Former Gangster Turns His Back on the Yakuza


Yasumasa Aoki, 64, looks every inch a senior Japanese executive on his day off: buzz cut, metal frames perched neatly on his high-bridged nose, buttoned-up shirt tucked neatly into jeans, and feet shod in grey sneakers.

 His demeanor is kindly; his voice polite and well-modulated. But one inevitably notices the severed fingers on his hands: two on his left, one on the right.

On a Japanese man, missing fingers usually mean one thing: He is, or used to be, a member of the yakuza, the country’s notorious organized crime syndicate.

Yubitsume is a well-known atonement ritual in yakuza culture. When members have done something to displease their boss or bring dishonor to their gang, they have to self-amputate part of a finger, starting from the little finger and moving up to the index.

The practice can be traced to the way Japanese swords are traditionally held, with the last three fingers used for control and grip. Amputation results in a weaker sword grip, causing the offender to rely more on his group instead of acting on his own.

Mr Aoki, a former gang leader with the Inagawa-kai, Japan’s third-largest yakuza family, has performed yubitsume four times, twice on his right little finger. The last ritual took place more than 15 years ago, on his left fourth finger.

 “It was very difficult as there was a lot of bone so I had to use my leg to step on the knife,” he says, grinning at the horrified expression of the Japanese interpreter.

He did it after kidnapping another triad leader in a case which left several people dead, resulted in a $500,000 bounty on his head and landed him in prison for 15 years.

He left prison last year, the bounty still on his head. But it is not giving him sleepless nights.

“All the yakuza members I knew are either dead or have gone on to do other things. But if God says I have to go, I will go. I don’t want to worry,” he says.

He is a changed man.

He used to freely draw his katana or samurai sword to express his rage, but now finds solace in the Bible.

“All I want to do now is set up a halfway house for ex-convicts when I return to Japan,” says Aoki, who recently completed a seven-month course at the City Harvest Church School of Theology in Jurong West.

He was born in Kamakura City in Kanagawa Prefecture, just outside Tokyo, the second of three children of a civil servant and his mistress, a former geisha.

“When I became older, I found out that my father had tattoos and was a former yakuza too,” says Aoki, who has the image of a warrior monk flanked by a tiger and dragon inked indelibly across his chest and entire back right down to his thighs.

He was a bully in school, taking delight in roughing up those he did not like. He was 12 when something happened that hardened his heart, he says.

“I had to attend a summer camp and my mother sent me off at the train station. When I came home three days later, my father, instead of my mother, was at the railway station waiting for me. I found it unusual,” he says.

When they reached home, he found his younger sister with a woman who his father said would be their new mother. “My own mother had moved to another city and when I went to see her, she already had a new life with another man.

“It hurt me a lot. I lost all faith in adults and all trust in human beings. I felt there was no place for me at home and that I had to be tough and protect myself.”

He soon dropped out of school, became a teenage terror, was caught and locked up, and finally joined a triad.

The next two decades were turbulent ones. He fought, did drugs, was promiscuous, went through three marriages — he has two sons in their 30s whom he has not seen for 15 years — and was jailed twice, once for six years after grievously hurting a man with his katana.

The incident which landed him in prison for 15 years took place in 1995. He was an unwilling participant, he says.

“In the old days, the yakuza had a lot of money. But in the early 1990s, the Japanese asset bubble burst. Many yakuza members could not afford the lifestyle they used to have,” he says.

One of them was one of his bosses, who ended up with debts of $17 million. Desperate, the latter hatched a plan to kidnap a high-ranking triad leader and roped in Aoki, who was reluctant initially.

“He told me how he had it all planned out. I knew I couldn’t say no because if I did, I would probably be killed,” he lets on.

What transpired would have made a great movie script, with tragic and comic elements.

A team of 10 was assembled. Masquerading as deliverymen, five of Aoki’s men turned up at the target’s home, kidnapping him when he opened the door. But after the deed was done, the mastermind had cold feet and wanted the man freed.

“I said no, we had to get the ransom,” Aoki says. The irony was that, instead of the $17 million they demanded, they ended up getting only $500,000.

“I know, it’s like a comedy,” he says, shaking his head.

But the repercussions were disastrous, resulting in the suicide of the mastermind and the deaths of several others. Aoki became a wanted man by both the yakuza and the police, and went on the run for 45 days. Meanwhile, a bounty was put on his head by a rival gang.

On Nov 16, 1995, he surrendered to the police. He was sentenced to 15 years’ jail on charges that included kidnap and the possession of firearms.

When he entered Tokushima prison, he was hell-bent on leaving his yakuza days behind. But his past caught up with him. Someone related to the kidnapped man recognized him and, during a prison baseball match, came up behind Aoki and delivered several blows to his head with a hammer. His skull was fractured.

When he came to in hospital, the first thing he saw was a Bible by his bedside. He says he picked it up and found comfort when he started reading it. Soon, he was attending Bible study sessions in prison.

Not long after the attack, he was transferred to a maximum-security prison in Kumamoto and it was there that he was baptized.

Pastor Yoji Nakamura, 42, from the Kumamoto Harvest Church who counsels inmates at the prison, first met Aoki at a Christmas party in 2004.

“He was very sincere about wanting to turn over a new leaf; there was no need to persuade him. He started corresponding with me, and at his request, I would also see him once every two months,” he says.

Aoki was released in March last year, and with help from his older sister, rented a room in an apartment near Pastor Nakamura’s church.

“He would come every day, and help to clean and take care of the place,” says Pastor Nakamura.

