It should have been a triumphant homecoming.
Vito Rizzuto, the alleged godfather of the Canadian mafia, had done his time in a U.S. penitentiary and, unlike so many organized-crime figures of late, kept his mouth shut.
By the strange code of the mob, Omertà, he was due some honour.
But when Mr. Rizzuto left the United States for Canada on Friday after serving just over five years for his involvement in a 1981 triple murder, he did not come back as the conquering hero, but as a grieving man, a marked man and, according to those who observe his every move, a man bent on revenge.
“This is the mother of all questions, what will he do now?” said long-time mafia expert Antonio Nicaso. “Seek revenge? Find compromise? Go to another city? Or stay in Montreal? In general terms, I think the only thing we can really expect is more violence.”
Whatever Mr. Rizzuto’s intentions, law-enforcement agencies in Quebec and Ontario are bracing for his return.
“It’s safe to say that the return of Vito Rizzuto to Canada has many law enforcement agencies interested,” said Superintendent Paul Pederson, head of investigative services at York Region Police, which is responsible for several suburbs north of Toronto where Mr. Rizzuto has ties. “We’re all well positioned for that in terms of relationships with other agencies. ... But we’re not in a position to disclose the activities or locations of him, or any citizens for that matter, who might be the subject of ongoing investigations.”
The Rizzuto saga has all the makings of an Odyssean epic. Mr. Rizzuto has arrived home to an empire, and a family, in ruins. The decline coincided with his 2004 detainment for extradition to the United States. An RCMP-led unit embarked on an operation called Project Colisee, yielding a rich vein of audio and video recordings and ending in jail time for several major mafia figures, including Mr. Rizzuto’s father, Nicolo Rizzuto.
The arrests left a power vacuum. New rivals and old enemies saw their moment.
The last major power struggle between Sicilian and Calabrian factions was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Weakened by police investigations, the leaders of Montreal’s Calabrian organization began turning up dead. After assassins killed all three brothers from the presiding Violi family, the Sicilian Rizzutos embarked on a three-decade reign over Montreal.
As Mr. Rizzuto sat in a Colorado prison, the Grade 9 dropout surely recognized the historical pattern in the stories he heard from home.
First, in 2009, his son, Nick Jr., was gunned down in Notre Dame de Grace. Then his brother-in-law and family consigliere, Paolo Renda, went missing in May, 2010, and is presumed dead.
Now it was the Rizzutos who appeared weak, according to André Cédilot, co-author of Mafia Inc., a portrait of Canada’s Sicilian mafia. A number of local players stepped into into the breach. Sal “the Ironworker” Montagna made the biggest move. A Canadian citizen brought up in New York, he had risen to command the once-powerful Bonnano family in the United States until he was deported to Canada. Throughout 2010, he was spotted meeting with mafia figures in Montreal and Toronto, making alliances.
“He then went to Nicolo’s house,” said Mr. Cédilot, “and basically says, ‘Your clan is finished, your reign is over, we’re taking over.’ Nicolo wouldn’t accept this. He knew that if he accepted what Montagna said, he would live, but his family business would not.”
Not long after, in November, 2010, Old Nick was murdered, felled at home by a sniper’s bullet as he ate dinner with his family.
Sal the Ironworker’s path to ascendance was clear. But shaky alliances with former Rizzuto loyalists eventually broke down and, in November 2011, police pulled Mr. Montagna’s body from the shallows of L’Assomption River. Several Rizzuto allies have been charged in the murder.
“They say in English, ‘Live by the rules, die by the rules,’” Montreal police detective Eric Vecchio said last week at the Charboneau inquiry, the explosive Quebec corruption probe that has further lifted the veil on the mob’s powers within the province. The inquiry has already hit the mafia’s financial and moral standing. Montreal has suspended awarding public works contracts after testimony alleged that the mafia, bureaucrats and the mayor’s party were all taking cuts.
“There is now a courage to denounce the mafia,” Mr. Nicaso said. “Before his deportation, Montreal was a different city, no one spoke, no one heard. Now, it’s a wide-open Pandora’s box.”
The inquiry has also painted a grim picture for Mr. Rizzuto’s prospects.
“I'm not saying that the Sicilian faction is completely gone, but there is a return of organized crime of Calabrian origin following the arrest and extradition of Mr. Vito Rizzuto,” RCMP Corporal Linda Fequiere said to the commission.
Whether such pronouncements are a deterrent or a provocation is anybody’s guess. When Odysseus returned home to Ithaca, he arrived disguised as a itinerant beggar and clandestinely surveyed the new landscape of allies and enemies. Mr. Rizzuto will maintain a similarly low profile at first, retired RCMP chief superintendent Ben Soave said.
“I think you’ll see him be very quiet at first. As far as I’m concerned, his first priority is not getting killed. The second is figuring out who his friends are.”
Far from calling it quits, Mr. Rizzuto might feel emboldened by the chaos in Montreal’s underworld, according to Mr. Nicaso. He was always considered a master mediator, capable of striking alliances and wielding power over headstrong men.
“There are many people here in the Montreal underworld who feel the only guy who can get everything back under control is Vito,” Mr. Cédilot said.
“Vito doesn’t care about the construction industry right now. His main goal is to reorganize the mafia, maybe make some pacts, and, of course, avenge his son’s murder.”
While one source said he might relocate to Toronto, others shoot down that possibility. A retired RCMP sergeant once responsible for tracking mafia movements in Ontario said it would be “pure cowardice” for Mr. Rizzuto to set up shop in Toronto.
“Those murders of his family were too personal, he has to go back,” said the RCMP source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Personally, I think there will blood running in the streets over there in Montreal. It may not happen next week, but it will happen. He has to make his presence known.”