The Detroit Mafia & The Buckeye State: Toledo, Other Ohio Towns Long Fell Under Michigan Mob’s Thumb

The city of Toledo has long been mob territory belonging to the Detroit mafia, dating back to the last days of Prohibition when the Motor City crime family staged a successful siege on the Northwest Ohio rackets. Since the 1950s, Detroit’s interests in Toledo and other Michigan mob outposts in Ohio, have always been the responsibility of the old Vito (Billy Jack) Giacalone crew. Billy Giacalone, who rose to Borgata underboss before dying of natural causes in the winter of 2012, was assigned duties looking after the working-class, ethnically-diverse Ohio town less than an hour’s drive from Detroit, in 1955, according to his FBI file, by Detroit mob brass following syndicate capo Peter (Horseface Pete) Licavoli relocating to Arizona for the latter part of his gangland tenure.

“Toledo has always been a very important part of the Detroit (LCN) Family, from the Licavolis to the Giacalones, it’s gotten a lot of emphasis from up top (the syndicate administration) and a lot of attention because of that, you do what your boss says, you know, especially in that line of work,” retired Detroit FBI agent Mike Carone said. “There was a ton of gambling down there, a very big pie in terms of number of bettors. It’s close enough to Detroit for guys to get down there in a hurry, maybe two hours closer to the guys in Cleveland and the city was maintenanced very well, the Detroit guys ran a tight ship, and in turn generated major profits for years.”

Licavoli died of a heart disease in 1984. He had come to Detroit from St. Louis in the mid-1920s, founding and leading of the River Gang, a murderous bootlegging organization he ran with help from his brother Thomas (Yonnie) Licavoli, brother-in-law Joseph (Scarface Joe) Bommarito and his first cousins James (Jack White) Licavoli and Joseph (Joe Misery) Moceri. Both Licavoli brothers, Bommarito and Moceri each became “captains” in 1931 with the creation of the modern-day Detroit mafia, known locally in the press as “The Partnership” or “The Combination” for the merging of all the city’s bootlegging gangs under one single banner.

Around this time, Yonnie Licavoli was sent by his big brother and the area’s newly-minted mob bosses Vito (Black Bill) Tocco and Giuseppe (Joe Uno) Zerilli to go into Ohio in anticipation for the repeal of Prohibition in the years to come and launch a takeover Toledo, considered already-rich and increasingly-fertile gambling terrain. The hair-trigger tempered Yonnie Licavoli, his cousin, Jack White, and another cousin named Calogero (Leo Lips) Moceri – Joe Misery’s younger brother –, moved to Toledo and unleashed a full-court press offensive on the region’s rackets, a strong-arm campaign that bore fruit early and left more than a dozen bodies in its’ wake.

Besides opening a slew backdoor gambling joints and grabbing control of most of the bookmaking, bootlegging, policy, prostitution and wireroom operations, powerful northern-Ohio gangsters like Anthony (Whitey) Besase, Leonard (Chalky Red) Yaranowsky, Jacob (Firetop) Sulkin, Serafino (Joe” The Wop” English) Sinatra, the Fretti brothers (Joe & Benny) and the Scotti brothers (“Tony Paul,” “Billy Paul,” and “Nicky Paul,”) quickly got in line and joined the Licavoli camp. The lone holdout, the only major Toledo-area mobster to resist and fight the Detroit mafia’s commandeering of the city’s underworld activities, was Irish racketeer and bootlegging boss Jackie Kennedy.

After dodging several attempts on his life, Kennedy was finally felled by Licavoli-dispatched gunmen in July 1933 while walking with his girlfriend near his summer cottage. Kennedy’s girlfriend had accidentally been killed by Licavoli crew members months before in a botched assassination attempt.

Licavoli was convicted of conspiracy in the Kennedy slaying – as well as the murders of rival Jewish bootleggers Abe Lubitsky and Norm Blatt and the murder of Kennedy’s gal pal Louise Bell – and sentenced to life in prison. According to his FBI file, “Yonnie Licavoli called shots from his prison cell, and even though incarcerated, still controlled the illegal numbers lottery business in parts of Ohio and more than one series of sports-betting rings.”

