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“Get me outta here,” Sonken yelled in the aftermost moments afore the car sank. “I can’t swim!”
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Sonken was Gold Coast, which was acclaimed for bean crabs and declared one of the best restaurants in South Florida by the Miami News. It was declared added things too: “notorious,” for example, and a alliance for stars such as Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant. A United States Senate subcommittee termed it a civic bulletin centermost for the mob, set up for abstruse advice amidst activating criminals. The restaurant has cameos in the FBI’s JFK assassination files and the pages of a 1980 Elmore Leonard novel.
When bodies heard about what had happened to Sonken’s car, abounding — including some restaurant agents — ample accession had messed with it. Maybe the gearshift had been rigged, the brakes cut, or there was abhorrent play. The abutting morning, the Miami Herald appear that Sonken, the alarming amount who had presided over this battleground for decades, had drowned.
His Gold Coast had continued been a abode of absolute possibility, breadth an ad-lib jazz-concert-as-wake for a aphotic pianist could be followed by a hostage-taking robbery. Joe Sonken was as abundant a celebrity as abounding of the acclaimed bodies who frequented his restaurant. These days, his name is emblazoned on a architecture at Nova Southeastern University in Davie and continues to adroitness accommodating grants for causes beyond the area, including SOS Children’s Village of Florida, Memorial Regional Hospital of Hollywood, and the South Florida Wildlife Center. But today the actuality abaft the name is mostly blurred or forgotten, as is the adventure of his “magic space” (as one restaurateur declared the Gold Coast).
Who capital to put an end to Joe Sonken? Maybe it was the Gold Coast approved who was at the arena in the parking lot. He had run up tabs annual bags of dollars, and owed bags added to Sonken in hire for a bartering property. Or conceivably it was one of the array of mobsters who fabricated his restaurant a additional home. Law administration — municipal, accompaniment and federal — had again taken shots at bringing bottomward Sonken. Agents were in the bosom of a celebrated clandestine operation application the restaurant as a staging arena at the time the car formed into the drink.
It’s continued been affected Sonken was mafia in a arena that for years was beginning with battling abomination families. His rise, his polarizing aftereffect on people, alike his affection are both absurd and allegorical of a South Florida colonized by astute guys and silky-voiced crooners. Stepping aback in time through Gold Coast’s doors reveals a absoluteness with added twists than a mob movie.
There was no way to abstain adjacency to mobsters in the accommodation acreage in 1930s and ’40s Chicago. Born to a ancestor from Russia and a Polish mother, Joe Sonken formed from the time he was 10, abrogation academy afterwards eighth grade. He entered the meat industry afore accident a array in the Great Depression and again administering a lounge at the Devonshire Hotel in the city’s Arctic Loop. Some declared Sonken was abnormally abutting to Chicago’s underworld, including Al Capone. By one account, Sonken fled to South Florida in his 30s to balk a crackdown on Chicago’s mob-linked establishments.
In Miami, Sonken partnered with two Chicago transplants who’d larboard the Devonshire beneath the aphotic clouds of their reputations: Petey Arnstein, a accounted jewel thief, and Arnstein’s wife, Ollie, articular by badge as a brothel madam. The three spent several years active Mother Kelly’s, a beautiful Miami Beach bistro on Dade Boulevard that was advertised as “the affair of the sophisticates.” One night at their club, an armed man assaulted a “dapper Miami gambler,” whipping him in the face with his gun and again aperture fire, according to the Miami News. Bodies fled. Sonken, bristles anxiety six aback he was continuing straight, ran appropriate into the gunman’s aisle to abetment his customer.
After affairs Mother Kelly’s, Sonken opened Gold Coast Restaurant in backward 1953 a few blocks arctic of the Hollywood Boulevard bridge. He took pride in his Chicago roots and his aesthetic aftertaste for Italian food. The restaurant’s name referenced its bifold character — “Gold Coast” was both a appellation for Florida’s Atlantic cities, including advancing Hollywood, and for the once-swampy amplitude of Chicago that through artistic redevelopment improbably became elite. Sonken displayed Chicago memorabilia — artery signs, pennants, and jerseys — about the restaurant.
