Historians have neglected the role played by Berrien County, Michigan, in the history of Chicago and New York organized crime. The Berrien cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph were linked to three significant incidents in American organized crime history.
The first was the murder of powerful Chicago Mafia chieftain Antonio Lombardo in 1928. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in the Windy City also was linked with Berrien County. Both of those events had prolonged and broad reverberations. Benton Harbor was, moreover, linked to a young Mafia figure only known until now as “Buster from Chicago.” His impact on the future course taken by the American Mafia was arguably still more important.
Away from the big-city spotlight, regional underworld characters utilized Berrien County for several purposes, ranging from its use by Prohibition period figures in leisure activities, through to deploying the area as a safe place in which to dispose of a body, and as a base for moonshine liquor production.1
It was written in Benton Harbor for instance that Al Capone, “on occasion decides to either hide out locally or enjoy the summer time enjoyments of this locality.”2 The News-Palladium complained, “Capone’s presence has become so matter-of-fact here that the local citizenry, refusing to get excited about the proximity of one more headliner, has ceased to pay much attention to the comings and goings of Capone’s fleet of 16-cylinder sedans.”3 As if to underline its rest and recuperation function for organized crimesters, Capone, “as a farewell to his friends before his departure Friday for a stay in Leavenworth Penitentiary,” arranged his going-away party in 1931 at the Hotel Vincent in the city.4
Antonio Lombardo's Killing
Violence inevitably followed from this association, with Chicago mob warfare at the epicenter. The body of a young and well-dressed Italian man shot through the head by an automatic revolver was found on September 9, 1928, face down on the shore of Lake Michigan at Hagar Township, a rural area near Benton Harbor. A Chicago-stolen and burnt out sedan was found a short distance away. All identification marks had been removed from the car, and the victim bore no identifying papers.
The prevailing theory was that he had been “taken for a ride,” in retaliation for the murder of Tony Lombardo. The dead man’s build and clothes matched a description given to one of those used in the assassination. Furthermore, a blue steel gun found with the body was similar to one seen in the hand of one of Lombardo’s murderers.5 Lombardo had been slain near the busy intersection of Madison and Dearborn Streets.6 “Two men fell in step behind him, pulled out .45-caliber revolvers, and fired dumdum bullets into his head.”7 Joseph Ferraro, one of his two bodyguards, died a day later of the wounds he sustained. The shooters disappeared in the crowds.
Born 1891 in Galati Mamertino in the Messina region of eastern Sicily, Lombardo was identified as the “capo” (head) of the Chicago Mafia after the death of Mike Merlo in 1924. Second in command was Joseph Aiello.8 Aiello was Lombardo’s partner in moonshine supply racket, selling sugar and other alky paraphernalia to home distillers. Crucially, Lombardo was allied in the mob with Capone, and was said to represent Capone’s interest in the immigrant mutual aide society, the Unione Siciliana.
The Lombardo-Aiello partnership was broken by 1927, and Aiello was openly challenging Lombardo for control of the Unione.9 The struggle that developed supplied a strong motive for Aiello to order Lombardo’s assassination. Additional motive may have been afforded by the apparent Capone-sponsored murder, in July 1928, of Calabrian powerhouse Frankie Yale in Brooklyn.10
Notwithstanding these dynamics and line of investigation, the identity of the underworld victim found in Hagar remains as elusive as ever. But in a postscript, the estranged wife of Frank Biege, the “personal executioner” to Capone, told the Chicago District Attorney in 1929 that Capone had ordered her husband to “do a job” in Benton Harbor. However, she continued, that they instead fled to New Orleans, and the contract was never fulfilled.11
Fred "Killer" Burke
Capone’s counter-attack for the murder of his friend Lombardo, and for similar infractions, was savage and unprecedented in scale, even by Chicago standards. Late in 1927, Joseph Aiello exited the Windy City. Until mid-1929, he operated in Chicago only by proxy and through an alliance with the Bugs Moran gang. The Morans had repeatedly attempted to shoot Capone’s chief triggerman, Jack McGurn, and were accused of hijacking Capone whiskey trucks in Indiana. To settle scores with the Aiello-Moran combine, believed responsible for Lombardo’s downfall, Capone devised a plan to eliminate the Morans.
