Surving The Mob – Ernie Kanakis Had 9 Lives

Detroit Mafia hitmen killed

It was Sunday July 11, 1976, exactly one week past the dawning of the nation’s much-celebrated Bicentennial. The air in the city of Detroit was thick and muggy, the weather sweltering, carrying on a heat wave that had blanketed the area since the beginning of the month.

Nobody felt the heat more than Ernest Kanakis, known in local underworld circles simply as, “Ernie the Greek,” sitting anxiously-alert behind the wheel of his car at the corner of Chalmers and Warren that early summer evening, frantically going over in his mind what his next move should be.* Should he stay and face the music or should he find the nearest highway, get on it and keep driving until he was well beyond the state line?*

The decision making process was over in a matter of seconds. The passenger door of Kanakis’ car opened abruptly and Detroit mafia lieutenant, Frank “Frankie Razz” Randazzo slipped into the seat beside him. By that point he had no choice. He was in it for the long haul.

Starting to drive eastbound on Warren, Kanakis was on edge from the moment Randazzo, also called Frankie Rah Rah or Frankie the Pimp,  got into his car.  Randazzo was a Sicilian-born mafioso, widely-feared and highly-respected within the motor city crime syndicate and on his bad side is not where you wanted to be. Unfortunately for Kanakis, that’s exactly where he was and had been for a while. The further the duo of local wiseguys, former partners in a lucrative illegal gambling operation, drove towards Randazzo’s house, the more uncomfortable Ernie the Greek became.

The pair had had been on bad terms for a while. A few years earlier, Kanakis broke off their profitable business relationship, and despite Frankie Razz’s heated objections, went on his own. That didn’t sit well with Randazzo or his friends in the mafia who had gotten quite used to the fattened envelopes of cash they were generating from the series of gambling rackets Kanakis was overseeing.

Taking that into account, he was caught off guard when in early July 1976, Randazzo approached him at his restaurant, “Ernie’s Finer Foods Diner”, located in downtown Detroit’s Cass Corridor in the Eddystone Hotel, and started to talk him up like there was no bad blood between them. Before he left, he requested Kanakis’ help in moving a safe out of his basement, offering him $4,000 if he would help him dispose of a defective safe that he said had been sitting in his basement for over a year.

While suspicious, Ernie the Greek was broke and needed the money. His beef with the mob had cut into his bottom-line and was keeping people away from his restaurant. Knowing full well that the ill will which existed between himself and Randazzo was most likely not forgotten by him or his bosses in the mafia, he agreed to help. It wouldn’t be a wise decision and it wouldn’t take him long to figure it out.

*          *          *          *          *

Ernie The Greek’s problems with the Detroit mafia began eight years previous, in a time long before Kanakis had gone into business with the mob, and regarding a dispute he had nothing to do with, nor knew anything about. In 1968, a local gambler and fruit vendor named Sam Di Maggio, found himself in financial debt to the notorious Giacalone brothers, a vicious gangland tandem consisting of motor city crime family Street Boss, Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone and his younger sibling, mafia capo Vito “Billy Jack” Giacalone. The Giacalones, plucked from the streets of Eastern Market as youths and groomed as future leaders of the mob from a very young age, ran a city-wide bookmaking and loansharking operation, and Di Maggio, a heavy sports gambler, owed them a couple of thousand dollars.

“Tony Jack and Billy Jack were the Family’s junkyard dogs, the enforced the orders of the upper administration and did it with pride,” said former U.S. prosecutor Keith Corbett who made his living trying to bring the Detroit mafia down in over two dozen years of service to the government. “I think they relished the roles. They were the kind of guys who liked being gangsters and got off on the fear they instilled in people.”

Here is an excerpt from an FBI wiretap that was placed in the Home Juice Company, the Giacalone brothers headquarters in the 1960s, where Tony Jack and Billy Jack were browbeating a colleague for trying to loan out money in their territory.

Billy Jack – I pay the police, I pay the lawyers, I pay the judges, I pay the courts, now I get all of this. So keep your hands off. You’re in the bonding business. You handle all the bonding around here. Leave the loans to us. Anybody comes to you looking for a loan, you send’em to me or my brother.

