Mafia Inc.: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada's Sicilian Clan - André Cédilot, André Noël (2011)
Chapter 12. CONQUERING ONTARIO
ON THE DAY MOM BOUCHER was arrested, October 10, 2000, Vito Rizzuto was visiting a funeral parlour in Toronto. He had come to pay his respects to the grieving family of one of his key associates in Ontario, Gaetano “Guy” Panepinto, who had been murdered the week before at age forty-one. Vito was accompanied by three of his top men: Paolo Renda, his brother-in-law and the family’s consigliere; Rocco Sollecito, the former manager of the Consenza Social Club; and Francesco Arcadi, his Calabrian lieutenant.
A bright red Harley-Davidson, which the deceased had painstakingly assembled out of parts from two used bikes, was proudly displayed in front of the building. As the pallbearers bore the casket from the funeral home, about fifty bikers in attendance, club colours emblazoned on their jackets, straddled their own mounts. At the time, they were still members of the Para-Dice Riders, the Last Chance and other independent clubs, but they were soon to be absorbed into the Hells Angels. Engines snorting, they rode in formation with Panepinto’s hearse to the funeral at St. Clare Catholic Church. Their presence was a sign of respect to a man who had been a trusted business associate.
That Vito and his associates would travel to Toronto for this particular funeral spoke to the importance that the Montreal Mafia ascribed to Ontario—and, to a lesser degree, to their apparent tolerance of the criminal biker gangs, who tended to be loud, impulsive and occasionally troublesome.
As it happened, the man in the coffin had been in the death business himself. Guy Panepinto was the co-owner of the Canadian subsidiary of Casket Royale, a U.S. company that sold deeply discounted coffins, funerary urns and sympathy cards. The company was, ostensibly, driven by a compassionate motive: in charging low prices, they were not exploiting the vulnerability of bereaved families. Their motto was “Do not make an emotional loss a financial loss.” Panepinto’s store, on St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto’s Corso Italia, offered very reasonable prices indeed. Most of his caskets retailed for between $1,800 and $2,000, about half what they would cost at a traditional funeral home. A bargain at $295, the bottom-line model, the “George,” was made of pressboard and lined with faux buckskin. Casket Royale even had a macabre loss leader in its inventory: children’s coffins cost nothing.
Like many Mafiosi who tried to atone for their sins by donating to hospital foundations and other charities, Panepinto had a split personality—good Dr. Jekyll by day, unsavoury Mr. Hyde by night. One of his partners in Casket Royale, Frank Natale Roda, was a man who’d had half his arm blown off when a bomb he was carrying exploded early. The bomb had been destined for a rival drug dealer whom Panepinto and his associate suspected in the murder of Eddie Melo, the former light-heavyweight boxing champ who had been chauffeur and bodyguard to mob boss Frank Cotroni on his visits to Ontario. The courts had ruled that Panepinto was involved in the botched bombing.
Panepinto’s daytime gig may have been selling cheap coffins, but evenings found him running a gambling house, and later at night he was given to stealing stereo systems from electronics warehouses. He was a Sicilian, and he was Vito Rizzuto’s right-hand man in Ontario. On the night of October 22 to 23, 1997, he was seen by police in the company of the Montreal godfather and a notorious member of the Ontario Mafia, Pat Anthony Musitano, at an Italian restaurant in Hamilton, Ontario’s “Steeltown.” To any but a well-informed observer, the meeting might have seemed unremarkable. After all, Vito wasn’t a hermit: it was normal that he should share a meal with friends every once in a while. But that October 1997 dinner took on new significance once police learned that Pat Musitano had ordered hits on two Ontario Mafia leaders—and the more police looked, the more they saw the sombre shadow of the Montreal godfather floating over those killings as well.
The Rizzutos, father and son, had reigned unchallenged over Quebec for years. But their hold on the underworld in the province to the west was anything but firm. Mobland, Ontario, was fragmented country with divided rule. Many observers believed Vito wanted to move in and clean up, as his father had done twenty years earlier in Quebec by eliminating Paolo Violi and his brothers.
Comparing files, investigators were able to place Vito Rizzuto in Ontario shortly before and after each of the murders orchestrated by Musitano.
When it had created the Commission back in 1931, the American Cosa Nostra had decreed that their interests in Quebec would be controlled by the Bonanno crime family of New York City, while Ontario belonged to the Magaddinos of Buffalo. Joe Bonanno and Stefano Magaddino were cousins from the same Sicilian town, Castellammare del Golfo. The two godfathers had their share of conflicts over the years; when Magaddino suspected his cousin of widening his territorial ambitions, he had his men kidnap Bonanno (see Chapter 3). In the end, though, each family had respected the other’s turf. Southern Ontario remained the preserve of the Buffalo family until Magaddino’s death in 1974, but in the years since, his successors had had trouble keeping a lid on things.
Giacomo Luppino was the Buffalo crew’s long-time representative in Ontario. He never marshalled the power necessary to strike back after the murder of his son-in-law, Paolo Violi, by the Rizzuto clan. He died in 1987, having reached the venerable age of eighty-eight, and was replaced by John “Johnny Pops” Papalia, who despite his other nickname, The Enforcer, was no more successful in imposing hegemony over his entire territory, which nominally encompassed the cities of Toronto and Hamilton as well as the Niagara Peninsula. In Hamilton, despite the fact that it was his home base, Johnny Pops had to share power with the Luppinos and, especially, the Musitanos.
The Papalia, Luppino and Musitano families were all from Calabria, but that didn’t prevent conflict within their ranks.
Back in Italy in 1929, patriarch Angelo Musitano had murdered his own sister when he found out she was pregnant out of wedlock. He then dragged the poor girl’s body by the hair all the way to her boyfriend’s house, where he shot the young man twice. The boy survived and went to the police. Musitano fled, first to France and then to Canada, where he lived under an assumed name. Police tracked him down thirty-six years later and deported him to Italy, where he served out his prison term. His nephew Domenic sided with Johnny Pops Papalia, but his great-nephew Pasquale (Pat) fell in with Vito Rizzuto.
