By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
John Derek, the movie actor, once said, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse.”
Dominic Di Ciolla managed two out of three, but missed out on the last one.
A lesser known player in the field of American organized crime, he came and went without too much fuss, and perhaps, his only claim to any kind of notoriety is his connection to the early days of the Los Angeles Mafia.
He was born in Bari, in the province of Puglia, a city on the Italian Adriatic, in September, 1902.
He died on a street that apparently never existed, six months shy of his thirtieth birthday..
If life is a conundrum, death by violence, especially in the field of criminal activity, is an enigma that often challenges us for a solution.
Although youth gangs may have emerged in the US early as the late 1780s, as the industrial revolution emerged in the 19th century, so did criminal gangs, most visible and violent during tectonic and rapid population shifts. Like seedlings in a vast field of economic fertilizer, they multiplied across the land, as major cities developed, commerce blossomed and opportunities offered wealth and prestige for those that could succeed. And not only the home-bred versions were present as the brave new world began to welcome the 20th Century.
As millions of Italians emigrated to the Americas, they brought another kind of gang. It would become known as The Mafia, after its namesake in Sicily where it had first emerged, and it may first have established itself in Louisiana, before spreading across the conterminous United States. Not all Italian criminals were Mafia, and in Chicago, there were various groups operating, some Italian, some Irish, some, perhaps Mafia.
He was short, about five-four according to one line-up police image, slender of build, dark hair, and because he was from further north in Italy, had a fair complexion. According to statements from his associates, he was unpredictable, easy to fly into rages, and prone to violence. An arriviste. Squared. He has also been described as a skilled politician, strategist and born double-crosser. Like a member of the senate or congress in Washington, he would use these to his advantage in his business, which was crime.
Which a lot of people think is not unlike politics.
In Chicago, he teamed up with a group of Sicilian gangsters, who were brothers. Terrible brothers apparently, because that is how they would become know-The Terrible Gennas-as they went about their business in the city’s Little Italy district located in the near west side on and around Taylor Street. Arriving at various dates from 1906 onwards, from their origins in Marsala, south-west Sicily, they ran coffee shops, saloons, billiard halls and blind pigs-illegal drinking dens.
Operating as their own gang, they were loosely connected to Al Capone and his mob.
During Prohibition they became masters in the business of distilling and selling corn sugar alcohol. Constantly at war with their competitors and enemies, they are gradually eliminated, one by one. Tony is the last of three sibling killings in consecutive months, his in July 1925. The others give up and retire, to die of natural causes.
The year following Tony Genna’s murder, Dominic Di Ciolla is also gone from Chicago and reappears on the west coast. In Los Angeles. Why he moved here rather than say New York or some other major city closer to the action in the eastern states, has never been explained. Maybe he had connection or an introduction to the players in the city of the angels. Maybe after years in Chicago he just wanted sunshine most of the time.
Arriving with a wife, Elizabeth Pinto, and a baby son, he started his “legitimate” working career as a butcher. He gathered together a group of similar Chicago ex-pats and social misfits, and it seems, went after a slice of the local enterprises revolving around the liquor business. Prohibition had been in force as a federal act for six years, and would last another seven, so there was a lot of opportunities for those prepared to risk importing or creating and selling alcohol, as the demand would always exceed the supply. At some stage he and his family move into a house at 3021 West Boulevard in West Adams, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Two more children will arrive in the years ahead.
By the time of his arrival in Southern California, there were close to 20,000 Italians living in the greater Los Angeles area and there was a man allegedly in charge of the Italian Mafia operating here, called Joseph Ardizzone.
From Palermo Province in Sicily, Ardizzone arrived in the US late in the 19th century, settling first in Louisiana, before moving to California. His father and some brothers had preceded him so there was a family base to welcome him. He was soon coming into dispute with a group of Italians already based there, called Matranga who ran a mob called The College Park Gang. Although distant cousins, they were at loggerheads for some reason, and on July 2, 1906, he shot and killed one of their allies, a man called George Maisano, at about six in the evening on the corner of Avenue 19 and Main Street.
Maisano lived nearby at 1822 Darwin Avenue, an area so notorious it become known as “Shotgun Alley.”
