The week before last, I wrote about my interview with the late Kansas City mob boss Nick Civella, when Civella showed up at a 1980 World Series game in seats that a state senator had given to a friend, never intending for them to go to Civella.
Today, I’ll tell you about my only other interview with a mobster, the late Carl Spero, who, along with his three brothers tried, in the 1970s, battled Civella and his associates for control of local underworld activities.
On the night of May 16, 1978, three heavily armed, masked men burst into the Virginian Tavern, 1315 Admiral Boulevard, where the three living Spero brothers –one had been killed gangland style in 1973 — spent a lot of time. (If a bar is still there, I don’t think it’s called the Virginian.)
With a fusillade of bullets, the intruders killed Mike Spero and wounded Joe Spero, both of whom had been sitting in a booth. Carl Spero, who was sitting at the bar, bolted for a side door when the shooting started and was struck in the back by a shotgun blast as he reached the sidewalk.
Paralyzed from the waist down, Carl was taken to Truman Medical Center, where he spent the next few weeks.
That’s where I came into the picture…
I was covering Jackson County politics and government at the time, and one night a couple of weeks after the shooting, I was chatting with Skip Sleyster (now deceased), a rough-around-the-edges but very successful commercial property owner. Sleyster also had a Democratic political club, and that’s why he was at the function that night.
Skip and I got to talking about the Spero shooting, and, Skip said he was friends with Spero and had been in touch with him. Taking me completely by surprise, Skip said, “Do you want to interview him?”
I replied, Well hell, yes!”
Skip said Spero was recovering nicely at Truman. He then glanced at his watch and said, “He watches Ironside every night at this time.”
Ironside was a popular TV drama starring Raymond Burr, who, ironically, played the role of a paraplegic chief of detectives. The show ran from 1967 to 1975 and was in reruns in 1978.
Skip set up the interview for the following Monday night, June 5.
Nervously, I went to Spero’s room — a police officer stood outside — and he welcomed me in a strong voice. He was eager to talk.
Sitting up in his bed, he answered questions for an hour. During that time, about six other visitors came in, and he took a few telephone calls. But for the most part he was focused on our conversation.
Among other things, he denied that he and his brothers had been trying to take control of local underworld activities. He said:
“I’ve denied that part from the get-go — the part about organized crime per se.”
(That was the first time I had heard the term “get-go,” and I’ve used it liberally ever since.)
He said he had no idea who the assailants were, and when I pressed him, saying it must have him wondering, a half-smile came over his face and he said, “It arouses your curiosity.”
After the interview, I raced back to The Star, which is just a few blocks north of the hospital, and started banging away on my IBM Selectric typewriter.
I remember that the copy editor on the story — the person who wrote the headline and put the final edit on it — was a lanky British fellow whose first name was Peter. He had just a few questions for me; otherwise the story sailed through the editing process.
The next morning the story was stripped across the front page of The Kansas City Times, then the morning edition of The Star. It “jumped” inside, where the rest of the story took up almost half a page.
As you can imagine, it was an exhilarating experience, from the moment Skip mentioned the possibility of an interview, and it was one of my most memorable stories. Oddly, however, just as with the Civella story, I didn’t save the clipping itself. And, as with the Civella story, I had to go to the Downtown Kansas City Public Library and locate it on microfilm.
Now, here’s the rest of the Spero story.
At one point in the interview, I asked Carl if he expected a subsequent attempt on his life. No, he replied, “unless somebody’s got a cannon.”
I feel sure I laughed at that comment, but it turned out to be prescient, if only slightly off target.
I greatly underestimated the determination of the Civella group. They had no intention of letting Spero off the hook with paraplegia; they fully intended to finish him off.
Six months after the Virginian incident, the FBI wiretapped a conversation that showed just how serious the Civella group was about killing Spero. The principals in that conversation, which took place in a Northland home, were Nick Civella; his brother Carl “Cork” Civella; Carl “Tuffy” DeLuna, who allegedly planned and participated in the tavern shoot-up; and two Las Vegas casino executives.
Nick Civella had called the conference to discuss changes in casino operations (he had a hidden interest in at least one) and to plot the demise of Carl Spero.
According to a transcript of the conversation, Nick and Cork talked of ways to get to Spero, who lived in a remote part of Clay County, with a lot that was free of trees or other landscaping.
Nick: “Them guys (some of his henchmen) been out to that house. That house is exposed for a mile. You get a car out there on that road. You start, do you say crawl and walk. The guys ain’t in that kind of shape.”
Cork: “Willie’s telling me (apparently referring to a fearsome mobster named Willie “The Rat” Cammisano) he would go out there and sit and crawl and hit him from a fuckin’ mile away. I don’t see no sense in why the guy can’t even try.”
Nick: “He’d be moving. He’s a moving target.”
Cork: “What’s the difference, fuckin’ deer’s moving.”
Nick: “Oh, no, no, Cork. Deers are standing when they get hit.”
Nick then brought the Spero conversation to a chilling close by saying to Cork:
“Let me tell you something. We’ve got the best fuckin’ bloodhounds in the United States and always did have.”
The bloodhounds got Joe Spero first. In June 1980, a bomb exploded at a Clay County storage shed, hurling him 50 yards through the wall of the shed. He died instantly.
According to The Kansas City Star: “Authorities thought Spero, 48, accidentally set off the bomb. A decade later, an FBI agent quoted an informant as saying the dynamite had been booby-trapped on orders of the Civella organization.”
In January 1984, the bloodhounds closed in on the last remaining Spero. One morning when Carl entered the office of a Northeast area used car lot owned by his cousin, a nail-bomb exploded. Carl, who had escaped with serious injuries at 38, was dead at 44.
That was just mop-up business, however, because by then Nick Civella was gone — having died a year earlier, shortly after being released from prison — and the mob was on the way to becoming a shadow of what it used to be.