If you think nothing happened here in the 1950s, consider this. “Willie the Rat" Cammisano from Kansas City settled in Kensington on Lymer Drive. Momo Adamo from Los Angeles by way of Kansas City and Chicago and Sicily, also settled in Kensington — and came to a bad end there, with a .32-caliber pistol. Los Angeles La Cosa Nostra head Jack Dragna for a time gave his address as 4757 Kensington Drive. Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno, who later admitted to participating in five murders and helping to plan six more, setup housekeeping for a while on Dove Street.
Fratianno, during the late 1970s, while in the Witness Protection Program, reputedly told all to Ovid Demaris. (He did a lot of that telling in San Diego’s downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center. While incarcerated there, he sent FBI agents to India Street to bring back Italian cold cuts, cheeses, and breads.) Demaris then took what Fratianno told him and put it into The Last Mafioso, published in 1981 and a bestseller during that year. The Last Mafioso was fraught with theretofore unrecorded details about San Diego and San Diegans. Shortly after its publication, at least one San Diegan mentioned in the book moved from the home where he’d lived for two decades and never was heard from again by neighbors. Think about it.
Fratianno, born near Naples, Italy, in 1913, came to the United States with his mother when he was four months old. He grew up in Cleveland, where, before he sprouted his first beard hairs, he was a card shark who earned movie money by cheating in card games. He got to know Cleveland racketeers and soon found himself doing seven years (1938-45) for armed robbery in the Ohio State Penitentiary. He came to California and set up as a bookmaker at the Chase Hotel in Santa Monica. He connected with the locals — Jack Dragna and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s then-sidekick, Mickey Cohen. Dragna took Fratianno into the “family” in 1947, a scene that opens The Last Mafioso. The scene takes place in a winery basement. Jack Dragna mutters incantations in Sicilian. The scene is (A) funny, (B) likely to have been manufactured by Fratianno. After Fratianno in 1978 entered Witness Protection, many writers and many more lawmen interviewed him. Of these interviewers with whom I talked, about half think Fratianno didn’t lie all that much and the other half think he lied a lot. My belief is that, at best, Fratianno colorized his crime career. Everyone, believers and nonbelievers, however, seems agreed that Fratianno was no dunce, that he killed quite a few people, and that when he arrived in Los Angeles, Dago Louie introduced him to Jack Dragna and Jack Dragna took Fratianno under his wing.
William R. (“Billy Dick”) Unland went on the Los Angeles police force in 1947, after he got out of the navy. In October 1949, Unland transferred into the Gang Squad and then in 1950 into Intelligence, where he stayed until he retired in 1972. “Watching Italians and Sicilians,” he said in a recent interview, “that was sort of my specialty.” Unland recalled that in the early 1950s, “We sat on Fratianno when he was booking in a house in Westchester. We put a wire on him. He was just taking his bets and stuff like that, a bookmaking operation. He had guys on the street, bookin’ and collecting for bookmakers, getting a piece of their action.”
Fratianno was first seen around San Diego at the track in Del Mar. A retired San Diegan who worked all his life in law enforcement recalled, “Fratianno, Mickey Cohen, all of these guys would come to the racetrack in Del Mar. Summertime, that was a gathering place for hoods. Six days a week I was up there. We’d see every gambler and hood that was floating around, we’d see the Dragnas, guys from L.A. Four of us would work the track and all the hotels. In those days, the early ’50s, hotels had to turn the register over to a police officer anytime he asked; it was a provision of the hotels’ licenses. What we’d do is we’d start in Del Mar and go all the way to Carlsbad. We did this daily. We’d get license numbers of cars, find out whom the car belonged to. Also, we had our informants in the hotels and in the bars and restaurants and at the racetrack. We were also tied in with newspaper reporters, turf writers; they knew who the gamblers were, who was doing what to whom, they would tip us and we would tip them. So we kept our eye on quite a few hoods that way."
In 1951, Fratianno for a time stayed in San Diego with Carlo Licata, Nick Licata’s son, in Nate Rosenberg’s house at 2930 Dove Street. (Nick Licata was a “connected” guy from Detroit whom Dragna brought into the L.A. family.) Rosenberg (1913-1970) was described by San Diego law enforcement as “San Diego’s Mickey Cohen” for his interests in gambling and bookmaking. Rosenberg, by training a jeweler, also for a time was manager of local fighter Archie Moore.
Rosenberg managed the Navy Club, a 12-room suite on the second floor of 919 Fourth Avenue. Under a wood-and-cane-fiber ceiling, there were bars, leather-upholstered chairs and sofas, shuffleboard tables, and jukeboxes. In 1951 Carlo Licata was operating the club, which had an estimated 500 members drawn from navy, marine, and coast guard active and retired personnel. It was a known site for gambling.
The California Assembly rackets subcommittee’s final report. Organized Crime in California, concluded, about the Licatas’ role at the Navy Club, that “Nick Licata had muscled in for a percentage of the Navy Club. Carlo Licata, his son, was employed as cashier of the club, reportedly to assure that his father received his due share of the club revenues.”
When the Navy Club burned in 1952, police suspected Rosenberg, perhaps with the help of Licata and Fratianno, had started the fire. Rosenberg was charged with arson, went to trial, and was acquitted.
A retired local policeman recalled the Navy Club. “I went in there one time when it was in its full glory, at four in the morning. I was all decked out in my best bib and tucker and my shiny badge and my weapon on my hip; I was a full-fledged, honest-to-God policeman. The guard at the door opened up and said, ‘Come on in, officer.’ I looked around and the place was full of men, playing a game using seven decks. I couldn’t figure out what the hell they were doing. But no one even looked up from the tables. They weren’t worried at all about me.” The retiree laughed, “It dawned on me, ‘The fix must be on here.’"
This same policeman was the first law officer to go into the Navy Club the night it burned down. “We were cruising around and saw smoke coming out of the windows. I went up there and thought maybe I could steal a bottle of booze. There was a fire behind the bar and a fire across the room and a fire down the hall. Jesus, they had torched that place so bad! The bar was ablaze by the time I got up there. The place was completely empty.”
The San Diego Union wrote, about the fire, “For a while it was feared the flames would jump to the Granger Building at Fifth Avenue and Broadway, to the Security Trust and Savings Bank Building at Fifth Avenue and E Street and to the adjacent building fronting at Fourth and Broadway.”
The Union listed establishments below the Navy Club that suffered water damage: Green’s cafe, northeast comer of Fourth Avenue and E Street; Koffee Kup Cafe, 907 Fourth Ave.; Fer-Ran-Telli Shoe Shop, 909 Fourth Ave.; Dells Jewelers, 915 Fourth Ave.; Roundup Barber Shop, 925 Fourth Ave.; and a billiard and card room in the basement. The Iowa Hotel; Beck’s Keystone Clothiers; and Arey-Jones, stationers, also below on the Fourth Avenue side, apparently escaped damage. On the E Street side, the following places suffered water damage: Lewis Card Room, 414 E St.; A.G. Fruit Stand, 418 E St.; and the Emerald Cafe, 420 E St.
The retiree said, “We went to trial. Judge Daney presided [Municipal Judge Eugene Daney Jr.]. They charged Nate with arson and got absolutely nowhere. Nate’s lawyer got me up on the stand, I was quite early, the second or third witness. That lawyer spent maybe half an hour trying to get my hand on the doorknob on the door that led into the room where they did their gambling. I kept saying, ‘I don’t remember,’ because I didn’t. I didn’t remember how I got through that door.
“Of course the catch Nate’s lawyer was trying to get me in was that there wasn’t any doorknob, and he was trying to get me to say there was. It was a door that ordinarily had a guard by it and it had a plate on it that you could push. But there was no doorknob. So Nate’s lawyer finally gave up because he knew I wasn’t going to say something I didn’t know.”
Everything went badly in court for the prosecutors. “Essentially, we were shut down,” the retiree said, “after the first day.”
During the October 1958 hearings conducted by the California Assembly Judiciary Committee’s rackets subcommittee in the Hotel San Diego Continental Room, Paul G. Walk, then a retired police sergeant from the SDPD and a Sears, Roebuck security officer, testified to finding marked cards on the Navy Club premises during the arson investigation. Walk identified four decks of cards shown him by the committee as being the decks he had found. He stated that the edges of certain cards had been sanded, enabling a card manipulator “to locate definite cards at will in dealing.” He further testified to having found 147 unused Internal Revenue stamps of the kind usually affixed to boxes of new playing cards. There was another group of stamps that, Walk said, appeared to have been used on decks but which had been removed intact. This, he explained, would permit the deck to be altered and a new stamp to be attached, thus giving the deck the appearance of having never been used.
When the subcommittee called Nate Rosenberg to testify, he refused to answer almost all questions. A complaint was filed, charging Rosenberg with criminal contempt of the committee, and Rosenberg countersued, charging the committee’s chairman with assault and battery for attempting to remove papers from Rosenberg’s pocket. The latter suit ended in a mistrial, and in the former, Rosenberg won acquittal.
