"Kaboom!" the mural's red letters shout, and the explosion streaks across the building's facade in happy white and orange. Danny Greene lived here 36 years ago, until a bomb crashed through the downstairs window, and the 41-year-old gangster and his 18-year-old girlfriend rode the collapsing bedroom down like an elevator.
Collinwood has changed a lot since 1975, but the bohemian re-inventors of the Waterloo Arts District have found a way to pay homage to their street's incendiary moment in Cleveland history.
Right by the record store Music Saves, 15805 Waterloo Road is still a vacant lot, just like after the bombing, when Greene fenced it off, installed two trailers and raised the Irish flag. He sat outside sunning himself — shirtless to show off his broad, bronzed chest and the Celtic cross dangling from his neck — and, with a TV camera rolling, dared all his bomb-throwing enemies to come get him.
"He was a showoff, and he was an actor," says Ed Kovacic, the former Cleveland police chief who often investigated Greene. "I always thought Danny Greene was acting the part of what he thought this bomber should be, or what he thought this associate of Shondor Birns should be, or what he thought the head of the longshoremen's union should be."
Cleveland Magazine, the definitive chronicler of the city's 1970s mob wars, called it early.
"Greene ... leads a life that only a Hollywood scriptwriter could conjure up for an underworld character," Edward P. Whelan wrote in the April 1977 issue, six months before the Mayfield Road Mob had Greene murdered.
This month, Hollywood catches up. Kill the Irishman, a feature film starring Northern Ireland native Ray Stevenson as Greene and Christopher Walken as white-haired gangster Shondor Birns, debuts March 11, just in time for St. Patrick's Day. For those who want more fact mixed in with the legend, a documentary, Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman, will screen at this year's Cleveland International Film Festival.
It is a strange moment in the history of Cleveland pride. Kill the Irishman proves that 1970s Cleveland's rakishly charming crooks and killers are as worthy of a gangster film as those in '20s Chicago and '40s Los Angeles.
In 1976, 37 bombs exploded in Cuyahoga County — and legend aside, Danny Greene and the Mayfield Road Mob were probably responsible for less than half of them. Add City Hall's default, industrial decline, the rise of the Cleveland joke and a cellar-dwelling sports team or two, and the '70s may have been Cleveland's low point, its gloomy, unrelenting era of gray despair. But just as locals celebrated surviving the Blizzard of '78, they celebrate outlasting the blizzard of bad news, the drought of default, the epidemic of dynamite. Hitting bottom forges character — and characters.
So, to see back in time to the real Danny Greene, we consulted people who knew him well, writers who've tackled his story before, and documents and footage from his lifetime. We also talked to the lead actor, director and co-producer of Kill the Irishman to hear how they aimed to capture Greene's essence. The story takes us back to an era when the city's ethnic neighborhoods produced fierce rivalries and Clevelanders watched their high school classmates grow up to be union leaders and judges, cops and gangsters, nodding warily toward one another over lunch at the Theatrical Grill.
ON THE WATERFRONT
Daniel John Greene was born in Cleveland on Nov. 14, 1933. He grew up in the Parmadale orphanage after his mother died from complications of childbirth and his father was unwilling or unable to care for him. He later moved in with his grandfather in Collinwood, where his fights with tough Italian kids led to his lifelong hatred of Italians. In 1950, after dropping out of Collinwood High, Greene joined the Marines, where he boxed and became an expert marksman. Greene started working on Cleveland's waterfront in 1957 and was elected president of the local dock workers' union in 1962.
Ed Kovacic, a cop who lived in Collinwood and later became Cleveland's police chief, first met Greene when he was assigned to look into complaints that longshoremen were beating up people in Collinwood bars. When we walked in to talk to the head of the union, I felt like I'd fallen in the Atlantic Ocean, because everything turned green. The walls were green. Everything was green except for his hair and face. He handed us a pen, which had green ink in it.
Everything was very pleasant until he asked why we were there. [When we told him,] he got up and started walking around the room. As he did, he got louder and louder.
He started talking about how the dagos thought they ran Collinwood, and this was just a bunch of tough Irish and Slovenian kids who were going out there and showing them they didn't run Collinwood anymore.
I handed him the crime report and said, "How about this man? They blinded a Chinese-American [in one eye]." Boy, that really set him off like a rocket! Finally he said, "Get out. That's enough. We're done."
