Do you know the way to San Jose?
I’ve been away so long. I may go wrong and lose my way
- Do you know the way to San Jose? Burt Bacharach. 1969.
Tried for years to screw a guy in Nevada out of a hundred grand. Every time they visited and strong-armed him, he gave them the finger and told them to go home. And they did.
Exasperated and frustrated, they import this tough guy from the Colombo’s in New York.
He’d sort it. Didn’t happen.
Per capita, the Feds have more snitches operating in this little mob than any other part of America.
The boss gets named in an article on organized crime in LIFE magazine and sues for millions. The judge throws the case out of court. No publicity is adverse publicity unless the business is as secretive as Cosa Nostra.
In one hard to contemplate scenario, a mobster shoots a block of cheese, and by mistake, in another room, another man then shoots and kills a young guy thinking the first shooting was an actual killing and a signal to carry out another hit. To finish they then shoot and kill the father of the victim only for him to turn up not dead.
It’s a bizarre world in the mob land of San Jose.
Like blind men trying to get out of a door-knob factory, they fumbled their way through decades of failure on a scale hard to contemplate.
In 1940 the population of San Jose is about 68,000, 99% white. The area in which it’s established, Santa Clara County, around 180,000. The main employment sector is office managers and clerks. Sixty years into the future, there will be millions living in this city, and valley, white, black, yellow. All kinds of colors fueled by an industry gangsters in the days of Dashiell Hammett could never have dreamed about.
Clerks will be in short supply. Computer nerds like ants on a ham-leg. Men of honor? Long gone.
The world knows the place now as Silicon Valley. Part of the most expensive metro area in America.
This is now. But back in the day?
We don’t understand how it all started. Every source claims the same thing, perhaps from the original taproot. Two brothers, part of San Fran’s mob, up and migrate down to San Jose and start a clan. Their name is Sciortino: Onofrio (right) and Carmelo. This is in 1942. If so, what was going on before?
The 1940 census show the two men living in a house belonging to Carmelo, with three women, presumably mother and daughters, by name and age. Onofrio’s involved in the fruit and vegetable business, according to an FBI report.
Onofrio Sciortino. Sounds like a character from an Italian opera. If this all happens as it’s alleged, he’s about fifty. So getting on in years. Brother, even older. Born in Sicily in 1885. Onofrio about six years later.
A small family of Mafiosi from the beginning. Between twenty and forty inducted men at its peak. Twenty years later the FBI identifies only four crew bosses, or capi as they’re called. Captains of ten, except here, more like five soldiers per “circle.” That’s how they refer to themselves, one informant tells his handler in San Francisco. A magazine article in March 1968, claimed the family size at twenty-four made men.
The clan never makes the headlines like back east, bodies falling like raindrops, unions corrupted, cities held to siege; cynics claiming a nation corrupted, the mob in control, not the government.
Where do these people come from?
In what will become the most populated state in the Union, immigrant Sicilians carrying the stigmata of Cosa Nostra, merge into the biggest cities, settling in dark corners, like arachnids searching out websites.
They could have reached San Francisco as early as the 1870s becoming established in Los Angeles by the turn of the 20th Century, heading west from Texas and Louisiana, where they’d already formed a bridge-head in the United States during the great Italian diaspora of over four million immigrants stretching from the 1870s until the 1920s.
- READ: Deep in the Heart of Texas: The Rise of the Italian Mafia in the Lone Star State
The brothers may have come from Bagheria, near Palermo, although there is little information available for family ancestry. A Sam Orlando Sciortino moved to California from New York and became an underboss in the Los Angeles family of Cosa Nostra. A cousin, Gaspare, had a similar role in San Francisco. Another was Pietro Sciortino, connected somehow into the Mafia underworld in New York in the 1920s and 30s. Frankie “The Bug” Sciortino was a soldier in the Colombo Family. Cousins, nephews, uncles? Hard to determine how many related and where it all fitted.