Tony Jack – You got any other money out right now that we should know about?

Colleague – No, not shylocking at all anymore

Billy Jack – You sure about that?

Colleague – Positively

Tony Jack – Now don’t let me find out you’re lying to us, or I’ll bury ya!

Billy Jack – This is it, your one and only warning

Colleague – I understand, Bill. I’m out of the shy business, I swear

Tony Jack – That $500 dollars Leo owes you, you lost that one. That one belongs to us now. Don’t both Bob no more either. We’re taking that one too. That’s your penalty. Now, get out of here!

Here’s another excerpt from that same wiretap of the Giacalone brothers berating another colleague for being a lousy drunk.

Billy Jack – If you don’t know how to hold your drinks, I suggest you stop drinking. Next time, I’m gonna….I’m gonna…They’re ain’t gonna be no fucking next time. I’ll chop your fucking head off. I don’t go for that shit.

Colleague – I know, Billy. I feel awful about the way I acted. I don’t know what I was thinking

Tony Jack – Just quit this shit about the drinking and the getting out of hand in public. We don’t go for that shit around here. We don’t take that shit from nobody, I don’t care how big or small.

Billy Jack – We don’t give a shit about you or any fucking body

Colleague – I know, I know. I’m sorry.

Tony Jack – I’m gonna tell ya right now, if you get out of line one more time, we ain’t giving out any more passes. You respect us, we respect you. Don’t be stupid or you’ll end up in a ditch.”

Di Maggio was well aware of the Giacalones reputation and knew he had to go to all lengths in order to fix the situation immediately. Not having the money himself to pay the Giacalone brothers back their money, Di Maggio went to area mob loanshark, Bernard “Bernie the Hammer” Marchesani, and borrowed the cash at a substantially inflated interest rate in order to settle his debt.

He might have no longer been into the Giacalones for money, but then he found himself in debt to Marchesani, a heavy-handed mob strong arm who in perfect underworld synchronization reported to none other than the Giacalone brothers. It was a vicious cycle and Ernie Kanakis was stuck in the middle of it with no reprieve.

Bernie the Hammer was Detroit’s own Luca Brasi from The Godfather, the official go-to guy for the mob on the streets, given all the toughest enforcement assignments from the crime family’s top brass. He was gruff and physically imposing, unafraid to break traditional mafia protocol and sport a thick and bushy beard, sometimes appearing more like a biker than a mobster.

“Marchesani was as tough as they come in that world,” said retired FBI agent Mike Carone. “For a lot of years, he did all of the collecting for the Giacalones and they ran the street for the entire Family. So in essence, by doing that, he was doing the enforcing for the Family’s official enforcers. They picked him as their representative. That really tells you all you need to know about what kind of guy he was. He put the fear of God in some of the city’s most hardened wiseguys.”

Things didn’t bode well for Sam Di Maggio. A week later and still broke, he failed to fork anything over to Bernie the Hammer when he came to collect the first installment of the loan. Pleading with an angry Marchesani for more time, Di Maggio was sent away with a warning and told he better come up with payment soon or he would be in serious trouble.

Two weeks passed and Di Maggio still had no money to give. Infuriated, Marchesani went to Tony Giacalone for guidance in how to handle the problem and he was advised to assign a crew of strong-arms to rough-up Di Maggio as “incentive” to pay his future loan installments on time. Rounding up three of his foot soldiers – Pete Vassalo, Robert Dunaway, and John Palmer – Marchesani sent them to see Di Maggio with specific instructions to beat him up but not to kill him. Tony Jack allegedly told Marchesani that Di Maggio was protected by the fact that he was the cousin of deceased mob solider Frank “The Iceberg” Di Maggio, a top lieutenant of Pete Licavoli’s who was said to have come to Detroit from Chicago in the years after Prohibition.

Eager to impress their superiors in the crime family with their effectiveness as enforcers, Vassalo, Dunaway and Palmer, each wielding blunt instruments, went overboard in their assault of Di Maggio. Approaching their delinquent target outside his home while he tended to his front lawn, they attacked him with several baseball bats and a led pipe, beating him so badly he died later that same day at a local hospital.

