Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He also writes a monthly column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
Kansas City Chief
By Allan May
In March 1983, Nick Civella was paroled from the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. He was going home to die. Civella was surrounded by family members when he passed away, but was unable to speak.
“He hadn’t said anything in several days,” reported his lawyer Bryan Fox.
Ironically, it was when he had spoken that Civella propelled himself into the national spotlight and revealed himself as the long time leader of the Kansas City Crime Family.
Guiseppe Nicoli Civella was born on March 19, 1912 in the Italian section of Kansas City known as the North Side. In 1922, at the tender age of ten, he was taken before local juvenile authorities for “incorrigibility.” Shortly after this incident he dropped out of school, however, in later life he would be described as a well-read man who enjoyed classical music. Before he reached the age of twenty Civella had been arrested for auto theft, gambling, robbery, and vagrancy. In 1932, he was arrested for bootlegging and served two months in prison.
Civella took time out from his life of crime to get married in 1934. He and his wife, Katherine, would be married for almost fifty years. Civella remained devoted to her and although they never had children, he was said to be extremely close to his nieces and nephews.
During the early 1940s, Civella became a Democratic precinct worker on the North Side where he became acquainted with Charles Binaggio, the boss of the Kansas City Crime Family. Binaggio had replaced Tom Pendergast as the leader of Democratic machine politics in the city. After World War II Civella moved up the crime family ladder. He served as a bodyguard and chauffeur for Anthony Gizzo who at the time was an enforcer for Binaggio’s gambling operations.
In April 1950, Binaggio and his bodyguard, Charles “Mad Dog” Gargotta, were murdered in the First District Democratic Club. Many believed that Gizzo was involved in the planning of the murder and was ready to step in as leader of the Kansas City mob. Gizzo served as boss for less than three years before passing away in 1953 at the age of fifty-two.
If there was a vacuum left in the leadership at that time it didn’t last long. During the Kefauver Hearings held in Kansas City during 1950, Civella was identified as a “figure to watch” in organized crime in the city. He was watched, and later seen in Apalachin, New York at the infamous Mafia conclave held on November 14, 1957. Civella was more fortunate than most of his criminal colleagues at the meeting. He was able to avoid the roadblocks and, along with fellow Kansas City mobster Joseph Filardo, made his way to a nearby town where they called a cab. The two were driven to a Binghamton, New York railroad station where they took the first train home.
Roy Lee Williams, future president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, met Civella in 1952 when the two were both chairmen of Democratic political clubs in Kansas City. Williams would later testify that he and Civella talked about the Apalachin meeting. According to Williams, Civella told him that “among other things, territory and cooperation were discussed.”
Several months after the Apalachin incident, while playing a round of golf at a local Kansas City country club, Civella was served with a subpoena to appear before a United States Senate committee to discuss his attendance at the now famous summit. However, like most of the men investigated for being there, nothing came of it.
Civella was next called in front of a Chicago grand jury that was investigating organized crime activities in the Mid-West in 1959. Civella had nothing to say to the group other than the investigation was a “lot of baloney,” and that, “the government is trying to make us notorious.” Civella would also be charged in two Missouri State tax evasion cases. In one case he was convicted and fined $150. The second case was dismissed.
Civella’s brother Carl, nicknamed “Cork,” was his closest confidante over the years. On June 13, 1960, Civella and his brother had the dubious distinction of being named charter members in the famous “Black Book” of Nevada along with nine other gambling figures. An article in the Kansas City Times said that Civella was, “one of three men who crossed the country regularly as couriers for the ‘grand council of the Cosa Nostra.’” The Civellas and the others were banned from all Nevada casinos.
In “The Black Book and the Mob,” authors Ronald A. Farrell and Carole Case reveal:
“The first 11 men were placed in the Black Book without any formal notification or hearing. All were reputed to be notorious associates of organized crime … Without apparent sanction of the commission, the board and its chairman, former FBI agent R. J. Abbaticchio, Jr., decided that these individuals presented a threat to the industry, and instructed the enforcement agents to distribute the List of Excluded Persons to all state-licensed gaming establishments.”
The authors also state that Civella was caught violating these restrictions. In 1974, Civella stayed at the Dunes Hotel where he registered under an assumed name. There he was given VIP treatment – a special double-room suite, his favorite liquor, flowers, and free license to withdraw cash from the casino cage at any time. Believing that the hotel management conspired to conceal his identity, the regulators took action against the Dunes.
In 1966, Civella was called to appear before a Clay County grand jury. He sarcastically told reporters, “This is probably the biggest thing since Jessie James.” After being called to appear for a second time, the news media asked him why it took him fifteen minutes to address the group. Civella replied that he, “stopped in the men’s room,” where he, “was drawing dirty pictures on the wall.”
Law enforcement did not appreciate Civella’s humor or his ability to elude conviction. This would result in their constant surveillance of him for the rest of his life.
In 1969, Civella was identified by a Senate committee as being a principal member of the Kansas City Crime Family. During a ten day period in mid-January 1970, the FBI picked up information through listening devices to indict Civella and several others on gambling conspiracy charges involving the recent Super Bowl between Kansas City and Minnesota. One of the men indicted, Sol Landie, a prominent Kansas City gambling figure, was called before a grand jury and given immunity from prosecution for his testimony. In November 1970, four Black men invaded Landie’s home on the pretense of robbing him. Landie was murdered and his wife viciously raped by the intruders. The men were soon arrested and it was revealed that they were hired to kill Landie because of his testimony.