There are just over 6000 people with this name in Italy today. 84% live in Sicily, about 3000 living in the United States. (1)
Somewhere among them might be relatives of the brothers Sciortino who made that big step south of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. People leading ordinary lives, ignorant of the black sheep in family closets.
Whatever is going on in the early years of this mob family is unknown and undocumented. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, formed in 1930, seemed to have a much better knowledge of and database on the Mafia than their cousins in the FBI, and they recorded nothing on San Jose although the drug agency had its eyes on San Francisco. We pick up pieces in more information after the brothers die and new blood moves into the clan leadership.
The family spreads east to Modesto, details of which the FBI recorded, and may have included Stockton, although in these early days, this city and Lodi, to the north, appear to “belong” to San Francisco in mob parlance.
The family bury them in Santa Clara Mission Cemetery, almost in the heart of San Jose.
Joe is the new boss of the family, and he also has a brother, this one a Sal. Both made into the Mafia. The blood oath. The trigger finger pricked. An image of a saint burnt while chanting the vows. Re-born as part of our thing, Cosa Nostra.
This is an Americanized version of the Sicilian Stissa Crosa, how it’s referred to in parts of the old country.
Mafia. Honored Society. Our Thing. A bunch of names for a bunch of criminals trying to glorify something tarnished as bright and shining. In 1963, an informant for the FBI described the society to his handler:
“The organization SF 2550-C-TE belongs to was explained to him as being an old organization started by people of Sicily to protect themselves from land barons and others of autocratic rule. When these people came to this country, they remained closely knit and continued their specific organization in this country to make money.” (2)
It all came down to money when in the late 1940s or early 1950s someone in Reno decides to kill his stepmother.
He knew someone in the Sciortino mob. They agreed to handle the contract on the woman. The fee was $100,000 ($1 million in present currency.) An enormous sum by today’s standards when people kill each other for loose change or a handful of drugs.
A San Francisco-based gambler, Harold Smith, opened a small gaming club on Main Street, in Reno, in 1935, which he called “Harold’s Club.” One of the first modern casinos in Nevada, long before The Flamingo of Vegas.
His father, Raymond Ingram “Pappy” Smith, came along later and became a partner and the general manager. By then, he’d divorced wife Dora, and his second or third of five wives appeared to cause this family conflict. Harold set the wheels in motion to have the woman liquidated.
Harold contacted the San Jose mob, and they agreed to remove the bothersome stepmother. Later, Smith resolved the family problems and called off the hit. Sciortino still demanded payment, and for years, the mob family sent people back and forward between San Jose and Reno trying to get satisfaction. Like the Rolling Stones, they never did.
One of the San Jose mob sent on this mission was Peter “Pete Mayo” Misuraca, a strange and complex man, with significant mental health issues. Born in Sicily, he grew up in Detroit, before moving to California and there, joining the Army. The Authorities kicked him out in 1942 because of psychotic tendencies. His own capo, or crew boss, referred to Misuraca as crazy and a coward. Along with his wife, they lived in Richmond, which was one and a half hour’s drive north of San Jose and over three hours south of Reno.
Sciortino had chosen Misuraca in 1954 to carry on the struggle with Smith and the outstanding debt.
San Jose’s talent pool must have close to empty to choose a man like Misuraca, although it’s possible he was the original contact between the crime family and Smith.
Besides Misuraca, his nephew, Alex Camarata, is part of the team along with an unnamed man who became one of the FBI’s many informants in San Jose.
Unlike Casanova, who through life was always careful to distinguish between deceit and an honest curveball, Harold Smith never intended to fork out the dues. Like his father and brothers, he was an expert in prestidigitation. The family’s success in the gambling world was evidence of this.
And so, for years, the San Jose Mafia kept chasing and Smith kept giving the mob the proverbial finger. Not a good image for a bunch of urban terrorists.
During this Gilbert and Sullivan opera, Peter Misuraca was told to contact big brother, John. Based in Livingstone, New Jersey, and a crew boss in the New York Profaci Mafia Family, later referred to by the FBI as the Colombo Family, he’s a legendary tough guy who, for a fee, will come and sort out Smith.
