Saturday, July 27, 2013

Shadowy Connections - The Mafia in Milwaukee
Is the Mafia still in Milwaukee? Was it ever in Milwaukee?

Thanks to and written by By Chuck Nowlen Link provided below:
Published January 30, 2003

They wouldn’t break in until the last guy was gone. Then it went like clockwork. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom.
Seven bugs in all – each planted by FBI cat burglars in the wee hours of the morning. One in a first-floor office at the Shorecrest Hotel on Prospect Avenue. Another at Snugg’s restaurant across the hall. One at another restaurant on Jackson Street. Four in Frank Balistrieri’s phones.
And that was just for starters. This was the biggest FBI mob hunt in Milwaukee’s history after all. They wanted Balistrieri bad.
So it was nine months around the clock, beginning in October, 1979: 12 agents with backups; a stack of court orders; endless undercover work and a cadre of snitches; tedious days of waiting. They even set up a dummy "competing" vending company to attract Balistrieri muscle.
And nobody ever forgot that except for a one-year tax-evasion rap in the ‘60s, cagey old “Frankie Bals” had made them all look like chumps in the past.
Some 7,000 wiretapped conversations later, the feds raided Balistrieri’s home and other locations on March 5, 1980; and a four-year court battle was on.

They said he’d ordered and threatened murders. They said he’d skimmed millions from casinos in Las Vegas, sharing it with bosses in Chicago, Cleveland and Kansas City. They said the Teamsters pension fund was in Frank Balistrieri’s pocket, as was local vending and more. They said he put Milwaukee big-time on the national Mafia map.
And after two banner-headline trials in Milwaukee and Kansas City, the 67-year-old Balistrieri got 13 years for conspiracy and extortion – the FBI finally had its man. He died of a heart attack on Feb. 13, 1993, about a year after his release. Sons John and Joseph ended up serving three years as well, losing their law licenses in the process.

And to think, just a decade or so before the Balistrieri investigation began, both J. Edgar Hoover and Milwaukee Police Chief Harold Breier had declared that the Mafia didn’t exist.

frank balistrieri
"lefty guns" ruggerio

Big Questions
But did it really exist in Milwaukee –- at least as extensively as the government said it did -- under a far-reaching Balistrieri hand? And, more importantly, in the wake of a massive FBI sweep that took down almost every major mobster in America just a few short years ago in the ‘90s, is the Mafia still at work in Milwaukee today?
Is it behind all those adult shops lining the Interstate between Milwaukee and Chicago? Internet porn and gambling? How about telemarketing and cigarette tax schemes?
Is it mostly security fraud and predatory business deals now – where you lose your property deed, not your life, if you cross a mob financier? Are restaurants and taverns still feeling the mob pinch?
Is behind-the-scenes mob money fueling the local drug trade and rackets run by other organized-crime groups, with the profits carefully laundered through the syndicate’s legitimate businesses?
And, if so, as Enron and other recent scandals have taught us, where exactly are the lines that separate government, capitalism and organized crime, anyway?
The More Things Change?
“C’mon, Milwaukee’s only 70 minutes away. Do you really believe the mob would leave a town like that alone?” laughs Chicago lawyer David Schippers, a former US attorney who helped convict Sam “Momo” Giancana in the 1960s. Schippers is now in private practice and defended an accused Chi Town mobster as recently as six months ago.

Giancana’s Chicago “Outfit” meanwhile – believed to have had a big hand in the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 – has long been assumed to be calling the big-picture mob shots in Milwaukee, Schippers notes. And recent mob-related sentencings in Chicago-suburb Cicero, for example, he says, point to a transformed, but still potent, Mafia reach to Milwaukee today.
“As Chicago goes, so goes Milwaukee – that’s just the way it is,” adds former FBI agent Mike DeMarco, the bureau’s point man in the ‘80s Balistrieri investigation.

What’s more, Schippers, DeMarco and many others insist, the Mafia learned its lesson from the domino fall of high-profile bosses like the late John Gotti, who thumbed his nose at the cops and curried favor with the media, while still wielding murderous old-time muscle.
“They’ve learned that when you commit violence, you’ll just get more law enforcement,” explains current FBI agent Ted Wasky, who worked on the famous “Pizza Connection” money-laundering case in the ‘80s – which, by the way, included one restaurant in tiny Milton, Wis. just an hour's drive west. “It’s evolved into things more like stock fraud, money laundering and Securities and Exchange Commission violations.”

