrese’s body in the trunk of his own car. Police located the vehicle in a Kroger’s parking lot in St. Clair Shores, a suburb of Detroit. Opening the trunk, they found his garroted body. There was no doubt what the dead pig meant and that it was directed toward Gerlando: keep your mouths shut about Roy Calabrese.

Though unable to solve the murder, police were able to connect the victim to a shadowy faction of the Detroit syndicate known in the underworld as the “lower Sicilians.” To be precise, the group traced its heritage to the Sicilian town of Partinico. Like other elements of the Detroit mob, the group was involved in traditional rackets such as illegal gambling and labor corruption. But it was the heroin trade that distinguished the Partinico faction from other criminal groups. It made them superpowers.

Detroit and the Global Heroin Trade

Researchers tend to underplay Detroit when examining the global history of heroin trafficking. Social scientist Eric C. Schneider’s impressive study of the opium trade, for example, places New York at the center of heroin distribution in North America. According to Schneider, between the 1940s and 1980s, New York dominated the smack trade. Dealers in other urban cities had to go through the Big Apple for supplies.

Few would challenge the notion. There is no question that syndicates in New York facilitated a staggering amount of illicit narcotics traffic. But often lost in the discussion of the North American and international drug market is the importance of the Motor City. Even Schneider himself singles out Detroit as the exception to the rule, having special access to the suppliers in New York. The facts are clear. When it came to heroin, an overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that it was the Detroit Mafia that was supplying the New York underworld for close to three decades following World War II, not the other way around. To be more precise, it was a group within the larger Detroit crime family that was doling out “H” at a breakneck pace. This Sicilian faction of Detroit’s Mafia was known as the Partinico group, and was led by some of the city’s most deadly hoodlums. The Partinicos supplied almost the entire country at that time. Besides New York, almost every big city across the nation was supplied with heroin that was brought into the United States by members of the Detroit Partinicos.

Three important factors placed Detroit at the nexus of the North American heroin trade.First, unlike many other Italian American syndicates, Detroit maintained close relationships with Sicilian crime families overseas. Their Mafia brothers across the Atlantic had direct access to opium growers in the Middle East. Traffickers processed the opium into heroin in Europe and shipped the product to distributors in Detroit. Second, the Detroit–Windsor border has been a major hub of international trade. Sicilian suppliers often used cargo ships bound for Montreal to move their product. The heroin made its way down to Windsor and onward across the border. Lastly, Detroit’s mob was heavily involved in labor racketeering and related industries such as trucking and steel. As a result, drug traffickers in the Motor City used these connections to develop a sophisticated distribution network.

Detroit’s involvement in the drug trade began with its deep Sicilian connections. As with other big cities, Sicilian immigrants poured into Detroit during late 1800s and early 1900s, looking for economic opportunities. Many of them went on to become successful entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, and civil servants. Unfortunately, a criminal element emerged in Detroit’s Sicilian community as well. Local newspapers began documenting Italian organized criminal activities as early as 1908. During the early years of syndicate history, Sicilian gangsters tended to group together with compatriots from their hometowns. Mobstersarriving in Detroit from Partinico, for example, would link up with Partinicesi mafiosi already operating in the city. Out of this milieu, certain groups operated international criminal enterprises with the aid of comrades back in the old country. Heroin trafficking was one of the most profitable examples of such joint illegal operations.

The Detroit Mafiaproduced three subgroups known for remaining exceptionally close to their Sicilian counterparts overseas: the Partinico faction (also known as the lower Sicilian group), the Windsor faction (a Canadian crew linked to the French Connection heroin ring out of Marseilles), and the Cinisi faction (affiliated with the Badalamenti crime family of Palermo).

 

John Priziola and the Partinico Faction

Led by Giovanni “Papa John” Priziola, the Partinico faction was the oldest and most powerful of the groups operating in the Motor City. Standing just over five feet three inches, the diminutive gangster climbed the ranks of the Detroit underworld by combining violence with exceptional leadership skills and heavily entrenched connections. Starting off his criminal career in the area as a rum-runner during Prohibition, Papa John rose to the rank of consigliere, third in command and top advisor to longtime Godfather Joe Zerilli until his death in 1979.

Arriving in Detroit in 1909 at the age of 16, Priziola soon earned a reputation on the street as a dependable earner and an unscrupulous killer. Between 1917 and 1931, Papa John piled up a number of arrests for larceny, bootlegging, concealed weapons, narcotics, and murder. Similar to other mafiosi from his era, Priziola made his first fortune during Prohibition in the bootlegging industry. During the 1920s, he co-owned a sugar house and liquor-cutting factory with Detroit mobster Nicolo “Nick the Executioner” Ditta. Together they supplied booze to blind-pig establishments throughout the city. Papa John generated a second fortune during World War II by orchestrating a gas rationing coupon scam that is alleged to have netted him millions.

In addition to establishing himself as one of the mob’s top moneymakers, Priziola had another advantage that enhanced his position on the streets: his heritage. Whereas other local wiseguys at the time chose to lead lives of crime, Papa John Priziola was born into the Mafia. FBI informants told authorities that Priziola had a reputation as a killer before arriving in Detroit, dating all the way back to his days as a youngster in Sicily. It is speculated that Papa John “made his bones” during a blood feud involving his father. Priziola’s father, Giuseppe, was a high-ranking mobster back in Partinico. The elder Priziola had fallen victim to the murderous intrigue of his own son-in-law. After the murder, the assassin fled Sicily for the United States. Partisans of the Priziola clan managed to lure the killer back to Italy a short time later. The Priziola family had their revenge. Italian authorities soon discovered the son-in-law cut into over 800 pieces.

Back in Detroit, Papa John solidified his position as an underworld powerbroker by linking up with other Partinicesi gangsters such as Frank “Frankie Three Fingers” Coppola and Raffaele “Jimmy Q” Quasarano. Initially, Coppola operated as the official leader, or capo, of the Partinico faction. Though younger than Papa John, Coppola ranked higher as a mafioso in Sicily, and he carried his status with him from the old country to America. Together, Coppola, Priziola, and Quasarano operated a number of lucrative gambling joints including the infamous Lucky Star Policy House. The police raided the gambling den in 1947 and determined the group was taking in around $40,000 a day through the Lucky Star.

Like other venture capitalists, Frankie Three Fingers, Papa John, and Jimmy Q—sometimes also referred to as “Jimmy the Goon”—wanted to parlay their earnings. With lots of capital to invest and solid connections back in Sicily, the Partinico group decided to jump head first into the heroin market. Sweetening the deal and making things substantially easier in moving their product, Coppola and Quasarano had recently aided the Detroit mob in a successful infiltration of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Because of the union’s relationship to the trucking industry, the Partinico faction had access to a national distribution system. With direct access to heroin suppliers in Sicily and control of a delivery network in the United States, the Partinico group established an ideal drug-dealing infrastructure.

Frankie Coppola’s connection to the Teamsters is one of the more discomforting moments in the history of that proud labor movement. Coppola was particularly close to Teamsters’ president Jimmy Hoffa. The relationship dated all the way back to the days of Coppola’s first months in America. Shortly after Frankie Three Fingers arrived in Detroit, he started up a romantic relationship with Sylvia Pagano. Coincidentally, Pagano, an aspiring actress who dated several of the city’s most powerful mobsters, was a former lover of Jimmy Hoffa. Sylvia introduced Coppola to her old paramour and a lucrative partnership emerged.

Hoffa’s fledging labor movement had been fighting off union-busting goons for years. After meeting Frankie Three Fingers, Hoffa decided to team with Coppola and his cohorts in the mob and counter the antagonists with the Teamsters’ own squad of thugs. Coppola, along with other Detroit mobsters including Pete Licavoli and Santo “Cockeyed Sam” Perrone, assisted the Teamsters in their street wars with rival unions like the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Of course there were tradeoffs. Coppola provided the muscle, and in exchange Hoffa granted the Partinico group access to Teamster-controlled trucking networks. Later, Hoffa used the Teamsters to provide political cover for the Partinico faction by appointing Priziola and Quasarano as union officials in Local 985.

