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 — His nickname was “El Gordo,” which means “The Fat Man” in Spanish.
But Ellis Clifton, head of the Hillsborough County Vice Squad in the 1950s and 1960s, had another name for Eddie Blanco, head of one of the area’s largest illegal lottery operations during that era.
“He was a White Whale,” Clifton told the Tampa Bay Times in 2005.
That nickname had to do with Blanco’s elusiveness, not his 300-pound frame.
Blanco had a knack for remaining in the game, no matter the obstacle.
The Cuban man’s partner was murdered by the Italian Mafia in 1958, but Blanco made a deal that allowed him to continue operations. Time and again, he was arrested, acquitted and went back to his criminal enterprise.
“Lucky,” is how the Tampa Times described Blanco in October 1960 prior to his seventh trial for operating an illegal lottery.
Clifton, who died in 2007, again had another description.
“He was a survivor,” he said.
Blanco’s name appears in a May 31, 1958, Vice Squad file obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
Clifton and a partner were staking out an Ybor City home that operated as a “call-in house,” where gamblers phoned in bets for the illegal lottery known as bolita. The phone was registered to Blanco, identified in the report as running the operation.
The Vice Squad watched Jacob Gonzalez enter the home and leave minutes later. They followed him for 3 miles to Palmetto Beach. He entered and then quickly exited a second call-in house.
Law enforcement pulled over Gonzalez in front of the nearby Seabreeze Restaurant and found $3,000 worth of wagers in a paper bag. That’s nearly $28,000 in today’s dollars, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s online inflation calculators.
News archives report that Blanco was arrested the following November when the Vice Squad staked out a shack in a wooded area east of Tampa. The shack contained adding machines and “remnants of bolita tickets” that Blanco had “hurriedly tried to burn,” according to the Tampa Times.
Blanco was convicted and sentenced to six months. But that decision was reversed when another judge ruled the evidence was insufficient because it was too hard to read in its charred state.
“Blanco is the most flagrant violator of bolita laws in this county,” the county solicitor told reporters after the reversal. He “has led a charmed life of continually evading prosecution.”
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Newspaper archives back that opinion.
In 1945, the Tampa Times detailed the then 39-year-old Blanco’s history of arrests to that point — five on bolita charges, one for vagrancy and another time for inciting a witness to perjure himself. Blanco was acquitted each time.
In 1953, he was arrested for operating an illegal lottery at his Ybor home.
The Vice Squad found bolita numbers scribbled in a pad, charred bolita receipts, and, when they answered the phone, the man on the other end said he was calling in wagers to Blanco, according to the Tampa Times.
Still, Blanco protested the arrest, claiming he’d been out of the rackets since 1950.
He was again acquitted because evidence was charred.
Clifton joined the Vice Squad the following year and declared Blanco to be a priority, naming him one of the “top bolita figures in the bolita business today,” according to an article in the Tampa Times.
That status caught the ire of Santo Trafficante Jr., who led the Italian Mafia.
While rising to power, Trafficante is said to have had at least six competing bolita operators murdered by 1958, Tampa mob historian Scott Deitche previously told the Tampa Bay Times.
Blanco ran a bolita operation out of an Ybor grocery store along with partner Joe Diaz, who was nicknamed “Pelusa,” Spanish for someone who is hairy.
Trafficante’s faction demanded they work for them, Clifton said.
Blanco agreed, yet Diaz held out, Clifton said. “They wanted him to give them 100 percent and they give him 25 percent back. He didn’t like that.”
On July 2, 1958, Diaz was gunned down near Woodlawn Cemetery. The killing remains unsolved.
When Blanco was arrested later that year, it was estimated his operation was earning $5,000 a week from that shack east of Tampa. That’s nearly $2.4 million a year in today’s dollars.
And, between his conviction and the reversal, he was arrested again for operating an illegal lottery from his Ybor home.
“Why do they always pick on the same ones?” the Tampa Tribune quoted Blanco as saying.
His luck ran out with that arrest, newspapers reported, and Clifton finally got his White Whale. Blanco was convicted, the decision was upheld, and he was sentenced to six months.
The judge gave Blanco “until Feb. 15 to get his affairs in order before going to jail,” the Tampa Times reported on Dec. 29, 1960.
The following month, 19 days before he was to report to jail, he was again arrested, that time for operating an illegal lottery out of a vacant Ybor home. It is unclear what became of that charge.
He was released from jail in August 1961.
Two months later, Blanco was arrested again. The Tampa Tribune reported he was running a bolita operation out of a shack in a chicken yard.
He was convicted and sentenced to five years in state prison and, while free on bond during a failed appeal, was again arrested on bolita charges.
And, after he was released from prison in 1966, Blanco went right back to it.
He was arrested on bolita charges in 1971 and then in 1974 for conspiring to bribe a Tampa police detective. But his five-year sentence was suspended “in favor of probation” and a $10,000 fine, the Tampa Times reported.
But, in 1976, he violated that probation when arrested with bolita bets in an Ybor restaurant.
He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Then 69, his attorney argued that, due to diabetes and heart disease, “he can’t survive five years in a penal institution,” according to the Tampa Tribune. The judge replied, “Mr. Blanco has put this court in the position where it can no longer give him another chance.”
The Tampa Bay Times was unable to confirm when Blanco died.
But, prior to Clifton’s death in 2007, the former head of the Vice Squad said Blanco’s legacy is clear.
“He was lucky,” Clifton said, “until it ran out. A gambler’s luck always runs out.”