By David Amoruso
Until authorities took it down, the Bonanno crime family in New York, the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, and the Rizzuto clan and Hells Angels in Montreal ran one hell of a lucrative drug pipeline. One that made its participants hundreds of millions of dollars and gave legions of drug users their fix. Nothing new there really. However, where the pipeline was usually run by the American mob this one was run from Canada, by French-Canadian gangsters working closely with their colleagues in various factions of the Montreal underworld.
Montreal’s criminal element had come to dominate the drug trade in North America and this pipeline was just the latest example. Still, on the surface things seemed just like they were during the American mob’s good ol’ days.
To the people in New York he was known as “Big Man,” and he had all the right connections to get you high. Staten Islander John Venizelos was doing very well with his crew of dealers, moving thousands of pounds of marijuana from stash houses into the hands of eager clients. One ledger obtained by police showed nearly $4 million in marijuana transfers to Venizelos in an eight-month period alone.
When you are moving that much weight and making that much cash you better get some protection as well. “Big Man” Venizelos got it from the Bonanno crime family, one of five Mafia families operating in New York. As a mob associate Venizelos was put on record as being with the Bonannos. As the movie cliché goes: No one could touch him now.
With drug money flowing in, Venizelos was keeping up appearances as manager of “Jaguars 3,” a strip club/restaurant in Brooklyn owned by Vincent “Vinny Green” Faraci, a Bonanno family soldier who formerly managed the “Crazy Horse Too” strip club in Las Vegas. There, Venizelos was being groomed for “the life.”
Does all of this sound familiar? It should. The Bonanno crime family has a long history of involvement in the drug trade. It’s only normal that Venizelos would work with this particular mob family. Ever since the days of Joseph Bonanno, the family’s namesake and first boss, have the Bonannos had a taste for the riches the drug trade provides.
THE DRUG PIPELINE BETWEEN MONTREAL AND NEW YORK
In the 1950s, Bonanno sent his underboss Carmine Galante to Canada to set up shop and plant a flag for the New York Mafia family. Galante gathered some good men around him who were made into the Bonanno family in New York. Operating out of Montreal in Quebec, Canada, Galante oversaw the lucrative heroin pipeline destined for New York. The “Americans” were in total control.
There is one big difference between those days and how things are being run now, though. Today, the American Mafia has no control or say in the pipeline. They are on the receiving end as customers. Their days of calling the shots in Canada came to a gradual end somewhere in the 1990s when the Montreal faction led by Vito Rizzuto had become more powerful than all five New York families combined and stopped paying tribute to their supposed boss back in the United States.
While members of the Bonanno crime family in New York were scheming their way to a payday of a couple million dollars at best, the Rizzutos in Montreal were making hundreds of millions from drug trafficking, construction, extortion, and many other shady dealings. All of it on a global scale. The clan was even linked to the multi-billion dollar plans for the construction of a bridge between Calabria and Sicily. By then, the Rizzutos also had money pouring in from legitimate investments.
Using his influence, charisma, and people skills, Vito Rizzuto, as did his father Nick before him, had managed to keep the Montreal underworld not just in check, but working together, all the while expanding their criminal empire. No small feat when you consider that this city is inhabited by battle hardened Hells Angels, the Irish West End gang, French-Canadian gangsters, and various ethnic street gangs.
A YOUNG DRUG DEALER WITH BIG DREAMS
In 1999, the Rizzuto Clan effectively controlled the Montreal underworld. The streets were peaceful and, above all, profitable.
In January of that year, a young man by the name of Jimmy Cournoyer pleaded guilty to drug charges. Together with his brother, Jimmy was running a marijuana grow op inside an apartment they shared in Laval, Montreal. With the money they made dealing pot, the pair financed another, bigger, grow op at a chalet in a ski resort in the Laurantians north of Montreal.
Not bad for a teenager.
But despite his success, Cournoyer was still just a young, cocky kid. One that needed to boast and chat about his criminal exploits. It wasn’t long before he told an undercover police agent about his marijuana business, after also selling him some weed.
So there he stood in court at the start of a new year. Ready to face the music. The tune he heard must have sounded like the best song in the world. The judge only sentenced him to a fine. He was free to go.
He proved to be a master at bringing different parties together. Just like the Rizzutos did, but on a much smaller scale. For Cournoyer it was only the beginning, though. He had big plans.
Instead of redecorating his own living space with pot plants again, Cournoyer reached out to residents of the Kanesatake reserve near Montreal. On these Native-American reserves in North America the rules become blurry and law enforcement tends to lose focus. Cournoyer and his aboriginal partners made full use of these circumstances and moved large quantities of marijuana from Canada to the United States, where it sold for more than twice the price.
It was good money, but not enough for the entrepreneurial drug dealer. He wanted more, and he wanted it fast. His operation expanded into other drugs, like ecstasy. And the Indian reserve near Montreal became a transit point for drugs, guns, and money.
But it remained difficult to fly under the radar of law enforcement. After a good run, Cournoyer and his gang of aboriginal smugglers were busted by the RCMP and he was off to prison again.
REBOOT: MORE DRUGS, MORE MONEY, MORE LA DOLCE VITA
After his release from prison in 2007, Cournoyer remained an incorrigible criminal. He had spent his time in prison thinking solely about expanding his narcotics empire. While on parole and living in a halfway house, he began building new partnerships to reboot his drug business. He met with members of the Rizzuto Clan and the Hells Angels and got them onboard. He also linked up with contacts in the United States and Mexico, bringing his drug ring to a full circle.
He was moving cocaine from the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico to the Rizzuto Clan in North America, marijuana from Canada to the United States, and guns and money from the United States to Canada. By now he wasn’t just known as Jimmy Cournoyer, but as “Superman,” the man who supplied most of the East Coast with marijuana. Authorities later claimed Cournoyer trafficked $1 billion in marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy between 1998 and 2012.
