Episode 8: The Bloodhound
Collections became my primary job for the Family. I would have loved to have been involved in some of the more lucrative rackets, but because I was a “difetto” (only half Sicilian on my mother’s side), my uncles knew I could only rise so far in the Family. So they just used me as a sort of auxiliary soldier whenever they needed to get something done. Collections was my primarily duty. And to be completely honest, I didn’t much like it. For starters, I never made much money doing it. At least in the grand scheme of things. It was also A LOT of work sometimes, always driving around, looking for people who didn’t want to be found. But that’s what I was called to do, so I did it without complaint. At least it kept money in my pocket. And I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good to be needed by Made guys.
In the beginning, my Uncles Sal or Pete Tocco would call me in to their headquarters in the Eastern Market, or I’d meet one of their guys at the Hazel Park Race Track, where they all hung out. I’d be given a list of bookies I had to go collect from. Some days the list was extensive, while other days there might only be a few names. The list was always encrypted, although the encryption was pretty simple. If a guy’s name was John Smith, he would be “OM.” Just the second letters of his first and last name. It was confusing till I got used to who was who. I’m pretty sure the Feds cracked the code back in ’96 when they rounded up a bunch of us on “Operation Game Tax.” My uncle was indicted, while I was questioned and released.
My cut was 10% of everything I collected. Most days didn’t pay much. Maybe a few hundred bucks. And sometimes it was only a couple runs a week. But when March Madness came around, or the NFL season? Oh, it would get busy and I would clock some serious loot. Those are the times when all my old high school buddies would never see me. I’d disappear for weeks, then pop back up with a smile and a pocket full of cash. Maybe a new car and a few new toys. I might make $30-$40K during March Madness. Another $30-$40K during the NFL season. The most money I ever collected was after one particular Super Bowl where the spread was so tight everyone and their brother dropped a bankroll on their neighborhood bookie. Over a week period, I collected $1.7 million and was allowed to keep $30K. I remember sitting in an apartment, sweating bullets, trying to count the money with my crazy cousin Johnny L., who I had personally seen shoot more than one person over a few thousand dollars. He was a known killer and maniac, who would later get sentenced to life in prison for multiple homicides. And there we were, with a loaded AK-47 leaning against the wall. I thought this crazy bastard might whack me at any minute and take the money for himself. He was the kind of guy who might say screw it and take his chances against the boss for that much money. But that’s who they teamed me up with. Still boggles my mind to this day that they would partner me up with that crazy bastard. My other cousin later said they paired me up with Johnny because the boss thought I was the one who might run off.
He said, “They figured the only guy crazier than you, Al, is Johnny L.”
To make matters worse, our counting machine broke so we ended up having to count it all by hand. When we both came up with different numbers, we had to start over like five times in a row. Talk about stress! All I could think about was the Feds busting in, or Johnny blasting me in the back of my head the second I turned my back to him. No joke, we counted money till our fingers turned green from the ink on the bills. Finally, after like seven hours, we got it right. I’ll never forget the number. $1,734,380. Yeah, it’s crazy when I sit and look at that number now. And it all went to one boss.
I always had my hands in lots of little hustles and street rackets, from selling counterfeit steroids and pot, to buying and selling stolen merchandise. But collections were my main staple, although I always just saw myself as a sort of independent contractor. Honestly, I never considered myself part of any one crew, although in hindsight I guess I was an extension of my Uncle Pete Tocco’s crew. While my uncle did his own thing, I hung out a lot with the old men, some of whom were bosses that I won’t mention out of respect for their families. But they sure were a bunch of social butterflies. Anyone who knows the old Detroit bosses knows exactly what I’m talking about. They loved to just hang out, smoke cigars, tell war stories and play poker in their little backroom headquarters, just like the movies. My grandfather spent more time with them than he did at home. And like I’ve mentioned in a previous Chronicle, one of his “goombadis” had a used car lot on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, where they played penny poker in the back all day, everyday. Since my grandfather had bad eyes and didn’t like to drive, I often acted as his driver. And that’s how I got to know the old capidecina so well. We would go on these circuits, dropping in to see various goombadi all day, from headquarters to headquarters. I know the Feds often followed us. I spotted them from time to time. They followed my grandfather everywhere. But he didn’t care. He was a smart enough to make sure they could never finger him for anything.
Anyway, because I was always around the old bosses, playing poker and listening to them tell the same old stories over again and again, they began to really like me. That’s how I also began collecting for them. They had dozens of bookies, loan sharks, and people paying “tribute” for various extortions. And they began using me to collect from them all. They had their own guys doing most of the collections, and most people knew to pay up. But every now and then a bookie or shark would call in a “runner,” a guy who was late on vig payments or welching on a loan. This was when a little of “pressure” needed to be applied. And I was sometimes called in to apply it, as I already had a reputation of being the type of guy who could get this type of thing done. Over the years, they began calling me “The Bloodhound,” because I had a knack for tracking guys down who didn’t want to be found.
