And according to federal law enforcement, it's very bad news for organized crime in Southern California. "We have dealt a serious blow to the Los Angeles mob," Bobby Siller, agent in charge of the Las Vegas FBI office, told reporters.
Members of that group have often been depicted as loosely organized and utterly incompetent imitations of East Coast wise guys - no match in mayhem to the street gangs that flourished in L.A. over the past decade. Former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates even labeled them the "Mickey Mouse Mafia." But in a 50-count indictment, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Las Vegas alleges that L.A. and Buffalo mobsters joined forces in 1995 to muscle in on Vegas rackets ranging from loan-sharking to the extortion of escort-service and smog-check businesses.
Most seriously, they allegedly conspired to eliminate a bulky obstacle to that effort, Herbert "Fat Herbie" Blitzstein, who was found shot dead in his home in January 1997.
Six of the 16 defendants - reputed L.A. "mob member" Stephen Cino, a Buffalo mob figure and four associates of Cosa Nostra members - are specifically charged with the gangland-style slaying of Blitzstein, a former right-hand man to Chicago mob enforcer Anthony Spilotro. Each of those accused has denied the government's charges. The lawyer for one, Las Vegas resident Alfred Mauriello, accused of commissioning the hit, ridiculed the indictment. Attorney Lamond Mills said of his client, "He's 69 years old. He lives off Social Security, gets food stamps, and Medicaid pays his medical for his three heart attacks. If this is organized crime, then it's the most unorganized and poorest paying outfit that I've ever seen." But U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno is taking the prosecution seriously. She is expected to decide shortly whether the defendants in the murder case will face the death penalty at a trial now set for November.
In addition, the indictment says Carmen Milano - alleged underboss of the L.A. family and brother of reputed boss Peter John Milano - demanded a piece of Blitzstein's loan-sharking action "as a tribute for sanctioning" the hit. Rather than compete with Blitzstein, says Las Vegas FBI spokesman Aurelio Flores, "They went the old-fashioned, 1930s way and decided to kill him."
If so, the L.A. gangsters were acting somewhat out of character. In recent years, the traditional Italian Mafia, or La Cosa Nostra (LCN), of Southern California has tended to shun gangland violence. Indeed, while L.A. has had its share of high-profile mob figures through the years, among them Mickey Cohen, Jack Dragna and Mike Rizzitello, organized crime here has tended to live in the shadow of - and be subservient to - the East Coast families. Louis Tom Dragna, who succeeded his uncle Jack as local "godfather" in the 1970s, was noted for his timidity about committing acts of violence.
The party line from local law enforcement has been that organized crime, if it existed at all, wasn't to be taken too seriously. "We see the mob scratching and digging out here," Captain Stuart Finck, then head of the LAPD's Organized Crime Intelligence Division (OCID), said dismissively in 1987.
Peter Milano, a Westlake Village businessman whose father was identified by law enforcement as a longtime underboss of the Cleveland crime family, allegedly took over the LCN family in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. He and his brother Carmen, of Tarzana, were among 20 reputed mobsters arrested in 1984 for trying to muscle in on a $1-million-a-week bookmaking operation. Charges were not brought, because of lack of evidence. But four years later, the Milanos and several alleged subordinates - Stephen Cino, a Las Vegas resident who previously lived in Chatsworth; Vincent Caci; his brother Charles Caci, a former Palm Springs nightclub singer who performed under the name Bobby Milano; and Rocco James Zangari, also of Palm Springs, who once managed a card room for the Cabazon Indian tribe - pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges in return for lenient sentences. As one prosecutor referred to the case, "I think it has absolutely crippled the family here."
According to the current head of the multiagency Los Angeles Organized Crime Strike Force, there hasn't been much Mafia activity lately in the L.A. area. "We don't see a large, active presence," says Assistant U.S. Attorney James Walsh. "We devote most of our time and effort to other areas, such as Asian and Russian organized crime . . . Their activities are more sinister and far more prevalent and widespread."
Other observers of the Cosa Nostra aren't quite so sanguine. "The [Los Angeles] garment industry has a lot of organized-crime people involved in it," says former OCID detective Mike Rothmiller. "Anyplace you have a lot of cash, you're going to have them infiltrating." Agrees an ex-LAPD investigator who asked not to be identified: "They try to go anywhere where they think they can make a buck . . . They're people you don't want to mess with."