Bart Sheela worked in the D.A.’s office from 1951 to 1955. Sheela recalled a case he tried that involved Fratianno. In a recent interview, Sheela said, “What happened was that about five o’clock in the morning, on a Monday, someone came in and robbed the safe at the Club Royal. A.J. Kahn owned the Club Royal and another bar on the plaza called Bradley’s Five and Dime Bar. The perpetrators put a gun on the Club Royal janitor, a fellow — black — named Percy; they tied him up and then supposedly went into the office and punched the safe. They got all this money out of the safe.
“There was a big dispute between the two safe men in the P.D., Clarence Meyer and Benny Birch. One of them said that the safe was not really punched, it had been opened with a day lock and then made to appear it was punched.”
Kahn’s insurance man went to the Club Royal later that morning. “While the insurance man was there,” Sheela recalled, “a guy came in and he didn’t look like San Diego. He had on a dark overcoat and a hat. A.J. was screaming at the guy, saying something to the effect that, ‘I squared this away, this wasn’t supposed to happen to me.’
“Later, the insurance man picked out a picture of a man named Charles Battaglia, from Los Angeles, who was kind of a muscle-enforcer. When I talked to A.J. about it, he said the guy in the dark overcoat was Nick Avenetti, a local hard guy.
“The police finally picked this guy up, a guy named Joseph Michael Shaheen who lived in Ohio. They got him on information [an informer]. Supposedly, the guy that gave me information was later killed. His name was Stanley Sagunda. That’s what I was told. They never did find Sagunda’s body. [According to Fratianno’s stories to Demaris as printed in The Last Mafioso, Frank Bompensiero, in 1959, when both Fratianno and Bompensiero were imprisoned in San Quentin, told Fratianno that he’d killed Sagunda. “Soon the conversation turned to Red Sagunda, a Cleveland thug who had moved to San Diego. ‘Remember that sonovabitch?’ Bompensiero asked..., ‘Me and Biaggio (Bonventre) clipped the bastard and buried him while I was awaiting trial.’ ”] This would have been in 1955.
“They [SDPD) sent two officers back to Ohio. They arrested Shaheen. I had a hell of a time getting a bind over for Shaheen on the robbery. When I was griping about it to an officer who was on the vice squad then, he said that the officers who went back to Ohio to pick up Shaheen were told by Shaheen, That dinge will never ID me.’ That was kind of critical, because there was nothing to identify the janitor as a black man unless you’d seen him.”
Mr. Sheela said that one of the San Diego policemen told him that he had spotted Jimmy Fratianno and Shaheen about three weeks before the robbery, sitting together at the Club Royal. “Of course,” said Sheela, “Shaheen denied he’d ever been to San Diego.
“But I got a conviction. Tommy Whelan, who used to be the D.A. before James Don Keller, represented Shaheen. How I ever got a conviction, I don’t know. I sent Shaheen up on a little bitch, 12 to life, because he had a couple of prior felonies. If you had two, it was a little bitch; if you had three it was a big bitch.
“Some time later, Shaheen called me and asked me to come up to Folsom. I think I was still in the D.A.’s office or I was just getting ready to leave. I went up to Folsom to see him and he told me that there was $100,000 in cash in that safe and that A. J. said there was only $8000 because of the IRS. There was also a note, a marker, for a big gambling debt. Shaheen told me who set it up — Fratianno and Stanley Sagunda. But of course I couldn’t help him. I couldn't do anything for him. I came down to see if someone in Whelan's office would file a rehearing in supreme court" But nothing, said Mr. Sheela, ever came of his attempt, and Shaheen remained in prison.
When World War II ended, if San Diego had a godfather, Tony Mirabile was that man. He had garnered that power, in part, by loaning money — between 1935 and 1958, about $850,000 — without interest, to his Sicilian American countrymen. But out in the world beyond San Diego’s bar owners, Mirabile was nobody, or worse than nobody. He was described by “connected men" as a man “who never did any work, couldn’t do any work." He was known among these men to have paid Jack Dragna, in 1941 or 1942, $150,000 to “make” him. During the 1950s, Mirabile’s power began to ebb.
This power ebbed for many reasons. During the 1930s and early 1940s, the downtown area where Tony had his bars and helped his fellow Sicilians get a start in business still had a village-like atmosphere. Tony strode up Fourth Avenue to Broadway, his lipstick-kissed thousand-dollar bill in his trouser pocket, his black overcoat draped around his shoulders, its hem flying along in his wake. A few steps to Tony’s rear marched Marco Impastato, described in the October 1958 hearings as “a lackey, a hireling, you might say, of Tony Mirabile. He is, you might say, a Hollywood version of a bodyguard. He is usually about three paces behind Mirabile and has a snap brim he carries very low on his forehead. Kind of comical, as a matter of fact, to watch him.”
But after the war ended, the town was a city. Honest-to-God crooks with blood on their hands and connections to fellows in Los Angeles and back East came to the city. Next to these fellows, Tony Mirabile was a weak sister, an old duffer, a relic. He was a charming relic, strolling about Sailor Row as if he were strolling a square in his hometown of Alcamo and speaking an English so broken as barely to be understandable, but he was, nevertheless, a relic.
Frank Bompensiero (1905-1977) lived, off and on, in San Diego from the time he was in his late teens. In 1945, after getting out of the army, he returned to San Diego with his wife and daughter and bought a house on Estelle Drive. Late in 1945 Bompensiero opened a bar, the Gold Rail at 1028 Third Avenue. His partners were Jack Dragna's son “One-Eyed Frank Paul” Dragna and Jack Dragna’s nephew Louis Tom.
The Dragnas’ relationships are complicated because both Jack and Tom had sons named Frank Paul. Unland offered this: “Jack’s son Frank Paul lost an eye in World War II, so he was ‘One-Eyed Frank Paul.’ Tom’s son Frank Paul never amounted to much, he drove a bread truck; he never really was involved in anything, so he was just ‘Frank Paul.’ Louis Tom was Tom’s other son, older than Frank Paul, and he was the most active one; he, I think, was being groomed to be the boss.”
Jack Dragna and Bompensiero were close. If there was or is a Mafia, Bompensiero, without doubt, was a member. He had no respect for Mirabile. Rumor had it that Mirabile gave Bompensiero and the Dragna boys $25,000 to furnish the Gold Rail; if that rumor is fact, Mirabile likely handed over the money more from fear than from generosity.
I talked one day with a gentleman in his mid-80s, a retired San Diego lawman who knew intimately what went on downtown during the 1940s and 1950s. About Bompensiero, this gentleman remembered, “Frank was the only local man who had the connections and the moxie to do things. Frank had the out-of-town connections, the good stuff. This [Frank] was a center of power, you just knew it. Frank was no dummy. You couldn’t help but like the guy because he was man, this guy was all man. Oh boy, he was a little short guy, but he must have weighed 200 pounds on a 5'6“ frame. I mean, built right straight up from the ground, tougher than hell. A lot of difference between him and Tony.
“I can remember one occasion, 1952, when Eisenhower came to town. I’d never seen General Eisenhower. All I knew about Eisenhower was I’d seen him in the MovieTone. I am standing out on Front Street where they had that park, 1000 block, and they’ve got this political parade, and Eisenhower was sitting up in this open car, westbound on Broadway, and, boy, people are down there. I got about halfway down, alongside the old courthouse and here comes Eisenhower. He didn’t say word one to me and he didn’t look at me and I’m a half a block away, but there’s, like, a physical impact of this man on me.
“These people, leaders, who have so much personality that it just thrusts itself at you. I said, ‘My God, Eisenhower. Smilin’ Ike, smiling like he always was.’ This impact he made, no wonder he was the leader he was in World War II.
“And Frank Bompensiero, you look at the guy half a block away and he’d be walking along the street, not even talking to anyone, and you just knew it: ‘Here’s power.’ He had such good control over himself, and I don’t know of anybody else that ever saw him any different. Except on one occasion with me, when he was a little hostile and about to lose it. But good sense told him he’d go to jail and go the hard way if he lost it with me. I was not about to take a physical beating from a dago hood, I would have killed him.”
In October 1958, San Diego County Sheriff's Sgt. Robert Newsom was questioned about the relationship between Tony Mirabile and Frank Bompensiero. “Do you recall any instance where one of them asked the other to move back to Italy because there was too much heat on here?"
Mr. Newsom answered, “We received information, I believe in March of 1952, of a meeting that took place in a trap — I mean an establishment — known as the Gay Paree, Fourth Street, San Diego. Those present were Tony Mirabile — that is, I am relating the information we received. Tony Mirabile, Frank Bompensiero, Charlie Bonisara, Nick Pipitone, who is now dead, Dominic Megale. At this meeting it was alleged that Mirabile was, it was explained to him that he had been a fine member of the community, was well respected, had done his part for his particular group of people, and that in as much as the state Crime Commission and the IRS, and a few others, I believe, in the police department, a few of the people who were interested in their activities were becoming too closely interested in them, they thought it would be a good idea if he would go back to Italy.