Vito had other allies in Ontario, starting with the Caruana and Cammalleri families, who came from his home province of Agrigento, Sicily. Leonardo Cammalleri, father of Vito’s wife, Giovanna, had never been charged by Canadian authorities for the 1955 murder of trade unionist and politician Giuseppe Spagnolo in Cattolica Eraclea; nor had he been questioned after the slaying of Rosario Gurreri in Montreal in 1972, although he was a suspect. Leonardo’s brother Antonio Cammalleri headed the family’s criminal operations in Ontario. Vito could also count on the support of another Cattolica Eraclea native, Giacinto Arcuri. Rizzuto’s strategy was to start by getting rid of the clan headed by Johnny Pops Papalia, who in the 1990s was the senior Mafia chieftain in Ontario. Papalia had two lieutenants: Enio “Pegleg” Mora, in Hamilton, and Carmen Barillaro, in Niagara Falls.
Mora was the first to die. Weighing in at a hulking 260 pounds, he had lost his left leg below the knee several years earlier in a shootout with burglars who had come to rob a gambling house that he was “protecting.” He was able to identify one of the assailants, and after a prosthesis was fitted and he was able to walk again, he hunted the man down and fatally shot him. Legend also had it that he had once accompanied Johnny Pops to shake down a man who had taken too long to repay the boss. Mora poured gasoline over the unfortunate debtor and then pushed him toward Papalia, who stuck a cigarette between the man’s teeth and began sparking his lighter. The debtor got the hint.
In the 1990s, Mora borrowed $7.2 million from Vito Rizzuto and gave the bulk of the money to Papalia and Carmen Barillaro. Johnny Pops used the funds to open an upscale restaurant on Avenue Road in Toronto and a similarly posh nightclub in the city’s west end. The rest of the money disappeared. The Rizzuto clan demanded to be repaid but got nowhere. “They can’t touch us,” Barillaro boasted. That was a mistake.
On September 11, 1996, as Pegleg Mora pulled his gold-coloured Cadillac into the driveway of a farm in Vaughan, north of Toronto, someone shot him four times in the head at point-blank range. He then hoisted Mora’s lifeless, massive frame into the trunk of the Cadillac, drove several kilometres and abandoned the car at a crossroads. Mora was fifty-two. Giacinto Arcuri was arrested and charged with Mora’s murder, but he was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Next on the hit list was Papalia. His father, Antonio, had been famed as a bootlegger in Ontario. Johnny Pops spoke with pride about him: “I grew up in the ’30s, and you’d see a guy who couldn’t read or write but who had a car and was putting food on the table. He was a bootlegger, and you looked up to him,” he said during the only full newspaper interview he ever gave, to Peter Moon of The Globe and Mail. Johnny Pops cut his mob teeth in Montreal, alongside Sicilian bosses Luigi Greco and Carmine Galante. A made member of Cosa Nostra, Johnny Pops helped set up the French Connection, which eventually earned him a five-year stay in a U.S. federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. After his release, he returned to Hamilton and went to work for Giacomo Luppino, who was then the Magaddino family’s man in Ontario.
Papalia and his brothers made a fortune in gambling and drugs. They rented more than two thousand vending machines and were among the leading beer distributors in Ontario. Johnny Pops certainly had a sense of humour. When Moon asked him about his sources of income, he answered: “I go into a bar and I tell them my name and I intimidate people into taking our equipment. That’s what the police tell you, isn’t it? Listen, I’m lucky to have a couple of good brothers who look after me.” And when Moon intimated that Papalia was attempting to take control of organized crime in Ontario in the wake of Luppino’s death, he exclaimed, “What’s organized crime? Listen, I’m sixty-two and I’m tired and I have to crawl out of bed every morning.”
But none of those good brothers were around at one-thirty in the afternoon on Saturday, May 31, 1997, when a young man named Kenneth James Murdock went to Papalia’s place of business, Galaxy Vending, on Railway Street in downtown Hamilton. “Could I have a minute of your time … outside?” he asked the godfather. Papalia, who knew Murdock, accepted the invitation, followed him outside and offered him a cigarette. The two men strolled slowly out to the parking lot. Murdock told Papalia he had known his father in prison, then complained that the Musitanos owed him money, and asked if Papalia could help him get his money back. The entire story was a fabrication. After twenty minutes, Papalia told Murdock, “Do what you want to do. I’m not going to involve myself,” and turned away. Two witnesses then saw Murdock draw a small-calibre weapon, shoot Papalia in the head and flee in a green pickup truck. The bystanders then ran to the fallen mobster’s side. He was taken to Hamilton General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead an hour later. He was seventy-three years old.
Later that afternoon, Murdock met with Pat Musitano at his restaurant, The Gathering Spot, on James Street North, just a five-minute drive from Galaxy Vending.
Normally, the Ontario godfather’s funeral should have attracted top bosses from Toronto, Buffalo and Montreal. Few of them went, however. Given the particular context, the most notable attendee was Pat Musitano, the man who had paid Murdock to eliminate Papalia. Hiding behind dark sunglasses, his black vest open to reveal his ample midriff, Musitano was greeted with the regard due his rank. On police surveillance photos, he has the air of a conquering hero as his compari kiss him on each cheek.
The shock waves in Buffalo from Johnny Pops’s murder led to a summit meeting. Papalia’s Niagara Falls lieutenant Carmen Barillaro attended and vowed to others present that he would avenge his boss’s death. “I’m gonna take care of that fat tub of lard myself,” he said, referring to Pat Musitano, according to witnesses’ reports. A high-ranking member of the Buffalo family informed Musitano, who decided a pre-emptive strike was in order.
