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The Life and Times of Frank Balistrieri: The Last, Most Powerful Godfather of Milwaukee

By Wayne Clingman and Zack Long for Gangsters Inc.

Frank Balistrieri died in Milwaukee on a chilly February day in 1993. It was a death by natural causes; two months earlier he was in St. Mary’s Hospital for colon surgery. He was 74 at the time. In many ways it is a surprise that Balistrieri lived as long as he did, perhaps if it wasn’t for his connections he would never have seen the ‘70s. Violence is a recurring theme in the story of Balistrieri’s life, in many ways violence punctures the narrative – often it is what assures silence in Balistrieri’s world.

And just what world was that?

Balistrieri was a puppet master, just outside of the frame yet controlling events that rippled out and affected not only the people of Milwaukee and the surrounding area but ultimately the American people as a whole. For many years Balistrieri was the man in control of organized crime in Milwaukee; in the August 6th, 1978 edition of the New York Times, the FBI released Frank Balistrieri’s name along with the names of 29 other individuals suspected of being “crime leaders.” That’s Mafia with a capital M: the American-Italian Mafia, La Cosa Nostra.

If you’re not from Milwaukee, you’re probably wondering why you should care about the mob boss there. In popular culture, being from Milwaukee is often treated as a joke. For those in the city, the fascination makes more sense.

Balistrieri has been a figure within Milwaukee for five decades, during which he rose to the top and earned the nickname “Mr. Big” (as well as “Mad Bomber,” but we’ll get to that in a moment). Throughout the years Balistrieri oversaw the night life in the city, controlling four of the bars and holding a monopoly in jukeboxes; maintained illegal gambling operations; and among other things was the guy robberies had to be okayed through.

But again, that’s local level, what about the rest of the world?

For them, most have already encountered Balistrieri’s presence within film and haven’t even realized it. Almost three years after Balistrieri died, Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) was released into theatres. The film follows Robert De Niro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein. Ace is brought into Vegas by the Chicago Outfit to oversee the operations of several casinos which were based on the Stardust; the Fremont; and the Hacienda. The casinos are mob owned, money disappearing out the back. When things go wrong, Ace is almost killed by car bombing. Ace was only able to survive by a miracle of chance: a manufacturing defect in his model of car. Ace is based on the life of Frank Rosenthal, who really did survive a car bombing due to a defect in the model. It is suspected that Balistrieri called for that hit. He was called the “Mad Bomber,” after all. And the money that poured out of those casinos went East, into the pockets of crime lords to fuel their excess and future schemes – or, that was the goal; the casino skim was to come crashing down on top of them.

The rise and fall of Balistrieri is a story of intriguing questions that highlights the power of violence, networking, and unrestrained greed. In structuring the book you have in your hands, I have decided to follow a mostly linear path.

We begin where Balistrieri did and look into what we know about him before he caught the FBI’s interest. This will bring us into Balistrieri’s real education, the one he got from his father-in-law John Alioto, head of the Milwaukee crime family from ‘52–’61. We’ll find that Frank was already a busy man, by the time he became the boss, when we take a look at the businesses he was running at this time. Balisteri took over the family at the end of ‘61 and we’ll examine the tensions that seems to have caused. Then everything goes black and we’ll explore why the FBI (our main source of information in this particular telling of Balistrieri’s story) let Frank slip from their radars until ‘74 and his trip to Vegas.

From there we’ll take a look at the Vegas skim, how the law in Milwaukee was closing in, and his violent outlashes before he went to jail.

As mentioned, the primary source of information in this telling are several hundred FBI documents that chart how the Bureau continually failed to build a solid case against Balistrieri until the skim finally brought it all down. All dates, names and actions described within come from these documents unless otherwise stated. Where supporting research has been used, it will be mentioned within the text. It will also be noted when information is being obtained from an informant, as that calls into question the validity of the information unless otherwise noted to have been double checked.

Chapter One: Balistrieri’s early years

Frank Peter Balistrieri was born in Milwaukee on May 27th, 1918, just before noon. He was the first born child of Joseph Balistrieri, 23, and Benedetta Picciuerro, 20. Both of his parents had been born in Italy, making the baby Frank a first generation Italian-American. On paper Joseph worked as a garbage collector, Benedetta a housewife. Together the family lived in Milwaukee at 423 Van Buren Street. Frank would be followed by a brother, Peter, and a couple of sisters.

The Balistrieri family was a large one. If not the six at home then the extended family which included important figures like his uncle “Big Jim” Balistrieri from Kansas City, a high ranking figure in the criminal milieu there. Frank Peter Balistrieri was named after his grandfather, Frank Balistrieri. The elder Frank, who had also immigrated from Italy, got into the hauling business when he came to Milwaukee and even managed to score the contract for garbage hauling in the city. Grandpa Frank was father to seven sons who each honored his name by giving it to their first born sons. So in Frank Peter Balistrieri’s family there were six other Frank Balistrieris to differentiate between. It is in this way that Frank Peter Balistrieri was not the only Frank Balistieri to rise to a place of power within the Italian-American criminal underworld, an uncle Frank Balistieri in San Diego was suspected of being one of the leaders of the syndicate within that city (along with uncle Peter).