This infraction of direct mob orders infuriated the notoriously-hot tempered Giacalone brothers and FBI documents allege they ordered Vassalo, Dunaway, and Palmer all to be executed as soon as possible. Biding its time, a trait of deliberate homicidal plodding that was a trademark of the Detroit mafia since its inception, Dunaway was murdered in 1971 and Vassalo in 1972. John Palmer disappeared in 1977, shortly after his release from prison on un-related felony charges.

Although a link between the Giacalones and the four previously described gangland slayings could not be established in a court of law, the brazen mafia executions caught the collective interest of the federal government and resulted in the opening of a widespread FBI investigation into the brothers’ other various criminal activities. Not knowing it at the time and to his great dismay, Ernie Kanakis was about to be unwittingly flung into the center of the whole thing.

Around the same time as Dunaway and Vassalo were murdered, Ernie Kanakis went into business with the local mob and indirectly the Giacalone brothers. It was a decision he would deeply regret for the rest of his life, but one he had no choice in making at the time.

Besides serving up good food and good conversation, Ernie the Greek’s diner also served as a back door casino, which made him a great deal of money. Since he had opened the establishment in 1967, Kanakis had been closing his diner early three nights a week, and running blackjack, dice, and roulette games out of the restaurant’s basement, independent of the mafia. By the early-1970’s, Kanakis’ after-hours gambling extravaganzas became a neighborhood staple, attracting a loyal client-base, and unfortunately for Kanakis, the attention of the certain organized crime figures who sensed a cash cow to be exploited to their advantage.

“Ernie was loud and obnoxious, but he was a big time earner and that earned him a certain level of prominence in the city’s rackets,” Carone said. “I don’t think there was any question either though that despite him being a bit of a blowhard, he was quite capable of fending for himself on the street. I mean he wasn’t easy to push around. It was known he could handle a gun.”

Late one October night in 1972, on a late and stormy fall night, Frank Randazzo and another local mob soldier named, Joe Siragusa, paid Kanakis a visit at his diner and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse; either go partners with them in their gaming activities and move the location of the game from the diner to an athletic club in Greektown named, The Summit, which was owned by Siragusa, or they would shut his casino down themselves and kill him. Kanakis was tough, but he wasn’t stupid. Seeing very few options for himself, Ernie The Greek agreed to the mob’s demands and moved his gambling operation to The Summit.

Detroit’s Greektown, located in a five-block square radius centered on Monroe Street and long overseen by mob capos and brothers Paul and Pete Vitale, was a hotbed of mafia activity for a good 50 years ranging from the 1940s through the early-1990s. For several decades the area has been a popular nightlife district and local police officers were once explicitly instructed not to socialize in the booming ethnic enclave when off duty.

“It’s long been an area with deep ties to organized crime” said Carone of Greektown.

“That’s not to say that all the shop keepers and restaurant owners are criminals, just that the atmosphere in that area was always ripe for being taken advantage of by the mob. The Grecian Gardens restaurant on the far West end of Monroe was a big gathering place for organized crime figures and where the Vitale brothers and their crews were centered. There was always a lot of different kind of activity going on at all hours of the day. Guys were earning and socializing down there at the same time.”

Just like in the basement of his diner, things were cooking from the start down in Greektown. The “casino nights” held by the club four days a week and overseen by Kanakis immediately became a hot ticket, attracting many of the city’s highest rollers and turning a pretty penny, most of which ended up in the pockets of Randazzo, Siragusa and their superiors in the mob.

One thing’s was for sure, Randazzo knew how to keep his bosses happy. He was a longtime moneymaker for the mafia in Detroit, being charged with looking after its prostitution rackets for a solid 25 years, as well as running number of other cash-heavy illegal ventures with his younger brother, Anthony “Tony Razz” Randazzo.

It didn’t take long for Kanakis to sour on the new arrangement and in less than a year he told Randazzo and Siragusa that he was breaking off their business relationship and going back on his own. Disturbed by the chain of events, but not quite ready to make their adversary disappear, the mafia gave Ernie the Greek a temporary pass.