His success was visible. He owned a $2-million-dollar Bugatti Veyron sports car, partied with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, sparred with retired UFC champion Georges St-Pierre, and dated supermodel Amelia Racine.
Photo above: Georges St-Pierre, Jimmy Cournoyer, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
THE INEVITABLE FALL
All gangland success stories tend to follow the same path. Everyone started from the bottom, climbed up, reached the top of the heap, only to fall down before they could really enjoy their success.
The fall always comes as a surprise.
When Jimmy Cournoyer (right) was flying from Montreal to Cancun, Mexico, on February 16, 2012, he was probably thinking about cocktails and hot girls, some new drug deal he could set up. He was definitely not expecting to be seized by Mexican border agents and put on a plane to the United States to face drug charges.
Yet, that was exactly what happened.
Several months later, on November 27, 2012, DEA agents in the United States arrested “Big John” Venizelos. They charged the 33-year-old with conspiracy to import marijuana, use of firearms and money laundering conspiracy.
Apparently, Venizelos saw his downfall coming. A few days before his arrest, he started threatening possible witnesses against him.
The American Mafia has a long history of threatening, influencing, bribing, and unrepentantly killing witnesses against it. It’s how John Gotti earned the nickname “Teflon Don.” With his status as an associate of the Bonanno crime family, Venizelos should have no problem using the Mafia’s reputation to scare potential witnesses straight.
But instead of dropping the name of the Bonanno family or any of its members, he dropped the name of French-Canadian Jimmy Cournoyer.
According to a letter that Brooklyn Assistant US Attorney Steven Tiscione wrote to a judge, “Venizelos sent an encrypted message” to a co-conspirator, warning that person “that he/she had better hope that Cournoyer or members of his organization never found out that [the co-conspirator] had spoken with law enforcement agents because Cournoyer has $2 million set aside to pay for the murder of cooperating witnesses.”
Included in the letter were encrypted messages from Venizelos that government experts just recently deciphered. One of them reads: “Seriously bro. I know [Cournoyer] has like 2 mil...just to pay guys to handle that once he sentenced.”
Murder fund or not, it was of no use to Venizelos and Cournoyer. Several former associates had started lining up to testify against them in court.
After all other options disappeared from the table, “Big Man” pleaded guilty and hoped for the best. At his sentencing on August 19, 2014, the judge handed the 35-year-old Bonanno associate 11 years. He will still be a relatively young man when he gets out.
Cournoyer saw no other way out either. Despite all his connections and millions set aside to intimidate or murder witnesses, the best he could do in court was present the judge with letters of support from friends that highlighted the drug boss’ more human side.
The most surprising letter came from retired UFC champion Georges St-Pierre. The MMA superstar is known for his class, politeness, and upstanding lifestyle and behavior in and outside the cage. He wrote: “My name is Georges St-Pierre, world UFC champion. I am writing this letter regarding my really good friend Jimmy Cournoyer.”
He writes that the two first met at a restaurant in 2009 and later travelled together to Ibiza, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, for a couple of days.
“We had the time of our life. Jimmy became like a brother to me. We travelled together, we trained together, we were going to restaurants, clubs and having a lot of fun. Jimmy is a very loyal friend who I respect very much. I’ve never judged Jimmy. Actually, what he was doing (with) his life wasn’t any of my business. We have a very human relationship; we share the same passions, which is sport fitness and martial arts.”
St-Pierre also writes how he has visited Cournoyer twice in jail since his arrest.
“His mental toughness will help him go through this very hard ordeal in his life. Jimmy is a very positive and strong person and I am sure he will learn huge lessons about all that. I am giving a lot of support to Jimmy because he deserves it. I told him last time I visited him that when he comes out of jail, I will have a place for him in my surrounding(s),” the former UFC champion wrote.
Whether it was St-Pierre’s letter or Cournoyer’s guilty plea stocked with millions in drug dollars, the sentence wasn’t all that bad: 27 years in prison. If he serves that sentence in Canada, he will be out in seven years. That is a nice deal for the head of an international drug organization that smuggled copious amounts of marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy to the United States and is linked to just about every notorious criminal group in the world.
As part of his sentence, Cournoyer agreed to a $1 billion forfeiture money judgment and will forfeit $10,871,120 in narcotics proceeds that federal agents seized from multiple locations in New York, California, Pennsylvania, and Kansas during the multi-year investigation.
Always the money. It can make the difference between doing hard time in prison for as long as you live or serving ten years in a country club.
After Cournoyer’s imprisonment, United States Attorney Lynch said, “Jimmy Cournoyer used Native American Reservations to violate the security of our national borders and smuggled more than $1 billion worth of deadly narcotics and firearms between the United States, Canada and Mexico. His territory - all of North America. His goal - to extend the deadly narcotics trade as far as he could and eliminate those who might think of assisting law enforcement.”
DEA Special Agent-in-Charge Crowell stated, “This organization consisted of a den of thieves ranging from the Rizutto and Bonanno crime families, to the Hells Angels and the Sinaloa Cartel. The organization operated across all of North America. This investigation’s success is the result of our federal, state, local and international law enforcement partnership targeting these organized crime syndicates, Mexican cartels, the Hells Angels, along with a $2 million ‘hit fund’ to deter witness cooperation.”
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
While the players and bosses may change, the game remains the same. Whether the American Mafia controls the pipeline or a French-Canadian kid in his thirties does, in the end the dope gets delivered to junkies throughout the United States. Where there is demand, there will be supply.
Will the next Jimmy Cournoyer please stand up?
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