It was also home to Osario ‘Sam Matranga,’ shot-gunned to death as he drove into the garage of his house at number 1837. His wife found him in the early hours sitting in the car, engine running, minus most of his head.
We do not know for certain what triggered the Maisano killing.
It may have been a personal beef or related to the criminal activities of warring factions.
Some sources claim it revolved around a dispute which was mediated by one Giuseppe Cuccia, a well-known and respected farmer, who found in favor of Ardizzone. Hardly surprising as they were cousins, although some sources claim they were uncle and nephew. Maisano swore revenge on Cuccia so Ardizzone killed him, then left town. On the lam for eight years. Almost certainly hiding in plain sight.
The Ardizzones, Matrangas and Cuccias were from the same area centered around Monreale and Pianna dei Greci which lie a few miles west of Palermo City. Mafia hot spots for generations. They were all also distant cousins.
The Mafia of Sicily is filled with familial families within criminal families. First cousin marriages in some areas was the norm rather than the exception. Early Mafia clans were dominated by the same groups of related members. Fathers, sons, nephews and cousins. Lots of cousins.
Killing Maisano didn’t help Cuccia, who was shot dead three months later on North Main Street, by a gunman riding a bicycle. The shooter, brandishing a revolver, was never identified, (although the main suspect was Antonio Matranga aka Tony Schino one of the leaders of the College Park Gang,) so we don’t know for sure that is why Cuccia went down. Possible. Always possible. Almost certainly the first drive-by shooting by a cyclist in history.
Perhaps the only one.
Deadly as it was, there was a Keystone Cops element about the incident especially seeing as how Keystone Pictures, the producers of the Cops movies, was based in Edendale, just across Elysian Park, to the west.
For the first twenty or so years from 1900 onwards, there is much coming and going between various criminal cabals in the Los Angeles area and bodies falling with a metronome regularity. There are multiple gangs fighting for control of the spoils- booze, extortion, hi-jacking, gambling-all the good stuff that fills the pages of the crime writers journals. There is probably the Mafia in some form or another although it is difficult to pin down with any real certainty just who this might be and who is running what with whom.
It looked something like this:
Ardizzone arrives, establishes his base, works in the fruit and vegetable business, starts working on his gang credentials. After killing Maisano, he is eventually indicted for the crime but the case is dismissed due to lack of witnesses. A not usual outcome in these kind of murders. Years are passing, things changing. He gets married, buys a ranch, presumably becomes more than a little wealthy.
Born in Palermo Province, he moves to America, perhaps in 1904, living first in New York. With his cousin, Giuseppe Morello, a man who would become infamous in the years ahead as perhaps the leader of New York’s first Mafia clan. By 1909, Vito and Maria Cristoforo marry, and in due course, have four children and are living in New Orleans. He runs a grocery shop front end, and does lots of bad stuff on the side. Then, as they almost all seem to do, he ups stakes and moves to Los Angeles sometime before 1921. They settle in a house on East 21 street, in central LA. Somehow he become the boss of the Mafia. His number two man is Rosario Di Simone.
It’s claimed the appointments of Di Giorgio and Di Simone are managed by a Mafia national leadership, although it’s not easy to figure out who that would have been. There is no hard evidence that a formal board of governors existed at this time. Mafia clans emerged and operated as individual criminal conspiracies, and although there was much familial relationships between gangs nothing seemingly confirms there was a structured panel of managers until the Commission was formed following the end of the Castellammarese War** in New York in 1931.
We are pretty certain however that Vito is the boss because of the disclosures of Nicola Gentile. A Sicilian-born gangster, he had moved to America in 1903 and became a kind of Mafia Forrest Gump-everything, everywhere, always at once. In his memoir, published as a book in 1963, he refers to Di Giorgio as the capo of Los Angeles, a Sicilian name for boss.
In the spring of 1922, Vito is visiting Buffalo, New York, for a reason, either mob business or something else. On the way back to California he and an associate, Vincenzo Cammarata, stop off in Chicago, and are shot-gunned to death in a barber shop on Larrabee Street in the Little Italy section of the city. What happens next in Los Angeles is open to debate. Some claim, Di Simone takes over, others that Ardizzone slides back into position number one. He is also a suspect in the murder of Di Giorgio.
