Black Hand hitman avoids prosecution

The San Francisco Examiner was so enthralled with the murder of Biaggio Vilardo that it enlisted three bloodhounds to track the scent of blood from Vilardo's severed head.

On the evening of April 9, 1905, Officer Minihan discovered a man’s headless torso wrapped in a sack at Vallejo and Powell streets. Shortly after, two boys fishing off Meiggs Wharf hooked a burlap sack containing a head, two arms and two legs. Police were able to reassemble the human jigsaw puzzle, but the identity of the man and the location of the murder were still a mystery.

In a race to find the site of the murder, the San Francisco Examiner secured the services of three massive bloodhounds to track the source of the blood. The dogs traced the scent to the corner of Mason and Green streets before losing the trail.

A photo of the man’s head appeared in the newspapers. Thousands of people went to The City’s morgue to view the reassembled body. On the following night, Crispino Vilardo nervously identified the remains of his half-brother, Biaggio Vilardo. Crispino told police that a friend of his brother had been murdered and that Biaggio was trying to find out the killer’s identity.

Police learned that Biaggio had lived at 736½ Green St. with Pietro Tortorici and his family. Detectives went to the Tortorici’s apartment in the basement. A casual glance convinced them the kitchen was the scene of the butchery. The floor, walls and ceiling were bespattered with blood, and under the sink the police found a blood-stained cleaver. When Mrs. Tortorici returned to the apartment the next morning, police questioned and arrested her for involvement in the murder. But the true killer, her husband Pietro, had disappeared.

Police learned that Biaggio and a friend were threatened by a man who said, “You men are fools to bother with the killing of your comrade. There are friends of mine who have swords to cut off the head of one of you if you do not stop.”

These “friends” were members of the Black Hand, a mafia group that extorted money from wealthy Italians, threatening death if money was not paid. Tortorici was from New Orleans, a Mafia hotbed, and lived there under another name. Word on the street was that Tortorici had received $150 for the killing.

An all-out police search ensued with 15 detectives assigned to the case. Police arrested four suspected Mafiosi, but they refused to talk. Tortoricci’s wife was released. Tips on Tortoricci’s whereabouts poured in.

He was spotted in Fresno, then in Eureka. Police detectives hurried there, but Pietro was nowhere to be found. Ten years went by, and the case went cold.

Then in 1916, a man by the name of James Gaffene was arrested in Kansas City for shoplifting. He put up $500 for bail and fled. Gaffene was identified from his photographs as Tortoricci. He was caught in Seattle, sent back to San Francisco and put on trial for the murder of Biaggio Vilardo, still insisting that his name was James Gaffene.

The case hinged on solving the mystery of his identity. If he was Tortorici, he was guilty of murder. If he was Gaffene, he was innocent.

At the first trial, numerous witnesses — a former landlady, co-workers and handwriting experts — identified Gaffene as Tortorici. But many other witnesses, their memories affected by their fear of Tortorici’s friends, testified that Gaffene was not Tortorici.

Gaffene was a confident witness and described in detail his life after coming to the United States in 1903. He claimed to have been working on a farm in Kansas City when the murder occurred. The jury in the first trial was deadlocked, as was the jury in the second trial. Finally, in the third trial, he was acquitted.

He said: “I am going to remain in San Francisco. When a man charged with murder can make as many friends while he is in jail among strangers as I have made here, there is not reason to run away and hide his head.”

With friends like those, you don’t need enemies.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco,

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