Returning to running his backdoor gaming ventures out of his diner at the Eddystone didn’t exactly turn out the way he had envisioned. News of Kanakis’ falling out with Randazzo and Siragusa was all over the street and gamblers that were once his most loyal patrons were now too spooked to frequent his games. This phenomenon carried over to his eating establishment as well, former bread and butter customers stopped eating and congregating at his diner in fear of upsetting the mafia. Within months, he was broke.

After a few weeks of considering his options, Ernie The Greek made yet another decision he would live to enormously regret. Instead of going to the government and requesting assistance to save his restaurant, Kanakis decided to go the mob. He borrowed $1000 from Bernard Marchesani, at five percent interest, and went forward in trying to rebuild his diner’s reputation and image, but most of all, its profitability.

The rebuilding effort quickly went south and Kanakis could not afford to repay his loan to Marchesani, who at that point, was demanding double the interest the two parties had agreed upon from the outset. Bernie the Hammer had little sympathy for Ernie The Greek and viewed him as a mark. On several occasions in public, he threatened to kill him and his entire family if he did not make good on the outstanding debt.

Fortunately for Kanakis, not long after his brutal encounter with Marchesani, the Giacalones’ loansharking operation was busted by the feds. The Giacalone brothers and Marchesani are each indicted, and the Detroit mafia soon had much more important concerns on their mind than the money owed to them by one, somewhat inconsequential local half-wiseguy.

Unfortunately for him, at the same time the mob was letting him slide on his debt, he was being subpoenaed by the government to appear as a witness at the Giacalones’ loansharking trial. This placed Kanakis in a very precarious position. He knew if he didn’t appear in court to take the stand against the Giacalones he would be held in contempt and jailed. At the same time, he also knew that by testifying against Tony Jack and Billy Jack in open court could mean a death sentence for himself and anybody he associated with, including his family. Weighing his options delicately, Kanakis decided to take his chances on the street and avoid certain imprisonment by showing up and providing testimony at the highly-publicized trial.

Although making no direct statement regarding either of the Giacalone brothers personally while on the stand, Ernie the Greek did speak on the record at great length about his relationship with their top lieutenant, Bernie the Hammer Marchesani. He told of his monetary transactions with Marchesani, the threats Marchesani hurled his way when things went poorly, and his knowledge that Marchesani took orders from the mafia. He told of his distaste for the local crime syndicate and how he preferred operating on the streets independent of mob influence and direction.

And with that, in essence, Kanakis signed his own death warrant. When you added up his falling out with Randazzo and Siragusa to the beef he had with Marchesani, and the fact that he testified against the mob in court, he was substantially more of a headache than he was worth. The Detroit mafia had reached its breaking point and he would soon find himself designated to be murdered for his repeated indiscretions.

“I think testifying at the Giacalones trial was probably the final straw,” Corbett said. “He was already on a lot of people’s bad sides and that most likely put things over the edge. Plus, I think they (the mob) wanted his gambling business, which might have been down in profits from its peak, but was still a lucrative operation.”

Looking for the best way to lure Ernie the Greek to his slaughter without arising suspicion, Tony Giacalone called upon his former business partner, Frank Randazzo. Federal documents allege that Tony Jack, the local mob’s day-to-day overseer, told him to round of up a crew of hit men and carry out the contract on Kanakis as soon as possible.

Constructing an unusually elderly execution team – everyone on the team was over the age of 70 – that included himself, Joe Siragusa, and longtime Motor City gangland assassin, Nick “The Executioner” Ditta, Randazzo reputedly met with Giacalone in early-June of 1976 at Giacalone’s headquarters, the Southfield Athletic Club, on 10 Mile and Evergreen and told him that they planned to hit Kanakis the following month, shortly after the Bicentennial. Giacalone allegedly informed them to send word through his brother, Billy, if there were any more issues with setting up the contract and then to report back to him after the job was completed. Kanakis had crossed his associates in the mob on one too many occasions and although he didn’t know it at the time, he was living his life as a marked man.

Randazzo was exhibiting strange behavior the entire car ride to his house. He was outwardly displaying signs of extreme nervousness and anxiety, constantly watching his rear-view mirror, commenting he was paranoid about government surveillance and badgering Kanakis about whether or not he had been followed he had told anybody about where he going that night. Ernie the Greek was no dummy. He knew something was very wrong.

