John T. Scalish, the last great don of the Cleveland Mafia, was taking his biggest gamble yet — a long shot. At stake was life. But the odds favored death.
At 63, Scalish was still very much in control of the city's underworld — still its Godfather. In fact, with his wavy silver-gray hair and piercing smile, he looked more like Brando's Don Corleone than Brando himself.
Although ill health had plagued him for nearly 30 years, he suffered stoically, continuing to conduct his routine business affairs after doctors performed a colostomy, showing few signs of the pain that had enveloped his body. But cancer had weakened him and given way to premature hardening of the arteries. Even this once fearless man, who had taken away or spared other men's lives with a mere nod, was helpless to control his own destiny.
His physicians told him that only a bypass — a delicate heart operation — could possibly save him. Without it, he had only weeks to go. Even then, they explained, such surgery was extremely chancy for a man in his ravaged condition.
But once again, he gambled.
Only this time, a more powerful force than John Scalish held the odds.
Scalish could afford the finest medical attention, and he got it. A team of Cleveland's best heart specialists labored for hours in the operating room, injecting tubes into his body, cutting and tying the fragile arteries. But even their skill was not enough. An hour or two after the operation, John Scalish lay in the recovery room and took his last breath. He died as he had lived — quietly, without fanfare. Only his closest family was nearby.
Word of the leader's death, however, swept through the underworld, and he was accorded a funeral befitting his position. Not one, but three priests, said a solemn Requiem mass, and the body of Scalish was followed to Calvary Cemetery by a seemingly endless procession of black Cadillacs.
Even as the last shovels of dirt covered the gold-inlaid casket, the Cleveland underworld was already in turmoil. Perhaps John Scalish was wreaking some kind of revenge on his old enemies, or his weakened condition diverted him from making the one crucial decision a capo should make. He did not pick a successor — one who could keep peace among warring lieutenants and decide, once and for all, who got what and when.
That sin of omission, if you will, led to the bloodiest and most tumultuous internecine gang wars here since the savage bootleg brawls some 50 years earlier — when Scalish, a teenager, was just getting his start in crime.
The battle for control of gambling, loan sharking, unions and even legitimate businesses, so nicely kept under wraps by Scalish, has made Cleveland the bombing capital of America [see Cleveland Magazine, April 1977]. Certainly, lives have been lost in this power struggle— nothing new in organized crime wars — but more important, the foundations of the Cleveland underworld and its arch-nemesis, the FBI, have been shaken as never before.
Even as federal agents conducted a nationwide investigation into the underworld, the FBI discovered that its lists of informants — the holiest of bureau secrets — had been leaked by one of its own employes to the same criminal figures the agents were pursuing. The theft of such highly classified documents has forced the FBI to reevaluate its security and its relationships with informants.
At the center of this incredible situation — The Mob War and The Leak — was the sloppy and amateurish bombing murder of Daniel John Patrick Greene, a bizarre and megalomaniacal gangster and an FBI informant. Greene defied all the rules of the game and lived on myth and on borrowed time — until last October.
In the subsequent trials of Greene's accused murderers (some convicted, some exonerated), the strange doings of the underworld and, more significantly, Mr. Greene himself have been discussed, ruminated upon and debated endlessly. But after thousands of hours of testimony by hundreds of witnesses, the rationale for the events themselves remains as inexplicable as ever. Only one thing is for certain:
No one man, not the present head of the Cleveland mob family, not even the best Cleveland intelligence cops and federal agents, knows the whole story of what has taken place on the streets of Cleveland over the last two years. Because there were so many characters with so many different motivations, the story does not lend itself to easy interpretations.
After the death of Scalish, the main character in the story, of course, became Danny Greene. At 47, he still saw himself as a tough Irish kid from Collinwood unwilling to cave in to the iron might and discipline of the Italian mob. In turn, his assassins saw him as nothing but a power-hungry, homicidal maniac bent on killing anyone he disliked — and for that reason, he had to be eliminated.
For now, the story of the mob in transition is one with familiar themes — greed, pride, lust, money and power. A full account would be appended by an index of a thousand known and unknown characters, some central but most merely peripheral.
