Railroaded – A Spectator True Crime Exclusive / By Steve Buist
* * *
Michele Racco was laid to rest in Toronto on a cold January day in 1980, dead from cancer at 66.
Along with being the head of a Toronto crime family, Mike the Baker, as he was known, owned a bakery on St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto, a common business front at the time for mobsters.
The late ’70s and early ’80s was a turbulent period for southern Ontario’s underworld, as the Musitano, Papalia and Luppino families of Hamilton jostled for turf with the Racco and Commisso families of Toronto. At the time, bakery and restaurant bombings were a common form of intimidation and a way for rivals to settle scores.
The death of Mike the Baker left a void in Toronto’s organized crime world, a void intended to be filled by Domenic Racco, Mike’s son.
But there were concerns about the younger Racco’s ability to follow in his father’s footsteps. Along with his dark eyes and playboy good looks was a volatile temper and what appeared to be a growing fondness for the drugs he was supposed to be distributing.
Racco had been sentenced to 10 years in jail for attempted murder for shooting three men in a Toronto shopping mall in 1971 following an argument over a cigarette. He was released on parole in 1978.
It wasn’t long before he was back in trouble. In February 1982, Racco was arrested and charged in connection with a cocaine-trafficking conspiracy. He was awaiting trial at the time of his murder.
Meanwhile, a string of bombings in the late ’70s through the summer of 1980 had terrorized Hamilton’s Italian business community.
In October 1980, bakery owner Anthony Musitano — younger brother of reputed Hamilton crime boss Domenic Musitano — was arrested and charged as the mastermind of the bombing campaign across Hamilton and Stoney Creek.
He had recruited a couple of bomb-making experts associated with a motorcycle gang to carry out the bombings against some business rivals. In January 1983, Anthony Musitano was sentenced to life in prison, which would later be reduced to 15 years after an appeal.
Musitano was sent to Millhaven Institution, a penitentiary just outside Kingston. Not long after his arrival, he began plotting the murder of Domenic Racco from his jail cell.
Police believed Domenic Musitano had made a business arrangement with Racco over the cocaine trade in Toronto.
Racco had apparently not only violated the agreement by dealing behind Musitano’s back, he also owed the Musitano family a significant amount of money, as much as $500,000.
Soon after arriving at Millhaven, Anthony Musitano became friendly with another inmate named Billy Rankin, a career criminal from Hamilton. More importantly, Rankin, then 32, was due to be released from Millhaven later that year.
Rankin, originally from Burlington, had a long criminal record stretching back to 1968 for a smorgasbord of offences, including auto theft, sexual assault, possession of stolen property, narcotics offences and assaulting police. In 1970, he received a five-year sentence for having sex with a 14-year-old girl.
Shortly after Racco’s murder, police found a photograph of Rankin and Anthony Musitano standing together inside Millhaven.
Rankin had written a note on the picture: “I’m sent down to see you. Anthony Musitano is my mentor. I have great respect for you and your family.” The picture had been delivered to Domenic Musitano. It was seen as a sign of Rankin’s loyalty to the Hamilton crime family.
Meanwhile, at Millhaven, Anthony Musitano’s conversations with visitors and other inmates were being secretly recorded in the visiting area.
Often, the messenger being used to transmit details of the murder plot was 22-year-old Giuseppe Avignone. He was a nephew of the two Musitanos. At the time, police already had Avignone and some other Hamilton men under surveillance in connection with an attempted murder, explosives offences, drugs and arson.
In one of the recorded conversations at Millhaven, Anthony Musitano was overheard plotting a murder, and the murder was to be committed once Rankin was set free.
Just two nights after Rankin’s release, Racco was marched down a deserted railway spur in Milton and shot to death.
Billy Rankin walked out of Millhaven Institution a free man on Dec. 7, 1983.
He was met at the gate by his 23-year-old pal Peter Majeste and two women. They drove back to Hamilton in two cars.
Majeste would later testify he and Rankin were planning to embark on a life of crime together.
It wouldn’t take long to get started. The Musitano family, according to police and court testimony, had hired Rankin to carry out the actual killing of Racco.
At 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 7, Racco and Domenic Musitano met in the coffee shop at the Holiday Inn in Oakville, a frequent meeting spot for the pair. They were followed by a plainclothes Hamilton police officer.
After a short meeting, Musitano returned to Hamilton and phoned his nephew, Avignone. “Yeah, it’s OK” was how Musitano started the call.
The next day, Dec. 8, Avignone travelled to Millhaven and met with his other uncle, Anthony Musitano.
They discussed Rankin and Avignone asked his uncle, “So, you are sure this guy knows what he’s gotta do? That bastard’s not going to get it all cash after he does it.”
Avignone then asked if Rankin had a gun. “Couple” was the response.
In another of the 61 phone conversations that were intercepted, Avignone was heard saying, “We’ll take him for a ride.”