“On investigation it was found that Mirabile had, a few days later, applied for a passport and purchased a one-way ticket by plane, TWA, I think, to England, and from there across and down to Rome.”
The subcommittee chairman called Mirabile to the stand. He was asked, “Have you ever had any meetings in the Gay Paree with Bompensiero?”
A. No, never.
Q. Have you ever attended any dinners at the Gay Paree?
A. Now, wait a minute. Attend a dinner with who, and where?
Q. Anybody. Have you ever been to dinner at the Gay Paree?
Q. And you have never met Bompensiero at the Gay Paree?
A. Now, let me get this. I didn’t meet Bompensiero at the Gay Paree? No. I found him, might have. But not to meet over there.
Q. Now, wait. Now I don’t understand you, Mr. Mirabile. What did you say?
A. I never made no date to go to the Gay Paree with Bompensiero.
Q. Did you ever talk with Bompensiero at the Gay Paree?
Q. Did you ever talk with any of his men at the Gay Paree, men who you knew were working for Bompensiero?
A. Well, now, let’s get this. Work for Bompensiero. I don’t know whether I know anyone that he worked for Bompensiero.
Q. Well, I will put it this way, Mr. Mirabile: Did you ever talk to anybody at the Gay Paree that you knew worked for Bompensiero?
A. No. I don’t recall that. If I had been talking with someone in the Gay Paree that was work for him I wouldn’t know. That I couldn’t answer that. But whether they did work or not. I been talk a lot of people at the Gay Paree, but I wouldn’t know if they work for Bompensiero, or who was working. But to me it is funny that word that started. See, I was told that what you refer to because I can see how you get that picture because when I went to Italy I got back and they told me that somebody chased me away from San Diego. I was laughing. My brother passed away. My God, am I entitled to go see my brother’s body?
Q. By all means, you are.
A. So, who said they chased me out of San Diego. For what reason? For what? That is why I want to answer that, because I was told, and I was surprised, how come they say those words? How did they bring these things up? What was the reason?
Q. Did you ever receive a ticket in the mail for transportation to Italy? Did you ever receive in the mail a ticket to Italy?
A. Well, if I did it might have been from Los Angeles to San Diego, because when I received the telegram the same night I took a plane to go to Italy. There might have been a ticket for airplane ticket to go to Italy on account my brother pass away.
Q. Wasn’t this just after you were told, Mr. Mirabile, that you were going to have to leave the San Diego area; that is when you received this ticket?
A. No. Oh, no, God, no. No. Ain’t nobody would ever tell me that. There is no reason for it. Why do I have to leave San Diego? Who would be the man?
Q. I don’t know. Well, I am asking you if you know that, I don’t know. But I am asking you if you were told that you had to get out of San Diego.
A. No. No. No. And no man, you or no Jesus Christ tell me that. What for? I am paying my taxes. No for one is going tell me that.
Several months after the March 1952 meeting described above, Tony Mirabile may have wished he were back in Alcamo, his native village. Tony had an old friend, Frank Borgia. During Prohibition, Borgia was a bootlegger and “sugar man,” supplier of sugar to whiskey makers. Borgia, during Prohibition, also had a hand in the disappearance of several associates.
James E. Hamilton, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Intelligence Unit, in 1950 put together a document titled “Gangland Killings." The unit searched Los Angeles city records for the first half of the 20th Century — coroners’ reports, homicide reports, crime reports, missing person reports — and from those reports compiled a list of murders and disappearances in Los Angeles that seemed connected to organized crime. This research disclosed the following about some activities in which Frank Borgia engaged.
Missing Person. May 6, 1930.
Victim last seen by a friend at Seventh and Kohler, whom he left to go to see Frank Borgia, 727 Kohler, wholesale grocer delicatessen. Victim was powerful in the bootleg business and fell in disfavor with the Italian element because of his “hijacking and double dealing” activities. Victim’s girl friend, Harriet Horsman, stated he was taken for a “ride.” Victim’s brother, George Buccola, stated “that these persons — Joe Ardizzone, Frank Borgia, George Niotta — are the ones that caused victim and Joe Porrazzo’s disappearance. These men drove victim out of town for a period of three years in previous years, only letting him return during the sickness of victim’s mother. That they hated him ever since.”
Victim had a bootleg partner named Smith who took up with victim’s girl friend after his disappearance.
Victim was a partner in real estate (as a “front”) with Charles Comti, 2603 North Broadway. Also owner with his brother, George, in a ranch in Ontario, California. Victim’s auto found abandoned and partially wrecked on street at 427 Grant Boulevard, Venice, California, on May 8, 1930.
Frank Borgia, known bootlegger, racket leader, and suspected member of the Sicilian Black Hand Society, supposedly forgave and became friendly with victim. It was said victim worked as a salesman for Borgia.
But his disappearance followed an all too familiar pattern that is closely along the lines of similar suspected Sicilian methods of disposal.
For example, victim was wined and dined, two or three nights before his disappearance by the above mentioned three men, i.e., Borgia, Ardizzone, Niotta.
Victim at time of missing person report was described as an Italian, 42 years, 5 feet 9 inches, 155 pounds, brown hair and eyes.
Missing Person. October 15, 1931. 6:30 a.m. Residence: 10949 North Mt. Gleason, Sunland, California
Victim left his residence at 6:30 a.m., October 15, 1931, to go to Joe Cuccia’s ranch — never arrived. At time driving a 1930 Ford Coupe SRW7053 and carrying a .41 caliber Colt Revolver #323.
Victim was a cousin of Frank Borgia, 2621 Mozart Street, and was going to pick up another cousin, Nick Borgia, who had just come from Italy, at the ranch.
Victim was known as one of the wealthiest of local Italians and was mixed up in the bootleg wars between local factions and eastern gangsters who were attempting to “muscle” into local territory.
Ardizzone shot and killed George Maisano, July 2, 1906, 7 p.m. on the street at Avenue 19 and North Main. Ardizzone was apprehended and charged with murder, but on February 9, 1915, case dismissed, insufficient evidence, no witnesses that would talk. (Black Hand killing.)
Ardizzone was wounded in gang war deal in February 1931 when he was supposedly taking Jimmy Basile for a “ride.” Friends of Basile saw them in a car in Downey and opened fire on Ardizzone, wounding him. It’s always been a question whether Ardizzone had already killed Basile or if the bullets intended for Ardizzone “got” Basile. Three men with sawed-off shotguns did the job, but Ardizzone crawled away only wounded, and later while in the hospital another attempt was made to get him but was unsuccessful.
Ardizzone had an argument with Jimmy Basile (Little Jimmy) and his partner in the “bootleg” business, Domenico Di Ciolla (Danto), a power in “Little Italy.” These two men had invested $1,000.00 in a “still” to start making alcohol. Ardizzone tried to “muscle” in but was repulsed. Ardizzone is supposed to have told Di Ciolla that he (Ardizzone) had killed 30 men and he would make Di Ciolla the 31st — if the partners didn’t “cut him in.”
Ardizzone suspected of killing Basile, by taking him for “a ride,” and then putting Di Ciolla “on the spot,” because of fear that Di Ciolla would “squeal.”
Ardizzone was called “Iron Man” because he wanted to be king of the Sicilian gang, he claimed to be the “strong man."
Ardizzone was a suspect in the disappearance of Tony Buccola and Joe Porrazzo and others, as he was trying to gain control of the local scene, the “bootleg wars” having disrupted the “status quo” of the local Sicilian Mafia. He had made many enemies, and many there who would like revenge.
In 1926, Ardizzone was listed as an executive officer of the “Italian Protective League," 1107 Law Building, Los Angeles, California. Italian Protective League officers listed as: President, Jack Dragna; Treasurer, Joe Ardizzone; Secretary, Joseph Bernardo.
This was strictly a “muscle” outfit, preying on various business activities, such as produce, cleaning establishments, barber shops, etc., also had its fingers in gambling, bootlegging, smuggling, and was suspected of many “Black Hand” killings and some “sudden disappearances” of Italians, bootleggers and others.
Frank Borgia, in June 1952, was invited to a wedding of the daughter of a family friend. He got in his black Buick Roadmaster and drove from Los Angeles to San Diego. He took a room at the U.S. Grant and drove to St. Joseph’s Cathedral. After the wedding, guests stood about the cathedral’s portal, tossing rice. In one of the photographs, Borgia can be seen, smiling. This would be the last photograph taken of Frank Borgia. Unbeknownst to Borgia, Jack Dragna had ordered him hit for his refusal to “cut up his money” with a family member.