We got out in the car. I said, "That was like a scene from On the Waterfront. He was acting like Marlon Brando." My partner said, ...Yeah, I was waiting for him to start hollering, ...Stella! Stella!' "
Skip Ponikvar was a vice president in the union local when Greene was president. He was dynamic. Nattily dressed, dressed to the nines. You never saw him in jeans or street clothes. Suit and tie all the time.
He negotiated a hiring hall for the union. It allowed us control. Total control. If you were my friend, I'd send you on a boat that's going to work 10 hours. And if you weren't my friend, or just an average guy, I'd send you on a boat that's going to work four hours. Actually, that later became part of Danny's downfall.
He had "Don't f--- with him" written all over him. You didn't want to even challenge him.
He was always in shape. He didn't smoke. But when he drank, that was his weakness. He drank to excess, and when he drank to excess, bad things would happen: arguments, fights.
Cleveland Magazine often covered the city's mob wars of the 1970s. An article written after Greene's death quoted a longshoreman who helped Greene take over the union. He imagined himself a tough dock boss. But he was 30 years too late. He used workers to beat up union members who did not come in line, but he was never seen fighting himself. He was a spellbinding speaker and a good organizer.
Ponikvar: Danny was spending money hand over fist: his trips to the Theatrical Grill, trips to Chicago, trips to New York. And he was picking the tabs up. There was only so much a few hundred men could support with dues.
So he got the idea to have these guys work the grain boats and sign the checks over to the union. [It wasn't that many hours.] It wasn't a big deal. But later, guys started bitching about this. Well, if you worked a lot of hours on the grain boats, then when it came to the hiring hall, those guys were given the better job, which is illegal.
In 1964, Plain Dealer reporter Sam Marshall gathered affidavits from dock workers charging Greene with taking their paychecks.
John Baker, the top International Longshoremen's Association official in the Great Lakes, was a young dock worker when Greene headed the union local. The men wanted him out. They didn't want to work the boats for nothing. When he got in that little jam, he asked me for a vote of confidence one day, and I said, "Danny, I couldn't do it." That was it. We never talked after that.
Three days after Marshall's story ran, the national union suspended Greene and five shots were fired into Greene's Willoughby home.
Danny Greene, reading a statement to a TV reporter: Effective immediately, I have resigned as a member and officer of Local 1317. ... After nearly four years of devoting all my energies to get the dock workers in Cleveland a fair shake, I found that my only compensation is headlines in the newspaper and bullets through my window.
Greene later pleaded guilty to falsifying union records and was fined $10,000.
MUSCLE AND DYNAMITE
Soon after losing his job with the union, Greene became hired muscle for Shondor Birns, a notorious loan shark, numbers-game organizer, pimp and killer.
Kovacic: Danny met Shon through the longshoremen's hall. They would hang out at the Theatrical Grill together. We would drop in frequently to see who was hanging out with who. We'd see Danny sitting in there with Shon, talking.
Michael D. Roberts, Cleveland Magazine editor from 1973 to 1989, was a Plain Dealer reporter when he met Birns in the 1960s. I'd run into [Birns] in federal court. He'd tease me over the fact I was afraid to approach him. One time, he said, "Look, I won't hurt you. Just don't borrow money from me." There was a hardened look on his face. You just could look at him and say that son of a bitch would kill you.
Kovacic: There were five numbers families in Cleveland. Shon's job was primarily to collect money from all five of those businesses and pass it off to La Cosa Nostra on Murray Hill. If one family started paying off more on a number, Shon would tell them to stop. If they didn't stop, they got a bomb or got beaten up.
Art Sneperger, a former longshoreman, made bombs for Greene. From his affidavit given to police on July 29, 1971: He told me about him and Shondor Birns dropping a brick on some colored guy's head, a guy that backed off a payoff. And they went out and beat the guy up and picked the brick up and dropped it on his head and put a cigar on the guy's chest.
One time he almost blew himself up. Danny said he had to set a [bomb] package at one of the numbers houses on 123rd, off St. Clair or Superior. He went to throw the [bomb, which had] a fuse. You had to pull the string and it lights automatically. The guy who made it for him made it too short. He pulled the fuse and it hit the roof of the car. It bounced back. It demolished his car. It busted his eardrums. He can't hear too good out of his right ear.
In the late 1960s, Greene ran a labor-relations consulting firm that law enforcement suspected was really an extortion racket. He helped organize a trash hauler's guild similar to a mob operation in New York City. Kovacic learned about it by investigating Sneperger, a suspect in a bombing.
