By Ed Staskus
When I went to work as the night clerk at the Versailles Motor Inn on East 29th and Euclid Ave. in the mid 1970s, Cleveland, Ohio was the bomb capital of the country. There were 37 bombings in Cuyahoga County in 1976, including 21 in the city, making it tops in the United States, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
“A bombing sends a real message. It commands a lot of attention,” said Rick Porello, an east side career police chief. “Danny Greene was said to have paid Art Sneperger, his main explosives guy, extra if the bombing generated news coverage. Art got paid a bonus if the thing got on television or in the newspapers.”
The bomb guy made his own headlines in 1971 when, at the behest of Irish mobster Greene, he suddenly inadvertently found himself in hellfire while planting explosives in the car of the racketeer’s old friend and new enemy Mike Frato. Fumble fingers don’t pay.
Six years later Danny Greene was blown up walking out of a dental office in Lyndhurst. The gangster paid cash, so the dentist ignored the sonic boom. The tooth fairy cancelled her gig that night.
The bomb was in a Chevy Nova parked next to his Lincoln Continental. It was a Trojan Horse. When it went off, set off by remote control, the Nova, Continental, and Greene were reduced to a tangle of corn flakes. The coroner didn’t bother trying to put him back together.
The Nova came from Fairchild Chevrolet in Lakewood. “We heard the owner of the car lot might have been involved,” said Bob Gheen. “The bomb was placed in the Nova and left next to Danny Greene’s Lincoln.” The Chevy had been his father’s car. “They didn’t transfer the title out of my dad’s name. Rick Porello from the Lyndhurst Police Department showed up at our door on Saturday morning and drove us to identify the car. We had to answer several questions and that’s pretty much the last we heard of it.”
I was taking classes at Cleveland State University but because I didn’t have a scholarship or any grants, and nobody would give me a loan, I had to pay the tuition fees and book costs myself. I was living in Asia Town, in a house on East 34th St, upstairs in a two-bedroom with a roommate, but even though I knew how to live on next to nothing, I needed a little to make the bills and more to pay for school.
The Versailles Motor Inn was built in the mid-60s, meant to piggyback on the Sahara Motor Inn a few blocks away at East 32nd St., built in the early 60s. The Sahara wasn’t hiring, but the Versailles was, and I thought if it was like the Sahara, I was their young man for the job.
All the rooms at the four-story Sahara featured a television, air conditioning, piped-in music, and your own dial phone, the first ones in northern Ohio. There were three presidential suites and three bridal suites. There was a heated swimming pool, a dance floor, and a patio on the second floor. There was a continental dining room with velvet armchairs and a starlight ceiling and there were four cocktail lounges. The waitresses wore Egyptian outfits, and the waiters wore fezzes. There were eight-foot paintings of Cleopatra, King Tut, and Queen Nefertiti in the lobby.
Except that the Versailles had 150 rooms, exactly like the Sahara, that is where the resemblance ended. The Versailles had a bar restaurant, a coffee shop, and a lobby. It featured sunken pit seating in the lobby where nobody ever went. The lighting was bad. The front doors facing Euclid Ave were kept locked under penalty of death. Unlike the Sahara where the plants in the lobby were real geraniums rhododendrons and palm trees, everything at the Versailles was fake. The front desk was veneer and small, a drive-up entrance on the side of the building at one end of it and the door to the bar restaurant at the other end of it. There were two elevators facing the desk.
The Sahara attracted weddings conventions and business meetings. Sometime TV crews filming episodes for “Route 66” stayed there. The Versailles attracted business like peddlers and door-to-door salesmen, families on a budget, African American ministers, short-term construction workers, sketchy characters who left big tips and said hold all their calls, and the John and Jane trade.
I was glad to get the job since I could walk there from where I lived in Asia Town, it paid reasonably well, and I would have about half of my shift of 11 PM to 7 AM to do homework. My night clerk responsibilities were mainly checking in guests and taking reservations. I also reconciled the day’s receipts and processed invoices for payment between seeing to guests tramping in and out, getting paid a little extra for doing the night auditor work. I gave travel directions to late-night callers, answered inquiries about our hotel services, which was easy since there were hardly any, and made recommendations to guests about nighttime dining and entertainment options, which was also easy.