The former gangster came to Singapore in February this year on a City Harvest scholarship and recently completed his theology course, sitting through the English lessons with the help of a translator.

Not proud of the life he has led, he says: “I know I’ve hurt a lot of people ever since I was 15. I pray every day to find release from all the pain and suffering I have inflicted.”

Setting up a halfway house for former convicts is what he most wants to do now, to help them avoid going back to their old ways. He will be working on the project with Pastor Nakamura.

“After I’ve done this, perhaps I will go and see my children. They know me as a yakuza father. I don’t want to see them until I have done something worthwhile,” he says.

Justice minister admits yakuza connections

Justice Minister Keishu Tanaka on Friday confirmed past ties with yakuza, earlier revealed by a weekly magazine.

After apologizing for the connection, Tanaka told a news conference he will sincerely repent and hopes to continue his duties as a member of the Cabinet.

Tanaka admitted that he gave a speech at a yakuza party about 30 years ago and acted as a matchmaker for the son of a supporter with yakuza ties.

He emphasized that he would not have carried out the actions if he had known of their yakuza ties.

Tanaka denied using yakuza to pursue his own interests or doing any favors for them. He also denied mediating yakuza disputes, including a reported one involving industrial waste disposal.

At a separate news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said he believes Tanaka and suggested the justice minister does not need to quit.


Organized-crime trial set to start this week

They call him "Uncle Joe," which is both a reference to his age - 73 - and his laid-back style.

Mob boss Joe Ligambi is old school, a make-money-not-headlines crime boss who has had a surprisingly long and relatively peaceful run as Philadelphia's Mafia don.

But that run may be over.

In jail for the last 17 months, Ligambi and six codefendants begin a legal fight for their lives this week when opening arguments are expected in the city's latest organized-crime trial.

Ligambi and the others are facing racketeering conspiracy charges built around allegations of illegal gambling, loan-sharking, and extortion that extend back to 1999. As defense attorneys have pointed out repeatedly since the indictment was handed up more than a year ago, the case is devoid of the acts of violence that marked the city's last three federal mob trials.

Murder and mayhem were the calling cards of mob bosses Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, John "Homicide John" Stanfa, and Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, prosecutors argued.

Scarfo, 83, was convicted and sentenced to 55 years in prison. He will likely die behind bars. His earliest parole date is 2033.

Stanfa, 72, is serving five life terms, one for each murder conviction in his 1995 racketeering case.

Merlino, 50, beat several murder raps in a 2001 racketeering trial, leading his defense lawyer to claim victory. But the charismatic South Philadelphia wiseguy was convicted of assorted gambling, loan-sharking, and extortion charges, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Released last year, he's living in Florida.

Ligambi took over when Merlino was jailed in 1999 and was given the title "acting boss." Some believe he still holds that provisional position and that Merlino, from the Sunshine State, is still calling the shots.

But the title is almost irrelevant. When the trial begins this week, Ligambi and his codefendants will be the face of the Philadelphia mob.

And in many cases, there will be a voice to go along with the face.

The Philadelphia crime family is one of the most recorded in American underworld history. Since 1989 when mobster-turned-informant George Fresolone began secretly taping conversations for the New Jersey State Police, the local mob has literally been wired for sound.

Classic comments like "Goodfellas don't sue goodfellas. Goodfellas kill goodfellas" and "We'll cut out his tongue. Put it in an envelope and send it to his wife" have enthralled juries and buried defendants.

"The problem," says one defense attorney, "is you can't cross-examine a tape."

In the pending trial, lawyers have already argued at length about the "Stefanelli tapes," recordings in 2010 of two mob meetings at North Jersey restaurants.

In fact, the defense intends to challenge some of the transcripts, arguing that the prosecution, in a rush to judgment, turned one casual comment - "At least we finally got to get together" - into "At least we finally got to get him" and claimed it was a reference to a murder.

But what has been lost in the legal sound and fury over the tapes made by Nicholas "Nicky Skins" Stefanelli, a Gambino crime-family soldier who committed suicide in March, is the fact that the pending case includes dozens of other conversations that could prove more damaging.

Frank "Frankie the Fixer" DiGiacomo, a low-life South Philadelphia hustler and mob associate, recorded conversations with Ligambi for the FBI, conversations in which, authorities allege, loan-sharking debts were discussed.

And an FBI agent, working undercover, picked up Anthony Staino, 55, discussing the ins and outs of the criminal organization, including one in which he allegedly boasted about being the "CFO" of the criminal family and a member of its "board of directors."

There are also wiretap conversations and testimony from dozens of witnesses - some former associates and others alleged victims of shakedowns and extortions.

Ligambi and his crew didn't have to resort to violence, the prosecution has argued, because they lived off the reputations of Scarfo, Stanfa, and other murderous mobsters who came before them.

Two former mob members, Eugene "Gino" Milano, a Scarfo hit man, and Peter "Pete the Crumb" Caprio, a Newark-based mob capo during the Merlino years, are expected to provide details about the violent ways of the Philadelphia crime family.

Their testimony will help set the stage for some of the Stefanelli conversations in which Ligambi, North Jersey mob capo Joseph "Scoops" Licata, 71, and others talk about murders that occurred in the past and joke about a mob-making - initiation - ceremony.

Ligambi, Staino, Licata, along with reputed mob underboss Joseph "Mousie" Massimino, 62, mob soldiers George Borgesi, 49, and Damion Canalicchio, 42, and mob associate Gary Battaglini, 51, will be at the defense table when opening arguments begin.

The trial is expected to last eight to 12 weeks with the potential of running right up to, or through, the Christmas holidays.

