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By Frank R. Hayde
Organized Crime Author
The Mafia and the Machine, by Frank R. Hayde The Mafia and the Machine:
The Story of the Kansas City Mob

     The story of the American Mafia is not complete without a chapter on Kansas City. The City of Fountains has appeared in The Godfather, Casino, and The Sopranos, but many Midwesterners are not aware that Kansas City has affected the fortunes of the entire underworld. In The Mafia and the Machine, author Frank Hayde ties in every major name in organized crime-Luciano, Bugsy, Lansky-as well as the city's corrupt police force.
     Kansas City

     Many outsiders find it remarkable that there "was" a Mafia in Kansas City. To the uninitiated, KC seems an unlikely setting for a sub-culture commonly associated with larger municipalities and places where palm trees grow. What’s remarkable is how unremarkable the local Mafia is to Kansas Citians. For generations, the local mob was a simple fact of everyday life, something almost as old as the city itself, and something so enmeshed in business and politics that it was taken for granted as an inevitable part of city life. Rare indeed is the senior citizen in Kansas City who doesn’t have some sort of personal, mobster-related anecdote.

     The KC family could be described as "typical" in the sense that in Kansas City one finds all the characteristics that have come to represent the American Mafia. It was, however, more openly intertwined with politics than most Mafia families. Its close alliance with the political "Machine" came largely as a result of the close relationship between Johnny Lazia, KC’s Prohibition-era Mafia boss, and Tom Pendergast, the powerful political boss who became the national poster boy for machine politics.

     The Pendergast Machine was a combine of Irishmen that dated back to the nineteenth century, when Tom’s older brother Jim was Alderman of the First Ward, which included Little Italy. During Jim Pendergast’s time, KC’s Little Italy was a crowded, mostly Sicilian, extremely insular ghetto where the Black Hand operated with impunity, thanks to the colony’s strict adherence to Omerta. The Kansas City Star found a small crack in the code of silence and first printed the word "Mafia" in an article dated November 24, 1897. In the early 1900’s, a string of unsolved murders motivated the KCPD to assign a special agent named Joseph Raimo to Little Italy. Raimo was on the job only a short time before being shot-gunned to death while walking his beat at Fourth and Holmes. Raimo was replaced with another Italian officer named Louis Olivero. Officer Olivero’s home was bombed and the violence in Little Italy continued, reaching its darkest point in 1919 when a man named Paul Catanzaro murdered a young boy named Frank Carramusa. Carramusa’s father was a fruit peddler who couldn’t put together enough money to pay the Black Hand what they said he owed them. Catanzaro was caught in his murderous act and nearly beaten to death by outraged neighbors. Officer Olivero saved Catanzaro’s life by arriving on scene and arresting him but once again Omerta prevailed and Catanzaro was never convicted. In a cryptic twist of fate, the murdered boy’s brother, Carl Carramusa, would later join the Mafia and become brothers in blood with Paul Catanzaro. Many years later, in the early 1940’s, Carl Carramusa would testify against his fellow mobsters in a case involving an international heroin conspiracy between the KC, St. Louis and Tampa Families. It was a historic case in which Harry Anslinger, the head of the Bureau of Narcotics, first offered hard evidence that a highly organized, national network of crime dominated by Sicilian-Americans, did in fact exist. When Carl Carramusa testified at the trail, Paul Catanzaro, who had murdered Carramusa’s younger brother twenty-five years earlier, sat in courtroom and menaced Carramusa with the evil eye and the devils horn death sign. Several years later, killers tracked Carl Carramusa down in Chicago and blew his head off with a shotgun. Harry Anslinger would cite the Carramusa/Catanzaro affair in his attempts to raise awareness of organized crime. The whole chilling story, from Catanzaro’s murder of young Frank, to brother Carl’s joining the Mafia, to Catanzaro threatening Carl in the courtroom, to Carl’s killing a quarter-century after his brother’s, seemed a perfect illustration of the breadth, scope and treachery of this complicated criminal conspiracy known as the Mafia.

     Back when Tom Pendergast took over the First Ward from his brother Jim in 1910, Kansas City was a center for Ragtime music and "saloon politics." Tom cared little for music, but was enamored with saloon politics and the action of making friends, trading favors, and stuffing ballot boxes. From his Democratic club headquarters, Tom Pendergast promoted a wide-open town where every form of vice was well-organized and easily obtained. Big Tom himself was not exactly a barrel of fun. He was an ambitious, intimidating figure who drank little, danced none, went home to his wife and three children early and attended Mass religiously. He did have one, all-consuming vice, which was gambling. When Tom was at the height of his power in the mid 1930’s, he was one of the biggest "whales" in the racing circuit, wagering close to 10 Million a year in today’s dollars.

