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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


KCUR By Daniel Margulies and Sam Zeff — this story originally appeared on January 29, 2020

—Not only did they defeat the favored Minnesota Vikings, the game marked the first big break in law enforcement’s longstanding efforts to bring down the Kansas City mob.

Everyone in town was betting on the Chiefs, and Nick Civella, the longtime boss of the Kansas City Mafia, had to scramble to find people to take the other side.

“Then as now, Kansas City was wild for the Chiefs and a lot of people wanted to bet on them in Super Bowl IV against the Minnesota Vikings. So much so that the betting was completely out of balance,” says Kansas City author Bonar Menninger. 

Bookies care about profits, so odds makers are always looking to balance the bets: 50% for one team and 50% for the other. That’s why points are given to the underdog.

“The mob does not gamble with their money. They don’t care who wins or loses. They want an equal amount of bets on one side as on the other side,” says now-retired Kansas City Police Department organized crime investigator Gary Jenkins, who helped bring down the Kansas City Mafia.

So Civella was desperate to find people to take the other side of the Chiefs bets.

“They were looking at a significant risk if the Chiefs happened to win,” says Menninger, who wrote about the episode for Kansas City Magazine in March 2000. 

Unbeknownst to Civella, the FBI had bugged the phone of his headquarters at a place called the Trap (otherwise known as the Northview Social Club) at 5th and Troost. Disguised as telephone company workers, FBI technical agents had shimmied up a telephone pole to install the wiretap, as recounted in “Mobsters in Our Midst,” a book about the Kansas City Mob by now-retired FBI agent William Ouseley, who was supervisor of the FBI’s Organized Crime Squad in Kansas City.

FBI agents installed a wiretap on the pay phone inside the Trap, a local mafia hangout. What’s left of the building still stands at 5th and Troost.

Betting imbalance

While wiretaps are routine in organized crime investigations now, in 1970 the wiretap law was fairly new. And what agents monitoring the pay telephone at the Trap learned was that Mafia soldier Frank Tousa was keeping tabs on Super Bowl bets for the mob and the lion’s share was going to the hometown team.

“They were looking to establish a layoff source,” Ouseley, now 84, recalls of the conversation he and his fellow-agents were monitoring. 

To be precise, Tousa told Civella that they’d been unable to lay off $47,360 in bets. 

“So when this transpired, Nick got on the phone and said, ‘What are you doing about all this?’” Ouseley says agents overheard Civella say. 

Mob gambling profits come from something called the vigorish or, in mob shorthand, “the vig.” It’s a 10% surcharge tacked onto the losing bets. If you make a $100 bet and lose, you owe your mob bookie $110. But in this case it was Civella who was concerned about losing his shirt.

Ouseley says he and his fellow agents couldn’t believe their good fortune. They weren’t expecting to hear the czar of Kansas City organized crime on the phone, but there he was admonishing his underling.

“We had no expectation that this was going to lead to the mob boss himself,” Ouseley recalls. “I mean, they’re so insulated. … The idea that this 10-day operation – that’s the amount of time they (the Justice Department) gave us – would lead to Nick Civella, I mean it was beyond any expectation.”

Eventually, in 1977, Civella was convicted of illegal gambling and sentenced to prison – although he secured an early medical discharge after he was diagnosed with cancer.

Eventually, in 1977, Civella was convicted of illegal gambling and sentenced to prison – although he secured an early medical discharge after he was diagnosed with cancer.

Nobody knew it then, but it was the beginning of the end for the Civella crime family. It took several more years before authorities finally brought down other major Kansas City mob figures, but Super Bowl IV was the first crack in its seemingly impenetrable façade.

It was “the first harpoon in the beast,” Menninger says of the Trap wiretap. “It took many years and thousands of man-hours and a lot of cooperation – various state and local law enforcement and of course the federal government – the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI – but ultimately they did succeed in bringing down ‘The Outfit,’ as it was known.”

River Quay violence

The end, however, didn’t come until after the Kansas City mob erupted in violence in the mid- and late 1970s. That’s when internecine warfare broke out among warring mob members, leading to a string of murders and bombings in the River Quay entertainment district (the area now known as the Kansas City River Market).

