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Sixty years ago, a bolita operator was gunned down and the mob firmed its hold on Tampa

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 Jun. 29, 2018

Ask Al Dato to discuss his uncle Joe Diaz and he'll recall a youth baseball star and World War II veteran who had a stint as a Hillsborough County deputy.

But mob historians know another side of Diaz: He was the last bolita operator to resist the umbrella of the Tampa mafia.

"He was the last hold out," the late Ellis Clifton, a former vice cop, said before he died.

Though never convicted, Santo Trafficante, Jr. was alleged to have been head of that mob from the 1950s until his death in 1987.

And some say it was 60 years ago July 2 that his local power was fully consolidated.

Early morning on that day in 1958, Diaz, 44, was gunned down near Woodlawn Cemetery.

Clifton, as head of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office vice squad in 1958, investigated the murder. He died in 2007, but discussed the slaying in a video interview a year earlier.

Diaz, he said, ran a gambling racket that was the only major one left in the area that refused to hook up with the mob.

"He wouldn't share or turn it over to them," Clifton said.

So, the mafia killed him. That widely held belief persists today — though, on paper, the murder remains unsolved.

"Somebody knows who did it," said Diaz' nephew, Dato, 75. "But ask that person they'll say 'Sapedo.' That's what Italians here said for 'Who knows?' or 'Joe Blow.'"

Diaz was also known as "Pelusa." It was a Spanish nickname for someone hairy, Dato said.

But why Diaz quit law enforcement and turned to illegal gambling is a mystery to Dato. "I was a kid. When the family talked about that, I wasn't in the room."

The game of choice in that era was bolita. Spanish for "little ball," it was a precursor to the modern-day lottery.

"They played everywhere, cafes, grocery stores." Dato said, "Everyone played."

With Eddie Blanco, Diaz owned Tampa's E&J Grocery Store, where they sold bolita. "What I am told, my uncle then moved into Polk County," Dato said. The mafia "didn't like that."

Polk County, according to Tampa Tribune archives, was worth $250,000 a week in bolita sales among all the operators.

While rising to power in the 1950s, Trafficante is said to have had at least six competing bolita operators murdered by the time he demanded Diaz' business, according to Tampa mob historian Scott Deitche.

"The mafia was bringing all the independents under one faction," Deitche said. "Trafficante said it was all his."

RELATED: Trafficante featured in new tour linking Tampa's, Havana's Mafia past

Business partner Blanco surrendered his bolita operation to Trafficante, yet Diaz held out, the vice squad's Clifton said. "They wanted him to give them 100 percent and they give him 25 percent. He didn't like that."

Among the bolita operators killed during the consolidation period was Rene Nunez in 1952. By 1958, Diaz — who was married — was believed to have been having an affair with widow Lois Nunez.

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When regularly visiting her home on the outskirts of Woodlawn Cemetery, he would park his 1957 white Cadillac on one side of the graveyard, and then either walk or take a cab to and from his mistresses' residence on Ohio Ave.

But as Diaz stepped from a cab onto the corner of Ola Street and 26th Avenue, at 1:45 a.m. on July 2, 1958 after an evening with Lois Nunez, he was killed.

"The Trafficante faction had won out," Clifton said.

Anticipating a hit may be coming, Diaz had left a letter in a safety deposit box naming those he suspected were after him, including politicians and a member of Clifton's vice squad.

"They'd buy everybody," Clifton said. "You couldn't get a search warrant without somebody knowing."

RELATED: The State You're In: Pioneering cop cracked Tampa's bolita rackets from the sky

The letter was printed in the newspapers, though most names were redacted.

Trafficante was not among the gangster names published but his underlings were.

"My mother told me the names were just speculative," nephew Dato said.

The taxi driver was not able to identify the shooter. Still, the vice squad's Clifton said there was another witness: an elderly woman who lived nearby.

After looking through the sheriff's mugshot books, she identified someone not in the letter: Miami gangster Thomas Altamura.

"He was a shylock. He lent money for Santo Trafficante," Clifton said. "It wasn't enough to get him indicted."

In 1967, Altamura was murdered in Miami. His convicted killer, Anthony Espertu, was also a gangster.

Historian Deitche said Diaz was not a violent man. He just ran numbers in an era when that was a norm in Tampa.

But that was enough to bring his life to a violent end, also a Tampa norm back then.

"I knew what my uncle did," Dato said. "I didn't realize until he passed away what a deadly business it was."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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