John Joseph Papalia (Italian: [papaˈliːa]; March 18, 1924 – May 31, 1997), also known as Johnny Pops Papalia or "The Enforcer", was an Italian-Canadian crime boss of the Papalia crime family based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The Papalia crime family is one of three major crime families in Hamilton, the other two being the Musitano crime family and the Luppino crime family.
John Joseph Papalia
March 18, 1924
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
|Died||May 31, 1997 (aged 73)|
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
|Cause of death||Gunshot|
|Resting place||Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Burlington, Ontario, Canada|
|Other names||"Johnny Pops", "The Enforcer"|
|Occupation||Crime boss, drug trafficker|
(m. 1981; separated 1983)
|Parent(s)||Antonio "Tony" Papalia|
Maria Rosa Italiano
|Allegiance||Papalia crime family|
|Conviction(s)||Possession of narcotics (1949)|
Drug trafficking (1963)
|Criminal penalty||Two years' imprisonment|
18 months' imprisonment (commuted)
10 years' imprisonment; served five years
Six years' imprisonment; served four years
Papalia was born in Hamilton, to Italian immigrants who also had a history in organized crime. At a young age, he was involved in petty crimes, but by the 1950s, moved his way up to drug trafficking and formed a powerful alliance with the Buffalo crime family. Papalia also operated various gambling bars and vending machine businesses. In the 1960s, he played a role in the French Connection drug smuggling operation, for which he was extradited to the United States and served five years of a 10-year prison sentence. On May 31, 1997, Papalia was shot to death outside his vending machine business by Kenneth Murdock, a hitman hired by Angelo and Pat Musitano of the Musitano crime family.
Early life and criminal activitiesEdit
Papalia was born on March 18, 1924, in Hamilton. His father, Antonio "Tony" Papalia, who had early Picciotteria values, was a bootlegger who immigrated to Canada from Delianuova, Calabria, Italy, in 1912. He first came through New York City before moving on to Montreal, Quebec, then to New Brunswick to work in the coal mines, before finally settling on Railway Street in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1917.[a] His father became associated with Calabrian compatriot and notorious bootlegger Rocco Perri, and later Guelph mobster Tony Sylvestro, working as a bootlegger who operated speakeasies. He was suspected in playing a role in the murder of Perri's wife Bessie Starkman in 1930. Papalia said of his father, in a 1986 interview with The Globe and Mail's Peter Moon, "I grew up in the '30s and you'd see a guy who couldn't read or write but who had a car and was putting food on the table. He was a bootlegger and you looked up to him".
Papalia's mother, Maria Rosa Italiano, also came from a Mafia family, the Italiano clan, who also participated in Perri's gang. Maria Rosa initially married Antonio's younger brother Giuseppe Papalia Jr., giving birth to two sons in Italy, however when Giuseppe died, she immigrated to Canada with her two sons in 1923 to marry Antonio. Johnny, the oldest brother to Frank, Rocco and Dominic Papalia, half-brothers Joseph and Angelo Papalia, brother-in-law Tony Pugliese, and associates, all worked in running his clubs and gambling operations. Papalia had "a reputation for extreme violence" from the start of his criminal record, and despite being only 5 feet 8 inches (1.73 m) with a slender build, was widely feared.
Papalia attended St. Augustine Catholic School on Mulberry Street, dropping out in grade 8 after he suffered from a case of tuberculosis that put him in a sanitorium for several months. In 1986, Papalia stated that his biggest regret in life was never attending high school, saying of his life, "It's been an interesting one. But maybe I'd liked it to be different". As a teenager, Papalia was a member of a gang that staged burglaries in Hamilton, with the icehouse at the corner of Railway and Mulberry streets serving as their base.