Wedding over, Borgia returned to the Grant. According to what Fratianno years later would tell Ovid Demaris, early that evening, Tony Mirabile came by to take Borgia out for the night.
Demaris writes, “Seated in Bompensiero’s office at the Gold Rail, Jimmy was listening as Bompensiero went over the plan he had worked out for the hit. 'I've got Tony Mirabile to set him up. He’s his best friend. That way Frank won’t suspect nothing. Tony will take him to Joe Adamo’s house and we’ll be there waiting for them. We get the rope around his neck and that’s it.’ ”
And that, according to Demaris’s Last Mafioso, is just what happened. Fratianno quotes Bompensiero, after the murder, as telling him, “Borgia goes back a long time around here. He was bootlegging with Jack [Dragna] and Tom [Dragna] back in the ’20s and did some work of his own in those days. Him and Jack used to be good friends. Frank made lots of money in recent years, but he was an old stingy Mustache Pete. It cost him his life.”
Five days later, when Borgia had not returned to his room at the Grant, the police were called. The Roadmaster was impounded.
A local retired lawman believes Borgia was murdered. but he isn’t sure he believes the story that Fratianno tells of the killing. “Oh,” he said, “I think Fratianno was tied in with it. Borgia was Mirabile's best friend, and that Mirabile brought him to them, I can’t buy this. I keep thinking of Fratianno, 'The Weasel’ they call him and for good reason. Yeah, he’s a sneaky devil. I think the way he tells the story is bull, but maybe Tony Mirabile did bring Borgia to them, maybe he did, I don’t know. I do know that they never did find the body.”
I talked with Borgia’s relatives in Los Angeles. No one in the family — Borgia left behind a wife and two teenage children — ever heard from him again. From time to time, relatives said, police would come by and query them about Borgia. One elderly Borgia relation told me that when they were all still young, back in the 1940s she thought it was. Jack Dragna had shown interest in bringing her brother into Dragna’s organization. Her father, she said, went down to the building where Dragna and Momo kept their Latin American Import offices. Her father told Dragna that if he came near his son, he would kill him. Her father started to strip off his jacket and shirt, readying to fight Dragna. But Dragna, she said, backed down. He promised to stay away from her brother. And, as far as she knew, he did.
Fratianno admitted he helped out with the Borgia killing. Ed Becker, coauthor with Charles Rappleye of All-American Mafioso, said to me what many people said about Fratianno: “He was an amazing businessman and could have gone far, had he not been such a terrible killer.”
Michael Zuckerman, now an editor/writer at USA Today, wrote the second book about Fratianno — Vengeance Is Mine: Jimmy “The Weasel" Fratianno Tells How He Brought the Kiss of Death to the Mafia (1987). Even though it had been almost a decade since Zuckerman had finished his book, he still felt puzzled about the apparent ease with which Fratianno and his cohorts killed.
Zuckerman said, “There was an interesting group of writers, agents, and lawyers who coalesced around Jimmy, for a variety of reasons. Some were hangers-on, some thought there was a meal ticket there. But everyone was charmed by Fratianno and thought him a one-in-a-million kind of a character. There was somewhat of a fraternity attitude about it.
“You look at those hands and you realize those hands killed all these people. But he was very disarming and charming and these people who, as I said, coalesced around him, kind of shaped up around him. Some were appalled at themselves for being attracted to him and enjoying his company.
“When I was writing the book I was in the middle of a divorce, and Jimmy would call and give me, you can only imagine, advice on how to deal with my ex-wife and her lawyer. My ex-wife and I are very good friends now, but she had an SOB lawyer.
“I asked him once, ‘Did you ever get any pleasure out of killing anybody, was it always just business, was there any sense of, boy, am I glad I did that?’ He said, ‘No, it was always business, always business, never any sense of pleasure when it was all over. Someone tells you to do it, you do it.’ ”
Zuckerman said that Fratianno said he never read his, Zuckerman’s, book about him. I asked Mr. Zuckerman if he believed that were true.
“Yes, actually. I don’t think he read Ovid’s book either. I don’t think jimmy wasted any time reading it, he may have looked through the index, he might have read the first couple of pages. He did ask for copies to give to people.
“There was some suspicion that Jimmy couldn't read, that he was semi-literate. But I tested it. I gave him all sorts of stuff to read, for the book. I said, ‘I need you to go through these documents.’ He not only read them, but he read very quickly, he sped through these documents and was able to find the points I asked him to find. He was very bright. But he had a marble missing somewhere that he could do these kinds of things.
“I went back to Cleveland, where Jimmy grew up, and talked to people and tried to figure out what happened there. I have a good friend who is a psychologist who says lawyers and crooks who as kids went to Catholic school are totally lacking in moral center. His argument is that you live by these rules and nothing else matters, you go to church, you get absolved, you go to the courtroom, you get absolved; if you are acquitted, you didn’t do it. He and I have spent a fair amount of time talking about this. I would say to him, ‘I don’t understand how this guy — Fratianno — can get up in the morning and walk around.’ My psychologist friend said, ‘That Catholic school upbringing!’ I still find it a mystery.”
Zuckerman concluded by saying that he guessed someone like Fratianno thought to himself, “This is what you have to do to make money, you have to whack a couple of people. Well, eventually the payoff will come and you will be a made guy and you will get all the goodies that will come, so, fine.”
Jay Robert Nash tended to agree with Zuckerman’s psychologist friend. “These Italians are Catholics and they went to church. Kill a guy on Saturday night and go to church with the family the next morning and receive Communion, because the man you killed eight hours earlier, well, that was business, it had nothing to do with morality. They had this strange, warped way of being able to separate their morality and their business.”
If Frank Borgia’s killing occurred as described by Fratianno, and if Tony Mirabile, as described, was the “weak sister” who couldn’t “do the work," then ferrying his old friend across town to be garroted must have discomfited Tony. But if Tony, as is suggested, longed so for “connection,” he had no choice but to drive Borgia to Kensington and walk him through the door.
Outside San Diego, Tony Mirabile’s most valuable connection was his friendship with Pete Licavoli, in the 1950s the titular head of the Detroit mob. By the 1950s, Licavoli, who had his beginnings, as did Mirabile, in the Detroit Purple Gang, had moved to Arizona. Tony visited Licavoli there, and rumor has it that Licavoli visited Tony in San Diego. But then, rumor also has it that Frank Sinatra visited Tony in San Diego.
In the 1958 rackets sub-committee hearings in San Diego, L.A. Intelligence Unit head Captain James E. Hamilton offered, “We have one report of a meeting held in March of 1954 at the Licavoli ranch, the Grace Ranch near Tucson, Arizona, with the names of several persons present at that meeting, in addition to Pete Licavoli. There was Joe Adonis, Tony Mirabile, Mike Lapola, Tony Bonisara, Jack Dragna, and a couple of others. Now, that includes in that list one member from Los Angeles, two from New York, or the New York area, one from the San Diego area.
Q. Will you tell us which ones are from where?
A. Mike Lapola and Joe Adonis from New York and the Jersey area; Jack Dragna from Los Angeles; Tony Mirabile from San Diego. That is just a partial list. Others there were not as completely identified.
Later in the day, Tony Mirabile was questioned.
Q. How about Pete Licavoli?
A. I do know him.
Q. Have you ever been to his ranch in Tucson?
A. Yes, sir.
A. Oh, I believe it might have been 1950 or ’52. ’52, I believe, or ’50. I don’t recall. I will tell you why I was over there.
A. I know his wife Grace when she was three months old. That is what I went there for. You want to know how I know her?
A. I used to be milkman in Detroit. You might want to know what else. I will tell you. I used to deliver milk to the father and mother when she was three months old. Their mother was holding her in her arm. And I happened to go to Tucson for my health, and they told me that this ranch belonged to Grace. “Grace,” I says, “Grace who?" And they tell me. And I say, “Well, I go to see it.”
Well, I go there, and I make try to remember when she was a baby, that I deliver milk and I was congratulating, she had three nice children. And I went home for my business.
To Captain Hamilton and the rackets subcommittee members, this gathering with Adonis, Dragna (whose wife Frances had died the previous summer), Mirabile, and “unidentifiables” seemed more sinister, likely, than it was. Mirabile’s disingenuous blather to the committee about his days as a milkman and his visits to Licavoli is just that — blather. But from what little I’ve learned from horses’ mouths, the organizing of organized crime was not the prime reason for such meetings. Perhaps cash from a strongarm or skim from bars that needed laundering was handed to the big guy, in this case, Licavoli, for investment in a legitimate business. Perhaps various schemes were mentioned. Certainly, the men traded gossip. Any transcript from tapes the FBI has made of OC figures shows that the guys chatted like amiable housewives about each other’s bad backs and troubled prostates, about automobiles, new roofs, dove hunting, politics, ball games, boxing matches, even what was on television the night previous. My guess would be that at this Grace Ranch get-together attested to by Captain Hamilton, the guys sat around a big table and sampled recently brined olives, maybe dipped hunks of fresh bread in olive oil. A slab of pecorino and a mound of freshly made ricotta might be set down. They probably drank dago red from Grace Licavoli’s crystal (and you can bet her crystal was the good stuff, the stuff that pings). At some point, women bore platters of food to the table — pasta with peas, fish, roasted meat and game.