Pat’s brother, Angelo Musitano, and Ken Murdock drove to Niagara Falls, Ontario, on July 23, 1997. Barillaro was alone in his house on Corwin Avenue. His wife and daughters had gone out to shop for party favours; the next day was to be Barillaro’s fifty-third birthday. Musitano parked his car not far from the house; Murdock got out and went to knock on the door. When Barillaro answered, Murdock asked if the shiny red Corvette parked in the driveway was for sale. It sounded like a bad joke. Barillaro tried to slam the door, but Murdock stopped him, pointed a nine-millimetre handgun at him and said he had a message for him from Pat. Barillaro dashed into another room, then spun around and lunged at Murdock. He was a big man who had worked out with weights for years. Murdock shot twice. Barillaro dropped dead. His body was found by his wife and daughters.
Three days later, Pat Musitano was celebrating at The Gathering Spot. Mob acquaintances brought him gifts. Another telephoned to say, with a laugh: “I’ll be there in ten. Uncork a good bottle of wine and let it breathe.”
It took police more than a year to solve the murders of Papalia and Barillaro. The following year, they arrested Ken Murdock on charges of extortion. Once they had him in custody, officers played a tape recording for him of the Musitanos threatening to do him in. Murdock signed an agreement to collaborate with the police. In exchange for his protection, he revealed that the slayings of Papalia and Barillaro had been ordered by the Musitano brothers, against whom he then agreed to testify. “I killed Papalia for two thousand dollars and forty grams of cocaine, then I killed Barillaro,” he told a judge in 1999.
Eventually, intelligence units with various police forces were convinced that the Musitanos had not acted alone in getting rid of Johnny Pops Papalia and his lieutenants Enio Mora and Carmen Barillaro.
According to Murdock’s version of events, Niagara Falls mobsters were fed up with being a mere satellite of the Buffalo outfit, which they felt now lacked organization and scope. “They preferred dealing with the guys in Toronto and Montreal,” he explained to his handlers. “They were fed up of paying tribute money to the Americans.” Murdock told the police that he had been waiting for an order from Pat Musitano to take out Natale and Vincenzo Luppino, the sons of the late Giacomo Luppino. Murdock also said that a hit on Paolo Violi’s sons, Domenic and Giuseppe, was in the cards.
Pat Musitano had met with Vito Rizzuto’s Toronto associate Gaetano “Guy” Panepinto in April 1997—a month before Papalia’s murder and three months before Barillaro was slain—at a swanky Mediterranean restaurant at Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls. The two men had discussed investments that Vito was planning in Ontario. On the night of October 22 to 23, 1997, after the murders, Musitano met Rizzuto and Panepinto at a restaurant in Hamilton. Two days later, Musitano called Panepinto to ask whether Rizzuto was happy with how the meeting had gone. “It was good,” Panepinto said. “He’s very happy … He gave us some advice before heading back to Montreal.”
Delegating management of his Ontario dealings to a man as unpredictable as Guy Panepinto may not have been among Vito’s wiser business decisions. The “Discount Coffin Guy” was built like a linebacker but had scarcely more judgment than a teenager, and working closely with the powerful Montreal godfather gave him a sense of impunity. He would not tolerate the slightest competition—as in the case of Domenic Napoli and Antonio Oppedisano, two upstart crooks who had fled Italy and settled in the Toronto area. The pair, who were reportedly cousins, had started installing video lottery machines in bars on Panepinto’s territory without his consent. Their terminals paid out cash to winners, whereas Panepinto’s merely offered free game credits.
Panepinto lodged a formal complaint, but no one in the Mafia seemed willing to put the new arrivals on notice. Napoli and Oppedisano were members of the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian equivalent of the Mafia. In Ontario, they were under the umbrella of the local ’Ndrangheta boss, Antonio Commisso, who lived on Hollywood Hills Circle in Woodbridge (the same northern Toronto suburb where Alfonso Caruana resided).
In March 2000, after a dispute with Panepinto, the two cousins went missing. Before long, there were rumblings that they would never be found alive. Rumour had it that Panepinto had killed them, dismembered the bodies in the basement of his casket shop and then burned them piece by piece.
News that Napoli and Oppedisano had vanished travelled all the way to Calabria. Suspicious Commisso family members, aware of Panepinto’s close ties to Vito Rizzuto, decided to go to Montreal and investigate further. Did Vito know something about the two men’s disappearance? Was he the one who had ordered them killed? The don replied that he had nothing to do with any of it—and everything pointed to him telling the truth. Vito was annoyed at the thought that his man in Ontario would have ordered hits without first clearing it through him, as protocol dictated. Jettisoned by his protector, Panepinto knew his life was hanging by a thread. He went to Montreal and kept a low profile. A few months later, a close associate told him that the danger had passed, and he could head back to Toronto.
That associate had been misinformed.
On October 3, 2000, Panepinto was sitting comfortably in the leather driver’s seat of his maroon Cadillac, waiting for traffic to pass at an intersection on Bloor Street just east of Highway 427 in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, when a silver minivan pulled even with him on his left. From the rolled-down passenger-side window, six shots spat out, striking Panepinto in the shoulder, chest and abdomen. The Cadillac rolled slowly through the intersection before coming to a rest against the porch of a vacant house. Tires screeching, the killers’ van sped away.
Alerted by the noise, neighbours ran to the Cadillac and saw the forty-one-year-old driver lying dead with his head against the steering wheel. “That’s what we see on TV, and you think it’s not real, but real sometimes,” one neighbour later told a reporter, saying she was glad her children had finished playing outside only an hour before the shooting. Vito Rizzuto’s Ontario henchman had met his death just minutes away from his $500,000 home on quiet, tree-lined Laurel Avenue, where he lived behind a high iron fence with his wife of seventeen years, Anita, and their three sons.