     By the time Prohibition started, Tom had exchanged elected office for behind the scenes political control and a business empire that included a concrete monopoly in the rapidly growing metropolis. His political power grew exponentially in the 1930’s, when he became the most powerful man in Missouri and sent Harry Truman to Washington. He also partnered with Johnny Lazia in a takeover of the police department, staffing it with ex-cons and corrupt officers who protected the rackets and took orders from gangsters. This arrangement led to the Union Station Massacre, a seminal event in the history of American organized crime that changed the nation’s legal landscape and gave birth to the modern form of federal law enforcement that we are familiar with today. The Mafia/Machine combine also made KC the setting for some notoriously corrupt and violent elections.

     Johnny Lazia rose to the top by challenging Irish control over politics in Little Italy. In 1928 he launched a successful coup that made him the boss of the North Side Democratic Club. A year later he joined Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and the other top hoods at the historic Atlantic City Mob Summit. Pulling the strings behind the 30-year-old Lazia was a triumvirate of native Sicilians: Joseph and Peter DiGiovanni, and James Balestrere, Balestrere was a high ranking member of the Unione Siciliano who spelled his last name slightly different from his kin in the Milwaukee Family. These three men were old-world Dons who sequestered themselves inside the Italian community while the American born Lazia became a public figure, a downtown dandy who put his swarthy good looks and stylish clothes on exhibit during his frequent strolls of the city streets. Lazia propelled his trim, welterweight figure with a crisp, confident stride, pausing to give a few coins to a panhandler or engage in an articulate conversation with businessmen and their admiring wives. If Lazia stopped on the sidewalk at the intersection of Twelfth and Baltimore, it meant that he was available without appointment to favor seekers whose numbers swelled as times got worse during the Great Depression. When the crowds got too large or too pushy, Lazia’s bodyguard Charley "The Wop" Carollo would insert his ample body and act as a buffer. As the unofficial but publicly obvious Chief of Police, Lazia turned KC into a safe haven for criminals willing to pay for the privilege. Lazia made friends and drew loyalties from street people who ate in his soup kitchen and high rollers who gambled in his plush casinos. He controlled every racket and amassed a fortune but his empire attracted the envy of two separate crews headed by Joe Lusco and Jimmy "Needles" LaCapra. Both men became prime suspects when Lazia was gunned down on a hot summer night in 1934. Lazia’s funeral likely holds the record as the largest ever in Kansas City. The DiGiovanni/Balestrere triumverate lived on and continued to supervise Family affairs for decades to come. Their inner circle included the aforementioned Paul Catanzaro, the DeLuca and Lascoula brothers, Gaetano Lococo, John Blando, and a name that suggests a link to the Pittsburg Family: John La Rocca

     Charley "The Wop" Carollo, took over as front man after Lazia’s demise but ended up snared in a federal probe that sent both him and Tom Pendergast to prison in 1939. Rising to fill Carollo’s shoes was a politically savvy Mafioso named Charlie Binaggio, who successfully merged the Mafia and the Machine and launched a political coup to open the entire state of Missouri to police protected gambling and vice. The prospect of a Missouri-sized Las Vegas was tantalizing to say the least, and Binaggio had little trouble enlisting the help of the national syndicate. In the 1946 election, Binaggio delivered a landslide victory for his pet governor and a slate of other candidates. With a friendly statehouse and Harry Truman in the White House, The KC Family seemed poised to leap ahead of Cleveland to claim the #3 spot behind NY and Chicago. Binaggio came remarkably close to changing Missouri and the Mob forever but came up short. In 1950 he and long-time KC enforcer Charlie Gargotta were murdered in a Democratic Club on Truman Road. The sensational double murder and its political overtones were the catalyst for the historic Kefauver Investigations into Interstate Racketeering and Organized Crime.

     Anthony "Fat Tony" Gizzo bossed the family for a brief period in the 1950’s before dying of natural causes and leaving the reigns to his former chauffer, a no-nonsense gangster named Nick Civella. Civella was caught at the Apalachin Confab in 1957 but went on to rule the family until his death in 1983. With his brother and trusted Underboss, Carl "Cork" Civella, at his side, Nick Civella led the family into lucrative ventures in the Teamsters Union and Las Vegas casinos. He also presided over an intra-family war that led to the destruction of an entire city district known as the River Quay. Making up Civella’s inner circle were; brother Cork, nephew "Tony Ripe", gambler Max Jaben, and enforcer Carl "Tuffy" DeLuna. On the fringes was a powerful Capo named William "Willy the Rat" Cammisano, who headed a semi-autonomous crew in the vein of the Riccobene faction in Philly or the Licatas in Cleveland. Nick and Cork and Max Jaben became charter members of the first edition of Nevada’s "Black Book" in 1960.

