Tuesday, December 29, 2009 – Globe and Mail
TU THANH HA AND ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY
Montreal’s underworld is facing troubled times after its dominant Mafia family, already undermined by arrests and rivals, was struck yesterday by the targeted daylight killing of the eldest son of its godfather.
The gangland shooting of Nicolo Rizzuto Jr., 42, came as his father, Vito, is in a U.S. prison, the clan’s top leaders are also behind bars, and the 85-year-old family patriarch, Nicolo Sr., is living under tight probation restrictions.
In the three decades since they rose to power, the Rizzuto family had never been hit so closely within its secretive inner circle.
Police wiretaps in recent years showed that supporters of the Rizzutos felt they were under siege, their authority challenged by other crime syndicates, their captains fearfully ordering armoured cars and setting up firearms caches.
Observers say gang violence may be linked to a dozen Montreal cafés and bars, mostly Italian-run, that recently were hit by firebombs. Police fear a chain reaction of retaliations and counter-retaliations in the wake of the shooting.
But what comes next will also test just how powerful and organized the weakened Rizzuto clan remains.
“It’s like a tsunami for the Montreal underworld – the eldest son of Vito was shot to death,” said Mafia expert Antonio Nicaso. “Whoever’s behind this murder definitely took advantage of a particularly weak moment of the Rizzuto crime family.”
Nicolo Jr. had been standing next to a black Mercedes, near the offices of an associate, construction entrepreneur Tony Magi, when a gunman fired at him four to six times, hitting him in the upper body. He died in hospital.
His business partner, Mr. Magi, had himself been the target of an assassination attempt last year, a shooting which, observers said, demonstrated that being an acquaintance of the Rizzutos no longer granted one much immunity.
Speculation so far is that the challenge came from street gangs – the same groups Vito Rizzuto was known for co-operating with diplomatically – taking advantage of a splintered clan that lately has been less co-operative with outside elements.
Vito, 63, used to be called the Teflon Don because he repeatedly escaped the authorities’ attempts to convict him in major drug-trafficking cases.
But his organization has repeatedly been undercut in recent years.
Vito was arrested in 2004 and is now serving a 10-year sentence in Colorado for his role in the killing of three renegade members of the Bonanno family in Brooklyn.
His top captains, including the man identified in wiretaps as the interim godfather, Francesco Arcadi, were convicted on various charges last year, after a major RCMP crackdown, Operation Colisée.
The sole remaining senior figure, Vito’s father, 85-year-old Nicolo Sr., is on probation after spending two years in detention for collecting proceeds of crime.
All this created a “personnel problem” for the family, said author Julian Sher, an organized-crime expert.
“The Rizzuto clan was unable to replace those people but most of all Vito Rizzuto – a very powerful and charismatic boss. Their clan, in this particular moment, are more disorganized crime than a powerful organization,” Mr. Nicaso said. “They’re headless – without a boss. … This murder took place in the weakest moment of the Rizzuto family.”
The turmoil is coming as Montreal’s street gangs have grabbed more turf in the street-level drug trade, exploiting the vacuum left by the collapse of biker gangs in the past decade.
Witnesses to yesterday’s noontime slaying of Nicolo Jr. told police they heard several shots, as many as six, before seeing a man fleeing the scene on foot.
Videos from cameras located on a building in the vicinity of the shooting may become a key element in helping police identify the assassin.
“I think this is a challenge from someone outside, because I can’t think of a person that, now, within the Mafia of Montreal, is willing to challenge Rizzutos,” Mr. Nicaso said.
“[Vito Rizzuto] was the architect of a consortium, a strategic alliance between criminals of different backgrounds in Montreal in the 1980s – he was a kind of a mediator.”
Mr. Sher remembers seeing Nicolo Jr. in court during hearings into Vito’s extradition in 2004 and 2005 – a confident, younger version of his father and grandfather.
“You could see the kind of brash confidence that comes from being a prince of the mafia – the sense of being untouchable. And who knew then that his dad was going to go down for racketeering charges?”
In an interview earlier this year with the Gazette, Mr. Magi said he and Nicolo Jr. were involved in real estate.
“We had bought a piece of land together which we are developing,” he said of Nicolo Jr. “He’s studied law and he’s a smart kid. He’s smart in real estate.
“The poor guy. He tries to do something in his life and, because of his family’s past history, every time he turns around he gets hit with something.”
In the same interview, Mr. Magi denied police allegations that his construction firm was linked to extortion schemes and said he did not know why he had been targeted in a shooting last year.
Nicolo Jr. was one of three children of Vito Rizzuto. His siblings, Leonardo and Bettina, are lawyers and both work for the family’s long-time attorney, Loris Cavaliere.
Aside from Leonardo, 40, and Bettina, 36, occasionally attending court appearances of their father, the three siblings kept a low profile.
Nicolo Jr. had a record for minor offences such as traffic violations.
However, his unusual family setting was reflected for example in the fact that, according to a Montreal police court affidavit, Nicolo Jr. was married to Eleonora Ragusa, daughter of Emmanuel Ragusa, an associate of Vito Rizzuto with a record for drug trafficking and money laundering.
Their 1995 wedding was staked out by picture-snapping Mounties and Laval police officers, who noted the presence among the guests of mobsters with criminal records such as Mr. Arcadi or Agostino Cuntrera.
But the clan scion was never seen to have taken on his father’s leading role, Mr. Nicaso said.
“Nick was not seen as a potential successor of Vito. … For sure, he was not directly in line. [However] people knew that he was the son of Vito Rizzuto.”
With files from Rhéal Séguin in Quebec City
Montreal’s influential Rizzuto clan is the closest Canada comes to having its own Corleones. The family has been linked in court proceedings to large-scale drug trafficking, extortion schemes, bribing customs officers, stock manipulations, loan sharking and money laundering. But those who keep track of Montreal’s underworld say yesterday’s shooting marks a Mafia sea change, and makes evident just how weakened the recently leaderless clan has become.
Nicolo Rizzuto Sr.
The patriarch of the Montreal Rizzutos came to Canada with his family in 1954 from Cattolica Eroclea, in Sicily’s Agrigento province. At the time, the Montreal Mafia was dominated by the Calabrian mobsters affiliated with the Cotroni family. As the Rizzutos began to gain ground, internal turf wars forced Nicolo Sr. to exile himself to Venezuela. Things started looking up in 1978 when the Montreal godfather, Paolo Violi, was murdered in a bar, opening the way for the Rizzutos.
The Canadian Revenue Agency called him “the Godfather of the Italian Mafia in Montreal.” The charismatic Vito was known for his ability to deal diplomatically with multiple factions in Montreal’s underworld. But since his conviction in the U.S. on racketeering charges, he has been in jail — leaving a leadership gap in the once-powerful family.Nicolo (Nick) Rizzuto Jr.
The scion of the Rizzuto clan and the oldest of three siblings, Nick Jr. had been the clan’s most public face since his father was incarcerated in the U.S. several years ago.
Anna Mehler Paperny