By David Amoruso
When it comes to the mob in America everybody knows about the five families in New York or Al Capone in Chicago. But what about a smaller city? Like Tampa, Florida. A city that has a long and colorful history of violence filled with gangsters from Italy, Spain, Cuba, and the U.S. itself. A brand-new magazine and tour shine a spotlight on Tampa’s crime history and show you where the bodies are buried.
Or where the bodies were dropped.
At 1510 20th Street in Ybor City a lightbulb casts just enough light on the sidewalk in front of what looks like a dilapidated warehouse. It seems like it hasn’t changed in decades. That’s because it hasn’t. “This is the original brick wall from 1948,” tour guide Scott Deitche tells Gangsters Inc. “This is where Tampa mobster Jimmy Velasco was shot and killed.”
It’s Deitche’s favorite spot on his Tampa Mafia Tour. “This old 1930s lamp that shines at night,” he says, “it barely has enough power to light the curb outside below. During the tour we always stop here at night because the atmosphere of this place is just fantastic. Ybor City can be quite loud at night with a lot of people partying, but this is a bit off the beaten path. This brick wall with a light bulb is a perfect setting for telling the story of where Jimmy was killed.”
A story Deitche knows very well. He is the senior writer for Tampa Mafia Magazine and author of five books on the mob including, Cigar City Mafia: A Complete History of the Tampa Underworld and The Silent Don: The Criminal Underworld of Santo Trafficante Jr. He has been researching organized crime for two decades and has been showing tourists the seedy side of Tampa for about six years now.
Despite the fact that Tampa takes center stage in Deitche’s work, the city doesn’t get the same attention nationwide. When it comes to the spotlight, size matters. Deitche: “It’s a smaller town, up until even the 1970s it was a pretty small city. The Tampa Bay Metro area now has about 2.5 million people, it was probably even less than a million in the mid-1970s. In Tampa you could go back to the 1950s and have a couple of hundred thousand people in the whole area. Even though there is a big core group of people who are third or fourth generation residents of Tampa, the place really came to full bloom after the early 1900s around the cigar industry. It’s a fairly young city and not quite as big so the mob family was pretty small. It wasn’t like New York’s Gambino family with 500 guys.”
Things changed during prohibition. “During that era Tampa got a bit more notoriety,” he explains. “Al Capone went to St Petersburg, which is just across the bay, ten minutes from Tampa. But there were a lot of bootleggers, people dealing narcotics, illegal alien trafficking, a lot of activity that the federal authorities took notice of. Around that time the Tampa mob family started partnering with the families in New York, St Louis, and Kansas city. Chicago as well.”
Florida was considered “open” territory for the American Mafia and the Tampa family had connections all over the place because of it. “Last year I did a talk at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas about the Mafia in Cuba with a big focus on the Tampa mob’s involvement there. That to me is so fascinating, that such a small family has so much influence not just in the United States, but in the world,” Deitche exclaims.
For Deitche, personally, the best thing about researching the Tampa mob is that he keeps digging up new information. “If I were to write Cigar City Mafia – his first book on the Tampa mob - now it would be about three times as long,” Deitche says with a smile. “Tampa was a very difficult subject to find out firsthand information. A lot of people didn’t want to talk to me. Many of them still aren’t quite as talkative, but they’re letting a bit more out. The fact I’m still finding these threads of new information, I’m seeing names of people that still surprise me during my research, it shows that even with the smaller families, whether it’s Detroit or Kansas City or Tampa, there’s a lot of layers to the story. Pretty fascinating.”
The latest gem that turned up during Deitche’s research of the Tampa mob was a list filled with public officials who received pay-offs from mobster Jimmy Velasco. Deitche: “Paul Guzzo, another author down here in Tampa, uncovered this list that showed Jimmy Velasco was paying off all these public city officials in the mid-1940s in Tampa. Guzzo found the original one uncovered in some old Hillsborough County sheriff files. When he brought that out it was so fascinating to see that because it’s something I’ve written about but didn’t know that it still existed.”
That brings us back to where Jimmy Velasco’s story ends. That brick wall on 20th Street. Deitche’s favorite spot on his mob tour. The Tampa Mafia Tour spans the glory days of the traditional Mafia, better known as La Cosa Nostra, in the city. It takes you on a trip to the 1930s, 40s, and 50s when gambling was the biggest racket and the mob had police and city hall in its pockets. But he also talks about how these powerful racketeers eventually lost their power and at which local bar some of them occasionally still get together to reminisce about the good ol’ days.
“It takes place in Ybor City, which is kind of the epicenter of the Italian, Cuban, Spanish communities, there is a small Jewish community there as well,” Deitche says. “It’s a cool historic district in Tampa, about a mile and change long. A lot of the old buildings are still there. A café built in the late 1800s that used to be a gambling hall, some of the old restaurants. They’ve changed names over the years but the buildings are still the original buildings. The Colombia restaurant which is the oldest restaurant still operating in the city – it’s been open since 1905 – was a big mafia hangout back in the day. The tour is a good mix between places where guys got killed, where they hung out, and just some popular and well-known nightclubs and restaurants in this historic district of which people may not know that there is a deeper darker history here.”
