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Why was Charlie Wall, dean of Tampa’s early underworld, murdered?

Tales from the Vice Squad | He might have helped the government investigate Santo Trafficante Jr.’s income taxes.
Charlie Wall's body is carried from his home after he was murdered.
Charlie Wall's body is carried from his home after he was murdered. [ Times (1955) ]
Published Dec. 8, 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 — The suspect list is long for the unsolved murder of Charlie Wall, known as the dean of Tampa’s early underworld.

But historians think they know who ordered the successful hit in 1955.

“It’s believed Santo Trafficante Jr. wanted him dead,” said Scott Deitche, who authored The Silent Don: The Criminal Underworld of Santo Trafficante Jr.

Wall was supposedly out of the rackets when he was killed. That would mean he shouldn’t have been a threat to Trafficante Jr.’s Tampa-based organized crime syndicate, which controlled Florida.

But in the Vice Squad report that details the investigation into Wall’s murder, one line provides a theory on why Trafficante Jr. might have wanted revenge.

Wall might have helped the federal government build a successful income tax case against Trafficante Jr.

“I have never heard that,” Deitche said. “But it lends credence to the belief that he was killed because of a litany of grudges, even though he was old and ineffectual.”

Trafficante Jr. was tired of Wall insulting him behind his back, Deitche said. Perhaps the income tax case was the final straw.

Charlie Wall is shown as he told the Kefauver Committee about illegal gambling games during hearings held in Tampa in 1950.
Charlie Wall is shown as he told the Kefauver Committee about illegal gambling games during hearings held in Tampa in 1950. [ Times (1950) ]

Wall, a blue-blooded orphan of a Tampa mayor, rose to become Tampa’s criminal kingpin in the early 1900s by using his inheritance to fund illegal casinos and speakeasies.

It’s been alleged that he stayed in power by having law enforcement, judges and politicians on his payroll.

Related: Meet Charlie Wall, the dean of Tampa’s early underworld

But, by the 1940s, Deitche said, Santo Trafficante Sr.’s crime syndicate became the city’s most powerful.

“They had a gentleman’s agreement,” Deitche said. “Santo Sr. would let Charlie Wall live if he stepped aside.”

Wall did, but not graciously.

The late Ellis Clifton, who led the Vice Squad’s investigation of Wall’s murder, once told the Tampa Bay Times Wall would publicly badmouth the Trafficante family.

Clifton claimed to have called Wall to warn him to stop talking like that.

“I said, ‘Mr. Wall, you know they are going to kill you?’” Clifton remembered.

Clifton said that Wall replied, “Yeah, I don’t give a damn.”

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Trafficante Sr. died on April 11, 1954.

“When Santo Sr. died, the order of protection over Charlie Wall was lifted. Santo Jr. decided to end it,” Deitche said. “A year later, Charlie Wall is killed.”

Wall was murdered in his home on April 18, 1955. He was beaten with a blackjack, his neck cut with a knife, and his head battered with a baseball bat.

According to the report, a “confidential informant” said Wall was at a bar earlier that night “talking in a loud voice” that he was going to buy drinks for “the dam Tallies,” his slang for Italians. Wall was later driven home by Nick Scaglione, who allegedly was part of the Trafficante syndicate.

Wall’s blood alcohol level, according to the autopsy included in the report, was .145.

His wife and former wife were each early suspects as part of a love triangle theory, according to the report, as were former bodyguards and drivers Joe “Baby Joe” Diaz and Johnny “Scarface” Rivera, who allegedly worked for the Trafficante syndicate at the time.

Another suspect was Emory Lee Scott, who the report says had been recently released from prison and “once ran dope for Charlie Wall,” according to his former cellmate. The Tampa Times wrote in 1926 that Scott was also responsible over 100 robberies.

Scott was on the Vice Squad’s radar due to an anonymous tip, but the report says they believed Scott was the tipster and that he was lying so that could get attention.

“Scott’s desire for publicity might well have precipitated the telephone call to me,” the report says.

Wall’s wife suggested the killer was A.R. Roebuck, according to the report. But there is no further information on that individual in the report, nor could the Times learn anything about them through news archives.

Clifton told the Times that he believed Joe Bedami, described as a Trafficante hitman, was responsible for Wall’s murder, but he is not mentioned as a suspect in the report. Clifton provided the same name to author Ace Atkins, whose White Shadow book is a fictional story based on Wall’s murder.

Birdseed was discovered at the murder scene, according to the report. The Tampa Times wondered if it was left there as a symbol that Wall was killed for singing to the police or because, in 1950, he testified before the federal Kefuaver Commission that was investigating organized crime throughout the nation. But the report says the bird seed came from the blackjack, a sack that is filled with substances such as pellets, seeds or lead shot and then used to attack someone.

Santo Trafficante Jr. in 1986 [Times (1986)]
Santo Trafficante Jr. in 1986 [Times (1986)]

Clifton was confident that Wall was murdered for “blabbing to anyone who would listen about Trafficante,” Atkins said, “including the feds.”

When presented the income tax theory, Atkins said he does not recall Clifton bringing that up in their hours of conversations for White Shadow research, but added, “Feds could mean tax evasion.”

The report says that, according to an informant, Trafficante Jr. “indirectly told someone that Charlie Wall had given information to the income tax people that helped to lead to Santo’s indictment by the government.”

In 1959, the Tampa Times wrote that Trafficante Jr. and his brother Sam Trafficante agreed to “pay the federal government $84,920 — which is less than half what the government had assessed them — for back income taxes and penalties.”

The case, the newspaper article reads, was filed in March 1955.

That’s one month before Wall was murdered.

“Is the timing a coincidence or was that the reason?” Deitche said. “We’ll probably never know.”