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The man they call the Canadian Godfather

 

By Adrian Humphreys / National Post

MONTREAL - Lino was devastated. He could not talk sense into his son.That is when he paid a visit to Vito Rizzuto. "I told him how my boy was ruining his life. He said: 'There is nothing more important than family,' " Lino says. Lino does not know what -- if anything -- Vito did. "But I know my son dropped this nonsense and never sees that woman again," Lino says. "For me and for my family, he made night into day." Why would Lino go to Vito Rizzuto, a 55-year-old Montreal man, with such a personal problem? "He is le Parrain; il Compare," he says, calling Vito, first in French and then in Italian, the Godfather. He is not the only one who calls Vito Rizzuto the Godfather. Police officers, Mafia turncoats, law enforcement reports from several countries, organized crime specialists and underworld sources all point to Vito as the new boss of the Mafia in Canada.

"He is definitely a leader. The family has a lot of clout; people do listen to them," says Detective-Sergeant Pietro Poletti, a Montreal police officer who has probed organized crime. "Mr. Rizzuto is allegedly the boss of the Mafia in Canada," says Antonio Nicaso, an international authority on organized crime. "He is at the very top, the most capable and respected alleged boss in all of Canada." Even Revenue Canada describes Vito as "the Godfather of the Italian Mafia in Montreal."

Being perceived as a boss and being convicted of criminal activity clearly do not equate. Despite his notoriety, Vito has not been convicted of any criminal offence since 1972, although he has twice faced serious drug charges and repeatedly been named in police investigations and court proceedings. It is a charmed life that has earned him a reputation as Canada's Teflon Don -- a mafioso against whom charges never stick. Vito Rizzuto stands six feet tall, with a medium build, and is always elegantly dressed. His hair is greying, well trimmed and brushed back over his head. He speaks fluent Spanish, Italian, French and English, and has close associates in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. He lives in an immense house in a posh Montreal neighbourhood, yet Revenue Canada says he claimed no income for several years in the 1980s. And recently, police sources say, the disparate strands of his colourful life have wound together to make him the most important man in Canadian crime.

Vito Rizzuto was born on Feb. 21, 1946, in Cattolica Eraclea, an agrarian community of some 6,000 people surrounded by high, chalky mountains in the Sicilian province of Agrigento. The region is known mainly for its vineyards and bountiful olive, almond and pistachio groves. Vito was the first child of Nicolo "Nick" Rizzuto and his wife, Libertina Manno. He was named after Nick's father, who died in Sicily when Nick was only four. On Vito's eighth birthday, in 1954, the Rizzuto family, which by then included a daughter, Maria, arrived in Canada by ship, landing in Halifax and moving on to Montreal, where thousands of Italian immigrants thrived in a long-established community.

"The family probably thought of Canada as a haven. Somewhere they could come and work and succeed," Det.-Sgt. Poletti says. Most of the immigrants were honest and hard-working, but there were a few men who were steeped in the tradition of the Mafia, a secret society of criminals that emerged in Italy more than a century ago. While Vito was attending high school in Montreal, his father was associating with people known in the underworld as "men of respect." When powerful mobsters fled police investigations in other countries, some chose Canada as their new base. Among them were leaders of the Caruana-Cuntrera clan, a group of drug lords who built one of the world's richest drug-smuggling and money-laundering empires, according to police.

"When the Caruanas and Cuntreras moved to Montreal in the mid-1960s they became affiliated with Nicolo Rizzuto and his son, Vito Rizzuto. They began to work together in drug trafficking activities," notes a 1991 report, jointly prepared by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (Several calls made over two days to Vito's lawyer and a social club he frequents in Montreal, seeking an interview for this story, were not returned.) At the age of 19, Vito moved from the ranks of suspicious character to convicted man; in 1965, he was found guilty of disturbing the peace and fined $25. After his marriage to Giovanna Cammalleni, a Sicilian woman two years his junior, Vito started a family of his own. His first son, Nicolo, named after the family patriarch, was born in 1967. A second son, Leonardo, arrived in 1969, and Libertina, a daughter named for Vito's mother, followed in 1973.