Among other things, the prosecution hopes to offer the jurors, who are being selected anonymously, a history lesson on the Philadelphia branch of La Cosa Nostra.

Some of it will come from the testimony of witnesses and some from the words of the defendants themselves. In the past, that's been a prosecution formula for success.

Reality TV has nothing on the Philadelphia mob.

Its unrehearsed and unscripted audio history, picked up on phone taps, room bugs, and body wires, has fascinated juries for the last two decades. And at trials in which those tapes have been played, juries have returned guilty verdicts that have sent three mob bosses and more than 30 codefendants to prison






Italy's secret anti-mob weapon: witness protection

ROME (AP) - A woman who dares to cooperate with police in the fight against a dreaded Italian mob network is murdered, her body dumped in a barrel of acid in the countryside near Milan. Her 17-year-old daughter steps forward and testifies, helping to send six people to prison for life.

The lurid 2009 murder and the court verdict delivered in April gave a rare peek into Italy's secretive witness protection program, which marked its 20th anniversary this year and is considered Italy's single most important window into the secretive world of organized crime. Hundreds of mobsters have been given new identities in exchange for information that helped put longtime fugitive leaders behind bars, including the "boss of bosses" Salvatore Riina.

The use of insiders has combined with the seizure of mob assets to help Italy achieve a once unattainable goal: crippling the Sicilian Cosa Nostra.

"It has advanced immensely the fight against organized crime," said Felia Allum, a British academic who studies organized crime.

Italy's famed anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino had fought in the 1980s to establish the two anti-mob weapons, arguing that criminals needed some incentive to step forward and turn state's evidence. They were killed by mob bombs within two months of one another in 1992, but not before they'd laid the foundations for a crime-fighting system that has largely tamed, if not defeated, the Mafia.

Living under state protection does take exact a heavy toll on witnesses.

A major problem is that most mobsters in the program are from Italy's underdeveloped south, and they are generally exiled to what they see as a hostile environment in the prosperous north, because it's easier to hide them there. There have been suicides. Some return to crime when their collaboration with the state comes to an end.

"They are given a new identity and a lump sum of money to start their new life but they are not helped as much as they should be to reintegrate back into society," said Allum.

The dead woman in the 2009 murder, 36-year-old Lea Garofalo, had left the government program "feeling uneasy" about her protection, her lawyer Vincenza Rando said, adding that she was subjected to unwanted sexual advances from her police guards. "She didn't feel well protected and risked it on her own."

Garofalo's daughter Denise felt that her mother's decision had cost her life, so she decided to put her trust in the program. She was the key witness in the trial and now lives with a new identity in an undisclosed location. The contrasting fates of mother and daughter underscore how critical it is for witnesses in mob cases to obtain new identities. Without one, experts say, turncoats like Lea Garofalo become sitting ducks for inevitable revenge killings.

Denise Garofalo is one of nearly 4,700 people in the program -- about 1,000 so-called "collaborators" who have turned state's evidence and the rest family members, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press on figures up to 2010. It is believed to be the second largest program after that of the United States. Most have been witnesses in cases against the Sicilian Mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra and the Calabrian 'ndrangheta --the crime syndicate in the Garofalo case.

Prosecutors say that no one who has followed the protection rules has been harmed. Those who stray do so at their own peril, like the son of a Camorra boss who returned to his hometown and was slain.

Changing immigration patterns and the spread of international terrorism have led authorities to open the program to eastern Europeans, North Africans and several other nationalities, according to the Interior Ministry report to parliament.

Lazhar Ben Mohamed Tlil, a Tunisian who became an Islamic militant and was trained in Afghanistan to kill Americans, entered the witness protection program after providing information to Italian investigators about several detainees at Guantanamo, his court-appointed lawyer, Davide Boschi, told The Associated Press.

The lawyer has said that Tlil, considered an important witness by both Italians and Americans, would not talk to prosecutors without firm guarantees of a new identity, documents, a job, medical coverage and a visit to his parents in Tunisia.

An Interior Ministry report to parliament acknowledged criticism of the way the program works due to a "large, unexpected influx of people" into the program recent years. Witness protection costs some €100 million (more than $100 million) a year. It often fails to help former criminals return to normal life. And foreigners in the program face tough bureaucratic roadblocks to creating decent lives in Italy.

Still, criminal experts give the program high marks despite the headaches it faces in determining who may be lying, creating new identities and trying to hide the turncoats in Italy, where authorities have fewer options than in the much larger United States.

"By demonstrating that its institutions are standing as one in facing the Mafia, Italy is setting an example for the world against organized crime," Interpol Secretary-General Ronald K. Noble told a convention on organized crime in Sicily over the summer.
Until Italy established the program in the early 90s, the most famous witness, Tommasso Buscetta, needed to be sheltered abroad. He helped convict some 350 mobsters in the 1980s before being given a new identity in the United States in the American witness protection program.

While the release of criminals with blood on their hands has been contentious, Alfonso Sabella, a former Palermo prosecutor defended Italy's witness protection program in an interview with the Turin newspaper La Stampa.

It was, he said, a "necessary choice - when it was clear that the Mafia couldn't be brought to its knees through traditional means."


Yakuza 'Employer Liability' Murder Suit Ends with a Settlement

TOKYO — Tadamasa Goto, former boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi Goto-gumi crime group, has agreed to pay ¥110 million, or $1.4 million, to settle the lawsuit filed by the family of Kazuoki Nozaki, who was murdered by members of the organization in 2006. That's a little less than the ¥187 million of damages specified in the family original suit. But they got something in return: according to those involved with the lawsuit, at one point in the negotiations, Goto and the Yamaguchi-gumi organization, offered to pay the full amount requested in the lawsuit, but in the final negotiations, only Goto ended up paying, with the provision that he express his condolences. In Japan, an apology is worth quite a lot.

