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Deep in the Heart of Texas: The Rise of the Italian Mafia in the Lone Star State - Part 2

By Thom L. Jones

As the famous song goes, “The Party's’ Over it’s Time to Call it a Day.” However, if this story has no beginning but instead, an entry point, it equally has no ending, only, an exit point.  And yet. There are so many loose ends, which of course, keep on producing new ones. Human nature is often, just loose ends and ill-defined reckoning; finding the way out of this story is tantalizingly elusive. [7]

Arising from the swamp of claim, counter-claim, and innuendo, Peter Michael Duca, a new face, emerged in the Rubik Cube that the trials had become. As reported by the law, he was not only behind the killing of Vallone but also the boss of the Mafia across all of Texas.

He moves through this story like a ghost train, and at the end, perhaps, The Ghost Rider. There’s a lot of waiting, a lot of potential danger coming, then after the climax, he’s gone. For some people, life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. Duca could well be one of them. Deserving a story on his own, his link into the Mafia and Vallone’s murder is tenuous at best, but in his complex, shadowy world, the truth is sometimes less deserving a master than fiction a return ticket on a journey into discovery.

Like Bertrand Russell’s famous paradox, he was, and he wasn’t; he did, and he didn’t, Duca was perhaps, more of an enigma than Houston’s most mysterious mobster, the man he allegedly had murdered. [8]

The FBI maintains a RIDS list: Record Information/Dissemination Section, which is a catalog of the people the FBI understands are deceased. It amounts to a file of notable or famous individuals for whom there are FBI files (usually) or cross references to FBI files. Many are men of the Mafia. Vincent Vallone does not appear.

Peter Duca does. He had his own particular number in their files: 45170

Peter Duca

Also known as Joe De Luca, Joe Gallo, Joe De Carlo, Salvatore Tarantino and, Angelo Di Peche, it’s claimed he was born in Cosenza, in Calabria in January 1893, and had arrived in America in 1910, into the port of New Orleans. In 1913 he may have married Rose/Rosa Cortemeglia of Bryan, Texas, that small town on Route 6 between Waco and Huston. There is a legal record of a “family” in his life, fourteen years later.

The Corsicana Daily Sun in November 1949, reported that Duca (left) stated he had known Vincent Vallone since 1919 and they were the best of friends.

It’s possible he was involved in the shooting of two men in New Orleans in 1916. Court documents indicate he went to Scranton, Pennsylvanian in 1927 from Dallas, and was there until the end of February 1928. What he was doing in Texas and Dallas in particular, is conjecture. Some sources believe he was the underboss of the Piraino crime family, which seems unlikely given the events that brought him to Scranton. He was there it seems, to kill someone, which would hardly be the kind of thing a Mafia boss would do, especially so far from home.

As stated in a criminal appeal argued in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, on March 20, 1933, Peter M. Duca had moved to Scranton, wedged into the north-east of Pennsylvania, in the Wyoming Valley. He had brought his family with him but sent them “away” in February 1928. [9]

The area was a magnet for immigrants, desperate for work, and only 150 miles from America’s largest city, New York. It was a district rich in coal, and many mines opened all needing labor. By 1875, half of all the anthracite coal mined in America came from the Wyoming Valley. Many Sicilians had worked in sulfur mines in the area around Montedoro in the province of Caltanissetta and quickly adapted to the hazardous conditions in this bucolic corner of Pennsylvania.

Mafia in the Valley

By 1928, three men, all born in Montedoro, Calogero Bufalino, Guiseppe La Torre and Santo Volpe, were alleged running or part of a Mafia family in the valley, possibly based in Pittston, or Scranton or Wilkes-Barre, and Torre and Volpe owned and operated a mine called The Pennsylvania Coal Company near Pittston. Originating in 1850 the mine, or extensions of it stretched between Pittston and Dunsmore, to the north-east of Scranton.

