Mafia Inc.: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada's Sicilian Clan - André Cédilot, André Noël (2011)


DECADES AGO, the comune of Cattolica Eraclea bustled with activity. More than ten thousand men, women and children—peasants, artisans, shopkeepers—worked the fields, took sheep out to pasture, pressed olives, sold tools or bought fruit and transported it to the provincial capital, Agrigento, to be loaded onto ships and exported. Since the Second World War, the town’s population has shrunk by half, but a few kilometres to the south, the seaside remains animated. In the summer months, Sicilians like to kick back on the beach at Bovo Marina, near the splendid Greek ruins of Eraclea Minoa. They escape the stifling sun by strolling in the shadow of white chalk cliffs or relaxing under the soft green pines. Nearby, the Valle dei templi, the Valley of Temples, site of the Ancient Greek city of Agrakas, attracts archaeology buffs by the thousands.

Tourists are a rare sight in the town proper, however, and it doesn’t rate a mention in travel guides. A visitor will be hard pressed to find a hotel. Perched on its hill, Cattolica Eraclea is dying a slow death. There is no danger of the cars that roll through its quiet, narrow streets striking any children. On the benches in the piazza, dignified, severe old-timers exchange only terse greetings. They refrain from speaking with strangers, whose comings and goings they follow with suspicious eyes.

It all seems frozen in time: the houses with their decaying walls, the monuments, the empty churches and, beyond the fields, the Platani river, whose bed runs dry on the hottest days of summer. The town is not completely out of step with modernity, however; the municipal council has its own Web site—on which it decries the mass exodus of its sons and daughters to Canada and the United States, “a sad phenomenon whereby the number of inhabitants has sharply declined.” Indeed, there are far more entrepreneurs and professionals on the membership list of the Associazione Cattolica Eraclea di Montreal, in Saint-Léonard, than in the town that gave it its name.

A few palazzi built toward the end of the eighteenth century, notably by Prince Giuseppe Bonanno, the Marquis Borsellino and a physician also named Borsellino, stand in testimony to the wealth of the town’s erstwhile masters. The neo-classical Palazzo Municipale, dating from the Fascist period, is not without appeal. An imposing marble plaque on the wall of the clock tower memorializes the young men of the town lost during the two World Wars. The names of Cattolica Eraclea’s great families are engraved on countless headstones and mausolea that stand in rows along the cemetery’s flower-gilded laneways.

Canadians, should they ever visit, would have a vague feeling that they know these names: Manno, Renda, Arcuri, Cammalleri, Salvo, Sciascia, LoPresti, Ragusa, Sciortino, Milioto and so on. They have seen them in the newspaper, heard them on the radio or television—sometimes in connection with remarkable deeds and destinies, sometimes with darker enterprises. The recollections are not stirred by chance: most of the people resting in the Cattolica Eraclea cemetery have descendants in Quebec and Ontario.

The most notable of these surnames is Rizzuto, shared not only by Mafia “men of honour” such as Nicolò and his son, Vito, but also by a distant relative of theirs with an illustrious career, Pietro Rizzuto. Born into a poor family, he became a successful businessman and politician in his adopted country, and was named to Canada’s Senate at age forty-two. His reputation spread across the Atlantic and is a source of pride for the inhabitants of Cattolica Eraclea, the cemetery warden explains enthusiastically. “A great man,” he says, escorting his visitors to the entrance of the cemetery and carefully pulling shut the heavy cast-iron gates.

Close by, the single bell tower of the Chiesa Madre (Mother Church), dedicated to the Holy Spirit, dominates the piazza. Built in the seventeenth century in the relatively sober Sicilian baroque style, it has stood in silent witness to bloody wars, riots and demonstrations. Within its stone walls, Nicolò Rizzuto’s forebears celebrated christenings, weddings and funerals.

Parents in Sicily traditionally gave their children the names of their own parents and continue to do so: Vito Rizzuto’s grandfather, born in 1901, had also been christened Vito. In 1923, he wed Maria Renda, a widow. Her first husband, Francesco Milioto, had been shot and killed as he tried to rob another farmer in San Giorgio, a rural area in the comune of Cattolica Eraclea. Before his death, the couple had had a son, Liborio Milioto.* Maria was the sister of a Mafia boss, Calogero Renda, a campiere in the neighbouring town of Siculiana. Thus a new branch was added to the family tree, at once simple and complicated, of the extended Mafia clans of Agrigento Province, in whose towns and villages Cosa Nostra has held sway for decades. Simple, because the same surnames are entered in marriage contracts from generation to generation; complicated, because identical given names are as well.

Moreover, cousin marriages were common in the region—the potential for acceptable unions being limited given the deep mistrust of strangers and anyone not part of the clan. Large numbers of Cattolica Eraclea inhabitants, therefore, appear to be related not just by blood but by marriage. Unravelling this skein of family ties demands much concentration and is an exercise that borders on the dizzying.

Vito Rizzuto, Sr., and Maria Renda had a son, named Nicolò. Vito then emigrated illegally to the United States with his brother-in-law Calogero Renda. He was murdered on August 12, 1933, in a quarry in Patterson, New York. It was retribution for his having set fire to a building. Calogero Renda returned to Sicily and went to work for Baron Francesco Agnello, who owned large tracts of land in the Contrata di San Giorgio, a district near Siculiana.

Orphaned of his father at age nine, Nicolò Rizzuto from an early age earned a reputation as a malandrino—a fairly pejorative term that, in the Sicilian culture of the time, was not to be confused with “Mafioso.” Small-time brigands, these men were outlaws, unlike the Mafiosi, who held proper jobs and had often symbiotic relationships with townspeople and landowners as gabelloti or campieri. Rumour had it that the young Nicolò had become enraged when he learned of the deaths of two of his friends at the hands of local authorities during the Fascist years. It was said that he had sworn to avenge their deaths.