To put the tale in some kind of order — to peer behind two years of screaming headlines, make some sense of the accusations and counter-accusations, and put the various theories in perspective — the story must open with the ascent of John Scalish in local organized crime, for in his life and death are the seeds of all this destruction.
Scalish was born and raised around the corner of East 110th and Kinsman, then an East Side Italian neighborhood that in the Sixties began to turn black. His was one of the last white families to leave. Scalish built a posh ranch-style house on Gates Mills Boulevard in Pepper Pike. In turn, he was followed there by many of his associates, making Gates Mills Boulevard between SOM Center and Brainard a kind of Embassy Row for Cleveland's leading underworld figures.
As a teenager, Scalish was already a burglar and stickup man for the old Murray Hill mob. Records show that he was involved in the burglary of a bank in Mantua in 1931 and in the robbery of a bottling company at East 124th and Union in 1932. Convicted of the robbery two years later, he served only a few months in prison before his sentence was commuted by Governor George White — only minutes before noon on the day in January 1935 when White's term of office ended.
It was the only time in Scalish's life that he ever served time. By 1935, John Scalish, barely 22 years old, the son of poor Sicilian immigrants, was already connected to top underworld figures who had the power and money to help bring about his commutation.
Scalish was tough and respected, and he was also pragmatic. In his youth, he befriended Jewish kids from his old neighborhood, realizing that by joining forces with the Jews, rather than by fighting them, there was a lot of money to be made. This idea of uniting the major Jewish and Italian underworld leaders — an idea put into practice by several of his successors — would be his life's credo.
Working hand in hand with his Jewish and Italian (and even some Irish) associates, Scalish graduated from stickups and burglaries to become a polished clerk in various local gambling casinos owned by the Cleveland syndicate.
He also became the lieutenant to Big Al Polizzi, who was given control of the Cleveland mob by Frank Milano when he left for the West Coast and Mexico. (Milano's brother, Anthony, now in his 90s, was at the time designated as the consigliere or counselor to the Cleveland underworld — a position he still holds today. Anthony Milano, "The Old Man," still hosts weekly dinners at the Italian-American Brotherhood Club in Little Italy. The dinners are attended by many of the city's leading politicians, labor leaders and businessmen.)
Polizzi left Cleveland in the mid-Forties. He had earned upwards of $100 million, maybe even more, through control of gambling clubs and slot machines. He was getting tired of the running the mob's day-to-day street operations. Besides, Polizzi had a craving for respectability. He took his money to Florida, investing it in land deals and construction companies. Before leaving, however, he wisely relinquished his power and "put the shoes" on Scalish — reportedly because Scalish, in the Thirties, had taken the rap for the bottling company robbery and was willing to go to jail, rather than rat on someone else.
Scalish built his own empire in the Forties through investments in local gambling clubs, loan sharking and pinball machines — plus the money the Cleveland mob continued to skim from the Las Vegas casinos it had helped finance. Scalish actually stayed behind in Cleveland in the late Forties when other men of his rank, such as Tommy McGinty and Moe Dalitz, left for Las Vegas.
In the early Fifties, Governor Frank Lausche closed the local gambling casinos. Scalish, ever business minded, took his profits and invested with Rockman in the Buckeye Cigarette Service Company, a vending machine firm. The company grew by muscling routes from its weaker competition.
Rockman still operates the company, along with Frank Embrescia, reportedly a top Mafia figure. Though aging and sickly, Embrescia still attempted to serve as a peacemaker between the independent Greene and the opposing and more unified mob on Murray Hill.
Buckeye Cigarette Service, it is said, is efficiently and cleanly run. In fact, because the Internal Revenue Service annually checks the company's books, Scalish insisted that not one penny be misappropriated. That still holds today, thanks to a battery of highly paid tax lawyers and accountants.
Scalish, due to his conservative lifestyle, was little known outside the underworld until 1957. In that year, he was arrested with some 50 other Mafia leaders from across the country in the famous police raid on the "national crime conference" at a farmhouse near Apalachin, New York. He had attended the meeting with his chief lieutenant, the late John DeMarco. Scalish was convicted of refusing to testify to the Senate rackets committee about the conference and his own business; he had invoked the Fifth Amendment some 35 times.
