The Chicago Outfit entered the 1970s with plenty of problems, but at the end of the day, they still represented one quite stable and strong organization with a strong hierarchy that was involved in many new ventures.
By now, one of the most powerful crews was the so-called Elmwood Park crew led by the Outfit’s top boss, Tony Accardo, and his personal capo, Joe “Gags” Gagliano.
Joe “Gags” was known as the top guy in the loansharking business. He had also inherited a crew of vicious killers which several up-and-coming killers and extortionists originally formed. This group, of course, was no different than the rest of the Outfit’s crews from that same era.
A Most Lucrative Business
At the time, one of the most lucrative and legit operations in Chicago was the catering business which became the new style of business for providing food service for the citizens of the second-largest city at the time.
One interesting aspect of the catering business was the mobile caterers that served food directly from a vehicle, or cart, all outfitted to sell food at outdoor events. All kinds of food products were provided at remote sites such as weddings, funerals, job sites, ships, planes, concerts, or at sites such as hotels, public houses and other locations.
Every truck offered different food options from Italian to Chinese to Mexican or even Kosher, Balkan, or vegetarian cuisine, depending on the customer’s preferences.
For example, Italian catering services usually included savory dishes perfect for any occasion such as mouth-watering combinations of contemporary Italian appetizers, Italian entrées, pasta dishes and Italian desserts, all artfully prepared with superior quality. Flavorful dishes like Chicken Marsala, Eggplant Parmesan, Fettucine Alfredo, Lasagna, Italian meatballs, or a gourmet pasta station where chefs often create pasta dishes made to order for each guest were all part of these mobile catering trucks.
But for some other reasons, the mobile catering service in the Chicago area never really reached its peak.
I believe that organized crime did not have any problems infiltrating the business since they already owned many restaurants, job sites, hotels in which weddings often occurred, or cruise ships that traveled around the world, including airline catering.
In 1970, capo Joe Gagliano was already involved in the food catering business with the help of one of his associates known as John Schaffer a.k.a. Juan Atilano, who owned the La Hacienda del Sol restaurant, located at 1945 N. Sedgwick St. on the city’s North Side. Atilano was also the part owner of the Thunderbird Catering Co., located at 4242 S. Racine Ave. on the South Side.
It was a beautiful scheme since, besides his alleged Mob connections, Schaffer had no criminal record; in other words, he was “clean.” In addition, he had a professional “team” under him that carried out the operation.
For example, aside from Schaffer, another individual with hidden interests in both establishments and who was also employed as a manager was a guy by the name of Jack Clarke. Clarke was a controversial consultant for the Chicago Police Department, an undercover agent for the FBI, and a private investigator, who also had many connections on Chicago’s docks which made him the Mob’s perfect puppet.
In fact, Clarke was one of the worst kinds of criminals since he worked for three different “agencies,” including the police, the feds, and the Outfit, and paid, with tons of cash, many high-profile informants from within the crime syndicate to find information about underworld activities. But above all, Jack Clarke worked for himself.
The other half of the “team” was a quiet, unassuming, hardworking, and intelligent lady who went by the name of Rita Payonk. She was the group’s main bookkeeper for both establishments and knew all the secrets and schemes, which included tax evasion and forcing other establishments to buy their catering products or trucks. Jack Clarke was a friend of Payonek, and he was the one who brought her into the firm.
Side note: It’s possible that Schaffer’s Outfit “friendship” really came from Clarke’s personal connections.
By now, the Thunderbird Catering Co. had almost 100 mobile catering trucks and was one of the leading mobile catering companies, and it was on the way to having a monopoly of the mobile catering business around Chicago.
Things became complicated for the Chicago Outfit in 1971 when Gagliano died of natural causes. Two years later, Jack Clarke was indicted for tax evasion in a separate case and was sentenced to three years in jail. In addition, it was later learned that Clarke worked for the feds, which made the situation quite dangerous.
Instead of serving three years, Clarke served only 11 months in prison. In 1975, he was called before a grand jury to testify about his shady activities but he took the Fifth more than a few times.
After Gagliano’s death, the late “big shot” who allegedly didn’t align with psychopathic violence, his “killing” crew completely changed its way of operating and went in the opposite direction. In other words, they became even more violent.
Some sources claim that Gagliano’s successor was John “No Nose” DiFronzo because most of the previous Elmwood Park leaders like former boss Jack Cerone and Willie Messino were in jail. Everyone, that is, except for their top boss, Tony Accardo.
Being a lieutenant for the late Joe Gagliano who was probably one of the more sophisticated Outfit capos in doing business, John DiFronzo became one of the first Elmwood Park capos who mostly set his sights on corruption and legitimate enterprises, including gambling, with loansharking and extortion being in second place.
