As one can well imagine, Denver's organized crime history begins like an old west drama. The first underworld boss was Lou Blonger. Known as "The Fixer," Blonger was born in Canada and was of French-Canadian descent. He arrived in Denver with his brother, Sam, in 1880, years before most other major city crime bosses were born. The brothers opened a saloon which catered to gamblers and provided prostitutes. Blonger learned early on that to be successful he had to pay the police for protection. Having accomplished this, he had a private telephone line in his office which ran directly to the chief of police.
Philip Van Cise, author of "Fighting the Underworld," wrote, "In those days the gold-brick artist flourished and every circus carried its quota of pickpockets, shell-game experts, and other grafters. When they came to town, all called at Blonger's office to get permission to operate, and one of his men would be on the job to get his fair share of the cut." Van Cise goes on to detail the various scams Blonger's gang was involved in which included an early race wire service, and an operation which sounds like the one used in the movie, "The Sting."
In 1904, Adolph W. Duff became Blonger's second-in-command. "Kid Duffy" had been a member of several gangs in Colorado and was known as a "pickpocket, hop-head, and gambler." He was also married to his niece. Building his reputation in Colorado Springs, in 1902 Duff was charged along with seven others, including the captain of Detectives, with trying to bribe a witness in a con-game case to leave the state. The case was never tried, but both the detective captain and the Chief of Police were fired.
Duff was arrested twice, once in 1897 and again in 1903, on "bunco" charges. Both times he was convicted and given a suspended sentence after he promised to leave town, which he did - for a short time. In 1904, he was convicted of running a policy wheel and later pleaded guilty to a charge of gambling. After a 30-day sentence and a $700 fine he left Colorado Springs and joined Blonger.
Together their wealth and power increased and they invested their profits in local real estate. In 1916, during a gang social outing, an argument erupted and gang member, Frank Turner, was killed by Christopher Wilson, another member. As police tried to put together a case, gang members and witnesses quickly left the state. Wilson eventually returned to stand trial in January 1920. Wilson pleaded guilty to manslaughter and, but through Blonger's connections, received only a one day sentence. Blonger had saved Wilson's life, but made him leave the state.
In 1922 charges were brought against Blonger, Duff and 18 others for their gang activities. In a sensational trial, the prosecutors presented evidence over a six-week period only to have the defense rest without calling a single witness. The jury spent over 100 hours deliberating before a verdict was reached. Blonger and Duff were each sentenced from 7 to 10 years, the remaining defendants received shorter terms or fines. Blonger died five months after entering prison. While out on bond pending another court case, Duff committed suicide.
In 1923, organized crime in Denver was changing from old west dominance to a different evil that was sweeping across the country. Benjamin Stapleton was elected mayor with the support of the Ku Klux Klan. Much of the Klan's appeal in the 1920s was due to its promise to restore law, order and morality to America. To repay political debts, Stapleton allowed Klansmen to be hired as police officers, including the Chief of Police, William Candlish. The new chief quickly abused his powers and intimidated political opponents and labor leaders in the city, imposing his own brand of morality.
By April 1925, Stapleton had had enough of Candlish's performance and secretly deputized 125 members of the local American Legion to carry out a series of raids. The raiders rounded up 200 bootleggers, gamblers, and prostitutes and uncovered a network of corruption controlled by Candlish's handpicked Klan vice squad. Candlish was fired along with twelve other Klan affiliated policemen.
The Klan problem in Colorado was statewide. Most of Colorado's 200 prohibition agents were members of the Klan. Led by R. N. Mason, the Exalted Cyclops of the Trinidad Klan, raiding parties went on random searches for bootleg stills and liquor. The majority of these raids were directed at operations run by Italians, Jews, Blacks, and other anti-Klan groups.
Italian organized crime in the state first surfaced in southern Colorado and was headed by brothers Pete and Sam Carlino of Pueblo. Pete Carlino had earned the nickname "the Al Capone of southern Colorado." By late 1930, the brothers felt they were strong enough to expand their bootlegging empire and take control of the Denver area. Joe Roma, the boss of the city, agreed to a sit down with the brothers in an effort to head off a gang war. On January 24, 1931, Roma sponsored a meeting of 30 of Colorado's top bootleggers. The police department was informed of the meeting, which was being held in the city's Italian district, and sent a raiding party. Unfortunately the meeting was interrupted before a compromise was agreed upon, and the police, unwittingly, ignited a gang war.
