“Big Ange” and the Death of the Cleveland Mafia
In 1983, Angelo Lonardo, 72, one-time Cleveland Mafia boss, turned government informant. He shocked family, friends, law enforcement officers and particularly, criminal associates with his decision which was made after being sentenced to life plus 103 years for drug and racketeering convictions. The sentence came after a monumental investigation by local, state and federal agencies had all but wiped out the Cleveland Mafia.
“Big Ange” as he was called, was the highest ranking mafioso to defect. He testified in 1985 at the Las Vegas casino “skimming” trials in Kansas City and in 1986 at the New York Mafia “ruling commission” trials. Many of the nation’s biggest mob leaders were convicted as a result of these trials.
During his testimony, Lonardo told how at age 18, he avenged his father’s murder by killing the man believed to be responsible. He further testified that after that murder, he was responsible for the killings of several of the Porrello brothers, business rivals of his father during Prohibition.
Birth of the Cleveland Mafia
During the late eighteen hundreds, the four Lonardo brothers and seven Porrello brothers were boyhood friends and fellow sulphur mine workers in their hometown of Licata, Sicily. They came to America in the early nineteen hundreds and eventually settled in the Woodland district of Cleveland. They remained close friends. Several of the Porrello and Lonardo brothers worked together in small businesses.
Lonardo clan leader “Big Joe” became a successful businessman and community leader in the lower Woodland Avenue area. During Prohibition, he became successful as a dealer in corn sugar which was used by bootleggers to make corn liquor. “Big Joe” provided stills and raw materials to the poor Italian district residents. They would make the booze and “Big Joe” would buy it back giving them a commission. He was respected and feared as a “padrone” or godfather. “Big Joe” became the leader of a powerful and vicious gang and was known as the corn sugar “baron.” Joe Porrello was one of his corporals.
The First Bloody Corner
With the advent of Prohibition, Cleveland, like other big cities, experienced a wave of bootleg-related murders. The murders of Louis Rosen, Salvatore Vella, August Rini and several others produced the same suspects, but no indictments. These suspects were members of the Lonardo gang. Several of the murders occurred at the corner of E. 25th and Woodland Ave. This intersection became known as the “bloody corner.”
By this time, Joe Porrello had left the employ of the Lonardos to start his own sugar wholesaling business.
Porrello and his six brothers pooled their money and eventually became successful corn sugar dealers headquartered in the upper Woodland Avenue area around E. 110th Street.
With small competitors, sugar dealers and bootleggers, mysteriously dying violent deaths, the Lonardos’ business flourished as they gained a near monopoly on the corn sugar business. Their main competitors were their old friends the Porrellos.
Raymond Porrello, youngest of his brothers was arrested by undercover federal agents for arranging a sale of 100 gallons of whiskey at the Porrello-owned barbershop at E. 110th and Woodland. He was sentenced to the Dayton, Oh. Workhouse.
The Porrello brothers paid the influential “Big Joe” Lonardo $5,000 to get Raymond out of prison. “Big Joe”
failed in his attempt but never returned the $5,000.
Meanwhile, Ernest Yorkell and Jack Brownstein, small-time self-proclaimed “tough guys” from Philadelphia arrived in Cleveland. Yorkell and Brownstein were shakedown artists, and their intended victims were Cleveland bootleggers, who got a chuckle out of how the two felt it necessary to explain that they were tough. Real tough guys didn’t need to tell people that they were tough. After providing Cleveland gangsters with a laugh, Yorkell and Brownstein were taken on a “one-way ride.”
Corn Sugar and Blood
“Big Joe” Lonardo in 1926, now at the height of his wealth and power left for Sicily to visit his mother and
relatives. He left his closest brother and business partner John in charge.
During “Big Joe’s” six-month absence, he lost much of his $5,000 a week profits to the Porrellos who took advantage of John Lonardo’s lack of business skills and the assistance of a disgruntled Lonardo employee. “Big Joe” returned and business talks between the Porrellos and Lonardos began.
