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Swimming W/The Fishes – Mob Life @ Four Bears

Contracting pink eye is a risk you take when you go to a water park. Death and prison are the risks you take when you get involved with organized crime. But what happens when organized crime mixes with the over-chlorinated water of a public water park?  I guess you’ll just have to ask Butch. He’s the only one still standing.

Public water parks aren’t the cleanliest of destinations, but ultimately serve a purpose. Organized crime isn’t the most ethical way to make a living, but it’s something that nonetheless exists, and ultimately plays a role in society, whether out in the open or deep underneath the surface. Although entrenched in the shadows of public perception across Metro Detroit, the mafia is an undeniable force, existing, often with a shiny veneer of respectability, in many different avenues of everyday life.  Using a public water park as an analogy for organized crime isn’t all that difficult, especially since in the Motor City, at least according to federal documents, they were long linked in tandem.

Whether you choose to dabble in organized crime, or just like to frequent public water parks, there are inherit risks involved that everyone involved knows and accepts. So, for the sake of your family — or for the sake of The Family — you cast your reservations aside and “jump in,” accepting the less than sanitary conditions. Once you’re there, ‘in the water,” so to speak, you’re there. Like it or not, it can’t be undone.

While water parks throughout the land emit a certain grimy charm, not to mention serve as a microbiologist wet dream with all the different forms of germs swarming around such establishments, the filth uncovered in the bottom of your run of the mill public pool pales in comparison to the real dirt that was alleged to gave gone down at Four Bears water park in Shelby Township, Michigan in the 1980s.

From 1983-2004, the suburban park created summer memories for countless families. Ask almost any resident of Metro Detroit about Four Bears and chances are the individual will rattle on about the park’s grand water slides, wave pool or bumper boats — a far cry from a would-be coke overdose, a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the chest and a slew of allegations and whispers that kept local and federal law enforcement officials relatively busy for much of the final two decades of the Twentieth Century.

The park, located in the heart of suburbia, a little more than 20 miles north of Detroit, lasted 21 years before it was demolished in favor of luxury homes and condominiums. But its legacy lives on. It was truly a metro Detroit staple. The man who made it all possible — the same man who was once at the center of numerous allegations linking him to organized crime and other nefarious activities — was the water park’s notorious owner Louis Stramaglia, a man his friends affectionately referred to as “Butch.” Stramaglia, a wealthy businessman and owner of a slew of companies around the country, was known to carry himself with a larger than life bravado and intimidating flair.

“Butch is hard-core, not someone to be messed around with,” said a former federal agent who asked not to be identified. “He was someone we always had our eyes on.”

Whispers of shenanigans and more than questionable business practices related to his asset portfolio were rampant.

“There were rumors that drug money and profits from some other illegal operatiosn were being run through Four Bears,” said an unnamed federal agent. “Whether Butch was aware of this, we could never prove.”

And the Feds almost had him. They were the thinnest thread away from nailing him to the wall for good, putting him behind bars for the better part of the rest of his life. But Butch, as he would begin making a reputation for, averted the grasp of law enforcement and remained virtually unscathed.

For nearly a decade, Stramaglia and his construction company, Vito Trucking and Excavating, found themselves in the newspaper headlines for all the wrong reasons; shoddy work, kickbacks, sweetheart deals, intimidation tactis, and other racketeering-related activities. This reputed behavior helped trigger a 32-month criminal investigation that ended with Butch facing more than 80 years in prison. The water park and construction impresario was charged with embezzling $1.7 million dollars from a highly lucrative, publicly financed deal he struck with Dade County in Florida to build the Sawgrass Expressway, a 23-mile stretch of highway that would cost $200 million to complete. Having his veil of legitimacy shattered, Stramaglia was found guilty on all 38 felony counts and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Always the scamster, however, Butch found a way to get out. After just two years in the can, Stramaglia was a free man. A federal judge overturned all 38 felony counts he was convicted of on a technicality and in 1993 Butch returned to Detroit. As luck would have it, the only two other men who might be able to put him back behind the prison fence he just escaped from were now long dead, put to rest six feet under years earlier, their deaths shrouded in mystery. Butch’s name would pop up in both investigations, but he would never be charged in either case.

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Grabbing A Bite W/ Tony Z

Scott M. Burnstein writes of a lunch with former Detroit mob boss Tony Zerilli

June 2014 – Detroit, Michigan

I got an offer I couldn’t refuse.

I was invited to break bread with a real-life mob don.

Previously, I had sat and conversed with professional hit men, soldiers, capos, consiglieres and underbosses, but never a Godfather.

Now, former Detroit mafia “acting boss” Anthony (Tony Z) Zerilli, wanted to have lunch with me to discuss some possible future projects for us.

if I said I wasn’t intrigued I’d be lying to you.

Granted, most of Zerilli’s time in the upper-echelon of La Cosa Nostra was as an underboss, No. 2 in the Motor City mob for more than two decades, between 1979 and 2002, but this guy existed in some pretty rarified air in his day – rubbing elbows and conducting business with American icons, both in gangland circles and pop culture, and holding quite a large deal of weight nationally and internationally, alike.

Tony Z was at the helm of the Detroit mafia in an acting capacity from 1965 until he was jailed in 1973 for skimming six million dollars from and holding illegal hidden ownership in Las Vegas’ Frontier Hotel and Casino. Although he once was tapped the official heir apparent to his dad’s throne – legendary Detroit Godfather Joseph (Joe Uno) Zerilli ruled unfettered for 41 years and sat on the national mafia Commission – , he was bypassed while behind bars by his first cousin, Giacomo (Black Jack) Tocco.

Zerilli, 86, frail, yet still spunky, has been out of action in the area’s LCN affairs, since he went away to prison in the early-2000s and served a 5-year sentence on a RICO conviction.

Tocco, 87, and Zerilli were each snared in the big Operation GameTax bust of 1996, charged and eventually convicted in separate jury trials of running the day-to-day operations of the Detroit mob for close to 30 years.

According to sources on the street and in law enforcement, Tony Z, was “shelved” due to Black Jack blaming him for the bust (it was Tony Z’s underlings that were caught on tape and it was that audio surveillance that did the most damage in both trials).

These are allegations Zerilli himself denies, asserting instead he voluntarily left the crime family his father and uncle (Black Jack’s father, “Black Bill”) founded, over a dispute with Tocco regarding money and Tocco’s decision to involve the syndicate in narcotics.

Upon their respective releases from incarceration, their feud has become increasingly-bitter and out in the open. Zerilli went to the FBI and the media in December 2012 and fingered his boyhood pal’s and longtime business partner’s former farmland property as the final resting site of slain labor boss Jimmy Hoffa – a search of the parcel turned up empty last summer.

All of this, along with much more, was peppered into our conversation at lunch, which took place last week at The Stage Deli, a popular eatery in suburban Detroit.

It was me, a tan and tri

m Tony Z, his daughter and wife Rosalie, the daughter of deceased New York mob don, Joe Profaci, the basis for the Vito Coreleone character in Mario Puzo’s book and Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, The Godfather.

I got a turkey-bacon club, he got a corned-beef sandwich and split it with Rosalie.

From the very start of the conversation, you could tell two things very clearly; he worshiped his dad Joe (and rightfully so) and despised Jack Tocco.

“My father had brass balls, the size of boulders,” he said.

I mentioned his grandmother’s funeral when he was a small boy (1933), the largest funeral precession in Motor City history, drawing thousands of mourners and onlookers. Joe Zerilli sent his mother off with a grand gesture, lining the streets near her house and by the graveyard she was being buried in, with a seemingly endless amount of elaborate flower arrangements.

“Everyone came to pay their respects to my dad for his loss, it was a sea of people and they waited on-line for hours to give him their condolences,” he said. “Sam Buffa was throwing rose pedals from an airplane above the gravestone.”

Sam “Tootie” Buffa was a loyal soldier of Joe Zerilli’s, looking after the city’s Greektown district until his death in the 1950s.

We talked about Jimmy Hoffa and Tony Z’s love of horse racing and his ownership of the Hazel Park Racetrack for close to 50 years, ending in a multi-million dollar sale. According to Tony Z, his half of the sale (some 4 million dollars) was stolen by Tocco while he was in prison in the 2000s, resulting in their current standoff.

We talked about his interactions with notorious and long-gone Mafia leaders like Sam “Momo” Giancana of Chicago, “Big John” La Rocca and Mike Genovese of Pittsburgh.

We spoke of Las Vegas and him owning the Frontier, which he sold to Howard Hughes at a lunch meeting after his arrest for raiding the gambling palace’s coffers.

There was much, much more. And it was all fascinating.

To hear the rest, you’ll have to wait for the book!!

