One Last Shot

When 89-year-old Vic Maceo walked into the office of a Galveston accountant and opened fire, the incident brought back memories of the Island’s gangster past.

June 1993By Comments

When 89-year-old Vic C. Maceo showed up one morning a few months ago at the post office of Pete Miller in downtown Galveston, drew a .38 revolver from beneath his coat, and started blasting in Miller’s direction, some old-timers heard the shot as an echo of the island’s romantic past—though not necessarily Pete Miller. “It was like a scene out of a bad movie,” Miller said later, as doctors worked to repair a shattered bone in his upper right arm and police booked Maceo for attempted murder. This was the way disputes were settled in Galveston fifty and sixty years ago. In the days when the notorious Maceo crime syndicate controlled the rackets, the gun was the primary instrument of persuasion, bribery ranking a close second. Vic C. Maceo was the last surviving member of the syndicate, a minor functionary in the gang that was headed by his cousins Rosario “Papa Rose” Maceo and Salvatore “Big Sam” Maceo. It is said on the Island that that the gun the old man used to wing Pete Miller was so ancient that the arresting officers had trouble shaking the copper-jacketed bullets from the chamber. Bullets of that type are rarely used today.

Within minutes of the shooting, it was the talk of the Island, and a month later people were savoring the incident, a palpable measure of pride apparent in the general agreement that it couldn’t have happened anywhere except here. Vic Maceo had somehow got in his head that Pete Miller owed him money in a real estate deal from 25 years ago. Only in Galveston, right? Miller had bought a house from Maceo in 1968 for $45,000 and sold it in 1991 for four times that amount. Old-timers of the Little Sunday Morning Coffee Club, which meets every morning (except Sunday) at the Best Western Motel on Seawall Boulevard, speculated that some of Maceo’s cronies had been ribbing him and suggesting that Pete Miller got the best of him in the deal. Years ago Miller was a busboy at the Balinese Room and later a cashier at the Studio Lounge, two of the Maceos’ premier hangouts: The thought of getting beaten by a busboy would have been intolerable to a man like Vic C. Maceo, also known to some as Little Vic to distinguish him from another cousin Vic A. “Gigolo” Maceo. “Little Vic always was a real hothead,” said Angelo Montalbano, who in the good old days was a blackjack dealer for the Maceos. Clearly something has been eating at the old man recently. Several weeks before the shooting, he had asked his attorney, Sam Tramonte, about suing Ross Novelli, the real estate agent who had handled the sale of the house to Miller. Tramonte advised him to forget it.

The shooting scene had a ritualistic, old-world charm. On February 3, a Wednesday, Maceo had coffee as usual with the retirees and senior citizens who gather early each morning in the coffee shop at Randall’s food market on Sixty-first Street. Later, he drove his red sports car north to Broadway and turned east past the abandoned warehouses that bulged with cotton years ago, when Galveston was one of the world’s major seaports. He cruised with the morning traffic along the wide, elegant boulevard lined with palms and oleanders, passed the mansions where the Sealys and the Moodys once lived, and headed toward downtown. He parked in the lot behind the building where Miller practices as a certified public accountant and walked around to the entrance on Twenty-second Street, which even in the busy part of the day is usually devoid of traffic and mostly deserted.

By the time Miller arrived, at about nine-twenty, Maceo had been waiting for nearly half an hour, pacing the hallway like an ill-tempered tiger. He was a small man, wrinkled and gray, with a raspy voice and eyes the color of cold lava. He had always been a snappy dresser, more so since his wife died in 1979. On the morning of the shooting, Pete Miller recalled, Maceo wore a dark pin-striped suit, a blue-and-white striped shirt with the collar open, a gold chain around his neck, and a dark fedora—pretty much what you might expect a gangster in a bad movie to wear. Others who saw Maceo that morning recalled him wearing a sport coat and a golf cap, but this was Pete Miller’s movie and he knew what he saw.

