When Joseph “Joe Uno” Zerilli, the long-anointed patriarch of organized crime in the Detroit area, was laid to rest in November 1977 at the ripe old age of 81, some thought that there might be confusion and turmoil within the leadership of the Detroit mafia. True followers of the Detroit branch of La Cosa Nostra, however, knew that notion couldn’t be further from the truth. The bloodletting that might erupt in other American mafia crime families as a result of the power void would never happen in the Motor City. It’s not their style. First and foremost because the crime family in Detroit is a family in the most literal sense of the word – practically every member was related either via blood or marriage to every other member.
“The Detroit crime family has been generations ahead of other families around the country for years,” famed mafia expert and best-selling author Nick Pileggi was once quoted as saying. “After Prohibition, they stopped fighting internally, inter-married and put their dirty money into legitimate businesses. Meanwhile, the nation’s other families were out there killing each other. That’s why Detroit is at where it’s at today and the most of the rest of families are falling apart.”
Since the 1930s, Zerilli had been overseeing the local mafia, a paragon of stability in organized crime circles nationwide. The reason for the city’s unprecedented run of relative peace and quiet was Don Joe Uno’s willingness to share power and penchant for delegating authority. These leadership traits elicited great trust and loyalty from his lieutenants and severely cut down on disharmony amongst the rank and file.
After Zerilli and his best friend and brother-in-law William “Black Bill” Tocco seized control of the area underworld in the days following Prohibition, they set up a “Ruling Council,” made up of leaders of different factions of the syndicate, as a method to deter intra-gang violence. With very few exceptions it worked perfectly and Zerilli would die having ruled unfettered for over four decades and never having spent any significant time behind bars, both extreme rarities in the pantheon of American mob Dons throughout history.
“Joe Zerilli was one of this country’s most prominent Bosses of his era,” retired U.S. Prosecutor Keith Corbett said. “He was revered in those circles. And he was the one that set the tone for everybody else in that he always carried himself in a very low key, understated manner and that’s the way the entire Family in Detroit has always operated.”
In the years leading up to his death, Joe Uno had named his nephew Giacomo “Black Jack” Tocco, eldest son of Black Bill, his successor. From early in the decade, Black Jack had been running the ship for his uncle on a day-to-day basis, tagged as the syndicate’s “Acting Boss” sometime in 1973.
Although the decision would be honored and go unchallenged, it didn’t come without controversy. In fact, it caused some major waves.
Prior to Jack Tocco’s ascension to heir apparent, Joe Zerilli had been grooming his son, Anthony “Tony Z” Zerilli, to eventually take his place atop the throne. Federal authorities were reporting as early as 1965 that Joe Uno had tapped Tony Z as “Acting Boss” and was spending more time than usual at his vacation home in Florida as a means of letting him get his feet wet in the job.
Then, as would prove a problem for the entirety of his career in the mob, Tony Zerilli talked his way into trouble with the government on an FBI-authorized wiretap and fell out of favor with his dad. A bust for skimming six million dollars from the Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas made his father lose faith in him and turn in his attention to Jack Tocco as the new face of the family business. It was a vicious blow to Tony Z’s ego and a snub he would not soon get over or let go of.
Tony Z was the opposite of his father. He was loud and garish and the way he carried himself emitted an air of overconfidence and entitlement. Raised as a mob prince, he viewed it as only a matter of time before he succeeded his father and the reins to the mafia in Detroit all to himself. When he married Rosalie Profaci, daughter of legendary East Coast Godfather, Joseph Profaci of New York, his status in national gangland circles was only solidified. Being passed over didn’t sit well with the portly and prematurely-balding Mafioso.
“One thing I always noticed that I think is interesting is that Tony Zerilli and Jack Tocco both took on the personalities of their uncles, not their fathers,” Corbett said. “Tony is just like Black Bill Tocco, brash, bullish, more extrovert than introvert and Jack is exactly like Joe Zerilli, very reserved and quietly calculating.”
The younger Zerilli and Tocco were raised side by side in an exclusive tree-lined enclave in the posh suburb of Grosse Pointe Woods. Living across the street from each other as young boys, they were practically inseparable in everything they did. They both received college business degrees from the University of Detroit in 1949, the same year they were alleged by federal authorities to have been initiated into the mafia after “making their bones” two years earlier by jointly strangling to death a recalcitrant Greek numbers operator named Gus Amdromolous.
There was no question as they rose up the latter in the crime family that they were the future. Only originally Tony Z had been ensured that he would Boss and Black Jack would be his right hand man. Now the tables were turned and Zerilli was being asked to be subservient to his one-time subordinate. It was a trying and delicate transition for everyone involved.
