River Quay: How a Courageous Newspaper, and an Ex-convict Reporter, took on the Kansas City Mafia, and Won

Oct 10, 2009 - by J. J. Maloney - 0 Comments

The City Market Kansas City, Missouri

The City Market Kansas City, Missouri

A first-hand investigative report of the Kansas City Mafia's attempt to take over a major Kansas City entertainment area in the mid-1970s -- an effort that included bombings, extortion, and a large number of murders.

by J.J. Maloney

Every city dreams of greatness. To achieve an identity it constructs symbols (the Eiffel Tower, the St. Louis Arch), or, like New Orleans, has an area, such as the French Quarter, that assumes an identity of its own.

Traditionally Kansas City has been known as a cowtown. It was famous for its stockyards, and the biggest annual event still is the American Royal, during which journalists shake cow patties from their shoes. Kansas Citians are sensitive about that image, feeling it gives them a "hick" reputation.

They point with pride to the Country Club Plaza or Westport, but neither has ever achieved a national reputation. They promote Kansas City as the birthplace of jazz, a claim other cities dispute. They go so far as to call Kansas City the home of great barbecue; local politicians devote great amounts of space to that subject. Such is the desperation for an identity.

It is in this context that River Quay must be seen. River Quay was a light industrial area at the north edge of the city. In the early 1970s a movement began to convert River Quay into a "family entertainment area" filled with rustic restaurants, shops, nightclubs and artists—-a miniature Greenwich Village.

By the mid-’70s River Quay was a lovely place to go--replete with sidewalk cafes, dim discos with battered furnishings and bare-brick walls, picturesque restaurants, small shops and crowds that could aptly be described as "an ocean of people," particularly during the frequent street festivals.

The best-developed area was Delaware Street, the heart of River Quay. Most of Delaware Street belonged to Marion Trozzolo, the visionary who had developed the bulk of River Quay.

By 1975 it was so successful that parking was at a premium. If you got there late on a weekend you might have to park a half-mile away. However, the City Market was adjacent, and you could often park on the market's huge lot. So I was surprised one night to pull into the city-owned parking lot and be told I would have to pay two dollars, redeemable in drinks at Poor Freddy's, a restaurant owned by Freddy Bonadonna.

The next day I told Tom Eblen, managing editor of The Kansas City Star, that I'd like to know why I had to give Fred Bonadonna $2 to park on city property.

I learned that Bonadonna had leased the parking lot from the city, and the lease appeared to be legal. I also learned that Bonadonna's father, David Bonadonna, Sr., was a mob soldier. Also, that Carl Spero, a young mob guy recently released from prison, had an office in a building owned by Fred Bonadonna; that Joe Cammisano had opened a bar in River Quay; that John "Johnny Green" Amaro, another mob guy, was reportedly taking over a restaurant on Delaware Street; and that four other men known to associate closely with mobsters were running nightclubs in River Quay.

I gave Eblen a lengthy office note on what I'd learned, and asked to be detached from the city desk to look into the Mafia's apparent infiltration of River Quay.

The city desk assigned Harry Jones to work with me. Any negative story about River Quay was guaranteed to generate criticism from many quarters in the city. The city itself was promoting River Quay nationally, and hundreds of people had invested their money and dreams in River Quay businesses.

Assigning Harry to work with me was an effort to mitigate such criticism if a negative story resulted. Harry was a legend at the newspaper; author of The Minutemen, a book about right-wing radicals, he was the epitome of integrity, and he had covered the mob for the paper.  I, on the other hand, was an ex-con, released from prison only three years earlier, after serving 13 years on four life sentences for murder and armed robbery.

We worked on the story through September 1975. We went from door to door, talking to every person in River Quay who might know anything. We went to liquor control and pulled the file on every joint in River Quay. We talked to city and federal officials, and we both combed through our private contacts.

We came away with a long list of names of people connected to the mob in some way, who were also directly or indirectly involved in River Quay--brothers, sons, wives, etc. John Amaro hadn't actually taken over his restaurant yet, so Joe Cammisano--brother of William (Willie The Rat) Cammisano--was the sole "known" Mafia member owning a River Quay business in his own name.

The director of liquor control had denied a liquor license to Cammisano, but had been overruled by the mayor's politically appointed Liquor Control Review Board. However, the denial wasn't based on the fact that Joe Cammisano was a convicted felon (state law bars felons from having liquor licenses), or the fact that he was a person of ill-repute (state law requires "good character"). The denial was generic, based on the theory that there were already too many liquor licenses in River Quay, and more would be harmful to the area.

The city officials, as had their predecessors, were reluctant to raise the issue of "organized crime." In the mid-'70s not even The Star dared use the word "Mafia."