“What resulted was one of the most intense federal investigations of racketeering in this city’s history,” J.J. Maloney, a writer who followed the exploits of the Mafia for the Kansas City Star, wrote in City magazine in 1978.

That paroxysm of violence eventually led to extortion convictions for William “Willie the Rat” Cammisano and his brother Joseph Cammisano. Around the same time, Civella, who was just emerging from prison, took the reins again as head of the Kansas City syndicate.

But not for long. Building on their initial successes, the FBI began to unravel other mob racketeering schemes, including a long-running operation to skim money from Las Vegas casinos.

Through its control of the Teamster’s billion-dollar Central States Pension Fund, the Kansas City Mafia, as well as crime syndicates in Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee, had managed to invest in and infiltrate several Vegas casinos and skim off their profits.

“We put a hidden microphone inside of a pizza restaurant in Kansas City and discovered talk about skimming from Las Vegas casinos,” Jenkins, the police investigator, recalls. “And so this investigation really became the back story behind the well-known (Martin) Scorsese movie ‘Casino.’”

As a result, Civella, his brother Carl, mob member Carl DeLuna and nine other mob figures were indicted in 1981 on charges of skimming cash from the Tropicana casino. They were convicted in 1983, the same year a new indictment was handed up naming 15 organized crime defendants in a scheme to skim money from the Stardust casino.

Civella never went to trial in the skimming cases. He’d returned to prison in 1981 for trying to bribe a prison employee. He won another medical parole in 1983 but died just two weeks after his release.

Dawson and Dawson

One intriguing footnote to the 1970 Super Bowl-mob connection was that Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson’s phone number was found in the possession of a Detroit bookie named Donald “Dice” Dawson (no relation to Len), whom Time magazine described as a “versatile gambler and fashionable bookmaker.”

Just four days before the Super Bowl was set to take place in New Orleans, The New York Times, citing NBC News, reported that New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath and Dawson “will be asked to appear before a Federal federal grand jury in Detroit investigating sports gambling.”

The Chiefs quarterback acknowledged he had spoken to Donald Dawson on occasion but denied entering into any illicit gambling arrangements with him. He was cleared of wrongdoing and went on to lead the Chiefs to their historic upset.

Jenkins says he knew the Chiefs star wasn’t mobbed up.

“I felt bad for him at the time ’cause I knew in my head that there was nothing wrong with Lenny Dawson,” Jenkins says, “but it’s the appearance that is just as bad as the actual thing in many people’s minds.”

For his part, Civella always denied that organized crime existed in Kansas City. In a 1970 newspaper interview, he listed his occupation as professional gambler.

But law enforcement knew otherwise.

“Yeah, we got Nick and we put him in jail, (but) the Outfit continued,” Ouseley says. “In fact, they were skimming from Las Vegas during this whole time. Nothing stops the organization – no one person. So the downfall of the mob was the accumulation of our efforts and the local people who contributed greatly – the accumulation of a program dedicated to the destruction of the Cosa Nostra families.”

The cover of ‘Mobsters in Our Midst,’ former FBI agent Bill Ouseley’s book about the Kansas City mob.

“Certainly this was a piece,” Ouseley says, referring to Civella’s conviction stemming from the 1970 wiretap, “because not only was he indicted, but he spent the next six years tied up in court, diverted maybe from other things he had to do, having to operate under the court’s restriction.”

Menninger says the importance of the Super Bowl IV case was that it gave the lie to the notion that the Kansas City mob was invincible.   

“There was a sense in Kansas City that the mob was here and they were powerful and they weren’t going anywhere,” Menninger says. “And so the fact that they were able to eventually land some blows and ultimately bring them down – it’s a remarkable story, and so much credit and courage and conviction goes to these federal investigators and local law enforcement.”

“I think people need to understand how much work was done and what an important case this was,” Menninger adds. “Not only in terms of breaking the mob, but damaging it and ultimately crippling it nationwide.”

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