“Tony Z was real upset about being snubbed, but he had no other alternative but to accept his father’s decision and get in line with the new order of things,” Corbett said. “There was never any question that what the Old Man (Joe Zerilli) wanted was going to be the way it was. Decisions like that aren’t questioned in that Family. I know things were pretty cold between Tony and Jack for a while after that whole ordeal played out. The feeling from Tony’s perspective was that the Boss’ chair was rightfully his and that Jack stabbed him in the back by taking the promotion and allowing him to be passed over.”
Tocco was intelligent and stealthy in his demeanor. He was considerably more understated than his cousin and his appearance begged comparisons more to a banker or accountant than an aspiring crime czar. For over 20 years, he had been President and principle shareholder in the Hazel Park Race Track, with Tony Z as his Vice-President, until Zerilli’s Frontier conviction forced the Detroit mob out of ownership and management of the cash cow of a facility.
Besides the race track, he had ownership interests in a wide variety of legitimate businesses, ranging from construction companies and linen distributors to golf courses and restaurants. Due to his placement and stature in the overall American mob hierarchy, for years he collected illegal “skim” profits stemming from the mafia’s control over the Las Vegas hotel and gaming industry that were alleged by the federal government to be in the range of several hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Identified by federal officials as early as in 1960 as a captain of the Detroit mafia and top proxy of his father who was in semi-retirement in Miami Beach, Tocco followed protocol and married the daughter of family Underboss Angelo “The Chairmen” Meli.
Extremely cautious in his movements dating back to his youngest days in the crime family, he went to great lengths to avoid any suspicions that he engaged in illegal activity.
This portion of an FBI wire-tap recorded in the 1990s, reveals a local mob soldier expounding on Tocco’s reputation for being overly-judicious in his dealings.
“Jack is triple fucking cautious,” he said. “It used to be a big inside joke, if you wanna get rid of Jack just tell’em you’re getting heat and you’ll never see’em again. Ya know, if you didn’t want to be bothered by him or you wanted to get him off a score, that’s what you said and you were home free.”
One former FBI agent pegs Jack Tocco as a hands-off type of wiseguy.
“If you had to categorize him, he would definitely be considered a boardroom gangster, as opposed to his uncle and father, who both had pretty lethal reputations as blue collar hoodlums,” he said. “He’s a very good delegator and not opposed to letting others, those very far removed from him, do most of his heavy-lifting.”
That didn’t mean he wouldn’t to get his hands dirty when he had to. Besides being implicated as a participant in the Gus Amdromulous murder, Vincent Piersante, former head of the Michigan organized crime task force, testified at U.S. congressional hearings in the 1960s, that one time after an associate tried to blackmail Jack Tocco, the Detroit mob went on to have him killed as punishment. FBI documents would tie Tocco to several gangland-related beatings and other murders too, including pegging him as most-likely one of the planners of the Jimmy Hoffa assassination. This was the man who would be the new don.
“He got named Boss by his uncle for a good reason,” said Mike Carone, a retired FBI agent who worked in the Detroit office’s organized crime unit for over 20 years. “Jack was well educated and had the right demeanor for the job. He didn’t act like a gangster and he was very shrewd and even-keeled. The old timers felt safe leaving the future of the Family in his hands. I don’t know if you could say that same thing about Tony Z.”
With Joe Zerilli’s death in 1977, his longtime Consigliere and third-in-charge Giovanni “Papa John” Priziola became the titular head of the Detroit mob. On the street though, it was widely-known that Black Jack Tocco had actually grabbed the mantle of power and was already in the midst of shoring up his administrative hierarchy.
“Out of respect for Papa John, I think they waited to officially install Jack as Boss until after he passed away,” Keith Corbett said. “Papa John was never named Don, but they wanted to give him his time in the sun. For all intents and purposes though, Jack was Boss of the Family from the time Joe Zerilli took his last breath.”
In the spring of 1979 John Priziola died of natural causes. That left Pete Licavoli as the only remaining founder of the Family still alive – Angelo Meli passed away in 1969 and Black Bill Tocco had died in 1972. But Licavoli, although officially the syndicate’s Underboss at the time, wasn’t really a plausible candidate for the boss’ chair, being that he was currently in the process of serving a short prison sentence and by then had already moved his base of operations out of Michigan and into Arizona years previous.
The road was paved for Jack Tocco to assume the throne. After Licavoli sent word from behind bars that he gave his blessing, the preparations started to be made by the crime family to inaugurate its first boss in over four decades. It was a colossal event that would require top secret planning.
Somewhere along the line, however, things went awry. A security breakdown of massive proportions followed by a critical intelligence leak eventually led to the lid being blown off the most sensitive of crime family operations. Nobody outside a small circle of federal agents and attorneys would know it for another 17 years, but the day Black Jack became don would go down in infamy as a red letter day and monumental victory in the government’s longstanding fight against mafia.
The day was certainly one of the proudest of Jack Tocco’s life. Like his father before him, he would be joining a prized fraternity of only the highest order in the nation’s underworld. You could even excuse the normally stone-faced gangster for cracking a grin or two more than usual on such a cherished occasion.