Detroit Don Jack Tocco’s Day In The Sun

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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. ”

 

The Hoffa Files: Assassination Alley

Waiting inside the foyer of the Machus Red Fox restaurant on the corner of Maple and Telegraph in Bloomfield Township, Jimmy Hoffa was furious. Scheduled to attend a lunch meeting with high-profile mob leaders Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone and Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano at 2:00 pm, it was after 2:45 and there was no sign of either of them. The former union czar had been stood up.

Seething with anger over being disrespected, Hoffa, a long cemented icon of the nation’s organized labor movement, stormed out of the restaurant and made his way to a pay phone outside a nearby hardware store. Calling his wife of nearly 40 years, Josephine, at his waterside cottage in Lake Orion, he informed her what had happened and that he would be back home in less than an hour to start grilling steaks on the barbeque for dinner. He never made it there.

At approximately 3:00 on July 30, 1975, witnesses saw Hoffa getting into a maroon-colored Lincoln Mercury occupied by three other men and leaving the restaurant parking lot in the vehicle. After that, Jimmy Hoffa disappeared from site, never to be seen again. Over 35 years later, Hoffa’s disappearance goes down on the most notorious unsolved crime in the annals of American history. In 1982, the state of Michigan officially issued a death certificate to his family and legally declared him deceased, yet the civic formality did little if anything to quell the unquenchable thirst for information on the specific circumstances that ended with Hoffa’s almost-uncertain violent demise.

Theories and explanations for what actually happened to him have abounded since, ranging from the absurd and hilarious to the logical and likely. However, it’s still remains an open case with no charges ever being filed against anyone. One thing that was known for sure at the time Hoffa went missing was that he had a lot of powerful and venomous enemies that all had a lot of reasons to want him out of the way. For all of his good qualities, possibly Jimmy Hoffa’s biggest flaw was his outright stubbornness and penchant for challenging authority at any and all costs. In the end, it is without a doubt what got him killed.

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James Riddle Hoffa was born on Valentines Day, February 14, 1913 in Brazil, Indiana, where his father was a coal miner and his mother washed laundry for a living. When his dad died of lung cancer when he was seven, his mother took him and his four brothers and sisters, first for a two-year stint in Clinton, Indiana before permanently landing in Detroit in 1924 just after Jimmy’s 11th birthday.

Dropping out of school in the ninth grade, Hoffa made a name for himself around his working class west side neighborhood as a tough kid with a magnetic, yet ultra-aggressive personality. Wandering around the city’s pool rooms and back alleys for a couple of years, he finally landed a job unloading boxes of produce at the Kroger Grocery and Bakery Co., one of Detroit’s biggest corporate entities at that time, when he was 16. His natural leadership ability and knack for confrontation shined brightly early on in his life and by the time he was 18 in 1931, he organized a headline-grabbing labor stoppage at Kroger dubbed “The Strawberry Strike”, that eventually led to Hoffa and his co-workers being unionized and given a raise.

The gutsy maneuver gained him mass notoriety in the press and in the world of organized labor and within a year he was hired as an official organizer by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union that specialized in protecting the rights of the nation’s truck drivers. He brought with him several of his co-workers from Kroger, a number of which would go on to become the anchors of his future powerbase centered out of Local 299 in the heart of Southwest Detroit.

Behind Hoffa’s innate ability to galvanize the masses, he rapidly shot up the union ranks in the coming years, cementing his status by forging deep ties with members of the mafia, to enforce his territory. He was introduced to these men, shady underworld characters like Frank “Frankie Three Fingers” Coppola, Santo “Cockeyed Sam” Perrone and Angelo “The Chairmen” Meli, by his longtime girlfriend, Sylvia Pagano, one of the city’s most infamous gun molls of her era. Together, Hoffa and his friends in the mob built the once lowly trucker’s union into a juggernaut in the labor world with few if any equals.

The shadowy relationship between the mob and the Teamsters was longstanding. The mob gave the Teamsters protection from strikes and an intimidation factor at the negotiating table and in return the union provided the mafia incredible influence inside its own ranks, not to mention nearly-unlimited access to its robust coffers. Seizing on the Teamsters’ previously embedded underworld connections, Hoffa cultivated increased activity between the two groups and used it to guide the union to epic heights.

In 1952 at the age of 39, Hoffa became the youngest man to ever be elected to the Teamsters vice-presidency. Five years later in 1957 after president Dave Beck was convicted on federal charges of embezzlement, larceny and tax evasion, Hoffa was elected president, starting over a decade-long reign that would go on to make him one of the most recognized public figures in America and his beloved Brotherhood of Teamsters the largest, most powerful labor union in the world.

Hounded by constant rumors of corruption within in his administration and rampant speculation about his links to organized crime, Hoffa tiptoed through the minefields for a while, but was eventually taken down due to an aggressive full-court press applied by the federal government that concluded with his imprisonment in 1967 on convictions off jury tampering, fraud and conspiracy in the illegally handling of his union’s benefits fund.

Defiant to the bitter end, Hoffa refused to relinquish his presidency when he was shipped off to serve a 13-year sentence at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. Instead, Hoffa had his vice-president and right hand man Frank Fitzsimmons run things on his behalf when he was locked up and like an imprisonment mob boss, ran his regime from behind bars. This indignant attitude and perceived lack of contrition for his behavior drove the government crazy and significantly undermined his chances of an early release.

In early-June of 1971, Hoffa finally acquiesced and surrendered his leadership post, paving the way for Fitzsimmons to be elected as new head of the Teamsters later that summer and his own ticket to freedom being stamped before the end of the year. With the aid of Fitzsimmons and other powerful allies, Hoffa was able to finagle himself a presidential pardon and by December he was spending Christmas at home with his family. Unbeknownst to him at the time, his desire to reclaim his seat atop the Teamsters’ hierarchy was dead in the water prior to him even stepping out of his Pennsylvania prison cell.

The mafia didn’t want Hoffa back in the union presidency. He was a high-maintenance ally, causing way too many headaches for their liking and often refusing to take orders. They preferred Fitzsimmons, a mild-mannered bureaucrat-type who was easily influenced and didn’t question instructions. Without Hoffa knowing it, the mob had Fitzsimmons negotiate a clause in Hoffa’s sentencing commutation that stipulated he would be barred from holding any official union leadership positions.

Informed of the restriction in the days after his release from prison, Hoffa was incensed. Immediately, he clued in to what was going on; the the mafia and his former top lieutenant were trying to push him out of the picture all together. Never one to back down from a fight, in the coming years he would declare an all-out war against his former protégé Fitzsimmons and the same mobsters he had once relied on so heavily during his rise to power. It was a bitter feud that lasted over three years, escalated as it progressed and didn’t end until Hoffa was wiped off the radar permanently, executed in cold blood.

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Hoffa’s return to Detroit in early-1972 was big news. His star-studded coming home party, held on the day after New Years at the Raleigh House on Franklin Road and Telegraph in Southfield, at that time a very popular restaurant and banquet hall in the area, was covered by all the local newspapers and television channels. Surrounded by friends, family and reporters, he made it clear to everyone in attendance that his first and only priority from that point forward would be to fight his commutation’s restrictions and regain the Teamsters presidency at any and all costs.

Keeping a relatively low-profile for the next year or so until he got off parole status with the prison board, Hoffa took his fight public, doing a series of interviews with the media stating his case and bad mouthing Fitzsimmons and specific rivals of his in the mob. He spoke about turning over a new leaf and wanting to rid the union of his organized crime influence. These words and antics didn’t sit well with his one-time mafia compatriots and several messages were sent through intermediaries warning Hoffa to watch what he was saying in the press.

After a year of politicking and publically pleading his case at every opportunity available, Hoffa was starting to make significant headway in his cause. Word was spreading as early as spring 1974 that things were in the works to have Hoffa’s ban on running for office lifted by the court. Whatever beefs he was engaging in with the mob, did little to affect his popularity. Despite the fact that he was convicted of federal corruption charges related to his tenure in office, Hoffa’s approval amongst the Teamsters’ never waned. Everyone knew, with practical certainty that if the restrictions were lifted and he ran in the 1976 union presidential election, he would surely defeat Fitzsimmons in a landslide.

The mob couldn’t and more importantly wouldn’t let that happen. They had too much invested in their relationship with the Teamsters to have it threatened – specifically lucrative financial interests in Las Vegas tied directly to control over the union’s hefty pension fund. It was feared that Hoffa, who had intimate knowledge of these shady dealings involving the mafia and the fund, since he helped broker the partnership in the first place, would agree to sever the relationship between the Teamsters and the mob if in turn the government allowed him to take back his post as union president. Furthermore, many worried that Hoffa was already attempting to curry favor and sway the court’s decision on whether the clause in his pardon was constitutional or not, by feeding the FBI information on both his friends and enemies throughout the nation’s criminal underworld.