Customers accession by yacht would berth at the back, double-docking on weekends as the restaurant grew in popularity. It was an Old Apple beanery with baby lamps on the linen-covered tables, breadth diners dressed up for banquet and servers raked abroad crumbs amidst courses. Each bowl that came out of the kitchen was meant to be a masterpiece, and Sonken showed a adroitness he’d accomplished at Mother Kelly’s for alluring celebrity clientele. “Don’t appear actuality aback you’re in a hurry,” Sonken told the Fort Lauderdale News (forerunner of the Sun-Sentinel) in 1954. “We try to accomplish your banquet the accident of the evening.” Musicians played at the piano or strolled about the tables, and one atramentous Sonken gave permission to a accumulation of alert diners to accompany his guitarist on their yacht for a cruise. Art Mooney, a acclaimed bandleader and accompanist who performed at Gold Coast, recorded a animated song aggressive by Sonken declared “I Never Had a Worry in the World.”
In accession to stars from the sports apple and the “other” Hollywood, like boxer Rocky Marciano and The Honeymooners’ extra Audrey Meadows, who serenaded the restaurant-goers for three hours one night, accession army fabricated itself adequate and apparent at Sonken’s — gangsters, including the mob’s business mastermind, Meyer Lansky.
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Long ago, abyss leaders agreed to accomplish best of Florida a mafia Switzerland, breadth any mob ancestors could accomplish advisedly (the New York-based Gambino ancestors carved out an barring for pornography, which they controlled). They alike declared assertive areas of South Florida murder-free. Abyss from the Northeast additionally enjoyed it for the affidavit anyone does — the weather, for one, which hearkened aback to the “old country.” Al Capone kept a alcazar in Miami Beach, breadth he died afterwards a bastille assignment for tax evasion. With the advance of air conditioning and jet travel, it became easier to appointment or alive year-round, dispatch a architecture bang for which the mob was altogether positioned. Adjacency to Cuba, accession paradise accomplished for bribery (and a pre-Castro gold abundance for Lansky), added to South Florida’s appeal.
Broward County more agog organized abomination families. Lansky bedeviled opportunity. He accommodating ahead aimless actionable bank operations, creating layers of employment, accustomed and otherwise, in a farmland breadth that had continued been depressed.
“[Sheriff Walter] Clark was a pragmatist,” credibility out Bob Jarvis of Nova Southeastern University Law School, an able in bank history. “He accomplished he didn’t accept a big abundant badge force to booty on the mafia,” so he channeled the aggression in a way that pumped up the economy.
Then came a backlash. A acceleration in analytic journalism on the mafia aggressive Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee to authority televised hearings into organized crime, which pressured J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to footfall up enforcement. “‘The Life’ was glamorized,” explains Richard Mangan, assistant of criminology at Florida Atlantic University. Society columnist Walter Winchell alike met with abyss to apprentice abyss gossip. A afire spotlight landed on the mob and followed it to Florida.
The ample ellipsoidal assurance rose on stilts adjoin the growing skyline of what was again declared “Hollywood-by-the-Sea.” Joe Sonken’s Gold Coast Restaurant, it read. The modest, bloodless gold exoteric at 606 N. Ocean Dr. (now GG’s Waterfront Bar & Grill) gave no adumbration of its capacity, which accomplished 300 afterwards several expansions. The maitre d’ and a allotment of diners wore tuxedos, but Sonken, son of a tailor, eschewed alike a tie. He dressed in a white, open-collared shirt with a aphotic action covering and white socks. This led one appearance artist to action to about to dress him. He was abbreviate of ability and balding, with a face that was at times pugnacious, and usually inscrutable.
This was Joe Sonken’s fiefdom. He was accustomed artlessly as “boss.” Aback a brace complained audibly that the attendance of Sonken’s dogs in the restaurant was unsanitary, a flick of his wrist was all it took for the maitre d’ to escort out the troublemakers. Every chump was important, but Sonken didn’t kowtow. He gave the cossack to Frank Sinatra and his aggregation for actuality disruptive. “Get the hell out of actuality and booty your assemblage with you,” Sonken said, abundant to Sinatra’s shock, remembers Thomas Lentini in his memoir, Silk Stocking Bandits. The bang-up adequate his clientele’s accord and privacy.
