Domenico Violi was born in Hamilton, attended Catholic high school and studied business in college. He got married, had two children and moved to a nice house in the suburbs. On paper he’s a successful if unassuming coffee, pasta and hardwood floor salesman. He has a large extended family and a wide circle of friends in the city’s Italian-Canadian community. He raises money for charity and donates turkeys to a local shelter at Christmas.
The 52-year-old husband, father and community leader is also a high-ranking Mafioso – the self-described underboss of a Buffalo crime family.
In a packed Hamilton courtroom Monday, he pleaded guilty to multiple counts of drug trafficking and was sentenced to eight years in prison. The judge allowed him a moment to hug his wife and kids goodbye, and as Mr. Violi was led away, his supporters gave him a round of applause.
His sentencing marks the most significant conviction yet in Project OTremens, a multiyear cross-border investigation by the RCMP that provided a rare glimpse into the structures and ambitions of organized crime groups just as the Toronto-Hamilton area appears to be in the throes of a full-fledged mob war.
“The essential threads of the case have been wrapped up with the plea today of Dom Violi,” federal prosecutor Tom Andreopoulos said, commending the “excellent” work of the investigators.
The case, he said, “illustrates the workings of something farther reaching and much more insidious. It opens up an underworld that extends beyond international boundaries … and exposes Hamilton as one of a connected series of epicentres for organized crime activity.”
Mr. Violi is the 10th person to enter a guilty plea in the international sting operation, which wrapped up a year ago. One co-accused was deported, and two more will face short trials in the new year. Another remains on the run.
The evidence against Mr. Violi was detailed in exhibits submitted during his bail hearing a year ago. The information, previously under a publication ban, is now part of the public record and reveals the intricacy of the police investigation and his criminal associations.
With the co-operation of an undercover Brooklyn, N.Y.-born police agent – a trusted associate of organized crime groups on both sides of the border – police were able to infiltrate the upper echelons of organized crime, even capturing the agent’s Mafia induction ceremony on tape. The agent’s status gave investigators unprecedented access to the inner workings of La Cosa Nostra Mafia groups operating in the Greater Toronto Area and across Canada.
During the investigation, according to the agreed statement of facts presented in court Monday, police listened in as the agent and Mr. Violi discussed “a variety of criminal activity and profit-making opportunities.”
Over the course of several transactions – the first in March, 2017 – Mr. Violi trafficked approximately 260,000 pills (of the drugs PCP, MDMA and methamphetamine) to the agent for more than US$416,000. He also received another US$24,000 as his cut of the profit.
The case involved collaboration among several police services; however, The Globe and Mail has learned that the Hamilton Police Service was left largely out of the loop.
Any investigation, especially one involving an undercover agent who has infiltrated a criminal organization, requires strict controls on the flow of information. And while Hamilton police say that one of their detectives was seconded to help with the project, a law-enforcement source said a conscious decision was made early on to limit who knew what within Hamilton’s force.
One source, who was not authorized to speak about the inner workings of the investigations, cited the relatively small size of the force and the historical Mafia presence in the city as two reasons for keeping a tight lid on the probe.
“It’s harder to keep something a secret in Hamilton,” the source said.
Hamilton police spokesperson Jackie Penman disagreed, saying the service contributed “extensively” to the project and even received a plaque from the RCMP thanking them for their contribution.
The Violi family has a storied history in the world of organized crime in Canada. In 1978, when Mr. Violi was just 11, his father, Paolo, who was once the acting head of the Montreal Mafia, was shot at close range and killed while playing cards in a poolroom.
His undoing, Mafia historians believe, began two years earlier, when the bar in which he held court was bugged by police. An upstairs tenant was actually an undercover police officer posing as an electrician, and when the wiretaps were unveiled at a public inquiry into organized crime, the mob boss lost credibility. “The Mafia would never forgive him for being so stupidly careless as to let a cop bug his place of business,” authors André Cédilot and André Noël wrote in their 2011 book, Mafia Inc. The rival Rizzuto family was vying for power at the time, and within two years Paolo Violi and both his brothers were dead.
After that, Grazia Luppino Violi moved her children back to Hamilton, where her family name carries its own prestige in the Mafia underworld. To this day, according to Project OTremens court documents, the Violis’ uncles Natale and Rocco Luppino are both “made” (that is, official) members of Buffalo’s Todaro family.
Though Mr. Violi was also a made member, he and his brother, Giuseppe (Joey), kept a low profile in Hamilton before their arrest last year, straddling two worlds and apparently surprising some of even their closest friends when their criminal lives were exposed.
Shortly before his arrest, according to wire transcripts filed in court, Mr. Violi divulged to the police agent that he had been promoted to underboss of the Todaro family – the No. 2 man in charge of the “whole thing.”
It was a prestigious role, he said, and he had beaten out 30 other people for the position.
“This one guy … he goes, ‘Domenic, you know you made history.’ I said, ‘I made history?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, nobody ever in Canada got this position,’ ” Mr. Violi told the agent.