Friends instantly became enemies in this heated conflict that eventually became front page news and engulfed the lives of many in both camps for over two solid years. Violence and intimidation tactics were widespread across the board, neither side willing to give an inch and each always looking to gain leverage against the other whenever and however possible.

The biggest and most-vocal adversary Hoffa faced in his quest to defeat Fitzsimmons and the mob and reclaim the Teamsters’ empire for himself, was Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, a New Jersey based organized crime figure and labor union boss that was at one time a close confidant of Hoffa’s, but had since turned fervent enemy. Besides his legal fight with Uncle Sam over his candidate-status in the upcoming union election, the bad blood that had developed between Hoffa and Provenzano, who was capo in the Genovese crime family out of New York City and who gained his positioning in the union power structure due to an appointment by Hoffa personally a decade earlier, was the biggest hurdle for Hoffa to overcome in his impassioned efforts.

Serving prison time together in Lewisburg back in the late-1960s, Hoffa and Provenzano started out as workout companions and bridge partners and wound up nearly killing each other in the penitentiary mess hall, coming to blows one day over money Provenzano felt he was entitled to from the union during his stay behind bars. Upon release from incarceration and back on the warpath, Hoffa was quick to understand that he would need to squash the beef if he wanted to return to the Teamsters presidency. Unlike on the inside where Hoffa had a leg up in the dispute since he was still running the union and oversaw Provenzano’s activity with the Teamsters, once back on the street, Tony Pro held all the cards. He controlled the East Coast delegates Hoffa needed in his pocket to beat Fitzsimmons in an election. Without Provenzano’s backing, Hoffa’s chances of winning his seat atop the union back took a major hit.

Hoping that bygones could be bygones, Hoffa requested a meeting with Tony Pro in Miami to settle their differences. The sit-down only made things worse. Similar to what had transpired back in Lewisburg, the pair of strong-minded and volatile men had to be separated inside a plush suite at a Miami hotel. Volleying threats back in fourth, the altercation concluded with Provenzano threatening to kidnap and kill Hoffa’s grandchildren and storming out of the room in a huff.

After Hoffa went on television in February 1974 and bad mouthed Fitzsimmons and Provenzano, saying the entire sitting Teamsters leadership was controlled by organized crime, the mob had Fitzsimmons strike back by systematically eliminating Hoffa loyalists from the union ranks. His wife, son and countless close associates and supporters of the embattled Hoffa were fired from their jobs. It’s alleged in federal documents that Fitzsimmons and Provenzano created an entire squad of Teamsters-employed strong arms, headed by Roland “Big Mac” McMasters, without question the union’s most feared enforcer, to make it their every day mission to block Hoffa from returning to power.

When one of Hoffa’s closest allies Dave Johnson, president of Hoffa’s old Local 299 on Trumbull Avenue in Detroit, wouldn’t give in to pressure from Fitzsimmons’ contingent to step down so he could be replaced by Richard “Little Fitz” Fitzsimmons, Frank’s son, McMasters and his crew of henchmen started making Johnson’s life a living hell. He started getting hang-up phone calls at all times throughout the night, he had his office at the Local riddled with shotgun fire while he sat at his desk doing work and in the summer of 1974 had his luxury sail boat, docked on the Detroit River, blown to pieces by an explosive device. Although Johnson would make a deal to spare himself any more violence by agreeing to let “Little Fitz” become his vice-president, the assault on Hoffa continued.

Things reached a crescendo in the heated battle of wills in the spring and summer of 1975. According to FBI documents, at the beginning of that year Hoffa attended several meetings with ranking members of the mafia in both Detroit and Chicago where he was told to quiet his antics and retire from his pursuit of re-election. Unfazed, he responded by spewing more threats and refusing to stop campaigning in an attempt to retrieve his old job. That was the first nail in Hoffa’s coffin.

The second nail came in May when Hoffa was called in front of a federal grand jury that had been empaneled to investigate “no show” jobs and mob influence at Local 299. On countless other occasions in the past he had snubbed his nose at similar government subpoenas, refusing to answer and pleading the Fifth Amendment. Not on that occasion though. Called to the stand on May 15, 1975, he testified in detail about what he knew and then was quoted by a local newspaper as saying that he was “damn proud” of doing it.

Retaliating for Hoffa’s continued outward public flirting with the feds, Fitzsimmons threatened to put a number of notoriously Hoffa-loyal Locals into trusteeship. In late-June, Hoffa ally, Ralph Proctor, who would be murdered gangland-style eight years later due to an unrelated conflict involving the union and the mob, was jumped on the way to his car after a midday lunch meeting and beaten unconscious.

Just two weeks later on July 10, Richard Fitzsimmons had his car blown up in the parking lot of Nemo’s Bar & Grill on Michigan Avenue, only a few short blocks from Local 299. Many believed Hoffa ordered the bombing. Others believe bombing was the work of people trying to make it look like it was Hoffa hoping that it would lead to his demise. FBI documents reveal that around this same time multiple informants state that Hoffa had sought to take out murder contracts on both, Frank and Richard Fitzsimmons as well as his hated-rival, Tony Provenzano. Either way, the incident served as the boiling-over point and paved the way for Hoffa’s imminent demise.

These series of events which occurred over a little less than a two-month time span proved the final straws in the saga and put into motion inarguably the most talked-about and speculated upon mob hit of all-time. While practically every FBI agent that ever worked the investigation will tell you they have a pretty relatively accurate account of what happened to Hoffa that fateful afternoon on Wednesday, July 30, 1975, the case has never been officially solved.

Using over 500 pages of federal documents related to the investigation and the insight of those members of law enforcement who worked the case themselves, the following is the most up to date and accurate account of what most-likely transpired:

At some point in early-1974, a contract was issued on Hoffa’s life in a joint-decision made between Detroit mafia don Joe Zerilli, Chicago mob boss Tony Accardo, Pennsylvania Godfather Russell Buffalino and Tony Salerno, the front boss for the Genovese crime family. Because Hoffa “belonged” to the Detroit mob, Zerilli’s crime family was in charge of coordinating the details. With Zerilli getting up in age, FBI records implicate his heir apparent and nephew, Giacomo “Black Jack” Tocco and the syndicate street boss Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone were the ones who most likely oversaw the planning.

In the first weeks of July, FBI surveillance agents observed Salerno’s proxy, Tony Provenzano flying into Detroit to meet with Roland McMasters and Tony Giacalone, Hoffa’s contact with the Detroit mob at a hotel near the airport. Tony Pro and Tony Jack were related through marriage – Giacalone was married to the daughter of Giacomo “Big Jack” Provenzano, the Detroit mafia’s longtime crew leader in Saginaw and an uncle of Tony Pro’s. It is believed that the meeting of the minds at the airport hotel was held to finalize specifics for the execution.

Since Hoffa knew he still needed Provenzano’s support to get back into office with the Teamsters, it had been decided that a purported sit-down with Provenzano so Provenzano could give his blessing for Hoffa’s election-bid, would be used as the lure. The mob knew full well that Hoffa’s love of the union far surpassed his hatred for Tony Pro and that the prospect of getting things squared away with Provenzano’s and securing his pledge of delegates would be a sufficient set-up strategy to get him out in the open. The assessment was spot-on.

The only problem with the scenario was finding a sufficient place to meet, so the mob could get Hoffa alone and pop him. For months, Hoffa was refusing to travel to New Jersey to see Provenzano. His only caveat to the meeting was that Tony Pro came to Detroit to see him. Although he never really intended on ever coming to Michigan, Provenzano passed word to Hoffa through Tony Giacalone that he would be there on July 30. The fact that William Buffalino, Hoffa’s attorney, Russell Buffalino’s first cousin, and a longtime alleged Detroit mob associate, was marrying off his daughter on August 2 in a lavish ceremony in Grosse Pointe and many underworld luminaries were expected to be descending on the city in the days leading up the nuptials, was the perfect excuse for his trip and Hoffa bought it hook, line and sinker.

At a meeting over dinner that took place at Hoffa’s Lake Orion residence on July 26, Tony Giacalone and his brother, fellow mob capo, Vito “Billy Jack” Giacalone, informed Hoffa that the sit-down would take place at the Machus Red Fox, an upscale restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, one of the wealthiest bedroom communities in the country, at 2:00 in the afternoon. It was agreed that Tony Giacalone would be on hand to act as a mediator, although like Tony Pro, Giacalone had no intention of ever setting foot anywhere near Bloomfield Hills that day.