Nicolò’s first arrest came in 1945, as he was preparing to sell 350 kilograms of contraband wheat on the black market. The same year, his mother, Maria Renda, was also arrested for selling illicit wheat, a crime of which her own father had been convicted as well.

As it had during the war years, the Italian government exercised a monopoly over the wheat trade. In theory, the reason was to ensure fair distribution, but in practice, the policy only worsened shortages of the commodity. To feed their families, Sicilians had no choice but to break the law. The people had the painful impression that, unlike the poor peasantry, rich landowners faced little or no trouble from the law if they failed to hand over the expected quantities of wheat to the state. What wheat was available on the market cost a fortune. To put the people’s misery in perspective: a loaf of bread cost the equivalent of fifty cents, and a carabiniere earned about $1.75 a week.

Nicolò Rizzuto married Libertina Manno the same year he was arrested for the first time. He was barely twenty-one years old; she, eighteen. The Mannos lived near the Chiesa Madre, and the wedding took place there. Nicolò’s family lived behind the town’s second church, the Chiesa Madonna della Mercede. The pair were at once neighbours and distant cousins.

In taking Libertina Manno as his bride, the young Nicolò also married into the Mafia. Years later, Libertina’s uncles Pasquale Manno and Leonardo Cammalleri would be convicted of murder. Libertina’s father, Don Antonino, was the head of the Famiglia Manno, Cattolica Eraclea’s ruling Mafia clan. They occupied the land once owned by the Marchese Borsellino, in the contrata of Monte di Sara. Looking at photographs of Don Antonino Manno, one notes the piercing gaze of a man who appears mistrustful of most everything and everyone. Discreet, not to say secret, he refrained from ostentatious displays of his wealth and power. There was nothing to distinguish his two-storey home from those of his neighbours. In spring and summer, the front balcony overlooking the street would be covered in flowers, compensating for the lack of a back garden. The powerful don preferred to cultivate modesty. Electrical and telephone cables were not strung on the rough-plastered facade of his home until many years after its construction.

“The Mafia in the time of Don Nino were discreet,” the Sicilian Mafia historian Francesco Renda recalled of Antonino Manno. “Don Nino was very seldom seen on the street or anywhere in public. He lived like a ghost. His power was known to the people, but they never saw him.”

Men like Don Nino were mediators. They owed their public stature not to their heritage but to the power they wielded. They were masters at settling disputes without recourse to outside authority. Circumstances sometimes dictated that assassination be the solution, but they would have that dirty work done by others, such that they were only rarely accused of any crimes. When they were, acquittal was usually the outcome, and with each such reprieve they gained even more prestige and power.

Having allowed Nicolò to win his daughter’s hand, Don Nino gifted the young couple with a pretty house in a Cattolica Eraclea neighbourhood, Pero di Giulio, known informally as Puligiù. He helped his son-in-law get a job with the Sciortino family, which ran a flour mill in the town of Siculiana, twenty kilometres to the south.

It was while working at the mill with his elder half-brother, Liborio Milioto, that Nicolò Rizzuto got to know one Pasquale Cuntrera. Himself an aspiring Mafioso, Cuntrera looked after Baron Agnello’s land. Other members of the Cuntrera and Caruana families worked for Don Nino Manno, whose mother was a Caruana. They too owned a flour mill in the Siculiana region. Years later, in Venezuela, Nicolò Rizzuto would become godfather to a daughter of Pasquale Cuntrera, who by then was a boss of this important Mafia family.

Nicolò’s reputation as a bandit notwithstanding, one elderly woman in Cattolica Eraclea recalled him with fond nostalgia. “Zio Colà (Uncle Nick) should forever wear the cassock for the parishioners who come to church every year to celebrate the Feast of the Virgin Mary,” she said. Then, tears welling in her eyes, she added: “They say he is as generous in Canada as he was here. He was always good to the people.”

At four in the morning on February 21, 1946, Nicolò’s son, Victor “Vito” Rizzuto, was born in the family home. Libertina was assisted in childbirth by a sixty-nine-year-old midwife. The baby was baptized in the Chiesa Madre. A sister, Maria, was born a year later. In 1952, after the family flour mill closed down, Nicolò, following in his father’s footsteps, booked a transatlantic passage and entered the United States illegally. There, Nicolò Buttafuoco, an associate of the Bonanno crime family, took him under his wing. Likely he planned to settle there permanently and bring his wife and children over, but U.S. authorities wasted little time tracking him down and sent him back to Palermo. Nicolò eventually crossed the Atlantic again, this time winding up in Venezuela, where he lived in secret. He then returned to Sicily and began making arrangements—legally this time—to emigrate to North America.

Father Giuseppe Cuffaro of the Chiesa Madre backed his efforts. This was the same priest who would later provide sanctuary for the killers of the trade unionist Giuseppe Spagnolo. Padre Cuffaro vouched for Rizzuto, despite the fact that he was identified with the Mafia, asserting that Nicolò was a man with a sterling reputation who would surely make a valuable contribution to his new country, Canada. By western Sicilian standards, Rizzuto was not a poor man. His children would never have gone hungry had he remained in Agrigento Province, where his father-in-law, Antonino Manno, continued to reign as the Mafia chieftain. But Nicolò was young, ambitious and enterprising, and Canada looked to him, as it did to thousands of Sicilians, to be a land full of possibilities.

Nicolò was twenty-nine years old when he boarded the MS Vulcania with his wife, Libertina, and their children, Vito and Maria. On February 21, 1954, they stepped off the ship onto Halifax’s storied Pier 21. It was young Vito’s eighth birthday. The family headed immediately for Montreal, which had a well-established and fast-growing Italian community. Canada’s largest city at the time, Montreal was a magnet for Sicilian immigrants, whereas the Calabrians from the south of Italy’s boot preferred to settle in Ontario, where there were plenty of jobs to be found in the building trades as well as on the huge St. Lawrence Seaway project.

On the family’s immigration forms, Nicolò is identified as a farmer, and Libertina as a housewife. The young couple arrived in Canada with barely thirty dollars between them. Nicolò told the immigration officers that he planned to live with relatives of the family on De Lorimier Avenue, near the right-of-way for the future Metropolitan Autoroute.