It was a good thing he was smiling on that sunny afternoon in 1979 too, because he was getting his picture taken quite a bit. And not just from within the confines of the hunting lodge where the ceremony anointing him boss was going on either, but courtesy of a nearby government-issued surveillance camera pointed directly at everyone in attendance.
Keeping the photos and forthcoming information that the meeting was held to elect Jack Tocco Godfather of the Detroit mafia in their back pocket for the better half of the next two decade, the Feds bided their time in springing their trump card on their adversaries. When the time finally did come, close to two decades later, it would be center stage for everyone to see and serve as Tocco’s official unmasking as a gangland titan.
The morning of June 11, 1979 started innocently enough with several sets of FBI surveillance teams following their usual routine and shadowing their assigned crime family members around town as they did a series of mundane errands. Neither the FBI agents involved nor the mobsters they were tracking knew that in a matter of hours they were all about to make history.
“From our end, it was a very fortuitous situation,” said Greg Stejeskal, one of the FBI agents on security detail that day. “All the planets were aligned for something very special and unique to happen and it resulted in an important piece of history being accomplished in the government’s war against organized crime.”
Late that morning Vito “Billy Jack” Giacalone, at that time considered to be the “acting street boss” of the Detroit mob in place of his older brother, longtime day-to-day syndicate leader, Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone – away serving a prison term –, was seen arriving at Motor City Barber Supply in Roseville, which was the headquarters of Raffealle “Jimmy Q” Quasarano, a protégé of Papa John Priziola and the crime family’s new Consigliere. This was significant because Giacalone and Quasarano represented opposite sides of the syndicate and although both held important leadership positions, they weren’t normally known to interact with each other.
Within minutes, Francesco “Frankie the Bomb” Bommarito, Billy Jack’s right hand man, showed up in the parking lot driving a van. Immediately the agents following Billy Jack and Jimmy Q sensed something was brewing.
“It was surprising to see them meeting together, especially so early in the day” Stejeskal said. “My partner, Keith Cordes and I were working Jimmy Q and followed him to Motor City Barber Supply. The next thing we know Billy Jack shows up and then Frankie Bommarito is there a couple minutes later. At that point, we knew something was up, we just didn’t know exactly what it was.”
The Giacalone brothers were the face of the Detroit mafia on the street and had been for close to a quarter century. Frankie the Bomb was one of their most reliable leg-breakers, an enforcer with an impeccable reputation for evoking fear and obedience from all he encountered.
“If there was trouble, Frankie would usually find his way around it,” Mike Carone said. “He’s a pretty rough individual, not someone to mess around with. They (the mob) go to him for some of their grimiest stuff. He was dealing with some real nasty people.”
Flanked by the menacing Bommarito, the Giacalones were the Family’s top strong arms, enforcing the edicts of the administration with ruthless efficiency. Rough around the edges, but aligned very closely from a young age with Joe Zerilli and Bill Tocco, the Giacalone brothers rose through the ranks due to pure viciousness and earning-potential as opposed to lineage. Bommarito, whose cousins were local mob royalty, hitched his trailer to the Giacalones rising star and as they ascended up the latter so did he. Over a period of fifty years, the Giacalone brothers and their two crews were linked to at least twenty-five mob murders and indicted multiple times for loansharking, illegal possession of weapons, gambling, and tax evasion, among other things.
“Unlike Jack Tocco, the Giacalone brothers craved notoriety,” Corbett said. “They courted the image as the faces of the organized crime in Detroit. Tony Jack was John Gotti before John Gotti. He fit the bill as the quintessential mafia don, like something out of a movie. He looked the part with his expensive suits and constant scowls for the cameras and he reveled in his reputation and the limelight that came with it. His stare could cut class. Billy Jack was more affable. He was more of a politician and would act as a buffer between his brother and those he butted heads with. I don’t know if I would say it was a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine, but it was something along those lines. Maybe you could have called it “bad cop, a little less bad cop.”
Tony Giacalone and Jack Tocco were not to be the best of friends. In fact, the feeling most people got was that the two didn’t much care for each other at all. There was a distinct coolness and standoffish quality to their relationship that was impossible to hide. Some of the animosity stemmed from Tocco’s jealousy of Tony Jack’s close relationship with his father and uncle. Some of it came from Giacalone’s disdain for Tocco’s surpassing him on the Family food chain, despite never really having to pay his dues on the street like the way him and his brother had.
“There was a lot of resentment between them that never boiled over but always kind of festered and simmered underneath the surface,” said one former federal agent. “I think Tony Jack resented the fact that Tocco was born with a proverbial silver spoon in his mouth and was anointed without having to really put in his time grinding. Tocco always kind of looked down at Tony Jack for being from the street or at least that’s how Tony Jack perceived it anyway. The situation could have really gotten out of hand if Jack Tocco hadn’t of handled it properly. Jack was a pragmatist. He knew he might lose a street war with the Giacalones. But if he petted them and let them do their own thing, he could use them to his advantage.”