Much writing about the Mafia, La Casa Nostra, the mob, wise guys, “connected” men, and organized crime rests — uneasily — on shaky facts. I have talked with three men who’ve done time for participation in what the federal government describes as organized crime, or “OC.” I have queried these men about events described in books, events at which they were alleged to have been present, or episodes in which they knew participants. Again and again, these men scoffed or laughed and said, “It didn’t happen that way.” Or, “It didn’t happen.” I have talked with men in law enforcement about these same events, men who had at least some information or in some cases, extraordinary knowledge, about “what went down.” They, too, laugh and scoff at much that has been written about organized crime.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its pre-suppositions and foundations. and its extent and validity. It is helpful to apply the epistemological question — “How do we know what we know?”— to writing about OC.
Who and what are the sources? Prime sources for most books and articles about OC are law-enforcement personnel and their snitches and confidential informants. Paper sources are previous books, court transcripts, newspaper and magazine articles, and police and FBI documents. The latter, most often acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, are delivered with entire sections blacked out.
Until 1958 when J. Edgar Hoover began what he called the “Top Hoodlum Program,” or “THP,” the FBI did little with organized crime. With the exception of Captain James E. Hamilton in Los Angeles and Virgil Peterson in Chicago, little track was kept of connected men in most U.S. cities. Then there is the problem of police records. Acts of God like fire and storm ruined many records in U.S. cities. States and counties and cities ran out of room to store old files and dumped them. Files “disappear.” Even in San Diego, one will be told that certain people paid certain people to expunge certain records.
Hoover discouraged his men from talking to writers or to the press. Until his death in 1972, few G-men openly shared information with writers. And even now, it is not easy to find older FBI retirees who will talk with writers about what went on in the 1950s, ’60s, '70s. One writer did tell me that he was able to cadge documents from various law-enforcement personnel, that they copied papers and mailed them to him in plain brown envelopes. I doubt that this happens often. Certainly, I’ve tried to make it happen and with no luck. The new breed of G-men are more likely to be forthcoming. They are encouraged by their superiors to talk with writers and the press.
Locally, I have found retired SDPD officers and sheriff's deputies to be excellent sources of information about past events. With few exceptions, they are cooperative. The exceptions seem to be men who were suspected of being “dirty" — in some way or another on the take.
Law-enforcement personnel who work organized crime often come in for criticism. The most biting is this, from a local retired policeman. “The thing you have to understand about people who work organized crime is that they’re fanatical about it. They would literally do anything or say anything to catch an organized-crime crook, it was like a disease with them. They want to base thousands of hours of surveillance — collecting gossip, rumor, innuendo — on the bogeyman around the corner, Mr. Organized Crime, coming to steal the city away.
“People who work organized crime intelligence have the softest job in law enforcement. They have money to spend, they can do anything they want to do to get their end accomplished, they have almost no supervision. You can’t hold them accountable because they have no idea what they’re doing because everything is a big secret. By and large, they are an untrustworthy lot. The way that they retain their job security is to keep their basses paranoid at all times. They say, ‘Mr. Organized Crime is coming to town to steal the city.’ So, the boss says, ‘Gee, I don’t want that to happen, so here’s some more money, some more cars, some more radios, do whatever you got to do, but don’t let that happen.’ And the intelligence guy nods, says, ‘Okay, boss. I’ll take care of that.' "
What writers learn about what came to be called the “Mafia” or “La Cosa Nostra” or the “mob” comes for the most part from law-enforcement personnel and their “snitches,” or “informants.” The latter have their own reasons. But, for sure, by the time they become snitches, they are alienated from their “crew.” So that what an inquirer learns from these people, about the mob or mobsters, is colored by opposition to them: they are the enemy. When one talks with veterans who fought hand-to-hand with the Japanese in World War II, one rarely hears about the intricate charm of Japanese culture or kimono design or cuisine. What one hears is some variant on "fuckin’ Japs.” I have talked with retired lawmen gifted with a philosophical turn of mind; they, exceptionally, tell stories about mobsters that show these men in more dimension than one.
Mario Puzo’s books have had their effect on nonfiction writing about OC. Nowhere does Puzo claim he is writing facts. He readily admits he makes things up. When I interviewed Puzo about his most recent book, he said people so often assume he is writing more fact than fiction that they ask him if he isn’t worried about being “whacked.” Ironically, lawmen tell me that since Puzo’s Godfather book in 1969 and the subsequent “Godfather” films, that many a hoodlum seems smitten with Puzo’s Corleone family, that listening to mobsters on tape one can hear guys trying to imitate Puzo’s Don Corleone.
The more dramatic a non-fiction book, of course, the better its sales are likely to be. Drama requires a series of “scenes” and ministories with beginnings, middles, and finales. Facts frequently are bent to re-create those scenes and stories. “Color” — the pinstriped suit, the Berber carpet upon which a victim falls after the hit man twists the garrote, the red leather upholstery in a Cadillac Eldorado — often is added without any respect for fact. To add drama, interior monologues often are provided, purporting to show the state of mind of the books’ subjects.
One of the best and most factual books about organized crime — Zuckenman’s Vengeance Is Mine — was described to me by several readers as “boring.” Zuckerman depended on court documents and lengthy, careful interviews. His book does not offer more than it can prove.
The best critique of organized crime writing and reporting was done by the expert on games and gambling John Scame, who died in 1985 at the age of 82. Scarne, over the years, got to know various under-world figures — Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, Joe “Joey A.” Adonis, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Albert Anastasia, Frank Erickson, Santo Trafficante Sr. In the mid-’70s, fed up with what he felt was the vilification of Italians and Sicilians, Scarne, himself an Italian American, wrote The Mafia Conspiracy. The book jacket announces the book’s thesis: “The shocking expose of America’s Anti-Italian Mafia Conspiracy by our Federal and State Bureaucrats and the Communications Media, revealing their deceitful strategies, subterfuges, and gimmicks used to depict the Italian as a sinister monster by the continued shameful and intolerable mythical Mafia denigrations,”
Although mainline publishers regularly published Scarne’s books on gambling, none would issue The Mafia Conspiracy, leaving Scarne to spend $50,000 to publish it himself. Jay Robert Nash in his World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime suggests that some saw Scarne’s book as a “mob apology which the mob had probably financed.... Lansky himself may have condoned or even aided in the publication of The Mafia Conspiracy, realizing that a denouncement of harassment of the mob as bigotry might not be bad for business.”
Scarne explains that “deceitful strategies” were fired by prejudice against the million Italian and Sicilian immigrants who, during the first quarter of the 20th Century, arrived in the United States. Italians and Sicilians, writes Scarne, first were associated with so-called Black Hand criminal organization and later with the so-called Unione Siciliano.
The Kefauver Committee’s “mention of the eye-catching label Black Hand as a synonym for the Italian-American Mafia is another Kefauver blow below the belt at all Italians and Italian-Americans.” Scarne quotes from Burton B. Turkus and Sid Feder’s 1951 book. Murder, Inc “At the turn of the century. Black Hand was a fashionable form of extortion, aimed at honest, hard-working immigrants. The name grew out of menacing letters, each signed by a crude drawing of a black hand and demanding money, under threat of death, kidnap, or mutilation of the selected victim’s children.”
These Black Hand letters, however, were not the handiwork of any single organized group. “Anyone,” Turkus and Feder write, “who wanted to capitalize on the accepted terror simply wrote a letter, drew a black hand on it, and sent it along.”
As for the Unione Siciliano, Scarne scoffed that Kefauver’s committee not only spelled it incorrectly (“Unione Siciliana,” Scarne asserts, is the correct spelling) but that the committee entirely misunderstood the group’s function. The Unione, Scarne writes, is not a racketeering organization but an insurance and benevolent organization to advance the interests of Sicilian immigrants, with offices in several large cities, including Los Angeles.
But Scarne saves his fury for the coonskin-cap-wearing Senator Estes Kefauver (1903-63) of Tennessee. Kefauver’s Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce hearings of 1950 to 1951, known familiarly as the “Kefauver Hearings,” visited Miami, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C, and heard some 600 witnesses testify. These hearings, in March 1951 in New York, were the first to make use of the then-new medium of television. Scarne accuses Kefauver of inventing the Italian American Mafia so as to attract voters to himself in his quest for the presidency.