Shinobu Tsukasa, the current head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest crime group, was named in the lawsuit but did not pay a single yen of what had been originally requested. Law enforcement and organized crimes sources agree that Tsukasa who was in jail at the time of the killing, had no knowledge of the murder and didn’t condone it. The murder of Nozaki was one of several reasons Tsukasa banished Goto from the Yamaguchi-gumi in October of 2008.

At its peak the Goto-gumi had over 1,000 members and 150 front companies; Tadamasa Goto was one of the wealthiest and most powerful yakuza in Japan, not to mention the largest individual shareholder of Japan Airlines.

The lawyer representing the family members issued a press statement outlining the details of the agreement: first, Goto accepted responsibility, as the head of the organization at the time, for the actions of his soldiers in Nozaki's killing and agreed to pay damages and express his condolences to the family. There was no admission from Goto, however, that he had commanded the killing.

A detective with the Shizuoka Police Department where Goto-gumi was headquartered, said of the settlement, “It’s not surprising that Goto paid up the money but it’s amazing that he apologized. His entire biography is full of bragging but not one word of apology is expressed about the attack on the famous director Juzo Itami or to the victims of his reign of terror.”

Goto’s autobiography, Habakarinagara (Pardon Me But…), was a bestseller in Japan after its publication in 2010. Itami, a well-known film director, had made the 1992 film Minbō no Onna which lampooned the yakuza. Six days after its release he was attacked by several Goto-gumi goons. Goto wrote that it was only natural that his gang members would retaliate “because he made fun of us and his movie was unpleasant.” In the chapter about receiving a liver transplant at UCLA ahead of many U.S. citizens on the waiting list, Goto wrote, “If the Americans are going to whine about it so much, they can come to Japan and take the liver back. The Washington Post, the L.A. Times, if they want the liver, come and get it.”

Although there was no admission of collusion in the murder, the settlement with the Nozaki family settlement may rekindle the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s long-running investigation into Tadamasa Goto for the murder of Nozaki and Goto’s former lieutenant, Takashi Kondo. Kondo was shot to death in Thailand in April last year, after an international arrest warrant had been issued on charges related to Nozaki's murder. It was alleged by former Goto-gumi members that Goto had ordered Kondo to make the hit but never proven. And likely never to be proven because as the Japanese saying goes, 死人に口無し, or dead men have no mouths.

Revisions made to Japan's Organized Crime Countermeasures Law (暴力団対策法) in 2008 made it possible to hold organized crime bosses responsible for the actions of their underlings in civil court. This case was being closely watched by both yakuza organizations and law enforcement because, it argued that the employer liability should apply to yakuza actions that predated the 2008 revisions. A settlement was expected in the case to prevent a judge from cementing that legal precedent. Law enforcement sources say that Goto's lawyers completed their settlement before the trial could began. While the Yamaguchi-gumi and its boss Tsukasa did not pay any damages, this case may be the first time that a former yakuza boss has.

Here is a memory of when Goto was still in goodstanding with the Yamaguchi-gumi, celebrating his birthday in September 2008, just weeks before he was expelled, with a little karaoke. That's Goto, sans mustache, who comes on stage just around the three-minute mark.