Pulling up the driveway of Frank Randazzo’s house, located on Detroit’s Northwest side, Kanakis parked the car and both he and Randazzo exited the vehicle and entered the residence through the backdoor. Ernie the Greek was no amature, he had been dealing with seedy and conniving underworld figures for quite a bit of time and had developed a good idea about how they operated. Accordingly, Kanakis made sure he had covered all his bases before leaving for his encounter with Randazzo on the evening of July 11.

That morning he had telephoned a local gambler friend of his named, Thomas “Tommy the Judge” Niccopolous, and told him where he was going that night and who he would be with. As an extra measure of safety, he arranged for Nicopolous to be stashed in a house down the street from where Randazzo lived, just in case he ran into trouble he could not handle himself and had to call for back up. He also took the time to handwrite a note and leave it with his wife, with instructions to deliver it to the FBI if something were to happen to him while allegedly helping Frankie Razz move his safe.

The note was addressed to an FBI agent he had developed a relationship with in his years on the streets, and in it, he relayed the events leading up to his meeting with the mob that evening and informed him that law enforcement should focus on Randazzo and his cronies if he were to wind up dead or missing. Finally, Kanakis armed himself with a pistol, which he strapped to a holster on his leg, kissed his wife goodbye, and left for his rendevous with the mafia – knowing that by doing so he was leaving life and limb in the hands of fate.

Immediately after the pair of wiseguys entered the house, Randazzo made a quick left turn and opened the door to his basement, inviting Kanakis to lead the way down the stairs. Kanakis agreed and Randazzo closed the basement door behind them, nervously ushering his target to the pending bloodbath. The second the door shut, Ernie The Greek knew something was wrong and began to turn around so he could confront Randazzo about his odd behavior.

Before he made it, Frankie Razz jumped on his back and pushed him down the flight of stairs. Approaching a staggered Kanakis on the basement floor, Randazzo picked him up and attempted to hold both of his arms behind his back, while yelling, “Kill him, kill him, now!”. Suddenly, Joe Siragusa came screaming out of the cellar shadows and began stabbing Kanakis repeatedly in the chest with an ice pick. It was a tornado of terror and Kanakis was smack dab in the eye of the storm, seemingly bound for certain death.

While Randazzo and Siragusa were assaulting Kanakis, a third figure emerged from his hiding spot in the back of the basement. It was Nick Ditta and he was brandishing a pistol with its barrel wrapped in a kitchen towel to act as a makeshift silencer. A devilish grin imprinted on his face, Ditta took two steps toward Kanakis, put the gun to his temple, and pulled the trigger.

That should have been the end for Ernie the Greek Kanakis. He should have been killed instantly. But, he wasn’t. Luckily for Kanakis, Ditta’s pistol jammed. The towel he had wrapped around the gun had been tied too tight and caused it to malfunction. Surprised he hadn’t blown his target’s head all the way across the room with his first shot, Ditta fired the gun one more time. Once again, nothing happened.

Meanwhile, Ernie the Greek broke loose from the clutches of his assailants, kicked the gun out of Ditta’s hand, and had the presence of mind to make a move for his own weapon. Pulling the gun from underneath his left pant leg, Kanakis took aim at the three men who were trying to take his life just moments previous and shoots them all at point blank range. Fleeing up the stairs and out the back door, he got into his car, drove himself to the hospital for treatment, having nurses call and report the incident to the local police.

Back at the house, Siragusa and Randazzo died instantly, while Nick Ditta held on long enough to make it up the stairwell and call 911. Ditta, a favored hit man of the Detroit mafia brass for over four decades, who often would travel to other cities on behalf of the crime family to carry out top secret assignments, finally succumbed to his fatal bullet wounds on Randazzo’s kitchen floor, clutching a telephone in his hands, waiting for the ambulance he wouldn’t live to see arrive.

Following his involvement in the carnage-soaked basement massacre, Ernie The Greek went on trial for murder and was eventually acquitted of all charges on the grounds of self-defense. Kanakis had averted death and jail, and with the exception of some scars on his chest from being stabbed with Siragusa’s ice pick, he was standing tall and strong, ready to re-start his life anew. He believed he had escaped the mafia’s murderous wrath and pledge of vengence against him.