As Prohibition came to a close, his big bro in Detroit, Pete Licavoli, was eager to expand his reach even further into Ohio, says state police reports. The Detroit mafia as a whole would eventually see its’ reach go past Ohio and spill into the West Virginia panhandle in Wheeling as well – all with the blessing and cooperation of the Cleveland Family and the Pittsburgh clan traditionally in charge of the Wheeling-centered panhandle.

With Yonnie a guest of the government for the foreseeable future, Jack White and Leo Lips departing for Cleveland and Akron, respectively, Pete Licavoli made the reliable, loyal and always-colorful Whitey Besase his crew boss in Toledo. Horseface Pete sent his brother-in-law and wanted fugitive and former deportee Frank (Frankie C) Cammarata to Youngstown and Michael (Buckeye Mike) DeAngelo to Columbus, where Yonnie spent a good deal of his stint in the can and DeAngelo could act as a re-layer of messages to the outside. Jimmy La Fatch helped Lips Moceri out in Akron and Jasper (Joe Fats) Aiello and Anthony (Tony Dope) Delsanter were stationed in Youngstown, eventually replacing Cammarata as the Licavoli’s point men in the area, reporting directly to Jack White.

By the 1940s, the Toledo area had become a hotbed of high-end backdoor gambling clubs financed by members of organized crime. The Victory Club, The Chesterfield Club, The Webster Inn, the Academy Club and the Old Dix Club were Lucas County staples. A majority of them shuttered before WWII, laying the groundwork for the construction of the lavish Club Devon, a Detroit mob-backed gaming palace that proved a cash cow for everyone involved. While Ohio underworld territory in Cleveland and Youngstown would be besieged by violent power struggles before the century’s end, Toledo, like the Detroit crime family that oversaw it, was a picture of stability.

Michigan mobsters encouraged and personally delivered patronage to the many Northwest Ohio betting parlors. One FBI document from that era estimated almost a quarter of the Detroit mafia’s annual profits from gambling stemmed from activity across the state line.

When Pete Licavoli departed the Midwest for warmer temperatures in the 1950s, moving to a luxury, multi-acre estate near Tucson, Arizona that he christened Grace Ranch, Detroit don Joe Zerilli, the de-facto consigliere of the national Commission and the Godfather of the mafia in Michigan from 1936 until he died of natural causes in the fall of 1977, gave the crime family’s bountiful bowl of rackets in Ohio to Billy Giacalone, the then-31-year old capo and younger brother of street boss Anthony (Tony Jack) Giacalone.

The Giacalone brothers were the public face of the Motown mob syndicate for the better part of the second half of the 20th Century, enforcing Zerilli’s edicts and, per several confidential federal informants, killing anyone who dared to get in their way – the siblings were suspected of coordinating and/or personally carrying out dozens of Detroit mob-related murders. In the 1960s, the Giacalones headquartered their operations out of the Home Juice Company and FBI surveillance records from 1964 show a cavalcade of Ohio mob dignitaries appearing in the Giacalones’ shared office at Home Juice to deliver tribute envelopes and pay proper homage to their direct benefactors in the mafia. Toledo’s Whitey Besase and Tony Paul, Akron’s Leo Lips Moceri and Jimmy La Fatch and Jack White Licavoli and Tony Dope Delsanter representing Trumbull and Mahoning Valley counties were all seen parading through.

Whitey Besase was indicted with Yonnie Licavoli for the string of Toledo mob murders he was incarcerated for in the 1930s, but had the charges dropped before trial. Besase operated out of the Sunngindale Country Club. He had a large piece of the Club Devon and was the on-site troubleshooter and greeter at the established until it closed.

