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The Pesce Family Murders – Billy Wadd’s Awakening

John Wolfenbarger got paroled from prison in mid-2002 after serving eight years on an armed robbery conviction. Far from rehabilitated, he had no intention of going straight. In fact, it wasn’t long before Wolfenbarger, at the time 31 and an associate of some of Detroit’s most ruthless biker gangs, was calling up his old cell mate from Boyer Correctional Facility in Carson City, Michigan, Dennis Lincoln and telling him about some jobs he was planning on pulling off around the holiday season. Lincoln, then 27 and residing in Flint, was known as a safecracking specialist and Wolfenbarger requested his services down in metro Detroit.

John Wolfenbarger Livonia jewelry murders
John “Solo” Wolfenbarger

In the weeks leading up to Christmas 2002, Wolfenbarger, sometimes referred to by the nickname “Solo”, and Lincoln scouted numerous locations, mostly jewelry stores, in Wayne County, before deciding to focus on spots in the city of Livonia. They made their way to the Livonia Mall at the corner of Middlebelt and 7 Mile Road and followed one jewelry store owner out of the mall parking lot with the intent of robbing him at his home, but lost their intended victim in the late-afternoon rush hour .

 

Later that same week, Wolfenbarger and Lincoln returned to the intersection and found a nearby strip mall to stake out. Within minutes, they locked their eyes on Marco Pesce, a successful 38 year old businessman who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dennis Lincoln
Dennis Lincoln

Pesce owned Italia Jewelers, located in a strip mall down the street from the mall where they sat parked one day, casing potential victims. Waiting for him to close up shop for the day, Wolfenbarger and Lincoln followed Pesce back to his home on the 37500 block St. Martins Street – still in the city of Livonia – to see where he lived. Wolfenbarger phoned Lincoln the next morning, December 21, and told him that he wanted to “do the Italia Jewelry thing.” At that point, there was no turning back and fate would be extremely unkind to some very innocent people.

The plan was for the pair to force their way into the Pesce home posing as deliverymen and then make one of the residents call Marco home, where he could give them access to his personal safe. They borrowed a truck and on their way to the Pesce residence, Wolfenbarger and Lincoln stopped at a local Hallmark store to purchase a teddy bear, which they planned to use as a purported Christmas gift, and Kmart to buy clip boards, fake deliverymen uniforms, and ski masks.

When they arrived at the home, Pesce’s mother, Maria Vegrati, visiting her son and his family from Italy, was cleaning up around garage, which door was open facing the street. Approaching Vegrati in disguise, Wolfenbarger and Lincoln fooled the elderly 68-year old woman who spoke and understood little English into the house through the door in the garage. The moment they set foot inside the residence, Wolfenbarger pulled a gun and Vergati became confused and disoriented. Taking her into the living room, Wolfenbarger dispersed Lincoln back to the strip mall where Marco’s jewelry store was located and told him to monitor activities there.

With Wolfenbarger holding Vergati hostage in the living room, Marco dropped off his three children, Carlo, 12, Sabrina, 9, and Melissa 6, in his driveway after an afternoon with their mother in Ann Arbor to go spend time with their grandmother and then drove back to his store. Once the children were inside the house, Wolfenbarger contacted Lincoln and told him, “Dad, just dropped off the kids.”

When Marco returned to the jewelry store, Wolfenbarger had his 12 year old son, Carlo, phone the store and tell his dad he was needed back at the house because his younger sister, Melissa, had fallen and chipped her tooth. Just like when they conned their way into the house by fooling Vergati, the story about Melissa was a ruse. And just like with Vergati, her son, Marco, was hoodwinked and returned to his residence, having no clue of the coldhearted treachery in store for him and his entire family in the coming minutes.

Livonia Pesce Family jewelry murdersTrailing Marco back to the house was Lincoln, who sat in his car on the side of the street waiting for Wolfenbarger to come out with further instructions, presumably to aid him with opening up a safe inside the home. Such a request never came. Instead, Wolfenbarger exited the house, jumped in the car with stolen cash and jewelry in tow, and remarked bluntly, “Five dead.”

The Blueprint: Marzette’s Plan Ignites War

It was an ambitious idea just as much as it was a dangerous one. Henry “Blaze” Marzette wanted to completely shut the Italians out of the inter-city drug industry and create a city-wide conglomerate of African American crime bosses which he would oversee. The endeavor was the definition of high-risk, high-reward. Never one to shy away from a gamble, Marzette, the Motor City’s first true urban Godfather, seized upon the idea and tried to make it a reality.