They “urged” the Porrellos to return their lost clientele.
On Oct. 13th, 1927 “Big Joe” and John Lonardo went to the Porrello barbershop to play cards and talk business with Angelo Porrello as they had been doing for the past week. As the Lonardos entered the rear room of the shop, two gunmen opened fire. Angelo Porrello ducked under a table.
Cleveland’s underworld lost its’ first boss as “Big Joe” went down with three bullets in his head. John Lonardo was shot in the chest and groin but drew his gun and managed to pursue the attackers through the barbershop. He dropped his gun in the shop but continued chasing the gunmen into the street where one of them turned, and out of bullets, struck Lonardo in the head several times with the butt of his gun. John fell unconscious and bled to death.
The Porrello brothers were arrested. Angelo was charged with the Lonardo brothers’ murders. The charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. Joe Porrello succeeded the Lonardos as corn sugar “baron” and later appointed himself “capo” of the Cleveland Mafia.
The Cleveland Meeting
The trail of bootleg blood continued to flow with numerous murders stemming from the Porrello-Lonardo conflict.
Lawrence Lupo, a former Lonardo bodyguard was killed after he let it be known that he wanted to take over the Lonardos’ corn sugar business.
Anthony Caruso, a butcher who saw the Lonardos’ killers escape was shot and killed. It was believed that he knew the identities of the gunmen and was going to reveal them to police.
On Dec. 5th, 1928, Joe Porrello and his lieutenant and bodyguard Sam Tilocco hosted the first known major meeting of the Mafia at Cleveland’s Hotel Statler. Many major Mafia leaders from Chicago to New York to Florida were invited. The meeting was raided before it actually began.
Joe Profaci, leader of a Brooklyn, N.Y. Mafia family was the most well-known of the gangsters arrested. Within a few hours, to the astonishment of police and court officials, Joe Porrello gathered thirty family members and friends who put up their houses as collateral for the gangsters’ bonds. Profaci was bailed out personally by Porrello. A great controversy over the validity of the bonds followed.
Several theories have been given as to why the meeting was called. First, it was thought that the gangsters, local presidents of the Unione Siciliane, an immigrant aid society infiltrated by the Mafia, were there to elect a new national president. Their previous president, Frankie Yale had been recently killed by order of Chicago’s notorious Al Capone. Second, it was believed that the meeting may have been called
to organize the highly lucrative corn sugar industry. It was also said that the men were there to “confirm” Joe Porrello as “capo” of Cleveland.
Capone, a non-Sicilian was reported to be in Cleveland for the meeting. He left soon after his arrival at the
advice of associates who said that the Sicilians did not want him there.
The Second Bloody Corner
As Joe Porrello’s power and wealth grew, heirs and close associates to the Lonardo brothers grew hot for revenge.
Angelo Lonardo, “Big Joe’s” 18-year-old son along with his mother and his cousin, drove to the corner of E. 110th and Woodland, the Porrello stronghold. There Angelo sent word that his mother wanted to speak to Salvatore “Black Sam” Todaro. Todaro, now a Porrello lieutenant, had worked for Angelo’s father and was believed to be responsible for his murder. In later years it was believed that he was actually one of the gunmen.
As Todaro approached to speak with Mrs. Lonardo whom he respected, Angelo pulled out a gun and emptied it into “Black Sam’s stocky frame. Todaro crumpled to the sidewalk and died.
Angelo and his cousin disappeared for several months reportedly being hid in Chicago courtesy of Lonardo friend Al Capone. Later it was believed that Angelo spent time in California with his uncle Dominick, fourth Lonardo brother who fled west when indicted for a payroll robbery murder in 1921.
Eventually Angelo and his cousin were arrested and charged with “Black Sam’s” murder. For the first time in Cleveland’s bootleg murder history justice was served as both young men were convicted and sentenced to life. Justice although served would be shortlived as they would be released only a year and a half later after winning a new trial.
