The last time I chatted with Tony Musitano was a couple of days before his death when the former mobster sent me his annual Easter blessing.
“I send you the first palm of the holy week,” he texted on Sunday, sending an image of an Easter cross, made out of palm leaves. “Send it to your special person! Including me! God bless.”
I wasn’t surprised to get this, just happy.
You make unusual friendships in this business and Tony and I grew to consider each other friends.
I’m not sure when or how this happened, but I’m glad it did.
Tony died of natural causes this week at the age of 72.
We first met 15 years ago but I had written about him before that.
Tony served prison time for an arson spree that had some headline writers referring to his hometown of Hamilton as “Bomb City” in the 1970s.
While a maximum security prisoner, he was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in 1985 in the death of Toronto mobster Domenic Racco.
“If he was not the worst offender of the worst offence, he comes microscopically close to it,” a judge said of him.
That was half a lifetime ago and Tony lived a different life after he was released on parole in 1990.
The first time I met him was in the east Hamilton laundry he ran with his ex-wife.
“I’ve lived life on both sides (of the law),” he said. “Now, I’m comfortable the way I am. I enjoy fishing, cooking, a little gardening, training my dogs, and spending time, when they’re not too busy, with my children.”
“We launder shirts, not money,” he joked, standing near a rack of wedding gowns to be cleaned at the back of the laundromat.
He joked that he even shied away from using the word “contract in business dealings after gaining parole, preferring instead the “politically correct” term “business arrangement.”
He loved to tell how he and his ex-wife caught a grade-school student stealing a purse at the laundromat.
At first, the student begged them not to tell the police.
Tony assured him this would not be a problem.
Then he sentenced the child to a week of scrubbing collars and cleaning the laundromat toilet.
By the third day of his weeklong term, the student begged Tony to release him from his work obligations and instead call the police.
“I said, ‘Sorry, we don’t do that here,’” Tony recalled with a laugh. “We don’t call the police. We deal with our own.’”
He said he sternly warned the youth that his life would only get worse if he didn’t straighten himself out.
Tony spent his final years running a vegetable farm in Chiclayo, Peru. He loved sharing photos of himself enjoying nature or mingling with local children and their pets.
He became emotional when he talked about the day his housekeeper showed up late for work, crying.
She had always been punctual and composed but that day was different.
The housekeeper’s 7-year-old niece had just been kidnapped while at the local marketplace.
Tony said he was flooded with thoughts of his daughters and granddaughters and immediately decided to do something.
He feared she was likely kidnapped for the sex trade, or for body parts.
In an odd alliance, he teamed up with a female prosecutor in a hunt for the little girl, pressuring police, politicians and the media to do something.
Tony posted a reward of $10,000 in a country where $250 is a good monthly wage. After a month of pressure, the little girl was returned.
She had been repeatedly sexually abused, but she was still alive.
Tony, the prosecutor and police also tracked down the kidnappers, who had a dozen other girls and one boy locked up for the sex trade.
Tony was also deeply saddened when we talked after the May 2, 2017, murder of his nephew, Angelo Musitano, 39, outside his home as Angelo’s wife and children waited inside for him.
“It’s a very emotional thing,” he said. “It’s a major, major shock to everyone.”
Angelo Musitano and his brother Pasquale (Pat) each served 10 years in prison after being convicted of conspiracy related to the 1997 gangland murder of Niagara Falls mobster Carmen Barillaro.
Tony said that he believed Angelo made a sincere effort to turn his life around after his parole.
“I can say that because I’ve been there and done it,” Tony said. “My life has turned around as well.”
“I say and feel that he did see the light,” Tony said. “It’s just a tragedy. He was a good boy. He was a good man. A good husband. The father of three children. He saw the light. He was on the right path.”
“I loved him very much. I’m still shaking my head. It was a tragedy that I don’t wish on anyone.”
He was in a good mood when he called this winter to talk about my role as an executive producer on the Netflix gangster series Bad Blood.
He kidded me that Declan, the main bad guy in Bad Blood, is Irish, knowing that I have some Irish blood.
Tony liked to talk about why people did things and he sometimes noted that he grew up at a time when there were signs on some Ontario beaches saying “No Dogs or Italians.”
“We’re all human,” he said. “We all bleed.”
Tony made it a point of honour that his children did not choose his old life.
“I always made the promise to myself, that I was the last of my generation,” he once said. “My children did not follow in my footsteps.”
Then he laughed and added, “Otherwise, I’d have broken their legs.”
I’m not religious but he got me in an Easter mood with his cheerful text last week.
I texted him back, “God bless you too!”
Peter Edwards is a Toronto-based reporter primarily covering crime. Reach him by email at email@example.com