In 1940, Papalia's father was arrested and sent to internment at Camp Petawawa as part of the Italian Canadian internment, as potentially dangerous enemy aliens with alleged connections to Benito Mussolini's fascist regime, causing his son to have a grudge against the Canadian government. When Antonio Papalia was interned, his profession was listed as "bootlegger". Antonio Papalia was released in 1941 after he convinced the authorities that he was not a Fascist. The authorities imposed conditions upon his release such as he stay out of Hamilton and regularly check in with the police. After his release, the Papalia family aligned with the Buffalo crime family, causing tensions with the still interned Perri who saw this as a betrayal. Johnny Papalia did not volunteer for overseas service, and as the son of an internee, was exempt from conscription for the defense of Canada (until November 1944, Canada only sent volunteers overseas to fight in World War II). He later claimed that his reputation for violence dated back to the war years when he was the subject of anti-Italian bullying and insults, leading Papalia to engage in violence for self-defense. In 1943, Papalia moved to Toronto, where he joined a gang that specialized in burglaries. During this period, Papalia started to work for Harvey Chernick, one of Toronto's biggest heroin dealers. On October 17, 1943, Perri was released from internment as Italy had signed an armistice with the Allies on September 3, 1943. It is believed Antonio and Johnny Papalia, along with Stefano Magaddino of the Buffalo crime family, played a role in Perri's disappearance in 1944 after Perri left members of his Mafia crew "slighted", though the case remains unsolved.
Papalia was involved in petty crimes from a young age. Papalia was first arrested for burglary in 1945, but was given a short sentence. He was arrested again in 1949 and sentenced to two years in prison at the Guelph Reformatory for possession of narcotics, down from conspiracy to distribute narcotics. At his trial, Papalia claimed that he was not selling heroin as the prosecution claimed, but rather buying it as he maintained he needed heroin to treat the pain caused by the syphilis he contacted from a prostitute. The judge at the trial accepted this defense, and sympathetically advised Papalia to see a doctor after his release from prison, saying there were better ways of treating syphilis-induced pain. The fact that Papalia refused an offer of a plea bargain from the Crown under which he would serve a lesser sentence in exchange for testifying against his employers gave him a reputation in the underworld as someone who could be trusted to observe omertà (the code of silence).
When Papalia was released in 1951, he moved to Montreal for a stint, where he worked with Luigi Greco and New York City Bonanno crime family representative Carmine Galante in heroin trafficking. In 1954, Papalia was running a taxi company in Hamilton, which attracted police attention when one of the cab drivers, Tony Coposodi, was killed execution-style. In June 1955, while collecting money from various Montreal businesses together with the boxer Norm Yakubowitz, Papalia was the subject of an assassination attempt when someone opened fire on the duo. Yakubowitz was shot in the leg while Papalia was unharmed. He later shifted to Toronto extorting brokers and running gambling clubs.
By the mid-1950s, Papalia was called back to Ontario by Magaddino and inducted into the Canadian arm of the Buffalo crime family and to be boss of the Papalia family in Ontario. Galante had forged an alliance with the Cotroni family of Montreal, placing Quebec in the sphere of influence of the Bonanno family, and Magaddino, who wanted to keep southern Ontario in his sphere of influence, chose Papalia as one of his instruments for doing so. Magaddino informed Papalia that he was not to replace the older leaders in Ontario, but rather to work with them. Papalia was to serve as the enforcer boss who was to accept the advice of the older dons who were to play a role almost analogous to a consigliere. By 1955, Papalia was known for wearing expensive suits and driving equally expensive automobiles, together with his womanizing habits. He liked to flash what he called "reds and browns" ($50 and $100 bills) as a sign of his wealth.
In 1955, with assistance from Sylvestro, Papalia started opening charter gambling clubs in Hamilton and Toronto. Sylvestro's son-in-law Danny Gasbarrini, Papalia's brothers Frank, Rocco and Dominic, half-brothers Joseph and Angelo, brother-in-law Tony Pugliese, and associates Red LeBarre, Freddie Gabourie, Frank Marchildon and Jackie Weaver, all worked in running Papalia's clubs. After police raids, Papalia started working with James McDermott and Vincent Feeley, two major figures in gambling, in several clubs throughout southern Ontario. In 1959, Papalia was the only Canadian who attended the meeting in New York that set up the "French Connection" smuggling network. Under the "French Connection", the Mafia brought heroin via France into North America. The "French Connection" heroin was grown in the poppy fields of Turkey and further afield in the "Golden Crescent" nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran or the "Golden Triangle" nations of Burma, Thailand and Laos. Joseph Valachi, who also attended the same meeting in New York, and later turned informer, testified that he knew Papalia as a capo (boss) who dominated southern Ontario under the authority of the Magaddino family of Buffalo.
