Rocco Perri ([ˈrɔkko ˈpɛrri]; born Rocco Perre; December 30, 1887 – disappeared April 23, 1944) was an Italian-born organized crime figure in Ontario, Canada in the early 20th century. He was one of the most prominent Prohibition-era crime figures in Canada, and the spouse of Bessie Starkman.
Perri was born in the Italian town of Platì in Calabria, and immigrated to the United States, and later to Canada in 1908. In the early 1910s, Perri started work in construction and in a bakery. Perri and his wife began a business in bootlegging in 1916, when Ontario restricted the sale of alcohol. Starkman dealt mainly with the finances of the business. He began a career exporting liquor from distilleries, such as Gooderham and Worts, to the United States, and became known as "The King of the Bootleggers". Perri was charged with perjury after a Royal Commission testimony, and served five months in prison. In 1930, Starkman was ambushed in her garage and killed; no one was charged with her murder. In 1940, Perri was arrested and sent to internment at Camp Petawawa as part of the Italian Canadian internment; he was released three years later. Perri disappeared in Hamilton on April 23, 1944, when he went for a walk to clear his head; his body was never found.
Family and criminal activities
Perri was born in Platì, Calabria, in southern Italy on December 30, 1887, and immigrated to the United States in 1903, then to Canada in 1908.
In 1913, Perri met Bessie Starkman; she had left her husband and two children to run away and begin a common-law relationship with Perri. When the Government of Canada cut funding to the Welland Canal project due to World War I, Perri became unemployed. After working in a bakery, he was hired as a salesman for the Superior Macaroni Company. Perri and Starkman found a better life when the Ontario Temperance Act came into effect on September 16, 1916, as it restricted the sale and distribution of alcohol; the couple began bootlegging and, using Starkman's business acumen and Perri's connections, established a profitable business. Perri and Starkman's Hamilton residence was located at 166 Bay Street South in Hamilton, Ontario.
In 1918, Perri began an affair with Olive Routledge, with whom he had two daughters. Bessie, busy running the finances for their organization, did not question Perri's outings. In 1922, Routledge found out about the other woman in Perri's life and committed suicide by jumping from a building; her parents would take custody of their children.
Perri's bootleg operations would continue to be profitable after Prohibition was declared in Canada nation-wide on April 1, 1918 and the Eighteenth Amendment that prohibited sale of alcohol in the United States in 1920. Through the 1920s, Perri became the leading figure in organized crime in Southern Ontario and was under constant surveillance by police. The government allowed for numerous exceptions, allowing various breweries and distilleries to remain open for the export market. Perri specialized in exporting liquor from old Canadian distilleries, such as Seagram and Gooderham and Worts to the United States, and helped these companies obtain a large share of the American market — a share they kept after Prohibition ended in Ontario in 1927, and the United States in 1933. Perri diversified into gambling, extortion and prostitution. He has also been linked as a distributor of Canadian whisky to New York City's Frank Costello and Chicago's Al Capone; however when Capone was asked if he knew Perri, he said "I don't even know which street Canada is on."
On May 10, 1922, boss of the Scaroni crime family, Domenic Scaroni was killed after being invited to a meeting of organized crime figures in Niagara Falls. His brother Joe Scaroni was killed on September 4, after being driven to a bakery by Perri associates John Trott and Antonio Deconza. Perri was linked to the murders, though no evidence was found. With the Scaroni brothers eliminated, Perri formed an allegiance with the Serianni crime family to keep the Ontario market away from the Magaddino crime family in Buffalo.
On November 19, 1924, in an exclusive interview with the Toronto Daily Star, he stated, "My men do not carry guns ... If I find that they do, I get rid of them. It is not necessary. I provide them with high-powered cars. That is enough. If they cannot run away from the police it is their fault. But guns make trouble. My men do not use them."
In 1927, Perri was compelled to testify at the Royal Commission on Customs and Excise inquiry, focusing on bootlegging and smuggling, and also at a hearing on tax evasion charges against Gooderham and Worts. Later that year, at a Gooderham and Worts tax evasion hearing, Perri admitted buying whisky from the distiller from 1924 to 1927. Gooderham and Worts was convicted of tax evasion in 1928 and ordered to pay a fine of $439,744. Perri and Starkman were charged with perjury after their Royal Commission testimony, but in a plea bargain, the charges were dropped against Starkman; Perri served five months of a six-month sentence and was released on September 27, 1928.
Starkman was the head of operations, until August 13, 1930 when she was ambushed and shot in the couple's garage. Though no one was ever tried for the crime, it is thought Calabrian compatriot Antonio Papalia, father of Johnny Papalia, played a role in the murder.
In 1938, two attempts were made to kill Perri: on March 20, his veranda was destroyed by dynamite that had been placed underneath it, and on November 23, a bomb under his car detonated; Perri was not injured in either attempt.
In 1940, Rocco and his brother Mike Perri were arrested and sent to internment at Camp Petawawa as part of the Italian Canadian internment, as potentially dangerous enemy aliens with alleged fascist connections to Benito Mussolini's regime; he was released on October 17, 1943.
Perri was last seen alive in Hamilton on April 23, 1944, when he went for a walk to clear his head. His body has never been found, though it is speculated he was murdered by being fitted with cement shoes and thrown into Hamilton Harbour — a practice known colloquially as the lupara bianca. It is believed Antonio and Johnny Papalia, along with Stefano Magaddino of Buffalo, played a role in Perri's disappearance to gain better control of the Canadian market. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police concluded in 1954 that they "won't find his body until the Bay dries up".
In 1992, evidence into the disappearance of Perri was uncovered by Mafia expert Antonio Nicaso. A letter shared with him by Perri's cousin in Italy dated June 10, 1949 translated from Italian reading, "Dear cousin, With this letter, I will tell you I am in good health. Let them know I'm fine if you've heard the news." It is signed Rocco Perri. His cousin also says Perri died in 1953 in Massena, New York.
After Perri's disappearance, three of his former lieutenants, in addition to Giacomo Luppino began answering to his adversary, Magaddino in Buffalo: Tony Sylvestro, Calogero Bordonaro and Santo Scibetta, known as the "three dons".