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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

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.

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.

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"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.

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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.

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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.

It wasn't long before he came back. In January, 1978, a shotgun-wielding hitman assassinated Mr. Violi as he played cards at a bar. Three suspects linked to the Rizzutos were arrested and pleaded guilty to reduced charges of conspiracy.

Mr. Rizzuto flew back to Montreal to consolidate the takeover.

"Within his group, he was able to rein in people from various factions," Cpl. Féquière said. "But even outside his clan, Vito Rizzuto was a mediator. … He was someone who could settle problems when there were conflicts between various groups."

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Authorities say Mr. Rizzuto was able to forge alliances with other syndicates such as the Hells Angels, the Dubois brothers and the Irish-Canadian mobsters of the West End Gang.

The rising fortunes of the Rizzutos could be seen in two events in the fall of 1980. In October, his mother, Libertina, travelled to Lugano, in the Italian part of Switzerland, to open the first of a series of accounts where the clan socked away millions in Canadian, American and Swiss currency.

The next month, a Who's Who of the underworld gathered at the Hotel Pierre in New York for the wedding reception of Sicilian Mafioso Giuseppe Bono.

The Canadian guests included Mr. Rizzuto and his wife, Giovanna Cammelleri. Elsewhere at the reception were two Bonanno captains, Philip (Phil Lucky) Giaccone and Dominick (Big Trin) Trinchera.

The following spring, the acting Bonnano boss, Joe Massino, became convinced that Phil Lucky, Big Trin and another captain, Alphonse (Sonny Red) Indelicato, were plotting against him.

Mr. Massino prepared the killing of the three, enlisting a crew from Canada to make it harder to trace the gunmen. Mr. Rizzuto was a member of the hit squad.

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The night of May 5, 1981, the three unsuspecting victims were lured to a social club. By his own admission in court, Mr. Rizzuto burst into the room and shouted, "It's a holdup. Everybody stand still."

He said the others started shooting. In court papers, U.S. prosecutors alleged that Mr. Rizzuto also fired with a pistol.

Having demonstrated his loyalty, Mr. Rizzuto returned to Montreal to expand his family's business. In the following years, the authorities tried several times without success to prosecute him.

In 1987, he was charged with importing 16 tonnes of hashish into Newfoundland, but the case aborted after the RCMP was caught trying to wiretap his lawyers' restaurant table.

The next year, he was arrested again, for conspiring to bring 32 tonnes of hashish through the Quebec harbour of Sept-Îles. He was acquitted after the Crown's star witness was found guilty of obstruction of justice and could not testify.

His name also came up in a stock-manipulation scheme in an Alberta mining firm, Penway Explorers Ltd. Several people alleged to be fronts for Mr. Rizzuto had invested in the company. A stockbroker who stole their shares disappeared mysteriously. No criminal charges were filed, but in a civil suit, a judge concluded that the broker had vanished because he had incurred the "the wrath of Rizzuto."

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By the early 1990s, during an RCMP investigation into money laundering, an undercover officer heard a suspect, Dominico Tozzi, confide that Mr. Rizzuto instructed him to launder $2-million. "Tozzi told the undercover agent that the Italian big boss never touches anything; he is very well known to police and cannot be noticed by them."

The RCMP operation, in which undercover officers ran a phony currency-exchange counter, ended with 46 arrests, including a Rizzuto confidant, lawyer Joseph Lagana, who was convicted for laundering $47-million. Mr. Rizzuto was named as a co-conspirator, but there was not enough evidence to charge him.

The investigation into Mr. Lagana also uncovered documents showing that the clan tried to recover the fortune of former Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos, for which it would have been paid a $4.2-billion cut.

Hearings of the Charbonneau inquiry, which looked into corruption in the construction industry in Quebec, heard testimony that the Rizzutos collected a percentage from millions of dollars in municipal public-works contracts.

Municipal engineers admitted that they had gone on golf trips in the Dominican Republic with Mr. Rizzuto. Police surveillance operations recorded how constructions bosses regularly went to a Rizzuto hangout, the Cosenza Social Club, to bring cash.

His influence reached beyong Quebec. Detective Constable Mike Amato of York Regional Police testified at the inquiry that Mr. Rizzuto also acted as a peacemaker between feuding Mafia groups in Ontario, Constable Amato said. "You have a leader of a criminal enterprise that operates in another province, that can travel to Ontario, and has influence in our province, and could settle some disputes."

Police affidavits said Mr. Rizzuto was a man who, on paper, didn't even own a car or a credit card and whose only declared income was as a shareholder of a construction firm with modest revenue – yet he was seen driving sports cars and travelling to St. Kitts or the Bahamas.

He didn't try to hide that he was a mobster. In May, 2003, he was driving away from a nightclub with some underlings when a Montreal police patroller, Constable Mitchell Janhevich, stopped his car.

"Do you know who I am?" Mr. Rizzuto asked. When Constable Janhevich stood his ground, Mr. Rizzuto smiled and later told him, "I like the way you handled my men. I handle them the same way."

Then, the New York killings came back to trip him. In New York, a police crackdown against the leaders of the Bonnanos led some Mafiosos to turn informant and incriminate others, including Mr. Rizzuto. He was arrested in 2004. By the time he was extradited two years later, even Mr. Massino was co-operating with the authorities.

Clad in a prison-issue T-shirt and khaki pants, the once-dapper Mr. Rizzuto appeared in a Brooklyn court in 2007 and admitted to a role in the triple killing. He was sentenced to five years.

At the same time, Italy's anti-Mafia police also issued an arrest warrant for him, alleging that he tried to invest $6.4-million in laundered money in a project to build a bridge in Messina, between Sicily and the mainland.

While he sat in a Colorado penitentiary, his clan was battered by police arrests and assassinations at the hands of rivals trying to wrestle control of his rackets. His elder son, Nicolo Jr., was shot dead outside his office. Then his father was fatally struck by a sniper as he sat in the family kitchen. Mr. Renda, his brother-in-law and family consigliere, was kidnapped and never seen again.

But the usurpers began fighting among themselves. In October of last year, Mr. Rizzuto came home and a series of settling of accounts began. When he left for a vacation in the Dominican Republic last January, observers saw it as a sign that he was now in control again.

His death was unexpected, the first man in four generations of his family to die of natural causes (other reports spoke of lung problems and pneumonia).

"It was news no one was expecting," Mr. De Champlain said. "I would have been less surprised if I had been told that Vito Rizzuto had been assassinated in a Montreal street."

Mr. Rizzuto leaves his wife, Giovanna Cammelleri, a son, Leonardo, and a daughter, Libertina, both lawyers.

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