Or, as FBI union-racketeering informant Ronald Fino testified before a congressional subcommittee on crime in 1996: “Many creative members and associates … are no longer adorned in fedoras, and you will find that they are well-educated and take full advantage of that education and the monies they have accumulated. Today, you will find the mob is as reliant on public relations firms as it is with its high-powered attorneys and accountants.”
Gone, agrees Schippers, are some of the ways of ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s kingpins who are now “either dead or in the shithouse, or hobbling around with walkers.” Instead, it’s seemingly legit businessmen in “pin-striped suits and white shirts.”

“Try to open a restaurant or a nightclub. You’ll find out real quick whether there’s still a mob,” Schippers says. “You might start getting visits. A guy’ll come in one day and ask you, ‘Who does your cleaning? Well, we’ve got a cleaning guy right out here for you.’ They’ll infiltrate like that little-by-little. And if you say no, just try and get your laundry picked up. Try and get your liquor delivered. Then maybe (mob) guys even start causing trouble at your place, and, pretty soon, it’s the cops who have a (regulatory) gun to your head too.”
Chicago private investigator and former FBI agent Pete Wacks puts it this way: “As long as something’s working and making money for the mob, that’s the bottom line in all this.”

Milwaukee County Supervisor Gerry Broderick, meanwhile, thinks there’s still mob money to be made in a cigarette-tax scheme that he’s convinced he documented while working in the state Department of Revenue about 20 years ago.
Capitalizing on tax differentials between Wisconsin and other states, the scheme goes like this: Mob operatives buy semis full of cigarette cartons in low-tax states, then truck them to high-tax Wisconsin – paying off weigh-station workers and other officials along the way.
Once the cartons are here, Wisconsin tax stamps are forged, and the merchandise is sold at a huge profit. Broderick estimates that the payoff might have been as high as $100,000 per semi in the ‘80s.

“There would be minimal risk; the criminal penalties wouldn’t exactly stagger anyone,” he says. “I remember showing my flow charts and everything to the agents who took custody of them, and those agents were just taken aback as they looked at all my evidence. … But nothing ever came of it, which I found curious.”

Broderick adds: “To assume that something like this has just gone away would be a mistake because, if anything, the tax differentials have gotten bigger, and the penalties have gotten less stringent. And where there’s money like this to be made, I’ve got to believe that somebody will make it.”
Schippers and Wacks see highway porn shops as another plausibility.
“Just a few years ago, some guy opened up a men’s club with a lingerie shop, just outside of Chicago,” Schippers notes. “And he started getting visits. Pretty soon they were constant, and pretty soon he was out of business. … I don’t think there’s any porn in the United States that doesn’t at least pay tribute to the mob.”

Many also see cooperation between the mob and other ethnic organized-crime groups: the African-Americans, the Eastern Europeans and Russians; the Latinos, the Asians and the rest. In America, ethnicity is a matter of survival; no group is immune to organized crime. But now, many experts say, the new Mafia’s presence is kept well off the radar.

“Some people say that in 10 to 15 years, the Outfit as we know it will be dominated by blacks,” Schippers says of Chicago, where African-American gangs got all the big headlines during the ‘90s and early 2000s.

W.K. Williams, the new head of the FBI Organized Crime Section in Washington, D.C., adds telemarketing scams and Internet and offshore-based gambling to the Mafia’s new “white collar” profile.

“I won’t be specific about the numbers, but there are some L.C.N. (La Cosa Nostra, or “This Thing of Ours”) members in the Milwaukee area,” Williams says. “I just wouldn’t like to characterize what we may or may not be doing there. Basically, I don’t want to give them any information to use.”
Self-Perpetuating Myths?
None of this, however, washes with noted Milwaukee lawyer Jim Shellow, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who has represented many local organized-crime suspects during his long career – including Balistrieri relatives and associates. Shellow thinks the government often sees only what it wants to see – a sophisticated network – when something much less organized is at work, if it exists at all.

And, Shellow insists, FBI investigators have a vested interest in justifying the scope of the activities they look into, often at a steep budgetary and manpower cost.
“The hard data I have – and this is based on experience, not only in Milwaukee, but in Chicago, New York, Denver, Philadelphia and Las Vegas – I never saw what has been defined as the Mafia in Milwaukee, and I don’t see it now.
“I never saw evidence of extortion or evidence of organized hijacking. I never saw domination of construction trade unions or the Teamsters, or the hotel/restaurant workers or bartenders. I never saw domination of laundry businesses or garbage and trash collectors – or narcotics or prostitution. And I never saw organized-crime domination of gambling or stores that peddle adult material.”

