Natural Death Recalls Tumultuous Times in Ontario Underworld

Frank Papalia—brother of violent former mob boss John "Johnny Pops" Papalia, aka The Enforcer—died on April 15 at age 83.

Known for being among the last remaining figures of an infamous one-time Mafia dynasty based in Ontario, Canada, Frank Papalia suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in a Hamilton-based nursing home when he died. [There were four Papalia brothers, the other two were Rocco and Dominic.]

John "Johnny Pops" Papalia

Fate was less kind to brother Johnny, who'd been a well-known bootlegger and later, as a drug trafficker with links to both the French and Pizza Connections (which, actually, were the same operation, a longtime, ongoing one that involved the Sicilian Cosa Nostra as well as Corsican crime families.)

Johnny may have also been suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease when in May of 1997 he was shot in the back of his head in the downtown Hamilton parking lot of a vending machine company he then owned.

John Papalia initially worked for Carmine Galante and the Bonanno crime family when it was focused on assuming formal control of Montreal. He then switched his allegiance to Buffalo boss Stefano Magaddino, for whom Papalia's father had been a longtime associate.

Becoming a capo for Magaddino in 1960 gave Johnny Pops and the Ontario-based Papalia family huge leverage in Ontario, which was at the time literally overrun with Calabrian and Sicilian families as well as other crime groups.

Magaddino, known as "the grand old man of Cosa Nostra," was an original member of the Mafia's National Commission, established in 1931.

Magaddino's run as boss occurred amid Cosa Nostra's glory years; the family under him reached its apogee in terms of power and treasure. Keeping a low-profile like other underworld titans of his era, the wily Sicilian cousin to Joseph Bonanno benefited from his sprawling kingdom's remoteness, which insulated him from any squabbles among the Five Families based in New York City. Cousin Joseph wasn't as lucky.

Magaddino's Massive Kingdom

At its pinnacle, Magaddino's empire, based in Buffalo, New York, encompassed territories in upstate and western New York, as well as in eastern Pennsylvania (as far west as Youngstown, Ohio), and in Canada, from Fort Erie to Toronto, Ontario.

For 50 years, Magaddino was the boss in the Buffalo underworld; he's considered to have served the longest tenure as a mob boss in the history of America's Cosa Nostra. He also participated in key underworld summits, including the 1946 Havana Conference and the 1957 Apalachin Conference.

Magaddino, popular as he was, also had enemies and is known to have survived numerous assassination attempts. In 1936, rival gangsters killed his sister with a bomb meant for Magaddino. A hand grenade broke through his kitchen window over 20 years later but failed to detonate.

Magaddino's "downfall" began with his arrest for bookmaking in 1968. The ensuing investigation revealed a half-million dollars hidden away in a suitcase, and family members resented that Magaddino had been holding out. He became known as a greedy boss, and the Buffalo family split into factions. Magaddino was ousted as boss in 1969, though he remained at the head of one faction that included older formerly powerful members. Magaddino died of a heart attack on July 19, 1974, at age 82 at Mont St Mary's Hospital in Lewiston, New York.

Johnny Papalia, based in the port city of Hamilton in Canada's Ontario province, continued running a satellite operation for the Buffalo-based Magaddino and remained boss of his own family in Hamilton up until his violent gangland killing in 1997. The assassin had been hired by a Ndrangheta family also based in Hamilton as part of an alliance with Vito Rizzuto's Montreal Cosa Nostra organization.

Canada's Al Capone
Prior to the official reorganization of the American Mafia in 1931, Johnny's father, Antonio, along with Dominic Pugliese tried to do Magaddino a favor by killing Rocco Perri, a Hamilton-based bootlegging kingpin of such renown, he was known as the "Al Capone of Canada" and the "King of the Bootleggers."

One hot night in August 1930, Perri and wife Bessie were returning home. Perri backed the car into the garage attached to the Perri mansion; the couple then got out of the carand Papalia and Pugliese, standing only a few feet away, started blasting them with 12-gauge shotguns.

Then the two gunmen ran off.

Rocco wasn't even wounded following the bursts of fire. His wife, however, had been blasted to pieces.

Perri collapsed and was in shock, babbling in Italian when found, according to police.

He later said he'd been the intended target, but there is reason to doubt his claim.

According to Niagra Falls-based reporter Mike Hudson: "Later, it was discovered that Bessie, who was Jewish, had been the brains of the Hamilton outfit all along, and had pretty much just kept Rocco around as a front man to deal with the other machismo-obsessed gangsters. The Perri organization was never much of a threat again."

Still, Perri disappeared in 1944, his body never found. It's been theorized he may have been forced to wear a pair of cement shoes, according to some sources.

Organized Crime in Ontario
Historically, three main Mafia groups emerged in Hamilton, though there were other families and organized crime rings.

In addition to the Papalia family, there is the Luppino family and the smallest of the three, the Musitano crime family, which is described as a faction of the Calabrian Ndrangheta. The Musitano family was behind the 1997 hit on Johnny as well as the killing of then-Papalia family underboss Carmen Barillaro two months later.

In 1937, Hamilton's smallest family founder, Angelo Musitano, publicly murdered his own sister in Delianuova, Italy, for dishonouring the family through a romantic indiscretion.Musitano fled for Canada and was thereafter known as the "The Beast of Delianuova."