     Nick Civella’s influence with the Teamsters came mainly through Roy Williams, a Kansas City truck driver who would eventually succeed Jimmy Hoffa and Frank Fitzsimmons as top man of the most powerful labor union in the country. Williams and Civella met through Democratic circles in the late 1940’s and became, in Williams own words "very close." Civella used a blend of sincere friendship and sheer terror to keep Williams in his pocket and reap the rewards that came with owning the Teamsters. By the 1970’s, The KC Outfit was skimming a steady stream of cash from several Las Vegas casinos that were purchased with Teamster loans approved by Roy Williams and other mob-friendly trustees. Sharing in the Las Vegas largesse were the families in Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. It was a sweet deal for the modern mob; a hands-off, mostly non-violent, white-collar conspiracy that delivered cash from the counting rooms by charter jet. It represented the new, relatively clean way of doing things. Unfortunately for Nick Civella, a messy mob war was brewing on the streets of Kansas City. Adding to the pressure was the Kansas City Organized Crime Strike Force, which was patiently bugging businesses and building cases.

     The River Quay went from a creaky relic of the 19th Century to a hip and happening center for culture and nightlife when it was redeveloped in the early 1970’s. A mob-connected entrepreneur named Freddie Bonadonna invested heavily in the Quay and became the president of its merchants association. The Quay was rising just as a seedy stretch of 12th Street was being condemned to make way for a hotel project. William Cammisano made a push to relocate go-go dancing and pornography to the River Quay. His efforts were resisted by Freddie Bonadonna, who was loosely aligned with a faction led by the Spero brothers – a trio of tough guys who blamed the Civellas for the murder of their fourth brother; a Teamsters official who turned up in a car trunk in 1972. Tensions between the Civellas and Speros heated up just as Bonadonna’s troubles with Cammisano mounted in a dispute over parking spaces. A lingering distrust between the Civellas and Cammisano’s further complicated the situation. The River Quay became a pressure cooker that exploded in a series of bombings, arson and shootings that left the district looking like a war zone. The River Quay was dead by late 1977, an eerie urban landscape of boarded-up and bombed-out buildings studded with creepy peep shows –a phantasmagoric monument to mob war. Freddie Bonadonna, who lost his father and his business, went into the Witness Protection Program, leaving the Spero brothers to fight the power by themselves.

     On May 16, 1978 at approximately 10:00 pm, three masked men stormed into the Virginian Tavern just east of downtown to pull the most aggressive local gangland hit since the Union Station Massacre. The three Spero brothers were in a booth eating a late dinner when the assailants bared down on them with shotguns. For a moment, all was wild chaos punctuated by the deep booms of the shotguns. When it was over, Michael Spero was killed, Carl was paralyzed from the waist down, and Joseph was hit in the arm. Joseph and Carl were both later killed by bombs. After his death, a letter was unsealed in which Joseph blamed the Virginian Tavern hit on Carl DeLuna, Joe Ragusa, and Charles Moretina.

     Agents listening in on a meeting between Cork Civella and Carl DeLuna at the Villa Capri Restaurant on June 2, 1978 were hoping to overhear some incriminating conversation regarding the Virginian Tavern hit when they perked up to some talk involving the Teamsters Union, the Chicago Outfit, and someone they called "Genius." The conversation turned the agents on their ears and spun their investigation off in an unexpected and exciting direction. It was the genesis of the famous Strawman case that was popularized by Martin Scorcese’s film adaptation of Nick Pellegi’s book Casino. The Strawman case uncovered the hidden ownership and conspiracy to skim cash from Las Vegas casinos. Two major RICO trials were held in Kansas City and the KC Organized Crime Strike Force made history with convictions of the top men from the four families of Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee.

     The Strawman case marked the end of the Mob’s sway over life in the Heart of America. When Nick Civella died in 1983, so too did the loyalty and complicity of what was left of the Machine. With the other top guys in prison, there was no one left on the street with the type of chemistry, clout and connections to continue things as they had been before.

     But the Mob dies hard, and activity continued. Gangland slayings continued into the mid-1980’s and an FBI affidavit mentions new members being made into the family in 1987. Willy the Rat and Tony Ripe avoided war largely by being in and out of prison at alternating times. The 73 year-old Cammisano was released from an extortion stint resulting from the River Quay just before Tony went away on gambling charges in 1984. Willy’s son William Jr. served as his father’s right hand and involved himself in construction rackets. He went to prison in 1989 just as Tony Civella came out to share power with the elder Cammisano for a few short years before going to prison yet again in 1992 for a conspiracy to divert more than a million dollars worth of pharmaceuticals onto the gray market.

