Tampa again finds itself in the center of the latest chapter of mob intrigue.
Reported organized crime boss John Gotti Jr. was arrested in New York on Tuesday, and will be arraigned in Tampa on murder conspiracy charges stemming from an investigation that began in the Bay area.
As mob towns go Tampa is no New York, Chicago or even Philadelphia. But over the years Tampa has found itself with at least a tenuous connection to the latest news from the organized crime world.
In the 1940s, Sicilian immigrant Santo Trafficante Sr., a known member of the Mafia, took over organized crime in Tampa. The Tampa mob ran gambling, loansharking operations, drug trafficking, stolen property rings, strip clubs, fraud and political corruption, according to Scott Deitche, author of the book, "Cigar City Mafia."
When Trafficante Jr. took over, the man authorities called Florida's "boss of bosses" testified in front of a 1978 U.S. House panel that he was involved in a plot to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He denied knowledge of any mob plot to kill President Kennedy.
In 2006, four alleged members of the Gambino crime family went to trial in U.S. District Court in Tampa on charges of racketeering and extortion. Authorities said the group, led by Ronald "Ronnie One Arm" Trucchio, committed robbery, extortion and murder from New York to Miami. They reportedly ran valet parking businesses at restaurants, hospitals and strip clubs. In 2007, Trucchio was sentenced to spend life behind bars.
The city's sometimes unseemly criminal landscape has wooed Hollywood filmmakers as well.
The 1990 crime classic "Goodfellas" featured a scene at Lowry Park Zoo in which Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, and James Burke, played by Robert De Niro, terrorized a local bar owner who refused to pay a gambling debt by dangling him over the lion cage. The "Goodfellas" depiction is pretty close to the real thing, according to Deitche.
Apparently, the owner of Char-Pal Lounge at 3711 E. Busch Blvd. asked Hill and Burke to come to Tampa to persuade Gaspar Ciaccio to pay his $13,000 debt, Deitche said. They dined at the Columbia Restaurant before tracking down Ciaccio.
Hill and Burke apparently beat up Ciaccio in the back room of the Char-Pal and then threatened him at the lion cage at Busch Gardens, said Nicholas Pileggi, who adapted his book "Wiseguy" into the screenplay for "Goodfellas."
"It all really happened," said Pileggi, who came to Tampa to take pictures of the area and interview people for his book.
The reason organized crime appeared to flourish in Tampa seems as varied as the experts who have studied it.
Pileggi said Tampa's organized crime spun off from Prohibition days in the 1920s and '30s.
Many of Florida's elected leaders and law enforcement officers either didn't enforce the laws or were in cahoots with bootleggers, Pileggi said. "There was an infrastructure of corruption," he said.
Deitche focuses on the large influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Mob bosses in New York and Chicago generally didn't speak Spanish, so the Trafficantes leveraged their links with Cuba and Latin America to dominate organized crime in Florida for more than three decades, he said.
Authorities credit the Trafficante family with creating a mob language known as "Tampan," a hybrid of Italian and Spanish created to confuse police.
Howard Abadinsky, an organized crime expert and professor of criminal justice and legal studies at St. John's University, said the reason the mob moved into Tampa and South Florida had more to do with the shifting economy. The mob bosses followed the money, he said.
They saw thousands of retirees from the East Coast and rustbelt states flee to sunny Florida for the winter, bringing their money and spare time.
Tampa's growing population would have been irresistible for organized crime families with ties to garbage hauling unions, shipping interests, gambling, bars, strip clubs and other ventures. "They are always on the prowl for opportunity," he said.
Deitche, Abadinsky and others agree on thing: High-profile, organized criminal activity has been on the decline for decades. Criminal investigations are credited with part of the decline. But mostly, the old-time mob bosses have died off.
Trafficante Jr. died March 17, 1987, after heart surgery in Houston.
"Since then, it's sort of subsided," said Bill Iler, who worked for the Tampa Police Department from 1966 to 1986, much of it investigating organized crime. "All the old guys hooked up with the Mafia are about dead now."
Thanks to Baird Helgeson
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