In the old days, the mobsters would keep Kansas City open late. They didn’t care who saw them. The bars stayed open, and some of the region’s most wanted men were afraid of nothing. That’s a kind of power you can’t buy, but if you could, the Civella crime family could finance it.
By KENT BABB
The Kansas City Star
“They were a monopoly here,” says William Ouseley, 77, a retired FBI agent who headed Kansas City’s organized crime division in the mafia’s heyday. “…You’d find these mob guys all over the city. Hanging out on Broadway, doing the bars, and out there for all to see.”
The Civella family was a powerful outfit, and its tentacles reached into Chicago and Detroit and Las Vegas. Yes, that’s where the money came and went, the dollars wagered and lost by most anyone who didn’t know how to play the game. Mobsters, though, had perfected the art of winning.
But even the professional gamblers had a weakness, and when most other bases were covered, it was hometown sports allegiance — and excitement over the Chiefs’ chances to win Super Bowl IV in January 1970 — that helped bring down the Kansas City Mafia.
Same as it is now, gambling was big business decades ago, and after Prohibition, outsmarting the betting system — and skimming a few bucks off the top — was a good way for criminals to pad their billfolds. And same as it is now, the Super Bowl was one of the biggest times of the year for gamblers.
Only in Kansas City, when the hometown Chiefs made it to the championship game, something happened. Even the most skilled bettors, the ones with the advantages, started betting with their hearts instead of their minds — abandoning the proven system that made mobsters wealthy and helped them run the city and Vegas casinos.
What happened next revealed a loose thread from the Civella family’s tightly knit organization. Ouseley and the FBI grabbed it and pulled, and the family and all it stood for began unraveling.
“A big spider web,” Ouseley says of the best bookmaking networks. “… It just spreads out.”
And this time, it was the mobsters who found themselves caught in the web.
Ouseley remembers the audacity and the reach. Mobsters here weren’t worried about being caught; they were nearly untouchable.
The area’s entire illegal gambling operation was headquartered at “The Office,” a tiny building now painted white and blue at the corner of 5th Street and Troost Avenue in Columbus Park. Like everything, it was a poorly kept secret, but until Ouseley was transferred to Kansas City in 1964, few were willing to look too deeply.
Horse racing was popular for a time, but suddenly football was eclipsing all else as the nation’s biggest sports phenomenon. That, of course, wouldn’t change even decades later, when some of the most high-profile betting action occurs on fall Saturdays and Sundays. Even now, Super Bowl Sunday is the year’s biggest day for gambling — legal or otherwise. Back then, though, crime families relied on an illegal wire service to handicap games, relaying valuable information and helping to move the point spreads — a scene captured in the 1995 crime drama “Casino,” whose plot featured characters and settings from Kansas City and even included a character based on Civella.
“They would take a bet on anything, damn near,” Ouseley says. And with inside knowledge, these criminals made big money.
In the late 1950s, the FBI made it a priority to weaken and eventually cripple organized-crime rings. Federal agents were moved around to offices in crime-infested cities, and later a new law was passed to allow investigators to install wiretaps to listen in on conversations between suspects.
The problem for the bureau was that the crime bosses, the agents’ big targets, rarely needed to get involved. Men like Nick Civella, whose family had led illegal activity in Kansas City since 1928, left those conversations to foot soldiers.
For a long time, all Ouseley wanted was to look the man in the eye, knowing the boss had been caught.
Years passed, and there were few slip-ups — certainly none that would result in an indictment. The Mafia kept growing, kept being careful, kept frustrating agents not just here but throughout the country. The Civella family had infiltrated the Tropicana casino in Las Vegas, and it was involved alongside other cities’ families in the control of four other casinos, including the Stardust, the basis of the fictional Tangiers in “Casino.”
In early 1970, the FBI’s Kansas City field office had installed wiretaps as it investigated a string of gangland killings. One of those was at a restaurant that was a hangout for some of the Civella power players.