Because of his stature in the Family, Tony Giacalone had to sign off on Jack Tocco’s selection as Boss too. An FBI informant at the time revealed that the previous December as Tony Jack prepared to go away to prison for seven years, he attended a sit-down meeting with Tocco brokered by Papa John Priziola, which was called to discuss the changeover in power. According to the informant, Priziola preached a peaceful co-existence between the two men and an extension of the agreement that had been in place prior to Joe Zerilli’s death, giving Giacalone control of the street on a daily basis and Tocco final say on all major overall decisions and any crucial policy-making. For the sake of the good and welfare of the crime family, the two agreed to put their differences aside and create an alliance.
“Jack was smart and avoided a lot of headaches by letting the Giacalones be autonomous and kind of do their own thing,” Mike Carone said. “He chimed in when he had to, but he really just wanted to sit back and collect an envelope at the end of every week. If his cut was there on time and wasn’t ever short, Tony Jack and his brother could run around and act like Don Corleone all they wanted to in his eyes. He was perfectly fine deferring to them, letting them get the headlines and letting the whole city think they were running things. I think he saw their behavior as a benefit to him in that it put him further and further in the background of the public consciousness.”
Stejeskal and Cordes watched and snapped photos as Billy Giacalone, a more than adequate replacement for his brother as the Family’s front boss, his top henchmen Frankie Bommarito and the syndicate’s freshly-minted Consigliere, Jimmy Quasarano met and talked shop for a good 20 minutes in the parking lot of Motor City Beauty Supply.
“Those guys were always worried about bugs inside their hangouts and were known to talk business outside on walk and talk sessions, especially in the summer time, so we knew they had to be discussing something important when we were watching them chop it up outside Jimmy Q’s place,” Stejeskal recalls. “We were communicating with the surveillance units that were tailing Giacalone and just kind of waiting to see what their next move would be.”
Quasarano departed the premises in his car, while Giacalone and Bommarito sat in Giacalone’s automobile at Motor City Beauty Supply apparently making small talk. Jimmy Q returned with Michael “Big Mike” Polizzi and Anthony “Tony the Champ” Abate, two more high-ranking local Mafiosi, in tow and everyone but Bommarito, who left by himself in Giacalone’s vehicle, piled into the van and started driving towards the nearest expressway ramp.
Their destination was an hour-long drive west to Dexter, MI, a small suburb of Ann Arbor, and the Timberland Game Ranch, an upscale hunting lodge owned by reputed Detroit mafia capo, Luigi “Louie the Bulldog” Ruggirello, son of Antonino “Big Tony” Ruggirello, an elderly local mobster who was at one time Black Bill Tocco’s personal driver and bodyguard and had been acquitted of a gangland murder that took place in 1921. Louie Ruggirello and his two brothers Antonino “Tony the Exterminator” Ruggirello, Jr, and Antonio “Toto” Ruggirello, were alleged to oversee all crime family rackets being conducted in Washtenaw and Genesee counties.
“We were following them on the expressway and the longer we drove and couldn’t figure out where they were going, the more suspicious we became” Stejeskal said. “The further west we got made us think they were heading to Chicago. Then we started getting communications from the other units that they were all heading the same way we were. The whole thing was happening very quickly and I think it surprised all of us because we were just expecting a regular day on the job. All of sudden we realized we had this huge event on our hands. Outside of weddings and funerals, these type of men didn’t congregate. Now we got a bunch of them carpooling out of the area together.”
Also know as “Jimmy the Goon,” for his ice cold stare, thuggish antics and reputation for never cracking a smile, Quasarano was Papa John’s longtime No. 1 lieutenant and like Priziola himself, a suspected major narcotics trafficker and reputed hit man. FBI documents reveal that Jimmy Quasarano was suspected by authorities of being involved in close to two dozen gangland homicides. An FBI informant claimed that Central Sanitation, a garbage collection company he owned in Hamtramck, had been used to dispose of at least ten mafia victims before it was burned to the ground in 1978.
Big Mike Polizzi was Papa John’s son-in-law and the Family’s unofficial chief finance officer, having acquired an accounting degree from Syracuse University in 1947. Abate, who earned his nickname because he used to be a boxer, was acquitted of a gangland murder when he was 26 and acted as a top proxy for the imprisoned Pete Licavoli, being related to him through the marriage of their children. Polizzi gained early infamy in the eyes of law enforcement when he was just 31 years old and his home phone number was found on a piece of paper in the woods behind the house that was raided in the infamous Appalachian mob conference in 1957.
The van being driven by Billy Giacalone and containing Jimmy Quasarano, Mike Polizzi and Tony Abate, pulled up to the Timberland Game Ranch at around 12:30 pm. Discretely following them, always keeping a safe distance in traffic, Agent Stejeskal’s surveillance unit set up shop outside the property. Soon, several additional vehicles showed up at the ranch. Stejeskal and the FBI had hit paydirt in a monumental way.