“It should be noted,” writes Scarne, “that prior to the Kefauver Crime Committee hearings, Italian Americans were referred to disparagingly by many in the United States as dagoes, wops, guineas, and greaseballs.... These anti-Italian epithets often appeared in print and in the movies. However, the word Mafia was unknown to the vast majority of Americans before the advent of the Kefauver committee hearings, as can be testified to by any late Show TV watcher familiar with films such as Little Caesar, Public Enemy, Quick Millions, Scarface, and The Last Mile, none of which mentions or alludes to a Mafia. However, then, as today, the motion-picture industry sees to it that most movie gangsters possess Italian names.” On the other hand, even Scarne admits that there were men of Italian and Sicilian background who did engage in activities that clearly were against the law, that there were men who did commit crimes, and these men did have Italian surnames.
Scarne goes on to lambaste then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Senator John L. McClellan’s 1961 Senate Permanent Subcommittee Investigation of Gambling and Organized Crime, under whose auspices Joseph Valachi (1904-71), who claimed to be a member of Vito Genovese’s crime family, in September 1963 testified to the existence of La Cosa Nostra. Translated as “this thing of ours,” or “our thing,” Valachi, a fifth-grade dropout, informed the senators and television audience that “La Cosa Nostra” was what mobsters called their organization, not the “Mafia." The “Mafia,” said Valachi, was what outsiders called their group. Valachi went on to testify (after what Scarne describes as 15 months’ coaching by subcommittee lawyers) to his initiation into La Cosa Nostra in 1930, to the existence of “families” in major American cities, including Los Angeles and San Diego. “A hoax,” Scarne calls Valachi’s five days of testimony, a “flopperoo.” About Valachi himself, Scarne writes, “a semi-illiterate dope pusher.”
Fascinated Valachi watchers learned the term “omertá,” La Cosa Nostra’s vow of silence. They learned that crime families were organized, that a capo ruled with the aid of a sotto capo, or underboss. Each underboss, said Valachi, had a caporegime, or lieutenant. Each lieutenant manned a regime, or crew. The crew of workers were the soldati. A 12-man commission ruled over the familes; the commission settled inter- and intra-family disputes.
Viewers heard Valachi describe his “making,” or initiation, into La Cosa Nostra in 1930. He told that he and three other initiates were driven to a house 90 miles upstate from Manhattan. Once in the house, Valachi claimed that he was taken into a vast room where 35 men sat at a large table. “There was a gun and a knife on the table. I sat at the edge, they sat me down next to Maranzano [at that time, according to Valachi, Salvatore Maranzdno (1868-1931) was a family capo]. I repeated some words in Sicilian after him.”
“What did the words mean?” Senator McClellan asked.
JOE VALACHI: “You live by the gun and knife and die by the gun and knife.”
Valachi was asked to continue to describe the ceremony.
VALACHI: Then he- he- he pricks your finger.
QUESTIONER: Who? Who?
VALACHI: The godfather.
QUESTIONER: He pricks your finger?
VALACHI: He pricks your finger with a needle, makes a little blood come out. In other words, that’s to express the Wood relation. It’s supposed to be like brothers.
QUESTIONER: That’s the letting of blood?
VALACHI: That’s right.
Valachi’s testimony, Scarne writes, “later became the basis for many fraudulent and disgusting anti-Italian motion pictures including The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II.” Valachi’s testimony framed the way Americans would think about what came to be called “organized crime."
Many aspects of what I read in books about the mob trouble me. What troubles me most is that the books’ principal figures appear to have little life outside of crime. They may screw a few women, bet on a few horses, pat a spaniel on the head here and there, but they remain one-dimensional. Reading about most mob figures from the pre- and immediate post-World War II era, you would think that all they did was plot the next union takeover, the next bribing of a judge, the next mob battle, perhaps make a pot of spaghetti when they went to the mattresses. The fact is that these men had lives as filled with mundane detail as do any of us. They had “meaningful” relationships outside of criminal connections. I know of at least three major crime figures who are said to have been entirely loyal to their wives, to never have fooled around on them. But you will read little about any of this.
Yet, just try to learn about a mobster’s family life! Even years after a husband or brother or grandfather has died, widows and sisters and grandsons greet one’s eyes with terror when one mentions the late family member. The elderly sister of a known San Diego Sicilian “crime” name, after a lengthy interview replete with intimate detail, claimed that she could not tell her maiden name. “It’s confidential,” she told me.
Had my father or brother been an organized crime figure, and were a writer to approach me, wanting to write about my relative, I would fill that writer’s tape recorder with every story I could remember. I would get out the family photographs, I would haul out the wedding dress Mama wore when she married Dad, I would insist the writer sit down and eat Daddy’s favorite meal. Because part of the reason writers portray these men as monsters is that the only people who will talk are lawmen and snitches.
What Tony Mirabile’s trysts with the Licavolis do show is that what power outside San Diego remained to Mirabile in the early 1950s was power through his connections to Detroit. Los Angeles had little use for Tony, other than his money.
Demaris writes in Poso del Mundo, “I am in possession of a copy of a birthday card, given to Tony Mirabile at a party in the Rainbow Gardens which was inscribed by the local elite and their families.” Among those listed as attending and signing the card are Frank Bompensiero; Frances, Joe, Josephine, Vincent, Rose and Frank Matranga; Mr. and Mrs. Charlie Pepitone (more often spelled “Pipitone”); Joe and John (he signed it twice) LaMandri (often spelled Limandri or LiMandri) — and Lew and Aurora Lipton.
I telephoned Demaris in Maine, where he moved five years ago from his home in Santa Barbara. I asked if he still had the card. He didn’t. When he moved, he said, he threw away boxes of files.
Demaris did not remember the party’s date. Given that Tony’s birthday fell on January 1, this likely was a holiday affair. The year had to be previous to 1955. Bompensiero went to prison in May 1955, convicted of bribery in the William “Big Bill” Bonelli liquor license scandal; he would not leave prison for five years. Tony Mirabile, in 1958, a few days before he turned 65, was murdered in his apartment across from Balboa Park.
The assemblage is intriguing. Studying the list, note first that Bompensiero’s wife Thelma does not sign the card; Bompensiero rarely took his family to social events where “business” people were present.
Three Matranga couples, according to Demaris’s book, signed the card — brothers Joe and Frank and their cousin Vince and their wives. Joe is Joseph E. Matranga, married to the daughter of Detroit mob family member “Papa John” Priziola. All three Matrarigas were owners of downtown San Diego bars. Mirabile made several loans to Joseph E. Matranga. Law-enforcement personnel, although fond of noting Joseph E.’s marriage to Priziola’s daughter, never figured any of the Matrangas as actual Mafia members. Maybe they knew people and people knew them, maybe they could give and receive minor favors, but they were very much on the fringe.
Charles Pipitone’s father, Victor, and Tony were friends from the early days. Mirabile helped the Pipitones out with several loans.
Joe Limandri, until his retirement in 1981, was business agent for Local 30 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. In Demaris’s Last Mafioso, Fratianno listed Joe as one of six men — Angelo Polizzi, Charley Battaglia, Carlo Licata, Joe Dippolito, Limandri, and Joe Adamo — initiated into the L.A. Cosa Nostra family in 1952. In 1984 the San Diego Union reported that “According to a district attorney’s investigator here, Local 30’s connections to organized crime date to Prohibition. But they certainly didn’t end when liquor became legal. The local’s former business agent Joseph LiMandri...has long been linked to Southern California organized crime figures.” Joe’s brother John (1920-1988), a lawyer who graduated from Fordham, sold insurance. The Union reported, about John Limandri, that “Charges against the San Diego local heard by the (U.S. Senate) committee included the payment of excessive insurance rates to a San Diego agency run by John LiMandri.”
Joseph Limandri (1913-1988) had quite a career before he arrived in San Diego. After being arrested and convicted in New York for narcotics sales, he spent a year at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1942, he did another six months in federal prison, this time in Danbury, Connecticut, for selling untaxed liquor. Records show that Marco Limandri, Joseph and John’s father, born in 1891 in Italy, who died in San Diego in 1977, did time in Danbury, at the same time as did Joe and for the same offense.
Lew Lipton (1904-1980), who was said to relish his seedier connections, must have been thrilled to lift toasts to Tony that evening. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Lipton came to San Diego in 1918, when he was still a teenager. Lew’s two brothers, the still-living William Lipin and Bernard Lipinsky, established a downtown pawnshop, the Roxy, which stood down the street from Mirabile’s Rainbow Gardens. According to Lipton’s obituary in the San Diego Union, Lipton, in his early career, was a sales representative for Wrigley’s chewing gum and Phoenix hosiery in Panama. In Panama Lipton “met Aurora Aguirre, a native of Spain whose father was a general. She was appearing with her three sisters in a theatrical company touring out of Spain when Mr. Lipton saw her in the show and arranged to meet her. He was fond of telling how on their first date, she brought her sisters along as chaperons. They were married in Panama in 1927.” Two years later, according to the Union, Lipton and his bride settled permanently in San Diego. At the time Lew and Aurora attended Tony’s party, Upton was a restaurateur, owner first of the E-Street Grill, and later Lew Upton’s Restaurant. In 1962 Lew would become assistant vice president at C. Arnholt Smith’s U.S. National Bank and would stay on there until 1973, when Smith’s looting of his bank caused its collapse. After Smith’s bank’s fall. Lew went to work for the Los Angeles-based Western Conference of Teamsters.
