Johnny Papalia

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John Joseph Papalia (March 18, 1924 – May 31, 1997), also known as "Johnny Pops" or "The Enforcer", was an Italian-Canadian Mafia figure based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He was boss of the Papalia crime family, one of three major crime families in Hamilton, the other two being the Musitano crime family and the Luppino crime family.

Papalia was born in Hamilton, to Italian immigrants. At a young age, he was involved in petty crimes. By the 1950s, he moved his way up to drug trafficking, and formed a powerful alliance with the Buffalo crime family. Papalia also operated various gambling bars and vending machine businesses. By the 1960s and 1970s, he played a role in the French Connection smuggling operation. On May 31, 1997, Papalia was shot to death outside his vending machine business by Kenneth Murdock, a hit man hired by Angelo and Pat Musitano of the Musitano family.

Family and criminal activities

Papalia was born on March 18, 1924 in Hamilton.[1][2] His father, Antonio "Tony" Papalia was a bootlegger who immigrated from Delianuova, Calabria, Italy to Canada in 1912 and settled on Railway Street in Hamilton, Ontario in 1917.[1][3] His father became associated with Calabrian compatriot and notorious bootlegger Rocco Perri and also became a bootlegger who operated speakeasies.[1][4] He was suspected in playing a role in the murder of Perri's wife Bessie Starkman in 1930.[5] Papalia's mother, Maria Rosa Italiano, also came from a Mafia family, the Italiano clan, who also participated in Perri's gang.[1] Maria Rosa initially married Antonio's younger brother Giuseppe Papalia Jr., giving birth to two sons in Italy, however when Giuseppe died, she immigrated to Canada with her two sons in 1923 to marry Antonio.[1] Johnny, the oldest brother to Frank, Rocco and Dominic Papalia, half-brothers Joseph and Angelo Papalia, brother-in-law Tony Pugliese, and associates, all worked in running his clubs and gambling operations.[1]

It is also believed Antonio and his son Johnny Papalia, along with Stefano Magaddino of the Buffalo crime family, played a role in Perri's disappearance in 1944 after Perri left members of his Mafia crew "slighted", though both cases remain unsolved.[1]

Papalia was involved in petty crimes from a young age. He was arrested in 1949 and given a two-year sentence for possession of narcotics, down from conspiracy to distribute narcotics.[1] When he was released in 1951, he moved to Montreal for a stint, where he worked with Luigi Greco and New York Bonanno crime family representative Carmine Galante in heroin trafficking.[1] He later shifted to Toronto extorting brokers and running gambling clubs.[1] By the mid-1950s, Papalia was the Canadian arm of the powerful Cosa Nostra family of Buffalo, New York which was then controlled by Stefano Magaddino.[6]

In 1955, with assistance from Guelph mobster Tony Sylvestro, Papalia started opening charter gambling clubs in Hamilton and Toronto. Sylvestro's son-in-law Danny Gasbarrini, Papalia's brothers Frank, Rocco and Dominic, half-brothers Joseph and Angelo, brother-in-law Tony Pugliese, and associates Red LeBarre, Freddie Gabourie, Frank Marchildon and Jackie Weaver, all worked in running Papalia's clubs.[1] After police raids, Papalia started working with James McDermott and Vincent Feeley in several clubs throughout southern Ontario.[1]

The illegal gambling business in Toronto was very lucrative, dominated by Maxie Bluestein who kept the Mafia out of his pocket. Bluestein's Lakeview Club did more than $13 million a year, but on March 21, 1961, at the Town Tavern, Bluestein met with Papalia in Toronto. Bluestein refused to "merge" his operations with Papalia's and was beaten with brass knuckles, iron bars and fists as a result.[7] The 100 some witnesses to the beating were reluctant to come forward, but Papalia was sentenced in June of that year to 18 months, while Bluestein kept hold to the Toronto gambling market; though Bluestein had paranoia and was committed to a mental institution in 1973 when he killed a friend, before dying of a heart attack in 1984.[8] Later in 1961, Papalia demolished the family home and built a warehouse for his vending machine business, an all-cash business, to serve as the front for his criminal operations.[9] By the early 1960s Papalia was a made man, earning his reputation from the French Connection, a smuggling operation that supplied over 80 percent of America's heroin market between the 1960s and 1970s – having strong connections with the Buffalo crime family.[10] He worked in this operation with the Sicilian Agueci brothers Alberto and Vito, along with the vending machine businesses with Alberto, until he was brutally murdered by the Buffalo crime family in late 1961, and Vito jailed.[11] Papalia was extradited to the United States for trial in 1962 for his role in the French Connection heroin smuggling ring; he was coughing up blood due to the tuberculosis he contracted as a child.[3] He was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years despite his condition. In 1968, after serving less than half the sentence, he was released from a United States penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and sent back to Canada.[3][1]

