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James Licavoli, ruthless Cleveland Mob chief, born August 18 in 1904

James Licavoli

In the first week of October 1977, Cleveland mobster James Licavoli, nicknamed “Blackie” and “Jack White,” was on a boat at Mosquito Lake about 50 miles east of Cleveland. Joining him were his associates Pasquale Cisternino and Angelo “Big Ange” Lonardo, there to meet Erie, Pennsylvania, hoodlum Raymond Ferritto to discuss a hit on Danny Greene, Licavoli’s fierce rival for the Cleveland rackets.

They listened to a tape recording of a tap Licavoli ordered on Greene’s phone and determined that Greene, the Irish-American dock union leader and ruthless killer, had a dental appointment on Oct. 6. Cisternino and Ferritto fashioned a bomb to be placed inside a special metal box welded inside a Chevrolet Nova. On the day of Greene’s appointment, Ferritto drove a 1973 Plymouth to the parking lot at the dentist’s office. Licavoli soldier Ronald “The Crab” Carabbia showed up in the Nova. When Greene parked in the lot, Ferritto got into the Nova and moved it to the space beside Greene’s car. While inside the Plymouth, when Greene returned to his car, Carabbia detonated the bomb by remote control, quickly dispatching Greene.

It was the decisive battle in a “Mob war” raging in Cleveland, where there were 21 car bombings citywide and 17 others elsewhere in Cuyahoga County in 1976. Remote-controlled explosions became a chosen way for local gangsters to “off” their targets – cheaper and the evidence was blown to bits. The bombings occurred during an egoic struggle for control of the Cleveland syndicate following the natural death of Mob boss John Scalish on May 26, 1976. The top contenders in the war were Licavoli – older, well-known and seen by many as the rightful successor – and the younger, upstart Greene, a violent Teamsters union leader in West Cleveland. Greene ran a gang co-led by Scalish associate John Nardi that employed its share of public bombings to rub out enemies and Licavoli’s men. Months before Greene’s death, on May, 17, 1977, Licavoli’s cohorts detonated a car bomb that ended Nardi’s life in a parking lot outside a Teamsters local office. With Greene and Nardi eliminated, Licavoli took over as undisputed head of the Cleveland Mob. But his joy of victory would not last long – the FBI arrested Licavoli in Greene’s murder only two months after the October bombing.

Licavoli was born on August 18, 1904, the son of Sicilian immigrant parents in St. Louis, where he lived with his cousins Pete and Thomas Licavoli who along with James would become mobsters in their own right with the Russo Gang in St. Louis. But in 1926 during Prohibition, after a string of arrests and being wounded in a shoot-out with police in St. Louis, Blackie moved to Detroit, where he joined the infamous Purple Gang. He was arrested many more times over in Detroit and served time in federal prison for bootlegging. In the mid-1930s, he left the gang and followed his cousins to Toledo, Ohio, in the wake of an investigation into the murder of a radio broadcaster. In 1938, while in Cleveland, he met Jimmy “the Weasel” Fratianno, who would detail their decades-long friendship in the 1981 book “The Last Mafioso.” Blackie, with the blessing of the Cleveland syndicate, moved into illegal gambling and vending machines. In 1945, he served a year in state prison in the wake of a charge of blackmail. Once out of prison, he is said to have made a large fortune from illegal gambling casinos in post-war Ohio, then investing his winnings when law enforcement crackdowns ended the underground businesses.

When the Kefauver Committee, traveling the country to hold hearings on organized crime, arrived for its public sessions in Cleveland, from January 17 to 19, 1951, Licavoli was one of those subpoenaed to testify. He refused to answer questions about his illicit slot machine operations – the income from which the IRS claimed he had not reported. For his defiance, Licavoli was indicted by the feds by for contempt of Congress (as was his cousin, Pete, in Michigan), but the charge was dropped in court.

In the years up to the 1970s, Licavoli remained a life-long bachelor, living with a roommate in a house in Cleveland. Amid reports of wealth, reputed to be in the millions at one time, Licavoli didn’t live up to the hype. He used stolen credit cards while on vacation and once got caught inserting slugs into a vending machine. His unsuccessful attempt to swipe a pair of pants from a department store bought unwanted public attention. After his 1977 arrest, authorities would find inside his home his cane, which concealed an 18-inch, pullout knife.

Prior to Licavoli’s arrest, Fratianno, a mobster serving secretly as a FBI informant, would relate in “The Last Mafioso” that he learned Licavoli had bribed a secretary named Geraldine Rabinowitz in the FBI’s office in Cleveland to inform them about gangland turncoats, against whom Licavoli surely would order to be killed. Fratianno agreed to enter the federal Witness Protection Program in 1977 but the FBI arrested Rabinowitz within weeks. Fratianno was not required to testify in the Greene murder case. As it happened, with Ferritto testifying under an immunity deal with prosecutors, Cisternino and Carabbia were convicted but Licavoli was acquitted. When Fratianno testified against Licavoli and several other defendants in their federal racketeering trial in Cleveland for alleged bribery of Rabinowitz, the Mob chieftain was acquitted again.

But Licavoli didn’t skate. In 1982, a federal jury convicted him, along with Carabbia, Cisternino and three other Cleveland Mob members of racketeering under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, agreeing with the prosecution that the defendants took part in the conspiracy to kill Greene, the murder of Greene and the bribery of Rabinowitz. Licavoli got 17 years in a federal penitentiary. He and his co-defendants appealed in 1983, arguing that conspiring to murder Greene did not qualify as a “predicate act” to support a RICO conviction. An appeals court turned them down in 1984.

Licavoli suffered a heart attack and died on November 23, 1985 at age 81 while serving his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institute, Oxford in Oxford, Wisconsin.

Jeff Burbank, a longtime journalist, is a content development specialist for The Mob Museum. Contact him at jburbank@themobmuseum.org.