Detroit Drug War

Around mid-1970, he invited nearly 30 of the city’s most respected wholesale dealers to a meeting at the Twenty Grand Motel on Warren in order to pitch them on the idea. The Twenty Grand was owned by a longtime local underworld figure and friend of Marzette’s named Edward “Fast Eddie” Wingate. Making an early fortune in the numbers business, Wingate owned a moderately-successful R&B music label and partnered with several Italian mobsters over the years in a variety of gambling ventures. He died Las Vegas in 2006.

Greeting everyone personally as they walked through the door to the suite he had reserved for the gathering, he tried his best to play the role of politician, not ruthless drug lord. As the meeting commenced, Blaze Marzette stood in the front of the room, ready to hold court. His inner-circle of Eddie, Gentlemen John Claxton, Arnold “Pretty Ricky” Wright, his third in command, and James “Jimmy the Killer” Moody, his personal bodyguard, enforcer and assassin, sat in folding chairs to each of his sides. Men with nicknames like “Cincinnati Black”, “Mr. Clean”, “Texas Slim” and “Big Son”, among a just as colorfully-nicknamed brigade of others, were seated in several plush couches adorning the brightly-decorated suite.

Getting straight to the point, Marzette asked those in attendance to come under his umbrella and turn their backs on their Italian supply connections. He offered a very enticing bottom line price for their product, as a result of recent deals he had struck in Malaysia as well as protection if the mafia chose to protest and declare war. In closing, he noted that the Italians were making all the big bucks on their collective drug transactions and that they themselves had the leverage to change that. Since they were the ones putting in most of the work, he reasoned to them, they were the ones who deserved to be getting the lions’ share of the spoils.

When Marzette was finished, the room went silent for a brief couple of moments. While most of the men he invited

appeared ready to acquiesce, if only out of pure fear, one man made it more than obvious that he would not. That man’s name was Nual Steel, a ruthless independent drug lord that was known on the local streets for his reckless behavior and indignant attitude.

Steele stood up and charged to the front of the room, trying to attack Marzette. Met by Moody before he could lay a hand on him, the pair scuffled for a second or two before Steele composed himself and readied to leave.

In one last gesture of disdain, he spit in the direction of Moody and Marzette, declaring “I ain’t taking orders from nobody, especially no old man like you!” Never one to enter or exit a room without letting everyone know about it, he stomped out the door of the motel suite in a huff, muttering threats and insults until well out of earshot.

Dynamic Duo in The D – Eddie & Courtney’s reign

Eddie Jackson and Courtney Brown-Detroit Heroin Kings

The outfit said it all. It told you about the man he was and the man he was soon going to be. In the most simplistic of terms, Eddie Jackson’s wardrobe while in New York City attending the classic March 1971 boxing match between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier, exuded an aura of power, pride, excess and class. To be even more specific, he was sporting an ensemble that cost close to a quarter of a million dollars, more than half of which was accounted for by the jewelry he wore on his hands and around his neck and wrist.

 

Detroit Black Gangsters
Eddie Jackson and the Motown Mafia at Ali-Frazier Madison Square Garden. Frank Lucas below.

 

Not even knowing who he was, Ebony Magazine snapped a photo of him to feature in an article they were doing on the best dressed to attend the fight. The picture was included in a collection from the event that besides Jackson, spotlighted nothing but well-recognized celebrities from the sports and entertainment world. It was the perfect metaphor for Detroit’s ultimate gentlemen gangster and a figure in the annals of the city’s underworld with few equals – comfortable living lavishly in the shadows, unfazed that others got headlines when he quietly crafted his luminous legacy.

Unassuming he was not.

Buy the documentary HERE

“The Fat Man,” or “The Crowd Pleaser” as he was affectionately referred to on the streets of the Motor City, was taking the Big Apple by storm, ready to cement a place for himself as a genuine player on a nationwide scale. He wasn’t comfortable with his current status as a successful mid-level narcotics distributor and he knew infiltrating the drug scene in New York was the answer to all of his prayers. Taking his seat in the fifth row to watch the Ali-Frazier fight, he scanned the crowd, intent on finding himself a steady connection, someone who could provide him large quantities of high-quality heroin at a reasonable price.