Police watchful as alleged mob boss Vito Rizzuto returns to Canada

It should have been a triumphant homecoming.
Vito Rizzuto, the alleged godfather of the Canadian mafia, had done his time in a U.S. penitentiary and, unlike so many organized-crime figures of late, kept his mouth shut.
By the strange code of the mob, Omertà, he was due some honour.
But when Mr. Rizzuto left the United States for Canada on Friday after serving just over five years for his involvement in a 1981 triple murder, he did not come back as the conquering hero, but as a grieving man, a marked man and, according to those who observe his every move, a man bent on revenge.
 “This is the mother of all questions, what will he do now?” said long-time mafia expert Antonio Nicaso. “Seek revenge? Find compromise? Go to another city? Or stay in Montreal? In general terms, I think the only thing we can really expect is more violence.”
Whatever Mr. Rizzuto’s intentions, law-enforcement agencies in Quebec and Ontario are bracing for his return.
“It’s safe to say that the return of Vito Rizzuto to Canada has many law enforcement agencies interested,” said Superintendent Paul Pederson, head of investigative services at York Region Police, which is responsible for several suburbs north of Toronto where Mr. Rizzuto has ties. “We’re all well positioned for that in terms of relationships with other agencies. ... But we’re not in a position to disclose the activities or locations of him, or any citizens for that matter, who might be the subject of ongoing investigations.”
The Rizzuto saga has all the makings of an Odyssean epic. Mr. Rizzuto has arrived home to an empire, and a family, in ruins. The decline coincided with his 2004 detainment for extradition to the United States. An RCMP-led unit embarked on an operation called Project Colisee, yielding a rich vein of audio and video recordings and ending in jail time for several major mafia figures, including Mr. Rizzuto’s father, Nicolo Rizzuto.
The arrests left a power vacuum. New rivals and old enemies saw their moment.
The last major power struggle between Sicilian and Calabrian factions was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Weakened by police investigations, the leaders of Montreal’s Calabrian organization began turning up dead. After assassins killed all three brothers from the presiding Violi family, the Sicilian Rizzutos embarked on a three-decade reign over Montreal.
As Mr. Rizzuto sat in a Colorado prison, the Grade 9 dropout surely recognized the historical pattern in the stories he heard from home.
First, in 2009, his son, Nick Jr., was gunned down in Notre Dame de Grace. Then his brother-in-law and family consigliere, Paolo Renda, went missing in May, 2010, and is presumed dead.
Now it was the Rizzutos who appeared weak, according to André Cédilot, co-author of Mafia Inc., a portrait of Canada’s Sicilian mafia. A number of local players stepped into into the breach. Sal “the Ironworker” Montagna made the biggest move. A Canadian citizen brought up in New York, he had risen to command the once-powerful Bonnano family in the United States until he was deported to Canada. Throughout 2010, he was spotted meeting with mafia figures in Montreal and Toronto, making alliances.
“He then went to Nicolo’s house,” said Mr. Cédilot, “and basically says, ‘Your clan is finished, your reign is over, we’re taking over.’ Nicolo wouldn’t accept this. He knew that if he accepted what Montagna said, he would live, but his family business would not.”
Not long after, in November, 2010, Old Nick was murdered, felled at home by a sniper’s bullet as he ate dinner with his family.
Sal the Ironworker’s path to ascendance was clear. But shaky alliances with former Rizzuto loyalists eventually broke down and, in November 2011, police pulled Mr. Montagna’s body from the shallows of L’Assomption River. Several Rizzuto allies have been charged in the murder.
“They say in English, ‘Live by the rules, die by the rules,’” Montreal police detective Eric Vecchio said last week at the Charboneau inquiry, the explosive Quebec corruption probe that has further lifted the veil on the mob’s powers within the province. The inquiry has already hit the mafia’s financial and moral standing. Montreal has suspended awarding public works contracts after testimony alleged that the mafia, bureaucrats and the mayor’s party were all taking cuts.
“There is now a courage to denounce the mafia,” Mr. Nicaso said. “Before his deportation, Montreal was a different city, no one spoke, no one heard. Now, it’s a wide-open Pandora’s box.”
The inquiry has also painted a grim picture for Mr. Rizzuto’s prospects.
“I'm not saying that the Sicilian faction is completely gone, but there is a return of organized crime of Calabrian origin following the arrest and extradition of Mr. Vito Rizzuto,” RCMP Corporal Linda Fequiere said to the commission.
Whether such pronouncements are a deterrent or a provocation is anybody’s guess. When Odysseus returned home to Ithaca, he arrived disguised as a itinerant beggar and clandestinely surveyed the new landscape of allies and enemies. Mr. Rizzuto will maintain a similarly low profile at first, retired RCMP chief superintendent Ben Soave said.
“I think you’ll see him be very quiet at first. As far as I’m concerned, his first priority is not getting killed. The second is figuring out who his friends are.”
Far from calling it quits, Mr. Rizzuto might feel emboldened by the chaos in Montreal’s underworld, according to Mr. Nicaso. He was always considered a master mediator, capable of striking alliances and wielding power over headstrong men.
“There are many people here in the Montreal underworld who feel the only guy who can get everything back under control is Vito,” Mr. Cédilot said.
“Vito doesn’t care about the construction industry right now. His main goal is to reorganize the mafia, maybe make some pacts, and, of course, avenge his son’s murder.”
While one source said he might relocate to Toronto, others shoot down that possibility. A retired RCMP sergeant once responsible for tracking mafia movements in Ontario said it would be “pure cowardice” for Mr. Rizzuto to set up shop in Toronto.
“Those murders of his family were too personal, he has to go back,” said the RCMP source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Personally, I think there will blood running in the streets over there in Montreal. It may not happen next week, but it will happen. He has to make his presence known.”

U.S. Treasury Department Guns for Japanese Yakuza Groups

In a breakthrough effort to combat Japan’s organized crime syndicates, the U.S. Treasury has started imposing sanctions on their business operations. Jake Adelstein on what this means for the mobsters—and why Chinese gangs have avoided similar crackdowns.

The U.S. Department of Treasury imposed sanctions on Japan’s second largest yakuza crime syndicate, the Sumiyoshi-kai and its leaders today. The sanctions make it possible to freeze their U.S. assets and block their transactions with American corporations or other entities.

This is the second time the Obama administration has taken steps to disrupt the yakuza’s activities since it identified the Japanese mafia as a significant criminal organization.

The Sumiyoshi-Kai’s leader, Shigeo Nishiguchi, and the underboss Hareaki Fukuda, were added to the U.S. Treasury’s list of persons that are targeted for punitive financial measures.

The Sumiyoshi-kai is a designated organized crime group in Japan, regulated but not outlawed. It has offices, the members have business cards; fan magazines, comics, and books list the top executives and celebrate their exploits. The Sumiyoshi-kai, with close to 11,000 members, is based in Tokyo, with offices in the luxurious Ginza area and flashy Akasaka. The group’s moneymaking activities include real estate, construction, prostitution, temporary staffing, as well as the standard extortion, blackmail, and racketeering. In general, the Sumiyoshi-kai is less violent than other organized crime groups in Japan, and was active in offering emergency aid to Japanese citizens after the earthquake last year, even opening it’s office doors to stranded commuters, including foreigners.

In February of this year, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on the most prominent yakuza crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, as well as its top boss and his underboss.

Since the Yamaguchi-gumi merged with another Tokyo yakuza group, the Kokusui-kai, in November 2005, the Sumiyoshi-kai have rapidly been losing control of their turf in Tokyo. Factions of the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Sumiyoshi-kai have been waging minor gang wars over the last few years, recently culminating in shocking violence.

