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The Rise of Mafia Boss Joe “Loose” Iacobacci: The California Swing

By Robert Sberna for Gangsters Inc.

The death of Joe “Loose” Iacobacci in April has spurred recollections of his 12-year reign over the Cleveland Mafia. Iacobacci became boss of the family in 1993, a position that would seem to promise prestige and authority, as well as a steady kick of revenue from members and associates on the street.

However, the Cleveland family at that time had only a few earners, mainly old-timers running small bookmaking operations and squeezing protection money from any businesses they could shake down.

The once-powerful organization had been gutted in the late 1980s by a combination of aggressive mob-busting by the FBI and the defection of former boss Angelo “Big Ange” Lonardo (right). whose cooperation with the feds put away numerous mobsters.

Let’s face it: The Cleveland Mafia that Iacobacci inherited was about as intimidating as the board of a condo homeowners association.

Nevertheless, Iacobacci didn’t step blindly into his new position. He had survived two decades of underworld treachery through his wits and by developing strategic relationships. And now, despite the dire prospects for the Cleveland mob, Iacobacci had a plan for rebuilding the organization and restoring it as a moneymaking enterprise.

The family had only itself to blame for its near-extinction, which was triggered by a bloody power struggle in 1976-1977 after the death of boss John Scalish. Respected for his measured leadership, Scalish, however, had not groomed a successor. And, with a continual flow of revenue from mob-controlled Las Vegas casinos, Scalish didn’t have a pressing need to expand the family. As such, he had closed the books to new members for nearly a decade before his death.

The vacuum left by Scalish’s passing led to three factions battling for control of Cleveland’s rackets: John Nardi, a union boss and mob associate; Danny Greene, a brash Irish-American gangster; and James Licavoli (right), a Mafia veteran who operated from Murray Hill, an area known as Cleveland’s Little Italy and the mob’s traditional base.

Licavoli, nicknamed “Jack White” for his swarthy complexion, had started his mob career as a member of Detroit’s Purple Gang, a violent crew of bootleggers and hijackers that operated during Prohibition.

The weapon of choice among the Cleveland rivals was car bombs. In 1976, there were 37 bombs detonated in Cleveland – the most bombings in the nation -- which led to increased scrutiny by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). 

As a Licavoli backer, Iacobacci was in the thick of the battles, particularly against Greene, who seemed fearless to the point of cockiness. Iacobacci, known as a hot-headed tough kid, hooked up with Licavoli in the early 1970s. The older man had taken note of a thriving burglary ring that Iacobacci headed in Collinwood, an Italian-American enclave on Cleveland’s east side.

Nicknamed “loose” by Licavoli (as in “he has a screw loose”), the barrel-chested Iacobacci was often employed by Licavoli as a bodyguard and enforcer.

Both Nardi and Danny Greene would eventually lose their lives in car bombings, with Greene killed 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 Lonardo, the son of one-time mob boss Joseph Lonardo. Big Ange headed the family until 1984, when he was convicted of drug charges and sentenced to life in prison. Lonardo was turned by the federal authorities, making him the highest-ranking Mafia informer up to that time. 

Angelo Lonardo was replaced by John “Peanuts” Tronolone and then Anthony “Tony Lib” Liberatore in 1991. When Liberatore was sent to prison for money laundering, Iacobacci took the reins of the family, although some would say he was merely the acting boss, with Licavoli giving orders from his prison cell in Wisconsin.

Whether Joe Loose was the shot-caller or not, he understood that generating cash flow would be the key to elevating his status in the mob and restoring power to the Cleveland family.

The linchpin to Iacobacci’s business plan was Paul Weisenbach, an accomplished swindler whom he had known from his childhood in Collinwood. In the late 1980s, Weisenbach and Iacobacci happened to be serving sentences at the same time in the federal correctional facility in Milan, Michigan. Also housed in Milan was Alfred “Allie” Calabrese (right), a mob enforcer and longtime friend of Iacobacci’s. Prior to his incarceration, Calabrese was considered a big earner, primarily by running gambling and loan-sharking rackets for Tommy (the Chinaman) Sinito, a capo in the Cleveland family. Both Iacobacci and Calabrese had been fingered as made men by turncoat Angelo Lonardo, who also testified that Calabrese and Sinito were involved in several murder conspiracies, including the bombing of Danny Greene.

