By Gaspar González | October 1, 2012 | Style & Beauty
Esperti (LEFT) and an unidentified man exit from the halls of justice, 1965
Esperti (SECOND FROM LEFT), in a police lineup following the Altamura murder.
Scene of the crime: The Place for Steak, on the 79th Street Causeway in North Bay Village.
Esperti during his first trial for the Altamura murder, 1968
The front page of The Miami Herald, November 1, 1967, covering the murder.
It happened in the wee hours of Halloween morning 1967.
Reputed Mafia lieutenant Thomas Altamura (“Tommy A” to his friends and associates, “The Enforcer” to his victims and the police), nattily attired in a blue silk suit, strolled through the doorway of the Harbor Lounge, a popular watering hole attached to The Place for Steak restaurant on the 79th Street Causeway in North Bay Village. A large man seated alongside a woman at the bar stood up, walked behind Altamura, pulled out a .38, and pumped two bullets into his head, followed by three more shots into his back and sides. Altamura crumpled to the ground, a pool of blood forming a grotesque halo. Patrons scrambled for cover as the killer walked back to the bar, grabbed his girlfriend by the arm, and exited into the night.
The Halloween shooting was the climax of a freewheeling era in North Bay Village, when gangsters, celebrities, and locals routinely rubbed shoulders at after-hours joints along the neon-lit one-mile causeway. The normally happy haze of vice and good cheer had been disrupted a few months before, when a spate of explosions and killings signaled the beginning of a gangland restructuring. Now, in the latest plot turn, Tommy A’s lifeless body lay on the floor.
“They called me at two o’clock that morning,” remembers retired Metro-Dade Police Department Captain Marshall Frank. “I was on the ‘whodunit team.’” The case wouldn’t rank among the toughest Frank ever cracked. Altamura and Anthony “Big Tony” Esperti, a former heavyweight boxer-turned-shakedown artist and thug-for-hire well known to police, had been feuding. Some said it was over a woman. Others claimed it was part of a turf war, with each man trying to claim a bigger slice of the extortion and loan-sharking racket in South Florida.
The action had grown pretty rough, even for Miami in the mid 1960s—a time, Frank says, “when we had a lot of bodies turning up.” Several weeks before the killing, on September 22, 1967, a bomb had ripped through another causeway hot spot, Happy’s Stork Lounge, while Esperti sat at the bar. Miraculously, no one was hurt. The week before Altamura’s death, one of his men had roughed up a friend of Esperti’s. Afterward, Esperti and his buddy went looking for the guy and took revenge in the form of a beatdown. Altamura let it be known he would personally settle the score. To observers, the shooting at The Place for Steak was a case of Esperti simply beating The Enforcer to the punch: Do it to them before they do it to you— that was Big Tony’s style. It was a lesson he had learned the hard way, in the boxing ring.
Esperti first fought professionally when he was about 20 years old (he was born in either 1930 or ’32, depending on whether boxing or police records are consulted) at the legendary Ridgewood Grove arena in Queens, New York. It was May 12, 1951, and the fledgling boxer was matched against a pug named Johnny “Irish” Dilley. Esperti out-pointed Dilley in the four-round affair—a strong enough showing to get him a fight the following month at Madison Square Garden, on the same program as Joe Louis, the ex-heavyweight champ. Louis knocked out his opponent, Lee Savold, in the sixth round. Esperti didn’t fare nearly as well in his match, losing to an inept Cuban fighter named Hugo Alvarez.
The rest of his career would consist mostly of fights against journeymen brawlers in smoky, second-rate New York clubs like Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway and Fort Hamilton Arenas. Esperti won more often than he lost, but he would never be a contender. By 1956, he was through, just another tough guy looking for a way to make a buck.
Boxing was dominated by organized crime in those days, and men who liked using their hands moved easily between the two worlds. Esperti chose burglary and armed robbery as his new trade, but his luck was no better than it had been in the ring; in 1959, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison for illegal entry. Upon release, Esperti came to Miami, looking not so much for a second chance as a second act.
