One of the many elaborate flower arrangements in Vito Rizzuto's funeral cortege. Photos by Patrick Lejtenyi.
They don’t make mob bosses like Vito Rizzuto anymore. That’s what the experts say, anyway.
When Montreal crime lord Vito Rizzuto died last week at age 67 of lung cancer, it wasn't just the passing of an old-school gangster; it was the end of an era. Vito was the kind of Mafioso that you only saw in the movies: a sober, cool-headed, respected, circumspect kind of criminal who is thought to have controlled much of the illegal narcotics trade in North America, benefitting from international connections and a legacy that built on the ground laid down by his father Nicolo. As the (sometimes) undisputed ruler of Montreal’s criminal class, Vito Rizzuto was as close Vito Corleone as we were going to get.
And now he’s gone, with a send-off befitting his stature as Canada’s best-known criminal. On a frigid Monday afternoon, limos with lavish floral arrangements pulled up outside the Madonna della Difesa Catholic church in the heart of Montreal’s Little Italy. A media horde was across the street, shivering as they positioned themselves for photos and asking curious passers-by what brought them out. “Curiosity,” most of them answered. And why not: Rizzuto, who’d just returned home after serving eight years behind US bars on a triple murder charge, died unexpectedly. Few people outside a select group of intimates and maybe the cops knew he was sick. By all appearances, he was back as king of the underworld, leaving bodies in his wake as he re-established himself as boss. As he predicted upon his arrest, his incarceration led to a vicious spate of killings as factions within Canadian organised crime jockeyed for control.
The fighting hit him close to home. In November 2009, his son Nick Jr. was gunned down on a street in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace district. In May 2010 his brother-in-law Paolo Renda disappeared. That December, his father was killed by a sniper’s bullet fired through his kitchen window. Both murdered Rizzutos had their funeral services at Madonna della Difesa. At least some of those responsible paid for their ambition with their lives, with at least nine murders following Rizzuto’s return.
So after having worked so hard (and killed so many) to get back where he felt he belonged, Rizzuto’s victory lap was suddenly cut short. It's hard to say what will come next. Some experts are predicting more bloodshed, especially if Rizzuto left a successor. Author Antonio Nicaso, who will be publishing a book on the crime family next year, thinks Rizzuto’s primary goal after his release was vengeance, and that if the mobster left someone to carry on his work we can expect more bodies – and more headlines. Avoiding that, Antonio told me, is the key to rebuilding the family’s fortunes and influence. Both have been badly damaged by the revelations coming out of the Charbonneau Commission into links between the mob and the province’s construction industry.
Another ballerific botanical tribute.
If, on the other hand, a sort of council of elders takes over, Antonio thinks the Mafia will be able to dust itself off and get back to worming its way into all facets of Quebec society. “The future of the Mafia cannot rely on violence,” he told me. “It is built on a network of relationships. Without relationships, the Mafia is just another criminal organisation, and that’s not what the Mafia is about. It will always choose power over money. If it just goes for money, it’s no different from the street gangs.”
Retired SQ (Sûreté Du Quebec, Quebec's provinicial police force) investigator Francois Doré said the next weeks and months will show what’s in store for the mob. But the vacuum left by the man he and others call the real Last Don will be tough to avoid.
“He had a lot of respect all over Canada. He was the one who was able to act between motorcycle gangs and street gangs,” he said. Rizzuto was also instrumental in ending the bloody biker war of the mid-1990s between the Hells Angels and the Rock Machine by brokering a criminal consortium that was unique at the time. “He was very powerful.”
Antonio, for one, thinks there might be a secret sigh of relief blowing through the criminal milieu now that Rizzuto is dead. “Revenge was a personal issue for him,” he said. Without him, the Mafia can rebuild its connections and focus on business, not blood. “You can’t kill people and add more violence and at the same time rebuild connections with politicians, with businessmen, with bankers,” he added. “If you are constantly on the front page, constantly on the police radar, constantly under media scrutiny, you will lose those relationships.”
Nevertheless, Antonio considers Rizzuto as a man ahead of his time. “He was able to internationalise the Montreal Mafia,” he said. “Before, it was a branch of the Bonnano family, an appendix of New York. He knew everything and everyone and built a strong network of relationships. That helped him reconsolidate his grip on the Montreal underworld in less than a year.”