On the morning of February 14, 1929, four of Capone’s men walked into the S.M.C. Cartage Company garage at 2122 North Clark Street, Chicago, after observing Moran gang members there. Acting the part of raiding police officers, the Capone gunmen disarmed their opponents, lined them up against a wall and opened fire. The Moran men, “literally torn to pieces by the withering crossfire, crumpled to the floor.”12 All except Frank Gusenberg died immediately; he lingered for three hours before succumbing to his wounds.
The case moved to Berrien County, when St. Joseph traffic Patrolman Charles Skelly was slain on the night of December 14, 1929, as he tried to intervene in a minor traffic dispute. A drunken Fred Burke shot Skelly three times after Skelly jumped on the running board of Burke’s Hudson coupe and instructed him to drive to the police station to resolve the matter. Burke apparently feared identification, since he was wanted for bank robbery and murder in Ohio.13
Skelly’s murder prompted, “the greatest hue and cry and manhunt that Berrien ever knew and which attracted nationwide attention.”14 Registration records found in Burke’s abandoned car led police to a “luxuriously appointed” South Lakeshore Drive hideout south of St. Joseph, where stolen bonds and several firearms were discovered.15 Among the weapons were two Thompson machine guns, one of which was identified in Chicago as used to shoot James Clark in the Massacre. Moreover, Burke was known to pose, like the Massacre gunmen, as a policeman during the heists in which he partook.16 Burke “became the most wanted man in America, his mug shots gracing the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast.”17
Burke was born 1893 in Kansas as Thomas A. Camp. He spent his formative years in Kansas City, “eventually graduating into burglary and armed robbery.”18 Starting off by selling phony land deeds, Burke was better known to the authorities in several states for a string of heists and robberies he pulled from 1923, occasionally dabbling in kidnappings for ransom.
In March 1931 Burke was captured in his father-in-law’s farm in Green City, Missouri, and extradited to Michigan to face trial, as “America’s most dangerous killer.”19 Burke’s arraignment “took only a few moments but they were probably the most dramatic ever recorded in a Berrien court.” On April 27, 1931, his crime was reduced in Circuit Court to second-degree murder, when Judge White heard that Burke was drunk when he killed Skelly. Jailed for life with hard labor in Marquette Prison, Michigan,20 Burke died there on July 10, 1940, of a heart attack without ever admitting his role in the Massacre.
The St. Valentine’s Day executions signaled the end of the Moran gang as rivals for power with Capone. Without Moran’s support, Aiello was isolated by the time he was mown down by Capone’s order in October 1930. The murders of February 14, 1929, marked a turning point in the previously tolerant attitude of the Chicago public towards inter-gang atrocities.21 Pressure was placed on the federal government to put Capone away, with the Bureau of Internal Revenue assigned to spearhead the campaign. In October 1931, Capone was jailed for 11 years and fined for tax evasion. Released in 1939, he retired to his home in Palm Island, Florida, and died in January 1947.
Sebastiano 'Buster from Chicago' Domingo 22
Yet from 1929 to the fall of 1931, Capone was head of the most powerful syndicate in Chicago. Capone’s supremacy was exploited by New York Mafia big shot “Joe the Boss” Masseria as part of a broader design to extend his influence in the Mafia. Masseria’s campaign caused a backlash from other crime families, the rebels headed by Salvatore Maranzano, setting the stage for the “Castellammare War.” According to the U.S. Senate’s interpretation and that shared by a number of others, Maranzano’s victory in the Castellammare War “eventually involved mobs of Italian extraction throughout the United States and it led directly to the evolution of syndicated crime.”23
Maranzano’s followers were chiefly, like Buster from Chicago to which we turn, from the western Sicilian town of Castellammare del Golfo. “Buster was undoubtedly the number one killer in the Maranzano organization,” Chandler stressed, “and he drew all the important hits.”24 His significance was deeper. Without Buster, Maranzano may have not won the War, and could not have then ushered in a “new” Mafia organization, La Cosa Nostra (the LCN), that challenges law enforcement to this day.
