This article was last modified on February 3, 2020.


Sam Cerro, Madison’s Last Crime Boss?

Who was Sam Cerro? According to some, he was the Mafia boss of Madison from the 1970s-1990s following the retirement of Carlo Caputo. (Personally, I don’t buy this.) Whether or not he was a member of the Mafia, there is no doubt he was a well-known crime figure in Madison’s history. This article will take a closer look at the Cerro clan.

NOTE: FBI files on Cerro have been requested. Until those are received, I will be working forward in time from newspaper accounts. When this page reaches 30,000 words, it will go offline and be used towards a book. Anyone who has any articles, files, photos or memories (good or bad), please feel free to contact me.

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1918: Cerro family lives at 2 South Murray.

June 1918: Antonio Cerro had unclaimed mail at the Madison post office. (Who is Antonio?)

March 10, 1919: The Italian Society of General Armando Diaz was formed at St. Joseph’s Church in order to provide benefits for Italian families in Dane County. Membership was open to Italian men aged 18 to 55. The incorporators were Callisto Cerro, Joseph Licali and Tony Caruso.

September 1919: Callisto Cerro purchases land in Madison from F. J. Bremer.

March 12, 1921: With the aid of university students, federal agents swarmed Madison’s “Little Italy” and rounded up the following men: Theodore Paratore, Frank Cangelosi, Vito Geraci, Joe Spatula, John Cuccia and Joe Justo. 300 gallons of wine and 10 gallons of moonshine were found by agents George Ehrig and Carl Henting (or Henning). Also picked up was a man the newspapers identified as Callisto Cerro, aka Joe Geloso, who had sold liquor to agents in the past. Was this really Callisto Cerro, using his brother-in-law’s name? Or, more likely, was it the notorious Geloso using Cerro’s name? Ralph Jackman served as the defense attorney for this initial appearance. Each man was released on $500 bond; according to media coverage, “a dozen of their countrymen” arrived at the courthouse to bail out the men.

On August 13, 1921, the raids came to Little Italy again, now with fifteen homes raided and a fair amount of booze taken. One of the homes was that of “Joe” Cerro at 5 South Park Street. Callisto Cerro was commonly called Joe, but was this him, or was this Joe Geloso? Which man was the one living at 5 South Park? In fact, it appears this was a real Cerro residence.

The matter is further confused in November 1921 when the March arrests come to charges. Callisto Cerro and Frank Cangelosi are both said to reside at 2 South Murray, a residence that the real Cerro was known to live at. This seems to suggest that the real Cerro was caught in the March raids, and charged with siz counts of liquor violations. Does this mean he was not the man using the Cerro name in August?

April 1922: Callisto Cerro sells two lots in Greenbush to Domenica Cerro (apparently 5 and 7 South Park). In June, Domenica received a permit to build a residence for $1,500.

September 1922: Like many others in the Greenbush neighborhood, Callisto Cerro was listed as one of the men who donated to the purchase of Neighborhood House (768 West Washington). Lead by director Gay Braxton, no organization did more to boost opportunities for the area’s youth.

December 5, 1922: Mid-afternoon, police raided the home of Domenica Cerro (7 South Park). In the basement, a trap door was discovered that opened in to a smaller room. Inside, 100 gallons of moonshine and a 25-gallon still was found. Also in the room were several dozen empty bottles just waiting to be filled.

On January 20, 1923, the police returned again, this time to the Callisto Cerro home at 5 South Park. Another hidden room was found in Cerro’s basement, containing a 15-gallon still, 25 gallons of moonshine, and hundreds of gallons of mash. A week later, Cerro was freed of all charges when the court determined that he was not the owner of the liquor found on his property, as absurd as that sounds.

January 17, 1928: an electric flat iron started a fire at the 7 South Park residence. Mrs. Cerro left the iron unattended; the newspaper said it became “rambunctous” and burned the table. A fire engine responded, but the issue was resolved once the iron was unplugged.

April 1930: The Commercial National Bank foreclosed on two lots (15 and 16) of property owned by Joe Reda, Callisto Cerro and Domenica Cerro in the Hammersley Heights neighborhood of Madison. The property was auctioned off in July. (Somehow the Waltham Piano Company is involved in this?) As near as i can tell, these two lots were at the corner of Nygard and Sundstrom – in the vicinity of the Alliant Energy Center. Hammersley Heights is today called Capitol View Heights.