The family then moved to the Villeray district. Known for the spiral staircases fronting its two- and three-storey row houses, it also encompasses Montreal’s Little Italy neighbourhood. Many of the homes had small fenced-in gardens at the back, good for growing grapes. On Sundays, the neighbourhood’s Italian parishioners worship at the Church of the Madonna della Difesa, or Église de Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense, at the corner of Henri-Julien Avenue and Dante Street. The red-brick church, built in Romanesque style, features a pre-war fresco depicting Mussolini on a white horse. Villeray was not exactly a poor neighbourhood, but the Rizzutos felt hemmed in there, even though the children could play in Jarry Park, just blocks away, where in a decade’s time, baseball’s Montreal Expos would begin playing home games against their National League rivals. The family soon moved farther east on the Island of Montreal, to Saint-Léonard, nicknamed La Città Italiana for its sizable population of Italian origin.

Nicolò Rizzuto founded a company with his brother-in-law Domenico Manno, Grand Royal Paving. He joined the Sicilian Association of Montreal, an organization whose members included heroin traffickers like Nicolò Morello and Carlo Campo. To anyone but their closest friends, Rizzuto and his two fellow Mafiosi corresponded to the traditional image of hard-working, honest Italian immigrants. (Morello, a father of seven, would later be killed in a bar in Saint-Léonard.)

Young Vito, who spoke not a word of English or French when he arrived in Montreal, was schooled in English, the language of business, at St. Pius X Secondary School on Papineau Avenue. One of his classmates, Tony Volpato, was active on the student council, which aimed to instill values of co-operation, initiative, leadership and loyalty. As an adult, Volpato would instead gain fame as a member of the Cotroni clan. Vito dropped out in Grade Nine. On August 18, 1965, he was fined twenty-five dollars and jailed eight days for disturbing the peace.

On November 26, 1966, Vito married Giovanna Cammalleri in Toronto. He was twenty years old and had just obtained his Canadian citizenship. Giovanna was two years his junior, and they were first cousins once removed. Born, like Vito, in Cattolica Eraclea, Giovanna was just seven years old when her father, Leonardo, took part in the murder of Giuseppe Spagnolo, the union activist and the comune’s first mayor. After the murder, he fled to Canada with his wife and children.

Giovanna Cammalleri Rizzuto gave birth to her first child on December 4, 1967, the year of the World’s Fair in Montreal. Following the Sicilian tradition, the bambino was named for his grandfather Nicolò, while the couple’s first daughter, who arrived on February 22, 1973, would be named for her paternal grandmother, Libertina. In the meantime, a second son, Leonardo, had been born on June 8, 1969.

Vito worked at the Cheetah Club, a bar housed in a building that belonged to his father, at the corner of Beaubien Street and Saint-Laurent Boulevard. Before his second son was born, he found himself in trouble with the police for having started a fire in a small shopping mall in Boucherville, on Montreal’s South Shore. Around one in the morning on May 16, 1968, he and Paolo Renda, his brother-in-law, were busy pouring gasoline on the floor of the latter’s business premises, the Renda Barber Shop, intending to burn it down. A wayward spark ignited the accelerant too soon, the flames leaping so fast that they set the two arsonists ablaze. When firefighters and police arrived, they found Renda outside, his clothes still smouldering, and took him to hospital.

A few hours later, the police learned that a man matching the description of Renda’s accomplice had made his own way to another hospital to be treated for burns. The motive for the arson was simple: Renda wanted to collect the insurance he had taken out on his barbershop. Other businesses in the mall suffered heavy losses. The two men were charged with arson. On Vito Rizzuto’s police photo, his face appears thin, nearly emaciated. His hair is long, in a Beatles cut, and he stares sullenly into the lens. He was tall, too, in stark contrast to many famous gang leaders of the time, many of whom, despite differing cultural origins, stood barely over five feet tall—Vincenzo Cotroni, Paolo Violi, Armand Courville and the American Meyer Lansky come to mind.

Four years later, in 1972, while his wife was pregnant with Libertina, Vito was convicted of fraud and arson and sentenced to two years in prison. He was released after eighteen months. Renda, meanwhile, served two years and nine months of a four-year sentence.

A year before his sentencing, Vito was still working at the Cheetah Club, a bar that police were keeping a close eye on, attempting to glean information about his father. Forty years later, Alain Brunelle, who in the early 1970s was part of Montreal police vice squad, recalled how, at the time, informers repeatedly told him and fellow investigators that Nicolò Rizzuto covertly controlled several construction sites in Montreal.

“People told us he was the one calling the shots in construction,” Brunelle recounted in an interview with the authors. “At one point in the summer of 1971 I went to Saint-Léonard with a colleague, hoping to talk to him. We questioned some employees of Grand Royal Paving who were laying asphalt in a driveway. The foreman wouldn’t talk to us, but one of the workers told us, hush-hush, that Nick was in Venezuela.”

The following autumn, Rizzuto bought a ranch in that South American country, three hours’ drive from its border with Colombia. In all likelihood, he was following orders. The Sicilian clans in Agrigento Province had sent him and other emissaries to Canada for a very specific purpose: use Montreal as a base to set up outposts in Venezuela, where they could make deals with the Colombian cocaine cartels.

Nicolò Rizzuto probably missed the almond orchards and cotton fields of his native province when he arrived in Montreal, but luckily for him, something else was growing there: crime. Montreal had won a reputation as an “open city.” And open to all manner of illicit activities it was “Canada’s Sin City,” headlines in U.S. newspapers blared. It was home to some two hundred nightclubs, an incalculable number of illegal gambling houses, and brothels aplenty. Things were so out of control that the U.S. Army and Navy, fearing rampant venereal disease, recommended that men on leave not stay in the city.