“Yes,” says Shellow, “there certainly were narcotics dealings in Milwaukee. There was gambling conducted in Milwaukee and a lot of other things. But I never saw either Italian influence or, indeed, any Italian interest in dominating it.”

In Shellow’s eyes – and those of several other sources interviewed for this story – even the successful Balistrieri investigation was based on a politically driven, self-perpetuating myth. And, once the government trains its sights on you, there’s no turning back – not then and not now. These are more than investigations, after all; they’re million-dollar budget items and political careers.

“Robert Kennedy certainly had information that Frank Balistrieri associated with people who were identified as organized-crime figures in Chicago, New York, Las Vegas and Kansas City,” Shellow says. “But I think the attorney general drew the inference that those who were friends of organized-crime figures are by definition involved in organized crime themselves.”
Bugs, Bugs Everywhere
As early as the 1960s, a government-wary time when FBI surveillance also often focuses on private citizens’ political activities, a young Joe Balistrieri found a microphone in his father’s office. The bug was later suppressed as evidence in his father’s ‘60s tax case after it was discovered that the government had used the device improperly.

“It’s like a cancer eating away at the foundations of the (legal) system,” the younger Balistrieri later told Milwaukee Sentinel reporter William Janz in 1974, insisting that his office and home were still being bugged – five years before his father’s extortion and conspiracy investigation formally began. “The big ear, the giant ear, is here.”

Joe Balistrieri, who still lives on Milwaukee’s East Side, declined to be interviewed for this story.
“And I hope this doesn’t keep me from being appointed to the Supreme Court,” he joked during a brief, but cordial telephone conversation.
When told about others’ suspicions about the presence of a new Mafia in town, he added, “If I’ve learned one thing in my 62 years, it’s that every point of view has a constituency.”

Even hard-boiled FBI investigators have to admit that at times, they’ve been charmed by their Mafia targets. Retired Milwaukee agent Fred Thorne, another key player in the Balistrieri case, says mob humor might be the most realistic aspect of the hit TV show, “The Sopranos.”
“I’ve met some people in the Mafia who were vicious, but they also were hilarious,” Thorne says. Usually, it was the mobsters’ strange mix of ruthlessness, sophistication and naiveté.

One example: big-time New York Mafioso Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggerio (played by Al Pacino in the movie “Donnie Brasco”), who gazed at the Lake Michigan horizon during a visit to Milwaukee and asked a Balistrieri-case undercover agent, “Hey, what ocean is this?”
Later, during a seaside conversation in Atlantic City, the reputedly murderous Ruggerio asked another agent, “So, is this the same ocean that’s in New York?

Bodies In Beer Town
Retired Milwaukee detective Bob Blackburn and his partner, the late Ray Koehler, made up the city’s colorful “Body Squad” homicide-investigation team for more than two decades. And Blackburn remembers well the old days here, when apparent mob hits left corpses on the streets from time to time.

But Blackburn, too, is skeptical that the organized crime scene was as cut-and-dried in Milwaukee as it was sometimes made out to be“We had murders here, lots of them. But nothing Ray and I worked on was ever proven to be mob- or Mafia-related,” says Blackburn, who left the police force in 1980. “When you’re talking about the mob or the Mafia, you have to take this into account: These guys aren’t dummies. Now I’m not saying there’s no organized crime in Milwaukee. But to say the Mafia’s in Milwaukee – well, how do you prove something like that?”

Three suspicious murders during the alleged reign of Frank Balistrieri:
* Isador Pogrob, whose family owned the Brass Rail strip club for 13 years before selling it to Balistrieri in 1968. In 1960, Pogrob’s body was found in a ditch in Mequon, riddled with bullets from at least two guns.
* Reputed local crime figure August Maniaci, who was shot in the head multiple times on Sept. 11, 1975 with a .22-caliber pistol equipped with a silencer. His brother Vincent, who found 20 sticks of dynamite under his car hood in 1977, testified at Balistrieri’s sentencing hearing that he didn’t think Frank had anything to do with either incident.
* August Palmisano, another reputed local mobster, who died on June 30, 1978 when his car exploded. Palmisano relatives also told Balistrieri’s sentencing judge that they didn’t think Frank had any role.

None of the cases has been solved.

A more typical Mafia case, Blackburn says: “I was in uniform, riding is a squad car one day, and I just happened to be behind this car – and now all of a sudden it’s snowing. So we stopped the guy for littering, and it turns out we’ve got this very famous bookie – and he’s throwing his betting tickets out the window!