In 1974, Montreal mobsters Vincenzo Cotroni and Paolo Violi were over-heard on a police wiretap threatening to kill Papalia and demanding $150,000 after he used their names in the $300,000 extortion of Toronto business man Stanley Bader without notifying or cutting them in on the score.[3] Bader testified against them, and the three were convicted of extortion in 1975 and sentenced to six years in prison. Violi and Cotroni got their sentences appealed to just six months, but Papalia's was rejected; he served four of the years.[12] In 1982, after Bader had moved south to Miami, he was sprayed with bullets when answering his front door. Papalia has been linked with his death, as well as the 1983 death of Toronto mobster Paul Volpe, but no charges were laid.[12]

In July 1983, Réal Simard moved to Ontario from Montreal where he met with Papalia in Hamilton on behalf of Frank Cotroni.[1] Simard seized the Ontario market, bringing Quebec strippers to Toronto clubs, where he allowed Papalia to put his pinball machines in his clubs.[1]

In the 1990s, Papalia lieutenant Enio "Pegleg" Mora borrowed $7.2 million from Montreal mob boss Vito Rizzuto, and gave the bulk of the money to Papalia to open an upscale restaurant and nightclub in Toronto. After the Rizzuto crime family were not re-paid, in September 1996, Mora was shot in the head four times at a Vaughan farm; Giacinto Arcuri was arrested and charged with Mora's murder, but was acquitted for lack of evidence.[13]

Papalia's brother Frank was also a member of the crime family who died of natural causes in 2014 at the age of 83.[14]


Papalia was fatally shot in the head on May 31, 1997, at the age of 73 in the parking lot of 20 Railway Street outside his vending machine business in Hamilton. The hitman Kenneth Murdock claimed that he had been ordered to kill "Pops" by Angelo and Pat Musitano of the Musitano crime family who owed money to Papalia.[4] Murdock also killed Papalia's right-hand man Carman Barillaro two months later. In November 1998, Murdock pleaded guilty to three counts of second degree murder, was sentenced to life imprisonment, and named Pat and Angelo as the men who had ordered the murders; he was released on parole after serving 13 years.[15][16][17] In February 2000, the brothers were sentenced to 10 years for conspiracy in the murder of Barillaro in a plea bargain arrangement. No conviction was obtained in relation to the murder of Papalia.[18] In October 2006, the Musitano brothers were both released from prison.[19][20]

Amid controversy, Papalia was not given a full funeral mass by the Catholic Church due to his criminal history.[21] He was buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, in a family plot, in Burlington, Ontario.[1]

Further reading

  • Humphreys, Adrian. The Enforcer:Johnny Pops Papalia, A Life and Death in the Mafia. Toronto, Canada: Harper Collins, 1999. ISBN 0-00-200016-4


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Humphreys, Adrian (1999). The Enforcer:Johnny Pops Papalia, A Life and Death in the Mafia. Toronto: Harper Collins. ISBN 0-00-200016-4.
  2. ^ Schneider, Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada, pp. 291
  3. ^ a b c d "The shot heard around the underworld". Ottawa Citizen. 7 June 1998. Retrieved 8 December 2016.
  4. ^ a b "Mafia hitman reveals his code for killings". 13 August 2010. Retrieved 8 December 2016.
  5. ^ "The murder of Bessie - part 4". 6 January 2005.
  6. ^ "His brother was Ontario's pre-eminent Mafia boss, but long-suffering Frank Papalia was still his keeper". 18 April 2014.
  7. ^ "Never mind good, Toronto was notorious". 5 May 2016. Retrieved 27 May 2017.
  8. ^ Schneider, Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada, pp. 302
  9. ^ "Bawdy houses, biker clubs and Mafia joints: Should we give gang landmarks historical status?". 21 March 2016.
  10. ^ "7 CANADIAN GANGSTERS". 11 January 2012. Retrieved 8 December 2016.
  11. ^ Schneider, Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada
  12. ^ a b Schneider, Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada, pp. 326
  13. ^, p=281
  14. ^ "Frank Papalia was 'the rock' of Hamilton mafia family". 18 April 2014. Retrieved 18 May 2017.
  15. ^ "Parole of convicted mob killer notorious for his explosive temper tested by road raging motorist". 9 July 2014.
  16. ^ "Hitman out on full parole". Niagara Falls Review.
  17. ^ "Kenny Murdock, mob-boss Papalia's killer, gets new identity". 28 July 2012.
  18. ^ "Notorious mobster Pat Musitano believed to be targeted in Hamilton house shooting".
  19. ^ "Unease As Mobsters Set Free". National Post. 4 October 2006. Retrieved 4 July 2017.
  20. ^ "Musitano, 29, was arrested Wednesday for violating terms of his parole, which prohibited him from associating with known criminals". 9 March 2007. Retrieved 4 July 2017.
  21. ^ "Why did Vito Rizzuto get a full Catholic funeral in Montreal, when some bishops in Sicily are refusing mafiosi?". 8 January 2014.
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