     Carl "Cork" Civella and William Cammisano, Sr. died within three months of each other in late 1994 and early 1995. Cork, who was still imprisoned from Strawman, succumbed to complications from pneumonia at the age of 84. Cammisano died from lung cancer at the age of 80.

     Willie Cammisano, Jr. was now the highest ranking man on the street but only until Tony Ripe was released the following year. Willie and Tony soon found themselves added to Nevada’s Black Book in the winter of 1997, one hundred years after the word "Mafia" first appeared in the Kansas City Star.

     In 1998 Carl DeLuna was paroled after twelve years in federal prison. In Casino the movie, Martin Scorcese portrayed Carl DeLuna as Artie Piscano, a bumbling, doughboy of a wiseguy who never even went to trial because he dropped dead of a heart attack during a raid. In truth, Carl DeLuna is the only one of the defendants depicted in the movie who is still alive today. Fellow old-timer James Duardi, who was a suspect in the Binaggio/Gargotta hit in 1950, also lives on at the age of 87.

     After years of emotional turmoil and frustration with the Witness Protection Program, Freddie Bonadonna took his life with his own hand in the spring of 2002.

     Violence has continued to plague the Cammisano family into the 21st Century; One of Willy’s nephews was gunned down in his yard in 2001 and another inside his home in 2007. Both crimes remain unsolved.

     On February 14, 2006, Anthony "Tony Ripe" Civella died at the age of 75 while on a golfing vacation in Phoenix, AZ. It is tempting to use his passing as a conclusion to the KC story. Then again, a curious mind can’t help but wonder about a teasing remark in Civella’s Star obituary: "Although he only fathered five children, Tony became a beloved father figure to many, many others."

by Frank R. Hayde
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By Jay C. Ambler
Organized Crime Research
     Kansas City
     The Kansas City Las Cosa Nostra faction began much like their native territory. Just as outlaws on horses enforced their edict with so did the Kansas City gangsters. However, the Kansas City LCN Family would reap greater riches and spread much more violence.

     Kansas City first had a taste of organized crime with the arrival of the DiGiovanni brothers and their Balestre gang. The DiGiovannis were old Mafiosi from Sicily that derived their earnings from extortion rackets based in the local Italian neighborhoods. The most prominent of the brothers was Joseph “Scarface” DiGiovanni. He arrived in Kansas City, fleeing a murder indictment back in his homeland, at around 1912. He would go to lead a vicious gang following the adoption of Prohibition in 1920 with a monopoly of bootlegging rackets. When Prohibition was repealed, in 1933, he established the DiGiovanni Wholesale Liquor Company and employ two top “made” members as assistants. They were his brother Peter “Sugarhouse” and Paul Cantanzaro. Both them were feared enforcers and forced tavern owners to purchase from the company. Many sources suggest that the Joseph DiGiovanni would be a real power behind the Kansas City syndicate for the next five decades. He would die in October 1967, having faced numerous charges ranging from murder to rape, never having been found guilty of any serious offense. By the time of his death he had been retired from crime for over a decade.

     It was also during the early days that a non-Italian came into focus. He was Thomas “Boss Tom” Pendergrast. Originally from Ohio, Pendergrast made his roots in Kansas City at around 1910 and quickly became active in local politics. With the financial back of the local crime syndicate and his control over the Jackson County Democratic Club, Pendergrast ensured protection for the mobsters with regards to selecting local prosecutors and judges. Pendergrast was alleged to have operated a number of speakeasies and brothels. He also controlled numerous illegal gambling dens, the Jackson Hotel and Riverside RaceTrack. His career ended in 1939 with a conviction for income tax evasion and a subsequent year in prison. Upon his release, with an additional five years of probation, he died at the age 72 on January 26, 1945.

     By the mid-1920s credit is given to John Lazia for organizing the Kansas City rackets. With the backing of DiGiovanni and Pendergrast, Lazia expanded the syndicate’s criminal interest throughout parts of the west and was a well-connected mobster. On July 10, 1934 he was gunned down in his car at 3:00 AM. Much evidence suggests that his underboss, Charles Carollo, ordered his demise and that “made” member Michael “Jimmy Needles” LaCapra actually pulled the trigger.

     Charles Carollo would be the next to ascend as Kansas City’s crime boss. He ruled until his 1939 income tax evasion conviction. He was succeeded by Charles Binaggio. While boss Binaggio expanded the family’s rackets and most notably was labor racketeering. He too met the same fate and was murdered on April 6, 1950. Along with him was his bodyguard and “made” member Charles Gargotta.