As for the heroin trade, FBI documents suggest that Frank Coppola established a drug smuggling route out of Florida as early as 1926. At that point, Coppola had only been in the country for a brief time. Frankie Three Fingers was on the run from Italian prosecutors for a 1919 homicide in Palermo when he entered the United States in 1925. In addition to running drugs, Coppola spent time as a bootlegger in Los Angeles before arriving in Detroit in 1931. By the 1940s, the Partinico group had amassed such a fortune from labor racketeering and illegal gambling that its foray into the international narcotics trade was a natural progression. The authorities did eventually catch up with Coppola in 1947, and deported him to Italy. He tried to reenter the U.S. in 1948 and 1949, but was intercepted by American officials both times and returned to Sicily.

Ironically, Coppola’s deportation led to an escalation of heroin smuggling to Detroit. Back in Sicily, he was in a position to take direct control of the supply side of the network. Initially, Sicilian mafiosiacquired heroin from government sanctioned morphine producers in Italy. After identifying corruptible officials at the pharmaceutical companies, Sicilian gangsters would arrange for the firms to inflate production over regulated limits and buy the surplus heroin. Investigators with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics estimated that the arrangement produced approximately 800 kilos of heroin for Sicilian crime organizations.

The partnership worked well until American authorities pressured the Italian government to crack down on corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. Eventually, Italian authorities issued a total ban on the production of heroin. With pharmaceutical companies out of commission, Italian American gangsters had to look to other suppliers. The Corsican mob from Marseilles was more than happy to satisfy the market.

 

“Cockeyed Joe” and the Windsor Connection

Before continuing to describe the Partinico faction’s involvement in narcotics, it is important to note the Windsor group’s role in the heroin trade as well. Going by underworld mapping systems, Windsor, Ontario was considered part of Detroit’s territory; that is to say, the Motor City crime family–controlled rackets on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, a mere five-minute drive from downtown.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Giuseppe “Cockeyed Joe” Catalanotte was capo of the Windsor crew. Like Papa John Priziola, Catalanotte came from Mafia royalty. His brother Salvatore “Singing Sam” Catalanotte was one of the original mob bosses of Detroit and is considered by some experts the city’s first modern-day don. Not one to ride his brother’s coattails, Cockeyed Joe built a reputation as a vicious gangster in his own right. By the time he took over syndicate operations in Canada, Cockeyed Joe had an extensive arrest record going back to the early 1920s. Catalanotte’s record included charges for murder, assault, extortion, and narcotics violations.

When Detroit police raided Cockeyed Joe’s apartment in 1930, they were astounded to find an arsenal of over 60 firearms. Detroit police officer Marvin Lane broke his hand wrestling a loaded gun away from Catalanotte, who reached for the pistol as police searched the premises. Interestingly, investigators linked one of the confiscated guns to the assassination of popular radio host Gerald Buckley, though Catalanotte was never charged with the crime. After serving a short stint behind bars, Cockeyed Joe was back on the streets and looking for fresh rackets.

The 1940s were a shaky period for the country’s narcotics industry. World War II had severely disrupted the narcotics trade between Europe and North America. When the war ended in 1945, Cockeyed Joe recognized the lucrative potential of reintroducing the drug pipeline into the Detroit area. Catalanotte, along with his top lieutenants Onofrio “Nono” Minaudo, Paul “The Sicilian” Cimino, and Nicholas “Canadian Nick” Cicchini, transformed the Windsor–Detroit border into the primary hub of international narcotics trafficking.

By being in charge of looking after the Detroit mob’s rackets in Windsor, Catalanotte became acquainted with other powerful gangsters in the Canadian underworld. Jimmy Renda, for example, a mobster out of Riverside, Ontario, was part of Cockeyed Joe’s criminal orbit. Renda put Catalanotte in contact with heroin traffickers from Montreal. Combining linguistic and criminal similarities, French Canadian mobsters in Quebec worked well with Corsican gangsters from Marseilles.

The global nuances were fascinating. Corsican mobsters had contacts with French-speaking Lebanese gangsters with access to opium growers in Turkey. Turkish opium producers would cook the opium into a morphine base and sell it to Lebanese middlemen. Eventually, the product would make its way to French smugglers. The Corsicans had established an elaborate network of clandestine conversion labs in Marseilles to process the morphine base into heroin. Finally, Corsicans would smuggle the heroin onto cargo ships headed for Canada. American and French investigators estimated that by the early 1950s, the so-called French Connection was supplying North America with over 100 kilograms of heroin per month. Controlling the Windsor–Detroit border, Catalanotte was in a perfect position to capitalize on the illicit traffic. Central in importance to this network was Catalanotte’s association with Dominic Albertini. As the official head chemist of the French Connection heroin ring, Albertini was recognized as one of the most powerful gangsters in Marseilles. Jimmy Renda introduced Catalanotte to Albertini and as a result an extremely profitable transnational heroin partnership emerged.

In 1952, Cockeyed Joe even tried to smuggle Albertini into Detroit to establish additional distribution outlets in the United States. Federal authorities at the time believed that Catalanotte hoped to introduce Albertini to the Partinico faction in the city and build new business relationships between the two megawatt mob groups. Before any agreements could be established, however, American authorities intercepted Albertini at the Windsor border. Interestingly, Albertini was caught at the border by means of surveillance set up for another Detroit mobster. Federal agents were monitoring Peter Di Lorenzo, a suspected racketeer, counterfeiter, and human trafficker when they observed Dominic Albertini leaving Di Lorenzo’s business. Agents arrested the French chemist as he tried to enter Detroit. Albertini offered the agents a $100,000 bribe but was rebuked. He was convicted of illegal entry and sentenced to two years of which he served a year and a day.

Investigators were closing in on Catalanotte as well. Cockeyed Joe’s drug network started to unravel when a confidential informant began trading information to federal agents in 1950. The informant worked with a Midwest drug trafficker named Robert “Texas Bob” Kimbell, who was transporting marijuana into Detroit in 125-pound bushels. One of Kimbell’s primary customers was a dealer named Michael Lockett. The feds found out through their informant that Lockett had introduced Kimbell to Italian heroin traffickers in Detroit.

Intrigued by the allegations, agents with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics set up a fake heroin buy to nail Texas Bob. Kimbell fell for the trap and agreed to cooperate with the government in return for a lighter sentence. As a result, Texas Bob started introducing undercover agents to lower-level Italian heroin suppliers operating out of the mob-controlled Detroit–Windsor hub. The undercover agents developed relationships with a number of “connected” dealers such as Andy Bottancino, Nick Prano, and Jimmy Galici, a known made member of the Detroit Mafia.

During the investigation it became clear that the primary supplier for this group of drug lieutenants was a mysterious mafioso known only as “The Old Man.” It quickly became clear that The Old Man was Cockeyed Joe Catalanotte. Proving it, on the other hand, wasn’t so easy. By the end of 1950, agents had arrested Lockett, Bottancino, Prano, and Galici on narcotics charges, but were unable to find someone willing to testify against their ringleader, Catalanotte. They all went to trial and were convicted, though Kimball never made it to the witness stand as he had been killed in a drug deal gone wrong in San Antonio.

Staying hot on Catalanotte’s trail, investigators infiltrated Cockeyed Joe’s crew once again only a year later. In 1951, undercover agents started making buys from figures in Detroit’s Chinese underworld. Within months, they busted James Paing and Jay Lum for trafficking, and the two began cooperating with the federal investigators. Paing and Lum passed on the names of their Italian suppliers—Louis Oddo, Robert Tassiano, and Sam Caruso—and agreed to participate in a sting operation. Paing placed his drug order with Caruso, who like Jimmy Galici was a known made member of the Detroit Mafia, and then passed the request on to Oddo. Caruso and Oddo arranged for the heroin to be delivered to a gas station owned by Tassiano.

Informants explained to authorities that per standard protocol, Caruso would wait several days before passing the drug proceeds on to his boss. Agents waited, keeping Caruso under surveillance. Finally, on February 21, 1952, law enforcement followed him to a meeting with the ever-elusive Old Man. Agents witnessed Caruso passing drug money to none other than Cockeyed Joe Catalanotte. Police arrested Joe and within the year a federal court convicted him on narcotics charges. Catalanotte’s incarceration, however, didn’t even come close to stopping the flow of heroin into Detroit.

 

Drug Lords

The Partinico group took advantage of Catalanotte’s legal troubles and with Cockeyed Joe locked up, established itself as the prominent heroin organization in Detroit. Back in Sicily, Frank Coppola and other recently exiled American Mafia dons like Charles “Lucky” Luciano forged their own partnerships with Corsican traffickers. With such connections in place, Coppola supplied his partners in Detroit with copious amounts of heroin.

