Gangsters in Southwest Michigan

AUTHOR’S NOTE: A good portion of this article concerns the identity of the mysterious “Buster from Chicago.” The subject has been tackled a number of times and through a number of different methods over the years. Author David Evanier related in 2001 that Buster “actually lived and murdered for another 59 years” after 1931, dying “at the ripe old age of 83” in Los Angeles. Evanier later admitted, “Someone who claimed to be his son in California gave me some initial details that were exciting and proved to be true. The rest was fantasy.” The most extensive attempt to uncover the truth about Buster came in an article authored by Allan May, under the headline “Buster from Chicago” – Revealed?”. May’s article made a number of misleading claims.

After discounting Mafia boss Joseph Bonanno’s recognition of Buster as Bastiano Domingo, for reasons that remain inexplicable, the article went on to contend that Buster was a figment of Mafia turncoat Joseph Valachi’s imagination. As proof, the author cited Valachi’s reference to Buster’s use of machine guns in his killings. May correctly observed that none of the Castellammare War murders was committed using this type of weapon. However, Buster did carry the shotgun, in a violin case, which was utilized in the killings of Manfredi Mineo and Stefano Ferrigno in November 1930. In 1963, more than 30 years after the events he described, Valachi had simply forgotten this important point. The failure by previous researchers to discover evidence of Buster’s legendary murder, led May to erroneously conclude: “When Valachi doesn’t need him anymore, Buster simply disappears – forever!” One of my goals for the article that follows is to settle once and for all the identity of “Buster from Chicago.”

Benton Harbor - Al Capone

Benton Harbor and Al Capone

Gangsters in Southwest Michigan

‘Buster from Chicago’ helps put Berrien County on the Mafia-map

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.

Antonio Lombardo

LombardoThe 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

Joe Aiello


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

Fred Burke

Fred “Killer” Burke

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.

Al Capone


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

Tony Domingo

Tony Domingo

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

Mary Domingo

Mary Domingo

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.

Matilda Domingo

Matilda Domingo

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

Bootleg bombing

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

Mary Domingo gravesiteThe 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.


Maranzano’s henchman

Sebastiano Domingo was implicated in the key murders that decided the Castellammare War in Salvatore Maranzano’s favor. Joseph Valachi’s information was used to reconstruct Domingo’s role.

• Joseph Morello was slain at about 3.30 p.m. on August 15, 1930, in an office on the second floor at 352 East 116th Street. Three men were sitting around a table when two gunmen burst in. “They paused only to take aim,” the New York Times recorded, “and then fired.” Also killed was Giuseppe Piraino. Gaspare Pollaro was seriously wounded. Above the office was the home of Mary Lima, Morello’s sister, who heard the gunfire and saw two assassins run into the street.56 Domingo told Valachi how Morello was killed.57

• The first time Valachi met Domingo was when they were stalking Manfredi Mineo and Stefano Ferrigno, top lieutenants in the Masseria outfit. Those lying in wait were Girolomo (Bobby Doyle) Santucci, Domingo and Nick Capucci. Mineo and Ferrigno were slain on the afternoon of November 5, 1930, as they came out of the courtyard of an apartment house at 760 Pelham Parkway. Ferrigno was shot through the head and neck. The back of Mineo’s head had been almost blown off. Three shooters were seen running from the scene.58 Valachi was away, “in the neighborhood,” when the murders were committed, but heard the details later.59

Sebastiano Domingo

Sebastiano Domingo

• Giuseppe “Joe the Baker” Catania’s death was a condition of Maranzano making peace. Valachi was the driver of the getaway car used in the murder. Domingo, Salvatore Shillitani and Nick Capuzzi conducted the execution.60 Six slugs, fired from an apartment in a building across the street, hit Catania on February 3, 1931, as he stood before a candy store on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx. Catania was another Masseria man: “Sally said he that he saw dust come out of Joe’s coat as the bullets hit him in the back.”61

• On a previously unreported mission, this one out of town, Domingo and an associate mowed down two unidentified men who had crossed Maranzano.62

White-Collar Mafioso: Tommy Lucchese (1899-1967)

