No One Saw the Bullet Leave the Gun

Sep 29, 2010 - by Betty Alt

Joseph "Scotty" Spinuzzi

Joseph "Scotty" Spinuzzi

An excerpt from the book: Mountain Mafia: Organized Crime in the Rockies, detailing the 1960 murder trial of “Scotty” Spinuzzi.  The book covers some of the more colorful leaders in the West's organized crime operations, including Joe “Little Caesar” Roma, “Black Jack” Colletti, and the Smaldone brothers. In addition to the "Scotty" Spinuzzi, trial, the book details the connection these Colorado mobsters had with notorious crime members in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.  Mountain Mafia: Organized Crime in the Rockies is available on-line, at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and can be ordered through any local book store.

by Betty Alt and Sandra Wells

Like characters in The Godfather film or “The Sopranos” television series, Colorado has had its share of Mafia personalities. One of the most colorful was Joseph “Scotty” Spinuzzi, who was first mentioned by the Kefauver Committee as a mob member and link between the criminal empires of Al Capone in Chicago and Frank Costello in New York. In 1971, a Colorado Task Force of “The National Council on Crime and Delinquency” listed Spinuzzi as the head of organized crime in the state.

Born on March 26, 1910 in Pueblo (known during the prohibition era as “Little Chicago”), Spinuzzi was considered a handsome man, approximately five-foot-eight-inches tall with dark, curly hair, dark brown eyes and often a short temper. Some indicated that former Colorado bosses Charles Blanda and James “Black Jim” Colletti found it difficult to keep Scotty under control and felt he brought unwanted publicity to the Colorado organization. Blanda frequently lamented that “Spinuzzi was often a problem as his subordinate tended to be a “very volatile, loose cannon.”

Spinuzzi, who apparently was involved in a vending-machine business and at one time owned a bar with his brother Tony “Turk” Spinuzzi, would have a long history of problems with law enforcement, being charged for bootlegging, extortion in Las Vegas, burglary, theft, counterfeiting, income tax evasion, as well as numerous counts of gambling and bookmaking. His name continually appeared in Colorado newspapers, and he became the head of the Pueblo “family” of La Cosa Nostra in 1969. He would continue as its boss until his death (after a brief illness) in 1975.

However, Scotty’s place in history was secured when, around 1:35 a.m. on September 15, 1960, the 50-year-old was spending time at Pueblo’s Five Queens Club with Harry J. Ricci and Joseph A Parlato, manager of the club. Three friends of a band member, 29-year-old black pianist James D. Scott, were also in the club, and tempers flared as they allegedly argued with a bartender over 25 cents that they had put in an unplugged juke box. When the pianist joined the argument, the three friends and Scott were pushed from the premises by Parlato and Ricci. Soon, a crowd gathered as the men exchanged verbal threats and punches.

The fight had ceased when Spinuzzi suddenly walked outside and, using vile language, ordered Scott’s friends to leave the area, threatening to “blow their brains out.” Apparently Scott’s friends took the threat seriously and drove up the street. As the three left, Spinuzzi approached the pianist and, arguing with Scott, held a pistol close to the man’s head while viciously kicking and hitting him. The two men wrestled, and Scott fell backward with his hand in front of his face and Spinuzzi on top of him. Suddenly witnesses heard a shot, and with the gun still in his hand, Spinuzzi pushed himself off of Scott and fled the scene.

Police could not immediately locate Spinuzzi, but at 12:25 a.m. Monday following the incident and accompanied by his well-known Pueblo attorney Vasco G. Seavy, “Scotty” turned himself in at the Pueblo County jail. Still, his jail time was brief as he was released by Judge S. Philip Cabibi on $50,000 bond. Awaiting Spinuzzi outside the jail were several newspaper reporters, but he refused to answer any of their inquiries, stating, “Hell no!  They’ve given me enough write-ups already.”

Investigating officials hinted that the reason for the murder of Scott may have stemmed from racial differences as Scott’s friends were “two ENT Air Force airmen, also African Americans, who were accompanied by a white girl.” This would later become an issue in Spinuzzi’s trial, which began six months later in March 1961 with District Judge George Blickhahn of Alamosa presiding.  Judge Cabibi had withdrawn from the trial.   

On a blustery day in March 1961, a standing-room-only crowd of spectators was in attendance to view the defendant, nattily dressed in a double-breasted suit, and to hear District Attorney Matt J. Kikel and defense attorney Seavy present the case. Twelve men and one woman were selected for the jury and, if warranted, they were qualified to deliver a death-penalty decision.  Before the trial even began, Seavy filed a motion for a continuance, indicating that prosecution witnesses had refused to talk with him about the incident. Judge Blickhahn refused the continuance but ruled that witnesses had to share their information with the defense prior to their testifying.

Among the witnesses called by the prosecution was Milford H. Watson, leader of the Five Queens Club orchestra, who brought up the issue of race by testifying that “Parlato accused Scott of bringing colored people into his establishment . . . he told me the colored people were hurting his business.” Watson further stated that he had gone outside the club, had seen Spinuzzi strike Scott with his fist, and had seen a gun in Spinuzzi’s hand before and after the altercation. Watson indicated that he had heard the gun fire but did not see the actual shot.