On the seat of the Cadillac beside the victim, police found architect’s plans for Jam Billiards & Lounge. The owner of this nightclub in Barrie, a city north of Toronto, attended Panepinto’s funeral. Investigators noted that the owner had secured a loan of $200,000 from a numbered company belonging to the Cuntrera brothers. Despite police protests, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario granted the club an alcohol permit.
Two years later, after thoroughly searching the Casket Royale outlet on St. Clair Avenue for three hours, detectives emerged with two bags, one plastic and one paper. Whatever was in them, apparently the police never found the remains of the two ’Ndranghetisti that Panepinto was rumoured to have killed there. But the police seemed to think that the Calabrians themselves had enough proof to finger Panepinto as the killer, because in a report dated June 23, 2009, the RCMP stated that Vincenzo “Jimmy” DeMaria, a higher-up in the Calabrian mob in Toronto then serving time for another murder, was an accomplice in Panepinto’s slaying. The National Parole Board ruled that the allegation was unsubstantiated, however, and ordered the prisoner released.
The Panepinto episode warned Vito Rizzuto that expanding into Ontario was no easy task; the Calabrians had a strong presence there. When the ’Ndrangheta decided to take out his senior associate in the province, Vito had no choice but to accept it. He was decidedly not lord and master of Ontario.
More bad news was headed his way. In April 2001, an investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), backed by the RCMP and the SQ, culminated with the arrest of fifty-four individuals who had been running a vast illegal betting ring overseen by Vito Rizzuto and active mostly in Ontario. Among them were Giuseppe “Joe” Renda, age forty-two, who was close to the Rizzuto family and had recently moved to Toronto from Montreal, and Stefano Sollecito, son of Rocco Sollecito, a long-standing associate and close friend of the Rizzutos.
The network extended from Montreal to Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton and other Ontario cities. Bookmakers and debt collectors used the Internet, mobile phones, BlackBerry hand-held devices and various kinds of wireless technology to take bets on all manner of major North American sports events: pro football, basketball and hockey games, as well as horse races and U.S. college games. The amount of the bets was in the neighbourhood of $200 million per year. One man had wagered $100,000 on a single football game.
The coordinated raids on thirty-one homes and seven businesses netted guns, ammunition, drugs and bulletproof armour stolen from police, as well as ski masks and $245,000 in cash. “It was a drug trafficking investigation that put the OPP on their trail,” SQ Sergeant Robert Thibault said at a news conference in Montreal. “Gambling networks like this one make money not only by taking a cut on the wagers, but through loansharking and by forcing bettors who don’t pay to carry drugs.
“Potential customers have to be referred by a known customer,” Thibault went on. “This is to prevent infiltrations by police. The bookies set the odds by studying sports teams’ results. For example, they might establish that the Toronto Maple Leafs are twice as likely to win a game than the Montreal Canadiens. So the odds are two to one. But the bookie takes a cut, so that might reduce the odds to one-and-a-half to one. A bettor who puts down $100 on a Canadiens victory therefore collects $150 if his team wins, and the bookie gets $50. The loser, meanwhile, has to pay up quickly. If he can’t, he’ll be extended credit, but at an exorbitant rate, often 2 percent per week, which is 104 percent a year. If that bettor can’t pay back the capital and interest, he can expect a visit from an enforcer, who will intimidate, injure or potentially kill him. Often, however, the network will require that person to pay his debt by carrying drugs. The idea is to make money by every possible means.”
The arrested bookies pleaded guilty, in the process avoiding trials at which they would have made public their oddsmaking strategies. Authorities seized Joe Renda’s fifty-thousand-dollar Lincoln Navigator. Its downcast owner decided to return to Montreal, a city that he knew well and where he would be more at ease now that he had been unmasked.
Vito refused to throw in the towel. He replaced Panepinto with a new emissary for the Greater Toronto Area: a man who was as brilliant as he was bloodthirsty. Juan Ramón Fernández was a Spanish national who had never been made a member of the Sicilian Mafia but whose tough-guy reputation had won him the godfather’s esteem. During his career, which included long stints in prison, he had built up contacts with Colombian drug suppliers, Calabrian mobsters, the Hells Angels, Montreal’s West End Gang and other criminal groups. They were the sorts of relations that could be assets in multicultural Ontario.
A handsome, muscle-bound specimen with dark hair and a brooding gaze, Fernández turned heads wherever he went. He was unfailingly loyal to Rizzuto, and he terrorized those around him. One night in January 2002, as he was driving near Toronto’s Kensington Market with a Hells Angels leader, he spotted a Sri Lankan immigrant who had owed him money: “Fuckin’ piece o’ shit Tamil,” he told his companion, unaware that a hidden microphone in his car was picking up his every word. “Shoulda seen when I slapped ’im last time—the blood coming out.” On another occasion, police watched as a mobster—despite the fact he was himself a tough customer—trembled in Fernández’s presence, to the point that his coffee cup rattled against the saucer.
Fernández was born in Spain on December 23, 1956, and immigrated to Montreal with his parents when he was five. He never applied to become a naturalized citizen of Canada, which would eventually earn him the right to be deported from the country—twice. He started working out at the gym as a teenager and learned martial arts. Soon he was putting his physical abilities to use breaking into homes and stealing money, jewellery and credit cards. Years later, he confessed to having been a “somewhat rebellious and hotheaded young man”—but refused to admit that he had maintained the same character traits into adulthood. Several crimes and misdemeanours later, he came into contact with the Montreal Mafia and was hired as a driver and bodyguard by Frank Cotroni.