- READ: Profile of original New York Mafia family boss Giuseppe Profaci
With a record stretching back over forty years for murder, bootlegging, and gambling, he was the family underboss after Profaci’s death, then demoted when Joe Colombo took over as head man around 1964. John was also the father of Rose, the wife of Alex Camarata.
They don’t call these Mafia families for nothing.
Known in the Mafia as “Big John” he traveled to California to sort things out. It’s claimed by at least one source that he visited Reno for a showdown with the Smith family in 1966, the year after Cerrito abandoned the project and almost eighteen months after the meeting in Detroit. He got nowhere and retreated to the underworld he understood in New York, although he was spending most of his time in semi-retirement in St. Petersburg, Florida.
He told his daughter he thought San Jose was too fat and satisfied and he’d little faith in them.
If nothing else, the ridiculous charade confirmed that in the San Jose mob if we can fix ignorance stupidity is forever.
After the death of Onofrio Sciortino, it’s the start of a new decade. The last one didn’t end that well. The 60s won’t be that hot either.
Giuseppe Xavier Cerrito (right) was born in January 1911, in Villabate, Sicily, a Mafia stronghold for generations. A lot of Mafiosi traveled to America from this town that lies to the south-east of Palermo. One of these was Giuseppe Profaci, who, in 1928, formed a clan in south Brooklyn that’s known today as The Colombo Crime Family.
- READ: Emanuele Notarbartolo, the man who fell from the train, and the dark heart of Italy
Coming to America in the 1920s, Cerrito hooks up with Profaci, four years older, who’d arrived in America in 1921. Cerrito lived for a time on 84 Street in South Brooklyn, worked various jobs: selling, photography and in the butchery business, before moving to California around 1941 when he was thirty. He stayed there the rest of his life.
He opened a meat shop on Reed Street, close to downtown San Jose, making a good living through his links into The Denver Meat Company, a major wholesaler based in Pennsylvania. Following the end of the war, in 1945, he moved into the used car business.
He became a part of the local Mafia as a soldier, and it’s a mystery how he rose so fast, that by 1959 he’s the boss. Two years earlier, he’d represented San Jose at the infamous Apalachin Mob Summit, although not one of those apprehended by the state police that morning, November 14, 1957.
Ironically, one of those attending was Pasquale Sciortino of Auburn, New York. Admitting to being at the home of Joseph Barbara, who had hosted the conference, he claimed he had been there to visit Barbara Junior to discuss a business deal. Sciortino was a shadowy figure in upstate New York Mafia circles, an alleged soldier in the Barbara crime family with a background in bootlegging.
- READ: Mob Meeting at Apalachin
Information from one of the FBI sources claimed that the members of the family had to contribute to his travel expenses. The FBI tracked Cerrito and San Francisco’s boss, Jimmy Lanza, to the Hotel Casey in Scranton, Pennsylvania, 60 miles south of the farmhouse where the meeting was being held. Russell Bufalino, who becomes the boss of North-East Pennsylvania Cosa Nostra in the same year that Cerrito will take over San Jose, organized the accommodation and paid the account.
Bufalino has a busy and noticeable mob life, while Cerrito kept such a low profile it’s as though he never existed. As one journalist described his image: “He could have been Charley Chickenlivers or Joe Doakes.” (3)
One of the Fed’s informants in San Jose told a handler in March 1965 that a mob meeting was being called in May in Detroit, and one matter on the agenda was to resolve this Reno dispute with Smith which had now dragged on for between ten and fifteen years. Cerrito washed his hands of the whole shambolic matter during this year.
By then, a successful businessman, married with children, living in a beautiful house with a backyard pool in the upmarket suburb of Los Gatos, and running a major Lincoln-Mercury car dealership on Santa Cruz Avenue, life must have been good.