Yet paradoxically, Buster has been one of the most mysterious identities in U.S. Mafia history. Ralph Salerno the NYPD’s former organized crime expert, like every other commentator, contended that the real name of Buster “is still unknown.”25 A number of attempts to correct this deficiency have fallen flat.26
Until 1983, insufficient detail existed to permit an accurate identification of Buster.27 Former Mafia boss Joseph Bonanno gave the game away when he identified Buster as “Bastiano Domingo.”28 During the Castellammare War, “Bastiano, or Buster, was the quickest to set up and the best shot among us. He could shoot from any angle and from any direction. His specialty was the machine gun, with which he was a virtuoso.”29 Once this information emerged, extended research filled in the blanks, leading to Benton Harbor.
Sebastiano (“Bastiano”) Domingo was born 1910 on Senna Street, Castellammare del Golfo, the son of a farm worker, Giuseppe Domingo, and Mattia (or Matilda) Farina.30 First in the Domingo clan to make the journey to New York was the eldest son, Tony Domingo,31 in 1910. New York port records showed Sebastiano, aged 3, his brother, sister and widowed mother, Mattia Farina Domingo, entering New York harbor on October 22, 1913.
The Domingos were headed for Tony’s residence in Chicago’s Oak Street neighborhood, a section “known as Death Corner because of the large number of shootings, stabbings, and murders that were committed there.”32
In following years, agricultural opportunities and real estate developments drew in many Italians to Berrien County from Chicago.33 But other Italians, perhaps including the Domingos, moved to escape the Chicago variant of the “Black Hand.” Extortionists, usually themselves of immigrant stock and operating in small bands or alone, targeted the more prosperous of their paesani for blackmail, threatening a bombing if their demands were unmet. Chicago was one location where the shakedown operators were especially active.34
Whatever their reason for settling in Berrien, the Domingos and their kinsfolk became deeply embroiled in the local bootlegging traffic over the course of the 1920s. Within the Italian section of Benton Harbor, nicknamed “Brooklyn,” a largely self-contained alcohol manufacturing and selling community existed, staffed by Domingo relatives by marriage,35 the DiMarias and the Ciaravinos. They were, like the Domingos, from Castellammare, and functioned as major bootleggers in the area.
The business of supplying thirsty customers with liquor changed. “In place of the small still operated by the individual moonshiner,” the Wickersham Commission noted in 1931, “there are plants of a capacity fairly comparable to the old-time lawful distillery and all gradations.”36 Berrien County distilleries helped serve both local and Chicago markets. In August 1929, for instance, five Sicilians transporting booze to Chicago were arrested and a plant was seized on the St. Joseph River.37 The Domingos and their kinsmen appear to have focused on neighborhood sales.
Tragedy awaited the Domingo extended family in Berrien County. Matilda Domingo, the six-year-old daughter of Mary and Tony, was accidentally shot dead by a single bullet fired by her 10-year-old uncle Leo DiMaria on the last day of 1925. They were alone in the Riford Street home of Stefano and Katherine DiMaria, Leo’s parents, when Leo “discharged a .38-caliber revolver he found hidden among the cushions of a davenport.” A “Chicago visitor” had left the gun in the house.38
On August 24, 1926, Sam and Frank DiMaria lost their lives when they fell into a distillery vat containing acid fumes. The plant, hidden in a barn, was one of the largest yet uncovered in Berrien County. As events were reconstructed, Frank tried to pull out Sam, but had succumbed to the fumes that killed his brother. “Then there was an appalling silence and frantic cries no longer came from the interior of the huge circular container.” At the rear was another alcohol producing installation.39
The Ciaravino family shared the DiMaria’s appetite for bootlegging revenues. Tony Ciaravino was sentenced in 1924 to up to a year for a liquor violation. His brother Gaspare “Jasper” Ciaravino pleaded guilty in February 1926 to a similar offense and was jailed for six months.40 It was his third such conviction; in 1922 and 1924, Gaspare was sentenced for offenses under the Prohibition laws.
