Gunfire was heard in the streets and battles took place for control of territory and illegal operations. These are elements expected from any tale about the mafia. In Southern Colorado, it's a true story. A local author is shedding light on a major part of the state's colorful history.
Author and lecturer Betty Alt is an expert on a topic that fills her classroom every semester at CSU-Pueblo: The Mafia. Part of the required reading for the course is "Mountain Mafia,” written by Sandra K. Wells and Betty Alt. The text throws light on organized crime exploits across the state, including Alt's home town of Pueblo, at times called "Little Chicago."
"People would joke with us: They'd say, 'You'll be kneecapped,'" Alt said. "I guess one of the standing jokes [was], "You'll probably have cement shoes, and be dumped in the Fountain [Creek]."
She's so far avoided such a grisly end for openly discussing activities that for many years were only whispered about.
"I think people were aware of it, I just think they were afraid," Alt said.
Months of research led Alt and Wells to names like Charles Blanda, and Joseph "Scotty" Spinuzzi, controllers of gambling rackets cited in reports and articles as Colorado crime bosses in the years following prohibition.
"It's been here, and I think it surprises people," said Alt.
To find the beginning one must go back to the early 20th century, when a rush of immigrants arrived in Southern Colorado to scratch out a living in the coal industry.
Letters from a group known as the Black Hand would show up containing to-the-point messages.
"You have money, we want it, that sort of thing," Alt said.
Letters were concluded with the threat of death for non-compliance.
It continued into the 1920's
"When you look at the bootlegging era, that was the depression, people were poor. If there was any way to make a buck, you did it," said Alt.
The period of outlawed liquor marked bloody days in streets across the nation and close to home.
"There were people killed just like you see in some of the films," Alt said.
In Pueblo a battle for control of bootlegging touched off between the Danna family and the Carlinos from Trinidad.
In a decade, the two gangs traded bullets and murders in legendary fashion.
"Many times imported gunmen were brought in from the east if someone needed to be 'taken care of,'" explained Alt.
Through it all there was collateral damage including the deaths of at least four policemen. Arrests and convictions were nearly non-existent.
Alt said control of the state's mafia elements changed hands between well known figures in Pueblo at least three times.
"This is a part of Colorado history that was very interesting," she said.
The book is written to detail the stories of those people who left a lasting mark on the city.
"So far we haven't heard anything negative at all," Alt said.
As for many of the players, many are still in Pueblo. Many buried in Roselawn cemetery, close together in small family plots. They are discretely placed, maintaining a low profile to this day.
Alt said much of the mafia activity has disappeared.
There are still whispers, of course.
"Let me put it this way: I'm not going there," Alt said.
Her goal is to make readers decide for themselves.
Mountain Mafia can be purchased on amazon.com or the Pueblo Barnes and Noble. The book has been selling out of stores but can also be ordered.
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