Frank Colacurcio Sr., the city's reigning strip-club elder, says mob crime does not exist in Seattle. Or if it does, he's not part of it.
"I've given them every chance to prove it," the 89-year-old nude-dance impresario says. "They're still trying, I guess."
For half a century, cops, politicians, and newspapers have tried to link Colacurcio to the mob. The best they could do was lodge a disputed claim that he met with Bill Bonnano, son of Mafia chief Joe Bonnano, in Yakima years ago. But in July, Mayor Greg Nickels accused Colacurcio of running organized crime out of Rick's, his nightclub in Lake City. The mayor didn't define what he meant by this implication, but left the lingering image of large men in lockers with meat hooks.
Colacurcio, in middling health, now refers to himself as a consultant to his nightclub empire, run by his son, Frank Jr. Yet even when Seattle was on the take, he insists: "Organized crime—you just never had it here."
But walk back in history to Pike Street downtown, near Sixth Avenue, where Colacurcio had one of his first topless bars. From one end of Pike to the other, when a beat cop ordered something "to go" at a bar or gambling parlor, it was the signal to fill a lunch bag with cash. The underworld, as it was known, was involved in protection rackets. Sex and gambling were allowed to flourish through a policy wherein what was illegal was tolerated, as long as someone paid for it.
This corruption ran deep: Gaming operators were even kicking back on bingo. The local pinball king, Ben Cichy, was seen making nightly visits to the home of the county prosecutor, Charles Carroll. And club owners were occasionally stabbed and drowned, found the next morning with their blood running under the door.
Some of these crimes remain unsolved. Mario Vaccarino, the former union boss of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, was found floating face down in his bathtub in 1986, his body sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. Suspects included figures from the protection racket. And Frank "Sharkey" Hinkley, who introduced Seattle to topless dancing in 1970, was shot and killed in 1975. An Oregon man was charged with Hinkley's murder this year, then died of a drug overdose. Now his death is under investigation.
It was the kind of corruption you'd otherwise have to travel east to find. But now all that's left is Colacurcio, who first made a name for himself as the man alleged to be behind illegal gambling, prostitution, and payoffs at various establishments in the 1950s.
In the 1970s, Colacurcio was convicted of racketeering, conspiracy, and importing illegal bingo cards into Washington. Authorities nailed him several times thereafter for various tax violations. Yet he remains in business today, the owner of the Lake City Rick's and a handful of other adult venues outside the city limits.
Rick's was at the fore of the 2003 Strippergate scandal, in which Colacurcio and others were accused of bundling illegal campaign contributions to City Council members in return for an expanded parking lot rezone. The charges were later tossed—but an FBI investigation is ongoing.
Undaunted, Colacurcio's club and other nude-dance joints are bankrolling Referendum 1, which, if passed on Nov. 8, would allow clubs to continue to offer couch and table dancing, where the big money is made. So far, Colacurcio has contributed about half of the $800,000 war chest for the referendum campaign, which seeks to revoke a pending City Council law that would require a four-foot space between customer and dancers and also ban direct tipping and dimmed lights.
But if Referendum 1 succeeds, the mayor says, organized crime will flourish.
"I believe that there is organized crime involved in at least that club [meaning Rick's], and perhaps others," is how Mayor Nickels put it on the Seattle Channel (SCTV) in July.
It was a muddled pronouncement, and the mayor has further confused it by having accepted money from one of the others: Roger Forbes, co-owner of the international Déjà Vu Showgirls chain, which includes a club at First Avenue and Pike Street.
Like Colacurcio, Forbes' company has donated about $400,000 to the Referendum 1 campaign. In the past five years, Forbes has given $1,400 for Nickels' election campaigns and office fund. The mayor gave $650 of it back last year—part of the Strippergate hangover—but kept the earlier donations.
If nothing else, the mayor could at least get specific about how he defines organized crime. Who and what the hell is it?
Colacurcio, for one, is sure it isn't him. He's not the mob, he says. And that trouble in the past? That's over now.
"Oh, I think he's just trying to win an election," Colacurcio says of the mayor. "But he's wrong. It's not the old days anymore. I should know."