The family remains extremely close. Several members and their associates own substantial houses on the same short street on the north side of Montreal Island, at the edge of a nature preserve. Vito's house is a 4,507-square-foot beauty set on 14,018 square feet property on Antoine-Berthelet Avenue. It boasts a cut-stone faade surrounding a three-port garage and Tudor-style leaded windows on the second floor. Built in 1982, the residence is valued by the city at $551,200. Vito's wife bought the property for $50,249 from a Montreal company, according to city records.

The same company cut Vito's father a similar deal. Nick's 9,349-square-foot lot was sold to him in 1981, for $33,654. After building his 4,146-square-foot home, he sold it all to his wife for that same amount -- in two installments, half in 1983, the remainder three years later, according to city records. The value of the home and property is assessed by the city at $393,000. On the same street, Vito's sister lives with her husband, Paolo Renda, the son of a close and trusted associate of Nick's. Their home and property is valued by the city at $535,100. Vito became close to Mr. Renda in other ways.

In 1972, both men were convicted of conspiracy to commit arson. Vito was sentenced to two years in jail, Mr. Renda to four years. Montreal has long been plagued by intriguing crooks with a flair for organization and exploitation. It is a city where many of the country's most infamous criminal leaders made their fortune -- and met their messy end. Part of the blame must lie with civic leaders who, in the 1920s, decided the key to a successful city lay in its being vibrant and lively. The city's centre spilled over with some 200 nightclubs and bustling brothels. Hoodlums and racketeers flocked to the city and Montreal gangsters became early leaders in organized gambling, prostitution, robbery and the drug trade. The city's potential for crime was obvious: major international shipping along the St. Lawrence Seaway; a fast-moving, 620-kilometre highway to New York City; relaxed Canadian borders; and some politicians and police on the underworld's payroll.

As years passed, Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno, head of the powerful New York City crime family that bore his name, was attracted to Montreal's potential and sent Carmine "Mister Lillo" Galante, underboss of his family, to organize the city and ensure appropriate kickbacks travelled south. Galante was a frightening man who police linked to some 80 gangland murders. His presence, not surprisingly, drew intense scrutiny, and he was deported in 1955. The same fate met subsequent New York bosses sent to mind the city before the Bonanno family turned to two Montreal residents to run things on their behalf: Vincenzo "The Egg" Cotroni and Luigi Greco. Appointing the Sicilian-born Greco and the Calabrian-born Cotroni as joint heads of the Montreal branch of the family was an astute move, launching a Calabrian-Sicilian alliance that kept relative peace between the factions for years. Mobsters from Sicily and Calabria, two southern provinces of Italy, often rubbed each other the wrong way. In Italy, they tended to work separately in their own provinces; in North America, they were forced to exist within the same milieu.

The Montreal Mafia thrived, wrenching control over the city's underworld and turning it into the most important heroin smuggling centre in North America. By 1956, an estimated 60% of America's heroin touched down in Montreal. In the 1970s, after Greco died in a fire and Cotroni was ravaged by cancer, power shifted to Cotroni's right-hand man, Paolo Violi, a fellow Calabrian. Nick, an ambitious Sicilian who was rapidly growing in influence, was upset by the succession plan. Nick distanced himself from the Calabrians, ignoring their calls and taking care of his own business. The power struggle became obvious to mafiosi in New York City and Italy, and mob negotiators travelled to Montreal for a series of peace summits throughout the 1970s. Their efforts seemed in vain. Tension eased, however, when Nick, leaving his son behind, began to spend significant portions of the year in Venezuela, where several important drug traffickers were gathering to organize their affairs, several police reports say.

In Venezuela, life was good for Nick Rizzuto. He spent his time with other relocated Sicilian colleagues, from Montreal and elsewhere. "While in Venezuela, Nicolo Rizzuto and the Caruana-Cuntrera organization became partners in many different businesses that ranged from cattle and chicken ranches to furniture factories," notes the 1991 FBI report.

