Chicago mobster Albert Tocco started calling Charles Hager "Little Joe College" because he was a thinker, a different animal from most guys working for The Outfit, who were far from Machiavellian. But Hager was from West Virginia, and earned the respect of the Southside gangster by weighing his words carefully before he spoke. Tocco was second-in-command of the Chicago Heights crew, as they were known, and Hager remembers him being a hothead—a man in the mold of Al Capone who loved and abided by old-guard rules like keeping your mouth shut, and never flaunting wealth.
That was Omertà, the code of the life Hager got involved in despite his lack of Italian ancestry. Little did he know that it would end with the murder of his best friend, his imprisonment for that same murder, and his reaching a startling conclusion about who really killed legendary mob boss Sam Giancana. The CIA, the Traficantes, and The Outfit have all been blamed over the ensuing decades, but Hager pinned the murder on Robert Zazzetti, a.k.a. Bob Duff, a violent, low-level hood who was in and out of prison his whole life and died in 1981*. Giancana was said to be dating Marilyn Monroe (he was later accused by his own family of involvement in her death) and has long been rumored to help get John F. Kennedy elected in 1960. But the mobster was killed because he was a snitch, Hager contends in his new book, Chicago Heights: Little Joe College, the Outfit, and the Fall of Sam Giancana.
VICE talked to Hager by phone to find out why he decided to tell his story now, how he got out of the life, and just how powerful the mob was back in the 60s and 70s.
VICE: After 40-something years, why tell your story at this moment?
Charles Hager: This book was actually started in prison. [I asked myself]: Do I write it, do I publish it, or do I leave it alone? Being that I’m the last living member of the crew, I didn't have to point a finger at anybody or get anyone else involved and [I found that] I couldn't leave it alone. I had to keep writing and wanted my story out there. I went to prison almost five years for a crime I didn't commit. That was the inspiration behind this book, and then I brought it all out. I went back from the time I was almost a child until the last few years. If somebody wants to whack me, well, I'm almost 70 years old. So be it. At least I've had a decent life.
After embarking on a life of crime, how did you ultimately pull back from it? Getting out is supposed to be the toughest thing in that world.
Prison was a deciding factor. I had a lot of time to think, and I sure didn't want to spend the rest of my life in a prison cell. [But I] was headed in that direction, and once I got out I knew that I wanted to do what I wanted to do, not what somebody else wanted me to do. Why should I earn a paycheck for someone else, when I could have that in my pocket? Why should I take orders from somebody else? I'm the guy that was the brains behind the organization that brought in a lot of money. Why should I give my life to someone that probably didn't give two cahoots about me? I was just another foot soldier running the streets out there, hustling for someone else.
I knew that if I went legit I had enough upstairs to run my own business.
I wasn't going back to prison under no circumstances. I had a meeting in Chicago Heights and more or less handed a gun to Albert Tocco and said do what you got to do. I'm leaving the life. What do I owe you, what do I have to do? Albert Tocco looked at me and said, "You pulled the time for the crime. You've paid your dues. Nobody's in the courtroom because of you."
I couldn’t be made because of my German blood. All I can ever be is an associate. I can never go up the ladder. There was a guarantee from me that nobody's name will ever be mentioned, [but] everyone involved is deceased.
It's a thrill. It's almost like a man being on heroin or taking drugs, which I never did. That was a no-no for us.
As part of The Outfit, how deep in the life were you?
From the leg breaking to the loan sharking, I played a role in it all. I was very deep in it. My big thing that got me on top was horse-racing. I was a great earner with that. Something about being raised up in West Virginia and being around horses a lot—I got a lot of tips which [most] people wouldn't have gotten, and made a lot of money [at the] Balmoral Race Track in Crete, Illinois. I was the go-to guy. I was the fixer. Things moved from the streets to an office job because I was the golden goose for them.
You’re the man, you're doing things. You're getting away with it. It's a thrill. It's almost like a man being on heroin or taking drugs, which I never did. That was a no-no for us. I was the prize for them. It's as simple as that.
But it started out as a bagman, a chauffeur. It started out popping a few heads. Then you moved onto the heavy stuff, which I won't get into, but in order to become an associate… I think the whole world knows what you got to do.
What was your day-to-day life like as an enforcer in the mob?
There was days that you did what you wanted to do and there's days that you got with the crew. I was one of those guys that if I was needed I was there, Johnny on the spot. We made our rounds everyday. There was always somebody that didn't pay, or somebody that was stepping out of line. It was almost a full-time job, and then it wasn't. There was time to play, too. Today you went to a man's bar and you might have collected the money. You might have given him until tomorrow to do it. For the third day, you might have had to give him a little attention.
There was a card game. There was drinking. There was the racetrack, and then I had a business to run. I had a couple of small businesses, and that was almost required to give you a good front. In other words, we weren't sitting down. All of our days were 14-hour days, some of them were 15-hour days. Some of them were 24-hour days. We were always looking for that new thing, or that thing to protect our thing, which was La Cosa Nostra, or the Mafia. There basically wasn't a routine. It was whatever [we had] to take care of that day.
I don't think a lot of people realize how powerful the mob was back in the 60s and 70s. What was the day-to-day like, and how did it decline so drastically?
Back then, if you become a member of a street crew, you started at the bottom as a foot soldier, then you started climbing the ladder. If you went to jail, you kept your mouth shut. There was money for everybody. It was clannish. It was almost impossible to bring an outsider in. There was a code and you lived and died by it. That’s the way it was. But in the mid 70s, drugs came about and everything changed. The mobster got cocky, got flamboyant. The old guard wanted to fly under the radar, not be seen, not be flashy. If you had money you didn't get on the street corner and flash your gold or your silver. You went home and you took care of your family. It's a whole different world now.
The mob died in the 70s. Everybody started rolling on each other. Times changed, the world changed, the people changed. Today, there's no honor among thieves, as they say. Everybody's out for themselves. There were so many killings in the 70s and 80s that they actually killed each other. You lose members and all of a sudden, there's no new recruits, and the mob is just about gone.
How did you catch the murder beef in West Virginia?
I refused to testify and they stuck the beef on me. I would not testify against Bob Duff and at that time, if they couldn't get one, they'd get the other. Bob went there to settle the score with Dick Spry and it got settled with three slugs to the back of his head. I was in the car at the time. I did five years for that. I had to plead guilty to second-degree murder, or else I would have a life sentence stuck on me. I basically had nothing to do with it. I was just there trying to calm it down, and I went with Zazzetti. Tocco sent him down there to take care of it. I saw it happen. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Looking back now, do you feel lucky you got out alive?
That's a part of my life I wish I’d never been involved in. Yes, I made money. Yes, I had a good living, and yes, I was under the spell. You get to where you're a kid and you don't know anything else. It's the time in prison that gave me time to think: Do I want to do this? Or do I not want to do it? There was so many killed that yes, I was afraid. A man would be a fool if he wasn't afraid. Prison actually saved me.
*Correction 07/12/18: A previous version of this story said Zazzetti died in 2005. We regret the error.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about Hager's book, out July 12, here.
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