As an alcohol-related feud erupted in April 1929, Carlo Ciaravino’s head was blown off at close range in his sleep.41 Carlo was the brother-in-law to Mary Domingo.
Late in April 1927, Prohibition agents announced “the biggest liquor haul ever made in Berrien County, and one of the largest in the state.” Leo Ciaravino, Gaspare’s son, owned the biggest plant, featuring three stills capable of producing 240 gallons of liquor daily. At Tony Domingo’s farm, an 80-gallons distillery was uncovered, along with 18 gallons of liquor and 2,000 gallons of alky manufacturing mash in barrels.42
Driving back from Benton Harbor to their farm, Mary Domingo was blown apart on October 22, 1927, when a bomb planted in the Ford coupe she was driving exploded. The car belonged to her husband Tony, the likely target of the bombing. Detectives revealed that the explosive had been wired to the manifold under the car’s hood. Mary’s body was found fifteen feet away from the destroyed vehicle, “a flaming heap of wreckage.” She was “mutilated almost beyond recognition.”43
Newspaper accounts described the dramatic aftermath. Tony and his brother Sebastiano opened fire in the Fourth Ward Republican Club while looking for Mary’s alleged assassin, Louie Vieglo. Vieglo escaped through a back door. Shooting carried on in nearby streets and the two men were finally arrested while looking for Vieglo at his store. Vieglo had fled in a stolen car, and was not heard from again. His wife told of how Tony Domingo had blamed her for his estrangement from Mary and how the families had not spoken for a year.44 Vieglo and Tony Domingo had once been in business together.45 Tony and Sebastiano were released the following day.46
'Buster' Heads East
Tony Domingo sold his Riverside Road farm in Hagar Township and in 1928 moved back to Chicago where he shared Mary’s fate. On August 29, 1929, he was eating in an Ogden Street restaurant owned by Pasquale Spilotro (father of celebrity Chicago-Las Vegas gangster Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, depicted in the motion picture Casino), when an assassin shot him dead.47 The Cook County coroner heard how Tony had his back to the door of the restaurant when nine shots were fired into his body from the street. Nobody saw the gunmen, but the revolver reports were heard.48 Sebastiano was mentioned only once during the inquest proceedings, as Tony’s brother who met him in front of a West Erie Street candy store “for the past several weeks.”49
The News-Palladium declared that Tony’s “vow to avenge the dynamite death of his wife … must remain forever unfulfilled.”50 Although Tony’s murderers were never caught or prosecuted, Sebastiano purportedly believed that Capone was behind his death, furnishing a powerful reason for his eagerness to join in a Maranzano led war against the Capone-Masseria alliance.
As of April 1930, Sebastiano Domingo had moved to New Castle Township, in Westchester County, New York, nearer to the upcoming Castellammare War fighting in New York City.51 Surrounded during his formative years in America with a high level of lawlessness and violence in both Benton Harbor and Chicago, and with the advantage of being able to gun down Masseria members in New York without recognition, Domingo was an excellent addition to the Maranzano stable of shooters. Domingo’s skill in the use of a revolver and shotgun proved decisive. Within months, Masseria was suing for peace. It did Masseria no good – his own men betrayed and killed him in a Coney Island restaurant on April 15, 1931, a move that left Maranzano temporarily in command of the U.S. “honored society.”52
As other sources mistakenly assume that Buster’s life left no trace, they wrongly claim that there is no record of Buster’s murder.53 Yet the New York press openly reported the death of “Charles Dominico,” confirmed by his death certificate and headstone as Sebastiano Domingo.
