Peter Joseph Licavoli (July 2, 1902 – January 11, 1984) was an organized crime figure in St. Louis, Missouri before moving to Detroit, Michigan. He controlled criminal operations in Detroit and Toledo, Ohio, throughout the Prohibition era. Licavoli was one of the most powerful and influential crime bosses in the history of the Detroit Mafia, during his reign he was the most powerful man in Detroit, virtually controlling the whole city, from the politicians to judges to businesses to labor unions to organized crime activities.
Pietro Giuseppe Licavoli was born in St. Louis to immigrants from the Sicilian town of Terrasini. He was the eldest of three siblings and when he was old enough for education and into his teens was a bright and promising student. His parents hoped that one day he would become a success as a legitimate citizen and branch off into possibly being a doctor or a lawyer. But alas for his mother and father, Pietro and neither his younger brothers Thomas "Yonnie" Licavoli or Dominic Licavoli showed the slightest interest in anything but the fast and dangerous life of crime and being downright thugs. All three brothers grew up in a neighborhood in which members of the Jewish faith made up a majority of the residents and provided the boys with a foretaste of diversity which would contribute to their underworld successes in later years.
The River Gang
Pietro had his first brush with the police when he and Yonnie were picked up in 1916 for stealing two pairs of shoes. This charge was followed by a series of other arrests for relatively minor offenses none of which resulted in serious trouble for him. Whilst his younger brother Yonnie had compiled a lengthy arrest record by the age of twenty, Pietro remained a relatively unknown commodity in St. Louis as far as the local law enforcement were concerned and this continued until he moved to Detroit, Michigan. Now exactly when he arrived in Detroit is uncertain but most gangster historians place it circa 1925. Not long after Peter, as he would now have been known, started the Licavoli operation and started setting about organizing the gang's involvement into liquor smuggling. Because they were a faction of the St. Louis chapter of the Unione Sicilione, the Licavoli's were welcomed into Detroit by Salvatore Catalanotte.
Licavoli became the boss of a mob known as The River Gang, with their base of operations in Wyandotte, Michigan. In Detroit, Licavoli supplied men to Henry Ford to help him break strikes and his gang were said to be responsible for around 17 murders during Prohibition. The River Gang were soon recognized as one of the most successful and best organized rum-running operations in the country. A key man in their success was a former Detroit racketeer known as Moe Dalitz. The River Gang's success led Catalanotte to increase Pete's take of the spoils from the Pascuzzi Combine. When the Prohibition started to lose it's power, Peter Licavoli started guiding his gang into other fields of operations or rackets, these included the control of gambling, extortion, smuggling narcotics and weapons, and of course still more liquor in addition to shaking down both legitimate and illegal businesses in a number of cities and states nationwide. Although his duties consisted of organizing activities, Peter Licavoli was also an accomplished gunman who later would be accused of kidnapping, assault and murder in the late 1920s and 30s.
After the death of Salvatore Catalanotte, a gang war erupted between Chester LaMare and the combination of William Tocco and Joseph Zerilli for control of the Detroit rackets. Licavoli aligned himself with the Tocco-Zerilli faction which would be victorious in the gang war, culminating with the formation of the Detroit crime family, also known as "The Combination", "Detroit Outfit" or "The Detroit Partnership", because of the many gangs that were united under their control. After the Second World War Licavoli was one of the five ruling Dons of Detroit. Between them they controlled several casinos, racetracks and hotels.
In the 1930s, Peter was convicted of bribing a federal official and spent two years at Leavenworth Penitentiary. Peter was arrested, tried, or suspected of murder seven times, and released seven times. His son Dominic Licavoli (named after Pete's younger brother) married Rosalie Zerilli, the eldest daughter of the Detroit Partnership boss Joseph Zerilli. In 1944, Peter left the Toledo-Detroit area for Arizona, living on Grace Ranch near Tucson, Arizona where he bred racehorses, but remained active in the Detroit mob. In Arizon he was said to live near 'retired' mob boss Joe Bonanno and they would also do business together.
Later Years and Death
Allegedly when William Tocco retired in 1963, Peter Licavoli was named underboss of the Detroit crime family until 1972 when a new, younger acting leadership came to power within the Detroit Partnership.
In 1976 Licavoli was convicted of buying a stolen 16th century painting. He eventually served a 13 month sentence for the crime. It is said that Peter was a very generous man who gave to the unfortunate unconditionally. Self-educated and blessed with high intellect he was also the inventor and trailblazer for many business models that are being used today.
Pete Licavoli died on the 11th of January, 1984, of a heart attack in Tucson, Arizona.