The first known crime boss for the Milwaukee La Cosa Nostra Family was Vito Guardalabene. His criminal organization is thought to have existed as a branch of the Chicago Outfit. Guardalabene would rule as crime lord from 1918 until his death on February 6, 1921 from natural causes. Vito Guardalabene’s son, Peter, would pick up the reigns and rule until 1927.
Joseph Amato was seen as the next official boss. His tenure was brief and he died of natural causes on March 28, 1927. After his death Joseph Vallone would be considered the next crime boss over Milwaukee. It was during his tenure that the National Commission, a governing body of La Cosa Nostra crime families, was formed. The criminal council decided that the Milwaukee LCN Family would answer directly to and remain under the influence of the Chicago Outfit. Vallone retired from the rackets in 1949 and died of natural causes on March 18, 1952.
After the retirement of Vallone, Sam Ferrara was alleged to have been the next boss, ruling until November or December of 1952. His reign as boss is earmarked by one particular event. Just prior to his retirement, it is believed that the rank and file membership of the Milwaukee LCN Family deposed of him by vote. All evidence suggests that members requested intervention by the Chicago Outfit to have Ferrara step down. The Chicago LCN Family assisted and Ferrara vacated his position.
John Alioto was then chosen to fill the position held by the ousted Ferrara. He would serve from late 1952 until 1961. Law enforcement material suggests that he was merely grooming his son-in-law and prominent gangster Frank Balistrieri to take over as head of the crime family. During Alioto’s reign as boss the Milwaukee rackets grew at a face pace. Most notably was the growing relationship with organized labor.
On December 27, 1961 Alioto attended a civic testimony honoring Dr. Vito Guardalabene. The social event, honoring the son and grandson of the previously mentioned Guardalabenes, would also serve as the official induction of Balistrieri as the new boss of the Milwaukee LCN Family.
Frank Balistrieri, known as “Frankie Bal” to his criminal cohorts, is seen as the most well-known crime boss of Milwaukee. Balistieri had already established a sizable loan shark “book”, monopolistic control over illegal sports betting and large-scale influence over vending machines. He would launch the criminal organization based in Milwaukee to greater illegal heights.
In March 1967 Balistrieri would be convicted for felony income tax evasion. He had no reason to fear losing control over the rackets because he had place his brother Peter as his underboss and acting boss during his absence. He served two years at the federal prison located at Sandstone, MN and was released in June 1971.
By 1972 or 1973, Balistieri was approached by California real-estate developer Allen Glick regarding Las Vegas. Glick had desired to build a casino in Las Vegas but lacked the funding. According to the testimony given by former Cleveland LCN Family underboss and acting boss Angelo “Big Ange” Lonardo, Balistrieri contacted Kansas City crime family boss Nicholas “Nick” Civella about a possible loan to Glick. Civella, with his influence over Teamsters Union official Roy D. Williams, was able to secure the funding. Williams was able to extract the funds from the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund. The pension fund had been a creation of previous Teamsters boss and the notoriously corrupt James R. Hoffa.
The best known of these casinos was the Star Dust Hotel. Glick would act as a “front man” or puppet for appearances. Chicago’s gambling racketeer Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal would be considered the “inside man”. Balistrieri would be responsible for dividing the illegal funds or “skim money” among the various criminal organizations.
The skim racket worked very easily. Monies collected from patrons were to be accounted for in what was known as the “count room”. Before the proper accounting was completed, portions of the casino’s earnings were collected and shipped back to crime bosses in Milwaukee, Kansas City, Cleveland and Chicago. An exact figure has never been given on how much was actually taken. Law enforcement, however, claims that from 1974 to 1981 that it was estimated to be well over $2 million. Lonardo, while giving his testimony to the U.S. Senate, states that Cleveland’s portion averaged $40,000 a month. Lonardo also said that a dispute over the illegal amounts arose between the criminal organizations of Milwaukee and Kansas City. He also stated that the Chicago Outfit was called to intervene. Upon this action, the Chicago crime family extracted a 25% “fee” and the charge for their intervention until the racket collapsed in 1981.
If Balistrieri was influencing Las Vegas’s underworld, he also was held a tight grip over the day-to-day criminal operations and their operators based in Milwaukee. On September 11, 1975 gambling operator August Maniaci, a suspected informer, was murdered by several gun shots outside his Milwaukee home. Another suspected informer, August Palmisano, was slain by a car bomb on June 30, 1978. A witness claimed to have seen Chicago Outfit member and a suspected hit man, Charles Nicoletti, near Manaci’s home moments after his murder. Nicoletti, who was believed to have been a close associate of Balistrieri, was murdered on March 29, 1977.
In 1978 FBI Agent Joseph Pistone, under the alias “Donnie Brasco”, was slowly infiltrating group or crew of mobsters that were based in Manhattan and a part of the Bonanno LCN Family. Simultaneously another FBI Agent was based in Milwaukee and investigating Balistrieri’s control over vending machines. Unfortunately the Milwaukee based agent was making very little progress. He, along with Pistone, devised a plan that would bring both the Bonanno and Milwaukee mobsters to form an illegal partnership.
According to Pistone, from his book Donnie Brasco, then Bonanno “capo” or captain Michael “Mimi” Sabella made contact with the Milwaukee LCN Family. After much formalities, Pistone and Bonanno soldier Benjamin “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero met with Balistrieri. Pistone would then be a part of a unique event. The trio actually ate dinner with Balisteiri at his massive mansion. Pistone details how Ruggiero sat in awe when Balistieri actually drove them to his home and his openness.
The Bonannos, Milwaukee gangsters and the FBI Agents did reach an agreement over the vending machine rackets. Balistieri, through his sons, made an agreement. His son, John and Joseph, drew up an agreement which gave Balstrieri overly favorable arrangements and could ultimately give control over the proposed arrangements.
Months later, with suspicion looming, Balistrieri cancelled the arrangements and ceased all contact with the Bonanno LCN Family. It was through his sons and their legal expertise that Balistrieri was able to hide controlling interest in many legal businesses.
By the 1980s American justice had caught up with all three Balistrieris. Frank Balistrieri would be hit with one indictment after the other. Many were from the FBI investigations into his controlling interests in local businesses and his involvement in the Las Vegas skim racket. Frank Balistrieri arranged a plea agreement that called for him to serve thirteen years in a federal prison. He was believed to have made such an arrangement due in part because both sons were slated to go on trial for extortion. Balistrieri was hoping that they would garner lighter sentences. Both sons would eventually serve two years and lose their licenses to practice law.
Frank Balistieri was released from prison in late 1991. He would die of a heart attack in early February 1993. Senator Gary George, D-Milwaukee, was one of the notable attendees at Balistrieri’s funeral. While in prison Balistrieri installed his brother Peter as acting boss and the crime family deteriorated. Peter Balistrieri would quietly serve as official boss of the Milwaukee rackets from 1993 until his death from natural causes on August 17, 1993.
As of 1997 long time consigliere or counselor to the Milwaukee LCN Family, Joseph P. Caminiti, is believed to be the local crime boss. Law enforcement claims that he shares much of the power with Frank Balistrieri’s son Joseph. In 1996 Joseph Balistrieri unsuccessfully petitioned to have his license to practice as a lawyer reinstated. Law enforcement also believes that the Milwaukee LCN Family is nearly extinct, with less 15 “made” members and the most lucrative rackets controlled by the Chicago Outfit.
The Chicago Tribune , various articles, 1979-1993.
The Milwaukee Sentinel,, various articles 1981-1993.
U.S. Senate Testimony of Angelo Lonardo, 1988.
Appreciation to forum poster Scott M. Dietche for his assistance.