Friday, June 26, 2015

Legendary Don: Mysterious and powerful, Joe Bonanno Retreated to Tucson, but Violence Followed

Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno sits in a backyard tree at his father's Tucson home, a shotgun cradled in his arm, watching for assassins. The family's German shepherd, Rebel, paces the patio, toenails clicking on flagstone. The digs are hardly ostentatious for a family of such repute; just a modest stucco dwelling on a quiet residential street.

Inside, the old man, Joe Sr., recovering from his third heart attack, watches TV in the living room with a friend. Bill's mom, Fay, is in bed, sick. Security, already tightened in recent weeks, is now locked down like one of bodyguard Pete Notaro's lumpy fists.

This is the so-called life of America's infamous crime family on July 22, 1968.

The Bonannos have retreated from a Mafia war in New York to their residential sanctuary at 1847 E. Elm St. But violence follows like an unwanted shadow.

A few weeks back, someone hurled a rock through the front window. Death threats arrived by mail and phone. And, one night earlier, dynamite tore apart a shed outside the home of longtime friend Peter "Horseface" Licavoli Sr., a retired godfather from Detroit.

Arizona just isn't safe anymore. Which is why Bill Bonanno, in dark pants and a black polo shirt, stands guard and wonders what the hell will come next.


In the history of America's Mafia, no name looms larger than that of the late Joseph Bonanno Sr. He became the youngest don in a world of tradition. He endured nearly a century while peers succumbed to bullets and prison. He was among the most powerful, yet mysterious, figures in a secret society.

Over the past half-century, the drama and intrigue have spilled into books, movies and news articles. Pieces of his life are littered in more than 1,700 pages of FBI intelligence obtained for this story, along with a box of confidential files from Arizona strike forces. His autobiography is part of the record, along with books written by family members. Bonanno is even considered by many to be the figure upon whom Mario Puzo based his lead character, Vito Corleone, in The Godfather series of books and films.

Yet his image, tangled with fictional mobsters like Tony Soprano, remains cloudy, if not contradictory: He is portrayed as a lawless hood, yet a man of principles; an uncommon crook, yet a venerable philosopher.

Although Bonanno's crime family was based in New York, his home for most of the last 50 years of his life was in Arizona. They say he retired here, but the history is clear that "Mr. B" oversaw an underworld empire from the Old Pueblo.

Crime came with him, and so did violence.

The June night drags on, hot and silent except for the chirping of crickets. Bill lights up a cigar and tries to relax.

At 36, the mobster's son is no stranger to combat. As a Tucson teenager, he got into a gunfight running firearms across the Mexican border. Much later, as third in command of the Bonanno crime family, he shot his way out of a New York ambush. But this guard duty . . .

Nobody likes waiting for an unknown enemy.

Around 9:30, Bill decides to go inside for a drink. As he opens the back door, Rebel snarls and bolts toward the gate. An object sizzles through the night sky, landing in the barbecue pit with a thud. Bill races to the stone steps against the tree, climbing so he can see over the wall. A silhouette runs toward the street. Bill levels his shotgun and fires once. The shadow stumbles, then disappears into a car that peels away.

As Bill watches - Boom! - an explosion knocks him to the ground and showers the yard with bricks and mortar. He rises, stunned, ears ringing. Joe Sr. appears at the door in shorts, bewildered. A second blast detonates atop the garage, slamming Bill against a lemon tree. Shattered windows and debris cascade to the ground. Faces and voices swirl in the smoke, yelling, "Are you OK?"

Fay is the last to appear, screaming in terror, her hair aglitter with shards of glass from a bedroom window.

Giuseppe Charles Bonanno Sr. was born in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, in 1905. The family moved to New York when he was 3, then returned to the homeland. His father, an Italian soldier, died of war wounds in 1915. His mother passed away five years later, leaving Peppino a 15-year-old orphan. He attended a nautical school in Palermo and then fled Italy because he despised Benito Mussolini's fascism or because he was wanted as a Mafioso, depending on which account you believe.

At 19, Bonanno caught a boat from Cuba to Florida and headed straight to New York, where he joined the mob and worked at a funeral parlor. During Sicilian gang wars of 1929-30, Bonanno rose to second in command of a crime family headed by his mentor, Salvatore Maranzano. He explained the promotion with sardonic humor, noting, "I didn't attain that position by being a spectator."

Within months, Maranzano was killed by rival boss Lucky Luciano. Bonanno made peace with Luciano and, at 26, became the youngest Mafia don. For more than three decades, Bonanno ruled mob crews in New York, Canada, Colorado, Wisconsin and Arizona. He helped found a nine-member Commission that regulated the 24 families of La Cosa Nostra. By his own account, the criminal enterprises included bookmaking, black-marketing, racketeering and political corruption.

The villainy often led to violence. If a Mafia underling defied or betrayed a boss, the code called for death. If one crime family leader plotted against another, it meant war.

Blood streams from Bill's face. Joe Sr. has cuts on his mouth and hand.

