The Rise And Fall of the Last Canadian Godfather
The head of the Montreal Mafia commanded the greatest criminal empire in Canadian history.
Lead image by Noel Ransome.
If there ever was a truly Canadian mobster, it was Vito Rizzuto.
By bringing together the gangs of Montreal, the now-deceased mob boss orchestrated perhaps the greatest criminal empire in Canadian history.
Vito ran Montreal's criminal underworld through the 90s and early 2000s. The Rizzuto family took and lost power in bloody turf wars. Under Vito's watch they built a consortium of gangs to work under them, owned politicians, owned law enforcement, and had their hand in the lucrative construction business. In Montreal's underworld, for a time, Vito was king and according to longtime crime writer Antonio Nicaso, who has written multiple books on the man, he ruled in a truly Canadian style.
"He didn't care if you were Italian or Canadian or whatever. That was a product of this society," Nicola told VICE. "For him it was natural to get together regardless of the background because you have same similar interest, you could share some strategies, some skills."
There have been countless articles and books written about Rizzuto, and Bad Blood, a dramatized miniseries about the mobster starring Kim Coates debuted on City TV recently. Rizzuto's life a tale that revolves around billions of dollars and dozens of deaths, it's one that begins and ends with blood, one full of crime, corruption and betrayal. Here's the story of the last Canadian godfather.
The making of a Mobster
Vito Rizzuto was born to be a mobster.
The first son of Nicolo Rizzuto, he was born in Sicily in 1946. Vito, who was named after his grandfather, never knew his namesake. In the 1920s Vito Sr. left his wife and young Nicolo in Sicily for America hoping to send money back to his family.
Gangsterism seemingly runs in the Rizzuto blood, as Vito Sr. quickly found himself as a small time player in the New York state crime world. However, in 1933 he vanished outside of Patterson, New York. Vito Rizzuto Sr.'s body was soon found underneath a tree that had been uprooted in a storm, the coroner ruled he had been beaten to death with a blunt object.
Back in Sicily, following his father's death, Niccolo married the daughter of a local Mafia leader. But the family didn't stay too long in Italy and, at the age of 30, Niccolo, his wife, and a nine-year-old Vito Jr. set sail for Canada, landing in Montreal. It would only take a short while for father and son to become two of the most important figures ever in Canadian crime.
Once in Canada, Niccolo, who had international ties with organized crime, quickly formed a group with others in Montreal's Sicilian diaspora. At this time in Montreal, the biggest players were the Controni family, who were Calabrian, not Sicilian. The Contronis, headed by Vincenzo Cotroni, helped the influential New York crime family, the Bonannos, turn Montreal into a drug importation centre.
Throughout the 50s and the 60s, as Vito grew up, the Controni family's influence in Montreal's underground world expanded. However, things in the 70s went downhill. During this time, Controni, the leader of the family, was weakened by cancer and the two men most likely to take his throne were Niccolo and a Calabrian named Paolo Violi. The two men were rivals—both at times going attempting to get rid of the other.
Eventually power was handed to Violi and tensions between the Sicilians and the Calabrians grew. Niccolo began doing work on his own, and his bosses and rivals suspected him of keeping money from them—a cardinal sin in the buissness. The internal influence war between the two grew and only abided when Niccolo, after a supposed attempted hit on his life, made his way to Venezuela (a place he would frequent in the future) to meet and organize with other drug traffickers.
From here, Niccolo, would retaliate with fury, starting a bloody turf war with the Violis.
The first blood to be spilled in the war between the two crime families was that of Pietro Sciara. Sciara—who was considered to be a consigliere (advisor) of Violi—drew the ire of Niccolo when it was thought that he sided with the Calabria during attempted mediation between the two. So, on Valentine's day, 1976, as Sciara was exiting a Montreal theatre after viewing a screening of the Godfather II, he was gunned down on the street.
Around this time, Niccolo reportedly returned to Montreal and from there the body count of men connected to the Violis continued to rise—with the Violis themselves eventually joining the pile. The first of the three brothers to go was their muscle, Francesco Violi, who was helping run things while Paolo did a brief stint in jail. Francesco, was killed in his office when several men rushed in with shotguns and shot him point blank.
