Other than Tammany Hall in New York, the Pendergast machine in Kansas City was the longest-running and most thorough melding of vice and politics ever seen in the United States. So complete was the marriage of underworld to political world, that Tom Pendergast – the son of Irish immigrants and unabashedly known as "Boss Tom" to everyone in town – controlled not just the political machine that bore his family name but the local Mafia as well.
by Allan May
Before the Pendergast dynasty took root, the early Mafia influence in Kansas City involved Black Hand extortion, which, as in other cities, was carried out by Italians against Italians. This activity came to an end with the onset of Prohibition in 1920. The Mafia faction under control of the DiGiovanni and Balestrere gang then focused on bootlegging.
Once the Pendergast machine got rolling, the other Italian hoods that rose to prominence did so under the Pendergast banner. The underworld bosses, beginning with Johnny Lazia in the late 1920s right through the death of Charles Binaggio in 1950, were different from their counterparts in other cities because of their close ties to the Kansas City political scene. It would not be until the emergence of the iron-fisted Nick Civella in the mid-1950s – after Boss Tom had been dead 10 years – that Kansas City would take on a more traditional organized crime structure.
The Pendergast’s Political Machine
The roots of organized crime in Kansas City trace back to the beginnings of the Pendergast political machine, which had its origins in the 1890s. James Pendergast was born in Gallipolis, Ohio in 1856. Twenty years later he arrived in Kansas City with little in his pockets. In 1881 he won big at the local racetrack by betting on a horse named Climax. With his winnings Pendergast purchased a combination hotel and saloon. The saloon, which he named Climax, was located on St. Louis Avenue in an area of Kansas City called the West Bottoms, not far from the banks of the Missouri River.
Kansas City was on the rise. A year before Pendergast opened his saloon, the population was less then 56,000. By 1910 it was nearing a quarter million. The population was diverse. In addition to native-born whites, there was a sizable African-American population as well as large pockets of Germans, Irish, and Italian immigrants.
In 1884 when Jim Pendergast made his political entrance, politics in Kansas City were still in their frontier mode, lacking in leadership, characterized by colorful election days marked by gala events and parades, as well as fisticuffs. Pendergast was elected a delegate to represent the "Bloody Sixth" Ward in that year’s Democratic City Convention. After that, he stayed out of politics for the next few years. When he got back involved it was in the restructured First Ward. By 1892, Pendergast was recognized as the undisputed leader of First Ward Democratic politics. For the next 18 years, he continually won reelection as alderman. The Kansas City Star dubbed him, "King of the First Ward."
As an alderman, Pendergast was known as a fighter for the workingman. Early on, he championed lower telephone rates and construction of a city park in the West Bottoms. He opposed the city’s effort to cut the wages of city firemen. His popularity was reflected on voting days when his ward consistently supplied the majority of votes to the city’s Democratic candidates.
Pendergast also supported local gamblers. Once, after a dozen were arrested for involvement in a bunco game, "Alderman Jim" personally put up their bond in police court. Many of the laborers in the West Bottoms liked to gamble and Pendergast was looked upon as a friend. His saloon served as a bank on payday for the hundreds of railroad and packinghouse workers. With cash sometimes scarce, Pendergast kept a large supply on hand in order to cash the workmen’s checks. Many spent part of their money in his bar or in the gambling rooms above it.
Pendergast closed the Climax in 1892, but kept open the Pendergast Hotel. He soon opened two new saloons, each with gambling dens on the second floor, and placed Edward Findley, one of Kansas City’s most notorious gamblers, in charge of running them. In August 1894, one of the dens was raided and 38 men were arrested. The problem, as Pendergast saw it, was with the Board of Police Commissioners that oversaw the Kansas City Police Department. This was the type of problem he was adept at solving because the governor appointed the commissioners. In April 1895, Missouri Gov. William J. Stone appointed a new Board of Police Commissioners, which promptly removed Police Chief Thomas Speers. Gambling resumed at Pendergast’s saloons. Pressure from the newspapers, as well as local reform organizations, forced the new chief to make a few token raids on the Pendergast saloons, but the gamblers were usually tipped off.
In 1895, the Republican candidate for mayor ran on a platform that pledged to end the gambling and run Ed Findley out of town. Although the Republicans won, Pendergast’s control of the members of the Police Commission kept the gambling dens from being shut down.
As the "King of the First" ward, Pendergast’s popularity continued to increase as he looked out for his constituents’ interest without regard to race, religion, or nationality. In Lyle W. Dorsett’s, The Pendergast Machine, the following description of Pendergast is offered:
"He had a big heart, was charitable and liberal…No deserving man, woman or child that appealed to "Jim" Pendergast went away empty handed, and this is saying a great deal, as he was continually giving aid and help to the poor and unfortunate. The extent of his bounty was never known, as he made it an inviolable rule that no publicity should be given to his philanthropy. There never was a winter in the last twenty years that he did not circulate among the poor of the West Bottoms, ascertaining their needs, and after his visit there were no empty larders. Grocers, butchers, bakers and coal men had unlimited orders to see that there was no suffering among the poor of the West Bottoms, and to send the bills to "Jim" Pendergast."
As Pendergast strengthened his political organization in the West Bottoms, he also was building a power base throughout the North End, a section of Kansas City referred to as "Little Italy." In this area the "power elite" consisted of men who were in control of the liquor and gambling interests. Pendergast got close with these men and began to solidify his power.
Ed Findley, in addition to overseeing the Pendergast gambling houses, was entrenched in other North End gambling operations. As Pendergast’s influence over the Kansas City Police Department increased, Findley used it to build a gambling combine. During one of the many investigations instigated by various reform groups, one independent gambler testified that he was warned by Findley to either join the combine or be raided. When the gambler refused, the police closed down his operation.
As Pendergast’s influence increased the newspapers began to call him "Boss Pendergast" To this he responded:
"I’ve been called a boss. All there is to it is having friends, doing things for people, and then later on they’ll do things for you. You can’t coerce people into doing things for you – you can’t make them vote for you. I never coerced anybody in my life. Wherever you see a man bulldozing anybody he don’t last long."
According to Dorsett, "An important vehicle which was used by Pendergast for making friends and doing favors was the police department. It brought him friends by affording protection to the North End gambling interests and by making jobs available to his followers." The reformers fought back by trying to strip Pendergast of this power. The mayor, political opponents, the newspapers, and civic leaders campaigned for "home rule" of the Kansas City Police Department. An amendment to the City Charter was drafted. A special election, requiring a three-fifths majority for passage of an amendment to the City Charter, was scheduled. On election day, the Pendergast machine did what made it such a powerful force for such a long period of time: it turned out the vote. The reform was so soundly defeated that "home rule" of the police would not be advanced again for over a quarter of a century.
In 1896, as political power on the North End shifted, a new prosecuting attorney was elected. In his first month in office, 57 gamblers were indicted, including Findley. Pendergast and the saloon and gambling interests in the North End responded during the next election by running their own candidate, James A. Reed, for prosecutor. During the elections of 1898, Pendergast, for the first time, attempted to organize the Italian vote. He appointed Joe Damico, Kansas City’s "King of Little Italy" to make campaign speeches in Italian to the North End community. Meanwhile the message Pendergast got to the black community was that a vote for Reed would mean less police interference in their shadier activities. Reed won.
With the recent defeat of home rule for the police and the election of Reed as prosecutor, Pendergast solidified his position of influence over the First, Second, and Sixth Wards, which at this time made up the West Bottoms and the North End.
The city elections in 1900 provided Pendergast with even more power when James Reed was elected mayor. The Kansas City Convention Hall was filled nearly to capacity with more than 10,000 men and women on election eve. The local Republican newspaper, the Kansas City Journal, reported, "It was the largest Democratic meeting of the campaign, but only because scores of Italians were herded by ‘King Joe’ Damico and the riff-raff of the North End swarmed into the hall."
The major advantage for Pendergast in this victory was he now had more patronage jobs at his disposal, more oil to keep his machine running. Through these jobs, Pendergast’s power grew exponentially. He filled these positions with loyal supporters who, in order to keep their jobs, became more dedicated and willing to campaign for any slate of Pendergast candidates. Between 1900 and 1902, Pendergast appointed 123 out of the 173 patrolmen in the police department.
In 1904, a Republican mayor won office and Pendergast’s influence over the police department dissipated. The Kansas City Journal predicted in headlines the, "DECLINE & FALL OF PENDERGAST." Although his political strength, and health, were on the decline, the loyalty of his followers was still strong. Dorsett writes:
"Even though Jim Pendergast had lost much of the city hall patronage which he had won by 1900-1902, even though he had been forced to split his county patronage fifty-fifty with Joe Shannon after 1900, it is not difficult to see how he continued to maintain his control over the river wards during the ensuing years. Jim’s river ward followers did not forsake him because he no longer had as many jobs to pass out, they loved him just the same. They never forgot the many ways in which the saloonkeeper had helped them.
When a devastating flood nearly destroyed the river wards in 1903, families went to Pendergast for help. Although his own property was destroyed, Pendergast led the relief effort to provide homes and furnishings for the victims, and helped many families get back on their feet.
By 1906, Pendergast was playing a less active role in Kansas City politics and had come to rely heavily upon his brother Tom to carry on the family enterprise. Tom was 16 years younger than Jim. He had come to Kansas City in 1890 from St. Joseph, Mo., some 50 miles to the north, with brothers Mike and John. All of the brothers would play an important role in making the Pendergast machine successful, but Tom would make the machine the stuff of legend; in the process a protégé of his would ascend to the White House, the Pendergast name would become synonymous with political corruption, and Boss Tom would die in disgrace.
For almost two decades Jim Pendergast had tutored Tom in machine politics. In 1900, Mayor James Reed rewarded Tom with one of the most plum patronage positions the machine earned – superintendent of streets.
Like his brother, Tom Pendergast was popular with the voters because he supported popular issues. Tom had to fight harder to prove himself because many people believed he achieved his position by riding on his brother’s coat tails. The fact that some people had previously considered him ineffective helped to fuel his fighting spirit.
Tom did not run for elected office, but instead looked to command the local Democratic Party. He helped organize new neighborhoods in his move to control the city. But unlike his brother, Tom used illegal voting tactics to ensure his success. Early on, this was an indication that Tom would go to any measure to build his power. James Henry "Blackie" Audett explained part of those illegal voting tactics in My Life Story:
"My first job in Kansas City was to look up vacant lots."