That night, Racco and Domenic Musitano again met at the Oakville Holiday Inn. Rankin and Majeste also showed up.
After Racco left, Rankin and Majeste followed him to his apartment building on Bloor Street in Mississauga.
As Majeste waited in the car, he watched Rankin walk to another nearby car, get in and begin talking with Avignone, a conversation that lasted about 15 minutes.
Rankin then got out of the car, walked into Racco’s building, came out and spoke again to Avignone, then returned to Majeste’s car and they drove back to Hamilton.
On Dec. 9, his last day alive, Racco left early in the morning and drove to Brantford. He needed his brother-in-law’s signature on a mortgage document related to the Toronto bakery that Racco owned following the death of his father.
Racco drove back to Toronto, picked up a cheque for $21,000 from his lawyer’s office, cashed it at the bank and obtained an $8,000 certified cheque, which he kept with him.
Just before 9 p.m., Racco checked in with the RCMP in downtown Toronto as part of his bail conditions related to the drug conspiracy charges he was facing.
From there, Racco left to again meet with Domenic Musitano at the Oakville Holiday Inn for the third night in a row.
He was given a ride to the hotel by Sabastino Zomparelli, the manager of a Downsview travel agency and an acquaintance of Racco’s.
For an hour, Racco and Musitano talked in the Holiday Inn’s coffee shop.
Zomparelli would later tell police that Racco was very nervous after the meeting and that he told Zomparelli to drive as fast as he could back to Toronto. The last time Zomparelli saw Racco was at 11 p.m. that night when he dropped him off at his office.
Shortly after midnight, Racco made his last known phone call from his apartment.
What happened in the 10 hours between that phone call and the time Racco’s body was found can be pieced together from testimony and witness statements from two trials, some of which has never been revealed before.
What is known is that Rankin was waiting in a car outside Racco’s apartment building in Mississauga.
In fact, it’s believed there were two cars waiting outside.
Racco got into one of the cars with Rankin, Majeste and Domenic Musitano. Racco believed the purpose of the meeting was to discuss a drug deal with Musitano or possibly to pick up a drug shipment.
Police also believed Racco got into the vehicle willingly because he knew the people inside.
The occupants of the second car were believed to be Avignone, Jimmy Dixon, a low-ranking Hamilton criminal and reputed drug dealer, and another man.
Dixon would eventually be found dead in a Binbrook field in 1987, shot four times in the head and once in the chest in an execution-style killing over a drug debt unrelated to the Racco case.
Police believed they knew the identities of the three people responsible for the footprints in the snow along the railway line.
One set belonged to Racco, one set belonged to Majeste and one set belonged to Rankin, who was thought to be the shooter, according to police.
In the afternoon on Dec. 10, Rankin met with Avignone at the Tim Hortons on King Street near Caroline Street in Hamilton, unaware they were under police surveillance and also unaware Racco’s body had been discovered. Rankin was demanding payment for his role in the killing.
On Monday morning, Dec. 12, two days after Racco’s body was found, Avignone showed up at the Toronto law office of Edward Greenspan, where Racco was a client.
Avignone tried to cash the certified cheque for $8,000 that Racco had obtained the day he disappeared. But Greenspan’s secretary, aware that Racco had been murdered on the weekend, refused to accept the cheque.
It was later learned that the $8,000 cheque cleared the bank and it was suspected that Racco’s uncle had cashed it.
On March 20, 1984, three months after Racco’s body was found, four men were arrested for his murder — 47-year-old Domenic Musitano, his 37-year-old brother, Anthony, their 22-year-old nephew, Giuseppe Avignone, and 32-year-old Billy Rankin.
Eleven months later, all four pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Police security was tight at their sentencing. An officer sat behind each of the accused and all spectators were searched and put through a metal detector before entering the courtroom.
According to police and the Crown, it was clear “the Musitano family hired Rankin to carry out the actual killing.”
Crown attorney Dean Paquette also said there was evidence Rankin had become a liability to the Musitano family. They were worried about him because of his excessive alcohol and drug consumption.
At the time, there was no dispute that Rankin was one of the two men who abducted Racco from in front of his Mississauga apartment building and marched him to his death. But his lawyer denied Rankin was the one who pulled the trigger, describing him instead as simply a “foot soldier” for the Musitanos.
Domenic Musitano received six years for being an accessory after the fact to murder. Anthony Musitano, already in prison on the bombing charges, was sentenced to 12 years concurrently, Avignone got five years and Rankin was sentenced to 12 years, all three pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit murder.
The Racco murder was closed.
OPP “NO SHOW” REPORT
The redacted OPP “No Show” report appears in this document as three separate releases: in December 2011 a small portion of the report was released, in October 2013 another portion of the report was released following another appeal to the Information and Privacy Commissioner, and in May 2014 another portion of the reported was released following another appeal. Certain segments of the original report overlap in these releases. They are presented here in the form that they were made public.