In 1959, Papalia first came to widespread media attention when a profile of him was published in Toronto Star Weekly Magazine by Peter Sypnowich under the title "He Wanted To Be Canada's Al Capone". However, Synowich focused on Papalia's sex addiction, calling him "a compulsive womanizer". Synowich wrote, "His relationships with women provide the best clue to his character. Papalia has an inbred need to steal other men's women. They serve as his trophies". Papalia's fondness for the wives and girlfriends of other men led him to engage in a succession of fights with the cuckolded men.
Extradition and sentencingEdit
The illegal gambling business in Toronto was very lucrative, dominated by Maxie Bluestein who kept the Mafia out of his pocket. Bluestein's Lakeview Club earned more than $13 million a year, but on March 21, 1961, at the Town Tavern in Toronto, Papalia met with Bluestein. Bluestein refused to "merge" his operations with Papalia's and was beaten with brass knuckles, iron bars and fists as a result. The beating of Bluestein attracted much media attention, and the Toronto Star newspaper columnist Pierre Berton called the attack a "semi-execution" brazenly committed in public view. Berton turned the Bluestein beating into a cause célèbre, constantly demanding in his column that Papalia be brought to justice.
The 100 some witnesses to the beating were reluctant to come forward, but in May of that year Papalia turned himself in to police to take some heat off of the crime family, and he was sentenced in June to 18 months in prison for the assault. While Bluestein kept control of the Toronto gambling market, he had paranoia and was later committed to a mental institution in 1973 after he had killed a friend, before later dying of a heart attack in 1984. Later in 1961, Papalia demolished the family home and built a warehouse for his vending machine business, an all-cash business, to serve as the front for his criminal operations. Papalia began to hijack trucks to supply cigarettes for his vending machines. As a loan shark, Papalia forced those who took loans from him to pay back $6 for every $5 they had borrowed with the interest compounding on a weekly basis, amounting to an annual 1.04 percent interest on the loans. Businessmen who were unable to repay their loans were forced to take on vending machines from Papalia on his terms while those who could still not repay their loans were further threatened.
By the early 1960s, he earned his reputation from the "French Connection", which had then been responsible for supplying over 80 percent of America's heroin market between the 1960s and 1970s. He worked in this operation with the Sicilian Agueci brothers, Alberto and Vito, along with the vending machine businesses with Alberto, until he was brutally murdered by the Buffalo crime family in late 1961, and Vito jailed. On May 22, 1961, several people were indicted related to the "French Connection" from informants Salvatore Rinaldo and Matteo Palmeri. In July 1961, Papalia was ordered to be extradited to the United States for his role in the smuggling ring, and after his sentence for the Bluestein assault was commuted on March 15, 1962, he was finally extradited. As Papalia was marched by officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to the plane that was to take him to the United States, he shouted at the assembled reporters, "I'm being kidnapped! Help me! They're taking me somewhere I don't want to go!" The "French Connection" case was described by Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney-general of the United States, as "the deepest penetration ever made in the illegal international trafficking of drugs".
On March 11, 1963, Papalia was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison. During the trial, he coughed up blood due to the tuberculosis he contracted as a child. Due to the indictment, Magaddino promoted Santo Scibetta to leader of the Buffalo family's Ontario branch, replacing Papalia.
On January 25, 1968, after serving less than half the sentence, he was released from a United States penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and sent back to Canada. His father died on May 14, 1964, while Papalia was in jail, while his mother died on July 27, 1970. Giacomo Luppino and Santo Scibetta also answered to Magaddino while Papalia was imprisoned. Papalia's homecoming to Hamilton was a lavish affair as Railway Street was filled up with a vast assortment of parked Lincolns and Cadillacs from much of the underworld figures of southern Ontario. Much to Papalia's annoyance, some of his interests in Toronto were handed over by the Magaddinos to Paul Volpe. Papalia met with Luppino to ask that his interests in Toronto be returned, a request that was refused, but Luppino did say that there was still work for Papalia to do in Toronto.
