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The Last Purple – Harry Millman

By Paul Kavieff w/ contributions from Scott M. Burnstein: THERE was little evidence in Harry Millman’s childhood that he would one day become one of the most feared gangsters to ever walk the streets of Detroit. Millman was born in the Motor City in 1911. His parents were recently immigrated Russian Jews. Harry was the oldest of five children and attended Detroit public schools, but finished high school in a Kentucky military academy. As a youngster, Millman acquired a reputation as a star athlete and a champion swimmer.

When Harry returned to Detroit in 1928 he began hanging around the Oakland Avenue pool halls and blind pig hangouts of the Purple Gang. By 1928 the Purples were near the height of their power in the Detroit underworld. According to one early acquaintance, “The older hoods liked Harry and let him hang around because he was good looking and attracted the ladies.”

Millman was also good with his fists and liked to drink. He soon developed a reputation as a barroom brawler and a mean drunk. Because of his fighting skills, Harry was noticed by the Purple Gang leadership and employed as a hijacker, gunman and bodyguard for the Jewish mob elite of the era. The strapping and muscle-bound Millman was personable and gregarious when sober but dangerous and totally unpredictable when drinking.

Once he was hired on as a Purple Gang enforcer, he pursued his underworld career with determination and was quickly identified by police as one of the leaders of the “Junior Purples”, the gang’s eager and able youth brigade. First arrested in 1928 at the age of 17 on suspicion of armed robbery, he was later released for lack of evidence. In approximately nine years of activity in the Detroit underworld, Harry Millman was arrested 28 times on charges including assault, armed robbery, kidnapping, carrying a concealed weapon, extortion, murder, and operating a gambling place, however never spent a night in jail. The charges that ever stuck to the fledgling gangster were convictions for a couple of minor traffic offenses and for carrying a concealed weapon – for which he paid a small fine.

On January 14, 1931, Millman and four other Purple gangsters broke into the home of Frank Kaier, a freelance hijacker who had stolen a truckload of whiskey from Purple Gangster Harry Keywell. A Detroit police officer on his way home from work saw Millman pistol whipping Kaier through a window in Kaier’s home. The officer ran in and quickly arrested the five Purples, who tried to hide their pistols under the cushions of a sofa in Kaier’s living room. On January 16, 1931, all five thugs were indicted by a Wayne County grand jury. The men were well defended during their trial by Purple Gang attorneys Edward Kennedy Jr. and Sidney Sherman. They were all found not guilty of assault with intent to kill and released.

In October of 1931, Millman was arrested with Morris Raider, a well-known Purple Ganger sitting in a car at Warren and Twelfth Street in Detroit. Both men were held as disorderly persons under the new Public Enemy Act. Raider at that time was out on bail pending the outcome of an appeal on a manslaughter conviction. Both cases were thrown out once again on insufficient evidence. The Public Enemy law was later struck down as unconstitutional because under its statutes a suspect could be convicted on notorious reputation alone.

Not more than two months later In December of 1931 Millman found himself in trouble with the law once again, when him and four other Purples were arrested on kidnapping charges. This time they snatched a known Oakland Avenue bootlegger and attempted to extort several hundred dollars from the terrified man at gunpoint. The victim later failed to positively identify any of the gunmen at the trial, and once more Millman and the other Purples walked out of the courtroom free men.
Check out more about Detroit’s early days of organized crime in Detroit Mob Confidential
By 1932 Harry Millman was suspected by Detroit police of being involved in a wide variety of rackets. As Millman grew more successful, he became the real life version of a Hollywood gangster, sporting expensive tailor-made suits and flashing a large bankroll. By the early 1930s, Millman had a well-known reputation for violence, especially when he was drinking. According to one account, he once physically beat a girlfriend in front of a dining room full of shocked people at the Cream of Michigan restaurant in Detroit. An observer to the incident reflected, “You could have heard a pin drop in the restaurant.”

One of Millman’s favorite pastimes was shaking down Mafia protected brothels and busting up blind pigs and nightclubs owned by members of the Detroit Mafia. Millman carried a violent grudge against the Italian mob and took every opportunity to display his vengeance. He would walk into a nightclub either alone or with several of his men, knock customers off their barstools, slap around the owner of the place, break up furniture, smash bottles, and generally create havoc. Anyone foolish enough to protest received a beating or a pistol whipping.

Being called to answer for his erratic behavior many times by the Burnstein brothers and other leaders of the Purple Gang did little to deter Millman’s antagonistic antics. If it wasn’t for the Burnstein brothers, specifically Abe, who seemed to have a soft spot in his heart for the young thug, Millman would have been targeted for death by the Italians a lot sooner. The mob had too much respect for the Jewish Godfather to move on his favorite protégé without his blessing. However as the 1930s went on, Millman’s behavior towards the city’s ruling underworld authority became increasingly insolent and even Abe Burnstein himself would no longer be able to help save him from the wolves.

The Purple Gang and the Detroit Mafia always had a cordial relationship. Millman was a loose -cannon in this respect and on numerous occasions, usually after one of Millman’s latest outrages, bosses of the Detroit Mafia met with the Burnstein brothers and demanded that Harry Millman be eliminated. At these meetings Abe Burnstein would always use his charm and considerable diplomatic ability and promise to “straighten him out.” It was of little use. Like many other gangsters before and after, Millman began believing his own press clippings. He came to think that the reason no one tried to kill him was because they were thoroughly terrorized by him. In reality it was only Abe Burnstein and his protection from the Detroit Mafia bosses that kept Millman alive and on the street for so long.

Millman was a prime suspect in the sensational murders of Purple Gang lieutenants Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher, Detroit’s Public Enemies 1 and 2 in the early-1930s. Axler and Fletcher, a pair of New York imports to the Motor City’s underworld, were found shot to death in the back seat of Axler’s brand new Chrysler sedan the morning of November 26, 1933. An Oakland County constable found the bodies on a lonely country road approximately fifteen miles north of Detroit in Bloomfield Hills by the intersection of Telegraph and Quarton Roads.

The two Purple assassins had been shot at point-blank range by .45 and .38 caliber pistols. One of the shooters sat next to Axler in the front seat and another sat next to Fletcher in the back seat. The faces of both men were unrecognizable as the result of the heavy caliber bullets fired at close range into their faces. As a sign of contempt, the bodies were placed together in the back seat of the car holding hands. It was rumored in the underworld that Axler and Fletcher had double-crossed Millman, the Burnstein brothers and their top lieutenant, Harry “H.F.”Fleisher, in a business deal.

Police would later reveal that they had specific information that Harry Millman had phoned Axler and set up a meeting with Axler and Fletcher at a Pontiac, Michigan beer garden the night before they were found murdered. The murders were never solved, but made papers across the nation with headlines claiming the death of the Purple Gang.

On June 13, 1934, George “Eddie” Dorn, the owner of a Detroit speakeasy known as “Eddie’s Hideaway,” was found shot to death. The bar was a Purple Gang hangout. Harry Sutton, Dorn’s bartender, was also wounded in the incident. Sutton was a former Purple who had served time in Federal prison with other members of the gang for a 1929 conviction for bootlegging. Detectives found Dorn’s body in the rear of the blind pig about 4:30 a.m. and surmised that Dorn had evidently been running from someone who shot him in the back.

Police believed that Eddie Dorn’s murder was the result of a drunken argument between him and Harry Millman that occurred a few weeks before his slaying. Millman and another Purple named George Harris had been seen in the club shortly before Dorn was killed.

Later that morning Harry Sutton staggered into Detroit’s Providence Hospital. He refused to give police any information about the shootings. Sutton had been shot in the groin and was in critical condition. Investigators came to the conclusion that Sutton had been fighting with someone before he was shot as his shirt was torn. When questioned by detectives later that morning, Sutton told the police, “Santa Claus shot me.”

There were reported to be more than twenty witnesses to the shooting incident. Detroit police questioned a number of people who had been in the blind pig, but nobody had seen anything. Homicide detectives began a fruitless search for a piano player who worked at Dorn’s bar and supposedly saw Dorn’s killer take a cloth and wipe a .32 automatic pistol clean of fingerprints and place it on a table. Police later found the gun but nothing ever came of this lead in the case. Harry Millman left for Chicago immediately after the Dorn murder and did not return to Detroit until early-1935. On January 7, 1935, Millman was arrested by Detroit police and held for questioning in the Dorn murder case. Witnesses, however, could not or would not positively identify Millman, and he was released.

When Harry Millman returned to Detroit he immediately went back into the protection racket, shaking down disorderly houses (brothels) in Ecorse, Hamtramck, Mt. Clemens, Detroit, and other southeastern Michigan cities. Millman and his men would make the rounds of these locations on a weekly basis and pick up various amounts of protection money from the madams.

The imposing enforcer had a very effective technique for convincing disorderly houses to pay protection. He would walk into a brothel, beat up or pistol whip the johns, and generally disrupt business. Sometimes Millman or his men would rob the customers of a brothel on a daily basis until the business would drop off to nothing.

Whether or not a disorderly house was under the protection of another mob meant little difference to Millman. In fact, he would sometimes target a particular underworld operation solely because it was protected or owned by the Detroit Mafia, which by that time had become the dominant power in the local underworld with the unheralded disbandment of the Purples.

The year 1935 also saw Millman get involved in the area labor union rackets. With the growing trend of unionization in the Detroit manufacturing industry, the relationship between the mob and organized labor was a natural fit. Labor bosses used gangsters for strike breaking purples, leverage at the negotiation table and general employee -intimidation after the repeal of Prohibition in December of 1933 with mafia syndicates around the county looking to cultivate new and fresh sources of Illicit income . Due to his growing financial prosperity, he opened several handbooks (horse race betting parlors) on Twelfth Street in Detroit. By 1936 Millman’s underworld operations were bringing in a considerable amount of money.

Millman and his crew, which included his brother Sam, Harry Cooper, Harry Gross, and several former Purple Gang members, soon began muscling into the local illegal lottery racket. At that time, the illegal lottery, known on the street as the numbers business, was controlled by the Detroit Mafia working in conjunction with several African-American gangsters. Police feared that tensions created by Millman’s bold and subversive move could wind up exploding into a major gang war across the city. This racket was also sometimes referred to as, “policy”, stemming from the Italian word polizza, meaning lottery ticket and took bets from players on three-digit number codes that would be compared to any agreed upon tabulation, like all the money bet at a given race track which would always be reported in the next morning’s paper.   Usually the odds were about 10000 to 1 to guess correctly, but the vice served as a lot of poor black families only chance of hitting it big in an otherwise bleak financial existence.

Detroit police believed that Harry Millman’s move to take over the Detroit policy rackets created a serious rift between him and Joe “Joe Scarface” Bommarito, the man in charge of all of the Detroit Mafia’s vast street operations as well as the brother-in-law of local Mafia boss Pete Licavoli.

When the Detroit Mafia took over the former racket operations of the Purple Gang in 1935 it was a peaceful transition. By the mid-thirties the Purple’s power had been seriously weakened by inter-gang sniping and long prison sentences. Abe Burnstein had quietly turned over former Purple Gang operations to the Detroit Mafia. Individual Purples and associates often worked as partners with various Detroit Mafia members in the rackets, but not Millman. He was the only Purple gangster of any significance who continued to challenge the Italian mob authority after the Purple Gang lost its dominance in the Detroit underworld – the final holdout from the city’s first and last all-Jewish crime conglomerate. Growing more insubordinate by the day, Millman was totally fearless and had no intention whatsoever of ever bowing to or cooperating with the Detroit mob.

Late one winter evening in December of 1936, Harry Millman strutted into Salvatore “Little Sammy” Finazzo’s cafe at Eighth and Fort Streets in Detroit and stoked the flames of discontent even further. Finazzo was a soldier in the Detroit Mafia and the brother-in-law to recently-inducted mob Don Joe Zerilli who controlled the prize fighting industry in Detroit for well over 50 years. His cafe was a hangout for Italian gangsters and a frequent socializing point for Scarface Joe Bommarito. Barging into the establishment after a night on the town boozing it up, Millman confronted Bommarito and the pair broke into a heated fistfight.

Like their fierce Jewish adversary, Bommarito, Pete Licavoli, and a downriver gangster named Joseph “Beach Bum Joe” Massei, who was the crime family’s representative in Florida for close to 40 years, had been steadily muscling into the Detroit labor rackets. All three Italian mobsters effectively worked their way into Local 299 of the Teamsters Union, the same local a young Kroger warehouse worker of the era named Jimmy Hoffa would soon use as his powerbase to climb to epic heights in the country’s labor movement. To put it mildly, the Italians, especially Scarface Joe, resented the fact that Millman was trying to exert his influence in certain unions that they already sunk their hooks into.

The fight in Sam Finazzo’s beer garden was only the beginning. Sometime in the early spring of 1937, Millman got word that Joe Bommarito was getting a shave and a manicure at an Oakland Avenue barbershop.   Walking up on Bommarito, who was stretched out in a barber’s chair with a hot towel on his face, Millman lifted the towel off the Scarface Joe’s head and spat in his face.

This final display of complete and utter contempt and disrespect towards Joe Bommarito, and in turn, the entire Detroit mafia in general, was the beginning of the end for Harry Millman. Totally disgusted with his inexplicable, outright insane behavior, his mentor, Abe Burnstein turned his back on him. The period of “sit downs” and diplomacy to protect Millman was over. He was on his own.

On the evening of August 28, 1937, Millman arrived in Detroit from a short trip out of town. At about 10:00 p.m., he phoned Harriet (Hattie) Fleisher. Hattie was an old friend of Millman’s and the wife of Purple Gang lieutenant Harry Fleisher, who was then serving time in Alcatraz for a 1936 tax evasion conviction. Millman invited Hattie out for an evening of dinner and dancing at a favorite Purple Gang hangout known at the 1040 Club. The cabaret derived its name from the fact that it was located at 1040 Wayne Street in downtown Detroit.

Picking her up in his new 1937 LaSalle coupe – the new automobile reflecting Millman’s recent success in the handboook and policy rackets -, Millman escorted Mrs. Fleisher to the club and treated her to hours of dancing, drinks and food. Sending Hattie home around 1:00 a.m., he stayed on at the club, continuing to drink and cavort with his friends at the bar.

A man who kept late hours and sometimes would go days without sleep from excessive partying, Millman planned to go to a Hamtramck-based blind pig after the club closed. Shortly after 3:00 a.m., Millman handed the keys to his LaSalle coupe to Willie Holmes, the 1040 Club valet and doorman. Holmes hurried off to get Millman’s car, which was parked in a remote unlighted section of the Service Parking Lot Company across the street from Detroit’s Federal Courthouse building. At approximately 3:10 a.m., Holmes climbed into Millman’s coupe and turned the ignition key. A tremendous explosion immediately followed and the resulting shock wave blew out windows of nearby buildings and sent the hood of Millman’s LaSalle coupe onto the roof of a five-story building. A silent alarm set off by the shock wave created by the explosion sent three police cruisers to the F.G. Clayton Company opposite the parking lot where the explosion occurred.

Instantly torn to pieces in the explosion, Holmes was killed immediately and Millman’s car was completely demolished. Detroit police investigators later estimated that at least ten sticks of dynamite had been packed into the center of the engine block and wired to a spark plug. The bomb had obviously been meant for Harry Millman, but the assassins had not done their homework. Millman almost always gave the keys to Holmes or to his bodyguard Harry Cooper when he arrived or left the 1040 Club. Fortunately for Cooper, he had been home that night. The death of Willie Holmes was the first bomb slaying in the history of Detroit.

Seemingly unfazed by the near-death experience, Millman never even went back to look at his car. Instead, he hailed a cab and went on to the Hamtramck blind pig just as he had planned. When later questioned by police he pleaded ignorance to why anyone would want to kill him. By the fall of 1937, it was so widely known throughout the city that Millman was going to be killed that many hotels would not rent him a room for fear he might be murdered on the premises.

Prohibition & The Detroit Underworld

In 1927 Detroit, Michigan was the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of more than 1.5 million people. The rapidly expanding automobile industry and the major manufacturing plants were attracting job seekers from all over the world. This prosperity, coupled with National Prohibition, also made the Detroit area a hot bed for underworld gangs. During this period both the Chicago and New York underworlds often grabbed the headlines of major newspapers with their own beer wars and gangster escapades, yet the Detroit underworld in many ways was worse.

When statewide Prohibition became law on May 1, 1918, Detroit became the first city in the nation with a population of over 250,000 to go dry. Detroit went from approximately 1,800 licensed saloons before state Prohibition in 1918 to a conservatively estimated 25,000 blind pigs by 1925. Detroit’s proximity to Ontario, Canada made it an opportune place for rumrunners and smugglers. By the mid-twenties an estimated 500,000 cases of Canadian whiskey were coming across the Detroit River every month.

Despite this staggering figure, more whiskey and beer than that was actually being made in Detroit by an extensive alley brewing industry. Opium dens operated openly throughout Detroit. The illegal Detroit gambling industry, which included everything from alley crap games to fancy roadhouses, was actually making the Detroit underworld more money than the $250,000,000 a year alcohol rackets. Detroit was a wide open city. Literally anything legal or illegal could be easily purchased there.

With the advent of National Prohibition at midnight January 16, 1920, the soon-to-be infamous Purple Gang and the men who would soon together create the traditional Detroit mafia began to claw their way to the top of the city’s underworld. While the future Purples were still in short pants shaking down hucksters and rolling drunks, local Mafia gangs were already well established on Detroit’s lower eastside.

During the great wave of immigration between the years 1880 and 1920, many Italian and Sicilian people left their homelands for U.S. shores. After arriving at eastern ports they were attracted to Detroit and its industrial prosperity. Along with these many hardworking and law abiding new Americans came Old World criminals. These Italian and Sicilian gangsters were either looking for greener pastures or were forced to leave their homeland because they were wanted by the authorities.