Kovacic: I got a call one day from a very good friend of mine, who said, "Art wants to talk to you, but only you." So I met Art, and I just couldn't believe what he was telling me. Snep told us about 15 bombings that Danny did for a variety of people for a variety of reasons.
Danny was organizing the private rubbish haulers into a trade guild. We found out people were getting shot at [if they didn't join]. Garbage bins were getting blown up; trucks were sprayed with acid; there were trucks firebombed. We got to a point where we had a pretty good case.
Sneperger, from his affidavit: Nothing was solved with the problem we were having. It was a labor dispute. [So Danny] threw [a bomb at the house] again, only this time it went through the patio window and landed in the front room....
Q: Did you ever check to see if anyone was home?
A: I didn't. I don't know if Danny did....
Q: With two sticks of dynamite, what would it do to a house?
A: Almost demolish everything inside.
Q: When Danny threw the second package at the house, the word came back that what happened?
A: The fuse burned out.
Ponikvar had become an Eastlake cop. He'd remained friends with Sneperger after their time as longshoremen and knew about Sneperger's statement to the police. I'm coming out of work one day at 4 o'clock. A car pulled right up. It's Danny Greene. He jumped out of the car. The other guy, a Hells Angel, jumped out of the car. Danny says, "[He's] going in there to pay his water bill." Danny says, "How you doing?" I say, "I'm good."
He says, "I heard that f---in' Snep is making statements about me!" I say, "Oh, Danny, I don't know nothing about that."
Then he starts talking about something else for five or 10 minutes. All of a sudden he says, "You know that f---ing Snep said I killed so and so." I said, "Aw, he never said that." He says, "Motherf---er, I got ya! You told me you didn't know about that statement!"
Kovacic: Snep never signed it. We knew he worked at the Collinwood Yards and that he got off at 4 in the morning, so [my partner] and I waited for him. We got him in the car and said, "You'd better sign this." He said, "I can't. Danny knows the statement was made, and he knows how many pages were in the statement." I said, "Snep, you gotta sign it now, or you're dead. He's going to kill you." He said, "OK, I'll come in and sign it." A few weeks later, he went up. He was putting a bomb on a car that was owned by Mike Frato, one of the people in that solid waste trade guild that was fighting against Danny.
The bomb exploded on Halloween 1971 at Coventry and Mayfield roads in Cleveland Heights. Sneperger died in the blast. People still debate whether it was an accident or whether Greene killed Sneperger. Four weeks later, Frato came after Greene.
POLICE REPORT after interview with Danny Greene, Nov. 29, 1971: At about 10:30 a.m., 11-26-71, [Greene] drove his three dogs to White City Park. ... A dark brown Riviera containing two white males drove up from the beach. ... The passenger in this auto hollered, "I got you now, motherf---er."... Greene immediately recognized this male as Michael Frato. ... Frato then fired two shots at Greene, missing [him], and the auto then pulled abreast of Greene, and from a distance of about 10 or 15 feet, Frato fired another shot at Greene, at which time Greene fired one shot from his .38 revolver, apparently striking the victim. ... The victim appeared to be hit in the shoulder and slumped back into the seat.
Greene was charged with manslaughter in Frato's death, claimed self-defense and was found not guilty.
Bombing on Easter Eve
Danny Greene and Shondor Birns agreed to go into business together — but their alliance degenerated into a deadly feud.
Rick Porrello is the author of To Kill the Irishman. Supposedly Danny borrowed $80,000 or $75,000 from Shondor Birns to open a cheat spot, an after-hours drinking establishment. Shondor got part of the money from New York mobsters. But the courier took the money and used it in a drug deal. Shondor went after Danny for the money. Danny said, "I didn't lose the money. I didn't even get it." That was the beginning of their falling-out.
Kovacic: Shon put up a bounty and said, "Whoever kills Danny, whether I'm alive or dead, gets $20,000."
One of Danny's guys called me at home and said, "Danny wants to meet you out at the Charter House, out in Euclid." I pulled in. Danny was standing there. He handed me a clothespin, a blasting cap, a clock timer and a battery. I said, "Danny, where are the explosives?" He said, "Those are going back to the S.O.B. who sent 'em to me."
On March 29, 1975, Shondor Birns stepped out of Christy's Lounge on West 25th Street, just before Holy Saturday Mass began at nearby St. Malachi's Church.
Cleveland Magazine, July 1975: The explosion was followed by a split second of silence, and then the tinkling sound of falling glass filled the air, as dozens of windows in a nearby building broke with the same soothing clink-clink that breeze-rustled chimes make swaying on a porch.
