He had a reputation as a mediator who could sow détente among bikers, street gangs and other underworld rivals, but who could turn vicious at the drop of a fedora.
Then finally the law caught up with him, and he's spent the last eight years behind bars, most of it at a U.S. federal prison in Colorado, for his role in the 1981 murders of three Mafia lieutenants in New York.
This weekend, Vito Rizzuto, the onetime godfather of the Montreal Mob, will be released, and could even come home to Canada.
The landscape will be much different than when he left. His son Nick Rizzuto Jr. was gunned down on a Montreal street in 2009. His father, Nicolo Rizzuto Sr., was assassinated in his home by a sniper the next year. His former consigliere is missing and presumed dead, and many of his associates are behind bars.
It's thought that the very criminal organization Rizzuto once vanquished in his rise to power — the Canadian branch of the Calabrian Mafia, or 'Ndrangheta — has been exacting its revenge and retaking its old turf in Montreal.
If so, Rizzuto may have to lie low from the moment he arrives on Canadian soil.
Wanted in Italy
There's also the risk he could be re-arrested, if not immediately after leaving prison or upon crossing the border, then soon.
Italy issued an arrest warrant for him in 2005 on accusations he tried to use ill-gotten gains to land a role in the contract to build the Strait of Messina Bridge from Sicily to the mainland.
Another warrant stemming from raids carried out in Europe in 2007 tied Rizzuto to a vast financial empire. Police seized 22 companies and froze $690 million in assets, and sought the arrest of a number of Rizzuto associates from Montreal whose names and images have floated around Quebec's Charbonneau commission over the last few weeks.
Italy's Justice Ministry won't say whether it has requested Rizzuto's extradition from the United States or Canada to face charges. Italian officials had prepared an extradition request to the Americans a few years ago, but it was deemed inappropriate because Rizzuto was only in the U.S. due to Canada's agreement to extradite him there.
It's not even clear whether Italy's anti-Mafia officials still want the former Montreal godfather put on trial there. Sources in the country told Radio-Canada that Rizzuto, despite the police raids of five years ago, isn't seen as a major concern anymore. Since he can't travel to Italy because of the warrants for his arrest, the thinking is that he's Canada's problem now.
As of a few months ago, Italian authorities weren't even aware of Rizzuto's Oct. 6 release date, the sources said.
"I'm not sure if Italy would request or file for Mr. Rizzuto's extradition," Toronto-based Mafia expert Antonio Nicaso said.
He said Italy's best chance at extradition would be on the Messina bridge charges, since there's already been a criminal conviction in that case. But the statute of limits to prosecute may run out soon, Nicaso said.
On the criminal-financing charges, the case is weaker, he said. "I'm not confident with that case. I think they don't have enough evidence."
Won't walk free in U.S.
A few things are fairly clear: It's almost certain Rizzuto won't be allowed to stroll freely out of his cell at the Florence Federal Correctional Complex on Saturday (or Friday if, as is custom, he's freed on the closest weekday to his release date). Because he's not an American citizen, U.S. immigration officers will likely have their hands on him immediately.
Formal deportation proceedings may follow, with Rizzuto remaining in custody for several months while paperwork is sorted out.
Or he could be whisked onto an airplane and brought back to Canada right away. When former media baron Conrad Black completed his sentence at a Florida penitentiary in May, he hopped on a private jet and was at his Toronto home within hours.Either way, Rizzuto faces tough times ahead. With his father and son slain, his associates in prison and his underworld empire in shambles, it will be trying times for Montreal's erstwhile Teflon Don.