Rocco Zito in the 1980s
He was 87.
Zito was pronounced dead Friday after suffering a single gunshot wound. Emergency crews were called to the home at dinnertime and police quickly searched for a gunman.
Domenico Scopelliti, 51, is charged with murder in the death of Rocco Zito after surrendering to police.
Zito was at the centre of underworld intrigue at a time when police in Canada were beginning to realize the presence here of the ’Ndrangheta, the powerful Mafia that formed in the southern Italian region of Calabria.
But Zito loathed the flash of the modern Mafia, with its ostentatious displays of wealth meant to show power; true respect, he believed, came from “honour.”
In the years before he was killed, Zito often dismissed the young mobsters who were pushing and preening north of Toronto as “Hollywood.”
Zito said he disliked hanging out with “the people in Hollywood,” meaning Woodbridge, Ont., where many mobsters now call home, and lampooned them as “glamorous,” according to a source who knew him.
“In my day, we didn’t have the big houses, drive the big cars and the suits and all the flash,” Zito said. “But all the guys in Woodbridge have the big houses and drive the big, black SUVs and put on airs.”
He drove a car that was as plain as you could buy — no extras, no options, no flash, no nothing.Zito lived that philosophy of old-school modesty to the end.
“If you were to look at the guy, you’d never guess he was a Mafia chieftain,” said Larry Tronstad, a retired RCMP Staff Sergeant who led an anti-Mafia unit that probed Zito for years. “He drove a car that was as plain as you could buy — no extras, no options, no flash, no nothing.
“He dressed very plainly, lived quietly as he could.”
Zito officially listed his occupation as a ceramic tile salesmen and he looked the part.
But his position was not in dispute in the underworld.
Police files say he was one of the original six members of the mob’s “Camera di Controllo,” or board of control, formed in Toronto in 1962 to settle disputes between Calabrian Mafia clans. Police sources said he was elevated to chairman of the board in the 1980s.
Thirty years ago, almost exactly, Zito was himself the subject of a police manhunt in a slaying, and was also described as “armed and dangerous.”
Police investigate at 160 Playfair Ave, the home of Rocco Zito, in Toronto on Saturday January 30, 2016.
Zito had shot Sciarrino in the head and bashed in his face with an ashtray during an argument over the photographer’s unpaid debt. The judge accepted a plea deal to manslaughter on the grounds the only witness testified that Zito was provoked.
It was an uncharacteristic public lapse.
Zito was born Aug. 19, 1929 in Fiumara, a town of about 1,000 people in the countryside hills of Calabria that is 12 kilometres from the provincial capital of Reggio Calabria and seven kilometres from the coast that overlooks Sicily.
Fiumara’s population was double that at the time Zito immigrated to Canada in the 1950s.
He arrived here already entrenched in the ’Ndrangheta, the powerful Mafia of Calabria.
Zito had been inducted into the mob clan led by his uncle, Giuseppe Zito (nicknamed “the Pope”), and to which Zito’s father, Domenico, was also a member, according to police files.
In 1952 Zito was charged in Italy in a murder but the charge was dismissed. Shortly after he left Italy.
He initially wanted to immigrate to the United States but was twice caught trying to sneak in and was charged with smuggling and deported. In the late 1950s he arrived in Canada through Montreal and became a Canadian citizen in 1971.
Giacomo Luppino, the powerful senior Mafia boss in Hamilton at the time, said — with a seeming mix of annoyance and admiration — that Zito had suddenly become a major player.
Luppino had “very rarely heard of Rocco Zito in the past,” he was heard telling his son in his wired-up home in 1967, but now he “hears of Zito all the time” and understands he is “in the money.”
Police long believed he earned that money through gambling, loan sharking, drugs, fraud, counterfeiting and other criminal ventures. He also had an early bootlegging conviction.
Zito was first a police target in Canada in 1960 in a fraud investigation. By 1962, he was seen meeting with powerful mob figures, including Luppino.
In 1978, a police investigation of a counterfeiting operation focused on a printing company Zito owned. It led to the seizure of $1.7 million in counterfeit money in Vancouver. The bills originated in Toronto but charges against Zito were never laid.
Police also said at the time he had extensive gambling interests in Toronto, overseen by a relative of the man charged in Zito’s murder.
Zito was inordinately well connected to gangsters around Canada and in other countries.
He had ties with high-ranking members of the American Mafia, including two of the notorious Five Families of the New York City Mafia. When Paolo Gambino — brother of Carlo Gambino, the boss of the Gambino crime family — came to Toronto in 1970 he met for hours with Zito in a Holiday Inn, who entered through a rear service entrance. Zito was also seen meeting members of New York’s Bonanno crime family.
He was tight with mobsters in Ottawa, Montreal, Hamilton and Toronto, and colleagues back in Italy, not only in Calabria, Rome and Milan, but also in Naples, where another Mafia organization, the Camorra, ruled.
Zito traveled back to Italy for special occasions.
One such occasion was in February 1975 for the funeral of his brother, Giuseppe, who had been killed during a Mafia power struggle in Reggio Calabria, according to police.
He was an important guy. He was a powerful man who lived through a lot when his contemporaries were being killed.Perhaps sparked by the mob war at home, Zito’s father, Domenico, tried to join his son in Canada but was refused landing status because of a conviction for Mafia association. He was deported back to Italy.
Domenico Zito died a year later and his wife, Angela — Rocco Zito’s mother — came to live with Zito until her death in 1984. Along with their grieving family and wide circle of friends, a who’s who of the mob attended the funeral out of respect for Zito.
Adrian Humphreys archive Rocco Zito in 1968
“We had this guy wired from stem to stern back in the day,” said Tronstad. “He was an important guy. He was a powerful man who lived through a lot when his contemporaries were being killed.”
With wiretaps in the kitchen and living room of Zito’s Playfair Ave., home and police staked out in a cockroach infested observation point on the top floor of a high-rise overlooking Zito’s street, investigators watched and listened to him, almost constantly, for three years.
Zito was wily and careful, investigators said.
Zito was even under surveillance the day he killed Sciarrino. Court later heard that Zito and Sciarrino met inside a Brampton meat store over an unpaid debt; Zito grew furious and felt insulted when Sciarrino sought more money instead of making payment.
In a scuffle, Sciarrino was shot in the head and chest.
He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 4½ years in prison, a sentence many balked at.
The investigation in Canada of Zito and his associates uncovered ties to mobsters in Italy, and information shared by the RCMP with Italian authorities helped bring arrest warrants against 62 people in Italy in 1986. The case included firearm transfers during a mob war between the De Stefano and Imerti clans in Calabria in a feud known as the Second ’Ndrangheta War.
He is retired. He is done. He is away from it all.And the CFSEU’s probe also led to Zito being charged in 1986 in a high-end theft ring that stole and resold $450,000 worth of backhoes, portable compressors and other expensive construction equipment from constructions sites.
Over the years, however, the police files on Zito grew dusty, as he retired from a leadership role and police moved on to other, more aggressive targets.
“He is retired. He is done. He is away from it all,” said a police investigator in 2008.
Instead of gangland, Zito reveled in his family, especially his five children and at least eight grandchildren, and was well liked in the neighbourhood and community, said a neighbour.
It looked as if he would escape the violence of his underworld life, destined for a natural death from his growing ailments.
Until dinnertime on Friday.