For decades, John Scalish ran the Cleveland mafia like a well-oiled machine. His sudden death 40 years ago unleashed one of the biggest outbreaks of mob violence in American history -- when the city became known as Bomb City, U.S.A. (The Plain Dealer)
By John Petkovic, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The best mobsters weren't movie stars. Fame and attention were the last things they wanted. It could lead to early grave or a life behind bars.
Cleveland mob boss John Scalish was smart enough to avoid the trappings of fame and attention, not to mention wily enough to avoid getting whacked or getting busted and rotting away in the pen.
Yes, the don who was born and raised in the East 110th Street and Kinsman Road neighborhood ended up living in a spacious house in Pepper Pike. Yes, he enjoyed la dolce vita -– er, rather, the American Dream.
But Scalish also kept a low-profile. Few knew much about the underworld figure and head of the Cleveland La Cosa Nostra.
Even his death –- 40 years ago, on May 26, 1976 –- was pretty regular: He died of a bad heart, like any other stiff. His funeral at Calvary Cemetery was officiated by three priests and attended by 250 mourners -– well-dressed, in suits, most arriving in Cadillacs.
There was no mention of his line of work in the eulogy. There were no photos taken at the funeral and none ran in a Plain Dealer story that was buried on the obituary page -– Page 6, Section Two. In death as in life, Scalish's photo rarely appeared in the paper. You'd be hard-pressed to find it anywhere.
But what followed over the next months was front page news, in The Plain Dealer and around the country, and it came with photos and photos of wreckage. The death of Scalish led to one of the biggest outbreaks of mob violence in American history.
In 1976, the city became known as Bomb City, U.S.A. -– thanks to a mob war that resulted in 37 bombings that took place in Cuyahoga County, including 21 in Cleveland.
That year, the Browns finished in third place in the AFC Central. The Indians finished fourth in the AL East. But Cleveland was No. 1 in America in car bombs, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
"Cleveland had the best burglars, thieves and safe crackers in the country," says James Willis, a Cleveland attorney who specialized in representing organized crime figures. "I know, I represented a lot of them."
There were reasons other than Cleveland's home-grown "talent" that explained the rise in bombings, however.
"When John Scalish died, there was a battle for power in Cleveland," says author Rick Porrello, whose book "To Kill the Irishman" was made into a 2011 film starring Christopher Walken, Paul Sorvino and Val Kilmer. "That's when all hell broke loose."
Hell came with many players, most notably Irish mobster and government informant Danny Greene on one side and Scalish's successor James T. Licavoli on the other.
Their battle for control over the Cleveland rackets resulted in a series of car bombings, culminating with the 1977 murder of Greene.
Licavoli had free rein of Cleveland. Well, for two months -– until he was arrested in connection with Greene's death by the FBI, which found an 18-inch knife in his cane.
"I managed to get him acquitted of the charges the first two times we went to trial," says Willis, who was Licavoli's lawyer to the end. "The third time wasn't a charm."
In 1982, he was tried under federal RICO charges and convicted and sentenced to seventeen years imprisonment, leaving the Cleveland mob in a free fall.
He was done in by informants -– the kind of rats that Scalish always worried about years earlier. His attempts to safeguard against them ended up weakening the mob.
"Scalish was no John Gotti," says Porrello, referring to the flamboyant and outspoken New York crime boss. "He knew that the mob was a secret organization and that in order for it to be effective you couldn't bring attention to it."
Scalish -– aka "The Big Boy" -– enjoyed a 32-year reign that was by far the longest of any area boss. During that time, he oversaw the rise of the Cleveland family that at its peak had 60 made men.
In 1950, he set up gangster Moe Dalitz in Las Vegas, at the legendary Desert Inn, putting the Cleveland mob in the middle of skimming operations. On his watch, the mob became engaged in loansharking, gambling and labor unions, and forged ties with the Jewish mob.
The seeds for the Cleveland mob's demise were sown as organized crime was at its peak, in 1957, when the American mafia held the Apalachin Meeting. The summit of more than 100 mobsters from America, Italy and Cuba took place in Apalachin, New York. The meeting addressed a variety of subjects: gambling, narcotics, loansharking and territories.
Cleveland was represented by Scalish and his consigliere, John DeMarco. The high-profile meeting was busted by New York state troopers, when they noticed a suspicious number of expensive cars from out of state converging on the small town.
Some of the mobsters were arrested and some taken in for questioning, including Scalish and DeMarco.
Scalish refused to talk, taking the Fifth Amendment even when he was asked for his wife's maiden name.
"My Lord, is it that bad? Are you ashamed of your wife?" he was asked, according to a July 3, 1958 article in The Plain Dealer.
"I respectfully decline to answer," said Scalish, "on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me."
Scalish was charged and sentenced to five years in prison for conspiring to keep silent about the meeting, but the conviction was overturned by a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The headlines resulting from the meeting did, however, make mob activities a priority for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had seen communism as the bigger domestic threat in the 1950s. It also exposed Scalish's ties to the Teamsters, after police found that his car was registered to a cigarette vending company.