He kept tight control of the Cleveland rackets by acting as a decisive boss, dispensing "justice" swiftly and wisely. He was also respected because he allowed his top aides to make money from criminal activities of their own. These included DeMarco, the late Frank Brancato and even Angelo Lonardo (who married Scalish's sister and wound up being charged, then cleared, in the byzantine plot to murder Danny Greene).
Scalish conducted his underworld affairs somewhat informally. Each Sunday morning for years, he would gather such men as Lonardo, Brancato and DeMarco at a barber shop on Kinsman Road. When that area changed, the weekly conferences were switched to a barber shop on Chagrin Boulevard. In Scalish's final days, the Sunday discussions were held at a barber shop on Mayfield Road in Mayfield Heights.
As some associates died off and others grew old, Scalish and his remaining colleagues grew somewhat complacent. They had made their money in everything from bootlegging to gambling casinos and numbers, and by the mid-Seventies, they wanted nothing more than to enjoy the fruits of their early criminal labors and to live out their lives peacefully.
As a consequence, because of attrition, internal warfare and complacency, they failed to groom what might be called a "middle management" to assume control in the future. There was another reason, of course: After the humiliating exposure of the Apalachin conference, membership in the Mafia, the creme de la creme of the underworld, was closed to all but a select few until recent years.
Thus, with Scalish's death and with no designated successor and no one strongman emerging to seize sole control, the Cleveland mob was in chaos. All the young and middle-aged underlings, shut out of making big money during Scalish's peaceful regime, now wanted to make their moves.
One man who was determined not to run the outfit here was James Licavoli (alias Jack White), a close associate of Scalish. He had been a wealthy, behind-the-scenes figure on Murray Hill for years. But in 1976, because of his 71 years, his prestige in the local and national underworld, and attrition, Jack White (he is rarely referred to as James Licavoli) reluctantly assumed the role of don. He intended to rule on an interim basis until another strongman, acceptable to all factions, emerged.
Events, however, moved too rapidly and denied him the luxury of an early retirement.
White— his sobriquet is a play on his dark complexion — was born in St. Louis, the scion of the infamous Licavoli family which still controls rackets in St. Louis, Detroit and Toledo. He is a cousin of the late Thomas (Yonnie) Licavoli, who served a life sentence in the Ohio Penitentiary for murder, and was the center of mob attempts to bribe public officials for the convict's freedom.
Jack White left school after the fourth grade and for a short time worked at his father's vegetable stand. By the time he left St. Louis for Detroit in 1926, he had been arrested at least 15 times and had been shot and wounded by a policeman while fleeing a crime.
Between 1926 and 1938, as a member of Detroit's Purple Gang, White was arrested another two dozen times in Detroit and Toledo on charges ranging from carrying a concealed weapon to bootlegging. He also was questioned as a suspect in at least one murder.
By 1938, the police pressure on him in Detroit and Toledo was so intense that the Licavoli family received permission from the Cleveland crime syndicate — then among the most prestigious in the nation — to install him here. White temporarily returned to Toledo in 1945, where he was arrested for blackmail. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and served a year in prison. But other than a small stretch in Leavenworth for bootlegging in the Twenties and his recent arrest for the murder of Danny Greene, White, whose record and FBI file fills a file cabinet, was a stranger to the penal system.
He was paroled to Cleveland in 1946 through the intercession of a Catholic priest — ironically, an Irish one — and a businessman who owned a construction company with Al Polizzi. White subsequently went to work as a bartender in an East Side restaurant owned by Vincent (Doc) Mangine, who 30 years ago controlled slot machines in northern Ohio. Along the way he invested in novelty companies in Niles and Warren.
But it was his interests in gambling casinos, particularly the Jungle Inn in Warren, that made him a very wealthy man. By the late Forties, when Governor Frank Lausche closed the lavish clubs that catered to affluent society patrons, White was considered a millionaire many times over. In later years, with the casinos shut down, White was content to place his earnings in legitimate securities purchased through front names. He also bankrolled various gambling ventures, from barboutte — a high-stakes Greek dice game — to craps and sports betting. Of course, he also had associates putting some of his money into 6-for-5 loansharking.
