Until police found Rocco Sollecito's corpse in his bullet-riddled luxury SUV a few hundred meters from police headquarters in Laval, just north of Montreal, he was likely the highest-ranking mafioso still standing in Canada. But the grisly discovery on May 28 was just the latest in a string of gangland slayings in the city, where the Italian mafia has struggled to fill a power vacuum caused by years of internal struggle and police busts.
A once-unified network of Italian mobsters, street gangs, bikers, and corrupt city officials has decayed and crumbled in the last decade. Violence has flared as a result, and the stack of bodies is growing higher.
It's a historic low point for the Montreal mafia, long considered by authorities to be the strongest organized crime group in Canada.
It's unclear exactly which organization is behind the current spate of violence, but, as one mafia expert told VICE News: "That group, whoever it is, appears to be much stronger."
Police search Rocco Sollecito's SUV in Laval, where his body was found. (Canadian Pres/Graham Hughes)
On the wiretap recording, Francesco del Balso's voice is calm.
"I want my fucking money today or Lorenzo said he's gonna grab you, he's gonna fucking turn you into a pretzel. And don't fuck with him, bro.
"Listen to me, go get 112 dimes and save yourself a beating of your life."
This is how the Montreal mafia's version of a collections agency works.
At the time of the recording, Del Balso was a notorious bookmaker and high-ranking member of Montreal's infamous Rizzuto crime family. The Lorenzo on the tape was presumably Lorenzo Giordano, a close associate of Del Balso and the capo considered to be the de facto leader of the family for a time.
The Rizzuto family is an organization so powerful during the rule of former leader Vito Rizzuto that it often drew comparisons to the fabled "Five Families" that controlled New York during the city's mafia heyday. The FBI still considers the Rizzuto syndicate to be a wing of the New York-based Bonanno crime family.
The Rizzutos have been the only game in town for years. But now, experts say, the family is weak and awaiting a strongman to either take it over or replace it by force. The dons of the family have had a hard time staying alive.
One of the biggest blows to the organization was Operation Colisée, a 2006 law enforcement operation that spanned three years and resulted in the arrests of Del Balso, Giordano, Sollecito, and a host of other Rizzuto allies. Convictions for drug trafficking, extortion, and bookmaking put them behind bars.
The mobsters were eventually released from prison, and, one by one, they each wound up dead. Sollecito is just the most recent. The killings started not long after Rizzuto's confession in 2007 that he was involved in the murder of three rival mobsters. Vito died of natural causes in 2013, making him one of the few in the family to die peacefully.
Vito Rizzuto, pictured bottom left, at a stag party. Juan Ramon Fernandez, bottom right, was killed in Sicily in 2013 in an ambush. Photo via The Sixth Family: The Collapse of the New York Mafia and the Rise of Vito Rizzuto by Adrian Humphreys.
In December 2009, gunmen killed Vito's son Nicolo Rizzuto, Jr. in broad daylight on a sidewalk in Montreal's west end. The following year, a sniper perched in a tree shot and kill his grandfather, Nick Sr., while he sat at his kitchen table.
Next was Paolo Renda, brother-in-law to Vito and once believed to be his most trusted consigliere. He mysteriously disappeared in 2010, while the organization was trying to figure out new leadership. His wife found his car with the windows rolled down and the keys in the ignition, but no sign of her husband.
Police figure that the one trying to broker the new leadership for the family was Salvatore "The Iron Worker" Montagna, a one-time leader of the New York-based Bonanno family, who was deported back to Montreal in 2009.
In 2011, he was gunned down in a residential neighborhood on Montreal's north shore — but his would-be assassins were sloppy. He survived and jumped into the freezing Assomption River, washing up a few minutes later on a small island, where police found him bleeding to death in the snow.
Seven men ultimately pled guilty to conspiring to kill Montagna. One of them, Raynald Desjardins, was a right-hand man to Rizzuto and the target for more than one murder plot.
In March 2016, months after Giordano's release from prison to a halfway house, police in Laval responded to a report of gunshots outside a gym near the highway. They found him sitting in his car, sporting multiple fresh bullet holes.
The murders have even spread internationally. Two Canadian mobsters were whacked in a 2013 ambush in Sicily, apparently on orders from Montreal.
Virtually the only high-ranking figures in the organization who aren't dead are in jail.
Police figure, most recently, leadership of the family was split between Sollecito's son, Stefano, and Montreal lawyer Leonardo Rizzuto, Vito's second son. Canadian authorities arrested both men late last year.
For years, the three disparate wings of the organized crime world had been largely at peace. That was one of Vito Rizzuto legacies. Despite some opposition, he struck a deal between the bikers and the street gangs around one of the largest sources of income for Montreal's criminal underworld: selling cocaine. The agreement kept the peace, and made everyone money. The bikers moved product, and the street gangs sold it. The mafia managed the whole operation.
"The Rizzuto crime family was involved in the importation level, the Hells Angels working on the distribution level, the street gangs on the selling level," said Antonio Nicaso, author of several books on Canada's Cosa Nostra. "Everyone was happy with that."
Maurice "Mom" Boucher greets fellows Hells Angels at a boxing match in 1998. (The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz)
But with Vito gone, things fell apart.