Sources say that DiFronzo was partners with another Outfit capo by the name of Joey “the Clown” Lombardo, who was the boss of the so-called Grand Avenue crew. Lombardo became a partner mainly because a large portion of the catering trucks were moving around the areas that were under his control. In fact, the Elmwood Park and Grand Avenue crews were closely associated since the old days. So, by the late 1970s, few people in the catering business died from “unnatural causes,” and the case that I’m about to discuss is still a mystery to this day.
If you look at the situation more closely, one might just find two possible conclusions, including the possibility of Clarke’s various government associations. Or maybe the main problem was that the front guys, such as Schaffer, began noticing they were losing more money instead of making money because most of them were not aware of what was going on since they obviously did not understand the meaning of “front man.”
So, for some reason right after Clarke’s testimony, on May 6, 1975, somebody planted a pipe bomb under the hood of John Schaffer’s automobile. Luckily for him, he was far enough away from the car at the time of the explosion, that he was unharmed.
Some investigators it was a possible murder attempt and believed it might have only been a warning since it was clear the bomb had been professionally planted. But why? What were the reasons?
When Schaffer was questioned by authorities, he told them he had no clue who it could have been since wasn’t quarreling with anyone. If Schaffer was telling the whole truth, then the life-threatening situation of his bookkeeper, Rita Payonk, would’ve never occurred.
On January 18, 1976, two masked men, riding in a car and armed with high-powered rifles, fired more than a dozen shots at Payonk while she was driving home. She ended up only slightly wounded from the incident.
Now, according to the previous information, Schaffer was in a position to help his female co-worker, but instead, he and Clarke told her that it was a possible mistaken identity and that all of those bullets were meant for someone else.
From that point forward, Payonk was forced to ask her colleagues, on a daily basis, to escort her to her car after work. But according to some reports, Payonk was again visited more than a couple of times by Clarke, who allegedly advised her that the coast was completely clear and there was no longer any reason for her to be afraid.
According to her colleagues, on February 6, 1976, Payonk allegedly told them that she wasn’t scared anymore and that everything was good. That same day, 31-year-old Rita Payonk was found slumped over the wheel of her car which was parked in the 1800 block of North Lincoln Avenue. She had been shot twice in the back of the head and four times in the chest.
Investigators reported that it was a professional assassination since they found six .38caliber shell casings on the floor of her car, but they were unable to determine whether the killer or killers lay in wait inside the car or forced their way in before killing her.
In the end, investigators tied Payonk’s murder to the narcotics business, because they had learned some of the mobile food truck drivers were involved in dealing narcotics. For me, this doesn’t make any sense. After Payonk’s murder, the government changed its view of the mobile catering business which, in fact, was one of the first reasons for its huge failure at the time.
My personal opinion is that this was possibly the type of crime in which you might find many corrupt government officials and mobsters involved in one conspiracy, which usually ends up unsolved forever. I also believe that the individual in the middle of this mess was Jack Clarke.
My reasoning is because of two high-profile slayings in 1977, both of whom were Clarke’s former colleagues, police officer John Lourgos in April, and police commander Mark Thanasouras in July. Apparently, both Lourgos and Thanasouras were seen daily at the La Hacienda Del Sol, and they also were associated with owners, truck drivers, and employees of the Thunderbird Catering Co.
I also believe that these two guys were possibly associates of Clarke or whoever was behind him, like DiFronzo and the Outfit, who ended up ordering their murders. Evidence for this line of thinking was the murder of a long-time employee and manager of the Thunderbird Catering Co. by the name of Richard Crofton, which happened in December 1977. He was shot to death “gangland style” outside his garage by two assassins wearing ski masks, six times in the head, chest, and back.
In addition, during this period, the pressure of it all probably caught up with Schaffer. He died of natural causes and his wife inherited the business.
Enter the Wife
Before the Crofton murder, Theresa Schaffer told the police that she allegedly received a death threat over the phone. So, from this point on, some of the corrupt investigators were no longer in a position to cover up the whole scandal, since it became obvious that something dangerous was happening, particularly in the food catering business. City newspapers began printing stories about the alleged mobile catering war, and, in no time, the violence and murders suddenly stopped.
Again, my personal belief is that these slayings were obviously orchestrated by the Chicago Outfit and the Elmwood Park crew under John DiFronzo, mainly because of the modus operandi in the slayings, which were exactly the same as the ones that were executed by hit teams from different Outfit crews.
“Somebody” obviously cleared the way for the Thunderbird Catering Co. and also killed anyone who might have presented a “problem” for the operation, including their own people. By now, Thunderbird Catering Co. was the main player in the industry with almost 150 trucks, and there was a ton of money to be made because Thunderbird held a stranglehold on the mobile catering business in the city of Chicago.
The so-called “peace” lasted for nearly 6 years, until “somebody” went on a killing spree for the second time. But this time around, most of the victims were from rival companies. For example, in 1983, one of the leading catering firms was the Best Catering Co. which also just happened to be owned by Theresa Schaffer. Her partners included a guy by the name of Louis Papalia and a shady individual with criminal connections known as Mike Spiotto.
