KC True Crime

Mob rule

There’s good reason that thick books have been written about Kansas City’s mob history.History has much to tell. Political corruption. Labor racketeering. Illegal gambling. Bootlegging. Shady real estate dealings. Power battles between rival underworld leaders. Deadly bombings. River Quay explosions. The Las Vegas skimming operation. The stories are thick with family names recognized many people still recognize today. Binaggio. Civella. Spero. Bonadonna. Cammisano.Here is a look into three key time periods from that violent and intimidating underworld known as “the outfit.”

The 1940s rise and fall of Charles Binaggio

On the first Tuesday in November 1948, the country’s attention focused on the presidential race between the embattled incumbent, Harry S. Truman, and the seemingly invincible New York governor, Thomas Dewey.

Yet all politics, it has been said, is local. That was true at the First District Democratic Club on Truman Road just east of downtown Kansas City. On election night, folks there watched a wall-size blackboard for the Missouri governor’s race results. At the center of that crowd stood the well-dressed, calm, 30-something Charles Binaggio.

Binaggio’s man that night was Forrest Smith, a Democrat. If Smith won, he’d be expected to appoint the outfit’s friends to the Kansas City police board. Control of the board meant control of Kansas City police. The department could crack down on taverns, gambling houses and prostitution — or it could look the other way.

The days of the wide-open town under Lazia had been dampened when the Police Department returned to what was characterized as state control — run by a police board named by the governor. Binaggio, however, knew that a friendly governor could hand control back to his friends in Kansas City. St. Louis had an appointed police board, too. If Binaggio’s man handed him the right appointments, the underworld could flex its muscle, open up lucrative gambling joints and pile up profits in both of Missouri’s major cities.

Binaggio assured his backers this could be accomplished, and the backers — from inside Missouri and out — invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in his work.

Election night turned out happy. Smith handily won.

Then reality set in. The new governor was not as cooperative as Binaggio had imagined he would be. Six months later, Smith gave the mob only some of what it wanted: a couple of posts on each police board. Falling short of control, the Kansas City outfit and its pals in St. Louis began to grow disappointed with Binaggio.

By the end of 1949, friends noticed that his air of confidence was fading, that he seemed anxious.

Binaggio had been born in Texas and developed a record of minor police violations as a youth. Among them were an auto theft charge in Denver when he was 18 and a weapons charge at age 21. At some point he joined Lazia’s North Side group and advanced quickly. At 25 he served as one of the pallbearers for the fallen boss.

Although he fancied himself capable of the big time, he was rather quiet and unassuming. Gardening was a favorite hobby at his home off Ward Parkway.

In the mob’s inner circle, he was one of several rulers and not the most important. But to the public he represented the Kansas City outfit.

In 1946, Binaggio’s name was linked to a vote-fraud investigation that was literally blown up when a safe at the election board was blasted open and the evidence stolen.

Binaggio wanted all of Missouri as his apple, mainly to operate as he wished, not only in Kansas City but in St. Louis. That was where the 1948 governor’s race came in. For the mob, politics was back in vogue.

Smith named two Binaggio allies to the Kansas City police board. They joined two holdover members named by the previous governor. Binaggio was on his way; he had even selected the man he wanted as the new chief of police, a police officer once disciplined for running a craps game at his station house.

But three votes were necessary to make Police Department policy. The two incumbent police commissioners — one a Republican, one a Democrat — refused to budge. Binaggio’s allies and Binaggio himself brought pressure, including offers of money and telephoned threats, but the two held their ground. The new governor made no great effort to remove them, either. Similar impediments arose with the St. Louis police board.

In addition, Binaggio failed to gain control of the state-appointed Kansas City election board and could not win passage in the Missouri General Assembly of measures that would have lined up jobs for Binaggio allies.

By the end of 1949, Binaggio also was annoying other local crime leaders. He was questioned in the gangland-style slaying of Wolf C. Rimann, who had operated a liquor distributorship and placed coin-operated games in many a tavern, sometimes intimidating the owners to do so. A federal grand jury was created in early autumn, and Binaggio’s activities were studied closely along with those of others in the mob. Binaggio, it was later reported, talked openly before the grand jury. So did Binaggio’s second-in-command, Charles Gargotta.

All the while, Binaggio was telling his colleagues that, with the grand jury in session, this was no time to open up Kansas City again to the profitable rackets. He began laying plans to leave town and his troubles behind.

But Binaggio would not get away fast enough.

