Earlier this year, Gangster Report gained access to five boxes of the police case file covering the stunning July 1979 Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club Massacre. The files provide fresh insight, detail and context to the grisly gangland slayings and triple beheading tied to internal acrimony in Detroit’s black mob, known at that time as the Murder Row Gang.

The bone-chilling killings and dismemberments of two Murder Row lieutenants and the girlfriend of another top Murder Row lieutenant 40 years ago this week dominated headlines in Detroit in the summer of 1979, as Motown’s most notorious African-American drug lord of the day, Francis (Big Frank Nitti) Usher’s criminal empire came under attack from within. Usher himself avoided physical harm in the gangland slaughter, his ability to slip away unscathed only adding to the mythology linked to his enormous legacy.

The facts surrounding the murders have long been mangled — even by authorities, as evidenced in prosecutors’ desire to pin the slayings on Usher, even though it was pretty clear he was an intended target. It wasn’t until ten years after the killings that an accurate account of the events began to formulate. Over the years, FBI, DEA and Detroit Police Department informants have shed additional light on the carnage-inducing upheaval.

In the months preceding the summer blood bath, Usher was at war with Murder Row faction leader Adolph (Doc Holliday) Powell, who headquartered out of the Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club tucked away on a side street in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood. Today, the property rests in the shadow of the sprawling Detroit Medical Center and next to the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design.

On the late afternoon of July 18, 1979, William (Little Dirt) McJoy, William (Straw Hat Perry) Jackson, two of Usher’s top soldiers, and Joanne Clark, the girlfriend of his right-hand man James (Cool Cat) Elliott, were slain execution-style on the floor of the club, allegedly on Powell’s orders, with Usher being forced to watch and then participate in the chopping up of the bodies afterward. The dismembered corpses were found by police in an abandoned van late that night on the eastside of Detroit.

The case files paint a picture of dueling crime czars in the same organization, festering animosities, shifting alliances and an affair of the heart that lit the fuse for the entire gore-ridden saga that followed. Due to the newly-acquired files, we now have a much broader and fuller understanding of the circumstances surrounding the murders and why Usher himself was spared, a decision that has always vexed researchers and has never been explained until now.

Two words might best sum up the reason Powell didn’t kill Usher: The Italians. Well, maybe five words do a better job: Tony Jack and Billy Jack.

Usher was groomed in the ways of crime by the legendary Giacalone brothers (“Tony Jack” and “Billy Jack”), the street bosses of the Detroit mafia from the 1960s into the 2000s and suspects in dozens of mob hits, including the famous disappearance and murder of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (vanished from a suburban Detroit restaurant parking lot in July 1975). Raised on the city’s eastside, Usher started doing errands for the Giacalones at their Luesod Social Club as a teen and came under the wing of storied contract-assassin Chester (The Angel of Death) Campbell, a Giacalone brothers’ associate and sometime-employee described as a gangland James Bond.

In the early 1970s, the Giacalones staked Usher’s Murder Row crew, a group of hit men, dope peddlers, pimps and gamblers that by the end of the decade grew to control a lion’s share of Detroit’s African-American underworld, most importantly the bountiful heroin business. With the Giacalones money, reputation and supply lines behind him, Campbell on-call as his No. 1 enforcer and top advisor and a partnership with Westside dope boss Harold (The Hawk) Morton, Big Frank Nitti Usher, nicknamed by the Giacalone brothers after the real-life Chicago mobster and television-and-film character (The Untouchables), climbed to the top of the city’s black rackets with relative ease.

And he did it encountering zero resistance. Usher took the city by storm. Everyone got in line.

The resistance would come later.

“Frank Nitti had the Giacalone brothers behind him, he had Chester Campbell in his stable of enforcers, who was going to mess with him?……he had the juice, the weight to move in circles and do certain things in his line of business most people, especially African-American gangsters, couldn’t do and most of the time wouldn’t even try,” retired FBI agent Mike Carone said. “We’d be set up on a surveillance working Nitti and the Giacalones would have guys coming to meet him and give him messages. Then we’d be doing a surveillance duty on Tony Jack or Billy Jack and we’d see Usher and his guys showing up and kissing them on the cheek. That particular dynamic between the two groups was notable.”

