HAMILTON, Ont. — Domenico Violi asked the judge for a moment with his family before being sent to prison for serious drug trafficking; he exchanged hugs and kisses with his wife and his 20-year-old daughter and high-fives with his 17-year-old son as supporters who overflowed from the courtroom variously cried and clapped.
The end of Monday’s hearing was about Violi’s family. It started, however, with family of a different sort.
Violi, 52, was caught in an ambitious police probe that, as officials said at the time of his arrest, penetrated organized crime at its highest level and featured a co-operating turncoat mobster becoming a “made member” of a New York Mafia family.
The probe gathered a treasure trove of revelations and allegations in recorded conversations, capturing professed secrets, gossip and internal affairs.
The wiretaps, although untested in court, suggest a re-evaluation of some of what is publicly known about the current state of legendary Mafia families in the U.S., often referred to as La Cosa Nostra.
Violi, for instance, allegedly claimed on wiretap recordings that he had been made the Underboss of the Buffalo Mafia, the second-highest position in American Mafia families. If the claim is true, he would be the only person in Canada to ever be named to one of the top leadership positions in any U.S.-based Mafia clan.
It is shocking for several reasons, not the least of which is that the Buffalo Mafia, although once a powerful cross-border criminal enterprise, has been moribund for years.
The conversations suggest a resurrection as well as open lines of communications between the major American mob families remaining intact despite fierce law enforcement crackdowns that caused disarray.
And, according to the documents, the Mafia’s legendary Commission, the ruling body over all of the main American mob families, may no longer be a completely mothballed, inactive institution.
“Domenic, you know you made history,” Violi said the alleged boss of the Buffalo Mafia family told him in 2017 after Violi was promoted to the position of Underboss, according to a wiretap summary tendered in court.
Violi asked what he meant.
Nobody in Canada has ever held such a high position, Violi said he was told, according to his own recounting caught on an RCMP recording.
It was such a unique situation that the Buffalo boss had consulted “the Commission” about it, the conversation continued. The opinion, he said, was that as long as someone is a member of the Mafia he is entitled to hold leadership positions within that family.
Monday’s hearing focused on Violi accepting responsibility for trafficking about 260,000 pills that included PCP, MDMA and methamphetamine; criminal organization charges against him were dropped as part of the deal.
He was arrested a month later, after his alleged promotion.
Violi acknowledged through an agreed statement of facts that he met numerous times with the informant, who was a trusted associate and then official “made” member of the Bonanno Family. He did not, however, adopt the Crown’s allegations of far-reaching Mafia involvement.
The conversations were recorded between 2015 and 2017 and the information could not be independently corroborated. The informant was not named in court.
Outside court, Violi’s lawyer, Dean Paquette, said his client did not accept the Crown’s Mafia allegations.
“We never had an issue about pleading guilty of the drugs. There were other charges on the information that we would have fought,” Paquette said, referring to criminal organization charges.
It was in October 2017, at a meeting in Florida, that Joseph Todaro Jr., the alleged Buffalo boss, told Violi he had hand-picked him, according to wiretap transcripts and summaries entered as exhibits in pre-trial proceedings.
After Violi recounted story to his friend, the New York mobster leaned in and kissed Violi in a traditional show of respect, the Crown’s evidence claimed.
He told Violi it was “in his blood.”
Violi was indeed born in the shadow the Mafia.
He is the eldest son of Paolo Violi, who was the powerful head of the Montreal mob until his shotgun murder in 1978 by the family of rival Vito Rizzuto, who then seized the city’s underworld throne. All of Violi’s uncles on that side of his family were similarly massacred.
Violi is also the grandson of the late Giacomo Luppino, who, from his humble home in Hamilton, was a senior mob authority in Canada in the 1960s and 70s. Luppino was said to have hacked off the ear of a rival and carried the leathery flap around with him for years.
It was Luppino who helped forge an alliance between Hamilton’s mobsters and the Mafia of Buffalo, which at the time was a powerful entity.
The Buffalo mob has since fallen on hard times. Old-timers who had run the group for years were dying of old age or retiring with little sign of new blood coming in, including Joe Todaro Sr., who was known by the nickname Lead Pipe Joe and was Joseph Todaro’s father.
The police evidence gathered during the three-year probe claim the organization was being resuscitated as the last reputed boss, Leonard (The Calzone) Falzone, was ailing. He died in 2016.
The reorganization seemed to begin in 2014.
Violi himself said he was inducted into the Buffalo Family as a “made” member in January 2015, according to the documents, and around the same time, Rocco Luppino, Giacomo Luppino’s son, was allegedly named “captain” of the group’s outpost in Canada; a younger Luppino relative was asked if he wished to also be “made.”
Violi said he beat out 30 other guys to become Underboss, the documents claim. All would have to be “made members” of the Buffalo Family to be considered for the post.
The mobsters, the documents allege, were clear that Todaro held the reigns of power within the re-emergent Buffalo organization; the men said that nobody became a member without going through Todaro first. They said a mobster in the area was either under Todaro or they needed to pack their bags and leave.
In keeping with mob tradition, in an attempt to protect the boss, Violi and the informant sometimes made a hand gesture instead of speaking Todaro’s name: they would put their fingers to their mouth as if puffing a cigar or cigarette, the documents allege.
There was debate, according to the informant’s alleged conversations with Violi’s younger brother, Giuseppe (Joe or Joey) Violi, on whether he should be “made” by the Bonanno Family, to which their father belonged, or by Buffalo.
Giuseppe Violi was arrested in the same police operation. In June he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to import cocaine, trafficking cocaine, and trafficking fentanyl and was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Todaro, 71, was not charged in the case and does not appear personally in any of the recordings. He could not be reached for comment Monday.
Todaro runs a highly successful pizzeria in Buffalo and, last year, in an article on the demise of the Buffalo Mafia in the Buffalo News, Todaro is quoted saying he works seven days a week at his restaurant, just as his father did.
“I’m not going to comment” on organized crime questions, he said, according to the newspaper, “but if you want a great recipe for cheese and pepperoni, I’ll tell you.”
Maureen Dempsey, a spokeswoman with the FBI’s Buffalo office, said she could not confirm or deny any of the allegations.
The evidence from the RCMP probe suggests the lines of communication between mob families remains robust.
Soon after Violi was allegedly made Underboss, according to the documents, at least three of the families had already been told. Michael (Mikey Nose) Mancuso, the boss of the Bonanno Family knew, the documents say, and the Genovese Family and the Colombo Family also had been told.
The news apparently flowed both ways between New York and Buffalo. After the informant was “made,” a mobster named John “Porky” Zancocchio had allegedly told mobsters in Buffalo, the informant told Violi.
Paquette outlined the contributions Violi made to the community through charity and community service.
“He’s going to pay a price for what he’s done, but that’s not all of who he is and it would be a mistake to make that judgment,” he said outside court.
“There is another side of him that people genuinely find that he’s done good things,” he said noting the large crowd of supporters.
The courtroom could have been filled twice over by his supporters — young and old, men and women, entire families with babies — who waited in the hallway after being refused entry because there were no more seats.
“It says a lot about Domenic’s larger character.”