In August 1964, he and Elizabeth, his wife, flew to Europe for an extended vacation, and towards the end of October, Cerrito (right) followed by the law in Palermo, Sicily, is observed meeting with a known Mafioso called Francesco Garofolo at an inner-city hotel. Until retiring and going back to live in Sicily in 1956, Garofolo had been the underboss for twenty-five years to Joe Bonanno, the infamous New York Don who also ran an offshoot branch of his crime family in San Jose created around 1962, it’s claimed with the help of Cerrito.
Law enforcement wondered if the two men were discussing the conflict raging in New York that was splitting apart the crime family run by Bonanno.
The meeting, recorded and photographed by the police, forms the basis of the only criminal charge ever laid against Joseph Cerrito.
Cerrito and his wife returned to San Jose in January 1965, and six-weeks later, the Palermo courts issued a warrant charging him, Garofolo, and twelve other men with aggravated criminal conspiracy as members of the Mafia. In due course, the judiciary dismissed the case for lack of evidence.
The quiet life ended in the fall of 1967 when Cerrito found himself the center of attraction again, for all the wrong reasons. If the world is a comedy to those that think and a tragedy to those that feel, as Horatio Walpole believed, Joe must have been laughing and crying into the coffee every morning as he opened the daily newspapers in September.
In September 1967, LIFE, a respected American weekly photo magazine, ran two editions back to back that featured an in-depth look at the Mafia. It contained a chart showing the structure of twenty-four Cosa Nostra families across America identified by the FBI, and the photos of the leaders. And there, on Page 20, sixth down from the top is a photo of Joe, chief of San Jose.
The article called the Mafia “a fraternity of thugs that affects us all.”
From the chaos of Apalachin, through the shambles of the Harolds extortion fiasco, Life Magazine brought full circle the agita mob life had nurtured for Joe Cerrito throughout his term as the boss.
Towards the end of October, his lawyer, Thomas Salciccia, filed a libel suit against LIFE for maligning him, seeking $7 million in damages (over $50 million in today’s money.) To add insult to injury, in 1968, LIFE ran an article on the life and times of Joe Cerrito, Mafia boss of San Jose. The article ended:
“Joe Cerrito is a gangster.”
Now, everyone knew without a doubt.
The court dismissed Cerrito’s suit in August 1969.
Informants reported his wife became very annoyed by the publicity. Must have played havoc with Elizabeth’s social circle.
Ford wasn’t so happy with him either, and a major blow to his pride and pocket happens when they canceled the dealership arrangement.
Cerrito died ten years later, at the relatively young age of sixty-four. In keeping with the low-key image of his mob life, it was natural causes, not a gunshot that caused death. Sal, his brother, followed three months later in December 1978. Joe may have stepped down by then, passing the reins to the next boss, Angelo Marino (right), who was in deep strife for his part in a murder that had taken place a year earlier.
The man who replaced Cerrito as the family boss ran a business, The California Cheese Company, on Sunny Court, near the 101 Freeway in East San Jose. At one point, Marino’s business controlled 85% of California’s demand for mozzarella and ricotta. A successful venture that father, Salvatore, had started in 1949.
Sometime around the age of twenty-five, Angelo left Pittsburgh, his hometown, and moved to San Jose to help run the company, and then became part of the Mafia that operated in Santa Clara County. When the father retired, Angelo assumed his position of capo, although according to one of the ubiquitous Federal informants, “He was a weak man with no talent for the Mafia rackets. He spent a lot of his time chasing women and gambling.”
Almost got him killed. The woman part, that is.
One of the many girlfriends, Maria Mack, who lived in San Carlos, and worked in a doughnut shop, became pregnant and had a child. Marino’s wife, Precious Maggio, called on her brothers, from Philadelphia, to come to California and kill her husband in revenge for this indiscretion.
Mario, Salvatore, and Pietro were part of a long-established Mafia dynasty. Their father, Michael, had sponsored Angelo Bruno into the Philly mob and also had a legitimate front in the cheese business in The City of Brotherly Love. It looked to be curtains for Marino. But the ubiquitous John Misuraca stepped in and resolved things. By 1966, Marino and the wife had enough of each other and divorced.
