SANTA ANA — The cavernous Mustang Club on Harbor Boulevard was once a bar owner's dream.
Every night, a mix of coat-and-tie yuppies, beer-bellied bikers and off-duty soldiers crowded around a horseshoe-shaped bar, attracted by the loud rock music and the topless dancers.
"The money was just pouring in," said one law enforcement official.
But with success came violence. The club's profits may have been the catalyst for a 15-month period in which the Mustang's first manager and one of its bouncers were murdered, its major investor blinded and left for dead, and the club itself torched and burned to the ground.
But despite the sentencing of a major Los Angeles organized crime figure two weeks ago for his role in the violence, still unsolved are the two murders and the arson, and law enforcement officials are still searching for answers.
Los Angeles racketeer Michael Anthony Rizzitello, 62, considered by organized crime experts the most violent member of the Milano crime family, was sentenced to 33 years in prison for the near-fatal shooting of C. William Carroll, the Mustang's chief financial backer. Rizzitello "gopher" Joseph Angelo Grosso, 46, is serving a 26-year-to-life prison term for helping him in the Carroll hit.
Prosecutors contended that Rizzitello wanted to muscle in on the Mustang's profits and tried to remove Carroll, who he believed would resist those plans. But still unsolved are:
* The murder of Jimmy Lee Casino, 48, the club's originator and first manager, shot three times in the head at his Buena Park home on New Year's Day, 1987.
* Two arson fires, the last one demolishing the club on Jan. 16, 1988. One man has been convicted in the arson cases. But investigators believe he was a hired hand, and while they have an unnamed suspect as the mastermind, no other arrests have been made.
* The murder of George (Big George) Yudzevich, 46, the club's liaison with organized crime, found shot to death March 3, 1988, in an Irvine industrial park.
"Now that Rizzitello is out of the way, we can concentrate our manpower on these other cases," one law enforcement official said. "We're going to take a harder look than ever at what was going on at that club."
The Mustang began when Casino convinced investors that a topless bar in Orange County would be a moneymaker, according to testimony and evidence presented at the Rizzitello and Grosso trials.
Carroll, a real estate investor and financier who once served a prison term for fraud, became Casino's major benefactor, eventually providing about $200,000, court records show.
Casino was as flamboyant as he was quick to make enemies. But he knew how to run a nightclub.
The Mustang thrived, even as Casino outmaneuvered the Santa Ana officials who tried repeatedly to shut the club. The club officially became a theater after Casino persuaded a judge that it was more than just a topless bar.
But despite the profits, Casino was beset by money troubles. He somehow could not pay off all of his loans. And his troubles mounted when federal officials claimed in 1986 that he owed unpaid taxes.
He secured a five-figure loan from Carroll, who demanded that should Casino default, Carroll would essentially gain control of the club's operation. And Casino defaulted.
He returned to his Buena Park home with his girlfriend after a New Year's Eve party in 1987 to find two gunmen waiting. They escorted the couple into the house. The woman was raped. Casino was shot three times in the head, and died.
Soon after the shooting, Rizzitello sought out Carroll, who had assumed a more active role at the club. Rizzitello proposed several business ventures, which Carroll resisted, according to testimony at both the Rizzitello and Grosso trials. Carroll said he did eventually loan Rizzitello $10,000.
At the time, Carroll was not happy about the club's operation. Grosso and Yudzevich, who both had ties to Rizzitello and were regular visitors to the club, upset him the most. Carroll testified that he learned they were selling cocaine at the club to some of the dancers, and he tried to get the new manager, Gene Lesher, to throw them out. Yudzevich, at 6 feet, 7 inches and more than 350 pounds, eventually became a club bouncer, and Grosso an occasional driver for Carroll. Grosso also sold lingerie to the dancers in the $10,000 business arrangement between Carroll and Rizzitello.
In April of 1987, someone took a shot at Carroll on Harbor Boulevard after he left the club. Several weeks later, on April 30, Carroll and Rizzitello met at Emilia's restaurant in Santa Ana. Carroll wanted to talk about the lack of return on his $10,000 loan, and Rizzitello had said he would help find out who had shot at Carroll. Grosso was present.
Carroll testified that the two used a ruse to persuade him to accompany them to a vacant parking garage near the Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, where Rizzitello shot him three times in the head while Grosso held him down.