Illegal Gambling & Organized Crime: A Victimless Crime?
Investigative Story By: Stephen G. Metelsky
Illegal gambling – is it a victimless crime? A game of poker may seem harmless and innocent, but it isn’t. Gambling is a lucrative vice in organized crime – fraught with violence and even murder.
According to the RCMP, illegal betting is at the top of the list of income generating rackets for organized crime – and business is good in southern Ontario. And experts agree.
“Gambling is the most profitable in the criminal portfolio. Not drugs, not prostitution, but illegal gaming” says Paul Manning, a former undercover officer who infiltrated the underworld and illegal gambling in southern Ontario – the epicenter being Hamilton.
In 2014 an Our London story about gambling in Ontario revealed illegal gaming generates a profit into the tens of millions of dollars for organized crime.
William Sword, a former Ontario Provincial Police investigator with the Organized Crime Illegal Gaming Unit has provided expert testimony throughout Ontario regarding cases of organized crime and illegal gaming.
“It’s a very lucrative business, even more than drug sales,” says Sword, adding the steps to lucrative gambling profits can be reaped in the underworld with a deck of cards, some betting slips, and a book.
Why is it thriving? Police are aware of illegal gaming houses in southern Ontario but are strapped to devote significant resources to a crime, a summary offence, that rarely ends with a jail sentence in an Ontario Court of Justice.
The costs associated with the investigative front end are outweighed by the underwhelming result, typically ending with a paltry fine or conditional discharge.
“Those investigations are very costly and human resource intensive,” says William Sword.
As recent as 2015, Sword testified he personally observed crimes involving assaults and extortions in relation to gambling debt collections during his years investigating illegal gaming, at times working undercover. He is aware of shootings and homicides that have occurred in the underworld due to illegal gambling and the owing debts to crime families.
Illegal gaming has thrived in the southern Ontario area for years – leading to murderous intentions in the mafia. Musitano crime family hitman Kenneth Murdock, who murdered at the behest of brothers Pat and Angelo in the 1990’s, killed three.
The motive behind the murder of janitor Salvatore Alaimo was an outstanding gambling debt owed to the Musitano’s. Alaimo wasn’t even involved in organized crime.
The murder of former Hamilton mob boss Johnny “Pops” Papalia was rooted in outstanding sports betting, bookmaking debts and loans.
“There is use of violence to enforce gambling debts,” says Paul Manning, referencing what underworld enforcers resort to when collecting gambling debts owed to the mob in southern Ontario.
Manning contends there are mafia run poker houses presently operating in the city of Hamilton, with five or six different poker games simultaneously on the go at each location.
“Gambling is protected with their lives,” Manning says, adding an illegal gaming house is heavily protected by enforcers – menacing criminals with underworld connections, to avoid the games from being ‘ripped-off.’
“These gaming houses are controlled by traditional organized crime,” adds Manning.
“The Hells Angels provide protection at illegal gaming houses run by traditional organized crime families in Hamilton, and collect outstanding debts on the mob’s behalf,” says a former intelligence officer who investigated outlaw motorcycle gangs in southern Ontario.
The former biker officer, wishing to remain anonymous, spoke about the undercover work of Paul Manning, and his infiltration of mafia controlled illegal gaming houses in Hamilton.
In southern Ontario, “history has shown, that the Hells Angels and Italian organized crime are working together in the illegal gaming industry”, says Len Isnor, an outlaw motorcycle gang expert and former Detective Staff Sergeant from the OPP’s Biker Enforcement Unit, who retired in 2017.
“These card games are all held at locations that limit people from attending. The security is there, but nobody knows where they are. They will get an invitation the day of the game. They attend a location and a van takes them to the gaming location”, adds Isnor.
Illegal card games comprise one of many gaming rackets between the mob and the bikers. Online sports betting provides a greater, more lucrative profit margin in the underworld. Another joint opportunity exploited by traditional organized crime and the Hells Angels – with Platinum Sports book, evidenced by the RCMP/CFSEU led Project ORIVER.
The Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada reported the discovery of Platinum Sports book back in 2012 – involving organized criminal groups “using an off-shore gambling website, PlatinumSportsBook.com, to launder proceeds of crime generated in Canada and make money through illegal gambling”, reports the federal intelligence agency.
“With Project ORIVER, it exposed a little bit of what the Hells Angels are into with Italian Organized Crime. Italian Organized Crime runs Platinum Sports book, but the Hells Angels are a part of it”, adds Isnor, the biker expert who worked on the RCMP led project.
“The website was host to thousands of gamblers whose wagers allegedly resulted in millions of dollars in profit for organized crime”, according to the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada. When this much money is involved, violence is typically not too far behind.
“Hells Angels members would go out and enforce payment of any outstanding gambling debts”, adds Isnor.
Could illegal gaming be one of many underlying motives for the recently linked murders of Angelo Musitano in Waterdown and Mila Barbieri in York region involving the same shooter? A definite possibility. In the underworld, motives and murderous intentions are endless.
In 2016 the RCMP-led Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit initiated Project OEIDER – with a focus on illegal gambling machines in 11 mafia affiliated cafés in York region – seizing over 70 illegal gaming machines along with proceeds of crime in the thousands of dollars.
Pat Musitano’s vehicle was torched in the driveway of his Hamilton home. In June 2017 his house was shot at, just weeks after his brother’s murder. The same underworld turbulence is occurring in York region – arsons and explosions decimating many illegal gambling affiliated café’s.
There is palpable tension in southern Ontario’s underworld. Are the lucrative territorial profits reaped from illegal gambling a possible underlying motive for the current turbulence and bloodshed? One of many questions yet to be answered by investigators.
Odds are illegal gambling will no longer be viewed as a victimless crime.