A black mushroom cloud rose up from a parking lot across the street through the trees, staining the sky.
An automobile had exploded, a silver-blue Continental. The parking lot was a scene of devastation and hysteria. Pieces of the Continental were strewn everywhere.
The upper torso of Shondor Birns, still clothed in a white T-shirt, lay battered on the ground. There was what appeared to be a mocking smile on his burned face.
Jim Burke was Greene's lawyer from 1974 to 1977. I really believe when he found out Birns put a hit on him, he was very, very angry but probably pretty disappointed. I did have a conversation with him after Shondor was killed. On one hand, it seemed there was some remorse. On the other hand, everybody around [Greene] knew [Birns] had a hit put on him.
Kovacic, as head of the Cleveland police bomb squad, investigated the Birns bombing.
Kovacic: Shon was in the bar with a guy named Ed. According to witnesses, the man walked Shon out to his car, and the bomb didn't go off until [Ed] made the turn to go back to the bar. I knew then it was a command bomb [detonated remotely].
Greene is widely believed to have killed Birns or had him killed. Kovacic believes Greene carried out the murder himself, based on a conversation the two men had at a bar not long afterward.
Kovacic: Danny was sipping tea. He said, "You think I killed Sneperger. I'll take a polygraph that I didn't."
I said, "Would you take a polygraph on Shondor Birns?"
He said, "No, don't have to." And he said, "You tell me how you think I killed Shon."
I said, "All right, but I want you to grade me like a teacher would grade a kid writing a thesis." He said, "OK." So I told him how I thought Shon went up. And I said, "What's the grade?"
"D." "Oh, bullshit, D." He says, "C." I said, "Come on, Danny. Be honest. This is nothing. This wouldn't hold up in court. How close am I?" And he said, "B." Then, when we were just getting ready to break up, he says, "Hey, Ed. A."
I found out later that the only part I had gotten wrong was where I had Danny sitting when the bomb went off. I thought he was in the Old Angle Gym. And one of his people told me he was on the ramp coming off the freeway, behind the bar.
On May 12, a bomb destroyed Greene's Waterloo Road home.
Burke: After it blew, he was talking to me on a pay phone. He talked to me like he had written the thing out, so composed.
He and his lady were upstairs. When his dogs barked, he jumped and went for his carbine. When the package blew, the bed went straight up in the air. She rode that thing down. The floor gave way, and he rode down from the second floor.
The Mob War
Framed quote in Danny Greene's office, 1975: "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age."
— James Joyce, "The Dead"
Cleveland Magazine, April 1977: Wearing mostly green clothes, using a pen with green ink, Greene fashions himself a kind of Robin Hood of his Collinwood neighborhood, moving from apartment to apartment to escape his enemies (and presumably the law) while at the same time handing out money and favors to needy residents. The myth of his indestructibility seems to please him.
Shortly after the last bombing attempt on his life, Greene rehoisted the Irish tricolor on a flagpole in front of the small house trailer where he conducts his business affairs. The flagpole is topped by a Celtic cross and a sign on the trailer predicts, "Future Home of the Celtic Club."
By the mid-'70s, Burke says Greene asked those close to him to call him Patrick. It was also his alias as an FBI informant; he'd been giving agents information about Cleveland organized crime since 1964. Greene also felt compelled to give Burke a nickname that sounded even more Irish: Seamus.
Burke: I picked up a book called The Story of the Irish Race, by Seumas MacManus [and gave it to him]. I would get phone calls at 2 and 3 in the morning. ... I'd say, "Patrick, I gave it to you so you would read it, not to question me." He read that whole damn book. It's like War and Peace!
Kovacic: I had a woman come up to me one day at the Waterloo festival in Collinwood. She said, "Why do you pick on Danny? My washing machine broke, my husband's dead, I didn't have enough money, and one day, there was a washing machine on my porch with a note saying it came from the Irishman."
People all over the neighborhood liked him. If they'd see suspicious cars in the neighborhood, they'd call him and tell him.
Burke: The first person ever to tell me I was a drunk was him. He said, "Seamus, you got a problem with whiskey. It's going to kill you." I kind of struck out at him. I said, "Oh, because you quit — typical alcoholic." He said, "What makes you think you could talk that way to me, Seamus?" I said, "Because you have a funny bone." He said, "Not always."
Greene joined forces with local Teamster John Nardi, a mob associate interested in taking over the local rackets.
Kovacic: One of Danny's people said Nardi visited Danny in the hospital [after the Waterloo bombing]. He's alleged to have said, "We have mutual enemies. We ought to work together."