“[Expletive], I’m happy for you Dom, that’s good. You know what? That’s gonna change a lot of things for us here,” the agent said. “We could do a lot of good things here.”
“Big time,” Mr. Violi replied.
In this new role, Mr. Violi was to “assume control over the operations of the Luppino-Violi crime family and solidify his power base with further and greater collaboration with the New York-based Mafia families.”
But despite Mr. Violi’s promotion, his younger brother remained torn about his own path in the underworld, according to the transcript excerpts. Joey wondered whether he should follow his brother and uncles into the Buffalo crime family or uphold his father’s legacy by going with the New York-based Bonanno family. He feared he’d be forced to choose.
In the meantime, the documents allege, Joey ran his own “criminal crew” and paid “tribute” (a portion of the profit) to his brother.
He was the more boastful of the two, at least on the wire: According to the excerpts, Joey talked about “taking over the whole city of Hamilton with the bikers.”
On another occasion, he bragged to the police agent about how he had paid for a lawyer for one of his crew members who was arrested last year on cocaine, guns and fentanyl charges. He was going to arrange for a fall guy to take responsibility for the crimes, he told the agent. When the police agent suggested that the fall guy would have to be someone very loyal, Joey replied, "We have a lot of people like that.” He said it would probably cost $150,000.
He also talked about paying off a judge.
Though he bragged to the agent about bringing crack cocaine to the city, he reportedly expressed some regret about his role in introducing fentanyl to the city, saying it was “a mistake in the first place for us to buy it.”
The agent also caught discussions about rival families and hits – including who could be trusted to do one for them.
In one instance, last September, the agent and Mr. Violi discussed the Musitano crime family and the recent murder of Angelo Musitano, who was gunned down in his driveway, just outside Hamilton.
The Musitano crime family is infamous in Hamilton. In the 1990s, Angelo and his brother Pat were charged with first-degree murder for the deaths of Hamilton mob boss Johnny (Pops) Papalia and his associate Carmen Barillaro, both of them shot by hit man Ken Murdock.
The brothers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder in Mr. Barillaro’s death, but the charges relating to Mr. Papalia’s murder were withdrawn as part of a plea deal. They were released from prison in 2006.
When the agent expressed surprise that Pat Musitano, Angelo’s older brother, hadn’t been killed first, Mr. Violi mused that it was a message to Pat and said that Pat was now in hiding. He said he was told that Pat would be gone before Christmas – that “that would be one headache out of the way.”
A search of Mr. Violi’s home office after his arrest last November uncovered marijuana, a brick of hash, bundles of cash, several computers and cellphones, Quebec identification for a man named N. Kyriacopoulos, ledgers, a receipt booklet, a debt list, business cards with a list of police vehicles, a police vehicle tracker and two boxes of ammunition wrapped in a T-shirt.
Police also found a signed poster of the cast of The Sopranos.
Joey Violi, who was also a target of Project OTremens, pleaded guilty earlier this year to conspiring to import cocaine, trafficking cocaine and trafficking three kilograms of the deadly opioid fentanyl. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
At his sentencing in June, character reference letters were submitted by the head of the local paramedics union, as well as a hospital manager and even a priest.
In the elder brother’s case, too, friends and associates have stepped up to vouch for his character.
At a bail hearing for Mr. Violi last December, two people volunteered to be sureties: his wife, and the former head of the Hamilton airport, Tony Battaglia.
On the stand at that hearing, Mr. Battaglia said his friendship with Mr. Violi went back 25 years, after they were introduced through a mutual friend. Though they have had some business dealings, their relationship was mostly personal, he said. They golfed together.
Though he did know about Mr. Violi’s father’s history, Mr. Battaglia said he didn’t have an inkling of his friend’s own criminal allegiances. Mr. Battaglia did not respond to The Globe’s request for comment.
In 1995 the Violi brothers were charged with conspiring to import cocaine through Toronto’s Pearson Airport, for which Joey was sentenced to seven years and 10 months in prison. The charges were withdrawn against the elder Violi, who the Crown said Monday has no criminal record.
Mr. Violi’s wife also said at the bail hearing that she was in the dark about his criminal career. When asked what her husband did for a living, she said he “sells coffee and pasta.”
She said he worked both from home and from his business, Hardwood Plus (where his business partner declined to comment when reached by phone last week).
The judge found that both prospective sureties were either willfully blind or naive. Mr. Violi was denied bail. He has been in jail since then, and after credit for time served, was sentenced Monday to another 6½ years behind bars as part of a plea deal.
His defence lawyer, Dean Paquette, said he was satisfied with the plea deal. He said that part of the motivation on the Crown’s part to strike a deal may have been a reluctance to have the police agent testify at a trial.
“That would’ve posed a huge security risk,” Mr. Paquette said.
He said the crowd in the courtroom and the remarks about Mr. Violi’s community and charity work say “a lot about Domenic’s larger character.”