However, Ernie the Greek underestimated the Detroit mob’s resolve, and while Kanakis looked to take advantage of his newfound second lease on life, the motor city crime family stewed in the shadows and plotted their enemy’s eventual demise. They would make certain that their target was lulled into a sufficient state of relaxation and security, before they struck again.

*          *          *          *          *

Six years went by and it appeared, at least on the surface that tensions between Ernie Kanakis and the mob had cooled down significantly. It was the 1980’s and Kanakis had left his interests in the underworld behind, deciding to go legitimate and live his life on the straight and narrow.

Being interviewed by a local paper on the five-year anniversary of his attempted murder, he rejected the idea that the Giacalones would still want to have him killed. “If the Giacalone brothers wanted me dead, they would have done it already and better than anybody in the world – in complete secrecy,” he said.

Divorced from his wife, he had a new girlfriend and in his mind, had successfully outrun all the demons from his past. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

“When mob around here holds a grudge, it’s for a lifetime,” Mike Carone said. “I don’t think any single event in the last three, four decades demonstrates that more than the Ernie Kanakis situation.”

Despite Ernie the Greek’s delusions of safety, the Detroit mafia has an outstanding long term memory, especially when it came to unpaid debts. He had not been forgotten about him at all. They owed Kanakis another visit, and by the dawning of the new decade it was only a matter of time before the mob looked to exact their revenge.

That time came in December of 1982, when crime family lieutenant, Frank “Frankie the Bomb” Bommarito, a highly-feared local underworld enforcer and trusted member of Vito Giacalone’s crew, summoned widely-known motor city hitman, Charles Acker, to a meeting at a Detroit-area Denny’s Restaurant. After some initial small talk in a secluded back booth of the restaurant, Bommarito offered Acker $5,000 cash if he would kill Ernie the Greek Kanakis. In a gruesome added twist, he said he would throw in an added $2,000 bonus if after he completed the job, took photographs of the corpse and crime scene, and sent them in a Christmas card to the Giacalone brothers.

Acker agreed to the deal and several more meetings ensued between himself and Bommarito to discuss logistics in the hit contract. Eventually, over dozens of cups of coffee, spread over a three month period, the two pair decided how, where, and when they would attempt to kill Kanakis for the second time. This time the mob seemed confidant they wouldn’t miss.

Everything appeared to be going perfectly as planned. The specifics had been worked out and the wheels of the second contract were in heavy motion. However, soon a major glitch was discovered in their homicidal agenda – Acker was working for the federal government.

Since the very first time he had met with Bommarito at Denny’s to discuss murdering Ernie Kanakis, Acker had been wired for sound, secretly recording every conversation he engaged in with Frankie The Bomb and turning them over to the FBI.

“Charlie Acker came to us and told us that Frankie the Bomb wanted him to hit Ernie Kanakis and all we could think of at the office was how sadistic it was to wait in the shadows for almost 10 years and then come after him like that. It was like an animal stalking its prey, waiting just for the exact right time to pounce and devour it.”

Arrested in January of 1983, Frank Bommarito was convicted and jailed on the charge of conspiracy to commit attempted murder and served close to three years in prison for the offense. On the other hand, Kanakis was in a state of shock, stunned and emotionally shaken by the entire incident, but at the same time refusing to buckle under the pressure being put on him by the local mafia.

In the years to come, he didn’t move from his home in suburban Detroit. He didn’t change his name or enter the witness protection program. Rather, he remained in the area and once again stood tall and strong against his adversaries in the mob. He did this by going about his daily life unfazed by the many men in the city’s underworld that wanted him dead, never wilting in the face of gangland threats or intimidation. All the money and perks he once had by living on the wrong side of the law were gone, given up for the mundane job of an ordinary citizen. But he was alive.

Unaware of whether or not the mob had lifted the contract on his life, Kanakis led an uneasy existence, refusing to sit with his back to the door while out in public and turning on the ignition of his car with one foot securely out of the vehicle, so in case there is a bomb inside he could escape as quickly as possible. It was no easy way to live. And he was bored out of his mind. After some careful thought, he decided he wanted back in.