For many years Kansas City police chiefs had downplayed the Mafia. Some had denied its existence. Nick Civella, head of the local Mafia, had once challenged The Star to prove that such an organization existed. Yet this was the town of Tom Pendergast--one of the most powerful mob/machine bosses in U.S. history.

By the 1970s Pendergast was long gone, but his machine was anchored in place. The mob continued to influence the police department, city hall, the county courthouse and the state legislature.

The mob controlled Roy Lee Williams, then a vice president, and later president, of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Through Williams, Nick Civella wielded influence over who could, or could not, borrow money from the Teamsters; and Las Vegas, Nevada, had been built with Teamster money.

With skim money from Las Vegas casinos and local mob revenues, the Kansas City Mafia wielded considerable economic clout. It controlled several banks, owned 10 percent or more of the taverns and nightclubs in the city, controlled the vending machine business--particularly with respect as to who could put vending machines in bars. (Back then, a single video-poker machine made $200 a week if it didn't pay off, and $600 or more a week if it did; virtually all of this money was skimmed off.) There are many people beholden to the mob in Kansas City, and many of them scream foul at the mention of the word "Mafia."

City officials pussyfooted around the issue of the Mafia's involvement in River Quay. A lot of people told us the mob was taking over River Quay--but not one person would say, "and you can quote me."

The story we came away with was exquisitely frustrating. We both knew the mob was in River Quay, but we couldn't prove it, particularly if someone took the newspaper to court, since we would first have to prove the Mafia existed; and there were people who doubted we could do that.

There were some battles in the newsroom over how to handle the story. It was ultimately decided we would not refer to the mob, but would concentrate on the irregularities in the licensing of bars, the fact that there were too many bars, etc.

Our only hope to get the story we really wanted lay in a supposedly soon-to-be-published report by the Kansas City Crime Commission. We'd been told the report would include an updated version of a previous list of mob members and associates, and that a number of River Quay personalities would be included in the list.

Months went by, and no report. I was told that such a list might never be published, since the private citizens making up the commission might not want to spend the rest of their lives in court trying to prove the existence of a local Mafia family, and then proving the membership of specified individuals in that organization.

It appeared The Star's investigation of River Quay had fizzled out.

By happy circumstance I learned that some liquor control agents were shaking down bar owners, taking freebies, and that the night supervisor in the liquor control office openly boasted of his friendship with high-ranking mobsters. What followed was a series of articles that led inexorably back to River Quay--since the mob guys met every night at a River Quay restaurant, and the wife of the night supervisor worked in Joe Cammisano's River Quay night spot. (During an interview with this supervisor, I told him I'd heard that on one occasion, when a night club was being renovated, he'd told the bar owner to have two sofas delivered to his house. "That's a damn lie," the supervisor said heatedly. "It was two love seats.")

The city auditor's office embarked on a sham investigation of liquor control, behind closed doors.

Later an assistant city auditor in charge of monitoring Sunday liquor licenses was convicted of involvement in a Mafia gambling operation.

A former Kansas City Times reporter called me to the Muehlebach Hotel and told me that some liquor agents were going to set me up on a drug bust. (The ex-reporter was then working as an organizer for the bartender's union.) He said they'd enlisted the aid of a waitress at a 12th Street bar I frequented (Mafia owned), and she was going to ask me to drive her home. Her boyfriend, a policeman, was going to pull me over and find a bag of grass on the floor of my car. At the time I was still on parole from a life sentence, so a bust would have meant my going back to prison. I called the night supervisor of liquor control, met him at another Mafia-connected bar near my home, and talked to him about it. He said, "You can't blame those guys (agents). They think you're following them around town, trying to get them fired."

After that I limited my watering holes to places owned by people I knew well. Then a relative of Joe Cammisano's called and said they had a state representative working to have my parole revoked. (I taped the conversation; when they learned I had taped it, there were no more conversations like it.)

Roger Moore, The Star's city hall reporter, informed me that The Star's city hall offices had apparently been entered late one night and that two files were missing--one on the night supervisor at liquor control, and one on an assistant city prosecutor closely associated with the night supervisor.

During that period, I was dating Christine Poggi, an Italian-American state parole officer. (We later married, and she became a police officer.) I frequently took her with me when I went anywhere there would be danger of the mob setting me up. I was far more worried about being framed than being shot.

In July 1976, David Bonadonna, Sr., was shot to death and stuffed in the trunk of his car.

The lid blew off the River Quay.

We soon learned that the FBI had searched Willie Cammisano's garage seeking evidence of the murder, and that the agency would file a search-warrant return naming Willie Cammisano as the probable killer of Bonadonna. The document would quote informants as saying the murder was directly linked to mob activity in River Quay.

We published a major story during the 1976 Republican National Convention, which made news across the country. A few days later Fred Bonadonna called to say his family wanted to rebut our story.