This new breed of criminal first came to the attention of local police as the result of the Black Hand extortion racket. Although organized underworld groups such as the Mafia and the Cammora engaged in this racket, it was an extremely popular form of extortion often carried out by small time criminals with no affiliation to any organized crime group. All that was required was to write an anonymous letter to a prosperous individual in the community threatening to murder him or his wife, kidnap their children, or destroy their place of business if certain extortion demands were not met. Crude drawings of daggers dripping with blood, skull and crossbones, or a black handprint would complete the letter.

The victims of Black Hand letters often attributed them to be the work of the Mafia or Cammora. Not trusting local authorities and superstitious, they paid. There were always examples in the Italian community of what happened to people who ignored these letters. This extortion racket became so widespread that most large U.S. cities had special Black Hand squads or Italian squads in their police departments to investigate and deal with these crimes in the Italian community.

The Black Hand racket was sometimes used by Salvatore and Vito Adamo, immigrant brothers from Alcamo, Sicily who arrived in Detroit around the turn of the 20th Century. Starting around 1905, the Adamo brothers were leaders of a Mafia gang on Detroit’s lower eastside that preyed on the Italian community and that most likely constituted the first semblance of modern day organized crime in the Motor City. The Adamo mob was involved in the typical ethnic underworld rackets of the time, which included making beer and wine, extorting protection money from local citizens, and the Italian lottery. Vito resided in Wyandotte, while Salvatore, known as “Sam” headquartered his operations out of Eastern Market.

The first serious threat to the Adamo brothers’ rackets came around 1910 from the arrival of three Sicilian-immigrant brothers; Antonino, Salvatore, and Gaetano Gianolla. Soon after coming to Detroit, from Tersini, Sicily, the Gianolla brothers began plying their old country trade in the Italian community. For a short time there was a shaky peace agreement between these two Mafia factions. The Gianolla brothers, however, who became known in local underworld circles as the Triumvirate of Terror, and controlled all rackets downriver from their produce business, the Wyandotte Fruit Company, were quick to start chafing under the Adamos’ rule. By 1911, the Gianolla brothers were expanding their burgeoning empire into the Eastern Market district and other Eastside neighborhoods the Adamos’ had been controlling for over half a decade.

It was not long before open warfare broke out between the Adamo and Gianolla factions. The gang war lasted for approximately two and a half years, from 1911-1913, and left dozens of bodies in its wake from both sides of the conflict. The Gianollas eventually claimed victory in the vicious street battle by murdering both Adamo brothers as they walked together at the corner of Mullett and Russell Street in Eastern Market in November of 1913.

One of the Gianollas’ top lieutenants was Giovanni “Bloody John” Vitale, an integral enforcer for the gang in its war with the Adamos. Vitale was allowed to run a crew independently from the Gianollas and in a lot of ways was perceived as an equal to the gang’s namesake and official leaders. This arrangement lasted without a hitch until 1917 when a falling out between Bloody John and his bosses led to another all-out street war for supremacy in the Detroit underworld.

The war was jumpstarted when Antonino “Tony” Gianolla ordered the murder of Sam Bosco, a close friend and trusted associate of Vitale’s over a dispute regarding a joint business venture that Gianolla was accusing Bosco of stealing from. When the Vitale faction attempted to hijack a load of liquor belonging to the Giannola brothers, the Giannola/Vitale gang war officially began.

Over the next three years, more than 100 men were killed in the gang war. Tony Gianolla was killed by Vitale gunmen in January of 1919 by his bodyguard and surrogate son Tony Alucci as he was entering a wake. Striking back with intense ferocity, on February 28, 1919, Salvatore “Sam” Giannola and several of his henchmen staged a daring attack, ambushing three Vitale thugs in the corridors of Detroit’s Wayne County Jail.

The Vitale gangsters, including the boss’s son Joe, had gone to visit John Vitale, who was in the Wayne County Jail locked up on a murder charge. When Sam Giannola got this information he and several of his men went to the jail and waited quietly for John Vitale’s visitors. When the Vitale thugs appeared, the Giannola gunmen opened fire, fatally wounding Vitale lieutenant Vito Renda and seriously wounding John Vitale’s son, Joe and Salvatore “Big Sam” Evola, another Gianolla strong arm, who both survived the attack.

They had originally planned to shoot down John Vitale as he lay trapped in his cell but could not gain access to the cellblock. Vitale retaliated by having Sam Gianolla murdered in October of 1919 after lulling him into a sense of comfort and security by agreeing to a peace agreement two months prior he never intended on honoring. Shooting from a moving car, Vitale assassins hit Gianolla 28 times, killing him on the spot as he exited a downtown bank after just cashing a $200 check.

On August 17, 1920, the gang war that had been raging for the better part of four years, finally started to catch up with John Vitale when him and his son Joe were ambushed by Giannola gunmen with shotguns outside their Russell Street home on Detroit’s east side. Joe Vitale was killed instantly in the barrage of buckshot. Somehow John ducked behind a car and survived. It would only be a short reprieve though and on October 2, 1920, Vitale was set up by his own men, shot to death as he returned to his residence in the early-hours of the morning from a night on the town. The Giannola-Vitale war was finally over. All of the major leaders of both gangs had been killed.

A peace conference was called right after Thanksgiving in 1920 with the city’s remaining Mafia factions in attendance. Salvatore “Singing Sam” Cattalanotte, a respected Giannola advisor, presided over a meeting of the minds and helped forge a peace agreement. Territory was divided among what would become known as the Eastside and Westside Mobs, with former Gianolla lieutenants Joe Zerilli and William “Black Bill” Tocco leading the Eastsiders and Chester “Big Chet” La Mara, a longtime counsel to Cattalanotte, headed the Westsiders. The final remaining Gianolla brother, Gaetano, the eldest sibling and least involved in the violence sparked by the preceding conflict, was allowed to retire, his life spared by Singing Sam, who felt loyal to him from their previous business relationship.

By 1925, the all-Jewish Purple Gang, led by the four B

urnstein brothers, as well as the Eastside-aligned “River Gang”, led by St. Louis transplant Pete Licavoli had become major factors in the city’s bootlegging industry too. Like the Eastsiders and Westsiders had done before them years before, the Purples and the River Gang agreed to Catalanotte’s territory restrictions and were welcomed into the city’s underworld with open arms.

Along with Zerilli and Tocco’s Eastside Gang, the Purples and Licavoli’s river rats controlled most of the large-scale rum running on the Detroit River north and south of the city. LaMare, whose headquarters were in his opulent Hamtramck, Michigan restaurant known as the Venice Café, and the Westsiders controlled the rest of the bootlegging through a pair of offshoot downriver gangs that worked as LaMare’s proxies in the liquor smuggling rackets.

Hamtramck is a city that lies within the City of Detroit. At that time it was dominated by the huge Dodge Main auto plant. The City of Hamtramck was notoriously corrupt. So corrupt in fact that in 1923 Michigan Governor Alex Groesbeck sent the Michigan State Police into the city to impose Marshall Law and take over the city government. The mayor and a number of city officials were arrested, later convicted of Prohibition law violations, and sent to prison. Police duties in Hamtramck were temporarily taken over by the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department. More than 400 soft drink parlors, which sold everything but soft drinks, were closed, 150 brothels shuttered, and many gallons of alley brew destroyed. For a ruthless gangster like La Mare, Hamtramck was heaven on earth.

Throughout the twenties Detroit’s underworld factions enjoyed a period of relative peace. Although many bodies still piled up in the city’s morgues, as a result of Singing Sam’s peace agreement, a majority of the homicides were rooted in intra-gang disputes, opposed to battles over turf between warring sides. Cattalanotte, a man who gained his nickname from his love of Italian Operas and skill at replicating their music for his friends and family at small, intimate gatherings, was a highly-respected and much beloved don and Detroit’s first modern day Godfather.

This delicate peace treaty Cattalanotte helped craft started to fall apart at the seams when on February 17, 1930 he died suddenly of complications from pneumonia. Relations between the Eastside and Westside Mobs quickly deteriorated and resulted in what they local press dubbed, the “Crosstown Mob War.”

It was during this period that murders in Detroit reached their zenith. By July 1930, a month referred to by the press for years after as “Bloody July,” there was a gangland murder literally every day. Things came to a head on July 23 with the murder of WMBC Radio commentator Gerald Buckley in the lobby of the LaSalle Hotel on.

Buckley was an immensely popular radio personality who was reported to be on the payroll of the Detroit underworld. He had supposedly been bankrolling Mafia still operations in certain parts of the city. In July 1930 a recall election movement was underway for Detroit Mayor Charles Bowles. Bowles was reported to be doing business with the underworld. The escalating gang wars and murders were directly blamed on the mayor. It was reported that Buckley, who was originally against the recall campaign, made an about-face and came out in support of it. Some journalists suggested that his change of heart was to put pressure on his underworld partners to get a bigger piece of the take. Whatever the underlying facts were, Mayor Bowles was recalled on July 22, 1930, the only mayor in Detroit history to be voted out of office.

Gerald Buckley was promptly shot to death in the lobby of the LaSalle Hotel early that morning by local Mafia gunmen. Three Detroit Mafia thugs were later tried and acquitted of the murder. Historically, journalists and police officers are off limits to underworld gunmen unless they are dirty. Although none of the charges against Buckley were ever proven, the circumstances surrounding his murder are shrouded in mystery.

After the murder of Gerald Buckley, the Crosstown Mob War took on a much lower profile. In the spring of 1930 LaMare feigned interest in attempting to broker a seize fire with his rivals and set up what he said would be peace meeting between the top leaders of the two factions at the Vernor Avenue Fish Market on May 31.

It was all an elaborate ruse. Never intending to compromise from the outset, LaMare planned to have two gunmen waiting at the market that would rush into the meeting and murder the Eastside Mob hierarchy on a given signal. The Eastsiders caught the play though and Angelo Meli, a former La Mare lieutenant that had recently switched sides in the war, suspected a double cross and advised Joe Zerilli and Bill Tocco to send emissaries to the meet-up instead of them attending in person themselves. The savvy gangsters took Meli’s advice and assigned Gasper “The Peacemaker” Milazzo, a New York bred wiseguy sent to Detroit in the 1920s to aid Zerilli and Tocco’s Eastside Gang, and his bodyguard Sam “Sasha” Parino, to attend in their stead. It was the smart move and LaMare’s two gunmen executed both Milazzo and Parino as soon as they entered the front door of the fish market.

Big Chet LaMare’s downfall ended up coming from within his own inner circle. He was murdered in his home on the evening of February 6, 1931 by two of his own men. The gunmen, both bodyguards to La Mare, had been ordered to murder their boss by the Eastside Mob leadership, who had supposedly found out that they had been the triggermen in the fish market slayings six months prior. The choice was simple: Either kill LaMare or die in his place.

With La Mare finally dead, the Eastsiders came out of the war victorious and sat firmly atop the Motor City underworld, unquestioned holders of the throne. When a similar-themed mob war concluded in New York around this same time, Sicilian-born East Coast gang leader Charles “Lucky” Luciano called a mega conference of all mob leaders across the country and created a nationwide organization called “La Cosa Nostra” or “This thing of ours,” that would have 26 regional “Families” and an overall board of directors known as “The Commission” make policy and mediate disputes.

Black Bill Tocco was named the first official Boss of the Detroit Mafia family in late-1931 and the criminal conglomerate that was subsequently formed would be known as “The Partnership” or “The Combination,” a nod to all of the city’s mob factions coming under one banner. Tocco and Zerilli, first cousins, best friends and brother-in-laws, would be the founding fathers of the present-day Detroit Mafia. Others former Italian bootlegging powers like Pete Licavoli, Angelo Meli, Giovanni “Papa John” Priziola and Pietro “Machine Gun Pete” Corrado would all join Tocco and Zerilli as future leaders of the syndicate, which would eventually grow to be over 100 members and 500 associates at its peak in the 1960s.


Around 1917, a predominantly Jewish mob began to form on the old Hastings Street section of Detroit’s lower eastside. The original 18-20 boys met at the old Bishop School and quickly became a neighborhood nuisance. They rolled drunks, beat up other youngsters, and extorted money from local merchants. This teenage street gang would eventually evolve into one of the most notorious underworld groups of the Prohibition era.

No one knows for sure the origins of their colorful name, the Purple Gang. One story had it that two Hastings Street shopkeepers were complaining to each other about the depredations of these juvenile gangsters.

One said, “These boys are not like other youngsters, they’re tainted. They’re like the color of bad meat, purple.” “Yes,” said the other shopkeeper, “They’re a purple gang.” Another rumor had it that they were named after two delinquents who ran with the gang when they were kids, Sam and Ben Purple.

The name most likely evolved during a period of labor strife known as the Cleaners and Dyers War. One of the Purple Gang’s terror tactics was to throw purple dye on clothing to force tailor shops to join the union. With the advent of statewide Prohibition on May 1, 1918 and national Prohibition on January 16, 1920, the Purple Gang was catapulted into becoming the rulers of the Detroit underworld by 1927.

The young Purples went to work for two local mobsters who were secret owners of a legitimate corn sugar warehouse, which sold supplies to people who wanted to make beer and wine for personal consumption only. A certain amount for personal use was allowed under the 18th Prohibition Amendment. In reality, Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr became the mentors of the juvenile Purples, who quickly graduated from childhood nuisance crime to hijacking and the extortion rackets. The Purples made their early reputation in the Detroit underworld as vicious hijackers who would take whiskey from other mobs and kill everybody who was hauling the load. They also cut themselves in on the profits that other gangsters made from gambling, prostitution, and drug dealing.

Charlie Leiter and Henry Shorr were experts at setting up brewing plants in old barns and warehouses around the city. These “alley” breweries could produce thousands of gallons of product a week. Using the young Purples as muscle, Shorr and Leiter began to push into the territory of other mobs. The young Purples divided their time between working with Shorr and Leiter extorting money from local businesses legal and illegal and sometimes working as guards in the local gambling houses.

At this early point in the mob’s evolution, they were known as the Oakland Sugar House Gang. Under the tutelage of Leiter and Shorr, the Purples set up and ran their own alcohol cutting plants. By cutting hijacked whiskey with water and other ingredients, one bottle could be made into five bottles. This whiskey was then sold by the case as the original product. Original manufacturers’ labels were removed from the bottles and “tickets” or bootleg labels affixed. One of the Purple Gang’s bootleg labels became widely known as Old Log Cabin Whiskey.

Although the Purple Gang was made up of several different leadership factions, the four Burnstein brothers, Abe, Joe, Ray, and Isadore, were always considered to be the leaders. Abe Burnstein often played the underworld diplomat while Joe and Ray were the main enforcers.

Other core Purples of the era included: Joseph “Joe Honeyboy” Miller Harry “H.F.” Fleisher, Louie Fleisher, Sam Fleisher, Harry Keywell, Phil Keywell, Hyman “Two Gun Harry” Altman, Harry “The Hat” Sutton, Sam “Fatty” Bernstein, David “Davey Boy” Feldman, Michael “One Arm Mike” Gelfand, Abe “Abie the Agent” Zussman, Jack “The Enforcer” Budd, Jack “Yonkel the Pollack” Selbin, Zigmund “Ziggie” Selbin, Sam “The Gorilla” Davis, Irving “Little Irv” Shapiro, Isadore “Uncle Izzy” Kaminsky, Sam “Sammy Purple” Cohen, Ben “Benny Purple” Cohen, Sam “Sammy K” Kert, Eddie Fletcher, Abe Axler, Harry Millman, Myron “Young Mikey” Selik, Morris Raider, Harry Kirshenbaum, Sam Soloman, Lou Gellerman, Ben Marcus, Harry “Chinky” Meltzer, Abe “Buffalo Harry” Rosenberg, Jake Levittes, John Wolf, Leo “The Killer” Edelstein, Irv Feldman, Sam Drapkin, Sammy Abramawitz, Lou Jacobs, Joseph “Monkey Joe” Holtzman.

Some of the aforementioned men were considered “Junior Purples”, since they were just teenagers at the start of the gang’s reign, working their way up the syndicate’s latter acting as gofers, drivers and bodyguards before reaching full-member status towards the end of Prohibition. Charles “The Professor” Auerbach acted the gang’s primary advisor and Jacob “Scotty” Silverstein was the Purples chief financial officer. Sam “Uncle Sammy” Garfield, a close friend of Joe Bernstein’s, acted as the gang’s go-between with the East Coast mobs, specifically through his relationship with New York Jewish Godfather, Meyer Lansky.

One of the gang’s favorite meeting places was the Oakland Avenue Bath House in Northeast Detroit, known around town until this day as simply “The Schvitz,” an establishment owned by Chinky Meltzer. The Schvitz was an ideal place to meet and discuss schemes without having to worry about the people you were doing business with wearing a wire, since everyone is in towels and the humidity prevented the government from bugging the place.

In 1925 Abe Burnstein teamed up with Francis X. Martel, president of the Detroit Federation of Labor, and formed a racketeer controlled Wholesale Cleaners and Dyers Association. Every cleaning plant, dyeing plant, and tailor shop was invited to join the new association. The argument was that this union would stabilize prices in the Detroit cleaning and dyeing industry. Armed Purple Gangsters would attend the monthly association meetings and collect the dues. If a cleaning plant joined the association and paid their dues on a regular basis, there would be no problem. If a plant owner refused to join, things would begin to happen in their plant.

Chemicals were put into clothing that would cause the garment to burst into flames when pressed. Truckloads of laundry were hijacked, the drivers sometimes beaten to death. If these tactics failed to work, the cleaning plant owner might disappear or the plant reduced to rubble by dynamite. Sometimes dye was thrown into piles of laundry. Between 1925 and 1928 hundreds of thousands of dollars was extorted from the Detroit area cleaning industry. At least two union business agents were taken for rides and shot in the back of the head. Their bodies were then tossed into the street.