What he didn’t know was that he had already found it. And he was sitting right next to him.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    *****************************

Henry Bell, Eddie Jackson’s father, was born and raised in Arkansas. Taking off on an early life of petty street crime, Henry was forced to flee the South in the late-1920s after having a warrant issued for his arrest stemming from a shootout at a local tavern where he had killed a couple of guys following a heated dice game. Settling in Detroit around Thanksgiving 1926, Henry changed his last name to Jackson and immediately turned away from a life of crime and instead started off slowly but steadily building a career in real estate. Before long, Henry Jackson had worked his way up from stock boy at a grocery store to the owner of multiple businesses in Paradise Valley, the city’s all-black entertainment and night life district. Already into his forties, Henry married a beautiful young women who worked in one of his establishments and had two sons. The couples’ first son, Elijah was born in 1942 and two years later in 1944 they had Eddie. Tragedy struck the burgeoning new family a couple of years later when Eddie’s mother died while in the process of giving birth to a baby sister.

Using his natural keen instinct, Henry parlays his pair of small properties into a sizeable real estate portfolio, which came to include a restaurant, pool hall, bar, apartment buildings and industrial warehouses all across the Southeastern Michigan. Left to raise his two boys all alone, the stern and calculating man of rigid self-discipline did the best that he could. His reaction to his wife’s passing was to spoil his pair of sons, making sure they wanted for nothing in their early lives. The family lived in a large two-story house in one of the city’s nicer residential areas on the West Side and had a live-in maid.

Living nearby the Jackson brothers was a young boy around the same age as Eddie. His name was Courtney Brown and he would go on to become Eddie’s best friend and business partner. Brown and the Jackson boys were practically inseparatable their entire childhood.

Despite the fact that he came from moderate wealth, Eddie drifted towards a life on the street from an early age. By the time he was 12 years old, Eddie and his older brother Elijah had both quit going to school and spent their days running around with older troublemakers from the neighborhood, hanging out mostly in his dad’s pool hall, where a rogues’ gallery of local underworld characters were known to frequent due to the establishment’s reputation for high-stakes action. While Courtney stayed in school and graduated with a high school diploma, Eddie and Elijah got an early start in the hustler’s lifestyle and developed quite a taste for it.

Wrecked with guilt over the fact that his sons grew up without a mother, Henry allowed this behavior by basically ignoring it, turning his head and in some case pleading ignorance to those who inquired into why his two boys weren’t in school. As Courtney acquired the knowledge and book smarts needed for their future endeavors together, it was Eddie and Elijah who cut their teeth learning, mostly from an observational perspective, the ways of the Motor City underworld.

In 1965, when Eddie was 21, his father died of a heart attack and left him and his brother a quarter of a million dollar inheritance. The brothers lived lavishly off the unexpected windfall for almost three years, using the money to party and travel, all the while binging on a steady diet of women, alcohol, drugs. However, the good times would only last so long and by the start of 1968 the cash had run dry and the Jacksons were broke.

Forced to join the workforce for the first time in their lives, Eddie took two jobs, one driving a taxi cab around the city on the late night shift and the other working in an auto plant during the daylight hours. With the new decade dawning, Eddie and his brother found themselves practically destitute, living in near-squalor, barely able to make their monthly bill payments. It was quite a fall. And not a place in his life he intended on staying for very long.

Having little taste for the common man’s existence, Eddie Jackson used the squandering of his heritance and the subsequent repercussions as motivation to build back his family’s wealth by any means necessary. A man of prodigious weight, he had prodigious affinities and the idea of driving a cab the rest of his life simply didn’t suit. He fancied himself urban royalty in some ways and to live anything else but the good life was unacceptable.

Roughly six months into his career as a moonlight cab driver, Jackson had a chance encounter with “Gentleman John” Claxton, one of Detroit’s biggest wholesale narcotic distributors. This fateful introduction would go on to change his life.

It was spring 1968 and Claxton stopped into the family pool hall, at that time being run by Elijah, for a drink. After taking a few shots of whisky, he requested that Elijah call him a taxi cab to drive him to the city’s West Side. Elijah told Claxton that his brother drove a taxi and called upon Eddie to drive Claxton to his desired destination.

The pair got into the taxi and Claxton told him he wanted to make two stops, both at hotels, before being driven home. While Eddie drove Claxton from a hotel on one end of the city to a hotel on the other, the two struck up a causal conversation and immediately hit it off. There was something about Jackson’s demeanor and obvious natural intelligence that made Claxton trust him right off the bat.

When the cab finally reached Claxton’s driveway at a mansion in Sherwood Forrest, a strictly upper class white neighborhood, Eddie was blown away. He didn’t understand how a black man, not much older than himself, afforded to live in such luxury. Before exiting the vehicle, Claxton gave Jackson two crisp 100 dollar bills and asked him if he would return the following morning and take him back to the two hotels they had just been at so he could do some more business. Not even knowing what Claxton’s profession was or why he had taken such a liking to him, Jackson accepted the request on the sole fact that he thought that he could make a nice fat stack of cash for his troubles. He was right.