On the night of May 30, 1933, four armed men burst into the Castle Café at 72 East First Street and opened fire on those playing cards. When the gun smoke cleared, Domingo was dead and five others were wounded, one (Salvatore Ferrara) subsequently also dying. According to an eyewitness, one of the gunmen shouted, “You bunch of rats,” before shooting. The assassins ran outside and vanished.54 The Domingo and Ferrara funerals on June 3, 1933, attracted over 200 people, including friends and relatives.55
The events described were inter-connected. The Lombardo homicide and its sequel, the St. Valentine’s Massacre, catapulted Capone into a position of pre-eminence in Chicago. Capone’s participation arguably hastened the Castellammare War showdown, as Masseria assumed that Capone’s support would lead to a quick and final outcome. After switching sides to Maranzano, Capone further gained influence during the War in which Domingo was involved.
Research into organized crime history has concentrated on major metropolitan areas, neglecting their interaction with surrounding communities. The three cases presented have displayed a reciprocal relationship.
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’s Killer Burke and the slayers of the unidentified victim used Berrien County as a convenient location away from prying official eyes. Sebastiano Domingo’s experience was of contraband alcohol production in Benton Harbor. Ties to Maranzano’s New York faction, together with family misfortunes, took him from Michigan to fight a Mafia war with critical implications. In these guises, Berrien County is deserving of note for its important place in American underworld history.
1 Illustrating the problems confronting the small Berrien County police forces in curbing the locality’s use by Prohibition gangsters, Benton Harbor Police Chief Thure Linde resigned in January 1930 because of the modest pay on offer, and because of “difficulties in the police department.” (News-Palladium, 1.22.30) Fred Alden, his St. Joseph counterpart, was discharged that November due to his failure to modernize the police department, a flaw exposed by the “clean getaway” Fred Burke was allowed to make after murdering Charles Skelly (News-Palladium, 11.17.30)
2 News-Palladium, 7.29.31.
3 News-Palladium, 7.18.31.
4 New York Times, 7.26.31.
5 Chicago Tribune, 9.14.28, News-Palladium, 9.10.28.
6 News-Palladium, 9.13.28.
7 Laurence Bergreen, Capone: The Man and the Era, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. 293.
8 Nick Gentile, Vita di Capomafia, Rome : Editori Riuniti, 1963, p. 96.
9 Robert J. Schoenberg, Mr. Capone, New York : HarperCollins, 1992, p. 184.
10 New York Times, 9.10.28.
11 News-Palladium, 10.16.29.
12 Daniel Waugh, Egan’s Rats, Nashville, TN.: Cumberland House, 2007, p. 253.
13 News-Palladium, 12.16.29.
14 News-Palladium, 7.11.40.
15 News-Palladium, 12.16.29.
16 William Roemer, an experienced FBI agent, named the St. Valentine’s Day killers as Jack McGurn, John Scalise, Albert Anselmi and Tony Accardo - but not Burke. Roemer argued, “These were the four top hitters in the Capone stable in 1929.” (William F. Roemer, Accardo: The Genuine Godfather, New York: Donald I. Fine, 1995, p. 50).
17 Waugh, Egan’s Rats, p. 259, News-Palladium, 12.17.29.
18 Waugh, Egan’s Rats, p. 106.
19 News-Palladium, 3.27.31.
20 News-Palladium, 4.27.31.
21 Bergreen, Capone, p. 318.
22 Some of this information has appeared in David Critchley, “Buster, Maranzano and the Castellammare War, 1930-1931,” Global Crime, Volume 7 Number 1 (February 2006) pp. 46-51. Kindly reproduced by permission of Global Crime and Taylor and Francis.
23 U.S. Senate, Organized Crime and Illicit Traffic in Narcotics: Report, 1965, p. 12. This perspective on the War and its effects is comprehensively refuted in the author’s own book The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931, New York: Routledge, 2008.
24 David Leon Chandler, The Criminal Brotherhoods, London: Constable, 1976, p. 158.
25 Ralph Salerno and John S. Tompkins, The Crime Confederation, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1969, p. 151.
