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Vacant lots have always attracted kids and always will. Those of Ozone Park are no exception. The children of this neighbourhood in Queens, one of New York’s five storied boroughs, are no different from those anywhere else in the world: they love to explore these plots of land abandoned by grown-ups, where wild grasses grow freely in disorderly thatches that stir the imagination. Where heaps of rubble may hide treasures. Or dead bodies.
Until the nineteenth century, vegetable farmers still grew crops on this part of Long Island. One entrepreneur raised goats—not so much for their milk or meat but for their hides, which he fashioned into gloves. New York City’s tentacular sprawl had yet to extend much beyond Manhattan; but once the Long Island Rail Road pushed through the fields that lay between Brooklyn and Howard Beach, real estate developers did what they do best: they built. They put up cottages on the farmland and gave the new subdivision a name with a suitably bucolic ring to it: “Ozone Park” evoked the pleasant maritime aromas brought by cool Atlantic breezes. Manhattan urbanites had to be quick to sign their purchase offers if they hoped to move in and have their families enjoy the healthy sea air—which they did, en masse. The area eventually attracted its share of well-known figures, including folkmusic legend Woody Guthrie. Franco-American author Jack Kerouac penned his famed beat opus On the Road here. Thousands of Italian Americans would also settle in Ozone Park, among them the infamous Mafioso John Gotti.
But on this particular afternoon of May 24, 1981, a bracing salty breeze wasn’t the only thing that greeted some neighbourhood kids as they scoped out a vacant lot on Ruby Street, part of a warren of arteries in the centre of Ozone Park. They were intrigued by the sight—and smell—of “something strange” coming out of the ground. So they started digging. Accounts of what the boys discovered next diverge. One journalist wrote that they initially spotted the heel of a cowboy boot protruding from the dirt. Another version claims they stumbled upon a hand covered in fabric. As a rule, young boys are a gutsy lot—especially in a gang. Such youthful intestinal fortitude has its limits, though, and these boys turned tail and fled the scene. One ran straight home to his parents, who called the police.
Officer Andrew Cilienti oversaw the exhumation. The corpse had been wrapped in a blood-soaked drop cloth. Around the left wrist was a Cartier watch, worth at least $1,500; its hands were frozen at 5:58 a.m. and the day/date indicator read May 7. A tattoo adorned the forearm: two hearts and a dagger, symbolizing a failed romance. Elsewhere, the body bore obvious gunshot wounds: the man’s life had been ended by three .38 calibre slugs. Just as obvious was the fact that the remains could not have been lying there more than a few days. Forensics technicians had no difficulty taking the victim’s fingerprints, and a match soon came back: the dead man was Alphonse “Sonny Red” Indelicato. Four days later, his son-in-law, Salvatore Valenti, formally identified the body.
Sonny Red’s family hailed from a town called Siculiana, in the province of Agrigento, Sicily. One of his murderers, Vito Rizzuto, was born in Cattolica Eraclea, a mere twenty kilometres away. In May 1981, Vito was thirty-five years old. Soon after the killing, he quietly made his way home to his wife and three children in Saint-Léonard, in east-end Montreal. There, he continued attending to his business at the heart of a formidable and flourishing criminal empire—an underworld network based in Montreal, with sturdy branches spread throughout Canada and ramifying into Italy, the United States, Venezuela and Colombia. By the time of Sonny Red’s death, money had begun flowing in huge amounts into the coffers of that empire: the fruits of loansharking, illegal gambling, fraud, corruption and public works contracts, protection money from shopkeepers and entrepreneurs—and, especially, the proceeds from the importing and distribution of tonne after tonne of heroin, cocaine and hashish.
The name Rizzuto was known to police—but at this juncture, that was mostly thanks to Vito’s father. In 1975 in Montreal, a police witness had testified before Quebec’s public commission on organized crime (Commission d’enquête sur le crime organisé, or ceco) that Nicolò (Nick) Rizzuto intended to take control of the Italian Mafia in Quebec. It would be a decade before the name of his son, Vito, first appeared in the files of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (rcmp’s) drug squad.
In 1981, the police knew nothing about Vito’s involvement in the slaying of Sonny Red and two other mob captains in a building in Brooklyn, not far from Ozone Park. The order for the triple hit had come from high up in the Bonanno clan, one of the Five Families of the New York Mafia (and the massacre would later be depicted in the film Donnie Brasco, starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp). A year later, Vito left Saint-Léonard and moved to the northwest part of the Island of Montreal, into a sprawling mansion on Antoine-Berthelet Avenue, which backs onto a narrow strip of woodland, part of the Bois-de- Saraguay nature park, not far from the Rivière des Prairies, Montreal’s “back river.”
Standing over six feet tall, slim and well built, with an easy, flowing gait and dark, almost black hair carefully combed backward, Vito Rizzuto never left his home unless impeccably dressed. He controlled his empire for more than two decades with his father, Nicolò—who, on his return from a Venezuelan prison in 1983, had his own mansion built next door to Vito’s. More than once during those years, the rcmp, the Sûreté du Québec (the provincial police, or sq) and the Montreal police tried in vain to put both father and son behind bars. The younger Rizzuto kept on playing golf on the best courses, dining in the finest restaurants, hobnobbing with lawyers, businessmen above suspicion, city councillors and members of Parliament. He became a legend in Quebec and a man respected by a sizable proportion of Montreal’s Italian community.
Criminal biker gang bosses like Maurice “Mom” Boucher, leader of the Hells Angels in Quebec, and Salvatore Cazzetta, head of the rival Rock Machine, waged ruthless, all-out war against each other but shared a deference toward the all-powerful godfather.
Prosecutors were seemingly powerless in their efforts to thwart him. In 1986, Vito was acquitted of drunk driving charges. In 1989, in SeptÎles, Quebec, accusations that he had masterminded the importing of thirty-two tonnes of hashish were dropped. In 1990, the Newfoundland Supreme Court failed to find him guilty of importing another sixteen tonnes of hash. In 1994, the rcmp arrested several of his cohorts as part of Operation Compote, set up to investigate drug trafficking and money laundering, but once again the godfather walked. In 1998, the Caruana brothers—Alfonso, Gerlando and Pasquale, all close associates of the Rizzuto clan—were arrested and convicted in Toronto of cocaine trafficking. But no charges were laid against Vito.
As the years went by, Vito Rizzuto doubtless consigned the memory of the triple slaying in Brooklyn to some dark corner of his mind. After all, who could possibly connect a body uncovered in a vacant lot in a dilapidated neighbourhood in Queens to the man who had become the great prince of the Montreal mob? A halo of impunity had grown around him; now it contaminated him to the point that he felt invincible. When he was finally arrested in January 2004, Rizzuto displayed amazing aplomb as he let police officers cuff him at his front door. Twenty-three years after the murder of the three Bonanno captains, a U.S. federal grand jury had indicted him on racketeering conspiracy charges and was demanding his extradition. Vito had always beaten the rap. He was born under a lucky star. Why would it abandon him now?