Back in Montreal, things were not going so well for Nick's rivals. In 1974, Cotroni's brother, Frank, was extradited to the United States and sentenced to 15 years in prison for drug-running. In 1975, Vic Cotroni was jailed for a year for contempt of court after refusing to co-operate with the Quebec Commission on Organized Crime. A year later, Violi followed him to jail for the same offence.The commission also wanted to hear from Nick, but, immune from extradition from Venezuela, he was not compelled to appear. Nick was described as an aspiring Mafia chieftain. In the underworld, weakness can be deadly, and the weakness in the Cotroni-Violi organization was becoming increasingly obvious. On Valentine's Day, 1976, Pietro Sciara, a close advisor to Violi who had sided against Nick in the mediation attempts, was shot and killed as he left a Montreal movie theatre where he had been watching the Italian-language version of The Godfather. Tensions between the Rizzuto and Cotroni-Violi organizations again flared. Cotroni was heard on police wiretaps suggesting Nick should be kicked out of the city: "Me, I'm capo decina [boss of the group]. I got the right to expel."

The Calabrians then suggested going one step further -- killing Nick. To kill a mafioso as powerful as the Rizzuto patriarch requires permission, and Violi tried to clear the hit with his New York masters. His request was turned down. In 1977, Nick and Violi met face-to-face in the home of a Montreal resident for a last-ditch effort to resolve their differences, according to a police report. But the peace talks failed, and most of the Rizzuto family fled to Venezuela. Tomasso Buscetta, a powerful Mafia boss who agreed to co-operate with Italian and American authorities, testified that Nick confided to him in Venezuela that he had left Montreal because of Violi's assassination plot.

A year later, Violi's brother, Francesco, was shot dead. On Jan. 22, 1978, Violi, 46, was invited to a card game at his old caf in the north end of Montreal. He is said to have been given a traditional bacio della morte, the kiss of death, by one of the men at the table just before someone gently pushed a shotgun behind his ear and squeezed the trigger. The war stretched until 1981, bringing a body count of more than 20 mobsters in Montreal and Italy, including Violi and all three of his brothers. When Cotroni died of cancer in 1984, the Cotroni-Violi hold on the Montreal Mafia was severed. Fingers in the underworld and law enforcement pointed to the Rizzuto organization as the architects of the Violi decimation. "Nick Rizzuto is suspected of conspiracy in all three murders, acting out of revenge ... for his expulsion to Venezuela," a 1985 FBI report says. No charges in any of the killings were ever laid against Nick or Vito, and both were outside Canada at the time they occurred. The FBI also claims that, in May, 1981 -- on the same day three mafiosi from the Bonanno family were killed in New York City -- Vito and an associate, Gerlando Sciascia, were seen leaving a motel in that city. Three people were convicted in connection with Paolo Violi's murder, all of them with ties to the Rizzutos. Domenico Manno, who is Nick's brother-in-law, and Giovanni DiMora, an associate of the Caruana-Cuntreras, were each sentenced to seven years in prison; Agostino Cuntrera, a cousin of the leaders of the Caruana-Cuntreras, was sentenced to five years. Paolo Renda, Nick's son-in-law, was originally named in an arrest warrant relating to the murder.

Mr. Renda was in Venezuela and after the three other men were convicted the arrest warrant was cancelled, according to a police report. The Rizzutos then resettled, more comfortably, in Montreal, although Nick retained a residence in Venezuela, which he time-shared. He travelled frequently between Caracas, New York, Milan and Montreal, according to police reports. While in Caracas in February, 1988, Nick was arrested when Venezuelan police raided his home and seized cocaine. He was acquitted at his first trial, but prosecutors appealed and obtained a conviction for cocaine possession.

He was sentenced to eight years in prison, setting in motion a long push by friends to buy his release. Domenic Tozzi, a jet-setting Montrealer and convicted money-launderer, told an undercover RCMP officer he personally took $800,000 to Venezuela in 1993 to buy Nick's release, according to an internal RCMP report and a sworn affidavit police used to obtain permission for wiretaps. Jean Salois, a lawyer who has represented the Rizzutos, has previously denied the payment. After almost five years in a Venezuelan jail, Nick flew back to Montreal on May 23, 1993, and was greeted at the airport by Vito and more than two dozen friends and relatives. At the age of 69, he settled into an easy routine as an advisor and confidant. In the mid-1990s, Nick and Libertina celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in a downtown Montreal hotel. Last November, police say, an Italian organization in Montreal honoured Nick for being an outstanding member of the community. When it came to business, however, Nick let Vito handle the family's affairs.