"I looked them up precinct by precinct, and turned them lists in to Mr. Pendergast – that’s Tom Pendergast, the man who used to run Kansas City back in them days. When we got a precinct all surveyed out, we would give addresses to them vacant lots. Then we would take the address and assign them to people we could depend on – prostitutes, thieves, floaters, anybody we could get on the voting registration books. On election days we just hauled these people to the right places and they went in and voted…"
As the Pendergast machine began having problems around the time of Jim’s death in late 1911, Tom began to forge alliances with former enemies within the party and with local Republicans, when he could convince them that both their interests could be served while agreeing on an issue.
Tom remained a close friend of James Reed, who would eventually be elected a U.S. senator from Missouri. The two men would exchange political favors for years. In Tom’s ever-expanding organization, as more and more Pendergast candidates were elected, his patronage power grew in both the city and the county. Neither his loyal workers, nor his constituents were forgotten in his ascent. Much of the money Pendergast provided as aid to the needy seemed to exceed the income he received from his legitimate investments, leading many of his detractors to conclude that he was receiving payments from the prostitution and gambling that was taking place in his own establishments.
In 1914, the Metropolitan Street Railway Company in Kansas City sought a new 30-year franchise from the city. A special election was held. The issue passed mainly because of an over abundance of votes from the wards controlled by Pendergast. Later, during an inquiry, witnesses testified that Pendergast worked "with the Republicans, and used money, repeat voters, and toughs to produce North Side majorities that pushed the franchise to victory."
This victory helped Pendergast solidify his relationship with his Republican counterpart, Thomas Marks, and forge a relationship with businessman and Republican Party leader Conrad Mann. By the spring of 1914, Pendergast had gained control of the Democratic City Central Committee.
One of Pendergast’s goals was to muster enough votes from his own organization’s efforts to become independent of other ward bosses or faction leaders. Another goal was to regain control of the police force from rival Joseph Shannon, who headed the "rabbit" group of the Democratic Party.
In the 1916 political battle, Pendergast’s "goat" faction supporters bragged that they were registering voters at a four-to-one clip against the Shannon forces. Pendergast received the support of the American Federation of Labor; in the Italian neighborhood he had Mike Ross working for him. Ross, though Irish, had a group of tough Italians working for him, including a rising hood named Johnny Lazia.
Shannon knew he was in trouble. In a last ditch, election-day morning-effort he had the police herd hundreds of Pendergast supporters from the North End to the police station for "investigation." The paddy wagons were at work as early as 3 a.m. The Kansas City Star reported, by 6 a.m. "two-hundred Pendergast men had been arrested by the Shannonized police department." The brazen actions of the department would result in the acting police chief being sent to jail.
Shannon’s efforts proved futile. Pendergast crushed the "rabbits" and took control of the Democratic Party in the county. The following November the entire slate of Democratic candidates was elected. Pendergast’s reacquired power over the Kansas City Police Department and quickly let the police force know that harassment of his "friends" would result in immediate firings. The "friends" he was referring to were the city’s prostitutes.
The patronage that Pendergast received from Gov. Frederick D. Gardner in 1917 was used to protect the interests of the liquor men throughout Kansas City. County and city commissioners were appointed by the governor at Pendergast’s suggestion. With Pendergast men in all of the commission posts, including his brother Mike, he used his power to gain favor with the city’s wealthy businessmen. Now, not only were the prostitutes, gamblers, and liquor interests controlled, but business contracts with the city and county were also at his discretion. Pendergast’s own cement company made a fortune in such contracts.
Pendergast’s rule did not go unchallenged though, and when that happened he would resort to shifting allegiances to combat it. When Second Ward leader Mike Bulger rebelled against him in the 1920 primary, Pendergast made a deal with former foe Joe Shannon to close him down. As mentioned before, he would also work with Tom Marks, the Republican boss, to exert his influence.
The Republicans were starting to see this misuse of power and began to use it to their advantage. Much of this abuse was through Pendergast’s control of the police department. In the 1920 elections, police stood by as both "rabbits" and "goats" stuffed the ballot boxes in several Kansas City wards. Nonetheless a Republican was elected governor and Pendergast lost control of the all-important three-judge county court.
To help regain control of the patronage he lost, Pendergast found it necessary to relinquish his special favors to contractors. He did so by supporting Harry S Truman as the machine candidate for county judge. Truman had been a friend of James M. Pendergast, Mike’s son, having served with him during World War I. Truman won the Democratic nomination in 1922 and won again in the November election. With Truman’s victory, corruption ceased in the court, but Pendergast’s control of the county administration – and the patronage that went with it – would last until he was sent to prison in 1939.
Truman became an integral part of the Pendergast machine, but, according to Dorsett, was not corrupt. Dorsett states:
"Truman would not deal in graft, but he was successful in running the Pendergast machine in rural Jackson County because he was an astute organizer who used patronage to the organization’s advantage. In addition, Truman managed the court so efficiently, and accomplished so much while in office that he won a large following. By leaving Truman alone to manage the county administration as he saw fit, Pendergast lost the graft which he had bestowed upon his associates during the Bulger regime. By endorsing honest government and settling for patronage alone, he (Pendergast) had entrenched his machine in the county administration by the mid-1920s."
At the same time, Pendergast became recognized as the undisputed leader of the Kansas City Democrats. In achieving this, the lieutenants of his most powerful opposition, Joe Shannon, deserted their former boss and climbed on the Pendergast wagon. Helping Pendergast achieve this goal was Jim Aylward, a Kansas City attorney who would become Pendergast’s right hand man.
By the mid-1920s the Pendergast machine was in a fine-tuning stage. Boss Tom seemed to be making all the right moves, no matter how wrong they looked to his confidants. When another reform movement pushed for a new City Charter that was designed to place control of city government in the hands of a non-partisan city manager, Pendergast, knowing that most citizens were in favor of it and knowing that he had enough votes on the City Council to control the appointment of the new city manager, backed it. On Feb. 24, 1925, the new Charter passed.
Passage of the reform helped create a new-look Pendergast image. As a backer of the new Charter, Pendergast could now be the poster boy for honest elections. With this new image he became the symbol for effective city government, and this gained him prestige in the state as well as additional power in the Missouri Democratic Party.
Over the next decade, Pendergast helped expand his empire by creating political clubs in various wards. The clubs provided a social center for many lower and middle-income citizens who couldn’t afford the fees for country clubs. During this same period, Aylward was named chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party and established the Missouri Democrat newspaper in 1925.
While Pendergast moved into a higher social and economic stratosphere, he did not forget the people who got him there. He kept two offices and was at one or the other everyday to meet with people from all walks of life who cared to call. No one was given special consideration; each waited his or her turn to see the boss.
In 1926, the City Council appointed a Pendergast lieutenant, Henry F. McElroy, the new city manager of Kansas City. Although he was supposed to act in a non-partisan manner, McElroy gave most of the city’s department head positions to Democrats.
With Prohibition the law of the land, the Pendergast machine allowed the local liquor interests to continue unabated in supplying citizens with illegal alcohol. Even when the "Noble Experiment" ended in 1933, lively night spots were still protected by Pendergast’s influence and there were many proprietors who were thankful that outsiders flocked to Kansas City for a taste of the night life that was not available in the outlying Midwestern communities.
Despite the Republican-run country, Pendergast performed a remarkable job in delivering Democratic candidates. When the Great Depression came and the Democrats won favor, Pendergast enjoyed his greatest success and was eventually elevated to direct the Missouri State Democratic Party. Pendergast used his powers to direct loyalists into positions at all levels. He even supported his old rival Joe Shannon in his election to the U.S. House of Representatives. With his ever increasing patronage, Pendergast not only took care of loyal Democrats in Kansas City, but he also helped Republicans who had supported his efforts along the way.
In 1932, just weeks before the November election, Francis Wilson, a Pendergast-backed candidate for governor, became ill and died. Pendergast quickly endorsed Guy B. Park, a rather obscure county judge for the position. In three short weeks Park went from an unknown to governor of Missouri. Although he was not corrupt, Park was overwhelmed and allowed Pendergast to virtually run the state – at least in the areas that were valuable to the machine.
In 1935, at Pendergast’s request, Park named Emmett O’Malley state superintendent of insurance. Working with Pendergast, O’Malley orchestrated a compromise between insurance companies and the state of Missouri to increase insurance premiums. In this settlement, Pendergast received $750,000 for his services.
With the support that Pendergast had lent to the selection of Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Democratic nominee for president in 1932, the Roosevelt administration showed its appreciation by giving Pendergast patronage and control over Missouri’s federal relief welfare program. Pendergast used his influence with the administration to obtain a presidential pardon for his old Republican friend Conrad Mann, who had been found guilty of involvement in an illegal state lottery; and to have Judge Harry Truman appointed state director of federal re-employment for Missouri.
With his grasp of the state Works Progress Administration (WPA), Pendergast was able to control all jobs funded by the federal program within the state. His appointment of Matthew Murray to oversee the state’s administration of the program would be a tremendous boon to the machine and further strengthen Pendergast’s position throughout the state. Of course this would not have been possible without Truman winning election as U.S. senator in 1934. Dorsett tells us:
"The story of Truman’s victory in 1934, and Clark’s (Missouri Senator) consequent surrender to Pendergast, is one of the most fascinating in the annals of Missouri politics. The battle for the senatorial nomination was unusually bitter. Clark took to the stump for his candidate, (Jacob) Tuck Milligan…The Senator did all that he could to curb Pendergast’s power. He charged that Kansas City’s municipal employees were being assessed to support Truman’s campaign, and that most of the state employees were being forced into line. In much the same vein Milligan attacked Truman by arguing that Gov. Park’s administration was doing so much for the Kansas City machine’s candidate that the executive mansion would be more appropriately named ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’"
Pendergast’s success in routing Milligan would later come back to haunt him.
With Truman’s victory in the 1934 election the newspapers declared, "Pendergast as the undisputed boss from one end of the state to the other." While the New Deal added considerably to Pendergast’s power, it was Murray’s selection to lead Missouri’s federal work relief that would prove to be the most important contribution to the machine. Most of the district directors were appointed for their loyalty to the boss. With control of the state WPA, federal employees now worked for Pendergast’s candidates and were used to support them.
