TAMPA, Fla. – The ghosts of Tampa's old-time wiseguys awakened this summer when Mafia scion John "Junior" Gotti came to town in handcuffs, accused of pulling the strings in a bunch of classic mobster crimes.
The federal indictment against him reads like a plot summary for "The Sopranos." The 44-year-old Gotti — son of the late "Dapper Don" of the notorious Gambino crime family — allegedly had his fingers in everything: whacking rivals, trafficking cocaine, bribery, kidnapping and money-laundering. Earlier convictions show Gambino crews have worked for years to get a foothold in the Tampa area's criminal underworld.
If the charges against Gotti are true, then he was a Johnny-come-lately to organized crime around here.
The fabric of the Tampa region's history is richly woven with stories of ruthless gangsters who first grabbed control of illegal gambling and liquor distribution during Prohibition, executed rivals with point-blank shotgun blasts, bribed public officials, controlled the narcotics trade and eventually broadened their influence across the Sunshine State and pre-Castro Cuba.
They were menacing, old-school mobsters who went by nicknames like "The Hammer," "Scarface," "Cowboy," "The Fat Man," "The Colonel," "Big Joe" and "Silent Sam."
Infamous in the city's lore is the "Era of Blood," when 25 gangsters were gunned down on the streets as Italian, Cuban and Anglo underworld factions battled for power from the 1920s to the '50s.
And a Godfather-like legend surrounds Tampa-born crime boss Santo Trafficante Jr., who took over the Sicilian Mafia in Florida from his father in 1954 and built a criminal empire that was the envy of mob families across the country.
"Trafficante was the boss of Florida," says Joseph D. Pistone, a former FBI agent whose six years undercover with the mob were chronicled in the 1997 Johnny Depp movie "Donnie Brasco." "Miami was an open city, like Las Vegas. But if you operated in Tampa or other parts of the state, you had to go through Trafficante."
During his last two years with Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano's Bonanno family crew, Pistone came to Florida often to help broker an alliance with Trafficante, whose blessing was needed for the Brooklyn crew to operate an illegal gambling joint northwest of Tampa. The eventual FBI takedown of the Kings Court club in 1981 is depicted in "Donnie Brasco."
In another movie, "Goodfellas" (1990), New York gangsters played by Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro come to Tampa in 1970 and put the screws to a guy who won't pay his gambling debts. He finally agrees to pay up after they take him to the city zoo and threaten to feed him to the lions.
That all really happened — except for the lion part. Lucchese family soldiers Henry Hill and Jimmy Burke just gave the welcher an old-fashioned beating, ending up at a dingy north Tampa bar that still stands across the street from the Busch Gardens amusement park. But it's true that the beaten bettor had a sister who worked in the Tampa FBI office, which led to arrests and prison terms for the two wiseguys.
That's trivia that few but Scott Deitche remember. He literally wrote the book on Tampa's organized crime history — called "Cigar City Mafia" — and followed it up last year with a Trafficante biography.
Miami might be more associated with mob activity, but Deitche says organized crime in Florida is firmly rooted in Tampa, where Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants established communities in the city's cigar-making center of Ybor City in the early 20th century. One of the early rackets was bolita, a popular, low-stakes lottery game.
"You had drugs, prostitution, rum-running, bootlegging during Prohibition, some alien smuggling, but bolita was the main moneymaker," says Deitche over lunch recently at Ybor City's historic Columbia restaurant — a favorite dining spot of Trafficante and a host of mobsters over the years.
"Through bolita you got into corruption of the local government, corruption of the sheriff's department," he says. "So from there you really saw the emergence of the Italian Mafia, and the Italian Mafia eventually eclipsed all the other ones."
Howard Abadinsky, an organized-crime expert who teaches a class on the subject at St. John's University, says the growth of organized crime in Florida mirrored what was happening in society at-large. There was opportunity and money to be made in Florida, attracting not only aboveboard entrepreneurs but mobsters from the five New York Mafia families as well. Many bought houses and lived here for part of the year.
"The mob moved to Florida just like legitimate people," Abadinsky says. "There was plenty of money for everyone."
But it was the soft-spoken, even-tempered Trafficante — known as the "Silent Don" — who put the mob on the map in Florida. He also became the most influential Mafia figure in Cuba, running hotels and casinos, buying up property and laundering money through the island before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and kicked him out.
Trafficante, in public hearings, acknowledged cooperating with secret U.S. government efforts to kill Castro. And his name is often mentioned in a conspiracy theory surrounding President John F. Kennedy's assassination, but he vehemently denied having anything to do with it. He never spent a night in an American jail.
Trafficante's death after heart surgery in 1987 ended the Mafia's heyday in Florida, but the experts say it hasn't been snuffed out. A 2006 federal trial in Tampa exposed the activities of a Gambino crew led by capo Ronald Trucchio, who because of a deformed limb was known by the nickname "Ronnie One-Arm."
His crew was accused of a slew of wiseguy crimes, including trying to control the lucrative valet parking business in Tampa. He and three other Gambino associates were convicted of racketeering and conspiracy to commit extortion, with Trucchio getting life in prison.
Now comes Junior Gotti, who was arrested at his Long Island home in August and hauled to Tampa. His attorney scoffs at the charges, saying the feds have mounted an "epic quest" to take Gotti down after failing to convict him in three federal trials in New York. Gotti says he retired years ago from the criminal life and has pleaded not guilty to the Tampa charges. He remains jailed without bond pending a trial, which could happen sometime next year.
Abadinsky says the mob is still around, in Florida, New York and elsewhere, but it's a shadow of its former self. Gangsters today don't wield the power, control the unions or have the political connections of their predecessors.
While the "The Sopranos," the wildly popular HBO TV series about a New Jersey mob family, was a great recruiting tool for the Mafia, there are fewer young men willing to take up the life these days, Abadinsky says.
"The new guys," he says, "are whole lot less interesting."