New book tells story of famous Mafia hit man who was slain in San Francisco 

click to enlarge East Coast gangster-turned-informant Joe Barboza secretly lived and publicly died in The City. - COURTESY OF KEVIN COLE
  • Courtesy of Kevin Cole
  • East Coast gangster-turned-informant Joe Barboza secretly lived and publicly died in The City.

The ghost of Joe “The Animal” Barboza has returned, so you might want to put your hands on your cheeks and scream.

An East Coast mob story that ended in a hail of gunfire in San Francisco’s Sunset district is being brought back to life in a new true-crime novel and forthcoming film.

Casey Sherman’s “Animal: The Bloody Rise and Fall of the Mob’s Most Feared Assassin” details the life of Barboza, the New England hit man who earned his nickname when he reportedly chewed off a man’s cheek at a packed nightclub. The vicious bite came after a crime family underboss reportedly told Barboza not to lay a hand on the man.

“I didn’t touch him with my hands,” Barboza declared after the attack.

That tale is just one of the fascinating stories about Barboza, who murdered 26 people for the mob in the 1960s and became the first man ever placed into the federal Witness Protection Program.

He was ultimately gunned down at the intersection of 25th Avenue and Moraga Street in The City.

The New Bedford, Mass.-raised Barboza, who was being hunted by mobsters for acting as a star witness against the Mafia in three high-profile trials, was killed Feb. 11, 1976, after leaving the home of a “friend” who had tipped off the assassins, Sherman said.

The story goes that as he was opening his car door, one man with a shotgun and another with a carbine emerged from a white van and opened fire. Barboza did not even have “time to reach for his own pistol, a loaded .38 that was tucked away in his jacket pocket,” Sherman wrote, adding that the “Mafia had promised a public execution for the vicious turncoat, and J.R. Russo made good on the pledge.” Russo was one of the two assassins hired for the hit.

At the time of his death, Sherman said, Barboza had been out of prison for only four months after killing an armed low-level criminal in Sonoma County who had confronted him about his FBI affiliations.

The FBI’s influence had Barboza serving only four years in prison for the killing, Sherman wrote, adding that the federal government was scandalously crooked during the process of bringing down Mafia members.

During the last four months of his life, Barboza was given the name Joseph Donati and got a job as a cook at Rathskeller restaurant, which was a popular police hangout near City Hall. That’s when he met and temporarily lived with James Chalmas, the friend who would eventually tip off the mob about his whereabouts.

“He continued to meet daily with Chalmas to discuss some possible scores they could set up in the San Francisco underworld, which Joe believed was ripe for a takeover,” Sherman wrote.

Barboza eventually began to suspect Chalmas would turn on him, Sherman said, but when the assassins finally came The Animal couldn’t react quickly enough. The vicious predator had become the prey.

Lawyer F. Lee Bailey, who happened to be in San Francisco at the time of the Barboza assassination defending Patricia Hearst in her bank robbery trial, summed up Barboza’s death in a memorable way, Sherman wrote.

“With all due respect to my former client, I don’t think society has suffered a great loss,” Bailey reportedly said.

San Francisco tough to crack for mobs

The Italian Mafia apparently was never able to get a stronghold in San Francisco, and the theory goes that it was due to geography and a bunch of stubborn cops.

Unlike New York City and Boston, mobsters able to exploit Prohibition during the 1920s had more difficulty doing so in San Francisco, as the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge had yet to be built. The only way to transport illegal booze into The City was by ferry or train, which cops could easily monitor, said Tenderloin Police Station Capt. John Garrity, a department veteran who said his knowledge on the matter comes from his predecessors.

There was at least one known syndicate – the Lanza crime family headed by Francesco “Frank” Lanza – that had existed here during the 1900s, according to Mafia experts. The organization formed after a gang war in 1932 and kept going until the turn of the century, but remained relatively small and is now reportedly extinct.

Publicist and longtime San Franciscan Lee Housekeeper said the Italian district of North Beach was filled with poser mobsters in the 1980s.

“They owned strip clubs and dressed like gangsters, but it was almost a clown act,” he said.

There have been other accusations of mob activity in San Francisco. In 1969, an article in the now defunct magazine Look claimed then-Mayor Joseph Alioto had mob ties. Alioto sued the magazine for libel after proving that an article about a mob meeting in Vacaville was false, leading to a whopping $450,000 judgment.

In 1972, after two cops were busted for taking bribes from Mission district strip clubs, the U.S. Justice Department investigated the SFPD for mob corruption, but reportedly found that the one officer who was charged with accepting protection money had acted alone.

Housekeeper credits police for keeping the Italian Mafia at bay, particularly his friend the late Tom Cahill, who was police chief from 1958 to 1970. There is an unofficial story, Housekeeper said, that Cahill and his partner ran famous Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen out of town by exploiting Cohen’s obsessive compulsive disorder.

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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