Although part of the New Deal was to eliminate the powerful political machines that were operating around the country, in the case of Missouri and Tom Pendergast, the New Deal only served to enhance it. Pendergast and his organization seemed invulnerable during the mid-1930s. With the machine controlling Kansas City and Jackson County, and having the WPA employees working as troops for his benefit, Pendergast reigned supreme.
Above all, Pendergast considered himself a respectable businessman and civic leader. Once when visiting Chicago he told reporters that Kansas City had less gambling and racketeering than any comparable city its size. Gloating, the boss stated, "Ours is a fine, clean, and well-ordered town…"
In 1936, Lloyd C. Stark would begin to tumble the Pendergast ivory tower. By realizing he needed Pendergast’s influence to become governor, Stark sought the benefits of a relationship with the Democratic boss. He convinced Pendergast that he was the man to replace Guy Park in the governor’s mansion.
During the elections of 1934, Italian gangsters in Kansas City murdered four people. The city experienced the same violence as Chicago had during the 1920s with gunmen driving around intimidating voters while the Pendergast influenced police department stood idle. Suspicion of Pendergast’s involvement in these shootings subsided a week later when mobsters tried to gun down City Manager Henry F. McElroy, one of the boss’s men. While these incidents created minor headlines, they could not compare to the scandals that surfaced after the 1936 elections.
The Undoing of Boss Tom
Prosecutor Maurice M. Milligan had a burning hatred of Pendergast because the boss had supported Truman rather than Milligan’s brother Tuck in the 1934 Senate race. The prosecutor led the attack on the Pendergast machine by conducting a two-year election-fraud investigation. When completed, 259 of 278 defendants were convicted.
Despite the continuing investigations and trials, Pendergast’s slate of candidates again won election in 1938. Gov. Stark was urged to cleanse Kansas City of its wide open gambling and as he began to campaign for the U. S. Senate he found this to be the opportune time to strike at Pendergast. Stark felt he could gain support by his attacks on the Pendergast stronghold – the Kansas City Police Department. His boldest move was to put through legislation to return the department to state control. Stark believed that the prostitution, gambling, and illegal liquor activity in the city were protected by the Pendergast-controlled police department. After the Missouri General Assembly approved Stark’s legislation in July 1939, the newspapers began to fill with tales of corruption in the police department. While many officers refused to deny that corruption was taking place, they justified their participation because it granted them continued employment. In the aftermath of the departmental changeover, 50 percent of the police force was dismissed.
In Stark’s pursuit of Pendergast, he and Milligan traveled to Washington D.C. to confer with Elmer L. Irey, the chief of the intelligence unit of the U.S. Treasury Department. The Treasury man soon began an investigation into the O’Malley insurance compromise. Truman, at Pendergast’s urging, tried to replace Milligan when he came up for reappointment. The FDR administration frowned on this move and sensing a change in Missouri politics began to throw its support behind Stark and his anti-Pendergast campaign. By early 1939, five federal agencies were involved in the investigation of Pendergast.
The investigators confirmed the $750,000 payoff scam Pendergast had been paid by the insurance interests. The once unassailable Pendergast, the most powerful man in the history of Missouri politics, was indicted. Agents of the Internal Revenue Service also discovered that Pendergast had failed to pay income taxes from 1927 to 1937, and had doctored the books at eight companies where he held a major interest. A second indictment followed. Placed under such intense scrutiny, Pendergast’s health began to fail. He suffered a heart attack and over the next several years had surgery three times for abdominal problems.
In May 1939, Milligan presented his case against Pendergast in court. Due to the overwhelming evidence against him, Pendergast pleaded guilty to two charges of income tax evasion. He was fined $10,000 and sentenced to 15 months in federal prison on the first charge. On the second charge, he received three years, but was let off with five years probation. He was released from prison in 1940, but his career was over.
In addition to Pendergast, the others sent to prison as a result of Milligan’s investigations were Emmett O’Malley, Matthew Murray, Otto Higgins, the director of the police department, and Charles Carollo who oversaw the gambling interests in Kansas City.
Pendergast’s demise also signaled the end of the machine. Even Gov. Stark suffered as few voters respected him for betraying the man who had put him in office. Harry Truman, by stint of his own personal integrity, survived although his association with Pendergast would come under numerous attacks from his political foes. As Vice President Truman, he would cause a national uproar by attending Pendergast’s funeral in Kansas City in January 1945. Three years later, in one of the great political ironies of all time, Truman, the protégé of one of the most corrupt public figures in U.S. history, narrowly defeated crime fighter Thomas E. Dewey for President in 1948.
One of the Italian criminals who rose to prominence during the Pendergast years was Johnny Lazia. He followed in the footsteps of Joe Damico and Mike Ross in supplying the Italian vote in the North End.
Lazia was born in Kansas City’s "Little Italy" section in 1897. When he was 18, he was convicted of armed robbery and sent to the state penitentiary in Jefferson City. After promising to enlist in the Army and use his "violent energy" to fight the Germans, a fairly common practice at the time, he was granted parole after less than two years in prison. Lazia forgot his promise about joining the Army though and went right back to his life of crime.
Mike Ross, an Irishman, had been running "Little Italy" for the Pendergast interests. Around 1927, he moved out of the North End, but attempted to run it as an absentee boss. Lazia had no interest in answering to an Irish boss living outside the neighborhood. During a special election day in May 1928, Lazia made his move. He kidnapped several of Ross’s lieutenants, including Frank Benanti, Anthony Bivona, and Joe Gallucci. A week after the election, the lieutenants agreed to join Lazia, and Ross gave up his North End leadership.
Although not happy with the North End coupe, Pendergast accepted Lazia’s political support and in turn had the police department turn a blind eye to Lazia’s bootlegging and gambling activities. Lazia cut the police in for a slice of the profits. During his rise to power in the 1920s, Lazia’s gang included Anthony Gizzo, Charley Gargotta, Charles Carollo, Sam Scola, and Gus Fascone. Each was a capable gunman and was responsible for helping to oversee the profitable gambling and bootlegging that occurred in the North End. On election day they were also in charge of getting out the Democratic vote.
Because of Pendergast and Lazia’s control of the Kansas City Police Department, the city gained a notorious reputation for being a "safe haven" for criminals. In Jeffrey S. King’s The Life and Death of Pretty Boy Floyd, the author states, "Lazia insisted that he be told what criminals were in the area, what their plans were, and how long they intended to stay. Any crooks from out of town who did not pay him off would be arrested or forced to leave the city. Any money on them would be appropriated."
Robert Unger, in his recent book, "Union Station Massacre," explains:
"Lazia had to fight everyday to preserve the place he’d carved for himself … Lazia’s big threat was always from outsiders who saw the sweet deal home rule and bossism had brought to Kansas City and wanted to muscle in… by gentle persuasion and ruthless action, Lazia kept them all out. Nothing criminal of any consequence happened in Kansas City without the knowledge and consent of Johnny Lazia."
Beginning in the spring of 1933, Lazia’s undisputed control in overseeing these activities received severe challenges. The first incident occurred on May 27 with the kidnapping of Mary McElroy, the daughter of City Manager Henry F. McElroy, a Pendergast lieutenant. The attractive 25-year-old Mary, who was described as slightly disturbed, was in the middle of a bubble bath when she was hustled out of her father’s home by four amateur kidnappers. A ransom of $30,000 was negotiated and paid and Mary was home in just under 30 hours.
The kidnappers were captured within days and justice was swift: the leader of the group was sentenced to death. Because Mary begged that his life be spared, her father requested life imprisonment for the man, which was granted. Mary later wrote in a suicide note, "My four kidnappers are probably the only people on earth who do not consider me an utter fool."
The kidnapping was a blow to Lazia’s pride and he felt it undermined his importance to the Pendergast interests. Things would get worse. On June 17, 1933, one of the most celebrated crimes in U.S. history – the crime that J. Edgar Hoover used to launch the Federal Bureau of Investigation – was committed in the parking lot in front of Kansas City's Union Station. There, in the bustle of early-morning rush hour, four law enforcement officers were shot to death as they were attempting to transport bank robber Frank "Jelly" Nash to the penitentiary in Leavenworth. In the hail of machinegun fire, Nash was also murdered. Although for years Hoover advanced the notion that he believed the shooters were Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Adam Richetti, recent research has proved otherwise. In fact recent forensic studies indicate that Nash and several of the officers may have been killed by "friendly fire." Robert Unger’s book delves deeply into this subject.
Verne Miller, who was positively identified as one of the participants in the shootout, was reputed to have met with Lazia before and after the shooting to arrange safe passage out of town. Miller would later be murdered and his body dumped outside Detroit.
By mid-summer, the newly-formed FBI was suspicious of Lazia’s connections to the killings. With one of its own federal agents dead, the FBI was desperate to pin the Union Station Massacre on someone. In addition to this headache, a small gang headed by Joe Lusco was trying to create a niche for itself with the local Democratic Party, and another local hood, Ferris Anthon, began to intrude on Lazia’s operations.
Anthon was dealt with first, but it would be costly for Lazia. In the early hours of Aug. 12, 1933, Lazia gunmen cut down Anthon as he was entering his home at the Cavalier Apartments in Kansas City. Ironically, the apartment building was being used by the FBI to safe keep Agent Joe Lackey, one of the wounded survivors of the Union Station shooting. Lackey’s first thoughts were that the gunfire was a warning for him to keep his mouth shut.
Driving nearby at the time of the shooting was Sheriff Tom Bash. The sheriff and a deputy were on their way home from an ice cream social with Mrs. Bash and a 14-year-old neighbor girl. Bash slammed on the brakes, grabbed a riot gun and he and the deputy jumped out and blasted away at the getaway car. Killed instantly were Sam Scola and Gus Fascone. Charley Gargotta jumped from the car and emptied his revolver at Bash, missing every shot. Throwing down the gun, he pleaded, "Don’t shoot me – Don’t shoot me!" A fourth gunman escaped.
Two of Lazia’s lieutenants were dead and another was in jail. To make matters worse, another lieutenant, James "Jimmy Needles" LaCapra, known as a bomb expert, was now at odds with Lazia over his stingy control of the gambling rackets in the city. When two of LaCapra’s associates disappeared – one spirited away from a hospital by the Lazia / Pendergast controlled police force – Jimmy Needles responded by tossing a bomb at Lazia’s North Side Democratic Club, demolishing the front of the building.
