10/02/2012 04:15 EDT | Updated 12/01/2012 05:12 EST

Quebec Corruption Inquiry: Vito Rizzuto, Mafia Boss, Had Far-Reaching Influence


MONTREAL - The sheer scope of the power once held by Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto has been hinted at in testimony at Quebec's corruption inquiry.

Never mind the ties to more familiar Mob rackets — which Rizzuto certainly held, with tentacles stretching into various sectors on different continents.

According to testimony Monday, he once helped decide who built the roads in Quebec.

A construction boss says that when there was a dispute over who should win a certain bid for roadwork, he was invited to a restaurant owned by his competitor. Sitting there, acting as mediator: the head of Canada's Cosa Nostra.

"I was a bit very surprised (to see Rizzuto there)," Lino Zambito, a former construction boss, recalled while testifying Monday.

Rizzuto, acting as an impartial observer, apparently suggested to Zambito that perhaps his young company didn't have the expertise required to pull off a job as big as renovating Montreal's Acadie Circle.

So that was that. Zambito never bid on the contract.

The rival businessman denies the meeting took place. But that anecdote offers a snapshot into the role Rizzuto is believed to have played before he was arrested eight years ago: that of deal-broker, peacemaker, man of influence.

How times have changed.

The 66-year-old Rizzuto is scheduled to return to Canada next week once his U.S. prison sentence runs out. But the organized-crime terrain has shifted since Rizzuto was extradited to the United States and there's little he will recognize now.

The scope of those changes extends from his own family to international drug routes.

His son and father have both been murdered, his brother-in-law is missing, his father-in-law has passed away from natural causes, and numerous friends are either in jail or dead.

As for his empire, it has been under attack since a spate of firebombings on certain businesses in recent years.

An RCMP analyst at Quebec's inquiry last week offered an observation similar to what has been speculated for a few years — that a faction of the Calabrian Mafia, the ’Ndrangheta, based in Ontario, has taken over. The Sicilian clan headed by Rizzuto is still around, but weakened.

Where Rizzuto will go after he gets back to Canada is another question.

His palatial home in a Montreal neighbourhood, dubbed by police as "Mafia Row" because several family members lived there, is on sale for $1.5 million.

It hasn't sold easily.

The price for the four-bedroom, five-bathroom home has been slashed by one-quarter — with the asking rate dropping from nearly $2 million last summer.

The home sale would coincide with reports that Rizzuto may be heading toward Toronto. A Montreal police source told The Canadian Press that authorities are aware of the Toronto rumour and it remains a viable scenario.

The source said it's too soon to rule Rizzuto out.

While his level of sway over the street is an open question, Rizzuto still makes a splash in the media.

The Toronto Star reported recently that Rizzuto may settle in that city and it identified the ’Ndrangheta as a dominant force in Canada.

The National Post reported last week that Rizzuto has yet to pay the majority of the $250,000 fine levied on him when he was sentenced and that could complicate his return.

The question of who might have supplanted him is being asked over and over at the Quebec corruption inquiry that has thrust his once-formidable criminal empire into the limelight over its dealings with prominent members of the province's construction industry.

The Montreal source says police will watch to see what Rizzuto chooses to do but, at the same time, he remains skeptical about the prospects for a major career change: "retirement isn't an option in this type of work," he said.

Three law-enforcement agents who appeared last week before Quebec's inquiry were asked by Commissioner France Charbonneau just who was now in charge of the Mafia in Montreal.

None would go on the record with a name.

But it's clear that the players have changed.

Eric Vecchio, a veteran Montreal police detective who is working as an investigator for the Charbonneau Commission, judged the situation as critical for the Rizzuto clan.

Rizzuto was arrested by authorities in Canada in 2004 and, following a lengthy legal battle, he was extradited to the United States in 2006.

He was subsequently convicted for his role in the 1981 murder of three Bonanno crime-family members in a New York City club in a settling of accounts between rival factions. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, minus time served while awaiting extradition.

According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, Rizzuto is scheduled to be released from a medium-security prison in Colorado on Oct. 6.

The Rizzuto family was crippled by his extradition and by Operation Colisee, a five-year investigation that culminated in mass arrests in 2006 in the largest sweep against the Italian Mafia in Canadian history.

Rizzuto returns now to a group of family and friends whose ranks have thinned considerably.

Rizzuto's eldest son, Nicolo Jr., was killed in broad daylight in December 2009. That brazen daytime shooting would trigger a spate of killings and disappearances targeting some of Rizzuto's closest allies and associates.

Paolo Renda, Rizzuto's brother-in-law and the consigliere of the clan, disappeared in May 2010, vanishing from near his luxury home in north-end Montreal. Family members found his car but no trace of Renda, who has not been heard from since.

A well-known Rizzuto ally, Agostino Cuntrera, 66, was gunned down in front of his food-distribution business in June 2010.

In November of 2010, Rizzuto's father, Nicolo Sr., was shot and killed as he prepared to sit down to dinner with his wife and daughter. The elder Rizzuto, 86, was gunned down with a sniper's bullet through the window in his own mansion, near Vito's home.

A year later, a man police believe was making a play for the leadership of Rizzuto's old network met his own demise. Salvatore Montagna, a Canadian who was named by U.S. authorities as a former head of New York’s notorious Bonanno family, was gunned down near the banks of a river near Montreal.

Six people were arrested in connection with Montagna's slaying including Raynald Desjardins, a former confidant of Vito Rizzuto once described as his right-hand man.

It's all par for the course, Vecchio said.

"They say in English, 'Live by the rules, die by the rules,'" Vecchio said.

"These people know what they're involved in and one day or another, the road shifts and someone else takes there place — it's natural selection," he added.

Vecchio said there's always another generation striving to take over. The ultimate goal, however, remains to make as much money as possible and Rizzuto's international network is an enviable target.

How vast is that empire?

It stretches from South America to Europe.

In 2005, Italian prosecutors filed charges against Rizzuto over allegations that the Mafia was involved in the building of a multibillion-dollar bridge linking mainland Italy to Sicily.

That bridge to Sicily was to be one of that country's largest-ever public works projects — a dream of myriad people in that region that had gone unfulfilled since the early days of the Roman Empire. Recent reports, however, say that Italy is no longer pressing for Canada to extradite Rizzuto.

Antonio Nicaso, an author and Mob expert, says predicting what he'll do next is the mother of all questions.

"What will he do? Will he seek revenge? Find a compromise? Go to another city? Stay in Montreal?" Nicaso said in an interview.

"I think we should expect more violence ... I don't think he'll have a peaceful journey when he returns to Canada."

Rizzuto was renowned for his charisma and his ability to act as an intermediary between all sides.

What remains of that clout remains to be seen.

"There are so many people on the ground (now)," Nicaso said, "and no one force is in charge."

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