With his trademark fedora, cashmere overcoat and roguish smile, Nicolo Rizzuto had all the makings of a mobster. Dubbed the "Canadian godfather," he rose from humble beginnings in Sicily to build one of North America’s most influential crime organizations.
Gunned down last week by a marksman hiding in the woods behind his Montreal mansion, Rizzuto's death was as cinematic as his life. It was an act performed with surgical precision, leaving one clean bullet hole in the window pane.
Was it a revenge attack? Or, perhaps a takeover attempt masterminded by the New York mafia? The city fizzed with speculation.
In the heart of Little Italy, a bunch of old boys are talking ten to the dozen in Italian, their animated voices competing with the high-pitched din of the espresso machine.
“There was a great celebration down there,” rasps a man with slicked back hair and a beige golf jacket, one finger jabbing at the floor. “He was welcomed by his friend, Lucifer. There was food and drink and lots of women.”
Discussing the don’s life, it’s difficult not to hear the plaintive strains of the Godfather Waltz in the background. Frequently described as one of the last of a dying breed of mobsters, who served his apprenticeship collecting protection money from farmers in rural Italy, Rizzuto combined old-world charm with new-world savvy.
“He was illiterate, but smart and conniving, always in the shadows, never looking for attention,” said investigative journalist Julian Sher, an authority on Montreal’s organized crime scene.
He arrived in Montreal in the 1950s, during the city’s heyday as a vice capital, answering first to the Bonannos of New York before going on to establish his family as a major force in its own right, at one point directing huge flows of Colombian cocaine to the U.S. through the port of Montreal, which has long been infested with organized crime. The family’s influence even extended back to Italy, where they made front page news in 2005 over plans to launder money through the construction of a $7 billion bridge linking Sicily to the mainland.
The godfather’s murder marks the end of the Rizzutos' 30-year reign. The demise has been slow and somewhat painful, the hit capping a series of arrests and slayings of key figures in recent years. The don’s grandson was shot dead beside his black Mercedes at the end of last year. In May, the family consigliere was presumed kidnapped after his abandoned car was found in the city streets, the key still in the ignition.
In truth, Rizzuto was a symbolic godfather. His son Vito, the real power in the family, has been languishing in a Colorado jail since 2007 on racketeering charges linked to the murder of three gangsters in 1981, a shooting that became a rich part of mob lore after being immortalized in the film "Donnie Brasco."
It was a baptism of fire for the young Vito, who allegedly jumped out of a closet in a Brooklyn hangout and opened fire. With Vito now in prison, Rizzuto senior was forced to come back to the front line, said Antonio Nicaso, author of several books on the mafia.
A visitation was held the weekend after the assassination. The funeral parlor was filled with weeping womenfolk and stern mobster types. There was even a man with a scar running from cheek to ear, talking on his mobile phone.
Laid out in his coffin, a peaceful expression on his face, trusty fedora resting on his folded arms, Rizzuto looked more like an amiable grandfather than the figurehead of a group known for killings, extortion, fraud, drug dealing and general thuggery.
Judging by the masses that turned up at his funeral a couple of days later, it’s clear that the public shows no signs of tiring of mobster lore.
“People think of Al Pacino. There’s always a bit of romanticism," said journalist Sher. "But, we’ve got to wake up and face reality. The reality is violence. The reality is cold-blooded murder. People have got to stop mythologizing them. It’s not a joke.”
Back in Cafe Italia, the assembled throng bursts into laughter at the thought of Rizzuto carousing with the devil, but there’s a serious undertone to the conversation. Most of this generation of old Italians is well-acquainted with stories of people who have suffered at the hands of the godfather.
“We hate him,” said one of the old boys, eyes narrowing. “The Rizzutos gave all of us Italians a bad name. All they cared about was money, fast cars and big houses.”