To add to Lazia’s woes, he was convicted of income tax evasion in early 1934. Lazia was fined $5,000 and sentenced to a year in prison, which he immediately appealed.
Lazia’s problems came to a brutal end in the early morning hours of July 10, 1934. The night before, Lazia and his wife Marie were returning from Lake Lotawana, located southeast of the city. Charles Carollo was driving and serving as a bodyguard for Lazia. Carollo drove into the driveway of the Park Central Hotel, where the Lazia’s made their home, at about 3 a.m. When Lazia got out of the car, two gunmen, hiding in the bushes, opened fire with a machinegun and a shotgun. Carollo sped off with Lazia’s wife to safety as the gunmen continued to blast away at Lazia on the ground. Lazia was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital where he died 12 hours later.
Police ballistics experts stated that the machine gun used to kill Lazia was also used in the Union Station Massacre. The authorities quickly arrested Joe Lusco and 27 others, but Lazia’s killers were never identified. Lazia’s gang pinned Lazia’s murder on LaCapra and tried to kill him the following month outside Wichita, Kan. LaCapra, terrified and fearing for his life, went to a local police station and told a fantastic tale that tied Lazia, Floyd, and Richetti to Verne Miller and the Union Station Massacre. However, associates of Lazia always maintained that LaCapra’s statement to police was the "ramblings of a desperate man out to cut a deal."
LaCapra was still in fear for his life in January 1935 and was advised by FBI agents to leave for South America where he had family. LaCapra refused and instead went to New York where his bullet riddled body was found by police on a highway 10 miles west of Poughkeepsie.
The DiGiovanni / Balestrere Gang
While Pendergast and Lazia were in control of the politicians, the prostitution, and the gambling going on in the city, there were other Mafia factions at work in Kansas City.
The DiGiovanni brothers, Peter and Joseph, were born in Sicily during the 1880s. Joseph, the younger, arrived in Kansas City in 1912 and immediately became involved in Black Hand extortion. In 1915, police arrested Joseph and more than a dozen other men for their participation in a Black Hand ring that was extorting money from Italian families and businessmen in the North End. A diligent Italian detective, Louis Olivero, had worked with the terrified victims of the gang and was able to gather enough information to make the arrests. Shortly after the arrests were made Olivero was murdered and the victims he had cultivated as witnesses refused to testify against the gang.
During World War I the DiGiovanni gang was involved with James Balestrere in a black-market sugar operation. When the war ended, they found themselves with an abundance of expensive sugar. According to investigators, Joseph conspired to get rid of it by torching the warehouse where the sugar was stored. His amateurish attempt in this arson left his face and hands terribly scarred. For years he would maintain that he was injured in a gas explosion. He would also maintain the nickname "Scarface."
When Prohibition went into effect, the gang found themselves right back in the sugar business again. This time it was the corn-sugar trade and they made a handsome profit selling it to alky cookers who quickly turned it into alcohol. The DiGiovanni brothers and their partner Balestrere were considered, along with Frank "Chee Chee" DeMayo, to be the top bootleggers in Kansas City.
In Ed Reid’s classic tale, Mafia, he discusses how the DiGiovanni gang and Balestrere operated during the 1920s:
"It was Scarface DiGiovanni who dictated whether or not an individual bootlegger could go into business in Kansas City, and he even laid down the law about "ice" or graft payments to local police. Balestrere was apparently less powerful in this early period, though he functioned as the Mafia judge, settling disputes of all kinds among Italians. They seldom went to court in those early days of the sharpest terror. Instead they went to Balestrere and his kangaroo court. He summoned witnesses, held informal hearings and his judgment was widely feared and respected. Scarface appeared to be head man of the Mafia in Missouri, with Balestrere tops in Kansas City."
In addition to arrests for extortion and bootlegging, Joseph DiGiovanni was charged with kidnapping and narcotics, but never convicted. In 1929, a kidnapping charge included the rape of a young lady. During the 1930s, he helped organize a profitable narcotics ring. It was broken in 1942 when seven men were convicted, including Joseph DeLuca, one of the DiGiovanni’s chief lieutenants.
At the trial one of the government’s witnesses was Carl Caramussa, a former member of the gang. In 1919, Caramussa’s 11-year-old brother was murdered by Paul Catanzaro, who was grabbed by a group of bystanders and nearly beaten to death. Catanzaro avoided conviction for the killing after witnesses were scared off. He later found work with the DiGiovanni family. When Carl Caramussa testified in 1942, Catanzaro sat in the courtroom and gave him the "Mafia death sign," until police threw him out. Caramussa changed his name and went into hiding after the trial. However, gunmen caught up with him in Chicago in June 1945 and murdered him.
During the same trial, Joseph DeLuca’s girlfriend was arrested and charged with jury tampering. She was convicted after Thomas Buffa, another defendant, testified against her. Buffa, who at one time had ties to organized crime in St. Louis, was murdered in Lodi, Calif., in 1946.
Joseph DiGiovanni and his older brother Peter, nicknamed "Sugarhouse Pete," were partners in the Midwest Distributing Company, one of the largest wholesale liquor firms in the city. The concern possessed the exclusive franchise rights for all Seagram’s liquor products for Jackson County, which includes Kansas City. On Dec. 21, 1943, 12 men involved with the company were arrested in an interstate black-market liquor ring. Among those arrested was Charles Binaggio, a gang member on the rise. The charges included violation of federal liquor laws and failing to keep proper records.
The case was dismissed in January 1944 after a U.S. attorney decided that Alcohol Tax Unit agents did not have sufficient evidence; a claim that baffled the agents. Later, several of the defendants traveled to New York City to testify against Jacob Fried, who was involved in the company that was supplying the illegal whiskey. He was convicted.
During the Kefauver hearings held in Kansas City in 1950, Joseph DiGiovanni was called to testify and denied that he had ever heard of the Mafia. After a few more unacceptable answers, Kefauver recommended to the committee that he be indicted for perjury. Like many of the witnesses who were charged with contempt of Congress, he avoided indictment.
James Balestrere was a kind of shadowy figure in the Kansas City underworld. Born in Sicily in 1891, he immigrated to Milwaukee in 1903 where it was said that he joined "several hundred members" of his family. Of Balestrere, author Ed Reid states, "In the probe of rackets in Kansas City by federal agents and grand juries from 1936 to 1940, agents of the government named him as the most powerful and influential man of Sicilian origin west of Chicago."
During Prohibition Balestrere was involved in bootlegging and owned a speakeasy that was said to be losing money. He remedied that by having an arsonist burn it to the ground. Although he was befriended by politicians (from both parties), law enforcement officers, city officials, and gangsters, investigations of Balestrere failed to reveal any illegal activities.
The "Crime Committee Report" published after the Kefauver hearings were complete stated, "The two men believed to be the leaders of the Kansas City Mafia," were James Balestrere and Joseph DiGiovanni. Kefauver wrote of Balestrere, "He played dumb and represented himself to us a poor old jobless fellow who lived on a little income from a piece of business property and on a few dollars given him by his children."
Balestrere told the committee that he needed a job after Prohibition ended – he had gone out of the business of selling sugar to bootleggers – so he approached Tom Pendergast. Balestrere testified that Pendergast gave him a cut of a keno gambling game where he walked in once a month and picked up a check for $1,000. In addition, Balestrere told the committee that Charles Binaggio had offered him a piece of a gambling operation called the Green Hills. Balestrere, the godfather of Binaggio’s only child, replied, "I am not much in the gambling business. I don’t know much about it." One month later he said Binaggio gave him $5,000 he claimed was won.
The Five Iron Men
With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, gambling again became the lucrative activity of the underworld. With Kansas City being a wide-open town there were tremendous profits to be earned. After Lazia’s murder in 1934, political leadership in the North End was assumed by Charles Binaggio, but a group of gambling lords also wielded power in the Kansas City underworld. In Ed Reid’s Mafia, published in 1952, he refers to these bosses as the "iron men" and identifies them as James Balestrere, Peter and Joseph DiGiovanni, Joseph DeLuca, and Anthony Gizzo. Except for Gizzo, the others were known for being part of the Mafia.
During the days following the murder of Binaggio in April 1950, there were several St. Louis Post-Dispatch articles that mentioned the "big five." The articles refer to "the principal gang figures immediately below Binaggio in rank." They identify those figures as Charley "Mad Dog" Gargotta (murdered with Binaggio), Charles Carollo, James Balestrere, Gaetano Lococo, and Anthony Gizzo.
In Sen. Estes Kefauver’s, "Crime In America," his synopsis of his 14-city crime investigation tour, he states that Max H. Goldschein, a special assistant U.S. attorney, testified in 1950 that, "the Five Iron Men" were Binaggio, Balestrere, Gargotta, Gizzo, and Lococo.
While Balestrere has already been discussed and Binaggio will be talked about in depth later, Carollo, Lococo, Gargotta and Gizzo will be focused on here.
Charles Vincenzo "Charley the Wop" Carollo was born in Santa Ristino, Italy and never became a naturalized American citizen. He may have been considered first among equals in the gambling business after Lazia’s murder. Carollo had been the closest to Lazia, his loyalty extending back to the 1920s when he "took the rap" for Lazia after he was indicted in a liquor conspiracy.
Carollo kept a low profile until the fall of 1933 when a crusading judge, Allen C. Southern, began a grand jury investigation. The probe not only targeted the gambling rackets, but also the monopoly the gangs enjoyed in the beer and beverage distribution business. When the grand jury went to work looking for slot machines, the slots disappeared with "phantomlike" speed into storage for the duration of the investigation. In addition to Carollo and Lazia being called before the grand jury, a pending tax-evasion case against Lazia, which Pendergast had worked hard to suppress, was reopened.
In June 1934, two minor hoodlums from Los Angeles received permission to open a gambling den in Kansas City that they named the Fortune Club. Carollo met with the two men six months later to let them know he was now a half-owner in the club. He figured the protection he provided for the pair was at least worth that much. In March 1938, he notified his "partners" that he was buying them out for $5,000 each. By then the club was making, by conservative estimates, $60,000 a month. When the authorities launched a cleanup campaign in January 1939 they were surprised to find out that Carollo was the secret owner of the club.
While local investigators believed that Carollo became the leader of the Kansas City mob after Lazia’s murder, federal authorities considered him to be only a front for an "even bigger man, another Italian" who they did not name, although speculation was that it was Charles Binaggio.