For a man with the reputation of killing at least thirty victims, eliminating the man who stole your job, seems child’s play. Joseph is almost certainly number one by 1925, when Di Simone steps down and retires to live out his life as a normal citizen. Although he died in 1947, he wasn't finished with the mob. His second son, Frank, became the family boss in 1956 and ran it for eleven years. There is another interpretation on the Mafia leadership transformation that claims Di Simone stayed boss until his death, with his number two Jack Dragna then taking over
And then, just to confuse the picture even more, there is Marco Albori. A man with so many aliases he must have struggled at times to remember just who he really was, the law knew him, in LA at least, mainly as Albert Marco.
Born in Trieste, now Italy, but then part of the Austrian Kingdom, in April 1887, he claimed he arrived in New York in 1906. Moving first to San Francisco, he arrived in Los Angels in March, 1914 and slowly built up his own criminal enterprises revolving around brothels and boot-legging.
Working in conjunction with Charles H. Crawford, an influential political deal-maker, Mayor Cryer who ran perhaps the most corrupt city hall ever, from 1921 until 1928 and a police force almost bent out of shape most of the time, he seemingly had something going as the media referred to him as “the asserted king of Los Angeles so-called underworld.”
An interesting turn of phrase indicating the media’s perception of a scrambled and confusing criminal society operating across the city. The word racket dates back to 1765 although the term racketeer did not enter the popular lexicon until 1928 just as Dominic Di Ciolla was building up steam in his own criminal chicanery.
In June of 1928, Albori/Marco gets into a fight with two men in a bar in the seaside town of Venice shooting them and ends up sentenced to fourteen years in prison. Following his release in 1933, he is deported and his citizenship revoked in 1938, making him well and truly out of the running.
Before 1920, the mob in Los Angeles was perhaps, not so much an organization than groups of local criminals. A loose confederation. It’s possible The Volstead Act* was the glue that joined them together. Their biggest competitor it seems was the “Spring Street Clique”- opportunist grifters, scammers and dishonest businessmen- using City Hall to profit from the same kinds of business the underworld profited from. Sometimes in competition, other times cheek by jowl.
The police vice squad was on the take and mayors like the afore mentioned George E. Cryer often turned a blind eye to the nefarious activities going on around his office. The city was essentially controlled by an unseen, underworld kind of government. Tony Cornero, a well-known gangster and rum-runner allegedly once complained about not getting the police protection he had paid for.
The Hollywood movie business was almost half-way through its second decade when Di Ciolla arrived in Los Angeles. He found himself in the middle of a landscape that could easily have been scripted by one of the movers and shakers of the film industry.
Italians would congregate around a place in down-town that became known as Little Italy, centered on Ord and Broadway, and spreading north into Sonoratown, Dogtown, Lincoln Heights and other areas. Thousands crammed into a few square miles, corralled by poverty, stranded by language and culture, ignored by and mistrustful of the police, they were simply prey to hunters like Di Ciolla.
By the time he arrives, the hierarchy of the Mafia clan seems sorted and Ardizzone has become a successful business man with a ranch near Sunland in the Crescenta Valley, about twenty miles north of down town. He gets the nickname, “Iron Man” for the way he pulls together the various Sicilian gangs into some kind of structure. A respectable restaurateur and businessman he runs his bootleg empire from his ranch in the foothills off Mount Gleason Avenue, now the site of the local middle school. How he and the new guy in town from Chicago interacted has never been fully explained.
Domenic Di Ciolla was probably never a Mafioso. There is no evidence he was made into the Los Angeles Family, which would have to be approved by Ardizzone, as the boss, and the Chicago mob was not connected at the time he left Chicago. Al Capone, again according to Gentile, was “brought into” the Mafia Family ran by Giuseppe Masseria, which was based in New York. This was in 1930, four years after Di Ciolla left Chicago. It was part of a campaign in Masseria’s war against his enemies during The Castellammarese War.
- READ: Kill The Chinaman.
Di Ciolla works to establish control over the illegal booze trade in the city’s North End, which is now Chinatown but then was the Italian enclave of the city. He gets arrested numerous times for this activity, the very first the year that he arrives in California. He’s also a suspect in at least two murders.