Martel became unhappy with his cut of the profits. He was also fearful that a connection would be made between himself and the Burnstein brothers. In 1928 Martel persuaded a number of cleaning plant owners who had lost everything to file a complaint with the Wayne County prosecutor. This resulted in the Purple Gang trial of 1928.

Thirteen Purples including several leaders of the gang were tried for extortion in the Detroit area cleaning and dyeing industry. The trial dragged on through the summer of 1928 and ended with the acquittal of all thirteen Purples. Francis “Frank” Martel, who was conveniently out of town when indic tments were handed down, returned to Detroit after the trial and was later tried for extortion and acquitted.

The reason for the Purple Gang’s courtroom victory was that they had better legal representation than the state’s prosecutors. This courtroom victory, coupled with the machine gun murders of several gangsters by the Purples a year earlier, gave the gang a veneer of invincibility.

On March 27, 1927, a Chicago gunman named Francis “Frankie the Pollack” Wright and two of his friends were mowed down in the hallway of the Milaflores Apartments in downtown Detroit. Wright had been hired by a freelance hijacker to kill Johnnie Reid, an important Purple Gang liquor distributor. Reid had the audacity to smack around two gunmen who worked for local stickup artist Mike Dipisa. Dipisa had tried to shake down Reid for protection money. Dipisa hired Wright to kill Reid as a result of the insult. Wright killed Reid with a single shotgun blast to the head. He then made the mistake of staying in Detroit. Wright was lured to the Milaflores Apartments to negotiate the ransom of a kidnapped gambler he had worked for.

It was also in 1927 that legendary Chicago mob boss, Al “Scarface” Capone came to Detroit with the idea of setting up a Capone organization liquor franchise. Capone was called to a meeting with the Purples and representatives of the River Gang at the Pick Fort Shelby Hotel downtown. Here he was told that the Detroit River belonged to the Purples. Any business that Capone wanted to do in Detroit would either be through the Purple Gang or not at all. Capone then contracted with the Purples to purchase shipments of Old Log Cabin, which the Purple Gang would haul to Chicago. This business arrangement lasted approximately two years.

Once the shipments arrived in Chicago, Capone sold a consignment of his Purple Gang liquor to George “Bugs” Moran, the leader of the Northside Gang, a primarily Irish-dominated crime syndicate which had always a thorn in Capone’s side. Moran decided to purchase his whiskey from a cheaper source. When his customers complained, Capone refused to give Moran his Purple Gang liquor consignment back out of mere spite. Responding with ferocity, Moran’s Northsiders began hijacking truckloads of Purple whiskey as they made their way from Michigan to Illinois, sometimes even killing the Capone who were hauling the barrels of booze. The aggressive tactic succeeded in starting a gang war would go down in infamy around the world.

Scarface Capone saw this as his opportunity to eliminate his major rival and cement his legacy as one of the most fearsome gangsters in American history. Working with the Purples, Capone devised a trap to eliminate Moran once and for all. A phony liquor deal was set up with the Moran Gang, to meet at their headquarters to purchase a recently hijacked shipment of Old Log Cabin.

The Moran Gang would meet the truck the morning of February 14, 1929. Several Purples were reportedly used as spotters before, during and after the crime took place, and renting out rooms in boarding houses across the street from where the hit would take place. Mistaking another Northsider for Moran, the spotters, named in reports as Louie Fleisher and brothers, Phil and Harry Keywell called in the gunmen. The assassins were dressed as Chicago policemen. They went into the garage and machine-gunned down six Moran gangsters and a dentist who hung around with the gang. The murders were never solved, but became widely known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

As the new decade dawned, Purple Gang ruled the Detroit underworld unfettered, achieving heights that far exceeded those of its contemporaries. They centered their operations at the Book Cadillac Hotel, located in a hub of activity downtown on Washington Avenue and Monroe Street, and drank in their newfound status, many by cavorting with movie stars and dating showgirls. Their success was due to the solid protection they received from city hall due to a series of weekly payments made the doorsteps of certain highly-placed government officials and their raw ferocity. Between the years 1927 and 1935, eighteen Purples were brutally murdered by their own gang. The self-destruction process was accelerated on September 16, 1931 as the result of an incident known as the Collingwood Manor Massacre.

During the mid-twenties gangsters from all over the United States flocked to Detroit. Around 1925 three Chicago gunmen, Joe “Nigger Joe” Leibowitz, Harold “Hymie” Paul, and Isadore “Izzy the Rat” Sutker, came to the city after being forced out of Chicago by the Capone organization. They had been sticking up Capone-protected speakeasies and essentially given a choice to leave Chicago horizontally or vertically. Because of their Jewish heritage, once they arrived in Detroit they were introduced to the Burnstein brothers. The Purples were rapidly expanding their operations and needed muscle. The three Chicago gunmen went to work for the “Little Jewish Navy” faction of the Purple Gang that got its nickname due to being in charge of using speedboats to ferry liquor into the county from Canada up and down the Detroit River.

The three new gunmen quickly became uncontrollable Purple gangsters who would backstab anyone, including their own mentors, to get what they wanted. In September of 1931 they were called to a peace meeting, after having a falling out with the Burnstein brothers. The meeting was set for 3:00 p.m., September 16, 1931 at the Collingwood Manor Apartments on Detroit’s near westside. In reality, the peace meeting was an ambush. The three Purple Gang outlaws were shot to death by Harry Fleisher, Irving Milberg, and Harry Keywell. Ray Burnstein drove the getaway car. Burnstein, Keywell, and Milberg were later tried, convicted, and sentenced to life terms for first-degree murder. Fleisher escaped prosecution in the murders. The self-destruction of the Purple Gang had begun.

With inter-gang murders and lengthy prison sentences mounting, by 1935 most of the significant leadership of the Purple Gang was either dead or in prison after committing what police say were over 500 murders in a decade span. Around this time, a meeting was called between the Detroit area Mafia bosses and the Burnstein brothers. It was agreed at this conference that the Italian mob would take over the former Purple Gang’s rackets, including Joe Burnstein’s highly-valued race wire service.

This was a peaceful transition of power. There was very little ethnic rivalry in the Detroit underworld, the Italian mob in the Motor City much more willing to delegate and cooperate with non-Italian gangsters than as is the case in other cities. As the result of this power shift, Abe Burnstein was out of the boss’ chair, but still a very powerful player in the Detroit underworld, running bookmaking and loansharking operations and often looked to as a de facto “consigliere” by ruling mob powers Joe Zerilli and Black Bill Tocco until his death of a heart attack in 1968. Hotel receipts from the era that Detroit Police recovered after his passing indicated that Zerilli and Tocco had been fitting the bill for him to reside in a penthouse suite at the Book Cadillac since the 1940s.

Joe and Izzy Burnstein would both retire to California with their earnings from the gang’s glory days and go semi-legit, dying of natural causes in the 1980s. Ray Burnstein was released from prison on his Collinwood Massacre conviction in 1964 and died three years later in a nursing home, debilitated by a stroke he had experienced behind bars.


Although the Purple Gang controlled the Detroit rackets in the later twenties, they had no control over other less organized, renegade outlaw gangs. These notorious bank robbing and kidnapping mobs paid tribute to no organized crime group. These gangs were based out of Hamtramck, Detroit, and the surrounding suburbs. One of the most violent gangs of safecrackers, bank robbers, and heist artists was the infamous Hamtramck, Michigan mob led by Paul Jaworski. This gang not only operated in southeast Michigan but in the coal fields of Pennsylvania, where they were known as the Flathead Gang and specialized in robbing mine company payrolls. Paul Jaworski would eventually die in the electric chair in 1929 for the murder of a payroll guard committed during one of the gang’s many holdups.

The Jaworski mob was best known for the June 6, 1928 holdup of the Detroit News business offices in downtown Detroit. During this robbery a Detroit police officer was brutally shot to death as he lay wounded on the steps of the Lafayette Street entrance to the Detroit News building. This murder was committed by Jaworski gang members in front of at least 100 witnesses. Another one of the gang’s infamous capers was the dynamiting of an armored car at Coverdale, Pennsylvania on March 11, 1927, in which $104,000 was taken and a guard murdered. While gangs such as the Jaworski mob, the Shotgun Gang, and the Lizzard Gang robbed banks and individuals, other Detroit area gangs specialized in the “snatch racket” or kidnapping.

One of the most successful kidnapping gangs was the predominantly Irish Joseph “Legs” Laman mob. This gang specialized in kidnapping wealthy Detroit area racketeers and gamblers. From 1926 until the gang was destroyed by a task force of Detroit and Michigan State police in late 1929, the gang kidnapped local gamblers and rumrunners at will. They reasoned that underworld characters would quietly pay their ransom without going to the police. This system worked well until the gang became overconfident and greedy and started kidnapping legitimate businessmen.

Joseph Laman, known as “Legs” because his limbs were out of proportion with the rest of his body, was a career criminal. He once threatened to use a shotgun on Ford Service Department Head Harry Bennett when Bennett attempted to get information about one of the mob’s victims. The gang was comprised of more than twenty thugs, and the “snatch racket” as it came to be known was well organized.

Kidnapping gangs developed their own terminology. A “finger man” was someone who pointed out a potential victim to the gang. Laman would then send “pickup men” to grab or snatch the unsuspecting racketeer at his place of business or near his home. A bag would be pulled over his head, and the prisoner would be picked up and thrown on the floor of a touring car. He would then be taken to the kidnapper’s “castle.” The “castle” was an apartment or house used by the mob to imprison the victim. The Laman mob had “castles” in Detroit, Dearborn, and Ferndale, Michigan as well as Toledo, Ohio. Waiting at the castle were the “keepers” or gang members who would provide meals for the victim and if necessary, torture the unfortunate racketeer if he failed to comply with the orders of the mob. The prisoner was bound, blindfolded, and locked in the castle. No one would speak to the victim for several days. Food would be brought in and placed next to the prisoner. After several days, a gang member would approach the blindfolded victim. This thug was called the “voice,” as that is all that the “package” or kidnapped gangster could identify. The voice would negotiate a ransom and get the victim to name an intermediary, usually another racketeer, to go to the family and pick up the ransom money.

If the package refused to go along with the gang’s request, torture was resorted to. Cigarettes and cigars were placed behind the prisoner’s ear or pushed into his body. Eyebrows were pulled out a hair at a time, “plucking.” Sometimes a red-hot poker was used. This method of torture was known as “playing poker.” “Fancy shooting” involved tying a victim to a tree and taking shots at him with pistols and revolvers. The idea was to come as close to the body as possible without actually wounding the prisoner. With these methods cooperation was not a problem. Ransoms were negotiable according to how much money the gang thought a victim was worth.

In 1929 the Laman mob began kidnapping legitimate businessmen. On July 21, 1929, David Cass, the 23-year-old son of a wealthy real estate dealer, was kidnapped from a Detroit blind pig. The young man’s father, Gerson Cass, was contacted by the gang on July 25 and given instructions to meet someone at a westside Detroit location. The man Cass was supposed to meet was “Legs” Laman. Gerson Cass did exactly what the kidnappers had told him to do. He did not contact the Detroit Police. Through an informer, detectives found out about the ransom pickup and were staked out on the scene. When Laman walked up to Cass and took the suitcase full of ransom money, the police appeared and yelled for Laman to stop. The gangster took off running and was felled by several bullets from the detectives’ revolvers. Near death, Laman was taken to Detroit Receiving Hospital. To everyone’s surprise, the plucky mobster slowly recovered. With Laman in police custody, the kidnapping gang panicked. David Cass was driven out to a field in Lapeer County, Michigan and executed.

“Legs” Laman was later tried for extortion in the Cass kidnapping case and sentenced to the maximum two-year sentence. At this point, prosecutors could not prove that Laman had actually participated in the Cass kidnapping. Prosecutors obtained more information and Laman was brought to Detroit on another kidnapping charge and convicted. On December 14, 1929, Laman was sentenced to 30 to 40 years in state prison. Shortly before Laman’s conviction, a trapper along the Flint River found the partially decomposed body of David Cass. Ballistics tests were made on the bullets taken from the body of Cass by the Detroit Police. The bullets proved to be from the guns of Laman mob thugs Frank Hohfer and Edward Wiles. Both of these men were later positively identified as the slayers of David Cass.

Eventually Laman is persuaded to become a State witness against his gang in return for a reduced sentence. In June of 1930, Laman and another member of the gang named Henry “Ray” Andrews were brought to Detroit to testify. Laman named Wiles and Hohfer as being two of several gang members who had kidnapped and slain David Cass. By this time Wiles and Hohfer had been convicted of other crimes and sentenced to long terms in state prison. The testimony of Laman and others destroyed the kidnapping gang. During the trials it also came out that a plot had actually been formulated by the Laman gang to kidnap the children of Edsel Ford by gunning the children’s bodyguards and snatching the Ford heirs for a hefty ransom.

The Laman mob had always been out of control and deadly. A good example of their cowboy tactics occurred on April 8, 1929 when Andrew Germano, Frank Hohfer, and another Laman mob gunman stole a car at gunpoint from a Pontiac, Michigan doctor. The thugs then drove to Flint, Michigan, where they tried to rob a bank and failed. After a shootout with Flint police, they headed back to Detroit by way of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Driving aimlessly around Ann Arbor at 2:00 a.m., they were pulled over by an Ann Arbor policeman who thought the trio looked suspicious. They promptly shot the officer in the chest when he started asking questions. Fortunately, the policeman was saved because he was wearing a bulletproof vest. Several miles out of Birmingham, Michigan, the drunken thugs rolled the stolen car. Rumpled and bloody, they limped into Birmingham, where they inquired of a policeman where they could get a cab. They explained that they had been in an accident. The gangsters hailed a cab. To the surprise of the Laman gunmen, the officer climbed in after them and told the cab driver to take them to police headquarters to make out an accident report. The gunmen panicked, shot the officer in the arm, and threw him out of the cab. The driver was then thrown out of the vehicle. The car was later found partially submerged in a nearby lake.

Although the Laman mob was put out of business in 1930, several members continued to make the headlines.

Early in August of 1931, Eddie Wiles died of natural causes in Marquette Prison. Wiles had been one of the Laman gunmen who had shot David Cass. On the morning of August 27, 1931, Andrew Germano, a former Laman mob thug, and two other convicts got into the Marquette Prison sick call line. All of the men carried guns under their shirts. The weapons and ammunition had been shipped into the prison in sealed cans of chicken. When the prison doctor, A.W. Hornbogen, asked Germano to take off his shirt, he pulled a 32 caliber automatic pistol and shot the doctor and a trustee. The doctor was killed immediately, and the trustee died later in the prison hospital. The three convicts tried to shoot their way out of the hospital but were thwarted in their efforts. The prisoners then held off local and State police in the prison’s industrial building for several hours before committing suicide.

Another notorious gang that operated out of the Hamtramck, Michigan area was the Carson/Kozak mob. Jimmy Carson was considered to be the brains behind the gang and Philip “Russian Shorty” Kozak the muscle. This group robbed banks, gas stations, businesses, and even pedestrians. Nobody was safe from these predators. In early 1926 the gang planned to rob a Detroit bank and decided they needed to steal a car that could be used in the heist. On January 11, 1926, Kozak and Carson got into a cab in front of the Ford Motor Company Highland Park plant. The two gangsters politely waited for a young woman to get out of the cab before they assaulted the driver. Both Kozak and Carson pulled guns and tried to force the cabbie. The driver put up a ferocious fight until one of the thugs hit him on the head with the butt of his pistol and threw him out of the car. The commotion attracted the attention of a Detroit police officer, Andrew Rusinko. The policeman had just walked out of a nearby bank. Observing the robbery in progress, he ran toward the cab. Both Carson and Kozak fired at the officer, killing him instantly. It was Rusinko’s first day on the job after graduating from the police academy. The two gunmen drove off in the cab, which was late found demolished. Carson was later convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. Kozak was also convicted and deported.

There were many smaller gangs that terrorized the Detroit area during the Prohibition years as well. The Green Sedan Gang operated out of a green touring car and stuck up pedestrians and other drivers at stop lights. The Lizzard Gang of Hamtramck, led by Chester Tutha, operated well into the thirties, robbing local banks and cracking safes. These groups of outlaws were even given a wide berth by local organized crime gangs such as the Purples and the River Gang. They were considered dangerous and uncontrollable. Because of their cowboy tactics, most of these high profile gangs lasted less than a year, their leaders ending up dead or in prison.

Heroin & The 20th Century Detroit Mafia

Detroit, February 21, 1962. It was two in the morning and Gerlando was locking up his bar for the night. Walking out the back door of his establishment, the bar owner was horrified to find a dead pig blocking his exit. Seeing its front and hind legs bound by rope, he inspected the animal and concluded the swine had died from asphyxiation. Gerlando knew that the pathetic animal was placed there as a warning. By the next day, patrons of the bar were already gossiping about the dead pig. Gerlando owned Frankie G’s, a popular hangout for wiseguys in Detroit. Well acquainted with underworld symbolism, customers recognized the pig carcass as a message: squealers die.

Earlier in the week police had visited the bar, asking patrons about Roy Calabrese, a local pimp, numbers runner, and regular at Frankie G’s. Although not a made guy, Roy was nevertheless a very connected figure in the Detroit underworld. Specifically, he was tied into the Partinico faction of the local Italian crime syndicate. A few nights earlier—Valentine’s Day to be exact—police found Calabrese’s body in the trunk of his own car. Police located the vehicle in a Kroger’s parking lot in St. Clair Shores, a suburb of Detroit. Opening the trunk, they found his garroted body. There was no doubt what the dead pig meant and that it was directed toward Gerlando: keep your mouths shut about Roy Calabrese.