Rise of the Mayfield Road Mob
On October 20th, 1929, Frank Lonardo, brother to “Big Joe” and John was shot to death while playing cards. Two theories were given for his death; that it was in revenge for the murder of “Black Sam” Todaro and, that he was killed for not paying gambling debts. Mrs. Frank Lonardo, when told of
her husband’s murder screamed, “I’ll get them. I’ll get them myself if I have to kill a whole regiment!”
By 1929, Little Italy crime boss Frank Milano had risen to power as leader of his own gang, “The Mayfield Road Mob.” Milano’s group was made up in part of remnants of the Lonardo gang and was also associated with the powerful “Cleveland Syndicate,” Morrie Kleinman, Moe Dalitz, Sam Tucker and Louis Rothkopf. The Cleveland Syndicate was responsible for most of the Canadian booze imported via Lake Erie. In later years they got into the casino business. One of the their largest and most profitable enterprises was construction of the Desert Inn Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. Dalitz would become known as the “Godfather of Las Vegas.”
Joe Porrello admired Milano’s political organization, the East End Bi-Partisan Political Club and, seeing the value in such influence, wanted to ally himself with the group. Milano refused. Later, Porrello was reported to have affiliated himself with the newly formed 21st District Republican Club. He hoped to organize the Woodland Avenue voters as Milano was doing on Mayfield road.
More Corn Sugar and Blood
By 1930, Milano had grown quite powerful. He had gone so far as to demand a piece of the lucrative Porrello corn sugar business. On July 5th, 1930, Porrello received a phonecall from Milano who had requested a conference at his Venetian Restaurant on Mayfield Road. Sam Tilocco and Joe Porrello’s brother Raymond urged him not to go.
At about 2:00 p.m., Joe Porrello and Sam Tilocco arrived at Milano’s restaurant and speakeasy. Porrello, Tilocco, and Frank Milano sat down in the restaurant and discussed business. Several of Milano’s henchmen sat nearby. The atmosphere was tense as Porrello refused to accede to Milano’s demands.
Porrello reached into his pocket for his watch to check the time. Two of Milano’s men, possibly believing that Porrello was reaching for his gun opened fire. Porrello died instantly woth three bullets in his head Simultaneously, a third member of Milano’s gang fired at Tilocco who was struck three times but managed to stagger out the door toward his new Cadillac. He fell to the ground as the gunmen pursued him, finishing him off with another six bullets.
Frank Milano and several of his restaurant employees were arrested but only charged with being suspicious persons. The gunmen were never actually identified. Only one witness was present in the saloon when the shooting started. He was Frank Joiner, a slot machine distributor whose only testimony was that he “thought” he saw Frank Milano in the restaurant during the murders.
Cleveland’s aggressive and outspoken Safety Director Edwin Barry, frustrated by the continually rising number of bootleg murders, ordered all known sugar warehouses to be padlocked. He ordered a policeman to be detailed at each one to make sure that no sugar was brought in or removed.
Meanwhile, the six Porrello brothers donned black silk shirts and ties and buried their most successful brother. The showy double gangster funeral was one the largest Cleveland had ever seen. Two bands and thirty-three cars overloaded with flowers led the procession of the slain don and his bodyguard. Over two hundred fifty automobiles containing family and friends followed. Thousands of mourners and curious on-lookers lined the sidewalks.
Cleveland’s underworld was tense with rumors of imminent warfare. Porrello brother Vincente-James spoke openly of wiping out everyone responsible for his brother’s murder.
Three weeks after his brother’s murder, Jim Porrello still wore a black shirt as he entered the I & A grocery and meat market at E. 110th Street and Woodland. As he picked out lamb chops at the meat counter, a Ford touring car, its’ curtains tightly drawn, cruised slowly past the store. A couple of shotguns poked out and two lasts of buckshot were fired, one through the front window of the store and one through the front screen door.
The amateur gunmen got lucky. Two pellets found the back of Porrello’s head and entered his brain. He was rushed to the hospital.