When Bonadonna arrived at The Star office with his brother, they were accompanied by two sons of Willie Cammisano. Two editors sat in on the interview, which was tape recorded, and it ran verbatim the next day. During the interview, Fred Bonadonna made a big show of saying he'd never met or talked to me before--when, in fact, he'd been one of my informants during the liquor control investigation.

The next day I called Bonadonna and asked him if he'd read the story, and if it had helped him any.

He said, "You've saved my life. For the time being anyway."

This, as were all later conversations, was tape recorded. Bonadonna said he was ashamed of himself for giving in to family pressure to defend Willie Cammisano. He said that what we'd printed in the first story was true, but that we had only part of the story. Over a period of months I called him every other day. He told me there was a contract on his life, who had the contract, why Willie Cammisano had killed his father (Willie wanted the city-owned parking lot, since it had become so lucrative). He told me how he, Bonadonna, had gone to Willie Cammisano with a city councilman (Robert Hernandez), and how Willie had threatened mayhem in front of the councilman.

These conversations were considered so sensitive that only two editors at The Star knew about them: Tom Eblen and Mike Fancher (now executive editor, The Seattle Times). I'd chosen them because I felt sure they would go to jail before they'd compromise my source.

The River Quay story seemed to take on a life of its own. In addition to the feud between the Mafia and Bonadonna, there was a war brewing between the Mafia and the Spero faction (consisting of Carl Spero, Mike Spero and Joe Spero, who were bitter about the murder of a fourth brother, Nick, several years earlier).

I was subpoenaed to appear before the Jackson County grand jury. The Star's lawyers were told that I would be asked to reveal my law enforcement sources since the information in some of my stories was so sensitive that someone was "obviously" breaking the law in talking to me. I refused to answer the questions on the grounds of the First Amendment--and that the prosecutor's office was so deeply infiltrated by organized crime that Nick Civella would know what I had said before I could get back to my desk at The Star. The prosecutor's office decided not to pursue the matter.

We published story after story, some of them naming people who had mob contracts on them. (Carl Spero and Gary Parker didn't believe us, and today they are both dead.) Three River Quay nightclubs were destroyed by bombs and fire, and the list of murder victims rapidly grew.

The issue in River Quay was larger than the mere fact that Mafia members and their friends were moving in. The underlying concept of River Quay was "family entertainment." There was hardly a place in River Quay that you couldn't take your mother. But the Mafia has no soul.

For decades there had been a block of sleazy strip joints on 12th Street, frequented mostly by out-of-towners looking for action, hoodlums, and a smattering of off-duty cops and liquor agents. The drinks were weak, the prices high and the strippers tired.

It became known that the city intended to raze the entire block (now occupied by the Allis Plaza Hotel), and those bar owners looked around for a place to relocate. Since River Quay was booming and had crowds, they decided to transplant their operations there. Concurrently, there was talk of turning River Quay into a "combat zone," where X-rated book stores and theaters would be allowed; there was even some serious talk of running all the prostitutes off their normal corners and concentrating them in River Quay.

We began to hear of people being beaten up in Mafia bars and being thrown into the street, of musicians who had to perform in certain bars, or who could not perform in competing bars because the mob said so.

Throughout this period The Star's coverage was relentless. On one occasion Joe Cammisano called me and said, "Mr. Maloney, I realize you have a job to do, but do you have to be so intense?" The mob concentrated its hatred on me, but in fact, there were other reporters involved. Harry Jones co-authored a number of stories with me, as did Bill Norton and Joe Henderson.

In fact, it was Henderson who ended the career of a local television anchorman. During the height of our coverage, the mob decided to talk to television, to try to counter our coverage. Carl "Cork" Civella, second only to his brother Nick in the mob, gave a lengthy interview to a local station, which ran the interview as a series over five days. The questions thrown at Civella were soft, the attitude of the newsman deferential.

A few months later Henderson uncovered a letter written by this newsman to a federal judge, asking leniency for a mob-connected defendant in a federal case (a sting operation). The anchorman quickly resigned.

I had repeated offers from the Cammisanos to come to River Quay and meet with them, on the condition I not tape record what was being said. Tom Eblen ordered me not to meet with them anywhere but at The Star itself, and I was further ordered never to go to River Quay alone.

While working on River Quay I developed a major source, who gave The Star information on the Kansas City Mafia's efforts to promote a national scheme to provide legal services to union members, primarily the Teamsters. The editors approved a labor racketeering investigation by Mike McGraw, Dick Johnson and myself.

We traveled from coast to coast over a period of months, looking into bartenders', laborers' and teamsters' unions. In addition to the Legal Defense Fund, we covered the mob/union involvement in Las Vegas, the ransacking of pension funds, the corruption of law enforcement (including the distressing tendency of IRS investigators and attorneys to go to work for mob-related interests).