The most celebrated object of those soldiers’ and sailors’ lust was Willis Marie Van Schaack, better known by her stage name, Lili St-Cyr. Born into a showbiz family in Minneapolis, she performed nude for the first time in Montreal in 1944 at the Gayety Burlesque Theatre. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as she became the cabaret’s star attraction for the next seven years. In overwhelmingly Catholic Quebec, at a time when an omnipotent clergy moulded minds with the threat that impure souls were headed straight to hell, locals enjoying this brand of entertainment were committing a grave sin. Lili would remain a popular icon even after she retired from dancing, thanks to a mail-order lingerie business, The Undie World of Lili St. Cyr.

One man would make his mark on The Main—Saint-Laurent Boulevard, the traditional dividing line between east and west Montreal and its francophone- and anglophone-majority neighbourhoods respectively—and throughout the city: Vincenzo Cotroni, born in 1911 in a small town in Calabria, the southern tip of Italy’s mainland. He had immigrated to Quebec in 1924 and left school so early that he never really learned to read or write. The later ascendancy of the Rizzuto family is closely tied to the story of the Cotronis and the context of organized crime in 1950s Montreal.

After apprenticing as a carpenter, Cotroni switched career ambitions and tried his hand at professional wrestling, under the name “Vic Vincent.” He trained under Armand Courville, who came from a family of sixteen children and taught the rudiments of the sport to aspiring youngsters. Proudly mustachioed, with a head planted between two massive shoulders, Courville was also a man who literally took the law into his own hands, keeping bothersome individuals at bay with his fists and buying off the politicians, city councillors and policemen who threatened to close down his many gambling dens and speakeasies. He also provided no small measure of assistance to candidates who retained his services during election campaigns.

Courville taught his Sicilian protegé the rudiments of his game. Hired indiscriminately by both the Liberal Party and the Union Nationale, the two goons drove voters out of polling stations with baseball bats. “I was the Liberal Party’s chief of police,” Courville once told a reporter from La Patrie. Cotroni, meanwhile, was convicted of assaulting an electoral officer. It wasn’t his first arrest: at eighteen, he had been charged with the rape of a teenager named Maria Bresciano, who had spurned his marriage proposal. While Cotroni was free on bail awaiting his trial, the young woman withdrew the charge and agreed to become his fiancée. They would remain husband and wife until her death—but Maria’s loyalty didn’t stop Cotroni from keeping a mistress for many years (he even had a son with her and insisted that the boy be raised in Florida, far from the Montreal underworld).

Courville and Cotroni became business partners—in legal pursuits but also, and especially, illicit ones. They would remain close associates for some fifty years. The two partnered with the Marseilles-born brothers Edmond and Marius Martin to open the Cabaret Au Faisan Doré, at the corner of Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Sainte-Catherine Street. The nightspot became hugely successful thanks to its star emcee, Jacques Normand, and performances by such famous names as Charles Aznavour, Luis Mariano, Tino Rossi and Charles Trenet. The six-hundred-seat venue—frequented by office workers and taxi drivers, judges and lawyers, university professors and doctors—also launched the careers of French-Canadian entertainers like Fernand Gignac, Roger Baulu, Raymond Lévesque, Monique Leyrac and Denise Filiatrault.

Vic “The Egg” Cotroni didn’t get rich promoting la chanson française, however. His fortune would be earned through vice rackets: prostitution and, especially, gambling and bookmaking. As a hot spot for the latter, Montreal rivalled Havana and Las Vegas. The proximity of New York, the emergence of new telecommunications technology, regular visits by thousands of military men headed to or returning from Europe, the sudden crackdown on illegal gambling south of the border—all these factors attracted U.S. criminal organizations to “the Paris of North America.” Cotroni became their man in Montreal.

A professional gambler and crack mathematician by the name of Harry Ship repurposed several apartments on Sainte-Catherine Street into bookmakers’ offices, equipping them with telegraph machines. The tickers relayed the results of horse races and other sporting events all over the United States and Canada, as they happened. Each bookie manned five telephones. The premises were raided thirty-four times in just six years. Ship would pay the fines without complaining, and operations would pick up right where they left off. That the police were so accommodating is not surprising: the fines represented a sizable revenue stream for the city.

The manager of another bookie joint explained the workings of the system to Justice François Caron, who was presiding a commission of inquiry into gambling and commercialized vice (Commission d’enquête sur le jeu et le vice commercialisé), and was seconded by two crusading lawyers, Pacifique “Pax” Plante and Jean Drapeau. The police officer heading a raid on a gambling house would typically be offered “a twenty- or a fifty-dollar bill by management.” Of course, this had nothing to do with corruption. “It was simply to thank the officers for being gentlemen and doing their duty,” the witness explained. In all, the Caron Commission heard 374 witnesses, who explained in detail how the police and politicians were complicit in allowing Montreal’s illicit gambling dens and brothels to prosper.

Harry Ship was eventually arrested. A compulsive gambler, he had lost a great deal of money and now had to pay more fines—hefty ones. He invoked a poverty defence before Justice Caron: “The horses forgot to win,” he sighed. Ship was thousands of dollars in debt to Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and a bookie partner of Lucky Luciano’s. In other words, he owed the New York Cosa Nostra, and that was the sort of reckoning likely to get you into serious trouble.

The American bosses asked two émigré mobsters in Montreal, Luigi Greco, a Sicilian, and Frank Petrula, a Ukrainian, to “take care” of Ship. The threat wasn’t as ominous as all that—in this case, it meant sharing the profits of his rackets with the Lansky-Luciano outfit. With Vic Cotroni’s help, Greco and Petrula helped themselves to a share of the profits of a bookmaker even more prominent than Ship: Harry Davis, who was also an opium, morphine and heroin peddler, cabaret and brothel owner, and had a lengthy list of prior convictions for such offences as bribing civil servants.

