American Mafia History Website

The American Mafia history website logo

American Mafia Website - Detroit Bosses

The Detroit Crime Family formed in the Prohibition Era through warfare and consolidation. There were at least several distinct Mafia-related organizations in the East Side of Detroit, in the West Side, in the northern community of Hamtramck and in the downriver communities of Wyandotte and Ford City. Coming out on top after Prohibition, when the organization became known as The Partnership, were a network of intermarried families originally from the Terrasini area of Sicily.

Jump to Menu

Tony Giannola

1900s - Tony Giannola (1878 to 1919). The Giannola Brothers, Antonino (Tony), Salvatore (Sam) and Vito, are widely regarded as leaders of the earliest Mafia organization in the Detroit area. They led a gang that terrorized immigrants from Cinisi and Terrasini, Sicily (Province of Palermo on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Castellammare), who resided in the Village of Ford City and the City of Wyandotte, south of Detroit. It is likely that there were other Sicilian hometown-based underworld organizations in Detroit's immigrant neighborhoods and suburbs in the same period. The Giannolas may have received early notice as they attempted to project their power beyond their small neighborhood.

1908 - Vito Adamo (1883 to 1913). When successful Sicilians and Italians - many based in the eastern portion of the Detroit business district - were targeted by Giannola "Black Hand" extortion, they banded together to form a vigilante "White Hand Society." Vito Adamo, reportedly from the inland Trapani province community of Salemi, Sicily, and already the leader of a local Mafia society, was backed as the White Hand champion. Giannola expansion in Detroit was blocked, as war erupted between the two factions.

1913 - Giannola gunmen ambushed brothers Vito and Sam Adamo on Detroit's East Side on Nov. 24, 1913. Encouraged by Vito's widow, the remaining members of the Adamo faction and an allied Buccellato family of Castellammare del Golfo (in Trapani province across the Gulf of Castellammare from Cinisi and Terrasini) continued the war against the Giannolas for a time. The Giannolas, however, strengthened their hold on the East Side.

1918 - A quarrel between Tony Giannola and his lieutenant Peter Bosco resulted in Bosco's October 1918 murder and fragmented the Giannola gang. A powerful Bosco follower, John Vitale, originally from Cinisi, broke away from the Giannolas and took the Bosco faction with him.

Sam Giannola

1919 - Sam Giannola (1887-1919). Tony Giannola was shot to death Jan. 3, 1919. His brother Sam took command of the Giannola Gang. War continued in the Sicilian underworld. Sam's primary rival in this period was John Vitale, who had support in Detroit's East Side and Ford City. Early in his reign, Sam was ambushed by rival forces. Though he survived, the ambush resulted in the death of his brother-in-law Pasquale Danni. A Giannola counterattack eliminate Vitale aide Vito Renda. After just a few months, it was rumored that Sam Giannola was hoping to arrange a truce and retire away from Detroit.

John Vitale

1919 - John Vitale (1876-1920). Sam Giannola was shot to death Oct. 2, 1919, as he exited a bank at Monroe and Russell Streets. Sole surviving Giannola brother Vito made no apparent effort to take leadership of the Giannola Gang. John Vitale momentarily became the most powerful underworld boss in Detroit. Law enforcement in this period noted the presence in Detroit of gunmen imported from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. There was no break in the gang war, as Vitale found he had many enemies in the East Side Gang of Detroit.

Angelo Meli

1920 - Angelo Meli (1897 to 1969). Meli, apparent standard-bearer for the Giannola loyalists, was regarded as top man in the Detroit Mafia following the assassination of Vitale on Sept. 28, 1920, at Marantette Street near Fourteenth Street. Meli and his associates, including Giovanni "Papa John" Priziola (reportedly from the inland community of Partinico in the Province of Palermo), Guglielmo "Black Bill" Tocco and Joseph Zerilli (Cesare "Chester" LaMare, influential in areas to the south and west of the city, as well as the City of Hamtramck, a former Vitale lieutenant and a friend of Tocco, may have been an early convert to the Meli-led Mafia.) began absorbing, forming alliances with or eliminating other gangs in the Detroit area.