Locally, the key matter we developed was the relationship between Joseph Agosto, then entertainment director of the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas, and the Kansas City Mafia. We had to break our Agosto stories early, and separate from the labor-racketeering series, when it developed that we were in competition with The Wall Street Journal, which was pursuing the same story.

Outside of a few Organized Crime Strike Force people, no one locally had heard Agosto's name before. We tied him to the Legal Defense Fund and, through confidential federal documents, to other mob efforts in New Jersey, Seattle and Southern California (in addition to Las Vegas).

The man no one had ever heard of eventually became the government's key informant when it dismantled the Kansas City mob in the early 1980s.

In 1977 Fred Bonadonna entered the government's Witness Protection Program. (After his father's murder, Bonadonna became a key government witness against the mob. For his own protection, the FBI put him in the Witness Protection Program. Bonadonna, in 2002 at age 63, took his own life, apparently despondent over a dispute with his siblings involving the disposition of his mother's estate. After his death, Bill Ouseley, the FBI agent who led a federal investigation into infiltration of River Quay, was quoted in The Kansas City Star as saying, "His contribution was enormous, besides making major cases for us. The River Quay was a city pride kind of thing. This was an enormously high-profile case. It opened people's eyes to (the idea that) there was a Mafia in this town." The Star said that "Information from Bonadonna allowed the FBI to obtain wiretaps that led to cases which proved mob influence over the Teamsters union and skimming from Las Vegas casinos.") That same year the Spero brothers were ambushed at The Virginian Tavern. Mike, an organizer for the Teamsters, was killed, Carl was paralyzed and Joe Spero was wounded. Later, Joe blew himself up while making a bomb, and Carl was killed by a car bomb.

River Quay also died. In 1978, shortly after I left The Star, one of the networks called and asked me to show one of its crews around while it did a segment on River Quay. When we went to River Quay, the streets were empty. They prepared to film inside one of the go-go clubs, but not even the dancers showed up for work.

Of the 26 liquor licenses operating in River Quay at its height, fewer than six remained by 1978. Liquor Control was restructured; none of the agents I investigated is still there.

The federal government had gotten involved. Willie Cammisano and his brother Joe were both convicted of extortion in River Quay. Willie went to prison, Joe died of a heart attack. Just as our investigation had broadened, so had the government's.

The investigation eventually encompassed skimming of Las Vegas casinos, and involved crime figures in a number of other cities. Joe Agosto talked. As a result, Nick Civella and Carl Civella were both convicted, along with most of their lieutenants. One state representative, Alex Fazzino, who'd taken the Fifth Amendment when called before a federal grand jury investigating extortion in River Quay, recently went to federal prison for an unrelated extortion. Before he went, hundreds of well-wishers gave him a going-away party.

The Mafia is far from dead in Kansas City. It's like any major corporation-—the departing officers put a new board of directors in place before they go. Many Kansas City Italians have been honored by the Italian community-—but three local Italians have never been honored. In fact, they were vilified and hated far more than I was. These men were: Michael DeFeo, head of the Organized Crime Strike Force; William Ousley, head of the FBI's Organized Crime Section; and Leoni Flossi, a key FBI agent. Mafia bosses throughout the Midwest have gone to prison because of their efforts.

There are some who say The Star killed River Quay. Some people blame me. When Joe Cammisano and John Amaro closed their restaurant, Il Pagliacci, they nailed a sign to the door that read: "Closed due to harassment from the Kansas City Star and J.J. Maloney."

I prefer to believe the Mafia killed River Quay. Or maybe apathy did it. If the people of Kansas City hadn't been so tolerant of their presence, City Hall would have been less reluctant to take on the mob.

My novel I Speak for the Dead was not intended to be the gospel of River Quay, though obviously it was based on that period.

I did want to give the average reader some feel for the conflicting dynamics of a newsroom, as well as the difficulty of investigating people like Mafia members, who have no open meetings and lie to everyone. They need to know that a newsroom is not one mind—-there are differences of opinion, likes and dislikes, biases. Every man and woman in a newsroom has human failings. Editors at The Star were reviled in private by some, yet stood resolutely together against the Mafia. The city of Kansas City owes a debt of gratitude to Kansas City Star editors like Cruise Palmer (then executive editor), Tom Eblen (then managing editor) and Mike Fancher (then city editor).

I think The Star came very near to greatness during River Quay—-but it was a result of a lot of individuals -- editors and reporters -- working together. It was the most difficult kind of story a newspaper can undertake—-quoting innumerable unidentified sources, on a subject guaranteed to generate hostility from many quarters of the community.

Ultimately, through FBI wiretapping, we were vindicated. But we didn't know at the time that we would ever be vindicated. We were out there on the limb, and we knew it.

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