In a world where death rarely comes peacefully, mob kingpin Vito Rizzuto defied the odds and died of natural causes, bequeathing a power vacuum and the spectre of turf violence in Montreal’s tumultuous criminal underworld.
Mr. Rizzuto, whose storied clan exerted its criminal influence across several decades and continents, died Monday morning in a Montreal hospital at age 67, reportedly of pneumonia and lung-related problems. Quebec’s coroner ruled out foul play and said it would not conduct an autopsy.
The sudden death of such a powerful and charismatic underworld boss was met with near disbelief, in no small part because Mr. Rizzuto managed to escape the bloody fate of so many associates and family members. Both Mr. Rizzuto’s son, Nick, Jr., and father, Nicolo Rizzuto, Sr., were gunned down in Montreal in the past four years, and numerous underlings through the years met equally violent ends.
In the rich lore of the Mafia, most mobsters die with their shoes still on their feet, and only the lucky get to end their days with them off. Mr. Rizzuto fell in the latter category.
“Few die without their shoes on in the Mafia,” said Antonio Nicaso, an expert on the mob who is writing a book on Mr. Rizzuto. “Many die while they are doing other things.”
Mr. Nicaso believes an autopsy should be carried out to dispel any doubts whether Mr. Rizzuto died of natural causes.
“I am a little skeptical,” Mr. Nicaso said. “This is huge news, a tsunami in the underworld.”
Mr. Rizzuto had earned the nickname Teflon Don and lived a life that seemed worthy of a Hollywood script – and part of it was. He was jailed for his part in the shooting of a trio of renegade mobsters at a Brooklyn social club in 1981 that was portrayed in the Hollywood movie Donnie Brasco. Mr. Rizzuto served five years in a U.S. penitentiary before returning to Canada last year.
Within months of his arrival on Canadian soil, several rival mobsters were murdered in Quebec and Ontario and it appeared as if the old boss was firmly holding the reins of the Montreal Mafia again.
Former RCMP organized-crime analyst Pierre de Champlain said Mr. Rizzuto was the rare crime kingpin who had enough power and authority to act as a peacemaker among various crime syndicates.
“This will trigger a lot of upheaval,” Mr. de Champlain said of Mr. Rizzuto’s death.
“The person who’ll succeed him will need to have the same skills as a uniter, a charismatic leader respected by the Mafia factions of Montreal and Toronto.”
Mr. Rizzuto’s name remained a fixture in the news because of public hearings of the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption in the construction industry in Quebec. The inquiry heard testimony that the Rizzuto clan took a cut from millions of dollars in municipal public-works contracts. Mr. Rizzuto had even been subpoenaed to appear before the inquiry.
Mr. de Champlain said the Sicilian-born Mr. Rizzuto, a third-generation mobster who has been described in court documents as the godfather of the Montreal Mafia, had been raised in the traditions of the old country’s Cosa Nostra.
“The era of the crime dynasties is over. Things are going so fast now. It’s not the same mentality. The people who want power now are not bound by traditions and protocols.”
Mr. Rizzuto was well-tailored, could speak four languages and didn’t shy away from news cameras.
The first child of Nicolo Rizzuto and Libertina Manno, he was born Feb. 21, 1946, in Cattolica Eraclea, in the Sicilian province of Agrigento. The family emigrated to Canada in 1954, where his father became a captain for the Montreal Mafia, a branch of the Bonanno clan of New York.
Starting in the 1980s, Mr. Rizzuto and his father, Nicolo, grew in power, pushing aside the Calabrian faction that ran the Montreal Mafia.
Canadian authorities repeatedly tried to convict him for drug trafficking or money laundering. Each time, underlings went to jail but the Montreal godfather walked free. It wasn’t until 2004 that he was arrested and extradited to New York on racketeering charges for taking part in the Brooklyn shooting.
“I have the feeling that the death of Vito Rizzuto is the end of a dynasty,” Mr. de Champlain said.