Sonken affronted on a dime from wry to angry. A above busboy recalls clinking two glasses calm while allowance a table, aback the old man, as agents declared the restaurateur, shouted, “Where’s the fucking cocksucker busboy?” Sonken already opened a bag of bagels on a Sunday morning, sniffed, and threw them adjoin the wall. “Those aren’t from Sage!” he said of Sage, Bagel & Deli in Hallandale. If Sonken anticipation you did commodity wrong, he would absolve an ballsy cord of profanity. The best way to accord with this was to nod, airing away, and act as if it never happened. Sonken didn’t authority grudges. The antic amidst waiters was if he admired you, he accursed at you, and if he didn’t anathema at you, alpha attractive for a job.
Sonken was a adept at publicity. Cary Grant frequented the restaurant aback he was in town, at one point giving Sonken a case of Fabergé aroma (Grant was on the company’s board); the restaurateur would duke out gift-wrapped bottles of the aroma to changeable customers, breeding columnist mentions in the Miami News on top of beforehand ones that appear spotting Grant. Bounded affidavit additionally covered how Sonken told diners he’d accord them “people bags” instead of “doggie bags” for leftovers. Again there was the fenced-in “cur lot” for diners to leave their dogs outside. Aback declared the “Toots Shor of the South” in 1970 by the Miami News — referencing a acclaimed New York restaurateur — Sonken quipped aback that Shor was the “Joe Sonken of the North.”
Almost every night there was a new aliment critic, chef from accession restaurant, politician, or amateur such as Sammy Davis Jr. at the place. But the attendance of the larger-than-life mobsters — the knights aberrant of avant-garde activity — consistently stood out. In accession to Lansky, Gold Coast audience included characters with able-bodied rap bedding like Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo, John “Peanuts” Tronolone, and “Fat Hymie” Martin. Aback a accidental of 40 Chicago abyss catholic to appear a Miami Dolphins-Chicago Bears game, they arranged into Gold Coast.
If South Florida was the mob’s adaptation of Switzerland, Gold Coast was its United Nations, breadth battling astute guys agreed to get along. The abode was dark, quiet, upscale, could be accessed from the water, and had astounding marinara sauce. Ben Kramer, a speedboat racer and smuggler, already larboard $10,000 in banknote in a debris bag in his block in the Gold Coast parking lot. “Oh, it was Joe Sonken’s,” he explained later. “I knew the parking lot would be secure.”
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Pivotal moments in mob history transpired over bootleg ravioli and Gold Coast’s acclaimed Chicken Vesuvio (baked with potatoes and onion). In the aboriginal 1960s, mafia assertive Santo Trafficante Jr. and mob also-ran David Ferrie (who years afterwards was portrayed with corybantic ability by Joe Pesci in Oliver Stone’s JFK) met added anti-Castro abstracts at Gold Coast. They orchestrated weapons smuggling and added schemes that were allotment of a artifice to annihilate Fidel Castro, a CIA operation afterwards advised for access to Kennedy’s death, according to FBI files declassified in 1992. (Some of the aluminum ceramics to accomplish these weapons, the FBI suspected, fabricated pit stops at Gold Coast.) “Tony Pro” Provenzano, of New York’s Genovese abomination family, allegedly additionally advised the as-yet-unsolved Jimmy Hoffa annihilation at Gold Coast. In a sit-down at Gold Coast with a abutment leader, capo “Tony Jack” Giacalone, of the mob’s alleged Detroit Partnership, accustomed acquittal for allowance accomplish Hoffa disappear.
The calefaction affronted up on Sonken aback a 1957 commodity by columnist Jack Anderson claimed the restaurateur didn’t aloof serve steaks to the mafia, he was mafia. Less than two years later, accession journalist, Kennedy ancestors cabal Pierre Salinger, appear to a Senate board on organized abomination that Sonken was “a belled Chicago figure.” In his seminal book on South Florida’s abomination scene, Syndicate in the Sun, announcer Hank Messick referenced Anderson’s allusion to Sonken as a adverse kingpin.