"Vito gets up in the morning, usually around 11 a.m., and he goes to the Cosenza bar. It's kind of the headquarters," Det.-Sgt. Poletti says. The Cosenza social club is a retail space the family runs on Jarry Street East, about 30 kilometres from the Rizzutos' homes. Inside the harshly lit strip-mall space are plain tables, a couch and an espresso machine. Men lounge and chat; visitors are discouraged. "His father is there a lot, and other associates," Det.-Sgt. Poletti says. "He has a favourite restaurant he often goes to for lunch. He loves his grapa." The restaurant used to be owned by Mr. Sciascia, the Rizzutos' main link to New York City, who was killed in October, 1999, police say. An avid golfer, Vito is often seen on prestigious courses around Quebec.

"He likes the high profile, the good life," Det.-Sgt. Poletti says. "He is very well mannered and a very good dresser. He likes the glamour of his position. His father, Nick, I've got to admit, could be a bit harsh when dealing with the authorities, but Vito has always been a class act." Vito also has an interest in luxury cars. He maintains a Lincoln, a Mercedes-Benz, a Jaguar and three Corvettes, one of them a vintage 1959 model, according to documents filed in the Tax Court of Canada. He is said to own resort property in Mexico, where he entertains family and friends. Vito is also making regular trips to Ontario, says a Toronto officer who investigates organized crime. There, he visits several businesses, some of them owned by men police have been gathering information on for years. "He is not a huge guy, but he walks with authority. He looks very distinguished. He dresses very businesslike. Most of the time I've seen him he is wearing a suit and tie," says an officer. "Not only does he play the part, he looks the part." Unlike in Montreal, where he usually travels alone, in Toronto he is accompanied by at least two male companions. When he attended the funeral of murdered Toronto mafioso Gaetano Panepinto in October, he was never far from five men who arrived with him, police say. Mr. Nicaso, who is about to publish his tenth book on organized crime, describes Vito as the new face of the Mafia; a modern man who maintains respect for the old ways. "If he had not been a mafioso, he could have been a successful businessman," he says. "He is more modern-thinking than most mafiosi in North America. He doesn't have anything of the image of the celluloid stereotype of the mobster. He is not like Anthony Soprano or characters portrayed on TV or in Hollywood. "He is very clever." In Montreal, even powerful bosses of the motorcycle gangs bow to Vito. "In Montreal, everyone respects Rizzuto," Mr. Nicaso says. "When Salvatore Cazzetta was in charge of the Rock Machine and Maurice 'Mom' Boucher was in charge of the Hells Angels, they fought one with another, but in common they had a sense of great respect for Vito Rizzuto." In 1995, when Mr. Boucher faced criminal charges, he was ordered not to associate with Vito as one of his bail conditions. The Rizzuto clan can make peace as well as war, police say. Vito is credited with playing a major role in bringing a truce in the deadly war in Quebec between the Hells Angels and the Rock Machine. "Public opinion was going against organized crime because of the violence and it was not just the bikers who were going to suffer from anti-gang legislation," Det.-Sgt. Poletti says.

"I'm sure he had a word with them and said, 'Listen guys, cut it out.' " Police say Vito's regular presence in Ontario suggests he is expanding his influence into the province, filling the void left after the 1997 murders of Johnny "Pops" Papalia, Ontario's Mafia boss, and his Niagara lieutenant, Carmen Barillaro. Vito has long had close associates in Vancouver and in 1998 he was seen with suspected organized crime members in Calgary, police say. That profile and reach places Vito as the country's most powerful chieftain, police say. The name Vito Rizzuto is so notorious that when a Quebec politician suggested Pietro Rizzuto, the now-deceased Liberal senator, was related to Vito, the senator sued and was awarded $170,000 in damages. That so many drug lords -- from the powerful Caruanas to the deadly motorcycle gangs -- moved with the Rizzuto clan did not escape the notice of police. Drugs and drug dealers have been close to the family for years. In 1980, Vito was seen in New York City at the wedding of Giuseppe "Pippo" Bono, described by the FBI as "one of the most knowledgeable men operating abroad in international drug trafficking."