A district organizer for the United Mine-workers Union, Frank Agati, who was allegedly a partner in the PCC, was shot and killed in the union office in Wilkes-Barre on February 16, 1928. Ten days, later, just after 5 pm in the evening, two men, Peter Reilly, and Alex Campbell, involved in the miner’s union, were driving along Railroad Street in Pittston, when they were ambushed by another vehicle.

This may have been a retaliatory attack in response to the shooting of Agati. Two men in this other auto, a Peerless sedan, repeatedly fired into the miner’s car, killing them instantly. Reilly was shot eighteen times, with the back of his head blown off, ironically, the same as Vincent Vallone’s had been. The killers left Pittston but abandoned their vehicle forty minutes later, some miles north when the roadway was blocked by a traveling freight train. The driver and the two killers vanished into the night. One of them was Peter Duca.

Following the ambush, he moved first to Port Chester, New York, with the other shooter, Ralph Melissari, then down to Dallas, moving on to Trinidad, Denver, Colorado Springs (all in the state of Denver,) making his way to California, where he vanished.

Why he was in Pennsylvania for months before this shooting is a mystery. The Pennsylvania police had him listed as a “professional killer.” The Dallas County Sheriff, H.J. “Bill” Decker, believed Duca was an enforcer for the Dallas Mafia. An FBI report dated March 4, 1959, states………. “Peter Michael Duca had come to Dallas from New Orleans and was used as a hit-man for the Dallas Family.”

So, was he on “loan” to the Wyoming Valley Mafia. And if so, why? Surely they had plenty of their own enforcers. Had he been killing and injuring other people linked to the ongoing struggle between the miners and owners, men like Thomas Lillis. Joseph Cicero, and Samuel Grecio, all victims of the fight between workers and bosses? It’s a mystery, just like the man.

In 1932, his luck ran out, and he was arrested and identified as part of a gang of criminals operating in Honolulu, by C. T. Stevenson head of the Hawaiian FBN. He was calling himself Salvatore Tarantino. Two officers from the Pennsylvania State Police arrived in Hawaii on February 24, and Duca was deported back to America. Tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, he was released on parole in May 1945 from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and returned to Dallas.

Sheriff Kern claimed he and his team had been following Duca along with Carlino and Marino for some weeks, and although there was not enough substantial evidence to link him to Vallone’s murder, there was sufficient to have arrested on the grounds he had breached his parole by consorting with criminals.

In an FBI filed dated 9/11/67, there is a review of research and information the Dallas office had developed since starting its investigation of the Texas Mafia, in 1959. It mentions an informant DL T-1, (who might well have been Philip “Bump” Bosco, a bookmaker and alleged soldier in the Dallas Crime Family,) who advised his handler that “Duca was directly responsible for the killing of Victor Vallone.”

Bill Decker, the Dallas County Sheriff along with Sheriff Kern, arrested Peter Duca as he stepped off the train from Galveston, at Union Station in Dallas on November 2, 1949, and he was extradited, again, back to Pennsylvania to face charges.

King of the Mafia

At 8:45 pm on November 5 he was found dead in his cell in the Dauphin County Prison at 223 Walnut Street, in Harrisburg. His autopsy report showed he had suffered a coronary thrombosis.  He was short and probably overweight, and like almost all Mafiosi, he would have worked 24/7 at a job that wasn’t a job, but a lifestyle hazard. That he was felled by a heart attack could hardly have been a surprise. He died before his probation hearing and therefore his case was closed. End of story.

So. Was Duca the boss of the Mafia in Texas, or the underboss or even a soldier?  When interviewed by reporters, he claimed, “King of the Mafia? I don’t know anything about any Mafia. I’m just a businessman. I had nothing to do with the killing of Vincent Vallone. He was my old friend who I knew for 30 years.” This wasn't strictly true. At least according to Vallone’s son, the ubiquitous Anthony, who told reporters in November 1950, that because of a dispute, his father had severed all relationships with Duca many months before his death, telling his son not to trust Duca when it came to money.