On June 6, 1969, Papalia visited Toronto to meet with Luppino. T following day, the bullet-ridden body of Filippo Vendemini was found in the parking lot behind his shoe store on Bloor Street. Vendemini's widow told the police that her husband was frequently on the phone with a man she only knew as Vincenzo. Using the phone records, the police discovered that Vincenzo was Vincenzo Sicari, the owner of a pizzeria in Montreal who often visited Toronto. Sicari stated to the police that on the day of the murder, he had driven Vendemini to Hamilton to see an unnamed mutual friend and then drove Vendemini to the Toronto airport; he denied knowing anything about the murder. On July 28, 1969, Papalia again returned to Toronto to meet with Luppino, and on the same day, the bullet-ridden body of Sicari was found in Toronto. It was then that Papalia started to be known in the underworld as "the Enforcer". In August 1971, at a meeting in Toronto, Luppino shifted control of the construction unions in Toronto from Papalia to Volpe.
In 1974, Montreal mobsters Vincenzo Cotroni and Paolo Violi were overheard on a police wiretap threatening to kill Papalia and demanding $150,000 after he used their names in the $300,000 extortion of Toronto business man Stanley Bader without notifying or cutting them in on the score. Bader testified against them, and the three were convicted of extortion in 1975 and sentenced to six years in prison. Violi and Cotroni got their sentences appealed to just six months, but Papalia's was rejected; he served four of the years. In 1982, after Bader had moved south to Miami, he was sprayed with bullets when answering his front door. Papalia has been linked with his death, as well as the 1983 murder of Volpe, but no charges were laid.
As a boss, Papalia was feared rather than loved; one of his associates stated, "We had to respect him because of his role. But he got on everybody's nerves." Papalia had a propriety attitude towards the wives and mistresses of his men, taking the viewpoint that it was his right as a boss to sleep with the girlfriends and wives of his men, which made him unpopular. He was a tyrannical boss who had no tolerance for failure, and made a point of taunting and punishing his men for any mistake, no matter how minor. As Papalia grew more wealthy and powerful, he came to display a sultanistic attitude. In 1975, Papalia founded the Gold Key Club nightclub in Hamilton. Only members and their guests who knew the password were allowed entry. Detective Sergeant John Harris of the Hamilton police said, "There wasn't actually any gold key. They used a password that changed from time to time, just like in gangster movies". The Gold Key Club became Papalia's principle base for entertaining visitors as the large, illuminated neon yellow key on the front of the club became a symbol of his power in Hamilton. By the 1980s, Papalia's firms were the largest suppliers of beer dispensers for bars in Ontario while leasing out at least 2,000 vending and pinball machines.
In January 1981, Papalia married Janetta Hayes in a private ceremony; they separated in 1983. In July 1983, Réal Simard moved to Ontario from Montreal where he met with Papalia in Hamilton on behalf of Frank Cotroni. Simard seized the Ontario market, bringing Quebec strippers to Toronto clubs, where he allowed Papalia to put his pinball machines in his clubs. The murder of Volpe in November 1983, together with the fact that Luppino had suffered mental decline in his old age, forced the Magaddinos to put Papalia in charge of southern Ontario again. The police considered Papalia to be one of the prime suspects behind Volpe's murder. In 1984, Papalia tried to redevelop an entire city block he owned in Hamilton to put up a luxury hotel, which was frustrated by the city of Hamilton, which refused the necessary permits to redevelop the block. In the 1980s, Papalia tried to seize control of the illegal gambling houses in Toronto's Greektown on the Danforth, sending his right-hand man Carmen Barillaro to lead a crew to beat up patrons and rob the gambling houses that refused to pay the extortion. In December 1985, several of Papalia's associates were charged with extortion in Greektown.
Regarding the Greektown case, Papalia said in 1986, "Yeah, I know the people they charged — they're friends of mine. But that doesn't mean I was involved; I wasn't, because I wouldn't have anything to do with Greeks — I don't like them, I don't like their restaurants, I don't like their food". In an interview, Papalia said about his occupation, "I go into a bar and I tell them my name and I intimidate people into taking our equipment. That's what the police tell you, isn't it? Listen, I'm lucky to have a couple of good brothers who look after me". About his reputation for violence, Papalia said he had "a short fuse" and added, "Hey, we all lose our temper sometime, don't we?" About why he was seen with gangsters so often, Papalia replied, "You go to Italian weddings, you meet people. I go to lots of Italian weddings". Papalia admitted, however, "I did shylocking and bookmaking, but was back in the fifties. For a guy who been doing so much in this country, the police haven't been able to come up with anything on me. They got nothing better to do than run around following me all the time at taxpayers's expense".
