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 Two Tonys
By Allan May
“You know, Jimmy,” said Jack Dragna, “these guys are no good. We’ve gotten a lot of bad reports on them. The way I see it, we’ve got to clip them. Set something up, will you.”
In the few seconds it took to utter those words, the fates of Anthony Brancato and Anthony Joseph Trombino were sealed. It was that simple.
A couple of shake down artists, who were muscle for hire, the two Tonys began their criminal careers in Kansas City. In the late 1940s, Norfia Brancato worked for mobster Mickey Cohen in Los Angeles. Cohen described Norfia as a “real gentleman” who was loyal and had a great respect for people. Norfia approached Cohen and received permission to bring his younger brother Tony in from Kansas City. Tony Brancato arrived on the coast and became part of Cohen’s crew. Shortly his friend Tony Trombino joined him in Los Angeles. Brancato soon wore out his welcome, as he was not content with just being on Cohen’s payroll. According to Cohen, Brancato and Trombino began to “muscle people and bulldoze people – things that was uncalled for in this part of the country.”
In “Mickey Cohen: My Own Words,” Cohen describes Brancato’s situation:
“Then he started stepping out on his own. He was on the heavy and on the heist, but he was heisting people that were contrary to the rules of the people that he was supposed to have respected – not only me, but others. They were wild-haired young bloods that thought they were just going to run roughshod over everybody. Well, I couldn’t pay them much attention then. But because of my troubles, they thought they didn’t have to show any respect for nobody.”
Cohen, who was knee deep in legal problems, felt he didn’t have the time to take Brancato under his wing, even though he tried to counsel him. By the early summer of 1951, Cohen was in prison. The two Tonys by this time had a combined record of forty-six arrests and seventeen convictions. Their crimes included aggravated assault, armed robbery, burglary, narcotics violations, rape, and in addition, they were suspected of several murders. Whatever criminal goal the pair were trying to achieve, they didn’t care what enemies they made along the way.
In June 1951, the two Tonys, along with three other masked gunmen, robbed the Flamingo Hotel’s lay-off cash room of $3,500. Hy Goldbaum, who ran the commission book in Las Vegas, was present and immediately recognized Brancato and Trombino. When Goldbaum ran a bookmaking operation in Beverly Hills, he had been robbed several times by the pair. In addition to this identification, Brancato also lost his straw hat while racing to the getaway car. A week later, the pair were arrested in San Francisco. After they arranged for bail, they skipped and went to a hideout in Los Angeles.
In July, the two Tonys collected $3,000 from Sam Lazes, an agent working for West Coast bookie Abe Benjamin. The money was supposed to be paid to a syndicate bookmaker, but the two pocketed the cash. When they went back to Lazes for more, “Jimmy” was contacted.
“Jimmy” was Aladena Fratianno, known to the underworld as “Jimmy the Weasel.” He was born in Naples, Italy and came to the United States when he was four months old. Raised in Cleveland, Fratianno would move to Los Angeles during the mid-1940s. In 1947, with the sponsorship of Johnny Roselli, Fratianno became a made member of the Los Angeles Crime Family under the leadership of Jack Dragna.
Benjamin went to Fratianno and told him about the shake down. Jimmy had Lazes contact Brancato and Trombino and set up a meeting at the home of one of Jimmy’s friends. When the pair showed up and saw that Lazes wasn’t there, they grew suspicious. Fratianno wanted to know why they were shaking Lazes down. They replied that they needed money for their defense fund for the Flamingo hold up. Fratianno told the pair to lay off Lazes and he would help them knock over a high-stakes poker game where the take might be as much as $40,000. The two men were quickly sucked into the set up.
On August 6, 1951, Fratianno and the other conspirators met at Nick Licata’s Five O’clock Club. Licata had planned a party at the club that evening so the assassination team would have an alibi. From there, two cars took off to meet Brancato and Trombino near Hollywood Boulevard. In the first car were Fratianno, Charley “Bats” Battaglia, and Angelo Polizzi, the driver. Leo “Lips” Moceri, a friend of Fratianno and a future underboss of the Cleveland Family, drove the second car, the protection car. When they arrived at the designated meeting place, Fratianno could see that Battaglia was nervous. It was his first “piece of work.” He told Charley:
“Relax. It’ll be over in five seconds. Remember, when they pull up, you slide into the back seat and wait until I’m in and the door’s closed. Then cut loose. Hit the guy in front of you. Empty your gun. Then get out fast, walk across the street and Angelo will be there to pick us up.”
Jimmy smiled and asked him about the gun, “Is the safety off? Just don’t shoot yourself in the balls.”
The automobile containing Brancato and Trombino pulled up and stopped. When Battaglia fumbled with the door handle, Fratianno reached over and opened it. Charley climbed in with Jimmy right after him. Trombino was behind the wheel and Brancato was in the passenger seat in front of Fratianno. Jimmy pulled a .38 from his waistband, pushed it against the back of Brancato’s head and fired twice. He then aimed at Trombino and emptied his gun. All they while, Battaglia sat frozen seemingly unable to draw his weapon, as Fratianno screamed at him. He finally pulled the gun and fired once. Bounding out of the automobile he raced towards Polizzi in the getaway car.
If Fratianno had told Dragna about Battaglia’s performance, he was sure that Charley would be “clipped.” He decided not to say anything. The two were whisked away to Licata’s son-in-law’s house where they took showers, changed clothes and headed back to the Five O’clock Club.
The following morning, just as Fratianno anticipated, the police were at his door. He and his brother, Warren, who was living with him, were booked on suspicion of murder. Nick Licata was also arrested after supplying Fratianno with an alibi. With the exception of Warren Fratianno, the police had correctly surmised all of the participants in the murder plot including Moceri, the driver of the protection car. However, the investigation fell apart after a waitress, who had testified that Fratianno was at the club all night, told a grand jury that two detectives came to her home and burned her with cigarettes to make her change her testimony.
The murder of the two Tonys allowed Fratianno to establish his reputation as a ruthless enforcer. The case would remain unsolved until 1978 when Fratianno was chased into the Federal Witness Protection program.
Copyright A. R. May 1999