Pietro Giuseppe Licavoli was born in St. Louis to immigrants from the Sicilian town of Favarotta or more commonly known as Terrasini. He was the eldest of three siblings and when he was old enough for education and into his teens was a bright and promising student. His parents hoped that one day he would become a success as a legitimate citizen and branch off into possibly being a doctor or a lawyer. But alas for his mother and father, Pietro and neither his younger brothers Yonnie and Dominico showed the slightest interest in anything but the fast and dangerous life of crime and being downright rascals. All three brothers grew up in a neighbourhood in which members of the jewish faith made up a majority of the residents and provided the boys with a foretaste of diversity which would contribute to their underworld successes in later years.
The eldest two brothers Pietro and Yonnie learned to speak yiddish as children, a skill which often endeared them to their jewish partners. They worked in gambling and bootlegged liquor businesses, (in years to come they would be known as proud men of their Sicilian heritage) but later employed the experiences they learned from their childhood when they were growing up amongst the Jewish community in St. Louis. Because of this Pietro and Yonnie never conveyed the clanish behaviour that marked so many of the other racketeers of Italian descent during prohibition. Pietro had his first brush with the police when he and Yonnie were picked up in 1916 for stealing two pairs of shoes. This charge was followed by a series of other arrests for relatively minor offences none which resulted in serious trouble for him. Whilst his younger brother Yonnie had compiled a lengthy arrest record by the age of twenty, Pietro remained a relatively unknown commodity in St. Louis as far as the local law enforcement were concerned and this continued until he moved to Detroit, Michigan. Now exactly when he arrived in Detroit is uncertain but most gangster historians place it circa 1925. Not long after Peter as he would now been known started the Licavoli operation and started setting about organizing the gang's involvement into liquor smuggling. Because they were a faction of the St. Louis chapter of the Unione Sicilione, the Licavolis were welcomed into Detroit by Salvatore Catalanotte.
They were given the exclusive rights to the Downriver section which consisted of the city of Wyandotte. Stories soon spread of Peter Licavoli standing on the deck of an incoming ship or out on the dock personally supervising the landing of the gang's liquor shipments and this increased his reputation amongst other rumrunners who between them conducted their business through the Pascuzzi Combine. The Downriver Gang were soon recognized as one of the most successful and best organized rumrunning operations in the country. A key or cog in their success was fomer Detroit Racketeer known as Morris Barney; now known as Mo Dalitz.
Dalitz was a major liquor smuggler and labour racketeer before he moved out of Detroit to Cleveland, Akron Ohio and then later to Convington Kentucky and Las Vegas. The River Gang's success led Catalanotte to increase Pete's take of the spoils from the Pascuzzi Combine. When the Prohibition started to lose it's power, Peter Licavoli started guiding his gang into other fields of operations or rackets, these included the control of gambling, extortion, smuggling narcotics and weapons, oh yes and of course still more liquor in addition to shaking down both legitimate and illegal businesses in a number of cities and states nationwide. Although his duties consisted of organizing activities, Peter Licavoli was also an accomplished gunman who later would be accused of kidnapping, assault and murder in the late 1920s and 30s.
The most notorious of these charges was of the murder of crusading radio commentator Gerald Buckley who was killed in the lobby of the LaSalle Hotel by suspected Licavoli gunmen and also the murder of former St. Louis gambler, Milton Jones who was shot dead in Detroit's Stork Club in 1932. The cases were dismissed however when the witnesses fled to Canada and the result was that in the Jones case a dismissal of charges for Peter Licavoli and the former St. Louis Unione power figure Joe Massie whose presence in Detroit signalled the co-operation between the two Unione Sicilione factions. Whilst the charges were dropped against Peter for the lack of evidence in Buckley's murder he did however get nailed for bribing a federal agent in 1932 and was sentenced to a two year term in jail and ordered to pay a $1000 fine but by this time he was a multi-millionaire so could afford it.
Whilst he was incarcerated Peter's role as administrator of the River Gang fell to his righthand man Leonard Cellura. Now Cerulla had been a partner of Angelo Meli who was boss of the Eastside Mob and also Chester LaMare the boss of the Westside Mob. Whilst Meli and Cellura remained good friends and business partners, LaMare however was a marked man who was only at that time kept alive by the presence of Salvatore Catalanotte but on the condition that he followed orders. But LaMare was too ambitious and greedy and was therefore whacked not long after the passing away of Salvatore "Sam sings in the Night" Catalanotte in the February of 1930.