The Rainbow Gardens by this time was a real dump. The floor was rotting. The lights were bad. And this gathering, particularly when you consider that until V-J Day, if you came to San Diego, Tony was the man to see, was not an A guest list. At least half of Mirabile’s male guests had owed him money. Lew Lipton was what youngsters nowadays call a “wannabe.” Frank Bompensiero — the one man in town who had the connections, who had the power, who could do the work and had and did — Frank hurried in, shook hands, asked after everyone's health, told the ladies they were looking lovely, and was gone. Maybe Frank got in his Cadillac and drove across Broadway and checked out what was happening at his place, the Gold Rail. Maybe he went home. He had a nice house over on 4417 Braeburn Road, not far from Joe Adamo’s and Willie Cammisano’s. I’d guess that after Bompensiero left, they talked about him. I’d guess they thought before they spoke. You didn’t say anything about Frank that you didn’t want to get back to him.
Meanwhile, after 1946, Willie the Rat Cammisano spent months at a time in California, engaged by Dragna to perform varied tasks. I talked one morning with Mrs. Cammisano, when she had been widowed for a year. Mr. Cammisano, she said, “was the best man in the world, the love of my life.” (My Kansas City informant said that as far as anyone who surveilled Willie ever knew, he never went out on his wife, that he was entirely true to her. He said, too, that she was sweet, gentle, and charming.)
Mrs. Cammisano remembered that early in the 1950s, her husband, whom she described as “in the junk business,” walked in the door of their Kansas City house and said, “We’re moving to California.” The Cammisanos, by then, had a son, Willie Jr., born in 1948, and a daughter.
Mrs. Cammisano said that after Kansas City’s chilly winters, San Diego seemed like paradise. She said that the neighbors were kind and friendly. She mentioned that her son, “Little Willie,” one day broke into a nearby house, found a can of sardines and opened the can, cutting his hand. He got blood all over the kitchen of the house that he broke into, but the neighbors, she said, were understanding. Her son Girolamo, named after Girolamo “Momo” Adamo and called “Jerry,” was born in San Diego in November 1953.
Quite what Willie did with himself during the 18 months he lived with his family on Lymer Drive is hard to know. Reports have him opening a bar at 540 West C — the 540 Club, just down the street from the Rosslyn Hotel, a hostelry known in those days to the vice squad as a hot-pillow joint. Although I’ve asked a good 50 people if they recall the 540 Club or Cammisano being on the street there, no one inside or outside the law recalls either.
A woman who has long lived in San Diego — I will call her "Teresa” — knew the Adamo brothers, Joe and Momo, and their families. Teresa recalled that during the time the Cammisanos lived in Kensington that Momo and Marie Adamo frequently drove down to San Diego to visit. “When they came to town,” she said, “they stayed in a suite at the El Cortez. They would have dinner with Mary and Joe and their two kids. Momo’s brother Joe was the quiet one. Pure Sicilian man that you would never dream was ever connected anywhere. I don’t think he was. I don’t know. Joe just seemed to have the bar. He was almost like a regular family man. He was home more. I don’t think he ever went out of town. He seemed very family oriented.”
Retired San Diego policemen recall Joe Adamo as “a gentlemanly type," as “soft-spoken, always polite.” One told me, “Joe Adamo wore glasses, he looked like a doctor or a dentist.” A Kensington neighbor remembered that the Joe Adamos had many visitors in “big, dark cars,” that Adamo was a “very slick person, very classy, dressed nicely,” that his wife Mary was a “sweet person.”
Mrs. Cammisano also recalled that Momo and Marie visited often. Then, for a time, perhaps only a few months, the two families lived together in the Cammisanos’ Lymer Drive house. Marie, she said, “was a beautiful dresser” and a “wonderful cook.” But it wasn’t easy, she added, all in one house.
After Frances Dragna’s death in 1953, Jack Dragna began to wear down. His son and daughter (who married San Diegan Steve Niotta) were gone from home. Ed Reid writes about Dragna in The Grim Reapers that he “stumbled out his last days in Las Vegas browbeating cashiers whose courage fronted for the fear of their bosses. He had even been ordered deported a couple of years before he died, but the order had never been carried out. Presumably it was on appeal. It is all a rather dreary story.”
We have Captain James E. Hamilton’s report of the March 1954 gathering at Pete Licavoli’s Grace Ranch, near Tucson, where Dragna, Joe Adonis, Tony Mirabile, Mike Lapola, Tony Bonisara were present. March 10, 1954, Dragna was indicted by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles on charges that he owed $8000 in unpaid taxes. Court dates, again and again, were set. As each date approached, Dragna’s doctors attested he was too ill to appear. He never did.
February 10, 1956, Dragna checked into the Saharan Hotel at 7212 Sunset Boulevard, signing the register as “Jack Baker.” He carried two suitcases. One held a statuette of Jesus Christ, the vials of pills Dragna took for his heart trouble, and two sets of dentures. Unland recalled that Dragna was taking his meals down the street at Mimi’s, the place where ten years earlier Fratianno met L.A. family members.
Friday morning, February 24, 1956, the banner atop the Los Angeles Times's front page read: “JACK DRAGNA FOUND DEAD IN SUNSET BLVD. HOTEL” Beneath the headline: “Reputed Ruler of Mafia in Los Angeles Apparently Had Heart Attack While Asleep.”
Legend has it that on the night he died, Dragna ate dinner at Mimi’s, then returned to the motel. Legend also has it that he brought back a woman. The Times notes that “his body was found, clad in pink pajamas.” How people tell you about Dragna’s death is this: “He died under a whore.” The autopsy showed that Dragna suffered from hardening of the arteries and disease of the heart, kidneys, and blood vessels.
Detectives rustled through Dragna’s papers. They discovered that he had recently been living at 4757 Kensington Drive, San Diego, home of his daughter Anna Niotta and son-in-law, Stephen Niotta. While detectives looked through Dragna’s suitcases, the room telephone rang. It was Dragna’s daughter, Anna, calling from San Diego. She had heard of her father’s death on the radio. In the funeral notice, the Dragna family requested that in lieu of flowers contributions be made to the Sisters of Charity.
Mrs. Cammisano said that one day in 1955, she could not recall exactly when, her husband came home and said they were moving back to Kansas City. She didn’t recall if he gave a reason for the move. But she hated, she sighed, to leave. San Diego was the prettiest place she’d ever lived. The Cammisanos packed up and headed back to Kansas City. At some point in 1955, Momo and Marie moved into the Lymer Drive house. The 1956 telephone directory shows the name “Jerry Adams,” the name, slightly altered, of Momo and Marie’s son, at the 4135 Lymer Drive address and the telephone number — ATwater 1-8969.
The LAPD’s Billy Dick Unland, about this period after Momo’s arrival in San Diego, said, “I guess I lived with Momo practically until he died. Watching him.” After Momo moved to San Diego, said Mr. Unland, “We had him bugged out in a motel in Montclair. The way we learned about the motel was when we shook down Simone Scozzari’s girlfriend’s pad. We heard from some snitches that Momo and the guys had a meeting place out east of town in the vineyards area. The motel was called the Roma Motel. It was just this old-fashioned motel.”
Mr. Unland spoke with obvious relish. “We got all kinds of good stuff there. They would be playing cards and drinking and talking about the sale of grapes and wine and how much they got. One would figure he wasn’t getting his right cut. One of the others would say, ‘The top 10 percent goes to Bonelli, to Big Bill.’ They’d talk about how many bodies were buried out in the grapes. Angelo Polizzi and half of the guys in that Rosselli book, they were all there. That was their meeting place. Momo had it rented by the month. Everybody was there.
“We had an old Italian guy — a federal narc agent — sitting in another room on the bug. He was running the tape recorder. But the talk was mostly in Sicilian and we had two guys transcribing the tapes and they couldn’t understand all of it. So one of the guys in our team, he had a Sicilian father-in-law that he got to help with the tapes. It turned out that this father-in-law, just by coincidence, worked in the bars in San Diego during World War II. And somehow, through him, our bug got burnt up on us right in the middle of when it was really getting good. This father-in-law got Momo and his bunch the word. They moved out in the middle of the night. We went in then, and all the wall plates were out, from where they were looking for the bug. But we had it in their television, so they never found it. But it was too bad, for us.”