Though unable to solve the murder, police were able to connect the victim to a shadowy faction of the Detroit syndicate known in the underworld as the “lower Sicilians.” To be precise, the group traced its heritage to the Sicilian town of Partinico. Like other elements of the Detroit mob, the group was involved in traditional rackets such as illegal gambling and labor corruption. But it was the heroin trade that distinguished the Partinico faction from other criminal groups. It made them superpowers.

Detroit and the Global Heroin Trade

Researchers tend to underplay Detroit when examining the global history of heroin trafficking. Social scientist Eric C. Schneider’s impressive study of the opium trade, for example, places New York at the center of heroin distribution in North America. According to Schneider, between the 1940s and 1980s, New York dominated the smack trade. Dealers in other urban cities had to go through the Big Apple for supplies.

Few would challenge the notion. There is no question that syndicates in New York facilitated a staggering amount of illicit narcotics traffic. But often lost in the discussion of the North American and international drug market is the importance of the Motor City. Even Schneider himself singles out Detroit as the exception to the rule, having special access to the suppliers in New York. The facts are clear. When it came to heroin, an overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that it was the Detroit Mafia that was supplying the New York underworld for close to three decades following World War II, not the other way around. To be more precise, it was a group within the larger Detroit crime family that was doling out “H” at a breakneck pace. This Sicilian faction of Detroit’s Mafia was known as the Partinico group, and was led by some of the city’s most deadly hoodlums. The Partinicos supplied almost the entire country at that time. Besides New York, almost every big city across the nation was supplied with heroin that was brought into the United States by members of the Detroit Partinicos.

Three important factors placed Detroit at the nexus of the North American heroin trade.First, unlike many other Italian American syndicates, Detroit maintained close relationships with Sicilian crime families overseas. Their Mafia brothers across the Atlantic had direct access to opium growers in the Middle East. Traffickers processed the opium into heroin in Europe and shipped the product to distributors in Detroit. Second, the Detroit–Windsor border has been a major hub of international trade. Sicilian suppliers often used cargo ships bound for Montreal to move their product. The heroin made its way down to Windsor and onward across the border. Lastly, Detroit’s mob was heavily involved in labor racketeering and related industries such as trucking and steel. As a result, drug traffickers in the Motor City used these connections to develop a sophisticated distribution network.

Detroit’s involvement in the drug trade began with its deep Sicilian connections. As with other big cities, Sicilian immigrants poured into Detroit during late 1800s and early 1900s, looking for economic opportunities. Many of them went on to become successful entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, and civil servants. Unfortunately, a criminal element emerged in Detroit’s Sicilian community as well. Local newspapers began documenting Italian organized criminal activities as early as 1908. During the early years of syndicate history, Sicilian gangsters tended to group together with compatriots from their hometowns. Mobstersarriving in Detroit from Partinico, for example, would link up with Partinicesi mafiosi already operating in the city. Out of this milieu, certain groups operated international criminal enterprises with the aid of comrades back in the old country. Heroin trafficking was one of the most profitable examples of such joint illegal operations.

The Detroit Mafiaproduced three subgroups known for remaining exceptionally close to their Sicilian counterparts overseas: the Partinico faction (also known as the lower Sicilian group), the Windsor faction (a Canadian crew linked to the French Connection heroin ring out of Marseilles), and the Cinisi faction (affiliated with the Badalamenti crime family of Palermo).


John Priziola and the Partinico Faction

Led by Giovanni “Papa John” Priziola, the Partinico faction was the oldest and most powerful of the groups operating in the Motor City. Standing just over five feet three inches, the diminutive gangster climbed the ranks of the Detroit underworld by combining violence with exceptional leadership skills and heavily entrenched connections. Starting off his criminal career in the area as a rum-runner during Prohibition, Papa John rose to the rank of consigliere, third in command and top advisor to longtime Godfather Joe Zerilli until his death in 1979.

Arriving in Detroit in 1909 at the age of 16, Priziola soon earned a reputation on the street as a dependable earner and an unscrupulous killer. Between 1917 and 1931, Papa John piled up a number of arrests for larceny, bootlegging, concealed weapons, narcotics, and murder. Similar to other mafiosi from his era, Priziola made his first fortune during Prohibition in the bootlegging industry. During the 1920s, he co-owned a sugar house and liquor-cutting factory with Detroit mobster Nicolo “Nick the Executioner” Ditta. Together they supplied booze to blind-pig establishments throughout the city. Papa John generated a second fortune during World War II by orchestrating a gas rationing coupon scam that is alleged to have netted him millions.

In addition to establishing himself as one of the mob’s top moneymakers, Priziola had another advantage that enhanced his position on the streets: his heritage. Whereas other local wiseguys at the time chose to lead lives of crime, Papa John Priziola was born into the Mafia. FBI informants told authorities that Priziola had a reputation as a killer before arriving in Detroit, dating all the way back to his days as a youngster in Sicily. It is speculated that Papa John “made his bones” during a blood feud involving his father. Priziola’s father, Giuseppe, was a high-ranking mobster back in Partinico. The elder Priziola had fallen victim to the murderous intrigue of his own son-in-law. After the murder, the assassin fled Sicily for the United States. Partisans of the Priziola clan managed to lure the killer back to Italy a short time later. The Priziola family had their revenge. Italian authorities soon discovered the son-in-law cut into over 800 pieces.

Back in Detroit, Papa John solidified his position as an underworld powerbroker by linking up with other Partinicesi gangsters such as Frank “Frankie Three Fingers” Coppola and Raffaele “Jimmy Q” Quasarano. Initially, Coppola operated as the official leader, or capo, of the Partinico faction. Though younger than Papa John, Coppola ranked higher as a mafioso in Sicily, and he carried his status with him from the old country to America. Together, Coppola, Priziola, and Quasarano operated a number of lucrative gambling joints including the infamous Lucky Star Policy House. The police raided the gambling den in 1947 and determined the group was taking in around $40,000 a day through the Lucky Star.

Like other venture capitalists, Frankie Three Fingers, Papa John, and Jimmy Q—sometimes also referred to as “Jimmy the Goon”—wanted to parlay their earnings. With lots of capital to invest and solid connections back in Sicily, the Partinico group decided to jump head first into the heroin market. Sweetening the deal and making things substantially easier in moving their product, Coppola and Quasarano had recently aided the Detroit mob in a successful infiltration of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Because of the union’s relationship to the trucking industry, the Partinico faction had access to a national distribution system. With direct access to heroin suppliers in Sicily and control of a delivery network in the United States, the Partinico group established an ideal drug-dealing infrastructure.

Frankie Coppola’s connection to the Teamsters is one of the more discomforting moments in the history of that proud labor movement. Coppola was particularly close to Teamsters’ president Jimmy Hoffa. The relationship dated all the way back to the days of Coppola’s first months in America. Shortly after Frankie Three Fingers arrived in Detroit, he started up a romantic relationship with Sylvia Pagano. Coincidentally, Pagano, an aspiring actress who dated several of the city’s most powerful mobsters, was a former lover of Jimmy Hoffa. Sylvia introduced Coppola to her old paramour and a lucrative partnership emerged.

Hoffa’s fledging labor movement had been fighting off union-busting goons for years. After meeting Frankie Three Fingers, Hoffa decided to team with Coppola and his cohorts in the mob and counter the antagonists with the Teamsters’ own squad of thugs. Coppola, along with other Detroit mobsters including Pete Licavoli and Santo “Cockeyed Sam” Perrone, assisted the Teamsters in their street wars with rival unions like the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Of course there were tradeoffs. Coppola provided the muscle, and in exchange Hoffa granted the Partinico group access to Teamster-controlled trucking networks. Later, Hoffa used the Teamsters to provide political cover for the Partinico faction by appointing Priziola and Quasarano as union officials in Local 985.

As for the heroin trade, FBI documents suggest that Frank Coppola established a drug smuggling route out of Florida as early as 1926. At that point, Coppola had only been in the country for a brief time. Frankie Three Fingers was on the run from Italian prosecutors for a 1919 homicide in Palermo when he entered the United States in 1925. In addition to running drugs, Coppola spent time as a bootlegger in Los Angeles before arriving in Detroit in 1931. By the 1940s, the Partinico group had amassed such a fortune from labor racketeering and illegal gambling that its foray into the international narcotics trade was a natural progression. The authorities did eventually catch up with Coppola in 1947, and deported him to Italy. He tried to reenter the U.S. in 1948 and 1949, but was intercepted by American officials both times and returned to Sicily.

Ironically, Coppola’s deportation led to an escalation of heroin smuggling to Detroit. Back in Sicily, he was in a position to take direct control of the supply side of the network. Initially, Sicilian mafiosiacquired heroin from government sanctioned morphine producers in Italy. After identifying corruptible officials at the pharmaceutical companies, Sicilian gangsters would arrange for the firms to inflate production over regulated limits and buy the surplus heroin. Investigators with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics estimated that the arrangement produced approximately 800 kilos of heroin for Sicilian crime organizations.

The partnership worked well until American authorities pressured the Italian government to crack down on corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. Eventually, Italian authorities issued a total ban on the production of heroin. With pharmaceutical companies out of commission, Italian American gangsters had to look to other suppliers. The Corsican mob from Marseilles was more than happy to satisfy the market.


“Cockeyed Joe” and the Windsor Connection

Before continuing to describe the Partinico faction’s involvement in narcotics, it is important to note the Windsor group’s role in the heroin trade as well. Going by underworld mapping systems, Windsor, Ontario was considered part of Detroit’s territory; that is to say, the Motor City crime family–controlled rackets on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, a mere five-minute drive from downtown.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Giuseppe “Cockeyed Joe” Catalanotte was capo of the Windsor crew. Like Papa John Priziola, Catalanotte came from Mafia royalty. His brother Salvatore “Singing Sam” Catalanotte was one of the original mob bosses of Detroit and is considered by some experts the city’s first modern-day don. Not one to ride his brother’s coattails, Cockeyed Joe built a reputation as a vicious gangster in his own right. By the time he took over syndicate operations in Canada, Cockeyed Joe had an extensive arrest record going back to the early 1920s. Catalanotte’s record included charges for murder, assault, extortion, and narcotics violations.

When Detroit police raided Cockeyed Joe’s apartment in 1930, they were astounded to find an arsenal of over 60 firearms. Detroit police officer Marvin Lane broke his hand wrestling a loaded gun away from Catalanotte, who reached for the pistol as police searched the premises. Interestingly, investigators linked one of the confiscated guns to the assassination of popular radio host Gerald Buckley, though Catalanotte was never charged with the crime. After serving a short stint behind bars, Cockeyed Joe was back on the streets and looking for fresh rackets.

The 1940s were a shaky period for the country’s narcotics industry. World War II had severely disrupted the narcotics trade between Europe and North America. When the war ended in 1945, Cockeyed Joe recognized the lucrative potential of reintroducing the drug pipeline into the Detroit area. Catalanotte, along with his top lieutenants Onofrio “Nono” Minaudo, Paul “The Sicilian” Cimino, and Nicholas “Canadian Nick” Cicchini, transformed the Windsor–Detroit border into the primary hub of international narcotics trafficking.

By being in charge of looking after the Detroit mob’s rackets in Windsor, Catalanotte became acquainted with other powerful gangsters in the Canadian underworld. Jimmy Renda, for example, a mobster out of Riverside, Ontario, was part of Cockeyed Joe’s criminal orbit. Renda put Catalanotte in contact with heroin traffickers from Montreal. Combining linguistic and criminal similarities, French Canadian mobsters in Quebec worked well with Corsican gangsters from Marseilles.

The global nuances were fascinating. Corsican mobsters had contacts with French-speaking Lebanese gangsters with access to opium growers in Turkey. Turkish opium producers would cook the opium into a morphine base and sell it to Lebanese middlemen. Eventually, the product would make its way to French smugglers. The Corsicans had established an elaborate network of clandestine conversion labs in Marseilles to process the morphine base into heroin. Finally, Corsicans would smuggle the heroin onto cargo ships headed for Canada. American and French investigators estimated that by the early 1950s, the so-called French Connection was supplying North America with over 100 kilograms of heroin per month. Controlling the Windsor–Detroit border, Catalanotte was in a perfect position to capitalize on the illicit traffic. Central in importance to this network was Catalanotte’s association with Dominic Albertini. As the official head chemist of the French Connection heroin ring, Albertini was recognized as one of the most powerful gangsters in Marseilles. Jimmy Renda introduced Catalanotte to Albertini and as a result an extremely profitable transnational heroin partnership emerged.

In 1952, Cockeyed Joe even tried to smuggle Albertini into Detroit to establish additional distribution outlets in the United States. Federal authorities at the time believed that Catalanotte hoped to introduce Albertini to the Partinico faction in the city and build new business relationships between the two megawatt mob groups. Before any agreements could be established, however, American authorities intercepted Albertini at the Windsor border. Interestingly, Albertini was caught at the border by means of surveillance set up for another Detroit mobster. Federal agents were monitoring Peter Di Lorenzo, a suspected racketeer, counterfeiter, and human trafficker when they observed Dominic Albertini leaving Di Lorenzo’s business. Agents arrested the French chemist as he tried to enter Detroit. Albertini offered the agents a $100,000 bribe but was rebuked. He was convicted of illegal entry and sentenced to two years of which he served a year and a day.

Investigators were closing in on Catalanotte as well. Cockeyed Joe’s drug network started to unravel when a confidential informant began trading information to federal agents in 1950. The informant worked with a Midwest drug trafficker named Robert “Texas Bob” Kimbell, who was transporting marijuana into Detroit in 125-pound bushels. One of Kimbell’s primary customers was a dealer named Michael Lockett. The feds found out through their informant that Lockett had introduced Kimbell to Italian heroin traffickers in Detroit.

Intrigued by the allegations, agents with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics set up a fake heroin buy to nail Texas Bob. Kimbell fell for the trap and agreed to cooperate with the government in return for a lighter sentence. As a result, Texas Bob started introducing undercover agents to lower-level Italian heroin suppliers operating out of the mob-controlled Detroit–Windsor hub. The undercover agents developed relationships with a number of “connected” dealers such as Andy Bottancino, Nick Prano, and Jimmy Galici, a known made member of the Detroit Mafia.

During the investigation it became clear that the primary supplier for this group of drug lieutenants was a mysterious mafioso known only as “The Old Man.” It quickly became clear that The Old Man was Cockeyed Joe Catalanotte. Proving it, on the other hand, wasn’t so easy. By the end of 1950, agents had arrested Lockett, Bottancino, Prano, and Galici on narcotics charges, but were unable to find someone willing to testify against their ringleader, Catalanotte. They all went to trial and were convicted, though Kimball never made it to the witness stand as he had been killed in a drug deal gone wrong in San Antonio.

Staying hot on Catalanotte’s trail, investigators infiltrated Cockeyed Joe’s crew once again only a year later. In 1951, undercover agents started making buys from figures in Detroit’s Chinese underworld. Within months, they busted James Paing and Jay Lum for trafficking, and the two began cooperating with the federal investigators. Paing and Lum passed on the names of their Italian suppliers—Louis Oddo, Robert Tassiano, and Sam Caruso—and agreed to participate in a sting operation. Paing placed his drug order with Caruso, who like Jimmy Galici was a known made member of the Detroit Mafia, and then passed the request on to Oddo. Caruso and Oddo arranged for the heroin to be delivered to a gas station owned by Tassiano.

Informants explained to authorities that per standard protocol, Caruso would wait several days before passing the drug proceeds on to his boss. Agents waited, keeping Caruso under surveillance. Finally, on February 21, 1952, law enforcement followed him to a meeting with the ever-elusive Old Man. Agents witnessed Caruso passing drug money to none other than Cockeyed Joe Catalanotte. Police arrested Joe and within the year a federal court convicted him on narcotics charges. Catalanotte’s incarceration, however, didn’t even come close to stopping the flow of heroin into Detroit.


Drug Lords

The Partinico group took advantage of Catalanotte’s legal troubles and with Cockeyed Joe locked up, established itself as the prominent heroin organization in Detroit. Back in Sicily, Frank Coppola and other recently exiled American Mafia dons like Charles “Lucky” Luciano forged their own partnerships with Corsican traffickers. With such connections in place, Coppola supplied his partners in Detroit with copious amounts of heroin.

Meanwhile, law enforcement began to catch on to the fact that a new, more sophisticated drug network was firmly in place after monitoring an increased amount of travel to Sicily by Detroit-area gangsters. Following Coppola’s deportation, authorities observed two Partinico group members in particular traveling cross-continent quite often. The feds observed Jimmy Quasarano and another Priziola disciple and top Michigan-based mob lieutenant, Salvatore “Little Sammy” Finazzo, making frequent trips overseas to meet with Partinicese mob leaders in Sicily.

Agents suspected Quasarano and Finazzo were in Sicily to negotiate and finance heroin deliveries to the United States. Finazzo was born in Partinico, but moved to the U.S. as a child, settling first in St. Louis and then relocating to Detroit. His status within the local underworld was cemented in 1922 when his sister married future mob boss Joe Zerilli. In contrast, Jimmy Q was born in Pennsylvania, but raised in Sicily. His mother moved the family back to their ancestral home of Partinico after Quasarano’s father died in a coal-mining accident. Back in Detroit, Jimmy Q and Little Sammy Finazzo co-owned the Motor City Boxing Gym and were tasked with overseeing a number of Papa John Priziola’s gambling and loansharking operations.

