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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

One Family's Rise, A Century of Power

Friends of ours: Bruno Roti Sr., Al Capone, Fred Bruno Roti, Johnny Genero, James Belcastro, Frank "Skid" Caruso, Pat Marcy, Frank "Toots" Caruso
Friends of mine: Morris "Mutt" Caruso, Dominick Scalfaro, Robert Cooley


When Bruno Roti Sr. died in 1957, 3,000 people lined the streets to pay their respects. Fourteen cars overflowed with flowers.

The wail of a 12-piece marching band filled the streets of the neighborhood that Roti Sr. had called home for nearly five decades, since leaving his small village of Simbario in southern Italy in 1909. Nearly 100 men wearing black sashes across their chests escorted the hearse through the neighborhood today known as Chinatown. They were members of an organization Roti founded -- the Society of St. Rocco di Simbario.

It was a funeral fit for a cardinal. Or a mayor. According to his death certificate, Bruno Roti Sr., dead at 76, was a beer distributor.

To people in his tightly knit Italian neighborhood, Roti Sr. was their leader. Years after Roti's death, his godson, in a recorded interview he gave in 1980 for the "Italians in Chicago" project run by the history department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recalled him as a man who showed immigrants a "clean, decent, respectable way of life.''

To Chicago Police, though, Roti Sr. was "The Bomber," "The Mustache," "a big man in the Chicago crime setup." In the early part of the century, he was part of the Black Hand, police said -- the name given to loose-knit gangs of extortionists who preyed on fellow Italian immigrants for money. The Black Hand gangs would be taken over in the 1920s by Al Capone's gang.

"Roti was close to Al Capone and was visited by Capone on many occasions,'' according to an FBI report prepared nine years after his death.

The FBI identified Roti Sr. as the leader of what would become the Chicago Outfit's 26th Street/Chinatown crew, a key cog in organized crime here. His descendants would build upon his legacy, extending the family's influence over public office and organized labor.

A neighborhood grocer

Bruno Roti Sr. visited Chicago in 1901, then returned eight years later for good, according to the passenger manifest of the ship -- named La Bretagne -- that brought him to America when he was 28.

Roti passed through Ellis Island in the spring of 1909 on his way to Chicago to join his two brothers and his pregnant wife's siblings. Wife Marianna Bertucci Roti and the couple's two sons stayed behind in Simbario, joining Roti in Chicago seven months later, according to his petitions for citizenship.

Roti Sr. became a grocer, operating a store in the 2100 block of South Wentworth, according to a Chicago city directory from 1917.

Chicago -- booming with hundreds of thousands of immigrants -- was a brutal place, with gangland killings, immigrants preying upon each other, rampant vice.

Roti Sr. himself was arrested twice in murder investigations.

The first time, in 1920, he was picked up with four others in the slaying of labor leader Maurice "Moss'' Enright, according to newspaper accounts. Enright was trying to take over the city's street sweeper union. Police suspected Roti had disposed of the sawed-off shotgun that was used to kill Enright. But he was never charged.

As Prohibition-era violence raged, Roti Sr. was charged in a killing in 1931, according to newspaper accounts. At the time, he was 51 and the father of 10 children. One of his sons, then 10 years old, was Fred Bruno Roti, who would grow up to be a powerful Chicago alderman -- and, according to the FBI, a "made" member of the mob.

The victim was Johnny Genero, a gangster who was driving to his mother's house with another man when his car was trapped by another car at 29th and Normal. Genero was shot in the head. He died instantly. His companion wasn't harmed.

Police arrested Roti Sr., described in newspaper reports as a saloonkeeper, and four others, including James Belcastro. Belcastro, nicknamed "King of the Bombers,'' had been arrested more than 150 times. Among his alleged crimes: the 1928 murder of a political candidate and the operation of a bomb factory. He wasn't convicted in either case.

Belcastro was often referred in newspaper stories as Chicago's "Public Enemy No. 4,'' and as a "pineapple thrower'' -- a flip reference to persistent allegations he threw bombs at homes or businesses. The Chicago Daily News decreed he was "head of the bombmaking division of Capone Inc.''

A few weeks after Genero's murder, prosecutors dropped all charges against Roti, Belcastro and the others. No one was ever convicted of Genero's murder.

When Belcastro would be arrested, Roti Sr.'s wife sometimes put up her family's home to bail Belcastro out of jail. Or her brother Bruno Bertucci would. In fact, the Rotis and Bertuccis often put up their homes to bail people out of jail, among them Bruno Roti Sr. himself, according to Cook County property deeds.

