The River Quay '
How a Newspaper
and a Reporter took on the Kansas City Mafia
city dreams of greatness. To achieve an identity
it constructs symbols (the Eiffel Tower, the
St. Louis Arch), or, like New Orleans, has
an area, such as the French Quarter, that
assumes an identity of its own.
Kansas City has been known as a cowtown. It
was famous for its stockyards, and the biggest
annual event still is the American Royal,
during which journalists shake cow patties
from their shoes. Kansas Citians are sensitive
about that image, feeling it gives them a
point with pride to the Country Club Plaza
or Westport, but neither has ever achieved
a national reputation. They promote Kansas
City as the birthplace of jazz, a claim other
cities dispute. They go so far as to call
Kansas City the home of great barbecue; local
politicians devote great amounts of space
to that subject. Such is the desperation for
is in this context that River Quay must be
seen. River Quay was a light industrial area
at the north edge of the city. In the early
1970s a movement began to convert River Quay
into a "family entertainment area"
filled with rustic restaurants, shops, nightclubs
and artists—-a miniature Greenwich Village.
the mid-’70s River Quay was a lovely
place to go--replete with sidewalk cafes,
dim discos with battered furnishings and bare-brick
walls, picturesque restaurants, small shops
and crowds that could aptly be described as
"an ocean of people," particularly
during the frequent street festivals.
best-developed area was Delaware Street, the
heart of River Quay. Most of Delaware Street
belonged to Marion Trozzollo, the visionary
who had developed the bulk of River Quay.
1975 it was so successful that parking was
at a premium. If you got there late on a weekend
you might have to park a half-mile away. However,
the City Market was adjacent, and you could
often park on the market's huge lot. So I
was surprised one night to pull into the city-owned
parking lot and be told I would have to pay
two dollars, redeemable in drinks at Poor
Freddy's, a restaurant owned by Freddy Bonadonna.
next day I told Tom Eblen, managing editor
of The Kansas City Star, that I'd like to
know why I had to give Fred Bonadonna $2 to
park on city property.
learned that Bonadonna had leased the parking
lot from the city, and the lease appeared
to be legal. I also learned that Bonadonna's
father, David Bonadonna, Sr., was a mob soldier.
Also, that Carl Spero, a young mob guy recently
released from prison, had an office in a building
owned by Fred Bonadonna; that Joe Cammisano
had opened a bar in River Quay; that John
"Johnny Green" Amaro, another mob
guy, was reportedly taking over a restaurant
on Delaware Street; and that four other men
known to associate closely with mobsters were
running nightclubs in River Quay.
gave Eblen a lengthy office note on what I'd
learned, and asked to be detached from the
city desk to look into the Mafia's apparent
infiltration of River Quay.
city desk assigned Harry Jones to work with
me. Any negative story about River Quay was
guaranteed to generate criticism from many
quarters in the city. The city itself was
promoting River Quay nationally, and hundreds
of people had invested their money and dreams
in River Quay businesses.
Harry to work with me was an effort to mitigate
such criticism if a negative story resulted.
Harry was a legend at the newspaper; author
of The Minutemen, a book about right-wing
radicals, he was the epitome of integrity,
and he had covered the mob for the paper.
I, on the other hand, was an ex-con, released
from prison only three years earlier, after
serving 13 years on four life sentences for
murder and armed robbery.
worked on the story through September 1975.
We went from door to door, talking to every
person in River Quay who might know anything.
We went to liquor control and pulled the file
on every joint in River Quay. We talked to
city and federal officials, and we both combed
through our private contacts.
came away with a long list of names of people
connected to the mob in some way, who were
also directly or indirectly involved in River
Quay--brothers, sons, wives, etc. John Amaro
hadn't actually taken over his restaurant
yet, so Joe Cammisano--brother of William
(Willie The Rat) Cammisano--was the sole "known"
Mafia member owning a River Quay business
in his own name.
director of liquor control had denied a liquor
license to Cammisano, but had been overruled
by the mayor's politically appointed Liquor
Control Review Board. However, the denial
wasn't based on the fact that Joe Cammisano
was a convicted felon (state law bars felons
from having liquor licenses), or the fact
that he was a person of ill-repute (state
law requires "good character").
