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Meet ‘Baby Joe,’ the Tampa mafia’s getaway driver in the 1950s

Tales from the Vice Squad | Joe Diez drove in reverse to escape murder and ran through a fence to escape deputies.
The driving exploits of Joe "Baby Joe" Diez helped gangster Charlie Wall escape this assassination attempt that made headlines in 1944.
The driving exploits of Joe "Baby Joe" Diez helped gangster Charlie Wall escape this assassination attempt that made headlines in 1944. [ Times (1944) ]
Published Nov. 23

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 1995 obituary describes Joe Diez as a “lifelong resident of Tampa and a retired self-employed farmer.”

“That’s how I knew him when I was a kid,” his niece Lisa Figueredo said. “Uncle Joe was a rancher.”

She later learned “Uncle Joe” once had another name and job.

Known as “Baby Joe,” he earned renown as a bodyguard and driver for one of Tampa’s most notorious gangsters.

“He was supposedly as tough as they came and no one was a better driver,” said Figueredo, 60, who operates the Tampa Mafia Tour, which educates groups on the city’s infamous past. “He escaped an assassination by driving in reverse and shooting back while standing.”

He might have.

Another of his exploits is told through a Vice Squad report obtained by the Times.

Diez took off on foot when busted for transporting moonshine.

A fence was in his way, but he didn’t run around it, climb over it or look for a gate.

He ran right through it.

Upon hearing this story, Figueredo replied with 30 seconds of laughter and then said, “He was legendary.”

A 1955 mugshot of Joe "Baby Joe" Diez that was published in the Tampa Times.
A 1955 mugshot of Joe "Baby Joe" Diez that was published in the Tampa Times. [ Times (1955) ]

The late Ferdie Pacheco once said that, in a city known for tough gangsters, Baby Joe was among the toughest.

“He was little,” said Pacheco, which is why he was nicknamed Baby Joe, but he was also “a ball of fist. He could deck you with one punch and he could shoot straight as an arrow and could drive a car like crazy.”

Those skills caught the attention of Charlie Wall, known as the dean of the Tampa underworld in the early 1900s when he controlled the city’s illegal enterprises. He hired Baby Joe as his personal bodyguard and driver.

Those were risky jobs.

Attempts on Wall’s life were such a norm that he had a bulletproof steel passageway connecting his garage to his bedroom to limit exposure to gunmen staking out the home.

In 1944, Baby Joe saved Wall’s life and, in the process, “became a legend,” Figueredo said.

According to the Tampa Times article on the assassination attempt, Baby Joe was driving Wall south on Nebraska Avenue when “a black Buick sedan containing four men pulled up beside them. Men in the back seat shot twice through the rear window, after breaking glass on the gunmen’s car. One shot came from a shotgun and the other from a pistol.”

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A bullet pierced the windshield “just above” the driver’s seat, the Tampa Times wrote, but missed Diez and Wall.

The second shot struck the street near where children were boarding a streetcar.

Baby Joe drove in reverse “to escape and the driver of the Buick put his car into reverse to follow, but crashed into a parked car, allowing time for Wall and Diez to flee,” according to the Tampa Times.

Pacheco had a more colorful version that has become Tampa lore.

“He didn’t have time to turn around,” he said. “So, he does the only thing he can do — puts the car in reverse, stands on the running board, driving backwards and shooting at the same time.”

Said Figueredo, “And the legend of Baby Joe was born.”

Baby Joe remained employed in the underworld after Wall retired.

“He built a house on his ranch in what today is New Tampa,” Figueredo said. “All it had was a giant living room with a gigantic table, a kitchen and a bathroom. It had no bedrooms. As a kid, I thought it was strange. I was later told that is where Santo Trafficante Jr. and his associates held meetings.”

The Vice Squad report obtained by the Times does not indicate for whom Baby Joe was transporting moonshine.

According to the report, the Vice Squad had “information that a carload of moonshine was to transfer drivers” on March 23, 1955, near the intersection of 34th Street and Osborne Avenue.

Moments after Baby Joe parked his car at that intersection around 1:30 a.m., two deputies emerged from the bushes.

Baby Joe ran.

“The subject turned north around the back of the store on the corner of the intersection,” says the report written by the deputy who chased Baby Joe. “Diez hit a five-foot fence, knocked the fence down … and started running again.”

A deputy fired a gun into the ground.

“At the time of the shot, the subject was approximately 15 feet from me,” the report says. “I ran up behind the man, told him to hold up, he continued to run, so I threw him to the ground.”

Baby Joe escaped, ran a bit further, but was then thrown to the ground again.

“I was knocked on the side of the head by his arm,” the report says. “The subject then threw a handful of sand into my face.”

They wrestled until the deputy was able to hold Baby Joe “face down in the dirt,” according to the report, and handcuff him.

The Tampa Tribune reported that Baby Joe had 130 gallons of moonshine in his car and that he later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 days in county jail.

Less than a month after that arrest, on April 18, 1955, Wall was murdered.

Baby Joe was a suspect.

According to the Vice Squad file for Wall’s murder investigation, a “confidential informant” said that Baby Joe was operating a moonshine still at that time and regularly traveled to Havana for meetings with Trafficante. The informant also said that Baby Joe remained close with Wall, even staying at his former boss’ home on occasion.

A neighbor quoted in the murder file said that Baby Joe had been “practically raised since childhood” around Wall’s house.

Baby Joe told investigators that he loved Wall like a father, according to that file, and that he’d spent April 17 with his former boss. They’d gone to cockfights together and had dinner. Baby Joe then drove Wall to and from a friend’s house.

He was not charged with the murder that remains unsolved.

“He was tough, but he was not a murderer,” Figueredo said. “That’s not just me who says that. Everyone who knew him back then says the same thing.”

And Baby Joe eventually did live the life described in his obituary, she said. “He was a cowboy. He dressed in jeans, a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and worked on his ranch.”

Figueredo said when she was 6 or 7 she watched Baby Joe loading a bull into a trailer.

“The bull was being stubborn, so he cracked it with a whip to get it moving,” she said. “I was terrified, crying, upset. He sat with me for 40 minutes, drying my tears, explaining that the bull was fine. That’s the man I remember. He was tough, but also had a big heart.”