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‘Tampa’s Elliot Ness’ took on the mafia in the mid-20th century

Tales from the Vice Squad | As head of the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office unit, Ellis Clifton was the local lawman most feared by gangsters.
In this undated  photo possibly taken during prohibition the late-Ellis Clifton, far left, the Hillsborough County law man charged with bringing down the Tampa mafia in the 1950s and 60s, is seen with two unidentified men and several jugs of moonshine.  [Photo courtesy of the Hillsborough county Sheriff's Office]
In this undated photo possibly taken during prohibition the late-Ellis Clifton, far left, the Hillsborough County law man charged with bringing down the Tampa mafia in the 1950s and 60s, is seen with two unidentified men and several jugs of moonshine. [Photo courtesy of the Hillsborough county Sheriff's Office]
Published Oct. 27
Updated Oct. 27

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 — The Clifton family had a rule in the 1960s: If the same car was behind theirs for a few blocks, do not look back.

“They could be following us, my dad would say,” Andrea Clifton, 67, said. “We couldn’t let them know that we knew.”

“They” were the mafia, and her dad was Ellis Clifton, head of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Vice Squad and among the local law enforcement officers most feared by organized crime.

He employed strong-arm tactics and was a skilled investigator. Honesty was what made Clifton so dangerous.

In an era when organized crime exploited the greed of those charged with keeping the city safe, Clifton could not be bought.

“He had a high degree of integrity,” his daughter said. “He believed in justice.”

Ellis Clifton is the name that recurs most in the cache of Vice Squad files obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

He was involved in a car chase that resulted in a moonshine arrest in 1955 and, three years later, led the largest gambling raid in Hillsborough County history to that point, according to two of the reports in which he is mentioned.

Clifton’s penchant for popping up out of nowhere to make an arrest, coupled with his large front teeth, earned him the nickname “Crusader Rabbit,” the title of an animated series based on a righteous hare.

Others called him the “bolita buster,” bolita being the name of Tampa’s illegal lottery.

But niece Tammie Wood Schnall, 63, said history should remember him by another name: “Tampa’s Elliot Ness,” after the lawman who took on Al Capone’s organized crime ring in Chicago.

“He was a total bad ass,” Schnall said. “But most of all, he was honest and righteous.”

Those traits can be traced to Clifton’s childhood in Georgia.

“He had two older brothers who picked on him, and not in a boys will be boys way,” son David Clifton, 58, said. “They’d do things like tie him up in the woods and hang him upside down and leave him. So, he hated bullies and anyone who thought they could get away with whatever they wanted because they were bigger or had a gang as backup.”

That is in part, he said, why Clifton initially gravitated toward journalism. “He wanted to hold people accountable.”

Ellis Clifton as a reporter in the 1950s.
Ellis Clifton as a reporter in the 1950s. [ Times (1950) ]
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As a crime beat reporter for the Tampa Tribune in the early 1950s, Clifton was known for fearlessness.

“He was almost like a cop when he was a reporter,” Clifton’s former crime reporting partner, Leland Hawes, told the Tribune when Clifton died in 2007.

News archives back that account.

In 1953, Clifton joined a deputy in infiltrating a cockfight. When their identities were discovered, a mob of 100 held Clifton and the deputy hostage for two hours, threatening their lives unless the reporter gave them the film from his camera. Clifton refused. The mob ultimately released them without harm.

In January of the following year, he investigated illegal gambling in the Tampa Terrace Hotel. The games were hosted by heads of the Krewe of Gasparilla. Several Tribune bosses were among those in attendance.

Clifton called the Sheriff’s Office, but the gamblers were tipped off by a corrupt deputy and were gone when law enforcement arrived, Clifton said.

The Tribune fired him. It said Clifton was let go because he was not assigned that story, La Gaceta newspaper wrote later than month.

But the truth was, La Gaceta continued, “He had stepped on the wrong toes” by investigating the city’s powers that be. If gambling exists “in the prominent hotels, clubs and lodges, why do the proper authorities refuse to investigate and publicize the events?”

