By Scott M. Deitche
Johnny "Scarface" Rivera always seemed to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. At least that's what he would tell police. Whether it was a bolita raid, an arson ring, or a gangland killing, Rivera always pleaded ignorance, and it served him well for decades.
Rivera was considered one of the more loyal mob soldiers for the Trafficante crime family, although he may be more accurately be described as an associate. Johnny was of Cuban descent and illustrated one of the more unique characteristics of the Tampa mob. Like some of the northern crime families, non-Italians were used for many important operations. However, in the case of Tampa, many of those close to the crime family were of Cuban and Spanish descent, many gaining access to the inner sanctum of the crime family. It was access that few non-Italians anywhere else could brag about.
In fact many in the crime family spoke fluent Spanish, or Tampan, a combination of Spanish and Sicilian dialect, in a unique vernacular peculiar to Ybor City and West Tampa.
Johnny Rivera first came on to the Tampa mob scene as the bodyguard of rackets kingpin Charlie Wall, during the 1930's and 40's. Rivera facilitated bribes to public officials, and oversaw the bolita houses. By 1945 , Wall had retired (actually he was forced out of the gambling rackets by the Mafia), and Rivera moved his loyalties to the Italian syndicate.
His first arrest came on June 27, 1945 for an "investigation" by the sheriff's department, but he was quickly released. On April 2, 1947 he was arrested for vagrancy and carrying a concealed weapon, but charges were dropped again. He had a better record with the Traffic Bureau, amassing a number of speeding and reckless driving tickets through the late 1940's and early 1950's.
Rivera owned a bar in Ybor City, The Boston Bar. The Boston became a hotbed of gangland activity, a place where the bolita boys could meet for a drink and talk business. On the afternoon of November 4, 1953, Rivera was tending bar, when his friend, Joe Antinori came in with some plate glass for a table in the bar. Joe was the son of narcotics kingpin Ignacio Antinori, who was killed by a shotgun blast to the face in 1940. Joe and his brother Paul, also had their hand in various illicit ventures, including a narcotics ring with members of the Kansas City Mafia family.
As Joe entered the bar, and began putting the plate glass down, another customer walked in. He went up to the bar, and ordered a rye without ice. He swallowed the drink in one gulp, turned to Antinori, pulled out a revolver and shot Joe dead.
Rivera quickly bolted out the back door, and when he was asked by reporters why he fled the site of the shooting, he responded, "I ran...wouldn't you??"
Rivera then found himself in front of a grand jury, along with numerous others in the bolita business. The grand jury was investigating the death of Antinori and the rackets in general. Among those called to appear were gangland figures Augustine Primo Lazzara, Joe M. Cacciatore, Ed Blanco, Joe Diaz, and Frank Diecidue.
Over the next few years, Rivera continued to operate among the elite of the Tampa underworld, and soon found himself working at the Castaways Lounge, owned by Joseph Dominic Lazzara, brother of Augustine. Once again Rivera found himself in the "wrong place at the wrong time." You see, the Castaways in the 1970's, was becoming quite the meeting place for the Mafia. Frank Diecidue, underboss of the crime family, held court, while drug deals, arson-for-hire, and murders were planned between beers.
Rivera was getting on in the years, but that didn't stop him from getting in on the action. He was arrested and charged with participation in over twenty arson fires. Having lady luck on his side, he was acquitted of all charges, and went back to the action, at another bar.
In 1984, police arrested 69 people as part of Operation Super Bowl. The investigation began when police bought a bar in Tampa, and set up an elaborate sting operation against bookies and fences, with hopes of penetrating the inner sanctum of the Trafficante crime family. The operation was coordinated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Rivera wasn't one of the original targets in the probe, but was eventually arrested along with Nick Scaglione, Louis Caggiano, and Santo Jose Trafficante , nephew of the late mob boss, and a reputed mobster himself.
Johnny drew a suspended sentence and decided to lay low, keeping a peripheral presence in the crime family, but staying out of the big deals. He finally left the crime family for good on May 21, 1995, at the age of 86.
© 1999 Scott M. Deitche
Copyright © 1999 PLR International