A Look at Some of the Major Players in Cleveland's Organized Crime History

Ralph DiMatteo History

It's safe to say that any lifelong Clevelander is somewhat familiar with Cleveland’s notorious crime family history. Many even may have had a closer or personal connection to the history through a friend or relative. Loosely organized crime family activities first established themselves in Cleveland around 1900 and led to a particularly violent period in the 1970s that many believe ended Cleveland’s mafia legend. Whether organized crime in Cleveland has truly been vanquished or not, it is still well worth a look at some of the prominent figures within that 70+ years of activity.

The key players throughout this time were noteworthy for a variety of reasons. Some were more aggressive and/or violent in their approach to the family business. Others were known to be suave, with a businesslike approach to how things should be handled, and others favored being involved in certain illegal activities over others, either from a lesser-risk standpoint or the personal preference of the activity itself.

Whatever the case, we will be looking at some of the key figures along the way that earned Cleveland a reputation in the world of organized crime during a period that rivaled those families from such high-profile cities as Chicago and New York.

There is no question the world of organized came with an incredibly short life span for those that chose this life. Many of them saw a family member, perhaps more than one, brutally murdered during the course of their tenure at the top of a family’s business. Yet one of the most fascinating aspects of the lives they chose was the fact that many were also family men.

Cleveland police very early on recognized that they were going to have a problem with the beginnings of these primarily extortion rackets and quickly organized themselves, establishing a division of the police to specifically handle this new and unique crime threat. This group was known as the “Italian Squad” and were pretty effective early on in putting down the first incarnations of organized crime after the extortion rackets became more deadly and escalated to murders.

A Look at Some of Cleveland's Most Infamous Mobsters

Joseph "Big Joe" Porello

There were two prominent, large families in Cleveland in the early 1900s, the Lonardos and the Porellos. Both were hard-working and proud families that because of the times struggled with navigating the legal means to achieving the American dream. So, like other immigrants of the times, the Italians increasingly pursued the more illegal and quicker pursuits to prosperity, and Joseph Porello was a very prominent figure in that arena.

He was the second crime boss leader within his family, taking over for his brother Rosario Porello in 1927 after Rosario was murdered due to internal syndicate dispute (that'll happen). 

Big Joe was tied to gambling, bootlegging and racketeering, and during his short tenure at the top of the family enterprises was able to expand their activities into Michigan and Pennsylvania as well as other parts of Ohio outside of their Cleveland base in the Woodland Italian neighborhood.

Around the time that Big Joe ascended to power in 1927, the Porello family barbershop had very much caught the attention of the federal authorities and the family’s “front’ for the obtaining of large lots of corn liquor for their bootlegging operations. The youngest of the Porello brothers, Raymond, ended up doing time at a Dayton workhouse when he was duped by two federal agents into allowing them to order a large amount of corn liquor.

It seems that the only thing Joseph Porello lacked during his stint as boss was political influence. He became increasingly frustrated that he could not secure his brother’s release and eventually needed the help, along with a $5,000 payment for that help, from another “Big Joe” - Joe Lonardo - to make it happen. 

However, before Lonardo made the attempt to help secure Raymond’s release, he made a return trip to Sicily to see his mother who was in poor health. This quite possibly is what led investigators to believe the Porellos were involved in some way in the gunning down of Big Joe and John Lonardo while they were at the Porello barbershop to play cards. Could it be that it was perceived payback for Lonardo not acting to secure Raymond’s release? We will never know for sure, but in one of Big Joe’s pockets authorities found a letter addressed to the Dayton workhouse warden asking for Raymond’s release for medical reasons.

As we said earlier, Porello’s tenure was short, lasting just three years. In 1930, in particularly brutal fashion he was gunned down during what is known as the Porello Family Massacre, igniting a power struggle within the Cleveland crime family and creating an opportunity for many new players to rise to power.

Frank Milano

As with Joe Porello’s rise to the top of the crime family, Milano’s was not without its own “bumps” in the road. A series of revenge killings after Porello’s murder eliminated much of the competition for the top spot. All Milano had to do was wait out the potential competition eliminating each other.