Carollo was indicted on income-tax evasion charges after the revelation of his ownership of the Fortune Club. District Attorney Maurice M. Milligan –the same man who brought down Tom Pendergast – prosecuted the case. While Carollo’s actual position in the underworld was always in question, his trial revealed that his chief function was as a collector of the "lug." The "lug" was the tax charged to the gambling houses in Kansas City to remain in operation. The investigation revealed that from 19 gambling houses targeted the "lug" had gone from $53,000 annually in 1935, to almost double, $103,000 by 1938. Carollo admitted during testimony that he, "collected the lug for Pendergast, among others, making direct payments to the Boss and his secretary."
At Carollo’s sentencing, Milligan made the following statement:
"The investigation into the background of this defendant reveals the fact that after the death of Lazia this defendant took over the authority exercised by Lazia in his lifetime, relative to gambling and rackets carried on in Kansas City, Missouri; that he grew in power even greater than his predecessor; that he had a full entrée into the offices of the high officials in the city administration. According to the testimony, he was seen going into and out of the private office of the former city manager; that he had full entrée into the police headquarters, and almost daily was a visitor at the office of the director of police."
Carollo was sent to prison at Leavenworth. His sentence consisted of one year for mail fraud; three years for income-tax evasion; and four years for perjury. Prison life didn’t exactly put Carollo on the straight and narrow. Shortly after he arrived at Leavenworth he got involved in a smuggling operation bringing contraband articles into the prison. For these offenses he was transferred to Alcatraz. After his release from prison, Carollo was deported on January 7, 1954.
Author Ed Reid wrote that no matter who was running the Kansas City rackets –
Lazia, Carollo or Binaggio – the enforcement end of the gang fell to Gizzo, Gargotta, and Lococo, with "Lococo serving as the engineer or quarterback." While working for the bosses these men were said to be in constant communication with James Balestrere who, if not in name, functioned similar to a family consigliere.
Gaetano Lococo, also known as Thomas or Tano, claimed to have been born in America prior to the turn of the 20th century. Ed Reid described Lococo as follows:
"Known as a Mafia enforcer in Kansas City, he was one of the key group of young Italian storm troopers who fronted for John Lazia in the early days. With Tony Gizzo and the late Charley Gargotta he served on the mob enforcement squad."
Senator Kefauver had another description of Lococo:
"Lococo was a mousy, insignificant, bespectacled little man whose appearance belied his reputation as another of Binaggio’s ‘enforcers.’"
Reid claimed Lococo’s police record was removed from the files of the Kansas City Police Department because "he was virtually in control of the police department in the 1930s." Reid states that Lococo "wriggled out of the clutches of the law" in 1933 in connection with one gang killing. Which leaves one to wonder if Lococo was the fourth man involved in the ill-fated getaway after the murder of Ferris Anthon.
In 1946, Lococo was one of four gang members under Binaggio who muscled in and took over the race-wire service in Kansas City. In 1948, he traveled to Nogales, Ariz., where he posed as a retired businessman. Hiring the local mayor as his attorney, he purchased a hotel for $50,000. When he approached the county sheriff with a proposal to start a gambling operation there, he was rebuffed. He quickly sold the hotel and left town.
Reid claims that a meeting took place in Tia Juana, Mexico to plan the murder of Binaggio and that Lococo may have "helped arrange things." Lococo had a family tie to the boss. He was the uncle of Binaggio’s wife.
In addition to his involvement in gambling, Lococo owned several drug stores in the Kansas City area. He and his wife spent large blocks of time in Arizona and Mexico due to Lococo’s bouts with arthritis.
When Lococo was called to testify before the Kefauver Committee, Sen. Charles W. Tobey asked him about his "ugly reputation," which, according to Reid, was that he was "probably the most skillful and experienced killer in the city."
Lococo replied, "You can’t give me a single man in Kansas City who could ever say that I threatened him or said anything wrong to him or anywhere else."
During the time the Kefauver hearings were in session, Lococo was also on trial for income-tax evasion. He was convicted and sentenced to two years in Leavenworth.
And now to Gargotta. According to Sen. Estes Kefauver, "If ever a human being deserved the title of ‘Mad Dog’ it was Gargotta."
Born in Kansas City, Gargotta was arrested more than 40 times over a 30-year period. Those charges included murder, gambling, liquor law violations, carrying a concealed weapon, robbery, auto theft, extortion, attempted burglary and vagrancy. Incredibly, all of the charges were dismissed with the exception of an assault to kill charge for his attempted murder of Sheriff Bash.
While attempting to flee after the killing of Ferris Anthon and the attempted murder of Bash in 1934, Gargotta was charged with murder, attempted murder, and the theft of two revolvers from the Army, which were used during the crimes. When he was tried on the stolen revolvers charge, Leonard L. Claiborne, a Kansas City detective, switched tags on a gun found on Gargotta and another recovered near the murder scene. He then lied on the witness stand having been promised a promotion. Instead Claiborne was sentenced to four years in prison.
The prosecutor selected to handle the murder trial, W. W. Graves, asked for and received 27 continuances over a five-year period before he dismissed the charges against Gargotta all together. Graves was later removed from office by the Missouri Supreme Court for "neglect of duty" for his handling of the case.
Gargotta was eventually re-indicted for the attempted murder of Sheriff Bash as part of Gov. Lloyd Stark’s cleanup drive. Gargotta pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison. However, the Missouri Pardon Board recommended his parole after just 19 months and he was released in January 1941.
Gargotta became Binaggio’s bodyguard and would be murdered with him in April 1950 at the North End’s Democratic headquarters.
Anthony Robert "Fat Tony" Gizzo seemed to be associated with everyone in the Kansas City underworld. In the early 1920s, when he was arrested on a narcotics charge, he offered a federal officer $10,000 to let it go. He was convicted and in 1924 served two years in prison.
Gizzo was involved in gambling operations with Lazia, Carollo, and Binaggio. He was also rumored to be Balestrere’s "personal representation" in Wichita, Kan., where he was considered the Mafia boss.
"Fat Tony" could be called a character. During his testimony before the Kefauver Committee it was revealed that Gizzo was an acquaintance of numerous top mobsters throughout the country. Kefauver described Gizzo as, "a boastful, noisy, beer barrel of a man" and, in apparently an opinion Kefauver developed from interrogating an abundance of underworld figures, "was the only one whose performance was a reasonable facsimile of how a gangster is supposed to act."
When Sen. Alexander Wiley asked him about his rumored habit of carrying large sums of money, Gizzo replied, "Do you want to see it?" From his pocket the overweight gangster pulled out a roll of bills and counted off 25 $100 bills.
Gizzo had one of the more interesting exchanges with the committee when he was asked,
"Do you belong to the Mafia?"
"What is the Mafia?" he responded. "I don’t even know what the Mafia is."
Apparently Gizzo forgot this exchange and was later asked if he knew James Balestrere.
"Yes, sir," Gizzo replied.
"He is rather widely known as a prominent man in the Mafia, isn’t he?" asked the committee.
"That’s what you hear," said Gizzo.
"What did you hear?" questioned the committee.
"The same thing that you just said there," answered Gizzo.
Reminded of this conversation during public hearings held later, Gizzo cried out, "I wish to hell I knew what the Mafia is!"
After the murders of Binaggio and Gargotta, and the imprisonment of Lococo, Gizzo would assume the leadership of the Kansas City underworld. His rule would be short lived, but it wouldn’t be a violent ending. On April 1, 1953, Gizzo died of a massive heart attack in a hotel room in Dallas. The 52-year-old and his wife had gone to Texas to visit their son who was serving time for a narcotics offense.
Charles Binaggio was born in Beaumont, Tex., and moved to Kansas City with his family while he was still a youth. Not much is known about his early years. Living on Kansas City’s North Side, Binaggio became acquainted with Johnny Lazia who found work for him in one of his downtown gambling operations.
Binaggio was determined to follow in Lazia’s footsteps. He worked at the business of politics seven days a week building a following by performing favors for his constituents – finding jobs for them, and most importantly, helping them when they got in trouble with the law. He became an important political organizer and rose quickly through the ranks. Except for Gov. Forrest Smith, Binaggio became the most recognized leader of the Democratic Party. His detractors claimed that his rise came from his connections to the Kansas City Mafia, who backed him for leadership because of his organizing ability and his minor criminal record.
On his way to the top, Binaggio merged seven Democratic clubs and seized control of the North Side from Jim Pendergast, the nephew of Boss Tom Pendergast. Some believe Binaggio’s most brilliant political move was supporting Forrest Smith for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1948. Binaggio and Jim Pendergast had actually worked together until the mid-1940s before splitting on who the Democrats would support for governor.
As mentioned earlier, Missouri native son, Harry S Truman was a close friend of Jim Pendergast and served with him during World War I. Truman’s early success in politics was accomplished under the auspices of Tom Pendergast, a fact that his political opponents would continually use against him. Later, when Truman became president, Jim Pendergast was a frequent guest in Washington D.C. Despite Binaggio’s prominence in the Democratic Party, he was not welcome at the White House. Binaggio’s enemies claimed it was his arrest record, not his split with Pendergast, which kept him from an invitation to the Oval Office.
In 1946, while Binaggio and Jim Pendergast were still political allies, their political organization was involved in a well-publicized voting fraud scandal. It involved the Democratic primary held in August 1946 in which Enos Axtell ousted incumbent Roger C. Slaughter. President Truman had endorsed Axtell and in doing so publicly demanded that the defiant Slaughter be "purged."
While a grand jury was investigating the allegations of voter fraud, thieves broke into the Jackson County Courthouse and used nitroglycerin to blast open a safe. The intruders removed ballots and election records that supported the eighty-one vote fraud indictments.
In Jefferson City, the Republican state chairman commented that the theft indicated that the Pendergast machine "is just as rampant under the protection of Harry S Truman as it was under Mr. Truman’s mentor Tom Pendergast." As a result of the ballot theft, many of Binaggio’s aides escaped prosecution when the vote fraud cases collapsed. The one exception was Morris "Snag" Klein, an important associate of Binaggio’s who was known as one of the top gamblers in the city.