Miller was surprised to see the old man that morning. Except for the real estate deal and a few other minor business matters, they seldom encountered one another. Maceo told Miller that he wanted to talk about some land, and the CPA invited him into his private office, shut the door, and offered him a cup of coffee. Pete Miller was nearly a foot taller (and thirty years younger) than Maceo; he looked down and across his desk and waited politely for the old man to speak his piece. Like many longtime residents of Galveston, Miller observed a traditional respect for elders, a practice brought here from the Old Country, from which he was only a generation removed. His mother was born in Greece and his father in Turkey. The name “Miller” was chosen at the moment of immigration because his grandfather milled wheat in his Turkish village; the original family name was Yeralexos.

As Miller related the story later, Vic Maceo sipped his black coffee for a while before coming to the point. “You still owe me forty thousand dollars on that house,” he said, with a trace of his Sicilian heritage detectable in the way he spoke. The suggestion that Miller somehow owed Maceo—especially the figure $40,000—came out of the wild blue. The agreed-on price of the house that Miller had purchased a quarter of a century ago was $45,000, and Miller had made the final payment in January 1983, six months before it was due. Located just off Forty-fifth Street near the old Fort Crockett area, the house had some sentimental value to Vic Maceo and his wife, who had had it built to their specifications in the late thirties, when the syndicate was still flying high. Among the exotic features was a small safe so cleverly concealed behind the bathroom door that the Millers didn’t know it was there until Maceo knocked on the door one day soon after the sale and said he had forgotten something. “My wife followed him to the bathroom and watched him take out this wad of cash so fat he could barely stuff it in his pocket,” Miller recalled. Miller had given the old man his word that if he ever put the house on the market, Maceo would have the right of first refusal. After Miller’s wife died in the spring of 1989, he telephoned Maceo and told him that he had decided to sell the house. “How much you want?” Maceo asked. Miller told him $240,000, reminding the old man that he had built a patio and a pool and had added other improvements. “Lotsa luck,” Maceo had said. Except for one or two casual meetings, Miller didn’t see Maceo again until the morning of the shooting, more than three years later.

“You signed a release,” Miller told Maceo and offered to show him a copy of the document he had signed in 1983.

“You and Ross Novelli dummied up them papers, ” Maceo told him, placing his cup on the desk and standing up. He let his hand slide across his chest, toward the inside of his coat, and his eyes narrowed to a squint. “You value you life, you take forty thousand dollars to my attorney, Sam Tramonte.”

Pete Miller was getting pissed. “Sit down, Vic, ” he ordered, and the old man sat. They talked some more, but Miller could see that Maceo was becoming more agitated, not less.

Maceo stood up again and repeated the question: “You value forty thousand dollars more than you value you life, eh, Pete?” The scene was so ludicrous that Miller had to laugh, not at the old man but at the situation: He wasn’t just watching a bad movie, he was becoming a principal character. Leaning back in his chair, Miller studied Maceo with detached fascination, saw Maceo’s eyes go cold, saw his hand disappear again inside his coat. Then he saw the gun and heard the blast. Maceo fired two shots. Miller still isn’t sure if it was the first bullet that slammed into the wall and the second that struck just above his elbow and traveled up his arm or vice versa, but he tumbled out of his chair and was facedown on the floor, trying to get up, when Maceo walked around the desk and looked down at him. “Here comes the big one,” Miller thought. Instead, Maceo turned and walked out of the room. “I shot you boss,” he told Miller’s secretary, who dialed 911 as Maceo headed off in the direction of the parking lot.

Maceo had just climbed into his sports car and was pulling away when the cops arrived and flagged him down. The surrender was peaceable, even touching. Brian Gately, one of the arresting officers, remembers that Maceo took him by the hand and said in a firm grandfatherly voice, “When you look a guy in the eye and tell him he owes you forty grand and he tells you, ‘Let me get the file,’ you know that the son of a bitch is lying.” Word went around that as the cops slapped him in cuffs, the old gangster complained, “You don’t handcuff a gentleman in this town!”