On February 18, Pete Carlino was standing on Denver sidewalk when gunmen from a passing automobile began blasting. Carlino survived. Less than three months later, Sam Carlino and James Colletti, a lieutenant, were killed at Carlino's home. In a rare instance, members of the Carlino gang spoke freely with the police and identified Bruno Mauro of Pueblo as the gunman. In yet another bizarre twist to the war, Roma posted a $5,000 bail for his rival, Pete Carlino on June 23, 1931, after Carlino had been arrested on a charge of conspiracy to commit arson.
On September 9, Pete Carlino drove from Denver to Canon City to visit a cousin. He was murdered on September 10 or 11, and his bullet-riddled body was stuffed beneath a bridge. Two days later, the killers returned to move the body to a place where it could be more easily discovered. Years later this murder would be the only one outside of the New York / New Jersey area that could be linked to the fictitious "Night of Sicilian Vespers" killings. The second Carlino brother's death left Roma as the organized crime leader in Colorado. Nicknamed "Little Caesar" due to his five-foot-one stature, Roma continued as crime boss until his murder on February 18, 1933.
Another prominent family involved in Denver's organized crime history was the Smaldone Family. The three brothers, Eugene "Checkers," Clyde "Flip Flop," and Clarence "Chauncey," were involved in bootlegging, during the 1920s, and gambling into the 1980s. The brothers owned and operated Gaetano's Italian restaurant, a popular spot in north Denver, for years. The rise of the family began in 1933 after a north Denver bootlegger was found riddled by 14 bullets. The Smaldones were questioned but not charged.
Eugene was recognized as Northern Colorado's leading crime figure and described as the patriarch of the Denver Crime Family. Although suspected of taking part in, or being behind, several killings, Eugene was never indicted for murder. Eugene's arrest record showed entries for auto theft, bootlegging and income tax evasion. A local law official described Eugene as "the schoolteacher type. He wore glasses. Very polite. Very civil."
His final prison sentence was in 1983. The charges were for operating a loan shark business out of Gaetano's. Eugene along with Clarence, and a nephew, Paul Clyde "Fat Paulie" Villano, pled guilty to the charges which also included illegal gun possession. Eugene Smaldone died in March 1992 of a heart attack at the age of 81. After Eugene's funeral, a relative wrote to the Denver newspapers complaining of the pain the media had caused the family and pleaded to be left alone.
Clyde Smaldone was born in 1906; his lengthy criminal record began with a burglary charge in 1920. He served 18 months in Leavenworth for bootlegging in 1933. Three years later he served time for the attempted bombing murder of a local man named Leon Barnes. Paroled in 1949, he confessed to paying protection money for his Central City gambling enterprises.
In 1953 Clyde and Eugene made headlines after a publicized raid of one of their gambling dens in Brighton, Colorado. Later that year both brothers were found guilty of jury tampering, fined $24,000 each, and sentenced to 60 years in prison. After spending 13 months in jail the brothers received a new trial. Clyde pled guilty to a lesser tampering charge and was sentenced to 12 years and fined $10,000. He was paroled in 1962. In 1967, Clyde and several others, including Eugene's son were arrested on gambling charges and for running a $100,000 a week bookmaking operation.
Clyde died at the Cedars Nursing Home at the age of 91, in January 1998. His son told reporters that despite his father's criminal past, he had a soft side and donated to local orphanages, churches and schools.
Another organized crime figure was James Colletti who attended the Apalachin Conference in 1957 (not to be confused with the James Colletti murdered in 1931). Colletti was born in Italy in 1897. After arriving in the United States he had several arrests in the New York City / New Jersey area before moving west and settling in Pueblo, Colorado. At one time listed as a member of the New York Bonanno Family, this confusion may have been due to his being involved in the ownership of the Colorado Cheese Company with Joseph Bonanno. In a Life Magazine article in 1967 he was named as the boss of Colorado. Colletti, in some publications, has been listed as having run the family until 1972, with James Spinuzzi taking over the family leadership until 1975.
As of January 1999, Clarence Smaldone is still alive and considered the underboss of a two-member mob family. In 1991, Clarence was released from a Fort Worth prison hospital after serving eight years for the 1983 loan sharking conviction. The FBI had no one listed as boss at this time.