When he was twenty-two, Fernández told his seventeen-year-old girlfriend, an exotic dancer, to have sex with an associate of his. She refused, so he hit her—so hard that she later died in hospital. He pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment. Prison authorities were soon informed that he readily threatened inmates who got on his wrong side. As soon as he was released, he was threatened with deportation to Spain but succeeded in appealing the order for twelve years. His day job was as a salesman for a car dealership on Metropolitan Boulevard in Saint-Léonard; at night he worked in a club controlled by the Rizzuto clan.
In the early hours of February 12, 1991, a bomb exploded behind a Pizza Hut franchise on Jean-Talon Street in Saint-Léonard. At the time, Pizza Hut was owned by PepsiCo. For the first of its planned chain of restaurants in Montreal, the U.S.-based multinational had selected a neighbourhood with a sizable Italian community likely to appreciate its pizzas. Had the PepsiCo brain trust done its market research properly, they might have twigged to the fact that in that neighbourhood, opening a business aimed at a client base of mostly Italian origin was a risky undertaking: the territory was already controlled by businessmen who didn’t take kindly to competitors. In this case, Agostino Cuntrera—notorious for, among other things, his role in the rub-out of Paolo Violi in 1978—had the local monopoly on pizza: he owned a Mikes franchise just metres away from the Pizza Hut site.
Before the bombing, persons unknown had already set fire to the Coming Soon sign heralding construction of the Pizza Hut, then tried to burn down the building itself. After that attack, the stubborn owner rebuilt the restaurant, and Montreal police investigated. They bugged the phone at Mikes and, on February 26, heard Cuntrera’s daughter telling her mother that the Pizza Hut owner obviously didn’t want to understand and perhaps had a death wish. Police eventually surmised that Juan Ramón Fernández had played a role in the Pizza Hut explosion, as well as in another bomb attack against a metal plating plant that had dared to compete with a Mafia-controlled company. According to police, Fernández paid a Halifax Hells Angels member, Patrick “Frenchy” Guernier, to place both bombs.
As a mobland “supervisor,” Fernández was “the classic example of an enforcer used by La Cosa Nostra,” one police report stated. He was “a mobile-type drug supplier; i.e., he operates from his vehicle and is constantly on the move, using cellphones and pagers to stay in contact with his customers,” according to another. Analysts believed he reported directly to Raynald Desjardins (who, as previously mentioned, was one of the rare French Canadians granted admittance to Vito Rizzuto’s inner circle). Fernández was also caught on camera with Vito by a hidden police photographer: the Spaniard was shorter but stockier than the Montreal godfather and walked slightly behind him, showing the respect due his boss.
Police seized three kilos of cocaine, along with $32,000 in cash, in the trunk of a Jaguar that Fernández had borrowed from the car dealership where he worked. Sent back behind bars for a forty-two-month term, he won election to the inmates’ committee at Archambault Penitentiary in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, north of Montreal. On April 10, 1992, he got married in the prison chapel. He was granted permission to invite brothers Raynald and Jacques Desjardins and their wives, along with a few fellow inmates. Prison authorities, however, refused his request to have Vito Rizzuto attend.
Inside the penitentiary, Fernández hung out with William McAllister, of the West End Gang, and Frenchy Guernier, the Hells Angel identified by police as having set the explosives at the Saint-Léonard Pizza Hut franchise and metal plating plant. Fernández had little trouble securing temporary parole from prison authorities. On one such release, when he was supposedly visiting his mother, he went to Mafia meetings or dropped in to see Raynald Desjardins at his luxury home on Gouin Boulevard West, in the same Saraguay neighbourhood where Vito Rizzuto lived. The police were furious: “We had to bang our fists and put a stop to the day paroles,” one officer recalls. Furious, Fernández flew into a rage and smashed some computer hardware in the prison.
The authorities decided a transfer was in order. The medium-security Leclerc Institution, in Laval, refused to accept him as an inmate after a union representative told management of employees’ fears that Fernández would instill a climate of violence. He was sent instead to the Donnacona Institution, a maximum-security facility located in a suburb of Quebec City, where he wasted little time in having some nude dancers brought in, at his expense, for a show. Raynald Desjardins’s wife regularly made the 220-kilometre trip by road from her home in Montreal to go and see him. Another frequent visitor was her cousin, Carole Jacques, a lawyer who had been a Progressive Conservative member of Parliament for the riding of Mercier from 1984 to 1993. (A few years later, Jacques and her former riding organizer, Jean-Yves Pantaloni, were convicted on influence peddling charges for soliciting kickbacks from two businessmen seeking federal government subsidies for industrial projects in Jacques’s riding. As part of a subsequent RCMP investigation, Jacques was suspected of having given a copy of the police file on Raynald Desjardins—then in jail for his role in the 1987 plot to import 740 kilos of cocaine via Ireland’s Eye, off Newfoundland—to a corrupt federal parole officer. Only the parole officer was charged and convicted in the case.)
From his cell, Fernández set up a scheme to import Jamaican hashish with Glen Cameron, one of Rock Machine’s key suppliers. He recruited inmates and convinced them to become drug mules after their release. Fernández himself was paroled in 1999 and was immediately deported to Spain, the country of his birth. But he soon found his way back across the Atlantic, settling in Florida, in an apartment that belonged to his lawyer, Carmine Iacono (a member of the Progressive Conservative Party rank and file who would later run under that banner in the 2003 Ontario provincial election, in the riding of Vaughan–King–Aurora, north of Toronto). Finally, Fernández moved to Ontario, under the aliases “Joey Bravo” and “Johnny Bravio,” and began reporting to Gaetano “The Discount Casket Guy” Panepinto.
After Panepinto was gunned down at the wheel of his Cadillac in early October of 2000, Fernández discreetly took his place. Panepinto’s murder prompted police in York Region, north of Toronto, to launch Project R.I.P.—a sly nod to Panepinto’s former line of work. Their investigation into his former associates soon led them to Juan Fernández. He was picked up in March 2001 in a café in Woodbridge.