It has been a long time since the name Maceo reverberated across the Island. The name means little or nothing to younger Islanders or newcomers, but to anyone over the age of fifty who was born on the Island, the name evokes the timeless magic of nostalgia. For thirty years the Maceos ran Galveston—economically, politically, spiritually. Papa Rose and Big Sam were the undisputed dons of the gang, and their brothers, Vincent and Frank, along with a number of cousins and in-laws, ran various parts of the operation. Gigolo managed the Studio Lounge on the second floor of the Turf Athletic Club, and other family members managed the Balinese Room, the Western Room, the Moulin Rouge, and a variety of Maceo ventures on the Island as well as the mainland part of Galveston County, which they also controlled; motorists driving south from Houston spoke of crossing the “Maceo-Dickinson Line.” The black sheep of the family was Vic, a feisty runt of a man who enjoyed acting like a big shot but was seldom trusted with anything important. “He usually just hung around the Turf,” recalled Angelo Montalbano, the one-time blackjack dealer. “They gave him little jobs. That’s about it. He was always out of step with the other Maceos.”

The Maceos had migrated from Palermo, Sicily, to Louisiana around the turn of the century, when Sam was six and Rose was thirteen. Vic was born in Louisiana in 1903, seven years before the family moved to Galveston. In their early days on the Island, Rose and Sam were barbers. Sam, who was smoother and more sophisticated and spoke better English, worked at the new ritzy Galvez Hotel. Rose, who was meaner, tougher, and more ambitious, had a barber’s chair on Murdoch’s Pier, which was a hangout for Ollie Quinn and the Beach Gang. Quinn’s gang and the rival Downtown Gang (Broadway divided the territory) dominated the Island’s lucrative rum-running trade and controlled gambling, which in those days consisted of a few seedy clubs and an operation that leased slot and pinball machines and sold tip books—similar to the scratch-off lottery tickets sold today by the state.

The Maceo brothers began performing small services for Quinn. Rose sold bottles of bootleg liquor concealed in hollowed-out loaves of French bread and allowed the Beach Gang to stash crates of smuggled booze under his raised beach cottage. Sam looked to the future, to the day when Prohibition would end, and urged Quinn to forget the penny-ante stuff and build a big-time nightclub. In an era of great gangsters, Rose and Sam were, so to speak, to the manor born: a pair of naturals, the enforcer and the visionary. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, Rose and Sam had taken over the Beach Gang, run the rival Downtown Gang off the Island, and consolidated power in a way that even the Island’s traditional ruling families—the Kempners, the Sealys, and the Moodys—had not been able to accomplish.

In 1926 the Maceos opened Galveston’s first big-time night spot, the Hollywood Dinner Club, which they built from the ground up on the western edge of the city, at the intersection of Sixty-first and Avenue S. A consummate showman, Sam Maceo began his tradition of booking only the biggest names in the entertainment business: Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, Peggy Lee, Jimmy Dorsey, Phil Harris. Houston high rollers like Diamond Jim West, Glenn McCarthy, and Jack Josey were regulars at the gaming tables. With its Spanish architecture and crystal chandeliers, the Hollywood was the swankest night spot on the Gulf Coast and a landmark in the gaming industry. Two decades before Las Vegas cashed in on the same idea, the Maceos introduced fancy food, big-name entertainment, public gambling, and air conditioning (a technology almost unknown at the time)—all under one enormous roof.

In the early thirties the Maceos opened a second dinner club and casino on a pier at the head of Twenty-first Street, called the Grotto originally and the Balinese Room later. In accordance with the Island’s traditional live-and-let-live style, the syndicate permitted other gambling joints to operate, as long as their owner understood that they existed at the pleasure of Papa Rose and Big Sam. By the late thirties, Seawall Boulevard was lined with glittering casinos, while lesser clubs were scattered from one end of the Island to the other. Eventually, casinos occupied all four corners of the intersection of Sixty-first Street and Avenue S.

Downtown, the action was even faster, more hard-core. The madams of the city’s notorious red-light district, located on Postoffice Street between Twenty-fifth and Twenty-ninth, were not required to pay a percentage to the Maceos, but they had the good sense to forbid gambling in their establishments, lest the Maceos take offense at the competition. The headquarters of the syndicate was the Turf Athletic Club, a three story building on Twenty-third near Market that housed a casino, two restaurants, and the athletic club. On the ground floor was a bookmaking parlor where a bettor could wager on any sporting event in the country. Horse races were broadcast live on the public address system.