The wedding attracted prominent members of the New York Mafia.Two years later, Italian police reported seeing Nick in constant contact with Bono while in Milan. Officers were concerned over three large furniture shipments he sent from Italy to Canada, according to an FBI report. Bono, along with 159 others, were named in a large investigation in Italy in 1983 that listed a who's who of the Mafia and sparked that country's first maxi-trial. Listed in that investigation, but never indicted, were Vito and Nick Rizzuto. On Nov. 30, 1987, Vito was charged with conspiring to traffic in 16 tonnes of hashish that were smuggled ashore in a remote cove on the coast of Newfoundland.

Police estimates put the haul's worth at more than $225-million. On Nov. 18, 1988, while out on $150,000 bail, Vito was again arrested for conspiracy after another cache of hash twice the size of the first was scheduled to land in Sept-les, Que. No drugs were found. His involvement with the justice system was surprisingly brief. In 1989, the Crown's star witness in the Sept-les case tried to persuade Vito's lawyer, Mr. Salois, to pay him a lifetime pension if he agreed to disappear without testifying. The witness approached Mr. Salois with the proposition and was caught on tape and on film. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and never testified at Vito's trial. Vito was acquitted. Less than a year later, the Newfoundland Supreme Court ruled that evidence against Vito in the other drug case could not be entered in court because it was obtained by illegal wiretap. Again he was freed. Usually a man of few words, after hearing the second decision Vito said: "One word can mean so much -- especially when that word is acquittal."

Vito has not been convicted of any drug offence. When police wrapped up Operation Contract, a massive money-laundering sting, in 1994, Vito again made the news. His name appeared on one of the formal accusations filed by the prosecution, as well as on a search warrant executed at the Montreal law firm Barza & Lagano, although he was not charged. "We know that he is part of the conspiracy but because of legal principles we cannot file this evidence against Mr. Rizzuto," said Danielle Ct, a prosecutor in the case. Joseph Lagano, described as Vito's former personal lawyer and right-hand man, pleaded guilty to laundering drug money. Two days after the arrests in that case, Vito's mother was arrested in Switzerland when she tried to deposit $3-million at different banks. But police could find no evidence of wrongdoing, and she was later released. Vito himself made trips to Switzerland, which police alleged were part of a scheme earlier that year to get his hands on gold ingots from the fortune of Ferdinand Marcos, the deposed (and deceased) president of the Philippines.

Vito claimed to have a mandate from the family of a Filipino general and close associate of Mr. Marcos to retrieve money from the Marcos estate on their behalf, which was believed to be hidden in Swiss and Hong Kong banks, the RCMP said. It is unknown if his attempt to act as an intermediary was successful. It has been almost 30 years since a charge has stuck to the Teflon Don, but Vito has to face another mighty and implacable foe: Revenue Canada, which claims he did not declare income for three years in the 1980s. Vito disagrees. The tax trouble dates back to an apparent investment swindle in a penny mining stock listed on the Alberta Stock Exchange. Arthur F. Sherman, a Toronto stockbroker, disappeared in 1988 after questionable trading of millions of dollars worth of Penway Explorers Ltd. stock. In an Ontario civil case, Mr. Sherman's clients claimed $1.4-million from the broker's employer for shares that appeared to vanish along with Mr. Sherman. The judge dismissed the claim, ruling the clients never really owned the shares. Mr. Justice George Adams found the man behind the various share purchases of the unreasonably inflated stock was Vito.

"I find the only person acting as a true owner ... was Vito Rizzuto," the judge wrote in his decision, released in November, 1993. Some of the shares were purchased by the delivery of between $40,000 and $50,000 in $10 and $20 bills, and there were undocumented loans of $100,000 made by Vito through others, the court heard. While the plaintiffs suggested Mr. Sherman's disappearance was evidence of guilt, the judge said his absence might equally be explained by fear of "the wrath of Mr. Rizzuto." (The courts have since declared Mr. Sherman dead.) Revenue Canada examined the evidence from the 45-day trial and deemed the stock unclaimed income of Vito's, who did not declare income for three years during the stock transactions. The tax agency is claiming its share of the alleged $1.4-million in revenue. Vito is challenging the allegations, and a hearing will be scheduled this year. The proverbial tax man is the bane of most people who deal with large cash transactions. It was a tax evasion case, police officers in Montreal point out, that finally toppled Al Capone, the legendary American mob boss, after years of dodging authorities.

February 26, 2001