“In the 1970s, downtown was dead. The Warehouse District and Playhouse Square weren’t happening yet. There was no reason to come,” said John Gorman, disc jockey and program director at radio station WMMS.
One sleepless night at the Versailles, while nothing was going down on my side of downtown, and I was boning up for an exam the next week, Shondor Birns, Public Enemy #1 in Cleveland for a long time, met his maker outside Christy’s Lounge, a strip club on Detroit Ave. across the street from St. Malachi Catholic Church. It was Holy Saturday, easing into Easter Sunday.
During Prohibition the Birns family turned to bootlegging, working a still for Cleveland Mafia boss Joe Lonardo. His mother burned to death when the still exploded. After he dropped out of 10th grade, Shondor was arrested 18 times in 12 years. After his 6th arrest a Cleveland prosecutor said, “It is time the court put away this man whose reputation is one of rampant criminality.”
He hooked up with the Maxie Diamond gang and got into the lucrative protection rackets. He muscled into numbers operations and policy games. He opened restaurants like the Ten-Eleven and Alhambra. His big mistake was hiring Danny Greene as an enforcer. The relationship soured and Birns put a contract out on Greene. When the Irishman found a bomb in his car, he took it apart himself and showed it to Cleveland Police Lieutenant Ed Kovacic, who offered him police protection.
“No, for whatever it’s worth,” Danny Greene said, leaving and taking the bomb with him. “I’m going to send this back to the old bastard that sent it to me.”
When Shondor Birns left the girlie show, got comfortable behind the wheel of his car, and the engine turned over purring, a hefty packet of C-4 exploded beneath him. He was blown through the roof of his Lincoln Mark IV. His torso landed near the passenger door. His legs landed fifty feet away. The cigarette he had meant to light was still between his lips.
Mary Nags owned a print shop on Detroit Road that shared a common parking lot with the strip club. She got a call saying not to come to work on Monday. “They said a man had been blown up and parts of him were scattered around in our back lot.” The CPD spent another day finding all the parts of Shondor Birns.
Police detectives focused on the lottery number big men in the ghetto with whom Birns had been feuding. That turned out to be a dead end. “It’s dumb to talk about blacks doing Shondor. Shon wasn’t no bad fella. He was white but it didn’t make no difference. Shon had a black soul. He was black through and through,” one of them said.
After that everybody knew Danny Greene had done it, but charges were never brought when the hitman died. The Irish mobster had contracted Hells Angel Enis “Eagle” Crnic to do the job on Birns. The biker was then himself blown up bungling the sticking of explosives to the underside of a car belonging to “Johnny Del” Delzoppo. If the district attorney wanted to subpoena the Eagle, he would have to deliver the document to the bottomless pit, where he was living next door to Art Sneperger.
The first time I was robbed at the Versailles Motor Inn I wasn’t robbed, because I was surprised and reacted without thinking. A young black man filled out a registration card, handed me a twenty, and when I turned around to get him his key, started rifling the cash drawer. “Hey!” I shouted, lunging forward and smashing the drawer shut on his hand. He ran out yelping and cursing.
The second time I was robbed I was robbed. The next young black bandit didn’t bother registering. He was wearing a jacket and suggested he had a gun by patting his side near his armpit. “Know what I mean?” he said.
“It’s not my money,” I said opening the drawer, stepping back, and raising my hands to the ceiling. He said I could put them down, but “don’t mess around.”
He took all of the night’s take except the change. I called the police, a patrol car pulled up, I made out a report and they left. The men in blue seemed indifferent.
“Don’t let it happen again,” my boss said in the morning.
“What do you suggest?”
“Do you want to keep your job?”
“I guess so,” I said hedging my bets.
“All right then,” he said, and that was the end of his word to the wise.
My last night at the Versailles Motor Inn was the same as most nights, until it wasn’t. It was busy until 2:30, then it was slow as an orphanage’s graveyard. I sat in the back office reading until I got drowsy. I took a walk through the gloomy lobby and was standing behind the front desk doing nothing when the next split second there was an explosion. The doors of the bar restaurant flew off their hinges and every single glass window the length of the hallway was blown to smithereens.
