At one time Kansas City  boasted a Mafia so far-reaching it was even mentioned in Martin Scorsese’s iconic movie Casino: “Now, that suitcase was goin’ straight to one place: right to Kansas City, which was as close to Las Vegas as the Midwest bosses could go without gettin’ themselves arrested.”
In his book The Mafia and the Machine, author Frank Hayde succinctly describes Kansas City’s Mob impact. “Kansas City is key in the history of organized crime. This conflict is rooted in the century-old struggle between the Pendergast family, with their permissive political machine, and publishing magnate William Rockhill Nelson and his crusading Kansas City Star. But to omit the Mob’s role in the city’s history is a denial to the power and influence of organized crime here and in the nation as a whole.”
Added Hayde, “What’s remarkable is how unremarkable the local Mafia is to Kansas Citians. For generations, the local Mob was a simple fact of everyday life, something almost as old as the city itself, and something so enmeshed in business and politics that it was taken for granted as an inevitable part of city life.” Credited as being more politically involved than most American Mafia families, the Kansas City Mafia flourished in the early 20th century in Kansas City’s Little Italy neighborhood, a mostly Sicilian district where crimes went unpunished thanks to a strict adherence to omertà, or code of silence.
Kansas City  was the setting for notoriously corrupt and violent elections. As Tom Pendergast rose to power at the beginning of Prohibition, he partnered with Kansas City Mafia boss Johnny Lazia in the 1930s to enact a takeover of the local police department. Ex-cons and corrupt officers began patrolling the streets, a pivotal move that would later lead to the infamous Union Station  massacre and the creation of J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. Lazia, as the unofficial chief of police, made Kansas City a safe haven for criminals, but he met a bloody end during a 1934 gun battle; his funeral is said to have been the largest ever in Kansas City.
Post-Lazia, Charley “The Wop” Carollo took over briefly as front man but was sent to prison thanks to a federal probe that ensnared both him and Pendergast in 1939. Charlie Binaggio assumed leadership and quickly launched a political coup to open the entire state of Missouri to police-protected gambling and vice—essentially a state-sized Las Vegas. “With a friendly statehouse and Harry Truman in the White House, the KC [Kansas City] Family seemed poised to leap ahead of Cleveland to claim the number three spot behind NY [New York] and Chicago,” Hayde writes. Yet Binaggio and Charlie Gargotta were murdered on Truman Road, having fallen short of statewide dominance.
The Mafia continued to play a role in Kansas City; by the 1970s, they were skimming cash from several Las Vegas casinos that they owned, and sharing the riches with the families in Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. As Hayde describes, “It was a sweet deal for the modern mob; a hands-off, mostly non-violent, white-collar conspiracy that delivered cash from the counting rooms by charter jet. It represented the new, relatively clean way of doing things. Unfortunately for Nick Civella, a Mafia member who rose to prominence in the 1950s, a messy mob was brewing on the streets of Kansas City. Adding to the pressure was the Kansas City Organized Crime Strike Force, which was patiently bugging businesses and building cases.”
Kansas City ’s River Quay (pronounced “key”), now known as the River Market, became a Mafia stronghold in the 1970s. Conflict sprung up over land and building use in the area, resulting in a violent series of bombings, arson, and shootings that left the once-picturesque district resembling a war zone by the late ’70s. In 1978, three masked men invaded the Virginian Tavern east of downtown Kansas City in an attempt to pull off what was called the most aggressive gangland hit since the Union Station  massacre. The targets were the three Spero brothers, who were ensconced in a booth eating a late dinner.
A letter later identified the possible suspects as Carl DeLuna, Joe Ragusa, and Charles Moretina; while listening in on a meeting between DeLuna and Carl “Cork” Civella (Nick Civella’s older brother), organized-crime agents instead picked up incriminating conversation regarding the Teamsters union, the Chicago outfit, and someone called “genius.” The evidence was eventually compiled into the Strawman case, which would later be popularized in the film Casino, an adaptation of Nick Pellegi’s book. The Strawman case shed light on the operation to skim cash from Las Vegas casinos, and after two major trials in Kansas City the Mob’s grip over Cowtown loosened considerably.