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While it was under attack in other parts of the country, the Mafia was still thriving in Kansas City in the 1970s, thanks in part to its long, robust history here and its earlier partnership with the notorious political-machine boss Tom Pendergast.
Johnny Lazia, Charles Binaggio, Nick Civella -- each in turn had run Kansas City's underworld since the 1940s, operating local scams and numbers rackets and networking with national criminal organizations, particularly in Chicago and Las Vegas.
But in the burgeoning district near the river in the 1970s, infighting threatened to tear Kansas City's mob apart. And at the center of the struggle were the Cammisano brothers, men who would become notorious figures in the city's history.
To young Phil Corbin, they were family.
Grandson to Joseph, grandnephew to Willie the Rat -- it was the kind of family background that could weigh heavily on a young man searching for an identity. "The River Quay, that was a case where they got greedy," says University of Missouri-Kansas City professor emeritus of history Lawrence H. Larsen about the mob's downfall in Kansas City. "They had a good thing going and fell out over money."
The 1970s signified a rebirth for the rows of brick buildings surrounding the historic City Market, which was pinned between the Missouri River and the skyscrapers of downtown.
Billed as a center of family fun, the River Quay was an eclectic mix of folksy shops and restaurants. With savvy marketing, the combination drew large crowds on weekends. Meanwhile, the city was destroying the downtown party strip that had been 12th Street to make way for what is now the Marriott Hotel and Barney Allis Plaza.
Among the displaced downtown club owners was Joseph Cammisano, who saw potential in the burgeoning River Quay. Cammisano had a lower profile than his more famous brother -- his daughters to this day refuse to believe that he was involved in illegal activities -- but was involved in the events that led to the River Quay war. He wanted to open go-go joints in the rapidly developing scene, but Fred Bonadonna had beaten him to the punch.
Bonadonna was already operating a bar in the River Quay, Poor Freddie's, and as president of the River Quay Merchant's Association, he had the clout to hold up new club licenses, effectively keeping Cammisano from coming in and getting a piece of the action.
Cammisano tried to convince Bonadonna to help him with his application for a club at 223 West Third, to be called Uncle Joe's, but Bonadonna wasn't interested. He had a good deal and wanted to protect it. His relationship with the City Council was so tight that the $2 parking fee on a city lot in the River Quay went to Bonadonna. (The ticket stub could be redeemed for a drink at Bonadonna's bar.)
But the link between the Cammisanos and Bonadonnas went beyond their business rivalry. Bonadonna's father, David, also was suspected of being involved with organized crime and with Willie Cammisano in particular. According to the story the younger Bonadonna would tell in federal court, Willie Cammisano pressured the elder Bonadonna to convince his son to support Joseph Cammisano's license.
Fred Bonadonna refused to buckle, and in July 1976, David Bonadonna was shot and stuffed into the trunk of the Mustang. Over the following months, the River Quay was the site of a pitched battle.
Most of the shootings, including David Bonadonna's, remain unsolved, as do a number of arsons. But Joseph and William Cammisano eventually were charged with extortion. The federal indictment handed down in June 1978 outlined a series of threats that passed between the Cammisano brothers and Fred Bonadonna between June 1975 and June 1976.