You rarely hear about organized crime in San Francisco, and many wonder if we have a mafia family.
Chicago mobster Nick DeJohn could have answered the question — but it’s hard to talk when you are lying in the trunk of your car. It’s even more difficult when you’ve been strangled. If DeJohn could have spoken, he might have said: “There is a mafia in San Francisco, and they’re not crazy about outsiders.”
While there had been organized Italian crime for decades in San Francisco, the mafia family, as we know it, was established during prohibition. Competing Italian gangs played a deadly version of what could be called “Whack a Boss.” It began when Frank Boca whacked Alfredo Scarisi, and was followed by Genaro Broccolo whacking Boca, Luigi Malvese whacking Broccolo, and Frank Lanza whacking Malvese.
When the killing ended, the last one standing was Lanza, and his family became San Francisco’s first modern mafia family. His crime family controlled rackets, such as loansharking, gambling, prostitution and narcotics, as well as Fisherman’s Wharf. Lanza died in 1937, and was succeeded by Anthony Lima, who ran the Olive Oil with the Sunland Oil and Cheese Company, a front for black market and other illegal activities.
Still, the San Francisco mafia was small cheese compared to other mafia cities, such as Chicago and New York. The New York and Chicago mobs muscled into the Los Angeles territory, but left San Francisco alone.
Why? Because the San Francisco police were the “toughest gang in town,” according to Kevin Mullen, former deputy police chief and noted crime historian. A gangster squad was created in 1931, by Police Chief William J. Quinn, to keep outside racketeers out of San Francisco. The squad would seize any out-of-town gangsters they found, charge them with vagrancy and send them back on the next boat.
DeJohn was ambitious. In Chicago in the late 1930s, he had been a rising member of the Capone gang, then headed by Frank Nitti. But he was on the losing side in a fight to take over The Continental gambling wire service. By 1946, after five of his partners were murdered, DeJohn decided a different locale might be better for his health. He changed his name to Nick Rossi and moved his family to Santa Rosa.
DeJohn invested in the Sunland Oil Company, becoming partners with Lima, his underboss Michael Abati, and others. DeJohn began spending more time in San Francisco and was planning to buy a house at 60 Alvarado Way in Monterey Heights. He became involved in the black market nylon business, and there were rumors that he was trying to organize the local bookies.
On May 7, 1947, DeJohn had dinner with some associates at the legendary Poodle Dog Restaurant before heading to La Roccas Corner Tavern on Columbus Avenue in North Beach. DeJohn left the bar at 1 a.m. with four men and said he was going to a card game.
That was the last time he was seen alive.
Two days later, DeJohn was found in the trunk of his car on Laguna Street, minus his expensive watch, diamond ring, $1,400 in cash and his life. His body was arranged in a tableau that cannot be described in a family newspaper — the mob was sending a strong message of disapproval.
Leonard Calamia, a Chicago narcotics dealer who had been with DeJohn on May 7, was arrested for murder but released soon after. Police continued their investigation. In late 1948, the case broke open when DeJohn’s watch and ring turned up in a Brooklyn pawn shop. Police arrested Sebastiano Nani, who held the pawn ticket, Michael Abiti and two others for the murder.
Homicide inspector (and future police chief) Frank Ahern was confident that police had enough evidence for a conviction, and the trial began in early 1949 with district attorney (and future governor) Pat Brown leading the prosecution. On Feb. 7, 1949, Brown’s star witness, Anita Venza, testified she overheard the defendants planning to kill DeJohn because he wanted to muscle in on the black market cooking oil racket.
A strong cross-examination from the defense damaged her credibility. The case went to the jury on March 8. The next day, in a surprising development, Brown asked the judge to dismiss the case, saying that Venza’s testimony was untrustworthy. The police were furious, but the judge agreed. The case ended, and the defendants were released.
“Live in New York, but leave before you get too hard. Live in San Francisco, but leave before you get too soft,” says a famous quote.
The ambitious performers move elsewhere to make it big, others stay in San Francisco. This may also hold true of gangsters. The San Francisco mafia stayed small, and all the family bosses died of natural causes. Jimmy “The Hat” Lanza, Frank’s son, who ran the family from 1961 to 1989, died in 2006 at the age of 103.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.