Whoever he was, he seemed to have a lot of friends allegedly connected to the Dallas Mafia. His funeral was arranged by John Genaro, a leading figure in the gang, and his pallbearers included Charles Civello, Joe Ianni, and other alumni of the Dallas mob.

There is a tantalizing glimpse of who he maybe was in the 1940 census which shows a P. M. Duca at 2809 Casey Street, in the Houston inner city area. In the household is a wife called Rosa, 42, two sons and a daughter. The Duca listed is from Italy and about the right age. If he’d married his wife in 1913, it would have been a tight fit, but possible, making her about sixteen. The problem is, of course, Duca was living in prison at the time of the census, hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania. So unless his release was earlier than 1945, or Rosa fudged the details, it can’t be him. But it’s probably as close as we get.

At the time of his arrest in Dallas, he was living in a crummy room attached to a cafe near Galveston Airport. He’d moved here some months before and opened a gift shop in the terminal to sell “novelties” which he manufactured. As reported by people who worked for him, he rarely seemed to sell anything but frequently left on what he called “sales” trips. He also had lots of visits from people, none of them being locals. He also claimed Carlino and Marino were customers, although it’s a mystery what a grocer and an ice-maker would do with these kinds of novelties.

One of the people at his funeral may well have been Biagio Angelica (right), the same man who visited Vallone’s spread back in 1937. In his early 40s at the time of the killing, he’s listed as either Houston or Galveston when it comes to mob families. He ran his operation from a bar and restaurant he owned called The Italian Village, on the 300 block of Milam Street, near Downtown Houston, and claimed he was an auto mechanic. He went to prison more than once, on drugs and arson charges.

Sheriff Kern, the bringer of all information, true or false, claimed that Carlino in his “confession” referred to Angelica as the originally nominated shooter of Vallone, and had, it was alleged, been the supplier of the Remington automatic shotgun and shells used in the murder. He was replaced in favor of Carlino because he was loose with his mouth and talked too much. However, the night after the killing, Angelica and another man met with Carlino at his home. This being a story about a Mafia killing filled with dodgy hoi polloi, the “other man” is one more we need to address.

This individual played the accordion, helped run a sleazy club at 1915 Airline Drive, a couple of miles north of Downtown Houston, had a severe gambling problem, allegedly tried to murder his brother by stabbing him, was somehow, linked into the Chicago Syndicate, and according to Percy Foreman, he was a strong-arm man for the Houston mob and was the shooter that night in July. He had a criminal history in Wisconsin to support this accusation- three traffic offenses, one larceny, and one disorderly conduct. His name was Peter Reno. He was married with four children, and is worth considering in this story for this reason:

James Collins was a porter at The Sorrento after it opened. This is the term used in newspaper reports. What they could mean is he was the doorman. According to his testimony, Reno had arranged to meet Vincent Vallone on the night of his death, at the building that was being developed as the restaurant complex between 7:30 and 8:00 PM that evening. We don't know why, although it’s also reported that Reno had borrowed money from Vallone from time to time. He was always running short because of his lack of skill with cards or picking the right horses or whatever.  It’s possible the two men may have been talking about Reno’s upcoming gig when the new restaurant opened, and he was to play his accordion to entertain diners. By meeting Vallone at this time, it was guaranteed that the victim would be heading home later that night. It’s highly probable that the killers were tailing him after he left the restaurant. By 10: PM it would be dark.

Following the shooting as the car sped away, it was witnessed by a woman, traveling the same route with her husband. Mrs. Woodrow Wilson Bloodworth, (You literally can’t make this kind of stuff up,) claimed their vehicle was passed by a speeding black Studebaker sedan. Peter Reno drove one of these.

Before he was arrested, or while he was on bail (granted March 15, 1950,) Carlino allegedly told Reno to leave town as he was being set up as the fall guy for Vallone’s murder. Reno, who became one of the state’s chief witnesses, claimed in his trial evidence, that to his understanding, Carlino was in the Mafia and “the only way you get out of that mob is in a bushel basket.”

In due course, Reno and his family upped stakes and moved to Milwaukee.   