Balistieri grew up surrounded by gangsters. While Joseph Balistieri doesn’t appear often within the FBI’s investigation in his son, there is plenty to suggest that he was complicit within the underworld business. The Mafia’s conquest and exploitation of the sanitation industry has become a well-known piece of the Cosa Nostra lore and Joseph Balistieri followed his father into the business; another important figure in Frank Balistieri’s story, John Alioto, too, was a Milwaukee Department of Streets and Sanitation employee… on paper. Later, Joseph would be alleged to be fronting his son Frank in some of his business exploits, the FBI all but directly stating his implication.

It’s clear that Frank took to lesson the importance of family, both from an Italian cultural standpoint and through the lens of organized crime. Throughout the years, family was to never be far away. Indeed, he would partner with his father in running the Badger State Boxing Club and his brother Peter would be a partner in the City Wide Amusement Company (which controlled jukeboxes) and would be the name on the legal papers to let Frank run four taverns despite a city of Milwaukee ordinance that no one can own more than two taverns within the city. Family was important, not just because it collaborated in earning money. Family was power, and again and again it will prove to be family that enabled Frank to rise to power to become the head of the Milwaukee syndicate.

But like any growing boy in America, Frank needed a formal education. Something recognized officially, in parallel with his criminal training. That education was found first in Lincoln High School, from which he entered Marquette University, College of Liberal Arts, in September of 1935. His studies ended in June 1938, with ninety-eight semester hours and 135 qualitative points. Frank followed this by attending Marquette Law School, from which it was well known he had been a student but had never practiced law. Records at Marquette revealed to the FBI in 1958 that Frank Balistrieri was admitted as a regular student to the law school on July 5th, 1938, but that he was withdrawn due to sickness on January 18th, 1939. He returned on September 23rd, 1940, but was out again on March 26th, 1941. The records further revealed that Balistrieri only received grades for the first semester’s enrollment. Thus, Balistrieri not only never practiced law but the question of whether he even studied it must be raised.

What was Balistrieri doing during that time and why was he kept on the records?

The answer to these questions remains unclear. However, Balistrieri was a busy man and the close of the 1930s would set him on the path to rise from a young criminal to the head of the local syndicate. That path was set before him, once again, through family. In particular, Frank Balistrieri’s marriage to Antonina Alioto on November 18, 1939, by the Reverend Joseph A. Omesby, joined two powerful families together: the Balistrieri’s and the Alioto’s. More importantly than that, the marriage turned Frank into John Alioto’s son-in-law.

John Alioto was soon to be the most influential figure in Frank Balistieri’s life.

FBI documents reflect little interest given to Frank Balistieri before Special Agent James E. McArdle put together a report on him, dated January 7th, 1958, in which the prime area of focus was on anti-racketeering. The report would set off an avalanche of paperwork to follow, the case moving from anti-racketeering to conspiracy to commit murder, rip off the Welfare and Pension Plans Disclosure Act (or WPPDA), and corruption of public officials. What was began by McArdle would end up spreading over thousands of documents and a span of 25 years before Balistrieri served any real time. Beyond its importance as the foundation of the Frank Balistrieri case, what is most noteworthy in the report by McArdle is the lack of information on Balistrieri’s criminal operations before the 1950s. This is first notable because, as an informant advised special agents on January 15, 1958, the Italian-American criminal organization of which Balistrieri was a part of would not accept members with a criminal record as such an individual would draw attention. With an “education” in law and no criminal record, Balistrieri clearly avoided attention for many years.

More intriguing is the second possibly it presents. As we’ll explore more in depth in the next chapter, the same informants that readily pointed to Frank Balistreri as one of the most powerful figures in the Milwaukee Mafia were just as quick to suggest that his uncle “Big Jim” Balistrieri in Kansas City was where Frank found his strength and backing. While the Kansas City Balistrieri obviously was an important figure in giving Frank clout, this overlooks the importance of his father-in-law, John Alioto.

Alioto would take over as head of the Milwaukee Mafia after the Chicago Outfit had Sam Ferrara step down. Alioto would rule from ‘52–’61. The idea that Alioto’s role was to prepare Frank for power has been suggested from many sources. That we see Frank begin business with taverns around the same time his father-in-law takes over is unsurprising, Alioto having a thumb in that pie already.

Whether he took power to groom his son-in-law, or whether his son-in-law proved to be his most capable soldier is a question we may never know. What we do know is that the 1950s saw Balistrieri’s true education.

And he was a grade A student.

This is an exclusive excerpt from the book The Life and Times of Frank Balistrieri: The Last, Most Powerful Godfather of Milwaukee by Wayne Clingman and Zack Long. Buy the entire book on the website www.milwaukeemob.com or Amazon.

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