Over two years after Jimmy Hoffa was wiped off the map by the mafia, his one of his former top allies Otto Wendell, would be too, kicking off a trend of one-time close associates of the slain labor boss getting slain themselves that wouldn’t stop for another seven years. Wendell was a powerbroker in the Detroit-area labor union scene for quite some time, known to be a whiz with numbers and like Hoffa a man often observed in the company of members of organized crime.
On December 12, 1977, he was found shot twice in the abdomen in his car on a rural slice of road three miles from his home in Livingston County. He was alive, but barely hanging on. A .38 caliber revolver that Wendell owned was found next to him and was later determined to be the gun that fired the shots. Rushed to the hospital, he fell into a deep coma for close to two weeks before finally succumbing to his injuries on Christmas Eve.
His death at the age of 63 was initially ruled a suicide, but soon re-labeled a homicide following the paneling of a grand jury. Several factors led to this official change of categorization.
First and foremost, it was quickly discovered that Wendell, who at the time of his death was the Treasurer for Hoffa’s old Teamsters Local 299 out by Tigers Stadium, was scheduled to testify at the extortion trial of reputed Detroit mafia captain, Vincent “Little Vince” Meli, set to start in the early months of 1978. He also had previously testified at more than one trial and in front of a number of grand juries regarding his knowledge of organized crime influence within the Teamsters union.
The word around town was that Otto Wendell had loose lips. This perception, whether true or false, was what most-likely got him killed.
Much like Jack Tocco and Tony Zerilli, Little Vince Meli was a mafia prince and heir apparent to a leadership post in the local crime family from the time he was an infant. Meli was the son of mob soldier Frank “The Music Man” Meli and the favorite nephew of longtime Detroit mafia underboss Angelo “The Chairmen” Meli, one of the founders of the city’s La Cosa Nostra syndicate.
Little Vince, who earned his nickname as to differentiate from his first cousin, Vincent “Big Vince” Meli’s, his uncle Angelo’s son, was born in San Cataldo, Sicily on January 2, 1921. Coming to Detroit in the early-1930s, he grew up being bred to join the family business.
Graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1942, he enlisted in the Army and went overseas to fight in World War II. His natural smarts and savvy, as well as his ability to speak multiple foreign languages, got him assigned to the Intelligence Division and eventually named captain of an elite Special Forces unit that would be akin to today’s Delta Force or Navy Seals.
He was a natural hero. In his two years serving in Europe, Meli earned two Purple Hearts for valor and the Presidential Medal of Honor and was one of the first-batch of U.S. military personnel to enter and liberate the Nazi concentration camps in 1945.
Following the war, Meli returned home to Detroit and joined the family business. Almost immediately he was recruited to help his uncle Angelo further infiltrate the local labor unions and stage a takeover of the city’s vending machine industry. Teaming with his father and three other mobsters and with the financial backing of his uncle, he started three jukebox machine distributorships – Meltone Music, Jay-Cee Music, and White Music – and became highly-influential in the city’s burgeoning recording industry.
Meli’s name surfaced in FBI reports in the late-1950s relating to the persistent rumors that Berry Gordy used a mob loan to start Motown – allegations the music mogul has always steadfastly denied and then again early in the next decade in U.S. Senate hearings on organized crime as an up and comer in the Detroit mafia and recent “made member.” Federal Narcotics Bureau documents from that era allege that syndicate drug proceeds were continuously being funneled through Meli’s jukebox businesses, with Meli and his partners seeing a sizeable percentage of the transactions.
Baring such an astonishing resume, some people question Meli’s choice of career direction.
“This guy was a superstar and could have done anything he wanted in life after his time in the military,” said a retired FBI agent who declined to be identified. “He probably could have become a Mike Illitch or a Bill Davidson, a self-made multimillionaire by legitimate means if he had chosen to go down a different path. But instead, he chose the easy way out and joined up with his father and uncle. Now, that’s not saying he didn’t have extreme business acumen, because he did. He had some very successful legitimate business endeavors in his life. However, he also was heavily involved in organized crime in the area and in a lot of ways just decided to be a thug instead of an upstanding member of society.”
Sticking with Motor City mob tradition, Little Vince’s life on the domestic front crossed paths with his life on the business front. Upon coming back from overseas and fighting in the war, he married Grace Di Mercurio, the daughter of Detroit mafia soldier, Frank “Frankie D” Di Mercurio, settled in Grosse Pointe Woods and had six children. Little Vince’s sister was married to William Buffalino and his first cousin, “Big Vince” was married to the daughter of captain Cockeyed Sam Perone, while Big Vince’s two sisters were both married to powerful Mafiosi in Jack Tocco and Frank “Cheech” Livorsi out of New York.
