Sunday, August 17, 2008

Open City: True Story of the KC Crime Family 1900-1950

For 25 years, William Ouseley was considered public enemy number one ... if you were a mobster, that is.

The FBI agent earned the ongoing assignment to help take down the powerful crime families that had thrived in Kansas City for decades. And these weren’t simply small-time hoods. “The conception is driven by the media and the movies that they’re just some thugs that mainly kill each other and are involved in some basic criminal activities,” Ouseley says. “I don’t think people understand the impact organized crime has had on the underpinnings of our society: infiltration of business, infiltration of the labor unions, infiltration of politics and government.”

Ouseley, who retired from the FBI in 1985 as supervisor of the Kansas City Field Division of the Organized Crime Squad, got to see the toils of his labor justified through the prosecution, conviction and dismantling of the notorious Civella cartel. Now the longtime Lenexa resident has written his first book, “Open City,” which traces the birth and spread of organized crime in Kansas City. “After 21 years of working on the street, there were a lot of people encouraging me to tell the stories,” he says. “The history took me over, though. I found it was a book in itself. That’s why I only got from 1900 to 1953.”

Ouseley, a fit-looking 72-year-old with a prominent Bronx accent, encountered plenty of obstacles when assembling the project. “The most difficult thing about it is that everybody of any significance is dead,” he says. “I wasn’t too interested in people telling me tales that I had no way knowing if they were true. A second problem was that during the heyday of the mob and the machine, they cleaned out all the records from the police department. That was part of their power. So piecing together some of the history of these people and how they came to be was very difficult.”

The title “Open City” may at first seem like a reference to Roberto Rossellini’s famous 1945 film about oppression in wartime Italy. But Ouseley says he chose the name because of the freedom the mob experienced during their heyday in Kansas City. “I wanted to capture the fact that it was a wide-open, anything goes, captive city completely dominated by a corrupt machine and an organized crime family,” he explains. “It was a haven for the gangsters of the ’20s and ’30s. They all came up here for R&R. It was an open city in the negative sense.”

“Open City” revels in the “gangster era” that continues to be a source of fascination for true crime aficionados.

Through meticulous research, Ouseley traces the roots of crime societies in Southern Italy and Sicily, which became known as the shadowy Black Hand once they arrived in the Midwest.

What began as an insular gang extorting local businesses in “Little Italy” in the early 1900s developed into a formidable juggernaut during Prohibition, eventually allying itself with the political engine run by boss Tom Pendergast.

One hilarious story in the book tells of the State Line Tavern, which sat directly on the state line at 3205 Southwest Blvd. Gamblers moved to the west side of a white line that divided the building if Missouri police raided the joint, and to the east if officers hailed from Kansas.

The slow incursion by these organized crime factions paved the way for Kansas City’s most infamous mobster: Nick Civella.

“In the beginning when we learned what we were up against, it didn’t appear to be too significant in the national scene,” Ouseley says. “But we came to find out that Nick Civella was a major player nationally, mainly due to the fact that he owned Roy Lee Williams. With him having Williams, who became the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) president, we came to find out that Nick was one who had to be included at the table in many of the schemes that involved the use of unions and pension funds. The Las Vegas case that closed out my career sort of proved that.”

Ouseley’s expertise in this area led to a featured appearance on “60 Minutes,” in which he was utilized as the central expert during a story about a major Teamster figure from Cleveland who became an FBI informant.

At the age of 50, however, the agent decided to retire from the profession. He says, “There were a number of reasons. I had 25 years in. I had seen the demise of the Civella dynasty. The timing was right. I had to retire at 55 because it’s mandatory. With the big case that ended the whole saga, I wouldn’t say there was nothing left to be done, but the major portion had been done. Then my wife was after me to quit.”

After his stint with the bureau, Ouseley spent 15 years as the NFL security representative for Kansas City. (“The theory behind the department was to protect the integrity of the league,” he says.) After he left the NFL in 2000, he worked on his own as a security consultant, private investigator and public speaker.

Although he’s been away from the gritty drama of mob case work for more than two decades, he still keeps up with where organized crime stands in Kansas City.

“From what I understand it’s on a very low end,” he says. “The last of the ‘tough guys’ in Civella’s entourage — Carl DeLuna — died about two weeks ago. The last of the sons and grandsons of the racketeers, they have been pummeled with these cases. They’ve lost all of their main assets — the politics, the labor — and that was the substance of the mob. They’re semi-legitimate now. They run some of the topless bars and things like that.”

Surprisingly enough, Ouseley claims that at no point during his FBI tenure did he fear his life was in danger.

“There’s sort of an unwritten rule there, and that goes toward the misconceptions that people have,” Ouseley says.

“This is the business of crime and corruption. As a business, their main objective is to further and protect their business interests. They know that to hurt an agent or a prosecutor or even a news person would be detrimental. They would get heat like they don’t normally get. If they killed an agent, we would shut them down. We would take the whole office and just shut down everything they did, even if we had to park a car in front of every gambling operation. But we would not have the ability to do that if left alone.”

Thanks to Jon Niccum

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