If Coppola was the founder of the Partinico group and Priziola was its leader, then Jimmy Q was the crew’s enforcer. After spending his early youth in Partinico, Quasarano moved back to the United States as a teenager. Committed to the gangster life, at the age of 21, he made his way to Detroit to work for Partinicese Godfather Frank Coppola. Authorities arrested Quasarano a dozen times between 1931 and 1945. Jimmy Q was arrested on narcotics charges in 1941, but he agreed to enlist in the Army in exchange for dropped charges. The military granted Quasarano a medical discharge shortly thereafter. By the late 1940s, Jimmy Q was back in action and traveling to Italy to negotiate narcotics shipments. He had solid drug connections that extended beyond Frankie Three Fingers. Quasarano’s father-in-law, for example, was Vittorio “Don Vito” Vitale, a powerful Mafia don from Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily. Not only did Don Vito have excellent heroin sources to bestow upon his new son-in-law, but Jimmy Q could use the pretense of “family visits” to Vitale as a perfect alibi for traveling to Italy so often.

Through his father-in-law, Quasarano also became connected to Salvatore “Toto” Vitale, the sotocapo, or second-in-command, of the Mafia family in Partinico. Like Coppola, Toto Vitale spent time in the United States before being deported back to Italy in 1937. In addition to supplying Detroit with heroin, Toto was the key supplier for another Sicilian group operating out of Missouri. Sal’s cousin John “Johnny V” Vitale captained a crew of Partinicesi gangsters in St. Louis. Members of the St. Louis faction included Anthony “Tony Pip” Lopiparo, Anthony “Tony G” Giordano, and Ralph “Shorty” Caleca. As with Quasarano and Finazzo from Detroit, federal investigators observed Lopiparo and Giordano, whose brother Salvatore “Sammy G” Giordano was a made member of the Mafia in Michigan, traveling to Sicily to meet with Salvatore Vitale, presumably to negotiate heroin shipments, on numerous occasions.

Whereas the Catalanotte group had been smuggling heroin down from Montreal across the Windsor–Detroit border, the Partinico Mafia shipped their product to Detroit directly. Traffickers used any number of ingenious ways to smuggle the product, including hiding heroin in boxes of canned sardines, canned tomatoes and oranges, and in olive oil drums. Often the syndicate used passengers flying to America as unwitting drug mules, paying baggage handlers at the airport to slip narcotics into random people’s luggage.

Once in the U.S., the product made its way to Detroit mafioso Peter Gaudino and his Gaudino Imported and Domestic Groceries Companyon Mack Avenue, located on the East Side of Detroit. Gaudino was a veteran trafficker who freelanced between the Partinico faction and the Catalanotte group. The Partinico organization would also ship heroin to Peter “West Coast Pete” Tocco’s fish market on Joseph Campau Street, in that Tocco was Priziola’s son-in-law.

It is noteworthy that federal investigators went in front of Congress in Washington and identified the Detroit-Partinico drug operation as the primary supply line of heroin to the Midwest and East Coast Mafia families. Within Detroit, most of the product made its way to African American dealers. Priziola had forged strong partnerships with Detroit’s black gangsters. FBI files note that Papa John even hosted a multicultural underworld summit of sorts. In 1962, Priziola invited the top African American gambling czars to a joint meeting with the Italians, and together they reorganized illegal gambling in Detroit, constructing what was known on the streets as the “New Frontier.” Priziola’s group used these intergang alliances to distribute heroin as well.

Surprisingly, Priziola’s biggest customers were not local dealers. Primarily, the Partinicos supplied the Lucchese crime family of New York. As with other crime syndicates, after World War II, New York families began searching for new heroin sources. At this time, the Detroit Mafia had their strongest ties to heroin traffickers in Sicily. Even the Bonanno crime family, known for being the most Sicilian of the Italian American syndicates, did not fully develop its drug network until after 1957. Up until the late 1950s, even the most powerful New York crime families had to look to Detroit for their heroin supply.

Giovanni “Big John” Ormento, a captain in the Lucchese family in New York, was the Partinico’s primary customer. Standing five feet ten and weighing over 250 pounds, Big John’s arrest record included charges for narcotics, firearms, and bookmaking. During one prison stay, Ormento’s psychiatric evaluators described him as both “paranoid” and possessing “superior intelligence.” The mental health staff predicted that Ormento “would return to crime” upon release. They were right.

In the New York underworld, Big John ran the infamous “107th Street Mob” in Harlem. The group operated one of the city’s largest narcotics distribution networks. Ormento was also a labor racketeer with ties to Midwestern trucking organizations. It was through these networks that he became affiliated with corrupt Teamsters officials and influential East Coast Mafia powers like John “Johnny Dio” Dioguardi and Frank “Cheech” Livorsi. Ormento eventually married Livorsi’s daughter. Livorsi’s other daughter married the son of Detroit Mafia underboss Angelo “The Chairman” Meli.

Big John met his Detroit suppliers through a labyrinth of familial connections. Angelo Meli was hosting a banquet in Ormento’s honor at the Bowery Night Club in Hamtramck when he introduced Big John to Papa John Priziola and Jimmy Q Quasarano. In addition to having solid Teamsters connections, Ormento owned OSS Trucking Inc. and was a labor representative for the Garment Center Truck Owners Association. Strategically, he was in the perfect position to facilitate a large-scale drug distribution network. After meeting Papa John and Jimmy Q, Ormento found a heroin supply line to finalize the operation.

Unfortunately for the Partinico faction, the tumultuous realm of underworld politics threatened to undo Detroit’s grip on the lucrative heroin pipeline. Tensions between Frank Coppola and Salvatore Vitale began festering after the 1949 assassination of Santo Fleres, the boss of the Partinico Mafia. Up until that point, Coppola was operating out of Mexico and working with the Matranga crime family from San Diego.

The Mexican government actually granted Frank Coppola permission to live in Tijuana, ostensibly for the purposes of studying agriculture. Instead of farming, Coppola set up gambling dens and casinos. Working with the Matrangas across the border, he also established new routes for human trafficking and drug smuggling. As long as Salvatore Vitale was in Sicily and Coppola was in Tijuana, the two hot-tempered crime lords avoided conflict. That changed when the Mexican government arrested and deported Coppola in 1950.

Back in Sicily, Coppola handpicked Gaspare Centineo to replace the murdered Santo Fleres as the new bossof the mob in Partinico. Considering traditional Mafia protocol, this was an unconventional selection. Partinico underboss Toto Vitale was theoretically next in line for the top spot. Coppola’s unique political connections with the Italian government, however, gave Frankie Three Fingers some added leeway in making his final decision, a significant advantage when navigating the machinations of the underworld.

Frankie was a political kingmaker in Sicily with connections to powerful Italian senators such as Girolamo Messeri. Furthermore, Coppola’s brother was a priest and powerbroker in the local Catholic church. As a result, few politicians in Partinico could survive without the support of the Coppola brothers. Unafraid to namedrop, Frank Coppola would often brag that “it was Vittorio Emanuele Orlando who advised me to go to the United States.” Orlando, the former prime minister of Italy, was originally a parliamentary deputy from Partinico. Officially, Gaspare Centineo may have been the new crime boss of Partinico, but veteran gangsters like Sal Vitale knew that the real power behind the family was Coppola.

Salvatore Vitale was a heavy hitter in his own right, and was not somebody to be taken lightly. As underboss he established connections with Marseilles and was on the frontlines of developing the heroin pipeline to Detroit. Vitale also had the infamous Charles “Lucky” Luciano in his corner. Luciano was the point man for introducing gangsters like Vitale to Corsican traffickers. Coppola hoped to remove Luciano and Vitale and reposition himself as the link between Detroit and Marseilles.

This was not the first time Coppola had agitated the Luciano organization. Prior to his deportation from the United States, Coppola invested in both legal and illegal gambling operations in New Orleans. For these ventures he partnered with Louisiana crime boss Salvatore “Silver Dollar Sam” Carollo and Luciano’s American representative Frank Costello. Although it is unclear what triggered the dispute, FBI documents indicate that the relationship between Costello and Coppola soured shortly after the partnership began. Informants alleged that Costello went to the Mafia’s ruling council in New York, known as the Commission, seeking permission to assassinate Coppola. Luckily for Coppola, Commission leaders turned down Costello’s request and the United States Government deported him before the feud could escalate.

Complicating things further, Salvatore Vitale alienated his customers in Detroit by supplying adulterated heroin. Still in control of the heroin pipeline for the time being, Vitale sent 14 kilos of product to Jimmy Quasarano in Detroit and in return accepted a $75,000 down payment. Jimmy Q was outraged when he discovered that the heroin shipment was mostly sugar, and he wanted to take immediate revenge. Papa John Priziola, who was financing the Detroit side of the deal, accused Vitale of a double cross. Vitale proclaimed his innocence and responded that he must have been deceived by his contacts in Marseilles. To try and make amends with his Detroit receivers, Vitale arranged for $100,000 worth of heroin to be delivered with no down payment tendered.

The two sides agreed that Joe Matranga from the San Diego mob was a neutral party and could be trusted to pick up the heroin in New York. Matranga was related to both Priziola and Vitale through marriage. He was married to Priziola’s daughter and his sister was married to Sal Vitale. Matranga made the pickup, but he was subsequently robbed. Three masked men broke into his hotel room and took the stash at gunpoint. Although they were unable to prove it, Matranga and Vitale suspected that Priziola and Quasarano arranged the robbery. Vitale demanded a meeting to settle these disputes. Senior mafiosi from Detroit presided over the meeting, known on the street as a sitdown, between Vitale’s American representatives and Priziola’s group. The mob arbitrators did not rule on the New York hijacking, but they did find in Vitale’s favor concerning the earlier shipment of “garbage heroin.” Priziola and Quasarano were told to settle their debts with Vitale peacefully.

Relations between the two groups remained cold after the sitdown. In the months following the dispute, Quasarano traveled to Italy to meet with Vitale. The Partinicesi underboss was expecting Jimmy Q to arrive with cash and negotiate further drug shipments. Vitale wanted to reenter the United States and hoped Quasarano and the Detroit group would help smuggle him back into the country. Instead, Jimmy Q explained that “things were too hot” to either smuggle Vitale into the United States or arrange further heroin deliveries. Furthermore, Quasarano did not arrive with any cash payments to square away earlier drug debts. Federal agents monitoring the situation suspected that Jimmy Q was insincere. Investigators believed Quasarano was buying heroin from Partinico the whole time, but from another source: Frank Coppola. The government interpreted the provocations by Priziola and Quasarano as signs that they were backing their former boss Coppola in his power play against Vitale.

Meanwhile, investigators were closing in on the Partinico group in Sicily. American law enforcement busted Sicilian gangster Frank Callaci with three kilos of heroin in May 1951. It was suspected that Toto Vitale was Callaci’s supplier and Italian police arrested him as well. Astonishingly, federal agents found letters on Vitale written by John Priziola, complete with Priziola’s own personalized letterhead and Grosse Pointe Woods address. The notes instructed Vitale to keep a low profile until further notice. Authorities suspected that coded language in the letter referred to drug trafficking and the smuggling of illegal aliens. Vitale was eventually released from custody, and he made a run for the United States. The run was unsuccessful, and he was arrested again by American customs officials in December 1952.

Back in Italy, federal narcotics agents continued to chip away at the Partinico drug operation. Agents in Rome had been shadowing a drug courier from the St. Louis faction of the Partinico group. Surveillance led investigators to Frank Coppola’s estate in Anzio. Informants supplied information suggesting the courier was there to pick up six kilos of heroin for delivery to Detroit. Apparently, something spooked the courier and he left the estate without making the pickup. The agents decided to remain at their surveillance post and it paid off. Serafino Mancuso was soon observed visiting the location and picking up a green trunk. Mancuso was one of Coppola’s drug lieutenants from Partinico’s neighboring town of Alcamo. Trailing Mancuso in the vehicle, agents arrested him at the Alcamo train station.

Law enforcement found the suspected six kilos of heroin concealed in the four walls of the specially constructed trunk. Evidence after the bust suggested that the $42,000 worth of heroin was heading for Detroit. Subsequently, the Italian government issued arrest warrants for Frank Coppola, John Priziola, and Jimmy Quasarano. Unfortunately for investigators, someone tipped off Coppola and he went into hiding. The Italian courts tried Priziola and Quasarano in absentia but dropped the charges, believing that conviction would be pointless without physical defendants. With Coppola on the run and Salvatore Vitale in prison, the heroin pipeline to Detroit experienced a temporary interruption.

By 1955, the Partinico drug network was back in operation. Italian authorities eventually caught up with Coppola and arrested him on unrelated charges that included murder and kidnapping. He beat the rap and returned to the streets. Vitale’s incarceration was also temporary. After being picked up by U.S. Customs agents, he was sentenced to serve three years from an earlier conviction but was released from prison two years early on a technicality. At that point, American authorities hoped to deport him for the second time, but the proceedings were caught up in red tape and Vitale got a reprieve. While his deportation was under appeal, he set up operations with the Matranga family in Southern California. With Vitale out of prison, Priziola and Quasarano could no longer avoid paying off their earlier drug debts. The Detroit group started off by paying $20,000 of the money it owed Vitale, and soon the heroin deliveries were back on schedule. It did not take long, however, for old tensions to resurface. When Vitale sent $36,000 worth of heroin to Detroit and Papa John and Jimmy Q refused to pay, the flames of discontent were stoked once again. Incensed by the Detroiters’ attitude, Toto Vitale threatened to have one of Quasarano’s relatives in Partinico murdered if payment did not arrive.

In the meantime, veteran members of the Partinico factions such as the LoMedico brothers tried to mediate a peaceful settlement. Vito LoMedico worked with the Sicilian branch while Frank LoMedico assisted the Detroit group. The San Diego crime family tried to intervene, too. Joe Matranga, who was at the same time Priziola’s son-in-law and Vitale’s brother-in-law, urged his father-in-law to pay the drug bill. Detroit Godfather Joe Zerilli and New York drug trafficker John Ormento also visited Vitale in San Diego, each gangster luminary hoping to negotiate an agreement. Instead, Vitale grew more impatient and raised his demands to $60,000. He also told Joe Matranga that he would have Priziola and Quasarano killed if they failed to pay.

Underworld figures on both sides of the issue arranged an emergency sitdown between the two parties in 1956. Vitale confided in his wife that he would travel to Detroit for the meeting, collect his money, then fly off to Marseilles and Italy to collect other outstanding drug debts. FBI surveillance teams observed Vitale in Windsor, meeting with Peter Di Lorenzo and an unidentified son of Detroit mob czar Black Bill Tocco (his sons Jack and Tony were both active in the crime family at the time). That was the last recorded sighting of Salvatore Vitale.

Interviewed by the FBI, Vitale’s son-in-law speculated that his father-in-law was lured to Detroit for a supposed meeting, and then executed. The son-in-law asked Matranga what happened but was told “to mind his own business.” Soon federal investigators presumed Vitale had been murdered as well. With their rival out of the way, Coppola and Priziola not only resumed the drug pipeline to Detroit, they set about reorganizing the global heroin trade altogether. It was an incredibly ambitious proposition, but one the pair had the power and ingenuity to pull off.

The Grand Hotel des Palmes in Palermo is noted for its elegance and style. Featuring fine Italian fabrics, stucco ceilings, grand pillars, antique chandeliers, and parquet floors, the hotel is considered an ideal location by international business people and foreign dignitaries for hosting conferences and meetings. As a guest, Richard Wagner composed part of his opera, Parsifal.

In October 1957, the hotel attracted a different crowd of guests. Local police found it peculiar that a large number of reputed mobsters were converging on the site. Investigators monitored the hotel for days, noting an impressive list of Italian American and Sicilian gangsters passing through the doors. Police identified a number of underworld notables including Lucky Luciano, Frank Coppola, and Vito Vitale. Surveillance teams began to suspect that Italian American crime boss Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, in town to visit Luciano, was chairing some type of underworld summit. Other than Joe Bonanno and his New York entourage, only one other American mafioso was identified at the infamous conference: Detroit’s own Papa John Priziola.

Already dealing in heroin, the crime organizations on both sides of the Atlantic decided to meet and discuss streamlining the delivery process to increase supplies to America. Through his connections in the Caribbean, Coppola arranged an increase in heroin shipments concealed in food packages through Cuba. The heroin would make its way to Teamsters-affiliated crime bosses in the South such as Santo Trafficante in Florida and Carlos Marcello in New Orleans. Using his political connections with Vatican banker Michele Sindona, Coppola arranged intricate money-laundering schemes for the voluminous drug profits that were pouring in. The transatlantic agreement between the crime families solidified the Italian American Mafia’s monopoly on the importation of heroin. But as the Partinicesi strengthened their position, the Catalanotte crew out of Windsor continued to struggle.


Canadian Collapse

The U.S. judicial system convicted Cockeyed Joe Catalanotte on narcotics charges in 1953. Yet after issuing a seven-year sentence, the court reversed its decision and released him in 1957 on the condition that he be deported to Italy. The Canadian capo’s stay in Italy was not long and soon he was back in North America, landing in Cuba where he linked up with his former Windsor crew lieutenant Onofrio Minaudo.

Married to Catalanotte’s sister, “Nono” was a trusted member of the Catalanotte inner circle. From their Caribbean base, the veteran gangsters initiated a new heroin route. The Canadian mobsters in exile still had solid drug supply connections in Sicily, including Cockeyed Joe’s older brother Vincenzo Catalanotte, who everybody called “Jimmy.” Originally operating out of Detroit, Jimmy was deported to his home country after finishing a narcotics sentence in 1934. Back in Sicily, Jimmy specialized in bootlegging cigarettes. With smuggling routes and tactics already in place, it was only logical to add heroin to the illicit traffic.

Not long after getting things in their new narcotics operation up and running in Havana, Cuban authorities intervened and arrested Joe Catalanotte and Onofrio Minaudo as undesirable aliens in 1958, booting them out of the country. Exiled from Cuba, Catalanotte tried to enter New York, but was arrested and deported to Mexico. Undeterred, both Cockeyed Joe and his brother in law Nono set about returning to Canada. Catalanotte gained a temporary visa to enter the country in 1958, while Minaudo entered Windsor illegally.