Despite running one of New York’s smaller underworld units, Gaetano “Tommy” Lucchese was one of the more successful American Mafia bosses of the post-Prohibition era. Abundant evidence of his business acumen suggests he was among the few mob chiefs who could have succeeded in life without underworld ties. Tommy Lucchese Tommy Lucchese Lucchese, whose surname has been spelled Luchese (which leads to mispronunciations) and Luckese, was a native of Palermo. His family reportedly immigrated to East Harlem around 1911.1 In that community, young Lucchese became affiliated with the Ciro Terranova-dominated 107th Street Mob.2 That affiliation also put him in touch with the Democratic political machine in New York City, which made regular use of street gangs.
Lucchese apparently had great interest in politics and would eventually emerge as one of the more influential gang leaders in the nation. At about the age of 20, Lucchese lost his right index finger in an accident at a Harlem machine shop. Though he actually had four fingers remaining on the hand, he came to share a nickname with a popular pitcher of the day, “Three-Finger Brown.” The use of the nickname for Lucchese has been historically attributed to a wisecracking police officer who happened to be a fan of baseball’s Mordecai Brown and, noting Lucchese’s missing digit, recorded “Three-Finger Brown” as a Lucchese alias. Lucchese appeared to dislike the monicker, but his underworld associates often referred to him as “Brown.” 3 In 1921, Lucchese was convicted of auto theft in Riverhead, Long Island. He quietly did his time – three years in Sing Sing prison – and emerged with a Mafia badge of honor, a prison record. After that auto theft conviction, law enforcement would never again score a victory against Lucchese.4 As he matured, Lucchese moved into leadership roles with Gaetano Reina’s Mafia organization in the Bronx. In July of 1928 he was one of three men arrested for the murder of Louis Cerasulo.
After six days, the charges were dropped. 5 Gagliano Gagliano By the outbreak of the American underworld’s Castellammarese War in 1930, Lucchese and Tom Gagliano were the key men in Reina’s crime family. Outwardly supporting “Joe the Boss” Masseria during the tense moments before the war, Reina’s family secretly opposed Masseria’s reign.6 Masseria caught wind of the betrayal late in 1929. Joe the Boss had Reina killed on Feb. 26, 1930, and handpicked the new head of Reina’s family, Joe Pinzolo.7 Lucchese and Gagliano appear to have cooperated on the assassination of Pinzolo on Sept. 5, 1930. Pinzolo was gunned down in an office he shared with Lucchese at 1457 Broadway. (The two men were partners in a “wine brick” business known as California Dried Fruit Importers, which skirted the Prohibition law. Wine bricks were blocks of crushed grapes that could be reconstituted by setting them in water. Fermentation would then yield wine.) Gagliano replaced Pinzolo as head of the old Reina family. Lucchese became the family’s underboss.
Wanted by police in connection with the Pinzolo murder, Lucchese turned himself in on Sept. 8. A grand jury failed to indict him on the murder charge. (Joe Valachi later testified that “Bobby Doyle” Santucci killed Pinzolo.)8 Schmeling fight weigh-in Schmeling fight weigh-in He was also arrested in July of 1931. The charge was suspicion. Lucchese was nabbed by Cleveland police while he was sitting ringside at the Stribling-Schmeling heavyweight boxing match. His two companions, Charlie Luciano and Joseph Biondo, were also arrested. While the arrest reportedly prevented the men from witnessing Schmeling’s 15-round victory, it presented little other trouble. The three men were quickly released.9 Police questioned Lucchese after the September 1931 murder of Salvatore Maranzano. Some sources believe that Lucchese secretly informed Luciano and Vito Genovese that Maranzano planned to have them killed. That information reportedly led to a preemptive strike by Luciano and Genovese. With Lucchese undeniably in the presence of Luciano at the Cleveland fights just two months before the Maranzano assassination, the story appears to have merit.
10 Lucchese was naturalized an American citizen on Jan. 25, 1943, in Newark, NJ. It took him seven more years to secure a certificate of good conduct from the New York State Parole Board. At that time, his 1921 felony conviction no longer stood as an obstacle to his voting rights.11 Though he was not personally able to cast a ballot in the elections, Lucchese’s backing of Vincent Impellitteri for City Council president in 1945 and for mayor in 1950 is fairly well documented. After accusations of mob involvement in Impellitteri’s career surfaced in the 1950 campaign, Impellitteri severed the relationship.12 Leading a family By the 1950s, Lucchese was outwardly a prospering vice president of a garment factory, Braunell, Ltd., of 50 East Ninth Street.13 Behind the scenes, his corrupting influence was felt in garment workers unions, longshoremen unions and truckers unions as well as in the New York City government and the local entertainment industry. Jimmy Durante Durante Part owner of some downtown hotspots, including the Casino de Paris and the Music Hall, Lucchese was known to be friendly with Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (Sinatra and Martin were linked to Lucchese through joint investments in the Berkshire Downs Race Track in Massachusetts).
14 A treasury agent of the day reported, “Gaetano Lucchese… has become as dangerous a character — if not more so — than Costello in his heyday.” (Costello apparently lost most of his political connections after his appearance at the Kefauver Committee hearings.)15 Lucchese became family boss after Gagliano’s death of natural causes about 1951-52. (Some sources say Gagliano lived until 1953. A few have argued for 1951. Lucchese seemed to resolve the matter by referring to Gagliano as deceased during a 1952 questioning.)16 John Dioguardi Dioguardi The new boss drew to him such underworld characters as Johnny “Dio” Dioguardi, Vincent Rao and Antonio Corallo, men who possessed both keen business sense and willingness to employ extreme violence. Dio was influential with the Teamsters Union and helped Jimmy Hoffa win election to the union presidency. He appears to have excelled in investment frauds. He created, sought investors for and bankrupted various paper corporations until government investigators caught up with him in the 1960s. Dio’s brutal side came to light in 1956, when he ordered the acid-blinding of crusading journalist Victor Riesel.17 Vincent Rao Rao Rao, who rose to the position of family consigliere and eventually might have become boss if his underworld career had not been interrupted by a stay in federal prison (perjury), had interests in gambling, real estate, labor unions and construction. His forte appears to have been money-laundering. In the mid-50s, he was president of a largely fictitious local of the International Hod Carriers union and inked lucrative contracts with the Five Boroughs Hoisting Co., a firm Rao himself owned.18 Anthony Corallo Corallo Like Dio and Rao, Corallo knew how to handle money. His personal rackets were largely confined to the construction and waste hauling industries.
A 1968 bribery conviction exposed Corallo’s connections to New York’s City Hall and brought down a member of Mayor John Lindsay’s administration. Further corrupt connections to the Tammany Hall political machine run by Carmine DeSapio were revealed a year later.19 The presence of such men allowed Lucchese’s organization to successfully compete with much larger New York families, like the Genovese and Gambino clans. Exposure and decline Lucchese’s success also brought government scrutiny. He was called to testify before the New York State Crime Commission in September of 1952. The commission hearings unearthed the gang boss’s connections to a sitting U.S. attorney, a former New York mayor and a future city police commissioner.20 Immediately after the state hearings, federal authorities moved to have Lucchese denaturalized and deported. He was able to defeat the attempts in court.21 Carlo Gambino Gambino In the early 1960s, mob informer Joe Valachi indicated that Lucchese was one of the five New York members of the U.S. crime syndicate’s ruling Commission. He served alongside Vito Genovese’s acting boss Tommy Eboli, Carlo Gambino, Giuseppe Magliocco and Joseph Bonanno (Bonanno would soon after be thrown out of the Commission for plotting against Lucchese and Gambino). Lucchese, once a rival of Gambino, had developed a close with the crime family boss.

