‘A Bar In Toledo’ Book Excerpt: The Mafia Front Man Who Ignited A Country Music Revolution From The Midwest

The following is an excerpt from A Bar in Toledo: The Untold Story of a Mafia Front Man and a
Grammy Winning Song by Dominic Vaiana and Stephanie Abbajay (University of Toledo Press, 2022). It
has been edited slightly for context.

You can purchase the book here: https://www.utoledopress.com/ABIT.html

When Duane Abbajay took over his brother’s bankrupt nightclub—the Peppermint Club—in 1962, he
promised his wife it would be a quick project to protect the family name. At 29 years old, he was married
with two kids, running a contracting business in Toledo, and his experience in hospitality was limited to
scrubbing urinals as a disgruntled teenager.

With no connections and no room for errors, Duane was open to any kind of help he could get. But he
quickly learned “help” was mandatory in this new line of business—and it came with a hefty price tag.
Blockbuster mafia flicks such as Goodfellas and The Godfather fetishize the mob’s influence in the
Northeast—which was certainly the epicenter of organized crime in the first half of the twentieth
century—but as the writer Harry R. Illman pointed out, organized crime was a “national disease” that
infested dozens of major cities across America including Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Toledo.
Toledo’s mob ties date back to the Prohibition era when a Motor City crime family staged a violent
takeover of Northwest Ohio’s rackets, most of which involved illegal gambling.

The Detroit mob’s operations in Toledo were initially led by caporegime Peter “Horseface Pete” Licavoli. Over the course of two decades, Licavoli was arrested, tried, or suspected of murder seven times—and released seven times. In 1944, he fled the Rust Belt and headed west to Grace Ranch near Tucson, Arizona, after which he handed the rackets over to 31-year-old Vito “Billy Jack” Giacalone.

By this time, Toledo was a hotbed for high-end gambling clubs bankrolled by Sicilians in silk suits. Of
special note was the lavish Club Devon, located on the northern edge of Toledo on Benore Road, near the
Michigan border. The 10,000-square-foot casino had twenty banked craps tables, 25 blackjack tables,
eight side games, and a restaurant that served some of the best prime rib in the country. According to
national gaming expert John Scarne, Club Devon was the largest illegal casino in America. Reports
claimed that the club was operating in the black by the end of their first night open.

“Toledo has always been a very important part of the Detroit [crime] Family,” retired Detroit FBI agent
Mike Carone told Gangster Report in 2016. “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…especially in that line
of work. There was a ton of gambling down there, a very big pie in terms of the 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 maintained very well. The Detroit guys ran a tight ship, and in turn generated
major profits for years.”
One FBI document estimated that almost a quarter of the Detroit mafia’s annual profits from gambling
came from activity across state lines. While activity in other Ohio territories—such as Cleveland and
Youngstown—were disrupted by violent power struggles, the Detroit crime family saw the working-class,
ethnically-diverse city of Toledo as an exemplar of stability.

Some Toledo mobsters weren’t lucky enough to slip through the cracks of the criminal justice system.
One was Thomas “Yonnie” Licavoli, the younger brother of Peter Licavoli. Born Domiano Licavoli to
Sicilian immigrants in the slums of St. Louis, Missouri, the young Sicilian-American deserted the U.S.
Navy and joined his brother, Peter, to pursue a life of crime in Detroit. By then, Domiano had been
slurred to “Yonnie” and he changed his legal name to Thomas to avoid being trailed by the feds. Yonnie
quickly ascended the ranks of Detroit’s criminal underworld and earned a reputation as a brazen hustler
with a happy trigger finger. Prosecutors connected countless murders to the Licavoli Mob, but in many
cases there wasn’t sufficient evidence to make convictions—or the witnesses simply “disappeared.”

After a three-year stint in a Canadian prison for carrying a concealed weapon while smuggling liquor
across the Detroit River, Licavoli expanded his operations to Toledo, where he faced fierce competition
from local bootlegger Jack Kennedy. Irked at the success of Kennedy’s Studio Club, Licavoli attempted
to take over a rival nightspot in Toledo called the Show Boat, owned by a man named Chet Marks.
Licavoli put pressure on Marks to give him a piece of the club, but he resisted. A few days later,
authorities found Marks face-down with a bullet in his head near his home on Toledo’s south side.