 Members of the Japanese Yakuza Takahashi-gumi crime syndicate wait with their 'mikoshi' portable shrine before carrying it through the streets, as part of the second day of the Sanja festival, at Asakusa Shrine in Asakusa district, on May 19, 2012, in Tokyo, Japan. (Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Getty Images)

On Sept. 2, a group of 10 men wearing ski-masks burst into the Roppongi dance Club Flower at approximately 3:40 a.m. and assaulted four men and women sitting together in the VIP room, clubbing one to death and injuring the others, while 300 other people were present. The attack was believed to be a reprisal for an attack on Yamaguchi-gumi Kokusui-kai members in Roppongi on Dec. 14 of last year—an attack in which Sumiyoshi-kai members were allegedly involved.

The Sumiyoshi-kai also has been involved with Japan’s nuclear industry for several years, including receiving pay-offs from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in the past. Members of the Sumiyoshi-kai were arrested this year for their role in illegally providing labor to TEPCO. The Sumiyoshi-kai has been providing exploitable labor for Japan’s nuclear industry for more than a decade, including the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, both before and after the triple meltdown on March 11 last year. TEPCO, while primarily a Japan-based company, was involved with building a nuclear power plant in southern Texas.

The group’s moneymaking activities include real estate, construction, prostitution, temporary staffing, as well as the standard extortion, blackmail, and racketeering.

The U.S. Treasury has not clarified whether the yakuza have any assets under U.S. jurisdiction or the results of the sanctions so far.

It should be noted that the U.S. government has still not designated the Triads, China’s mafia, as a significant criminal organization, according to U.S. government sources largely due to lack of cooperation from Hong Kong, Macau, and China. Also, the same sources say that Chinese lobbyists and some influential Las Vegas casino operators have pushed hard to keep the Triads off the list for fear that it would jeopardize their “cash-cow” casino operations in Macau.

The U.S. government is continuing to take a hard look at Japanese mafia groups and will probably designate one or two more within the next year.

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Jake Adelstein was a reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, from 1993 to 2005. From 2006 to 2007 he was the chief investigator for a U.S. State Department-sponsored study of human trafficking in Japan. Considered one of the foremost experts on organized crime in Japan, he works as a writer and consultant in Japan and the United States. He is also the public relations director for the Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project Japan, which combats human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children in the sex trade. He is the author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan (Vintange).



Mob boss to be deported to Canada

Montreal mob boss Vito Rizzuto is being deported to Canada from the U.S. this month after serving six years in a high-security prison for the murders of three Mafia captains, police say.

The Mafia boss was extradited to the U.S. in 2004 and in 2006 was sentenced to a 10-year jail term for the 1981 murder of three Bonanno crime family members in New York City.

Rizzuto, 66, is in a high-security prison in Colorado. No reason has been given for his early release.

Canadian police are concerned that his return to Montreal will rekindle a feud between the Rizzutos and rivals from the Calabrian mafia. Rizzuto son, Nick, was slain 2009 and his father, Nicolo, was killed in 2010.

Rizzuto is a Canadian citizen and will be deported to Montreal after his Oct. 6 release, police said, adding he managed to obtain citizenship after arriving here from Italy in 1954.

Immigration officials said he will likely by driven to the border by U.S. Marshals and handed over to the RCMP.

RCMP Staff Sgt. Christian Knight, of a Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, confirmed Rizzuto is due for release in early October.

“He will be deported back to Canada,” Knight said. “He is Canadian and has to be brought back even though he is convicted of three murders.”

Knight, who was in Toronto to attend an International Airport Investigators’ Training symposium last week, was part of a 2001 to 2006 Montreal probe into traditional organized crime that led to the arrests of dozens of mob members.

“It was a historic file with a number of people being charged,” Knight said. “The investigation targeted Sicillian organized crime and brought down Rizzuto and many of his accomplices.”

There has been speculation that Rizzuto may choose to settle in Ontario, but he would have to face rivals.

Knight said six or seven powerful crime families control organized mob activities in Ontario.

“The Ontario families are deliberately low-key and don’t want to draw attention to themselves,” he said. “From my experience, organized crime is alive and thriving in Ontario.”

He said Ontario crime bosses don’t want the attention of police as they earn millions of dollars from gambling, drug dealing, strippers and prostitution.



N.J. mobster pleads guilty to racketeering in Phila.


Louis "Big Lou" Fazzini, a North Jersey mobster charged with racketeering, has decided to take his chances with the sentencing judge rather than put his fate in the hands of a federal jury.

Fazzini, 45, pleaded guilty Friday morning before U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno in Philadelphia.

Fazzini had pleaded not guilty this year to a racketeering conspiracy charge linked to a mob-controlled gambling and loan-sharking operation. There is no indication he is cooperating with authorities.

His court-appointed attorney did not return a call seeking comment.

A one-page notice filed Thursday disclosed that the change-of-plea hearing had been scheduled.

Fazzini and North Jersey mob capo Joseph "Scoops" Licata were added as defendants in the pending racketeering case this year. They were charged along with acting Philadelphia mob boss Joseph Ligambi and 11 others in a case built around charges of illegal sports betting, the distribution of video poker machines, loan-sharking, and extortion.

Fazzini was convicted of similar charges in 1999 in federal court in Newark and sentenced to 48 months in prison. Licata, 71, was convicted in the same case.

Tapes expected to be played for the jury in the trial include a secretly recorded conversation in a North Jersey restaurant in which Fazzini and Licata talked and joked about Fazzini's initiation into the crime family.

The so-called making ceremony was presided over by Ligambi, both men say on that tape. Ligambi was also recorded during the meeting, held at a restaurant in Kenilworth in May 2010.

