Deceased Detroit mob underboss Peter (Horseface Pete) Licavoli did a year in prison for trying to move a historically-significant piece of artwork on the black market in the years before his death in the early 1980s – it was his fourth and final trip to the clink. Licavoli, a titan in underworld circles around the country dating back to the Prohibition Era, was indicted in 1976 in Arizona federal court and eventually convicted at trial in 1978 of receiving and the attempted sale of stolen property, tied to charges of attempting to sell the world-famous “Lucretia,” a 500-year old painting, to an undercover FBI agent. The Lucretia was painted by Rembrandt in the 16th century and recently sold at an auction for five million dollars.
The then-75 year old Licavoli earned a reputation as a killer and a huge money maker during the 1920s as founder and leader of the River Gang bootlegging syndicate in Detroit – his arrest record boasted nearly 40 collars. When the Motor City’s various bootlegging factions came under one umbrella with the creation of La Cosa Nostra (the American mafia) in 1931, Horseface Pete was tapped a capo and given a large series of in-state and out-of-state rackets to run on behalf of Michigan mob administrators. By the 1940s, he had relocated to Arizona, watching over his rackets in the Midwest via his main lieutenants in Detroit, specifically men like Joseph (Scarface Joe) Bommarito, Joseph (Joe Misery) Moceri, Matthew (Mike the Enforcer) Rubino and Max (Big Maxie) Stern. Licavoli was promoted from capo to the organization’s underboss role in 1969.
“Pete Licavoli lived out of town, however he was still able to keep his presence felt in Detroit through a series of intermediaries, guys we knew very well and were almost equally as juiced-in as he was,” retired FBI agent Oscar Westerfield recalled. “They spoke for him and that voice spoke loud, even if he was out in the Arizona desert. He could touch anyone he wanted from thousands of miles away and people back in Michigan were still ungodly scared of him.”
Westerfield was the head of the FBI OC Division in Detroit during parts of the 1970s and 80s, finishing his mob-busting exploits as head of Tampa’s OC Division into the 1990s.
“Licavoli had as much respect and say as most bosses in the U.S. at his height,” Westerfield said. “He wasn’t a don, he might as well have been though with the reverence he was afforded in Detroit circles and well beyond.”
Scarface Joe Bommarito was the crime family’s first street boss until he was forced into retirement due to sickness in 1960 (he died in Florida from MS in 1965). He and Licavoli grew up together in St. Louis prior to surfacing as a tandem of terrors on the streets of Detroit and making their initial fortune in smuggling and selling illegal booze. Joe Misery, a Licavoli first cousin, numbers whiz and River Gang co-founder, ran his own crew, but frequently shuffled messages back and forth between the powers that be in Michigan and Horseface Pete in Tucson (he was killed in 1968).
Mike Rubino was Licavoli’s bodyguard as a young River Ganger and served as acting capo of his Detroit crew – upon his death in August 1972 of natural causes, Joseph (Joe the Whip) Triglia took over those duties, being aided by Horseface Pete’s baby brother Dominick. Big Maxie Stern was another protégé of Licavoli’s and the syndicate’s overseer of all Jewish gambling rackets until he died of a heart attack in the early 1970s.
Arriving in Arizona on a permanent basis in around 1944, Horseface Pete built the picturesque, opulent and state-of-the-art, 75-acre Grace Ranch, an estate in Tucson that housed his residence as well as several other buildings, such as an art gallery, bowling alley, nine-hole golf course, airplane and helicopter landing strips and quite appropriately a shooting range. Grace Ranch was named after Licavoli’s wife, Grace, the sister of Joseph (Long Joe) Bommarito, another Detroit gangland figure who came out west himself to be in charge of the crime family’s interests in Las Vegas.
It was activity occurring on the Grace Ranch property in the 1970s that Licavoli’s last arrest sprouted from and landed him back behind bars (his prior stints were for bribery, contempt and tax evasion). Informants were telling the FBI that Horseface Pete was using his art gallery as a waystation for fenced merchandise, such as jewelry and precious stones, resulting in the feds bugging the telephone line in his gallery office headquarters as well as his desk and sending an undercover FBI agent in to set up a sting. It didn’t take long. Within a month, Special Agent Don Mason was meeting face-to-face with the imposing member of Midwest mob royalty in the cozy confines of his plush office.
In the midst of negotiating the purchase of a shipment of “hot” diamonds, Licavoli offered Mason a chance to buy the Lucretia, an extremely rare piece of artwork boosted from a Cincinnati,Ohio mansion the year previous (conversations picked up by the government-planted bug).Taking Mason, masquerading as a rich classic art collector, on a tour of the breathtakingly-beautiful gallery, set in the shadows of the Sierra Mountains, Horseface Pete showed him the Lucretia hanging in a frame in the foyer and newspaper clippings vouching for the Rembrandt’s authenticity.
Licavoli’s had deep blood and criminal ties in the Buckeye State – his younger brother, Thomas (Yonnie) Licavoli, first cousins, James (Jack White) Licavoli and Calogero (Leo Lips) Moceri and his brother-in-law Frank (Frankie C) Cammeratta operated with impunity in various patches of the Ohio underworld in their respective mob heydays that spanned the 1920s into the 1980s. Jack White and Leo Lips assumed leadership of the Cleveland mafia in the mid-1970s, promptly entering into a war with the city’s Irish mob group.
At almost the exact time Jack White and Leo Lips took power in Cleveland, government-mole Mason was providing Licavoli a $1,000 down payment for the Lucretia and was subsequently indicted and incarcerated for 13 months of an original 18-month sentence.
“We knew he was conducting rackets out in Arizona and in Michigan, he was booking bets, giving out loans and investing in all kinds of land and oil deals, all while chumming around with Joe Bonanno, the New York Godfather that had fled west in the 60s, amongst other hoods in the region,” commented Westerfield.
Horseface Pete (81) walked free in 1981 and died of heart failure three years later. After he was arrested and his ranch raided in the spring of 1976, the Rembrandt Lucretia was immediately seized off the wall at the art gallery and returned to its rightful owner, Charna Signer.