American investigators suspected that Catalanotte was sneaking into Detroit to visit relatives at the time. Meanwhile, Nono Minaudo had his own complicated immigration history with North American authorities. Minaudo was dodging murder, attempted murder, assault, theft, and larceny charges in Italy when he entered the United States illegally in 1924. He migrated to Detroit and invested in a bowling alley and olive oil import company. Detroit police, however, suspected that Nono was also involved in armed robbery, prostitution, and labor racketeering.   Marrying into the Catalanotte family, Minaudo joined the Windsor group and helped smuggle heroin across the Detroit River. Realizing that the Italian government had sentenced him in absentia to life in prison, the United States deported the gangster to Cuba in 1954.

Minaudo used his political connections at the Canadian embassy in Havana to secure a short-term visa and re-entered Canada a few years later, staying for close to a decade. This seven-year stint on Canadian soil was highly scandalous, considering his prior convictions and deportations. The hullaballoo increased when Minister of External Affairs Paul Martin admitted that as a private lawyer he represented the infamous mobster. The scandal intensified and Canadian authorities had little option but to deport Minaudo. Informants told the FBI that Nono dreaded the possibility of being deported to his home country, and he had good reason. Within weeks of setting foot back in Sicily, he was gunned down by assassins in 1965.

Initially, the FBI suspected the assassination had a Detroit connection. After further investigation, however, agents shifted blame to local Sicilian mafiosi. The murder was never solved, but investigators focused on two theories in particular. One theory positioned Minaudo as the victim of a vendettaextending back to his early years in Sicily, while the other linked his murder to Sicilian loan sharks. Most experts tend to subscribe to the vendetta theory. Meanwhile, Catalanotte’s visa expired and the Canadians deported him back to Mexico. It did not take long before agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics busted Cockeyed Joe while trying to set up another drug smuggling operation in Tijuana. Isolated and facing serious jail time, Joe felt he had no other option but to offer his services as an informant to the government. Federal narcotics agent Bill Durkin was intrigued by the desperate gangster’s offer. Still, Durkin recognized that Catalanotte’s limited knowledge of the Mexican underworld was of little use to police investigations south of the border.

To maximize Catalanotte as a source of information, federal agents had to feed the veteran narcotics trafficker back into his traditional smuggling network. For years, Cockeyed Joe facilitated the transnational flow of heroin between Europe and North America. Marseilles was the point of departure for the drug network and that’s where the government placed Catalanotte, a ploy to make sure their prize snitch was at the nerve center of the Corsican heroin empire.

Federal narcotics agent Robert De Fauw was in the midst of investigating the infamous French Connection heroin ring when Catalanotte turned up in Marseilles as an informant. According to De Fauw, the Corsicans knew Catalanotte from past dealings and continued to believe Cockeyed Joe represented Detroit’s Mafia family. With stellar drug-dealing credentials, Catalanotte was able to infiltrate the top Corsican syndicates. Initially, Cockeyed Joe linked up with the Guerini crime family. Fighting as part of the French resistance during World War II, the Guerini brothers made a number of valuable contacts with labor leaders, socialists, and members of the French intelligence community. Such connections helped facilitate the brothers’ takeover of the Marseilles waterfront. Trusting that everything with Catalanotte was on the up-and-up, the brothers arranged a number of heroin deliveries through Montreal, believing they were supplying Cockeyed Joe’s Detroit connections. Meanwhile, each shipment provided the government with details about the Guerini organization’s delivery methods.

Now integrated into the Corsican underworld, Catalanotte also started dealing with French mobster Joseph Orsini. In addition to being a Nazi collaborator during World War II, Orsini was an experienced counterfeiter and drug smuggler. He acted as the Ansaldi crime family’s representative in North America before being deported by the United States in 1958. Orsini was also the Guerini organization’s chief competitor in the drug racket. Recognizing that tension existed between the two drug gangs, the government decided to play one group off against the other. De Fauw used Catalanotte to begin the intrigue. As part of the rouse, Cockeyed Joe went to Orsini, alleging that the Guerini brothers were supplying police with information about his drug shipments and conversion labs. In response, Orsini ordered the assassination of Antoine Guerini.

The gutsy mob hit ignited a serious of retaliations that rocked the French underworld. Meme Guerini, for example, apprehended an Orsini associate and tortured him prior to throwing the victim off a cliff. De Fauw recalls that the chosen method of assassination during the war was the motorcycle drive-by shooting. Gunmen would drive past at high speeds and unload rounds at their targets, speeding off before retaliation shots could be fired.

For three years, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics used Catalanotte’s services to build a case against the Corsican traffickers. Now that the rival drug organizations were dismantling each other, it became the ideal time to utilize Joe’s information and begin arresting members of the drug network. The investigation even snared high-ranking members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, including a corrupted staff sergeant on the Corsican payroll. Joe’s primary condition for informing on the French, however, was that he would never give up any information on his Detroit amici, or Mafia brethren. The feds respected his decision.

“He was a real mafioso,” Robert De Fauw recalled.

Quite often the gangster and the federal agent shared dinner in Marseilles. According to De Fauw, old one-eyed Joe was a pretty good cook. While in Spain on business, De Fauw purchased two pendants from the Shrine of the Black Madonna for his informant. The agent instructed Catalanotte to send the medals to the gangster’s wife and child back in Detroit. Caught in a rare moment of sensitivity, Cockeyed Joe, the old-school mob tough guy, “broke down and cried like a baby” in gratefulness. Though the agent developed a fondness for Joe, he knew Catalanotte was a killer and was always careful to have “his sidearm” close by when dealing with the gangster.

Nevertheless, De Fauw recognized Catalanotte’s invaluable contributions to the case and promised him that government would check with immigration authorities about permitting the informant to visit Detroit. Unfortunately for Cockeyed Joe, French investigators were not as sympathetic. Making things worse, American agents suspected that the Corsicans had moles inside the French intelligence community. As a result, De Fauw never completely trusted his Marseilles colleagues. He even checked his automobile for car bombs each morning before setting off to work. Once local investigators became aware of Catalanotte’s cooperation, French narcotics agents went after him. Under the circumstances, feds knew that protecting a known drug trafficker would have created diplomatic tension between the Cold War allies. American agents had to let their informer fend for himself. De Fauw instructed Joe to “lay low” for a while. Catalanotte ignored the advice and fled to Italy where he was arrested shortly after. De Fauw soon lost track of his ace informant.

With Minaudo dead and Catalanotte on the run, Nicholas Cicchini stepped in to take over Detroit’s Canadian operations. Cicchini was a baker in the legitimate world. On the streets, however, the gangster specialized in bookmaking, counterfeiting, and smuggling illegal aliens. Soon Cicchini took over the lucrative drug-trafficking racket vacated by Catalanotte. Combining his two vocations, Cicchini smuggled heroin into Detroit by hiding the product in loaves of bread.

Cicchini’s drug network started to unravel when Canadian authorities arrested Moises Costillo in 1956. Costillo was attempting to smuggle heroin across the Windsor–Detroit tunnel. The Costillo bust led to the arrest of Pete Devlin. Undercover agents with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Devlin attempting to sell 20 ounces of pure heroin. Devlin gave up information on his sources, and soon the RCMP concluded that Enrique Peralta was the ringleader of the medium-sized drug operation. But investigators ultimately wanted to know who was supplying the supplier.

The name John Simon turned up as the local supplier with connections to the “Italians.” By 1961, patient undercover investigators finally started dealing with Simon directly. Agents earned his trust and eventually Simon introduced them to the boss of the entire network: Nick Cicchini. During their first meeting, Cicchini offered to sell the agents $100,000 worth of counterfeit U.S. $50 bills. Intrigued by the offer, the agents were nevertheless investigating drug trafficking and continued to pressure their new contact for heroin rather than counterfeit bills. Cicchini took the bait and offered to sell 100 percent pure heroin for $11,000 a kilo.

The undercover agents agreed to the price and arranged for a followup meeting at a local bar in Windsor. Cicchini arrived at the tavern with half a kilo as a sample. Agents paid for the product with marked bills, then took the heroin to the lab for testing. Cicchini’s dope tested at 99.2 percent purity. Agents and Cicchini met for a third time, but the gangster informed his new customers that his heroin supply was dry at that time. Instead, he offered to sell the agents counterfeit bills once again, this time one million dollars worth.

Meanwhile, investigators suspected that Cicchini was buying his heroin from the Agueci brothers of Toronto. Alberto and Vito Agueci were members of the Magaddino crime family based in Buffalo, New York. The brothers had excellent heroin contacts in Sicily, and if one followed the pipeline to its source, they would find the Corsicans, specifically Dominic Albertini’s half brother Joseph Cesari. Unfortunately for investigators, Cicchini assured his new clients that they would “never meet” his partners. Sensing he was not bluffing, agents decided to end the investigation and arrest both John Simon and Nicholas Cicchini. At 67 years old, the Canadian capo was sentenced to 12 years in prison for drug trafficking.


The New Order

Once the Canadian drug network collapsed, federal investigators identified the Partinico faction as the last “independent source of heroin” in Detroit in Congressional hearings from 1963. Well into the decade, the Partinicesi not only dominated the heroin trade, but continued to earn their violent reputation. After eliminating Salvatore Vitale, Leo Di Fatta was the next body to fall. Di Fatta’s father was a longtime family friend of the Priziolas and was even best man at Papa John’s first wedding. Priziola attempted to mentor his friend’s son, but Leo insisted on leading the life of a petty stickup man. Disappointed that Leo wouldn’t come under his wing, but unable to cut ties with the renegade hood altogether because of the fondness he held for Leo’s dad, Papa John even posted the $5,000 bond for Leo after he was arrested during a botched robbery.

Leo Di Fatta’s career path became more dangerous when he started holding up mob-connected businesses in the Detroit area. Though Di Fatta received a severe beating as a result, he knew that as long as his father was alive, he would be under Priziola’s protection and spared the ultimate punishment. Unfortunately for Leo, the robberies lasted longer than his father. Not long after the old man died, police found Leo Di Fatta’s “trussed and weighted body” in Lake Erie. Confidential informants reported that Priziola dispatched local enforcer and emerging syndicate street boss Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone to fix the Di Fatta problem permanently.

Vitale and Di Fatta weren’t the last bodies to drop. With the bloodthirsty mobsters still not content with the state of their rank and file, the gangland slayings continued. Roy Calabrese started off as a runner in one of John Priziola’s betting parlors. Eventually, the young wiseguy graduated to the position of bookie in the numbers racket. On the side, Calabrese hustled as a small-time pimp. The would-be gangster obviously underestimated his employers’ reputations when he hatched a scheme to rip off his own gambling house. On the streets, the scam was known as “going with the tickets.” After learning the winning numbers for the day’s illegal lottery, Calabrese would leak the digits to a co-conspirator on the street. His accomplice would then prepare a mock betting slip to match the winning digits.

Soon Roy’s associates at Frankie G’s bar noticed sizeable increases in the young bookie’s disposable income. Papa John Priziola also took notice and suspected his employee of ripping him off. Calabrese endured a beating accompanied by a warning to clean up his act. Recklessly, he continued the scam, refusing to heed the advice of the Detroit Mafia and choosing to test and cross them instead. That was until Valentine’s Day, 1962, when time ran out on his scam and his life at the same time. After finishing dinner, Calabrese told his mother that he was leaving to meet with friends. Hours later, the St. Clair Shores Police Department found Calabrese’s garroted body in the trunk of his car.

According to FBI informants, the next murder committed by the group caused a rift in the organization’s hierarchy between Papa John and veteran heroin trafficker Peter Gaudino, known to freelance in the drug trade and alternate his deals between the Partinicesi group and the Windsor crew. He was also godfather to a son of Detroit gangster Paul “The Sicilian” Cimino. Gaudino’s beef with Priziola related to the disappearance of Cimino. Congressional investigators had identified Cimino as Joe Catalanotte’s “right-hand man” in the drug trade. In 1962, as Cimino faced a deportation hearing with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Priziola feared his fellow mobster would start ratting on his drug partners in Detroit. No longer under Cockeyed Joe’s protection, Cimino was an easy target. He disappeared before he could meet with immigration officials. The consensus on the street was that Cimino was murdered. One informant told the FBI with confidence, “You’ll never see him again.”

A few years later, Peter “Tino” Lombardo, a member of Priziola’s California operation as well as an identified Mafia soldier, was also killed. FBI documents indicate two possible motives for Lombardo’s homicide. First, informants were indicating to the FBI that the Partinicesi suspected Lombardo was a rat. Another more likely motive for the Lombardo hit was his role in an intra-family squabble that pitted new street boss Tony Giacalone against old-school Detroit mob capos Santo Perrone and Pete Licavoli. FBI documents from the era reveal Lombardo was suspected of helping plant a bomb underneath Giacalone’s car that was detected by a Giacalone lieutenant before it could detonate. Authorities believed that Lombardo was ordered by Perrone to blow up Giacalone in retaliation for Perrone’s loss of his leg from a car bomb set by the Giacalone crew in 1963. The tension all stemmed from the changing of the guard in the syndicate from the new regime led by Giacalone and a group of crusty old-schoolers, represented most fervently by Perrone, sometimes called “Sammy the Shark,” and Licavoli, sometimes referred to as “Horseface Pete,” who resented taking orders from their younger counterpart.

Meanwhile, federal narcotics agents in Detroit were only able to make one modest case against the Partinico group in the entire time it was operating at full tilt. In 1959, agents nailed Andrew Bottancino, the same low-level trafficker who worked with the Windsor network years earlier, and Vincent “Crazy Jimmy” Finazzo, a recognized made member of the Detroit mob and the son of Sam Finazzo, grandson of Don Joe Zerilli, for heroin trafficking in 1961. Well versed on the proper mob etiquette in such situations, when he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, Crazy Jimmy kept quiet and served his time while the bosses remained free.

Federal law enforcement received another breakthrough in its war on international drug trafficking in 1965. The FBI received notice from a confidential source in Italy that the Italian government was issuing 17 arrest warrants for suspects linked to the Sicilian drug trade. The list of indicted suspects included John Priziola, Raffaele Quasarano, and John Ormento. Sicilian police launched the operation by raiding the villa of former Bonanno crime family underboss Giovanni Bonventre in Castellammare del Golfo.

Italian prosecutor Giuseppe Mattina submitted “22 volumes of testimony and evidence” to Judge Aldo Vigneir, linking the indicted to an international drug cartel. Vigneir even traveled to the United States to interview the infamous mob turncoat, Joseph Valachi. Unfortunately for law enforcement, the United States and Italy had yet to formalize an extradition treaty. As a result, the Italians once again dropped the charges against Priziola and Quasarano. Italian police also arrested Frank Coppola a few months after the raid on Bonventre’s home in a related narcotics investigation. But like Papa John and Jimmy Q, Frankie Three Fingers Coppola beat the rap.

Despite the intensified police scrutiny, Priziola apparently maintained a sense of humor. Robert De Fauw recalls how the diminutive boss joshed agents during one surveillance operation. De Fauw’s agents were tailing Priziola when the gangster stopped by a local Catholic church. Leaving Mass, Quasarano opened the car door for his boss when, as if reenacting a scene from a movie, Papa John walked past his driver and headed straight for the “undercover” vehicle. Priziola knocked on the agents’ windshield and said, “If you guys want to know where I’m going, why don’t you just ask?”

By the late 1960s, the Partinicesi groups in Sicily and Detroit experienced different trajectories in global drug trafficking. In Partinico, Frank Coppola intensified his Mafia family’s involvement in heroin smuggling by forming alliances with powerful Sicilian dons like Salvatore Greco and Luciano Leggio. Frankie Three Fingers also mentored the next generation of Partinicesi mafiosi, including his nephews Augustino and Giacamo Coppola and his son-in-law Giuseppe Corso.

Unlike their Sicilian counterparts, however, the Detroit faction scaled back their drug operations by the 1970s. Two factors contributed to the Priziola group’s declining participation in the drug trade; most importantly, the 1957 Palermo narcotics conference established direct heroin links between the New York and Sicilian Mafia families. Up until that point, Detroit’s Partinico group had privileged contacts with the Sicilian heroin exporters. As a result, Detroit supplied New York’s crime organizations. After 1957, the Bonanno and Gambino crime families, in particular, established their own independent sources of heroin supply. Secondly, content with supplying New York, Priziola’s crew became less interested in supplying the local heroin market in Detroit and, by the 1950s, began allowing competitors to come in and set up shop pushing heroin in exchange for a street tax.

Robert De Fauw maintains that as a result of these two factors, Priziola’s crew began focusing less on narcotics and instead expanded their interests further into labor racketeering, extortion, and bookmaking. Just as the highly competitive narcotics market convinced Priziola’s group to move away from dope, another faction of the Detroit mob emerged and embraced the new global heroin trade.


Last Run

The Badalamenti group represents the third faction of the Detroit Mafia that is heavily involved in the narcotics trade. Cinisi is a Sicilian coastal town outside of Palermo, and also the ancestral home of the Badalamenti clan. There the family existed as one of Cinisi’s ruling Mafia factions. In their early years of racketeering, the clan specialized in trafficking black market cigarettes. The family also held a virtual monopoly in Palermo’s fruit and produce market. Younger members of the Badalamenti clan, along with other extended family, immigrated to southern Michigan in the 1940s. Brothers Emanuele and Gaetano Badalamenti, for example, settled in Monroe and operated a local market. The siblings were also members of the Cinisi Mafia and were connected to the Tocco mob in Detroit. The local Mafia leadership soon placed Emanuele, also known as “Rough Manny,” in charge of all Mafia-related racketeering south of Detroit all the way to the Ohio border.