Whatever Jack White has done over the last 30 years, he has done it without fanfare. In 1951, the traveling Kefauver Committee sought unsuccessfully to get White to admit his occupation. For refusing to answer, he was cited for contempt, a ruling which was soon overturned by the courts.
His lifestyle has been so unassuming that many lifelong residents of Cleveland's Little Italy are hard-pressed to identify the small, stooped, balding man who can be seen almost any day dressed in a drab gray suit or colorless sports clothes playing cards with other retirees in the Italian clubs on Mayfield Road.
For good reason. Until last year, when the murder of Danny Greene and the fear of his own life preoccupied him, White was known as a man who rarely spoke to anyone outside his most trusted, intimate circle. He rarely used his personal telephone, believing, rightly or wrongly, that it was tapped by law enforcement authorities who have had him under surveillance for years.
He has always sought to call as little attention to himself as possible. A bachelor, White for many years has lived with another bachelor, Paul Ciricillo, also known as Paul Lish, whose sole known occupation is that of carpenter. They occupy a tiny house on Fairview Court, a hilly, brick-paved alley behind the Golden Bowl Restaurant. Garlic strings hang outside the back door, which opens to a small den, built by Lish, where friends are modestly entertained on White's homemade wine. The den is furnished with, among other things, a statue of the Blessed Virgin entwined with a rosary, over which hangs an oil painting of a curvaceous blond woman undressing. Only a few feet away from the Blessed Virgin is an air conditioner where the FBI surreptitiously placed a bug last fall, when agents believed White was planning Greene's murder in the paneled recreation room.
Because of his recurring orthopedic problems, White's living quarters are unique. They include an exercycle, whirlpool and steambath. Aside from playing golf — at Highland Park in Cleveland in the summer, Hot Springs, Arkansas in the winter — he has few hobbies and few habits that would betray his position. When the FBI arrested him last December in the Greene murder, little was uncovered in the house search identifying him as a Mafia don — only $1,800 in cash, a gun and his treasured, hollowed-out cane, the handle of which screws off in an 18-inch gold stiletto-like dagger.
For all his reputed buried-away cash, White is not known to be overly generous. A federal source claims he has actually used stolen credit cards on out-of-town vacations, and not long ago he was tripped up in a Florida nightclub putting slugs in a vending machine. Associates acknowledge he frequently complains about the high cost of grapes for his wine-making. Two years ago, this mob boss suffered an embarrassment as deep as his men's botching of the Greene bombing when he was picked up with two associates for shoplifting a pair of trousers at Higbee's in Severance Center. Higbee's dropped the charges.
Jack White — shoplifter and Cleveland capo — clearly did not want to wage war, either with opposing underworld factions or the law. But he was ill prepared to put down the fighting that erupted so quickly and savagely after Scalish's death.
Scalish kept peace with the underworld and the law by shying away from grinding all criminal activities under his fist. For years, Cleveland has been a town where gambling, bookmaking, narcotics, loansharking and other ventures are up for grabs, run largely by independents — unlike Chicago or New York, where anyone involved in big street crime pays his tribute to the ruling clique.
In fact, Scalish, who had become rich through investments in legitimate businesses, prohibited his lieutenants from involvement in narcotics and prostitution. Scalish also refused to allow his children — two sons and a daughter — to have anything to do with organized crime.
Pride and power were the others.
The man who heads any criminal organization can not only demand a piece of various activities, he also can command respect and wield power. No matter how influential he actually is, the very position itself— call it what you will: head of the mob, capo, boss, Mafia don— can be intimidating to politicians, labor leaders, businessmen and, of course, the lower-level thugs.
Danny Greene believed he, an Irish-American, could control the rackets, but the more organized Italian faction was not about to give way without a fight.
If Jack White, one of only a handful of Clevelanders believed to be in the Mafia, did not want to be the boss, there were those close to him making their moves known even before Scalish's grave had been closed. These moves would force White reluctantly to take the reins.