     With the murder of Binaggio, the “Five Iron Men” began to rise in power and the Kansas City LCN Family began to take shape. The most prominent of this group was Anthony Gizzo and the Civella brothers. Gizzo would serve as boss from 1950 until his death from natural causes in 1953 while in Dallas, TX. Many sources suggest that by then Giuseppe “Nick” Civella had really been in charge of the day-today criminal affairs.

     Giuseppe “Nick” Civella would become the most well known and possibly the most prominent boss over the Kansas City LCN Family. Civella, born in 1912, had accumulated numerous arrests by the age 20. The Chicago Outfit also very well thought him of. This relationship would cause the Chicago mob to wield great influence over Civella’s operations. Civella, who was present at the ill-fated Apalachin Mob summit on November 14, 1957, would place every known street racket under his wing. He also forged greater alliances with Milwaukee, Denver, St. Louis and California based crime families. Many of these rackets included labor racketeering, narcotics trafficking, pornography, loan sharking, sports betting and prostitution. Civella also sent up 10% of the earnings from these and other to the Chicago Outfit.

     During the early 1970s Civella used his influence over the Teamsters Union to obtain funding for Las Vegas based casinos. The most prominent of these being the Stardust. In 1975 he placed Joseph “Cesar” Agosto, also known as Vincenzo Pianetti, in charge of the skim operation at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino. It was also in 1975 that Civella was taped discussing that year’s impending Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings. Eventually the 1975 Super Bowl tapes would convict Civella of gambling charges, which resulted in a 20-month imprisonment, that he began serving in 1977. In addition, in 1983, Agosto would testify against the Kansas City LCN Family and other mid-western criminal syndicates. He would die shortly after in the same.

     It was also during them mid to late 1970s that the Kansas City LCN Family engaged in a costly war. It was over a growing faction within their secret criminal society, the local Teamsters and development at the River Quary area of Kansas City. This would lead to several key murders. As a result, in what was referred to as the Strawman Case, many prominent members would be sent to prison and leave the crime family in tatters.

     On July 18, 1980 Civella would be convicted of bribery. He was sentenced to four years but operated his family’s enterprise within the walls of Leavenworth Federal Prison through his brother Carl. While in prison he was indicted for the Las Vegas skim charges. However, he was not convicted and was released in March 1983. His underboss Carl “Tuffy” DeLuna would spend the next ten years in prison as result of hidden audio tapes that caught him discussing the Las Vegas skim and his records he kept. Within two weeks he was rushed to the Menorah Medical Center. Civella died on March 12, 1983.

     Carl “Corky” Civella would take over his brother’s operations following his death. He had been a capable acting boss and well-respected “made” member. He would only rule for one year and was sentenced to 75 years as a result of the Las Vegas skim case. He would continue to remain an influential force from his prison cell and died on October 2, 1994 at the 84.

     Upon the 1983 conviction of Civella in 1983, William “Willie the Rat” Cammisano was seen as the new official boss. Due to attention generated by the Agosto testimony and DeLuna records, the Chicago Outfit decided to officially break ties with the Kansas City LCN Family. This meant that Cammisano could rule his criminal operations without the influence of Chicago. Cammisano quickly dispatched crews of mobsters in various parts of the country. He established territory in such places as California, Florida and Washington D.C. Under his tenure the Kansas City crime family rebounded. By 1989 Cammisano’s health and power deteriorated and he died on January 26, 1995.

     Despite being in prison in 1995, Anthony “Tony Ripes” Civella was seen as the new crime boss. In 1992 he had been convicted of a scheme to divert pharmaceutical drugs from traditional sellers on to the gray market. He was convicted and sentenced to 4 years. Since 1996 he has been free and very active. The remaining Las Vegas interests fall under power of Kansas City LCN Family member Peter Ribaste. His underboss is William Cammisano, Jr. In 1997 all three were placed in Las Vegas’s Black Book and are barred from casinos in that area. Today the Kansas City LCN Family is reported to have 20-30 “made” members and is a very tight knit group controlling many street-level rackets.

Acknowledgements to the following:

  • Scott M. Dietche
  • Allan May
  • Scott Liebrauhder

    Articles used:
    The Kansas City Star, various articles, 1980-1992.
    The Las Vegas Sun, various articles, 1983-1990.
    Senate Sub-Committee on Organized Crime, 25 Years After Valachi 1988.
    Chicago Crime Report 1986-1990.

  • by Jay C. Ambler

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