While Civella was not tried for the murder he was convicted of the gambling charges in 1975. After a long appeals process, Civella was finally sent to prison in 1977. It was the first time since the 1920s that he found himself behind bars. Civella served just twenty months before he was given an early release due to poor health. Civella had been treated for cancer during the long trial and the appeals process and had pelvic organs removed during surgery. He would be operated on again in 1978.
In 1974, after an elaborate arrangement involving the Kansas City, Cleveland and Milwaukee Crime Families, and their ties to the Teamsters and the Teamster’s pension fund, Allen Glick assumed control of the Stardust and Fremont hotel / casinos in Las Vegas. Civella’s control of Teamster’s pension fund trustee Roy Williams was essential to Glick obtaining the loan to make the purchase.
Apparently Glick didn’t realize that by being tied to the mob he would have little to say in running the operations. The mob put Frank Rosenthal in charge of overseeing their interests. When Glick and Rosenthal clashed, Glick tried to fire him. Rosenthal threatened Glick who then went to Frank Balistrieri of Milwaukee to complain.
Glick was ordered to meet with Civella in Kansas City in March 1975. The two met in a hotel room where Civella told him that he owed the Kansas City Family $1.2 million dollars for getting the loan approved. The naïve Glick was not aware of mob operating procedures in regards to procuring loans from the Teamster’s pension fund, which the mob considered it’s own private bank.
According to Glick, he was told by Civella, “Cling to every word I say … if it would be my choice, you wouldn’t leave this room alive. You owe us $1.2 million. I want that paid. In addition, we own part of your corporation, and you are to do nothing to interfere with it … We will let Mr. Rosenthal continue with the casinos, and you are not to interfere.”
In a deposition in the mid-1980s, ex-Cleveland mob boss – turned government informant – Angelo Lonardo testified that each month the crime families in Cleveland, Kansas City, and Milwaukee would receive $40,000 apiece in skim money from Glick’s operations.
Roy Williams would also talk about Civella’s influence on him in the Teamster’s union. He testified that in the late 1950s, a few years after the pension fund was established, he left a meeting one night and was shoved into an automobile, blindfolded, and driven to a location where a bright light was shone on him. He was warned that he had better start cooperating with Civella on his requests for pension fund loans or his wife and children would be killed. “You will be the last to go,” he was told.
Williams stated he then became Civella’s “boy.” After the loan was approved for Glick in 1974, Williams said he received payments of $1,500 each month for his cooperation in getting the loan put through.
When Frank Fitzsimmons, Jimmy Hoffa’s hand picked replacement as president of the Teamsters, was dying of cancer in early 1981, Civella let the underworld know that Williams, now a high ranking official in the teamster’s organization, was under his control. Permission was quickly obtained from the Chicago and New York mob bosses and when Fitzsimmons died in May 1981, Williams replaced him.
Shortly after his release from prison for health reasons, Civella was indicted on bribery charges. Civella, who seldom had anything to say to grand juries or other investigative committees, had been recorded in November 1978 discussing the bribing of a prison official to get his nephew, Anthony Civella, transferred to a federal prison in Fort Worth. Civella was taken back into custody and was convicted on July 18, 1980. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
Also in November 1978, the FBI recorded a six-hour meeting held in the home of one of Civella’s relatives. In addition to discussing the skimming process from the Tropicana casino in Las Vegas, Civella and his brother Carl talked about the need to kill a mob rival. Nick Civella was able to attend this meeting because he had convinced authorities of his need for a medical release from federal prison. This would come back to haunt Civella and his family when he truly needed to be released during the last few months of his life.
With the information from the listening devices the FBI was able to revoke Civella’s parole and he was sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary. There agents tapped the telephone in the visiting room, which provided further proof that Civella was calling the shots for the Kansas City mob.
In November 1981, a federal indictment was issued charging Civella and ten others with a variety of offenses involving skimming and hidden ownership interests in the Tropicana. The FBI case was called Strawman I. Before the case could go to trial, Civella was severed from the others due to his rapidly deteriorating health.
Civella’s last years had been spent battling in the federal courts. With dozens of court motions filed by his lawyers, Civella fought to stay out of prison; to transfer within the prison system; and to get out of prison early. Citing poor health reasons, family and friends collected 800 signatures on a petition, including those of politicians and clergymen, in hopes of getting Civella another early release.
The request for his release in 1982 was turned down. In February 1983, Civella, who had been at the federal medical facility in Springfield, was transferred back to Leavenworth so he could be closer to his attorneys. Four days after the transfer he was returned to Springfield for treatment. Federal authorities released him to his family on March 1 and it was hoped that he could spend his last days at home. However, he was quickly admitted to the Menorah Medical Center where he died on March 12. Civella was buried in Kansas City’s St. Mary’s Cemetery three days later.
What Nick Civella said openly in public never seemed to coincide with what was recorded by law enforcement on listening devices. Civella denied the existence of organized crime. During a rare interview in 1970 Civella stated, “I even deny, to my knowledge, that organized crime exists in Kansas City. I am not a joiner. I am not even a member of the Knights of Columbus.”
In 1979 he spoke out again.
“There isn’t any factual, any evidentiary proof anywhere that Nick Civella is the leader or the boss of any criminal organization,” he claimed. “I say it in spades, and I say it in double spades that I’m not the head of any kind of organization like that and there’s no proof of such.”
He then challenged law enforcement officials to prove otherwise.
Editor’s Note: A special thanks to Jude A. Knudson for her research assistance with this article.