The crime family was later led by Angelo's nephew, Dominic Musitano, until his death in 1995 from a heart attack. His two sons, Pasquale and Angelo, took over the family, with Pat the official boss. It seems the brothers were very much aware of their status in the pecking order and were looking to make a change.

The hit man responsible for both Papalia family murders was a junky named Ken Murdock, who gave the Musitano brothers up, telling the judge: "I killed Papalia for $2,000 and 40 grams of cocaine, then I killed Barillaro." Murdock was sentenced to life, which in Canada is about 12 years.

The brothers were sentenced to 10 years in 2000 for ordering the murder of the Papalia underboss; in return charges were dropped for Johnny's killing.

(Turns out, only months after the Papalia murders, Pat met with Vito Rizzuto, who was supposedly seeking to expand from Montreal into Ontario, according to Montreal police. This strongly suggests a motive for the Papalia hits, as it appeared that a major realignment of Mafia power was soon after in the planning stages. It never happened, however, as the brothers soon were in trouble for the double homicides. Vito, who had begun a move into Ontario to fill the void created by Pops's death, had his own problems with the law, in the U.S.)
A Gentleman Gangster

James Dubro, who wrote Mob Mistress in 1989 about Shirley Ryce, an ex-mob mall and former informant for the police, noted that while Johnny's brother Frank’s legacy “is hard to [pinpoint precisely],” it can be said that he was “conservative” and an “old-school gentleman-type.”

According to Adrian Humphreys' report on the National Post:
[Frank] Papalia found himself with a front row seat as a witness to many of the most momentous events in Canada’s underworld history – from the effects of Prohibition to the famed French Connection heroin smuggling ring, from the Americanization of the mob to its attempts at legitimacy through corporate ventures – as he aided and abetted his brother, John “Johnny Pops” Papalia, who dominated organized crime in Ontario from the family’s base on a cluttered street in the centre of an old, working class Hamilton neighbourhood.

Some considered Frank the more intelligent of the two; still, he loyally served as his brother's right hand.

“Johnny was always the limelight and Frank did what Johnny told him to do. Frank was his buffer. He would screen people for him. He’d protect Johnny. If you wanted to talk to Johnny you’d go see Frank,” said Joe Fotia, a retired Detective Staff Sergeant with the Ontario Provincial Police’s intelligence branch.

“When John was in jail, which was a fair amount, Frank was the one to look after all of the ventures.” 

Frank never served a day in prison, but was involved in a sex scandal that led to a conviction. In 1981 police pulled him over for allegedly driving while intoxicated; it was only a ploy. While Frank was outside his car arguing with police over the administration of a breath test, agents secretly installed a wiretap inside his Cadillac.

(In 1983, members of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force (OCTF) installed a bug in Luchese boss Anthony "Tony Ducks" Corallo's mobile headquarters: Salvatore Avellino's Jaguar. The recordings were a key piece of evidence used in the 1986 Mafia Commission trial.)

The case resulting from the bug in Papalia's car led to Frank copping a plea and paying a fine for procuring a prostitute of sorts, Shirley Ryce, for his lawyer.

The event changed her life forever.

Papalia Family's Mob Mistress
Living the life of a bored housewife in the 1960s, Ryce started cruising area nightclubs with an eye out for mobsters, and finally met one, Papalia brother Rocco. She soon became his lover. Eventually, it seemed she was available to all the Papalia family wiseguys. She played the role, and in return was lavished with cash and gifts and even assumed employment as hostess at the Papalia owned Gold Key Club.

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According to an article in the Ottawa Citizen on Apr 1, 1986, Ryce, who'd been associated with the crime family for 17 years, found herself in the hot seat once snared by the wiretap in Frank's car. The cops threatened to throw the book at her for prostitution until she agreed to wear a wire. The article doesn't name Frank, though he can clearly be identified in the story. Ryce's undercover work led to a couple of convictions for conspiracy to obstruct justice.

The shrewd trial judge told the two gangsters at sentencing that they should both "pray" that nothing happened to Ms. Ryce because if something did, the pair would find themselves in the law's cross-hairs pretty quickly.

Ryce was protected by law enforcement while she started a new life. She's been the subject of one book, written by Dubro, Mob Mistress, and was also mentioned in the more recent Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman.


  1. Will the rizzuto loyalists move in to fill the void?

  2. To anon, possibly though I think they're still hashing out Montreal...also, to "the Quiet Don," I appreciate you catching the error (folks, I originally made a reference to the Bufalino family in this story, probably meaning to write "Buffalo-based family" -- I don't know why else I would've mentioned them; It was a clear error). So I am glad you caught it. I am writing this to thank you and also let you know I don't hide my mistakes and I don't delete all comments critical of me, just those that try to hide insulting names like "moron" inside the contents. Some people out there really hate my guts, I mean, really hate me --all anonymous and I have no idea why.

  3. I appreciate you admitting the mistake. I wrote the comment and came back to see if you responded the next morning to find the story changed and my comment missing and was like WTF. I read all your articles and I guess I'm more inclined to point out mistakes then give praise but I still read everyday so keep up the good work.
    -Quiet Don

    1. Thanks - How is the "Quiet Don?" I am reading so many books -- just started "The Outfit".... As for Magaddino, I must admit I never really comprehended how powerful he was....


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