A retired San Diego policeman remembered Momo. “The toughest, ugliest looking of the bunch was that Momo Adamo” was how the gentleman introduced the subject of Momo. He went on to say that an IRS agent in San Diego was interested in Momo and had heard that he carried all his books in the trunk of his car. The IRS agent said to the now-retired policeman, “If you see Momo, find a way to pinch him and get at those books in the trunk.”
“So," the retired policeman recalled, “one day Momo was visiting his brother Joe down there on Fourth Avenue. I happened to be there and out comes Momo, this scar-faced, cigar-smoking old hood, talked out of the side of his mouth. I said, ‘Hey, how long you been in town? I don’t know you. I know everybody in town, I don’t know you.’ He answered, ‘My name’s Adamo.’
“I thought I might be able to find the car, but I didn't know if he was there with a car or not. So I elected to throw his butt in jail to get pictures of him, stand-ups and all. I put him in on suspicion of armed robbery or something; it was an illegal arrest. I looked all around while he was in jail, for his car. When he came out of jail, my plan was to brace him and get him to open the trunk.” But he could never find Momo’s car and Momo was duly released.
Momo by this time was 59 or 60. Marie was 46. You hear many stories about what happened between Momo and Marie in the Lymer Drive house. Neighbors recall screaming and yelling, terrible fights. Teresa recalls going to the Lymer Drive house and, before she knocked at the door, hearing Momo and Marie fighting. I think it can be said with assurance that the couple’s relationship was stormy. Everyone who has a Marie story to tell will also say that she was almost intolerably vain, that she drank too much, that she often became stumbling drunk, and that when she drank her already volatile temperament turned even more unpredictable. They will also tell you that she was a terrific flirt and that Momo, who adored her, was prodigiously jealous. Momo, I think we can be sure, from all that has been said about the couple, beat her. And Marie, I think we can be sure, taunted him, egged him on. People saw her with black eyes, with bruises on her arms. People also heard her tease him, saw her flirt openly in front of him with other men.
Mr. Unland recalled, “We heard that Momo killed himself on account of Desimone going to bed with his wife, Marie. Whether that was true or not, we didn’t know. The whole Desimone family had always been in it, way back to Prohibition days when they lived out at Downey, out by the orange groves. There were all kinds of bodies buried out there in the groves and out along the roads. Desimone never much practiced law. We used to tail him around in his big green Cadillac.”
Ed Reid wrote in The Grim Reapers, “The hoodlums have always prided themselves on their respect, not only for their family boss, but also for the women of the family. There are, however, any number of exceptions to the rule. And one such occurred in 1956, when Frank DeSimone, according to a police informant, raped the wife of Girolamo (Momo) Adamo in the presence of the shocked husband, who had served the Mafia longer and in more diverse capacities than DeSimone.
“DeSimone’s action, according to the informant, was undertaken to show Adamo who was boss. The outraged and disillusioned Adamo seriously wounded his wife shortly thereafter, then shot and killed himself with a .32-caliber pistol in their home in San Diego. DeSimone had broken a primary Mafia law relating to the inviolability of the women within the society, but there is no record that he was ever brought to task for it.”
According to a local near-octogenarian unconnected to law enforcement, a man whose inside knowledge of organized crime is impeccable, Reid's account most likely is accurate. This insider said, about the incident, that after Jack Dragna’s death, Momo Adamo, who for several decades served Dragna as underboss, expected he would be made head of the L.A. family. Underbosses almost always moved up to boss position after a boss’s death, particularly when the death was natural. In the L.A. family, apparently, after Dragna s death a vote was taken. By the time this vote was taken, Frank Desimone already had muscled Momo out. Desimone, the insider said, likely “made a move.” He likely promised the other guys he’d do this for them and do that. Maybe he told them Momo was weak, that he was old and from the Old World, that he couldn’t do anything for them. This insider said that legend has it even Momo’s brother Joe went against him in the vote. He also said that had Momo’s close associate, Frank Bompensiero, not been in San Quentin, serving what he feared would be a ten-year sentence for bribery, Desimone might not have so easily taken over. And he said that Desimone raped Marie in front of Momo in the Lymer Drive house to show Momo that he, not Momo, now was the man in charge.
But yet another story — Teresa’s — has it that when Momo and Marie moved to San Diego, they “were on the outs.” Also, “Momo was sick and knew he wasn’t going to live too long. But she had, I tell you, she had guts for being with the men that she was with because if they’re going to threaten you to do something, they might just do it. Okay?
“So, Momo was out of the house, he was living somewhere downtown, I don’t know if it was an apartment or hotel, whatever. He came home this one morning, and he had been drinking, he was a heavy drinker too. So he comes in the house and he says to her — and she was pressing something on the ironing board — ‘All right, Marie, let’s forget about this. Let’s make up and we'll go to Las Vegas. Let’s get back together.’ And she said, ‘No, Momo.’ So the next thing that happened from what I was told by her, he had a whiskey bottle, scotch bottle or whiskey bottle, and cracks her over the head with the bottle. She falls down on the carpet, probably stunned from getting hit on the head. Next thing she feels is a gun — not at a distance either, but right there, on her head. Momo shoots. Bang.
“At that point, she’s hit over the head with the whiskey bottle, shot in the head. She staggers, has to unbolt this heavy door, open the wrought iron gate, run out on the front lawn and yell, ‘Help me, help me.’ How she lived through that, I don’t know. She was in the hospital for a long time — borderline between life and death.”
A Lymer Drive neighbor who lived a few doors down from the Adamos said recently, “They didn’t associate with anyone. We didn’t suspect anything. They stayed to themselves. The scandal was they were associated with the Mafia.
“I was outside in the yard,” she said, “when I heard this noise. Evidently, the Adamos were quarreling, but it was summer and windows were open and I just thought I was hearing someone’s television. A little while later there was a noise, and I thought, ‘That sounds like a shot’ And then there was another noise and it sounded like another shot and then I heard a third sound, like the sound of a heavy object falling in a room. I was going to come in and call the authorities, but my phone that very moment started ringing. My mother was inside. I knew she would answer the phone and I wouldn’t be able to get through. So I rushed across to the neighbor, and as I was running across the street, Mrs. Adamo came out of her house and the blood was just flowing down her face and down her hose. She kept saying, ‘Help me, help me,’ and I said to her, ‘Stay where you are, I’m getting help.’
“I ran to the neighbor across and they wouldn’t call the police, so I had to go in my house and call them. In the meantime Mrs. Adamo had started out and she had walked up to this neighbor’s door. I knew this because there was a trail of blood. Then she went down again and started up Lymer Drive toward Marlborough. One of the neighbors saw her, and he ran across the street and he commanded her to lie down, which she did.
“Then the police got here and they got a blanket and covered her. The officer came to her and said, ‘Does he still have the gun?’ And Mrs. Adamo said, ‘Gun? I thought he hit me with the bottle.’
“The police took some notes and went back and they were crawling all around the house because they thought he was alive in there and had barricaded himself inside. They finally crawled in the front door and saw his feet just inside the threshold and decided he was dead and went in.
“It was an attempted murder and suicide. The ambulance driver said later that the accident was one in a million that she would come out of it. The bullet went in and circled around the back of her skull and came out over her eye. I never heard from her again. I saw her one time, we were in a restaurant and I think she was seated at the bar. She seemed to be perfectly well.”
The San Diego Union, on June 19, 1956, noted, in a headline:
Ex-Hoodlum Shoots Wife, Kills Himself
Attempted Slaying, Suicide Climax Quarrel in Kensington Park Home
The report went on to say that Adamo, part owner of the Gay Paree Tavern, and a resident at 4135 Lymer Drive, Kensington Park, died in the house. His wife Marie, 46, ran from the dwelling after she was shot. She collapsed in a front yard 150 feet away. Marie, the Union learned, “was in critical condition at Mercy Hospital. She told police before lapsing into unconsciousness her husband attacked her during a quarrel, choking her and hitting her with a whisky bottle.... Mrs. Adamo did not disclose the cause of the quarrel.”
What Marie told police was that “she first knew her husband was carrying the gun when she felt it while dancing with him Saturday at a wedding reception. ‘I’m having trouble downtown,’ Mrs. Adamo quoted her husband as saying when she asked him about the gun.”
By evening, the San Diego Tribune knew more. They knew that William “Willie the Rat” Cammisano, “formerly of Kansas City, two-time federal prison inmate on convictions of theft and internal revenue violation conspiracy,” owned the house. (Actually, a copy of the deed lists Mrs. Cammisano as the house’s owner.) The Tribune had also learned that both “Adamo and Cammisano were released without prosecution after arrest in the Cohen murder attempts.”
The lady who lived on Lymer Drive for many years, who was there the afternoon Momo shot Marie and then himself, said that San Diego, for people like herself, changed so much after the war. “It had been a lovely, small town. Then,” she said, “people with nothing to lose came out here. They had nothing. All they had to do was pack up a suitcase and button up their coats and come. People who were already here, who had good livings, we just stayed and faced it. But, after the war, it was never the same.”