Jimmy Lanza: West Coast's Preeminent Mobster

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James "Jimmy the Hat" Lanza certainly earned his place among the pantheon of Cosa Nostra's wiliest bosses as will be revealed in Lanza's Mob by Christina Ann-Marie DiEdoardo, Esq., a criminal defense lawyer in San Francisco (who lived for years in Queens, New York). Available for pre-order now, the book will be released on July 31, 2016.

Lanza truly knew the old-school ways of hiding in plain sight. While there's much evidence that he was one of the attendees of the doomed 1957 Apalachin summit, he successfully avoided arrest unlike so many others. "It would have been child’s play for Lanza to evade the New York state police, as he apparently did," as the author writes below.

The book is based on extensive research by the author (who knows her stuff, folks!) and includes how major events such as the Castellammarese War impacted the Lanza crime family. The book details some lucrative and probably generally unknown scams from which the Lanza's reaped huge profits -- such as from the highly profitable black market item olive oil during World War II. The Lanzas also had a largely undisclosed connection to the Los Angeles crime family.

NOTE: "John" is not Lanza's first name -- and he lived until the ripe old age of 103; reports that say differently are incorrect.

I'd personally like to thank Christina -- I asked her A LOT of questions, and she provided insightful and complete answers to them. I'd be glad to help her promote this book in any way that I can. Those of you with a strong interest in the American Mafia no doubt will want to read the book when it's finally available next summer. But below is something that should tide you over...

What's a nice girl like you doing writing about violent criminals! LOL! But honestly I'm curious what led you to write about the Lanza crime family? 

I’m not that nice a girl! :) Seriously, I grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens in the 1970s and back then, the Mafia seemed to be both hidden and everywhere at the same time. Everyone I knew who had a business either paid protection or it was assumed that they did. The funny thing about this was that for years I saw it as something that was completely normal. After all, if a mobster can’t protect you, his argument that you should pay him to do so is fatally weakened, but it’s a lot harder to make this pitch to tax collectors. 

I first read Jimmy “The Hat” Lanza’s name on an exhibit at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas back in 2012. At the time, my first reaction was “Who the hell is that?” and the quest to find out the answer led to the book. 

It appears many people don't know there was a mafia family in places like San Jose and San Francisco.... why do you think that is?

As you’ll see in the book, I think the relative anonymity of the Lanzas in San Francisco and San Mateo and the Marino/Cerrito families in San Jose is a reflection of how good these men were at their jobs. After all, the goal of a mobster isn’t to go out in a blaze of glory through a gunfight or indictment, but to die rich, free and in their own bed, ideally with their sons and daughters in legitimate occupations. James Lanza managed that in spades and lived for more than a century in the bargain, so he may very well be the most successful mobster you’ve never heard of.

Lanza from 1968 photo.

Can you give us an outline of topics covered in your book... for example do you include info about or other West Coast families and events, like Bugsy in Las Vegas, etc.

The book starts out in Castelbuono, Sicily, where the Lanzas originated from (although they had a different last name at the time). From there, we learn about their time in New York and Brooklyn before relocating to the West Coast.

Since history doesn’t happen in a vacuum, I also talk about the other major events that helped shape both the Mafia in general and the Lanzas in particular.

For example, even though it was mostly fought elsewhere, the outcome of the Castellammarese War and its aftermath –especially the Commission-imposed overall limitation on the number of made members a family could have—affected the Lanzas as it did other families and may have caused them to flub some big opportunities, such was when Francesco failed to get involved on either side with the San Francisco waterfront strike of 1934.

Also, it’s hard to understand the point of some of the Lanza Family’s allegedly favorite scams and relationships unless you’re aware of what was going on locally and across the country at the time. For example, until I did the research for this book, I had no idea of what a hot black market item olive oil was during World War II and its immediate aftermath. Similarly, the fact that the Lanzas have a connection with the DeSimone family by marriage is a meaningless detail unless you’re also aware that Lanza’s sister-in-law was Frank DeSimone’s cousin and that Frank would go on to succeed Jack Dragna as the boss of the Los Angeles Family.

Was there ever a point where the Lanza family gained national attention, via the media or a committee like the Kefauver? What were some of the rackets they focused on?