“The next thing we knew we were in Dexter at the Timberland Game Ranch and within minutes of us arriving, a bunch more cars show up carrying a lot more top guys,” Stejeskal said. “At this point, there’s no doubt in our minds, we’ve stumbled on to something big. We didn’t know everyone who was there because some of the fellas had slipped the agents we had trailing them, but we knew at least more than half of the entire administration were conducting some sort of important meeting inside.”
Entering the sprawling wooded estate by jumping a rear fence, which was located to the far west of the main lodge where everybody was congregating, Stejeskal found a nicely-guarded hiding place behind an archery range that backed up to a set of tall bushes. Nestled in between a pair of canvased targets, he had a direct view of the lodge’s balcony, which was soon filled with virtually the entire Detroit mob hierarchy enjoying the beautiful afternoon and toasting their new Don.
“I got as close as I could, close enough where I could hear voices coming from the main building and very quietly started snapping photos of the people who were there,” Stejeskal recollected. “There was some nice coverage where I was hiding, so I was relatively safe from detection. Fortunately some of the shots I got were of Jack Tocco himself.”
The self-professed Men of Honor stayed and celebrated at the ranch for several hours. The first car to depart was driven by Anthony “Tony T” Tocco, Jack’s younger brother and like his first cousin Tony Zerilli, a son in law to legendary New York City mafia boss, Joe Profaci, who left with an unidentified individual in his passenger’s seat at 3:30. Two hours later, the rest of the group began leaving.
At approximately 5:30 pm, a car driven by Anthony “Tony the Bull” Corrado, a top capo in the Family, was seen by an FBI surveillance squad ferrying Jack Tocco away from the ranch and heading back to Detroit. A few minutes later, another squad of agents saw another car, this one being driven by Dominic “Fats” Corrado, Tony the Bull’s older brother and fellow capo, leaving Timberland. Inside Fats Corrado’s car were Carlo Liacta, Jack and Tony Tocco’s brother in law, Greektown capo, Peter “Bozzi” Vitale and Salvatore “Sammy Rocks” Misuraca, the syndicate’s representative in Canada, who also held residence in Chicago.
Lastly, Billy Jack, Mike Polizzi, Jimmy Quasarano and Tony Abate left in Frankie Bommarito’s van, meeting back up with Frankie the Bomb in Roseville at Jimmy Q’s headquarters and swapping back vehicles. Staying behind at the ranch were Louie and Tony Ruggirello and their dad, who at that time was sick and dying of cancer.
“Once we got all got back together at the office and started comparing notes, we couldn’t believe what we had uncovered,” Stejeskal said. “My photos and what all the different surveillance units witnessed painted quite a picture. In fact, at that point, we still didn’t know exactly what it was that we had stumbled upon.”
Things would get clearer in the coming days. Less than a week later, Jack Tocco’s driver, a longtime informant, told the FBI that the event that was held up at Timberland Game Ranch on June 11, was called for the sole purpose of officially electing Tocco the crime family’s new Godfather. The photos that Stejeskal had taken, the best of which showed Tocco in conversation with Billy Giacalone and Tony Corrado, were the icing on the cake.
“What we gleaned from Jack’s driver shed a lot of light on the situation for us,” he said. “Really, it served to confirm most of our suspicions. The only thing we hadn’t known for sure was that Tocco had surpassed Tony Zerilli. When we started to list all the people we knew for sure were in attendance, it was a true rogues’ gallery. These were all the highest-placed guys, getting together to commemorate the passing of the torch. The fact that we were there to see it transpire is pretty amazing. ”
Known for sure to be at Jack Tocco’s inauguration that summer day in 1979 were; Jack Tocco, Tony Tocco, Dominic Corrado, Anthony Corrado, Carlo Licata, Peter Vitale, Jimmy Quasarano, Tony Ruggirello, Sr.,Tony Ruggirello, Jr. Luigi Ruggirello, Mike Polizzi, Tony Abate and Billy Giacalone.
The government believed another two, possibly three more high-ranking individuals from the organization were there at the ranch that day as well. FBI documents reveal the names of long-known local mobsters Salvatore “Little Sammy” Finazzo, Joe Zerilli’s brother-in-law, Vincent “Little Vince” Meli, Angelo Meli’s nephew, and Salvatore “Sammy Lou” Lucido, the son in law of Angelo Meli, as possible additional attendees.
Tony Tocco was Jack’s most trusted confidant and advisor. When Jack became “acting boss” back in the mid-1970s, Tony, who also had a college business degree from the University of Detroit, was alleged to have taken over as capo of his crew. Known as more approachable than his older brother, Tony T, sometimes referred to as “Tawn” or ‘Tic Toc Tony”, had always been a big earner on the street and had a reputation of someone who never wanted to rely on his last name as a ticket for advancement.