Author and organized crime historian Christian Cipollini (Diary of a Motor City Hit Man) points out that Detroit is and always has been an outlier in terms of underworld activity.

“Detroit is an anomaly…..home to some of the most fascinating and frightening gangland figures in the nation’s history,” he said. “The criminals in Detroit have always been more progressive in crossing racial boundaries, especially when it comes to the black and Italian groups. And in many instances, there’s strong evidence of mutual loyalty and respect, which is unique.”

Tall, dark and thickly-built, Usher cut an imposing figure and was the undisputed king of the Motown dope game. He also had interests in prostitution, numbers, bookmaking, floating dice and card games and fencing stolen goods and a variety of white-collar investments in real estate, bars and nightclubs. His office was at the Black Orchid strip club on Detroit’s Westside, an establishment he owned with an Italian mob associate, and his movements were feverishly tracked by law enforcement and the local press alike.

Usher’s powerbase began to weaken when Campbell was jailed in 1975 for a weapons offense, followed by Morton in 1978 for drug trafficking and the slaying of one of the female couriers he was busted with. Enter Doc Holliday Powell, Morton’s former driver and bodyguard, who formed his own camp within the Murder Row crew and began plotting to overthrow Usher as boss. Doc Holliday was more boastful and ostentatious in demeanor than both Usher and Morton and once Morton was out of the picture, Powell and the more stoic, strictly business-minded Usher started butting heads.

“The situation quickly became kill or be killed with undercurrents of ego, resentment and vengeance,” Cipollini said.

The tensions between Usher and Powell escalated to a simmering boil in early 1979 when Powell had Usher loyalist Edward (Sugar Bear) Brown killed for disrespecting him. Brown had been feuding with fellow Murder Row soldier Robert (Lefty) Partee over a woman and drew Powell’s ire when he got mouthy with him for siding with Partee in an argument stemming from the quarrel. The Brown homicide occurred at the Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club on January 27, 1979. Lefty Partee was the shooter.

The very next day, Partee and his partner-in-crime in the Murder Row crew, James (Jimmy Red) Freeman, were sent out of town to California by Powell to lay low. Partee and Freeman were viewed by law enforcement as part of Usher’s camp and their work for Powell indicated to investigators that a seismic balance shift in the organization was transpiring. While Partee and Freeman were hiding in San Diego, Powell called them and told them to look for a heroin connection out west so they wouldn’t have to be reliant on Usher’s anymore (the west coast “plug” never materialized).

“We knew things were getting dicey when we saw Lefty and Red hanging around Doc more and more throughout 1978,” one retired DEA agent recalled. “Those were Nitti’s men. We were seeing them more at the Democratic club than we were at Usher’s place the Black Orchid. The change in routine raised some eyebrows with us.”

By the spring of 1979, word had leaked to Doc Holliday that Usher was hip to his plan and had put a murder contract on his head, giving the task to his best friend and second-in-charge, Cool Cat Elliott. Powell responded by putting a contract on Elliott’s head and requesting it be carried out “Cowboy style” as a message to his rivals. Powell’s men tried locating and killing Cool Cat at least a dozen times that summer to no avail.

They’d never get another chance.

The cops interrupted the plot. That interruption, however, set the stage for the Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club Massacre just days later.

Elliott was arrested on state racketeering and murder charges on July 13 and locked up in the Wayne County Jail, leaving Usher exposed. Powell pounced. That evening, he had his driver Clarence (Fuzzy Mickey) Welton make arrangements to bring Lefty Partee and Red Freeman back from California. Their assignment: execute Cool Cat’s men, Little Dirt McJoy and Straw Hat Perry Jackson and Cool Cat’s spunky girlfriend, Joanne Clark.

Partee and Freeman received a $800 wire transfer at the San Diego Western Union office from Welton on July 14. The pair arrived in Detroit on the night of July 16 and met with Doc in an apartment building a number of Murder Row members lived at across the street from the Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club on Garfield Street right off Woodward Avenue.