“Well, he turned out to be part of that organization, whatever that organization was. I can’t say for sure that it was a Balistrieri organization either, but he did associate with them.”
A Thrown Gauntlet?
Shellow, meanwhile, suspects that the FBI’s Balistrieri investigations – beginning with the 1960s tax case – might have been prompted by two major factors.

One was the government’s view “that organized crime was a pervasive influence in every community, and that there really could be no exceptions,” Shellow surmises. The notion gained favor in Washington D.C. and the rest of the country after the famous ‘60s “Apalachin Conference,” in which a nationwide meeting of suspected mobsters was raided in rural New York State.

The other factor, says Shellow, was the way strip-club and real estate magnate Balistrieri circumvented a Milwaukee ordinance that banned dancers from asking their patrons to buy them a drink: He’d have them meet for cocktails elsewhere after they got off work.
“And I think stuff like that offended the Common Council, some aldermen or the police or somebody, and that might have started the wheels rolling,” Shellow says.

FBI Balistrieri hunters Fred Thorne and Mike DeMarco doubt that, insisting that the 1979-80 case was sparked only by a critical-mass stockpile of solid FBI evidence, backed by a parallel undercover investigation of local vending.

Besides, they add, there were more than enough checks and balances in the long subsequent legal proceedings to root out any bias.

“I don’t think people understand how wiretaps, for example, are approved,” Thorne explains, “how difficult they are to get, how stringent the rules are: the accounting, the reports to a judge every five days, when you can listen and when you can’t, a new court order for every new violation you find. And if you don’t find anything within a certain period of time, then your court order gets canceled and you have to start all over.”

Whatever the case, even FBI agents will admit that politics were all over the Balistrieri case at one level or another – both within and beyond the bureau. That’s just the way it is when you’re dealing with government agencies, competing budget priorities and investigations that cost thousands of man-hours to carry out.
The irony, insist many sources, is that politics are also essential to the Mafia’s survival.
“The fact of the matter is that the Outfit can’t exist without the cooperation of politicians and public officials, people like inspectors and beat cops – especially the cops,” says Chicago’s David Schippers. “If they do their jobs properly and don’t accept bribes, the Outfit can’t operate.”

Longtime Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler echoes that, adding, “In my time, it was understood here – no vice in this city. And if you have that policy, maybe a little organized crime sneaks in, but it isn’t a major problem. … I don’t think the local underworld here has ever had a real hold like it might have in Chicago and other cities.”

Zeidler also cites his current regular meetings with stalwarts of the local Italian community: “These people would know about it if any major stuff was going on, and it would be brought up at the meetings. But it never has been – not once.”
A History Lesson
The FBI, of course, has been busy in Milwaukee lately, mainly on a City Hall investigation that had produced two indictments as of early this week – neither involving alleged mob connections.

Still, according to the [defunct as of December 2011] website,, history shows a strong connection between the Italian mob and the government dating back as far as the 9th century, when the island of Sicily was occupied by Arab forces that “oppressed the native citizenry.” The word, “Mafia,” in fact, is derived from the Arabic word for “refuge,” the website asserts. (Others say it’s a late-1800s acronym for “Moretta ala Francia, Italia avanatis,” or “Let the French die, Italy march on.”)While unifying the natives and protecting them from their occupiers, Sicily's quasi-governmental secret society soon was ruled by a rigid hierarchy, wielded by dons in each village who answered to the don of dons in capital city Palermo. Five basic principles were sacred in members’ initiation oaths:
* “Omerta,” a total code of silence under threat of torture or death;
* Total obedience to the boss;
* No-questions-asked assistance to any befriended Mafia faction;
* A promise to avenge any attack on members of the family; and
* A vow to avoid any and all contact with authorities.

By the 19th century, the Mafia in Sicily had evolved into a vast, now criminally oriented society. The most common form of extortion: “Black Hand” notes that demanded money for protection – followed by kidnappings, bombings and murder if they were refused. By 1876, the Mafia controlled the entire Sicilian government.
And with mass migration in the 1800s, the system flourished amid the cruel realities of new ethnic neighborhoods in American cities. In New Orleans, which had the nation’s highest Mafia concentration at the time, local dons even had a crusading police chief assassinated.