Meanwhile, law enforcement began to catch on to the fact that a new, more sophisticated drug network was firmly in place after monitoring an increased amount of travel to Sicily by Detroit-area gangsters. Following Coppola’s deportation, authorities observed two Partinico group members in particular traveling cross-continent quite often. The feds observed Jimmy Quasarano and another Priziola disciple and top Michigan-based mob lieutenant, Salvatore “Little Sammy” Finazzo, making frequent trips overseas to meet with Partinicese mob leaders in Sicily.

Agents suspected Quasarano and Finazzo were in Sicily to negotiate and finance heroin deliveries to the United States. Finazzo was born in Partinico, but moved to the U.S. as a child, settling first in St. Louis and then relocating to Detroit. His status within the local underworld was cemented in 1922 when his sister married future mob boss Joe Zerilli. In contrast, Jimmy Q was born in Pennsylvania, but raised in Sicily. His mother moved the family back to their ancestral home of Partinico after Quasarano’s father died in a coal-mining accident. Back in Detroit, Jimmy Q and Little Sammy Finazzo co-owned the Motor City Boxing Gym and were tasked with overseeing a number of Papa John Priziola’s gambling and loansharking operations.

If Coppola was the founder of the Partinico group and Priziola was its leader, then Jimmy Q was the crew’s enforcer. After spending his early youth in Partinico, Quasarano moved back to the United States as a teenager. Committed to the gangster life, at the age of 21, he made his way to Detroit to work for Partinicese Godfather Frank Coppola. Authorities arrested Quasarano a dozen times between 1931 and 1945. Jimmy Q was arrested on narcotics charges in 1941, but he agreed to enlist in the Army in exchange for dropped charges. The military granted Quasarano a medical discharge shortly thereafter. By the late 1940s, Jimmy Q was back in action and traveling to Italy to negotiate narcotics shipments. He had solid drug connections that extended beyond Frankie Three Fingers. Quasarano’s father-in-law, for example, was Vittorio “Don Vito” Vitale, a powerful Mafia don from Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily. Not only did Don Vito have excellent heroin sources to bestow upon his new son-in-law, but Jimmy Q could use the pretense of “family visits” to Vitale as a perfect alibi for traveling to Italy so often.

Through his father-in-law, Quasarano also became connected to Salvatore “Toto” Vitale, the sotocapo, or second-in-command, of the Mafia family in Partinico. Like Coppola, Toto Vitale spent time in the United States before being deported back to Italy in 1937. In addition to supplying Detroit with heroin, Toto was the key supplier for another Sicilian group operating out of Missouri. Sal’s cousin John “Johnny V” Vitale captained a crew of Partinicesi gangsters in St. Louis. Members of the St. Louis faction included Anthony “Tony Pip” Lopiparo, Anthony “Tony G” Giordano, and Ralph “Shorty” Caleca. As with Quasarano and Finazzo from Detroit, federal investigators observed Lopiparo and Giordano, whose brother Salvatore “Sammy G” Giordano was a made member of the Mafia in Michigan, traveling to Sicily to meet with Salvatore Vitale, presumably to negotiate heroin shipments, on numerous occasions.

Whereas the Catalanotte group had been smuggling heroin down from Montreal across the Windsor–Detroit border, the Partinico Mafia shipped their product to Detroit directly. Traffickers used any number of ingenious ways to smuggle the product, including hiding heroin in boxes of canned sardines, canned tomatoes and oranges, and in olive oil drums. Often the syndicate used passengers flying to America as unwitting drug mules, paying baggage handlers at the airport to slip narcotics into random people’s luggage.

Once in the U.S., the product made its way to Detroit mafioso Peter Gaudino and his Gaudino Imported and Domestic Groceries Companyon Mack Avenue, located on the East Side of Detroit. Gaudino was a veteran trafficker who freelanced between the Partinico faction and the Catalanotte group. The Partinico organization would also ship heroin to Peter “West Coast Pete” Tocco’s fish market on Joseph Campau Street, in that Tocco was Priziola’s son-in-law.

It is noteworthy that federal investigators went in front of Congress in Washington and identified the Detroit-Partinico drug operation as the primary supply line of heroin to the Midwest and East Coast Mafia families. Within Detroit, most of the product made its way to African American dealers. Priziola had forged strong partnerships with Detroit’s black gangsters. FBI files note that Papa John even hosted a multicultural underworld summit of sorts. In 1962, Priziola invited the top African American gambling czars to a joint meeting with the Italians, and together they reorganized illegal gambling in Detroit, constructing what was known on the streets as the “New Frontier.” Priziola’s group used these intergang alliances to distribute heroin as well.

Surprisingly, Priziola’s biggest customers were not local dealers. Primarily, the Partinicos supplied the Lucchese crime family of New York. As with other crime syndicates, after World War II, New York families began searching for new heroin sources. At this time, the Detroit Mafia had their strongest ties to heroin traffickers in Sicily. Even the Bonanno crime family, known for being the most Sicilian of the Italian American syndicates, did not fully develop its drug network until after 1957. Up until the late 1950s, even the most powerful New York crime families had to look to Detroit for their heroin supply.

Giovanni “Big John” Ormento, a captain in the Lucchese family in New York, was the Partinico’s primary customer. Standing five feet ten and weighing over 250 pounds, Big John’s arrest record included charges for narcotics, firearms, and bookmaking. During one prison stay, Ormento’s psychiatric evaluators described him as both “paranoid” and possessing “superior intelligence.” The mental health staff predicted that Ormento “would return to crime” upon release. They were right.

In the New York underworld, Big John ran the infamous “107th Street Mob” in Harlem. The group operated one of the city’s largest narcotics distribution networks. Ormento was also a labor racketeer with ties to Midwestern trucking organizations. It was through these networks that he became affiliated with corrupt Teamsters officials and influential East Coast Mafia powers like John “Johnny Dio” Dioguardi and Frank “Cheech” Livorsi. Ormento eventually married Livorsi’s daughter. Livorsi’s other daughter married the son of Detroit Mafia underboss Angelo “The Chairman” Meli.

Big John met his Detroit suppliers through a labyrinth of familial connections. Angelo Meli was hosting a banquet in Ormento’s honor at the Bowery Night Club in Hamtramck when he introduced Big John to Papa John Priziola and Jimmy Q Quasarano. In addition to having solid Teamsters connections, Ormento owned OSS Trucking Inc. and was a labor representative for the Garment Center Truck Owners Association. Strategically, he was in the perfect position to facilitate a large-scale drug distribution network. After meeting Papa John and Jimmy Q, Ormento found a heroin supply line to finalize the operation.

Unfortunately for the Partinico faction, the tumultuous realm of underworld politics threatened to undo Detroit’s grip on the lucrative heroin pipeline. Tensions between Frank Coppola and Salvatore Vitale began festering after the 1949 assassination of Santo Fleres, the boss of the Partinico Mafia. Up until that point, Coppola was operating out of Mexico and working with the Matranga crime family from San Diego.

The Mexican government actually granted Frank Coppola permission to live in Tijuana, ostensibly for the purposes of studying agriculture. Instead of farming, Coppola set up gambling dens and casinos. Working with the Matrangas across the border, he also established new routes for human trafficking and drug smuggling. As long as Salvatore Vitale was in Sicily and Coppola was in Tijuana, the two hot-tempered crime lords avoided conflict. That changed when the Mexican government arrested and deported Coppola in 1950.

Back in Sicily, Coppola handpicked Gaspare Centineo to replace the murdered Santo Fleres as the new bossof the mob in Partinico. Considering traditional Mafia protocol, this was an unconventional selection. Partinico underboss Toto Vitale was theoretically next in line for the top spot. Coppola’s unique political connections with the Italian government, however, gave Frankie Three Fingers some added leeway in making his final decision, a significant advantage when navigating the machinations of the underworld.