In the years before World War II, gambling, prostitution, and massive violations of the state’s alcoholic beverage code were not unknown in other parts of Texas, but most mainland cities at least pretended to uphold the law. Not the Free State of Galveston, as it came to be known. Galveston’s red-light district may have been the only one in the country that thrived with the blessings of both city hall and the Catholic church. Proportionally, it was probably the largest red-light district in the world, boasting 1 hooker for every 62 citizens. Chicago, by comparison, had a ratio of 1 to 430, Paris 1 to 481, and Shanghai 1 to 130.

What outsiders viewed as corruption, Islanders called business as usual. Walter Johnston, the longtime police commissioner, once bragged that he was on the payroll of 46 whorehouses. Frank L. Biaggne, who was the sheriff of Galveston County from 1933 to 1957, explained to a state investigative committee that the reason he had never raided the Balinese was because it was a private club and he wasn’t a member. Occasionally, the Texas Rangers—in those days, effectively the governor’s private police force—swept down from the mainland and smashed a few slot machines, but not one of the Maceo’s clubs was ever closed for long. The skinny was that the family had close contacts in the governor’s office by which they were warned of approaching trouble. Gambling paraphernalia at the Balinese was designed to convert into billiard and bridge tables so that by the time the Rangers arrived, all they found were some well-dressed patrons playing bridge and sipping soft drinks.

Those were heady times on the Island, as wild and bawdy—and prosperous—as anything this state has ever seen. In a way that is hard to grasp today, the Island back then was a state treasure. People came from as far away as Dallas and Fort Worth, sometimes by excursion train, to sample the fleshpots, gambling dens, and tropical splendors of Galveston. To an outsider, there was no more romantic place than this shimmering sandbar, with the moon hanging large over the Gulf and the sound of big band music drifting far down the beach. To those who lived there, the romance was in the action and the sense that this was the most special of times. Though they were welcome in the bars, nightclubs, and houses of prostitution, Islanders who gambled at any Maceo-owned casino were not allowed to place large bets or lose substantial sums—exceptions being made for a wealthy few. The policy was calculated to undercut would-be reformers and keep the money where it belonged: in the pockets of the people of Galveston. “The reason the rackets lasted so long,” says constable Sam Popovich, at 75 the oldest active lawman on the Island, “is that the biggest portion of the people wanted it that way. Everybody was making money.” Every drugstore, cafe, grocery, barbershop, and washateria had slot machines, pinball machines, and tip books—courtesy of Gulf Properties, the Maceo family’s holding company. Mike Gaido, whose family owns Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant, recalled in a conversation with me a few years ago, “The Maceos didn’t ask you if you wanted their slots, they just asked how many.” One cafe owner calculated that his six slots turned more profit than his food service.

The Maceos changed the rules in Galveston. The underworld became the overworld. Activities that had been merely tolerated became part of the mainstream. Everyone cooperated and everyone made out. The Moodys, the Kempners, and the Sealys—who owned all of the banks on the Island—did not socialize with the Maceos, but they willingly did business with them, thereby giving the Maceos instant respectability. Not a single Galveston bank closed during the Depression. The Moodys’ hotels were always full, even in the winter. By mutual agreement, the Maceos stayed out of the hotel business and the Moodys stayed out of the gambling business. “What people remember most about that era is that everyone who wanted a job had one,” says A. R. “Babe” Schwartz, a former assistant district attorney and state senator. Ten percent of the Island’s adult population worked for the Maceos, and every merchant in town profited in some way from the rackets.

The Maceos weren’t just businessmen with bottom-line orientations; they were genuine citizens who took an interest in local politics—they could buy an entire slate of candidates for $25,000—and were active in civic and charitable affairs. A pew at St. Mary’s Cathedral was reserved for Sam Maceo, his wife, and children, who almost always arrived late, occasionally in the company of some show business celebrity. When the chamber of commerce or the Mardi Gras committee or any church or charity needed a favor, Sam Maceo was their man. Sam sent orphans to college, kept widows from being evicted, and once a year paid the expenses for Monsignor O’Connoll, the director of St. Mary’s, to visit his dear mother in Ireland. After an explosion killed 576 people in the port of Texas City in 1947, Big Sam arranged for a few of his Hollywood friends to come to Galveston for a fundraiser. Among those who showed up were Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny, Victor Borge, George Burns, and Gracie Allen.