The two men became related by marriage.22 When questioned by the Nassau County district attorney about Valachi-related allegations, Lucchese reportedly said, “Valachi’s crazy. I know nothing about any Cosa Nostra. The only thing I belong to is the Knights of Columbus.”23 Lucchese went into Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

Carlo Gambino

in early August of 1965 with a brain tumor and a heart ailment. A year later, he was still hospitalized and the Mafia’s Commission began dividing up his rackets. LaStella Restaurant arrests LaStella Restaurant arrests A September 1966 raid in a basement dining room at La Stella Restaurant in Queens, NY, netted Carlo Gambino, Mike Miranda, Joe Columbo, Tommy Eboli, Joey Gallo, Aniello Dellacroce and other mafiosi from New York and New Orleans. The apparent purpose of the meeting was to decide the future course of the Lucchese Crime Family. Police dubbed the gathering a “Little Apalachin.”24 “Three-Finger Brown,” aging and frail, returned to his Lido Beach, Long Island, home April 11, 1967.

He died there on July 13 at the age of sixty seven.25 Rao was prevented from taking over the fLaStella Restaurant arrestsamily, as he was beginning a five-year federal sentence for perjury (another five-year sentence would be added on an additional perjury charge two years later). Antonio “Tony Ducks” Corallo’s election to the top post was delayed, as he was finishing up a prison term for bribing a city water commissioner. Racketeer Carmine Tramunti kept the seat warm as acting boss for Corallo for several years. Corallo, Lucchese’s formal successor, ran the Lucchese Crime Family empire for a decade and a half until the federal Commission trial in 1986. Corallo, already in his 70s, was sentenced to serve 100 years in prison. He died Aug. 23, 2000, at the age of 87.26


1. “Thomas Luchese, rackets boss called 3-finger Brown, is dead,” New York Times, July 14, 1967, p. 27.