Why was Vallone killed?

Although we know how Vincent Vallone died, we do not understand why. There were plenty of possible reasons:

At Diego Carlino’s trial(s), Percy Foreman stated he was murdered by someone or someones with a grudge, and it revolved around Vallone’s early release from prison on his murder charge. $150,000 (a huge amount of money at this time,) had been paid to grease the palm or palms of officials to ensure his early freedom, on condition he retired and gave up his various bookmaking and gambling interests. Vallone accepted the favor but carried on as though he had no obligation to these benevolent sources.

Why it took five years to get around to killing him has never been explained.

Carlino’s “confession” included the information that he had killed Vallone who was forcing him to murder another man, John Allen ‘Hunchback’ Wolfe who was trespassing on Vallone’s gambling interests. If he refused, Vallone had threatened to kill his wife and parents. The fact that Wolfe was one of the best pistol shots in Texas might have also had been the reason why Carlino never tried.

He also stated that he had been ordered to carry out the hit by Peter Duca who he claimed was “the District Supervisor of the Mafia in Texas.”

The Mafia in the Tri-State area wanted to take over his business and made him an offer. He refused, therefore, he died.

Texas Ranger Klevenhagen believed he was murdered because he would not share his newly proposed casino at the Sorrento with the Mafia of Dallas and Galveston.

Vallone had gone to Galveston a few days before his death to secure the return of a loan of tens of thousands of dollars made to “two prominent men,” before he went to prison, and was demanding its re-payment. It was more profitable to kill him.

The day before he died he had received a telephone call from Carlos Marcello, the Mafia boss of Louisiana. Something was in the wind, because Anthony Vallone, his thirty-seven-year- old son, was notified of his father’s death as he was waiting at Houston Airport to board a flight to New Orleans. The day after his father had a conversation with the most powerful Mafia boss in America who lived in The Big Easy.

Loose ends.

In the first trial of Diego Carlino, Percy Foreman brings up a new name, Tony Lamanchia, and refers to him as an “old enemy” of Vallone. There was someone called Anthony Lamantia, who was alleged to be a loan-shark and a soldier in the Houston Mafia. Even more intriguing is Angelo La Mantia, a well-known Mafioso from, of all place, Milwaukee. Does he, somehow, through Reno, fit into this ever complicated narrative?

Loose ends. Squared. 

There could have been many justifications for his killing. Vincent Vallone seemed to make enemies the way most of us make a cup of coffee, by instinct.

In the jigsaw picture of his life, the crucial pieces are missing, so we will never know for sure the who, the what and the why. It’s like looking for a particular needle in a haystack made of needles.

Sociologist Robert Bellah believed “Nothing is ever lost.” Whatever happens became what it is from whatever it was and is, therefore, traceable.[10]

The truth about the killing of Victor Vallone on that night in July 1949 is somewhere, waiting to be discovered. All the main actors are surely dead after 70 years, but in shoe boxes and family albums there will be faded, old photographs, and in drawers and cupboards letters and documents. Archived in some dusty basements may be arrest dockets and case files waiting to be uncovered. Neanderthals, an extinct species of archaic humans disappeared over 40,000 years ago, and yet we learn more about them every year.

Then again, maybe, after all, Carlino and Marino were the killers and just lucky to find such a good lawyer. If they were, we have to wonder the identity of the informant who tipped off sheriff Kern.

Could it be that Peter Duca was everything that was said about him? A Ghost Rider, not in comic books, but deep in the heart of Texas, in the Mafia. And the Maceo brothers or Joe Piraino up in Dallas rang him up and said: “Go kill the Don in Houston.”

For him, the black badge of hell descended, and the school of night was forever. [11]       

Vincent Vallone was an obscure, relatively unimportant element in Italian-American organized crime. Nevertheless, he is worth remembering, if, for nothing else, the fact he was the only known (presumed) Mafioso murdered in what is now the fourth biggest city in America. 