Eddie quickly figured out Gentlemen John was in the dope game. And not just in it, but on top of it. And just as quickly, decided he would do everything in his power to become exactly what his future underworld mentor was and more.

After Jackson picked Claxton up, drove him to his meeting and then back to his house for the second time in as many days, he was asked if he could repeat this same routine every day from that point further. Another $200 fee didn’t hurt the pitch either however, his decision would have been the same with the new fresh hundred dollar bills in his pocket or not. It was a no brainer. He was in. And ready to work, wiggle and hustle his way all the way to the top.

For the next three months, every day at 7:00 am Eddie Jackson scooped John Claxton up at his residence, drove him to his two “meetings” and returned him home. Men of equal fine taste and appetite for indulgence, they clicked from the very start. Soon, Claxton requested that Eddie make the trips by himself each day instead as a tandem. He explained that at each stop, he was to drop off the daily package of drugs, which would be concealed in a suitcase.

Courtney Brown Detroit the Field Marshall

Just as Gentlemen John suspected would happen, upon being given the opportunity to get more involved with the drug game, Jackson was unfazed, cool and calm as ever. This instilled even more faith for Claxton in his new protégé. Accepting the job offer, he shook Claxton’s hand. Their newfound friendship had just become a business relationship. Never had Eddie been so eager to get to work.

Making the daily drop off on behalf of Gentlemen John was a minor, menial job when compared to his future riches as a boss in the drug industry, but it proved a tipping point. The fast, easy money was too appealing for the spoiled and broke former rich kid to turn down and it would quickly open a door to much bigger and better things.

John Claxton was part of the Motor City’s so-called “Black Mafia”, second-in-command to Henry “Blaze” Marzette, Detroit’s first ever urban Godfather. Marzette ruled over much of the region’s narcotic industry throughout the entire 1960s and early-1970s and carved out a legacy for himself as the area’s original ghetto kingpin.

Through his connection to Claxton, Eddie would get access to Marzette and a relationship he would slyly leverage to kingpin status for himself in just a few short years.

Around the same time Eddie Jackson started to make his drop-offs for John Claxton, he lost half of his left index finger in an accident at the auto plant he worked at during the day. As a result of the accident, Eddie quit his job at the plant and decided to jump full-time into the dope game. The unfortunate incident served as an easy excuse to abandon his life on the straight and narrow and transition into life of crime. Like a fish to water, Eddie was a natural.

In not time he had graduated from running errands for Gentlemen John and opened up shop for himself. Recovering a substantial worker’s comp claim in the following months, Jackson used it as seed money to jumpstart his own drug operation. Getting a steady stream of top quality heroin from Claxton, his burgeoning narcotics empire was off and running.

Proving a fast study, Jackson shot up the ranks and four months into his newfound profession, he was already Marzette’s and Claxton’s biggest earner with the growing reputation of being able to get rid of drugs almost faster than his new bosses could supply them to him. In no time, Eddie Jackson, or as he came to be called on the streets, simply, “The Fat Man”, for his overweight appearance, was making more money than he had ever seen before in his life. His dad had achieved moderate wealth. He was becoming rich. And because he was so good at his job, those he was working for, specifically, Marzette and Claxton, were getting richer.

SouthWest Detroit Gang Banging

Some notable gangsters from SouthWest Detroit

BMF (Black Mafia Family)

Original territory of the infamous, Black Mafia Family, a crew of drug dealers led by the Flenory Brothers (Demetrius “Big Meech” Flenory & Terrance “Southwest T” Flenory), who were brought down in 2005 after being the biggest narcotic-trafficking organization in the country for the previous decade.

*The Flenory Bros. left SW Detroit in the mid-1990s, however, kept several lieutenants in the area to look after their affairs.

The Bolo Boys

Formed and operated in SW Detroit, “The Bolo Boys,” led by Rudolpho “Bolo” Moreno-Ponce and Mike Fonsecca, became the city’s biggest drug dealing operation following the fall of the Chaldean Mafia in the late-1980s. Bolo ruled atop the local narcotics trade from 1990-1992, when his organization – estimated to have been brining 100 kilos per month into the Metro Detroit Area – was brought down by federal indictment.

*Primarily supplied Detroit proper and Downriver area

*Tried to kill federal witness slated to testify against them.

The Cash Flow Posse

The “CFP” was created in the late-1980s as a means of combating other street gangs coming into SW Detroit after the demise of the Bolo Boys and trying to take the territory by force.