Other prominent mafiosi from the Cinisi area arrived in Michigan around the same time, including Salvatore Bartolotta, Filippo Manzella, Antonio Palazzolo, and Salvatore Palazzolo. In 1928, the Palermo judicial system tried Bartolotta, the Palazzolos, and Salvatore Badalamenti for being part of a Mafia criminal conspiracy. By the time immigration authorities deported Gaetano Badalamenti in 1950, the Cinisi group had already established itself as an important faction of the greater Detroit underworld.

Back in Sicily, the Badalamenti family transitioned from trafficking black market cigarettes to supplying heroin. Evidence of this transition emerged in 1958 when Italian authorities arrested Gaetano’s brother Vito and their cousin Cesare Badalamenti during an undercover narcotics investigation. The cousins served modest sentences and by the mid-1960s, Cesare joined his Badalamenti relatives in Michigan.

In addition to owning a real estate company in the Detroit area, Cesare began trafficking heroin again. Settling in the suburb of Mt. Clemens, Cesare Badalamenti tapped into a pre-existing heroin network that already had Cinisi group fingerprints. The Badalamenti family was linked to the Coppolas in Partinico; an example is the relationship Gaetano Badalamenti and Frank Coppola developed in Detroit before their respective deportations. Later, U.S. Customs officials linked Gaetano and Frank Coppola’s nephew Dominico Coppola to an 81-kilo shipment of heroin uncovered in an Italian ocean liner bound for New York.

Joe Indelicato represented another link in the pre-existing Detroit–Sicily heroin pipeline. Indelicato operated out of Canada and had already been running with Joe Catalanottte and Nick Cicchini. In 1956, authorities busted Indelicato in New York with half a million dollars of heroin, yet remarkably, he only served a five-year sentence. Out of prison, Indelicato acted as the drug courier between the Badalamentis in Sicily and their Detroit cousin Cesare, who by that time was put in charge of all of the city’s “Zips,” or imported Sicilian foot soldiers. As with the Catalanotte–Cicchini network, Indelicato and Badalamenti transported heroin across the Detroit–Windsor border with relative ease.

By the early 1980s, a number of the original Cinisi mafiosi in Michigan had passed away. A younger generation soon emerged to fill the void. From his Sicilian base of operations, Gaetano Badalamenti continued to supply his American nephews and cousins with cocaine and heroin. Scattered throughout rural locations in the Midwest, Badalamenti’s relatives used pizzerias as fronts for receiving and distributing narcotics.

Law enforcement uncovered a Michigan connection while surveilling Pietro “Sicilian Pete” Alfano, a suspected heroin trafficker living in Illinois. Agents noted that Alfano made frequent calls to Sam Evola Jr., also known as “Sammy Sauce,” in Temperance, Michigan. On the surface, Evola was a law-abiding drywall contractor living near the Ohio border. Closer inspection revealed that Evola was the son of Detroit mafioso Salvatore “Big Sam” Evola. The elder Evola was an old-school mobster with ties to Joe Catalanotte, Sam Finazzo, and Jimmy Quasarano. More importantly, investigators realized that the younger Sam Evola was married to Cristina Badalamenti, Gaetano Badalamenti’s niece. Agents also discovered that Alfano was Badalamenti’s nephew. According to investigators, the blood ties were no coincidence, and agents suspected that the ringleader of this rural American drug operation was none other than the infamous crime lord Gaetano Badalamenti, by then known around the world as “Don Tano.”

Hoping to uncover a deeper Sicilian connection, the DEA and FBI increased surveillance on Alfano, Evola, and their cousin, Emanuele Palazzolo (yet another Badalamenti nephew). Agents monitored several phone conversations between the trio and a mysterious international caller. The surveillance teams suspected that often-heard phrases like “salted sardines” and “playing cards” were codes for narcotics shipments and purchases.

Yet another breakthrough in the case occurred as agents observed Alfano, Evola, and Palazzolo traveling to New York at different times to meet with suspected East Coast traffickers. Once in New York, Cinisi group members would meet with drug dealers connected to the Sicilian faction of the Bonanno crime family. Intriguingly, agents discovered another common link between the Cinisi group and their Bonanno associates: like Alfano and Palazzolo, the New York gangsters owned a number of pizzerias, but these stores were spread throughout the East Coast rather than the Midwest. Realizing that Sicilian drug suppliers were operating a series of pizza chains across America, federal agents dubbed the investigation the “Pizza Connection.”

Putting the pieces together, field agents hypothesized that Gaetano Badalamenti was supplying the American Mafia with narcotics while using Sicilian traffickers to facilitate the operation. According to investigators, the mysterious international caller dealing with Alfano must have been Badalamenti. Yet for investigators this was only a hypothesis; directors at the DEA and FBI were unconvinced. Why would a major Sicilian crime boss like Badalamenti communicate directly with lower-level operatives in rural, Midwestern America? To answer that question, agents had to examine recent power struggles taking place within the Sicilian Mafia.

For decades, the major crime families of Palermo, including Badalamenti, Bontate, and Inzerillo, ran the heroin trade as a consortium. The Palermo cartel brought in other crime organizations from surrounding areas like Partinico and Castellammare del Golfo, yet one Mafia family felt marginalized by the arrangement. As boss of the Corleone family, Luciano Leggio resented the hegemonic positions of Badalamenti and his Palermitan allies in the narcotics trade. Quietly and patiently, the Corleonesi plotted against consortium. To the great embarrassment of the Cinisi boss, Leggio’s henchmen carried out a number of kidnappings on Badalamenti-controlled territories.

By humiliating the Cinisi boss, Liggio demonstrated to other crime families in the area that Badalamenti was vulnerable. The Corleone boss soon started scheming with middle-echelon mafiosi in the Palermo families. “Why should the bosses in Palermo hoard all the drug profits while foot soldiers in the organizations go hungry?” asked Leggio. Infuriated by such provocations, Badalamenti and his allies plotted the murder of Leggio’s right-hand man, Salvatore “Toto” Riina. Yet by cultivating relationships with the disgruntled mafiosi of rival families, Leggio had spies in place that informed him about the Riina murder plot. Now was the time for the Corleonesi to organize an outright insurrection.

Beginning in 1981, Corleonesi hit squads picked off the old dons one by one. Among others, Leggio’s hit teams gunned down Salvatore Inzerillo, Stefano Bontate, and Gaetano’s cousin, Antonino Badalamenti. The Great Mafia War was actually a slaughter as the Corleonesi killed hundreds of rival gangsters associated with the Palermo drug consortium. Gaetano Badalamenti lost a number of relatives during the war, including a nephew who was tortured and chopped into pieces. Two of Badalamenti’s nephews in the United States, Salvatore and Matteo Sollena (close to the Gambino family in New York), were shot to death as well. Once in command of the Sicilian Mafia commission, the Corleonesi expelled Badalamenti from the Cinisi family. Gaetano knew that his expulsion was a death sentence, and fled to Brazil.

Hiding out in Latin America, the former Cinisi boss reorganized the remnants of his drug empire. Remarkably, even though the Corleonesi had a contract out on his life, they nevertheless permitted Badalamenti’s reentry into the drug trade. Now that Leggio and Riina were in control of the Sicilian Mafia, Badalamenti’s remaining people had to kick up a percentage of any drug profits to the new bosses. The Corleonesi still planned on killing Gaetano, but in their bizarre logic, they figured they should still make some money off of him before pulling the trigger.

Don Tano faced logistical problems as well. Most of his trusted lieutenants were wiped out during the Great Mafia War. To insulate themselves from prosecution, mob bosses typically avoid dealing in narcotics directly and instead delegate those responsibilities to lower-level operatives. In the case of the Cinisi crime family, however, the top and middle layers of the organization were killed during the war. If the former don wanted to sell drugs to nephews in the American Midwest, for example, he would now have to communicate with them directly.

Back in Michigan, federal agents monitored Sam Evola as he frantically tried to collect drug money from his buyers. Bugged phone conversations revealed that the mysterious international supplier was furious that his American contacts were tardy with their drug payments. Apparently, Evola sold $400,000 worth of cocaine and heroin on consignment to a local dealer who, even after several weeks, was unable to pay for the product. Over the phone, Alfano and Evola debated whether or not they should kill the delinquent drug client. Both knew that if they did not come up with the money, they would end up dead themselves.

The wiretaps on Pietro Alfano produced more crucial information when agents heard an operator announce, “I have a call from Brazil,” followed by the voice of the mysterious international caller. The feds knew Gaetano Badalamenti had to be in Brazil. Not long after, investigators overheard Badalamenti order Alfano to meet him in Madrid. American law enforcement agents followed Alfano to Spain, tailed him in Madrid, and observed as he led police straight to the prized target. Spanish police officially arrested Badalamenti and his nephew and handed them over to the FBI team in Madrid on April 8th.

Investigators now had enough evidence to justify a series of warrants, and on April 9th, 1984, they launched simultaneous raids on the homes of Alfano, Evola, and Palazzolo. Before leaving for Spain, Alfano had procured an impressive arsenal as agents discovered bullet-proof vests, hollow-point ammunition, silencers, an AR-15 assault rifle, and a number of handguns in his house. Agents also found a modest amount of cocaine during the raid on Sam Evola’s place.

More importantly, they found Evola’s passport and realized that he had been traveling to Brazil in the recent past. They also discovered a notebook with what appeared to be coded language scribbled throughout the pages. The codes matched a number of cryptic messages the FBI had intercepted from the Alfano wiretaps. Badalamenti was passing on the codes to his nephews so that they could communicate without revealing their true agendas. Meanwhile, Evola’s cocaine tested at 95 percent purity, signaling that it came directly from Latin America, presumably Brazil.

The feds rounded up dozens of other suspects in the “Pizza Connection” investigation, and in 1985 the case went to trial. Gaetano Badalamenti was convicted of being the ringleader and sentenced to 45 years in prison. Pietro Alfano survived an assassination attempt during a recess in the trial. He was left paralyzed, however, and was later sentenced to 15 years. Sam Evola pled guilty to the cocaine charges, but refused to testify against his co-conspirators. He received a 15-year sentence. Agents suspected that Evola’s brother took over the narcotics operation after Sam’s arrest and conviction.

Over the years, Italian organized crime in Detroit became less involved in the heroin trade. By the 1980s, cocaine replaced heroin as the major drug commodity in the Motor City as well. During that decade, undercover drug enforcement agents busted Bobby La Puma, a soldier in the Giacalone crew, on cocaine charges. And in 1988, British undercover police thwarted a plan by the Detroit mob to ship millions of dollars worth of cocaine to dealers in the United Kingdom. Detroit mafiosi were caught hiding the kilos in industrial equipment heading across the Atlantic. Despite these notable examples of Italian involvement in narcotics trafficking, African American syndicates and outlaw motorcycle gangs largely replaced the traditional Italian mob as the city’s major drug suppliers.

Still, the Partinico, Windsor, and Cinisi groups of Detroit’s Mafia were pioneers in the global drug trade. While Detroit’s local crime family may no longer be major players in the narcotics trade, other Italian American crime organizations continue to expand their involvement in heroin trafficking. Secondly, the Partinico and Windsor crews initiated the type of transnational templates for global drug trafficking utilized today. Currently, local African American drug organizations purchase cocaine from Colombian cartels who contract with Mexican gangs for delivery to Detroit. This is precisely the type of globalized supply and distribution originated by the likes of Priziola, Catalanotte, and Badalamenti.

End of the Line

John Priziola went into semiretirement during the 1970s. He became an active mobster again following the death of Detroit godfather Joseph Zerilli in 1976. Papa John’s leadership stabilized the Detroit underworld as the local Mafia transitioned to the Jack Tocco era. Priziola died of a heart attack in 1979, having never served any significant time for drug trafficking or anything else for that matter. Jimmy Q served as Jack Tocco’s first consigliere, but had to step down due to a conviction in an extortion case. Once out of prison, Quasarano remained a valuable member of the Detroit Mafia until his death in 2001.

Meeting of The Minds – Me & Crazy Phil

By Scott M. Burnstein

Sitting in a plush sofa chair in the lobby of a swanky Miami hotel in the winter of 2011, I looked for him through a room full of people, not having any idea what I was actually looking for.

It was late afternoon and the hotel was bustling. I was eager to meet the man I had read so much about and whose story in a lot of ways led me down my own personal career path to becoming an author. My expectations were endless, yet at the same time I didn’t have any idea what to expect.

Gazing across the crowded lobby, I studied dozens of faces, thinking maybe I would recognize him. Would he look the same as the pictures I had seen? Did he alter his appearance to try to hide his identity?

Over a decade into the new millennium, he was a myth, a ghost, a rumor. When people spoke of him it was strictly in the past tense. Nobody had heard from him in years. It was like he had fallen off the face of the earth. And he had; intentionally and understandably so.

But somehow I had found him. Or should I say, he found me.

Late one night a few weeks earlier I received a phone call while I was sitting

at my desk at my newspaper. The voice on the other end of the line was upbeat and all business from the very start. He told me he had enjoyed reading one of my previous books, which chronicled life in the Chicago mafia.

Wasting little time with small talk, he informed me he was in contact with Phil Leonetti, the almost-mythical former mob prince who oversaw large portions of the East Coast underworld by the time he was 30 years old and was the nephew of Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, one of the most vicious mafia dons in American history. Long off the radar, Leonetti, once as prolific a moneymaker as he was an assassin under the tutelage of his uncle, was interested in finally telling his story, the voice said, and he wanted me to write it.

To say I was excited was the understatement of the century. Reading previous third-hand accounts about Leonetti’s brutal rise inside the mob family him and his uncle controlled through brazen acts of wanton violence and Machiavellian-type scheming had inspired me to embark on a life of writing about the underworld for a living.

For years, I had been trying to figure out a way to get in touch with him so I could try to convince him to write his story with me. However, for every two steps forward I got in my endeavor to track him down, I fell four steps back. More than one person told me it would never happen and to give up my search. Eventually, I did. By 2010, I had pretty much abandoned the idea.

Then, out of nowhere, it falls in my lap. An hour after hanging up the phone, I was still in a state of shock. My anticipation was palpable. I could taste it.

This was the perfect book, an epic tale of the mafia in its prime. All the great mob stories had already been told. From Capone to Gambino to Gotti, they had all been written, all except for one – his. Besides him, there was no one left.

Throughout most of the 1980s Philip Leonetti was one of the most powerful men in the entire country. In the United States Italian underworld, known as “La Cosa Nostra”, there were few bigger. He was the heir to a vast criminal empire built by his bloodthirsty uncle, the mob’s golden boy tapped with looking after the golden goose – Atlantic City.

That was two decades ago. Since then Leonetti faded into oblivion. He disappeared into the shadows, content blending in, living life as a civilian, a square, far from the neon lights of the Atlantic City Boardwalk he once ruled over and the ultra-violent world he once thrived and prospered in.

With each passing day he’s been gone, his legacy has grown. He was on top during the American mob’s final heyday and he is one of the only ones, if not the only one, that isn’t dead or serving life in prison.

Now he was in Miami. And I was set to meet up with him in the lobby of this hotel. I didn’t know where he was coming from, where he lived or anything about his current personal situation. Besides having a brief conversation on the phone to exchange pleasantries a few days prior, I knew nothing more than what I had read or watched on TV. I was told to be in Miami at a certain hotel at a certain time and I was. That was it.

I kept looking and couldn’t spot him. For a brief moment, I thought maybe he had gotten cold feet and decided not to show up. Suddenly, he appeared. He was in front of me. He went to shake my hand and said, “Hi Scott, I’m Philip Leonetti.”

Taking a moment to let the introduction sink in, I almost didn’t recognize him. He definitely wasn’t what I expected. Thinking back, I don’t know what I really expected. Did I expect to see a superhero?, a super villain?, a character out of a Sopranos episode? Whatever it was, it wasn’t the man standing in front of me.

He was slight and bespectacled and had the air of a small town accountant not a deranged killer that some accounts had painted him to be. Soft-spoken and polite, he was understated, extremely ordinary looking. But, in reality, he was far from ordinary. Ordinary people don’t kill other people.

Fit and tan, he seemed relaxed as we chatted briefly in the busy hotel lobby. There were herds of people moving about in our vicinity, none of them had any idea they were in the presence of a man with a half-million dollar murder contract sitting on his head. Where did the contract come from you ask? Well, let’s just say it came from one of the world’s most ruthless crime lords of the last century, who just happens to be his uncle and rotting away the rest of his life in a dusty prison cell, while he and I get acquainted in the lobby of a fancy South Florida hotel.

Although he had once been a shark swimming in a sea of other deadly and bloodthirsty sharks, now he was simply a man. He was a man with a story to tell.

Within minutes we were sitting in his hotel suite and he was giving me chapter and verse about his life inside and the mob and out. I got the rundown on his entire life – the good, the bad, the ugly and the sweet. No stone was left unturned.

And whatever I thought I knew, believe me, I didn’t have any clue. As great of a story as I knew I had, it was ten-times greater.

The Coronation – Little Nicky Becomes King

Within all the carnage in Philly underworld affairs in the early 1980s, Nicky Scarfo saw great opportunity. He wasn’t happy about his dear friend, Phil Testa going to an early grave, but he wasn’t in mourning for long, either, quickly angling to become boss of the Philadelphia mafia himself in the aftermath of The Chicken Man’s unsightly demise. The top spot was open and Little Nicky wanted it and he wanted it bad. In his mind, he had always played by the rules, putting in nearly 30 years working the back alleys of the underworld, and he rightly deserved the nod.

Hours after Testa’s wake, Scarfo was summoned from his home base in Atlantic City to South Philly and the Buckeye Social Club, headquarters of Pete Casella and Chickie Narducci. Taking his close friend and recently inducted mob soldier, Salvatore “Chuckie” Merlino as backup, he cautiously entered the club for the meeting, skeptical of the subversive duo’s intentions from the very start.

