The Strange Bombings That Taunted Joe Bonanno's Early Years In Exile

Did Joseph Bonanno plot a comeback in the 1970s, perhaps to resurrect himself as the secret power behind a newly installed boss of the Los Angeles family?

The short answer: No, he didn't... Or if he did, his plotting never succeeded. Bonanno was finito — he was out, never to regain Mafia power or standing.

But he was only partly accurate when he noted in A Man of Honor, "I'm not a Father anymore and there is no Bonanno Family anymore." There still is a Bonanno family.

In 1931, Bonanno, a top gun in the American Mafia (thanks to his cousin who was the boss of a powerful crime family in Buffalo/Niagara Falls), was named boss of his own Family, which had largely been the Maranzano family prior to his reign.

By his own admission, the naturalized Sicilian was a member of "the Commission," which acted as an organized crime board of directors in New York and other major U.S. cities.

Bonanno described himself in his autobiography as a "venture capitalist" who invested in businesses with owners who invited him to become a partner because of his connections. He denied engaging in "unmanly" activities like narcotics trafficking or prostitution -- though the very name of his crime family would become virtually synonymous with the former. Bonanno even traveled to Sicily in 1957 with his no. 2, Carmine Galante, to set up a massive heroin pipeline.

He led the Brooklyn-based Bonanno crime family for more than three decades before losing power in the 1960s, reputedly for trying to become the boss of bosses by assassinating his rivals, including Carlo Gambino and Thomas Lucchese, in what came to be known as the "Banana War."

Bonanno fell completely out of favor and was officially expelled. He lost the Boss position, his seat on the Commission, even his Cosa Nostra button.

By 1968, he was spending all his time in his Tucson, Arizona home, where eventually he'd author his autobiography with a hired writer. He lived a relatively quiet public life in Tucson but much of Bonanno's time in the southern Arizona city was spent under the watch of federal agents.

"My dream of retiring peacefully in Tucson was a delusion," he wrote in his autobiography. "Such was my reputation as 'Mafia chieftain' that people became engrossed with their image of me and overlooked the man who actually lived in their midst."

His notoriety was especially reinvigorated in January 1995 when his family threw him a much-publicized 90th birthday party at a resort in Tucson. The 300 guests included priests, politicians, actors, attorneys, authors and relatives from across the country.

"I am here present before you all because God loves me," Bonanno told guests at the party. "And with the gift of God, how can I go wrong?"

Despite Bonanno's age, friends said he remained mentally sharp. He read often, until the stroke three years before his death.

When he made Arizona his home, he began phoning old friends, including pals running operations in his old stomping grounds in Montreal.

Of course, the FBI maintained interest in uncovering the "true" status of Joe Bonanno. An air of mystery seemed to hover around the old boss like a fog. Complications were waiting in the wings. But first, a spell of literal explosions in the late 1960s rocked Bonanno and various other Tucson-area wiseguys. It's almost impossible to envision now, but for a time a former FBI agent named David Hale had been inspired to conduct a terror campaign against the mob.

This is a very odd story.

Hale had specifically conducted his campaign--he and some knuckleheads who followed him set off 20 bombs in 1968 and 1969--in an attempt to foment gang warfare among members of the Mafia. (Kind of like how Charles Manson tried to start a race war by ordering his moronic followers to butcher Sharon Tate and others. Something must've been in the air out there back then...)

The Arizona bombings began on the night of July 21, 1968, when there was an explosion in a garage at a ranch outside Tucson that was owned by Peter (Horseface) Licavoli, the then-boss of the Detroit Mafia family.

The next night, two more bombs knocked down a patio wall outside Bonanno’s home.

Then, over the course of the next year, 15 bombs were detonated, each of which seemed to target various Tucson-area Mafia leaders and people somehow connected to them. From the start, each bombing seemed designed to cause property damage, not bodily harm.

Even though Bonanno had been a target, that didn't absolve him. The local police chief paid Bonanno a visit to inform him that the police would retaliate if anything happened to two witnesses before they testified.


Speculation centered on the possibility that a gang war had erupted between factions of the underworld led by Licavoli and Bonanno, who apparently was still considered a boss by elements of law enforcement.

