|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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bill Janz is a former longtime columnist for the Milwaukee Sentinel, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. You can reach him at email@example.com or Box 14, Fredonia, WI 53021.
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