Who is Mobster Tony Zerilli and What Does He Really Know About Hoffa?

January 14, 2013, 7:10 PM by  Allan Lengel

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He was son of Joseph Zerilli, Detroit’s top mobster.

Anthony Joseph Zerilli, who went by the nickname “Tony Z,” followed his dad’s career path, rising to top spot in the local Mafia before heading to prison in 1974 for his hidden interest in two Las Vegas casinos. When he resurfaced on the outside five years later, he had been dethroned and demoted to a "capo" (captain) role.

Now frail, moving about with a walker, and residing in a senior community on Van Dyke in Sterling Heights, the 85-year-old is suddenly in the spotlight, having told a New York TV reporter that he knows what happened to Teamster President James Riddle Hoffa and where he’s buried.

“I’m dead broke,” he also told NBC 4 New York reporter Marc Santia, formerly of WDIV in Detroit, in an interview aired Sunday. “My quality of life is zero.” He’s also in failing health. 

Zerilli told Santia that Hoffa is buried in northern Oakland County, but he had nothing to do with the 1975 disappearance. A source tells Deadline Detroit that the property in Oakland Township at the time belonged to another top-ranking mobster. 

[Update: Monday, 11:30 p.m.WDIV's Kevin Dietz reported that Zerilli claimed the body was buried in a field at Orion Road and Adams Road in Oakland Township.] 

Zerilli said people intended to move the body to a hunting lodge in Rogers City at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula, but never did. He gives no names, saying he's not a snitch.

The NBC 4 correspondent Santia says Zerilli came forward in hopes of profiting from publicity and showing he had nothing to do with Hoffa's abrupt disappearance outside a Bloomfield Township restaurant on July 30, 1975. He has a website to promote a book in the making.   

"Finally, a book will soon be published with all of the facts surrounding the Hoffa disappearance," his website says, adding: "Many have long speculated that Anthony J. Zerilli was the 'boss' of the Detroit Mafia, and that he ordered the killing of Jimmy Hoffa. This is absolutely untrue."

One thing is clear, Zerilli is talking to more than just the media.

Talking to mob prosecutor

Sources tell Deadline Detroit that Zerilli and one of his attorneys, Harold Gurewitz, met in December with Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Straus, the local organized crime coordinator. Straus and Gurewitz declined comment.

So what happens next? 

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The FBI has chased tips over the years. In 2006, they spent 14 days digging up a farm in the Milford area. And in September, authorities dug up a driveway in Roseville.

Simon Shaykhet, a spokesman for the Detroit FBI, declined Monday to say whether the FBI will pursue Zerilli’s tip.

The decision could depend on how reliable and credible Zerilli appears. 

People have varying opinions on Zerilli, pictured here in a photo posted on his website.

Well-placed tipster

Some former federal law enforcers, including retired FBI official John Anthony, says Zerilli would have known what happened to Hoffa, and advised the FBI that it should be interested in what he has to say.

Another law enforcement source told Deadline Detroit that Zerilli may know what he’s talking about, and added: “Has he lost a few steps? Yes, I think so. But he’s not in throes of dementia, rambling incoherently.”

Retired FBI agent Greg Stejskal is more skeptical.

“I suspect he doesn’t have specific knowledge,” Stejskal says. “Even if he did, I’m guessing he’s pretty confused at this point.”

Stejskal also points to the Sunday's TV interview in which Zerilli said he knows about Hoffa , and presents himself as an insider, but denies having been in the Mafia. 

“Which is total b.s.,” Stejskal said of his denial of mob ties. 

Zerilli told the reporter: “If I wasn’t away I don’t think it ever would’ve happened, that’s all I can tell you. I would have done anything in the world to protect Jim Hoffa.”

Unlikely mistake?

Stejskal is also skeptical that the mob buried the body instead of destroying it. 

“If you don’t have a body, it’s really tough to make a case,” he said.

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The TV report on Sunday suggested Zerilli learned of the details of Hoffa’s disappearance after being released from prison in 1979, after which he was demoted. Some have reported that he was made a "underboss," but federal sources said there was no such position in the Detroit mob under Jack Tocco.

Zerilli lived the good life. During the 1960s, when Zerilli was a power in the local Mafia, and had his hand in a number of businesses, including Las Vegas casinos and the Hazel Park Race Track. He and his family lived near other mob families on Middlesex, a stately street near Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Park that later became the title of a 2002 novel by Detroit native Jeffrey Eugenides that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Pink Lincoln convertible 

He married the daughter of New York city don Joe Profaci in a fancy ceremony in a Manhattan hotel, according to mob expert Scott Burnstein of the Oakland Press.

The Zerilli children attended Catholic schools and sometimes were driven to school in a pink Lincoln convertible.

The mob families lived quietly, though outside events sometimes intruded. During the 1960s, when NBC sent a pickup truck with a camera down the street for a report on the mob in America, a woman ran out from a house to scold the crew. Her tirade was captured on film. 

Zerilli’s father, Joseph, the capo di tutti capi of the  Detroit mob, came out of retirement after his son went to prison in 1974. The father died in 1977, and Jack Tocco took the reigns. 

“His dad was the real deal,” said the law enforcement source. He said Tony Zerilli “wasn’t as smart, to be honest.”

Joseph Zerill's death was major news, as was his funeral, which was crowded with mourners and FBI agents conducting surveillance.

But life in the mob always came with the possibility of prison. 

In 2002, Tony Zerilli returned to prison for seven years after being convicted of extortion, racketeering and conspiracy. He suffered from many ailments, including heart problems, and did his time in prison medical facilities.

The judge had given him a break on his sentence because of poor health, but not as much as he had hoped.

At the time, Keith Corbett, who lead the U.S. Attorney’s Organized Crime Strike Force was quoted in The Detroit News as saying: “He throws himself on the mercy of the court, but doesn’t admit to doing anything wrong.”

Bill McGraw of Deadline Detroit contributed to this report.

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