August Palumbo, age twenty-eight, is found in his quaintly named Willys Knight sedan outside 2912 Hillcrest Drive in West Adams on July 18, 1928. It’s a few hundred yard north of the Di Ciolla family house. Blasted in the head by a shotgun. It was posited that another car had forced him to pull up then bam! The police and the prohibition enforcement and vice detail round up twelve suspects in their hunt for the killer, including Dominic Di Ciolla. Authorities claim a gang war was under way and had been for weeks. At least seven dead, including Palumbo.
Although bound over for trial on August 10, a superior court judge, for some reason, signed an order releasing the suspects.
Palumbo may have been an associate of Albert Marco, and this may have been why he died. Working out reasons and consequences in these mob killings requires a doctorate in confusion-solving.
As part of this problem solving, police and sheriff’s department officers had been tailing a car for some weeks prior to the murder. Nothing like it seems to have been registered by local law enforcement. It had bullet proof glass and parts of the bodywork were armor plated. The vehicle was seen frequently in front of the home of a man called Mike Pupillo and a cafe on Western Avenue owned by him and another man called Vito Ardito. It’s been alleged they were imports from Chicago, brought in to boost Di Ciolla’s group.
Four months after the Palumbo killing, a mysterious explosion demolishes a house on the corner of Tellfaire and Filmore Streets in Pacoima, in the San Fernando Valley. Three men were rushed to the hospital-Di Ciolla, and Leo Gargano, along with Rocco Gravino-who will die from his injuries. All three were suspects in the Palumbo hit. It’s been claimed the attack on the property, owned by Antonio Martino, was an extortion plot that went wrong.
Initial reports indicated that the two survivors were to be charged with murder for Gravino’s death, although this went nowhere.
In April 1929, Di Ciolla along with Mike Pupillo and Vito Ardito went to trial for the murder of Palumbo, and were found not guilty on May 15. As he left the courthouse, Di Ciolla had less than two years to live.
Whatever he was doing that final evening of his life, death would have the final word.
On a lonely and desolate country road, to the north-east of Van Nuys, he pulls over the car he is driving, and parks facing north. It is late evening early morning March 18 through 19, 1931. Leaving the headlights at full beam, he leaves the vehicle and walks forward to meet someone or some ones. His footprints are still visible in the dust the following morning. Whoever was there waiting, may have been drinking. The only thing found at the murder scene, apart from a not so good looking corpse, is a partly filled bottle of whiskey.
His body is found on Arleta Street, about five miles from the town, a few hundred feet north of the Van Nuys Boulevard according to a newspaper report. He had been blasted in the head by a shotgun leaving the body badly disfigured.
There is an Arleta Avenue, which does bisect the boulevard, but no street by this name listed on city maps. Maybe the reporter in the LA Times got his facts mixed up or the printer screwed up the plate. It wouldn’t be the first time that the news would be less than perfectly reported in a newspaper. Italian names are often misspelt, facts confused with theory or even fiction. Bias is founded on newspaper ownership. There’s a lot going on keeping the public informed, and not all of it helpful when its analyzed years after the event.
Within days, police arrest five men at an address-13252 Vaughn Street- in Pacoima, about three miles to the north and east of the murder scene. The detective leading the enquiry is certain at least one of these men is the killer, although in typical mob-murder fashion, the investigation goes nowhere. No forensics, no eye witnesses, not CCTV cameras on every street corner in those days. And not a snitch in sight to help the cops.
The suspects were released due to the efforts of their young attorney, one Sam Rummel, who ironically, is himself shot-gunned to death outside his home in December, 1950. He had become famous over the years as a mob lawyer for those in need in Los Angeles. LA’s version of Roy Cohen, one of New York’s most infamous attorneys.
On March 21st, two days later, another body is found. This one in a ditch. In Downey, thirty miles to the south and east of the scene of Di Ciolla’s murder. We don’t know if this was linked into the killing of Dominic. It’s possible.
That evening, Ardizzone and a man called Jimmy Basile had visited the home of De Simone for dinner. Later, driving home, their car is overtaken and multiple shots are fired at the vehicle from three men wielding sawn-off shotguns. Ardizzone is seriously wounded but survives, Jimmy not so much. He’s the one in the ditch.