Calabrese and Iacobacci were incarcerated in Milan for cocaine trafficking, while Weisenbach had been sentenced for securities fraud. He had duplicated stock certificates and taken out bank loans by offering the phony stock as collateral. According to a profile of Weisenbach in Cleveland Scene magazine, he had also sold stock for a nonexistent product: a self-chilling can. He and his collaborators even orchestrated a press conference at the World Trade Center to proclaim that they had signed deals with PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch. Weisenbach duped his investors for millions, reportedly stashing it in offshore bank accounts. It took the feds two years to catch up with him. He was sentenced to eight years at Milan and served five.

While in prison, the two wiseguys and Weisenbach spent many hours discussing moneymaking schemes, with Weisenbach explaining to the men that white-collar crime offered a much better risk-reward scenario than drug trafficking.    

According to Cleveland Scene, Weisenbach said he told Iacobacci and Calabrese that white-collar crime brought only a fraction of the penalties as drug infractions. “[Drugs] are a dirty business,” he said. “And the kind of time they give out is fucking astronomical. I can do a million dollars in fraud and get three to four years. But if you do a million dollars in coke, you're never going to see daylight.”

A stockbroker in New York, Weisenbach knew how to create shell companies and move money offshore. “These guys saw my paperwork when I was at Milan,” he told Cleveland Scene. “They fucking loved me!”

The three men decided to partner in a scheme called the “California swing.” The idea was that Weisenbach would open bank accounts in New Jersey, then deposit bad checks with California routing numbers. At that time, it took 10 days for an East Coast bank to learn that the check was bogus. “In the meantime,” said Weisenbach, “I'm wiring $4 to $5 million out of the country to an offshore account.”

The loot was transferred to various banks in the Caribbean, and then to numbered accounts in Switzerland. From the Swiss banks, the laundered money would be funneled back to the U.S., typically to mobbed up banks in Chicago, with the syndicate there taking its cut.

The plan was for the proceeds to serve as seed money to rebuild the Cleveland Mafia, with Joe Loose as its head and Calabrese as his underboss. However, a last-minute snag nearly derailed the new venture. While he was still in prison, Weisenbach was recognized and confronted by a wiseguy from Newark, New Jersey. The mobster was a large-scale drug trafficker and owner of several vending machine companies. Weisenbach had conned the man and his crew out of $150,000 by selling them a vending machine company that didn’t exist.

With the duped mobster threatening to kill Weisenbach, Calabrese intervened and convinced the man to let Weisenbach live by promising him a large cut of the California Swing money. 

At that time, the head of the Newark crew was Mike “Mad Dog” Taccetta (right), a capo in the Lucchese crime family. Taccetta, who was reputedly the model for fictional mobster Tony Soprano, signed off on the deal and Weisenbach was left alone for the remainder of his stretch. He left prison in 1991 and immediately set the California Swing in motion. 

The scheme became profitable very quickly. Fearful of creating suspicion among banks in the U.S., Weisenbach traveled to the Caribbean to cash the bogus checks. “I basically became a money machine for the fucking mob,” he said at the time. Despite having to split the proceeds among the Cleveland, New Jersey and Chicago families, Weisenbach’s cut financed a showy lifestyle of sports cars, expensive clothes and high-end restaurants.

Iacobacci, as Weisenbach’s overseer and the head of the Cleveland mob, got first dibs on California Swing money. His agreement with Taccetta called for him to send a percentage on a regular basis to Newark as reparation for Weisenbach’s vending company swindle.

Calabrese, who had become close to Weisenbach, confided to him that Joe Loose was keeping Newark’s cut for himself. When the New Jersey mob pressed for their money, Iacobacci told them that Weisenbach wasn’t earning as expected. With Iacobacci versed in the mechanics of the California Swing, he evidently felt that Weisenbach had become disposable.

At the same time, the FBI had become aware of the California Swing as well as Iacobacci’s duplicity. The feds approached Weisenbach to tell him that his life was most likely in danger by the increasingly angry Newark crew. Under arrest for a parole violation, Weisenbach was offered the choice of spending the next 10 years in prison or wearing a wire against his mob associates.