The denial was generic, based on the theory
that there were already too many liquor licenses
in River Quay, and more would be harmful to
city officials, as had their predecessors,
were reluctant to raise the issue of "organized
crime." In the mid-'70s not even The
Star dared use the word "Mafia."
many years Kansas City police chiefs had downplayed
the Mafia. Some had denied its existence.
Nick Civella, head of the local Mafia, had
once challenged The Star to prove that such
an organization existed. Yet this was the
town of Tom Pendergast--one of the most powerful
mob/machine bosses in U.S. history.
the 1970s Pendergast was long gone, but his
machine was anchored in place. The mob continued
to influence the police department, city hall,
the county courthouse and the state legislature.
mob controlled Roy Lee Williams, then a vice
president, and later president, of the International
Brotherhood of Teamsters. Through Williams,
Nick Civella wielded influence over who could,
or could not, borrow money from the Teamsters;
and Las Vegas, Nevada, had been built with
skim money from Las Vegas casinos and local
mob revenues, the Kansas City Mafia wielded
considerable economic clout. It controlled
several banks, owned 10 percent or more of
the taverns and nightclubs in the city, controlled
the vending machine business--particularly
with respect as to who could put vending machines
in bars. (Back then, a single video-poker
machine made $200 a week if it didn't pay
off, and $600 or more a week if it did; virtually
all of this money was skimmed off.) There
are many people beholden to the mob in Kansas
City, and many of them scream foul at the
mention of the word "Mafia."
officials pussyfooted around the issue of
the Mafia's involvement in River Quay. A lot
of people told us the mob was taking over
River Quay--but not one person would say,
"and you can quote me."
The story we came away with was exquisitely
frustrating. We both knew the mob was in River
Quay, but we couldn't prove it, particularly
if someone took the newspaper to court, since
we would first have to prove the Mafia existed;
and there were people who doubted we could
were some battles in the newsroom over how
to handle the story. It was ultimately decided
we would not refer to the mob, but would concentrate
on the irregularities in the licensing of
bars, the fact that there were too many bars,
only hope to get the story we really wanted
lay in a supposedly soon-to-be-published report
by the Kansas City Crime Commission. We'd
been told the report would include an updated
version of a previous list of mob members
and associates, and that a number of River
Quay personalities would be included in the
went by, and no report. I was told that such
a list might never be published, since the
private citizens making up the commission
might not want to spend the rest of their
lives in court trying to prove the existence
of a local Mafia family, and then proving
the membership of specified individuals in
appeared The Star's investigation of River
Quay had fizzled out.
happy circumstance I learned that some liquor
control agents were shaking down bar owners,
taking freebies, and that the night supervisor
in the liquor control office openly boasted
of his friendship with high-ranking mobsters.
What followed was a series of articles that
led inexorably back to River Quay--since the
mob guys met every night at a River Quay restaurant,
and the wife of the night supervisor worked
in Joe Cammisano's River Quay night spot.
(During an interview with this supervisor,
I told him I'd heard that on one occasion,
when a night club was being renovated, he'd
told the bar owner to have two sofas delivered
to his house. "That's a damn lie,"
the supervisor said heatedly. "It was
two love seats.")
city auditor's office embarked on a sham investigation
of liquor control, behind closed doors.
an assistant city auditor in charge of monitoring
Sunday liquor licenses was convicted of involvement
in a Mafia gambling operation.
former Kansas City Times reporter called me
to the Muehlebach Hotel and told me that some
liquor agents were going to set me up on a
drug bust. (The ex-reporter was then working
as an organizer for the bartender's union.)