When Licavoli decided a dry-cleaning business on West Bancroft Street needed “protection,” he stormed
the place with two gunmen and said they were “dry cleaners from downstate who wanted to organize the
Toledo cleaners under a director.” The owner refused to be cowed and vowed he would never let Licavoli
cut into his profits. Three nights later, a bomb exploded inside the dry cleaner, rendering the business
inoperable. Territorial disputes between Toledo crime families triggered a violent gang war which
culminated in a life sentence for Yonnie on conspiracy to commit murder in the slayings of four
bootleggers, including Jack Kennedy.

“When Yonnie Licavoli went to prison he was an important member of the Mafia,” wrote Denny Walsh
in a 1969 article in LIFE magazine. “Today he is, if anything, even more important.”

Under Licavoli’s leadership from inside the Ohio State Penitentiary, the mob took control of all forms of
vice in Toledo: liquor sales, gambling houses, slot machines, prostitution, drug trafficking, and everything
in between. The mob also had its hands in legitimate businesses around town, and under the guise of
“protection” levied tribute on dry cleaners, pizza parlors, florists, funeral homes, and of course,
nightclubs.

During the 1960s, Licavoli’s main lieutenant running these rackets in Toledo was Anthony “Whitey”
Besase, a wily hothead with a stark jaw and dark eyes that exuded the quiet power of a man with nothing
to prove. Besase was a made man who spent four years in prison on extortion charges following the
Licavoli gang’s violent takeover of Toledo’s gambling clubs in the 1930s. He was later indicted with

Licavoli for an infamous string of mob murders around the same time, but the charges were dropped
before the trial. Records also show that Besase was one of the partners of the infamous Devon Club. He
operated out of the Sunningdale Country Club, an upscale golf course and hangout on Alexis Road, about
six miles northwest of Downtown Toledo. The course straddled the Michigan-Ohio border.
“When Yonnie [Licavoli] was at the prison’s honor camp in the southern Ohio hills, both Besase and
mobster Pete Licavoli visited him with unimpeded regularity,” said Walsh in the LIFE article. “These
meetings were, in fact, top-level conferences at which far-reaching decisions on Ohio rackets operations
were made.”

During Licavoli’s stay at the minimum-security facility, one prison warden lost his job following widely-
publicized investigations into special privileges granted to Licavoli: access to a private room without
supervision, unauthorized use of a prison-owned station wagon, civilian clothes, uncensored mail, a
private refrigerator refilled daily with steaks, and even a pet dog. He received lengthy visits from men
whose names were later erased from prison records.

According to witnesses, Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa and Teamster lawyer Moses Krislov were
among Licavoli’s parade of visitors. Mafia big shots like Vito “Billy Jack” Giacalone were, to say the
least, displeased with the media’s meddling into the life and times of their Midwestern crime syndicate,
according to the LIFE article.

“That goddamn LIFE Magazine piece is killing us,” said Billy Jack, recorded on a wiretap. “It’s brought
so much fucking heat it’s ridiculous…Now the whole world thinks we’re the fucking Babe Ruths of
hoodlums around here.”

As a port city, tons of cargo moved in and out of Toledo every day, and the ma

fia tried to intercept as
much as they could and unload it for a profit. They had a tight grip on union truckers and dock workers
who tipped them off whenever they knew a good shipment was scheduled to come in. The Licavoli mob
had the system down to a science, and it worked for decades. Licavoli’s crew got access to Mack trucks
full of suits, jewelry, radio sets, booze, cigarettes, and more.

When they weren’t golfing, Besase and his henchmen spent most of their time inside an apartment
complex at 2031 West Alexis Road, one block east of Sunningdale Country Club, where they played
cards, puffed on cigars, and awaited news reports of stock market closing statistics. Following several
days of surveillance in 1963, feds raided the hangout on a Wednesday afternoon where they found four
mafia underlings hiding behind a removable panel in a bedroom closet. The agents collected stacks of
betting slips, thousands of dollars in cash, and several counting machines. While IRS agents tore through
the room, the telephone in the bedroom rang. The caller unwittingly, and belatedly, warned the agent who answered the phone that the feds were coming.

It wasn’t until 2000 when the Toledo Blade obtained previously classified documents that exposed just
how deep Toledo’s mob ties ran. The records, kept by the now-defunct Toledo Police Intelligence Unit,
confirmed the nation’s most notorious mafia members were frequenters to the city, including Vito “Billy
Jack” Giacalone and Joey Zerilli who would become central figures in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa
in 1975.