Authorities have described Fazzini as a key operative for Licata, a capo, or captain, who heads the Philadelphia crime family's Newark-area operations.

The Ligambi trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday with jury selection and is expected to last eight to 12 weeks. Ligambi, 73, and six others are now set for trial. Three other defendants will be tried later.

Fazzini would be the fourth defendant to enter a guilty plea. Others who have pleaded guilty are mobsters Martin Angelina and Gaeton Lucibello and mob associate Louis Barretta.

There is no indication from the document filed Thursday what kind of sentencing range Fazzini faces, but several observers predicted it would be similar to the 57-month sentence Robreno imposed on Angelina last month.

Lucibello, at a separate hearing, got 51 months. Barretta was sentenced this week to 33 months.

Those sentences, according to law enforcement and underworld sources, appear moderate and are seen as a signal from Robreno, who has a reputation for handing out tough sentences after trials that end in convictions.

The signal: Those who plead guilty and avoid trial can expect a better deal than those who are convicted. Courthouse speculation is that Ligambi and most of his codefendants will face prison terms of 12 years or more if they are convicted.

Fazzini, a former associate said, was smart enough to see that and opted to plead out.


Joseph Merlino: The mobster next door

A Philly Mafia icon, fresh out of prison, has set up housekeeping in Boca Raton. So what, exactly, is he up to?
Joseph Merlino, whose father was an underboss to Nicodemo ‘Little Nicky’ Scarfo, rose to prominence in 1989 after authorities alleged that he tried to kill the mob boss’s son, Nicky Scarfo Jr. Scarfo Jr. was repeatedly shot outside a prominent Philadelphia Italian restaurant, but survived. Scarfo’s father, who had been running the mob from prison, eventually lost control as most members of his organization were imprisoned. With Scarfo Sr. in prison for life, various factions of the mob vied for control. In the early 1990s, Giovanni ‘John’ Stanfa took over the helm of the Philadelphia crime family.
Stanfa’s promotion to head of the mob launched what is considered one of the bloodiest wars in organized crime history. Merlino began plotting with fellow gangster Ralph Natale to take over. In 1993, Merlino survived a drive-by shooting, suffering a bullet to his buttocks, but fellow associate Michael ‘Mike Chang’ Ciancaglini was killed in a hit that was widely believed by law enforcement to be engineered by Stanfa.
In retaliation, an attempt was made on Stanfa son’s life; he was shot in the face in a drive-by shooting. Stanfa Sr. was eventually convicted and sent to prison for life, and Natale took over the reins with Merlino as his underboss. Natale was later jailed and turned into a government informant, just as Merlino took over in the late 1990s.
In 2001, Merlino was sentenced to 14 years on charges of extortion, racketeering and illegal gambling. But he was acquitted of more serious crimes, including murder.
‘Ain’t bad,’ he said when the sentence was pronounced.
Joseph Merlino steps out onto the iron-railed balcony of his $400,000 Boca Raton townhouse. Bare-chested, ripped and clad in nothing but grey skivvies, he looks more like a former Calvin Klein underwear model than one of the most ruthless mobsters of his time.
A year out of prison, Joseph Salvatore “Skinny Joey” Merlino isn’t so skinny anymore. But he looks almost as boyish at 50 as at 39, when he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for racketeering. Back then, he was a five-foot-three, 100-pound dapper young don who masterminded the bloody takeover of the Philadelphia mob. Today, he is a two-hour plane ride from the Southwest Philadelphia row house where he grew up to become an underworld icon, both feared and eerily revered in the City of Brotherly Love.
“How’d ya find me?” he asks, his Philadelphia accent unmistakable.
Surely Merlino, who has survived at least a dozen attempts on his life and has been accused and acquitted of ordering the grisly murders of plenty of wise guys, knows the answer to his question: If you really want to, you can find just about anyone.
He grins and says he doesn’t want to talk. This is something of a surprise, because Merlino is a mob star who, at least at one time, loved seeing himself in the spotlight so much that he used to ask friends to tape the TV news if there was a chance he would appear.
Once dubbed the “John Gotti of Passyunk Avenue,” an Italian district considered the heart of South Philadelphia, Merlino is now the ex-Mafioso, supposedly, of Boca’s Broken Sound Boulevard, where he lives in a cookie-cutter development still partly under construction off Interstate 95 and Yamato Road.
“I mean no disrespect,” he says in a cliché as fitting as the Frank Sinatra tunes neighbors say he blares in the middle of the night.
“Don’t believe everything you read,” he counters when asked about a possible movie deal about his gangster life, or to address evidence suggesting he is back at the helm of the Philly-South Jersey La Cosa Nostra from his suburban South Florida outpost.
Mobsters have flocked to Florida since the first trees were planted on Palm Island, where Al Capone moved into a mansion in 1928. The state has always been open territory for organized crime, a wise-guy retreat where legends like Meyer Lansky and underlings from just about every crime family have angled for turf — from gambling to extortion to prostitution to money-laundering to running drugs.
Merlino says he is in the carpet-installing business. The owner of his posh townhouse, Bruce DeLuca, is CEO of U.S. Installation Group, a primary flooring and carpeting subcontractor for Home Depot. Through a spokesperson, DeLuca said he didn’t lease the place to Merlino, doesn’t know him and would never have rented the house had he known who would be living there.
The 2,900-square-foot, two-story, Mediterranean-style townhouse sits at the end of a cul-de-sac of former model homes in a community occupied by upper-middle class, educated people who mostly work day jobs. It has an ornamental cross atop its tower-like roof.
But if Merlino has joined the work force, he isn’t installing carpets 9 to 5, according to neighbors. They say he has thrown loud parties, with beefy men and scantily clad women coming and going at all hours. Last Christmas season, somebody threw his fully decorated tree — tinsel, balls and all, from his balcony onto the street.