On April 3, 2001, Fernández was deported to Spain for the second time—and again returned to Canada, this time stealing the identity of James Gordon Shaddock, who had been born on May 26, 1956, at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, and died aged twelve. Police were soon on to him, but decided to place him under surveillance rather than arrest him and deport him a third time. They tapped his phone line and before long were aghast at his lust for consumer goods. Fernández had moved in with his girlfriend, Lori Ploianu, in a seventeenth-floor condo at 4450 Tucana Court in Mississauga, a city west of Toronto.
Using credit and debit cards in the name of Shaddock, he bought three giant-screen projection TVS from The Brick furniture and electronics outlet in Rexdale, a north Toronto suburb: two fifty-one-inch Panasonic models at $2,898 and $3,198, and a fifty-three-inch Sony for $2,488. Police listened in as he told a friend of his named Danny about his new toys.
“Can I grab some stuff too?” Danny asked excitedly.
“Who?” Fernández replied.
“Me!” Danny said.
“Of course you could get some stuff.”
“Yeah, you get what you want—televisions, whatever you want,” Fernández promised.
“Get for your father, get for Frank, uh, get, uh, sure.”
“That’s beautiful, man,” Danny exclaimed.
Fernández had orchestrated the fraud so well that he had a credit margin of $3.8 million, all in the name of a boy who had died thirty-three years earlier. He “spent” $19,000 on a white gold engagement ring studded with five diamonds for Ploianu and treated himself to a gold necklace for $3,187, along with a leather jacket, mobile phones, top-of-the-line running shoes, leather sofas and computer equipment. Some of these purchases were resold. Police eavesdropped on another conversation: Ploianu was asking Fernández how much she should charge a friend of hers, Andrea, for some of the items.
“Andrea might buy my couches, eh,” she told him. “No point giving them away for free.”
“No, if she’s going to buy them and the tables, perfect,” Fernández agreed.
“Yeah. What do you think? A thousand bucks, it’s okay?”
“Yeah, but yeah.”
“I asked her if she wants to buy them and she said … I go, ‘Listen, you don’t have to pay me right away. You can pay me slowly if you like.’ ”
“Like three hundred a week, four hundred, you know.”
Such tidbits from the domestic life of an unscrupulous gangster no doubt provided some entertainment to the police officers listening in, but they were only appetizers. The police would soon be sinking their teeth into much more valuable information: Fernández and his cronies were getting set to import large quantities of narcotics.
York police shared the results of the probe with the RCMP in Montreal, who launched Operation Calamus. Thus began another effort to pinch Vito Rizzuto. Having rounded up virtually the entire membership of the Hells Angels Nomads and the Rockers, their puppet club, as part of Operation Springtime in 2001, police in Quebec could finally focus their energies on the Mafia.
A truck driver of Portuguese origin, who was a former narcotics courier, agreed to work with the Mounties in exchange for $300,000 and a promise that pending charges against him would be dropped. He had previously moved drugs for Abraham “The Turk” Nasser, a Colombian cocaine supplier. The Turk’s main connection in Montreal was a man named Rodolfo Rojas.
The truck driver told police that Fernández had been introduced to Rojas by a lawyer named José Guede, who, in vouching for Fernández, cited the latter’s prior experience as a narcotrafficker and loyalty toward Vito Rizzuto. Guede worked for the criminal defence firm of Loris Cavaliere, one of the Rizzuto family’s lawyers. (Two of Vito’s children, Libertina and Leonardo, practised in the same firm.)
In mid-December 2001, Fernández went to a meeting at the Centre Callego, a Spanish social club on Saint-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal. Around the table were Abraham “The Turk” Nasser, his contact Rodolfo Rojas, lawyer José Guede and the Portuguese truck driver, who was wearing a wire. On the agenda: an operation to bring in one thousand kilos of cocaine for distribution in Toronto.
If the deal went down as the group hoped, they planned to import more shipments and flip them to Montrealer Antonio Pietrantonio, nicknamed Tony Suzuki because he held a stake in a Suzuki car dealership in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood. Pietrantonio was never charged in connection with this particular plot, but he had prior drug trafficking convictions.
Fernández and The Turk met in person and conferred by phone almost daily for the rest of the month. Nasser couldn’t decide how to move the coke, deliberating over using fish, textile and fruit importing outfits. Since the September 11 terror attacks, customs agents had been watching all cross-border shipments with particular zeal, so to conceal their wares, traffickers were taking extra care to choose consignments of merchandise that were least likely to arouse suspicion. On December 30, the truck-driver-turned-RCMP-informant told Fernández that The Turk had finally made up his mind.
“Okay, man, good news,” he reported. “Our friend says it’s a fruit store … Yeah, he has mangoes to sell and everything.”
“Beautiful,” a satisfied Fernández replied.
The traffickers refined their strategy, deciding to use a fruit company in Toronto and another in Venezuela or Paraguay. All that remained was to choose a name for the company, fill out the paperwork, and design a logo. That was the fun side of the job.
Coming to a profit-sharing agreement was the hard part. Back from Colombia, The Turk informed his partners that he wanted a 20 percent cut. Problem was, he’d calculated that percentage based on the revised wholesale price for cocaine in Montreal, which Vito Rizzuto and the Hells Angels had set the previous year at fifty thousand dollars a kilo. Thanks to his close connections with the Mafia and the bikers, Fernández had intimate knowledge of that agreement and had never since called it into question. Now, suddenly, he had reservations. He argued that it was more of a guideline than a directive, adding that the high price that the drug commanded in Montreal wouldn’t fly in Toronto, where there were market fluctuations.
Early in the new year, the dispute over pricing still hadn’t been settled. The informant’s cover hadn’t been blown either, but The Turk sensed something wasn’t right. He told the double agent he was going to lay low for a while, because a police officer he knew in Bogotá had told him the RCMP were on to him.