Frankie was a political kingmaker in Sicily with connections to powerful Italian senators such as Girolamo Messeri. Furthermore, Coppola’s brother was a priest and powerbroker in the local Catholic church. As a result, few politicians in Partinico could survive without the support of the Coppola brothers. Unafraid to namedrop, Frank Coppola would often brag that “it was Vittorio Emanuele Orlando who advised me to go to the United States.” Orlando, the former prime minister of Italy, was originally a parliamentary deputy from Partinico. Officially, Gaspare Centineo may have been the new crime boss of Partinico, but veteran gangsters like Sal Vitale knew that the real power behind the family was Coppola.

Salvatore Vitale was a heavy hitter in his own right, and was not somebody to be taken lightly. As underboss he established connections with Marseilles and was on the frontlines of developing the heroin pipeline to Detroit. Vitale also had the infamous Charles “Lucky” Luciano in his corner. Luciano was the point man for introducing gangsters like Vitale to Corsican traffickers. Coppola hoped to remove Luciano and Vitale and reposition himself as the link between Detroit and Marseilles.

This was not the first time Coppola had agitated the Luciano organization. Prior to his deportation from the United States, Coppola invested in both legal and illegal gambling operations in New Orleans. For these ventures he partnered with Louisiana crime boss Salvatore “Silver Dollar Sam” Carollo and Luciano’s American representative Frank Costello. Although it is unclear what triggered the dispute, FBI documents indicate that the relationship between Costello and Coppola soured shortly after the partnership began. Informants alleged that Costello went to the Mafia’s ruling council in New York, known as the Commission, seeking permission to assassinate Coppola. Luckily for Coppola, Commission leaders turned down Costello’s request and the United States Government deported him before the feud could escalate.

Complicating things further, Salvatore Vitale alienated his customers in Detroit by supplying adulterated heroin. Still in control of the heroin pipeline for the time being, Vitale sent 14 kilos of product to Jimmy Quasarano in Detroit and in return accepted a $75,000 down payment. Jimmy Q was outraged when he discovered that the heroin shipment was mostly sugar, and he wanted to take immediate revenge. Papa John Priziola, who was financing the Detroit side of the deal, accused Vitale of a double cross. Vitale proclaimed his innocence and responded that he must have been deceived by his contacts in Marseilles. To try and make amends with his Detroit receivers, Vitale arranged for $100,000 worth of heroin to be delivered with no down payment tendered.

The two sides agreed that Joe Matranga from the San Diego mob was a neutral party and could be trusted to pick up the heroin in New York. Matranga was related to both Priziola and Vitale through marriage. He was married to Priziola’s daughter and his sister was married to Sal Vitale. Matranga made the pickup, but he was subsequently robbed. Three masked men broke into his hotel room and took the stash at gunpoint. Although they were unable to prove it, Matranga and Vitale suspected that Priziola and Quasarano arranged the robbery. Vitale demanded a meeting to settle these disputes. Senior mafiosi from Detroit presided over the meeting, known on the street as a sitdown, between Vitale’s American representatives and Priziola’s group. The mob arbitrators did not rule on the New York hijacking, but they did find in Vitale’s favor concerning the earlier shipment of “garbage heroin.” Priziola and Quasarano were told to settle their debts with Vitale peacefully.

Relations between the two groups remained cold after the sitdown. In the months following the dispute, Quasarano traveled to Italy to meet with Vitale. The Partinicesi underboss was expecting Jimmy Q to arrive with cash and negotiate further drug shipments. Vitale wanted to reenter the United States and hoped Quasarano and the Detroit group would help smuggle him back into the country. Instead, Jimmy Q explained that “things were too hot” to either smuggle Vitale into the United States or arrange further heroin deliveries. Furthermore, Quasarano did not arrive with any cash payments to square away earlier drug debts. Federal agents monitoring the situation suspected that Jimmy Q was insincere. Investigators believed Quasarano was buying heroin from Partinico the whole time, but from another source: Frank Coppola. The government interpreted the provocations by Priziola and Quasarano as signs that they were backing their former boss Coppola in his power play against Vitale.

Meanwhile, investigators were closing in on the Partinico group in Sicily. American law enforcement busted Sicilian gangster Frank Callaci with three kilos of heroin in May 1951. It was suspected that Toto Vitale was Callaci’s supplier and Italian police arrested him as well. Astonishingly, federal agents found letters on Vitale written by John Priziola, complete with Priziola’s own personalized letterhead and Grosse Pointe Woods address. The notes instructed Vitale to keep a low profile until further notice. Authorities suspected that coded language in the letter referred to drug trafficking and the smuggling of illegal aliens. Vitale was eventually released from custody, and he made a run for the United States. The run was unsuccessful, and he was arrested again by American customs officials in December 1952.

Back in Italy, federal narcotics agents continued to chip away at the Partinico drug operation. Agents in Rome had been shadowing a drug courier from the St. Louis faction of the Partinico group. Surveillance led investigators to Frank Coppola’s estate in Anzio. Informants supplied information suggesting the courier was there to pick up six kilos of heroin for delivery to Detroit. Apparently, something spooked the courier and he left the estate without making the pickup. The agents decided to remain at their surveillance post and it paid off. Serafino Mancuso was soon observed visiting the location and picking up a green trunk. Mancuso was one of Coppola’s drug lieutenants from Partinico’s neighboring town of Alcamo. Trailing Mancuso in the vehicle, agents arrested him at the Alcamo train station.

Law enforcement found the suspected six kilos of heroin concealed in the four walls of the specially constructed trunk. Evidence after the bust suggested that the $42,000 worth of heroin was heading for Detroit. Subsequently, the Italian government issued arrest warrants for Frank Coppola, John Priziola, and Jimmy Quasarano. Unfortunately for investigators, someone tipped off Coppola and he went into hiding. The Italian courts tried Priziola and Quasarano in absentia but dropped the charges, believing that conviction would be pointless without physical defendants. With Coppola on the run and Salvatore Vitale in prison, the heroin pipeline to Detroit experienced a temporary interruption.

By 1955, the Partinico drug network was back in operation. Italian authorities eventually caught up with Coppola and arrested him on unrelated charges that included murder and kidnapping. He beat the rap and returned to the streets. Vitale’s incarceration was also temporary. After being picked up by U.S. Customs agents, he was sentenced to serve three years from an earlier conviction but was released from prison two years early on a technicality. At that point, American authorities hoped to deport him for the second time, but the proceedings were caught up in red tape and Vitale got a reprieve. While his deportation was under appeal, he set up operations with the Matranga family in Southern California. With Vitale out of prison, Priziola and Quasarano could no longer avoid paying off their earlier drug debts. The Detroit group started off by paying $20,000 of the money it owed Vitale, and soon the heroin deliveries were back on schedule. It did not take long, however, for old tensions to resurface. When Vitale sent $36,000 worth of heroin to Detroit and Papa John and Jimmy Q refused to pay, the flames of discontent were stoked once again. Incensed by the Detroiters’ attitude, Toto Vitale threatened to have one of Quasarano’s relatives in Partinico murdered if payment did not arrive.

In the meantime, veteran members of the Partinico factions such as the LoMedico brothers tried to mediate a peaceful settlement. Vito LoMedico worked with the Sicilian branch while Frank LoMedico assisted the Detroit group. The San Diego crime family tried to intervene, too. Joe Matranga, who was at the same time Priziola’s son-in-law and Vitale’s brother-in-law, urged his father-in-law to pay the drug bill. Detroit Godfather Joe Zerilli and New York drug trafficker John Ormento also visited Vitale in San Diego, each gangster luminary hoping to negotiate an agreement. Instead, Vitale grew more impatient and raised his demands to $60,000. He also told Joe Matranga that he would have Priziola and Quasarano killed if they failed to pay.

Underworld figures on both sides of the issue arranged an emergency sitdown between the two parties in 1956. Vitale confided in his wife that he would travel to Detroit for the meeting, collect his money, then fly off to Marseilles and Italy to collect other outstanding drug debts. FBI surveillance teams observed Vitale in Windsor, meeting with Peter Di Lorenzo and an unidentified son of Detroit mob czar Black Bill Tocco (his sons Jack and Tony were both active in the crime family at the time). That was the last recorded sighting of Salvatore Vitale.

Interviewed by the FBI, Vitale’s son-in-law speculated that his father-in-law was lured to Detroit for a supposed meeting, and then executed. The son-in-law asked Matranga what happened but was told “to mind his own business.” Soon federal investigators presumed Vitale had been murdered as well. With their rival out of the way, Coppola and Priziola not only resumed the drug pipeline to Detroit, they set about reorganizing the global heroin trade altogether. It was an incredibly ambitious proposition, but one the pair had the power and ingenuity to pull off.