Other than the echo from the blast I couldn’t hear anything, slowly backing away from the desk and backing out the side door, sidling along the outside wall until I came to the front of the building.
I stood outside until I was breathing again, and my hearing came back. I decided I wasn’t hurt since nothing hurt. Back inside the dust was settling and it didn’t look like anything was on fire. The phone was still working. I called the police and they arrived in the matter of a minute, the fire department hard on their heels.
The firemen hauled hoses inside and sprayed water from one end of the bar restaurant to the other. The hardwood bar countertop was split in half. All the tables and chairs were helter-skelter. All of the bottles and glasses and mirrors were shattered. It was a mess.
There were 50 or 60 guests tucked into their beds when the bomb went off. Some of them heard the ka-boom. A policeman stood by the elevator and whenever somebody came down asking what the noise had been told them to go back to bed.
I went over what happened with a detective, twice. He asked me a hundred questions but finally told me to go home. It was five in the morning. I walked up East 30th St. to Payne Ave, past Dave’s Grocery and Stan’s Deli, to my rented rooms on East 34th St. I didn’t see another soul, although a couple of cars went by. My roommate was dead asleep. Mr. Moto my Siamese cat followed me into my bedroom and jumped on top of me when I fell into it. He fell asleep while I lay awake.
I quit the next day. The only time I went back was to collect my paycheck. The boss looked at me sideways like I had something to do with the bombing. When I asked, he said the police had found a door forced at the back of the coffee shop, and believed that’s how the intruder got in, taping three sticks of dynamite to the underside of the bar counter. He said I was lucky the counter was oak.
“One stick can blow a 12-inch-thick tree right out of the ground, do you know?” he said.
I didn’t know and didn’t care. There were sheets of plywood hammered up everywhere. I asked for my paycheck again.
A month later I heard talk that the bar restaurant, which was leased like the coffee shop from the Versailles, had fallen behind paying the protection racket mobsters and the bombing was their way of settling accounts.
The Mob was big in Cleveland in the 1970s. When John Scalish died after 30-odd years as the power broker in town, Jack “King of the Hill” Lucavoli took over. He lived in an unassuming house in Little Italy, up the hill towards Cleveland Heights.
“Jack was the last of the old-school Cleveland mobsters,” said James Willis, a downtown lawyer. “Cleveland had the best burglars, thieves, and safe crackers in the country. I know, I represented a lot of them.”
Jack White, another of his names, a play on his Sicilian complexion, got his start bootlegging in St. Louis. He came to Cleveland in 1938 and worked his way up. “A lot of the guys coming up were just out for themselves, not Jack. He looked out for the operation and he was so good at his job that I thought it would never end,” his downtown lawyer said.
“No one thought it would be Licavoli taking over,” Rick Porello said. “He was an old miser. One time he was caught by store security for switching the price tag on a pair of trousers. When they found out who he was they dropped the charges.”
“He was very secretive and not at all flamboyant,” James Willis said. “We would only ever talk in person.”
I soon found work in the Communications department at CSU, on the 16th floor of Rhodes Tower, working for their new film studies professor. I was an English major, but it close enough. My job was picking up from the mail room whatever art house film he was showcasing, roll the 16 mm projector out of storage, screen the movie to his class, and send it on to the next place that wanted it. In return I got free tuition and a closet that passed for an office.
I watched many French New Wave movies, Japanese samurai movies, and 1940s Warner Brothers crime movies during my work-study year, movies that the CSU library had tucked away. I projected them on my office wall at the end of the day. I didn’t have a TV at home, but they were better than anything on TV, anyway.
Two years after I left the Versailles Motor Inn, John Nardi, who was secretary-treasurer of Vending Machine Service Employees Local 410 and high up in the mob’s chain gang of command, sauntered out of his office a couple of blocks away from where I had obsessed through countless film noirs, walked to his Oldsmobile 98, turned the key, and was blown to kingdom come. The bomb was packed with nuts and bolts, making sure it tore him apart.
Bomb City USA was alive and well.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”