Shortly afterward, Paolo was released from prison and, despite knowing he was being targeted, refused to leave the city. The end came for Paolo when he agreed to attend a card game at an ice-cream shop he was connected with. Toronto Star journalist, Peter Edwards, sums up what happened in his e-book Canada's Country Club Monste r.
"Not long after he sat down to play, a man reportedly leaned forward and gave him a traditional bacio della morte—kiss of death—on the cheek," writes Edwards. "An instant later, a masked gunman shot him twice point-blank in the back of the head, ending his life at age 46.
"The Rizzuto era in the Canadian underworld had begun."
Two years later, a final blow would be struck to the Violi family. While the final brother, Rocco, sat down for dinner with his wife and kids in their Montreal home, a sniper took aim through the kitchen window. Three months earlier Rocco had survived a blast fired from a man with a shotgun on the back of motorcycle and had to know there would be another attempt. The sniper's bullet hit Rocco in the chest, killing him instantly in front of his wife and kids—an execution style deemed disrespectful in the Mafia world.
Pulling the trigger and taking control
The 1970s turf war in Montreal was led by the elder Rizzuto, while Vito worked primarily from the background. However, it wouldn't take long for Vito to reportedly get blood on his hands as well.
In 1981, the Rizzuto clan, now solidly in control of the Montreal scene, still had strong ties to the Bonanno family in New York. And the Bonanno family had a problem in the form of three Capos—underbosses—that Joe Massino, the leader of the Bonannos, believed were plotting to overthrow him.
Alphonse Indelicato, Philip Giaconne, and Dominick Trinchera needed to go away and the Rizzutos were to be the ones to handle it.
"[Niccolo] would have thought: To show loyalty to you and to your organization I'm willing to carry out this assignment, so I will send my son and other people from Montreal and they will take care of these three Capos," said Nicaso. "This was a way to bond, to create a link between Rizzuto's and the Bonanno's at the time."
So, Vito and two other Montreal Sicilians reportedly made their way to a Brooklyn social club to hide in a closet. It's not certain exactly what happened but a future turncoat, Salvatore Vitale, who said he was also in the closet, explained his take in a court hearing. In his article, Edwards writes that Vitale testified that "Gerlando (George From Canada) Sciascia was to run his hands through his silver coiffure as the signal for the men to come out."
So, Vitale says, when George from Canada finally ran his hands through his hair, Vito and the others reportedly sprung from the closet with Vito declaring "Don't anybody move. This is a holdup." Then the shots rang out. After the chaos and the smoke cleared from the room, the three Capos laid dead.
These killings, loosely immortalized in the film Donnie Brasco, would come to haunt Vito Rizzuto.
Redemption for the killings was years away though, as this was the 80s, and in the 80s business flourished for the criminal underworld in Montreal. They were involved in every sort of illegal activity you could think of: gambling, money laundering, drug trafficking—lots and lots of drug trafficking. They were growing and they were making money hand over fist. But with good times come bad, and, in 1988, Niccolo was arrested by Venezuelan police on trafficking charges. Niccolo, while at first being acquitted, was sentenced to eight years in prison as a result of the appeal—he would spend five years in prison.
And with his father locked away on a different continent, Vito would step forward.
Bringing the gang together
In the 90s and early 2000s, under Vito's leadership, the Montreal Mafia would turn Quebec into a sleek, well-oiled money-making machine. Nicaso described Vito's leadership as that of a "master diplomat."
Perhaps the most impressive thing that Rizzuto pulled off was bringing together a large portion of other gangs—gangs that normally would never associate with each other, like biker gangs, Haitian gangs, etc. There was of course the bloody Quebec Biker war which claimed 150 lives at this time but the Mafia violence had calmed.
"He created layers of responsibility and profit among the organization.The Mafia was involved in the importation level, they had contacts to arrange large shipments of cocaine from South America," said Nicaso. "The Mafia was involved mostly on that level, then the outlaw motorcycle gangs were involved mostly on the distribution levels. Then the street gang would sell them.
"Everyone was happy under the Rizzuto leadership because everyone had a portion of the product."
Vito wanted to make money, and to make money he knew he had to work with people outside of the family. Their influence on the construction industry grew exponentially, with a so-called "Mafia tax" on buildings going as high as 30 percent. To orchestrate this empire Vito had to work with people from all backgrounds.