The Corrado boys were the sons of legendary mobster Pietro “Machine Gun Pete” Corrado and the grandsons of Joe Zerilli. Machine Gun Pete, who got his street moniker during Prohibition for his favored form of firearm, ran the numbers racket in Detroit until his death of a sudden heart attack while vacationing in Florida in 1957. A local numbers operator who worked under Corrado once told journalists that Machine Gun Pete had “killed probably a dozen people in order to take control of the illegal lottery racket for the Detroit mob.” With the long list of known gangland-style murders and disappearances in the 1940s and 50s attributed by police to the mafia’s hostile takeover of the numbers industry from the city’s Black Numbers kingpins, this does not seem like an exaggeration.
Dominic, Machine Gun Pete’s eldest son, took over his father’s crew and business operations upon his death and a decade later, his younger brother Tony, would join him in the ranks of the crime family as a fellow crew leader and captain, being named by his grandfather, Joe Uno, as head of the syndicate’s collection and enforcement branch. Second cousins to Jack Tocco, Fats and Tony the Bull Corrado were tightly-entwined in his inner-circle.
Carlo Licata was Jack and Tony Tocco’s brother in law and the son of then-deceased California mob don Nick Licata. He was initiated into the Los Angeles mafia in 1950 and then transferred to the Detroit family when he married Josephine Tocco, Black Bill’s daughter, in 1952 as a means of quashing a beef between his father and Joe Zerilli.
Pete Vitale was a longtime mob lieutenant, who along with his older brother Paul “The Pope” Vitale, ran all rackets taking place in Greektown from the 1950s until the 1990s. The Vitale brothers were best friends with Jimmy Quasarano – they co-owned Central Sanitation in Hamtramck – and ran their joint operations out of the Grecian Gardens restaurant, located on the far East end of Monroe Street in the heart of the area’s nightlife district. In the 1960s, a much-publicized police raid of the popular eatery netted a black leather ledger notebook, detailing payoffs to numerous police officers and public officials. It was long speculated by authorities that Pete Vitale was partners with Jimmy Q and Papa John in their drug business.
Although not related by blood, the Ruggirello brothers were as close as family to Jack Tocco. They had practically been raised together due to the extremely close relationship between their fathers.
Tony the Exterminator got his nickname because he co-owned a pest extermination business with Tony Giacalone. Some might say it held a double-meaning. Tony’s wife, Judith disappeared in 1968, FBI records report, on the afternoon she had intended on filing for divorce. Her car was found in the parking lot of Darbys, a popular delicatessen of its day on Six Mile Road, but she would never be seen again alive or dead. In the years following the disappearance, highly-placed Detroit mob associate Peter “Birmingham Pete” Lazaros, an alleged bagman for area politicians and policemen who turned government informant, publicly accused mafia member Joe Barbara Jr. of putting Ruggirello’s wife “down a drain” in the hallway of the federal courthouse downtown.
Louie Ruggirello got his nickname, “The Bulldog,” because people used to claim in his younger days, the short, stout and pug-faced hood resembled in looks and behavior the wrinkly and ferocious canine. It was Louie who had the idea for, bought the land for and built the Timberland Game Ranch in 1971.
In strange contrast to their fearsome reputations, the Ruggirellos were known to be avid gardeners and nature-conservationists. At the time of the inauguration, Big Tony Ruggirello was dying of cancer, however still attended out of a sense of paternally loyalty in Black Bill’s stead.
Salvatore Misuraca was and is still a bit of a mystery. In an attempt to identify him, FBI agents stopped the car driven by Dominic Corrado for supposed traffic violations. After showing their identification it was discovered that Misuraca was 79 years old and resided in the Chicago area, but also had Canadian citizenship papers on his person. Although no previous links between the mafia in Michigan and Misuraca could be unearthed, FBI agents would later receive information that Misuraca was possibly in attendance representing Detroit mob interests in Illinois, Canada or both.
Conspicuously absent from Jack Tocco’s coronation as the Midwest’s newest Godfather was his former best friend Tony Zerilli, whose reasons for not attending were out of pure spite. Despite the snub, Tocco named the bitter Zerilli as his underboss and No. 2 in charge, in a peace offering Zerilli eventually accepted.
Relations between Black Jack and Tony Z remained frigid for a good couple of years. Still bristling from being passed over, Zerilli turned down an invitation by Tocco to travel with him to the East Coast to officially introduce himself as the city’s new don to Philadelphia mafia leader Angelo Bruno and New York mob boss Tony Salerno and then a few months later skipped out on attending Tocco’s ritzy 25th anniversary party.
By the mid-1980s, the cavernous gap between Tocco and Zerilli had been bridged and the pair were once again on good terms. The harmony and open discourse between the boyhood chums, however, wouldn’t last long. The future was bleak for both mafia czars. Further hazardous behavior by Tony Z would send the Detroit mafia and Black Jack personally reeling into a multi-year tailspin that put a considerable dent into to the megawatt vice conglomerate their fathers had built from the ground up and concluded with both of them serving time in a federal penitentiary. The ensuing second rift between Tocco and Zerilli would prove permanent.
