Episode 7: Chop Shops and Squeeze Plays
Like I mentioned previously, before I got locked up I lived a strange double life, one that in many ways was very lonely because I only had a few close friends, and almost none of them knew how heavy I was into the streets. Funny, just yesterday I talked to my good friend Mark, and he told me that after reading some of these Chronicles he thought back and remembered how I would just sort of disappear for days, or even weeks, before popping back up. I was like that with pretty much all my high school “friends.” Honestly, after high school I had very little contact with the people I went to school with. But I’ve recently had a few people say to other high school friends on Facebook, “I don’t remember any of this.” Which is to say, they question the authenticity of my Chronicles. At that I just shake my head and grin, because it means I did a good job of following orders to never include outsiders in Family business. These people were civilians, most of whom sat around smoking pot in basements while playing video games, or pounding back beers at local watering holes. Very few of them even came close to brushing against the circles I moved in. And when I did rarely come in contact with them, I never openly talked about the things I was doing for money. But I also understand their incredulousness. I’ve had a few people reach out and say, “Wow, Al, and I thought I actually knew you!” Yeah, few people did. And that was the way it was supposed to be. Real wiseguys and street hustlers, guys from “the life,” they don’t go around bragging about it to girls in the club or high school buddies. That type of thing is left to posers.
Anyway, any good street hustler is always looking for their next “lick,” or score. Aside from working as a bouncer, I never had a real job so I was always looking for opportunities to make money. Really, it was more of an initiative my uncles instilled in me as a teenager. My family gathered every Sunday at my Grandpa Tocco’s home in Grosse Pointe, and after dinner my Uncles Sal and Pete would always ask me,
“So wadda ya got? Anything good cooking?”
It was their way of asking if I had any new money coming in, or opportunities to make some. Because of them, I was always looking for an angle, a scam, a hustle, a mark.
My uncles had several extortion rackets going, and I did collections for them. Most of the stuff I’m still not comfortable talking about, because I’d be willing to bet that some of the businesses are still under the “aegis” of certain individuals who are still active. But I’ll never forget the first guy they sent me to “squeeze.” A guy with a new construction company. The place was decent sized, but not huge. My uncle had a friend, a big, enormous, 400-pound Italian named Andre. Yes, they called him “The Giant.” He owned a cement company that was doing some contract work for that new construction company, who happened to be using scab, non-union labor. This was a no-no in our town and it made him a mark right from the jump.
So, Andre told my Uncle Sal. My Uncle Sal then called me have a sit-down with my Uncle Pete and Andre. We sat around in my uncle’s basement for like an hour, debating how we should go at the guy. After a while, I actually came up with an angle, so they put me in charge of the job. Now keep in mind, I wasn’t more than 25 at the time.
There is a lot more to the story, but in a nutshell, a few days later I approached the owner of this construction company and told him I could send a lot more business his way for a small gratuity. When he asked how I could do this, I came right out and told him that I have some friends in the local construction unions. “They can send all the business you can handle your way.” He told me he’d think about it, so I left him my number.
After a few days, when I didn’t hear from him, my uncle made a series of phone calls to friends. Those friends made some calls to more friends, and suddenly the guy couldn’t get a concrete truck for the life of him. When he did, the prices were twice what he’d been paying. Andre’s cement company quoted him double. Some of his workers stopped showing up, while others started talking about joining a local union and demanding much higher pay. The company that supplied his building materials on credit cut off his credit line. We started interfering with every aspect of his business. We even had his computer hacked and phone lines messed with. I imagine the guy was pulling his hair out trying to figure out what the hell was happening. Then I showed up a few days later and asked if he had considered my offer. The play worked. He looked into my eyes and realized who I was. Or rather, what I was. He agreed to pay up.
Just as I’d promised, for a small gratuity we started helping him get more work. As his business grew, so did the size of the gratuity. Today, it is still one of the largest construction companies in Metropolitan Detroit. And I imagine he is still paying.
That was just one of a thousand angles I was involved in over the years. Some were fairly easy setups, while others took a little more time and, for lack of a better word, panache. One in particular comes to mind. I remember quite clearly the night I put it all in motion. Several months previous, I’d done a short stint in a county jail, way up in northern Michigan, because I’d gotten busted with a motor home filled with weed while en route to drop it off in Marquette, Michigan, where my best friend was going to college. I won’t get into how I got busted, because it was a freak fluke, but my Grandpa Tocco sent the family lawyer, William Buffalino, up there to clean up my mess. I ended up with a few months in the county jail and some rehab. In that rehab I met a funny kid named Daniel Shetter, who I’m still very close with today.