What was happening here is another Fabergé Egg kind of thing. Opening one simply reveals another, identical. Some sources claim the real target of this attack is Ardizzone and Jimmy is collateral damage. That the killers were part of his own crime family after the boss for reasons unknown. Others, that the shooters were part of DiCiolla’s group, which also ironically seems to have included Basile, out for revenge, and that poor Jimmy was not meant to get hit. It’s even been suggested Joe himself shoots Jimmy, and then, just like that, a group of killers arrive after him.
The law it seems believed Ardizzone had a dispute with Basile and his partner in the bootleg business, Di Ciolla. These two had invested $1,000 in a "still" to start making alcohol. Ardizzone tried to move in but was rejected. It was alleged he told Di Ciolla that he had killed 30 men and he would make Di Ciolla the thirty-first-if the partners didn't "cut him in." This information presumably came from an informant and was covered in a special investigation on organized crime at state government level.***
Investigators believed the boss was the killer of Basile, taking him for a ride, which of course he was, after dining with him and others that night.
Whatever and whoever, it seems that seven months later all things would pass.
Early in the morning of October 15, Joe Ardizzone left his home in a dark blue 1930 Ford coupe. Formally dressed for the journey in a suit, shirt, tie and fedora, he’s also carrying a .41 caliber revolver. His wife, Elsie, the former Miss Ellenberger, remembered waving him off, and watching as he stopped the car and picked up a man standing on a street corner. Then he was gone, for good.
His journey was to the ranch of a cousin, another Cuccia, this one Joe, in Etiwanda, about fifty miles east. He was going to pick up yet another cousin, Frank Borgia, who had recently arrived from Italy. The police searched the route for a week, but found nothing.
It was speculated he had been murdered and his body buried somewhere in the endless deserts in this northern area of the Los Angeles basin. He was a big man for a Sicilian, five ten, over two hundred pounds and armed. It’s easy to assume he did not go quietly into whatever night awaited him.
His brother Frank, who lived in Lincoln Heights, told the police officer who interviewed him, “Don’t bother looking for enemies. It will be one of his friends that did it.”
In a barbarous cruelty to verbs, they were “exiting” him.
Police have suspects, and arrest Antonio Bartolotta aka Tony Bruno, Antonio Trapani and a man called Mazzola, on December 3, and as usual, nothing develops. The suspects are just that, nothing more. Its was also suggested that one of his killers was his cousin Frank Borgia, who was himself, three years later already in prison for conspiracy to violate the internal revenue laws.
Seven years later Ardizzone’s wife declared him legally dead.
Whether she knew about her husband’s criminal activities will never be known. Secrets and lies bind families together like the chains in the building block of DNA. She will live another fifty-six years until her death at the age of eighty-nine.
They had married when she was just sixteen, on Boxing Day in 1914, and he was almost twice her age. They have a son and a daughter. A seemingly perfect family within a Venn overlap of another kind of family linking so much violence it can be hard to comprehend.
Someone once said the bad moments in life will pass. Even the good moments will pass. This is our existence. Ardizzone and the men who travelled his highways probably thought of themselves as deal makers and businessmen. Violence, intimidation and murder was simply part of doing business. They lived in a parallel universe to the rest of society, governed by their own rules and regulations.
Another wife, Elizabeth Pinto Di Ciolla and her children would also live long and hopefully fruitful lives, unlike the husband and father, who found out how short and deadly it is for those who go by night.
* The Volstead Act, officially known as The National Prohibition Act, was an act of the 66th United States Congress designed to execute the 18th Amendment (ratified January 1919) which established the prohibition of alcoholic drinks. Passed in October 1919, it came into effect January 16, 1920.
** The Castellammarese War was a period of intense conflict between various Mafia-type gang factions in the greater New York area in 1930 through 1931.
*** State of California Special Crime Study Commission on Organized Crime, Sacramento. January, 1953.
My thanks to crime historians, Tom Hunt, Richard Warner, Justin Cascio and J. Michael Niotta for their extensive research and biographies on LA’s underworld, The Los Angeles Times, Foothill Reader, and all the websites that dipped in their ten cents worth.
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