In short order, Montreal would become a bona fide gold mine for the New York Mafia. The city was already a base of operations for several Corsican criminals, among them Antoine D’Agostino, who also went by the names Michel Sisco, Albert Blain, Alberto Dujardin and Carlos Alberto Ferrara. D’Agostino had concocted quite the sob story to dupe Canadian immigration authorities: he claimed to have been born in British Columbia and sent to live in Italy after his mother died. He added that he had been captured and imprisoned by the Nazis, but managed to escape and flee to Casablanca. From there, he said, he had sailed to Canada on a British ship and claimed refugee status upon arrival.

D’Agostino’s real story was even more outlandish. A leading underworld figure in Paris’s Montmartre, he had been recruited into the Gestapo by the Nazis to hunt down Resistance fighters, Jews and Communists. After liberation, fearing capture and execution, he dropped out of sight and assumed a new identity, which was easier than it might have been given the fact that he spoke five languages. When the dust settled, he resurfaced in Paris, running several brothels and nightclubs—and, more important, acting as a pivotal player in the international heroin trafficking ring set up by Lucky Luciano.

The dope was typically hidden in secret compartments built into automobiles crossing the Atlantic in the cargo holds of luxury liners bound for the Port of Montreal, where security was far more lax than on the East Coast of the United States. One of D’Agostino’s key partners was Lucien Rivard, a colourful Montreal gangster whose spectacular Bordeaux prison break would earn him the title of Canadian Press Newsmaker of the Year in 1965.

D’Agostino’s mailing address in Montreal was the Au Faisan Doré nightclub. He could also be found at the Café de la Paix (which was on the ground floor of a building owned by Vic Cotroni) or the Contact Club. Officers with the RCMP narcotics division, digging for information on D’Agostino’s acquaintances, checked the Contact Club’s telephone records and realized that several calls had been made to New York, more specifically to Sebastiano Bellanca (a.k.a “Benny the Sicilian” or “Benny Blanka”), a Gambino family soldier and notorious drug trafficker.

D’Agostino was wanted by police in Mexico and France. He had an impressive network of contacts that ran the gamut from Montmartre whores to a Montreal priest. Arrested and convicted of drug smuggling, he was imprisoned in the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Penitentiary in Laval, where he was gripped by a sudden religious fervour and began leading Bible readings for his fellow inmates.

His arrest didn’t exactly bring the French Connection to its knees. Heroin bound for New York continued to transit through Montreal, shepherded by an alliance of Québécois, Corsican, Sicilian and American smugglers. The drugs were moved across the U.S. border hidden in cars, often lower-end Chevrolets—traffickers including Frank Cotroni liked them because it was easy to hide the dope in the armrests. Nicolò Rizzuto had got it right when he surmised that Canada’s biggest metropolis had potential.

Another Mafioso, Carmine Galante, had also grasped that potential. Of all the mobsters who arrived in post-war Montreal, none was more influential. Nicknamed “Lilo” or “Mr. Cigar” because he had a cigar clenched between his teeth almost permanently, he gave the local Mafia a second wind after D’Agostino’s incarceration.

Born in 1910 in a Harlem slum, Galante was the son of a fisherman who had immigrated to the United States from Castellammare del Golfo. Before he was ten years old, he had been deemed an incorrigible delinquent. At seventeen, he was convicted of armed robbery and jailed in New York’s storied Sing Sing prison. By age twenty, he was charged with the murder of a police officer but was acquitted for lack of evidence. Later, he served time after a botched truck hijacking led to a gunfight in which Galante wounded his arresting officer and a seven-year-old girl.

A declassified FBI report on Galante, which runs to 1213 pages, quotes a psychiatric assessment conducted on him while he was in prison: “It was noted that the subject was neat in appearance but dull emotionally. He had a mental age of 14½ and an IQ of 90. He was diagnosed as an aneuropathic, psychopathic personality; emotionally dull and indifferent with prognosis as being poor.”

The tiny Galante—he stood barely more than five feet tall—liked to boast that he was a patriot and a good Catholic. He took pains to ensure that the children he had with his mistress, who was twenty years his junior, would not be stigmatized as illegitimate. He devised a solution to this thorny problem of ethics: he ordered one of his henchmen to marry her.

In January 1943, “Lilo” made a spectacular entrance on the mobland scene when Vito Genovese, the boss of one of New York’s Five Families, assigned him the mission of assassinating Carlo Tresca, a labour organizer and publisher of an anti-Fascist weekly in the city. Genovese, a close associate of Lucky Luciano, had taken refuge in Italy after a murder. There, he had befriended no less a personage than Benito Mussolini, who was outraged by Tresca’s anti-Fascist stance. Witnesses to the murder on Fifth Avenue saw a short, stocky man raise a handgun, shoot the journalist at point-blank range and step into a black Ford, which then sped away. Tresca died instantly. Carmine Galante was arrested not long afterward in the same black Ford sedan but was simply charged with breaking his parole conditions. The successful hit considerably raised his profile in mob circles.

He changed bosses and was promoted to a prestigious position: driver for Joe Bonanno. After the end of the Second World War, he began a series of return trips to and from Montreal. At the time, the city had become a refuge for U.S.-based bookmakers who feared they would be called to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee inquiry into organized crime headed by Estes Kefauver. Galante was tasked with ensuring that the relocated bookies kept on paying their share to the New York Mafia families. In 1953, by which time he was working for Bonanno, Galante moved to Montreal to run illegal betting and gambling houses. Jointly with Luigi Greco and Harry Ship, he bought the Bonfire, a restaurant on Décarie Boulevard, near the Blue Bonnets Raceway.

With the help of hired goons, he shook down the city’s bar and nightclub owners, pimps and prostitutes, bookmakers and abortionists. The amounts extorted for the privilege of his “protection” funnelled up to fifty million dollars per year into the Bonanno family’s coffers. He placed his men in the syndicates and moved into the drug trade. Though poorly educated, he spoke English and Italian and also had a smattering of French.

The declassified FBI report notes that “the subject [Galante] was reported to dictate policy, set rates and tariffs for the American gambling syndicate in Montreal, Canada.” The document goes on to list offices on Sherbrooke Street, Mountain Street and Mansfield Avenue in downtown Montreal.