The Grand Hotel des Palmes in Palermo is noted for its elegance and style. Featuring fine Italian fabrics, stucco ceilings, grand pillars, antique chandeliers, and parquet floors, the hotel is considered an ideal location by international business people and foreign dignitaries for hosting conferences and meetings. As a guest, Richard Wagner composed part of his opera, Parsifal.

In October 1957, the hotel attracted a different crowd of guests. Local police found it peculiar that a large number of reputed mobsters were converging on the site. Investigators monitored the hotel for days, noting an impressive list of Italian American and Sicilian gangsters passing through the doors. Police identified a number of underworld notables including Lucky Luciano, Frank Coppola, and Vito Vitale. Surveillance teams began to suspect that Italian American crime boss Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, in town to visit Luciano, was chairing some type of underworld summit. Other than Joe Bonanno and his New York entourage, only one other American mafioso was identified at the infamous conference: Detroit’s own Papa John Priziola.

Already dealing in heroin, the crime organizations on both sides of the Atlantic decided to meet and discuss streamlining the delivery process to increase supplies to America. Through his connections in the Caribbean, Coppola arranged an increase in heroin shipments concealed in food packages through Cuba. The heroin would make its way to Teamsters-affiliated crime bosses in the South such as Santo Trafficante in Florida and Carlos Marcello in New Orleans. Using his political connections with Vatican banker Michele Sindona, Coppola arranged intricate money-laundering schemes for the voluminous drug profits that were pouring in. The transatlantic agreement between the crime families solidified the Italian American Mafia’s monopoly on the importation of heroin. But as the Partinicesi strengthened their position, the Catalanotte crew out of Windsor continued to struggle.

 

Canadian Collapse

The U.S. judicial system convicted Cockeyed Joe Catalanotte on narcotics charges in 1953. Yet after issuing a seven-year sentence, the court reversed its decision and released him in 1957 on the condition that he be deported to Italy. The Canadian capo’s stay in Italy was not long and soon he was back in North America, landing in Cuba where he linked up with his former Windsor crew lieutenant Onofrio Minaudo.

Married to Catalanotte’s sister, “Nono” was a trusted member of the Catalanotte inner circle. From their Caribbean base, the veteran gangsters initiated a new heroin route. The Canadian mobsters in exile still had solid drug supply connections in Sicily, including Cockeyed Joe’s older brother Vincenzo Catalanotte, who everybody called “Jimmy.” Originally operating out of Detroit, Jimmy was deported to his home country after finishing a narcotics sentence in 1934. Back in Sicily, Jimmy specialized in bootlegging cigarettes. With smuggling routes and tactics already in place, it was only logical to add heroin to the illicit traffic.

Not long after getting things in their new narcotics operation up and running in Havana, Cuban authorities intervened and arrested Joe Catalanotte and Onofrio Minaudo as undesirable aliens in 1958, booting them out of the country. Exiled from Cuba, Catalanotte tried to enter New York, but was arrested and deported to Mexico. Undeterred, both Cockeyed Joe and his brother in law Nono set about returning to Canada. Catalanotte gained a temporary visa to enter the country in 1958, while Minaudo entered Windsor illegally.

American investigators suspected that Catalanotte was sneaking into Detroit to visit relatives at the time. Meanwhile, Nono Minaudo had his own complicated immigration history with North American authorities. Minaudo was dodging murder, attempted murder, assault, theft, and larceny charges in Italy when he entered the United States illegally in 1924. He migrated to Detroit and invested in a bowling alley and olive oil import company. Detroit police, however, suspected that Nono was also involved in armed robbery, prostitution, and labor racketeering.   Marrying into the Catalanotte family, Minaudo joined the Windsor group and helped smuggle heroin across the Detroit River. Realizing that the Italian government had sentenced him in absentia to life in prison, the United States deported the gangster to Cuba in 1954.

Minaudo used his political connections at the Canadian embassy in Havana to secure a short-term visa and re-entered Canada a few years later, staying for close to a decade. This seven-year stint on Canadian soil was highly scandalous, considering his prior convictions and deportations. The hullaballoo increased when Minister of External Affairs Paul Martin admitted that as a private lawyer he represented the infamous mobster. The scandal intensified and Canadian authorities had little option but to deport Minaudo. Informants told the FBI that Nono dreaded the possibility of being deported to his home country, and he had good reason. Within weeks of setting foot back in Sicily, he was gunned down by assassins in 1965.

Initially, the FBI suspected the assassination had a Detroit connection. After further investigation, however, agents shifted blame to local Sicilian mafiosi. The murder was never solved, but investigators focused on two theories in particular. One theory positioned Minaudo as the victim of a vendettaextending back to his early years in Sicily, while the other linked his murder to Sicilian loan sharks. Most experts tend to subscribe to the vendetta theory. Meanwhile, Catalanotte’s visa expired and the Canadians deported him back to Mexico. It did not take long before agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics busted Cockeyed Joe while trying to set up another drug smuggling operation in Tijuana. Isolated and facing serious jail time, Joe felt he had no other option but to offer his services as an informant to the government. Federal narcotics agent Bill Durkin was intrigued by the desperate gangster’s offer. Still, Durkin recognized that Catalanotte’s limited knowledge of the Mexican underworld was of little use to police investigations south of the border.

To maximize Catalanotte as a source of information, federal agents had to feed the veteran narcotics trafficker back into his traditional smuggling network. For years, Cockeyed Joe facilitated the transnational flow of heroin between Europe and North America. Marseilles was the point of departure for the drug network and that’s where the government placed Catalanotte, a ploy to make sure their prize snitch was at the nerve center of the Corsican heroin empire.

Federal narcotics agent Robert De Fauw was in the midst of investigating the infamous French Connection heroin ring when Catalanotte turned up in Marseilles as an informant. According to De Fauw, the Corsicans knew Catalanotte from past dealings and continued to believe Cockeyed Joe represented Detroit’s Mafia family. With stellar drug-dealing credentials, Catalanotte was able to infiltrate the top Corsican syndicates. Initially, Cockeyed Joe linked up with the Guerini crime family. Fighting as part of the French resistance during World War II, the Guerini brothers made a number of valuable contacts with labor leaders, socialists, and members of the French intelligence community. Such connections helped facilitate the brothers’ takeover of the Marseilles waterfront. Trusting that everything with Catalanotte was on the up-and-up, the brothers arranged a number of heroin deliveries through Montreal, believing they were supplying Cockeyed Joe’s Detroit connections. Meanwhile, each shipment provided the government with details about the Guerini organization’s delivery methods.

Now integrated into the Corsican underworld, Catalanotte also started dealing with French mobster Joseph Orsini. In addition to being a Nazi collaborator during World War II, Orsini was an experienced counterfeiter and drug smuggler. He acted as the Ansaldi crime family’s representative in North America before being deported by the United States in 1958. Orsini was also the Guerini organization’s chief competitor in the drug racket. Recognizing that tension existed between the two drug gangs, the government decided to play one group off against the other. De Fauw used Catalanotte to begin the intrigue. As part of the rouse, Cockeyed Joe went to Orsini, alleging that the Guerini brothers were supplying police with information about his drug shipments and conversion labs. In response, Orsini ordered the assassination of Antoine Guerini.

The gutsy mob hit ignited a serious of retaliations that rocked the French underworld. Meme Guerini, for example, apprehended an Orsini associate and tortured him prior to throwing the victim off a cliff. De Fauw recalls that the chosen method of assassination during the war was the motorcycle drive-by shooting. Gunmen would drive past at high speeds and unload rounds at their targets, speeding off before retaliation shots could be fired.

For three years, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics used Catalanotte’s services to build a case against the Corsican traffickers. Now that the rival drug organizations were dismantling each other, it became the ideal time to utilize Joe’s information and begin arresting members of the drug network. The investigation even snared high-ranking members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, including a corrupted staff sergeant on the Corsican payroll. Joe’s primary condition for informing on the French, however, was that he would never give up any information on his Detroit amici, or Mafia brethren. The feds respected his decision.

“He was a real mafioso,” Robert De Fauw recalled.

