1. Life & Culture
  2. /
  3. History

Tampa residents once took on corruption that turned city into ‘hell in a handcart’

Tales from the Vice Squad | The Hillsborough County Crime Commission was formed in 1951 to root out organized crime and expose corrupt public officials.
A resident-led raid breaks up an illegal casino in Tampa in 1952.
A resident-led raid breaks up an illegal casino in Tampa in 1952. [ Times (1952) ]
Published Oct. 12, 2021
Updated Oct. 27, 2021

When Tampa was a hotbed of organized crime from the late 1800s through mid 1900s, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office charged the Vice Squad with cleaning up what the federal government deemed one of the most corrupt cities in the nation. The Tampa Bay Times has obtained a cache of Vice Squad reports from the 1950s and 1960s, which offer insight into their investigations and what they were up against.

TAMPA ― A business connected by family to a prominent local politician was investigated for links to organized crime in November 1953.

An “informant” visited Joseph Puglisi’s Ybor City barbershop in November of that year, according to a report filed with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Vice Squad. “Joe is reportedly a longtime associate of the Trafficante mob, and his barber shop is a known hang-out of some of this group.”

But neither the Vice Squad nor any law enforcement agency was part of that probe.

Instead, it was led by the Hillsborough County Crime Commission, an independent organization that was backed by residents who claimed that local elected officials and law enforcement had become too corrupted by organized crime to be trusted without oversight.

Decades later, it is unclear if all of their investigations were warranted or if some were politically motivated or worse, simple harassment of innocent residents.

Related: Bolita, Tampa’s illegal lottery, was deadly and lucrative

Local political corruption by then was a norm, former Tampa mayor Pam Iorio wrote for the Sunland Tribune in 2000.

Since the late 1800s, she said, crime syndicates had used gambling profits to “buy votes. Elections would be won, and public officials would be paid to tolerate the status quo.”

In 1948, gangster Jimmy Velasco was shot and killed in Ybor as his wife and daughter looked on. His family said he was murdered by the notorious Trafficante crime family because he was growing too powerful.

The family released receipts that they say proved Velasco used illegal gambling money to fund candidates who would ignore the mafia’s crimes. He allegedly spent $28,000 on the 1947 Tampa election and $29,000 on the 1948 Hillsborough election. They also released a list of alleged bribes he gave to elected officials, which included Mayor Curtis Hixon.

A grand jury declared the list a hoax. But, in December 1950, during a local hearing that questioned politicians, law enforcement and alleged gangsters, the federal Kefauver Commission charged with exposing organized crime throughout the nation used the Velasco story as evidence of Tampa’s corruption.

According to Iorio, Tampa witnesses “produced a list of 105 officially protected outlets that law enforcement officials were not allowed to tamper with.”

“The moral of the Tampa story is this,” Estes Kefauver, the senator who led the nationwide investigation, wrote in his final report, “if good citizens of a community shut their eyes to wholesale violation of a law ... law enforcement and honesty in public office will go to hell in a handcart.”

Read inspiring stories about ordinary lives

Read inspiring stories about ordinary lives

Subscribe to our free How They Lived newsletter

You’ll get a remembrance of Tampa Bay residents we’ve lost, including heartwarming and amusing details about their lives, every Tuesday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

At the urging of the Hillsborough County Bar Association and in direct response to the Kefauver report, according to news archives, the Hillsborough County Crime Commission formed in February 1951 to clean up that image.

The oversight committee had members ranging from residents to churches, unions and civic clubs that funded the endeavor’s private staff of investigators led by Ralph Mills, a former FBI agent.

Their self-charged duties included vetting candidates for law enforcement positions, scrutinizing trials and investigations and forging their own probes.

The committee’s efforts, according to news archives, included:

In 1952, they led a resident-raid on an illegal casino after local law enforcement did not respond to a tip. They smashed the gaming tables but did not arrest anyone.

In 1953, they said police chief Matt Beasley’s soft stance on bolita led to an innocent man being murdered during a gangland shootout. Beasley resigned but told newspapers it had nothing to do with that charge.

And, in 1954, the committee helped the St. Petersburg police investigate whether Santo Trafficante Jr. and his brother Henry Trafficante offered a bribe to law enforcement in that city. Each received a prison sentence of five years, but Trafficante Jr.’s conviction was later overturned.

Beasley and the Trafficantes told newspapers that the committee’s motives were political, backed by those who financially supported it. The committee denied those allegations.

Other times, the committee sent investigation reports to the law enforcement officials they trusted.

Their report on Puglisi’s barbershop was sent to the Vice Squad. It said the informant witnessed four possible organized crime associates answering a phone in the backroom during the 30 minutes he first investigated the barbershop.

He also said he overheard the men — described as Italians who were “dressed exceptionally well” — discussing horse and dog races.

“The foregoing suggests that Puglisi’s shop may be involved in illegal bookmaking, which in turn may fit with the operations of Primo Lazzara,” who was linked to the Trafficante crime family.

The same informant returned the following month to find Henry Trafficante there with three unidentified associates.

“The source said that the entire group and the barbers appeared highly nervous and one or the other of them were continually darting to the window or out the door looking up and down the street,” says the report dated December 22, 1953. Conversations were “restrained” and in Italian.

“The forgoing, which admittedly is of little value as it stands, is ‘for the record’ and for your information concerning this known hoodlum hangout,” the report concludes.

Puglisi was never charged with a crime. It is unclear if the Vice Squad investigated him. He died in 1955.

“I don’t know why they’d investigate my uncle,” said Mariette Rushing, 88, of Puglisi. “He was only a barber.”

She said there was an innocent explanation for Henry Trafficante being at the barbershop. “Everyone in Ybor knew each other, and that included the Trafficantes and my father and uncle. They all grew up together. And, back then, barbershops were hangouts.”

Rushing said the investigation was likely part of an effort by her father’s political opponents to soil his name. Her father was Nick Nuccio.

Nuccio, who was not mentioned in the report, served eight years on city council and 19 years on the Hillsborough County Commission before successfully running for mayor in 1956. During that election, opponents tried and failed to connect him to organized crime via past legal business he conducted with alleged mafioso Jimmy Lumia, who was shot and killed in 1950 in a gangland slaying.

“Everyone investigated him,” Rushing said of her father. “A grand jury did. Do you know why he was never charged? He was innocent.” His only crime, she added, was being Italian and serving in public office at a time when other elected officials were corrupted by Italian gangsters.

After Nuccio was elected mayor, the first of Italian descent, he voluntarily spoke before the crime commission and, according to news archives, explained his family had owned a filling station, Lumia had been a gas dealer, and that was the extent of their relationship.

Later that year, Nuccio declared that the commission was no longer needed because the city again trusted law enforcement.

“A city where it is necessary for a vigilante or crime commission to exist is not a healthy city,” the Tampa Times reported he said.

The commission disbanded in 1957 due in part to a lack of private funding.

A year later, La Gaceta newspaper reported that the Vice Squad had stopped using the sheriff office’s designated radio waves. Instead, they used private radio waves as part of an effort to cloak their efforts from deputies believed to be in cahoots with the mafia.