Roberts: The mob had long been not much of a player in town. They were smart: They understood that after Prohibition, there wasn't much money to be made here. And they'd taken the money they made and they invested it legitimately into Las Vegas. The people who were left were supported by skim money from the casinos. But rather than build the mob and have to share the skim money, they let it atrophy.
Porrello: In 1976, John Scalish, who had been the mob boss in Cleveland since 1944, died during heart surgery. He never named a successor. So a power struggle broke out to take over the rackets: vending machines, gambling and the skim money from Las Vegas. For years Nardi felt he should've been a made member of the mob, because he was related by marriage to a very respected, aging mob figure. So with John Scalish gone, there were two sides vying for power. The main Mafia faction was led by Jack Licavoli. John Nardi felt he could take over.
The war broke out in July 1976. A bomb, allegedly planted by a Greene associate, sent Licavoli enforcer Eugene "The Animal" Ciasullo to the hospital. In August, Nardi got into an argument with Licavoli's underboss and cousin, Leo "Lips" Moceri. Moceri disappeared soon after; the car he was driving found with blood in the trunk. The mob blamed Nardi and Greene.
EDWARD P. WHELAN wrote Cleveland Magazine's 1977 and 1978 stories about Greene and the Cleveland mob. There wasn't much to control. It was far more personal. There was a lot of machismo in this. I suppose the mob felt their egos were on the line and they had to get him.
On May 17, 1977, Nardi was killed by a car bomb outside the Teamsters office on East 22nd Street in Cleveland. "It didn't hurt," he said minutes before dying. Rumor on the street said Greene was next.
Burke: His reputation wasn't myth. The way he stood in front of his trailer, defiant: That wasn't false bravado.
Greene, to Bill McKay of WJW-TV, after Nardi's death: "I'm in between both worlds, the square world and the street world. And I think I have trust on both sides. I have no ax to grind, but if somebody wants to come after me, we're over here by the Celtic Club. I'm not hard to find."
Death of the Irishman
To avenge Moceri's death, Licavoli turned to Ray Ferritto, a hoodlum who'd graduated from burglaries to murder. Licavoli promised to pay Ferritto or make him a made Mafia member for killing Greene. It took Ferritto a year. Greene kept everyone guessing.
Cleveland Magazine, August 1978: By late summer, Ferritto was disgusted with his contract to hit Greene. He was not getting any help from the Cleveland [mob] in scouting his target — not even the mug shot of Greene promised. For identification, he used a picture of Greene that appeared in the April 1977 Cleveland Magazine story.
Jack Licavoli, Cleveland mob boss, and associate John Calandra were caught on a FBI wiretap on Sept. 24, 1977.
JL: This f----ing Irishman.
JC: How the hell did this guy ever come in the picture?
JL: Everybody's around. You can't get near him. ... If he says he'll be there at 3 o'clock, who gives a shit? You wait and wait, and then you get tired of waiting. He don't keep no time.
The mob tapped Greene's phone and heard Greene's girlfriend schedule a dental appointment for him at Cedar and Brainard roads in Lyndhurst. On Oct. 6, 1977, while Greene was at the dentist, Ferritto parked a car next to Greene's and slid a bomb into a space hollowed out in the door.
Cleveland Magazine, August 1978: The bomb tore Greene's back apart. It ripped off all his clothing, except for his brown zip-up boots and black socks. It blew off his left arm, throwing it 100 feet away. The blast tore off the Celtic cross he so proudly wore on his neck, embedding it in the asphalt.
The blue Adidas duffle bag he was carrying was almost untouched. Inside, the FBI found his 9 mm pistol, two clips of bullets, a notebook with jottings on assignments for his lieutenants, a Wall Street Journal article on the availability of terrorist weapons, a list of license plates of cars driven by enemies, and a Mother of Perpetual Help holy card.
Racing for the freeway, Ferritto cut off an artist whose father was a cop. She drew a sketch of Ferritto and gave it to police. Ferritto was caught and agreed to testify against Licavoli and others. Their convictions for murder or racketeering crippled the Cleveland mob.
Kovacic: I couldn't go to the scene. I didn't want to see him blown all over the place, even though he was a violent man. When he flared up with me, he had a quick temper. You could see the violence there. Then when he'd calm down, he'd just turn. He had a quick wit. He could make you like him. He'd laugh with you, he'd say something funny. I probably should say I hated him, but after you get to know somebody — I have to admit, I liked him.