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
The Five Iron Men Of Kansas City
By Allan May
With the death of Johnny Lazia in July 1934, less than a year after the repeal of Prohibition, gambling became the lucrative activity of the Kansas City underworld. A wide-open town, there were tremendous profits to be earned. Lazia’s political leadership in the North End was assumed by Charles Binaggio. Although Binaggio was looked upon as taking over Lazia’s political influence there were several gambling bosses who also wielded strength in the Kansas City underworld.
This group of men came to be known as the Five Iron Men. Where this term came from and when it came into existence is not certain. In “Tom’s Town,” one of the most informative books about the early years of organized crime and political corruption in Kansas City written by William Ridding in 1947, the term is not used. In Ed Reid’s “Mafia,” published in 1952, he uses the term “iron men” in quotation marks but doesn’t indicate from where he is quoting. He states that the “iron men” were James Balestrere, Peter and Joseph DiGiovanni, Joseph DeLuca, and Anthony Gizzo. Except for Gizzo, the other men were known for being part of the Mafia faction in the city.
During the days following the murder of Binaggio in April 1950, there were several St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper articles that mentioned the “big five.” The articles refer to “the principal gang figures immediately below Binaggio in rank.” They identify those figures as Charley “Mad Dog” Gargotta (murdered with Binaggio), Charles Carollo, James Balestrere, Gaetano Lococo, and Anthony Gizzo.
Finally in Senator Estes Kefauver’s, “Crime In America,” his own synopsis of the fourteen city crime investigation tour, he states that Max H. Goldschein, a Special Assistant United States Attorney, testified in 1950 that, “the Five Iron Men” were Binaggio, Balestrere, Gargotta, Gizzo, and Lococo.
While Binaggio has already been discussed in an earlier column and Balestrere will be talked about in a column with the DiGiovannis later, I want to focus on Carollo, Lococo, Gargotta and Gizzo here.
Charles Vincenzo “Charley the Wop” Carollo was born in Santa Ristino, Italy and never became a naturalized American citizen. He may have been considered first among equals in the gambling business after Lazia’s murder. Carollo had been the closest to Lazia, his loyalty extending back to the 1920s when he “took the rap” for Lazia after he was indicted in a liquor conspiracy.
Carollo kept a low profile until the fall of 1933 when a crusading judge, Allen C. Southern, began a grand jury investigation. The probe not only targeted the gambling rackets, but also the monopoly the gangs enjoyed in the beer and beverage distribution business. When the grand jury went to work looking for slot machines, they disappeared with “phantomlike” speed into storage for the duration of the investigation. In addition to Carollo and Lazia being called before the grand jury, a pending tax evasion case against Lazia, which machine boss Thomas J. Pendergast had worked hard to suppress, was reopened.
In June 1934, two minor hoodlums from Los Angeles received permission to open a gambling den that they named the Fortune Club. Carollo met with the two men six months later to let them know he was now a half-owner in the club. He figured the protection he provided for the pair was at least worth that much. In March 1938, he notified his “partners” that he was buying them out for $5,000 each. By then the club was making, by conservative estimates, $60,000 a month. When the authorities launched a cleanup campaign in January 1939 they were surprised to find that Carollo was the secret owner of the club.
While local investigators believed that Carollo became the leader of the Kansas City mob after Lazia’s murder, federal authorities considered him to be only a front for an “even bigger man, another Italian” who they did not name, although speculation was that it was Charles Binaggio.
Carollo was indicted on income tax evasion charges after the revelation of his ownership of the Fortune Club. District Attorney Maurice M. Milligan prosecuted the case. While Carollo’s actual position in the underworld was always in question, his trial revealed that his chief function was as a collector of the “lug.” The “lug” was the tax charged to the gambling houses in Kansas City to remain in operation. The investigation revealed that from nineteen gambling houses targeted the “lug” had gone from $53,000 annually in 1935, to almost double, $103,000 by 1938. Carollo admitted during testimony that he, “collected the lug for Pendergast, among others, making direct payments to the Boss and his secretary.”
At Carollo’s sentencing, Milligan made the following statement:
“The investigation into the background of this defendant reveals the fact that after the death of Lazia this defendant took over the authority exercised by Lazia in his lifetime, relative to gambling and rackets carried on in Kansas City, Missouri; that he grew in power even greater than his predecessor; that he had a full entrée into the offices of the high officials in the city administration. According to the testimony, he was seen going into and out of the private office of the former city manager; that he had full entrée into the police headquarters, and almost daily was a visitor at the office of the director of police.”
Carollo was sent to prison at Leavenworth. His sentence consisted of one year for mail fraud; three years for income tax evasion; and four years for perjury. Prison life didn’t exactly put Carollo on the straight and narrow. Shortly after he arrived he got involved in a smuggling operation bringing contraband articles into the prison. For these offenses he was transferred to Alcatraz. After his release from prison, Carollo was deported on January 7, 1954.
Author Ed Reid wrote that no matter who was running the Kansas City rackets -
Lazia, Carollo or Binaggio – the enforcement end of the gang fell to Gizzo, Gargotta, and Lococo, with “Lococo serving as the engineer or quarterback.” While working for the bosses these men were said to be in constant communication with James Balestrere who, if not in name, functioned very similar to a family consigliere.
Gaetano Lococo, also known as Thomas or Tano, claimed to have been born in America prior to the turn of the 20th century. Ed Reid described Lococo as follows:
“Known as a Mafia enforcer in Kansas City, he was one of the key group of young Italian storm troopers who fronted for John Lazia in the early days. With Tony Gizzo and the late Charley Gargotta he served on the mob enforcement squad.”