26 In Dorothy Gallagher’s, All the Right Enemies, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988, p. 219; David Evanier, “Buster from Chicago,” Southwest Review, Vol. 91 No. 2, 2006, pp. 195-215; Allan May, “‘Buster from Chicago’ – Revealed?” www.americanmafia.com, 6.10.02; Patrick Downey, Gangster City, New Jersey: Barricade Books, 2004, pp. 159-160.
27 It was said that Buster “came from Chicago and that the mob had killed someone in Buster’s family.” Buster was about 23 years of age. Mob turncoat Joseph Valachi supplied history with another important but until now overlooked clue to Buster’s identity in that he was “Castellammarese and that’s why the old man got him to join in with us.” This tantalizing data turned out as valid, but was useless without a name to attach to it.
28 Bonanno, Joseph with Sergio Lalli, A Man of Honour, London : Andre Deutsch, 1983, p. 119.
29 Bonanno, A Man of Honour, p. 105.
30 His grave’s headstone in New York states that Domingo was born on March 29, 1910, while Domingo’s Castellammare birth certificate gives April 1910.
31 Born 1893 in Castellammare.
32 Robert J. Kelly (ed.) Handbook of Organized Crime in the United States, Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1994, p. 181; Chicago Tribune, June 22-25, 1914.
33 Russell M. Magnaghi, Italians in Michigan,East Lansing: State University Press, 2001, p. 20.
34 Berrien County Historical Association, “Fede, Famiglia, e Amici: The Italian Experience in Berrien County 1900-2004,” pp. 4-5.
35 After Tony Domingo married Marie DiMaria in February 1918 in Benton Harbor.
36 U.S. Congress, Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States, 1931, p. 29.
37 News-Palladium, 8.9.29.
38 News-Palladium, 1.1.26.
39 News-Palladium, 8.24.26.
40 News-Palladium, 2.7.26.
41 News-Palladium, 4.17.29.
42 News-Palladium, 4.29.27.
43 News-Palladium, 10.24.27.
44 News-Palladium, 10.22.27.
45 News-Palladium, 10.24.27.
46 St. Joseph Herald-Press, 10.22.27; News-Palladium,10.22.27; Berrien County death certificate no. 2836.
47 News-Palladium, 8.30.29; Cook County death certificate no. 197 (1929).
48 Chicago death certificate no. 1296 (1929).
49 State of Illinois County of Cook Inquest on the Body of Antonio Domingo (8.31.29) Inquest no. 95 of August.
50 News-Palladium, 8.30.29 The place was a hangout for Circus Café Gang members of the high caliber of Claude Maddox, Jack McGurn and Tony Accardo.
51 1930 New York State census.
52 Maranzano was gunned and stabbed to death on September 10, 1931 in his Park Avenue, Manhattan, office.
53 Joseph Valachi, “The Real Thing” (U.S. National Archives, Record Group 60) pp. 333a, 333e; Organized Crime and the Illicit Traffic in Narcotics: Report, p. 16; Carl Sifakis, The Mafia Encyclopedia, New York: Da Capo Press, 2005; Downey, Gangster City, p. 160; May, “ ‘Buster from Chicago’ – Revealed?”
54 New York Times, New York Herald Tribune, 5.31.33; Manhattan death certificate no. 13044 (1931).
55 New York Times, 6.4.33.
56 New York Times, 8.16.30.
57 Joseph Valachi, “The Real Thing” (unpublished autobiographical manuscript in the U.S. National Archives) p. 321.
58 New York Herald, 11.6.30, New York Times, 11.6.30.
59 Valachi Hearings, 1963, pp. 167-172.
60 Valachi Hearings, 1963, p. 192, Valachi, “The Real Thing,” p. 323.
61 Valachi, “The Real Thing,” p. 327.
62 Valachi, “The Real Thing,” p. 333.
Copyright © 2011, Thomas P. Hunt, P.O. Box 1350, New Milford, CT 06776-1350