Was his killing the harvest of hubris, decadence, a squandering of favors owed, neglect of power, greed, or simply revenge? What’s almost certain is that he triggered someone's amygdala so severely, he had to be removed.

There’s nothing like fear to bring the guns out.

 

                                                                                                 Mr. Writer, why don't you tell it like it is?

                                                                                                 Why don't you tell it like it really is?

                                                                                                 Before you go on home.

                                                                                                                      Stereophonics. March 2001.

                                                                                                                                                     

  1. The Labyrinth of the Spirits. Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Planeta. 2016.
  2. It’s hard to know where Vallone actually died. The address on his death certificate is 9100 Chocolate Bayou Road. At this time, there may have been two roads with similar names. Chocolate Bayou and Old Chocolate Bayou Roads in the area to the immediate south of Houston.

Complicating things more, to-day part of Chocolate Bayou Road is called Cullen Boulevard. These two different intersections, with Schurmier Road, are about one-third of a mile apart. However, 9100 Cullen is five miles north of the Chocolate Bayou and Schurmier intersection as noted in the death certificate and would have been more urban than rural in 1949.

To complicate things further, another 9100 Old Chocolate Bayou Road exists, nine miles south of Schurmier Road intersection. It’s possible, both roads were the same, but for some reason, mapped with different identifiers depending on the metropolitan suburbs they passed through. Just to keep the rhythm going, there is also a similar address, 9100 Mustang Chocolate Bayou Road in Alvin, about 40 miles south of Houston. 

His address on his 1934 Registration Card is Route 7 Box 694 Chocolate Bayou Road Houston 4 Harris Texas. As his Houston home was destroyed in 1932, it’s possible he and his family moved to this address by 1934 and, he was living here the day he was murdered.

  1. In Sicily, the word cosca, plural cosche, is generally used to describe a Mafia clan. A cosca is the crown of spiny, closely folded leaves on plants such as an artichoke, which symbolizes the tightness of relationships between Mafiosi within the group.
  2. Olivia married Frank Fertitta, who became part of the Maceo crew and would in due course, assume leadership of it on the deaths of the Maceo brothers. Their son, Frank Junior, moved to Las Vegas in 1960, when he was 21, with his wife, Victoria. Frank Junior became the manager of the Fremont Casino in downtown Las Vegas which had opened in 1956 as the tallest building in Nevada. Frank went on to create the Palace Station, a 5000 square foot casino designed to cater to people who lived and worked in Las Vegas. He became a well-known and respected businessman and philanthropist until his death in 2009.
  3. As tabled in REPORT TO THE SECRETARIAT OF THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS BETWEEN JANUARY 1 AND MARCH 31,1938 for consideration by The Advisory Committee on Traffic in Opium and other Dangerous Drugs:

“There was the arrest of a band of traffickers in New York, New Orleans, Galveston and Houston, U.S.A., from April to October 1937. Report communicated by the Government of the United States of America, March 4th, 1938.

Confiscated was Heroin: 3 kg. 740 gr. (131 oz. 303 grains). Raw opium: 452 grams (15 oz. 393 grains). Prepared opium: 294 grams (10 oz. 151 grains). Morphine hydrochloride: 381 grams (13 oz. 185 grains). No identifying marks or labels. 

Persons implicated: Joseph d ’Acunta, Stanyslaus Boysa, Jerry Buonanno, Vincent Cammera, Mary Carussotto, Michael Celentano, Calogero Iacono, Lucien Ignaro, Calogero La Gaipa, Jose Lago, Louis Liquori, Don Alfonso Marzano, Al Mauro, Charles Casesa, Angeline Colonna, Louis Colonna, Vincent Dimaggio, Josephine Dimaggio, Dominick Di Marso, Felix Papa, Willie Ross, Louis Rappolo, Daniel Scaretti, Dominick Vaccaro, John Vencileoni, Dominick Visco, B. Angelica, Esadore Cavaretta, Mrs. Emmeline Cecelia, Jose Macey, Vincent Vallone, Leone Attansio, Alfonso Attardi, Josephine Attardi, Vincent Gentiluomo, Sam Maceo, Joe Massa, William McDonald, Joe Passarello, Mike Scitcavich, August Simoncini, Filipina Simoncini, Kathryn P. Traweek, Athleen Teddlie, Antony Virzi, Nick Bonura, Philip Bonura, Jimmie Campo, Frank Ciacciofera, Jerry Furaci, Nicholas Gentile, Antoinette Lima, Nofia Pecorora, Mrs. A. Scontrino, Tommy Siracusa, François Caputo, Gennaro Caputo, and others.

