He was born into an organized-crime family in Calabria, Italy. A brother was murdered in a Mafia power struggle in Calabria in 1975. Another brother was convicted of heroin trafficking in Ontario in 1992, and sentenced to four years in prison. And he once shot a man in the head, then smashed the dying man's face with a crystal ashtray.
Yet Rocco Zito, 87, who was shot dead in his Toronto home on Friday afternoon, made very little public mark, except in the Calabrian Mafia, known as the 'Ndrangheta – in which he was respected and feared, and where he made his livelihood – and in police intelligence circles, where he was monitored for decades.
"I can assure you Rocco Zito is absolutely no loss," retired RCMP staff-sergeant Larry Tronstad told The Globe and Mail. Mr. Tronstad was part of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, a Mafia tracking team set up by the Mounties, the Ontario Provincial Police and Toronto police.
"Listen, he was a major Mafia guy. He was a violent man. If he couldn't make ends meet any other way, violence would do for him."
Domenico Scopelliti, 51, who is reportedly Mr. Zito's son-in-law, turned himself in to police just after midnight Saturday after a bulletin was issued at 11:04 p.m. on Friday, saying that he was a suspect and was believed to be armed and dangerous. He has been charged with first-degree murder.
Mr. Tronstad said Mr. Zito was the unassuming opposite of the flamboyant John Gotti, a New York Mafia kingpin who could be seen parading in front of his club, surrounded by bodyguards and wearing an Armani suit. "If that was one end of the scale and that was a 10, Rocco would be a 1." He lived in the gritty neighbourhood of Caledonia Road and Lawrence Avenue.
Mr. Zito's manslaughter conviction in 1986 received little attention from most newspapers, with the Toronto Star describing him as a "North York grandfather" and a ceramic tile salesman. He had been charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of a former photo-studio owner, Rosario Sciarrino, 60, who had borrowed money from him, believed to be in the $20,000 range.
"He shot him and then took a crystal ashtray to his face and just pulverized his face," Mr. Tronstad said. "Loan sharks don't normally kill people" because then they can't collect their debts, but "he just killed him in a rage."
After hiding out for four days, Mr. Zito negotiated a plea deal, which the judge accepted, stipulating that the only witness said Mr. Sciarrino had provoked Mr. Zito by asking him to step outside to see who would kill whom. Mr. Zito had a small bullet wound in his thigh that some suspected was self-inflicted.
The 'Ndrangheta is the richest and most active and powerful syndicate in Europe, overshadowing the Sicilian Mafia, known as the Cosa Nostra. It has branches in Canada, the U.S., Australia and South America, and makes 60 per cent of its annual revenue of €44-billion ($66-billion Canadian) from the cocaine trade, Canadian crime author Antonio Nicaso said, citing a report by Eurispes, an Italian think tank.
In Ontario, it is heavily into money laundering, Mr. Nicaso said in an interview. "It's the most powerful criminal syndicate in Ontario."
A police intelligence report said Mr. Zito was on the original Camera di Controllo (board of control) of the 'Ndrangheta in Ontario in 1962, alongside mobsters who went on to be much more widely known, such as Michele Racco, who died in 1980, and for whom Mr. Zito served as a pallbearer.