Cerrito, in 1962, ordered Marino to kill a man who had allegedly murdered a Mafioso back in the old country. The contract came to San Jose from back east in New York.
The target lived in Vacaville. In Solano County, it’s 55 miles north-east of San Francisco and the last place you might expect to find a Sicilian Mafia killer. But there he was, working in a restaurant called Pietro’s Pizza No 2 (still in existence.)
Except he wasn’t a Mafia killer. It’s a complicated story. These things often are.
In June 1948, Giuseppe “Pepi” Polimeni either carried out or was an accessory to the murder of someone called Giuseppe Prafico. The killing took place in Archi, a northern suburb of Reggio Calabria, the capital of the region of Calabria, the “toe” of Italy and the home to ‘Ndrangheta. Today, recognized as the most powerful of the four main organized crime cartels in Italy, it has cells in at least twenty countries. After the killing, Polimeni hid out in the Aspromonte Mountains, traveling from place to place, sheltered by friends and relatives.
He entered the USA in 1953 and then moved to New York around 1955, staying in Rochester, near Buffalo.
Polimeni spent time in New York City, before traveling to California, where he called himself John Repepi, managing a pizza restaurant or working there as a cook. The information on this incident was being supplied by one of the FBI’s many snitches in the San Jose family, and Intel was sometimes dodgy (4)
One day, Polimeni gets talking to a cheese salesman and indiscretion wins the day. The traveler man, Carl Rio, worked for California Cheese Company and in due course, the manager/cook, the San Jose Mafia, and destiny found themselves irresistible partners.
Marino has to organize a killer. An unregistered.38 revolver is sourced for the job. The big guys back east and in Italy would be happy. Although Prafico was never in the Mafia, they would do justice for the honored society. Whichever one it was. Except none of this happens.
The Cerrito crime family, as watertight as a colander, was leaking evidence through informants, and the FBI understood what was going on every step of the way. They established the murder was going down before the victim and even the assassin knew.
The FBI arrested Repepi/Polimeni in San Francisco in December 1962. Sentenced to three years in federal prison in January 1963, the law keeps him on hold until the government could arrange deportation back to Italy to face whatever justice awaited there, from the law or otherwise.
Angelo Marino no doubt slunk off to lick his chops, but there was a last hurrah.
The comorbidity of Cosa Nostra is mistrust, deception, envy and, above all, greed. The perfect storm was gathering, ready to burst in 1977. Apalachin, Harolds, the Polimeni fiascoes were a prelude to what’s taking place on the evening of October 11.
In the last act of what would be the final comedy of errors in a circus that had performed for thirty-five years, five men gathered together on this Tuesday evening to sort out a problem that was more fitting a Looney Tunes cartoon than a Mafia engagement.
In September, Peter Catelli applied for a job, paying $10 an hour at California Cheese. Marino rejected him as unsuitable.
Catelli’s father, Orlando, was an associate in the Cerrito mob.
Based on court records, “In the first week of October 1977, Catelli (Peter) wrote an extortion letter to Angelo demanding $100,000 on pain of death. Angelo contacted one of his soldiers, Joseph Piazza, for help to resolve the attempted extortion. Piazza then telephoned another associate, Thomas Napolitano, to arrange a sit-down with Peter Catelli and his father, Orlando Catelli, to sort this out.” (5)
Twenty-four and six feet eight inches tall, Catelli had more bulk than brains. Putting the arm on the Mafia is not smart.
“I must be crazy,” he told his father, “but it’s not everybody who takes on the Mafia.”
- READ: The Kindness of Death.
Marino, Catelli senior, and the other two wanted to scare the young Catelli out of this crazy idea and set up a meet at the California Cheese office, a mobile home or trailer, on the grounds of the factory. Napolitano, related to the Catelli’s by marriage, escorted the young man to the office.