Old-timers recall that nobody in Galveston locked their doors in those days; no one feared to walk the streets. The crime rate was among the lowest in the state, at least statistically. The Maceos maintained law and order with their own squad of vigilantes, known as Rose’s Night Riders. Miscreants simply disappeared. While the Maceos were in power, mobsters from other parts of the country were normally wise enough to stay the hell off the Island. On one memorable occasion, when the Al Capone gang sent Frank Nitti to Galveston to inquire about “investing” in the Maceo organization, a Maceo in-law, Anthony Fertitta, personally showed Mr. Nitti the way back to the mainland. There were a number of gangland killings in the thirties—Rose Maceo was suspected of murdering several people, including his first wife and her lover—but no member of the Maceo family was ever convicted of a felony. On the contrary, the Maceos were the first to offer help to the police. On Christmas Eve 1938, when a Maceo thug named Leo Lera shot down an innocent patron at a Seawall Boulevard night spot, Gigolo Maceo delivered the killer to police headquarters. Gamblers who won big at a Maceo casino were escorted back to their hotels at night, lest some lowlife rob them and soil the Island’s reputation. The Maceos ran a clean game in a clean town, and anybody who didn’t like it slept with the fishes.

World War II had been over for nearly a decade—and both Rose and Sam were in their graves—before a Galveston County politician dared campaign on a promise to bust up the rackets. The candidate was Jim Simpson, a former FBI agent who now practices law in Texas City. Running for county prosecuting attorney in the 1954 elections, Simpson lost by eight votes. But two years later he put together an undercover operation for Attorney General Will Wilson that eventually gathered enough evidence to close down the Maceo syndicate for good. The coup de grace was administered by a task force of Texas Rangers in June 1957.

Most of the old gang had already gone by then anyway. By the early fifties, the dealers and pit bosses who worked for the Maceos had mostly migrated to Las Vegas, as had the high rollers and all the big-name entertainment. The Fertitta family, related to the Maceos by marriage, had assumed control of what remained of the syndicate. The Turf Athletic Club, once the hottest action in Texas, was making a marginal profit skimming lunch money from medical students, clerks, and secretaries. A wave of idealism had swept the country in the post-war years—a new respect for the law, a yearning for stability, an urgency to reexamine values. Even without Jim Simpson and the Texas Rangers, the Free State of Galveston would have collapsed under its own weight.

One by one, many of the Maceos moved away, to Houston or out of state. A few, like Vic Maceo, stayed on to take care of property they had acquired. For the past quarter of a century, Vic has operated the Hill Top Motel, a modest barrickslike structure on Seawall Boulevard at Eighty-eighth, well down the Island from the high-dollar hotels and restaurants that are the heart of Galveston’s tourist trade today. From time to time, Vic has emerged from obscurity to participate in campaigns to return gambling to the Island. Four times in recent years Islanders have voted on such a referendum, and four times it has been defeated by margins of about two to one.

“Other than Little Vic, none of the Maceos have supported a return to gambling,” says Vic A. Maceo, Jr., Gigolo’s son. “Gambling had a good reputation when our family ran it. The Maceos treated people right. It wouldn’t be the same today with a bunch of outsiders.” The Kempners, who have led the opposition against a return to gambling, make essentially the same argument: The Maceos may have been gangsters, but they were our gangsters.

Vic Junior is fairly typical of the new generation of Maceos. He is the director of the Beach Patrol for the Galveston County Sheriff’s Department and has been decorated several times for heroism. Acknowledging the irony that his family once flouted the law that he is charged with enforcing, Vic Junior says, “They did their job. I’m doing mine. I’m proud of my family.” So proud, in fact, that he wonders why in a city that celebrates its history so fervently, there is not a museum commemorating the Maceo era.

As for Vic Maceo, he has created something of a problem for Galveston County prosecutors. Nobody wants to put an 89-year-old man in the slammer, especially one who is apparently in bad health. But then he did try to kill Pete Miller—tried and almost succeeded. In addition to the criminal charge against Maceo, Miller has filed a civil suit, wondering, as do many others on this Island, how much the old man has stashed away and where.

What was going through the old man’s mind that morning? Nobody is sure. But one of the regulars at the Little Sunday Morning Coffee Club speculates that maybe it has something to do with redemption. Vic was never much of a gangster. Maybe he was just trying one last time to get it right.

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