SANTA ANA — "The gun and the knife. . . them are the tools by which you live and die."
--Jimmy Fratianno, at Michael Anthony Rizzitello's initiation as a "made guy" into La Costa Nostra, 1976.
For reputed top racketeer Michael Anthony Rizzitello, jails and courtrooms have been familiar turf in his autumn years. He has been arrested nine times in the past 13 years and spent nearly half of that time behind bars.
But despite all his arrests, the 62-year-old Rizzitello, who authorities claim is a capo (underboss) in the Milano crime family of Los Angeles, has eluded any serious prison time. The last three times he was on trial, he was acquitted.
But now, in a case that has drawn interest nationwide from organized crime fighters, Rizzitello faces his most serious trouble. He is accused of shooting a Santa Ana night club figure in 1987 during a mob-style attempt to cut in on the topless bar's profits. If convicted, Rizzitello could very well die in prison--the penalty would be an automatic 30 years to life.
Testimony at Rizzitello's trial is scheduled to begin today, after opening statements, before Superior Court Judge John L. Flynn Jr.
"It's a tough case," acknowledged Rizzitello's attorney, Anthony P. Brooklier.
The victim, William Carroll, though left permanently blind, survived three shots to the back of his head and named Rizzitello as his assailant. Joey Grosso, already convicted as a participant, also names Rizzitello as the gunman.
His lawyer asserts that Rizzitello may be on trial simply because organized crime authorities have been after him for so long.
"Mike Rizzitello is a trophy for them," Brooklier said. "They want him so bad, they're going after him no matter what. They're bitter about those last three acquittals."
Prosecutors scoff at such accusations. But law enforcement officials who specialize in organized crime anxiously await the outcome of Rizzitello's trial.
"This trial will be the E-Ticket," one official said.
Though the aging mobster steadfastly claims he is innocent, he is known as a gunman within organized crime.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans has called him in court papers "a professional killer."
Federal prosecutor William M. Elsburg bluntly said of Rizzitello and another racketeer in court papers for a previous trial: "They are bad people who like to associate with bad people."
Rizzitello--known as Mike Rizzi--was once one of the few figures with solid racketeering credentials on both coasts.
Prosecutors allege that he started with "Crazy Joe" Gallo, a maverick in one of the New York crime families, in the 1950s. Rizzitello himself writes in bail bond papers that he moved to California in 1956, but other published reports show him with strong ties to the New York rackets in 1960.
In 1962, he was arrested for a string of armed robberies of restaurants and businesses in the Hollywood area and served nine years in prison. It was in 1970, in prison at Chino, that he met William Heldman, who was serving a sentence for grand theft. The two regularly played tennis together on the prison courts. Heldman later changed his last name to Carroll.
Rizzitello's notoriety grew in "The Last Mafioso," a 1981 best seller on organized crime written by Ovid DeMaris in cooperation with mob hit man Jimmy (The Weasel) Fratianno. Fratianno became a government witness and testified at two of Rizzitello's trials.
Fratianno said he first met Rizzitello in 1974 and states in "The Last Mafioso": "There's a new guy that's friendly with Pete (Milano). A big guy, calls himself Mike Rizzi."
Fratianno claimed that Rizzitello was Gallo's top gunman. "Remember Tony the Sheik? He told me to stay away from Rizzi because he was going to get whacked (killed). But Rizzi went back East and somehow straightened out the beef."
Fratianno's next reference to Rizzitello is a year later. He claims Rizzitello was lamenting that a man who had paid him $50,000 to kill his business partner had been killed himself, ending a source of income. Fratianno claims that he and Rizzitello soon became close.
Fratianno at the time was one of the temporary bosses of the Los Angeles crime family while its leaders were in prison. It was on June 6, 1976, Fratianno states, that Rizzitello was initiated as a member of La Cosa Nostra--"this thing of ours."
Rizzitello, at the time, was involved in small business ventures--one with ties to the garment industry, another in business machinery--and lived in Canoga Park with his wife, Terry, their two daughters and a son.
But court records show that Rizzitello remained busy with racketeering activities and had other troubles with law enforcement.
In 1976, he was arrested and convicted of insurance fraud and was subsequently arrested and acquitted of strong-arming an acquaintance over a gambling debt. In 1977, he was arrested in a mail-billing scheme and convicted. He was sentenced to three years for the two convictions.