Bootleggers in the 1920's
Our organized crime columnist, examines a perplexing unsolved double murder case from Cleveland.
by Allan May
On January 16, 1920, prohibition went into effect nationwide. Two weeks later, in Cleveland, Ohio, a double murder took place that shocked the city. Were the bootleg wars off to a bloody start in the city on the shores of Lake Erie? Or was there something else behind the murder of the two successful businessmen from New York. The police quickly advanced two murder theories. One was that the killings were due to a whiskey running operation - the victims were killed to prevent the arrest of other gang members, or to prevent a whiskey shipment from being confiscated. The second theory was that the killings were linked to a vendetta, family feud, or plot of the Camorra or the Black Hand.
Just after midnight on January 30, 1920, two Salvation Army workers, Sherman and Elizabeth Ransopher, were returning from a meeting in Cleveland. As they walked from West 25th Street down Pearl Road on the city’s near west side, Mrs. Ransopher spotted a leg extending from a ditch near the edge of the road at the corner of Bader Avenue and Pearl Road. She screamed. The couple slowly moved closer. Although it was dark, the couple had no problem making out three bodies piled together in the snow-filled ditch. The faces of the three bodies were covered with blood and small pools of blood had already begun to form beside them.
The couple hurried over to the home of Charles Leibold, waking him and alerting him of their findings. He and Mr. Ransopher returned to the scene leaving Mrs. Ransopher behind. Lighting matches, the two men looked at the bodies again before running to a neighbor’s house to summon police.
As the first police car to respond came north on Pearl Road, Ransopher and Leibold strained their eyes in the dark as one of the three bodies rose and begin to stagger off in the direction of the approaching police vehicle. It soon disappeared into the dark night. Police arrived and, after surveying the scene and talking to the two men, took off following the bloody trail left behind by the third victim. The trail led south on Pearl Road and turned right on Brook Park Road. There, police found a pool of blood near Ridge Road where they believe the wounded man either rested and was able to curtail the flow of blood, or was picked up by a passing motorist. In their pursuit of the wounded man, police employed searchlights while hunting through the woods, creek beds, and a nearby cedar mill. During the morning hours police checked hospitals, canvassed West Side doctors, and questioned railroad station employees. Although police firmly believed this person held the key to unravel the murder mystery, they would never find him.
Meanwhile a search of the two bodies in the snowdrift revealed letters which identified one of the victims as Salvatore P. Russo, a New York City interior designer and artist. One letter, written in Italian by Russo’s father, indicated that the dead man was clearly in trouble. Translated, the letter read:
My Dear Boy: With great pain I read your letters. I understand the situation you are in, but you have to have courage and take things as they come. There is no advice I can give you that will save you. When you come together, let me know where you are so I can write. – Your Loving Father
Early results from the investigation convinced police that the three men were shot while sitting in the back seat of an automobile. Cleveland Police Captain Martin Lavelle stated, "It was as if they were riding in a rear seat, and the men in the front seat turned and shot them straight in the face at a given death signal."
Russo was hit in the neck with two .38 caliber slugs. The other man was shot three times in the face with three different caliber bullets leading police to believe there were four killers present. What ever happened, it was a bloody scene as police were able to piece together the route of the death car from the blood that dripped from it.
In the letters found on Russo was one with an address belonging to Michael Vallenzano of Buffalo, New York. Vallenzano, who had been tracked down by a Cleveland News associate, was Russo’s brother and had changed his name out of fear (fear of what he didn’t say). He told this story, "I cannot now tell why I went to Cleveland, (but) I got off the train near midnight on Thursday (January 29). I met a man named Steve. While we walked along a road, two men in an automobile stopped us. They wore badges. They drew revolvers and told us to get into the car. They drove us both around for a long time, and kept swearing at us. Finally, when we were away over on what I think was the West Side, one said: ‘Get out of the city tonight or you will be killed.’ They then threw me and the other man out of the machine. I returned to Buffalo on the 4:15 train. I did not see my brother, and he wasn’t mentioned." Police did not get a chance to question Vallenzano. A few hours after the News interview he disappeared. Buffalo authorities blamed the Cleveland Police for this development claiming they were not notified about the Vallenzano connection until late Friday afternoon. It was believed he either went into hiding, came to Cleveland to avenge his brother’s death, or was killed by men who wanted him quiet. Whatever the case, Vallenzano was never heard from again.
