The Partnership That Lost Its’ Head: Detroit’s Frank Usher & Johnny Coach

Maybe instead of “Big Frank Nitti”, historic Detroit drug boss Frank Usher’s nickname should have been “the Hatchet Man.” Arrested last week by the feds for dealing heroin, authorities think he might have had four people’s heads chopped off in a storied career on the Motor City streets dating back a half-century. The beheadings all took place in less than a year time frame between 1979 and 1980.

There’s the three most local Detroiters know about: the notoriously-gory Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club Massacre where William (Dirty Dirt) McJoy, William (Straw Hat P) Jackson and Joanne Clark were all killed execution style and decapitated as strife inside the Murder Row narcotics organization reached a fevered pitch in the summer of 1979, a triple homicide Usher (71 years old today) was first convicted of and then acquitted of after being granted a second trial.

But there’s also the January 22, 1980 gangland slaying and decapitation of Midwest underworld figure John (Johnny Coach) Cociu, a business partner of Usher’s and a known associate of Detroit’s traditional Italian mafia. The Cociu murder is one of at least two killings the DEA and FBI link to the aftermath of the Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club Massacre. The other being the October 1, 1979 rubout of Murder Row lieutenant Clarence (Mickey Was) Welton. The 42-year old Welton was found in his eastside Detroit home, face down on his living room floor, shot twice in the back of the head.

Usher and four others were indicted for the July 18, 1979 Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club slayings less than a week later on October 5. Welton, per court records, is alleged to have helped with the disposal of the bodies in the social club slaughter. Held without bail in the case, Usher is suspected of possibly ordering the Cociu hit from behind bars, calling in favors to his ties in the mafia to carry it out, according to FBI informants, due to his worry that Johnny Coach was too knowledgeable regarding Murder Row financial dealings.

“Johnny Coach knew how Usher washed all his cash, that was probably too much,” said one Gangster Report source.

Cociu was a co-owner of BeBe’s (eventually renamed the Black Orchid), a bar, nightclub and Murder Row gathering spot on Livernois, with Usher and connected to both the Detroit mob’s Giacalone and Corrado crews, per FBI documents related to his death. His headless corpse was discovered in the trunk of his Cadillac in a westside parking lot. Cociu’s head has never popped up.

“I think there still searching for Johnny Coach’s noggin as we speak,” said half-joking retired FBI agent Mike Carone. “That was a scary time. We had four beheadings in six months. People were spooked and in a lot of ways it represented a shift in the way business was done on the streets, laying the groundwork for all the craziness in the 1980s and the crack era.”

Cociu was Syrian, part of the various Middle-Easterners involved in the Detroit underworld, in addition to the Lebanese and Chaldeans (non-Muslim Iraqis).

Per FBI documents, Usher and Cociu met through the Giacalones brothers, Tony and Billy – the mafia’s day-to-day caretakers in Michigan from the middle of the 20th Century into the New Millennium and Usher’s mentors in the Motor City rackets from the time he was their gopher as a teenager. Cociu partnered with the Giacalones on large-scale drug transactions and worked in the area’s illegal numbers business with the gargantuan Corrado brothers, Dominic (Detroit Fats) Corrado and Anthony (Tony the Bull) Corrado, according to Detroit Police records.

The Corrado family oversaw the Detroit policy lottery racket.  Starting in the late-1940s, Dominic’s and Anthony’s father, Pietro (Machine Gun Pete) Corrado, spearheaded a seizing of control in the city’s numbers territory from a contingent of local black policy chiefs led by Frank (St. Louis Geech) Loftis. Machine Gun Pete Corrado died of a heart attack in 1958, passing leadership of his crew to his oldest son “Fats” and his duties as the syndicate’s unofficial “Sergeant-at-Arms” to his youngest, more ferocious son “Tony the Bull.”

Billy Giacalone and Dominic and Tony Corrado were considered suspects in the Cociu hit, per an internal FBI memo dated September 1980. At the time of the Cociu and Michigan Democratic Party Social Club slayings, Tony Giacalone was tucked away in the confines of a federal prison in Atlanta serving seven years for tax evasion and extortion.

