John Cammilleri, a ranking member of the Buffalo mob, was born in Campobello di Licata Gigenti, Italy in 1905. He arrived with his family in Buffalo when he was five years old. Just in writing that first sentence, no kidding, two photo frames just fell off my shelf – what gives? Shall I go on? Play the violins while I continue… Before story’s end, Cammilleri will venture to Roseland’s Restaurant (now Prime 490), but instead of calamari, the gun shots to his face and chest count him dead.
He gets a whole paragraph just for his name. Capiche?
The Grand Old Man of the Cosa Nostra, said to be illiterate but deadly smart, Magaddino was the quintessential leader of the far reaching Buffalo-Niagara Mob family. Its precarious tentacles stretched to satellites and affiliates in New York, Miami, Vegas and Cuba, and Canada, but found its international home of decisions right here on our turf.
An original member of the Mafia’s underworld National Commission, created in 1931, he was a heralded and feared figure in underworld circles throughout the United States, holding court beside our grand cataracts. Magaddino was arrested on August 16, 1921, as a fugitive from justice involving a murder that took place in Avon, New Jersey.
Shortly afterward, he and a mob friend were shot at as they walked out of a Brooklyn store. The bullets missed their intended targets, though the ambush caused the deaths of two innocent bystanders. Subsequent retaliation would take the lives of numerous Buccellato men. Magaddino and Milazzo knew the upsetting times turned them suspect and left to find haven in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, where they set up their seat of power.
Magaddino ran a bootlegging business, profiting big-time from the city’s proximity to Canada. The Cleveland Syndicate and Moe Dalitz’s “Big Jewish Navy” worked with the Buffalo Family to smuggle illegal booze from Canada. Wars between incoming families and forces from Ceveland and elsewhere ensued, and peace never found a home. Illegal business and underworld crimes became the way of life.
Though Prohibition ended, the Buffalo family continued to make money at gambling, loan-sharking and labor racketeering as they branched out their influence Stateside and in Canada. Then in the late 1930s, Magaddino began to associate with John Charles Montana of the Empire State Brewery from Olean. Montana was Magaddino’s second-in-command. Montana had a clean record until he was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice as a result of his presence at the famed Apalachin meeting.
Montana owned a taxicab and would eventually become the largest taxi company in Western New York. Remarkably, or not so remarkable, in 1928, Montana was elected to Buffalo city council, and was re-elected in 1930. The citizen’s mobster was even awarded “Man of the Year” in 1956 by the National Junior Chamber of Commerce.
Personally, my only ‘experience’ in organized crime can be attributed to my brief run-in (as a youngster) with the Montana Family. My job was weekly collections, while I was working for Buffalo’s Courier Express outfit. I also delivered morning papers, but one of the duties involved direct weekly collections, and one of my paper route’s nefarious stops was the Montana household.
I remember it being after school when to collect on that cold autumn day. I walked up the stairs of the Montana household, rang the bell, and Mr. Montana, a tall man wearing a straw hat, answered the door. I must have said something like “Sir, I’m here to collect,” … and then I stood there for what seemed an eternity as we both stared at each other. Both of his frightened daughters (a bit older and dressed like church women at a funeral) came scurrying to the door. One of them, carrying a black change purse the size of a stuffed burrito, quickly and carefully handed me one dollar and sixty-two cents in exact change.
Later in life I heard in an interview from an old business associate of Montana’s how he’d sometimes talk to people from his pine-walled taxi offices. Supposedly, if he happened to have disapproved of a particular meeting, an on-listening German thug (employed by Montana) would receive ‘a message’, and would follow the interviewee. The thug would make sure that the interviewee’s car would end the day in a ‘Bada Boom’!
Montana’s connections to organized crime were later exposed in the outbreak of the Apalachin meeting disaster. He died in 1967. The Buffalo Mob stories are bloody, corrupt and pervasive. The notorious leader, Magaddino, had many enemies over the years, yet he survived several attempts on his life. In 1936, a bomb that was intended for him detonated in the wrong house and killed his sister.
Drugs, bootlegging, prostitution and gambling underscored legitimate business endeavors and roused the wars of family and finance for decades. Names like Magaddino, Joe Bonanno, Magliocco, Profaci, Lucchese, DiGregorio, Colombo, and scores of others embroiled in ongoing wars and paths to supremacy.
Magaddino was aging and in the late 1960’s and relinquished control of his day-to-day legitimate business operations.They included Magaddino Memorial Chapel, the Power City Distributing Company of Niagara Falls, as well as the Camellia Linen Supply Company.
Other leaders came and went. Every few years news broke out about another major war. On this day, May 8, in 1974, John Cammilleri, a mob lieutenant reporting to the new boss, Fred “Lupo” Randaccio, pleaded his case for heightened family recognition at a meeting held in a Buffalo cigar shop. The mob council denied his requests and he abruptly stormed out of the meeting, full of rage.
Cammilleri went to Romanello’s Roseland, a popular West Side Italian restaurant, later that night. He parked his car and was crossing the street, just about to enter the restaurant, when someone called out his name. “Johnny!” He turned and looked. Several shots rang out and Cammilleri was hit in the face and chest. He crumpled to the ground and was dead instantly. Buffalo restaurant patrons rushed outside to see what had happened, and watched a car with four men inside speed down Chenango Street.
FBI reports indicate that Cammilleri’s death sparked a wave of 15 mob-related murders that lasted into the mid-1980’s, with only one case ending in an arrest.
Officially, there is no record of any Mafia in Buffalo from that point on… at least no record of Mafia in Buffalo that I am going to report on.
Author: Bill Zimmermann would love to continue to talk to Buffalonians out on the lake this summer. He runs a sailing school by the name of 7 Seas for anyone who may be interested in taking advantage of Buffalo’s incredible sailing season.
Lead image courtesy Medium.com