12/30/2013 05:00 EST | Updated 02/28/2014 05:59 EST

Vito Rizzuto funeral expected to draw Mafia associates

Hundreds of people from Montreal’s Italian community are expected to congregate at Notre-Dâme-de-la-Défense Church this afternoon to mourn the passing of Vito Rizzuto.

Rizzuto died Dec. 23 at Sacré-Coeur Hospital from natural causes at the age of 67. He had been hospitalized the day before for pulmonary problems.

Nicknamed Montreal’s Teflon Don — a nod to the original Teflon Don, New York's John Gotti — Rizzuto walked free despite a number of accusations brought against him over the years.

However, a 2007 guilty plea to racketeering charges related to the 1981 murders of three alleged New York gang leaders landed him in lockup for eight years.

"My job was to say, 'It's a holdup!' so everybody would stand still," Rizzuto said at the time of his plea.

Arrested in 2003 and extradited to the U.S. in 2006, he served the last six years of his sentence in a Colorado prison.

He returned to the Montreal area in late 2012, settling in the Laval suburb of Ste-Dorothée.

Deep roots in organized crime

Born in the Cattolica Eraclea area of Sicily, Italy in 1946, Rizzuto moved to Canada with his family when he was eight years old.

The Rizzutos are said to have gained power following the 1978 death of Paolo Violi, the head of the Calabrian Mafia in Canada, who was shot in the head while eating at a Montreal restaurant.

Nicolo Rizzuto, Sr. — the patriarch of the Rizzuto crime family — was assassinated at his Montreal home in November 2010 at the age of 86. His death came after a string of legal battles.

The elder Rizzuto and several associates pleaded guilty to gangsterism-related charges in 2008 after being arrested in Operation Colisée, a massive four-year police investigation targeting the Mafia that logged more than a million hours of taped conversations from wiretaps.

Rizzuto, Sr. received a suspended sentence. Two years later, he pleaded guilty to new charges, this time for tax evasion.

Vito Rizzuto had three children. His son Nick, Jr. was assassinated in broad daylight in 2009. He is survived by his son Leonardo and daughter Bettina, both of whom are lawyers in Quebec.

Power vacuum left by Rizzuto’s death

Experts in organized crime say Rizzuto’s death will likely lead to a power vacuum — a struggle over leadership of the Montreal Mafia caused by the lack of an heir to the so-called throne.

Journalist and Mafia expert Antonio Nicaso told CBC News on Sunday that it was unclear whether Rizzuto had the time before dying to name his successor.

His death could lead to a major upheaval in the underworld, says Adrian Humphreys, the author of The Sixth Family: The Collapse Of the New York Mafia and the Rise of Vito Rizzuto​.

A surge of violence is possible as members of organized crime outfits in Montreal, Toronto and New York vie for Rizzuto’s territory, Humphreys said.

"To have him now permanently removed from the underworld, the crime landscape, it’ll just open up the floodgates to everyone jockeying for positions,” he said.

Rizzuto funeral an opportunity to ID associates

A visitation held Sunday at the Loreto funeral complex in St-Leonard, a predominantly Italian neighbourhood in Montreal’s east end, drew hundreds of people to pay their respects. Loreto is owned by the Rizzuto family.

Michel Martin, a former inspector with Quebec’s provincial police, said wakes and funerals of people known to be members of the Mafia are often good opportunities to identify possible associates.

“Here we’ll find them all in the same place in a relatively short period of time,” Martin said. 

A police presence is required at such events in case there are any conflicts, he added.

Montreal police said on Sunday that officers would be at the Loreto funeral complex to observe the site of the visitation. Police will likely also be near the location where the funeral is scheduled to be held.

The funeral of Vito Rizzuto will be held Monday starting at 12:30 p.m. ET at the  Notre-Dâme-de-la-Défense Church in Montreal’s Little Italy neighbourhood.