1924 - Gaspare Milazzo (1885-1930). Leader of an interstate network of Castellammarese Mafiosi and longtime enemy of the Buccellato clan, Milazzo relocated in Detroit (following stops in Pennsylvania and California) after escaping prosecution for Buccellato-feud-related murders in New York and New Jersey. In recognition of his close ties to underworld leaders across the country and the importance of his Castellammarese faction in Detroit, Milazzo was welcomed into the Detroit leadership panel and appears to have served as Detroit-area representative to interstate and national Mafia meetings.

Cesare Lemare

1930 - Cesare "Chester" LaMare (1887-1931). Encouraged by new Mafia boss of bosses Giuseppe Masseria in New York, LaMare broke away from other Detroit bosses. The bosses arranged a meeting at an East Side fish market to resolve their differences. LaMare hoped to ambush the entire leadership panel. Only Gaspare Milazzo and aide Sam Parrino showed up for the May 31, 1930, meeting. They were shot to death at close range by unrecognized gunmen. Following the killings, boss of bosses Masseria backed LaMare as Mafia leader in Detroit. Masseria's connection to the Milazzo ambush was one of the factors that led to the Castellammarese War of 1930-31.

Joe Zerilli

1931 - Joseph Zerilli (1897-1977) and Guglielmo Tocco (1897-1972). Cesare LaMare had little going for him aside from Masseria's support. LaMare went into hiding, but was murdered shortly after returning to his home on Feb. 7, 1931. Zerilli and Tocco - longtime friends, both natives of the Favarotta-Terrasini area of Sicily, and brothers-in-law since Tocco's 1923 marriage to Rosalia Zerilli - assumed command of a Mafia organization that became known as The Partnership. The Partnership cooperated for a time with the Purple Gang, largely Jewish, running rackets in Detroit's northwest neighborhoods. Eventually, Zerilli's East Side Mafia committed to assisting a Sicilian West Side led by Peter Licavoli in eradicating the Purples. During this period, Zerilli, Tocco and other underworld leaders, including Giovanni "Papa John" Priziola, built large homes for themselves in an upscale residential neighborhood in the Village of Grosse Pointe Park, east of Detroit.

William Tocco

1963 - Senate investigators determined that a five-member Council of Dons, comprised of Joseph Zerilli, William Tocco (right), Angelo Meli, "Papa John" Priziola and Peter Licavoli, supervised the activities of the Detroit underworld. In this year, Tocco and Meli, dealing with health issues, became semi-retired and started spending much of their time in Florida. Peter Licavoli later retired to Tucson, Arizona. Meli died at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Dec. 1, 1969. Tocco died at Grosse Pointe Park on May 28, 1972. Zerilli tried to retire beginning in the 1960s but was prevented from doing so because the next generation of underworld leadership was not ready to succeed him.

Papa John Priziola

1977 - Giovanni Priziola (1893-1979). Upon Zerilli's October 30, 1977, death, octogenarian "Papa John" Priziola reportedly tried to run Detroit's crime family. Priziola, once the leader of an organization of gangsters from Partinico, Sicily, had been absorbed into the East Side Gang and became a member of the "Council of Dons" that ruled the Detroit Mafia.

Jack Tocco

1979 - Jack Tocco (1926-2014). Following the death of Priziola on April 14, 1979, Jack Tocco was installed as Detroit boss. Jack had an impeccable Mafia pedigree, as he was the son of "Black Bill" Tocco, the nephew of Joseph Zerilli and the son-in-law of Angelo Meli (and extended family included the Profacis, Bonannos, Priziolas, Moceris and Corrados). Jack Tocco had been part of the family leadership for years, and there were rumors that he knew the details of underworld involvement in the July 1975 disappearance of former Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa. Jack Tocco's reign was interrupted by a racketeering and conspiracy conviction that sent him to prison for 34 months.