However, Milano’s suave business savvy and organizational skills helped him to not only gain support for his rise, but expand the family’s activities while also streamlining the family’s power structure. For his brief reign, this almost meant some stability.

Milano and the Mayfield Road Mob were a constant threat to Porello’s reign during his short tenure, so Porello sought to derail some of Milano’s momentum by becoming the host city for a major meeting for the Unione Sicilane. Porello’s hope was that this would solidify his stature and possibly allow him to not be looking over his shoulder for at least a little while.

It did not go as planned, as several attendees of the meeting were arrested upon arrival and, much like Porello, his lack of political influence was once again his undoing. Cleveland was long considered a safe haven for family members traveling and if Porello could not guarantee that safety, it was definitely a compelling argument for anyone looking to move on his position.

Milano was able to establish very lucrative working arrangements with families in New York and Chicago with a focus on labor racketeering, gambling, and, of course, bootlegging. Most likely he felt that the partnerships with some of the higher-ups in other cities provided him at least a bit of security, but that was not to be.

Although a bit longer than Porello’s time at the top, it was still short-lived as Milano was forced to flee to Mexico to avoid prosecution for, of all things, income tax evasion. He was succeeded in Cleveland by Alfred Polizzi, whose tenure lasted over 30 years.

Milano eventually ended up in Los Angeles and palled around with Mickey Cohen as well as Lucky Luciano. He was said to be very instrumental in protecting Cohen from being taken out by rival gangs.

Despite constantly being surrounded by the threat of elimination by a violent death, Milano passed away peacefully in Los Angeles in 1970.

Alfred Polizzi

Brutal but efficient in method would be a pretty accurate way of describing the successor to Frank Milano’s leadership - "Big Al" Alfred Polizzi.

He was well-connected and respected by many of the other crime families, which allowed for his ascension to leadership with relatively little resistance. Being Milano’s top lieutenant at the time certainly helped to make the transition that much easier.

As mentioned previously, Frank Milano had to step down in 1935 from leadership to escape to Mexico to avoid tax evasion charges, the preferred method of prosecution for many gang members at that time.

Between 1935, the time at which Polizzi took over, to at least 1942, it was never completely clear who had top control over the Cleveland syndicate between Alfred Polizzi and Moe Dalitz. Whatever the case, both consulted with, while also traveling to Mexico on occasion to meet with, Frank Milano during his time there.

Polizzi was partnered with Milano and Dalitz in a number of front companies, legitimate businesses that were primarily used for the laundering of the many illegal activities going on behind the scenes that included narcotics, bootlegging, and gambling.

Polizzi’s close associations with other local as well as national crime families gained him a seat on the Grand Council of the Sicilian Mafia as well as a seat on the Commission. This seven-member group was tasked with handling disputes within families.

U.S. Senate investigators widely considered Polizzi to be one of the most influential members of the national crime syndicate scene. This is a fair conclusion as his activities and influences allowed him to begin and maintain relationships outside of Cleveland with the likes of Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Joe Profaci, who was responsible for the establishment of the Colombo crime family in New York.

Polizzi was particularly adept at dodging the authorities throughout his career, but even he was not able to completely avoid prosecution. In December 1943, he was arrested on 28 counts of federal liquor and tax law violations. He spent two full years in prison and then retired to Florida with somewhere around $300,000, roughly $5 million in today's money.

He lived out his days peacefully in Coral Gables, Florida, and died in 1975 while attending his granddaughter's college graduation in Colorado.

There was truly quite a bit to discover about Alfred Polizzi, most remarkable of which was how quickly he established relationships not only with the Cleveland families but elsewhere in the country for both legal and illegal activities.

He even sought a pardon from two presidents, Truman and Eisenhower, for his conviction, but was denied in both attempts. The government even tried to strip him of his citizenship, but he won that case in 1953.

John T. Scalish

It could be argued that in 1944, when John Scalish succeeded Alfred Polizzi upon his retirement to Florida, it was the beginning of a new direction of organized crime in Cleveland.

Scalish was the Cleveland crime family boss for 32 years, easily the longest-running tenure. During his run, the family’s focus was much stronger on stability and diversifying activities and interests and less on the violence that was necessary to maintain control and power in the earlier days of organized crime in Cleveland.