Several months after my release from jail, I got a call from Dan. He was in town and wanted to hang out. He was from a tiny town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so I wanted to show the kid a good time. I end up taking him to a club called Wild Woody’s, which at the time was one of the hottest clubs in town. It was right in my neighborhood so I knew a lot of the people who hung out there. I was also friends with the owner and all the bouncers, so I always got VIP treatment. When we got there, there was a big line to get in so we bypassed it and walked right up to the doorman, who shook my hand, said “What’s up, Al?” and waved us in. The place was rockin’, but we weren’t ten steps in when I saw two of my cousins and a bunch of their boys posted in one corner. Soon as they saw me, my cousin Johnny came rushing over.
“Al, them guys over there are saying they’re gonna beat Chris’s ass! We need your backup!” Chris was their boy, a guy I never really liked.
I thought, Oh, great… I ain’t here thirty seconds and I’m already gonna be in a fight. And I didn’t even like their buddy Chris. But that’s just the way it was. Even though they were like third cousins, because they knew I was a known tough guy, they acted like we were brothers. But they were still somehow family so I had to back them up. When I asked them to point out who they were beefing with, I saw a big group of guys staring back at us. A couple of them were big guys I immediately recognized from the gym, Italian guys I was pretty sure knew me. Or at least knew of me. Since I was always the kind of guy who took these situations head on, I pushed my way through the crowd and walked right up to them. When you show no fear, it makes people nervous.
“Yo, you guys got a problem with my cousins over there?” I growled, trying to come across as big and tough as possible.
One of the muscle-heads from the gym just sort of played it off. “Hey, it’s cool, Al. We don’t want trouble with you guys. I guess that Chris guy was trying to call my boy’s girl or some shit. That’s all. Tell him it’s all good. She’s a skank anyway. She’s probably lying and just trying to stir up some bullshit.”
I sensed that he was the toughest guy in their crew, and when he deflated and squashed the beef that quick, I knew I had all of them right where I wanted.
“So it’s all good?” I asked, piercing their whole crew with my famous crazy eyes. “We’re not gonna have a problem tonight?”
“Nah, it’s all good, Al,” the guy answered. “We’re just here to have a good time and meet some girls.”
I gave them a softer look. “Cool, I appreciate that, fellas. But just to show them everything’s cool, do me a favor and buy them a drink.”
“Hey, no problem, Al,” one of them said. “Tell them to come on over. It ain’t that serious.”
So, the beef was squashed and we all ended up hanging out in a group for the rest of the night. But as we stood around drinking and hitting on girls, I started talking with two guys from their crew. Brothers who managed a family junk yard. They couldn’t have been more than 25, and the more they drank, the more they started telling me about their family business, how they ran the whole operation, top down, by themselves. I saw a mark right away. I could tell they were squares, straight shooters, and sometimes these were the best marks.
A few days later, I paid them a visit at their junkyard. It was a surprisingly nice place and fairly large operation. And they were really excited to show me around. When we were alone in the back, I began feeling them out, asking if they ever bought hot cars or parts. They vehemently said they didn’t, but I sensed that they were lying. When I told them I had some professional car thieves who would sell them entire cars at rock bottom prices, their ears perked right up. I knew I had them.
A few days later, I started sending guys in there with hot cars. My cousin Johnny (a different cousin Johnny than the one at the bar) had a little crew of guys who specialized in grand theft auto. They had valet guys making the keys to high-end cars, the whole nine. It was a nice little racket they had going. The brothers started buying these cars up, stripping them down for parts and then scrapping anything with a VIN at my uncle’s scrap yard. I’d get a cut from each car, maybe $200, but I wasn’t finished. My initial play was extortion. After about a month, I went in there and demanded these brothers start paying me $2,000 a month on top of my $200 commission per car. I told them if they didn’t pay it, I’d have someone burn the place to the ground. I meant it and they knew it. What were they going to do? What choice did they have? They couldn’t call the cops, because now they were running an illegal chop shop. They ended up paying me till the very day I got locked up. I don’t think they even cared, because they were probably making an extra $10,000 a month from all the hot cars I was helping them move through there. Funny, I sometimes wonder if they are still in business. I’ve never even bothered to check.
Squeeze plays can generate some easy money, but they can also get a guy pinched if he isn’t careful. And that’s exactly what ended up happening to me back in the early 1990’s, which resulted in me having to hide in New York City for a few years. But that’s a story for next time. Stay tuned…
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