When he balked at ratting out his partners, the agents played a tape of Iacobacci discussing the best method of killing him. The frightened Weisenbach agreed to the wire, ultimately taping nearly 200 meetings with Iacobacci and Calabrese and others involved in the California Swing.

Wearing a wire against Calabrese was particularly troubling for Weisenbach, who was a groomsman at Calabrese’s wedding. Weisenbach confided to the feds that he admired Calabrese’s toughness and willingness to use violence to achieve his goals. FBI agent David Drab noted that Weisenbach considered Calabrese a “gangster’s gangster.”

When Iacobacci and Calabrese (pictured together on the right) were indicted for their role in the bogus check scheme, Drab told the court that, “Mr. Calabrese was clearly commanding a position of authority over Mr. Weisenbach. In my opinion, Calabrese realized that this cooperating witness [Weisenbach] deified him in a sense, that he looked up to him and wanted to be part of the organization.”

Among Weisenbach’s recordings, he captured Calabrese proclaiming that he was the only guy left who was capable of forming a new Mafia. On the tapes, Calabrese revealed his resentment of Iacobacci, saying that he had gotten soft. According to Calabrese, Joe Loose liked the money and prestige that came with mob life, but wasn’t willing to do the knockabout physical work. “I'm the real, original tough motherfucker around here,” Calabrese boasted on one tape.

He recalled to Weisenbach a visit he had once made to the annual Feast of the Assumption in Cleveland’s Little Italy. In the story, which was recounted in Cleveland Scene, Calabrese decided he wanted to eat dinner at a neighborhood spot, Nido Italia. No tables were available in the crowded restaurant, so Calabrese sat down at a table reserved by a man who had come with his family. When the man objected, Calabrese dragged him outside. He told Weisenbach that he “beat the fucker's head in.” When the man's daughter kicked Calabrese in the groin, he slugged her too.

On the strength of Weisenbach’s tape recordings, the feds indicted Calabrese and Iacobacci in the mid-90s for their roles in the defrauding New Jersey banks out of $3 million (about $6 million in today’s dollars). Iacobacci would serve 30 months, gaining his release in April 1998. Calabrese served a longer sentence for his California Swing involvement because he had violated parole for an earlier coke conviction.

On August 10, 1999, while exercising in the weight room at a federal prison in Georgia, Calabrese was clubbed with a metal pipe. He never regained consciousness and died several days later. He was 56. Although his attacker was caught, no charges were filed. The man’s name was not released, but he was rumored to be from Cleveland.

Calabrese’s death spawned several theories. Some believe that Joe Loose arranged the hit as retribution because Calabrese had intervened when Iacobacci wanted to kill Weisenbach for snitching. Federal records indicate that Calabrese had wanted to give Weisenbach a pass for his federal cooperation.

Another theory holds that the Newark mob had Calabrese killed because they were shorted on their California Swing share, allegedly because of Weisenbach’s non-performance. Although Joe Loose was ultimately responsible, Calabrese had vouched for Weisenbach to Newark when they had wanted to kill him for his $150,000 vending company ripoff.

On the outside, Iacobacci (right) was busy rebuilding the Cleveland mob. He not only added a half-dozen members to the family, but he opened or annexed rackets in Rochester, NY; Warren/Youngstown, OH; and Pittsburgh. At the time of his retirement in 2005, he was reportedly generating up to $30 million in revenue each year.

Calabrese and Iacobacci are gone now, but somehow Weisenbach is still around. He ripped off a powerful Newark crew for $150,000; and then -- at least in their minds -- shorted them on their share of the California Swing. Then he did the unthinkable – he ratted out his two partners. During the trials of Iacobacci and Calabrese, Weisenbach spent his time in Miami. A decade ago, Weisenbach returned to his native Cleveland. At age 89, Weisenbach is the ultimate survivor.

He has said that he has no regrets about cooperating with the FBI in putting Iacobacci and Calabrese in prison. “There's a difference between being a rat and self-preservation,” he told a reporter. “My ass was against the wall. What was I going to do? Get clipped?”

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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