It’s funny, because as I now think back, there are dozens of entertaining stories I could share here, but since there is only so much time in the day I’ll share the one that ended up with me on the run from a Federal indictment. Over the years, I became really good at tracking guys down and getting them to pay up. I always wondered how civilians thought they could get away with welching on a loan or vig payment by going into hiding. It was a notion that I couldn’t even comprehend, because we knew where they worked, where their family lived, etcetera. Pure stupidity. But, of course, most often they were just trying to buy time. Tracking them wasn’t even that hard. A few phone calls, a few visits to friends and family, and I’d usually smoke them out. If that didn’t work, I’d start dropping by their work, or go pay a visit to their parents’ home. A subtle reminder that we wanted our money. And another thing that’s funny is that I was never an asshole about it. I know I had a reputation for being a hard ass tough guy, but the truth was that I rarely had to prove it. If I needed to, I would, but I rarely had to. So, when I found a guy, I didn’t even play that hard-ass role. And to be completely honest, I think they were even more nervous when I was nice. I’d show up at their work, or their new girlfriend’s house, or wherever they were hiding out, and I’d invite them outside for a private conversation that would usually go something like this:
“Listen, bud,” I’d begin, sounding very friendly and understanding. “I get it. You ran into some bad luck. You’re just trying to buy some time. But you can’t hide and not answer our calls. You’re short this week? No problem. We’ll tack it onto next week’s payment or work something else out. But this bullshit about hiding and not answering our calls? That’s not gonna fly. It’s disrespectful. That’s how you piss guys off and get yourself in more trouble. But like I said, we understand sometimes things happen. So, no more of this hiding, eh? When we call, you answer. Because I want you to know something, I’m the nice guy here. The next guy they send? He ain’t gonna be so nice. So… what do you got for me?”
I’d usually empty their pockets right on the spot. If they didn’t have enough money, I’d have them give me something of value. And you wouldn’t believe the things I collected over the years. Seriously, I doubt half the people reading this would believe it. I had guys sign over boats, cars, ATVs, motorcycles, jet skis, snowmobiles, motorhomes, even stock certificates. I’d take jewelry, art, whatever. I once took a guy’s collection of $2 Silver Certificates, a rare issue of $2 dollar bill. He had 1,700 of them, and I took them for a $4,000 debt. I then sold them to a broker for $5,000. Another time I took a huge coin collection that was worth $10K. But one of my biggest scores was a gun collection that almost ended up getting me indicted by the Feds.
So, I have this cousin. For the purpose of this story, I’ll call him Vinny. Sort of a goofy kid, but his dad is a Made guy so I used to hustle with him a little. One day he comes to me says he’s got a guy who wants to buy $5,000 worth of steroids. He puts the guy on the phone and I can tell right away the guy doesn’t know anything about steroids. He just wants to get “huge.” And he’s got money to spend. I see a mark, so I end up giving Vinny a bunch of vitamin B-12 pills to sell the guy as “Anadrol,” a powerful steroid that comes in pill form. But I don’t tell Vinny it’s a scam because he’ll want in on it.
An hour later, Vinny comes back with a $5,000 check made out to cash. No big deal. But when my girlfriend tries to cash it at the bank, the teller says the funds aren’t available. Now I feel like the guy played me, so I immediately go into tracker mode. I find his name in the Yellow Pages and have a girl call his house. His mom answers and says he hasn’t lived there for several years. I tell the girl to not bother asking for his number or new address because I don’t want to raise suspicions. But I know what I’m doing. I’m the “Bloodhound.” A few hours later I go to his mother’s house and knock on the door. When she answers, I ask for him, explaining that I’m an old high school buddy who just got home on leave from the military and I was hoping to see him. I’m super friendly and amiable, so she invites me in and writes down his new address.
A half hour later I knock on the guy’s door. When he answers, I tell him who I am and flash him the .357 tucked under my shirt.
“Step inside, we need to talk,” I tell him.
Right away he realizes who I am. I even toss my uncle’s name out there, just so he knows exactly who he’s dealing with. I can tell he’s scared. He knows the name. Everyone in our town knows the Tocco name. The guy starts swearing up and down the check is good, that his monthly commission check should have been deposited into his account that morning. I’m pretty sure he’s telling the truth, but I tell him I’m going to need some collateral until I get my money. This poor guy. I feel bad when I think about it now. He had his father living with him, an older guy I think was a biker or something. He tells me his father has a gun collection so I tell him I’ll take the guns as collateral until I get my money. I end up calling my Uncle Pete over with a van to load up the guns. Meanwhile, the father is there watching. He knows who we are, and he looks scared. We’re taking his gun collection and there is nothing he can do about it. I have one of my cousins stay with him in the house while the son drives me to his bank. Sure enough, he comes back out with $5,000 in cash. Apparently, the money had just gotten there late.
But I’m not done. We already got the guns, so I tell the guy to just report them all stolen. That way, he can collect an insurance payout. I even promise to kick him few grand when I sell the collection of nearly a hundred guns, which of course I never planned to do. But here’s the kicker: The guy never asked for his check back, so as soon as I dropped him off, I went straight back to the bank with my girlfriend and had her cash it. And it was good! I ended up with ten grand in cash for $20 dollars’ worth of vitamin B-12 pills. Plus the gun collection, which I split with my uncle. You should have seen my uncle’s basement. It looked like the basement of an international arms dealer. We called about ten wiseguys over and held a sort of impromptu auction. You should have seen the bidding wars. Guys were drooling over some of those guns. We made around $20,000 from the collection, and kept about ten guns for ourselves. I kept a nice shotgun, a hunting rifle, an AR-15, and a pair of 9mm Berettas.
Unfortunately, what I didn’t know was that owner of the company he worked for was a woman who was married to some big shot state cop. When she learned of how we had hustled him out of ten grand (he never brought up the guns), she sparked up a big shit storm of trouble for me. They didn’t know who I was at first, but eventually they got wind of my name. A Federal indictment was being put together, but the guy had to identify me in a lineup. Lucky for me, my grandfather had a lot of friends, and one of them tipped him off to my impending indictment. So, knowing what was coming, my grandfather shipped me off to work with some associates in New York until he could make the indictment go away. I lived in NYC for the next three years, until certain members of my Family were able to persuade the guy to tell the DA that he had made the whole thing all up to cover his own gambling debts. But while in New York, I made some new friends and had some great times, which I’ll talk more about in my next Chronicle.
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