Also in attendance, that night was Marino’s son, Salvatore (right), twenty-nine, who had a long police record and a penchant for violence. He’d not attended the conference with his father and the associates, so perhaps, was not aware of what the plan was. The first thing he did when Peter walked into the office was to slug him with a revolver. As the son lay bleeding on the floor, Orlando pleaded for the boy’s life.
In a confusing stage-act set up to scare the young man, Marino and Piazza escorted Orlando into another room and there, Piazza fired a revolver into a box of cheese stored there. Simultaneously, another shot echoed from the room they’d just left. Salvatore, hearing the noise, assumed his father had killed Orlando, so fired a round from his revolver into Peter’s head, killing him. As the distraught Orlando ran in and crouched over the body, Salvatore fired and hit him in the head.
Bundling the two bodies into the trunk of Orlando’s Cadillac, a wheelman only ever identified as “Andy” is instructed to leave the car at the long-term parking at Oakland Airport. This being the San Jose mob, Andy did everything right and got it all wrong, unbelievably missing an entire airport, he kept driving on the Nimitz Highway until arriving on The Bay Bridge and then, minutes later, into San Francisco. Panicking, Andy dumps the car on Harrison Street in the Mission District. Maybe no big deal, except Catelli senior, shot in the head, was not dead.
Somehow surviving the gunshot wound, Orlando bangs away on the inside of the car’s trunk, alerting a woman nearby.
The police arrest Angelo, his son, and the other two conspirators. After spending over $1 million on the case, Santa Clara County then transferred it to Los Angeles as the prosecution was being challenged for bias because of the local media publicity. After fourteen years and four trials, it finally reached a conclusion. Nothing appears easy with this gang.
Sal Marino went away for nine years. Angelo is found guilty of second-degree murder. On appeal, the court overturns his case. While awaiting a second trial, he dies in a hospital in Rancho Mirage in 1983, of a heart attack triggered by diabetes. The cheese business, sold off by his biological family in 1986, closed in 2002. The location is now a housing development. Orlando Catelli moved to Florida. If he’s alive, he’ll be ninety-one.
There were rumors Salvatore Marino assumed the leadership of the crime family after release from prison. He then had a busy time, suing his family who had sold off the cheesey business, and then, again arrested, this time for owning guns while on probation. Back in the slammer in 1994, he’s released from San Quentin in 1998.
If still around, he’s seventy-two. Maybe the boss of the San Jose zimmer frame gang?
Alan Bennett, the English playwright, once said, “All families have a secret: they’re not like other families.”
A fitting obituary for one of the strangest collections of hoodlums that ever developed into an America Mafia family.
(2) Agency: Record Number: FBI 124-10217-10120 Agency Information Record Series: HQ Agency File Number: 92-6054-159 dated January 23. 1963.
(3) LIFE Magazine 15 March 1968.
(4) A lot of the background for this story comes from FBI reports.
(5) United States Court of Appeals. Ninth Circuit. 812 F.2d 499. 1987.
Joseph Piazza and Angelo Marino, along with Manny Figlia, the family’s counselor, were involved in October 1976, in a killing outside their territory.
Cerrito was asked to help the San Francisco Mafia source a vehicle for a mob hit. Figlia operated a used car lot on 13th Street in San Jose, and the three men supplied a white Ford Econoline panel van which the killers used to track and murder Joe Barboza. Suspected in at least 25 mob hits in the Boston area, he had become a government informant, before re-locating to California. It’s one of only two known occasions a killer from the east coast traveled to the west coast and successfully carried out a contract. The shooter was allegedly Joe Russo, a capo in the crime family of Raymond Patriaca of Providence, Rhode Island.
The Witness Security Program was authorized by the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 and amended by the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. Barboza was its first entrant, although he had quit the program at the time of his death.
His murder remains officially unsolved. Figlia, who was married to Cerrito’s sister, Mary Francis, became the boss of the family on the death of Marino in 1983, and served in this position until he retired in 1995.
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