Quite often the gangster and the federal agent shared dinner in Marseilles. According to De Fauw, old one-eyed Joe was a pretty good cook. While in Spain on business, De Fauw purchased two pendants from the Shrine of the Black Madonna for his informant. The agent instructed Catalanotte to send the medals to the gangster’s wife and child back in Detroit. Caught in a rare moment of sensitivity, Cockeyed Joe, the old-school mob tough guy, “broke down and cried like a baby” in gratefulness. Though the agent developed a fondness for Joe, he knew Catalanotte was a killer and was always careful to have “his sidearm” close by when dealing with the gangster.

Nevertheless, De Fauw recognized Catalanotte’s invaluable contributions to the case and promised him that government would check with immigration authorities about permitting the informant to visit Detroit. Unfortunately for Cockeyed Joe, French investigators were not as sympathetic. Making things worse, American agents suspected that the Corsicans had moles inside the French intelligence community. As a result, De Fauw never completely trusted his Marseilles colleagues. He even checked his automobile for car bombs each morning before setting off to work. Once local investigators became aware of Catalanotte’s cooperation, French narcotics agents went after him. Under the circumstances, feds knew that protecting a known drug trafficker would have created diplomatic tension between the Cold War allies. American agents had to let their informer fend for himself. De Fauw instructed Joe to “lay low” for a while. Catalanotte ignored the advice and fled to Italy where he was arrested shortly after. De Fauw soon lost track of his ace informant.

With Minaudo dead and Catalanotte on the run, Nicholas Cicchini stepped in to take over Detroit’s Canadian operations. Cicchini was a baker in the legitimate world. On the streets, however, the gangster specialized in bookmaking, counterfeiting, and smuggling illegal aliens. Soon Cicchini took over the lucrative drug-trafficking racket vacated by Catalanotte. Combining his two vocations, Cicchini smuggled heroin into Detroit by hiding the product in loaves of bread.

Cicchini’s drug network started to unravel when Canadian authorities arrested Moises Costillo in 1956. Costillo was attempting to smuggle heroin across the Windsor–Detroit tunnel. The Costillo bust led to the arrest of Pete Devlin. Undercover agents with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Devlin attempting to sell 20 ounces of pure heroin. Devlin gave up information on his sources, and soon the RCMP concluded that Enrique Peralta was the ringleader of the medium-sized drug operation. But investigators ultimately wanted to know who was supplying the supplier.

The name John Simon turned up as the local supplier with connections to the “Italians.” By 1961, patient undercover investigators finally started dealing with Simon directly. Agents earned his trust and eventually Simon introduced them to the boss of the entire network: Nick Cicchini. During their first meeting, Cicchini offered to sell the agents $100,000 worth of counterfeit U.S. $50 bills. Intrigued by the offer, the agents were nevertheless investigating drug trafficking and continued to pressure their new contact for heroin rather than counterfeit bills. Cicchini took the bait and offered to sell 100 percent pure heroin for $11,000 a kilo.

The undercover agents agreed to the price and arranged for a followup meeting at a local bar in Windsor. Cicchini arrived at the tavern with half a kilo as a sample. Agents paid for the product with marked bills, then took the heroin to the lab for testing. Cicchini’s dope tested at 99.2 percent purity. Agents and Cicchini met for a third time, but the gangster informed his new customers that his heroin supply was dry at that time. Instead, he offered to sell the agents counterfeit bills once again, this time one million dollars worth.

Meanwhile, investigators suspected that Cicchini was buying his heroin from the Agueci brothers of Toronto. Alberto and Vito Agueci were members of the Magaddino crime family based in Buffalo, New York. The brothers had excellent heroin contacts in Sicily, and if one followed the pipeline to its source, they would find the Corsicans, specifically Dominic Albertini’s half brother Joseph Cesari. Unfortunately for investigators, Cicchini assured his new clients that they would “never meet” his partners. Sensing he was not bluffing, agents decided to end the investigation and arrest both John Simon and Nicholas Cicchini. At 67 years old, the Canadian capo was sentenced to 12 years in prison for drug trafficking.

 

The New Order

Once the Canadian drug network collapsed, federal investigators identified the Partinico faction as the last “independent source of heroin” in Detroit in Congressional hearings from 1963. Well into the decade, the Partinicesi not only dominated the heroin trade, but continued to earn their violent reputation. After eliminating Salvatore Vitale, Leo Di Fatta was the next body to fall. Di Fatta’s father was a longtime family friend of the Priziolas and was even best man at Papa John’s first wedding. Priziola attempted to mentor his friend’s son, but Leo insisted on leading the life of a petty stickup man. Disappointed that Leo wouldn’t come under his wing, but unable to cut ties with the renegade hood altogether because of the fondness he held for Leo’s dad, Papa John even posted the $5,000 bond for Leo after he was arrested during a botched robbery.

Leo Di Fatta’s career path became more dangerous when he started holding up mob-connected businesses in the Detroit area. Though Di Fatta received a severe beating as a result, he knew that as long as his father was alive, he would be under Priziola’s protection and spared the ultimate punishment. Unfortunately for Leo, the robberies lasted longer than his father. Not long after the old man died, police found Leo Di Fatta’s “trussed and weighted body” in Lake Erie. Confidential informants reported that Priziola dispatched local enforcer and emerging syndicate street boss Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone to fix the Di Fatta problem permanently.

Vitale and Di Fatta weren’t the last bodies to drop. With the bloodthirsty mobsters still not content with the state of their rank and file, the gangland slayings continued. Roy Calabrese started off as a runner in one of John Priziola’s betting parlors. Eventually, the young wiseguy graduated to the position of bookie in the numbers racket. On the side, Calabrese hustled as a small-time pimp. The would-be gangster obviously underestimated his employers’ reputations when he hatched a scheme to rip off his own gambling house. On the streets, the scam was known as “going with the tickets.” After learning the winning numbers for the day’s illegal lottery, Calabrese would leak the digits to a co-conspirator on the street. His accomplice would then prepare a mock betting slip to match the winning digits.

Soon Roy’s associates at Frankie G’s bar noticed sizeable increases in the young bookie’s disposable income. Papa John Priziola also took notice and suspected his employee of ripping him off. Calabrese endured a beating accompanied by a warning to clean up his act. Recklessly, he continued the scam, refusing to heed the advice of the Detroit Mafia and choosing to test and cross them instead. That was until Valentine’s Day, 1962, when time ran out on his scam and his life at the same time. After finishing dinner, Calabrese told his mother that he was leaving to meet with friends. Hours later, the St. Clair Shores Police Department found Calabrese’s garroted body in the trunk of his car.

According to FBI informants, the next murder committed by the group caused a rift in the organization’s hierarchy between Papa John and veteran heroin trafficker Peter Gaudino, known to freelance in the drug trade and alternate his deals between the Partinicesi group and the Windsor crew. He was also godfather to a son of Detroit gangster Paul “The Sicilian” Cimino. Gaudino’s beef with Priziola related to the disappearance of Cimino. Congressional investigators had identified Cimino as Joe Catalanotte’s “right-hand man” in the drug trade. In 1962, as Cimino faced a deportation hearing with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Priziola feared his fellow mobster would start ratting on his drug partners in Detroit. No longer under Cockeyed Joe’s protection, Cimino was an easy target. He disappeared before he could meet with immigration officials. The consensus on the street was that Cimino was murdered. One informant told the FBI with confidence, “You’ll never see him again.”

A few years later, Peter “Tino” Lombardo, a member of Priziola’s California operation as well as an identified Mafia soldier, was also killed. FBI documents indicate two possible motives for Lombardo’s homicide. First, informants were indicating to the FBI that the Partinicesi suspected Lombardo was a rat. Another more likely motive for the Lombardo hit was his role in an intra-family squabble that pitted new street boss Tony Giacalone against old-school Detroit mob capos Santo Perrone and Pete Licavoli. FBI documents from the era reveal Lombardo was suspected of helping plant a bomb underneath Giacalone’s car that was detected by a Giacalone lieutenant before it could detonate. Authorities believed that Lombardo was ordered by Perrone to blow up Giacalone in retaliation for Perrone’s loss of his leg from a car bomb set by the Giacalone crew in 1963. The tension all stemmed from the changing of the guard in the syndicate from the new regime led by Giacalone and a group of crusty old-schoolers, represented most fervently by Perrone, sometimes called “Sammy the Shark,” and Licavoli, sometimes referred to as “Horseface Pete,” who resented taking orders from their younger counterpart.