Starting in the 1960s, FBI documents allege that Meli has risen to the level of capo in the crime family and spearheaded an infiltration of the Detroit-area steel hauling industry on their behalf. For over a decade he held an office at and helped operate J&J Cartage, a massively successful steel hauling firm that was owned by Joe Cusmano and Jack Russo, both reputed organized crime associates. Desiring to expand his reach in the industry, in 1975 Meli and Russo, known on the streets as “Smiling Jack” or “Jackie Two Guns” and described in law enforcement files from the time as Meli’s personal bodyguard and driver, opened another steel hauling firm called Alco Express.
Before they could get Alco off the ground and properly running at full capacity however both Meli and Russo, along with Cusmano, were hit with a federal extortion rap stemming from work at J&J Cartage. In the indictment, the three were said to be extorting portions of drivers’ pension funds by using Meli’s reputation in the mob as leverage in closed door meetings with employees. Despite having been charged over the past two decades with an assortment of state and federal crimes ranging from gambling, counterfeiting and extortion to labor racketeering and income tax evasion, Little Vince had never been convicted of a single one.
While awaiting trial, Meli and Russo worked hard and building Alco Express to the point of profitability that if they had to shut down J&J Cartage due to their pending legal problems, they would be able to make a seamless transition. This effort was made significantly easier for one big reason. Due to a series of complicated circumstances, Alco was never unionized and operated free of normal labor restrictions.
Detroit’s newly-formed Local 124 was supposed to bring Alco under its control, but for whatever reason that never happened and the company was operated without its workers being properly represented. As a result, money that should have been going towards health, welfare and pension benefits for Alco’s workers was going straight into Alco’s pockets.
Keeping closer than normal tabs on Meli and Russo at the time they were both out on bond awaiting their time in court, the FBI took quite an interest in activities at Alco and the government intended on entering evidence of what was transpiring there it into evidence at the J&J Cartage trial.
Otto Wendell, acting in his duty as Treasurer of Local 299, the state’s Teamster nerve center, handled paperwork and due payments related to Alco’s perceived ability to operate un-unionized and because of that was on the prosecution’s witness list. He held a great deal of knowledge into the matter and the feds wanted him on the stand under oath answering questions.
Being badgered by the press and from within the union itself, Ralph Proctor, a Teamsters bigwig and longtime associate of Wendell’s, who like Wendell, was a former confidant of slain Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, stated publicly that he was investigating complaints of Alco’s methods of operation, yet any headway made was non-existent. Those who worked on the investigation believe this lack of progress uncovering wrongdoing was intentional since Proctor was a known social companion of both Meli and Russo and received a great deal of his own power in the union do to his relationship to them.
Wendell held a key to a lot of pieces in this puzzle, but by the time the trial began in mid-1978, he wasn’t alive to testify. Authorities believe he was killed by the mob to stop from divulging what he knew.
With Otto Wendell laying clinging to life in a hospital bed after being shot several times in December of 1977, the FBI rushed to his side, looking for answers that could help identify the perpetrators. Although unable to speak, before he lapsed into unconsciousness, a deep coma he would never awake from, Wendell indicated he wanted to write something. He scribbled three difficult to decipher words on a pad a paper given to him by FBI agents present in his hospital room.
One translation of the words penned by Wendell in the days before he died came out as “Mealy Mouthed Roxy”. Agents believed this was a reference to George Roxburgh, a business agent and trustee of Local 299, as well as a known associate of organized crime.
Roxburgh was no stranger to violence, reputed to be a longtime part of Roland McMaster’s inner-circle. Five years earlier, in June 1972, Roxburgh was shot three times by a shotgun while sitting in his car in Royal Oak. He lost an eye, but survived the attack and continued on as an alleged enforcer in the Teamsters Union. His name surfaced peripherally in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa as well.
It soon came out through the investigation that Wendell had been planning on running for the presidency of Local 299, however had dropped out of the race a few weeks prior to being gunned down. According to those close to him, Wendell had stated several times that he felt his life was in danger prior to being shot. He was close to Jimmy Hoffa and was well aware of the consequences of crossing the various organized crime figures that pulled strings behind the curtain in the Teamsters Union. The FBI believes Wendell suffered the same fate as Hoffa.