The Detroit Outfit
Now that both the Licavoli brothers were out of action or on the run, the River Gang now depended on Angelo Meli, William Tocco and Joseph Zerilli to look after their interests in a just and ecquitable way. This was achieved and Peter Licavoli later returned to the Detroit underworld where he resumed his place as an exhaulted member of the Detroit Outfit. He became the business agent for the Outfit and invested money in an array of businesses which helped to ease the fear of the IRS. When he returnd to the rackets, he began joining other Jewish and Italian racketeers in joint ventures, both legit and illegit. Among the first to join Peter Licavoli in investing their prohibition earnings were the head of the Cleveland Family Al Polizzi who was also the best man at Peter's wedding, and Jewish racketeer Mo Dalitz whose family owned a successful Detroit laundry business. Both Polizzi and Dalitz were powerful men who thought of money in terms of investment, so Peter Licavoli joined both these men and several others from around the country in a joint investment venture in the Molaska Corporation. Having been established just ten days before the repeal of prohibition, Molaska provided an opportunity for it's investors to take the proceedings from their illegal operations and make them appear legitimate. The corporation was fronted by the father-in-law of Meyer Lansky. Molaska was just one of the many ventures Peter Licavoli entered into with Jewish members of the national combination. Also during the 1930s Peter gained entrance into the Ford Motor Company when he supplied the goons which were used by Ford's righthand man Harry Bennett during a labor battle which was seen as a potential disaster for Ford. Pete's men settled the strike using lead pipes, beatings, bombings, shootings and just about any other means necessary to end the strike.
Pete Licavoli provided Bennett with four strongarm thugs, who were given employment in Ford's service department at a rate of $6 an hour. The arrangement however soon became a source of contention between Licavoli and Bennett when Pete demanded that Bennett increase the worker's wages to $15 an hour. Bennett refused and Pete retaliated by having a gang of his shooters run Bennett's car off the road which nearly killed him. After the incident, Bennett gave in to Licavoli's demands and paid the thugs the $9 raise they demanded. Having been denied the services of Leonard Cerulla after Cellura was convicted of murder in 1937, Peter Licavoli began concentrating on expanding the influence of the Detroit Outfit beyond the confines of Michigan and Ohio. Whilst at that time Pete was using his muscle on behalf of Henry Ford and Harry Bennett, his old friend from the Prohibition Mo Dalitz had moved west, establishing some gambling and other rackets in New Mexico and Arizona. Peter Licavoli provided Mo with men and other supplies which were needed to conquer new areas. He soon followed suit in establishing up another racket by purchasing the Grace Ranch in Tucson, Arizona in 1944. His purchase of the Grace Ranch (named after his wife the former Grace Bommarito) is often cited as the beginning of the invasion of eastern mafia figures into Arizona and other southwestern states. The Grace Ranch consisted of a a stable of quality horses which were purchased from the breeding farm owned by James Brink who was an associate of Peter Licavoli and also involved in gambling in New Port and Covington, Kentucky. Peter Licavoli supervised all of his rackets which included investments in Las Vegas Casinos and hotels. Whilst Licavoli began to enjoy the fruits of his hard work, he was then called to testify in regards to his involvement with the Detroit Partnership and by Senator Estes Kefauver who was conducting a travelling expose on crime and gambling. Peter Licavoli took the stand and defiantly refused to answer any questions which prompted Kevaufer to refer to Licavoli as cold-blooded and contemptuous.
Moving to Arizona
It is said by many historians that they felt that Licavoli's defiance made him the target of the government who started dogging his every move after the Kefauver hearings. They finally got him on charges of failing to file his income tax returns for several years during the late 40s and early 50s. Peter Licavoli served less than two years and when he was released he was forced once again to sit before a committee who were investigating the Mafia in America (The Valachi Hearings) During these hearings was charged with contempt of Congress for his staunch refusal to answer even the basic questions like his name and date of birth. This got him another six months in a Washington D.C. jail.
When Licavoli was released again he was now aging and he returned to Arizona where he oversaw the training of a new generation of Detroit mob leaders, in the art of doing business in Las Vegas and Arizona.
He lived near 'retired' mob boss Joseph Bonanno and they would also do business together. It is widely believed that Bonanno did not retire in 1965, but remained the general boss untill his death in 2002. It is also stated that Licavoli was brought to Arizona by Bonanno in order to work together.
The final entry into the criminal record of Pietro Giuseppe Licavoli was when he purchased a stolen 16th century painting and was convicted in 1976 for possession of the stolen property. Peter managed to stave off serving his sentence til the early 80s when he served a thirteen month sentence. He had suffered from a heart attack in 1984 and two weeks after this having been allowed to return home from hospital, Peter Joseph Licavoli died on Wednesday 11th 1984 in Tucson Arizona at the age of 81. Present with him at the time of his death were one of his sons and his daughter Gerri Abate and also his wife Grace.