Another witness, Airman Vincent Pinkston, said that he, Airman Stephen E. Burris and Carol Jean Algien had driven to Pueblo from Colorado Springs to visit their friend Scott. He testified to the altercation with the bartender and all four being evicted from the club where a man with a gun told the three friends to leave the area. The three circled the block and as they again passed the club, they saw Scott lying on the ground. When Pinkston was questioned as to whether he could identify the man with the gun, he replied, “Well, I am not sure, but I think I recognize him.” Immediately attorney Seavy objected, stating, “If he’s not sure, he has disqualified himself.” Judge Blickhahn agreed and dismissed the testimony.

Carol Algien also was questioned and stated that she had not heard a shot but had seen Scott lying on the ground and identified Spinuzzi as the man with the gun. On cross-examination, Seavy questioned her identification, and Algien admitted that Spinuzzi had been pointed out to her at the county jail as the culprit.

Prosecutor Kikel then presented the autopsy report, from Coroner Dr. C. N. Caldwell, which revealed that there was a bullet hole in the palm of Scott’s hand and another in the left nostril with the bullet finally lodged in the brain. F.B.I identification agent Richard Poppleton briefly testified that the bullet that had killed Scott was from either a .38 special Colt revolver or from a Spanish-made gun of the same caliber. (The weapon was never found.) Mortician A.C. Jones identified the victim, and a photograph taken after death was shown to the jury but, based on a ruling by Judge Blickhahn, could be used solely for identification purposes.

At the close of the people’s case against Spinuzzi, defense attorney Seavy moved to strike murder charges, requesting a directed verdict of acquittal. Judge Blickhahn granted the motion related to the first and second-degree murder charges, leaving only voluntary and involuntary manslaughter as the charges to be considered. The next day, Seavy rested his case and, based on his second motion, Blickhahn also dismissed both of these other charges and instructed the jury to “return a verdict of not guilty on all counts.” In accordance with the judge’s ruling, jury foreman Prebble Wear returned the following verdict: “We, the jury, find the defendant, Joseph E. Spinuzzi, also known as Joseph James Spinuzzi, also known as Joe D. Spinuzzi, also known as Joe Spinuzzi, also known as Scotty Spinuzzi, also known as Scrooge Spinuzzi, alias Joe Marco, not guilty, under the direction and order of the Court.” Spinuzzi walked out of court a free man, while Blickhahn explained to the local newspaper that “nothing can be left to conjecture,” and that no one had seen who fired the shot that killed Scott.

Disagreeing with several of Judge Blickhahn’s rulings, Kikel filed an appeal with the Colorado Supreme Court. A year after the trial, the court handed down a unanimous decision that severely criticized Blickhahn’s rulings, indicating that there were a number of errors made in the Spinuzzi case. First, it indicated that Judge Cabibi should not have released the defendant on bail. Even though the Colorado Constitution stated that individuals were bailable, this rule did not apply to capital offenses “when (as in this case) the proof is evident or the presumption great.”

The court pointed out that Blickhahn had erred when he ordered the prosecution’s witnesses to talk with defense counsel regarding their testimony “under the penalty of not being permitted to testify if they did not do so.” Neither statutes nor common law gave a judge the authority to exclude prosecution witnesses’ testimony for failure to discuss that testimony with defense lawyers.

The judge also erred when he limited the use of a photograph of the deceased for the purposes of identification only, with the court stating that photographs were “competent evidence of anything that is competent for a witness to describe.” In addition, Blickhahn should not have refused to let Pinkston identify the defendant, explaining that it was not essential that a witness be free from doubt as to whether his opinion was correct, nor that he was able positively to identify the victim.  The court added that the uncertainty of identification went “to weight rather than to its admissibility.”

Finally, the court pointed out that Judge Blickhahn erred when he directed the jury to find the defendant not guilty. The court stated that the motion to direct a verdict of not guilty should have been denied and guilt or innocence of Spinuzzi should have been submitted to the jury. It further stated that while it was true “that no one saw the defendant pull the trigger, and no one saw the path of the bullet as it left the gun,” that precision of testimony was not necessary in the state to connect a defendant with a shooting. Because of this final criticism, this case became famous under the heading “No one saw the bullet leave the gun.”

Still, since it had not been asked in District Attorney Kikel’s original appeal, the court had not ruled on the issue of double jeopardy. Therefore, on March 12, 1962, Kikel obtained a new warrant from Judge Cabibi and again had Spinuzzi arrested. After 15 days of incarceration, during a judicial hearing, Spinuzzi was released on an order from Judge Max C. Wilson of Canon City who stated that “any attempt again to try Spinuzzi for murder would constitute double jeopardy.” Once again Scotty walked the streets of Pueblo, Colorado, a free man.

 

Sources for this article are from endnotes and bibliography in Mountain Mafia: Organized Crime in the Rockies.

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