For the better part of two decades, Jack Tocco prided himself on being one of the most elusive crime lords in the United States. Despite numerous tries, the government had been unable to nail Black Jack for anything bigger than a citation in the 1960s for attending an illegal cock fight. As a result, any time a news outlets or law enforcement spokesmen went on record accusing him of being a mafia boss, Tocco hit them with a lawsuit, over a half-dozen when all tallied up. Tocco’s battle with the government, purported by him to be based solely on his last name and who his father and uncle were, was the inspiration for the hit 1981 movie Absence of Malice written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Kurt Luedtke, a native Detroiter and featuring a central character played by Paul Newman Luedtke loosely based on Tocco himself.
Black Jack went to great lengths to parade himself as a respectable member of high society in Metro Detroit and scoffed publically at any notion that he was a leader of the city’s Italian organized crime faction. A cultured man of fine taste, he was often seen downtown attending plays, operas and museum openings. On his tax returns, Tocco routinely declared hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations to local charities and the Holy Name Church.
Privately, it was a different matter. FBI surveillance tapes reveal the old school don wanted everyone on the street to kiss his ring and pay tribute to his regime with both undying loyalty and hefty compensation.
“I was called to a meeting with Jack and Tony Tocco and I was told ‘This is our town and you’re gonna do what we tell ya to, plain and simple’. That’s exactly what they said to me point blank.”
His rivals in the government had a high opinion of their target – at least professionally – as they tirelessly worked to put him away.
“Jack’s a real strong Boss and he was a very tough adversary,” Keith Corbett said. “He knows how to make money and he runs a tight ship. In that world, that’s really the bottom line. He might not be overly popular like his dad and uncle were, but there’s no doubt he’s respected and feared and that ultimately beats likability in that line of work. The investigation into his activities was long and arduous. It wasn’t an easy nut to crack because he knew how to insulate himself and had a very strong base of knowledge with how to successfully veil his movements and affairs.”
Any semblance of legitimacy Tocco’s cries of innocence and unfair mislabeling had would come crashing down to the ground in the late-1990s when the feds capped an investigation called “Operation Gametax” – in the works for over a decade – by arresting and convicting Tocco and practically his entire mob administration of a widespread racketeering conspiracy.
“The say the mafia has a long memory, well so does the FBI and we worked around the clock for over 15 years making that case,” Stejeskal said. “We put the intelligence we got from the mob summit up at Timberland away in a safe place and kept plodding away, pounding the streets, running down our leads and documenting everything we could for use in the future. When everything paid off with convictions, it gave me and a heck of a lot of other people in law enforcement an incredible sense of satisfaction.”
Announcing the multi-tiered 50-count indictment against the leadership of the Detroit mafia in March 1996, the U.S. Justice Department put out a statement saying the takedown of Jack Tocco was the FBI’s most significant bust of an American mob figure since New York’s “Teflon Don” John Gotti because Tocco was “one of the most powerful mafia bosses walking the streets of our country.”
The charges levied and eventually proved in court against the continuing criminal enterprise included loansharking, extortion, illegal gambling, conspiracy to commit murder and violence in furtherance of the enterprise and former hidden ownership in two Nevada-based casinos. Besides the surveillance materials gathered from Tocco’s inauguration meeting in 1979 – headlined by the photo Stejskel snapped of Black Jack, Billy Giacalone and Tony Corrado –, the feds had hundreds of hours of audio tapes acquired via a bug in Tony Zerilli’s nephew’s car which recounted in vivid detail life in the Detroit mafia under the rule of Jack Tocco.
“All those years before his conviction Jack dodged the dreaded label of mob boss in the public and wanted the city to view him as some kind of misunderstood victim,” Corbett said. “That was fine because I knew we would have the last laugh. Today, he can say what he wants, but the truth is that he is a convicted racketeer and felon and was head of one of the biggest mafia families in the country. That’s not speculation or innuendo, that’s a certifiable fact.”
To add insult to injury, Zerilli’s nephew, Nove Tocco, a low-level street soldier, and Tocco’s godson, Angelo Polizzi, a syndicate attorney whose father was Big Mike Polizzi, both turned government informant and testified against the crime family in multiple court proceedings. Amazingly, Nove Tocco’s defection to the federal government following his conviction in the case is the only time a made member of the notoriously ultra-secretive Detroit mafia has ever flipped and spilled the beans about the Family in court.