The wounds are nothing. The two men tell Fay to leave them so they can figure out what's going on and what to do. Still hysterical, she protests, but they send her to her room, telling her to have a cognac and calm down.

There is no time for hand wringing. Sirens echo in the night. It will be a matter of seconds before the squad cars arrive, joined by TV crews. Already, neighbors are gathering on the street out front.

Bill Bonanno, with a criminal history, doesn't hang around to answer questions about a shotgun and a wounded bomber. He hoofs it down a side street, dodging behind oleanders for cover, then heads to the nearby University of Arizona campus, his alma mater, a familiar haven where he can blend in with strolling students.

At the house, Joe Sr. puts on a pair of pants and hurries out back to the demolished barbecue pit. He hunches over and digs frantically through rubble. After a moment, he retrieves a pair of canvas bags, each about 20 inches long and 8 inches wide, then scurries inside the house.


Fay and Joseph Bonanno first visited Arizona in 1942. Their eldest son, Salvatore, was in agony from chronic ear infections. A physician said he would recover in a hot, dry climate. So the 10-year-old, nicknamed Bill, was brought to Tucson where he could turn his aching ear to the desert sun for relief.

Each summer, the Bonannos withdrew to New York, leaving the family scion behind in boarding school. A similar pattern evolved with the other offspring: Catherine attended a convent in upstate New York, and Joe Jr. was educated mostly in Arizona. Each winter, Joe and Fay returned to their sons in the land of saguaros.

Bonanno told neighbors he was a retired clothing manufacturer, a cotton farmer, a cheese baron. He invested in bakeries, parking lots, barbershops and real estate, usually through blind trusts. He befriended the bishop, a congressman, a state Supreme Court justice. He joined the Old Pueblo Country Club. "I had always rejected any attempt to include Tucson in my world," Bonanno explained years later. "Tucson was a place to get away from it all."

Mobsters and law officers familiar with "Joe Bananas" of New York were not buying the story. This was a guy who Time magazine described as "one of the bloodiest killers in Cosa Nostra's history." This was a guy who explained in coldblooded terms how to take out a rival: "Don't let the other guy know how you feel. Just keep patting him on the shoulder. . . . Be a diplomat. Make the guy think you're his friend until the right time comes, the right setup, and then you make your move like a tiger."

His life was a chain of intrigue, corruption and crime. How could he be legit in Arizona? Still, the early '40s were peaceful years in Tucson. Folks didn't worry about the debonair family man with the silk suits, Sicilian accent and pinky rings. They didn't appreciate his history.

Police arrive to gather evidence: a shotgun shell, bloodstains, dynamite fuses.

They ask about Joe Sr.'s injuries, but the old man dodges every question with his thick accent and sarcasm. His demeanor flits like a nervous bird from humor to anger. He talks about the beautiful Catalina Mountains. He bemoans the loss of his barbecue pit. He has nothing to say about a shotgun being fired.

A detective asks about the perpetrators. Joe Sr. shrugs: "You know how it is. . . . . Whoever did this has a demented mind. There's no such thing as a gangland war going on."

He looks the cop in the eye and adds, "If they want to kill me, they should do it on a man-to-man basis and not involve innocent children and women."

The place is crawling with cops, firefighters and reporters. A TV cameraman slips into the back yard, and Joe Sr. goes ballistic until the guy is escorted out.

An urgent teletype skips across America to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: "Instant date double dynamiting occurred at subject's Tucson residence. . . . No injuries reported. Tucson P.D. still investigating."

The swift response: "If not already done, advise military intelligence and Secret Service."


Bonanno always maintained that Arizona was a sanctuary, but mob business followed inevitably. As far back as 1946, Tucson Police Chief Don Hays warned about underworld figures of Bonanno's ilk. "We have their records, their rogue's gallery photographs," Hays said in a speech. "We know they have unlimited finances. We know they are determined to take over Tucson."

For the next two decades, cops and politicians nationwide pursued him to little avail. Bonanno flourished until 1964, when mob politics and federal prosecutors threatened his life and freedom. On a rainy night in New York, Bonanno stepped out of a taxi and vanished.

The disappearance captured a nation's imagination and remains a mystery. Many believed the mobster was dead. Some figured he arranged a sham kidnapping to avoid prosecutors and assassins. Bonanno claimed later that he was abducted by Mafia rivals, held captive for weeks, then inexplicably released, whereupon he spent nearly a year hiding out in disguises and safe houses.

On May 17, 1966, Bonanno showed up in New York City's federal courthouse, surrendering to stunned U.S. marshals. It was typical of the Bonanno style. He spoke seven languages, was a prolific reader and regaled fellow mobsters with witty stories as they downed wine and pasta. But he also was a survivor who usually outsmarted enemies and the law. Ultimately, Bonanno even recast his own legend in his 1983 autobiography, A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno: "I have tried to be a good Father," he wrote. "I've led a productive life, not a parasitic one. I've had to protect myself and my people, but I've never been bloodthirsty."

The morning headline says it all: "Bonanno brings N.Y. mob war to Tucson."