Usher arrived at the club in the early afternoon of July 18 for a meeting with Powell. Also present were Murder Row gang affiliates, Cassidy (Poppa Cass) Head, Bennie (Shorty B) Fountain, the club’s bar tender and security chief, and Forrest Alexander, a 66-year old former numbers runner and part time doorman at the club.

At around 3:45, Usher and Powell’s meeting turned into an argument where Doc Holliday pulled a gun on Usher and took Usher’s weapon from him. Usher was forced to call McJoy, Jackson and Clark to the club and told to “act natural.”

McJoy arrived first at 4:30, followed by Jackson and Clark at close to 5:00. Upon Jackson and Clark taking a seat at the bar, Doc told Cass Head to go across the street to Mickey Welton’s apartment where Lefty and Red were and tell them “The man with the straw hat is here.”

That was the green light.

Within minutes, Lefty and Red stormed into the club guns blazing. McJoy, Jackson and Clark were placed side-by-side on the floor and each shot in the back of the head. In the moments before the murders, Clark barked and cursed at her killers, telling them, “If you’re going to do this, than do it and get it over with.”

Welton asked Doc Holliday why they weren’t including Usher in the slaughter and was told, “We’ll take care of him tomorrow.” Investigators believe Powell was bluffing and never intended to touch Usher out of fear of reprisals from the Giacalone brothers, not to mention losing access to Usher’s heroin. Doc Holliday’s goal, according to one informant, was to alter the power dynamic in the group and unseat Usher as Murder Row’s No. 1 shot caller.

“We were told Doc didn’t hit Nitti because he knew the Giacalones would strike back,” said one DPD homicide detective that worked the case. “He didn’t want to poke that particular hornets nest. Informants said he was scared of Tony and Billy. And he should have been.”

After the slayings, Doc Holliday forced Usher to take part in the dismemberment of the bodies as a means of adding insult to injury. He also popped a bottle of champagne and lit a fat cigar in celebration as he, Welton and Usher chopped up McJoy, Jackson and Clark and placed their heads, limbs and various other body parts into garbage bags.

A drunken and giddy Powell tasked Welton and Bennie Fountain with getting rid of the victims’ remains, however, the endeavor was doomed from the start. Welton and his girlfriend, Cynthia Skeens, put the garbage bags into a van and took off to bury them without shovels or lime to dump in the makeshift graves. Fountain followed in his car and ended up shuttling Welton and Skeens back to the club to retrieve the materials. Welton stashed the van on the eastside in an alley near Harper and St. Antoinette. Before they could return, police found the vehicle with the three beheaded corpses due to a tip from a neighborhood woman who saw blood dripping from the van’s rear door.

“The entire ordeal is one of the most bizarre and macabre crimes in the history of Detroit,” Cipollini said.

The fallout from the murders was a legal drama that lasted a decade and the aftermath of the carnage spelled the end of both Frank Nitti and Doc Holliday as major players in the Detroit underworld. Cynthia Skeens and Forrest Alexander, the elderly doorman, both flipped and became witnesses for the government. Mickey Welton was killed in October.

Prosecutors filed a triple-murder indictment against Usher, Doc Holliday Powell, Lefty Partee, Jimmy Red Freeman and Bennie Fountain in September of 1979. A first trial ended in a hung jury. Despite being a victim of the attack, Usher was convicted at the second trial. So was Partee. Doc, Red and Fountain were acquitted. With a healthy legal defense fund provided by the Giacalone brothers, Usher had his conviction overturned on appeal and then beat the case at a third trial in 1989.

The streets finally caught up with Doc Holliday in 1983, as he was shot dead while having a drink at a popular Detroit nightspot. Red Freeman took over the remnants of the Murder Row crew and did muscle work for the Giacalones through much of the 1980s until he was locked up under a repeat offender statute.

Usher, 77, took a minor drug pinch in 2015 but the charges were dropped before trial. The 70-year old Freeman walked free back in March after three decades behind bars. Partee remains incarcerated for the murders, at 79 and one of the oldest inmates in the Michigan Department of Corrections.

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