“Today, Kansas City may seem tame, but its association with organized crime and political graft ran rampant in the 1920s-30s. With Tom Pendergast’s political influence, liquor flowed freely in Kansas City despite Prohibition, and the area became a hotspot for gambling and prostitution.”
During the 1920s and 1930s, the U.S. experienced several events, such as the Great Depression and Prohibition. that shaped the country into what it is today. But these pivotal events were not the only changes seen in American culture. It took years to be exposed and addressed by law enforcement, but mobsters were invading many major cities. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and many others were taken over by the “mafia,” later known as “La Cosa Nostra,” or “Our Thing.” Organized crime spread across the country and became part of everyday life.
William Ouseley, a retired FBI agent, dealt directly with some of Kansas City’s most notorious mobsters and has published two books about the history and events of Kansas City’s organized crime. “The movies have you thinking they’re killing left and right,” he said about the mob’s activities decades ago in Kansas City. “You have to understand that they run on a business basis. Their objective is to make money. Hurting law officers or prosecutors would be bad for business. They have rules and codes.”
The Kansas City mob scene started in the 1900s when the gangster founding fathers took root in the historic North End. Gangsters were typically Sicilian, such as the DiGiovanni brothers, Joe “Scarface” DiGiovanni and “Sugarhouse” Pete DiGiovanni, who were key players in organized crime from its very start. There was also “Big Jim” Balestrere and Joe Lusco.
Because of Prohibition in the 1920s, the competitive main men of the North End came together and formed a single group, or “Outfit.” Joe DiGiovanni received the nickname “Scarface” when he became disfigured from trying to burn down a warehouse during Prohibition. He denied his involvement and said he became disfigured from an accident with a gas lamp in his home.
Bosses came into power and were quickly replaced like clockwork. The “Big Five” were in command in the 1940s: Tony Gizzo, Charles Binaggio, Gaetano Lococo, Balestrere, and Charles Gargotta. In 1950, Binaggio and Gargotta were both killed in one fell swoop, so Gizzo emerged as the public face of Kansas City’s mob.
After Gizzo’s death in 1953, Nick Civella was said to have been in the running to replace him, but he had a lot of hoops to jump through first, especially a long-standing opposition with Balestrere It was never confirmed, but it is believed for a number of reasons that Balestrere was behind multiple murder attempts aimed toward Civella.
Ultimately, it was Joe Filardo, a founder and traditionalist of organized crime who emphasized honor and loyalty, who was responsible for getting Civella approved through the right men. Upon seeing Civella’s approval, Balestrere accepted Civella’s rise to the head of the Kansas City family.
Civella became the public head of the family and the first boss to represent the Americanized version of the mob.
When Ouseley started on the team that headed the investigation of organized crime in Kansas City, the unit had only been around for a couple of years. Over the course of his work for the FBI, Ouseley came to know all about Nick Civella.
“He was a very interesting guy,” Ouseley said of Civella. “Very intense. Didn’t particularly like government or the FBI. As a person though, he was a very capable leader of the crime family. A competent boss. Very cunning.”
One of the most historic mob incidents is the famous River Quay bombings. It began with businessman Marion Trozzolo, who had a plan to transform the rundown area north of the Missouri River into the next premiere district in Kansas City. Trozzolo envisioned the works: boutiques, restaurants, grocery stores, restaurants and galleries.
Seeing the area’s potential, Fred Harvey Bonadonna, known as Freddy, was quick to stake his claim. The spot Freddy had his eye on wasn’t available immediately, but after a turn of events, Bonadonna pitched his idea to Trozzolo, who gave Bonadonna and his brother, Tony Mike, the lot on the spot.
Not everyone saw the value the River Quay offered, especially the mob, but Freddy and Tony Mike fixed up their lot and their restaurant, Poor Freddie’s, opened on Sept. 15, 1972. Freddy quickly became involved in everything with the River Quay, and the trouble that led up to the bombings revolved around who to let in and who to keep out.
During a trip to the Quay, Civella and Bonadonna struck up a conversation about how Poor Freddie’s was doing. Bonadonna embellished his earnings. Through word of mouth, this story got back to Joe Cammisano and Paul “Paulie the Pig” Scola, who had previously made it clear to Bonadonna they thought the Quay was a waste of time and money.
Bonadonna feared the kind of business Scola would bring into the River Quay, and from more than hunch felt the Civellas were behind it. Scola was permitted to open a business in the River Quay, and on Oct., 17, 1973, Delaware Daddy’s opened. A mirror image of Poor Freddie’s, Delaware Daddy’s stole away more than just business.
Things really started to heat up when Cammisano looked into getting his foot in the door. Bonadonna knew that Cammisano known for his prior businesses with exotic dancers, strippers and liquor, would try to turn the Quay into a red-light district. With every move Bonadonna made to keep Cammisano out, Cammisano grew angrier and from then on, crime escalated.
The topping on the crime-filled cake was in 1977, when an entire building with several bars inside was blown to pieces. Eventually, Bonadonna fled the area for a number of reasons, including fear, and only returned to testify against the mob and their activities. Joe Cammisano and Willie “The Rat” Cammisano were both found guilty for crimes linked to the Quay.
Sue Deering, a reference librarian for the Plaza Library, remembers the bombings “killing the area.” Most steered clear because no one wanted to get involved.
“There was really nothing that could be done,” Ouseley said. “It was over a period of five years and four people were murdered. We had to collect evidence and eventually we did.”
During Ouseley’s career in the FBI, and after with the criminals he encountered, he said he couldn’t dub one as the most interesting. There were many types of mob bosses, each with his own style. In Chicago, they were known for being violent and all the bosses from the five families in New York were interesting in their sense of leading their families .
Mob-related crime has become dormant over the years, which Ouseley attributes to the principles and codes within organized crime diminishing. But the mob characters and myths from movies were alive and well in Kansas City.