Another mystery was still unfolding with the second murder victim. By noon time on Friday over 400 people had viewed the bodies at the morgue and no one was able to identify the second corpse. On Saturday, the Cleveland Press published a profile of the victim and gave a complete description of the man, describing what he was wearing right down to his underwear. The Press also reported the same day that before Russo left Buffalo for Cleveland, he spent a few days with a friend, Frank Ulizzi. The Press quoted Ulizzi as saying, "he could offer no explanation of the murder and that he received no word from Russo since he left Buffalo for Cleveland." On Sunday, the Plain Dealer reported Ulizzi told Buffalo police the day before that, "Russo is an artist and interior decorator. He is very wealthy. Russo was about 35 years old and has a wife and seven children in New York." What makes this so bizarre is that on Sunday afternoon Frank Ulizzi was identified as the second murder victim by his wife and son. No explanation for the quotes in the Press and the Plain Dealer were offered.
Mrs. Ulizzi fainted at the sight of her husband’s body. She later told police that her husband had received a telegram Thursday morning from Cleveland stating, "I am sick and need money badly. Come on." She said her husband left Buffalo with Russo the same day after withdrawing $500 from the bank. Police found only $50 on his body.
Also arriving at the morgue that day was Calegro Russo. "It is my son Salvatore," the father sadly stated. "He was always a good boy and I cannot understand why he should be murdered. I have only a little money, but I will spend it all to run down the man who shot him. He left four children and a widow, and I will take care of them."
The Russo / Ulizzi killings have never been solved. The story could serve as the basis for a good murder mystery with all of the unanswered questions. Why were the two men murdered? It appears to be a Black Hand extortion murder as opposed to a bootleg killing. There was nothing in the background of the two men to indicate they were involved in any bootlegging or rum running operation. Who was the third man in the snowdrift and whatever became of him? There wasn’t any evidence to show the man arrived from Buffalo with the other two. Nor was there any mention of whom Russo and Ulizzi could have met once they arrived in Cleveland. Could it have been the mysterious "Steve" who was mentioned by Russo’s brother Vallenzano? Could the third man have been one of the killers who may have been hit by a stray bullet and the gang thinking he was dead threw him out with the other two? What happened to Vallenzano? Why wouldn’t he tell the Cleveland News reporter why he came to Cleveland just prior to his brother’s death? How did two newspapers get quotes from a person who was dead? Why didn’t Calegro Russo, father of the dead man, reveal the meaning of the letter he wrote to his son? Despite all of the unanswered questions, coverage of the double murder disappeared from the newspapers shortly after a week.
Over the years the story has been twisted to make readers believe the murders were more or less part of an early bootleg war that was taking place. Perhaps the finding of a kernel of corn in a black derby that was left at the death scene led to this conclusion. In December 1933, veteran Cleveland Press reporter Ralph Kelly wrote, "Murder in Cleveland: The Prohibition Toll," an eleven-part synopsis of the era. Having the hindsight of the "sugar wars" that began in the mid-1920s, Kelly theorized that the kernel of corn was placed on the hat deliberately by the killers to warn outsiders not to try to muscle in on the Cleveland bootleg rackets. However, at this early stage of prohibition it was not clear that the use of corn sugar had even started; most Clevelanders were distilling raisin jack. Although there is no clear explanation for the existence of this bloody kernel, its presence could be entirely coincidental. The allusion to a bootleg feud does not carry any credence.
Editor’s Note: This week’s column is part of Allan May’s upcoming book "Corn Sugar to Peanuts: The History of Organized Crime in Cleveland." The book is scheduled to be published by Kroshka Books, a division of Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
ã A. R. May 1999