White's closest ally for years was Leo Moceri, a muscular man called "Lips" because of his ugly, protruding mouth. Although 69 years old in 1976, Lips Moceri was still considered to be one of the most ruthless and violent crime figures in the nation. For a decade he had dominated the rackets in Akron. Originally from Detroit, he and White have been linked in various loansharking and gambling undertakings for many years.
Moceri's criminal record begins before the 1920s and includes arrests for shootings, blackmail, bombings and heatings. He was indicted for three murders alone in Toledo in the Thirties, but escaped conviction on each one. Before World War II, Lips had earned the reputation as one of the underworld's most notorious triggermen. In 1969, listing his occupation as produce dealer, he was acquitted of income tax evasion on the improbable but successful defense that he had made no money in recent years, but had lived on the income from his bootlegging days!
Moceri, it is said, was interested in becoming leader of the Cleveland outfit, or, at least, in frustrating the ambitions of his avowed enemy, John Nardi, who was not masking his desire to be Number One.
Nardi, the 61-year-old secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 410 (vending machine service employes), had lived for years in Scalish's shadow. A nephew of Anthony Milano, Nardi believed he had the backing and muscle to control the mob. But Moceri and others strenuously opposed him, charging that he was greedy, overly ambitious and foolishly involved in various enterprises that called negative attention to his personal life. More worrisome was the fact that he had tied his fortunes to the brawn and cunning of the regular Italian clique's most feared enemy — Danny Greene.
Besides trying to run the Mob, Nardi reportedly was trying to gain control of the labor union movement in Cleveland. Among others aligned with him in this effort was Anthony Liberatore, business agent for Laborers Local 860, who became involved in a separate attempt to kill Greene and take over not only the unions but the underworld as well. According to one federal source, these Italian labor leaders wanted to replace William Presser and his son Jackie, who head the Teamsters Joint Council in Cleveland and Ohio, because, among other things, they are Jews, while the bulk of the Teamster leadership and membership is Italian. The FBI believes that Nardi, Liberatore and others wanted the Teamsters as a source of power to shake down employers with sweetheart contracts and work stoppages.
Jackie Presser, the source continues, had received several death threats, prompting him to employ bodyguards and other security measures to protect his life. (With the rash of bombings and death threats on union officials and underworld figures in the past few years, it is now de rigueur among the higher echelon in the labor unions and, one might surmise, organized crime to use automatic car starters. Some actually tote around electronic beepers — much like a telephone paging system — that activate when their cars are jostled.)
Preventing Nardi from easily taking over the unions or gang leadership were his own personal problems. A heavy gambler, he was known to be in debt to various Cleveland bookmakers and at least one Las Vegas casino. And in September 1976, at the height of the internal underworld strife in Cleveland, Nardi went on trial in U.S. District Court in Miami on charges of importing marijuana into the country. Had that deal been successful, say government officials, Nardi might have netted himself a quick $100,000. Also indicted were Morton Franklin, a Cleveland insurance man who had been implicated in the bankruptcy of the Northern Ohio Bank, and Mitchell WerBell, an international arms dealer from Powder Springs, Georgia, believed to be a former CIA operative dealing in merchandising weapons to anti-communist regimes in South America.
After a principal witness died mysteriously in a plane crash, the government's case against Nardi and the others fell apart, and they were cleared. Nardi left the Miami courthouse beaming. "The government tried to frame us," he declared to reporters.
But in Cleveland the acquittal changed nothing.
That summer Nardi and Moceri were literally at each other's throats. One afternoon they met at the Teamsters Joint Council Hall on East 22nd Street.
"Keep your hands off the Akron rackets and get rid of Danny Greene," Moceri insisted.
"I'll do what I damn well please!" Nardi shouted back.
"Do you know who I am?" exploded Moceri. "I'm Leo Moceri and no one pushes me around!"
The confrontation ended with Nardi and Moceri spitting in each other's face, the ultimate gesture of disrespect.
Now even Jack White was unsettled. He wanted Nardi and Moceri to make peace. But a close confidant, the late Tony (The Dope) Del Santer, head of the Youngstown rackets, encouraged him to have both Nardi and Greene killed.