By the early 1900s, every major US city had its own Mafia chapter, with operatives getting a big boost from Prohibition in the ‘30s. The most famous gangster of all, Al Capone, and others often passed through Milwaukee, with “Scarface” himself reportedly keeping a house in the suburbs that just recently went up for sale.
A turning point, of course, came just before World War II, when Charles “Lucky” Luciano organized the “Commission,” under which New York’s famous five families ruled organized crime like a corporate board, while other metropolitan areas came under the purview of a single boss.

Everywhere, the mob depended on corrupt city politicians and officials, as well as union clout drawn from the highly stratified, working-class ethnic neighborhoods that fueled the Chicago Teamsters’ membership, for example.
According to Zeidler, though, Milwaukee was insulated, “largely due to the socialist and labor movements here that weren’t supportive” of the mob. Zeidler was Milwaukee’s mayor from 1948 to 1960.

FBI sources, meanwhile, note that consent decrees signed by several unions from 1989 to 1995 all but admitted past mob influence and agreed that members would have no more contact with organized-crime figures, with at least one decree specifically mentioning Frank Balistrieri. There has been no publically disclosed evidence since of any Mafia union influence in Milwaukee.

During World War II, the Luciano-controlled longshoremen’s union worked closely with the government to protect New York shipping docks against Nazi sabotage. The mob – deeply involved in 1950s Havana casinos – also is widely believed to have helped the CIA in Cuba as Fidel Castro’s rebels were seizing power.
The Enforcement Pendulum
All along, notes Marquette University history professor Athan Theoharis, the nation’s mob-enforcement tactics changed with the winds of politics. In the ‘30s, wiretaps were banned as evidence in court out of Depression-era fears of Big Brother government. The taps continued anyway, however, under J. Edgar Hoover’s “Top Hoodlum” program, under which each FBI office was required to identify a city’s major suspected organized-crime figures. The bugs just couldn’t be used in court.
“That is, unless you could somehow launder the information you got so it wouldn’t be seen as obtained by a wiretap,” Theoharis notes.
In the wake of the Apalachin raid and the high-profile testimony of Mafia turncoat Joe Valachi came 1968’s federal Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which revived wiretaps and set standards for their use.

Then, in 1970, Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which made it easier to attack organized crime by focusing on previously hard-to-pinpoint conspiracies whose proceeds could be shown to benefit a criminal association or “enterprise."
Soon, undercover agents were also authorized by the FBI – before the Apalachin and Valachi bombshells, Hoover had worried that undercover agents might be corrupted if they got too close to the mob.

The final modern federal law-enforcement tool: the US witness protection program, which shattered the mob’s previously solid omerta.
“They all came together,” Theoharis explains – prompting the series of convictions during the ‘80s and ‘90s that all but eliminated the mob as it was known until then.
The Future
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI’s problem isn’t so much a lack of enforcement tools as it is a matter of competing priorities. Terrorism is the top demon now, and the FBI is in the midst of a fundamental reorganization aimed at bringing Osama bin Laden and others down.

FBI organized crime section chief W. K. Williams insists that the changes won’t dilute the agency’s power. “Fortunately, we haven’t been impacted by the restructuring,” Williams says. “It will still enable us to do our job. Our strategies have changed – I’d say it’s more focused, in fact. Actually, our manpower and budget have stayed pretty constant.”
Williams declined to release specifics. DeMarco and Thorne, meanwhile, note that in Milwaukee, their onetime 12-agent contingent had dwindled to one agent by the late 1990s.

Other FBI sources, however, explain that the investigative and enforcement techniques for organized crime apply to terrorism as well.
“Both types of groups have to be attacked in the same way,” says one FBI source. “The difference is that the fundamental goal of organized crime is making money, whereas Al Qaeda’s goal is annihilation. And with organized crime, law enforcement can afford to sort of watch and wait for them to make a mistake. But with terrorism, we can’t wait.”
Still, Theoharis worries that at some point, hard choices will have to be made by the agency, with organized crime taking a back seat to the nation’s war on terror.
“You’ve got Enron and white-collar crime to worry about, too, as well as the kinds of things we’re seeing now at City Hall,” he adds. “And I suspect that it all puts a strain on the resources of the bureau. If you’re increasing the number of agents in counter-terrorism, it’s almost got to affect the FBI’s ability to monitor organized crime.”

Bottom line? You decide whether to be worried or relieved by state and local law-enforcement agencies' official responses to Shepherd Express requests for comment on the Mafia's presence in Milwaukee today:
“There’s nothing going on with the Mafia here, and I don’t know if we’ve ever had anything,” said a spokesperson for the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department.
“Nothing current here,” said the Milwaukee US Attorney’s Office, while at the state Attorney General’s Office, the reply was, “That’s part of what we’ve been asked to do here, but we haven’t been involved in it for a long time.”

