The Chicago Syndicate: Legendary Organized Crime Figure Frank Colacurcio Sr. Dies
The Mission Impossible Backpack

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Legendary Organized Crime Figure Frank Colacurcio Sr. Dies

Frank Colacurcio Sr., the strip-club magnate whose organized-crime exploits covered more than half a century and helped define Seattle's history of police corruption and reform, died Friday. He was 93.

Mr. Colacurcio had been in declining health for some time, suffering from congestive heart failure. His death was confirmed by his attorney, Irwin Schwartz. Mr. Colacurcio died at University of Washington Medical Center, said spokeswoman Leila Gray.

In keeping with his life story, Mr. Colacurcio was under indictment at the time of his death, facing allegations of racketeering and promoting prostitution.

"It is the end of an era, hopefully one that won't be repeated," former Seattle U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan said Friday.

Mr. Colacurcio died only a week after the final dismantling of his strip-club operations by federal prosecutors, 67 years after he was first sent to prison for what was then called carnal knowledge with a teenage girl.

As Seattle's longest-running crime figure, Mr. Colacurcio often was portrayed by law-enforcement officials and the news media as one of Seattle's most notorious racketeering figures.

The reputation stemmed from convictions for tax evasion and racketeering that repeatedly sent him to prison. Adding to the lore were murky tales — involving corrupt cops and his cat-and-mouse dealings with law-enforcement officials — that no one could explain, except perhaps Mr. Colacurcio.

Despite his notoriety, Mr. Colacurcio wasn't flashy. He wore golf shirts, played cards and lived in a modest home in the Sheridan Beach neighborhood of Lake Forest Park at the north end of Lake Washington. His one indulgence was a 38-foot boat used for fishing in Alaska.

He benefited in the 1950s and 1960s when Seattle had rougher edges and police turned their eyes from vice and criminal activity in exchange for payoffs.

Eventually, he became a top target of federal and local law-enforcement officials.

For years, the feds and other investigators picked through his trash, eavesdropped on his conversations and recruited snitches. They finally got him in the 1970s, for racketeering and failing to pay taxes on money skimmed from his businesses. But their long-held suspicion that Mr. Colacurcio was involved in the execution-style slayings of several people who had crossed him never resulted in charges. In an interview a few years ago, Mr. Colacurcio dismissed the notion that he was involved in old killings or illegal activities. "They have been investigating me since the time I was born," he said.

Once considered Seattle's own connection to the Mafia, he more likely headed a homegrown organized-crime outfit, law-enforcement officials concluded.

"Mafia malarkey," he once complained, saying local investigators needed someone they could label as their own mob figure.

Yet he and his associates also seemed to enjoy the image. Five years ago, while he awaited a court hearing, a cellphone belonging to an investigator on his defense team rang. The ringtone: the theme song for the movie "The Godfather."

For some detectives, investigating Mr. Colacurcio was an obsession. They built dossiers with flow charts and pictures of his known associates. Once, they even rented a room next to his old SeaTac office to eavesdrop through an electrical outlet.

Mr. Colacurcio outlasted some investigators, who moved to other jobs or retired. One federal prosecutor who brought charges against him later became his defense attorney.

"I'll never be 'retired' retired," Mr. Colacurcio said in 1995. "Not until I'm in the grave."

He ran his operations from Talents West, a hiring agency and business office in a small building on Lake City Way. Its walls displayed photographs of scantily dressed women and a giant framed photo of Mr. Colacurcio leaving a courthouse.

Mr. Colacurcio was born in Seattle to immigrant parents on June 18, 1917. He quit school at age 15 to begin farming and started a produce-hauling business.

Beginning in the 1950s, he used thugs and threats to control Seattle's jukebox, pinball and cigarette-vending-machine business, competitors alleged. Those businesses historically had attracted organized crime because of their easily skimmed cash.

He also sought to expand into Portland, drawing the attention of a U.S. Senate committee investigating organized crime.

Under questioning by Robert F. Kennedy, chief counsel for the committee, James "Big Jim" Elkins, a Portland crime figure, told the committee that Mr. Colacurcio asked for Elkins' help in opening prostitution houses there.

"He wanted me to arrange so that he could take over three or four houses," Elkins testified. "I told him if he wanted the houses to go buy them."

Elkins described Mr. Colacurcio as a fellow racketeer and a "boy that had various things operating in Seattle."