Rejected, twice, for citizenship

Roti applied twice during Prohibition to become an American citizen. The first time, he was rejected for "ignorance,'' the second for not having "five years good character.''

Finally, 36 years after he moved to America, Roti was granted citizenship in 1945, a few months after World War II ended. One of his character witnesses was John Budinger, the alderman of the 1st Ward, the hand-picked successor of Michael "Hinky Dink'' Kenna, the infamously corrupt alderman who'd served during Prohibition.

Chicago's 1st Ward -- which included the Loop and Near South Side -- had long been ruled by the mob, which had a hand in everything from gambling to politics to development. Eleven years after Bruno Roti Sr.'s death, his son Fred became the 1st Ward alderman, a job he eventually gave up when he got caught taking bribes.

Son-in-law takes over

When Bruno Roti Sr. died, his criminal empire went to Frank "Skid'' Caruso, who had married Roti's daughter Catherine in 1934, according to FBI reports.

According to an FBI report dated Feb. 25, 1966, "His 'clout' comes from the fact he is the son-in-law of BRUNO ROTI referred to as 'MUSTACHE.'

"It has previously been reported that CARUSO is the leader of rackets and organized crime in that area and gets a piece of all action taking place there," the report said, referring to Chinatown.

Another FBI report, from Oct. 20, 1969, said: "CARUSO characterized as formerly a 'baggage thief' and was nothing until he married into the Bruno Roti family."

Caruso was a onetime patronage worker for the city street department. He served in the Army during World War II, was wounded in France and received a Purple Heart -- a fact his son Bruno proudly noted during a deposition six years ago.

Taking over from his father-in-law, Caruso concentrated on illegal gambling, including "juice loans" -- illegal, high-interest loans often made to gamblers. A craps game Caruso ran in Chinatown in 1962 was "one of the biggest and best in the entire Chicago area,'' an informant told the FBI.

"Bruno Roti had considerable wealth and property and cash in that area and this wealth is still somewhat controlled by [Caruso] in view of his leadership capacity concerning gambling and criminal matters," according to the 1969 FBI report.

On the city payroll

Over the years, many of "Skid" Caruso's relatives held city patronage jobs, usually in the Streets and Sanitation Department. Two of his three sons, two of his brothers, his sister's husband and five of his wife's brothers all had city jobs at some point. Today, he has grandchildren, nieces and nephews -- more than 30 relatives in all, including Carusos, Rotis and other family members -- on the city payroll.

Caruso's older brother, Joe "Shoes" Caruso, made headlines in 1959, when a reporter found him working at a liquor distributorship when he was supposed to be at his city job -- using a hand broom to sweep two city blocks in Chinatown. "Shoes" Caruso didn't bat an eye at getting caught.

"I've been through all this before,'' he told the Chicago Tribune in 1959. "It's always the same -- a lot of wind, and nothing ever happens. Wait and see. There still will be payrollers after all of us are dead and gone.''

Thirty-two years later, "Skid'' Caruso's oldest son, Peter, and other relatives got caught up in a similar scandal involving city workers assigned to sweep streets with brooms. Once again, city officials found they weren't working eight hours a day.

"Skid" Caruso's gambling associates also landed city jobs, thanks to Caruso's brother-in-law, Frank Roti, according to an FBI report filed shortly after Roti's funeral in 1966. "Frank Roti held a city job most of his life and was responsible for hiring many individuals who assisted Caruso in racket operations," the FBI said.

Why 'Skid?'

The FBI had two versions of how "Skid" Caruso got his nickname, according to its files. One said it was due to his "association with the Skid Row element." The other said it was a shortened version of "Machine Gun Skid," which he was called in his younger days, when he "committed numerous acts of terrorism,'' according to an Oct. 20, 1966, FBI report.

Caruso was arrested at least 10 times, mostly on gambling charges, but never convicted, according to his FBI file. In 1965, Chicago Police arrested him on gambling charges, but the case was dropped after prosecutors discovered that evidence had been "lost or misplaced," according to the FBI.

"I know the system must be working if my father never did a day in jail ... for organized crime," his son Bruno Caruso said in a 2000 deposition.

"Skid'' Caruso's gambling crew included his brother, Morris "Mutt'' Caruso, and their sister's husband, Dominick Scalfaro, who were arrested in separate gambling cases in the 1960s. "Mutt'' Caruso's case was dismissed. Scalfaro was convicted, but the case was dismissed on appeal.

