By Robert Sberna for Gangsters Inc.
By many accounts, Joe “Loose” Iacobacci forged a model career in the Mafia. The Cleveland-born Iacobacci rose from mob soldier to head of the Cleveland family, rebuilding the nearly defunct organization into a viable enterprise. After serving a couple of stand-up stints in prison, he left the mob in 2005 and retired to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he passed away in April at age 70.
Iacobacci grew up in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, an Italian-American enclave that spawned dozens of made men over the years. As a teen, Iacobacci started his underworld activities as a member of a burglary crew that targeted businesses in and around Collinwood. By the mid-1970s, he had caught the eye of James Licavoli, a respected mobster who took a liking to Iacobacci and frequently used him for collections and enforcement work. The burly Iacobacci, possessed of a violent temper, was nicknamed Loose by Licavoli (as in “he has a screw loose”).
Licavoli’s ascension, however, was anything but smooth, with several factions using Scalish’s passing as an opportunity to vie for control of Cleveland’s criminal activities, including loansharking, gambling and skimming from union construction jobs. The Cleveland mob at the time was generating substantial revenue, including an estimated $40,000 a month as its share of the skim from Las Vegas casinos, many of which were built through loans from the Teamsters Union Central States Pension Fund. Under Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, the union had formed an affiliation with the mob, which essentially used the massive pension fund as a bank. When native Clevelander William Presser became president of the Teamsters, the Cleveland mob strengthened its chokehold on the union, and its massive pension fund.
The mid-1970s battle over Cleveland’s rackets pitted Licavoli against union boss John Nardi and brash Irish-American gangster Danny Greene. As a Licavoli loyalist, Iacobacci played a key role in the bloody war, which involved so many car bombings that the national media dubbed Cleveland “Bomb City, USA.”
Eventually both Nardi and Danny Greene were killed by car bombs, with Greene dying in 1977 outside of a dentist’s office in suburban Cleveland. Licavoli would go to prison in 1982 for his role in Greene’s death. He was replaced by Angelo “Big Ange” Lonardo, the son of one-time mob boss Joseph Lonardo. He headed the family until 1984, when he was convicted of drug charges and sentenced to life in prison. Lonardo was eventually turned by federal authorities, making him the highest-ranking Mafia informer up to that time. Lonardo’s cooperation with the feds caused large-scale damage to Mafia leadership in nearly all the major families.
Lonardo was replaced by John “Peanuts” Tronolone and then Anthony “Tony Lib” Liberatore in 1991. However, the combination of Lonardo’s cooperation and aggressive anti-crime activities by the FBI left the Cleveland family in tatters, with only a few operators remaining.
When Liberatore went to prison in 1993, Iacobacci was designated boss of the family, which was nothing more than a glorified crew at that point.
With his low-profile leadership style and the help of the Chicago Outfit and New Jersey’s DeCavalcante family, Iacobacci steadily rebuilt the Cleveland Mafia. Iacobacci had cut the New Jersey mob into a lucrative fraudulent check scheme that targeted banks in that state. Iacobacci was eventually indicted for his role in the conspiracy and was sentenced to federal prison for three years. When he was released in the late 1990s, he continued his efforts to expand the family. The Cleveland Mafia hadn’t “opened its books” during much of Scalish’s reign, primarily because the leaders were generating enough revenue that they didn’t need to induct new members, which of course would have shrunk their shares of the proceeds.
But Iacobacci actively recruited new blood, inducting at least a half-dozen new members, as well as numerous associates, according to anecdotal reports. At the time of Iacobacci’s retirement, the Cleveland Mafia and its affiliates in Pittsburgh; Youngstown, Ohio; and Rochester, N.Y. were generating millions in profits each year.
Nowadays, it’s anyone’s guess about the size and scope of the Cleveland Mafia. Reportedly, the family is once again barely operational, with only a few holdovers pulling cons and selling “protection.” But with a capable leader, perhaps there will be another resurgence of a once-powerful family.
Robert Sberna is a Cleveland-based journalist who contributes to several national publications. His first book, House of Horrors: The Shocking True Story of Anthony Sowell, was named 2012 True Crime “Book of the Year” by Foreword Reviews. His most recent book, Badge 387: The Jim Simone Story, was released in August 2016. For more information, visit www.robertsberna.com.
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