Life

The crosstown mob wars of 1930-31

Canadian inspectors wait at the Windsor liquor docks in 1928. The Eastside Mob operated a lucrative rum-running operation on the Detroit River during Prohibition.

For nearly ten years after  Detroit’s  Giannola/Vitale gang war, there was relative peace in Detroit’s Sicilian underworld. The conflict which ended in 1920, claimed the lives of more than one hundred men.  Most of the leaders of both of the rival Mafia factions were killed in the strife.

Presiding over this shaky peace arrangement was a Giannola gunman named Salvatore “Sam” Catalonotte. Catalonotte was one of the few men who was both respected and well liked among the competing Mafia groups. His charismatic personality and diplomatic ability enabled Catalonotte to emerge from the Giannola/Vitale gang war as the supreme leader of the Detroit Mafia.

Catalonotte pushed for peaceful solutions to underworld disputes. As a result of his policies, the Mafia gangs prospered during the ’20s, and for ten years there was relative peace in Detroit’s Sicilian underworld.

The survivors of the Giannola/Vitale conflict evolved into two organizations after 1920. These gangs were known as the Eastside and Westside Mobs. The Eastsiders operated predominantly on the upper Detroit River east of the city. This group was led by Angelo Meli, William “Black Bill” Tocco, Leo “Black Leo” Cellura, and Joseph Zerilli. The Westside Mob, sometimes referred to as the Catalonotte Gang, was led by a treacherous mobster named Chester LaMare. LaMare was known as the Vice King of Hamtramck.

William 'Black Bill' Tocco
William “Black Bill” Tocco, left, appears in court on an income tax fraud charge in 1936, with his attorney, Alfred A. May. Tocco was one of the leaders of the Eastside Mob.

     In the early ’20s, LaMare established a base of operations in Hamtramck. He opened a popular nightclub known as the Venice Cafe. With his business partners, Angelo Meli and Black Leo Cellura, LaMare grew rich and powerful, shaking down brothels and gambling houses for protection and muscling into the bootlegging rackets.

Hamtramck became so corrupt and wide open that in the fall of 1923, numerous complaints prompted Michigan Gov. Alex Groesbeck to take drastic action. Groesbeck ordered detachments of the Michigan State Police into Hamtramck to take control of the city government. This operation resulted in the arrest and eventual conviction of 31 men, including Hamtramck Mayor Peter C. Jezewski, for Prohibition law violations.

Mr. & Mrs. Chester LaMare
Mr. and Mrs. Chester LaMare in an undated photo. Leader of the Westside Mob, LaMare was known as the Vice King of Hamtramck, profiting from prostution, gambling and bootlegging.

The sweeping arrests and the general law enforcement crackdown on Hamtramck all but destroyed LaMare’s profitable underworld rackets. In 1922 his Venice Cafe was padlocked by the feds and LaMare faced federal liquor law violation charges for which he was subsequently convicted in 1926. LaMare was sentenced to a year in federal prison, but the judge increased his original fines and gave him probation on LaMare’s promise to go straight. LaMare eventually split with his underworld business partners Meli and Cellura, who aligned themselves with the Eastsiders.

The Eastside Mob had prospered in the liquor and beer rackets. The Licavoli brothers (Thomas and Pete), who were also allied with the Eastside group, operated a lucrative rum-running operation on the Detroit River. Whiskey haulers were forced to pay the Licavoli Mob to haul their liquor for them. If they didnt pay the protection money they were hijacked and put out of business permanently. The Eastside mobsters were also engaged in the gambling and drug rackets.

Forced by his probation restrictions to put on a legitimate appearance, LaMare was able to get a fruit concession at the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant. Although the business prospered, selling fruit to Ford production workers at their lunch breaks, LaMare was still not satisfied. He looked upon the Eastside Mobs lucrative rackets with covetous eyes.

In early February of 1930, Sam Catalonotte contracted pneumonia. His condition quickly worsened and several days later he was dead. This was exactly the situation that LaMare had been waiting for. LaMare had been the principal lieutenant of Sam Giannola in the old days. He always thought that he should have been elevated to Catalonotte’s position of supreme boss at the end of the Giannola/Vitale War. He quickly moved to gain complete control of the Sicilian underworld.

LaMare began sending his men on forays into the Eastside Mob’s territory to muscle in on their underworld operations. Confrontations between east and westside mobsters began to occur as the peace quickly disintegrated. LaMare sent word to the leaders of the Eastside group that he wanted to settle all of their differences peacefully. He made arrangements for a peace conference at which the leaders of both outfits could settle their disputes once and for all.