The Sheriff’s Office then hired Clifton to work on their Vice Squad.

Sheriff Ed Blackburn was elected in 1952 “by promising to clean up the illegal gambling,” Clifton told the Times in 2005. To do so, he added, Blackburn needed to first clean up a force that the federal government in 1950 declared to be among the most corrupt in the nation. They allegedly had deputies who accepted bribes to look the other way as crimes were committed and moonlighted alongside the gangsters.

“They needed honest men,” Schnall said. “Ellis’ actions showed he was a good man.”

Clifton stayed with the Sheriff’s Office through 1955 and then returned to crime reporting when he took a job with the Times. Two years later, the Sheriff’s Office called Clifton with another offer.

“Clifton To Head County Vice Squad,” the Times headline reads on Sept. 10, 1957.

Ellis Clifton's exploits with the Vice Squad were well-chronicled by local newspapers.
Ellis Clifton's exploits with the Vice Squad were well-chronicled by local newspapers. [ Times (1961) ]

His name and photo then became norms in local newspapers.

“The charges grew out of an investigation by County Vice Squad Chief Ellis Clifton,” the Tribune reported on November 11, 1958, in a story about the breakup of a gambling ring making $5,000 a week off bolita.

“County Vice Chief Ellis Clifton said today that vice squad deputies broke up a 1,000-gallon moonshine still,” the Tribune wrote three days later.

“Capt. Ellis Clifton of the County Vice Squad walks beside Tommy A. Marchese on the way to the county jail, after the second of two raids on Marchese’s store resulted in his arrest on a lottery charge,” reads a Tribune photo caption on August 19, 1962.

The Times found Clifton mentioned in hundreds of articles spanning 1957 through December 1964, when he left the Vice Squad to join the Brevard County Solicitor’s Office.

Andrea Clifton said gangsters repeatedly tried to bribe her father early in his career but ultimately gave up. They turned to intimidation, instead.

“The family was never threatened,” Andrea Clifton said. “But there were times we were told to not answer the phone.”

There was a $10,000 bounty on his head in 1958, according to news archives.

“Someone tried to collect,” Andrea Clifton said. “He pulled my dad into a building to kill him.”

Clifton talked the hitman out of it and, over several beers, convinced him to “become an informant. That’s who my dad was,” she said. “He could smooth talk anyone into doing the right thing.”

Clifton had other methods.

In 2010, Buddy Meisch, who worked under Clifton in the Vice Squad, told the Times that they had an “emergency fund” earmarked for bribes that were paid after a tip panned out. Information that led to a small bust paid a few dollars. Major busts paid as much as $200.

In 2007, Meisch told the Tribune that when a hit was put on an informant, Clifton placed the man in protective custody. That earned trust from others who wanted to do the right thing but were afraid.

“He never told us who his informants were,” David Clifton said. “He never told anyone at the time and he never told anyone in the future. He promised his informants that he’d never tell on them, and he lived up to that promise.”

Charlie Whitt, who also worked with the Vice Squad in the 1950s and 1960s, told the Times in 2010 that Clifton only trusted a small circle with top secret information. Corrupt deputies, he said, were known to alert gangsters of investigations and where the Vice Squad could be found throughout the day.

“We always had to watch our backs and go home at night and make sure we had plenty of ammunition,” Whitt said, “if you understand what I am saying.”

Clifton was not averse to fighting violence with violence.

Andrea Clifton said her father “supposedly” tied a gangster to a tree in a field and threatened to drive a car into him unless he provided information.

It’s extreme, she said, and not a tactic allowed today, but he was trying to stop “violent men from committing violent crimes.”

“He investigated quite a few murders,” she said. “These were not good people.”

David Clifton gets angry when watching movies and television shows with mafia characters because the productions often portray them as cool anti-heroes.

“No one should look up to those men,” he said. “What did they ever do that helped anyone? They get glorified and good men like my father get forgotten? That’s not right. My dad wanted to protect this city. He was a hero.”