People started asking...
"Who is John Scalish? Even Policemen Differ," read a 1958 headline of a Plain Dealer story that ran on page 18.
"Who is John Scalish? What part does this enigmatic personality play in the underworld? You can ask these questions of a dozen veteran policemen and get about that many different answers," went the story.
"Scalish became increasingly secretive and stopped bringing in new members in the 1950s and '60s," says Porrello, who is currently the Lyndhurst chief of police. "And so the Cleveland mob lost its middle management."
Like a handful of other Cleveland kingpins, he moved out of the city to quiet Pepper Pike and into a 10-room, two-story home that resembles the Corleone's Lake Tahoe house in "The Godfather Part II." Under Scalish, the Cleveland mob even saw the marrying of sisters of members to other members, another sign of its growing insularity.
He refrained from ruling with an iron fist, however. Scalish was tolerant of bookies and other racketeers working on the fringes and even outside of the mob, all in the name of keeping the peace.
All good, until he died unexpectedly when he went in to have heart surgery on May 26.
"The problem is Scalish didn't have a plan of succession set up," says Porrello,
Scalish allegedly told his treasurer Milton "Maishe" Rockman -– who was the mob's connection to Teamsters president Jackie Presser -- that he wanted Licavoli to take his place.
The move took the underworld by surprise.
"No one thought it would be Licavoli," says Porrello. "He was already an old man, a bachelor and walked around with a cane."
"Jack White," who was 72 at time of his promotion, was more of a grandfatherly figure than a mobster to the residents of Little Italy, where he lived in a modest home and often walked around greeting kids as they played ball.
Nardi, a Cleveland drug and arms trafficker who was angry that he wasn't chosen by Scalish, saw weakness and smelled blood. Wreckage ensued.
He teamed up with Greene, who rose to power in the 1960s when he muscled into the International Longshoreman's Association. Green became involved in the numbers racket working for notorious racketeer Shondor Birns.
The Irish mobster later became a suspect in the 1975 car bombing that claimed Birns' life, which came in response to a botched Birns-ordered hit on Greene. Birns' death put Greene in control of gambling rackets and a partnership with Nardi against Licavoli.
As if the bombings didn't bring enough publicity, there was the flamboyant Greene going on TV to taunt his enemies and boast that he was alive and well -– even after multiple murder attempts.
After a numbers of failed attempts, the family finally got Nardi –- with a car bomb in May 1977. Greene was next, also via car bomb, on Oct. 6, 1977.
Greene's death put an end to his taunts, but it paved the way for the feds, who were forced to confront the mob control of Cleveland after months of high-profile violence.
"The mob had hooks into City Hall and banks and institutional activities -– a vast control of many aspects of life in the city," says Dennis Kucinich, who took over as Cleveland's mayor in 1977, as mob violence was reaching its climax. "The escalation in gang violence was far from a signal of the end of the mob; it was the mob expressing the hold it had on the city at the time.
"They had the vending machine business and were involved in the waste-hauling contracts, corporate pursuits, a number of things," says Kucinich. "Trying to separate them from the public trough was a daunting challenge."
Kucinich became a target of the mob, according to a 1984 Senate inquiry into organized crime activities. The plot involved taking the mayor out during a 1978 Columbus Day parade -– payback for his attempts to crack down on organized crime.
Kucinich missed the parade that day because he was hospitalized with an ulcer. There was also an alleged plot to take him out at Tony's Diner, a West Side spot where he was a regular.
The hit on Kucinich was alleged to have been organized by Thomas "The Chinaman" Sinito, a capo who lead a crew of soldiers in the Cleveland family. He recruited help from Maryland.
"All around the country, Cleveland was known as the bombing capital of the America, and all these things were happening out in the open," Kucinich adds. "They took it so far and the system finally caught up with them."
Just as the FBI organized crime efforts were getting stronger, the Cleveland mob was descending into anarchy.
"Licavoli made millions in gambling, but hadn't been involved in running an organization," says Porrello. "He was an old mobster, and the culture around him was changing."
"You had young guys coming in with no sense of loyalty," adds Porrello. "So when the feds started infiltrating with informants and witness security, you'd have all these people talking."
On top of all that came the drugs -– and the even shabbier characters they attracted.
"It was like 'Goodfellas,'" says Porrello, referring to Martin Scorsese's 1990 mob classic. "It's all going good and everyone's making money and then they get into drugs, and the next thing is they're robbing drug dealers and dealing with people on drugs and they're doing drugs and everything falls apart."
The once-insular, secretive circle of Scalish had become a sinking ship full of rats. Or as Licavoli famously told informant Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno:
"Sometimes, you know, I think this (expletive) outfit of ours is like the old Communist party in this country. It's getting so that there's more (expletive) spies in it than members."