October 1930: Anchor Savings Building and Loan foreclosed on land belonging to Joe Reda, Callisto Cerro, Domenica Geloso Cerro, and John Coliva. These two lots were in the Greenbush neighborhood. The auction was to be held January 1931.

March 29, 1932: Callisto Cerro was declared bankrupt by the courts and any creditors were to direct their concerns to attorney C. F. Lamb.

April 21, 1934: The Cerro family was evicted from 916 Emerald on order of Frank J. Dempsey, who wanted to move in. News reports were conflicting on whether Callisto Cerro had six or eight children, but were in agreement the family was too large to move into the second-floor apartment at 30 South Park that county welfare had found for them. Instead, Callisto and two sons moved in to the city jail while the rest of the family stayed with relatives.

September 1934: John Cerro (age 6) lives at 1 South Murray.

May 1, 1937: A marbles tournament was held by Neighborhood House under the guidance of the WPA. 43 boys were registered, with the winner of the Brittingham Park tournament going on to the district tournament. Among those 43 were Sam Cerro, who hoped to take down the previous year champion, Tony Prestigiacomo.

September 1948: Frank Mendiola, 25, was arrested for carrying concealed weapons. The California man was recently in Madison, where he stole two pistols from his Army buddy Sam Cerro (921 Milton). While Mendiola caused no real trouble, he did scare some people with the guns while riding in a taxi. He later tried to sell the guns to the Knotty Pine liquor store. Brought before Judge Roy H. Proctor, he said, “I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been drunk.”

November 5, 1949: Sam Cerro married Priscilla Ann Jindra at St. Raphael’s Cathedral, with Father William Mahoney officiating. Priscilla’s parents, Mr. And Mrs. Clarence Jindra of Two Rivers, were deceased, so she was given away by her uncle, Melvin Allen of Manitowoc. Mrs. Charles Kopp, Priscilla’s cousin, was maid of honor. John Cerro, Sam’s brother, was best man. The usher was Joseph Castagna of Madison. Following a reception at Hawkes Bar for 150 guests, the couple went on a honeymoon through northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. They were to make their home at 121 South Webster Street.

May 21, 1953: Domenica Geloso Cerro died at a Madison hospital, age 68.

December 1956: Sam Cerro was brought to court for not paying child support. He was ordered to start paying $10 each week.

December 20, 1959: Darrell E. Swetmore entered the Dane Chemical Company (1101 Williamson), co-owned by Sam Cerro, and threatened Cerro with a gun. Cerro owed Swetmore money for an electric floor scrubber. Cerro called the police and Swetmore was given a year of probation for carrying a concealed weapon by Judge Roy Proctor.

November 1962: A case against Dr. Albert F. Ottow of Beloit for criminal abortion is dropped when the star witness, Beverly Jean Merrill, goes missing from a state institution. Sam Cerro was working with Ottow at the time.

July 26, 1963: Following the complaints of three women (Beverly Claire Tuggle, Delma Hammond and LeRita Long), Dr. Albert F. Ottow and Sam Cerro were arrested for criminal abortion. Cerro was alleged to bring the women from Madison to Ottow’s Beloit office. Ottow was released on $30,000 bond. A rumor was circulating that an abortion “ring” was operating in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, but DA William Donovan said he had no evidence of that, saying, “We are concerned here only with the three charges.”

August 27, 1963: Ottow collpased in court during his preliminary hearing. Tests showed he had suffered a heart attack. After brief delays, the hearing continued and charges went forward.

September 1964: Cerro’s attorney, Jack McManus of Madison, was dismissed by the court when Cerro was found to be indigent. In his place, they appointed George Stell of Janesville.

September 14, 1964: Ottow filed a motion asking that his trial be separated from that of Sam Cerro. In an affidavit, Ottow claimed that Cerro and another man, both members of the Mafia, came to his office and demanded Ottow pay $5,000 to Cerro’s attorney. DA William Donovan opposed the motion, and Judge Mark Farnum denied it.