He said they'd enlisted the aid of a waitress
at a 12th Street bar I frequented (Mafia owned),
and she was going to ask me to drive her home.
Her boyfriend, a policeman, was going to pull
me over and find a bag of grass on the floor
of my car. At the time I was still on parole
from a life sentence, so a bust would have
meant my going back to prison. I called the
night supervisor of liquor control, met him
at another Mafia-connected bar near my home,
and talked to him about it. He said, "You
can't blame those guys (agents). They think
you're following them around town, trying
to get them fired."
that I limited my watering holes to places
owned by people I knew well. Then a relative
of Joe Cammisano's called and said they had
a state representative working to have my
parole revoked. (I taped the conversation;
when they learned I had taped it, there were
no more conversations like it.)
Moore, The Star's city hall reporter, informed
me that The Star's city hall offices had apparently
been entered late one night and that two files
were missing--one on the night supervisor
at liquor control, and one on an assistant
city prosecutor closely associated with the
that period, I was dating Christine Poggi,
an Italian-American state parole officer.
(We later married, and she became a police
officer.) I frequently took her with me when
I went anywhere there would be danger of the
mob setting me up. I was far more worried
about being framed than being shot.
July 1976, David Bonadonna, Sr., was shot
to death and stuffed in the trunk of his car.
lid blew off the River Quay.
soon learned that the FBI had searched Willie
Cammisano's garage seeking evidence of the
murder, and that the agency would file a search-warrant
return naming Willie Cammisano as the probable
killer of Bonadonna. The document would quote
informants as saying the murder was directly
linked to mob activity in River Quay.
published a major story during the 1976 Republican
National Convention, which made news across
the country. A few days later Fred Bonadonna
called to say his family wanted to rebut our
Bonadonna arrived at The Star office with
his brother, they were accompanied by two
sons of Willie Cammisano. Two editors sat
in on the interview, which was tape recorded,
and it ran verbatim the next day. During the
interview, Fred Bonadonna made a big show
of saying he'd never met or talked to me before--when,
in fact, he'd been one of my informants during
the liquor control investigation.
next day I called Bonadonna and asked him
if he'd read the story, and if it had helped
said, "You've saved my life. For the
time being anyway."
as were all later conversations, was tape
recorded. Bonadonna said he was ashamed of
himself for giving in to family pressure to
defend Willie Cammisano. He said that what
we'd printed in the first story was true,
but that we had only part of the story. Over
a period of months I called him every other
day. He told me there was a contract on his
life, who had the contract, why Willie Cammisano
had killed his father (Willie wanted the city-owned
parking lot, since it had become so lucrative).
He told me how he, Bonadonna, had gone to
Willie Cammisano with a city councilman (Robert
Hernandez), and how Willie had threatened
mayhem in front of the councilman.
conversations were considered so sensitive
that only two editors at The Star knew about
them: Tom Eblen and Mike Fancher (now executive
editor, The Seattle Times). I'd chosen them
because I felt sure they would go to jail
before they'd compromise my source.
River Quay story seemed to take on a life
of its own. In addition to the feud between
the Mafia and Bonadonna, there was a war brewing
between the Mafia and the Spero faction (consisting
of Carl Spero, Mike Spero and Joe Spero, who
were bitter about the murder of a fourth brother,
Nick, several years earlier).
was subpoenaed to appear before the Jackson
County grand jury. The Star's lawyers were
told that I would be asked to reveal my law
enforcement sources since the information
in some of my stories was so sensitive that
someone was "obviously" breaking
the law in talking to me. I refused to answer
the questions on the grounds of the First
Amendment--and that the prosecutor's office
was so deeply infiltrated by organized crime
that Nick Civella would know what I had said
before I could get back to my desk at The
Star. The prosecutor's office decided not
to pursue the matter.
published story after story, some of them
naming people who had mob contracts on them.