Purchases or seizures of narcotic drugs were made from members of this ring in New York, Galveston, Houston and New Orleans on various dates. The distributing organization was headed by Camera, La Gaipa, Al Mauro and Visco. Their headquarters were in New York City. The principal wholesalers concerned with the shipments from New York to southern points were Vincent Dimaggio and Nicholas Gentile. The transporters from New York to the south-west were almost entirely women directed by Mary Carussotto, August Simoncini and his wife Filipina.

Most of the shipments to the south-west were made to an organization said to be controlled by Sam Maceo, Galveston, Texas, and Vincent Vallone, at Houston, Texas.

In 1936, Gennaro Caputo was arrested by Customs agents at New York, charged with attempting to smuggle narcotics into the United States. It was ascertained that he was wanted for murder in France, and he was held pending a formal request from the French Government for his extradition. It was learned in January 1937 that, prior to his arrest in 1936, Caputo, with Ignaro and Lago, had been obtaining large quantities of heroin and raw opium from France through several seamen on vessels of the French Line. Following Caputo’s arrest, this activity was continued by Ignaro and Lago. Seamen on the s.s. Normandie, in particular, were involved. It appears that this organization handled as much as 11 kg. 360 gr. of heroin weekly.”

Names in bold indicate those who attended Vallone’s home in the 1937 reported meeting. Spelling of names is as recorded on document.

  1. Alfonso Atardi was a New York mobster in the family of Vincenzo Mangano, now known as The Gambino Family. Or was he?

Born in Sicily, he arrived in America in 1919 as a 22-year old. He and his wife ran an imported cheese and olive oil business on Chrystie Street in Lower Manhattan. On May 9, 1950, the FBN headquarters published a list of known Mafiosi operating in Texas and Attardi was listed as being part of the Houston branch. He had been linked to the Maceo family, when observed by an FBN agent on September 8, 1937, in Galveston, doing a walk-along with Sam. He was connected to mobsters in Louisiana, Texas, New York and Missouri. One of the many arrested in the ubiquitous drug bust of ’37, he flipped and became an informant for either the FBN or its governing body, the Treasury Department, in 1952.

He may have been the mysterious “Jim Carra” who shared his Mafia life story with journalist Jack Anderson in an article that appeared in Parade Magazine in January 1968.

The term “Don” is common in both Spain and Italy. In Sicily, it was used initially by nobility and eventually indicated a gesture of respect for men of some importance. In the Mafia, it is almost always used when addressing a boss of some kind. So Atardi may well have inserted the term in his report in either way.

  1. "The Party's Over" is a famous song composed by Jules Styne with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, 1956.
  2. “If there is a town in which the barber shaves (exactly) those who do not shave themselves, then does the barber shave himself? If he does shave himself, then he does not; and if he does not, then he does.” A. R. Garciadiego, "Bertrand Russell and the origins of the set-theoretic 'paradoxes'." Birhäuser-Verlag, Basel, 1992.
  3. Commonwealth v. Duca, 165 A. 825(Pa.1933)
  4. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap

Press, 2011.

  1. “Black is the badge of hell,

       The hue of dungeons and the school of night.”

                                                                              Love’s Labor’s Lost.” William Shakespeare.

Acknowledgment.

My sincere thanks to Tom Hunt, the well-known Mafia historian, for supplying me with so much information for the story. The way I have interpreted this is my responsibility entirely.

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Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.

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