According to FBI informants, Tony Desanter shot Youngstown gangster Mike Farrah to death chipping golf balls on his front lawn in 1961 at Jack White’s behest so the Licavoli family didn’t lose their grip on their rackets in the multi-mafia syndicate-entrenched Mahoning Valley. Jack White, Leo Lips and Tony Delsanter took over as boss, underboss and consigliere, respectively of the Cleveland mafia in the mid-1970s. Moceri was killed gangland style shortly thereafter.

As a college graduation present back in 1949, Detroit Godfather Joe Zerilli and his brother-in-law and fellow Michigan mafia founding father Black Bill Tocco, bought and gave their sons, mob princes and heir apparents, Anthony (Tony Z) Zerilli and Giacomo (Black Jack) Tocco, the Hazel Park Raceway. The younger Zerilli and Tocco would build it into the premier horse race venue in the Midwest – known as much for its’ thoroughbred ponies as its’ controversial ownership, leaving them prone for constant hassles with state and federal governing bodies. Besase, the Fretti brothers and Tony Paul and his two brothers were all shareholders in the racetrack as well as Detroit mob-backed horse-race venues in Ohio (Toledo, Maumee) and in West Virginia (Wheeling), where the wiseguys from Motown and To-town partnered with Pittsburgh mafia powers Sebastian (Big John) La Rocca, Gabriel (Kelly) Mannerino, Joseph (Jo Jo) Pecora and Mike Genovese.

Jack Tocco and Tony Zerilli replaced their fathers as boss and underboss respectively in the 1970s. Tony Z had originally been acting boss from 1965 until he was sent to prison in 1974 for skimming six million dollars-worth of cash from and holding illegal silent ownership in Las Vegas’ Frontier Hotel and Casino. Jewish racketeer and Toledo mob associate Irving (Slick) Shapiro was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Frontier case, the first of its kind and credited with “breaking the seal” for the federal government’s all-out assault on Italian organized crime influence and control over the Vegas gaming industry. Per the indictment, Shapiro aided the Detroiters in getting licensing for the Frontier.

Slick Shapiro and Chalky Red Yaranowsky, another Jewish Goodfella, ran Toledo’s gambling rackets on behalf of Whitey Besase and his second-in-command Tony Paul. Both made frequent trips to Detroit to visit the Giacalones.

It wasn’t just Toledo and other Ohio-based mob figures driving to Detroit to talk business, mind you, dating as far back as Prohibition, Motor City Mafiosi often came across the state border to check on their business interests first-hand as well as socialize – many Michigan button men kept girlfriend or ‘Goomatis’ stashed there, just a short drive from home. Tony Zerilli’s longtime girlfriend ran a popular restaurant and lounge in the Toledo area called Fifi’s.

Zerilli, Tocco, their cousins and enforcers Dominic (Fats) Corrado and Anthony (Tony the Bull) Corrado and of course, the Detroit LCN faction’s “Lord of the Buckeye State,” Billy Giacalone, were staples of the city’s fast, late-night crowd and underworld gambling scene, observed by authorities at Toledo hot spots like Slick Shapiro’s Grenada Gardens and the popular Aku-Aku Club in the Town House Motel he owned and oversaw, Mancy’s Steakhouse (still open today) and the Roman Garden’s Bath House owned by Shapiro’s and Besase’s lieutenant, local bookie Bill Pompilli. A team of FBI agents got stuck in a snow storm in the winter 1978 shadowing Zerilli and Giacalone to a rendezvous with underlings followed by dates with their lady friends.

“We’d be in Toledo watching the boys from Detroit sometimes as much as Michigan,” said Carone of his 28-year stint working the OC unit (1976-2004). “They’d go there for business and pleasure so to speak.”

Both Shapiro and Pompilli moved to Las Vegas in the 1970s. Whitey Besase died of natural causes in 1977, five years after Black Bill Tocco and the same year Joe Zerilli passed away, and Tony Paul, with help from Shapiro protégé Charles (Charlie Cards) Immormino, became the Detroit mob’s shot callers in Toledo, per Michigan State Police records.

