August 1, 2020 – Storied Detroit crime lord Francis (Big Frank Nitti) Usher died of a stroke this week at 78. Big Frank Nitti ran the city’s Black mob in the late 1970s and saw his infamy and both his reputation on the street and in the local media soar to meteoric heights. He was mentored and staked in underworld affairs by the notorious Giacalone brothers of Motown’s Italian mafia known as the Tocco-Zerilli crime family.
Usher was convicted and later acquitted of playing a role in one of the most sensational triple homicides in Detroit history, the July 1979 Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club Massacre where three victims were shot execution style and then beheaded as a result of a power struggle in Usher’s organization. In 2015, he was arrested for a hand-to-hand heroin sale but had the charges dropped before trial.
As a teenager growing up on the eastside, Usher ran errands for Detroit mafia street bosses Anthony (Tony Jack) Giacalone and Vito (Billy Jack) Giacalone, the men the FBI consider responsible for the famed disappearance and murder of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. Tony Jack reportedly nicknamed Usher “Frank Nitti,” after Prohibition era Chicago mob boss Al Capone’s underboss and a character in the popular 1960s television show The Untouchables.
Michigan State Police surveillance records note a young Usher hanging around the Giacalone crew at the LUESOD social club near where Usher lived as a boy. A newspaper photo from 1958, shows a baby-faced Usher carrying the Giacalones brief cases into a court hearing.
When Usher started his own African-American crime family in the early 1970s, the Giacalones financed and backed the venture, dubbed Murder Row and headquartered at the Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club in Detroit’s Midtown area. The Giacalones used the Murder Row crew for muscle work well into the 1980s.
Big Frank Nitti’s empire of drugs, gambling, prostitution and extortion blanketed the city. Usher’s main enforcer and street boss Adolph (Doc Holliday) Powell managed Murder Row affairs from the social club, while Usher usually spent his days on the city’s westside at his Black Orchid strip club. Most evenings, the crew would convene at Mr. Kelly’s bar and lounge or the 19th Hole tavern on the eastside.
Tensions in the group began rising after the 1978 imprisonment of Murder Row underboss Harold (The Hawk) Morton. On the late afternoon of July 18, 1979, Powell called Usher and Usher’s lieutenants, William (Little Dirty) McJoy and William (Straw Hat P) Jackson, to a meeting at the Michigan Federated Democratic Social Club, and had McJoy and Jackson executed as Usher watched. The wheels of the hit had went into motion less than a week before when Usher’s No. 2 man James (Cool Cat) Elliott was arrested and jailed on a murder charge. Elliott’s girlfriend, Joanne Clark accompanied the Usher contingent to the meeting with Powell and killed along with McJoy and Jackson.
The dismembered bodies of McJoy, Jackson and Clark were discovered that night stuffed into garbage bags in the back of an abandoned van near the 1-75 expressway. Months later, Usher, Powell and three other Murder Row members, were indicted for the triple homicide. Prosecutors alleged the fabled eastside enforcer duo of Robert (Lefty) Partee and James (Jimmy Red) Freeman were the triggermen in the hit. Partee was Usher’s first cousin and right-hand man.
Powell and Freeman were acquitted in the case. Usher and Partee were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Big Frank Nitti had the convicted tossed on appeal and won his freedom at a 1994 retrial. Powell was slain in an audacious 1983 gangland hit at La Players Lounge on Detroit’s eastside, shot in the head as he was taking a shot at the bar and tipping the bar tender with a $100 bill.
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