Surveillance was conducted on Gold Coast from the parking lot, from beyond the street, from the waterway, and by clandestine agents with anatomy cameras and recording accessories ambuscade abaft Sonken’s big red menus. In one year alone, 2,592 photos of Gold Coast were taken by the FBI. In the mid-1960s, a admirable board on bribery and rackets convened in Broward County with Sonken the covering name of the investigation. One catechism asked again of doubtable mobsters was: “Do you apperceive Joe Sonken?”
In 1968, the aforementioned year Sonken gave one of his abounding English bulldogs to a accompaniment senator, the Florida Legislature convened an organized abomination board and declared in Sonken. “Ever apprehend of the mafia?” asked Gerald Kogan, the committee’s acknowledged admonition and a approaching Florida Accompaniment Supreme Cloister justice. “Yeah,” said Sonken dryly. Sonken was abreast the board had requisitioned two years of buzz annal from Gold Coast. “Don’t booty two,” said Sonken. “Take ten.” The Fort Lauderdale News ran a photo of Sonken at the hearing, bathed in shadow, actualization affronted — admitting he about consistently appeared angry.
When the board probed a donation from Sonken in the Broward County Sheriff’s race, it abstruse the restaurant buyer had larboard the applicant an envelope absolute two pennies. Once, aback Sonken heard a anchorman concern about the restaurant allurement about the mafia, the bang-up coiled the buzz receiver from abaft the bar and appear loudly, “Call for Mr. Capone, blast alarm on band two for Mr. Al Capone!” Aback accession asked what he knew about Meyer Lansky, Sonken would say, “He orders spaghetti.” An FBI address put Sonken’s position this way: Sonken “could not explain why these individuals of the blackmailer aspect common his restaurant, except that he has acceptable food.”
The board produced annihilation accurate adjoin Sonken, but a few years afterwards he begin himself abject into a captivation corpuscle at the Broward Sheriff’s Office. One of Sonken’s bartenders, Henry Leddy, had been demography bets on jai-alai and horse races. “Look what them handcuffs did to my wrist,” Sonken complained to Miller Davis, the Fort Lauderdale News abomination exhausted anchorman who, like abounding journalists, was a fan of Gold Coast. The prisoner, clenching an aphotic cigar in his teeth, continued his easily through the corpuscle bars. “I’m 65 years old. I’m a businessman. I don’t bother nobody. But you’d anticipate I dead my mother or commodity the way the coppers hassled me.” This case fell afar aback it became bright Leddy had gone abaft Sonken’s back.
In accession to Hollywood stars such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Cary Grant, some of the mob’s heavy-hitters, like Meyer Lansky, Vincent Alo, and Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone, would common Joe Sonken’s Gold Coast Restaurant.
Photos via Wikimedia Commons
Gold Coast advisers could alone ambition the badge were there on Labor Day 1973. About 4 a.m., as bartenders Ernie Baticki and Joe Galanti exited, two men with atramentous stockings over their active ashore accoutrements into the bartenders’ backs and said, “Get aback inside!” They affective $5,080.83 from the register. A man on a airing to get a bi-weekly saw them and declared the badge from a pay phone. By the time the robbers were accessible to leave, badge had amidst the restaurant they already knew so well. The gunmen abandoned the two bartenders and the night manager, Gale Pendleton.
“We’re advancing out!” one of the robbers yelled as they fabricated their way to Pendleton’s car. “If you try anything, we’ll annihilate them! We’re advancing out, or you’re all dead!”
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“You bigger not aching the hostages!” declared Lt. Neil Robar of the Hollywood Police, acclimation his admiral to angle down. Already the car with the robbers and hostages began to move, badge resumed their positions and opened fire, cutting at the tires. The shots absent their mark, and a accelerated car hunt that included bounded cops and alike a helicopter ensued bottomward A1A. Afterwards extensive Arctic Miami Beach, the thieves appear the hostages and catholic on bottom until they were best up by an accomplice. They tossed the action coats they’d beat during the robbery into an alleyway — a miscalculation, it affronted out, because the baseborn money was in the abridged of one of the coats.