*Led by the Waucaush Brothers (Jerry and Bobby), Efraim Garcia, Greg Ballestro, Marty Rodriguez and Kenny Roland.

*Other base of operations outside of SW Detroit: Port Huron and Belleville

Normando “Bianco Diablo” Vasquez

“Latin Kings” leader in the late-1980s and early-1990s

The Latin Counts

Gang was brought to Detroit from Chicago by the Tony “Scarface” Viramontez

Octavio “Bootis” Viramontez, Tony’s younger brother killed in 1991 after Tony was arrested for felonious assault

Tony runs gang until 2007 when he is arrested for drug dealing

At war with Latin Cobras

Jose “Chewy the Boss” Garcia

Neighborhood “boss” from late-1960s until 1990s

Jose “Bandito Loco” Vasquez

*Went to war with “Coco Black” of the Chicago Gangster Disciples over street territory in 198os

Violent Times – The Detroit Mob’s ’85 Hit Parade

The mid-1980s were a tumultuous and violent time for traditional Italian organized crime in America as a whole, highlighted by major convictions of mob leaders around the country, bosses being murdered by their own underlings, and ongoing wars amongst certain regional mob factions. Often overlooked during this time period but right there in the thick of things nonetheless was the local Detroit mafia. Normally cited as a paragon of stability and non-violence, the organization went through its own period of unrest in 1985, when at least 9 people were executed by the mob in a span of less than six months.

Experts attribute most of the killings to the mafia’s effort to control lucrative gambling and drug operations, specifically the wholesale suburban cocaine market and getting all their ducks in line in anticipation of future casino legalization within the city limits. Others were credited to the settling of old grudges and the “opening of the books” for membership into the crime family, creating opportunities for proposed members to “make their bones” by committing murder.

For a crime family notorious for utilizing violence as only a last-resort measure, 1985 was the deadliest year in Detroit organized crime circles since the bloody Prohibition era.  Despite the syndicate’s reputation for non-violence though, there are many who believe that might not be the most accurate categorization.

“In reality, they can be a very violent group, they just mask it extremely well,” said retired FBI agent Bill Randall. “They’re well-versed at putting a lot of layers between themselves and the street, distancing themselves just far enough away from guys like us, but not too far way so they can still assert their authority. Guys get their heads broken open or people show up missing and you might know for sure who ordered it, but there’s no way you’re ever going to prove it or bring charges because the guy you’re fingering is five people removed from the guy who pulled the job.”

Former U.S. Prosecutor and longtime member of the city’s federal organized crime task force Keith Corbett concurs.

“These guys are experts committing murder and then veiling the circumstances around the crime in so much mystery and confusion that it prevents the ability to build any real cases against them,” he said. “Homicide investigations surrounding the mob in Detroit go cold quickly. There’s just too much insulation between the top guys and the street guys. You’re dealing with true professionals in their craft, which in this case, happens to be murder.”

The mafia murder spree began in early April in the northern suburb of Sterling Heights.  Located in Macomb County, Sterling Heights is not known for criminality. There’s a good reason. Starting in the late-1960s, many high-powered Motor City Mafioso relocated from Detroit proper into the peaceful upper middleclass suburb, a bedroom community roughly 25 miles outside the city limits. As a result, there was a ‘hands-off’ edict for most underworld activity in the area for fear it would bring unwanted heat from law enforcement on the newly-enshrined gangster suburbanites.

On Tuesday April 4th, police found the bodies of Eugene Mancen, 32, Frederick Sanderson, 33 and Laverio Termine 52 in a business suite in a the Time-Reality Office Complex on Fourteen Mile Road.  All three had been knocked unconscious and shot in the head by a .22 caliber gun.  Police theorized that Mancen and Sanderson were operating a dual sports betting and drug dealing operation out of the building, while Termine, a nephew of local mobster Anthony “Terrible Tony” Teramine, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was only present in Mancen and Sanderson’s office at the time of the triple homicide to pick up gambling winnings from the previous evening’s NCAA mens basketball championship game between Georgetown and Villanova.

Macomb County officials subsequently released information that Mancen had been threatened the week prior to his murder by Detroit mob associate, Paul Leggio, who physically assaulted him and demanded $200,000 in back street tax to the mafia in exchange for the right to operate. Leggio was a nefarious character that had grown up around organized crime and been immersed in its culture for his entire life. He was a bookie, drug dealer and alleged underworld partner of Robert “Bobby the Animal” La Puma, a well-known top enforcer for Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone, the Detroit mafia’s street boss, and his younger brother Vito “Billy Jack” Giacalone, a fellow captain and mob administrator.