By the late 1940s, Binaggio oversaw a bloc of 30,000 votes and no other political boss in the state controlled more. Although some politicians were concerned about Binaggio’s underworld connections, they still came to him for the votes he could muster. At least two senators and six representatives were reputed to be under his control in the Missouri State Legislature.
Binaggio’s base of operations on the North Side was the First District Democratic Club. Newspapers gave the following description of the location and the activity that took place there:
"The political headquarters of Binaggio was in a large meeting hall on Truman Road in a neighborhood of cheap hotels and restaurants, second-hand furniture stores and used car lots. On election days squadrons of ghost voters were assembled in that room and dispatched to various polling places to vote in the names of absent or long dead citizens."
As far as Binaggio’s arrest record, it began in 1930. Some of his early arrests seemed to indicate that the Kansas City mob could have had a strong influence in Colorado during the 1930s. On Jan. 18, 1930, Binaggio was arrested in Denver along with Anthony Gizzo for carrying a concealed weapon. Their sentences were suspended after they agreed to leave town. One year later, Binaggio was arrested in Denver again, this time for vagrancy. In Kansas City he was arrested twice for bootlegging, in both cases the charges were dropped. In August 1939, he was arrested in Denver for again carrying a concealed weapon.
Another well-publicized arrest occurred in 1945 when Binaggio was involved in operating the Green Hills Country Club, a gambling resort in Platt County, Mo. Also involved with the club were Gus Gargotta, the brother of Charley, Nick Penna, Anthony "Slick" Bondon, Binaggio's father-in-law, and Fred Wedow, who was described as a "veteran gambler."
During the 1940s, Binaggio was reputed to be the man in charge of the Harmony News Service, the Capone syndicate’s race-wire operation in Kansas City. The newspapers called Binaggio the "king-pin of state-wide gambling." Binaggio was also involved in the distribution of the Capone syndicate’s Canadian Ace Beer. He once admitted to a reporter that he received a 25-percent "cut" from the profits of the Duke Sales Company, the wholesaling firm that distributed the beer. He then refused to divulge his other business interests stating, "you will only crucify them in your newspaper."
When Binaggio swung the vote and won the Democratic nomination for Forest Smith in the governor’s race in 1948, he convinced the gambling interests throughout the state that with their financial support Smith could win in the November election and they could "open up" the state. The amount of money the gamblers put up was estimated to be between $50,000 to $200,000, most of it from the St. Louis/East St. Louis area. Smith won the election, but after he took office on Jan. 10, 1949, "the word" came from Jefferson City, the Missouri State capitol, that the gambling interests would have to wait six months for the new administration to settle in.
Some gamblers didn’t wait and this indiscretion resulted in their operations being raided by the police. Other gamblers set a date of July 1, to see what would happen with Smith. When that day came and went, gamblers were told there was an additional 30-day moratorium due to unforeseen circumstances. When the 30-day period ran out, angry gamblers were looking for someone to blame. It was Binaggio who had handled the campaign financing and made the promises. Whether he made those promises on his own, or on someone else’s assurances, would never be known.
On the evening of April 5, 1950, Binaggio was picked up by his chauffeur Nick Penna. The two men drove to the Last Chance Tavern in which Binaggio had an interest with Charley Gargotta, who he planned to meet there. The tavern, a gambling house, was located on the borderline between Kansas and Missouri. Whenever raiders from one state came to close the operation, the players would just move to the opposite side of the room. Law enforcement officers from both states could never seem to synchronize their raids in order to arrive at the same time.
Shortly after Binaggio arrived at the club, around 8 p.m., he received a telephone call. He then asked one of the employees at the club if he and Gargotta could borrow his automobile. As the two men started to leave, Nick Penna began to follow.
"You needn’t come, Nick," Binaggio told him. "We’ll be back in 15 or 20 minutes."
Penna later told police that when the pair had failed to return, he waited until 4 a.m. and then went home.
Binaggio and Gargotta then drove to the First District Democratic Club. Who they met there is not known, but around 8:30 three residents of the Como Hotel, located above the club, heard what sounded to them like gunfire.
The bodies of Binaggio and Gargotta were found around 4 a.m. the following morning. Police believed the killers were known to both men as neither one was armed. Binaggio’s body was sprawled in a swivel chair at his desk. His assassin pressed a .32 caliber automatic to his head and pulled the trigger four times. All four wounds bore powder burns.
Police theorized that Gargotta then ran for the front door to escape. The first of four bullets hit Gargotta in the back of the head from several feet away. After he fell to the floor, his killer stood over him and fired three more bullets into his head at close range.
The sensational double murder made headlines across the country, reverberating all the way to the Capital Building in Washington D.C. The day after the killings, Missouri Republican Dewey Short addressed the House of Representatives and inferred that Binaggio had been "bumped off" because he opposed the nomination of President Truman’s hand-picked candidate for senator.
The funerals were held on April 10. Foremost among the mourners that day was Frank Costello from New York. Costello was rumored to have been negotiating with Binaggio to place slot machines in Kansas City. Costello was in the company of "several Chicago representatives of the Capone syndicate." Anthony Gizzo, the heir apparent to Binaggio, hosted the group.
Guiseppe Nicoli Civella was born on March 19, 1912 in the North End section of Kansas City known as "Little Italy." In 1922, at the age of 10, he was taken before local juvenile authorities for "incorrigibility." Shortly after this incident he dropped out of school, however, in later life he would be described as a well-read man who enjoyed classical music. Before he reached the age of 20, Civella had been arrested for auto theft, gambling, robbery, and vagrancy. In 1932, he was arrested for bootlegging and served two months in prison.
During the early 1940s, Civella became a Democratic precinct worker for Charles Binaggio in the North End. After World War II Civella moved up the crime family ladder. He served as a bodyguard and chauffeur for Anthony Gizzo, who at the time was working as an enforcer for Binaggio’s gambling operations.
After Gizzo’s death there was a vacuum left in the leadership that didn’t last long. During the Kefauver Hearings held in Kansas City during 1950, Civella was identified as a "figure to watch" in organized crime in the city. He attended the infamous conclave in Apalachin, N.Y., held on Nov. 14, 1957, where Civella was more fortunate than most of his criminal colleagues at the meeting. He and fellow Kansas City mobster Joseph Filardo were able to avoid the roadblocks and make their way to a Binghamton, N.Y., railroad station where they took the first train home.
Several months after the Apalachin incident, Civella was served with a subpoena to appear before a U.S. Senate committee to discuss his attendance at the now famous summit. Civella testified, but like most of the men investigated for being there, nothing came of it.
Roy Lee Williams, future president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, met Civella in 1952 when the two were both chairmen of Democratic political clubs in Kansas City. Williams would later testify that he and Civella talked about the Apalachin meeting. According to Williams, Civella told him that "among other things, territory and cooperation were discussed." Roy Williams would also talk about Civella’s influence on him in the Teamster’s union. He testified that in the late 1950s, a few years after the pension fund was established, he left a meeting one night and was shoved into an automobile, blindfolded, and driven to a location where a bright light was shone on him. He was warned that he had better start cooperating with Civella on his requests for pension fund loans or his wife and children would be killed. "You will be the last to go," he was told.
Civella was next called in front of a Chicago grand jury that was investigating organized crime activities in the Midwest in 1959. He would also be charged in two Missouri State tax evasion cases. In one case he was convicted and fined $150. The second case was dismissed.
Civella’s brother Carl, nicknamed "Cork," was his closest confidante over the years. On June 13, 1960, Civella and his brother had the dubious distinction of being named charter members in the famous "Black Book" of Nevada along with nine other gambling figures. An article in The Kansas City Times said that Civella was, "one of three men who crossed the country regularly as couriers for the ‘grand council of the Cosa Nostra.’" The Civellas and the others were banned from all Nevada casinos.
In The Black Book and the Mob, authors Ronald A. Farrell and Carole Case reveal:
"The first 11 men were placed in the Black Book without any formal notification or hearing. All were reputed to be notorious associates of organized crime … Without apparent sanction of the commission, the board and its chairman, former FBI agent R. J. Abbaticchio, Jr., decided that these individuals presented a threat to the industry, and instructed the enforcement agents to distribute the List of Excluded Persons to all state-licensed gaming establishments."
In 1966, Civella was called to appear before a Clay County grand jury. Afterwards, the news media asked him why it took him 15 minutes to address the group. Civella replied that he, "stopped in the men’s room," where he, "was drawing dirty pictures on the wall." Law enforcement agencies did not appreciate Civella’s humor or his ability to elude conviction. This would result in their constant surveillance of him for the rest of his life.
In 1969, Civella was identified by a Senate committee as being a principal member of the Kansas City Crime Family. During a 10-day period in mid-January 1970, the FBI picked up information through listening devices to indict Civella and several others on gambling conspiracy charges involving the recent Super Bowl between Kansas City and Minnesota. One of the men indicted, Sol Landie, a prominent Kansas City gambling figure, was called before a grand jury and given immunity from prosecution for his testimony. In November 1970, four black men invaded Landie’s home on the pretense of robbing him. Landie was murdered and his wife viciously raped by the intruders. The men were soon arrested and it was revealed that they were hired to kill Landie because of his testimony.
While Civella was not tried for Landie’s murder, he was convicted of the gambling charges in 1975. After a long appeals process, Civella was finally sent to prison in 1977. It was the first time since the 1920s that he found himself behind bars. Civella served just 20 months before he was given an early release due to poor health. Civella had been treated for cancer during the long trial and appeals process and had pelvic organs removed during surgery. He would be operated on again in 1978.
In 1974, after an elaborate arrangement involving the Kansas City, Cleveland and Milwaukee Crime Families, and their ties to the Teamsters and the Teamster’s pension fund, Allen Glick, through the Argent Corporation, assumed control of the Stardust and Fremont hotel/casinos in Las Vegas. Civella’s control of Teamster’s pension fund trustee Roy Williams was essential to Glick obtaining the loan to make the purchase. After the loan was approved for Glick in 1974, Roy Williams stated he then became Civella’s "boy" and received payments of $1,500 each month for his cooperation in getting the loan put through.
When Frank Fitzsimmons, Jimmy Hoffa’s hand picked replacement as president of the Teamsters, was dying of cancer in early 1981, Civella let the underworld know that Williams, now a high ranking official in the Teamster’s organization, was under his control. Permission was quickly obtained from the Chicago and New York mob bosses and when Fitzsimmons died in May 1981, Williams replaced him.