Scalish was responsible for the Cleveland family’s expansion west into Las Vegas and California. It was evident that his focus on the development of strong and expanded working relationships with both Italian and Jewish families while de-emphasizing violence was going to be his consistent style of leadership.

Clearly it was successful, as he led skimming efforts at several Vegas casinos in partnership with other bosses from across the country while also seeing to it that Cleveland’s Moe Dalitz took over the operation of the Desert Inn in Vegas from Bugsy Siegel.

He also aggressively oversaw many other project developments in Las Vegas that were alleged to have been financed by the powerful and mob-controlled Teamsters union.

Back home in Cleveland, Scalish and his Cleveland mobsters had great influence and control over the Teamsters union. His ability to develop “friendly” relationships with local politicians and court officials helped to divert attention and investigations away from Cleveland mob activities for much of his tenure as boss.

Scalish’s approach could probably best be described as strategic. His actions and decisions were always based on what was best for the organization long-term. He was very well-respected not only in Cleveland, but around the country. An example of that respect for his leadership and influence was his participation in the infamous Appalachian Meeting held at Joseph “Joe the Barber” Barbara’s home in upstate New York in 1957. Over one hundred or so mob leaders from all around the country, Cuba, and Italy were in attendance to discuss a variety of topics that included dividing up the activities of the recently murdered Albert Anastasia.

Scalish ushered in a new direction that was more peaceful and developmental in direction, but it could be also be said that when he passed during open heart surgery in 1976, it was the catalyst for the extremely violent period that rocked Cleveland, as many much more violent individuals began vying for control for Cleveland’s mob activities. 

James T. Licavoli

This is going to be our first look at a mobster who ascended into leadership in a more modern era, the late 1970s, a particularly violent and dangerous period for Cleveland’s mobsters.

James “Jack White” Licavoli was just such a figure and known to be an intelligent and calculating mobster. Although Licavoli had a reputation for being a suave individual, he was also very tight with money, so much so that he only used stolen cards while on vacations. 

Law enforcement at this time was much more aggressive in their pursuit of the illegal activities associated with the various mob families, and since Licavoli directed activities in such areas as loan sharking, extortion, and gambling, he was an easy target for investigation, and those investigations led to a variety of indictments. Convictions for murder and racketeering followed some of the indictments.

Detroit and New York were two other cities where Licavoli was known to have particularly strong partnerships with mob families within a network of relationships around much of the country.

He also had the distinction of being one of the first mobsters convicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, more commonly known as the RICO Act, which was a specifically developed set of laws with extensive or extended penalties for organized crime activities.

His rise and then tenure was not smooth to be sure, as he had to deal with John Nardi’s defection and subsequent support for Danny Greene and his move for control and the leadership of Cleveland’s organized crime activities. This intense struggle for control between the two men led to the deaths of many of Licavoli’s underlings.

Licavoli declined the offers of help from the Genovese family in New York as well as the Chicago outfit. Greene’s pursuit of total control was very public and taunting, but even with that, Licavoli felt that if he accepted outside help with his Cleveland problem it would not only weaken his leadership profile but also cost him a piece of the Cleveland activities that were very profitable and the envy of other families in and out of Cleveland.

Despite a constant target on his back during Cleveland’s violent 70s, remarkably no attempts were made on his life directly. His patience, despite losing many of men during the war, was eventually rewarded when both Nardi and Greene were killed by car bombs within months of one another in 1977. Licavoli was tried for the murders but acquitted.

With the deaths of his two rivals, Licavoli went on offense and was successful in getting a mole inside the FBI Cleveland office so he could stay informed of investigations into his activities.

However, unbeknownst to him, his lifelong friend Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno was himself an FBI informant and since he feared being found out, he agreed to testify against many lifelong associates in return for being put into the witness protection program.

This led to Licavoli’s arrest and conviction under the RICO Act, and he was sentenced to 17 years imprisonment. 

Licavoli died at the hospital of a heart attack on November 23, 1985, near the Federal Correctional Institution in Offord, Wisconsin. 

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