FBI informers claim a rival crime boss hired a hit man who bungled the job. Justice Department lawyers churn out a memo: "The Cosa Nostra warfare concerning the Joe Bonanno Family in New York has now spread to Bonanno's home in Tucson, Arizona."

But it doesn't make sense; these attacks are being carried out by amateurs, not by hit men.

Two weeks go by. A bomb explodes at the home of Notaro, the bodyguard. Another blast detonates outside the residence of Evo DeConcini, former Arizona Supreme Court justice and erstwhile Bonanno friend.

Journalists and politicians launch a campaign to get Joe Bananas out of the Old Pueblo. Mayor James Corbett invites underworld figures to "live elsewhere." U.S. Rep. Morris Udall calls upon Hoover to send FBI reinforcements. Sen. Barry Goldwater declares that "the reign of the princes of La Cosa Nostra must end."

Publicly and privately, the Bonannos are mystified. Who would attack them or Licavoli or DeConcini? Why? What the hell is going on?


The Banana Wars erupted in 1965 with mayhem unseen since Al Capone. Bonanno henchmen riddled three enemy "soldiers" with machine-gun bullets as they ate spaghetti in Brooklyn. Another rival was shot in the throat while parking a car. An elderly capo was seated at a soda fountain when bullets tore his face apart.

After a year of fighting, the New York Times declared a victor: "Bonanno regains power in Mafia gang." But the situation remained precarious, and in 1968, Joe Bonanno Sr. withdrew to Arizona full time with his wife and a core of followers. That move has never been clearly explained. FBI reports suggest that Bonanno failed in a final power grab and was given a choice between death and retirement.

Bonanno offered a more honorable explanation: After winning the war, he realized that La Cosa Nostra was doomed; the Sicilian guard was dying out along with old loyalties and rules. Plagued by health problems (he suffered his third heart attack that year) and worried about his sons' future, Bonanno washed his hands of the whole mess.

There was no peace out West, however, as life spiraled through criminal investigations, bombings and family scandals. Bonanno's sons, operating at various times in Tucson, Flagstaff, Phoenix and San Jose, danced through a comic opera of crimes. And agents in dark sedans continued dogging the old man.

"I would have been content, after 1968, to lead a quiet, uneventful life," Bonanno said years later. "My retirement to Tucson, however, turned out to be a retreat into an inferno."

After dozens of bombings, Tucson is fed up. A Citizens Crime Commission forms. FBI agents and cops create anti-mob strike forces. Newspaper editorials call for Bonanno to leave.

Months elapse with no answer.

Then, exactly one year after the dynamite attack on Elm Street, police arrest two men: Paul Mills Stevens and William J. Dunbar Jr. Both suspects admit guilt but claim they were hired by FBI Special Agent David Hale, the bureau's Mafia expert in Tucson, who they claim was trying to foment a mob war.

Other witnesses back up that story.The FBI declines to comment.Hale resigns without facing charges.

Dunbar and Stevens, who was wounded by Bill Bonanno's shotgun blast, plead guilty. They pay $300 fines each but get no jail time.

Bonanno, once a feared crime lord, laments his plight as a victim. "This was a cover-up. . . . He (Hale) almost got away with murder. How come there was no public outcry of indignation?"

Years later, Hale tells a Tucson newspaper he was framed and had nothing to do with the bombings.

Either way, the Tucson bombing spree ends with a whimper, not a bang.


In 1976, the mob-style slaying of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles brought more heat from cops, plus a statewide media swarm. Bonanno called it the "Grand Inquisition."

Investigators watched his house, planted a beeper in his car, conducted illegal wiretaps and spied on him from aircraft. An Arizona strike force raided his garbage every week for 3 1/2 years.

Why? Intelligence reports from all over the nation asserted that Bonanno was planning a comeback, trying to take over the West. A 1976 FBI affidavit claimed he was even smuggling Sicilians into the country as "shooting men."

The Bonanno boys, meanwhile, stumbled through arrests and prison terms for fraud, extortion and other crimes. In fact, it was paternal loyalty that finally landed the old man behind bars with his only felony conviction. The charge: obstructing a 1980 grand-jury investigation of Bill and Joe Jr. by telling witnesses to lie and conceal evidence. Joe Sr. served eight months in prison.

Three years later, A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno. Bonanno refused to testify about the mob before a New York grand jury and spent 14 more months in jail for contempt.

That, for all practical purposes, was the end. The octogenarian retreated into his home, his family, his thoughts.

On May 11, 2002, after a lifetime defying the law and the gun, Bonanno died peacefully in Tucson. Hundreds attended the funeral while agents took snapshots from a dark van outside the church.

In a eulogy, Bill said, "If there is one word that identifies Joseph Bonanno, that word is tradition. . . . Tradition gave us a way of life."

His father's introduction to A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno contained an equally poignant epitaph: "Whatever your opinion of me, the truth is I am the last survivor of an extinct species of a bygone way of life."

Thanks to Dennis Wagner and Charles Kelly

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