An elite assassination squad was assembled in the days leading up to the supposed meeting and tasked with carrying out all the details of Hoffa’s kidnapping, murder and body disposal. According to federal documents, the hit team most-likely consisted of Provenzano lieutenants Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio and Tommy and Stevie Andretta, Russell Buffalino’s right hand man, Francis “Frank the Irishman” Sheeran and Detroit mobsters, Billy Giacalone and Raffealle “Jimmy Q” Quasarano. Briguglio, the Andrettas and Sheeran, a close Hoffa confidant, flew into Detroit on the morning of July 30 and readied to complete their assignment.

Sheeran claims in his 2004 book, “I Heard You Paint Houses; The Inside Story of The Mafia, The Teamsters & The Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa,” that he met Briguglio and the Andrettas at a house on Beaverland Street off Seven Mile Road in Northeast Detroit in the hours prior to Hoffa’s scheduled meeting with Giacalone and Provenzano, approximately 10 miles away, and then returned there at approximately at 3:30 and shot Hoffa in the back of the head as they entered the residence together for the alleged sit-down.

Whether you believe Sheeran’s account – much of which came from a deathbed confession given to his lawyer and co-author Charles Brandt – most of those with intimate knowledge of the investigation concede at the very least he was closely involved with Hoffa disappearance. FBI documents note his appearance at several top-echelon mob meetings, thought to be briefings regarding the events surrounding Hoffa’s dispatching, as well as confirmation of his presence in the Detroit area on the day Hoffa went missing. With regards to his assertion that Hoffa was taken and killed at the house on Beaverland, the FBI disregard the theory because the lack of DNA evidence uncovered in a forensic analysis of the home subsequent to Sheeran’s 2004 confession and the inability to trace the residence to anyone with any relation to the underworld.

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What is known for certain is the following:

Hoffa left his waterfront property in Lake Orion at approximately 1:00 pm in his green Granville Pontiac and stopped by Airport Services Lines in Pontiac, a car courier business owned by one of his closest associates, Louis Linteau, known on the street as “Louie the Pope.” Linteau, a former Teamster, and Hoffa used to be enemies but had since mended their differences and by the time Hoffa left prison, Linteau became is unofficial appointment secretary. It was well known in both underworld and labor union circles that Linteau acted as a buffer for Hoffa and that if anyone needed a face-to-face meet with him they needed to contact Linteau first. The dinner meeting between Hoffa and the Giacalone brothers on July 26 where they informed him of the July 30 sit-down was arranged by Linteau and Hoffa stopped by his office on his way to the Machus Red Fox to check-in before he went to see Tony Jack and Tony Pro. Linteau was out to lunch when Hoffa stopped by so Hoffa left a message for him before departing for the Machus Red Fox at approximately 1:45.

Arriving at the restaurant at approximately 2:00, Hoffa stood in the eatery’s foyer waiting for Giacalone and Provenzano to show up but they never did. Making small talk with a half-dozen restaurant guests and employees, Hoffa left the premises at 2:45 and walked less than 100 yards to a hardware story payphone at the shopping mall that the Machus Red Fox bordered. Phoning Linteau and his wife, Hoffa told them both that he had been ditched for his meeting and that he was going to leave immediately. Witness accounts from the parking lot place Hoffa being intercepted by a Lincoln Mercury carrying three other men on his way from the payphone to his car which was parked near the restaurant. After a brief conversation, Hoffa was observed getting into Lincoln Mercury and departing onto Maple road, never to be seen alive again.

Those who saw the interaction between Hoffa and the men identified Sal Briguglio and Hoffa’s surrogate son Chuckie O’Brien as two of the three men in the vehicle, which was soon discovered to have most-likely belonged to Joey Giacalone, Tony’s youngest son. O’Brien, who was caught in the middle of the battle between Hoffa in the mob, being raised by Hoffa, yet also being very close to Fitzsimmons and the Giacalone family too, is believed to have been used as a pawn in the plot to get his beleaguered father figure out in the open so he could be killed. Not known as someone to be trusted with sensitive information, it is unlikely O’Brien was let in on all the details of the plan. However, it’s thought he was used in the transporting of Hoffa from the restaurant to the execution sight because Hoffa, despite having had a recent falling out with O’Brien over issues related to Teamsters politics, would feel safe getting into a car with him, not believing the mob would involve him in a hit attempt.

In his book, Frank Sheeran confirms O’Brien’s role as the driver of the car that picked Hoffa up, but stated he left before any violence took place. Admitting to driving Joey Giacalone’s Lincoln that afternoon, O’Brien said in interviews with authorities that he used it to deliver a 40 pound prize salmon to Bobby Holmes, a longtime Teamster and close associate of Hoffa’s. Known as a compulsive liar by friend and foe alike, O’Brien, the son of both Hoffa’s and Tony Jack’s ex-lover Sylvia Pagano, proved to be telling the truth in that one specific instance, as reddish stains on the backseat of the vehicle tested positive for fish blood. However, there were so many other inconsistencies and holes in O’Brien’s story about his activities that afternoon, the federal government is convinced of at least his peripheral involvement in the events that led to Hoffa’s unpleasant demise.

Seized by the FBI in the days after Hoffa’s disappearance, the Lincoln Mercury currently resides in a federal evidence storage locker, having been examined thoroughly over the years that followed. Police dogs recognized Hoffa’s scent in both the car’s backseat and trunk and a single blood-coated hair which matched by DNA to hairs from Hoffa’s hairbrush was found on the floor. Further testing uncovered additionally-consistent DNA of Hoffa’s in the trunk and other parts of the car.

Still there was not enough evidence to bring charges. All the principle suspects in the case either had ironclad alibis or alibis that could neither be confirmed nor denied. Both Tony Giacalone and Tony Provenzano spent the entire afternoon of July 30 in public places surrounded by masses of people.

Giacalone was at his unofficial headquarters, the Southfield Athletic Club, located on the first floor of the Travelers Towers office building and owned by Giacalone’s and Hoffa’s mutual acquaintance, Lenny Schultz, an old time Jewish racketeer who often acted as a go-between for Tony Jack and the labor union brass. A man who made a habit to speak to as few people as possible on any given day, Giacalone was unusually friendly that day at his club as he stopped at chatted up several members and employees who he had never spoken to previously in between taking phone calls, getting a massage and a haircut.

Around 2:30 that afternoon, O’Brien was observed meeting with Giacalone in a corridor of the club. Many in law enforcement believe this meeting was held to provide O’Brien with last-minute instructions, while O’Brien himself chalks it up to Giacalone just wanting to give him $200 as a graduation present for his son. Other FBI surveillance reports place Jack Tocco arriving at the Southfield Athletic Club at around 4:30, presumably to meet with Giacalone after the job was completed. Detroit mafia lieutenants Peter “Bozzi” Vitale and Jimmy Quasarano, the syndicate’s east coast representatives, along with Sheeran were seen going to meet with Geneovses Family boss Tony Salerno at his headquarters, The Palma Boys Social Club in Harlem in the early weeks of August, in meetings that were viewed as “touch base” sessions with the New York mob.

Like Tony Jack, Tony Pro had an airtight alibi. Amongst a sleuth of people, Provenzano was at a New Jersey Teamsters hall playing cards the entire afternoon of the 30th. The only suspect in the case to be unaccounted for that afternoon was Billy Giacalone, who lost his surveillance team around 11:30 that morning and wasn’t tracked down and located again until around dinner time.

Because the Detroit mafia had ownership and easy access to a pair of crematoriums and several trash compactors within less than a half-hour’s driving distance from where Hoffa was last seen, FBI reports suggest the consensus opinion is that his body was taken either to a funeral home or sanitation company in the area and disposed of there. Informants developed in the Detroit FBI office implicate Jimmy Quasarano, the Motor City crime family’s soon-to-be consigliere as the man in charge of making sure Hoffa’s body was deconstructed as quickly as possible after he took his last breath and Billy Giacalone as the Detroit representative responsible for overseeing the actual assassination itself.

Even though none of the principle characters in the murderous drama were ever charged with the crime itself, almost every single one of them either died or were imprisoned in the coming years on other racketeering-related charges. Detroit mob don, Joe Zerilli passed away as a result of natural causes in 1977. Tony Provenzano was convicted in 1978 of the murder of another Teamsters union official back in 1961 and died in prison in 1988. Tony Giacalone was sent to prison on charges of tax evasion and loansharking and spent seven years behind bars before dying a free man in 2001 of cancer while s till under indictment on massive racketeering case that was brought in 1996. Russell Buffalino spent time in prison throughout the late-1970s and almost the entire 1980s for extortion and attempted murder before dying of natural causes at a Pennsylvania nursing home in 1994. Sheeran, Salerno and Zerilli’s nephew and predecessor Jack Tocco were each convicted of forthcoming racketeering charges and had to do time in prison, as was the same case with Billy Giacalone, Jimmy Quasarano and the Andretta brothers. Sal Brigugio was gunned down and murdered on a street in Little Italy in 1978, when word leaked out that he might be cooperating with federal authorities against Provenzano and the Genoveses and could start divulging details about the Hoffa hit.