Papalia was known for his hatred of outlaw bikers, whom he found to be intolerably stupid and crude, and, in the 1980s and '90s, made it very clear that he did not want a Hells Angels chapter in Hamilton. Papalia was prepared to grudgingly tolerate other outlaw biker clubs such as the Outlaws and Satan's Choice, but drew a line at the Hells Angels. The Quebec biker war confirmed his prejudices as he found the Angels to be too violent and too vulgar for his liking. Walter Stadnick, a Hamilton native and Hells Angels in charge of expanding them into Ontario, was forced to keep a low profile in his hometown as long as Papalia lived. The crime expert Jerry Langton wrote: "Well into the '90s, Papalia was the undisputed Godfather in Hamilton, especially after Luppino died in 1987. He owned an entire city block among his vast real estate holdings. His companies were the biggest vending-machine and liquor-dispensing equipment firms in Canada. He made millions and laughed about it in the media". In 1994, Papalia began suffering from health problems, and spent most of his time either at his penthouse apartment on Market Street or his office at his Monarch Vending company across the street.
In the 1990s, Papalia lieutenant Enio "Pegleg" Mora borrowed $7.2 million from Montreal mob boss Vito Rizzuto and gave the bulk of the money to Papalia to open an upscale restaurant and nightclub in Toronto. After the Rizzuto crime family were not repaid, in September 1996, Mora was shot in the head four times at a Vaughan farm; Giacinto Arcuri was arrested and charged with Mora's murder, but was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Papalia was fatally shot in the head on May 31, 1997, at the age of 73 in the parking lot of 20 Railway Street outside his vending machine business, Galaxy Vending, in Hamilton. The hitman Kenneth Murdock claimed that he had been ordered to kill Papalia by Angelo and Pat Musitano of the Musitano crime family who owed $250,000 to cover bookmaking debts to Papalia.
Amid controversy, Papalia was not given a full funeral mass by the Catholic Church due to his criminal history. He was buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, in a family plot, in Burlington, Ontario.
Aftermath and legacyEdit
Murdock also killed Papalia's right-hand man Carmen Barillaro two months after he killed Papalia. In November 1998, Murdock pleaded guilty to three counts of second degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment, and he named Pat and Angelo as the men who had ordered the murders; he was released on parole after serving 13 years. In February 2000, the brothers were sentenced to 10 years for conspiracy in the murder of Barillaro in a plea bargain arrangement. No conviction was obtained in relation to the murder of Papalia. In October 2006, the Musitano brothers were both released from prison.
Papalia's brother Frank, the former underboss of the family, who would have been the heir to the operation, decided not to retaliate; instead, he retired and lived inconspicuously. He died of natural causes in April 2014, at the age of 83.
Crime expert Jerry Langton called Papalia the most important Mafiosi in Ontario of his generation. Langton noted Papalia had a marked distaste for outlaw bikers and, in a sign of his power, Walter Stadnick, the former president of Hells Angels Canada, had trouble establishing the Angels in Ontario while Papalia was alive. Langton stated, "It’s hard for people to understand now just how powerful Johnny Pops was. He was basically the only Canadian Mafia figure who could sit at the table with the top guys in New York. He was part of the French connection; he ruled a big swath of Canada, particularly Southern Ontario, for a very long time. After the Mafia imploded in less than a year, there was no one to oppose the bikers and they came rushing in." One police officer, Shawn Clarkson, of the Niagara Falls Police Department, stated: "There was nobody to stand up to the Hells Angels the way Barillaro or Papalia would have. Papalia, even though he was 73 when he died, he wouldn't have put up with that".
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- Nicaso, Antonio (2004). Rocco Perri The Story of Canada's Most Notorious Bootlegger. Toronto: John Wiley and sons. ISBN 9780470835265.
- Schneider, Stephen (2009). Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada. John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. ISBN 9780470835005. Retrieved January 6, 2021.