Always a man who craved action and fed up with his time lurking in the shadows, around 1987, over a decade removed from streets, Ernie the Greek hooked up with some members of the city’s Arab mafia and went back into running a series of hugely profitable gambling rackets. Partnered with Tahrir “Crazy Tommy” Kalasho, a top lieutenant to his uncle Lou “The Hammerhead” Akrawi, the reputed founder and boss of the local Chaldean (non-Muslim Iraqis) crime syndicate, Kanakis built his gambling business back up to practically the point it had been prior to his falling out with the mob.

The only problem was that all the money Kanakis and Kalasho started making and the clientele they were generating began showing up on the mafia’s radar. They hadn’t forgotten about their old nemesis and they wanted to know why the Chaldeans were doing business with him. Furthermore, they wanted Kalasho to serve him up to them so they could finally have him killed like they had been trying to do for 11 years.

In another stroke of good fortune for Kanakis, the Chaldeans refused to deliver their new and large-earning friend to his butchering. Instead, they went to bat for him and ended up saving his life. Reaching out to one of their contacts in the mafia, Antonio “Tony the Zip” Ciraulo, the Chaldeans requested that Ciraulo, a lieutenant in the Giacalone brothers’ regime, arrange for a sit-down to sort out the two parties’ differences. Ciraulo, eventually convicted on murder charges in the early-1990s and sent to prison for the rest of his life, had the sit-down arranged for the week leading up to Thanksgiving 1987 at his bar in Warren.

Delivering a sizeable chunk of cash to the Giacalones at the meeting and offering them a percentage of their gambling interests, the Chaldeans asked permission to have the contract lifted on Kanakis’ life. Tommy Kalasho said he would personally vouch for Ernie the Greek and take responsibility for all issues related to his work on the street.

The Italians had always respected the Chaldeans for their ironfisted approach to leadership and gutsy takeover of territory almost as soon as they landed in the state of Michigan from Iraq in the early-1970s. This led to the Giacalones finally removing the contract   on Kanakis and letting him off the hook. From that point forward, Ernie the Greek was one of the most-rare commodities in the world – someone who unflinchingly challenged the mafia head on and lived.

“Lady Luck was definitely on his side because there aren’t many people who stare down the mafia in Detroit and can say they lived to talk about it,” Keith Corbett said. “Ernie was a colorful character and his story is without question one of the most intriguing I came across in my time working for the government. It really tells you everything you need to know about the way the mob operates in this city.”

After a few solid years making money with the Italians, Kanakis retired and moved out Las Vegas before dying of a heart attack in 2005. Bernie Marchesani served time for his role in the Giacalone-backed loansharking operation and then was nailed shortly after his release on an extortion case, charges highlighted by him leaving a dead bird on the porch of an associate he believed owed him money and sending that same associate letters and cards implying that he would be hurt if he didn’t pay up.

Marchesani was eventually jailed in 1985 after close to five years on the run from the law as a fugitive and died behind bars of stomach cancer in 1998. Tony Giacalone died at the age of 82 of cancer, a free man under indictment awaiting trial on racketeering charges. Billy Giacalone and Frankie Bommarito both remain alive today. Giacalone is alleged to have been named the syndicate’s Underboss or official second in command in 2004, but since been forced to relinquish the post due to increasing bad health. Ascending past his longtime status as a mere enforcer, Bommarito is reputed to have been named captain of his own crew in 2003.

By way of the public street war the mafia engaged in with Ernie Kanakis, the Detroit crime family further solidified their well-deserved reputation as a mob syndicate that will seek revenge on their enemies at all costs, no matter how long it takes them to finish the job. This reputation sticks with them to this day, and is an underworld legend they will go out of their way to protect and perpetuate.

“Even though they (the mafia) were ultimately unsuccessful in killing Ernie Kanakis, I think they like the lore and mystique that has been associated with the entire situation all these years,” Corbett said. “They might have failed in what they were trying to do, but the whole thing went a long way to even further enhance their reputation. Those guys reaped a lot of benefits from that endeavor, gained a lot of street capitol that they were probably able to leverage to their great advantage.”

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