ELKHART — Rumor has it that the mafia conducted their criminal activities in Elkhart.
But to the residents who grew up in the city’s former Italian neighborhood, it’s just that — rumors.
On Feb. 7 readers voted for The Elkhart Truth to find out if there was any mafia activity in Elkhart in a segment called Ask the Truth. But some readers said the article should have considered the connection between the mafia and the local Italian community.
Many Italians settled along Harrison Street west of downtown Elkhart in the early 1900s, according to The Elkhart Truth’s previous reporting. Many came to the city to work on the railroad, like Rico Iavagnilio’s great-grandfather, Thomasine.
Iavagnilio manages Michael’s Italian Village at 528 Harrison St. in Elkhart. The restaurant and bar has been in his family for four generations, but the 47-year-old Elkhart man has never heard of any mafia activity in the neighborhood.
He guesses there might have been criminals who have hidden in the city. Ne’er-do-wells might stay with a “friend of a friend” who’d take care of them when things got hairy, Iavagnilio said.
“I think Elkhart was probably the home base for some of these guys over the years, but God, that was a long time ago,” he said. “I don’t think that kind of activity is even around anymore.”
You’d have to speak to the old timers to know for sure, but most of them are dead, Iavagnilio said.
All that’s left, Iavagnilio said, are “rumors and stories.”
Nick Ambrose, 76, used to be a resident of the Harrison Street neighborhood and an Elkhart police officer.
But he’s never once seen or heard of any mafia activity.
Ambrose is a first-generation Italian-American who grew up in the 700 block of Harrison Street. His father, Domenico Amoruso, came to the United States in 1920 from Ripabottoni, Italy. Amoruso later changed his last name to Ambrose and was naturalized in 1938.
The only stories he’s heard of the mafia in Elkhart stem from people’s ignorance.
“I had people say something about how most Italians are mafia, that’s all I would get,” he said. “But they didn’t know what they were talking about.”
Even today, Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers and his staff have not heard of any mafia activity in the county. Public libraries and local museums did not have any newspaper articles or municipal records to suggest the organized criminal network had any dealings in the city.
But there are the Luccheses of Elkhart, who share the same name as the notorious New York crime family of the 1950s and 1960s, according to Bio. But 70-year-old Ralph Lucchese said the two aren’t affiliated.
Lucchesse grew up on Mason Street, a block away from the Harrison Street neighborhood. When Lucchese became a Spanish teacher in Elkhart, his students often asked him if he was connected to mob boss Tommy Lucchese or his criminal network.
“They’d ask, ‘Are you part of the mafia?’” Lucchese said. “And I said, ‘I will be if you don’t straighten yourself up.’”
Videographer Larry App interviewed about 20 former residents from 2009 to 2010 in order to preserve the history of the ethnic neighborhood but has never heard of any rumors about mafia activity in the area. He added that the Italian community worked hard to overcome many of the negative stereotypes of their ethnicity and would find it derogatory to be associated with the criminal network.
“The Italians are a proud people and will bend over backwards to do the right thing, to be honorable, etc.,” App said in an email to The Elkhart Truth.
Even though criminals could lose heat in Elkhart, Iavagnilio said it’s unlikely the mafia had any dealings in the city or his neighborhood. The city is too small, and people in the Harrison Street neighborhood were there to just raise their families, he said.
“Growing up in an Italian family,” he said, “all the people I know in town are all good, hardworking people that were trying to make a living.”