LaPuma was best friends and running buddies with Tony Giacalone’s ace protégé, Ronald “Hollywood Ronnie” Morelli. The pair made an intimidating tandem, parading around town flanked by an entourage of goons, filled with the likes of Leggio, and local mob figures Danny “The Trigger” Triglia and Augustino “Little Augie” Giordano. Led by Morelli and La Puma, the crew of young hoods made their presence immediately felt throughout the area’s racket landscape and in all of the most popular local nightlife hotspots, strong-arming past anybody who dare got in their way in either venue.

Morelli, a notorious ladies man, worked his way up the latter from being Tony Jack’s driver to acting capo of his crew. Tony Jack took a liking to Morelli, who bore a striking resemblance to NFL star quarterback Joe Namath, at a young age because like himself,   Hollywood Ronnie didn’t spawn from traditional Motor City mob royalty. By the 1970s, Morelli was put in charge of all loan sharking operations in the Metro Detroit area on behalf of the Giacalone brothers.

The law finally caught up with Morelli and his pal Bobby the Animal in 1971 when they were both nailed on charges of extortion and illegal gambling in a pair of separate indictments that came down within four months of each other. Indicted alongside them on both charges was Sol “Good Looking Solly” Shindel, a well-known Detroit mob associate and gambling specialist. Shindel, the point man on all of the Giacalone brothers sports betting operations, was a frequent social companion of both Morelli and La Puma and ran his gambling empire from the Anchor Bar downtown.

According to federal documents, Tony and Billy Giacalone brothers that Shindel, whose behavior had become increasingly erratic in the previous months, would turn government witness. Backing himself even further into the corner, in early-December 1971 he allegedly stole some money from the Giacalones and went on a gambling binge in Las Vegas, accompanied by Morelli and La Puma. Two days after returning from his trip to Sin City, Shindel was found murdered in his house in Southfield, shot in the face.

As the investigation into Shindel’s homicide got on its way, Morelli and La Puma quickly became top suspects. The pair of enforcers would have their names arise in other federal murder investigations in the years to come as well. In 1972, their names surfaced in the George “Little Pete” Katranis murder investigation. Katranis, the son of longtime Greektown gangster and mob associate, Petros “Pete the Greek” Katranis, was alleged to have started freelancing in the loansharking and extortion business. Like with Shindel, Morelli and La Puma were close friends with Katranis and his brother Mike and suspected to have used their personal relationship with him to have possibly lured him to his death.

When mob collector Tommy LaBerrie showed up dead in 1976, informants were again telling the authorities that Morelli and La Puma had something to do with it. And once again just like in The Giacalones’ go-to strong arm duo weren’t charged with any of the crimes, but had their reputations on the street enhanced by the mere innuendo and speculation.

Going on to die of a heart attack in prison in September 1985, serving the final months of a conviction for racketeering, Morelli has a legacy that is still much talked about to this very day. La Puma wound up taking a drug arrest in 1987 alongside Leggio and serving time in federal prison before living briefly in Florida and then returning to Metro Detroit in the mid-2000s.

Police believe that Paul Leggio contracted out the Sterling Heights triple homicide to  La Puma and James “Red” Freeman, an associate and high-profile African-American gangster in the city’s underworld, who then brought in a hit team of Italian mobsters from St. Louis to help carry out the executions.

Freeman himself had had an interesting criminal past. He had been acquitted in a previous triple murder in which two men and a woman were beheaded at a Detroit social club in 1979. Indicted with him in the 1979 beheadings was reputed intercity drug kingpin, Francis “Big Frank Nitti” Usher, a one-time lieutenant under the Giacalones while coming up through the ranks of the local underworld.

While no one was ever arrested in the Sterling Heights murders of 1985, Paul Leggio was convicted in 1987 of witness tampering, obstruction of justice and firearms charges in unrelated cases.  He eventually died in prison. Former Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga has long insisted that the contracted murder of Mancen and Sanderson was part of an effort by organized crime to control lucrative illegal betting operations before the possible legalization of casino gambling in Detroit and that it was also the motives for the murders of three other Detroit area bookies that same year.

“Those murders were rooted in the fact that the mob wanted to consolidate their interests as fast as possible for the fear that casinos were going to come into the city and scoop up big chunks of their gambling profits,” he said. “They already controlled a majority of the action anyway, but they wanted to grab up as much as they could of what was left out there before the state came in and cut into the market. It was a power grab and it would prove a sign of things to come.”