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In the years since Jimmy Hoffa first disappeared there have been numerous theories promulgated in regards what exactly happened to him and his body. Some of the more outlandish have been offered by imprisoned criminals themselves, often times in hopes of trading the information for their freedom. A former close associate of Tony Provenzano, Donald “Tony the Greek” Frankos, claimed that Hoffa’s remains were buried underneath Giants Stadium, in East Rutherford, New Jersey. A witness in an early-1980s congressional hearing on the Hoffa case testified that Hoffa’s body was taken to Florida and he was fed to alligators in a swamp. Another witness in the same hearing claimed Hoffa’s body was shipped to Georgia and buried underneath the Sheraton Savannah Resort Hotel, a construction project funded with Teamsters’ money.

Other theories like Frank Sheeran’s have been given more weight by investigators. In 2006, the FBI in Detroit spent a week of time and a quarter of a million dollars of tax money to dig up a horse farm once owned by Roland McMasters based on information they deemed credible from Donovan Wells, a one- time McMasters associate, who succeeded in exchanging the information, which eventually failed to prove accurate, for his release from prison on a drug dealing conviction.

Ralph “Little Ralphie” Piccardo, a credible informant out of the Genovese crime family and a one-time driver for Tony Pro, told authorities that Hoffa’s body was shipped in an industrial steel drum via truck out of Detroit and put into a landfill. Detroit-based researcher, Jeff Hanson, has possibly tracked Hoffa’s body disposal to a Metro area cemetery incinerator, where there are inconsistencies in the record-keeping for cremations done on July 30, 1975 and is less than a mile from the house Sheeran state’s the murder took place at. A number of FBI informants indicated that Hoffa’s body was disposed in either one of the two area sanitation companies – Central Sanitation and Tri-County Sanitation – owned by members of the Detroit mafia.

One of the more unknown, yet most plausible theories around the exact details stems from a theory developed from group of retired FBI agents who worked the case in the 1980s, but don’t wish to be identified. It is their belief that Hoffa was taken to the residence of Detroit mafia soldier Carlo Licata, a mere two mile drive from the Machus Red Fox down Telegraph Road and killed there, before having his body transported and cremated at Bagnasco’s Funeral Home in St. Clair Shores. Salvatore “Sammy B” Bagnasco, the owner of the aforementioned funeral home, and Carlo Licata were both brother in-laws to Jack Tocco, who at the time of Hoffa’s disappearance was “acting boss” of the Detroit mob and son in laws to Black Bill Tocco the founder of the mafia in Michigan.

A comment made to Frank Sheeran from Russell Buffalino seems to support the idea that Hoffa’s body was disposed of at Bagnasco’s. In his book, he recounts an incident in New York City where Buffalino informed him that Hoffa’s body was “cremated at a funeral home in Detroit that was closely associated with the Detroit people (mafia) were close to”, following a run-in with Pete Vitale on the street leaving a restaurant meeting with Fat Tony Salerno in the weeks after the Hoffa hit.

Licata’s house was known by authorities to be a frequent meeting spot for the Giacalone brothers and Hoffa, since it was centrally located in between Hoffa’s house in North Oakland County and Tony Jack’s headquarters at the Southfield Athletic Club in South Oakland County. A transplant from California, Licata also had easy access to an incinerator at a local sanitation business he co-owned with Jimmy Quasarano.

To add more mystery and intrigue surrounding the theory, Licata was found dead at the same residence, which was nestled on a hill in a secluded estate at 6380 Long Lake Road, on July 30, 1981, the sixth-year anniversary of Hoffa’s disappearance of multiple gunshot wounds to the chest. Even though the death was officially ruled a suicide by the Oakland County Medical Examiner, many who worked the case in its latter-stages have their doubts. When some of these agents began asking their informants on the street about the theory they received resounding positive responses. According to these men, it is common belief on the street in Detroit that Hoffa’s disappearance and Licata’s death were at the very least loosely connected.

Carlo Licata was the son of Nick Licata, the former don of the Los Angeles mafia in the late-1960s and early-1970s. Nick Licata had become a made member of the mafia in Detroit in the 1930 but fled to the West Coast due to a falling out with Joe Zerilli and Black Bill Tocco. Hooking up with the mob in Los Angeles, Nick ascended quickly up the ranks of the California mafia and by the 1950s was in place to be a future administrator. The only problem that arose with Licata’s rise up the latter was his feud with Zerilli and Tocco in Michigan. Zerilli sat on the mafia’s national “Commission” or unofficial board of directors and if Licata wanted to one day become a don himself he had to make the peace.

In 1953, Nick Licata made an arrangement for his son, Carlo, who had recently made his bones in Los Angeles by killing the attorney of legendary California Jewish crime boss Meyer “Mickey C” Cohen, to marry Tocco’s daughter and Zerilli’s niece Josephine. It was a huge ceremony in Downtown Detroit that drew mob chieftains and dignitaries from across the country and officially served to bury the hatched between the two families.

Federal documents related to the investigation of this theory indicate the informants told the FBI that at the time of his passing Carlo Licata was in a dispute with his brother-in-law, Jack Tocco over his treatment of Josephine. The informants allege that after a sit-down where Licata is told to stop drinking too much and start treating his wife better, he became belligerent threatened to use his knowledge of what happened to Hoffa as a bargaining chip. The FBI who hold the theory that Licata’s house was the location of the hit believe it’s possible Licata himself was done away at the exact same spot on the anniversary of the Hoffa murder as a message to everyone that no one is safe from harm, not even family relatives, if they even think about turning on the crime syndicate.

Surving The Mob – Ernie Kanakis Had 9 Lives

It was Sunday July 11, 1976, exactly one week past the dawning of the nation’s much-celebrated Bicentennial. The air in the city of Detroit was thick and muggy, the weather sweltering, carrying on a heat wave that had blanketed the area since the beginning of the month.

Nobody felt the heat more than Ernest Kanakis, known in local underworld circles simply as, “Ernie the Greek,” sitting anxiously-alert behind the wheel of his car at the corner of Chalmers and Warren that early summer evening, frantically going over in his mind what his next move should be.* Should he stay and face the music or should he find the nearest highway, get on it and keep driving until he was well beyond the state line?*

The decision making process was over in a matter of seconds. The passenger door of Kanakis’ car opened abruptly and Detroit mafia lieutenant, Frank “Frankie Razz” Randazzo slipped into the seat beside him. By that point he had no choice. He was in it for the long haul.

Starting to drive eastbound on Warren, Kanakis was on edge from the moment Randazzo, also called Frankie Rah Rah or Frankie the Pimp, got into his car. Randazzo was a Sicilian-born mafioso, widely-feared and highly-respected within the motor city crime syndicate and on his bad side is not where you wanted to be. Unfortunately for Kanakis, that’s exactly where he was and had been for a while. The further the duo of local wiseguys, former partners in a lucrative illegal gambling operation, drove towards Randazzo’s house, the more uncomfortable Ernie the Greek became.

The pair had had been on bad terms for a while. A few years earlier, Kanakis broke off their profitable business relationship, and despite Frankie Razz’s heated objections, went on his own. That didn’t sit well with Randazzo or his friends in the mafia who had gotten quite used to the fattened envelopes of cash they were generating from the series of gambling rackets Kanakis was overseeing.

Taking that into account, he was caught off guard when in early July 1976, Randazzo approached him at his restaurant, “Ernie’s Finer Foods Diner”, located in downtown Detroit’s Cass Corridor in the Eddystone Hotel, and started to talk him up like there was no bad blood between them. Before he left, he requested Kanakis’ help in moving a safe out of his basement, offering him $4,000 if he would help him dispose of a defective safe that he said had been sitting in his basement for over a year.

While suspicious, Ernie the Greek was broke and needed the money. His beef with the mob had cut into his bottom-line and was keeping people away from his restaurant. Knowing full well that the ill will which existed between himself and Randazzo was most likely not forgotten by him or his bosses in the mafia, he agreed to help. It wouldn’t be a wise decision and it wouldn’t take him long to figure it out.

