What The Hells Angels Learned From The Godfather—And The Mafia

“What is 'rolling your bones'?”

“I don’t know.”—Metod (Matt) Zanoskar, former Hells Angels President, Cleveland Chapter.

By the mid-1970s, the Hells Angels had become a full-fledged, bona-fide criminal organization thanks in large part to the Cleveland Chapter, which was a true outlier from the other HA chapters. The Polish Women’s Hall incident, which involved the brutal stabbing murders of five Breed members described in our prior story—at least two of the killings were committed by Chapter Vice President Butch Crouch—put Cleveland on the map. After that, they had a reputation: Fck with the Hells Angels and they will fcking stomp you

A new member had six months to kill or was himself killed, said Butch Crouch, above.

As former Minnesota Chapter president Pat Matter says in Secrets of the Hells Angels, “The guys in Cleveland were serious individuals. They were well known for taking care of business.” 

This story and our previous one are primarily based on the Motorcycle Murder Club episode, which focuses on Butch Crouch and the Cleveland Chapter in the 1970s.

It began in 1970, when Butch Crouch arrived in Cleveland to reorganize and expand the city’s Hells Angel Chapter. Over the next decade, the Cleveland Chapter began wholesale killing, first taking on the Breed, which it chased out of town in 1971 after the clash at the Polish Women’s Hall—which was over control of the city’s meth trade (and the Angels won, hands down). Then, in 1974, the Angels declared war nationally on their main nemesis: the Outlaws, which involved the Cleveland Chapter assuming the mantel of murder for the rest of the club. The Taking Care of Business Fund, which was born after the Polish Women’s Hall clash, financed trips during which the Cleveland members rode around the country whacking Outlaws for other HA chapters.

From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump before the Chapter monetized murder by doing contract hits for any interested parties.

They were riding around the country killing people, anyway, why not earn some cash, too?, went the thinking.

Former Minnesota Chapter president Pat Matter.

The monetization of murder would seem to have been a natural evolution for the Chapter. But, based on several Secrets of the Hells Angels sources, there may have been an additional consideration that went into the Chapter’s development into a murderous criminal organization: namely, Mario Puzo’s book The Godfather.

A quick background word: sourcing for A&E’s Secrets of the Hells Angels would seem unimpeachable considering the sources include five former HA Presidents on the record, as well as a bevy of law enforcement officials who spent decades working Cleveland’s mean streets during the time in question, the 1970s, also on the record. Additionally, some law enforcement sources on the show read directly from court documents and intelligence reports—which the camera focuses on, allowing us to read the paperwork as well, if we’re so inclined.

The Godfather was published in 1969 by G. P. Putnam's Sons and became a massive bestseller. The novel remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 67 weeks and sold over nine million copies in its first two years. It was the book on everyone’s lips in 1971, when some of the key Cleveland Hells Angels, including Butch Crouch, were cooling their heels in jail awaiting trial for crimes allegedly committed during the clash at the Polish Women’s Hall.

When in prison, these guys tend to be more open to reading. Puzo hit them with the perfect book at the perfect time, or the perfectly wrong time, depending on your point of view.

“I went to visit them in jail,” said Metod (Matt) Zanoskar, Hells Angels President, Cleveland Chapter, 1972, in Secrets. “Crouch (who had been stabbed multiple times, including in the back) had a hard time walking. It took a while for him to get his mobility back.” Crouch, and the others, “were reading books. Yeah, The Godfather had come out.”

Tom Doyle, retired Police Detective for Ohio’s Eastlake PD for 39 years, said in Secrets: “The Godfather had a big impact on a lot of people. While (the Cleveland Hells Angels members were) in jail, someone obtained a copy and it’s passed around.”

Said Kerrie Droban, author and attorney, “They (the Cleveland HA) fell in love with the whole lure of the Mafia; they were able to take a lot of those philosophies and ideologies” from the book.

Added Mr. Doyle, “(In Cosa Nostra,) to become made, you commit a murder. (The Angels) were looking around the cell block, and they realized they had already done that—and that if you have an organization where everyone is bonded by murder, the person who commits the murder won’t turn on the club (went the thinking at the time). That ensures silence and loyalty” at least until the arrival of, mother of mercy, RICO.