The Milwaukee Police Department also reported nothing current, suggesting that the Shepherd Express contact the FBI.

More of my related posts:
"Mr. Fancy Pants" Balistrieri - Tracking Milwaulee's most dangerous mobster
Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggerio-The real story of the "wise guy"
The Beef That Didn't Moo - Wisconsin Ties to the Mob
Tales of the Milwaukee Mob and Two Cigarette Men!
Married to the Daughter of a Milwaukee Mob Boss-Our Pediatrician!
The Milwaukee Queen Bee of Organized Crime
Tale of a Failed Milwaukee Mob Hit!
Lieutenant Uhura (of the Starship "Enterprise") - close encounters with the Chicago and Milwaukee Mob!
Part Two: The Milwaukee Mob and Lieutenant Uhura (Star Trek)
The New York Mob and Iowa Beef - Part 1
The New York Mob and Iowa Beef Processors - Part II

Saturday, July 6, 2013

"Mr. Fancy Pants" Balistrieri - Tracking Milwaukee's most dangerous mobster

Frank (middle) with his two sons (Journal Sentinel)
Excellent Milwaukee Mafia history article thanks to BILL JANZ, Special to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 
Last Updated: June 18, 2005

Frank P. Balistrieri, in 1966, saw himself as the "Great Man."