“I think maybe they’ll kill all us Porrellos”
“I think maybe they’ll kill all us Porrellos. I think maybe they will kill all of us except Rosario. They can’t
kill him – he’s in jail.” Thus Ottavio Porrello grimly but calmly predicted the probable fate of he and his brothers as he waited outside Jim’s hospital room. Jim Porrello died at 5:55 p.m.
Two local petty gangsters were arrested and charged with murder. One was discharged by directed verdict and the other was acquitted. Like almost all of Cleveland’s bootleg related murders, the killers never saw justice.
About this time, it was rumored that the Porrello brothers were marked for extermination. The surviving
brothers went into hiding. Raymond, known for his cocky attitude and hot temper spoke like his brother James did of seeking revenge. Raymond was smarter though, he took active measures to protect himself.
On August 15th, 1930, three weeks after James Porrello’s murder, Raymond Porrello’s house was leveled in a violent explosion. He was not home at the time since he had taken his family and abandoned his home in anticipation of the attack.
Four days later Frank Alessi, a witness to the murder of “Big Joe” Lonardo’s brother Frank, was gunned down. From his death bed, he identified Frank Brancato as his assailant. Brancato was known mainly as a Lonardo supporter and suspect in several murders. Brancato was acquitted of Alessi’s murder.
In March of 1931, Rosario Porrello was paroled from Ohio’s London Prison Farm where he had served one year for carrying a gun in his car.
In mid-1931, National Mafia “capo di tutti capi” (boss of all bosses) Salvatore Maranzano was killed. His murder set in motion the formation of the first Mafia National Ruling Commission created to stop the numerous murders resulting from conflicts between and within Mafia families and to promote application of modern business practices to crime.
Charles “Lucky” Luciano was the main developer of the commission and was named chairman. Also named to the commission were Al Capone of Chicago, Joe Profaci of Brooklyn and Frank Milano of Cleveland.
In Dec. of 1931, Angelo Lonardo and his cousin Dominic Suspirato were released from prison after being acquitted of “Black Sam” Todaro’s murder during a second trial. Because he had avenged his father’s death and (for the most part) gotten away with it, he became a respected member of Frank Milano’s Mayfield Road Mob.
The thirst for revenge had not been satisfied for members of the Lonardo family. It was generally believed
that “Black Sam” Todaro instigated and perhaps took part in the murders of “Big Joe” and John Lonardo. However it was believed by members of the Lonardo family that the remaining Porrello brothers, particularly the volatile John and Raymond and eldest brother Rosario still posed a threat because of
the murders of Joe and James Porrello.
On Feb. 25th, 1932 Raymond Porrello, his brother Rosario and their bodyguard Dominic Gulino (known also by several aliases) were playing cards near E. 110th and Woodland Avenue. The front door burst open and in a hail of bullets the Porrello brothers, their bodyguard and a bystander went down. The Porrellos died at the scene. Gulino died a couple of hours later. The bystander eventually recovered from his
Several hours after the murders, Frank Brancato, with a bullet in his stomach, dragged himself into St. John’s hospital on Cleveland’s west side. He claimed he was shot in a street fight on the west side. A few days later, tests on the bullet taken from Brancato revealed that it came from a gun found at the Porrello brothers murder scene. Although never convicted of either of the murders, Brancato was convicted of perjury for lying to a Grand Jury about his whereabouts during the murder. He served four years after a one to ten year sentence was commuted by Governor Martin L. Davey.
In 1933, Prohibition was repealed. The bootleg murders mostly stopped as organized crime moved into other enterprises. Angelo Lonardo continued his crime career as a respected member of the Cleveland family eventually rising through the ranks to run the northeast Ohio rackets in 1980.
In early 1933, in a sequel to the tragedy of the large Porrello family, Rosario’s son Angelo, 21, was killed in a fight over a pool game in Buffalo. It was said that he and his Uncle John were there trying to muscle in on the corn liquor business.