Obviously, their company was successful because of Schaffer’s interest, but that same year, “someone” thought differently, meaning it was time for Best Catering Co. to merge with the Thunderbird Catering Co. So, one day, in the same style, Spiotto was gunned down by two assassins as he left his girlfriend’s apartment on the city’s South Side. When authorities questioned Spiotto’s family about who might be responsible for the murder, his family said Spiotto had no problems with anyone and that he belonged to a local motorcycle gang.
During the same time, two other food catering giants, E & D Catering and M & S Catering companies, were being warned about having too many food trucks Chicago area and were allegedly victims of attempted extortion. In one instance, there was a suspicious fire at one of their plants. And just one day after the Spiotto slaying, the main shareholder in both companies a guy by the name of DeMar Thorton, was killed along with his wife Norma in the bathroom of their west suburban home.
Now, the strange thing was that none of the investigators ever solved any of the previous murders, but since the Thorton slaying was high profile, they quickly “found” the murderers. The police chief at the time declared that the double murder was nothing more than a simple drug deal gone bad and also loudly stated that it was unrelated to any “non-existent” war in the catering business.
The police also stated that they found $250,000 worth of cocaine in one of Thorton’s antique automobiles as well as photographs of the couple with local gang members and organized crime figures. So, in no time, authorities arrested three alleged suspects, who were later convicted of the double murder.
My opinion is that if the couple was really in the dope business then why didn’t somebody from the investigation team ever find or arrest at least one suspect who was allegedly dealing drugs for the Thortons, but instead, only found the stash after their murders? If you ask me, somebody could’ve easily placed the drugs there right after the killings and made the whole case take a different direction.
If anyone really believed in the police chief’s words, then nobody would’ve left or sold their food catering businesses, but instead, that’s exactly what happened. Catering companies such as the Papalia family sold and left the business permanently as did many others. In addition, many close friends and associates of the Thortons stated that there was no need for them to sell any kind of drugs since they had all the money in the world from their legitimate business.
For me personally, the only investigator who told the truth was one Patrick Healey of the Chicago Crime Commission. He never mentioned any personal finding regarding the narcotics racket, but instead, clearly stated only what the other investigators told him and allegedly discovered. That’s why Healy only stated that there wasn’t much space for democracy in the mobile catering business and that everyone was forced to buy their supplies and food from certain individuals and that was it. One mobile caterer also stated that all of the investigations came to nothing in the end and that they were like fishing expeditions which fished for some alleged impropriety but none really came up.
Goodbye Grand Jury…Maybe
The Chicago Outfit was so deeply involved in both mobile catering and other types of catering services that in 1983, one Outfit member and main representative in Las Vegas, Nevada, a guy known as Tony Spilotro, during one trial planned to contact the owner of the catering service which fed all 17 grand jurors as well as informant Sal Romano, to convince him to poison the food which all of the previously mentioned individuals ate.
In plain English, Spilotro planned to kill the entire Nevada grand jury, including their main witness, and he apparently worked out the plot but, later, for unknown reasons, he canceled the operation. The other interesting thing was that around 1984 or 85, all of the mobile catering “problems” once again suddenly stopped but this time it was the same period when many indictments were unveiled, especially regarding the Outfit’s top leadership.
At the end of this particular story, I want to say that the Mob obviously had their fingers in all of the previous murders by placing out the facts. But this particular “mystery” was one of the reasons why the City of Chicago worked so hard to legally ban mobile food catering and the companies that oversaw these businesses.
It was mostly due to the fact that the city officials believed mobile food catering was having a negative impact on local restaurants, bars, and hotels. Plus, some of the investigators believed that most of these caterers were not paying their taxes. But at the end of the day, they couldn’t put together one single case to support these allegations.
The government tried to ban the food truck business all around Chicago, but according to some reports, “coincidentally,” their main target was the Grand Avenue area where the biggest concentration of food trucks was. Another problem that allegedly occurred and one which the government was extremely concerned about was the physical violence happening between truck drivers, mainly over selling spots.
But even with that, by the end of the decade, most of the top mobsters who were possibly extorting the food catering business were gone. And with most of the competition gone, the Thunderbird Catering Co. remained at the top of the industry with Theresa Schaffer serving as the chief executive. With so many trucks, her company began leasing food trucks at a cost between $40 and $75 per day, depending on the truck’s condition. Also, during that same time period, over 300 licenses were issued to various food vendors.
Today, there are less than 100 trucks left in Chicago. It’s one of the only big cities in the U.S. where food trucks have hundreds of restrictions such as parking around public places or staying longer in one place for more than one or two hours. But in Los Angeles or New York, for instance, food trucks and firms are well-established. They also began expanding their businesses in nearby, smaller towns and cities.