James Lanza first appeared on the FBI’s radar in the late 1950s after the debacle at Apalachin. After J. Edgar Hoover slapped him with a “Top Hoodlum” designation, the San Francisco office of the bureau pressured Washington for authorization to illegally bug Lanza’s office, which they received in 1959. Although the electronic surveillance was supposedly terminated in 1965, the tapes were leaked to Look Magazine four years later, which used some of them in an expose accusing then-San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto of being closely associated with both Lanza and several organized crime figures from San Jose.

Alioto sued for libel and the case dragged on for twelve years—and while he won what amounted to a token judgment at the end, all of it went to his law firm’s creditors. Still, the case is important because the deposition transcripts of James Lanza and his brother Anthony are the only Q & A we have of them that hasn’t been summarized or redacted to ribbons by the FBI.

I devote an entire chapter to the Kefauver Committee’s hearings in San Francisco, but because they uncovered just how corrupted the SFPD was at the time—and consequently, how impotent the District Attorney was. Although Lanza wasn’t called as a witness, the Committee spent a lot of time reviewing the Nick DeJohn case, which did involve Tony Lima, one of Lanza’s predecessors as boss.

In terms of rackets, on the legitimate side Lanza sold insurance, invested in rental properties and attempted to organize the crab fishermen at Fisherman’s Wharf into an association. On the less than legitimate side (though James Lanza wasn’t personally involved with all of these) the Family was long known for agricultural scams, whether it was pushing cottonseed oil as “olive oil” or falsifying bills of sale and altering the scales used to measure grape purchases from farmers. Of course, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the FBI believed—but could never prove—that they were also trafficking heroin and morphine in glass tubes inside olive-oil barrels.

I believe Frattianno and one of his relatives flipped and testified against the Lanza's and CERRITO's, etc, but I don't think his testimony did major damage. I'm curious, did the Lanza's ever produce a rat who gave information about the family's inner workings?

As Ovid Demaris points out in The Last Mafioso, Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno and James Lanza were at each other’s throats during most of Fratianno’s stay in San Francisco. From my own perspective, most of the trouble came from Fratianno being completely ignorant of how organized crime developed in San Francisco during the 1920s and 1930s and the one cardinal rule that emerged from it: do what you want as long as dead bodies don’t pile up in parked cars or on the street.

Every time organized crime in San Francisco violated this rule, they paid for it in police crackdowns that were progressively more damaging to their business operations. In contrast, Lanza saw how the McDonough Brothers went from saloon keepers to inventing the bail bond industry to a criminal empire of their own in just a few decades by corrupting the police force and keeping their operations out of public view.

Fratianno was more of a man of action—and unfortunately, that action often led to publicity, which Lanza avoided like Superman ducks Kryptonite. In the end of course, Lanza had the last laugh—because of his refusal to interact with or supervise Fratianno (who, after all, was technically under the control of either the Outfit or the Los Angeles Family and not one of Lanza’s soldiers), there wasn’t much Fratianno could say to federal prosecutors about Lanza that would have hurt him.

The Aliotos were a prominent political family in San Francisco at the time of the Lanzas - was there any connection?

Joseph Alioto was never formally involved with the San Francisco Family. That said, Joseph’s father and James Lanza’s father were friends and business partners in the Exposition Fish Grotto on Fisherman’s Wharf. In addition, Joseph was related to John Alioto, the boss of the Milwaukee family in the 1950s and 1960s.

While that doesn’t make Joseph a made guy or associate by implication, I do find his assertions that there was no Mafia in San Francisco during his mayoralty more than a bit much. Joseph’s meeting with Fratianno is a matter of record and there are multiple indications from the FBI wiretaps on James Lanza that Joseph represented Lanza before an L.A. Grand Jury investigating organized crime, though both men denied it later (and claimed the representation was by a criminal defense attorney in Joseph’s building who was—conveniently—by this time dead). Given that the Lanza wiretaps include him complaining about Joseph’s bill, I’m inclined to believe the FBI wiretaps on this issue.

Christina Ann-Marie DiEdoardo, Esq.

Alioto won a lawsuit against a publication (is that where Cerrito got the idea?) But my Spidey sense tells me he took payoffs. Without corruption the mob can't operate.

Alioto’s lawsuit against Look outlasted both his political career and the magazine’s existence. While he did better than Joe Cerrito in that he technically won the case, ultimately he didn’t get a penny for his efforts as all the money went to his law firm’s creditors.

Traditionally, corruption in San Francisco from organized crime has tended to flow from operators (the guys running the speakeasy, bookie joint, brothel, illegal abortion clinic in the era before Roe v. Wade, or whatever) to the police, rather than to the mayor or other politicos. Moreover, in Alioto’s case, by the time he became mayor he was already independently wealthy and didn’t need to solicit or receive bribes from anyone.