October 5, 1964: The trial was set to start, but Ottow did not show up in court, claiming to be ill. Judge Farnum dismissed the jurors for the day, and sent Dr. Robert Chancey of Beloit to go check on Ottow and see if he was fit to stand trial. In fact, Ottow was in Mercy Hospital suffering from a “cardiac deficiency.” On October 8, Judge Farnum granted Ottow’s previous wish: his trial would be separated from that of Cerro. Cerro, who was in court at the time, “flared up” at this change. He insisted it was better for him to go on trial with Ottow, as he needed Ottow’s medical knowledge for his defense. DA Donovan also mentioned Cerro might be tied to a second abortion doctor in Milwaukee, which angered Cerro.

March 2, 1965: Sam Cerro changed his plea to guilty and on March 15 was sentenced to three years in prison for aiding and abetting abortion. 16 letters were sent to the judge on Cerro’s behalf, and three witnesses testified to his good character: social worker Anthony Tartamella, Gary Messner of Messner Inc, and attorney Robert Klabacka. Judge Farnum was not swayed.

December 13, 1965: Ottow’s trial was postponed yet again because he was admitted to the hospital. Judge Gary Sclosstein ordered the trial to begin 24 hours after Ottow was released.

February 4, 1966: Ottow’s case dragged on, now before its fourth judge, Richard W. Orton. The case had been delayed so long that William Donovan, former district attorney, was now a special prosecutor – he was no longer with the office, but had been attached to the case when he was two years prior. Defense attorney Darrell MacIntyre filed a motion to dismiss, noting a recent Supreme Court case said that a criminal warrant must be signed by a magistrate rather than a district attorney. Orton denied this motion, pointing out two years’ worth of documentation that Ottow had repeatedly submitted to the authority of the court, never questioning the legitimacy of the warrant. The warrant was handled properly at the time, and only recently did the Supreme Court change the rules, which was not to handled retroactively.

February 8, 1966: MacIntyre filed a motion asking Judge Orton to disqualify himself. At the February 4 hearing, the judge said that “the doctor goes to the hospital when the chips are down and pops out when the heat is off.” MacIntyre said the statement “makes the defendant’s illness a fabrication and causes the defendant to be held in ridicule and contempt in his community and before his peers… (the statement) is prejudical to the defendant and is uncalled for, unwarranted and contrary to the Canons of Judicial Ethics.” The motion was denied.

February 16, 1966: The trial began and the first witness was Mrs. Beverly Tuggle, 30, who was clearly reluctant to talk. She told how in the fall of 1962, she joined Sam Cerro and a Madison couple to Beloit. There she underwent a 10-minute examination by Dr. Ottow.

February 17, 1966: Ivan Fry testified that Marion Roberts, the president of Foamulum Corporation and his former employer, lent him money in September 1962 so that he could arrange an abortion for a friend of his, a 30-year old divorced woman. (The woman’s name was not published by the newspaper but did come up at trial.)

February 18, 1966: LaVerne Stordock, an investigator for the attorney general, testified that they submitted a subpoena to get Delma Hammond, a former General Services Administration employee, to testify. However, she had moved to San Francisco and refused to cooperate. The state of California declined to honor the subpoena. Judge Richard Orton said he would consider allowing her testimony during the preliminary hearing to be entered into trial. He soon decided he would read it into the cort record himself.

A divorced woman (not identified in Madison papers, but presumably LeRita Long) testified how she met Nicolo Safina at Troia’s Bar in August 1962. Safina was then the owner of the Italian Village, and the woman was soon hired. Not long after the hiring, Safina and the woman began an ongoing affair and the woman became pregant. Safina was married and told the woman an abortion was the only alternative because otherwise he would have to get a divorce. The woman agreed, and on the day of the abortion (February 4, 1963), Safina drove her to Sam Cerro’s place of business, Dane Chemical Company on Williamson Street. The woman was upset because she was “scared to death” of Cerro and expected Safina to take her. Instead, Cerro and another man drove her to Beloit, where Dr. Ottow gave her a shot in the arm and performed a procedure she described as more painful than childbirth. She was given two bottles of pills to help with pain and bleeding. Despite this experience, she continued her affair with Safina through May.

Also on the stand that day was Nicolo Safina himself. He first declined to answer, but was tehn granted immunity. He recalled how at some point in 1962 he was brought a check by Sam Cerro and Ivan Fry they wanted cashed. He refused, because the name on the $700 check was Marion Roberts. Cerro then offered him $15 and Safina agreed, cashing the check and giving Cerro and Fry $685. The canceled check was on exhibit in court. Safina confirmed what the divorced woman said, that he pushed for the abortion to save his marriage and business. From the Roberts check, he knew Cerro could get an abotion for $700, but actually only paid $400; Safina said he got a good rate because he and Cerro conducted business together.