On a historical note, in 1993 Sterling Heights police arrested four individuals – John Finazzo, Freddie Andelmo, Michelle Urban and Carolyn Hojnacki – for running a gambling operation out of the same Time-Reality building that was the site of the 1985 murders.  Hojancki was also arrested in the Wolverine Golf Club gambling case in 1992 that centered around the activities of reputed mob capo Jack “Fat Jackie” Lucido, and several members of his family, alleged to have been using the Macomb Township golf club as a headquarters for a city-wide gambling empire. Fat Jackie Lucido, the son of longtime crime family lieutenant Salvatore “Sammy Lou” Lucido – who died April 9, 1985 –, and all of his co-defendants were eventually acquitted of the charges.

One of the murders that prosecutor Marlinga and his Office linked to the Sterling Heights triple homicide case was the killing of Harold “Harry Mack” Maciarz on May 9th 1985. Maciarz, 56, was found dead in the trunk of his Mercury Grand Marquis on the eastside of Detroit.  Police described the murder as a “professional hit” and Maciarz had been shot several times in the back.

Authorities believed that both the Harry Mack hit and the Mancen, Sanderson and Teramine murders were committed by the Detroit mafia as a means of consolidating all illegal gambling going on in the area in the midst of casino gambling legislation being bandied about in the state senate. Mancen and Sanderson were bookies. Harry Mack was a policy boss, an integral cog in the mob’s numbers business.

Back in 1982, Maciarz was busted as part of an $80,000,000 a year illegal lottery ring. The lucrative policy operation was being conducted under the auspice of Dominick “Fats” Corrado, the Detroit mob’s capo in charge of policy. At the time of his death Maciarz was known to be involved in illegal gambling and the investigation into Maciarz’s death showed that his gambling operation and the operation of Mancen and Sanderson dealt with common associates.

Another murder that occurred in May that appeared to have connections to the Detroit mob was that of Colleen Smith of Clinton Township. Smith, 21, was last seen on May 18,, 1985 at a popular Macomb County nightspot. The following day she was found shot to death in an alley in Highland Park.

While pushing for a grand jury to investigate unsolved crimes in Macomb County, Carl Marlinga and the Sterling Heights police issued statements that implicated local organized crime’s involvement in various entertainment hotspots around the county.  Police also stated that it was believed that Smith’s murder was tied to narcotics and organized crime. Throughout the investigation into her death, informants told authorities that Smith had been involved in some sort of romantic relationship with Detroit mob enforcer Bernard “Bernie the Hammer” Marchesani, a grizzled mob vet who was on the run from the law at the time of the crime.

Nine months later in early-1986 federal marshals apprehended Marchesani, 61 at the time as he stepped out of a Van Buren Township apartment. He had been a fugitive since not appearing at trial for his 1981 indictment on extortion charges alongside Detroit mafia underboss Anthony “Tony Z” Zerilli. During his arrest, Marchesani, at one time the man in charge of all loansharking in the area, was found in possession of $28,000 in cash, four handguns, a shotgun, and a bag of illegal narcotics.

Although he was never charged with the crime, authorities questioned Bernie the Hammer regarding the Colleen Smith murder while in custody. Some close to the investigation believe Marchesani killed Smith in a lovers quarrel after Smith possibly threatened to reveal his whereabouts to the police.

Marchesani had a long history of being connected to mob violence. A witness at Tony Zerilli’s extortion trial told jurors he was terrified of owing Marchesani, reputed to be Zerilli’s primary muscle on the streets, because “he didn’t want to end up like Pete Vassalo.”

Pete Vassalo was a collector for Giacalone-backed loansharking operation in the 1960s, Vassalo was killed in 1972, his body found strangled and floating in the Detroit River, in retribution for the accidental murder of an indebted loansharking client that the mob deemed responsible for the subsequent arrests of Marchesani and the Giacalone brothers on loansharking charges.

The most high-profile mob hit of that year, from that whole decade for that matter, was the July 1985 murder of longtime Detroit mafia lieutenant Peter “Fast Pete” Cavataio. As far back as 1963, Cavataio had been publicly identified in 1963 as a member of the Detroit organized crime family and had a lengthy criminal history dating back to the early-1950s. Fast Pete, nicknamed for his fast living lifestyle, was found dead, bound and shot several times in an abandoned garage on Harvey Street near the Ambassador Bridge on July 6th 1985. There was evidence that he had been tortured before he was finally killed by a .22 caliber weapon.