Meanwhile, federal narcotics agents in Detroit were only able to make one modest case against the Partinico group in the entire time it was operating at full tilt. In 1959, agents nailed Andrew Bottancino, the same low-level trafficker who worked with the Windsor network years earlier, and Vincent “Crazy Jimmy” Finazzo, a recognized made member of the Detroit mob and the son of Sam Finazzo, grandson of Don Joe Zerilli, for heroin trafficking in 1961. Well versed on the proper mob etiquette in such situations, when he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, Crazy Jimmy kept quiet and served his time while the bosses remained free.

Federal law enforcement received another breakthrough in its war on international drug trafficking in 1965. The FBI received notice from a confidential source in Italy that the Italian government was issuing 17 arrest warrants for suspects linked to the Sicilian drug trade. The list of indicted suspects included John Priziola, Raffaele Quasarano, and John Ormento. Sicilian police launched the operation by raiding the villa of former Bonanno crime family underboss Giovanni Bonventre in Castellammare del Golfo.

Italian prosecutor Giuseppe Mattina submitted “22 volumes of testimony and evidence” to Judge Aldo Vigneir, linking the indicted to an international drug cartel. Vigneir even traveled to the United States to interview the infamous mob turncoat, Joseph Valachi. Unfortunately for law enforcement, the United States and Italy had yet to formalize an extradition treaty. As a result, the Italians once again dropped the charges against Priziola and Quasarano. Italian police also arrested Frank Coppola a few months after the raid on Bonventre’s home in a related narcotics investigation. But like Papa John and Jimmy Q, Frankie Three Fingers Coppola beat the rap.

Despite the intensified police scrutiny, Priziola apparently maintained a sense of humor. Robert De Fauw recalls how the diminutive boss joshed agents during one surveillance operation. De Fauw’s agents were tailing Priziola when the gangster stopped by a local Catholic church. Leaving Mass, Quasarano opened the car door for his boss when, as if reenacting a scene from a movie, Papa John walked past his driver and headed straight for the “undercover” vehicle. Priziola knocked on the agents’ windshield and said, “If you guys want to know where I’m going, why don’t you just ask?”

By the late 1960s, the Partinicesi groups in Sicily and Detroit experienced different trajectories in global drug trafficking. In Partinico, Frank Coppola intensified his Mafia family’s involvement in heroin smuggling by forming alliances with powerful Sicilian dons like Salvatore Greco and Luciano Leggio. Frankie Three Fingers also mentored the next generation of Partinicesi mafiosi, including his nephews Augustino and Giacamo Coppola and his son-in-law Giuseppe Corso.

Unlike their Sicilian counterparts, however, the Detroit faction scaled back their drug operations by the 1970s. Two factors contributed to the Priziola group’s declining participation in the drug trade; most importantly, the 1957 Palermo narcotics conference established direct heroin links between the New York and Sicilian Mafia families. Up until that point, Detroit’s Partinico group had privileged contacts with the Sicilian heroin exporters. As a result, Detroit supplied New York’s crime organizations. After 1957, the Bonanno and Gambino crime families, in particular, established their own independent sources of heroin supply. Secondly, content with supplying New York, Priziola’s crew became less interested in supplying the local heroin market in Detroit and, by the 1950s, began allowing competitors to come in and set up shop pushing heroin in exchange for a street tax.

Robert De Fauw maintains that as a result of these two factors, Priziola’s crew began focusing less on narcotics and instead expanded their interests further into labor racketeering, extortion, and bookmaking. Just as the highly competitive narcotics market convinced Priziola’s group to move away from dope, another faction of the Detroit mob emerged and embraced the new global heroin trade.

 

Last Run

The Badalamenti group represents the third faction of the Detroit Mafia that is heavily involved in the narcotics trade. Cinisi is a Sicilian coastal town outside of Palermo, and also the ancestral home of the Badalamenti clan. There the family existed as one of Cinisi’s ruling Mafia factions. In their early years of racketeering, the clan specialized in trafficking black market cigarettes. The family also held a virtual monopoly in Palermo’s fruit and produce market. Younger members of the Badalamenti clan, along with other extended family, immigrated to southern Michigan in the 1940s. Brothers Emanuele and Gaetano Badalamenti, for example, settled in Monroe and operated a local market. The siblings were also members of the Cinisi Mafia and were connected to the Tocco mob in Detroit. The local Mafia leadership soon placed Emanuele, also known as “Rough Manny,” in charge of all Mafia-related racketeering south of Detroit all the way to the Ohio border.

Other prominent mafiosi from the Cinisi area arrived in Michigan around the same time, including Salvatore Bartolotta, Filippo Manzella, Antonio Palazzolo, and Salvatore Palazzolo. In 1928, the Palermo judicial system tried Bartolotta, the Palazzolos, and Salvatore Badalamenti for being part of a Mafia criminal conspiracy. By the time immigration authorities deported Gaetano Badalamenti in 1950, the Cinisi group had already established itself as an important faction of the greater Detroit underworld.

Back in Sicily, the Badalamenti family transitioned from trafficking black market cigarettes to supplying heroin. Evidence of this transition emerged in 1958 when Italian authorities arrested Gaetano’s brother Vito and their cousin Cesare Badalamenti during an undercover narcotics investigation. The cousins served modest sentences and by the mid-1960s, Cesare joined his Badalamenti relatives in Michigan.

In addition to owning a real estate company in the Detroit area, Cesare began trafficking heroin again. Settling in the suburb of Mt. Clemens, Cesare Badalamenti tapped into a pre-existing heroin network that already had Cinisi group fingerprints. The Badalamenti family was linked to the Coppolas in Partinico; an example is the relationship Gaetano Badalamenti and Frank Coppola developed in Detroit before their respective deportations. Later, U.S. Customs officials linked Gaetano and Frank Coppola’s nephew Dominico Coppola to an 81-kilo shipment of heroin uncovered in an Italian ocean liner bound for New York.

Joe Indelicato represented another link in the pre-existing Detroit–Sicily heroin pipeline. Indelicato operated out of Canada and had already been running with Joe Catalanottte and Nick Cicchini. In 1956, authorities busted Indelicato in New York with half a million dollars of heroin, yet remarkably, he only served a five-year sentence. Out of prison, Indelicato acted as the drug courier between the Badalamentis in Sicily and their Detroit cousin Cesare, who by that time was put in charge of all of the city’s “Zips,” or imported Sicilian foot soldiers. As with the Catalanotte–Cicchini network, Indelicato and Badalamenti transported heroin across the Detroit–Windsor border with relative ease.

By the early 1980s, a number of the original Cinisi mafiosi in Michigan had passed away. A younger generation soon emerged to fill the void. From his Sicilian base of operations, Gaetano Badalamenti continued to supply his American nephews and cousins with cocaine and heroin. Scattered throughout rural locations in the Midwest, Badalamenti’s relatives used pizzerias as fronts for receiving and distributing narcotics.

Law enforcement uncovered a Michigan connection while surveilling Pietro “Sicilian Pete” Alfano, a suspected heroin trafficker living in Illinois. Agents noted that Alfano made frequent calls to Sam Evola Jr., also known as “Sammy Sauce,” in Temperance, Michigan. On the surface, Evola was a law-abiding drywall contractor living near the Ohio border. Closer inspection revealed that Evola was the son of Detroit mafioso Salvatore “Big Sam” Evola. The elder Evola was an old-school mobster with ties to Joe Catalanotte, Sam Finazzo, and Jimmy Quasarano. More importantly, investigators realized that the younger Sam Evola was married to Cristina Badalamenti, Gaetano Badalamenti’s niece. Agents also discovered that Alfano was Badalamenti’s nephew. According to investigators, the blood ties were no coincidence, and agents suspected that the ringleader of this rural American drug operation was none other than the infamous crime lord Gaetano Badalamenti, by then known around the world as “Don Tano.”

Hoping to uncover a deeper Sicilian connection, the DEA and FBI increased surveillance on Alfano, Evola, and their cousin, Emanuele Palazzolo (yet another Badalamenti nephew). Agents monitored several phone conversations between the trio and a mysterious international caller. The surveillance teams suspected that often-heard phrases like “salted sardines” and “playing cards” were codes for narcotics shipments and purchases.

