A Midwest mafia kingfish died recently, as longtime Milwaukee mob power, Joseph (Joe Camel) Caminiti, 88, was laid to rest in a quiet ceremony in his hometown back in early February.
Over the past 17 years, Joe Camel had been the titular figure head or “boss” if you had to label him, for a Wisconsin crime family that appears to be on its last legs. Before that Caminiti served as the organization’s consigliere for close to four decades.
He was the son-in-law of one-time Milwaukee don John Alioto and the brother-in-law of legendary Wisconsin Godfather Frank (Frankie Bal) Balistreiri. Known for being well-liked, wise and understated, Caminiti yielded influence on the street and in labor union politics, acting as the syndicate’s liaison to the Teamsters.
When Balistreiri went to prison between 1967 and 1971, he tapped Caminiti, “made” by Alioto in a 1953 ceremony, as acting boss of the-then highly-profitable Borgata.
Joe Camel could often be seen by Balistreiri’s side as the menacing Milwaukee mafia chieftain held court almost every day from the Shorecrest Hotel on Prospect Avenue (today the Savoy), throughout most of the 1960s, 70s and early 80s.
Balistreiri, with the heavy backing of the Chicago mob, was iron-fisted in his leadership, utilizing the car bomb as a sinister calling-card.
Milwaukee gangster Augustino (Augie Palms) Palmisano disrespected Frankie Bal at a card game in 1978 and was car-bombed to death in the fallout from the matter.
“That guy (Palmisano) insulted me, to my face, now they can’t find his skin,” Balistreiri infamously uttered to companions at a dinner meeting.
Palmisano, 49 at the time of his murder, had risen through the ranks of the Milwaukee underworld working under Caminiti.
Following the imprisonment and eventual death of Balistreiri (1983 and 1993, respectively), Joe Camel was relied on to keep the Family afloat. It stayed stable for a bit, but attrition and the seizing of territory by the Chicago mob severely weakened the organization to the point today where it’s basically a small crew, operating under the auspice of the Windy City.
FBI files from the 1990s, indicate that Chicago Outfit brass assigned Southside capo and eventual overall syndicate street boss John (Johnny Apes) Montelone, to “push hard” into Wisconsin in response to the depletion in the Milwaukee Family’s strength.
Retired FBI agent Mike Russo knows that Joe Camel Caminiti is part of a dying breed of mobsters and one of the final links to the golden era of the American mafia in the mid-to-early-late Twentieth Century.
“Wiseguys like him (Caminiti) are few and far between these days,” he said. “He was a gentleman gangster, spoke quietly, but everyone knew he possessed a lot of sway. The name of the game was making money, not waves. That mindset served him well.”
Article courtesy of Scott M. Burnstein Author of Motor City Mafia: A Century of Organized Crime in Detroit (Images of America) and other great mafia titles.