By Peter Edwards, Jennifer Pagliaro
Salvatore (Sam) Calautti, 40, seldom travelled alone or without a gun — a sensible precaution for a man suspected in at least five unsolved gangland hits, including the slaying of Nicolo (Uncle Nick) Rizzuto Sr., father of Montreal Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto.
But neither his gun nor his associates saved the longtime GTA hitman Friday morning when he was shot dead in his BMW X6 after attending the stag of a local bookie at the Terrace Banquet Centre in Vaughan that was attended by 500 guests, 100 of whom were there at the time of the shooting.
His longtime associate, James Tusek, 35, was also slain.
The double gangland hits have investigators wondering if the Montreal Mafia wars have moved to Toronto. “It could be the beginning of a new front of struggle in the Montreal war,” said Antonio Nicaso, an author and expert on international organized crime, who has lectured police forces in several countries. He noted that two men connected to the mob war were murdered in Sicily in April.
“After Italy, Ontario may also be involved in the showdown,” he said.
Vito Rizzuto’s underworld enemies in Ontario are believed to have conspired with some Montreal mobsters in a war in that city that led to the murder of Rizzuto’s father, eldest son, brother-in-law and several of his closest associates.
The Star has learned Calautti was investigated in the unsolved November 2010 murder of Rizzuto Sr., who was shot dead by a sniper while standing with his wife in the kitchen of his Montreal mansion. Police saw one of Calautti’s longtime associates in Montreal the day after the Nick Rizzuto Sr. murder: “You have to consider the presence of these people at the time of the murder,” a police investigator said.
Vito Rizzuto was released from a U.S. prison in October after serving almost six years for his role in the underworld executions of three Brooklyn mobsters in 1981. Immediately on his return to Canada, he is believed to have huddled with supporters in the GTA before returning to Montreal. Since his release, at least half a dozen of his enemies have been slain in Montreal and Sicily.
Calautti was believed to be a “made man” in the ‘Ndrangheta, or Calabrian Mafia. He was considered by police to be muscle for at least three local mob groups, including bitter enemies of Vito Rizzuto.
The police sources noted that there is extreme tension between Rizzuto’s crime group, which has Sicilian roots, and many GTA mobsters, whose roots are in the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta.
The police source said he wondered if the killing was set up by someone Calautti trusted. He said he found it surprising that someone with the hitman’s street sense could be ambushed in his car: “It’s hard to think someone snuck up on him. Sam was the type of guy who always carried a gun.”
A short, squat man, Calautti commanded considerable fear in underworld circles because of his proclivity for violence.
“Sam was such a hothead,” one of the police sources said. “He had beefs with everybody.” It’s no surprise he met a violent end, he added. “It’s something that eventually was bound to happen.”
“He loved to do (debt) collections,” the source said. “Loved to beat people, always had a gun. Anything in the violent end of gangsterism is what he would do.”
This source added, “He always, always, always travelled with another organized crime figure.”
Police were called to the Terrace Banquet Centre on Creditstone Rd. around 1 a.m. on Friday after shots were heard. They found one man dead in the parking lot. The second victim was taken to hospital where he died of his injuries, said York Regional Police Const. Blair McQuillan.
A bullet hole could be seen on the passenger-side door of Calautti’s BMW as it was loaded onto a flatbed truck before 10 a.m. on Friday.
Charges against Tusek were stayed in 2011 after he was arrested for taking part in a $16-million Niagara Region marijuana grow-op. Several people entering a north-end Toronto home on Port Trail Rd. believed to belong to Tusek’s family refused to speak to a reporter on Friday.
Even before the Nick Rizzuto Sr. murder, Calautti had long and often tense relations with the Montreal-based Rizzuto crime family. Authorities say the Rizzuto group also has a strong and long-standing GTA presence.
Calautti was the prime suspect in Operation RIP, which investigated the 2000 slaying of Vito Rizzuto’s former right-hand man, Gaetano (Guy) Panepinto in Toronto in October 2000.
Calautti had been close friends with ‘Ndrangheta member Domenic (Mico) Napoli, a mobster who was in conflict with Panepinto over gambling territory. Napoli and his associate Antonio Oppedisano disappeared and were believed murdered in early 2000.
Police investigated but couldn’t prove the theory that Panepinto cremated the bodies at his discount casket shop on St. Clair Ave. W.
Even though police didn’t prove their case, there were severe repercussions for the Napoli and Oppedisano murders. Oppedisano was the son of a major ‘Ndranghetta boss in Southern Italy. Not long after his disappearance, Calabrian mobsters visited Montreal and spoke to Rizzuto.
Sources say that Rizzuto quickly distanced himself from Panepinto, saying he had nothing to do with the killings of Napoli and Oppedisano.
In October 2000, Panepinto was shot dead while driving his Cadillac in West Toronto. That murder was never solved.
The massive Montreal RCMP investigation dubbed Project Colisée found that in 2006 that Calautti ran up more than $200,000 in gambling debts to the Rizzuto crime family. After he refused to pay, that debt was believed to be assumed by a GTA mobster.
Other gambling debts run up by Calautti were considered the spark for the hostilities that led to the 2004 shooting of Louise Russo, an innocent victim in a North York sandwich shop, one of the police sources said.
Calautti owed roughly $200,000 to an online gambling operation with ties to the GTA mob and the London, Ont., Hells Angels. When Calautti refused to pay, his sponsor, Sicilian mobster Michele (Mike) Modica, was stuck with the debt. A hit team was trying to kill Modica in the California Sandwich shop when gunmen missed and paralyzed Russo.
A father of three, Calautti ran a pizzeria and gelato shop on Dufferin St. On Friday, employees were packing up the patio as two homicide detectives arrived in an unmarked car. A man at the restaurant refused to speak to a reporter, saying only that the restaurant was closed.
When asked why, the man said because of “flooding.” Both new and regular customers who arrived on Friday were confronted with a hastily written “Closed due to flooding” sign taped on the window.
Former neighbours on Woodbridge’s Rota Cres. recalled Calautti and his estranged wife as a nice couple who helped build a fence in their backyard. Detectives arrived at 8 a.m. looking for his wife, the new owner said.
In 1998, Calautti was acquitted by a jury of the fatal shooting of Giuseppe Congiusta, 32, outside a North York social club. Congiusta was shot nine times on Sept. 5, 1996, near the MS social club at Finch Ave. W. and Weston Rd.
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