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Ernie The Greek’s problems with the Detroit mafia began eight years previous, in a time long before Kanakis had gone into business with the mob, and regarding a dispute he had nothing to do with, nor knew anything about. In 1968, a local gambler and fruit vendor named Sam Di Maggio, found himself in financial debt to the notorious Giacalone brothers, a vicious gangland tandem consisting of motor city crime family Street Boss, Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone and his younger sibling, mafia capo Vito “Billy Jack” Giacalone. The Giacalones, plucked from the streets of Eastern Market as youths and groomed as future leaders of the mob from a very young age, ran a city-wide bookmaking and loansharking operation, and Di Maggio, a heavy sports gambler, owed them a couple of thousand dollars.

“Tony Jack and Billy Jack were the Family’s junkyard dogs, the enforced the orders of the upper administration and did it with pride,” said former U.S. prosecutor Keith Corbett who made his living trying to bring the Detroit mafia down in over two dozen years of service to the government. “I think they relished the roles. They were the kind of guys who liked being gangsters and got off on the fear they instilled in people.”

Here is an excerpt from an FBI wiretap that was placed in the Home Juice Company, the Giacalone brothers headquarters in the 1960s, where Tony Jack and Billy Jack were browbeating a colleague for trying to loan out money in their territory.

Billy Jack – I pay the police, I pay the lawyers, I pay the judges, I pay the courts, now I get all of this. So keep your hands off. You’re in the bonding business. You handle all the bonding around here. Leave the loans to us. Anybody comes to you looking for a loan, you send’em to me or my brother.

Tony Jack – You got any other money out right now that we should know about?

Colleague – No, not shylocking at all anymore

Billy Jack – You sure about that?

Colleague – Positively

Tony Jack – Now don’t let me find out you’re lying to us, or I’ll bury ya!

Billy Jack – This is it, your one and only warning

Colleague – I understand, Bill. I’m out of the shy business, I swear

Tony Jack – That $500 dollars Leo owes you, you lost that one. That one belongs to us now. Don’t both Bob no more either. We’re taking that one too. That’s your penalty. Now, get out of here!

Here’s another excerpt from that same wiretap of the Giacalone brothers berating another colleague for being a lousy drunk.

Billy Jack – If you don’t know how to hold your drinks, I suggest you stop drinking. Next time, I’m gonna….I’m gonna…They’re ain’t gonna be no fucking next time. I’ll chop your fucking head off. I don’t go for that shit.

Colleague – I know, Billy. I feel awful about the way I acted. I don’t know what I was thinking

Tony Jack – Just quit this shit about the drinking and the getting out of hand in public. We don’t go for that shit around here. We don’t take that shit from nobody, I don’t care how big or small.

Billy Jack – We don’t give a shit about you or any fucking body

Colleague – I know, I know. I’m sorry.

Tony Jack – I’m gonna tell ya right now, if you get out of line one more time, we ain’t giving out any more passes. You respect us, we respect you. Don’t be stupid or you’ll end up in a ditch.”

Di Maggio was well aware of the Giacalones reputation and knew he had to go to all lengths in order to fix the situation immediately. Not having the money himself to pay the Giacalone brothers back their money, Di Maggio went to area mob loanshark, Bernard “Bernie the Hammer” Marchesani, and borrowed the cash at a substantially inflated interest rate in order to settle his debt.

He might have no longer been into the Giacalones for money, but then he found himself in debt to Marchesani, a heavy-handed mob strong arm who in perfect underworld synchronization reported to none other than the Giacalone brothers. It was a vicious cycle and Ernie Kanakis was stuck in the middle of it with no reprieve.

Bernie the Hammer was Detroit’s own Luca Brasi from The Godfather, the official go-to guy for the mob on the streets, given all the toughest enforcement assignments from the crime family’s top brass. He was gruff and physically imposing, unafraid to break traditional mafia protocol and sport a thick and bushy beard, sometimes appearing more like a biker than a mobster.

“Marchesani was as tough as they come in that world,” said retired FBI agent Mike Carone. “For a lot of years, he did all of the collecting for the Giacalones and they ran the street for the entire Family. So in essence, by doing that, he was doing the enforcing for the Family’s official enforcers. They picked him as their representative. That really tells you all you need to know about what kind of guy he was. He put the fear of God in some of the city’s most hardened wiseguys.”

Things didn’t bode well for Sam Di Maggio. A week later and still broke, he failed to fork anything over to Bernie the Hammer when he came to collect the first installment of the loan. Pleading with an angry Marchesani for more time, Di Maggio was sent away with a warning and told he better come up with payment soon or he would be in serious trouble.

Two weeks passed and Di Maggio still had no money to give. Infuriated, Marchesani went to Tony Giacalone for guidance in how to handle the problem and he was advised to assign a crew of strong-arms to rough-up Di Maggio as “incentive” to pay his future loan installments on time. Rounding up three of his foot soldiers – Pete Vassalo, Robert Dunaway, and John Palmer – Marchesani sent them to see Di Maggio with specific instructions to beat him up but not to kill him. Tony Jack allegedly told Marchesani that Di Maggio was protected by the fact that he was the cousin of deceased mob solider Frank “The Iceberg” Di Maggio, a top lieutenant of Pete Licavoli’s who was said to have come to Detroit from Chicago in the years after Prohibition.

Eager to impress their superiors in the crime family with their effectiveness as enforcers, Vassalo, Dunaway and Palmer, each wielding blunt instruments, went overboard in their assault of Di Maggio. Approaching their delinquent target outside his home while he tended to his front lawn, they attacked him with several baseball bats and a led pipe, beating him so badly he died later that same day at a local hospital. However, this crime could have been deterred if the homeowner had purchased a home camera system in order to watch over his property.

This infraction of direct mob orders infuriated the notoriously-hot tempered Giacalone brothers and FBI documents allege they ordered Vassalo, Dunaway, and Palmer all to be executed as soon as possible. Biding its time, a trait of deliberate homicidal plodding that was a trademark of the Detroit mafia since its inception, Dunaway was murdered in 1971 and Vassalo in 1972. John Palmer disappeared in 1977, shortly after his release from prison on un-related felony charges.

Although a link between the Giacalones and the four previously described gangland slayings could not be established in a court of law, the brazen mafia executions caught the collective interest of the federal government and resulted in the opening of a widespread FBI investigation into the brothers’ other various criminal activities. Not knowing it at the time and to his great dismay, Ernie Kanakis was about to be unwittingly flung into the center of the whole thing.

Around the same time as Dunaway and Vassalo were murdered, Ernie Kanakis went into business with the local mob and indirectly the Giacalone brothers. It was a decision he would deeply regret for the rest of his life, but one he had no choice in making at the time.

Besides serving up good food and good conversation, Ernie the Greek’s diner also served as a back door casino, which made him a great deal of money. Since he had opened the establishment in 1967, Kanakis had been closing his diner early three nights a week, and running blackjack, dice, and roulette games out of the restaurant’s basement, independent of the mafia. By the early-1970’s, Kanakis’ after-hours gambling extravaganzas became a neighborhood staple, attracting a loyal client-base, and unfortunately for Kanakis, the attention of the certain organized crime figures who sensed a cash cow to be exploited to their advantage.

“Ernie was loud and obnoxious, but he was a big time earner and that earned him a certain level of prominence in the city’s rackets,” Carone said. “I don’t think there was any question either though that despite him being a bit of a blowhard, he was quite capable of fending for himself on the street. I mean he wasn’t easy to push around. It was known he could handle a gun.”

Late one October night in 1972, on a late and stormy fall night, Frank Randazzo and another local mob soldier named, Joe Siragusa, paid Kanakis a visit at his diner and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse; either go partners with them in their gaming activities and move the location of the game from the diner to an athletic club in Greektown named, The Summit, which was owned by Siragusa, or they would shut his casino down themselves and kill him. Kanakis was tough, but he wasn’t stupid. Seeing very few options for himself, Ernie The Greek agreed to the mob’s demands and moved his gambling operation to The Summit.

Detroit’s Greektown, located in a five-block square radius centered on Monroe Street and long overseen by mob capos and brothers Paul and Pete Vitale, was a hotbed of mafia activity for a good 50 years ranging from the 1940s through the early-1990s. For several decades the area has been a popular nightlife district and local police officers were once explicitly instructed not to socialize in the booming ethnic enclave when off duty.

“It’s long been an area with deep ties to organized crime” said Carone of Greektown.

“That’s not to say that all the shop keepers and restaurant owners are criminals, just that the atmosphere in that area was always ripe for being taken advantage of by the mob. The Grecian Gardens restaurant on the far West end of Monroe was a big gathering place for organized crime figures and where the Vitale brothers and their crews were centered. There was always a lot of different kind of activity going on at all hours of the day. Guys were earning and socializing down there at the same time.”