Galante formally established a Bonanno family decina, or “cell,” in Montreal, swearing in several members, chief among them Luigi Greco and Vic Cotroni. The latter had a flaw, being Calabrian and not Sicilian, but he sufficiently impressed “Lilo” that the two befriended each other and, later, became godfathers to their respective children.

In 1954, Galante sent Greco and Frank Petrula to Italy to meet Lucky Luciano. RCMP investigators already suspected Galante of having forced Lucien Rivard to work with Cotroni’s brother, Giuseppe “Pep” Cotroni, in heroin trafficking operations. After Petrula returned to Montreal, the Mounties searched his luxury home. They found no drugs but did make an interesting discovery. Hidden behind tiles in the bathroom was a safe containing a list of journalists and politicians who had been paid off by the Mafia during the just-completed municipal election campaign. According to Petrula’s notes, organized crime interests had spent more than $100,000 in a bid to discredit the Civic Action League and its mayoralty candidate, Jean Drapeau, who was fresh off four years assisting “Pax” Plante on the Caron Commission. The money had also been used to pay thugs who terrorized voters at polling stations.

Drapeau still won the election, but the affair shed cold light on the corrupting power of the Mafia. Petrula’s gaffe was unforgivable, and his associates feared he might start talking to the police. He disappeared. Rumour had it that Luigi Greco, whose legitimate public face was as a small-time pizzeria owner, had run Petrula’s body through a meat grinder.

Carmine Galante was deported back to the United States. He was made a caporegime, then a sottocapo (underboss) to Joe Bonanno, and accompanied the latter to the Mafia summits at the Grande Albergo in Palermo and at Joseph Barbara’s estate in Apalachin, New York. After those strategic meetings, which sealed the heroin trafficking agreement between the Sicilian Mafia and the New York Cosa Nostra, Galante brought increasing numbers of young Sicilians into his crew. They would be nicknamed “Zips” by their U.S. mob counterparts because of their rapid-fire Sicilian dialects. The Zips arrived in New York in large numbers, working in pizzerias as a front for the dope-importing operations: the French Connection would eventually be supplanted by the “Pizza Connection.”

Galante himself would be edged out of business: he was arrested in 1960 for his involvement in a vast plot to import heroin with the younger Cotroni brother, “Pep,” and two years later was sentenced to twenty years in prison, after two trials punctuated by various incidents and one unusual accident: the head juror of one of the trials broke his spine falling down a flight of stairs in an abandoned building.

Lucky Luciano’s establishment of the Commission in 1931 had put an end to the bloody turf wars among New York’s major Mafia clans. One member of the clan that emerged from those wars victorious, Joseph Bonanno, then aged twenty-six, had managed to extend his operations not only throughout the United States’ largest city—which, he said, the families called “The Volcano”—but also to Canada, California and the American Southwest. Narcotics trafficking, illegal gambling, prostitution, loansharking and protection rackets had propelled him into the select millionaires club. He was at the very heart of the alliance between the Sicilian Mafia and the American Cosa Nostra.

Driven by the desire to win on all fronts, including that of respectability, Bonanno had invested a considerable share of his ill-gotten gains in companies that were entirely above board: cheese factories and clothing manufacturers, moving and storage companies, pizzerias, cafés and funeral homes. “For nearly a thirty-year period after the Castellammarese War no internal squabbles marred the unity of our Family and no outside interference threatened the Family or me,” he proudly asserted in his autobiography.

Bonanno’s own arrogance and hubris would contribute to the collapse of the long truce between the Five Families and force him to seek sanctuary in Montreal. The Volcano was spitting fire anew, and its plume of smoke drifted northward. The eruption would have serious implications, reinforcing the Montreal Mafia’s position as subordinate to its New York counterpart. Years later, it was within this well-delineated framework that Nicolò Rizzuto and his son, Vito, would come to power.

Born in Castellammare del Golfo in 1905, Giuseppe “Joseph Charles” Bonanno had immigrated to the United States at a very young age but was later forced to return with his parents to Sicily. Later, with an arrest warrant issued by the anti-Mafia prefect Cesare Mori hanging over his head, he fled to Cuba, then re-entered the United States illegally, on board a fishing boat. He wasted little time climbing the rungs of the Mafia.

Conceited, reluctantly saddled with the unflattering sobriquet “Joe Bananas,” he saw himself as special and did nothing to hide his contempt for the heads of the other families, which didn’t exactly earn him many friends among them. He told anyone who would listen that he was descended from a long line of Sicilian princes, that his grandfather had been a major ally of Garibaldi at the time of Italian unification, and that his father, Salvatore, might well have been ordained a priest had he not sacrificed himself for his family. In fact, Bonanno père had preferred theft and murder to worship and prayer.

In 1964, at the height of his powers, Bonanno tried to become the head of the Commission, pre-emptively eliminate his rivals and be anointed capo di tutti i capi of the American Cosa Nostra. The other families began to worry. Their concern grew to alarm when they learned that Bonanno had taken out contracts on New York City bosses Carlo Gambino and Tommy Lucchese, and even on his cousin Stefano Magaddino, the boss of the Buffalo crime family, which had a branch in Hamilton, Ontario, and had designs on Toronto. Bonanno plotted the murders with his close associate Joseph Magliocco. Magliocco hired one of his main hit men, Joseph Colombo, to do the jobs, but Colombo betrayed Magliocco and warned Gambino and Lucchese.

Sensing all-out war was near, Bonanno decided to drop out of sight for a while and travel. In his autobiography, he tells of how a businessman, John DiBella, persuaded him to partner in the Grande Cheese Company of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. “The cheese plant had been the source of contention between rival groups in Chicago,” he wrote. “These people played rough, and fighting broke out.” DiBella had sought and obtained Bonanno’s protection. Bonanno continues:

When my business associate John DiBella of the Grande Cheese Co. found out about my upcoming travels, he asked me to make Montreal my first stop. Mr. DiBella had a close friend from his hometown in Sicily, Joseph Saputo, who was also in the cheese business. Because of immigration quotas, Mr. Saputo and his family hadn’t been able to enter the United States. As the next best thing, Mr. Saputo immigrated to Montreal, Canada, where he established the Saputo Cheese Co. He was now looking for investors to expand operations.

