Dr. James A. Buccellato’s fascinating new book, Early Organized Crime In Detroit – Vice, Corruption & The Rise Of The Mafia In Michigan, unveils Cesare (Big Chet) LaMare, the Motor City’s slain Prohibition Era mob czar, as a federal informant. According to Buccellato’s meticulous research, LaMare, who led the city’s Westside Gang and squared off with future Detroit mega mafia dons, Giuseppe (Joe Uno) Zerilli and Vito (Black Bill) Tocco, of the city’s Eastside Gang, in a bloody shooting war for underworld supremacy throughout the first part of the 1930s, was opened as an informant for the U.S. Secret Service at some point during his ascent up the ranks of the local rackets and used his trading of information with the government to protect himself from legal farm and as a tool to trip up his adversaries.

Secret Service agent Joe Palma was Big Chet’s contact in the feds and responsible for “turning” him. Palma interceded and helped La Mare avoid prison time on a bootlegging arrest in 1927. Big Chet was friendly with car magnate Henry Ford and held the concessions contract for his auto plants.

Residing and reigning in Hamtramck, Michigan, a multi-ethnic enclave on the near Westside of the city, LaMare headquartered out of the Venice Café and declared himself Godfather of Detroit in the wake of the sudden death of the city’s beloved Prohibition Era mob don Salvatore (Singing Sam) Catalanotte of pneumonia in 1930. The Eastsiders, led by Zerilli and Tocco, brother in-laws and best friends, had other ideas and the so-called Crosstown Mob War was underway.

Most famously in local gangland lore from the conflict, Zerilli and Tocco dodged Big Chet’s attempt to kill them when they skipped out at the last minute on what became known as the Vernier Highway Fish Market Murders, a purported peace conference that was actually an ambush in May 1930 – Catalanotte’s de-facto consigliere Gaspare (the Peacemaker) Milazzo – possibly the city’s then-acting mob boss – and Milazzo’s bodyguard Salvatore (Sasha) Parrino were gunned down instead. LaMare was a marked man.

Zerilli and Tocco were seasoned vets in mafia warfare. They had fought on the frontlines of the Giannola-Vitale War a decade earlier. Zerilli was a bodyguard for Sam Giannola, one of the area’s first real Italian mob chieftains. It wasn’t long before, Zerilli and Tocco convinced Angelo (the Chairman) Meli, Big Chet’s main proxy on the streets to jump ship and join the Eastside effort. LaMare’s top enforcer, bodyguard and even his wife, soon followed suit, agreeing to set Big Chet up for the kill. The man who had once been Singing Sam Catalanotte’s second-in-command, was living on borrowed time.

Skipping town, LaMare hid in New York under the protection of east coast mafia titan Giuseppe (Joe the Boss) Masseria and on property he owned in Louisville, Kentucky for the rest of 1930 until he returned to Detroit in early 1931. It didn’t take long for his enemies to seal his fate.

Big Chet was killed inside his own mansion on February 6,1931. His wife, his bodyguards and top two gunmen, along with Black Bill Tocco and Joe Zerilli were all arrested. The bodyguard and hitmen all went on trial and were acquitted. LaMare’s murder ended the Crosstown Mob War, with the Eastside declaring victory and Tocco and Zerilli grabbing control of the local underworld for themselves and their loyalists for the next four decades.

Tocco and Zerilli both died peacefully in the 1970s, turning over the reins to their legendarily stable and prosperous mafia empire to their respective eldest sons. Black Bill’s son, Giacomo (Black Jack) Tocco, ruled as undisputed boss of the mob in Detroit from 1977 until his death of natural causes in July 2014. Joe Uno’s only son, Anthony (Tony Z) Zerilli, served as Jack Tocco’s underboss into the 2000s. Tony Z died of old age in the spring.

Purchase a copy of Buccellato’s new book here.

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