“They’re scary,” said one neighbor who asked not to be identified. “We’ve had the police come several times. It’s been very stressful living near them. There is always screaming and fighting.”
The neighbors say what they find most disturbing are the banging noises in the middle of the night, as if furniture or equipment is being moved about.
“I’m not easily frightened,” another neighbor said when informed a convicted mobster lived a few doors away. “I don’t know who he is, but he does have a lot of visitors.”
Retired Philadelphia Police Sgt. Walt Coughlin, who followed Merlino for much of his 47-year career, said the former mob boss seemed to like everybody — except those who were out to kill him. His neighbors welcomed him, as he often gave them Christmas trees and offered to help them if they couldn’t pay their heating bill.
“There were quite a few murders we thought he did, but there were no witnesses,’’ said Coughlin. “Nobody would cooperate with police. They were afraid, and he was a hometown boy.”
It’s not clear whether Merlino’s wife, Deborah Wells Merlino, and his two children are living with him in Boca. Neighbors say they haven’t seen any children at the house.
Boca Raton police said they have no record of any calls to the address, but if police were summoned because of noise, they wouldn’t necessarily write up a report, said spokeswoman Sandra Boonenberg.
Merlino appears to work out of his home. He named his Wi-Fi connection “Pine Barrens,” a reference to the heavily forested area near Atlantic City, N.J., where organized criminals often disposed of bodies. It was the scene of one of the most famous — and frightening — Sopranos episodes.
It would not surprise those who know Merlino if he is still living the “life.”
“I can tell you that I would not want to live next door to Joey Merlino,” said Stephen LaPenta, a retired Philadelphia police lieutenant who worked undercover as a mob informant, and infiltrated Merlino’s inner circle. LaPenta, now retired and living in Florida, says he still keeps tabs on the flamboyant ringleader.
“The Joey I know was a hard-drinking, womanizing, gambling drug user who would strangle you,” he said.
Merlino had ruthless power, as well as panache.
“If Joey sneezed, 20 people would hand him a handkerchief,” LaPenta said.
So why Boca Raton, a place without real cheese steaks, Mummers and the Eagles?
Organized crime experts say that Merlino, one of the many Teflon dons who have beaten multiple murder raps, has a better shot of staying under the radar in Boca. He was high-profile in Philly, with an entourage of pretty women and bodyguards. He was always followed by police and undercover agents.
Richard Mangan, a professor at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Criminology, said Merlino is no stranger to South Florida. At one time, he was part of Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo’s regime in Philadelphia. Scarfo owned a home in Fort Lauderdale, and Merlino is among those whose photo was taken on Scarfo’s boat, the “Casa Blanca,” also known as “The Usual Suspects.’’
Mangan said it’s likely Merlino has been in charge of the family all along, even from prison.
“The speculation is that yeah, why wouldn’t he be running things, especially in this digital age,” Mangan said.
According to various media reports, Merlino has talked about getting into the restaurant business. In August, Don Michael Petullo, a former Las Vegas businessman who worked in the casino industry, registered a company, DNS Inc., at Merlino’s Boca Raton address. Petullo, who could not be reached for comment, doesn’t appear to be in the carpet business.
In February, a confidential FBI memo was leaked by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks that said Merlino “appears to be restoring and developing significant relationships for a potential South Florida crew,” and that he was getting involved in gambling/bookmaking activities.
Then in May, a detention memo filed by prosecutors referenced a secretly recorded conversation among New Jersey mobsters discussing Merlino’s status in the organization as the man in charge who would decide, after his release from prison, which candidates would be initiated into the mob. Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi, up until then considered the top boss, is recorded as saying Merlino would “make” the guys he wants. Ligambi is now in prison.
A former boss of one of Florida’s crime families, now retired, said Merlino is inviting trouble by moving to Boca.
“I don’t know who he thinks he is, but it’s stupid, very stupid,” said the ex-mobster, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Why Boca? He could go anywhere, Phoenix, even Central Florida.” Boca, he said, will only create more police scrutiny of his dealings. “Boca is just too hot for someone like him.”
The old-timer said the brash and brazen Merlino will not be welcomed by the local La Cosa Nostra.
“I guarantee you that there are people out there who won’t want him,” he said.
New York’s five organized-crime syndicates — the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Colombo and Lucchese families — have always considered Florida to be “open,” with no family claiming exclusive rights to operate.
But many of the older bosses have either gone to jail or are dead. In the old days, the guys didn’t want to attract attention, but young turks like Merlino enjoy the limelight, said the old boss.
During the time he was in prison, Merlino reportedly spent a lot of time in the gym, bulking up. Meanwhile, the mob was led by Ligambi, although speculation among law enforcement is that Ligambi was actually a figurehead for Merlino.
Merlino, released in 2011, served time in a Boca Raton halfway house before being freed last year.
If he is running the Philadelphia mob, he is likely doing so through associates still living in Philly and South Jersey, according to the confidential FBI memo. Merlino is prohibited from associating with known felons and is still on federally supervised release.
“The word we got is Joey has a benefactor, he has somebody pumping money into him. How else could he get out of prison and move into a $400,000 house and drive a Mercedes?,’’ LaPenta said. “It’s trouble for South Florida in the sense that because Joey is there, others will follow.”