On April 5, 1950, Binaggio instructed his chauffeur to take him to the Last Chance tavern on Southwest Boulevard at the Missouri-Kansas line. There he met Gargotta. At 8:15, they asked the manager to lend them his car. Telling his chauffeur to wait because they’d be back in 20 minutes, Binaggio and Gargotta headed to the First District Democratic Club.

Hours later, when the men had not returned, the chauffeur assumed they had found another ride and went home to bed.

Meanwhile, a cabdriver who walked past the club on his way to a cafe heard water running inside and called police. They came expecting to deal with a plumbing matter. Instead they found a bloody scene.

Just inside the door, Gargotta lay on his back in a pool of blood, shot four times, evidently from close range. At the rear of the room, behind a railing, slumped in a chair, was Binaggio. He was covered in blood, also having been shot four times at close range.

Authorities thought Binaggio must have been comfortable with his killer or killers because he let them enter for a talk. Gargotta may have been similarly tricked and shot as he tried to escape. It’s possible, investigators thought, that Gargotta may have set up Binaggio for assassination and then was surprised that he, too, was marked.

The double murder of mob chieftains on the home turf of the president of the United States created national news. Sen. Estes Kefauver scheduled a hearing of his crime commission in Kansas City.

Among the 48 witnesses called was police board member Robert Cohn, one of the two incumbents who refused to change their positions under Binaggio’s urging. At his last meeting with Binaggio in June 1949, Cohn testified, Binaggio appeared to be disturbed by his inability to open up the town. He quoted Binaggio as saying, “The boys were behind in their schedule and making it hot for him.”

No one was arrested in the murders.

The 1970s: River Quay and the downfall of Nick Civella

In the 1970s, things came to a head for organized crime in Kansas City.

Bodies stuffed in trunks, shotgun slayings in restaurants, buildings wiped out by explosions — criminals waged a shattering and seemingly endless war among themselves. The public recoiled. Eventually, federal agents moved in.

The violence stood out starkly in a decade that began with a burst of civic optimism. Within a few short years in the early 1970s, Kansas City opened a new airport, a new sports arena, new football and baseball stadiums, and a new convention center downtown. Business leaders rolled out a marketing campaign with the motto: “Kansas City: One of the few livable cities left.”

In 1972 an entertainment district sprang to life in one of the oldest parts of Kansas City, near the City Market. Called the River Quay, it featured restaurants, dinner theaters, craft shops and art studios just north of the freeway loop.

Visitors flocked in by the tens of thousands. They strolled on the sidewalks, bought ice cream cones, window-shopped and, for the first time in years, relaxed in an outdoor urban setting.

That atmosphere, however, soon would change.

Civic leaders were dealing with a longtime embarrassment about seven blocks south — the 12th Street strip, a block or so of taverns and strip joints between Central and Wyandotte streets. It represented the last bit of bawdy 12th Street night life that in the 1930s had stretched along many of the blocks east to Troost Avenue. Fearing it would blot Kansas City’s “Livable City” image, civic leaders aimed to replace it with a new hotel to attract conventions to Bartle Hall.

But local mobsters had interests in many of the businesses along the block. Worried that they were being forced out, the owners searched for a new place to set up shop. The River Quay looked perfect.

Uncle Joe’s Tavern, a bar owned by Joe Cammisano, opened in the Quay in August 1975.

Quickly, the new mob-related operations came into conflict with Fred Bonadonna, owner of another nightspot, Poor Freddie’s, and the head of the merchants association in the Quay. Bonadonna led opposition to the incursion of adult entertainment into the area.

Cammisano, with his brother William Cammisano Sr., tried to take over lucrative parking lots that Bonadonna owned near the Quay. Threats were made, first to Bonadonna and then to a City Council member. Bonadonna’s teenage son was beaten up.

Fred Bonadonna’s father, longtime mob member David Bonadonna, was killed and left in a car trunk in July 1976.

Faced with increasing threats, Bonadonna was forced to support the Cammisanos’ inroads in the Quay.

Mob factions, meanwhile, chose sides. On the one hand were longtime organized crime powers who did things their way. On the other were criminals who wanted to break in on the riches of the old line. The Quay was the root of events that would spread far beyond its boundaries.

Other reasons figured in the Quay’s demise, including economic problems touched off by the oil crisis of 1973. The mob inroads, however, made the biggest difference — at least in the public perception. The number of taverns in the Quay grew while the number of other businesses diminished. An X-rated movie house opened.

Nervous business owners referred to the influx of “marginal” merchants and “the rough element.” That meant organized crime. The free-and-easy atmosphere of the River Quay evaporated. So did many of its once-thriving businesses and its throngs of patrons.