In the 1960s, Mr. Colacurcio held an interest in several bars, restaurants and nightclubs in Seattle. He ran a beer garden at the Seattle World's Fair in 1962 and introduced go-go dancing to Seattle at the Firelite Room in 1965.

For years, the well-entrenched tolerance policy in Seattle and King County kept the police from bothering him until the payoff system crumbled, brought down by investigative reporters, Christopher T. Bayley, a reform-minded King County prosecutor, and Stan Pitkin, a hard-charging U.S. attorney in Seattle.

In a 1971 trial, Mr. Colacurcio was convicted of racketeering for bringing illegal bingo cards into the state. Federal prosecutors exposed a bribery scheme in which police were paid to ignore illegal gambling activities at area taverns. A nightclub owner testified that he paid Colacurcio $3,000 a month for police protection.

Around the same time, State Patrol investigators reported that Mr. Colacurcio had met in Yakima with Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno, the son of legendary New York Mafia boss Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno, to discuss a business relationship. Mr. Colacurcio famously responded to a reporter that he and his family had gone to Yakima to pick hot peppers, "but I didn't pick no bananas."

Although he served prison stints for the 1971 conviction and a 1981 tax-fraud conviction, Mr. Colacurcio opened topless taverns and strip clubs — another cash business that allowed profit-skimming — throughout the Seattle area and beyond, eventually operating in at least 10 Western states.

Law-enforcement officials banded together in 1984, driving him out of many states.

For a period, Mr. Colacurcio almost faded into local lore. After a 1991 guilty plea to tax fraud and his 36-year-year marriage to Jackie Colacurcio ended in divorce about the same time, he and his son, Frank Colacurcio Jr., concentrated on running a smaller number of nude-dancing clubs.

The clubs, which years earlier had stopped selling alcohol to avoid state liquor inspectors, made their money from cover charges, high-priced soft drinks and charging a hefty per diem to the dancers. But Mr. Colacurcio and his son landed on the front page of newspapers in 2003 when the "Strippergate" scandal jolted Seattle City Hall.

For years, the Colacurcios had tried to expand parking at Rick's, a Lake City Way strip club, but were repeatedly rejected. When the parking plan came before the council again in 2003, Colacurcio associates contributed thousands of dollars to three City Council members, who helped form a majority that approved the plan.

Strippergate also cast a spotlight on the long friendship between Mr. Colacurcio and former Washington Gov. Albert Rosellini. Rosellini, who served as governor from 1957 to 1965 and is now 100 years old, played a role in pushing for the parking-lot rezone.

Their ties had gone back for years, dogging Rosellini during his political career, although there was never proof of illegal dealings.

In the Strippergate case, prosecutors charged Mr. Colacurcio, his son and two others with skirting donation limits by secretly reimbursing contributors. In 2008, Mr. Colacurcio, his son and an associate pleaded guilty to criminal charges and paid fines. The fourth defendant was dismissed from the case. But even before that case was resolved, the Strippergate case prompted FBI and local law-enforcement officials to launch a broader investigation, looking for evidence of prostitution at Colacurcio clubs.

Investigators also reopened old homicide cases, trying to link Mr. Colacurcio or his associates to the slayings of five people in the 1970s and 1980s: a rival strip-club operator and his fiancée, a bar owner in Central Washington, a mechanic in a murder-for-hire scheme, and a police informant.

Neither Mr. Colacurcio nor his associates were tied to those cases, and involvement in the Central Washington case has been ruled out.

The four-year investigation culminated with racketeering charges brought against Mr. Colacurcio, his son and others last year, alleging they allowed rampant prostitution at Rick's and three other clubs in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties that generated million of dollars in business.

Last week, Frank Colacurcio Jr., 48, pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge that will cost him $1.3 million and likely land him in prison for a year and a day. Four close associates of his father earlier pleaded guilty to prostitution- and racketeering-related charges.

As part of plea deals, the Colacurcios' four strip clubs have been shuttered, and the government seized the buildings and other property valued at $4.5 million. The final piece of property, Talents West, was forfeited by Colacurcio Jr. under his plea.

In a final interview a year ago, while sitting in a leather chair, a blanket draped over his lap, Mr. Colacurcio was asked what he wanted his legacy to be. He paused, mulled the question and replied, "I think my background speaks for itself."

Thanks to Steve Miletich

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