The Hells Angels in Cleveland were outliers from the rest of the MC.

Butch Crouch, in audio recordings, didn’t explicitly make a connection to The Godfather, but did say that “we all became secretly organized [in the mid-1970s]. A new member, when he joins the club, has to kill someone. He has six months to 'roll his bones.' If [he reneges] on that, then [he is] killed.”

Mr. Doyle added: “In The Godfather [and in the Mafia, of course], they make their bones [or at least they used to]; bikers roll their bones… It was a closely guarded secret: New members in Cleveland are required to roll their bones.”

The Godfather book—as well as the film—pops up repeatedly in real-life Mafia news over the years. Here’s a few interesting samples, including the movie’s freak appearance in one of the Colombo wars with the Gallo brothers.

In August 1972, while The Godfather was still playing in New York theaters five months after its release, innocent businessmen were shot up in cold blood at the Neapolitan Noodle restaurant at 320 East 79th Street in Manhattan after they were mistaken to be the proverbial talent from out of town.

A mob shooter with the Gallos opened fire, killing two of the businessmen — kosher beef wholesalers from Westchester County and Long Island — and wounding their companions. The men were old friends celebrating a daughter's wedding engagement. They arrived at the Noodle at the exact wrong time, as the Persico loyalists had departed the bar to be seated for dinner. Persico and three wiseguys were saved by blind fate. The shooter, thinking he had Colombos in his sights, shot the four businessmen who unknowingly had slipped in and replaced them at the bar.

Then there was the 1972 murder of a Genovese family capo, which some believe had a link to The Godfather, though it probably had more to do with the film's behind the scenes, including this photograph:

Al Pacino, Genovese capo Patsy Eboli, and Al Lettieri (aka Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo).

The Godfather also played a role in Chicago's Family Secrets case. It's probably the novel's most touching reference (in our humble opinion).

The Mafia initiation ceremony described in Mario Puzo’s novel the Godfather is “very close” to the truth, according to Frank (Frankie Breeze) Calabrese Sr. while speaking to his son in 1999. Both were in prison at the time, only Frank Calabrese Sr. didn't know what his son was truly seeking from him.

Frank Calabrese Junior was wearing a wire as part of a personal quest to keep his homicidal father in prison for the rest of his life. As per that mission, he was cooperating with the FBI against his own father — hence, the significance of the name of the historic “Family Secrets” investigation of the Chicago Outfit.

In the first undercover tapes played at the Family Secrets trial, Calabrese Sr. described to his son the ceremony at which Outfit members were made.

New members were initiated by burning on their palms a picture of a saint like the ones commonly distributed at funerals, as Calabrese Sr. said. A fingertip is pricked with a pin so blood is drawn but the blood isn't dripped onto the picture. He emphasized how a point of the ceremony was to display one’s ability to endure the pain of the burning picture on the hand. In fact, the bosses watched to see if anyone flinched.

Frank Calabrese Sr., who died in prison Christmas 2012. 

Calabrese’s son, Frank Junior, said his father had told him that to qualify, a candidate had to have committed at least one murder. The initiation could take place years after the fact.

At the time the tapes were made, Frank Sr. believed that he was growing closer to his son while the two were behind bars.

“I lived the life I practiced,” Frank Calabrese Sr. told his son. “I preached, I lived it.”

While others knew only what they’d read about the ceremony, Frank Sr. knew the truth about what happened when the Chicago mob “made a new uniform, " as he called it.

“I thought that was just in the movies,” the son answered.

Frank Sr. said the making ceremony depicted in The Godfather was pretty close to the real thing.

“So whoever wrote that book, either their father, or their grandfather, or somebody was in the organization,” he said.

He had been made, Frank Sr. said, as had his brother Nicholas. The fingers were cut, blood spilled, pictures were set afire and dropped into their palms.

“Pictures of …” Frank Jr. asked, drawing the information out.

“Holy pictures. And they look at you and to see if you’d budge … while the pictures are burning. And they, and they wait till they’re getting down to the skin.”