The gang that can't shut up

Crime: The Detroit mob, dubiously credited with the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, has fallen on hard times.

April 05, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DETROIT - At the end, with his kidneys shot and his heart failing, mobster Anthony Giacalone's moment of fame was a fading memory. His one-time world of big cars and bookies, of sleek suits and shakedowns, was, if not in ruins, then at the very least aging and vulnerable, with a few outright bumblers in the ranks.

"Nitwit Incorporated," one defense attorney called them, referring to two wise guys in Giacalone's gang whose misadventures were taped by the FBI. They botched appointments, got lost, fretted over gun permits, and blithely wondered aloud - as recorders rolled - whether anyone was eavesdropping. And who ever heard of Mafia guys meeting at a T.G.I.Friday's?

Such are the latter-day fortunes of the Detroit Cosa Nostra, a crime family once so fearsome that extortion targets paid up to $1 million just to be left alone. But that was back when the family, and Giacalone, were better known for their role in one of America's most famous disappearances.

Giacalone was the guy who in July 1975 set a lunch date with labor leader Jimmy Hoffa. Hoffa drove off to meet him and was never seen again. Investigators of the unsolved mystery believe it was part of an elaborate setup.

Giacalone denied everything, of course, cracking about Hoffa, "Maybe he took a little trip." Then, on Feb. 23, the end came for Giacalone as well, when he died of a heart attack at age 82. By all accounts, he maintained his silence on Hoffa to the last. But what he couldn't keep secret was the way the fortunes of the Detroit family's business had so closely tracked his own - vigorous in youth, famous and intimidating in middle age, yet a bit soft, suburban and infirm at the close of the century.

Beginning of the end

Of the six elderly men who allegedly once ran the Detroit mafia, three of them, including boss Jack William Tocco, have gone to prison during the last three years. The fourth was Giacalone, an organization "capo," or captain, a sort of glorified street boss lording it over the rank and file, while the fifth, alleged underboss Anthony Zerilli, is ailing and awaiting trial on racketeering charges. The sixth, alleged capo Anthony Joseph Tocco, was acquitted in 1998 on 14 counts of extortion and racketeering.

The pivotal moment in their downfall came in 1996, when they and 11 other alleged members and associates were indicted by a federal grand jury at the conclusion of a four-year FBI investigation.

"It was the end of an era for them," says Howard Abadinsky, a professor of criminology at St. Xavier University in Chicago who keeps tabs on the Mafia in the midwest. "The whole family has kind of aged and suburbanized."

Yet, for all that, the organization "has not gone dormant," says Joseph M. Finnigan, organized crime supervisor for the FBI's Detroit office. Nor will it as long as people still want to play the numbers, call a bookie, gamble at an after-hours casino or arrange an illegal loan to cover their losses. New members have replaced the old, keeping the local Mafia's size at about 30.

But the investigation's findings made it clear that, even before the indictment, all was not well with the Detroit Mafia and its aging leadership, especially considering that many important chores were being left in the hands of junior members, Nove Tocco, hardly a young buck at age 53, and Paul Corrado, 42. Both were convicted of racketeering.

The FBI bugged several members' vehicles, phones and homes during the investigation, and also placed several under surveillance, but Tocco and Corrado easily had the loosest lips, regularly boasting and bumbling their way around town while FBI cameras and microphones stayed within range. Their conversations resembled a cross between "The Sopranos" and the dialogue in an Elmore Leonard novel, and some of their patter indicated this was anything but a happy Mafia family.

Consider, for example, this transcript of Corrado complaining to Tocco that he was fed up with being called on the carpet for "sit downs" with the ruling elders:

Corrado: I'm not going to no more sit-downs. They ain't calling me in all by myself.

Tocco: Yeah. They want to brow beat you. ... You know what I mean, and whipsaw you.

Corrado: We know who the f--- likes who. (Unintelligible). And I told my brother, if Uncle Tony wants to look, get a hold of me. ... I'll meet him alone so we can get it all out on the table, our problems."

Finnigan says the Detroit mob, like the Mafia just about anywhere in America, got its start near the turn of the previous century, then hit its stride during the Prohibition years of the 1920s, when organized crime made millions running speakeasies, brewing beer and distributing liquor to a thirsty nation."[Detroit] was one of the main entry points for booze, and the family fought for that, and they controlled it," Finnigan says.

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