Fay [Bonanno’s wife] and I went to Canada, expecting to be there but a short time.

At the cheese plant, Mr. Saputo and I agreed to a deal. Mr. Saputo signed a letter of intent, stating that once I made payment, I would own twenty percent of the business.

Bonanno opened an account with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. The branch manager recommended that he apply for permanent resident status in Canada, as this would make it easier for Bonanno to secure funding, and he would have no problem staying in the country.

Joe Bonanno was by this time a celebrity in the United States. The previous year, Joseph Valachi, a soldier with the Genovese family, had broken the Mafia code of silence—omertà—to become the first and one of the most famous mob informants, explaining the innermost workings of the American Mafia before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. Valachi had described Bonanno as one of the heads of the Five Families of Cosa Nostra.

The Senate hearings—headed by Senator John L. McClellan of Arkansas and backed by Robert F. Kennedy, then the attorney general in his brother John F. Kennedy’s administration—were televised and had a huge impact. It was no longer possible to deny the existence of the Mafia, as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had done up to then. The name Bonanno had gained notoriety—suddenly and undesirably, at least as far as the man himself was concerned. Canadian immigration officers, understandably curious as to what he was doing in the country and what business he had in Montreal, decided to ask him a few questions. Bonanno went to meet them at the appointed hour and place:

I repeated my intentions of investing in a Canadian business for the purpose of expanding a cheese plant and hiring more people. I was helping Canada reduce its unemployment. To back up my statement, I had brought the letter of intent signed by Joseph Saputo.

Instead of being granted the permanent resident status he had applied for, the Genovese family boss was arrested on the spot. Canadian immigration argued that in his application, he had neglected to mention that he had a criminal record in the United States: a Brooklyn garment factory that he co-owned had been charged with violating minimum-wage statutes. Bonanno continues:

I didn’t want to be deported. If Canada deported me as a persona non grata, I would lose my rights to invest in the Saputo Cheese Co. Also, now that it was obvious the United States was behind my predicament, I knew that once I was deported back to the United States, the FBI would be waiting for me.

Bonanno was immediately incarcerated at Bordeaux Prison in Montreal. It was his first time behind bars, and it was to leave a profound impression. Upon his arrival, the guards removed his wristwatch, ring, cigars and the two thousand dollars in cash he had on him, then locked him in a minuscule, cold and dusty cell, with dank condensation on the walls and cockroaches roaming the floor. In the evening, a plate containing a bit of meat, some barely cooked beans and a dry heel of bread was slipped under the door: “The meat tasted as if it had come off a sick caribou,” he wrote. “I spat it out.”

In short order, however, the incredible news that “le boss” had graced Bordeaux with his presence spread throughout the facility. A guard brought the prisoner a blanket and, at his request, agreed to go and reassure his wife, Fay, who was staying in the Saint-Michel neighbourhood where the Saputo factory was located. Bonanno was transferred to a more comfortable wing; the chief of guards made sure he was assigned the best cell in the prison. He then invited Bonanno to his office and proffered cognac and a cigar.

“This is your cognac and these are your cigars,” he announced. “A friend of yours is now a friend of mine. This friend of yours told me you can’t live without your cognac and cigars … so here we are.” Bonanno had little choice other than to broker a compromise:

I had to promise to abandon my investment in the cheese plant.
I could not return to Canada unless I first notified the authorities.
For its part, Canada would release me from prison and wouldn’t deport me. However, once released from prison, I had to leave Canada voluntarily and return to the United States.

News of Bonanno’s impending departure caused near-bedlam among the inmates: “They yelled and rattled things. They told the guards they wanted to see me before I left the prison. They clamored to see me … as if I were a movie star.” At the chief of guards’ suggestion, he marched down the hall of the main prison block. Inmates whooped, cheered and flashed the victory sign; some shouted out their names and offered to go to work for him. “Le boss!” they called out. “Le grand boss!

Joseph Bonanno was somewhat less cordially welcomed upon his return to the United States. As soon as he arrived, FBI agents handed him a subpoena. Stefano Magaddino, the Buffalo boss, openly railed against his cousin’s venture north of the border: “He’s planting flags all over the world!” he allegedly said. Bonanno’s version, in A Man of Honor, was that:

Stefano chose to interpret my Montreal trip as an imperialistic venture. Let me explain. It had long been acknowledged in my world that certain Families and their Fathers had spheres of influence outside their own resident cities. For example, Toronto had long been recognized as being within Magaddino’s sphere of influence. Montreal, on the other hand, was considered within the domain of the Bonanno Family.

No doubt fearing that those words would be construed as an avowal of his desire to proceed with a division of territories among Mafia clans, Bonanno hastened to add:

If Toronto was considered within Stefano’s province, all that meant was that Stefano, as opposed to another Father, had the right to establish contacts within the Sicilian community in Toronto.

What bothered Stefano about my Canadian trip was not that I went to Montreal but that I might use Montreal as a jumping-off point to encroach on his cherished Toronto. There was no truth to this. I was looking to extricate myself from my world, not to entangle myself in territorial disputes. I wouldn’t even have gone to Montreal in 1964 if the Saputo investment opportunity hadn’t come up.

Giuseppe (Joseph) Saputo was born in 1905 in Montelepre, a town some thirty kilometres from Castellammare del Golfo, birthplace of Joe Bonanno. The Saputo family has always maintained that they were unaware of Bonanno’s Mafia involvement and were only acquainted with his business partner John DiBella of the Grande Cheese Company. Their denials continue to this day.