Cavataio, who also went by the street handle “Pete the Baker” for the fact that he owned and operated a number of bakeries around the city and in Canada, had been a thorn in the mob’s side for quite a bit by the time he was done away with. It had not always been like that though. At one point in his younger days, Pete Cavataio was tabbed as an up and comer in local underworld circles and predicted by many inside and out the Family to be a future leader. He had all the right credentials, so it was really only natural.

First, he was the son of Dominic Cavataio and the nephew of Julian Cavataio, two well-respected made members of the Detroit mob that had been heavy money earners for the syndicate since its earliest days. Then, in the long tradition of the city’s mafia, Fast Pete married within the crime family, wedding the daughter of powerful capo Pietro “Machine Gun Pete” Corrado and the granddaughter of Boss Joe Zerilli. From his marriage into the Corrado family, Cavataio became best friends with his brother-in-law Fats Corrado, who was named capo of his father’s crew when Machine Gun Pete died of a heart attack in 1957 and acted as his ace in the hole for many years. Finally, besides his father and uncle, Fast Pete came under the mentorship of powerful local mobsters Salvatore “Little Sammy” Finazzo ad Raffeale “Jimmy Q” Quasarano, significantly increasing his status as a future staple of the syndicate.

Immediately after being pegged with the label of rising star in the Detroit mafia back in the late-50s, the reputation and expectations began going to his head. He was impulsive, reckless and defiant. He also developed a dangerous habit of having affairs on his mafia prince bride with other mobsters’ wives and girlfriends. Becoming the target of a federal drug probe didn’t help matters and neither did going into debt to more than one mob-sponsored bookmaker and refusing to pay what he owed. By the 1980s, Fast Pete Cavataio had gone from being viewed as a future captain to a certain liability and someone who needed to be dealt with.

For the short term, Cavataio was able to use his close friendship with Fats Corrado to earn a free pass for his transgressions. But that would only last as long as Corrado lasted. And when Fats Corrado died of a heart attack on June 26, 1985, Cavataio’s time was up. The second Corrado stopped breathing was the same second the murder contract was issued on his life. Less than two weeks later, Fast Pete was dead. Cavataio is the last made member of the Detroit mafia to be executed.

Several years later former Giacalone enforcer John Pree admitted his involvement, along with other members of the Giacalone crew, in the murder of Cavatio, which included stabbing him with a heated knife in order to get him to reveal the whereabouts of what the mob believed to be stolen monies. Pree, who was arrested for staging a series of home invasions in 1991 and 1992, later recanted his claim, but many law enforcement officials believe that Pree’s initial claims are valid and then his recantation was only a result of mafia intimidation and interference.

Fast Pete’s murder would have ripple effects that were felt rather quickly. On September 16, the bodies of James Stabile, 58, his wife Camille, 56, and I.T. Hill, 55, were murdered in the Stabiles’ east side Detroit market.  Stabile was a well-known bookmaker in the area that worked under the direction of and was good friends with Pete Cavataio. He even had been questioned after Cavataio’s murder.

Besides his bookmaking activities, Stabile was also suspected of running a drug operation out of his market. Hill was an employee of the Stabiles’ who like Laverio Teramine a few months earlier, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Stabiles had both been shot and Hill had been repeatedly stabbed to death.

The triple murder, the second in the area since the spring, caught the eye of organized crime followers due to Stabile’s connection to Cavataio. It became suspected amongst investigators that the killings were a result of the mob wanting to make a move on Cavataio’s business interests after his death and eliminate any remaining loyalists.

Things in the case got even murkier when Gary Hobbs, a 35 year old local gambler was arrested and convicted for the crime. Hobbs admitted to the killings but claimed that they were the result of a gambling debt. This would fit with the police believing that it was not a professional job. Hobbs was issued a life prison sentence however, his motive and truthfulness still came into question by many involved in the case, including Marlinga and his Macomb County prosecutor’s office. In 1987, Marlinga told reporters that he believed that the triple murder in Sterling Heights in 1985 was linked to the killings of several bookies in Detroit that same year as a part of an effort by organized crime to take control of certain gambling and drug operations.

“There was a great deal of bloodshed in a very short amount of time,” said Marlinga reflecting back on the string of homicides in 2010. “We attributed the violence to the mob’s desire to get everybody in line and re-establish their dominance in traditional black market rackets. As much as I pushed and as hard as we investigated we could only uncover so much information and it wasn’t enough to bring down indictments. The people in charge of organized crime around here are very sharp leaders and their ability to pull off such a string of murders and not have any trails leading back to them demonstrates that higher level of criminality.”