"If you go back to Italy you see that the 'Ndrangheta is a Capalian organization, the Mafia is a Sicilian organization, the Camorra is a Naples organization," said Nicaso. "There are some exceptions, but those organizations are strict about the background of its members. In Canada you see this different type of Mafia, a more multicultural one, if you will."
There was a deal though: if you were a part of it, you worked for him—Vito was the boss. This was even done within the family, as when Niccolo got out of jail in 1993, he eventually made way for his son.
Having everyone working together in a strategic consortium lessened the violence involved between these organizations, which in turn lessened the attention of the media and police. The system worked twofold, making the group money and taking the heat off. The second big thing that occurred under Vito's rule was a level of corruption almost unheard of in Canada, according to Nicaso.
"He understood, better than any other in Canadian history, the benefits of corruption. Instead of using violence, he uses corruption," said Nicaso. "He didn't have to scare people, he just had to share money. He infiltrated union leaders, he had people in the police agencies and law enforcement agencies, he had politicians. Name it he had it."
People went missing and people were hurt during his time but there was nothing close to the bloodshed seen during the Rizzutos' initial rise to power. During this time, Nicaso said Rizzuto became, for a time, "the most powerful mobster in Canada."
If you built something in the city, odds are the Rizzutos got a cut and helped you attain building permits. If drugs came into the city odds are the Rizzutos got a cut, if money was laundered, again, odds are the Rizzutos got a cut. During this time, Vito got a reputation for being untouchable by law enforcement—he was known as Canada's "Teflon Don."
Then, as everyone who has ever watched a good crime film knows, it all came crashing down around him.
The fall and the siege
In the mid 2000s, while some in law enforcement were bought off by the group, most weren't and you better believe that they noticed when Vito took control of the city. Groups of organized crime experts were meeting to examine the threat and power of the Rizzutos. Police were infiltrating connected groups and bugging the Rizzuto's hang-outs.
However, it wasn't anything that Vio did in Montreal that led to his fall. In fact, it wasn't anything he even did directly for his family. It was the triple homicide that he was reportedly a part of all those years ago in the Brooklyn social club.
Back in New York, the hammer was falling on the Bonanno family and they were turning on each other quickly. This led to American authorities eventually coming for Vito in 2004 with charges connected to the killings. He fought extradition for several years but eventually lost his court battle and was brought to the States in 2006 to stand trial. Which is where Salvatore Vitale testified against him.
Vitale told the cops that he was in the closet with Rizzuto back in 1981 and indicated that Vito was one of the shooters. Vito, obviously, had a different story. Peter Edwards wrote of the moment Vito finally took the stand:
"When Vito took the stand to testify in his own defence, he painted things differently but they still didn't look good: 'I did participate," he said. "… My job was to say it was a holdup, so everybody would stay still. Other guys came in and started shooting the other guys.'"
In the end Vito was convicted of racketeering and sentenced to five and a half years while getting credit for time already served. He was shipped to a Colorado prison to geographically isolate him from his family.
Vito was, as Nicaso described it, now a "lion in a cage," one who would be forced to watch the world he built burn and the people he loved die.
It wasn't just American law enforcement that was coming after the Rizzutos either; Canadian cops had been busy as well. The RCMP were finalizing a massive investigation into the family. Dubbed "Project Colisée," law enforcement recorded thousands of hours of conversations after planting cameras and microphones at places the Rizzuto family did business.
The RCMP, pulled the trigger on the investigation in 2009 and large group of Rizzuto associated people fell—including Niccolo, who was dinged with multiple charges surrounding his fiances. A few years later, the Charbonneau commission—an investigation into Quebec's widespread corruption in the construction industry—would launch, causing even more damage to the Rizzutos.
All of this meant that the Rizzutos were on their heels—then the literal triggers started to be pulled.
In August of 2009, the first high-profile death would be that of Frederico Del Peschio, a drug trafficker who was high up in the family. Del Peschio, while exiting his vehicle outside of the Montreal restaurant La Cantina, where the Rizzutos frequented, was gunned down.