It took only a few terrifying seconds of work.
FBI special agent J. Michael DeMarco returned to that work again and again, repeating those seconds nearly a dozen times in more than a year, until the seconds must have added up to one minute, maybe two, that he spent beneath the car of the top mobster in town.
On the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the fall - the dismantling, the ripping apart, the crushing - of the Balistrieri criminal domain in Milwaukee, DeMarco recalled the seconds he spent replacing battery-operated, magnetic tracking devices on the bottom of Frank P. Balistrieri's Cadillac, a large black elephant of a car.
Occasionally, in the dark of the early a.m. hours, DeMarco's good friend, special agent Fred Thorne, sat in a car as lookout on N. Shepard St., where Balistrieri had his home.
What DeMarco did "scared the hell out of me," Thorne said. "Frank was the No. 1 suspect in a half-dozen murders."
A light went on, a car passed, wind shook a window, a tree crackled.
"The noises of the night," DeMarco said. "It's so still (that anything that snaps or rustles) sounds wild."
No FBI agent from that time will forget the most chilling thing Balistrieri ever said, after Augie Palmisano was killed in his car by a bomb in 1978: "He called me a name - to my face - and now they can't find his skin!"
Thorne, DeMarco and some former agents who risked their lives and sent dozens of organized crime figures to prison, seriously weakening the major crime families in America, are concerned that organized crime may make a comeback.
The FBI is working hard on terrorism, and most branch offices have few resources left to investigate mob families, Thorne and DeMarco said.
"Maybe the time is right for organized crime to flourish again," DeMarco said.
"Terrorism is much more important than the mob," Thorne said. "Proactive mob investigations - in a time when the threat of terrorism is such a major part of our lives - is a luxury for most FBI offices."
Mike Johnson, a supervisory special agent, said the local office had an organized crime squad that has hit members of street gangs and motorcycle gangs hard. The unit has open investigations and while he couldn't comment on whether any of these cases involved the Mafia, agents would pursue the Mafia, when appropriate, "with the same fervor" that the local office did in the 1970s and 1980s.
Twenty-five years ago, the FBI had 40 agents chasing Balistrieri, keeping track of everything, including, probably, how many bristles his toothbrush had, or if he painted his hair. These days some working agents might understand an Arabic dialect, but not know how to spell Balistrieri's name.
DeMarco has a personality for pursuit, a tough guy who studied Sicilian, looks as if he could unmake some made men and used to wander N. Shepard St. at 3 a.m., with a tracking device in his pocket. Against the wishes of his colleagues, DeMarco occasionally went alone to Balistrieri's home, his German shorthair dog his only companion; DeMarco would drop the leash, slide under the car, slide out, and pick up the leash - just a sleepless, lonely looking man, with his back dirty from the Balistrieri driveway.
Other times, DeMarco crawled under the car without protection of dog or Thorne; then "I'd go back to the office and sleep on the floor of the control room," until another day dawned and it was time to pursue the Cadillac.
And in the driver's seat was "the most powerful man in Milwaukee," as Balistrieri modestly referred to himself.
Although I had talked to mayors, judges, editors and all sorts of powerful people, I felt especially honored on a day 30 years ago when one of Balistrieri's sons graciously introduced me to the self-styled Great Man. He responded with a memorable quote that showed his great eloquence: "Hi," he said, and walked away.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
First, a bit about this bad guy and the good guys, the dramatis personae of an extremely theatrical FBI production concerning Mr. Fancy Pants, one of Balistrieri's many nicknames:
DeMarco, Thorne and their colleagues had their own description of Frank Balistrieri: "Most dangerous man in Milwaukee," and they pursued him as if he were a disease, always stalking him, wiretapping him, keeping track of his footsteps and who ironed his shirts.
Balistrieri always was pressed and polished, Mr. Slick, a shiny little man who looked as if he spent a lot of time in front of a mirror. His presence reeked arrogance; if he ever asked his mirror who was the fairest of them all, he didn't want it to reply Sam Giancana or Joe Bananas, notorious Chicago and New York City mobsters.
Balistrieri was spotted coming out of a video store, a copy of "The Godfather" in hand.
He'd never admit it, but he and his group, were influenced by the Chicago syndicate. For example, Chicago mobster Giancana was a friend and protector of August Maniaci, a local ne'er-do-well who'd reportedly had a falling out with Balistrieri over not kicking back money to Balistrieri for arson and burglaries.
In June 1975, somebody in Chicago used Giancana's head to stop multiple gunshots. An informant told the FBI here that "after Giancana was killed, Balistrieri felt it was safe to do away with Maniaci."
Early one morning in September 1975, Maniaci was slain with a .22 caliber gun, a silencer attached, after he got out of the car that he had parked behind his house on N. Newhall St. When I arrived, the scene was serene, birds chirping, bloodstains were on the ground, the sun sparkled, the driver's door of the car was open and a copy of the Milwaukee Sentinel was on the ground, where Maniaci had dropped it. He had become his own headline.
On the case
Thorne and DeMarco are both retired, both hard of hearing, having spent too much time in firearms training with only cotton puffs issued as protection for their eardrums.
Neither of these agents had "mahogany fever," as colleagues call it, the quest for big desks, big titles. In FBI slang, DeMarco and Thorne were brick agents, guys who were first on the charge up the street. DeMarco, 62, used to leave a jacket on the back of his chair at FBI offices, as if he were still there, but he'd be out, pounding the street and wearing another jacket.
Despite their courage, the danger they put themselves in and the relentless chase that separated them often from their families, they both maintained humor: After a raid on a Balistrieri gambling operation, DeMarco answered the phone there, identifying himself as "Mike Fool-Around-Do," and took bets.
Amazingly, Mike Fool-Around-Do took a bet on a basketball game from a longtime informant whose voice Mike recognized.
A good photographer, Thorne, 63, often focuses on the eyes of his grandchildren and their unspoken dreams. Mobsters probably weren't overwhelmed by his presence. He always looks fresh from a barbershop, and he doesn't appear to have spent much time practicing to make a fist.
