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Published: Tuesday, 12/16/2008

Part 5: Licavolis' River Gang makes its move from Detroit to Toledo

BY KENNETH R. DICKSON
AUTHOR OF SOMETHING FOR NOTHING

Part five of 14

The Motor City was just a short hour's drive north of Toledo, and it was often said of its cousin to the south that when Detroit caught a cold, Toledo caught pneumonia. Consequently, when Detroit had a criminal crisis, Toledo suffered the retribution.

In one month of 1930, Detroit had 22 gang-related murders, and the Licavoli brothers - Yonnie and Peter Joseph - with the power of their River Gang, believed that they were untouchable.

Detroit's residents were outraged at the laxity or complicity of their police department and their elected officials toward the city's maturing criminal element. Ordinary citizens, motivated by Detroit's crusading newspapers, applied intense political pressure to clean up the mess.

Detroit's residents believed that the gangs that roamed throughout their city thought that they could do anything they pleased with no serious consequences.

Public opinion had solidified against the bootleggers through the concentrated efforts of Jerry Buckley, a very popular radio commentator on Detroit's WMBC radio.

Buckley, an extremely persuasive radio personality, had developed a huge following in Detroit and surrounding communities, and his message against Detroit's mayor Charles E. Bowles was so popular that a grass roots recall movement was organized against the mayor.

In early June of 1930, with Yonnie Licavoli's release from the Canadian prison system imminent, Buckley received an anonymous late-night call from an alluring female promising damning information against Bowles.

The bar of Detroit's LaSalle Hotel was almost deserted as Buckley arrived after his radio show.

Entering into the bar's dim light, Buckley didn't even recognize the drawn guns that swiftly shot him dead. It was rumored that Yonnie's brother, Peter Joseph Licavoli, had his girlfriend make the call. Peter Joseph was intensely questioned by the police about the Buckley murder, and with no witnesses to place him at the scene, was quietly released from custody.

With the politicians and police alike running for cover from an irate Detroit, the River Gang's police and political connections were dissolving into the wind. Relentless pressure from Detroit's residents caused the police to suggest to the Licavolis that they should leave the streets of Detroit at once.

Yonnie's need for a fresh start after his release from prison, coupled with the River Gang's loss of connections and informants, caused the Licavolis to seriously consider Toledo, not Monroe, as their new home.

The Villa, a roadhouse with a questionable past near the Dixie Highway just minutes from Toledo or Detroit, was chosen as the perfect place to discuss the River Gang's possible move into the Toledo rackets.

It was during this period of transition that Firetop Sulkin met with Peter Joseph Licavoli and described Toledo's power structure. As a result of these meetings and the fact that conmen, safecrackers, and other bandits of one kind or another were not bothered in Toledo as long as they behaved themselves, the decision was actually quite easy.

Toledo's bootlegging, gambling, and other vices were viewed by the Licavolis as a cash-rich environment that they could easily take over. The bravado of the Licavolis, coupled with Firetop Sulkin's political connections, quickly smoothed the River Gang's transition to Toledo.

Upon reflection, some would claim that Sulkin was merely trying to protect and shield the city from the onslaught that was to follow, while historians would later claim that Sulkin was merely trying to escape from the shadow of his mentor, Sam Cohn, and establish himself as Toledo's powerbroker.

Sam Cohn, leader of the Republican Party, and Toledoan Walter Brown, President Hoover's Postmaster General, would have never stewarded the deal that brought the Licavolis to Toledo.

In the fall of 1930, after observing the Toledo bootlegging operation and with advice from Firetop, Yonnie's first move was to offer Chalky Red Yaranowski, one of Toledo's finest bootleggers, a partnership in the sale and distribution of illegal beverages.

The problem from Chalky Red's point of view was that the entire operation belonged to him and why should he give his business to someone else.

According to Licavoli's partnership agreement, Chalky Red would do all of the work as before, but receive only ten percent of the profits. The other 90 percent of Chalky Red's money would go to Licavoli.

Chalky Red laughed at the proposal from this brash newcomer and walked away from the meeting. Almost immediately Chalky Red's still was destroyed and his house came under gunfire. No one was injured in the assaults, and after rethinking his options, Chalky Red became a very junior partner in the growing Licavoli enterprise.

Much later in his criminal career, Chalky Red was asked what he thought about Yonnie Licavoli. His comments were widely quoted in Toledo's newspapers and were rather telling. "They asked me what I would do if Licavoli walked into my place and wanted to take it over and I told them I would hand him the key and walk out."



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