2. While there is no documentation for direct interaction between Terranova and Lucchese, the two men had mutual underworld associates and prowled the same East Harlem territory: Reid, Ed, The Shame of New York, New York: Random House, 1953, p. 43, 58.

3. The story of the nickname is found in Raab, Selwyn, Five Families, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2006, p. 102; and in “Luchese presents study in contrasts,” New York Times, Oct. 11, 1952, p. 26. Lucchese’s dislike of the name was noted in Maas, Peter, The Valachi Papers, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1968, p. 95; and in Lucchese’s testimony before a New York State Crime Commission: “Analysis of his testimony before board unfolds unsavory record,” New York Times, Nov. 22, 1952, p. 1. (He told the commission he would spit in the face of any man who called him “Three-Finger Brown.”)

4. “Luchese presents study in contrasts;” “Thomas Luchese, rackets boss called 3-finger Brown, is dead;” Reid, The Shame of New York, p. 56-57.

5. “Luchese presents a study in contrasts.”

6. Bonanno, Joseph with Sergio Lalli, A Man of Honor, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983, p. 84, 106.

7. Bonanno, A Man of Honor, p. 106; Maas, The Valachi Papers, p. 86-87; “Wealthy ice dealer slain in doorway,” New York Times, Feb. 27, 1930, p. 3.

8. Maas, The Valachi Papers, p. 87; Bonanno, A Man of Honor, p. 116; “Luchese presents a study in contrasts.”

9. “Luchese presents a study in contrasts.”

10. “Luchese presents a study in contrasts;” Bonanno, A Man of Honor, p. 139; “Thomas Luchese, rackets boss called 3-finger Brown, is dead.”

11. “Analysis of his testimony before board unfolds unsavory record.”

12. “Luchese presents a study in contrasts;” Reid, The Shame of New York.

13. “Luchese presents a study in contrasts;” places the manufacturing plant at this address and notes that display showrooms were located at 262 West 38th Street. Reid, The Shame of New York, p. 57, places the company at 225 West 37th Street.

14. Gage, Nicholas, “Ex-aides say Justice Dept. rejected a Sinatra inquiry,” New York Times, Wed., April 14, 1976, p. 81.

15. “Thomas Luchese, rackets boss called 3-finger Brown, is dead.”

16. “Analysis of his testimony before board unfolds unsavory record;” Bonanno, A Man of Honor, p. 160, indicates that Gagliano remained boss until 1953 when Lucchese took over.

17. Raskin, A.H., “Thug hurls acid on labor writer,” New York Times, April 6, 1956, p. 1; Levy, Stanley, “Rackets and crime linked in Riesel case,” New York Times, Sept. 2, 1956, p. 10; “Threats delay acid case trial,” Binghamton NY Press, May 20, 1957, p. 14.

18. Riesel, Victor, “Phantom hod boss,” Oakland Tribune, Oct. 5, 1959, p. 15.

19. Amateau, Albert, “Carmine DeSapio, Village native son who ran Tammany,” The Villager, Vol. 74 No. 14, Aug. 4-10, 2004.

20. “Thomas Luchese, rackets boss called 3-finger Brown, is dead,” indicates that Lucchese was found to be a friend of Myles J. Lane, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York; future Police Commissioner Thomas J. Murphy; and former Mayor Vincent Impelliteri. “Analysis of his testimony before board unfolds unsavory record.”

21. “Thomas Luchese, rackets boss called 3-finger Brown, is dead.”

22. Bonanno, A Man of Honor, p. 121.

23. “Thomas Luchese, rackets boss called 3-finger Brown, is dead.”

24.”Mafia chiefs seized,” Syracuse NY Herald-Journal, Fri., Sept. 23, 1966.

25. “Thomas Luchese, rackets boss called 3-finger Brown, is dead;” “Luchese, Cosa Nostra boss, dead,” Syracuse NY Post-Standard, July 14, 1967, p. 1.

26. Feuer, Alan, “Anthony Corallo, mob boss, dies in federal prison at 87,” New York Times, Sept. 1, 2000.