Apparently Glick didn’t realize that by being tied to the mob he would have little say in running the operations. The mob put Frank Rosenthal in charge of overseeing its interests. When Glick and Rosenthal clashed, Glick tried to fire him. Rosenthal threatened Glick, who then went to Frank Balistrieri of Milwaukee to complain.
Glick was ordered to meet with Civella in Kansas City in March 1975. The two met in a hotel room where Civella told him that he owed the Kansas City Family $1.2 million dollars for getting the loan approved. The naïve Glick was not aware of mob operating procedures in regards to procuring loans from the Teamster’s pension fund, which the mob considered its own private bank. According to Glick, he was told by Civella, "Cling to every word I say … if it would be my choice, you wouldn’t leave this room alive. You owe us $1.2 million. I want that paid. In addition, we own part of your corporation, and you are to do nothing to interfere with it … We will let Mr. Rosenthal continue with the casinos, and you are not to interfere."
Shortly after his release from prison for health reasons, Civella was indicted on bribery charges. Civella, who seldom had anything to say to grand juries or other investigative committees, had been recorded in November 1978 discussing the bribing of a prison official to get his nephew, Anthony "Tony Ripe" Civella, transferred to a federal prison in Fort Worth. Civella was taken back into custody and was convicted of bribery charges on July 18, 1980. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
With the information from the listening devices the FBI was able to revoke Civella’s parole and he was sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary. There agents tapped the telephone in the visiting room, which provided further proof that Civella was calling the shots for the Kansas City mob.
Civella’s last years had been spent battling in the federal courts. With dozens of court motions filed by his lawyers, Civella fought to stay out of prison; to transfer within the prison system; and to get out of prison early. Citing poor health reasons, family and friends collected 800 signatures on a petition, including those of politicians and clergymen, in hopes of getting Civella another early release.
The request for his release in 1982 was turned down. In February 1983, Civella, who had been at the federal medical facility in Springfield, was transferred back to Leavenworth so he could be closer to his attorneys. Four days after the transfer he was returned to Springfield for treatment. Federal authorities released him to his family on March 1 and Civella was quickly admitted to the Menorah Medical Center in Kansas City where he died on March 12, 1983.
River Quay Incident
In 1971, Marion Trozzolo, a local college professor and inventor, began the River Quay Corporation to redevelop 19th century buildings in an area around the Kansas City riverfront. The area was situated next door to the City Market section, in which Nick Civella kept a headquarters. In 1972, Fred Bonadonna opened a restaurant that catered to the area’s businessmen and local political leaders. Bonadonna was the son of David Bonadonna, Sr., a long time friend and member of William Cammisano, Sr.’s gang.
By November 1974, the River Quay area was a thriving thoroughfare of almost 70 retail establishments including specialty shops, art galleries, restaurants, theatres, antique shops, and small boutiques. Fred Bonadonna was named president of the River Quay Bar and Restaurant Association and vice president of the Market Area Businessmen’s Association, a group of civic and business leaders in the River Quay neighborhood.
Meanwhile, urban renewal projects had begun in the 12th Street section of Kansas City, an area of cheap hotels, strip joints and street prostitution that had once been home to the best jazz clubs in the United States, featuring Charlie Parker and Count Basie. One of the bars in this area, owned by Joseph "JoJo" Cammisano, the brother of William, was forced to relocate. Joseph Cammisano sub-leased a warehouse in the River Quay area and divided it into four separate bars. Fred Bonadonna urged the owner of the property not to allow strippers on the premises and began a drive to oppose adult entertainment in the district.
Joseph Cammisano started a petition of his own. When Fred Bonadonna refused to sign it, a bitter argument ensued. Soon Bonadonna received a phone call from his father David, who was at the auto garage headquarters of the Cammisanos, imploring him to support the petition. Fred Bonadonna, with the help of City Councilman Robert Hernandez, was able to fight the effort of the Cammisanos to create a "combat zone" atmosphere similar to Boston’s adult entertainment section.
After threats were made against Fred Bonadonna, he proposed a plan to help out the Cammisanos. Bonadonna brought Hernandez to talk with William Cammisano. When Hernandez tried to defend Bonadonna’s actions, Cammisano became incensed and threatened to kill both men if the plans didn’t go through.
In the meantime, during 1974 and 1975 the Cammisanos were also pressuring Fred Bonadonna about the leases he had with the city for free parking in the River Quay area. During a River Quay tavern owner’s meeting, Joseph Cammisano stood up and threatened Bonadonna. Soon vandalism was reported in the lots and in March 1976 thugs broke into Bonadonna’s home and beat his teenage son with baseball bats. Later, Bonadonna was warned that unless he put a stop to Hernandez’s meddling that David Bonadonna would be killed.
In May 1976, Joseph Cammisano applied for a license for a new bar and was turned down through the efforts of Bonadonna and Hernandez. On July 22, 1976 David Bonadonna’s body was found in the trunk of his car. He had been shot five times in the head.
David Bonadonna’s death was followed by several other murders of Fred Bonadonna associates. In March 1977, Bonadonna was persuaded to enter the Witness Protection Program and was relocated. This did not end the violence as associates of Bonadonna battled back. The River Quay district turned into a real combat zone with bombs being placed by the rival groups.
William and Joseph Cammisano were indicted on June 16, 1978. Fred Bonadonna testified and both brothers received five-year prison sentences in 1979. The real losers were the businessmen who helped create the River Quay section. By 1980, the once thriving entertainment district had turned into a virtual ghost town and was described as an area of vacant, bombed out and burned out buildings.
Fred Harvey Bonadonna defied the mob and made a name for himself. However, Bonadonna paid a price for his heroism until the day he died.
In addition to the mob's murder of his father, Bonadonna had to uproot his family from their Kansas City home to enter the Witness Protection Program, relocating to Naples, Fla., in the late 1970s. In Florida Bonadonna and his wife Virginia purchased a restaurant, sold real estate, and operated a pawnshop. Their business ventures were unsuccessful and the couple was forced to live off the money Virginia made as a receptionist for a local law firm.
In April 1980 Bonadonna was called for the last time to appear before a U.S. Senate committee investigating organized crime. During his testimony Bonadonna stated, "I know why people aren't too concerned with the Mafia. They think that it is a story and that it could never happen to them. I never thought it could happen to me. It happened to me. It could happen to you."
During the mid-1980s Bonadonna left the Witness Protection Program because he wanted more freedom to visit his mother, who lived in California. He kept his whereabouts secret, according to reporter Mark Morris of The Kansas City Star, although he occasionally made himself available to select reporters to discuss the River Quay days.
In February 2001 Bonadonna's mother passed away. Bonadonna's handling of her estate drew criticism from other family members who responded by filing a civil suit against him. On April 8, 2002 Judge Thomas William Cain, of Santa Clara County, "issued an order that sided with" family members. The judge accused Bonadonna of "pretending" to still be in the protection program in order to help keep his mother isolated.
Responding to the "pretending" accusation, Gary Hart, chief of the FBI's organized crime squad in Kansas City during the 1970s, stated, "Fred and his family remained in constant danger from the time he began cooperating to the day of his death. The judge did not do his homework. Just because you're out of the program doesn't mean you're out of danger."
A distraught Bonadonna read the ruling Thursday morning April 11. He called David Helfrey, a former federal prosecutor from Kansas City – now a lawyer in St. Louis. Helfrey was out of town. His secretary wrote down Bonadonna's short message.
"Please help, I am going to die," he stated.
A sobbing Bonadonna then told his wife, who had remained loyal to him through all the years, "I've put you through so much. I can't do it anymore." A short time later Bonadonna – a husband, father and grandfather – ended his life with a bullet.
Las Vegas Skimming and the Strawman Cases
During mid-1978, FBI agents in Kansas City were investigating a local murder when one of their listening devices picked up a conversation between Carl "Cork" Civella and Carl "Tuffy" DeLuna in which they were discussing mob activities in Las Vegas. After widening the investigation, the agents intercepted conversations about other families that were attempting to buy into the Argent Corporation of which Allen Glick was president and sole stockholder.
In November 1978, agents bugged the home of a Civella relative and recorded a six-hour-long meeting that took place. Attending the meeting were Nick Civella, DeLuna, Joseph Vincent Agosto, and Carl Wesley Thomas. Chief among the topics of discussion were the skimming methods being used by Agosto and Thomas at the Tropicana.
Agosto worked at the Tropicana where he coordinated the skimming activities. Under the direction of Thomas, the casino’s manager and assistant manager removed the money from the playing area and handed it to Agosto. The skim money was then given to Carl Caruso who transported it to Kansas City. The money, normally in amounts of $40,000, was handed over to DeLuna or Charles D. Moretina. DeLuna and the Civella brothers would then split the money between themselves and members of the Chicago Family.
On Feb. 14, 1979, FBI agents executed a search warrant at the Kansas City International Airport and arrested a courier carrying $80,000 in skim money. The same day, agents searched the home of DeLuna and, due to his "meticulous" record keeping, hit the jackpot. William Roemer states in The Enforcer, that the records "turned out to be devastating evidence, implicating mobsters in several cities, connecting them to the skim. Their seizure played a key role in the two major trials that would result from the investigation."
The first Strawman case resulted in the indictments of the entire hierarchy of the Kansas City Family on Feb. 7, 1984. The RICO indictments included the family’s hidden interests in skimming from the Argent Corporation, the Tropicana casino, and the local bingo industry. Key testimony came from Joseph Agosto who became a government witness. On Sept. 4, 1984, Carl Civella was fined and sentenced to 10-to-30 years in prison and his son, Anthony Civella, received five years and was fined. Both DeLuna and Moretina received long sentences also.
The second Strawman case involved mostly the Chicago Family. Key information for that prosecution was also obtained in 1978 when Nick Civella called to set up a meeting at the home of his nephew, Anthony Chiavola, a Chicago police officer. The FBI intercepted the phone call and bugged the Chiavola home where the meeting was held. The four-hour-plus meeting revealed that Civella attempted to buy out the Chicago Family’s interests in the Stardust and the Fremont for $10 million dollars. The Chicago attendees rejected the bid feeling that the skim they would collect over the years would far exceed the offer.
During the second Strawman trial, former Cleveland Family acting boss, now government witness, Angelo Lonardo testified. On Jan. 21, 1986 in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Joseph Aiuppa, Jackie Cerone, Joseph Lombardo, and Angelo La Pietra, all of Chicago, were convicted along with Frank Balestrieri of Milwaukee.