Just like in the basement of his diner, things were cooking from the start down in Greektown. The “casino nights” held by the club four days a week and overseen by Kanakis immediately became a hot ticket, attracting many of the city’s highest rollers and turning a pretty penny, most of which ended up in the pockets of Randazzo, Siragusa and their superiors in the mob.

One thing’s was for sure, Randazzo knew how to keep his bosses happy. He was a longtime moneymaker for the mafia in Detroit, being charged with looking after its prostitution rackets for a solid 25 years, as well as running number of other cash-heavy illegal ventures with his younger brother, Anthony “Tony Razz” Randazzo.

It didn’t take long for Kanakis to sour on the new arrangement and in less than a year he told Randazzo and Siragusa that he was breaking off their business relationship and going back on his own. Disturbed by the chain of events, but not quite ready to make their adversary disappear, the mafia gave Ernie the Greek a temporary pass.

Returning to running his backdoor gaming ventures out of his diner at the Eddystone didn’t exactly turn out the way he had envisioned. News of Kanakis’ falling out with Randazzo and Siragusa was all over the street and gamblers that were once his most loyal patrons were now too spooked to frequent his games. This phenomenon carried over to his eating establishment as well, former bread and butter customers stopped eating and congregating at his diner in fear of upsetting the mafia. Within months, he was broke.

After a few weeks of considering his options, Ernie The Greek made yet another decision he would live to enormously regret. Instead of going to the government and requesting assistance to save his restaurant, Kanakis decided to go the mob. He borrowed $1000 from Bernard Marchesani, at five percent interest, and went forward in trying to rebuild his diner’s reputation and image, but most of all, its profitability.

The rebuilding effort quickly went south and Kanakis could not afford to repay his loan to Marchesani, who at that point, was demanding double the interest the two parties had agreed upon from the outset. Bernie the Hammer had little sympathy for Ernie The Greek and viewed him as a mark. On several occasions in public, he threatened to kill him and his entire family if he did not make good on the outstanding debt.

Fortunately for Kanakis, not long after his brutal encounter with Marchesani, the Giacalones’ loansharking operation was busted by the feds. The Giacalone brothers and Marchesani are each indicted, and the Detroit mafia soon had much more important concerns on their mind than the money owed to them by one, somewhat inconsequential local half-wiseguy.

Unfortunately for him, at the same time the mob was letting him slide on his debt, he was being subpoenaed by the government to appear as a witness at the Giacalones’ loansharking trial. This placed Kanakis in a very precarious position. He knew if he didn’t appear in court to take the stand against the Giacalones he would be held in contempt and jailed. At the same time, he also knew that by testifying against Tony Jack and Billy Jack in open court could mean a death sentence for himself and anybody he associated with, including his family. Weighing his options delicately, Kanakis decided to take his chances on the street and avoid certain imprisonment by showing up and providing testimony at the highly-publicized trial.

Although making no direct statement regarding either of the Giacalone brothers personally while on the stand, Ernie the Greek did speak on the record at great length about his relationship with their top lieutenant, Bernie the Hammer Marchesani. He told of his monetary transactions with Marchesani, the threats Marchesani hurled his way when things went poorly, and his knowledge that Marchesani took orders from the mafia. He told of his distaste for the local crime syndicate and how he preferred operating on the streets independent of mob influence and direction.

And with that, in essence, Kanakis signed his own death warrant. When you added up his falling out with Randazzo and Siragusa to the beef he had with Marchesani, and the fact that he testified against the mob in court, he was substantially more of a headache than he was worth. The Detroit mafia had reached its breaking point and he would soon find himself designated to be murdered for his repeated indiscretions.

“I think testifying at the Giacalones trial was probably the final straw,” Corbett said. “He was already on a lot of people’s bad sides and that most likely put things over the edge. Plus, I think they (the mob) wanted his gambling business, which might have been down in profits from its peak, but was still a lucrative operation.”

Looking for the best way to lure Ernie the Greek to his slaughter without arising suspicion, Tony Giacalone called upon his former business partner, Frank Randazzo. Federal documents allege that Tony Jack, the local mob’s day-to-day overseer, told him to round of up a crew of hit men and carry out the contract on Kanakis as soon as possible.

Constructing an unusually elderly execution team – everyone on the team was over the age of 70 – that included himself, Joe Siragusa, and longtime Motor City gangland assassin, Nick “The Executioner” Ditta, Randazzo reputedly met with Giacalone in early-June of 1976 at Giacalone’s headquarters, the Southfield Athletic Club, on 10 Mile and Evergreen and told him that they planned to hit Kanakis the following month, shortly after the Bicentennial. Giacalone allegedly informed them to send word through his brother, Billy, if there were any more issues with setting up the contract and then to report back to him after the job was completed. Kanakis had crossed his associates in the mob on one too many occasions and although he didn’t know it at the time, he was living his life as a marked man.

Randazzo was exhibiting strange behavior the entire car ride to his house. He was outwardly displaying signs of extreme nervousness and anxiety, constantly watching his rear-view mirror, commenting he was paranoid about government surveillance and badgering Kanakis about whether or not he had been followed he had told anybody about where he going that night. Ernie the Greek was no dummy. He knew something was very wrong.

Pulling up the driveway of Frank Randazzo’s house, located on Detroit’s Northwest side, Kanakis parked the car and both he and Randazzo exited the vehicle and entered the residence through the backdoor. Ernie the Greek was no amature, he had been dealing with seedy and conniving underworld figures for quite a bit of time and had developed a good idea about how they operated. Accordingly, Kanakis made sure he had covered all his bases before leaving for his encounter with Randazzo on the evening of July 11.

That morning he had telephoned a local gambler friend of his named, Thomas “Tommy the Judge” Niccopolous, and told him where he was going that night and who he would be with. As an extra measure of safety, he arranged for Nicopolous to be stashed in a house down the street from where Randazzo lived, just in case he ran into trouble he could not handle himself and had to call for back up. He also took the time to handwrite a note and leave it with his wife, with instructions to deliver it to the FBI if something were to happen to him while allegedly helping Frankie Razz move his safe.

The note was addressed to an FBI agent he had developed a relationship with in his years on the streets, and in it, he relayed the events leading up to his meeting with the mob that evening and informed him that law enforcement should focus on Randazzo and his cronies if he were to wind up dead or missing. Finally, Kanakis armed himself with a pistol, which he strapped to a holster on his leg, kissed his wife goodbye, and left for his rendevous with the mafia – knowing that by doing so he was leaving life and limb in the hands of fate.

Immediately after the pair of wiseguys entered the house, Randazzo made a quick left turn and opened the door to his basement, inviting Kanakis to lead the way down the stairs. Kanakis agreed and Randazzo closed the basement door behind them, nervously ushering his target to the pending bloodbath. The second the door shut, Ernie The Greek knew something was wrong and began to turn around so he could confront Randazzo about his odd behavior.

Before he made it, Frankie Razz jumped on his back and pushed him down the flight of stairs. Approaching a staggered Kanakis on the basement floor, Randazzo picked him up and attempted to hold both of his arms behind his back, while yelling, “Kill him, kill him, now!”. Suddenly, Joe Siragusa came screaming out of the cellar shadows and began stabbing Kanakis repeatedly in the chest with an ice pick. It was a tornado of terror and Kanakis was smack dab in the eye of the storm, seemingly bound for certain death.

While Randazzo and Siragusa were assaulting Kanakis, a third figure emerged from his hiding spot in the back of the basement. It was Nick Ditta and he was brandishing a pistol with its barrel wrapped in a kitchen towel to act as a makeshift silencer. A devilish grin imprinted on his face, Ditta took two steps toward Kanakis, put the gun to his temple, and pulled the trigger.

That should have been the end for Ernie the Greek Kanakis. He should have been killed instantly. But, he wasn’t. Luckily for Kanakis, Ditta’s pistol jammed. The towel he had wrapped around the gun had been tied too tight and caused it to malfunction. Surprised he hadn’t blown his target’s head all the way across the room with his first shot, Ditta fired the gun one more time. Once again, nothing happened.

Meanwhile, Ernie the Greek broke loose from the clutches of his assailants, kicked the gun out of Ditta’s hand, and had the presence of mind to make a move for his own weapon. Pulling the gun from underneath his left pant leg, Kanakis took aim at the three men who were trying to take his life just moments previous and shoots them all at point blank range. Fleeing up the stairs and out the back door, he got into his car, drove himself to the hospital for treatment, having nurses call and report the incident to the local police.

Back at the house, Siragusa and Randazzo died instantly, while Nick Ditta held on long enough to make it up the stairwell and call 911. Ditta, a favored hit man of the Detroit mafia brass for over four decades, who often would travel to other cities on behalf of the crime family to carry out top secret assignments, finally succumbed to his fatal bullet wounds on Randazzo’s kitchen floor, clutching a telephone in his hands, waiting for the ambulance he wouldn’t live to see arrive.