In September 1976, fire broke out at Uncle Joe’s. Two months later, someone allied to the insurgents was tortured, strangled and left in the trunk of his car at Kansas City International Airport. Then another tavern in the Quay area burned. The owner of Big John’s saloon in the Quay was shot to death in February 1977 as he drove into his garage. Within three days, a friend and bodyguard of Fred Bonadonna’s was shot to death at a bar on Broadway near Armour Boulevard.

Then came the biggest noises.

In March 1977, explosions destroyed two nightclubs at Fourth and Wyandotte streets, Pat O’Brien’s and Judge Roy Bean’s. That July, a explosion leveled Uncle Joe’s. In August, another man was killed by a car bomb. In September, a fire was set at the Godfather Lounge on Fourth Street.

By the end of the decade, the River Quay, once so promising, had become a ghost town.

Fred Bonadonna eventually testified against the Cammisanos and went into the witness protection program. In 1978 one Cammisano pleaded guilty to extortion attempts on Fred Bonadonna.

Chief among the mob hierarchy, as he had been for more then two decades, was Nick Civella.

Born 1912 in Kansas City’s North End, he began his criminal career doing small robberies and dealing in illicit goods. By the late 1930s Civella had become a soldier for Binaggio. In the years after Binaggio’s 1950 murder, Civella rapidly rose to the top of organized crime in Kansas City. He would stay on top for a quarter-century, an impressively long reign for a Kansas City underworld boss.

Civella accomplished the feat through a combination of superior intelligence, a steely willingness to eliminate anyone who challenged him and — for a much of the time — an ability to stay out of public view.

In 1957, Civella came to national attention as one of only two Kansas City men who attended a notorious summit meeting near Apalachin, N.Y., of mob bosses from across the country. By 1966, The Kansas City Star was pointing to Civella as the chief figure in the Kansas City mob. In 1969 a U.S. Senate committee identified him as part of the principal family in the local underworld.

Then came challengers. By 1973, Nick Civella and his associates evidently thought their sternest test was coming from four brothers named Spero — Nick, Michael, Joseph and Carl. One by one over the years, the Spero brothers were thrust aside, each time with bloody, headline-making results.

In April 1973, Nick Spero’s body was discovered in the trunk of a 1966 Cadillac convertible parked along a secluded street in the Village of Oakwood in Clay County. The 37-year-old Spero — who appeared on the Kansas City Crime Commission’s 1970s list of the organized crime family and whose occupation was listed as a truckdriver — had been shot twice by a .38-caliber weapon.

The three surviving Spero brothers blamed the henchmen of Nick Civella and his brother and chief lieutenant, Carl Civella. The Civillas’ motive, informants thought, was fear that Nick Spero was trying to gain power in the Teamsters union local. The Civellas had made important inroads into that local.

In May 1978, Michael and Joseph Spero were sitting in a booth at the Virginian Tavern on Admiral Boulevard, and Carl Spero was standing at the bar. Men wearing masks entered, walked up to the booth and opened fire.

Michael Spero, 39, was killed. Joseph Spero was wounded. Carl Spero, who tried to escape, was shot as he crossed the street and wound up paralyzed from the waist down. Joseph Spero later wrote a letter to authorities identifying the gunmen as three Civella proteges.

In retaliation, Joseph Spero made a remote-controlled bomb to place under the car of Civella’s street boss, whom Spero thought was one of the gunmen at the Virginian Tavern. In May 1979, shortly before it was to have been used, the bomb was seized by Kansas City police and federal agents. Joseph Spero was convicted in the plot that October.

A year later, in June 1980, a bomb exploded at a Clay County storage shed, hurling Joseph Spero 50 yards through the wall of the shed, killing him instantly. At first authorities thought Spero, 48, accidentally set off the bomb. A decade later, an FBI agent quoted an informant as saying the dynamite had been booby-trapped on orders of the Civella organization.

The feud carried on until January 1984, when the last surviving Spero brother died in an explosion at a used-car lot owned by his cousin on East 12th Street. Carl Spero was 44 when the blast took place and still using a wheelchair because of the wounds he suffered at the Virginian Tavern in 1978.

Through the cacophony of the 1970s, through the murders and fires and explosions and retributions, the Civella group maintained its grip on the local mob.

What the Speros’ best efforts had failed to do, however, eventually was accomplished by federal agents using the power of the wiretap and eavesdropping technology.

In 1978 the FBI’s Kansas City office won court authority to plant listening devices in a restaurant where the Civella faction was known to hang out. The devices were installed by early June 1978, weeks after the shooting of the Speros at the Virginian Tavern.

