Detroit Mob Family Alive and Well Under the Radar

"Black Bill" Tocco, founder of the Detroit mob.
Four major busts in six months and all of the investigations involve customary mafia locales: New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Providence and Newark. One of the traditional mob hotbeds absent from the recent slew of arrests and convictions was Detroit, a longstanding picture of stability and efficiency in an underworld landscape littered with defectors, dissidents and dim-bulb thugs....

The Detroit mafia lives in the shadows. It always has, now, more than ever.

“They don’t chase the news cameras like in other cities and a lot of them have been very adept of veiling themselves in legitimacy,” said former federal prosecutor and organized crime task force member Keith Corbett, of the area’s ruling mob powers. “In relative terms, it’s been a recipe for success, in that most of them have avoided long, if any, prison sentences and, for the most part, very few people have any idea who they are.”

Those who remember stories about the infamous Purple Gang from the city’s bloody Prohibition era or the everlasting hubbub regarding the mysterious disappearance of labor boss Jimmy Hoffa may wonder if organized crime still exists in the Motor City.

Indeed, many would probably be surprised to find out that Detroit’s mafia is still alive, well and racketeering.

Few would suggest that the local crime family has the manpower or criminal reach it once had, but it nevertheless continues to function – and when compared to other mob syndicates across the country, at a fairly high level.

As recently as 2006, FBI agents in Detroit arrested more than a dozen individuals under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) charging them with bookmaking, money laundering and extortion. Though federal authorities did not officially link the case to the mob, sources in local law enforcement confirm that the indictment’s alleged ringleaders, Peter Tocco of Troy and Jack V. Giacalone of West Bloomfield, as well as several of their co-defendants are affiliated with the area’s mafia family.

Tocco, 62 and referred to on federal surveillance tapes by such monikers as “Blackie” and “Specs,” pled guilty to the charges and served a two-year prison sentence before being released. Giacalone, 60, went to trial and was acquitted. Sources peg Giacalone, known by nicknames like, “Jackie the Kid” and “Jackie the Bathrobe,” as someone being groomed to be a future don.

People around Detroit with even a vague familiarity of local mob affairs are most likely aware of the names Tocco and Giacalone, longstanding staples in newspaper headlines from the area’s underworld dating back nearly a century.

Peter Tocco’s grandfather was William “Black Bill” Tocco, the Detroit mafia’s founding father, establishing the crime syndicate in 1931 after winning a violent street war for gangland supremacy in the city in the aftermath of Prohibition. His uncle is Giacomo “Black Jack” Tocco, Black Bill’s eldest son and the city’s current mob boss, in power since the 1970s.

Jackie Giacalone is the son of retired mob underboss Vito “Billy Jack” Giacalone, 87 and the nephew of former Detroit mafia street boss, Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone, who died of cancer in 2001.

During the 1950s and 60s, Congressional committees named Black Bill Tocco and both Giacalone brothers as being top echelon mob leaders in the Motor City.

The following decade the Giacalone brothers gained national infamy, having their names echoed on television newscasts from coast to coast after they became central figures in the Hoffa case.

All three mobsters were linked closely to legendary godfather Joe Zerilli, Detroit’s undisputed “boss of bosses” for over four decades and a highly-respected mob dignitary that was one of the few non-New York bosses granted a seat on the notorious “Commission,” a nationwide mafia board of directors. He was brother-in-laws with Black Bill Tocco, having come over together from Sicily in 1910.

The Detroit don’s only son, Anthony “Tony Z” Zerilli, was initially tagged as his father’s replacement, however following Tony Z’s imprisonment in 1973 on charges of skimming millions of dollars from a Las Vegas hotel and casino, the aging mob chieftain demoted his offspring in favor of his nephew Jack Tocco. Both the younger Tocco and Zerilli received college business degrees from the University of Detroit-Mercy in 1949, around the same time, according to Congressional testimony, they “made their bones” and were inducted into the mafia.

When Joe Zerilli passed away from natural causes in 1977, Tocco took control of the crime family, naming his first-cousin Tony Z his second-in-charge as a measure of good faith. The pair of mob princes ran the local mafia in tandem uninterrupted until 1996 when they were arrested in a widespread RICO indictment, titled, Operation Gametax, charging virtually the entire syndicate administration with bookmaking, loansharking and extortion.

Tocco was convicted in 1998, Zerilli in 2002 and after each conviction, federal law enforcement described the situation in hyperbolic terms, claiming to have “driven a stake through the heart” of the Detroit mafia.

This proved hardly true. Although a majority of the mobsters arrested in the bust were convicted, most of them received relatively light sentences. Curiously, Tocco, who was found to be the kingpin of the continuing criminal enterprise in the case, served barely two years behind bars.

With so many sons, nephews and cousins employed in the “family business,” the mob’s rackets more or less continued with little to no interruption. In a measure to ensure loyalty, Joe Zerilli had planned it that way, making it a requirement as early as the 1930s that his soldiers married other soldiers’ daughters, sisters, nieces and cousins.

The strategy has paid dividends since unlike most of the country’s mob families in the past three decades that have been torn apart at the seams from within, overwhelmed by informers or “rats,” as they’re called in underworld circles, the Detroit mob has been virtually free of turncoats.