Today, Cleveland is best known as the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Cleveland Clinic. Plus, their pro sports teams the Indians, Cavaliers, and Browns. The town and its weather are harsh, face-first against the cold winter winds that constantly blow from Lake Erie. Not the most inviting atmosphere, but in the 1920s, Cleveland, sitting close to Detroit, Michigan, and so near Canada, was a place of joy and certain prosperity for the toughest rum runners and mobsters. And despite government efforts, liquor from Canada flowed like Niagara Falls to Detroit and Cleveland.
As organized crime took hold in the US, a meeting of 50 families and crime organizations was set for Cleveland – even before Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Atlantic City, and finally, Apalachin, New York. But the local cops stumbled upon the early arrivers and foiled the gathering as they did in Apalachin. After that 1928 happenstance, the police rarely had much luck with the Mayfield Road Gang – named for the Little Italy section of Mayfield Road.
The Gang proliferated and became a powerful local crime syndicate in the 1920s and 1930s through bootlegging and illegal gambling.
And how did they reach the top of the ladder? By killing off their competitors, of course. Starting with the November 13, 1924, killing of Louis Rosen at his home (1056 East 97th Street).
Rosen was an enterprising man, making a bundle in backyard booze. Still, his life was cut short – along with his brother-in-law’s, Adolph Adelson – when assassins caught the men in a crossfire while exiting their car at 12:30 am along their driveway.
Big Joe Lonardo, a 300-pound Sicilian immigrant, took down the small-time cookers. The bootlegger owned garages all over town filled with sacks of corn sugar for cooking mash and fermenting into raw spirits. His Shaker Heights home on Larchmere Road cost $75,000 in 1923. He paid cash.
But sometimes luck and timing are more important than size. While his bodyguards were being held for a different double-murder, several of the seven Porello brothers caught the big guy without protection in Ottavio Porello’s barbershop on Woodland Ave. It wasn’t a close shave, but it took seven shots to bring Lonardo down. His murder went unsolved.
As often happens when big money is involved, a trusted lieutenant, Black Sam Trodaro, sets up Lonardo. But in a different twist, Big Joe’s wife, Concetta, and their son Angelo made the last statement.
They plotted for months before pulling their car up the corner of East 110th and Woodland, calling Trodaro to the car window, and putting five bullets into his chest and face.
Concietta Lonardo was arrested the next day, but a jury refused to convict her. Even the straights knew the score in Cleveland.
Still, the rum-running competition was fierce, and Joe Porello and his bodyguard Sam Tilocca were gunned down on July 5, 1930, as they sat drinking in a bar along Mayfield Road. Three weeks later, brother James Porello was killed in a drive-by shooting that sliced his body in half and shattered store windows for fifty feet. But the agony wasn’t over.
Instead of the Porello family moving into national prominence, Frank Milano (who owned the bar Joe was killed in) was invited to join the National Crime Syndicate by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky in 1931.
A year later, Milano’s men killed Ray and Rosario Porrello and their bodyguard Dominic Gueli while they played cards in a cigar shop at 11103 Woodland Ave. There was a lull in killing, but Milano took his cash to Mexico in 1935 rather than serve time for tax evasion, so Alfred Polizzi was boss until he was convicted of tax evasion in 1944.
At about that time, John Scalish took control as the Cleveland mob boss. He maintained a strong relationship with Meyer Lansky and the Chicago Outfit and New York Genovese crime family. To that end, he reigned for over 30 years. In between, the FBI took a greater interest in Cleveland, opening a field office in the 1940s and surveilling known criminals.
In the background during the 1930s and 1940s, the Cleveland Syndicate, composed of Moe Dalitz, Morris Kleinman, Louis Rothkopf, and Samuel Tucker, organized Buckeye Enterprises and transformed their bootlegging operations from laundry fronts to real laundries, nightclubs, pinball routes, and illegal casinos that gave them huge profits.
Their operations were also owned by Mayfield Road Gang members John Angersola, Tommy McGinty, Chuck, and Al Polizzi. As detailed in Vegas and the Chicago Outfit, a significant amount of money was made at casinos like the Thomas Club and Ohio Villa, which the FBI regarded as “Swank night clubs, both notorious gambling resorts located near Cleveland in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.”
A 1939 FBI memo noted that both of Dalitz’s clubs had been “Entirely renovated in order to provide additional space and facilities for its patrons, including the installation of a cooling system at the Durham Road location of the Thomas Club, Maple Heights, Ohio.”
The memo continued, “Moe Davis (Dalitz) has been indicated as a close and intimate associate of Louis Buchalter. This same gang is said to be in control of gambling, policy, and other rackets in Cuyahoga and adjacent counties and in other cities, including Miami, Florida, where the Frolics Club is operated during the winter season. Thomas McGinty is another member of the “Cleveland Syndicate” who owned a gambling casino in Miami, Florida, in 1939 named Carter’s Casino and the Fairgrounds Race Track in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1945, he was a director of the Arena in Cleveland, a professional sports and special events center. He was one of the owners of the Mounds Club in Lake County, Ohio, and had an interest in the Beverly Hills Country Club in Newport, Kentucky. In 1945, he operated slot machines on an excursion boat off Cleveland.”
However, only Moe Dalitz and his three partners wanted to expand to Las Vegas.
When the four businessmen funded the Desert Inn along the Las Vegas Strip, they cut back on their Cleveland operations but contributed skimmed profits to the Cleveland family for protection and helped support the city’s illegal gambling, bookmaking, loan sharking, and labor rackets in northern Ohio.
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