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Crime & Courts

Detective thought catching Trafficante might have saved JFK

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Published:   |   Updated: November 27, 2013 at 06:55 AM

TAMPA-  Capt. Ellis Clifton, a Hillsborough County law man assigned to bring down the Tampa mafia in the 1950s and 60s, carried a heavy burden.

He wondered until his death whether he could have prevented the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Clifton headed the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office vice squad during part of “The Era of Blood,” the 1930s through the 1960s, when some two dozen murders were recorded in the Tampa area over control of illegal gambling, prostitution and bootlegging.

At the center of Clifton's target was Santo Trafficante Jr., reputed former head of the Tampa underworld and a man linked in some reports to a Kennedy assassination conspiracy. Clifton never was able to pin a single crime on Trafficante.

Clifton's 59-year-old daughter, Andrea Clifton, said her father was saddened by Kennedy's death but his reaction took on another dimension once Jack Ruby shot-dead Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Reports that Ruby, a strip club owner, had ties to organized crime heightened Clifton's regret over failing to get Trafficante, Andrea Clifton said.

“It bothered him,” added Clifton's widow, Jo Clifton, who, like her daughter, lives in Georgia. “But he also knew that he did all he could to arrest him.”

Clifton made plenty of other arrests as a crime fighter, including Frank Diecidue, reputed to be Trafficante's No. 1 man.

“There is a lot of circumstantial evidence tying Trafficante to the JFK assassination but nothing hard,” said Scott Deitche, author of “The Silent Don,” a Trafficante biography. “It seems feasible, but it's just speculation unless hard evidence ever materializes, which I doubt will happen at this point. So who knows?”

Sicilian-born Trafficante, known to authorities as Florida's “boss of bosses,” testified in front of a 1978 U.S. House panel that he was involved in a plot to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He denied knowledge, though, of any mob plot to kill President Kennedy.

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Clifton's successors with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office view Clifton, once a crime reporter with The Tampa Tribune, in high regard.

One sign of this is a photo of the detective at a moonshine bust, hanging on the office wall of sheriff's Lt. James Bradford.

“I have read interviews with Captain Clifton as well as old police reports documenting cases he worked on,”

Bradford said. “He was an incredible investigator to make great cases with limited resources. He would have been an even more incredible detective in today's world with all the technology available to solve crimes.”

Added Sheriff David Gee, “He predated me. I came in the 70s. But a lot of his former partners were around and spoke about him. He had a reputation as a good and honest law enforcement officer.”

Clifton broke new ground as a law man.

In March 1958, he used an airplane to tail numbers runners, helping him make what was then the largest gambling bust in the history of Hillsborough County. He was just the second law enforcement officer anywhere to use an airplane this way; numbers runners never suspected the plane hovering a few hundred feet above their car.

Clifton became known in the underworld as “The Rabbit” for jumping out of nowhere to break up an illegal operation.

His secret, according to his late-partner Charlie Whitt: Clifton had ears all over town. Turning gangsters into “rats” was his specialty.

“Ellis had good information and good contacts,” Whitt was quoted as saying in a November 2010 edition of Cigar City Magazine. “He just seemed to know everything and everyone.

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According to Clifton's 41-year-old grandson, Jason Birt of Coral Springs, he would use tactics not allowed today.

“One story in particular that stands out,” Birt said, “is when one of Trafficante's guys wouldn't tell him what he wanted to know. He brought him to a field, tied him to a tree, drove his car up to his neck and revved the engine until he agreed to talk, which he did.”

Sometimes, said daughter Andrea, Clifton didn't need muscle to get what he wanted.

In 1958, Clifton had a $10,000 bounty on his head, according to the afternoon Tampa Daily Times.

Andrea said her father loved to brag about the time a “bad guy” tried to collect. He pulled Clifton into a building and was ready to kill him. Not only did Clifton talk him out of it, said Andrea, but they spent the next hour or so “cutting up and talking.”

“He was tough but he knew how to befriend people,” said Birt, of Coral Springs.

This included Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro.

Clifton boasted late in life of a clandestine deal he made with Castro in 1955. Castro had not yet wrestled power away from Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and was in Tampa raising money for his Revolution. Clifton alleged he made a deal with Castro: Clifton would help get guns to Castro's army if Castro helped arrange for Trafficante to be expelled from Cuba and handed over to Clifton.

Trafficante was operating casinos and hotels in Cuba and made the neighboring nation his new home.

“I don't think my grandfather actually went through with that one,” Birt said.

The Cuban government did fulfill its end of the bargain. When Trafficante was forced to leave the island nation in August 1959, Clifton was called and told where to pick him up.

Clifton arrived armed with a subpoena tying Trafficante to the October 1957 New York murder of his alleged rival gangster, Albert Anastasia. The subpoena had been cancelled and Trafficante was free to go home.

That was the closest Clifton ever came to arresting his top target.

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As the years went by, circumstantial evidence mounted linking Trafficante to the Kennedy assassination. There were Ruby's ties to organized crime, his visit with Trafficante in prison, and his visit with the Tampa don in a Cuban lockup.

Author Deitche said he has spoken to a soldier of fortune who claimed to have been in the cell next to Trafficante when he was imprisoned in Cuba. The soldier, said Deitche, said Ruby and Trafficante did meet.

“There are also records of Ruby's flight to Cuba,” Deitche said. “But, again, how much does this prove?”

Trafficante's attorney Frank Ragano released a book, “Mob Lawyer,” in 1994 saying his client admitted to being involved in the president's murder. Ragano's claim has since been dismissed as a fabrication.

Jo Clifton said her husband believed there was a link, but she never learned what it was — whether he had specific evidence or a mountain of circumstances.

“He felt the mob was very much involved with it,” Jo Clifton said. “He dealt with them for so many years he felt like he personally knew them. But he never told me too much. Never would. He only spoke about what he wanted.”

Clifton was 80 when he died April 2007.

He never landed his white whale, but he earned respect in the hunt.

A personal letter from Sheriff Gee reads, “Your service continues to stand as a shining example of a remarkable law enforcement officer who served his community with fearlessness and conviction.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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