Harper prof squeezes century of local mob hits into book
From his boyhood memories of the raid on a bookie joint under the Chicago apartment where he grew up to the murder cases he worked on as an officer with the Chicago Police Department's organized crime division, Harper College professor Wayne A. Johnson has been steeped in the violence of mobsters.
Isolated murders, such as the infamous Valentine's Day Massacre or the beating deaths of brothers Anthony "Tony the Ant" and Michael Spilotro, have become scenes in mob movies. "But nobody ever put it in one place before," says Johnson, who has done that with his new book, "A History of Violence: An Encyclopedia of 1,400 Chicago Mob Murders."
From the stabbing death of Harry Bush during the newspaper "circulation war" on July 6, 1900, to the Aug. 31, 2006, disappearance of 71-year-old Anthony "Little Tony" Zizzo of Westmont, Johnson has used court documents, police records, newspaper accounts and 14 years of personal research to compile more than a century of suspected mob murders.
"You know what makes it so insidious? Their ability to get into places that affect every aspect of our lives," says Johnson, who notes cases where politicians, judges and police officers cooperated with mobsters. "Once you are into these guys, they own you."
Appearing in countless articles and TV shows as an expert on the mob, Johnson spent 25 years as a Chicago police officer and served as chief investigator for the Chicago Crime Commission before getting his doctoral degree in education. He's now an associate professor and program coordinator of law enforcement programs at Harper College.
Harper will host a public reception celebrating Johnson's book launch at noon Tuesday in the lower level of the library on the college's main campus, 1200 W. Algonquin Road, Palatine.
The stereotype of the Chicago mob as the Italian Mafia known as Cosa Nostra is a myth, says Johnson, who says organized crime boasts a diverse collection of people, including many immigrants, who learned how to make money through illegal methods. The criminal groups formed partnerships and cut deals with each other, he says.
Of the 1,401 murders Johnson details, he lists only 278 as "solved," and the number of people convicted of those murders is even lower. "Just because they weren't charged doesn't mean it's not solved," says Johnson.
In teaching his "Organized Crime" class, Johnson tells the Harper students that reputed mob boss Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo, who died in 1992 at the age of 86, lived the last years of his life just a short drive away, on Algonquin Road in Barrington Hills.
Student Jackie Cooney, 30, of McHenry wrote a research paper that ended up adding early 20th-century murders to Johnson's book.
"I logged 108 murders, and, of those murders, a portion of them were mob murders," says Cooney, who says she's been interested in the mob since she got her bachelor's degree in history from Roosevelt University in 2008. "I find it fascinating how people make alternative choices to provide for themselves and their families."
Studying to become a physical anthropologist while excelling in her art classes at Harper, Daniella Boyd, 21, of Wheeling responded to Johnson's request to draw a grisly scene for the cover of his book.
"I did some research," says Boyd, who spent about 12 hours making a graphite drawing of the toe tag on the left foot of mobster Sam Giancana, who was gunned down in his Oak Park home in 1975.
The suburbs are home to some of the most infamous mob murders. On Feb. 12, 1985, the body of 48-year-old Hal Smith of Prospect Heights was found in the trunk of his Cadillac in the parking lot of an Arlington Heights hotel. Suspected of being a sports bookie who had run afoul of the mob, Smith was lured to the Long Grove home of his friend William B.J. Jahoda and was tortured, had his throat cut and was strangled. Jahoda, who became a friend of Johnson's before his death of natural causes in 2004, testified against the mob and helped send reputed mob leaders including Ernest Rocco Infelice and Salvatore DeLaurentis of Lake County to prison.
Another gambling operator who angered the mob, Robert Plummer, 51, was found dead in a car trunk in Mundelein in 1982. He was murdered in a Libertyville house already notorious before it was purchased by a mobster and turned into an illicit casino. In 1980, in a crime that went unsolved for more than 15 years, William Rouse, 15, used a shotgun to murder his millionaire parents, Bruce and Darlene Rouse, in a bedroom of the family home.
"Some people romanticize the mob," says Johnson, who adds that he hopes his book not only makes people recognize the heinous brutality of mobster killings, but might also help solve some of the remaining mysteries. "I hope they read my book and say, 'Yeah, it was 20 years ago, but I know who killed so-and-so.' Maybe we can still do something."