FBI bugs Frank Zito hangout, 1965

This circa-1971 photograph shows the building at 223-25 N. Fifth St. The 225 address, Carl’s Cleaners in the photo, in 1965 housed Modern Distributing Co., a regular hangout for Frank Zito and his associates. Upstairs was the Sattler Hotel, which the FBI described as “a low class hotel.” (Sangamon Valley Collection)

When FBI agents successfully planted a surveillance microphone in mobster Frank Zito’s hangout in 1965, their superiors nominated them for letters of commendation.

Top brass in Washington, however, counseled patience. “(S)ince this is a newly established source,” Washington officials wrote, “its value has not as yet been determined.”

Good call.

The microphone, which remained in place from March 19 until May 25, 1965, at Modern Distributing Co., 225 N. Fifth St., apparently delivered little useful intelligence about Zito or anyone else who spent time at the business … unless you count Zito’s admission that he liked garlic in his orange juice.

Frank Zito, 1960s (courtesy State Journal-Register0

The surveillance records are part of a 602-page collection of FBI documents involving Zito.

Frank Zito (1893-1974) reputedly controlled Springfield vice – bootlegging, prostitution and gambling – from the 1920s into the 1950s. He also was one of 100 or so Mafia chieftains who attended the famous “mob summit” in Apalachin, N.Y. in November 1957 (although there is reason to believe Frank Zito was there only as a fill-in for his ailing brother, “Diamond Joe” Zito of Rockford).

The FBI documents, contained in a total of three computer files, are available through archive.org. Most of the surveillance material  (170 pages worth) is in a file labeled “Frank Zito 3”. Here’s a link to all three.

By and large, however, the records shed little new light on Zito’s criminal activities. Much of the material is repetitive and/or reproductions of public documents available elsewhere, such as files on Zito’s criminal background and his time in federal prison. They also include minutiae about Zito’s bank records, home purchases and daily habits.

Between the time the microphone surveillance ended and Zito’s death nine years later, agents did periodic drive-by checks of Zito’s whereabouts and everyday activities. As the years went on, both the agents and the bureau’s confidential informants (it’s unclear if the FBI had more than one source in the Zito organization) increasingly concluded that Zito “continues his retirement.”

Few Zito associates are named in the files, which mainly identify only Frank and his brother, Tony (1900-99). Tony, Frank’s closest mob associate, was believed to have controlled Modern Distributing Co., although the titular owners were Lena Sgro Zito, Frank’s wife, and Nina Campo Zito, Tony’s spouse. The company officially distributed jukeboxes, pinball games and vending machines. Frank and many of the brothers’ associates used the MDC office as a regular meeting place.

The ‘bug’

The microphone was installed in the Modern Distributing building by a Chicago-based agent, because the only qualified Springfield FBI agent was known to Zito and his associates, according to the documents. A listening post was established in a nearby basement storage room.

Tony Zito, 1958 (SJ-R)

The original “misur” (“microphone surveillance” in FBI-speak) authorization lasted only 30 days, but the Springfield bureau obtained a 30-day extension by saying listeners thought some of Zito’s discussions involved an illicit still. Before the second month ended May 19, the local office asked for another extension, through the end of the year.

Despite what the proposed commendation letter described as the agents’ “highly effective and resourceful” installation, the FBI faced a number of hurdles in harvesting information from the bug. The room where Zito and his friends talked and played cards had bad acoustics, conversations overlapped each other, the microphone didn’t always transmit clearly, and other noises frequently drowned out the speakers. An excerpt of the April 8 transcript is a typical (though unusually poetic) example of the results; dashes in the transcript apparently indicate unintelligible phrases:

This conversation continues for several minutes, but the topic under discussion remains wrapped in the mysteries of the echoes and reverberations of the room.

An Unman (an FBI abbreviation meaning “unidentified man”) is greeted and leaves in a few seconds. Then the conversation between Frank and (name redacted) resumes. The signal is loud, but lacks clarity and sharpness.

Frank – in the pot and the plate – I was not talking to him to the house and gave it to the man who was working there – told him not to rent it and he rented it – I told you that! – there is nothing with the son – the apartment too.

Several phrases completely lost.

The janitor (custodian) – in my opinion – has bought it – sure! – washed it and rinsed it – in general –.

Frank has moved away and is now completely unintelligible.

Silence. Sound of steps. Interruption.

Just to complicate the surveillance further, Zito and those he chatted with often spoke in Italian or Sicilian (the Zito brothers struggled with the English language their entire lives). Those discussions had to be translated by FBI language experts in Washington, D.C., which led to a lag in transcription.

One conversation in Sicilian, overheard and taped on March 26, revealed Frank Zito’s fondness for spiking his orange juice. The context is bewildering.

The same or another conversation is in progress.

Unidentified voice: Frank –

(Redacted) (interrupts): How do you explain it? (or “I had the newspaper.”) Tony just –

Frank: You know, orange juice – I put garlic in it. It tastes better.

(Redacted): I drove it (?). Frank, —

Frank: — that’s how I am – 3% — (obscene) it. – anybody.

On April 20, local FBI officials called for extending the “misur” operation again. The request was based on information from a source – whose name is redacted in FBI correspondence – who claimed Frank Zito was in the process of naming another person, name also redacted, as “his successor to leadership of La Cosa Nostra in Springfield.” The source also repeated the claim that the Zito crew also was involved in making bootleg whiskey, possibly through a still in Riverton.

The voluble source added that “both Tony and (redacted) have utilized the MDC (Modern Distributing Co.) during late evening hours for sexual pleasure with (redacted) girls.”

“Subjects in this misur are completely unaware of its existence,” the Springfield office said in one April memo.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover endorsed the extension request and forwarded it to the U.S. attorney general’s office, then headed by Nicholas Katzenbach. “Unless you instruct to the contrary, this microphone surveillance will be continued for an additional six months,” Hoover wrote.

Katzenbach’s office apparently did instruct to the contrary, although that paperwork isn’t in the archive.org records. Documents that follow report that the surveillance was discontinued at 2 a.m. May 25, “and all bureau property was retrieved.”

More information: See SangamonLink’s entry on Frank Zito and the Zito brothers.

Hat tip: To independent history researcher Tom Lavin, who pointed SangamonLink to the archive.org files. 

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