The Mafia’s highest authority in New York, the Commission, summoned Bonanno to explain himself, but he smelled a trap and declined the invitation. Perhaps fearing a return to bloody infighting like that which had characterized the Castellammarese War at the turn of the 1930s, bosses Carlo Gambino, Tommy Lucchese and Stefano Magaddino opted for a relatively non-invasive method: rather than have Bonanno rubbed out, they would divest him of his authority and install his lieutenant, Gaspare DiGregorio, as head of the family.

“Joe Bananas” rejected the deal. On October 21, 1964, the day before he was scheduled to go before a grand jury, he was kidnapped in Manhattan. The abductors’ car drove all night before finally stopping at an upstate country house.

Stefano Magaddino greeted his guest with an acerbic “Hello,” adding: “Excellent country, isn’t it?”

“A little cold for me,” Bonanno said.

“Oh, it gets much colder in Montreal,” Magaddino retorted.

Bonanno was held for six weeks. He eventually convinced his cousin Stefano to let him go, pledging to give up the family throne. Once free, he failed to keep that promise. His son Salvatore (Bill) Bonanno took up the fight against DiGregorio in a bid to ensure that the family would continue to be ruled by a Bonanno; this rift between the rival clans came to be dubbed the “Banana Split.” The younger Bonanno travelled regularly to Montreal to ensure the city did not fall under the control of DiGregorio and Magaddino, in the process contacting Vic Cotroni on several occasions. The latter described one of those meetings in court, when he sued Maclean’s for libel, after the magazine had described him as Montreal’s Mafia kingpin. The Montreal daily Le Devoir reported:

During his lengthy testimony, Mr. Cotroni admitted that he knew, in some cases intimately, several individuals publicly named by various commissions of inquiry and police forces, including the FBI and the RCMP, as members of La Cosa Nostra. He explained that in 1966, at the home of a friend, Mr. Giuseppe Saputo—owner of the Saputo & Figli Ltd. cheese plant in Saint-Michel—he had met with a group of New Yorkers.

That group comprised Salvatore (Bill) Bonanno and his associates: Vito De Filippo and his son Patrick, Peter Magaddino, Peter Notaro and Carlo Simari. Their visit to Montreal took place under direct police surveillance. On the evening of November 28, 1966, the six American tourists were riding in two cars when officers stopped the first one, then the second, at the corner of Jean-Talon and Hutchison Streets. Luigi Greco, Vic Cotroni’s number-two man, was with them. The police seized four loaded handguns in the cars and arrested the entire party.

That morning, Bernard Couture, a young sq officer, had been assigned to shadow Vic Cotroni. The latter was at the wheel of a grey Cadillac, accompanied by his protegé Paolo Violi. When the two men stopped in front of a shopping centre at the corner of Jean-Talon Street and Pie-IX Boulevard, according to Officer Couture, they were joined by Salvatore Bonanno and two unknown men. The quintet headed for a pay phone. Couture saw Cotroni, Violi, Giuseppe Saputo and Joe Bonanno speak on the phone in turn. The officer asked for backup; there were now too many cars to follow. He was told to stick with Saputo, who then drove to his company’s head office in Saint-Michel. “In the parking lot, there were two vehicles, whose licence plates indicated they were registered to Magaddino and Notaro,” Couture later recalled in an interview.

That evening, after they arrested Salvatore Bonanno and his six companions, the police questioned them intensively. They asked what Bonanno was doing in Montreal. He replied that he was there to look after his father’s interests in the Saputo cheese company.* Bonanno and his party, except for Luigi Greco, were detained for two days before being taken to the airport and deported to the United States.

Joe Bonanno sent a message to his enemies: should any of his loyal subjects be murdered, he would avenge that death by having a capo of the offending rival clan killed. Two years went by, punctuated by a number of fatalities. Gaspare DiGregorio, the Commission’s appointed successor to Joe Bonanno, suggested to Bill Bonanno that a sit-down be arranged to talk peace. It was a set-up. When the Bonanno delegation arrived, DiGregorio’s men greeted them with shotgun and automatic weapons fire. Bill Bonanno and his crew defended themselves with their handguns. Hundreds of shots were exchanged. Miraculously, there were no injuries, but the incident proved to the Commission that the hotheaded DiGregorio might be a problem.

Just as Joe Bonanno appeared to be gaining the upper hand, he suffered a serious heart attack. He decided to retire to Arizona with his son Bill and cede the family throne to Paul Sciacca, who had succeeded DiGregorio. Bonanno continued to helm operations in the U.S. Southwest but gave up control of New York and Montreal.

The Bonanno family would go on to see a succession of bosses: Natale Evola, Philip Rastelli, Joseph Massino, Vincent Basciano. Whenever one of them was imprisoned, someone would take his place—Carmine Galante, for example, or more recently, Salvatore “Sal the Iron Worker” Montagna, born in Montreal and the founder of a metalworking company in Brooklyn. None of these chiefs would achieve the stature of Joseph Bonanno, the last surviving founding member of the Commission. But the “family” survived him.

Vic Cotroni had made sure to remain neutral during the “Banana Split” years. After Galante’s forced return to the United States a decade earlier, Cotroni had risen through the mob ranks, becoming the sole leader of the Bonanno family’s decina in Montreal and relegating the Sicilian Luigi Greco to the rank of lieutenant. But a fire was smouldering, and like New York, Montreal would soon be ablaze.

Nicolò Rizzuto lay low in the shadows, tending the coals.

* The story of Cattolica Eraclea’s families is epic. Years later, Liborio Milioto, Nicolò Rizzuto’s half-brother, had a daughter, named Maria in keeping with the tradition. She in turn married Filippo Rizzuto, a brother of future Senator Pietro Rizzuto. Liborio Milioto died in Montreal a few years ago.

* The car driven by Salvatore Bonanno on November 28, 1966, belonged to Giuseppe Monticiollo, Giuseppe Saputo’s son-in-law. Around the same time, Monticiollo was sponsoring his brother’s immigration to Canada. Later, when a Canadian immigration officer asked him why he had lent his car to Bonanno, he answered, “Because he has a stake in the Saputo company.”