Weeks earlier, the Chiefs had completed an 11-3 regular season, qualifying for the playoffs despite finishing second in the American Football League’s Western Division. Quarterback Len Dawson and a handful of future Hall of Famers had found a rhythm, and the Chiefs squeaked past the New York Jets in the first round. Then they defeated the Oakland Raiders in the AFL championship game, advancing to Super Bowl IV.
The celebration in Kansas City was on. Three seasons earlier, the Green Bay Packers had blistered the Chiefs, 35-10, in the first AFL-NFL championship game, and Chiefs fans were ready for a second chance.
Illegal gambling was so common in those days, though, that the week before the Super Bowl, Dawson was questioned by federal agents about whether he had participated in fixing games — after a man named Donald “Dice” Dawson, who knew the quarterback but was not related, was arrested carrying $400,000 and Len Dawson’s telephone number.
Several Chiefs insiders paced the hotel that day in New Orleans, trying to decide how their quarterback should play it.
“I just said: Tell them the truth,” Len Dawson says now.
He had spoken occasionally with Donald Dawson but denied having any business or gambling arrangement with the man. Len Dawson was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing just a matter of days before the biggest game of his life.
“I figured if I could handle that,” Len Dawson says, “I could handle anything.”
The NFL champion Minnesota Vikings were 12-point favorites over the Chiefs. Back in Kansas City, though, emotion had taken hold. The title-game loss three years earlier still fresh, Kansas Citians wanted redemption. Mobsters and sports handicappers abandoned their betting formulas and began placing wagers with hope rather than science.
“Kansas City,” Ouseley recalls, “was betting only Kansas City.”
Something was up, and the concern made its way up the Civella family tree. Sub-managers told Nick Civella that the action was rotten; they couldn’t get anything on the Vikings. There’s usually balance in a bookmaking organization, often consistent with the betting line, and throughout the second week of 1970, the balance had shifted firmly in the underdog Chiefs’ favor.
A betting network in those days was complicated, and bosses rarely got involved. Bets were placed at bars and at offices, storefronts with phony names and apartment houses.
“All of these various people,” Ouseley says, “have their own people.”
But in the days before Super Bowl IV, the betting was so stilted that Civella himself picked up a telephone, dialing the restaurant where an FBI wiretap had been installed. What was going on with the Super Bowl? Why was the line so out of whack?
Agents were listening. His concern over the betting action had forced him to make a kind of unintentional confession — and the FBI pounced.
The Chiefs indeed won the Super Bowl, 23-7 on Len Dawson’s superb performance, and a short time later, federal agents appeared at a country club in Kansas City. Civella was there, and he was being indicted by the FBI.
Ouseley was there, too, and as he had envisioned for so long, he looked Civella in the eye, knowing Kansas City’s biggest gangster was now in handcuffs.
“He got caught in the net,” Ouseley says.
In the months and years following Civella’s indictment, the thread the FBI pulled began to reveal other ties. To other cities’ crime families, to corruption, to Las Vegas. In time, it would all fall, changing the way casinos were run and weakening the hold that organized crime had held for decades. Ouseley captured the details in his two books, “Open City” and “Mobsters In Our Midst.”
Civella was convicted of illegal gambling charges in 1977, and a key piece of evidence was the recording from the week of Super Bowl IV. He died in March 1983, and although his family persisted, its power was mostly lost. Within the last decade, though, there have been reminders of the Civella family’s continued action — and inability to ignore a gambling industry that still produces big payouts. Three of Nick Civella’s descendants pleaded guilty for their involvement in an Internet gambling scheme whose details surfaced in early 2010.
But Ouseley says the days of brazen Mafia influence are finished, here and throughout the country. He says that’s the most gratifying thing from his FBI career, which ended in 1985 when he retired from the bureau.
He still lives in Johnson County, and he still thinks often about how much things have changed in the past four decades — including the role the Chiefs inadvertently played in that change.
“The ultimate deal,” Ouseley says, “is seeing what the mob was when I got here, which was out front, in your face, doing their business, running the town and out — no fear, no concern. ‘We’re the big guys; we’ve been here forever.’
“Closing that down, of course, was the ultimate.”
To reach Kent Babb, call 816-234-4386, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/kentbabb. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.