When would you say the Lanza family was at its pinnacle in terms of power?

I think their peak was from the late 1930s and the end of the Booze Wars in San Francisco (where the Lanza family were the last men standing) until the aborted Apalachin meeting in 1957. Post-Apalachin, the Family’s outlook became primarily defensive, which—while it ensured Lanza’s personal survival—sharply limited their life cycle as an organization.

Most observers conclude that San Francisco and San Jose were represented on the Commission via the Outfit in Chicago. Lanza did have a relationship with Joe Bonnano as well, but given Bonnano’s issues with the Commission that may have been more of a hindrance than a help. The Lanza family went to Apalachin (I believe the son went with his father's successor and Cerrito)... any color you can give us as to what happened. I believe they evaded arrest?

James Lanza repeatedly claimed—both under oath and otherwise—that he wasn’t present at Apalachin, but the evidence from the time, including but not limited to hotel records, indicates otherwise. Moreover, given that the meeting was open to the leader of any Family who wanted to come and that one of the agenda items is believed to have been how the Mafia would divide up territories for the flood of heroin that would enter the United States via the French Connection, Lanza’s family had interests that would be affected by the meeting and it seems hard to imagine a circumstance where he wouldn’t have been there.

As for how he escaped arrest, it would be speculation—but given his ability to hide in plain sight before Apalachin, it would have been child’s play for Lanza to evade the New York state police, as he apparently did..

What strikes you as most intriguing about the founder of the Lanza family?

Francesco Lanza was born Francesco Proetto—and only changed his name and that of his family by a legal petition in Sicily in June 1926 through the assistance of his brother. Why he did it then or at all is a mystery, though I have some possible explanations in the book. 

Are there any members of the Lanza family left in San Francisco? Is there any mafia still there or anywhere nearby?

Lanza’s direct descendants are all in legitimate occupations and, as far as I can tell, are no longer in the Bay Area. While I’d never be so bold as to proclaim the Mafia completely defunct in San Francisco since James Lanza’s death in 2006, it does seem that the role they filled in the criminal ecosystem has been largely supplanted by other organizations and groups, from ethnic mafias like the Tongs to street gangs.

So what the heck happened with this DeJohn character from Chicago? What do you think happened that led to his death.... and why did some of his personal items show up in a New York pawn shop?

I spend an entire chapter on DeJohn’s death and the aftermath, so I think you’ll like the book! DeJohn was an Outfit gunsel with some prospects (he was one of the people who was rousted by the Chicago P.D. after the murder of Jake “Machine Gun” McGurn, Al Capone’s old enforcer) but his ambition outran his skills, which is fatal in this line of work. After he tried to take over the Grande Cheese Co., (beyond the profits that would come from cornering the local supply of cheese in the Midwest, food companies offer wonderful opportunities to smuggle and distribute contraband) and failed, DeJohn apparently got on the bad side of Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik and fled to the Bay Area. Although he lived quietly under an assumed name for a short time, the lure of getting back into the rackets was too strong, especially since it must have seemed to him that San Francisco was completely unorganized in comparison to Chicago.

DeJohn’s ultimate murder seems to have been a result of his attempt to muscle in on local narcotics rackets. Still, it was a messy hit—and veteran Mafia drug dealer Sebastiano Nani’s uncharacteristically stupid decision to pawn DeJohn’s jewelry while retaining the deposit tickets on his person didn’t help matters. Ultimately, it took a highly irregular decision by then-District Attorney Pat Brown (who would go on to be Attorney General and Governor of California, as well as sire Jerry Brown, our present governor) to save the day for Nani and his co-defendants at their trial.

Do you know of any mob boss of today who has any illegal interests in California/West coast?

Although the Italian Mafia has experienced increased competition from other ethnic mafias and different organizations like street gangs and I’m not personally aware of a Family in the West that’s currently active in the way the Five Families in the East, I think only a fool would declare the Mafia completely eradicated in California and elsewhere.

So long as state and federal legislators continue to ignore the advice of former FBI agent Edwin Atherton (whose 1930s report blew open the lid on corruption in the SFPD) to the City of San Francisco to legalize gambling and sex work across the board, the Mafia and its criminal competitors will continue to have a rich vineyard of opportunities to harvest, limited only by their manpower, wisdom, balls and the countervailing efforts of law enforcement.