Yet another breakthrough in the case occurred as agents observed Alfano, Evola, and Palazzolo traveling to New York at different times to meet with suspected East Coast traffickers. Once in New York, Cinisi group members would meet with drug dealers connected to the Sicilian faction of the Bonanno crime family. Intriguingly, agents discovered another common link between the Cinisi group and their Bonanno associates: like Alfano and Palazzolo, the New York gangsters owned a number of pizzerias, but these stores were spread throughout the East Coast rather than the Midwest. Realizing that Sicilian drug suppliers were operating a series of pizza chains across America, federal agents dubbed the investigation the “Pizza Connection.”

Putting the pieces together, field agents hypothesized that Gaetano Badalamenti was supplying the American Mafia with narcotics while using Sicilian traffickers to facilitate the operation. According to investigators, the mysterious international caller dealing with Alfano must have been Badalamenti. Yet for investigators this was only a hypothesis; directors at the DEA and FBI were unconvinced. Why would a major Sicilian crime boss like Badalamenti communicate directly with lower-level operatives in rural, Midwestern America? To answer that question, agents had to examine recent power struggles taking place within the Sicilian Mafia.

For decades, the major crime families of Palermo, including Badalamenti, Bontate, and Inzerillo, ran the heroin trade as a consortium. The Palermo cartel brought in other crime organizations from surrounding areas like Partinico and Castellammare del Golfo, yet one Mafia family felt marginalized by the arrangement. As boss of the Corleone family, Luciano Leggio resented the hegemonic positions of Badalamenti and his Palermitan allies in the narcotics trade. Quietly and patiently, the Corleonesi plotted against consortium. To the great embarrassment of the Cinisi boss, Leggio’s henchmen carried out a number of kidnappings on Badalamenti-controlled territories.

By humiliating the Cinisi boss, Liggio demonstrated to other crime families in the area that Badalamenti was vulnerable. The Corleone boss soon started scheming with middle-echelon mafiosi in the Palermo families. “Why should the bosses in Palermo hoard all the drug profits while foot soldiers in the organizations go hungry?” asked Leggio. Infuriated by such provocations, Badalamenti and his allies plotted the murder of Leggio’s right-hand man, Salvatore “Toto” Riina. Yet by cultivating relationships with the disgruntled mafiosi of rival families, Leggio had spies in place that informed him about the Riina murder plot. Now was the time for the Corleonesi to organize an outright insurrection.

Beginning in 1981, Corleonesi hit squads picked off the old dons one by one. Among others, Leggio’s hit teams gunned down Salvatore Inzerillo, Stefano Bontate, and Gaetano’s cousin, Antonino Badalamenti. The Great Mafia War was actually a slaughter as the Corleonesi killed hundreds of rival gangsters associated with the Palermo drug consortium. Gaetano Badalamenti lost a number of relatives during the war, including a nephew who was tortured and chopped into pieces. Two of Badalamenti’s nephews in the United States, Salvatore and Matteo Sollena (close to the Gambino family in New York), were shot to death as well. Once in command of the Sicilian Mafia commission, the Corleonesi expelled Badalamenti from the Cinisi family. Gaetano knew that his expulsion was a death sentence, and fled to Brazil.

Hiding out in Latin America, the former Cinisi boss reorganized the remnants of his drug empire. Remarkably, even though the Corleonesi had a contract out on his life, they nevertheless permitted Badalamenti’s reentry into the drug trade. Now that Leggio and Riina were in control of the Sicilian Mafia, Badalamenti’s remaining people had to kick up a percentage of any drug profits to the new bosses. The Corleonesi still planned on killing Gaetano, but in their bizarre logic, they figured they should still make some money off of him before pulling the trigger.

Don Tano faced logistical problems as well. Most of his trusted lieutenants were wiped out during the Great Mafia War. To insulate themselves from prosecution, mob bosses typically avoid dealing in narcotics directly and instead delegate those responsibilities to lower-level operatives. In the case of the Cinisi crime family, however, the top and middle layers of the organization were killed during the war. If the former don wanted to sell drugs to nephews in the American Midwest, for example, he would now have to communicate with them directly.

Back in Michigan, federal agents monitored Sam Evola as he frantically tried to collect drug money from his buyers. Bugged phone conversations revealed that the mysterious international supplier was furious that his American contacts were tardy with their drug payments. Apparently, Evola sold $400,000 worth of cocaine and heroin on consignment to a local dealer who, even after several weeks, was unable to pay for the product. Over the phone, Alfano and Evola debated whether or not they should kill the delinquent drug client. Both knew that if they did not come up with the money, they would end up dead themselves.

The wiretaps on Pietro Alfano produced more crucial information when agents heard an operator announce, “I have a call from Brazil,” followed by the voice of the mysterious international caller. The feds knew Gaetano Badalamenti had to be in Brazil. Not long after, investigators overheard Badalamenti order Alfano to meet him in Madrid. American law enforcement agents followed Alfano to Spain, tailed him in Madrid, and observed as he led police straight to the prized target. Spanish police officially arrested Badalamenti and his nephew and handed them over to the FBI team in Madrid on April 8th.

Investigators now had enough evidence to justify a series of warrants, and on April 9th, 1984, they launched simultaneous raids on the homes of Alfano, Evola, and Palazzolo. Before leaving for Spain, Alfano had procured an impressive arsenal as agents discovered bullet-proof vests, hollow-point ammunition, silencers, an AR-15 assault rifle, and a number of handguns in his house. Agents also found a modest amount of cocaine during the raid on Sam Evola’s place.

More importantly, they found Evola’s passport and realized that he had been traveling to Brazil in the recent past. They also discovered a notebook with what appeared to be coded language scribbled throughout the pages. The codes matched a number of cryptic messages the FBI had intercepted from the Alfano wiretaps. Badalamenti was passing on the codes to his nephews so that they could communicate without revealing their true agendas. Meanwhile, Evola’s cocaine tested at 95 percent purity, signaling that it came directly from Latin America, presumably Brazil.

The feds rounded up dozens of other suspects in the “Pizza Connection” investigation, and in 1985 the case went to trial. Gaetano Badalamenti was convicted of being the ringleader and sentenced to 45 years in prison. Pietro Alfano survived an assassination attempt during a recess in the trial. He was left paralyzed, however, and was later sentenced to 15 years. Sam Evola pled guilty to the cocaine charges, but refused to testify against his co-conspirators. He received a 15-year sentence. Agents suspected that Evola’s brother took over the narcotics operation after Sam’s arrest and conviction.

Over the years, Italian organized crime in Detroit became less involved in the heroin trade. By the 1980s, cocaine replaced heroin as the major drug commodity in the Motor City as well. During that decade, undercover drug enforcement agents busted Bobby La Puma, a soldier in the Giacalone crew, on cocaine charges. And in 1988, British undercover police thwarted a plan by the Detroit mob to ship millions of dollars worth of cocaine to dealers in the United Kingdom. Detroit mafiosi were caught hiding the kilos in industrial equipment heading across the Atlantic. Despite these notable examples of Italian involvement in narcotics trafficking, African American syndicates and outlaw motorcycle gangs largely replaced the traditional Italian mob as the city’s major drug suppliers.

Still, the Partinico, Windsor, and Cinisi groups of Detroit’s Mafia were pioneers in the global drug trade. While Detroit’s local crime family may no longer be major players in the narcotics trade, other Italian American crime organizations continue to expand their involvement in heroin trafficking. Secondly, the Partinico and Windsor crews initiated the type of transnational templates for global drug trafficking utilized today. Currently, local African American drug organizations purchase cocaine from Colombian cartels who contract with Mexican gangs for delivery to Detroit. This is precisely the type of globalized supply and distribution originated by the likes of Priziola, Catalanotte, and Badalamenti.

End of the Line

John Priziola went into semiretirement during the 1970s. He became an active mobster again following the death of Detroit godfather Joseph Zerilli in 1976. Papa John’s leadership stabilized the Detroit underworld as the local Mafia transitioned to the Jack Tocco era. Priziola died of a heart attack in 1979, having never served any significant time for drug trafficking or anything else for that matter. Jimmy Q served as Jack Tocco’s first consigliere, but had to step down due to a conviction in an extortion case. Once out of prison, Quasarano remained a valuable member of the Detroit Mafia until his death in 2001.

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