He had a notable introduction to the city. “I used to like going to the gym on Fifth Street in South Beach,” Esperti later told a reporter. “I was working out one day when [boxing promoter] Chris Dundee asked me if I wanted to fight some kid called Cassius Clay.” Esperti was broke, so he agreed to fight the Olympic champion who was just then beginning to make his way up the heavyweight ladder.
Dundee’s brother, the famed trainer Angelo Dundee, who passed away this past February and whose job it was to steer Clay through the fight, recalled only one thing about the opponent who stood across the ring from his fighter that night: “He was a big guy, that Esperti. Big guy!” It was Clay’s third pro fight, but it didn’t take long for him to dispense with Esperti, who was badly out of shape. The referee stopped the bout in round three.
Esperti’s brief losing battle with The Greatest may have fueled his desire to distinguish himself in the underworld. “Ever since Cassius Clay knocked him unconscious in a Miami Beach prize ring,” wrote The Miami Herald in 1967, “Esperti has been trying to prove he’s the toughest hoodlum in South Florida.”
By the time of the Altamura shooting, Esperti had been arrested locally 11 times, for crimes ranging from assault and battery to receiving and concealing stolen property. On one occasion, he beat up a petty thief, then shot the man through the foot to “make [him] remember” the encounter. Esperti had beaten the rap on every occasion save one: a strong-arm extortion conviction he was appealing. People weren’t inclined to testify against an approximately 250-pound hoodlum with a sadistic streak.
His track record of getting away scot-free had made Esperti not only brazen (he’d killed Altamura in a crowded room) but careless. When authorities called him in for questioning just hours after the murder, Esperti showed up at police headquarters with his lawyer. “I don’t know what it’s all about; you must be crazy,” he’d said, defending his innocence. He didn’t count on police actually checking for evidence.
What happened next is legendary among oldschool Miami-Dade cops. “When we went to swab his hands,” recounts Frank, “we had a fight in the squad room.” Esperti resisted the procedure and started throwing cops around the station. Frank was the one who finally tamed him, with a well-placed kick to the groin. The swab yielded gunpowder. “Stupid Tony hadn’t bothered to wash his hands,” says Frank, still marveling at the fact. “This was hours after the shooting.”
Still, it was going to take more than questionable hygiene to convict Esperti. The cops needed a witness, and those had always been in short supply when it came to placing Big Tony at the scene of anything. This time, though, the cops got lucky. Three tourists had been sitting at the Harbor Lounge bar when the shooting took place. “They all saw it so well they could almost draw sketches of the killer,” says Frank. But that didn’t mean getting testimony was going to be easy. “When the cop was driving [the witnesses] downtown,” recalls the retired police captain, “one of them said something like, ‘Geez, you come to Miami and right away, you see a murder.’ And the cop in the car turned around and said, ‘Yeah, and it was a Mafia murder.’ [Two of the three] forgot what they saw.”
In the end, only one of the men testified against Esperti. At a hearing on November 9, 1967, a man visiting from New Jersey pointed at the former fighter and identified him as the triggerman. His testimony held up through two trials, the first one ending in a hung jury; the second, in a conviction for first-degree murder. (When contacted for this story, the man, who received death threats at the time, requested that his name not be used.)
Esperti had gone down for the count for good. Today all that remains of Miami’s most famous mob hit is the site—recently a now-shuttered all-you-caneat Chinese buffet—and the memory of Big Tony’s menacing ways. “Police ran across him a lot,” muses Frank. “A lot of other people ran across him a lot, too,” he says, pondering his wake of violence.
Traces of the world Esperti inhabited are also hard to come by. The old-school mob, La Cosa Nostra, eventually transitioned into more legitimate businesses in South Florida, and police refocused their attention on the rise of drugrelated crime. The original 5th St. Gym was torn down (it was reopened in 2010), a relic of South Beach gone by. Big Tony? He’s gone, too. He died in 2002, taking everything he learned in the shadows with him.
photography by john smith/corbis (gloves); courtesy of the miami herald (newspaper); courtesy of Miami-Dade Police Department (harbor lounge, lineup); courtesy of historymiami (trial, esperti leaving)
July 19, 2016