In the early morning hours of December 5, 1928, patrolman Frank Osowski, was walking his beat in downtown Cleveland, when he noticed a car pulling up in front of the Statler Hotel on Euclid Avenue. A group of men emerged that caught the officer’s eye. As he told a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Well, it was this way. A car all covered in dust, drew up in front of the hotel. It was about sunrise. I didn’t pay much attention to them at first. Lots of people come to hotels in the morning. But these boys looked tough, as you might say. There were eleven of them.”
Osowski followed them into the hotel and after they checked in, he jotted down their names and returned to the station to give them to the detective bureau, before his shift ended. One of the detectives, Emmet Potts, recognized some of the names as gangland figures. He had also just received a telegram form Chicago stating that some of Al Capone’s men were traveling to Cleveland for a meeting. With reinforcements Potts went to the hotel and quietly rounded up 21 men in total.
At the station the men were booked and photographed. The newspapers were already on the scene calling it a meeting of suspected bootleggers and gunmen. Some powerful names were in the crowd, from New York mob powers Joe Profaci and Vincent Mangano, to Capone men Joseph Giunta and Pasquale Lolordo.
The real reason for the Statler Hotel meeting is not fully known. David Critchley, in his essential The Origin of Organized Crime in America, presents the most logical theory, that the meeting was held to discuss the killing of Brooklyn mob boss Salvatore D’Aquila and additional assassinations in Chicago. But authorities were unable to directly tie the Statler guests to any specific crime. On December 15th, ten days after their arrest, the men were released after pleading guilty as ‘suspicious persons’.
Two of the men arrested were not on the Cleveland PD’s radar at the time. They were Tampa residents Ignazio Italiano and Joe Vaglica. Italiano was the boss of the Tampa Mafia at the time of the meeting. Vaglica’s exact position in the Mafia was unknown, though his appearance with Italiano at the Statler meeting suggests he was at least a trusted capo if not a major power in his own right. In a 1963 FBI report, Vaglica was described by an informant as “definitely a member years ago of the Italian group referred to as the Mafia”, and that “Vaglica had been dealing in narcotics and diamonds.”
Joe (Giuseppe) Vaglica was born in 1894 in Italy. He arrived in Ellis Island on January 24, 1895, at 11 months old. He traveled across with his 15 year old sister and 7 year old brother, and their mother, Maria. The family sailed out of Naples on the SS Kronprinz Friedrich Wilhem.
Vaglica had spent some time in Chicago before relocating to Tampa in the 1920s. In the 1930 census Joe listed his occupation as cigar maker. By 1937, Joe was running the White Spot Barbeque, an eatery and dance hall on Nebraska Avenue in Tampa, just south of the intersection of Nebraska and Broad St.
Just after 3:00AM, on the morning of July 11, 1937, Joe Vaglica was sitting at the outside counter of the White Spot eating a plate of French fries. He was chatting with the waitress, Ethel Hamilton. “I was leaning on the counter talking to Mr. Vaglica and when I reached over his shoulder to take a potato, I heard a car stop across the street.”
The car was a black 1937 two-door Ford, slowly cruising past the front of the White Spot. The vehicle stopped directly across from the counter. The back passenger window lowered and four .20 gauge shotgun blasts ripped through the front of the restaurant and the back of Vaglica. Ethel saw the shots and watched the car speed away, east down Broad St. She later told investigators that there were three men in the backseat. The witnesses were only able to give a description of the car and a vague description of the driver, described as ‘stout’.
After the shots rang out, Ethel and two other customers in the restaurant ran over to Joe, but it was too late. He had been hit with ten slugs and died instantly. Ethel described the event to a reported from the Tampa Morning Tribune.
“There were four shots, fast, one right after another and they were fired out the back window of the car. I was in three feet of Mr. Vaglica when he was hit. He was dead before he hit the ground.”
Police questioned all the witnesses, except for one waitress, Alice Haneleaf. The 20-year old fled the scene before police had a chance to take her statement. They caught up with her a few days later and held her at the station, thinking she may have been involved in some capacity. However, after questioning her for a few hours, she was released.
Vaglica’s death was the third unsolved gangland homicide within a year, preceded by the deaths of Gus Perez, Frank Carrao, and Charlie Walls’ chief lieutenant Eddie Virella. Police chalked Vaglica’s death as the latest in the gangland war that was rocking Tampa. That war was being fought between the upstart Sicilian Mafia and Charlie Wall and his loyalists.
With Vaglica’s stature in the Mafia, his killing was a major notch in the belt of the Wall faction. But it was not the end to the killing. And though Wall’s group seemed to take the upper hand with the death of Vaglica, the streets of Tampa would run red with gangster blood for years to come.