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 Hillsborough County Vice Squad needed mafia informants, a secret radio channel and an airplane to take down Tampa Bay’s top numbers running operation in 1958.
They also needed a residence for a stakeout.
That might seem like a small task, but it meant finding a courageous and trustworthy resident willing to cross organized crime during what was known as Tampa’s “Era of Blood” for the number of mafia-related murders.
The Vice Squad turned to Lloyd Abbott, a retired postal worker, leader in his church and mason whose grandson says had a high regard for law enforcement and believed in fulfilling civic duties.
He provided use of his home and the numbers running operation fell.
Abbot, who died in 1988, never sought credit for his role.
“He never mentioned it, not once,” grandson Tad Denham said. “But that’s also just who he was. He was a man who would do the right thing just to do the right thing. And obviously he was brave.”
Denham learned of his grandfather’s involvement from the Tampa Bay Times. The investigation was detailed in the cache of Vice Squad reports from that era obtained by the Times.
Abbot’s neighbor was Arthur Perla, an alleged numbers runner whose brother Mario Perla was killed in 1939 in an unsolved murder that law enforcement said was linked to the war over local control of the illegal lottery known as bolita.
Arthur Perla allegedly worked for Frank Diecidue, according to the Vice Squad report.
In 2010, Buddy Meische and Charlie Whitt, who were part of the Vice Squad during that investigation and have since died, told the Times that, in the 1950s, an informant identified Diecidue as Santo Trafficante Jr.’s underboss. He oversaw the Tampa rackets while Trafficante Jr. was in Cuba, where he ran a casino. But the Vice Squad did not have the evidence needed to arrest Diecidue.
Then, in 1958, another informant provided intel on a bolita ring that spanned Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee and Polk counties.
Receipts listing wagered numbers were delivered to a singular drop house in Tampa, Meische and Whitt said. Multiple envelopes of receipts from each county exchanged hands, from car to car or by being dropped at a location to be picked up, sometimes up to eight times, with only the final drivers knowing the destination. Such a maze was designed to make it difficult for law enforcement to follow without being seen.
The informant knew one point where envelopes changed hands.
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“On Feb. 8, 1958, at approximately 9 a.m., I received a phone call from a man, stating that if I wanted to see some bolita I should go to the area of Hubert and Cypress streets in West Tampa” where someone hid envelopes stuffed with gambling receipts, Vice Squad head Ellis Clifton wrote in the report.
In heavy foliage, Clifton discovered large brown envelopes, he wrote. He then watched from several blocks away as an unidentified man picked up the envelopes and delivered them to the home of Frank “Cowboy” Ippolito.
From his car, Clifton staked out Ippolito’s home the following week, he wrote, and watched as Cowboy drove off with a similar envelope. Clifton clandestinely followed him to the Yellow House bar, which was a known mafia hangout, but was unable to continue the tail “without being seen.”
Not mentioned in the report is how Clifton was later able to successfully follow Ippolito: He used an airplane.
In 2006, Clifton, who has since died, told the Times that he flew only a few hundred feet above the road. Because air surveillance had never been employed locally before that and had been used only once in Florida — and without any press coverage — Ippolito had no reason to suspect something was afoot.
Ippolito delivered an envelope to Perla’s residence on Ninth Street, the report says. Perla then drove the envelope four miles to Diecidue’s home on 10th Avenue.
The report says the Vice Squad wanted to watch Perla and Diecidue’s homes but worried they might not find buildings for stakeout headquarters.
One issue was that the Vice Squad could not provide a home or business owner with any information on the investigation. They had to help blindly — though Tampa Bay mob historian Scott Deitche said it might not have been hard for them to guess and that could have deterred some.
Diecidue was well known, he said.
Perla “was pretty low-key about his involvement in bolita,” Deitche said, “but if Ellis Clifton, the vice cop who is getting regular press busting all these wise guys, needs help, it wouldn’t take much to put two and two together.”
Perla was not known as a violent man, Deitche said.
“But 1958 was during a wave of mafia violence,” Deitche said. “So, you can understand why people would be worried.”
The Vice Squad also needed someone they could be certain was not connected to organized crime.
“That had to be difficult,” Deitche said. “Bolita was everywhere and so many people had a hand in it.”
Bolita was sold in cafes and city halls and played by residents of all ages and socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Organized crime syndicates even employed children as numbers runners.
According to the report, Clifton asked Tampa postal inspector William Nester to introduce him to Abbott, described as a family man and churchgoer with no known ties to organized crime. They met at the Palma Ceia post office.
Without pressing for more information, Abbott lent them his home, which was three down and across the street from Perla’s.
“Of course he would,” Denham said. “He had so much respect for law enforcement.”
There was a warehouse near Diecidue’s home, but the Vice Squad was suspicious of the owner, according to the report. So, they decided to use it without permission. An employee loaned them the key and promised not to tell his boss.
Meische and Whitt said that the Vice Squad was also worried about deputies on the mafia’s payroll, so they planned the operation from St. Petersburg.
La Gaceta newspaper would later write that the Vice Squad also used private radio waves rather than the designated Sheriff’s Office channel.
On March 8, 1958, from Abbott’s front porch enclosed with bamboo curtains and a bedroom window, the Vice Squad watched Perla exit his home three times to receive packages from cars, one of which was from Ippolito, according to the report. Each time, Perla drove off with the packages. Those monitoring Diecidue’s home witnessed Perla delivering the packages there.
That was enough for the Vice Squad to receive a search warrant for Diecidue’s house where, on March 22, they found bolita receipts from 50 to 100 different individuals who sold numbers for that operation, according to news archives. It was a nearly $1.6 million a year bolita operation. That is equivalent to around $14.5 million today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s online inflation calculator.
It was the largest such bust in Tampa Bay history at that time, according to new archives.
Newspapers reported that Perla and Ippolito were acquitted but Diecidue was sentenced to five years for operating an illegal lottery.
Clifton said information obtained in that raid led to dozens of future arrests, making it the most important during his time with the Vice Squad.
In the 1970s, Diecidue was convicted of being connected to the mob hit on former Tampa detective Richard Cloud, but that ruling was later overturned.
As for Abbott, he was named an honorary member of the Florida Sheriff’s Association. He was proud of that recognition, Denham said, but never explained why he received it.
“I wish I knew if it was connected to that stakeout,” Denham said.
Maybe his grandfather never spoke about it because he worried there could still be retribution, Denham said. Maybe he didn’t think his role was worth discussing.
“I’ve always been proud of him for being a good man,” Denham said. “I’m even prouder now that I know this story.”