Leadership after Nick Civella
In the wake of Nick Civella’s death, law enforcement officials believed Carl Civella took over the leadership of the family. Even before his brother died there was evidence to suggest that Carl Civella was running the day-to-day operations and serving as acting boss with the advice and support of Carl DeLuna. Carl Civella began accepting leadership duties when his younger brother was facingmounting legal and health problems in the mid-1970s.
Nicknamed "Cork," due to his violent temper, the newspapers claimed "he was easily the most visible and talkative of the mob figures who reigned during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s." He was once called "impulsive" by a FBI agent; this undoubtedly came from an incident in 1960 when, after leaving a courthouse and being surrounded by newspaper reporters and photographers, he unzipped his pants and exposed himself.
Civella’s first brush with the law came in 1929 when he was fined $500 for stealing tires. In 1934, police searched for him after the murder of a bank messenger who was robbed of $200,000. Even with a $10,000 reward being offered Civella evaded arrest for three years. However, after being captured and questioned by police, he was released. In 1939, he was convicted for possession of morphine and served one year in prison.
Setting up his headquarters in the City Market area, Civella described himself to reporters as a "peddler." He was arrested over the years for various gambling charges and was called before several grand juries to testify. In 1982, he tried to impress his girlfriend by muscling in on a Kansas City, Kan., strip joint. When he was rebuffed, he allegedly ordered two of his men to blow up the owner’s Lincoln automobile. Civella was later acquitted for lack of evidence.
Shortly after his conviction and 30-year sentence in the Strawman case, he and his son Anthony and two others were charged with operating a continuing criminal enterprise. Civella pled guilty and was sentenced to an additional 10 years.
Suffering from a variety of illnesses, Civella was treated at prison medical facilities in Minnesota and Texas. He was eventually confined to the low-security Fort Worth facility that housed long-term care inmates with chronic medical problems related to old age. Carl Civella died there on Oct. 2, 1994 of complications from pneumonia at the age of 84.
There is some confusion as to who assumed leadership of the Kansas City Family after the conviction of Carl Civella in 1983. His son Anthony was also sent to prison at the same time. Some insight into the situation was provided in July 1992. When one time Lucchese Family boss Alfonso D’Arco testified via written statement that he had met Anthony Civella when they were both imprisoned at the federal facility in Springfield, Mo., during 1984 and 1985. There he claims Paulie Vario, Sr., the Lucchese capo of the movie Goodfellas fame, introduced D’Arco to Civella, calling him the "boss" of the Kansas City Mafia.
D’Arco’s statement said a William Cammisano visited Civella at Springfield. Civella introduced Cammisano to D’Arco as a made member of the Kansas City Family. However, D’Arco’s statement did not identify which William Cammisano was introduced – senior or junior.
The statement also claimed that D’Arco was asked by Civella to mediate a dispute between the Kansas City and Pittsburgh Families over the proceeds of a rock concert. Civella’s attorney at the time, famed mob lawyer Oscar Goodman, who would be elected mayor of Las Vegas in 1999, called D’Arco a "punk." Goodman said D’Arco’s statement was unfair because Goodman wasn’t present and there was no way to refute D’Arco’s testimony.
William Cammisano, Sr. was as a four-time felon. By 1966 he had been arrested more than 100 times. FBI agents believed he operated a "semi-independent" arm of the Civella crime family. Of Cammisano’s long criminal career, The Kansas City Star reported, "he stared down a U. S. Senate committee, threatened the life of a Kansas City councilman and helped kill off an entire business district (River Quay). Although authorities accused or suspected him of taking part in several killings, he was never formally charged with any of them."
As early as 1929, Cammisano had been labeled an incorrigible juvenile. His rap sheet included arrests for carrying a concealed weapon, bootlegging, pistol whipping a robbery victim, running a still, being AWOL from the Army, disturbing the peace, and gambling. It was said that he had stolen everything from the wheels off a truck to the rings off a woman’s fingers. Cammisano once served a felony sentence at a prison in El Reno, Okla. In the 1940s, he opened a tavern and called it the El Reno Bar, stating that had been the name of his favorite prison.
Like many of Kansas City’s organized crime figures, Cammisano and his brother, Joseph, worked as gunmen for Charles Binaggio. During that time the brothers muscled their way into a lucrative policy wheel operation. Later, in the 1960s, the Cammisano brothers operated a tavern that catered to gambling and prostitution in the downtown area of the city. In the 1970s, they moved the establishment into the aforementioned River Quay business district.
In 1978, Cammisano pled guilty to federal charges of extortion. He was sentenced to five years in prison. When he refused to testify before a U.S. Senate committee in 1980, he was sentenced for contempt and given an additional two years. In 1983, he was just being released from prison as Carl Civella and his son Anthony were going in. The FBI believed that Cammisano became the acting boss at this time and that his son, William "Little Willie" Cammisano, Jr., ran the day-to-day operations.
This arrangement didn’t last long as Cammisano, Jr. was arrested and convicted of beating his girlfriend, who at the time was a federal witness in a murder investigation. Before he went to prison in 1989, Anthony Civella had already been released and was taking back control of the crime family’s operations.
With Anthony Civella back in the picture, the senior Cammisano’s influence, as well as his health, deteriorated. On Jan. 26, 1995, William Cammisano, Sr. died from lung disease.
By 1983, law enforcement officials believed that Anthony Civella was being groomed for the day-to-day leadership of the family in the belief that his father, Carl, as well as Carl DeLuna would soon be going to prison to serve long sentences for the Strawman convictions. Authorities claimed that as early as 1977 Anthony Civella was controlling a portion of the gambling enterprise for his uncle, Nick Civella.
Also being looked at for a leadership position was James Duardi, another Kansas City mob associate who had a reputation as an enforcer. In 1983, sources were quoted in The Kansas City Star as stating that Duardi had, "significant ambitions for leadership and support among the rank and file ‘soldiers’ of the family."
One source stated, "They’re grooming him to be not the boss but giving him more things to ensure his loyalty. If those guys (Carl Civella or DeLuna) would go in (prison) it could be that a guy like Duardi could be a caretaker for a while…" Duardi, who at the time was 61, was convicted in 1972 of attempting to set up prostitution and gambling operations in Grove, Okla.
Law enforcement people were concerned about a power struggle in the Kansas City underworld due to the likelihood that the entire leadership of the family was heading to prison. Their concerns were realized on Jan. 9, 1984 when Carl Spero, a Civella Family rival, was murdered after a bomb exploded in his used car lot. The following month, Anthony "Tiger" Cardarella, a Civella associate, was found in the trunk of his car. Cardarella, a record storeowner, had been sentenced to prison in 1961 for obstruction of justice after the murder of a prosecution witness during a drug case. In 1977 he was convicted and sentenced to five years for receiving stolen goods.
Anthony Civella’s first conviction was in 1964 when he was found guilty of driving an automobile without the owner’s consent. In 1974, he was found guilty of conspiring to run an interstate gambling operation. He pled guilty in 1983 to sports bookmaking and running a continuing criminal enterprise. At the same time he also signed a statement prepared by the government admitting that he was involved in a Las Vegas skimming operation, stealing money from local charity bingo games, and setting up companies to act as fronts to hide his hidden ownership.
Civella was released from prison in January 1988 and resumed his leadership of the Kansas City Family. He avoided legal troubles until the early 1990s. In December 1991, Civella was convicted by a federal jury on eight counts of fraud involving the resale of prescription drugs. Civella and two others purchased over $1 million dollars worth of pharmaceuticals at low prices after they claimed the drugs were to be used in nursing homes. The drugs were then resold to West Coast wholesalers at higher prices. Two co-conspirators, Louie Ferro, Jr. and Wilbur Swift, became government witnesses and testified against Civella and two others. In July 1999, Ferro, Swift and two others were charged with operating a similar scheme.
On July 14, 1992, Civella was sentenced to four-and-one-half years in prison for his part in the fraud and fined $7,500. At the time of his sentencing, the FBI believed that Civella had already appointed Johnny Joe Sciortino as acting boss. The Kansas City mob was still a tight knit family operation. Civella, who was married to Carl DeLuna’s sister, was the godfather of Sciortino, a felon and longtime mob associate.
In June 1996, Anthony Civella was released from a federal prison in Texas and it was believed that he resumed his leadership role in the family. He immediately began proceedings to appeal his recent entry into the Missouri Gaming Commission’s Black Book, which prevented his involvement and presence in the state’s recently allowed riverboat gambling casinos. At the same time, Civella was about to be included in Nevada’s more famous Black Book.
Just before Civella went to prison in 1992, authorities were concerned about the release of William Cammisano, Jr. in June of that year and what affect it would have on the leadership picture. Complicating the situation was the fact that one of Civella’s top lieutenants, Peter J. Simone, had been sentenced in April 1992 to more than four years in prison after he pled guilty to laundering money from a video poker operation.
In May 1997, Simone’s name drew media attention again after a Nevada State Gaming Control Board investigation tied the late Ted Binion in with Peter Joseph Ribaste. In 1989, Ribaste was sentenced to six months in prison for mail fraud. He then moved to Las Vegas where he allegedly looked out for the Kansas City Family’s interests. During the investigation it was reported that Ribaste was "influenced" by Peter Simone. A December 1999 Kansas City Star article stated that Ribaste was a "one-time Kansas City mob boss."
Simone was released from prison in 1996 and was placed on three years probation. At 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 2, 1999, just two months before his probation ended, Simone was found playing craps at Harrah’s North Kansas City Casino & Hotel. A judge ordered him to spend one day in jail and extended his probation an additional twelve months, four of which were to be spent in electronically monitored home detention. In this newspaper article The Kansas City Star referred to Simone as the "reputed Kansas City crime boss."
In an August 1999 article in The Kansas City Star, columnist Mike Hendricks stated, "A lot of folks once did what the mob wanted in Kansas City, but no more, or at least we’d like to think that part of our history is over. I’d almost forgotten about the mob in Kansas City. Consider that progress."
Editor's Note: This work could not have been completed without the valuable research assistance provided by Jude A. Knudson. For more information about the Mafia's involvement in River Quay, see J. J. Maloney's article on this same web site.
Allan May’s e-mail address is: AllanMay@worldnet.att.net