As the summer waned and Nardi prepared for his Florida trial, he and Moceri had what was to be their last encounter. During the mid-August Feast of the Assumption in Little Italy, Nardi demanded a cut of the gambling games run by White and Moceri at the huge street festival. Moceri flatly refused.
Moceri was last seen in Little Italy on August 22 of that year at the close of the Feast. Ten days later his car was found in the parking lot of an Akron motel, the trunk soaked with blood. He has not been seen since. Although Nardi denied knowledge of the suspected murder, the national underworld was disturbed that one of their stellar lights had been dispatched without the normal approval given at a "sit down" of local chieftains.
Jack White, once the peacemaker, now wanted revenge. But he needed someone more professional than his ambitious unskilled young soldiers. Even Eugene (The Animal) Ciasullo, believed by the FBI to be a hit man and the brightest if not toughest of White's aides, wanted nothing more to do with the struggle. Two bombing attempts on Ciasullo's life that summer and fall convinced him to move to Florida. (He is now believed back in Cleveland.)
White and his friend Tony Del Santer sought the help of Jimmy (The Weasel) Fratianno, an important West Coast Mafia member and hired killer who had grown up in Cleveland and still has relatives here. Fratianno introduced White and Del Santer to Raymond Ferritto, a hoodlum from Erie, Pennsylvania with whom he had served time in California. Fratianno knew of Ferritto's reputation as a gunman — in 1969, Ferritto had killed Julius Petro, an ex-Cleveland thug, by luring him into a car in Los Angeles and shooting him in the side of the head — and felt that Ferritto, who was close to many Cleveland mobsters, could be trusted. Ferritto was said to be eager for the work, and the Clevelanders were anxious to have him, because he was not known to Greene and Nardi.
Yet Feritto, 49, a sometime bookmaker, nightclub operator and vending machine company employe, hardly fit the stereotyped image of a sophisticated and cool hit man. Tall, thin, with salt-and-pepper hair, Ferritto was known to be highly volatile, flying into rages at the slightest annoyance. Some years back, part of his stomach had been removed because of aggravated ulcers. To ease his nerves, Ferritto ate antacids by the bottleful or smoked marijuana.
Later, after Ferritto was identified by a secret witness at the Greene bombing and arrested, he told the FBI that White had been unsure of how to get at Greene and Nardi, but gave him the go-ahead to kill either. Information regarding their habits was to be provided by Pasquale (Butchy) Cisternino and Ronald Carabbia, the latter being the Youngstown under-boss to Del Santer.
"White told me not to worry," Ferritto told the FBI, "that I would be taken care of ... that they could either pay me one lump sum or, if the work was done, he could 'make me' in 'our thing.' " "Our thing" translates "Mafia."
Ferritto had left his meeting with White believing he would hear from Cisternino or Carabbia. For a long while he didn't. Then, one September night, Nardi, still exultant over his acquittal in Florida, was leaving the Italian-American Brotherhood Club when bullets pierced the windshield of his car. He escaped, but believed Jack White's underlings — Butchy Cisternino, Joe Iacobacci, Glenn Pauley, Allie Calabrese and Joseph Bonariggo — were responsible for the assassination attempt.
"These efforts," Ferritto later said, "made me begin to believe that the deal made with me no longer was a deal."
A few days after the assassination attempt on Nardi, a bomb was placed in Calabrese's 1975 Lincoln Continental, which was parked across the street from his house in a neighbor's driveway. When the neighbor, Frank Pircio, tried to move Calabrese's car, the bomb exploded. He was the first innocent victim of the gangland struggle.
By the spring of 1977, after various bombings and shootings attributed to both sides, it became clear that Jack White did not care who hit Greene and Nardi, as long as they were eliminated. Indeed, White was so overwhelmed by the task that he brought into his confidence several longtime associates to debate and analyze the situation. Among these men, according to Ferritto, was John Calandra, the mild-tempered, 68-year-old owner of a Collinwood tool and die shop whom the FBI had investigated a few years before for loansharking.
"Calandra told me there were a lot of people all over the country concerned over the killing of Leo Moceri and something had to be done to get this thing over with," Ferritto explained to the FBI. "He told me people wanted to know what was bein
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February 15, 2011