Pompilli started as a box man at the Detroit mafia-controlled Aladdin Casino (after the crime family was busted in the Frontier skim in 1972, it set its’ sights and gobbled up the Aladdin, owned silently by James “Jimmy Eyes” Tamer, a Lebanese hoodlum, Detroit native and Tocco confidant). Once Tamer and other Detroit mob-connected co-conspirators got stung by the feds in 1978 for their affairs at the Aladdin, Tocco tapped Pompilli to be the point man on the syndicate’s next desert casino venture, the Edgewater in Laughlin, Nevada.

Federal surveillance units followed Pompilli on regular trips back-and-forth from Nevada to Detroit to meet with Tocco, Zerilli, Billy Giacalone and the Corrado brothers throughout the late 1970s into the early 1980s. FBI agent Sam Ruffino testified at Tocco’s 1998 racketeering trial of listening in on a meeting between Pompilli and Tocco, Billy Giacalone and Tony Corrado held in a hotel room near Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Michigan and hearing Pompilli telling his mob superiors that they were skimming $200,000 per year from the Edgewater’s coffers. Tocco and Corrado were followed by a two-man FBI surveillance squad from Detroit to Florida in 1983 where they met with then-St. Louis mob boss Mike Trupiano, who had grown up in Michigan alongside Tocco and Corrado, in a suite at a Pompano Beach hotel to discuss the sale of stock in the Aladdin.

“The parties involved in those particular skims (Aladdin & Edgewater) weren’t very smart with how they conducted themselves in regards to appearances,” said one retired fed. “Neither Bill Pompilli nor Jimmy Tamer could walk 10 feet without rubbing elbows with wiseguys. These are supposed to be your fronts? Every 30 seconds meanwhile we’re snapping photos of them entertaining Jack Tocco, Tony Zerilli, eating dinner with the Corrados or the Giacalones, kissing this guy on the cheek, kissing that guy on the cheek. All of it right out in the open.”

Jimmy Tamer co-owned Hillcrest Country Club in suburban Detroit with Jack Tocco (and prominent local businessman Woodrow Woody). Tony Zerilli bragged to a wired-up associate in the fall of 1980 of secretly owning the Frontier, muscling in on the Aladdin and then “getting in” on the Edgewater while he allegedly tried to mediate a beef between the associate and Zerilli’s own ‘Luca Brasi,’ an imposing bookie, loanshark and hit man named Bernard (Bernie the Hammer) Marchesani, who had left a dead bird with a broken neck on the associate’s porch.

Zerilli was acquitted at trial of extortion in 1981 when he was charged for hi intervening in the Marchesani dispute. He wouldn’t be so lucky two decades in the future, as Tony Z was convicted at trial on racketeering charges in the summer of 2002 – Tocco, Billy Giacalone and Tony Corrado were all convicted in the same case at trial four years prior in 1998.

Tony Paul died in 1993, Charlie “Cards” Immormino followed in 1994, both of natural causes. Tony Corrado died of cancer in prison in 2002. Jack Tocco and Tony Zerilli succumbed to health ailments in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Billy Giacalone had preceded them in 2012.

Billy Jack’s son, Jack (Jackie the Kid) Giacalone, is the reputed current boss of the Detroit mafia, taking a dying-Tocco’s place atop the throne two years ago this spring, had his name surface in the FBI’s investigation into point shaving inside the University of Toledo’s football and men’s basketball programs, however avoided any form of prosecution: a number of UT athletes and a pair of alleged Detroit mob associates, Gary (The Cigarette) Manni and Mitchell (Steady Eddie) Karam, weren’t so lucky. The younger Giacalone, a convicted felon, beat a 2006 racketeering indictment at trial in 2008.

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2 comments

  1. Joe

    can you guys get any Philly mob wire taps I’d love to hear some of Joey meelinos conversations back in the 90s

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  2. My grandfather used to have his shoes repaired at the same place that Yonnie Licavoli did. They both had the same size shoe. For adult men it was actually a rather small shoe size of 7. When Yonnie went to prison the shoemaker gave the three pairs of his shoes to my Grandpa 🙂

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