For intimidation purposes, Casella and Narducci had called in re-enforcements, lining up a group of their bulging-neck street thugs behind them in a show of force. They offered Scarfo and Merlino a seat and then went into a well-rehearsed diatribe about how they found out that Testa had been killed by Irish gangster John Berkery, in retribution for the December 1980 murder of labor boss John McCullough, and that the Commission in New York had just named Casella boss and Narducci underboss of the crime family.

Anybody who had ever met Little Nicky Scarfo knew, despite his diminutive stature, he wasn’t a man easily intimidated and their pitch and tough-guy posturing failed to make much of an impression. Suspicious of what he was being told, he called their bluff.

Scarfo had strong connections to the New York underworld and doubted that the Commission had signed off on any reshuffling of the family’s leadership without his being directly notified. He informed Casella and Narducci that he planned to go to Manhattan the following day and see what the powers that be in New York desired in person. Getting up from his chair and leaving with Merlino in tow, he had already begun strategizing on how best to undermine his adversaries’ plans and swoop in to take control of the Philly mob right from underneath their very noses.

It would be a surprisingly easy endeavor.

Meeting with members of the Commission in New York, Scarfo told them about the sit-down at the Buckeye Club and that he believed that despite what Casella and Narducci we’re promulgating, they were the ones that had killed Philip Testa. In turn, Scarfo was informed that the Commission had never been in contact with Casella or Narducci and had not in fact authorized their alleged new administration. Never one to hold back sharing his thoughts, Scarfo was vocal about wanting the boss’ chair, himself and the chance to avenge the death of his close friend.

His straight forward strategy proved effective. Before departing back home, Scarfo was given the Commission’s blessing to assume leadership of the Philadelphia mafia and do away with those who plotted Testa’s assassination.

He immediately returned to South Philadelphia to get his affairs in order and start building what would end up being his kingdom of blood. Little Nicky was beaming. He couldn’t have been happier.

In contrast, the rest of the local underworld should have been shaking in their boots, as a typhoon of vindictive terror would rage nonstop for the coming years due to one man and one man only.

That man was Nicodemo Scarfo.

Nicodemo Scarfo was born on March 8, 1929 in Brooklyn, New York. As a young child, he worked in the blueberry fields across the river in Hammonton, New Jersey, learning first-hand about the tireless life of a day-laborer, a life he wanted no part of as an adult. He had big dreams, aspirations of attaining the stature and reverence of the movie star mobsters he grew up so admiring in the shoot’em-up flicks he would have his dad take him to see at the theatre as a kid. Idolizing infamous Chicago crime lord, Al Capone, since childhood, Scarfo wanted to become a gangster and that is exactly what he became.

When he was 12, his family moved to Philadelphia. Voted most talkative by his classmates at Benjamin Franklin High School where he graduated in 1947, Scarfo was small, but incredibly spunky. Flirting with a boxing career in his late-teens, he quickly made the decision that he was better suited for life outside the ring and went to work for his uncle, Nicholas “Nicky Buck” Piccolo, a well-respected mafia soldier in the East Coast underworld. Starting off with a few small gambling and loansharking rackets, Scarfo made a fast impression on his superiors the mob, showing himself as both a dependable earner and trusted enforcer.

While Nicky Buck Piccolo was teaching his nephew about the ins and outs of mob business life, Felix “Skinny Razor” Di Tullio, one of the mafia’s most feared assassins, was teaching him how to kill. Di Tullio took an early liking to the young Scarfo and Little Nicky was an eager student. Bonding in bloodlust, Skinny Razor taught Scarfo the art of the mob hit. It was a skill he would cherish, continue to hone and never lose.

In 1954, a year after his sister gave birth to his nephew Philip, Little Nicky Scarfo, was formally inducted into the mafia by soon-to-be deported Philadelphia Godfather Joe Ida at a ceremony held at a restaurant and bar named Sans Soucci in Camden, New Jersey. He had achieved his dream. He was a bonafide wiseguy, a goodfella ready to take on the world. And boy, did he ever.

On May 25, 1963, Scarfo solidified his status as a genuine tough guy by stabbing an Irish longshoreman to death in a fight over a booth at the Oregon Diner, a popular neighborhood restaurant located on Oregon Avenue and Third Street in South Philadelphia. Pleading guilty to a charge of manslaughter, Little Nicky did 10 months in prison before returning to a not-so-friendly homecoming on the streets.

Angelo Bruno was upset because of the hot-tempered Scarfo’s brazen behavior and was getting an earful of hate towards the violent-prone hood by his longtime Consigliere Joseph “Joe the Boss” Rugnetta, a bitter and vengeful old timer that held a grudge against Little Nicky for his refusal to court Rugnetta’s unsightly daughter. Scarfo’s uncle, Nicky Buck Piccolo did what he could, but it was of little use.

With pressure mounting from his mob superiors, Little Nicky decided to relocate to Atlantic City, taking his sister, Nancy and his nephew, Philip with him. They all moved into a two-story apartment at 26 North George Avenue, a piece of property that was owned by his mother, Catherine. Starting a family of his own, Scarfo and his wife Domenica, a young woman he important from Sicily to take as his second wife after an earlier failed marriage produced his first son, Christopher, the couple had two sons of their own, Mark and Nicky, Jr.

Living in close quarters with the manacle gangster wasn’t easy. He would fly off the handle at the smallest provocation, raising his hand on multiple occasions to all of the households’ residents. To say he was a man who was rarely satisfied in every facet of life would be an understatement.

Taking to the downtrodden streets of AC with the same type of hair-triggered antics that he displayed around his family, Little Nicky made a fast impression on the boardwalk town that had seen its better days. Undeterred by his surroundings, Scarfo began carving out a small piece of the city’s rackets on behalf of himself and the Philly mob, while at the same time building up a fierce and loyal crew to watch his back, the core of which was made up of Chuckie Merlino, his brother Lawrence, who everybody called “Yogi,” and Nick “The Blade” Virgilio, a hard-drinking hit man whose slight, almost skeleton-like frame disguised a sinister assassin with ice his running through his veins.

A man with grandiose visions of one day becoming mob royalty, ruling over his subjects with regal flair and an iron fist, Little Nicky Scarfo was content biding his time in the shadows of New Jersey, patiently waited for his chance at the title in Philadelphia in the years to come and for things to play out naturally in his favor.

They would.

Boy, how they would.

What we know as the mafia in America today is an offshoot of several different secret societies in Europe, dating back centuries. The most prominent of these sects were the Sicilian Mafia, the N’draghetta, which has its roots in Southern Italy and the Camorra, spawning from Northern Italy.

Originally, the intent of such organizations was not criminal. They existed to protect the common citizen of these regions from a corrupt and oppressive government that did little to nothing to look out for the interests of the everyday working man. Over time, things changed and became increasingly more criminal in nature.

As hoards of Italian and Sicilian immigrants flooded the streets of major American metropolises in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, a number of loosely organized incarnations of these secret societies began springing up and making their presence felt in ethnic-centered neighborhoods across the country with a vast array of rackets. The onset of Prohibition in the 1920s made many early mob leaders incredibly wealthy as they spearheaded an underworld movement of supplying illegal liquor to a thirsty public, while causing heaps of newspaper headlines and bloodshed in the process.

At first, there was little to no connection between the various burgeoning crime conglomerates throughout the United States. Then a move towards consolidation and joint coordination slowly began to take form. The nation’s inaugural summit of organized crime powers took place in Atlantic City, when close to 50 mob czars from coast to coast came together to discuss business in the spring of 1929 at a ritzy hotel on the Boardwalk.

Just two years later in 1931 the modern American mafia was created in the aftermath of a carnage-filled mob war in New York City that pitted a group of old school underworld leaders, known as “Mustache Pete’s” against a group of young and hungry up and comers led by Charles “Lucky” Luciano. With Luciano coming out on top in the conflict, the fearless and beloved new Godfather called a meeting of fellow mob dons in Chicago and laid out his vision. Luciano proposed a nationwide crime syndicate made up of regional mob factions, called “Families,” which would all be overseen by a board of directors known as “The Commission,” which would be made up of only the most powerful and respected mob dons.

The syndicate and its rules would be paramilitary in structure. Each Family would be headed by a Boss, an Underboss, his second-in-command and a Consigliere or counselor, his third in charge. Beneath them would be a stable of Capos or Captains, who would each be responsible for a crew of Family soldiers and associates.

Attendees of Luciano’s underworld conference, held at the Blackstone Hotel located in the heart of the Windy City’s famous “Miracle Mile” on Michigan Avenue, unanimously agreed to the proposal and all came under the banner of what was dubbed, “La Cosa Nostra”, translated from Sicilian to mean “this thing of ours.” Following the meeting of the minds in Chicago, 26 American mob Families were formed. There was one for almost every major city in the country.

In Philadelphia, John Avena, a longtime lieutenant under Prohibition era crime lord, Salvatore Sabella, was named the city’s the first modern day mafia Boss. Sabella had sided against Luciano in his war with the Mustache Pete’s and as a result was told to step down and turn over the reins to Avena.

From practically the moment he assumed power, Avena butted heads with a former ally and one-time Sabella lieutenant named Joseph Dovi, who sometimes went by the alias “Joe Bruno.” Dovi felt slighted by Avena’s promotion and challenged his authority from the very start. The two fought it out on the streets for five years before Avena was killed in 1936 and Dovi took control of the Philly mafia for the next decade, expanding the crime family’s territorial reach into New Jersey and Delaware, with the aid of Underboss and overall right-hand man Michele Maggio.

Upon Dovi’s death from natural causes in 1946, Joe Ida, another former Sabella disciple, was named the city’s new don. Ida ruled unfettered for over a dozen years, however, had his rein atop the crime family ended by getting arrested at the infamous Apalachin mob summit in 1957, where dozens of gangland leaders were arrested as they converged on an upstate New York hunting cottage for what was supposed to be a conference of mafia bosses from the around the country, and soon deported back to his native Italy.

Briefly following Ida’s deportation, Antonio “Mr. Miggs” Pollina was named his successor, but quickly fell out of favor within the organization by plotting the murder of Angelo Bruno, a very popular and well-respected captain, who got wind of the plan to murder him and slickly turned the tables. Using his many ties to the New York underworld to his advantage, Bruno got the Commission to depose Pollina and tab him as his replacement. Showing a level of mercy not often displayed by men in his same position, Bruno spared Pollina’s life and instead retaliated by banishing the defeated former Boss into retirement, earning the nickname, “The Docile Don”.

The moniker proved an enigma. Bruno might not have killed brazenly, but he killed. He also slowly eroded his support from within the Family by continually hoarding profits and refusing to delegate even the smallest amount of authority.

His power ultimately came from his ties to New York though and those were undeniable, keeping him on top for over two decades. Those ties could only hold the damn for so long and when casino gambling was legalized in Atlantic City in 1976 and he refused to give the go-head to his troops to dive headfirst into the volcano of vice that was ready to erupt on the Boardwalk, it broke.

The evening of February 15, 1978 the entire state of New Jersey and most of the eastern region of the United States was buried in snow. The previous day had brought a vicious mid-winter storm that blanketed the region with snow drifts that reached waist high in some areas.

Just off the glitzy Boardwalk in Atlantic City, the gloomy weather was an ominous sign of things to come. The Little Nicky Scarfo era was about to get under way and even though it was over three years prior to him officially being anointed don, the message was clear; It was a whole new ballgame in town.

That cold and flurry-filled night Edwin Helfant, a municipal court judge in nearby Somers Point, and his wife, sat in a booth in the Flamingo Lounge on Pacific Avenue, less than two blocks away from the city’s main drag, where construction was just starting on what was soon-to-be the American gambling paradise of the late Twentieth Century. The bar and grill which was attached to the Flamingo Motel, was a dimly lit watering hole, with a smoky ambiance that harkened back to a time long past, when the city was in its inaugural heyday of being a nationwide tourist destination decades earlier.

Helfant was having dinner and a few cocktails, trying to relax in the midst of being under siege in his professional life, facing criminal charges and jail time for allegedly taking bribes on the bench and the possible loss of his state bar license which would stop him from making money on the side as a high-priced defense attorney. Things just weren’t going Helfant’s way.

They got much worse real fast.

As Helfant and his wife sat inside the Flamingo Lounge, a small man in a trenchcoat and ski mask quietly shoveled snow on the sidewalk outside near the entrance, attempting to appear like a good samaritan helping out the neighborhood by pitching in to clear the streets. His actual intentions were considerably more sinister.

While Helfant was in the middle of his meal, the shovel-wielding man with the trenchcoat and ski mask entered the lounge, slowly making his way to the judge’s table. The place was crowded that evening and barely anyone noticed the veiled figure moving cautiously through the room. Soon, they would.

Getting up close to Helfant, who sat with his back to a wall in a corner booth, the man pulled out a .22 caliber automatic pistol and unloaded five shots into him at point-blank range. Slumping onto the table, Helfant was dead before anybody knew what happened. With his shovel and pistol in hand, the man quickly rushed out the door, ditching the shovel in a snow bank a few blocks away and escaping into a car driven by none other than Nicky Scarfo.

The flamboyant gangland slaying, the type of public execution that could have easily be lifted straight out of a Hollywood film script penned by Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tartantino, was a long time coming. Helfant’s death warrant had in fact been signed years earlier.

Back in 1972, the portly and beak-nosed civil servant took $12,000 in cash from Nicky Scarfo and Nick “The Blade” Virgilio in exchange of a promise to get Virgilio a short sentence on a murder charge. Instead of keeping up his end of the bargain, Helfant pocketed the money himself and walked away from the arrangement, while Nick the Blade was hit with a decade-long prison term.

These set of circumstances did not bode well for Edwin Helfant, a greedy man who believed Scarfo and his mob cronies didn’t have the balls to do anything about it. He couldn’t have been more off base.

Serving six years of his sentence before being released on parole, Virgilio rejoined Little Nicky in Atlantic City in 1978, ready to get revenge on the crooked and arrogant judge for being double-crossed.

It didn’t take long for Nick the Blade to find that revenge.

Weeks after returning to the Garden State following his incarceration, Virgilio was given Helfant’s murder contract, a coming home present from Scarfo, as well as a reward for his patience. During his time behind bars, Virgilio would dream of the day he could personally avenge the slight, look the judge straight in the eye before killing him in cold blood. By intentionally holding off on murdering Helfant until Nick the Blade was sprang from the clink, Scarfo allowed his companion’s dream to become a reality.

Virgilio carried out the Helfant hit and relished every second of it.

The judge’s assassination told you all you needed to know about what direction the Philadelphia mafia was headed in.

It was about to be the Wild West.

Scarfo became famous for telling his soldiers he wanted things under his reign to always be done, ”Cowboy style,”, bold, brash and out in the open for everyone to see.

He would get his wish.

And he would get in spades.

The moment Little Nicky stepped foot back in South Philly following his meeting with the Commission, he began to assert his new authority as boss. Seeking to insulate himself from the deceit and disharmony that brought down his two predecessors, Scarfo named his closest confidant Chuckie Merlino his Underboss and installed four new captains, men loyal to him and him only. Joseph “Chickie” Chiangalini, a one-time close associate of Tony Caponigro’s who had switched his allegiances after the death of Angelo Bruno, Yogi Merlino, Chuckie’s little brother, Salvie Testa, the Chicken Man’s son and Philip Leonett, Scarfo’s his prized personal protégé, were all tapped to be the bearers of Little Nicky’s word on the street. He also opened the long dormant books even further and inducted two dozen more soldiers over the next several years, once again making sure only to welcome those into the fold that were staunch loyalists.

Next, he turned his attention to vengeance.

Fully intent of settling the score with the men who plotted Philip Testa’s assassination, Scarfo put out murder contracts on the heads of Chickie Narducci and Rocco Marianucci, assigning a revenge thirsty Salvie Testa the pair of tasks personally. Thanks to some of Pete Casella’s supporters in the New York mafia, he had his life spared, instead banished out of the city and forced to retire down in Florida.

Even without his father’s scheming Underboss being in his crosshairs, the young and ambitious Testa was in heaven about being allowed to take out Narduccui and Marianucci. Like Nick the Blade Virgilio with Helfant, Salvie wanted to be able to see eye-to-eye with his father’s killers before violently doing away with them.

Narducci, the primary conspirator against Chicken Man Testa, was the first to go. He got it coming out of his car, near his home, on January 4, 1982, just minutes after the federal racketeering trial downtown he was a co-defendant in had adjourned for the day.

Tipped off to his location by Chickie Chiangalini, another co-defendant in the case, Salvie and his best friend Joseph “Joey Pung” Pungiatore, approached Narducci on the street the moment he exited his vehicle and opened fire. One of Testa’s shots put him on the ground and then his final shot, where he had gotten face-to-face with his target, turned his light off for good.

Checking the first retaliatory murder of his hit list, Salvie swiftly moved Rocco Marianucci, the man who actually physically detonated the bomb that killed his father, into his sites. When Salvie was done with him there would be no doubt in anyone’s minds to why he was murdered.

The symbolism would be glaring and stark.

Marianucci’s bloodied and battered body was found in a parking lot on the 1500 block of South Eighth Street. The date: March 15, 1982, the exact one-year anniversary of Philip Testa being blown up. Just in case there were still questions as to motive, after Salvie had shot Marianucci more than 12 times in the head, neck and chest, he stuffed a pair of firecrackers in his mouth, making it more than obvious the reason he had to die.

Besides the revenge killings, Nicky Scarfo had other brutal business to attend to while establishing his regime. As you might expect, this business had to do with murder as well.

Settling old debts and announcing his presence with authority, Little Nicky ordered five executions in his first 12 months on the job. In addition to Narducci and Marianucci, he had John Calabrese, Stevie Bouras and Dominick “Mickey Diamond” De Vito murdered during his inaugural year on the throne, too.

The bloodbath was just starting.