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Not Entrenched Like Eastern Families : The L.A. Mob: Eking Out a Living Working Streets

June 29, 1987|KIM MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

He drives a 1973 Buick with a rebuilt transmission. He goes at night to a modest home in Tarzana, watches a little television, goes to bed by 9.

"Once in a while, I go to the movies; not that often. I have trouble staying awake," Carmen Milano confessed. "Maybe it's because I'm not one of the gang, I don't know. It's not my cup of tea. I'm not from the fast lane, the Bruce Willises, that type of thing. I'm very boring."

Milano, interviewed recently at the home of a friend in Sherman Oaks, hardly fits the image that a recent federal indictment has projected for him: under-boss of the Los Angeles Mafia family and No. 2 overseer of the mob's drug dealing, loan sharking and extortion rackets in Southern California.

It is a designation that Milano vigorously contests. And if the rotund, slightly bashful former lawyer from Cleveland doesn't fit the movie version of an underworld godfather, neither does the Southern California crime family he allegedly represents.

Barely 20 members strong, loosely organized and frequently ignored by its more powerful East Coast associates, the Los Angeles syndicate presides over what is widely viewed as the only major "open city" in the nation, a wealthy empire in which outside crime families have been free to operate without stirring territorial jealousies.

While powerful New York and Chicago families have muscled their way into Southern California's multibillion-dollar pornography, film, real estate and recording industries, the federal government's most recent investigations make clear that the Los Angeles mob is still largely working the streets, meeting in restaurant back rooms and threatening to break heads over $25,000 drug deals and $500-a-week Shylock loans.

"We see the mob scratching and digging out here. We see them just trying to make a buck any way they can," said Capt. Stuart Finck, head of the Los Angeles Police Department's Organized Crime Intelligence Division for the last 10 years.

For a variety of reasons, organized crime--a veritable institution in the close-knit ethnic neighborhoods of the East--wears a much different face in suburban California.

Here, Colombian drug lords and ethnic youth gangs deal more terror in the streets than the traditional Italian Mafia, which has not been linked to a gangland slaying in California since 1977. Increasingly, white-collar real estate swindles and complicated loan fraud schemes have become organized crime's biggest money earners.

"They have not had the kind of controlling influence over some elements of crime in Los Angeles like the other, Eastern (Mafia) families have had because of the absence of the type of political structures that you find back East, where corruption has wielded its way through the various ranks," said Richard T. Bretzing, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office.

"While in the 1940s and '50s there were some elements of corruption present, it never got to the point where they could commandeer an element of crime and call it their own," he said.

24 Mafia Families

But the Los Angeles Mafia family, one of 24 recognized families in the American wing of the Sicilian Mafia, has had a foothold in the city for 40 years.

Italian and Jewish mobsters flourished in Los Angeles in the 1940s when Jack Dragna and Mickey Cohen battled for control of the city's bookmaking operations and extended the West Coast mob's tentacles into the emerging gambling mecca of Las Vegas.

But Dragna, perhaps the only classic "godfather" that the city has ever known, died in 1957, and the family went into decline under the leadership of Frank DeSimone and Nick Licata.

A series of federal prosecutions during the 1970s sent most of the family's top brass to prison, concluding with the 1980 conviction of boss Dominick Brooklier and four others on federal racketeering charges.

Today, federal prosecutors allege that the family is headed by Carmen Milano's brother, Westlake Village businessman Peter John Milano, 61.

Although Peter Milano denies any mob connections, federal authorities claim he has moved swiftly to consolidate power, recruit new members and aggressively improve the family's standing in the national organized crime community.

State organized crime authorities, in reports and interviews, credit Milano with drawing at least five, and possibly as many as seven, "made" members into the family, conducting the secret blood initiation rite that renders an ordinary criminal a member for life of the so-called La Cosa Nostra, or "this thing of ours."

A star witness in the upcoming trial in Los Angeles on the federal indictment is sure to be Angelo Lonardo, a longtime under-boss of the Cleveland crime family who is expected to testify that Peter Milano met with the Cleveland family's upper echelons in 1981 and informed them that he had taken over the family in Los Angeles.

Murder Contract

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