Senator Kefauver had another description of Lococo:
“Lococo was a mousy, insignificant, bespectacled little man whose appearance belied his reputation as another of Binaggio’s ‘enforcers.’”
Reid claimed Lococo’s police record was removed from the files of the Kansas City Police Department because “he was virtually in control of the police department in the 1930s.” Reid states that Lococo “wriggled out of the clutches of the law” in 1933 in connection with one gang killing.
In 1946, Lococo was one of four gang members under Binaggio who muscled in on the race wire service in Kansas City. In 1948, he traveled to Nogales, Arizona where he posed as a retired businessman. Hiring the local mayor as his attorney, he purchased a hotel for $50,000. When he approached the county sheriff with a proposal to start a gambling operation there, he was rebuffed. He quickly sold the hotel and left town.
Reid claims that a meeting took place in Tia Juana, Mexico to plan the murder of Binaggio and that Lococo may have “helped arrange things.” Lococo had a family tie to the boss. He was the uncle of Binaggio’s wife.
In addition to his involvement in gambling, Lococo owned several drug stores in the Kansas City area. He and his wife spent large blocks of time in Arizona and Mexico due to Lococo’s bouts with arthritis.
When Lococo was called to testify before the Kefauver Committee, Senator Charles W. Tobey asked him about his “ugly reputation,” which, according to Reid, was that he was “probably the most skillful and experienced killer in the city.”
Lococo replied, “You can’t give me a single man in Kansas City who could ever say that I threatened him or said anything wrong to him or anywhere else.”
During the time the Kefauver hearings were in session, Lococo was also on trial for income tax evasion. He was convicted and sentenced to two years in Leavenworth.
According to Senator Estes Kefauver, “If ever a human being deserved the title of ‘Mad Dog’ it was Gargotta.”
Born in Kansas City, Gargotta was arrested more than forty times over a thirty-year period. Those charges included murder, gambling, liquor law violations, carrying a concealed weapon, robbery, auto theft, extortion, attempted burglary and vagrancy. Incredibly, all of the charges were dismissed with the exception of an assault to kill charge for the attempted murder of a local sheriff.
While attempting to flee after the killing of Lazia adversary, Ferris Anthon and the attempted murder of Sheriff Tom Bash in 1934, Gargotta was charged with murder, attempted murder, and the theft of two revolvers from the Army, which were used during the crimes. When he was tried on the stolen revolvers charge, Leonard L. Claiborne, a Kansas City detective, switched tags on a gun found on Gargotta and another recovered near the murder scene. He then lied on the witness stand having been promised a promotion. Instead Claiborne was sentenced to four years in prison.
The prosecutor selected to handle the murder trial, W. W. Graves, asked for and received twenty-seven continuances over a five-year period before he dismissed the charges against Gargotta all together. Graves was later removed from office by the Missouri Supreme Court for “neglect of duty” in his handling of the case.
Gargotta was eventually re-indicted for the attempted murder of Sheriff Bash as part of Governor Lloyd Stark’s cleanup drive. Gargotta pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison. However, the Missouri Pardon Board recommended his parole after just nineteen months and he was released in January 1941.
Gargotta became Binaggio’s bodyguard and would be murdered with him in April 1950 at his Democratic headquarters.
Anthony Robert “Fat Tony” Gizzo seemed to be associated with everyone in the Kansas City underworld. In the early 1920s, when he was arrested on a narcotics charge, he offered a federal officer $10,000 to let it go. He was convicted and in 1924 served two years in prison.
Gizzo was involved in gambling operations with Lazia, Carollo, and Binaggio. He was also rumored to be Balestrere’s “personal representation” in Wichita, Kansas where he was considered the Mafia boss.
“Fat Tony” could be called somewhat of a character. During his testimony before the Kefauver Committee it was revealed that Gizzo was an acquaintance of numerous top mobsters throughout the country. Kefauver described Gizzo as, “a boastful, noisy, beer barrel of a man” and, in apparently an opinion Kefauver developed from interrogating an abundance of underworld figures, “was the only one whose performance was a reasonable facsimile of how a gangster is supposed to act.”
When Senator Alexander Wiley asked him about his rumored habit of carrying large sums of money, Gizzo replied, “Do you want to see it?” From his pocket the overweight gangster pulled out a roll and counted off twenty-five $100 bills.
Gizzo had one of the more interesting exchanges with the committee when he was asked, “Do you belong to the Mafia?”
“What is the Mafia?” he responded. “I don’t even know what the Mafia is.”
Apparently Gizzo forgot this exchange and was later asked if he knew James Balestrere.
“Yes, sir,” Gizzo replied.
“He is rather widely known as a prominent man in the Mafia, isn’t he?” asked the committee.
“That’s what you hear,” said Gizzo.
“What did you hear?” questioned the committee.
“The same thing that you just said there,” answered Gizzo.
Reminded of this conversation during public hearings held later, Gizzo cried out, “I wish to hell I knew what the Mafia is!”
After the murders of Binaggio and Gargotta, and the imprisonment of Lococo, Gizzo would assume the leadership of the Kansas City underworld. His rule would be short lived, but it wouldn’t be a violent ending. On April 1, 1953, Gizzo died of a massive heart attack in a hotel room in Dallas. The 52-year-old Gizzo and his wife had gone to Texas to visit their son who was serving time for a narcotics offense.
Editor’s Note: This work could not have been completed without the valuable research assistance provided by Jude A. Knudson.