Hamilton mobsters and cops: They used to greet each other by name
Gone are the days when three powerful families dominated
There was a time when the mob was so big in Hamilton that an entire police unit was devoted to it.
Now, years go by without Hamilton police speaking publicly about traditional organized crime in our city. We hear about outlaw bikers and street gangs, but almost nothing about the Italian Mafia that once ruled over these streets.
That silence, perhaps, has lulled us into believing the Mob no longer exists here.
Of course, La Cosa Nostra is back on The Spectator’s front page this week after Ang Musitano was gunned down in the driveway of his Waterdown home.
The Musitano family is, as Ang himself wrote recently, “The Family.” And it has been for generations.
Ang (Angelo) and his older brother Pat (Pasquale) were each charged with two counts of first-degree murder after the 1997 hits on Hamilton Mafia don Johnny “Pops” Papalia and his Niagara Falls lieutenant Carmen Barillaro. After a plea deal, they were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in Barillaro’s death and served six years in prison.
In their heyday, the Musitanos, the Papalias and the Luppinos each staked out territory here and sometimes killed over it. Their activities were so rampant the HamiltonWentworth police (as they were called back then), RCMP, OPP and Halton police created the Joint Forces Unit ( JFU) in 1977, a special task force devoted entirely to investigating the Mob. The unit was based in Hamilton and would go on to significantly disrupt the local Mafia scene.
One founding member of the JFU was an ambitious young Hamilton detective who would spend seven years chasing after the Musitanos.
And then he became the chief of police.
“The Musitanos were infamous,” says Ken Robertson, who was Hamilton’s top cop from 1998 until his retirement in 2003.
Though he doesn’t live in Hamilton anymore, Robertson still reads The Spec every day and is well aware of Ang’s death.
And there’s still a piece of him that wishes he was back on the street, investigating the case.
“This is what real police work is,” he says. “When a murder like this happens, you know there is so much more happening under the surface.”
Though the Luppinos were “the biggest crime family in town” when the JFU was formed, the Musitanos were giving them a run for their money. It was a generation ago when Tony and Dominic Musitano were heading the family and bakery bombings, extortion rings and protection rackets were de rigueur.
“And the cheese industry,” says Robertson. “They took over cheese shipments from Italy and the prices doubled. It was part of their operation.”
In those days, every police officer in Hamilton knew the Musitanos by sight and the Musitanos knew all the cops who watched them.
Former Hamilton police Sgt. John Harris, who retired five years ago after 40 years on the job, says the mob was the city’s biggest crime problem in the late 70s when he was starting out.
Once back then, when he was a new constable, he had a confrontation with Frank Papalia — brother to Johnny Pops — after pulling his Cadillac over in a late-night traffic stop. The Musitanos, who have a large extended family, seemed to be everywhere then.
“You couldn’t help but bump into them on James Street North,” Harris says.
The cops and the mobsters would greet each other by name and be cordial to one another, while always remaining wary.
“They were never rude because they didn’t want any more attention than they were already getting,” he says.
The JFU was disbanded in the early 1990s, but in 2002 (Robertson was now Chief Robertson), the RCMP publicly launched the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, which had already existed in secret for some time. It drew in members from nine police services to target organized crime in the Golden Horseshoe. The unit was headquartered in Hamilton. The CFSEU still exists, is led by the RCMP, but has an oddly low profile.
After Ang and Pat were released from prison in 2006, there has been virtually no public discussion about Italian organized crime in Hamilton. Ang breached a parole condition and went back into custody briefly. That garnered a bit of press. Then in 2015, Pat’s SUV was set on fire in his driveway. That arson remains unsolved.
And now, a Musitano murdered.
Susan Clairmont’s commentary appears regularly in The Spectator. firstname.lastname@example.org 905-526-3539 | @susanclairmont
Mob boss Dominic Musitano, centre, leaves the Milton courthouse in 1991.