Swept away

Oh, they were brilliant for sure, trying to burn down a tavern on Custer Way by running around at night next to a busy street with flaming brooms, jumping and stretching up to set the roof on fire. They tried a Molotov cocktail once, and when it didn't explode, one moron told the other, "Use a thinner bottle" next time. They did get the fire going at the boss's house, all right. The idea was to earn the insurance money, but also to make the crime boss look good. With his $175,000 home in flames, the boss could pretend he was targeted by the same people who were burning down South Tacoma's taverns, including his.

Of course, it was his gang burning the taverns—including his. But this way the boss, John Carbone, could say, "What, I'd burn my own house? I'm the tragic victim!"

The first thing fire investigators did was look in his closets. There were no burned clothes or shoe remains. The good furniture was also gone from the home. It seemed someone expected a bad thing to happen and suddenly moved out. The inspectors were instantly reminded of a fire earlier at one of Carbone's own taverns, which he claimed some rival gang—maybe the Colacurcios of Seattle—had burned. The night before, a witness said, a big moving van backed up to the tavern door and took almost everything. Then, a fire! This Carbone is lucky to always be relocating with the flames at his heels!

So when he died the other day, John Carbone got a nice send-off in a Tacoma newspaper obituary in which people recalled what a nutty guy he was and how colorful his 1970s gang of crooked shooters was. He was, an old friend said, "a simple guy. A good guy. Really." Carbone was 79 and feeble—he died a demented old man in the mental hospital at Steilacoom. Fifteen of his years were spent in prison after he and the Pierce County sheriff, George Janovich, and a handful of the Carboneheads were convicted of running rackets and starting a tavern war, burning even their own properties to create a smokescreen. Then a stubby, gray-haired man in his fifties, Carbone was wealthy and flamboyant. He was awaiting the completion of his $400,000 65-foot yacht when this federal racketeering thing happened, spoiling everything. But it wasn't really Carbone's fault, said the friend in the obit. "John, he just got swept away."

Here is how swept away he got: 10 taverns or businesses torched and four homes burned in Tacoma and Gig Harbor over a six-year period, with a $2 million loss. At one tavern, a guard was tied up and left to die in the flames, but escaped. Besides arson and murder threats, the gang performed insurance fraud and ran shakedown and protection scams, prostitution and gambling. With the sheriff paid to look the other way, they committed crime without worry or planning.

If a roof fire didn't get someone's attention, then Richard Caliguri would come through their window. Particularly memorable was the morning of August 14, 1978 in the home of two small boys and a girl, 16. A housekeeper was asleep nearby. The teenage girl awakened at 5am to a gun in her face. "Don't scream," Richard Caliguri said to her, "or I'll blow your fugging head off." She froze. A stocky, thick-headed muscleman for Carbone, Caliguri went by the name Waco, which some pronounced Wacko. He took the teen down to the kitchen and pressed a butcher knife to her throat. He was there to persuade her mother and father to close their tavern.

"I ought to kill you just because you look so much like your mother," Waco said. He had the girl tie up the housekeeper, saying, "Tie them tight or I'll cut the hands off the children." Then he snipped the phone lines and left with this suggestion for the parents: "If they don't get out of the tavern business, they're dead."

I talked with the parents after the gang was busted. They didn't know he was a good guy. Besides the Caliguri visit, their tavern was firebombed twice. They had moved to another residence, still kept a gun by the bed, and drove home a different way each night. "You get so used to living like this for so long," the mother said, "you don't know when it's right not to." The father said, "One of the US attorneys called them the gang that couldn't shoot straight. I never saw it in that light. The 'gang' didn't bungle the fire [at his tavern]. They destroyed the place."

This was 20 years ago. They said they didn't think they'd ever get past it. They'd be hiding from John Carbone the rest of their lives.

The other day, without a funeral, his remains were placed at Calvary Cemetery. This is just a few miles from where he used to burn down taverns and threaten murder on the South Tacoma strip. I went by and saw that he has become ashes.

Parents, you can come out now. It's safe. John Carbone appears to have gotten swept away for the last time.

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