The origins of the Kansas City Crime Family, known better on the street as the “Outfit,” date back to the early part of the 20th Century. A small band of immigrant Italian/Sicilian predators, operating in the Little Italy north end section of the city, coalesced, organized and united during prohibition to become an organized crime entity. During Prohibition the Kansas City mob became part of a nationally structured Italian/Sicilian syndicate that came to be known as La Cosa Nostra. Chosen as the Kansas City boss of the Outfit in 1953, Nick Civella was identified at the famous 1957 meeting of La Cosa Nostra Bosses in Appalachia, Mew York. The Kansas City Outfit was riding high during the 1970s. Two unrelated events would result in the end of the Outfit’s Las Vegas money train and the incarceration of Outfit leaders from Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Kansas City.
The first event was the murder of an Outfit member named Nick Spero in November of 1973. Nick was a Teamster’s union official. Nick was seen as ambitious and seeking to expand his power with the outfit. The Civella dominated Outfit could not allow anything to threaten their influence over the Central States Teamster’s Pension Fund. In true gangland fashion, Nick Spero’s body was found in the trunk of his car in an isolated area of North Kansas City. Nick’s brothers did not let the murder of their brother go unanswered.
The second event began with an entertainment district development known as the River Quay. A businessman named Marion Trozollo parlayed his Teflon-pan success into revitalizing the rundown City Market district. The River Quay quickly became the hippest entertainment area in Kansas City. The Outfit believed they had a proprietary interest in the City Market area. The son of an Outfit soldier, Freddie Bonnadonna opened a successful River Quay bar called Poor Freddie’s. Freddie Bonnadonna had an exclusive contract to lease night-time parking rights in City Market parking lots. Outfit members became jealous of Freddie’s success. This, in addition to Freddie’s resisting the introduction of mob controlled strip clubs into the Quay, set into motion a series of violent and deadly events.
Gangland Wire tells the story of how revenge, greed and jealousy put the F.B.I. on a path leading to the end of Mafia influence over Las Vegas casinos and over the Teamster’s union and their Central States Pension Fund.
“Johnny Holiday” greets passengers with “How you’s doin’ today?” and “How are ya’s?” as they step on board Kansas City’s gangster bus tour.
The mob in Kansas City? It just doesn’t sound right. But in fact, Kansas City has a rich history of very bad guys.
Johnny Holiday is actually Tim Phillips, a 36-year-old actor who adopts the wise-guy persona to lead these tours. He’s dressed in a gangster-cut, ’20s-era pinstripe suit and fedora.
“Now, when we think of prohibition and we think of gangsters and we think of the 1920s, what’s one name that usually comes to mind,” Phillips asks his audience.
“Al Capone!” comes the response.
“Al Capone, that’s true,” agrees Phillips. “Right up here is the Rieger Hotel, where Al Capone used to stay … when he came here to Kansas City.”
There’s also the Bellerive Building, where Capone threw parties with entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Liberace.
The Hotel President used to have a popular speakeasy, with an underground entrance to tunnels that were used to smuggle in bootleg booze.
And then there’s 12th Street, where a gambler named Slicey Sauly Weissman coined the colorful gangland term, “we’re taking this guy for a ride.”
Sicilians Ran Crime, Irish Ran Politics
If you’re a mob nut, Kansas City is a very happy place to be. Ask Terence O’Malley. He’s a local attorney, a reformed journalist and an amateur mob historian who is at work on a documentary about Kansas City’s gangland past. O’Malley says during the Great Depression, the Sicilians ran crime and the Irish ran politics.
“Kansas City’s mafia was so closely connected to politics during its formative years,” he says.
The big boss was Tom Pendergast, a former city councilman who held onto power even after leaving office. He understood getting people together — say, mob guys from Sicily and Democratic politicians — to work on common interests. He may not have been running himself, but Tom Pendergast won a lot of elections and gangland politics was thriving.
“He purposely made sure that the police were underpaid,” says O’Malley, “so that they would take bribes, so that they would leave the bars, the saloons, the speakeasies alone.”
Even during Prohibition, it was very easy to buy a drink in Kansas City — or company for an evening out on the town. And Kansas City was known for its good times.
“It’s the music, baby,” exclaims O’Malley. “That’s just another thing that made it a raucous, wild, fun place to be. It was known as a wide-open town.”
Seedy into the 70s
When liquor became legal again, the old speakeasies turned into bars and nightclubs, but the mob guys hung around. By the 1970s, a seedy-looking neighborhood called River Quay was a violent place. Charles Gray was a reporter on the crime beat. He remembers some of the more notable crimes.
“Nick Spero was killed and left in a car trunk,” Gray begins the list. “David Bonnadonna was killed. John Broccato was found in car trunk. He’d been frozen, tortured and strangled. [They] shot Carl Spero in the back, severed his spinal cord. He was paralyzed for life, but life wasn’t very long for him because they got him with a bomb later in his wheelchair.”
“They have some quaint ways of dealing with each other,” says Gray.
But the Kansas City gangsters who survived did well. They ran a skimming operation in Las Vegas and were the model for Martin Scorsese’s mobsters in the movie Casino.
But in the end, that was pretty much it. The FBI eventually broke the skimming operation and rolled up most of the Kansas City mob. They went to jail. They died.
And Kansas City got respectable.