Fernández, meanwhile, was in a funk. He missed his biker friends. During a phone conversation with an associate named Jay, he explained how he was used to doing deals with members of the Nomads and Rockers. But now they were all in jail. “I was with one of the main guys in Montreal,” he said. “They’re fucked. They’re all inside. All of the Nomads are inside, the Rockers are inside.” On the evening of January 29, a bug concealed in his car recorded his conversation with Steven “Tiger” Lindsay, a member of the Hells Angels chapter based in Woodbridge. He complained that Vito Rizzuto hadn’t had enough time to broker a truce between the Hells Angels and the Rock Machine. “My partner told them all, eh. Told the fuckin’ Rock Machine and told the Angels to try to … a thing, and told Mom. And then when Mom started fixing up everything it was too late. He [Vito] told ’em. He told ’em a long time: ‘Mom. Mom … they’re [the police] gonna come with this, they’re gonna come with that. You’re gonna see, they’re gonna really ruin you, Mom.’ Then Mom said, ‘Yeah, you’re right, let’s fix it.’ Then it was too late … They opened the doors for the fuckin’ pigs. They opened the door. They gave them the power.”
Lindsay then told Fernández the story of Toronto mayor Mel Lastman’s involvement with a weekend convention of more than two hundred Hells Angels, two weeks previously, at a hotel in Toronto’s entertainment district. The Toronto Sun had run a front-page photo of the mayor shaking a biker’s hand. Lastman had also accepted the gift of a T-shirt emblazoned with the club’s “Death Head” logo. The tabloid quoted Lastman’s impressions of the brief encounter: “It was great. I walked in and they were yelling, ‘Hey Mel! Hey Mel!’ ” In his opinion, the Angels were simply in town to have a good time and spend money. The photo upset plenty of people, including many in Quebec. “I ask the politicians in Toronto to ask the bikers how they got that money,” the province’s public security minister, Serge Ménard said. “If the Hells Angels visit their city to spend money, they’re probably there to make some. And if the people of Toronto want to know how the bikers make their money, we’ll be willing to explain.” Police in Toronto were outraged as well, and the furor eventually prompted the mayor to throw the souvenir T-shirt in the garbage, also in front of newspaper cameras.
“Piece o’ shit asshole,” Lindsay commented as Fernández rounded a corner. “We’re voters, right? [Lastman should] have told fuckin’ top cop there … ‘Fuck yourself; I’m the fuckin’ mayor …’ Fuckin’ made two hundred votes.”
“Yeah, but what a fuckin’ idiot,” Fernández agreed. “These people laughed at him.”
Lindsay then rambled on about how he’d assaulted a man who’d owed him money, but that the beat-down hadn’t brought him any satisfaction. Fernández replied that he was having a similar problem with a man named Constantin “Big Gus” Alevizos, a former associate of the late Gaetano Panepinto. Big Gus wore his sobriquet well, standing six-foot-six and weighing over 450 pounds. Fernández suspected him of having bilked Vito Rizzuto to the tune of $600,000; there were rumours that he’d given part of the money to a female acquaintance of Panepinto’s, who of late had been seen tooling around town in a Maserati. Fernández told Lindsay he was thinking about killing Alevizos or asking one of his partners, Pietro “Peter” Scarcella, to do it.
On February 13, 2002, police were privy to a conversation between Fernández and their informant. Fernández was describing a large cocaine shipment that he and Vito Rizzuto had organized. They’d hidden the drug in shipments of food, working with a Toronto-based food importer called Jimmy. But Rizzuto—to whom Fernández referred variously as “The Old Man,” “V” or “my partner”—was nervous. “The guy we have, with the grocery, the Old Man don’t wanna deal no more … He’s paranoid because of the [September] eleventh thing … I went to see Jimmy; everything is passed in big machine with the X-ray, with the dogs … See, my partner, the Colombian, in Cali … They’re ready to give us as much as we want in Portugal, but to bring it over here, this is almost impossible. Everything is X-rayed, everything. They’re saying it’s for terrorist acts. Toronto, they’re going crazy now with the States. They’re busting the Arabs, the Iranians, everything. It’s fuckin’ bad.” Fernández told the informant how he and Rizzuto had had plenty of success bringing in drugs aboard east coast lobster boats.
On March 20, Fernández was speaking to Frank Campoli when the latter put Rizzuto on the line. As usual, the godfather spoke in guarded tones.
“Hey,” Vito said. “You … What happened, you got lost? You couldn’t find your way?”
“Yeah,” Fernández said with a laugh, adding: “Listen … I’m gonna go down because I have to see you …”
“So take care,” Vito advised. “Next week … But just—uh, be careful.”
Three days later, on March 23, Fernández met up with the RCMP informant in a restaurant on Steeles Avenue in Toronto. He again complained about Big Gus Alevizos, saying that the “big bastard gym owner” still owed him $600,000. “I want him—” he began, but trailed off and finished his sentence, the informant later said, by putting his index finger to his temple and mimicking a gun going off. Fernández then told the RCMP agent that he was going to give him a Ruger .357 Magnum revolver and a twelve-millimetre rifle to do the job.
Two months later, in May, Fernández gave the double agent a dirty sock containing a revolver and ammunition, and ordered him to take out Big Gus. The assignment placed the police in an untenable situation: they couldn’t allow the murder to go ahead, but pulling their informant out would unmask him, and Fernández might well give the contract to another hit man. The Spaniard had to be brought in as soon as possible, even if it meant jeopardizing the investigation into the cocaine smuggling plot. Police set up a roadblock on Highway 417, north of Toronto, and stopped Fernández’s suv, which was still bugged. The microphone picked up the voice of one of the arresting officers: “Put your hands up! Put ’em up! Put ’em up high!” In the passenger seat, Fernández’s girlfriend was a nervous wreck. With his characteristic cool, he reassured her: “They’re just cops, babe; just relax.” He was arrested and charged with counselling to commit murder.