(Carl Spero and Gary Parker didn't believe
us, and today they are both dead.) Three River
Quay nightclubs were destroyed by bombs and
fire, and the list of murder victims rapidly
issue in River Quay was larger than the mere
fact that Mafia members and their friends
were moving in. The underlying concept of
River Quay was "family entertainment."
There was hardly a place in River Quay that
you couldn't take your mother. But the Mafia
has no soul.
decades there had been a block of sleazy strip
joints on 12th Street, frequented mostly by
out-of-towners looking for action, hoodlums,
and a smattering of off-duty cops and liquor
agents. The drinks were weak, the prices high
and the strippers tired.
became known that the city intended to raze
the entire block (now occupied by the Allis
Plaza Hotel), and those bar owners looked
around for a place to relocate. Since River
Quay was booming and had crowds, they decided
to transplant their operations there. Concurrently,
there was talk of turning River Quay into
a "combat zone," where X-rated book
stores and theaters would be allowed; there
was even some serious talk of running all
the prostitutes off their normal corners and
concentrating them in River Quay.
began to hear of people being beaten up in
Mafia bars and being thrown into the street,
of musicians who had to perform in certain
bars, or who could not perform in competing
bars because the mob said so.
this period The Star's coverage was relentless.
On one occasion Joe Cammisano called me and
said, "Mr. Maloney, I realize you have
a job to do, but do you have to be so intense?"
The mob concentrated its hatred on me, but
in fact, there were other reporters involved.
Harry Jones co-authored a number of stories
with me, as did Bill Norton and Joe Henderson.
fact, it was Henderson who ended the career
of a local television anchorman. During the
height of our coverage, the mob decided to
talk to television, to try to counter our
coverage. Carl "Cork" Civella, second
only to his brother Nick in the mob, gave
a lengthy interview to a local station, which
ran the interview as a series over five days.
The questions thrown at Civella were soft,
the attitude of the newsman deferential.
few months later Henderson uncovered a letter
written by this newsman to a federal judge,
asking leniency for a mob-connected defendant
in a federal case (a sting operation). The
anchorman quickly resigned.
had repeated offers from the Cammisanos to
come to River Quay and meet with them, on
the condition I not tape record what was being
said. Tom Eblen ordered me not to meet with
them anywhere but at The Star itself, and
I was further ordered never to go to River
working on River Quay I developed a major
source, who gave The Star information on the
Kansas City Mafia's efforts to promote a national
scheme to provide legal services to union
members, primarily the Teamsters. The editors
approved a labor racketeering investigation
by Mike McGraw, Dick Johnson and myself.
traveled from coast to coast over a period
of months, looking into bartenders', laborers'
and teamsters' unions. In addition to the
Legal Defense Fund, we covered the mob/union
involvement in Las Vegas, the ransacking of
pension funds, the corruption of law enforcement
(including the distressing tendency of IRS
investigators and attorneys to go to work
for mob-related interests).
the key matter we developed was the relationship
between Joseph Agosto, then entertainment
director of the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas,
and the Kansas City Mafia. We had to break
our Agosto stories early, and separate from
the labor-racketeering series, when it developed
that we were in competition with The Wall
Street Journal, which was pursuing the same
of a few Organized Crime Strike Force people,
no one locally had heard Agosto's name before.
We tied him to the Legal Defense Fund and,
through confidential federal documents, to
other mob efforts in New Jersey, Seattle and
Southern California (in addition to Las Vegas).
man no one had ever heard of eventually became
the government's key informant when it dismantled
the Kansas City mob in the early 1980s.