What is most unique about the tour, Deitche explains, is that everything is done on foot. “Everything is in such a small confined walking area making this one of the few walking tours in the United States. There are 15 to 18 spots we visit depending on how the tour is going.”
If you are interested in taking the tour then you better be quick. “We just put up our dates for the spring and they’re already selling out,” a proud Deitche says. “We do the tour once a month except during the summer because it’s way too hot.”
As the popularity of the tour indicates, the public’s fascination with the mob remains on a high. “The interest has been there for a long time,” Deitche says. “Even if you look back to the 1930s and 1940s. It kind of ebbs and flows. When Boardwalk Empire did a plotline about Florida interest peaked again. People just enjoy reading about it. And next year you’ve got the Whitey Bulger movie coming out with Johnny Depp, The Irishman by Martin Scorsese, Live by Night the Dennis Lehane movie that Ben Affleck will be doing, they may be filming that one out in Tampa. So every so often you’ll get this pulse of new movies which spurs more interest.”
The same thing happened to Deitche (right) himself. “I grew up in New Jersey, just outside New York City. So you always got the news from New York, the gangster hits and all. I remember distinctly when Paul Castellano was killed. My mom always loved the old gangster movies but it really was after seeing Goodfellas that I started reading about it.”
From reading came writing. After the release of Cigar City Mafia, Deitche’s first book, in 2004 he has been churning out books and articles like a machine. He is currently working as the senior writer at Tampa Mafia Magazine, a brand-new quarterly that focuses on the mob and organized crime in the Cigar City.
Tampa Mafia Magazine is the brainchild of Lisa Figueredo. “Her uncles Lou Figueredo and “Baby Joe” Diez are in my book Cigar City Mafia,” Deitche adds. She had already founded Cigar City Magazine which would occasionally feature a story about organized crime. Those articles got a lot of play online so Figueredo decided to devote several issues solely to organized crime. When those issues sold really well Tampa Mafia Magazine was born and senior writer Scott Deitche looks forward to sharing as much as he knows with its readers.
“We focus on organized crime in Tampa and South Florida. We also look at how other mobsters and families tied into the Sunshine State. We have articles on Lansky, Gotti, and Luciano, all with a Florida twist,” Deitche tells us. But with an organization that operated on an international level there is room for stories from other areas as well. A typical issue of Tampa Mafia Magazine features stories about the old school mob from the 1930s till the 1960s and has lots of interviews. For the next issue they’ve talked to Meyer Lansky’s daughter Sandra and Gambino mob associate-turned-government witness John Alite.
The magazine may also look at other types of organized crime in Tampa. Deitche: “There is a lot of gang activity, there’s Asian organized crime, Mexican cartels, outlaw motorcycle gangs. But most in law enforcement here have been reassigned to white collar crime. Mortgage fraud was huge in the Tampa area during the housing crash. So people do not have a good picture of how big or small the landscape actually is. Ken Sanz, who wrote the book “Balls” with me, is a retired Florida law enforcement special agent with thirty years focused on organized crime. When he retired four or five years ago there was nobody left to take his place. With white collar crime and terrorism so present there needed to be a shift and not as many people are keeping an eye on organized crime as they used to.”
When it comes to the current state of La Cosa Nostra in Tampa there isn’t much left of the old mob crews, most experts say. “There are some old timers and a few mob guys are still around doing some small stuff, but most of the guys have moved into more legitimate enterprises,” Deitche says. “The Gambino crime family from New York had a little bit of a presence here with John Gotti and the Trucchio crew but there isn’t really that much of a family left. I read somewhere that the Sicilian mob and some of the other Italian Mafia groups have staked claims in Cuba, sent operatives down there already for when the regime eases its restrictions. It will be interesting to see. But the gambling landscape in the United States has changed. Back when Havana was an active gambling paradise you could choose between Cuba or Las Vegas. Now, I can go up the street in Tampa to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino to play blackjack. I don’t need to take a vacation somewhere.”
“The Tampa mob was always heavily into gambling” Deitche says, “but by the 1970s they got into prostitution and drugs and things became a little seedier. The younger guys had taken over and they were a lot flashier, but the 1930s and 1940s were definitely more violent years. Everyone was jockeying and fighting for power back then. These new guys weren’t living on the streets and hadn’t grown up during the depression like their predecessors.”
They weren’t as tough as the old timers. In short: They were no Jimmy Velasco.
Talking about Velasco, again, after years of research Deitche made a new discovery and he’s sharing it with all of you in the upcoming issue of Tampa Mafia Magazine: “We will have a first-hand account of the killing from Jimmy’s daughter who was there when it happened. It’s a rare chance to see how a mob hit affects a young girl who watched it happen.”
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