It is assumed that these, and the following killings, were done in a power grab in the vacuum left by Vito's imprisonment. One of the suspected challengers to the reign of the Rizzutos was Raynald Desjardins, who has been described as the most influential non-Italian in the Montreal Mafia. Another challenger was Salvatore Montagna, a former boss in the Bonanno family whose waterlogged corpse was found riddled with bullets on the shore of the L'Assomption River in 2011.
Shortly after Del Peschio's death, in December of 2009, the first of the Rizzutos would fall. Vito's eldest son, Nick, was in the Notre Dame de Grace neighbourhood of Montreal when a man walked up to him, raised a handgun and shot him in the chest. Nick Rizzuto died on the way to hospital. The shooting, taking place in broad daylight, was a message.
A few months later, in May, Vito's brother-in-law, Paolo Renda, left his home to pick up some steaks for dinner. When he never arrived home his son-in-law went searching for the vehicle and found it abandoned, and Renda has never seen since. The hits just kept coming. In summer of 2010, longtime associate Agostino Cuntrera was gunned down in front of Cuntrera's food distribution business.
After hearing about his son and close associates dying from inside his prison cell, Vito would be dealt one more major blow before his release—his father. Niccolo, the elder Rizzuto, well into his 80s, had stepped in to help run the family business while Vito was imprisoned. While sitting down for dinner with his family, a sniper took aim from outside through the kitchen window. Nicolo would be killed after being shot in the neck—echoing the hit on Rocco Violi that signaled the solidification of Rizzuto power all those years ago.
"There was a ghost of the past haunting him, taking him down," said Nicaso. "While he was in jail, his family was under siege, under attack. He lost his father, his son, his brother-in-law, so many associates in what many people called a war. A war that's rewritten the story of mafia power in Canada."
Revenge and pneumonia
Less than two years after the murder of his father, Vito was released from prison. And after watching his family being slaughtered from afar, revenge was on his mind.
In short order, Vito put together some of his former power and started retaliating. It took only a month after his release for the blood to begin to flow in Montreal. One after another, men who were either thought to be working against the Rizzutos or were simply seen as rivals, turned up dead. Drug trafficker Emilio Cordileone was killed in his SUV. Others opposings the family, Tony Gensale and Mohamed Awada, two men suspected of kidnapping a Rizzuto associate, were killed shortly afterwards. Joe Di Maulo, a suspected turncoat, was killed in front of his home.
All these deaths happened within a single month.
"The groups that were making money when Rizzuto was away, they received an offer that's very difficult to refuse. It said 'I don't need your money, I don't want it, I want your loyalty,'" said Nicaso. "Many people joined the Rizzuto family with the idea they don't have to share the profits with him anymore because he is looking for revenge."
"He said: 'I'm not looking for money at this point, I'm looking for revenge. I want to kill all those people who challenge my family, those who put a bullet in the head of my father, my son, my brother-in-law, so many people in my organization. I don't care about this, I only care about blood.'"
And the blood would continue to run through the streets of Montreal.
Shortly before Christmas that year, a ski-mask clad man walked into an east Montreal cafe, shooting and killing Domenic Facchi and critically injuring another. To kick off the new year, Gaétan Gosselin, a close associate of Raynald Desjardins, was shot and killed at his home. This is by no means a definitive list of those killed in the turf war—in the it's a difficult top put a number on but upwards of a dozen people ended up six feet into the cold Quebec ground as a result of the bloody turdf war.
"He returned to town with this idea with this idea of revenge after feeling the pain. But he never felt the same pain at killing other people's sons," said Nicaso. "It's hard to say how many people's deaths Rizzuto is responsible for because of the court but it was bloody."
In the end, Vito didn't go out like Scarface but more fittingly, like the title character in The Godfather.
In December of 2013, at the age of 67 and still orchestrating the bloodshed in his city, Rizzuto would collapse in his home. The life-long smoker had been secretly battling lung cancer. Rizzuto would be rushed to hospital where he would die of pneumonia on December 23, 2013.
Odds are, there will never be such an influential mobster in Canada again.
"It was an end of an era. It was the end of the people capable of working on a larger scale. Rizzuto was the most powerful boss in Canada but he was respected in Italy and was connected in the United States. In that sense, he was a unique guy," said Nicas.
"I have a hard time identifying anyone in the Canadian Mafia with the same charisma or capability."
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