And then there was Whitey Besase, the point man who headed the day-to-day operations of the Toledo rackets and established himself as a trusted member of the Detroit Mafia’s inner circle. The mob worked out of the Home Juice Company’s Detroit area offices, which three mobsters had won in a dice game. FBI
surveillance records from 1964 detail dozens of mob dignitaries parading through the office to deliver
envelopes full of cash from their Toledo rackets, including Besase, who typically came on Tuesdays.
Toledo nightclubs under Besase’s control could easily be fronts for illegal betting houses; indeed, the city
had its fair share.

Other times, mobsters became silent partners in otherwise legal businesses, offering
“protection” in exchange for a monthly payment, but unlike a legitimate business partner, Besase didn’t
give a damn if you had a slow week. His business plan was: Tough shit. Pay up. You only got your
money once he skimmed his off the top, and if you were a day late, your grave was already dug.

According to FBI records, two undercover agents learned the Peppermint Club was not, in fact, owned by
Duane Abbajay—it belonged to “important hoodlums” in the Licavoli crime family:

Anthony “Whitey” Besase: the caporegime who ran Toledo’s rackets and reported directly to Yonnie
Licovoli. Nefurio “Tony Paul” Scott (formerly Scotti): second-in-command to Besase—he was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1955 but was allowed to remain in the country indefinitely. He would be arrested
numerous times for felonies including auto theft, armed robbery, homicide, illegal gambling, and highway
robbery.

Leonard “Chalky Red” Yaranowsky: a gruff, burly gambling outlaw.

Irving “Slick” Shapiro: a racketeer who financed multiple nightclubs and casinos in Toledo

“Currently, [Duane] Abbajay fronts that business in Toledo,” the record stated. Such circumstances were
par for the course in 1960s Toledo, according to organized crime historian Scott M. Burnstein. “The
Licavolis cowed dozens of business owners, many of them Middle Eastern, into this street tax racket,”
said Burnstein. “You traded a chunk of your profits for protection. That’s just how business worked back
then—you didn’t really have an option.”

Duane golfed with Whitey and bought a house from Tony Paul’s brother, Billy Scott, in 1965 when Billy
went to prison. According to records in the Lucas County Auditor’s Office, Duane bought the Douglas
Road house on April 1, 1965, from Madeline Scott, Billy’s wife. These guys were his friends and golfing
buddies. And, of course, mob guys frequented the club.

“They came in all the time,” said house band member Jerry Pynckel. “You could tell who they were
because they always wore sharkskin suits and bought everyone drinks. They loved actors and musicians,
and they loved to hang out and watch us play. They were really good to us.”

“It was unclear who really owned the club, but we always looked to Duane for leadership,” said Pynckel.
“We knew [about the mafia]— Duane clued us in. Most people who came to the club didn’t know, but

they wouldn’t have cared anyway. It was too much fun. If there was a shooting, it always happened across
the street.”

According to records obtained by The Blade, these men controlled an illegal sports betting and loan shark
empire that generated an estimated $150 million annually. “You had mob people all over the place,” Gene
Fodor, a retired Toledo policeman, told The Blade. “You couldn’t just ignore these guys. They were tight
with the Toledo people.”

Undercover officers spent long hours in parked cars outside of night spots like the Peppermint Club just
to obtain a shred of information. Most of the time, however, the suspects being surveilled were merely
gathering for cocktails and entertainment, out of earshot of anyone. “The ties between the men ran deep
and underscored why Toledo earned a reputation as a haven for organized crime,” said Michael D. Sallah,
the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who wrote the 2000 Toledo Blade article detailing the mob’s Toledo
dealings.

When Duane decided to enter the bar business, he assured Mary it would be a quick detour on the way to
a quiet, stable, Norman Rockwell-esque life. Yet here he was, eating steak with convicts who had rap
sheets as thick as phone books. To outsiders, being under the thumb of ruthless mobsters might seem
terrifying, but the truth was the tradeoff wasn’t so bad—especially since the mob had a rolodex of the
hottest record labels and top booking agents in their bac

k pocket.

Over the next 15 years, Duane would welcome the most iconic musical acts on the planet to the Rust Belt:
Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Frankie Valli. But the biggest boost wouldn’t come until 1977, from an
artist who never actually sang a song at the Country Palace: Kenny Rogers.


A Bar in Toledo is available through the following retailers:
● The University of Toledo Press
● Amazon
● Gathering Volumes Bookstore
● Tiedtke’s Coffee Shop