It looked to be a certain vicious and crippling blow to Jack Tocco and his inner-circle. And to his inner-circle it was. For him, however, it wasn’t anywhere close. After U.S. Federal Judge John Corbett O’Meara issued his sentences in early spring 1998, it was obvious Tocco had gotten off with a mere slap on the wrist. While his most-trusted lieutenants like Billy Giacalone, Tony Zerilli and Tony Corrado would all get hit with stiff prison terms, O’Meara gave Tocco, the convicted ringleader of the violent, multi-million dollar organized crime empire, only a year and a day of jail time.
Although prosecutors would end up successfully appealing O’Meara’s sentence and getting the convicted mob boss to do an additional 14 months behind bars, some believe it was a sign of just how high and far Tocco’s hand reaches.
“Something clearly wasn’t right with that sentence, it was very suspicious,” Stejeskal said. “There was no question it was standard operating procedure. Now what caused the decision to diverge from normal sentencing requirements is something that will always kind of hang over that case. A lot of people, myself included, have some very strong opinions about what went down there.”
Corbett, who retired from the U.S. Prosecutors office in 2009, concurs.
“The sentencing was just downright outrageous,” Corbett said. “It was inexplicable and definitely raised a lot of questions. That type of conviction should carry at the minimum a 15-year term. The crux of the entire case that the jury came back with guilty verdicts for was that Jack Tocco was the ringleader, the head of all organized crime in Detroit. Sentence-wise, he was treated as if he was some sort of petty thief. The whole thing was baffling.”
Jack Tocco walked out of his federal prison cell in early-2002 and according to federal authorities, reassumed command of the Detroit mafia, intent on ruling well into his 80s and hopefully beyond. Informants tell the FBI that since Tocco’s release from prison, there have been at least two and possibly as many as four, initiation ceremonies held as a means of infusing the Family with fresh young blood.
“He’s going to hold onto the mantle of power until his last dying breath, that’s one thing I can guarantee,” said one former federal agent. “Jack has a vested interest in seeing the Family continue to flourish after he passes. This is literally his family business. His dad and uncle started this family back in the Prohibition days. He wants to do everything in his power to make sure things are in the right shape when he leaves this earth so that the legacy and name will live on in infamy.”
As for the other men known to have been in attendance at the Timberland Game Ranch that day, only Billy Giacalone and Tony Tocco are still alive. In 1998, Billy Jack completed a plea deal following his arrest in the Operation Gametax case by admitting in open court the existence of an organization known as the “Detroit mafia” and his membership within. He was released from prison in 2004 and became the Family’s Underboss, replacing a deposed Tony Zerilli, until health issues pushed him out of the job in 2008.
Jimmy Quasarano would be sent to prison himself in 1981 for extorting a Wisconsin-based cheese company and forced to relinquish his Consigliere position to Big Mike Polizzi. Released from prison in 1987, Jimmy Q would continue to be a valued and much-used counselor to Jack Tocco until his death in 2001 at the age of 90.
Polizzi, whose father was a close ally of Black Bill Tocco and Joe Zerilli during the early days of the crime family, would die in isolation in 1997, shunned by his former friends and relatives in the mob after his son Angelo became a government witness. Polizzi passed away of a heart attack in Pennsylvania, stripped of his Consigliere post – replaced by Tony Tocco – and booted out of the state by the organization he helped run for the previous 50 years.
Carlo Licata died under suspicious circumstances in his Bloomfield Hills residence in the summer of 1981, shot twice in the stomach. Dominic Corrado died of heart failure in 1985 and Tony Corrado died in prison of cancer in 2002, serving out his sentence from the Operation Gametax bust. Paul Vitale died in 1988 and Peter in 1997. Misuraca passed away in 1984.
In a situation that mirrored what happened with Big Mike Polizzi, Tony Zerilli was ostracized from the organization as a result of his nephew Nove Tocco’s defection to the feds. He has been living in virtual solitude since release from prison in 2009, not allowed to take back his position as the Family’s official No. 2 guy and allegedly forced into retirement by his cousin for his continued gaffes.
With Jack Tocco getting up in age – he turned 84 in 2010 –, the Detroit mafia is bracing itself for another transition of power, identical to the one Tocco rode into the boss’ seat back in 1979. Following the lead of his uncle and predecessor, Black Jack is said to have named his own replacement. The name most associated with being the tagged as the Family’s new heir apparent is Jack “Jackie the Kid” Giacalone, a 61-year old capo who is Billy Giacalone’s son.
Black Jack Tocco himself might be on his way out, but few think the Family is going anywhere anytime soon.
“We’re talking about a pretty sophisticated group here, so I don’t think the future is dim at all for the Mafia in the city of Detroit and its surrounding regions,” Stejeskal said. “They are very adept at changing with the times, molding to the terrain that presents itself and integrating new rackets into the fold as they become available. These aren’t your average mobsters. I think that’s been shown by the level of success these guys have attained and their ability to stay out below the radar for the most part. As a guy who spent a good portion of time trying to dismantle this organization, I can tell you that I always felt like I was dealing with a much sharper criminal mind than you would face on a regular basis. ”