The agents hoped to get leads concerning that event. Instead they came upon even more intriguing matters.

The Kansas City mob, they learned, was pulling strings in a place more than 1,000 miles away — Las Vegas — and making nice money for the effort. The agents learned about interests held by Nick and Carl Civella and their allies in Kansas City, and also about cozy arrangements they had with the mobs in Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee.

Las Vegas and its gamblers, the authorities knew, could be a crime family’s golden goose. That was why Nevada had rules against criminal ownership in or interference with the hotels and casinos.

In 1960 the Nevada Gaming Commission created its List of Excluded Persons, its so-called Black Book, which was to contain the names of those who were “notorious police figures” and also frequent visitors. Only 11 names appeared, and Nick and Carl Civella were two of them. That was supposed to mean that they were prohibited from visiting gambling establishments in Las Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe or anywhere else in Nevada.

How then could these mobsters from Kansas City gain a share of control in the country’s biggest entertainment and gambling mecca?

One method was money, quietly invested in big hotels with other people as fronts.

Big chunks came from the fabulously wealthy pension fund of one of the country’s biggest unions — the Teamsters. Through enticement and intimidation, mobsters had insinuated themselves into Teamster leadership. The Kansas City outfit controlled a local man, Roy Lee Williams, who was an agent of the pension fund and who would rise to the presidency of the union.

The Teamsters fund had given a $62 million loan to a San Diego businessman who used the money to purchase the Stardust and three other hotels under the umbrella of the Argent Corp. Besides the Kansas City outfit, organized crime families in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Chicago got involved in the loan.

Naturally, the underworld expected a reward for directing the money toward the purchase. Some of the proceeds from the gambling operations were removed from the casino before being recorded and then delivered to mobsters in various cities. The technique was called “skimming.” Because the proceeds were not recorded for the Internal Revenue Service, they were tax-free.

At the Tropicana Hotel, meanwhile, the Civella group found its way to power through a Tropicana employee, Joseph Agosto, who had worked himself into top management. From there it was a simple process: A cashier stole money from the Tropicana’s tables and handed it to Agosto, who gave it to a courier who carried it to Kansas City.

Money from the various skimming operations, the Argent hotels and the Tropicana, was parceled out to the Kansas City outfit and to its friends in Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee.

In Kansas City, FBI agents heard it all as they eavesdropped on the mobsters’ conversations at the restaurant and through wiretaps at hotels, homes and business offices. Because Civella was in prison, the conversations overheard by the agents were among underlings.

Eventually, investigators tapped pay telephones at various hotels and heard Civella himself laying plans, asking questions and giving orders.

The agents code-named their investigation Strawman, for the San Diego businessman who had borrowed Teamsters money to invest in the Argent hotels, only to wind up a figurehead or “straw man,” in the casino ownership.

In the end, the federal investigation ended the mobsters’ hold on the operations.

In late 1981 Nick and Carl Civella and 10 other mob figures were indicted in the Tropicana skimming. To get the indictments, the government used a star witness — former Tropicana intermediary Joseph Agosto.

The same year, Roy Lee Williams of the Teamsters was indicted for trying to bribe a U.S. senator from Nevada. Despite the indictment, Williams was elected president of the powerful union. Eventually convicted of the bribery scheme, Williams, too, became a witness for the government.

He told how he met Civella in the early 1950s at a local political gathering, how they had become friends and done one another favors. Williams revealed that Civella had told him about the Apalachin summit, where he said Civella had been blessed as boss of Kansas City. Also at the summit, working relationships were worked out with mobs in other cities.

In September 1983 a federal grand jury in Kansas City indicted 15 defendants in the skimming from the Stardust and other hotels under the Argent umbrella. When the dust settled, mobsters from Kansas City, Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland received prison terms, along with Chicago police officers and Las Vegas hotel employees.

Nick Civella was not among them. He died before he could go on trial in the Las Vegas cases. In 1981 he was imprisoned for trying to bribe a prison employee. In early 1983 he was paroled and two weeks later died at a Kansas City hospital at age 70.

Carl Civella was convicted in the Tropicana skimming and later pleaded guilty in the Argent operation. He went to prison in October 1983 and was still serving sentences when he died in October 1994.

With Nick Civella’s death, leadership of the Kansas City outfit weakened. No one has reached his status as a crime boss since then.

Organized crime has diminished in influence in Kansas City, according to FBI agents who tracked it for years, but it has not disappeared.

When: Stretched across many decades | What: Mob rule | Where: Kansas City | Outcome: A legacy of influence peddling, murder, illegal gambling and prison terms