1977 Fred Bonadonna entered the government's
Witness Protection Program. (After his father's
murder, Bonadonna became a key government
witness against the mob. For his own protection,
the FBI put him in the Witness Protection
Program. Bonadonna, in 2002 at age 63, took
his own life, apparently despondent over a
dispute with his siblings involving the disposition
of his mother's estate. After his death, Bill
Ouseley, the FBI agent who led a federal investigation
into infiltration of River Quay, was quoted
in The Kansas City Star as saying, "His
contribution was enormous, besides making
major cases for us. The River Quay was a city
pride kind of thing. This was an enormously
high-profile case. It opened people's eyes
to (the idea that) there was a Mafia in this
town." The Star said that "Information
from Bonadonna allowed the FBI to obtain wiretaps
that led to cases which proved mob influence
over the Teamsters union and skimming from
Las Vegas casinos.") That same year the
Spero brothers were ambushed at The Virginian
Tavern. Mike, an organizer for the Teamsters,
was killed, Carl was paralyzed and Joe Spero
was wounded. Later, Joe blew himself up while
making a bomb, and Carl was killed by a car
Quay also died. In 1978, shortly after I left
The Star, one of the networks called and asked
me to show one of its crews around while it
did a segment on River Quay. When we went
to River Quay, the streets were empty. They
prepared to film inside one of the go-go clubs,
but not even the dancers showed up for work.
the 26 liquor licenses operating in River
Quay at its height, fewer than six remained
by 1978. Liquor Control was restructured;
none of the agents I investigated is still
federal government had gotten involved. Willie
Cammisano and his brother Joe were both convicted
of extortion in River Quay. Willie went to
prison, Joe died of a heart attack. Just as
our investigation had broadened, so had the
investigation eventually encompassed skimming
of Las Vegas casinos, and involved crime figures
in a number of other cities. Joe Agosto talked.
As a result, Nick Civella and Carl Civella
were both convicted, along with most of their
lieutenants. One state representative, Alex
Fazzino, who'd taken the Fifth Amendment when
called before a federal grand jury investigating
extortion in River Quay, recently went to
federal prison for an unrelated extortion.
Before he went, hundreds of well-wishers gave
him a going-away party.
Mafia is far from dead in Kansas City. It's
like any major corporation-—the departing
officers put a new board of directors in place
before they go. Many Kansas City Italians
have been honored by the Italian community-—but
three local Italians have never been honored.
In fact, they were vilified and hated far
more than I was. These men were: Michael DeFeo,
head of the Organized Crime Strike Force;
William Ousley, head of the FBI's Organized
Crime Section; and Leoni Flossi, a key FBI
agent. Mafia bosses throughout the Midwest
have gone to prison because of their efforts.
are some who say The Star killed River Quay.
Some people blame me. When Joe Cammisano and
John Amaro closed their restaurant, Il Pagliacci,
they nailed a sign to the door that read:
"Closed due to harassment from the Kansas
City Star and J.J. Maloney."
prefer to believe the Mafia killed River Quay.
Or maybe apathy did it. If the people of Kansas
City hadn't been so tolerant of their presence,
City Hall would have been less reluctant to
take on the mob.
novel I Speak for the Dead was not intended
to be the gospel of River Quay, though obviously
it was based on that period.
did want to give the average reader some feel
for the conflicting dynamics of a newsroom,
as well as the difficulty of investigating
people like Mafia members, who have no open
meetings and lie to everyone. They need to
know that a newsroom is not one mind—-there
are differences of opinion, likes and dislikes,
biases. Every man and woman in a newsroom
has human failings. Editors at The Star were
reviled in private by some, yet stood resolutely
together against the Mafia. The city of Kansas
City owes a debt of gratitude to Kansas City
Star editors like Cruise Palmer (then executive
editor), Tom Eblen (then managing editor)
and Mike Fancher (then city editor).
think The Star came very near to greatness
during River Quay—-but it was a result
of a lot of individuals -- editors and reporters
-- working together. It was the most difficult
kind of story a newspaper can undertake—-quoting
innumerable unidentified sources, on a subject
guaranteed to generate hostility from many
quarters of the community.
through FBI wiretapping, we were vindicated.
But we didn't know at the time that we would
ever be vindicated. We were out there on the
limb, and we knew it.