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Vito Rizzuto sits in the back of a police car in Montreal on Jan. 20, 2004. (Luc Laforce/The Canadian Press)
Vito Rizzuto sits in the back of a police car in Montreal on Jan. 20, 2004. (Luc Laforce/The Canadian Press)

Obituary

Vito Rizzuto, Montreal's Teflon don, rose to power with a Faustian deal Add to ...

The Mafia life gave Vito Rizzuto the sports cars, the Caribbean golf getaways, the millions of dollars salted away in Swiss bank accounts – and the fear and respect of other hardened criminals.

But it was a Faustian deal that kept him stranded in a U.S. jail cell while his elder son and then his father were murdered in Montreal.

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Nevertheless, in the end, Canada’s most famous Mafia kingpin didn’t meet a violent end but died Monday of natural causes in a hospital, after he appeared to have retaken the reins of his crime empire following his return from prison last year.

“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,” former RCMP analyst Pierre De Champlain said.

Mr. Rizzuto was Canada’s Teflon don, a well-tailored, charismatic figure who walked with a swagger, spoke four languages and didn’t shy away from news cameras.

The authorities repeatedly tried to nab him for drug trafficking or money laundering. Each time, underlings went to prison, but the godfather walked free.

“Rizzuto is like a manager who, through members of his organization, relies on people who aren’t in the family to commit crimes so that the organization can exist without getting its hands dirty,” a turncoat Napolitan mobster, Oreste Pagano, told police, according to an Italian court document.

Mr. Rizzuto secured his climb to power on a spring night of 1981 when, pistol in hand and a ski mask over his face, he and three other gunmen hid in the cloakroom closet of a Brooklyn club, waiting for the signal to begin shooting at a trio of renegade mobsters.

That triple killing cemented his standing with the Bonanno crime family and in the ensuing years his clan became as powerful as the New York Mafia’s famous Five Families.

“The Rizzuto crime family, sometimes referred to as the Sixth Crime Family, is a violent criminal enterprise …responsible for importing and distributing tons of heroin, cocaine and marijuana in Canada, laundering hundreds of millions of dollars, lending out millions more through loansharking operations and has profited handsomely from illegal gambling, fraud and contract killings,” American prosecutors allege in court documents filed this year in New York.

Victor (Vito) Rizzuto was born to the mob. His father and grandfather were Mafiosi and the families of his mother, his sister’s in-laws and his wife all had men who got in trouble with the law.

The first child of Nicolo Rizzuto and Libertina Manno, he was born on Feb. 21, 1946, in Cattolica Eraclea, in the Sicilian province of Agrigento.

In 1954, when he was 8, the family moved to Montreal, where his father became a captain for the local Mafia, a branch of the Bonanno clan of New York.

While the Bonannos had a Sicilian pedigree, the don in Montreal, Vic Cotroni, was from Calabria, the toe of the Italian peninsula.

By the 1970s, the aging Mr. Cotroni was beset by health and legal problems and another Calabrian, Paolo Violi, became acting boss, to the disappointment of the ambitious Nicolo Rizzuto.

“[He] decided to act as he pleased, which then frustrated Mr. Violi because Nicolo Rizzuto was making decisions and not informing his bosses,” an RCMP analyst, Corporal Linda Féquière, told a public inquiry this fall.

As tensions grew with his Calabrian don, Nicolo Rizzuto fled to Venezuela, using his new home country as a base to traffic cocaine.

In Montreal, Vito Rizzuto, who dropped out of high school in Grade 9, had obtained his Canadian citizenship and married. He had his first brush with the law in 1968 when he and his brother-in-law, Paolo Renda, were arrested for setting fire to a barber shop in a botched attempt at insurance fraud.

The pair were convicted of arson in 1972 and after 18 months behind bars, the 30-year-old Rizzuto joined his father in exile, leaving behind his wife and three young children.

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