The rest of the conspirators, thirty-one of them in all, were arrested on September 18, 2002, during coordinated raids in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and New Jersey. Among those caught in the dragnet was the RCMPinformant’s intended target, Constantin “Big Gus” Alevizos, a major Canadian dealer in MDMA, more popularly known as ecstasy. The “designer amphetamine” was then at the peak of its popularity among nightclubbers and ravers.
Operation R.I.P., which had lasted two years, brought the police plenty of prizes, including a large-scale pill press in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, that was churning out coloured ecstasy tablets by the shovelful. They also confiscated ten litres of gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), a psychotropic substance often called the “date-rape drug”; anabolic steroids; psilocybin (“magic”) mushrooms; painkillers that had been stolen from a pharmacy; marijuana hidden in the spare tire of a vehicle crossing the border into the United States; counterfeit credit cards manufactured using machines that decrypted the data in the magnetic strips of the original cards; several sticks of dynamite; Uzi submachine guns equipped with silencers; counterfeit passports; and last but not least, more than ten million dollars in cash.
Big Gus was charged with conspiracy to traffic in drugs. Gaetano Panepinto, had he still been alive, would also have been arrested, according to Detective Inspector Paul Sorel, the officer in charge of York Regional Police Investigative Services. Panepinto’s successor as the gang leader, Juan Ramón Fernández, now faced further counts, including trafficking, on top of the original counselling to commit murder charge. The police knew he had orchestrated the importing of at least a hundred kilos of cocaine, but they had never found out whether the drugs had made it to Canada after they’d been forced to arrest the Spanish national early. That precaution eventually proved pointless: Alevizos was slain in 2008, outside a halfway house in Brampton, Ontario, a Toronto suburb.
Thirty-five-year-old José Guede, the Rizzutos’ lawyer, was arrested a week later, on September 25, 2002. The formal charges filed at the Montreal courthouse named Vito Rizzuto as a co-conspirator, but—not for the first time—police lacked sufficient evidence to arrest him. The court documents alleged that Guede had set up a drug importing scheme with Colombian traffickers, Juan Ramón Fernández and Steven “Bull” Bertrand, a big-time cocaine importer who supplied the Hells Angels. The smuggling plot, police alleged, was part of the Montreal Mafia’s plans to branch out into Ontario and simultaneously cement its alliance with the Angels.
Prosecutors felt they had an excellent case against Guede. On the witness stand, the double agent gave a bona fide treatise on drug trafficking when he took the stand. He explained how the wholesale price of cocaine could fluctuate while dealers awaited delivery of shipments, and how losses were soaked up. The closer the coke got to North America, the higher its wholesale price rose: in the port of Colombia, it might sell for as little as two thousand dollars a kilo. In Mexico, it was worth seven thousand; in Texas, fourteen thousand. By the time the powder reached Montreal, a kilo sold for fifty thousand dollars. As for setting up a fruit import-export company as a cover to move the drugs—in this case, a company in the business of transporting mangoes—that was an old idea often employed by South American traffickers.
The prosecution’s case began to come undone, however, when the trial reached the cross-examination stage. The trucker-turned-snitch testified that the cocaine shipment was destined for Tony Pietrantonio, who had been recommended by José Guede. At the preliminary inquiry, however, he hadn’t named Vito Rizzuto’s lawyer but Hells Angels’ associate Steven Bertrand. Under cross-examination, the double agent’s RCMP handler tried to salvage the proceedings, but Quebec Court Judge Jean-Pierre Dumais ruled that the informant had contradicted himself. “It is clear in my mind that [the RCMP officer] attempted to prop up the credibility of the source agent by tampering with the playing field,” the judge told the court. “His misconduct is severe enough to be a detriment to the superior interest of justice. For the worst breaches, the court must apply the most serious sanction … and hereby orders a stay of proceedings.” The Quebec Court of Appeal later upheld the decision.
The prosecution had it easier in the case of Juan Ramón Fernández. The muscular pretty-boy gangster looked in a foul mood as he was escorted into a courtroom for sentencing in Newmarket, twenty-five kilometres north of Toronto, on June 29, 2004. The reason may have been a bad night’s sleep: a sympathetic prison guard had brought him a particularly comfortable pillow, but another less charitable guard had later confiscated it. Justice Joseph Kenkel sentenced Fernández to a twelve-year jail term on a variety of criminal organization charges.
Justice Kenkel emphasized that the accused had demonstrated “a level of market sophistication in his criminal activity.” Fernández appeared impassive upon hearing his sentence, and the fact that he would once again face deportation to Spain upon his release—but he was distressed when told that he wouldn’t be able to recover all of his jewellery, including watches, bracelets and a gold chain with a cross pendant. “It’s not just a bracelet,” he griped into the microphone installed in the Plexiglas-enclosed prisoner’s dock. The hearing was adjourned and the convicted Fernández was returned to his prison cell, hands cuffed and feet shackled, pending a subsequent hearing to determine the fate of the jewellery.
Fernández was sent to the maximum-security Millhaven Institution in Bath, Ontario, where he continued to exasperate prison authorities, among other things orchestrating a savage assault on a fellow inmate. In 2009, the National Parole Board ruled that he should remain incarcerated. He was now considered a “person of interest” in the investigation into the murder of Big Gus Alevizos the year before. The Parole Board also cited the prisoner’s “egocentricity, narcissism, grandiosity” and “psychopathic tendencies.”
From Gaetano “Guy” Panepinto to Juan Ramón Fernández to Constantin “Big Gus” Alevizos, Vito Rizzuto had enlisted some odd fellows indeed in his quest to muscle in on Canada’s richest province. All was not lost, but the Ontario underworld had so far proven as difficult to govern as a rudderless sailboat.