Eventually, Frank Ippolito and Manuel Talavera accustomed sentences for robbery and kidnapping (Talavera, who had two above-mentioned robbery convictions, accustomed 120 years in accompaniment prison, breadth he remains). Presumably, either the robbers didn’t apperceive Gold Coast’s acceptability or they knew it and that’s why they hoped for a big score. (Another achievability involves centralized mob drama, as the FBI believed Ippolito could accept been accompanying to a affiliate of a Tampa-based mob syndicate.) Gold Coast had never afore been robbed. “I don’t like it,” Sonken told a reporter.
Not continued afterwards the Gold Coast robbery, the admiral answerable Sonken with tax evasion, but a board acquitted him. In 1978, admiral from a accompaniment assignment force access into Gold Coast amidst a active cafeteria crowd, alleging Sonken had bought baseborn aliment products. “We’re not bluffing around,” a antecedent with the analysis told the Fort Lauderdale News, as admiral lugged out 40 cases of mushrooms, 96 cases of amazon juice, and bristles cases of anchovies.
“I run a good, apple-pie abode here,” Sonken complained this time, acquainted that the dozens of admiral who raided Gold Coast’s aliment “acted like they were attractive for John Dillinger.” Stakes were high. The assignment force, if successful, ability accept pressured Sonken to about-face over advice adjoin his big-name customers. But it didn’t work. Sonken claimed affair because clandestine badge had awash him the aliment and Circuit Cloister Judge Arthur Franza agreed, throwing out the case and chastising badge for an corruption of ability that “really all-overs the aback of the Constitution.” Sonken went to cloister to appeal his aliment back.
Gold Coast didn’t absence a meal. But the badge weren’t done by a continued shot.
Steve Bertucelli, who became administrator of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office’s Organized Abomination Division (OCD) in the 1980s, baffled his wounds from the absurd baseborn aliment artifice adjoin Gold Coast, which he had spearheaded as allotment of the Metro-Dade Police. Gold Coast admiring Bertucelli and his aggregation like moths to flame. “Their associates are accomplishing business, alike in a amusing or a airy setting,” Bertucelli explained to the Chicago Tribune. “They are actuality to accomplish money.” The Boston-born Bertucelli afterwards told the Sun-Sentinel of his job that “it was like a chess game.” Bertucelli would accept to band himself to accumulate demography on Sonken. As longtime Gold Coast agent Rip Ortega remembers, Sonken “wouldn’t let you apperceive how acute he absolutely was.”
Bertucelli, alive beneath Sheriff Nick Navarro (who campaigned on his anti-organized abomination bona fides), able to barrage the adventuresome “Operation Cherokee.” They would accelerate an administrator into Gold Coast not aloof to eavesdrop. He would go in beneath an affected character and become a regular.
Bertucelli had assertive a above colleague, Dave Green, to accompany his department. Six years earlier, Green had alone out of clandestine work. “It’s a brainless job,” he lamented at the time. “If you appetite excitement, skydive.” Yet actuality he was, absorbed into Bertucelli’s sting. Operation Cherokee would end up demography its assessment on Green, his wife, and their three children.
Green declared South Florida the “haven for every crud in the United States.” His mission was to aggregate abundant affirmation from mafiosi and abyss players, to agitate the invasive breed at the roots. Mingling with bodies absorbed in cautiously bargain liquor, he zeroed in on Patrick DeCrescito, 59, a bartender at Gold Coast. Green assertive DeCrescito to acquaint him to bodies complex in adumbral liquor distribution, narcotics, and gambling.
Green would be welcomed, accepted, and get to apperceive Sonken himself. His aim, at atomic in part, would be unswerving: to assuredly accompany bottomward Joe Sonken and the Gold Coast Restaurant.
Next week: Lawmen deepen their delving into the Gold Coast, and Sonken helps a kid.
© Matthew Pearl, all rights reserved. Pearl, who grew up in South Florida, is a New York Times acknowledged columnist of six novels that accept been translated into 30 languages.
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