FBI surveillance logs from the 1970s note Johnny Coach and Usher taking trips together into Greektown, longtime mob stomping grounds belonging to the Corrado family and Vitale crew, and visiting with Fats and Tony the Bull Corrado, as well as Tony and Billy Giacalone and others of similar local mafia dignitary ilk.

Co-captains and gangland “sibs”, Peter (Bozzi) Vitale and Paul (the Pope) Vitale headquartered their operations in the center of Detroit’s Greektown entertainment district at the Grecians Gardens restaurant on Monroe Street, an Italian eatery opened by Machine Gun Pete Corrado after WWII. During their reign atop their dad’s former crew, Fats and Tony the Bull managed most of their illegal activities out of the St. Antoinette Coffee Shop several blocks north of Greektown.

Frank Usher c. 1979

Frank Usher c. 1979

“We’d see Usher arrive at the Grecian Gardens, sometimes with Johnny Coach and they’d be in the backroom wheeling and dealing with all the Outfit (Detroit mafia) guys,” Carone recalled. “He was one of the only black racketeers that the Sicilian boys allowed to be in their orbit socially, more than a ‘hey, how ya doing’ in passing. Usher was able to float among different criminal groups and get multiple ethnic factions to trust him.  Johnny Coach was pretty good at it, too.”

In the 1960s, Cociu was partners with Jewish racketeer Max (Big Maxie) Stern on a series of gambling businesses – Stern was a confidant and ace subordinate of Detroit mob underboss Peter (Horseface Pete) Licavoli.

Another individual seen by FBI agents at powwows in Greektown was Harold (The Hawk) Morton, who alongside Usher founded the Murder Row gang, was one of the city’s largest purveyors of wholesale heroin and bonafide black gangster royalty. Morton’s arrest in 1977 and jailing in early 1978 created unrest in Murder Row, according to federal court files, pitting Usher and gang enforcer Adolph (Doc Holliday) Powell against each other in a shooting war. With Morton behind bars, the streets ran red with blood for the next two years, more than a dozen bodies dropping and the conflict cresting with the high-profile Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club Massacre.

The victims of the triple decapitation were a pair of Usher’s primary Murder Row lieutenants, “Dirt” McJoy, 33, and “Straw Hat P” Jackson, 41, and a girlfriend of McJoy’s (Joanne Clark, 33). While gaining his freedom in the retrial, Usher’s attorney argued Big Frank Nitti – nicknamed after the former Chicago mafia don – and his crew led by McJoy and Jackson were marked for death in the attack by Powell (charged, but acquitted in the case – shot dead in 1983). Other possible motives for Cociu’s follow-up murder, besides Usher’s worrying about how much Johnny Coach knew about his money, were Powell’s desire to rid the area of those loyal to Usher in the wake of Usher’s incarceration and rivals of Cociu pouncing with his protection locked in a cage.

Beheadings became the subject in the Detroit drug world a decade later when a war erupted in the “Arab mafia” and the city’s tightknit Iraqi community located in “Little Baghdad” on the northwest side, in the summer of 1988.

A number of beheadings were ordered, however, never carried out by young Chaldean mob prince Khairi (Harry the Blonde) Kalasho, according to DEA records. Kalasho was a nephew and surrogate son to Arab mafia founder and Godfather Louis (Lou the Hammerhead) Akrawi and slain gangland style himself in the winter of 1989. Akrawi is currently imprisoned on second-degree murder charges stemming from a shooting in a grocery store at the latter-stages of the conflict in the fall of 1993.

Besides running bread-and-butter shakedown and gambling rackets, the Arab mafia flooded the state with cocaine in the late-1980s and early 1990s, bringing in hundreds of kilos a month sourced from Colombia’s Medellin cartel and legendary world narco czar Pablo Escobar. An offshoot of Akrawi’s and Kalasho’s organization got backing from the Giacalone crew and challenged them for power, a bloody dispute that lasted five years and boasted double-digits in related murders.

The dashingly handsome, magnetic and fiercely ambitious Kalasho, 25 at the time of his own killing, offered his assassin teams $10,000 cash bonuses if heads of his enemies were cut off and thrown onto the street on 7 Mile Road, the heart of the city’s Little Baghdad section. One of Kalasho’s hit men, Kevin (Midnight Mike) Minley told police he wanted to chop off his two victims’ heads and collect on the bonus, but was convinced not too for time purposes by his two accomplices.

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