Caruso died in 1983 at 71. Fourteen years later, his grandson and namesake, Frank Caruso, was charged with beating Lenard Clark, a black teenager who had come into the Carusos' neighborhood. Frank Caruso was convicted of aggravated battery and sentenced to eight years in prison.

His trial brought the close-knit family even closer together, as relatives defended the young man, arguing that reporters unfairly portrayed him as a racist.

Caruso's father, Frank "Toots" Caruso, wrote to the judge, asking for leniency. He described Sunday gatherings at the home of his mother, Catherine Roti Caruso, Bruno Roti Sr.'s daughter and matriarch of the family. The elder Caruso wrote that his son "speaks to his Nana with reverence. I have let him know that she is 87-years-old and any day could be her last. We all eat at Nana's house every Sunday. She cooks for 21 people, but her granddaughters serve and clean up afterward. Frank's job is to set the table the third Sunday of every month."

The grandmother is now 94 years old. She still lives in the Chinatown home where she raised her family, right next door to the home of her late younger brother, Fred Roti, who, as alderman, would take the family farther in politics than any other family member.

A power at City Hall

Roti became 1st Ward alderman in 1968. He soon became one of the most powerful, well-liked and respected members of the City Council. Roti was also a "made member" of the mob, according to the FBI -- a fact not made public until after his death in 1999.

Roti's political career abruptly ended in 1991, when he was charged with taking bribes to fix zoning and court cases. Two years later, he was found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison.

The charges resulted from a federal probe that loosened the mob's political grip over the 1st Ward, including the area controlled by the 26th Street Crew long run by Roti's brother-in-law, "Skid'' Caruso.

"The 26th Street/Chinatown Crew historically was supposedly aligned with the 1st Ward, which was operated and controlled under organized crime auspices . . . and historically has had influence within the city of Chicago government for contracts, jobs with Streets and Sanitation, city contracts for hauling, trucking companies and so on," former FBI Agent John O'Rourke, an expert on the Chicago Outfit, said in a July 1997 deposition in a labor case.

Federal authorities attacked the mob's hold on Chicago politics with the help of Robert Cooley, a Chicago cop-turned-mob-lawyer who secretly recorded conversations with politicians and judges. Federal agents also hid a listening device in a booth at the old Counsellor's Row, a restaurant and 1st Ward mob hangout that was across from City Hall.

The investigation found that the powerhouse in Chicago's mob politics was Pat Marcy, who held the unassuming title of secretary of the 1st Ward Democratic Organization but whose power was vast. Marcy took bribes and doled out city contracts and jobs, fixed criminal and civil cases, and bribed politicians and judges, according to testimony at Roti's trial. Roti was alderman, but he answered to Marcy.

'Nobody gets hurt'

Roti reveled in his reputation as the mob's voice on the City Council. During Roti's re-election campaigns, the joke around City Hall was "Vote for Roti, and Nobody Gets Hurt.'' And Roti shared in the laugh.

He was elected alderman in 1968 and held the job until he resigned in 1991, when he was indicted. He'd been a state senator from 1950 to 1956. When he left the Senate, he was a patronage worker in the city's Sewer Department.

Over the years, Roti often was asked about his many relatives working for the city. "So I have some relatives on the payroll," Roti said in 1981. "They're doing an excellent job."

That comment came a year after his son -- city employee Bruno F. Roti -- was indicted in a police motor-pool scandal, charged with billing the city for work done on Bruno Roti's own car. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to a work-release program for six months and fined $5,000.

Ald. Roti also faced criticism that he helped steer the city's trucking business to his nephews -- including Fred Bruno Barbara, who would make a fortune off city business.

When Roti died, his family and friends jammed the streets of Chinatown for a funeral procession similar to his father's 42 years earlier. His longtime friend, Ald. Bernard Stone (50th), made sure everyone knew the role Roti played in Chicago history.

"Our skyline should say 'Roti' on it,'' Stone said at the funeral. "If not for Fred Roti, half the buildings in the Loop would never have been built."

Roti, his father Bruno Roti Sr. and brother-in-law Frank "Skid" Caruso are buried together at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside. Roti Sr. is interred in a stone mausoleum -- one of the most ornate, intricately carved edifices in the cemetery. It towers over the graves of his relatives. To the right is the grave of Ald. Fred Roti; to the left, "Skid'' Caruso. Other relatives are buried nearby.

At Christmas, fresh wreaths decorated each grave. A large one with a red bow was hanging on Roti Sr.'s mausoleum.

Nearly 50 years after his death, Bruno Roti Sr. hasn't been forgotten.

Thanks to Tim Novak, Robert C. Herguth, and Steve Warmbir

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