Angelo Meli
Eastside boss Angelo Meli swore to avenge the deaths of his two counselors, and the gang war escalated in 1930.

The meeting was scheduled to be held at a Vernor Highway fish market in Detroit on May 31, 1930. LaMare secretly planned to send three gunmen to hide at the market. At a given signal, the assassins would rush into the meeting room and shoot down all of the leaders of the Eastside Mob. In its scope, the plan was bigger than the Chicago St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. LaMare would emerge as the Boss of Bosses of Detroit’s Mafia groups.

The shrewd Meli suspected a setup. Instead of sending his lieutenants to the meeting, Meli sent two Mafia counselors as his representatives. The two men, Gasper Scibilia and Sam Parina, were respected by both sides. Meli believed that even if LaMare had set a trap, these two men would be safe. The gunmen would be too frightened of the consequences of killing the two representatives.

Scibilia and Parina had just sat down in the meeting room when the gunmen entered and without saying a word, shot both men to death. The meeting was supposed to be for bosses only. The gunmen had reacted out of fear. They feared that they would be recognized by Scibilia and Parina as assassins and that this would be reported back to Meli. By killing the two counselors, there would be no witnesses to the betrayal.

The three assassins, Joe Amico, Joe Locano, and an underworld character known as Benny The Ape, were later identified by witnesses as the men they saw leaving the market after the shootings. The three gunmen were later tried and acquitted of the murders when witnesses could not identify them in the courtroom. This lack of memory was a common ailment among witnesses to gangland related murders in Prohibition era Detroit.

Buckley slain
In 1930, the murder of radio commentator Gerald Buckley, pictured in the newspaper above, prompted a police crackdown.

The Fish Market Murders created the spark that exploded into a major gang war between the Eastside and Westside Mobs. Meli immediately swore to avenge the deaths of his two representatives. Gangland executions were often carried out in broad daylight on crowded streets in front of many witnesses. Potential witnesses would quickly forget everything when confronted by police investigators. Between May 31 and July 23 of 1930, at least 14 men were murdered by gangland guns.

The wanton killings stopped abruptly with the murder of Gerald Buckley on July 23. Buckley was a popular WMBC radio commentator suspected of having underworld ties. He was shot to death in the lobby of the LaSalle Hotel the same night that Detroit citizens voted to recall Mayor Charles Bowles. It was generally believed that Buckley’s participation in the recall campaign led to his death. Angelo Livecchi, Ted Pizzino, and Joe Bommarito, all Eastside Mob gunmen, were later tried and acquitted of the Buckley murder.

But the Detroit police enacted an all-out crackdown after the Buckley murder, and a grand jury was called to investigate the rampant crime wave. Most of the leaders of both mobs went into hiding. The sniping continued but the gangs maintained a much lower profile.

Elmer Macklin
Elmer Macklin, a trusted aide to Chester LaMare, was identified by fingerprints as his killer, but was acquitted at his trial.

Both the Detroit police and the Eastside Mob were desperately looking for Meli. Meli sent word to Joe Amico and the other fish market assassins that unless they put their boss Chester LaMare “on the spot,” they would die. Amico, who was the closest to LaMare, orchestrated the final betrayal of the boss. On the night of February 6, 1931, LaMare arrived at his home on Grandville Avenue with his bodyguard Joe Girardi. After spending time talking to Girardi in Italian, LaMare asked his wife to drive him home. As a result of the gang war, LaMare had turned his house into a veritable fortress. Police dogs roamed the grounds. Loaded guns were hidden in every room. LaMare needed only to reach to put his hands on a loaded pistol or shotgun. He foolishly believed that he was safe.

Sometime after LaMare’s wife had left to drive his bodyguard home, two men were allowed to enter the house. The two guests were later identified by fingerprints as Joe Amico and Elmer Macklin. Amico and Macklin were two of LaMare’s most trusted aides. As they sat in the kitchen conversing with LaMare, Macklin got up to carry some dirty dishes to the sink. LaMare, who completely trusted both men, turned his head to talk to Amico when Macklin pulled a .32 caliber automatic pistol out of his pocket and shot LaMare twice in the side of his head. When Mrs. LaMare returned home several hours later, she found Chester dead on the kitchen floor.

LaMare’s death effectively ended the crosstown mob wars. Amico and Macklin were later tried for LaMare’s murder and acquitted. Leaders of the Eastside Mob became the founders of what was to become Detroit’s modern day Mafia organization.By Paul R. Kavieff