Carol Hills: He was called Montreal's "Teflon Don." Vita Rizzuto was at one time Canada's most powerful crime boss. As head of the Rizzuto family, his criminal activities stretched across the border, into the US, and as far away as Italy. Rizzuto died yesterday of natural causes, in a hospital in Montreal. He was 67.
Journalist Adrian Humphreys has written extensively about the Rizzutos. Adrian Humphreys, I have to admit, I didn't know who Vito Rizzuto was.
Adrian Humphreys: I would say that's the way he would like it. The only people he wanted to know who he was were the people he was doing business with. They're the ones that mattered and they certainly knew him. Vito Rizzuto was born in Sicily, into a Sicilian gangster clan. He emigrated to Canada at the age of 8, and together with his father, he built an awesome criminal empire. Montreal used to be like a branch plant of the New York mafia, the Bonanno family, one of the five families.
Hills: Yes, absolutely.
Humphreys: But his family managed to eclipse all of the New York mobsters, in terms of its geographic stretch, in terms of its dollar value, in terms of its manpower. He became a global super boss, the biggest name in Canadian crime, but one of the biggest mafia bosses on the world stage.
Hills: What were his illegal businesses of choice?
Humphreys: The bones of the family was built on heroin. They were one of the early families, mafia families, to really have a foray into South America. There was a mob war that they fled and they settled in Venezuela to hide out, and while they were there, they realized that there was a billion dollars to be made there. So they went from heroin to cocaine. Drug trafficking was certainly their bread and butter. But once they became the geographic bosses of Montreal, which is a huge city, they took a percentage of like every significant crime that took place in the city.
Hills: Yeah, it sounds like he's one of the rare members of his family to die of natural causes.
Humphreys: I mean, the mafia's a dangerous game. People know that. But for so long, the family was untouchable. They were always at the right end of a gun barrel throughout all their time. His family had absolute control and power, the final say, in the underworld, across Canada and into, you know, large parts of the globe. But Vito's inner circle, Vito Rizzuto's inner circle, were arrested in Canada in a police operation. Vito himself was arrested and charged in New York City for a famous gangland murder in 1981, it was a murder of the three captains that was colorfully remade in the Donnie Brasco movie. That put him in prison in the United States in recent years. It took 20 years to solve that shooting. And while he was off the streets, he couldn't control it. He built up so many enemies and created such resentment, and people saw so much of an opportunity with him off the street, that he was under attack. His eldest son was shot dead on the street, then his father was shot by a sniper while we was sitting down to dinner in his home. His brother-in-law snatched off the street, believed to have been tortured, and then he's never been seen since and assumed to be dead. Many of his closest colleagues were also attacked. People were writing him off, they assumed when he was released from prison just a year ago, in October, that he was a dead man walking. That there's no way he could survive. But survive, he did, and he thrived, and against all odds he actually regained his throne just by the sheer force of his personality and the strategic decisions he made.
Hills: I'm surprised he was even let out of prison, given his record. How did that happen?
Humphreys: There was a large indictment against New York Mafioso for those murders, those three murders. There was a racketeering indictment, not a murder indictment, because it had happened more than 20 years before. And he fought extradition from Canada, for like three years. By the time he finally got to New York to face trial, every single other member of the Bonanno crime family had faced trial for it, and been given 20 years or more. He was the last. By this time, prosecutors were a little weary, they knew that when he was finally released, because he's a foreign national, he's Canadian of Italian birth, he would be deported. It just seemed easiest to accept a plea deal for ten years.
Hills: Now, Vito Rizzuto has passed away. Is there an obvious successor?
Humphreys: No, and this is the--at least, not that we know of. This is going to be the tricky part. His organization was so large, and it takes a tremendous skill set to hold the reigns of that. And we saw that, just, you know, a few years in prison and it all started to fall apart. So I don't think any one man can fill his shoes. His ability to sort of choose his heir, and install him as the boss while he's still alive to make sure that people actually follow the new boss's orders... that opportunity's gone now. So someone's gonna have to come in cold and there's gonna be a lot of competition for that spot.
Hills: Adrian Humphreys is a journalist with the National Post. He's the author of "The Sixth Family: The Collapse of the New York Mafia and the Rise of Vito Rizzuto." Thanks, Adrian.
Humphreys: Thank you, Carol.