"In the Montreal mafia, the leader needs to be someone who can build trust between different clans, who has influence like Vito Rizzuto had, who can be a negotiator. Lorenzo Giordano did not have these qualities," said Pierre de Champlain, a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) analyst and author who has written extensively on Montreal organized crime.
Nicaso agreed. He said that Giordano was more of a blunt instrument: "[He was one of the people] on the streets, dealing with the violent aspects of the organization."
Under Giordano's weak leadership, and during the periods of uncertainty that preceded and followed his reign, internal factions formed and battled for higher footholds in the mafia hierarchy, racking up a significant death toll in the process. While the mafia tried to keep its own house in order, the other wings of the enterprise fell to infighting.
Chenier Dupuy, the head of the Bo-Gars street gang, was killed in a mall parking lot in 2012, reportedly because he had fought back against attempts by the Hells Angels to centralize some drug running. His lieutenant was killed a few hours later. Ducarme Joseph, the reputed leader of the city's 67s gang, one-time rivals of the Bo-Gars, was shot dead in the street in 2014.
Maurice "Mom" Boucher, meanwhile, was recently charged with plotting a murder from within his jail cell. Boucher, a Hells Angels boss in Quebec, has been in prison for the past decade on two first-degree murder convictions.
Police allege that Boucher, his daughter, and his former right-hand man all conspired to whack Raynald Desjardins — the one who pled guilty to plotting the murder of "The Iron Worker."
The operations that netted Boucher were the same that scooped up Leonardo Rizzuto and Stefano Sollecito, as well as Gregory Wooley, a Hells Angels member who reportedly unified the north-end gangs — a move that Dupuy and Sévère Paul reportedly opposed.
On the other end of the business, a provincial inquiry linked the Rizzutos to an intricate, and lucrative, bid-rigging scheme in the province's construction industry. Repeated corruption investigations, culminating in a province-wide inquiry into the industry, brought down two successive Montreal mayors and implicated a host of provincial and municipal politicians, engineering firms, and bureaucrats. Investigators found that the industry and city government colluded to inflate the price of public construction and engineering work in exchange for political contributions. Mafia-linked figures kept the whole thing running smoothly and punished anyone who tried to break from the system.
RCMP surveillance video, shown at a provincial corruption inquiry into Quebec's construction industry, allegedly shows Nick Rizzuto Sr., right, exchanging tens of thousands of dollars with Nicolo Milioto, left, former head of a local construction company. (Canadian Press/Graham Hughes)
Losing that scheme was definitely bad for business. When business is bad, things tend to go south.
Since 2009, there have been roughly 25 mafia-linked murders in Montreal, according to a report by Le Journal de Montréal. While that might be a small figure in American terms, it represents a significant chunk of the homicides in the city, which sees, on average, just 45 homicides a year.
In 2012 alone, organized crime were responsible for 18 of the city's 35 homicides, according to the city's police department.
'Someone Always Takes Over'
It remains unclear who exactly is poised to wind up on top of the Rizzuto family.
"They constantly replace themselves," said Marcel Danis, a professor who teaches a course on organized crime at Concordia University who also works as a criminal defense attorney, and has represented members of various crime factions. "They're quite strong and we can see by the most recent police arrests, there's still an alliance between the Hells [Angels] and the mafia."
Those positions rarely stay vacant for long and the competition can be fierce.
"I think what we're seeing is the gradual elimination of what was left of the Rizzuto family and obviously an attempt by some group to take over," said Danis. "That group, whoever it is, appears to be much stronger."
"The Rizzuto crime family is facing a challenge," added Nicaso. "There are people in the organization probably trying to make a move. There are other organizations trying to muscle in and to position them in a different criminal landscape."
But now, with increased scrutiny from authorities and higher-ups like Giordano being released from prison, more players are competing for a smaller pie.
The Rizzutos leave the funeral of Nicolo Rizzuto Jr.. Leonardo Rizzuto, centre, is said to have taken over the crime family after his father's death. (Canadian Press/Graham Hughes)
"There are people coming out of jail and there are people outside of jail," said Nicaso. "The people outside of jail won't allow the people coming from jail to lead the organization."
But ambition and drug money might not be the only motivations in the violent internal strife. Another, simpler, motive may be a factor in some of these killings: revenge.
According to Danis, the single sniper shot that took out Nick Rizzuto Sr. in his home indicates that the powerful Calabrian mafia, the 'Ndrangheta — pushed out of Montreal in the '80s in a violent turf war — was looking to make a comeback. Rizzuto's death, at home in front of his wife, closely resembles how the Rizzutos took out a Calabrian figure during their rise to prominence, Danis said.
"There's a parallel there," the organized crime expert said. "And whoever shot Rizzuto was a professional killer. The gun was in the woods in the back of the house. He'd have to be a super shot to do that. When you look at who might have killed him, you come to the conclusion it was not a street gang, it was not the Hells [Angels]."
The deaths of Montagna, the Rizzutos, and many others connected to the organized crime scene in Montreal point to one thing: A proper, old-fashioned mob war. But all wars have an end. And when this one does, the most likely outcome is that the biggest mafia in Canada will have a new top boss.
"Somebody always takes over," said Danis. "Always."
Follow Adam Kovac on Twitter: @AdamJKovac