During the Prohibition Years, Kansas City was second only to Chicago in organized crime. Chicago had its notorious Al Capone, while Kansas City had its own slick crime boss, Johnny Lazia.
In the early 1920s, Lazia rose from street crime to organizing voters for the Pendergast machine and supplying local bars with bootleg whiskey. His closest associate and body guard was Charles Corrello. By the late 1920s, Lazia had become the supreme gang boss of Kansas City. In 1928, Lazia was appointed head of the North Side’s Democratic Club. He owned a soft drink company, several upscale gambling resorts in the city, and a profitable loan shark operation. Lazia even owned a bail bond company to assist his cronies when they got locked up.
Johnny Lazia enjoyed considerable power within both the Kansas City Police Department and city administration. In 1929, after failing to file an $82,000 federal tax return, he was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to one year in prison. However, thanks in part to ward boss Tom Pendergast, the government released Lazia pending appeal. Many civic reformers decried Lazia’s influence and power, but were unable to affect any changes.
Lazia lived the high life with his wife in a Kansas City luxury apartment and vacationed at their private resort on Lake Lotawana in Eastern Jackson County, where he maintained a number of speed boats. He also owned several thoroughbred race horses, which he raced at tracks around the country. Lazia was a constant presence at sporting and civic events, and despite being a notorious gangster in Kansas City, he maintained a generally positive public image by being philanthropic in giving to charities.
As the 1930s began, Lazia began to experience more competition from other local gangsters. To help fight off these competitors, Lazia’s men broke into the Army armory in Kansas City and made off with a goodly amount of guns.
Lazia reportedly hired Pretty Boy Floyd to pull off the Union Station Massacre, which created such a tremendous public outrage that it convinced the Pendergast machine that Lazia had become a liability that needed to be eliminated. Without his political protection, Lazia was indicted for bootlegging, illegal gambling and tax evasion. He eventually pleaded guilty to tax evasion and was sentenced to one year in prison.
The Pendergast machine also funded a competitor, former Lazia lieutenant, Michael LaCapra, to set up competing gambling dens and distribution networks for alcohol and narcotics. In August 1933, another Lazia associate, Charles Gargotta, ambushed Ferris Anthon (a gunman allied with LaCapra), on a city street. The sheriff and his deputies coincidentally arrived during the attack and after the dust settled, Gargotta was arrested. The guns used in the ambush were eventually traced back to the armory heist and Gargotta went to prison.
On July 10, 1934, at 3 a.m., Lazia arrived at his luxury hotel residence after spending the night touring his night clubs and gambling dens with his wife and bodyguard, Charles Carrollo. As Lazia got out of his limo, gunmen armed with submachine guns and sawed-off shotguns emerged from the bushes. Lazia quickly pushed his wife back into the car and she and Carrollo sped off just as Lazia was fatally sprayed with bullets. He died at St. Joseph Hospital at the premature age of 37, and was buried at Mount Saint Mary’s Cemetery. On his gravestone, his name is spelled with an “o”, Lazio.
Lazia associates immediately blamed LaCapra for the murder and attempted to assassinate him several times. They did finally succeed in August 1935 in New York. However, law enforcement traced some of the bullets in Lazia’s body to bullets found in the Union Station massacre, creating suspicion that it was actually a Lazia ally who murdered him.
Reference: “Encyclopedia of Organized Crime” by Robert J. Nash.
• Tom Rafiner will discuss the atmosphere surrounding the Missouri-Kansas Border Warfare before the Civil War at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Grandview Library, 12830 Booth Lane.
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