Then Bonanno's son, Salvatore, for some reason, decided to meet secretly with James Corbett Jr., the Mayor of Tucson, to deny responsibility for the bombings. Later, the Mayor disclosed the meeting, highlighting that Bonanno had offered to help the Tucson police arrest "the punks who are hurting my family's image here.”

During the July 22 attack on Bonanno's patio, his son fired a shotgun at a fleeing man. The man, Paul M. Stevens, a former Marine with training in demolitions, later turned up at a hospital.

Stevens was arrested with a pal, William J. Dunbar. At the time Stevens had been an engineer at the Hughes Aircraft Company in Arizona, and Dunbar had been a racing car driver.

Following the arrests, William C. Gilkinson, the acting chief of police, announced that others had been involved.

The FBI became part of the story on Aug. 12, 1969, when Dunbar and Stevens appeared for a preliminary hearing. Jane Hitchcock, a girl friend of Stevens, testified that Dunbar had told her “an FBI agent named Dave” had been the instigator of the bombing of Bonanno's home and he wanted to start a Mafia vendetta.

David Hale was later identified as the FBI agent in question. Hale was the only agent in the local FBI office working on the Mafia at the time.

“He was a Mafia specialist and one of the bureau's superior agents, hard driving and possessing what one source called ‘a lot of brass,’” it was later reported. “He is tall and thin, with blond hair and the customary tidiness of an FBI agent— a friend says he dressed like a blue suited Baptist minister.”

This is a long, complicated story not related to Bonanno or the Mafia figures who were targeted. No one was ever killed in these bombings, and the FBI distanced itself from having any knowledge of Hale’s actions.

Ultimately some participants were convicted, and Hale skated for some reason. So far, not a scrap of evidence has ever emerged to incriminate Hale’s superiors. They never ordered any harassment campaign. Apparently.

Even after his exile from all Mafia affairs, Bonanno was in for years of rough waters. He was out of the volcano, but that didn't seem to matter to law enforcement.

In 1971, Honor Thy Father was published. Written by Gay Talese, the book detailed the life of son Bill Bonanno and his various Mafia troubles. Written by a master, it also detailed the history of the Mafia, or at least what was known at the time.

Bonanno was furious with Bill and claimed that he stopped speaking to him for a year.  (The made-for-television movie that followed the book no doubt didn’t help that father-son relationship.)

For the rest of this, we rely on The Mafia Commission:A History of the Board of Directors of La Cosa Nostra by Andy Petepiece, an experienced, respected organized-crime researcher. (The book quietly appeared in bookstores, and on the Amazon website, in 2018.)

Following whatever Hale and company were up to, Bonanno was subjected to a series of aggressive maneuvers. Bonanno had become a target due to his national notoriety.

“Ambitious prosecutors, federal agents and local police authorities wanted his scalp as a trophy. They leaked their version of the truth to a gullible media who splashed the stories over the airways, in the newspapers and magazines. It was ridiculous, for Bonanno had less than zero power. Unfortunately, he still possessed a gigantic ego and a burning desire to prove to the public that his life was a noble one.”

 Below are some of the significant events that impacted Bonanno in the 1970s-80s (not including Man of Honor, his autobiography):

June 2, 1976
A bomb in his car killed Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. The media was outraged and soon began a series of stories focusing on crime in Arizona. These created a poisonous atmosphere and directed hate towards the Mafia figures like Bonanno. It was unfair and especially when it turned out that the hit had nothing to do with the Mafia.

June 1978
A Penthouse article, naming Bonanno as the real Godfather, was published. This tale was beyond ridiculous. It claimed that Bonanno still controlled his family in New York and was the head guy in a massive drug trafficking conspiracy with connections all over the nation. The trouble was that there was no evidence to support this version of events. It was entirely unfair to Bonanno and the gullible public.

March 17/79
Arizona law enforcement agents raided Bonanno’s Tucson home. They confiscate the draft copy of his autobiography.

September 2/80
Joe Bonanno and nephew Jack DeFilippi were convicted of obstruction of justice in a bankruptcy case involving his son.

February 81
Bonanno won $6000 in a suit against two former Tucson cops, who illegally tapped his phone.

December 5/83
Bonanno began serving his obstruction of justice sentence.

July 27/84
Bonanno was released from his prison sentence. It had been reduced to one year from five due to his health.