But Thorne could be lethal. A bank robber who tried to kill him made the last mistake of his life.
When he had been an FBI agent for only a few months, Thorne was checking records, with a partner, at a police station in Council Bluffs, Iowa, when they heard a bank had been robbed. They hurried to an area where one of the robbers reportedly had run in to a house. A woman ran from the home, police Lt. Pat Moore entered the doorway and "I heard two shots, the officer was down," Thorne said. "He took two in the head."
The bank-robber-turned-killer ran across the street and broke into another home. Thorne rushed into the home and saw the robber wrestling with a man. Thorne, who is right-handed, had taken cover to the right of a doorway to the room; to keep his cover, he had to use his left hand to shoot, his weakest hand, but he was thankful that the FBI had taught him to be ambidextrous.
The bad guy "breaks free and lets one fly," Thorne said, remembering the bullet meant for him.
Thorne forgot he had six shots in his pistol, so he only shot the cop killer five times. But five times was enough.
The bomb
During the Balistrieri investigation, agents noticed a killer from Chicago - who'd twice been on the FBI's most wanted list - and a killer from Milwaukee following Vincent J. Maniaci, a brother of the murdered August Maniaci.
An informant had quoted Frank Balistrieri as having said that Vincent Maniaci was a troublemaker and "should be killed like his brother, Augie." Balistrieri suspected the brothers of being informants.
DeMarco and another agent were parked at a halfway house, where Vincent Maniaci was living after serving time on a federal loan extortion charge. A bomb was attached to the engine of Maniaci's car, and if it had gone off, DeMarco said, it also would have destroyed the halfway house and probably killed several people there.
But the bomb didn't go off because of a loose contact. Maniaci drove toward downtown, the car acting strangely, the huge bomb not permitting "the throttle to work properly," DeMarco said.
Finally, Maniaci stopped, and DeMarco thought Maniaci had "seen our surveillance." No, Maniaci had seen 20 sticks of dynamite wrapped around one-pound of TNT. He had stopped the car, looked under the hood and saw what could be his future. He decided that day that walking was good exercise.
Party line
Treating Frank Balistrieri with the royalty he thought he was due, Thorne and DeMarco called him "King of the Northwest Corner," a restaurant table where he ruled, giving orders on a red telephone. Wanting to place a device in the phone, agents had to find out what kind of phone it was, so they staged a birthday party in Snug's Restaurant in the Shorecrest Hotel on N. Prospect Ave.
An FBI photographer was sent to photograph the party of FBI workers. In a memorable photo, the woman who was supposedly celebrating her birthday, held the phone in her lap as the photographer clicked away.
A red birthday bow was atop Frank Balistrieri's red phone.
Postponing the funeral
Not long after Frank Balistrieri was charged with extortion and other crimes, the lead prosecutor trying the Balistrieri cases was arrested, too, a serious setback for the investigation. Thomas E. Martin was charged with having sex with a teen boy.
Demanding Martin's resignation, federal officials assigned DeMarco and another agent to bring in Martin.
The door to Martin's home was ajar, and DeMarco could hear what sounded like funeral music. As he went in the door, the first thing he saw was "a brand new (rifle or shotgun) box on the floor. No weapon inside."
DeMarco saw a black suit, black tie, and white shirt, as if Martin might be about to dress for a funeral, probably his own. When the agents found him in another part of the house, Martin said he'd been contemplating suicide, which he didn't accomplish until years later.
As the two agents got Martin into their car, Martin asked, "Can we stop at the liquor store? I want a six-pack."
The lead prosecutor of the most important organized crime case ever prosecuted here drank a couple of beers on his way to resign.
Milk and bookies
A Balistrieri defense witness, testifying as an expert, reportedly able to tell if a comma or a period, had been altered one iota in any document, arrived in court wearing one brown shoe and one blue shoe, which the jury noticed, DeMarco said.
A prosecution witness, testifying as an expert in gambling, couldn't remember on what day the Rose Bowl was played.
On a raid at the home of one of Balistrieri's associates, DeMarco asked the bookie if anyone was in the room that had a closed door. The bookie said his uncle was.
"I opened the door and there's this guy lapping milk out of a saucer on the floor, like a kitten," DeMarco said, not knowing if this was for real, or a scam.
Thorne knocked at the home of a man who reportedly was involved in murders ordered by Balistrieri.
Opening the door, the mobster said, "Oh, I thought you were the paperboy."
"I am the paperboy," Thorne said, and handed him a subpoena.
Ludicrous lingo
During a wiretap after search warrants broke open the investigation in 1980, Balistrieri was heard threatening to call "a couple guys" who would get rid of some FBI agents. Later, two informants quoted Balistrieri as saying he wouldn't mind seeing DeMarco dead, hating him because of DeMarco's excellent work and their common heritage.
As an Italian-American, DeMarco said, "A small minority of people were dragging down a culture rich in history and tradition." He and Thorne felt a need, he said, to stop the murders and the skimming and all the other things that this group of thugs was doing to damage the great legacy of Italian people.
While DeMarco continued to investigate Balistrieri during the 1980s, Thorne was assigned for a year or so to Philadelphia, where he babysat a Mafia hoodlum, who wasn't quite as refined or cultured, as the hoodlums Thorne was used to in Milwaukee.
The hoodlum talked to Thorne about a "mascot" that a gentleman had around his neck; he called a Nazi a "nacho-German." A friend, he said, had trouble with his "frustrate gland," which was probably well named.
Night shadows
DeMarco is now director of security for Milwaukee World Festival, and Thorne does consulting work for the FBI.
Thanks to these two top notch investigators and other agents, the late Frank Balistrieri, his sons, John and Joseph, and others were convicted of extortion and other crimes and served time in prisons.
One day in recent years, Thorne was on his way to Chicago, and saw a member of the Balistrieri family driving south on I-94. For a few moments, Thorne started to follow him, as if it were 25 years ago, as if the night noises were back, as if the investigation were going on, as if bombs and bullets were still going off.