Following his involvement in the carnage-soaked basement massacre, Ernie The Greek went on trial for murder and was eventually acquitted of all charges on the grounds of self-defense. Kanakis had averted death and jail, and with the exception of some scars on his chest from being stabbed with Siragusa’s ice pick, he was standing tall and strong, ready to re-start his life anew. He believed he had escaped the mafia’s murderous wrath and pledge of vengence against him.

However, Ernie the Greek underestimated the Detroit mob’s resolve, and while Kanakis looked to take advantage of his newfound second lease on life, the motor city crime family stewed in the shadows and plotted their enemy’s eventual demise. They would make certain that their target was lulled into a sufficient state of relaxation and security, before they struck again.

* * * * *

Six years went by and it appeared, at least on the surface that tensions between Ernie Kanakis and the mob had cooled down significantly. It was the 1980’s and Kanakis had left his interests in the underworld behind, deciding to go legitimate and live his life on the straight and narrow.

Being interviewed by a local paper on the five-year anniversary of his attempted murder, he rejected the idea that the Giacalones would still want to have him killed. “If the Giacalone brothers wanted me dead, they would have done it already and better than anybody in the world – in complete secrecy,” he said.

Divorced from his wife, he had a new girlfriend and in his mind, had successfully outrun all the demons from his past. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

“When mob around here holds a grudge, it’s for a lifetime,” Mike Carone said. “I don’t think any single event in the last three, four decades demonstrates that more than the Ernie Kanakis situation.”

Despite Ernie the Greek’s delusions of safety, the Detroit mafia has an outstanding long term memory, especially when it came to unpaid debts. He had not been forgotten about him at all. They owed Kanakis another visit, and by the dawning of the new decade it was only a matter of time before the mob looked to exact their revenge.

That time came in December of 1982, when crime family lieutenant, Frank “Frankie the Bomb” Bommarito, a highly-feared local underworld enforcer and trusted member of Vito Giacalone’s crew, summoned widely-known motor city hitman, Charles Acker, to a meeting at a Detroit-area Denny’s Restaurant. After some initial small talk in a secluded back booth of the restaurant, Bommarito offered Acker $5,000 cash if he would kill Ernie the Greek Kanakis. In a gruesome added twist, he said he would throw in an added $2,000 bonus if after he completed the job, took photographs of the corpse and crime scene, and sent them in a Christmas card to the Giacalone brothers.

Acker agreed to the deal and several more meetings ensued between himself and Bommarito to discuss logistics in the hit contract. Eventually, over dozens of cups of coffee, spread over a three month period, the two pair decided how, where, and when they would attempt to kill Kanakis for the second time. This time the mob seemed confidant they wouldn’t miss.

Everything appeared to be going perfectly as planned. The specifics had been worked out and the wheels of the second contract were in heavy motion. However, soon a major glitch was discovered in their homicidal agenda – Acker was working for the federal government.

Since the very first time he had met with Bommarito at Denny’s to discuss murdering Ernie Kanakis, Acker had been wired for sound, secretly recording every conversation he engaged in with Frankie The Bomb and turning them over to the FBI.

“Charlie Acker came to us and told us that Frankie the Bomb wanted him to hit Ernie Kanakis and all we could think of at the office was how sadistic it was to wait in the shadows for almost 10 years and then come after him like that. It was like an animal stalking its prey, waiting just for the exact right time to pounce and devour it.”

Arrested in January of 1983, Frank Bommarito was convicted and jailed on the charge of conspiracy to commit attempted murder and served close to three years in prison for the offense. On the other hand, Kanakis was in a state of shock, stunned and emotionally shaken by the entire incident, but at the same time refusing to buckle under the pressure being put on him by the local mafia.

In the years to come, he didn’t move from his home in suburban Detroit. He didn’t change his name or enter the witness protection program. Rather, he remained in the area and once again stood tall and strong against his adversaries in the mob. He did this by going about his daily life unfazed by the many men in the city’s underworld that wanted him dead, never wilting in the face of gangland threats or intimidation. All the money and perks he once had by living on the wrong side of the law were gone, given up for the mundane job of an ordinary citizen. But he was alive.

Unaware of whether or not the mob had lifted the contract on his life, Kanakis led an uneasy existence, refusing to sit with his back to the door while out in public and turning on the ignition of his car with one foot securely out of the vehicle, so in case there is a bomb inside he could escape as quickly as possible. It was no easy way to live. And he was bored out of his mind. After some careful thought, he decided he wanted back in.

Always a man who craved action and fed up with his time lurking in the shadows, around 1987, over a decade removed from streets, Ernie the Greek hooked up with some members of the city’s Arab mafia and went back into running a series of hugely profitable gambling rackets. Partnered with Tahrir “Crazy Tommy” Kalasho, a top lieutenant to his uncle Lou “The Hammerhead” Akrawi, the reputed founder and boss of the local Chaldean (non-Muslim Iraqis) crime syndicate, Kanakis built his gambling business back up to practically the point it had been prior to his falling out with the mob.

The only problem was that all the money Kanakis and Kalasho started making and the clientele they were generating began showing up on the mafia’s radar. They hadn’t forgotten about their old nemesis and they wanted to know why the Chaldeans were doing business with him. Furthermore, they wanted Kalasho to serve him up to them so they could finally have him killed like they had been trying to do for 11 years.

In another stroke of good fortune for Kanakis, the Chaldeans refused to deliver their new and large-earning friend to his butchering. Instead, they went to bat for him and ended up saving his life. Reaching out to one of their contacts in the mafia, Antonio “Tony the Zip” Ciraulo, the Chaldeans requested that Ciraulo, a lieutenant in the Giacalone brothers’ regime, arrange for a sit-down to sort out the two parties’ differences. Ciraulo, eventually convicted on murder charges in the early-1990s and sent to prison for the rest of his life, had the sit-down arranged for the week leading up to Thanksgiving 1987 at his bar in Warren.

Delivering a sizeable chunk of cash to the Giacalones at the meeting and offering them a percentage of their gambling interests, the Chaldeans asked permission to have the contract lifted on Kanakis’ life. Tommy Kalasho said he would personally vouch for Ernie the Greek and take responsibility for all issues related to his work on the street.

The Italians had always respected the Chaldeans for their ironfisted approach to leadership and gutsy takeover of territory almost as soon as they landed in the state of Michigan from Iraq in the early-1970s. This led to the Giacalones finally removing the contract on Kanakis and letting him off the hook. From that point forward, Ernie the Greek was one of the most-rare commodities in the world – someone who unflinchingly challenged the mafia head on and lived.

“Lady Luck was definitely on his side because there aren’t many people who stare down the mafia in Detroit and can say they lived to talk about it,” Keith Corbett said. “Ernie was a colorful character and his story is without question one of the most intriguing I came across in my time working for the government. It really tells you everything you need to know about the way the mob operates in this city.”

After a few solid years making money with the Italians, Kanakis retired and moved out Las Vegas before dying of a heart attack in 2005. Bernie Marchesani served time for his role in the Giacalone-backed loansharking operation and then was nailed shortly after his release on an extortion case, charges highlighted by him leaving a dead bird on the porch of an associate he believed owed him money and sending that same associate letters and cards implying that he would be hurt if he didn’t pay up.

Marchesani was eventually jailed in 1985 after close to five years on the run from the law as a fugitive and died behind bars of stomach cancer in 1998. Tony Giacalone died at the age of 82 of cancer, a free man under indictment awaiting trial on racketeering charges. Billy Giacalone and Frankie Bommarito both remain alive today. Giacalone is alleged to have been named the syndicate’s Underboss or official second in command in 2004, but since been forced to relinquish the post due to increasing bad health. Ascending past his longtime status as a mere enforcer, Bommarito is reputed to have been named captain of his own crew in 2003.

By way of the public street war the mafia engaged in with Ernie Kanakis, the Detroit crime family further solidified their well-deserved reputation as a mob syndicate that will seek revenge on their enemies at all costs, no matter how long it takes them to finish the job. This reputation sticks with them to this day, and is an underworld legend they will go out of their way to protect and perpetuate.

“Even though they (the mafia) were ultimately unsuccessful in killing Ernie Kanakis, I think they like the lore and mystique that has been associated with the entire situation all these years,” Corbett said. “They might have failed in what they were trying to do, but the whole thing went a long way to even further enhance their reputation. Those guys reaped a lot of benefits from that endeavor, gained a lot of street capitol that they were probably able to leverage to their great advantage.”