February 21, 1966: Attorney General LeRoy Dalton revealed that the abortion investigation had actually been started by a tip from Marion Roberts. Up to this point, Roberts did not want his name made public, but after tesimony mentioned his role, he decided it was best to go public. Roberts had told Dalton everything back in 1962, under the condition he would be treated as a confidential informant.

February 23, 1966: Cerro was brought to Rock County from the Oregon state prison farm to testify. According to Cerro, he collected $700 from two different women and a lesser amount from a third, and turned every dollar over to Ottow. He further claimed that he was in the room while Ottow performed the abortions, and Cerro “comforted” the women. Cerro was asked about any interaction he had with Marion Roberts. According to Cerro, on one occasion he was called by Ivan Fry, and Fry said, “I want you to speak with my boss.” He then handed the phone to Roberts, who asked how much an abortion would cost. When Cerro said the price was $700, Roberts told him he could get the job done cheaper elsewhere, possibly as low as $400. Cerro told the court that, in fact, he himself had heard that prices were lower in Fort Atkinson. Roberts did, however, lend $700 to Fry to get an abortion for a friend of Fry’s wife, and this was the check cashed by Safina. When asked if he brought a “tough looking man” with him to threaten Ottow and get $5,000, Cerro said he had asked the doctor to borrow $5,000 from an insurance policy to help pay legal fees. He did not answer the question directly. Cerro even read from a notebook on the stand that he kept to help answer questions; he said women would ask him as many as 75 questions about what to do before, during and after their procedures.

Though Della Mae Hammond refused to return to Wisconsin to testify, the court worked around that on February 23. Dr. William Hobbins confirmed that he found her to be pregnant on August 28, 1962. A handwriting expert confirmed that Hammond’s writing was on a money order she took out from the university credit union to pay Cerro. And her earlier testimony was allowed to be read int othe record, including the alleged name of the father-to-be, John Howley.

February 24, 1966: The trial shifted from the prosecution to the defense. Right off the bat, two Madison police officers were called: Stanley Davenport and Kenneth Kahlhagen. They testified that Cerro had a “poor” reputation, but were blocked by the judge from answering if Cerro had threatened any of the witnesses. The court was actively trying to get Marion Roberts to appear, but every time they stopped at his home his wife said he was out.

Already by the morning of February 25, the closing arguments were made and the jury was sent out. Ottow declined to testify on his own behalf. The defense came down hard on Cerro’s testimony, saying he “may or may not” be in the Mafia, and was “ignorant” and “illiterate.” Attorney MacIntyre said Cerro’s high school had to “graduate him or make him the janitor.” After six hours of deliberations, the jury (8 men and 4 women) found Ottow guilty on all three counts.

On March 4, Judge Orton handed down his sentence: fines and court costs of $18,000, and three years of probation. Ottow would serve no time in prison. A week later, Ottow had paid $10,000 of the total.

As near as can be determined, Cerro served his time quietly and upon release was under the radar, at least for a few years. However, Marion Roberts again came to the attention of the law in late 1971. He was accused of owing $64,000 in taxes in a single year, and pleaded guilty. The judge handed him a three-year term and branded him a “confidence man” in open court. Roberts was given 30 days to get his affairs in order and was then expected to turn himself over to the US Marshal. Before the 30-day mark, the sentence was temporaily stayed as letters began pouring in from witnesses now reversing their previous testimony. The judge was suspicious, saying that Roberts appeared to be continuing his “pattern of fraud.” His secretary had previously testified he had literally cut and pasted invoices from other firms to alter them, but now said he was a man of the utmost integrity. The sentence was reduced to two years, and then again delayed as Roberts appealed. Roberts finally went to prison March 20, 1972 – only to be paroled nine months later.

Exactly when Sam Cerro entered the massage parlor business is not known, but it was apparently around 1974-1975.

Madison’s massage parlors operated away from public scrutiny until around November 1974. At this time, Jerome R. Mathias, who owned Jan’s Health Studio in the Brookwood Shopping Center, was looking to expand to Milwaukee. He had also owned parlors in Racine and St. Louis at one time, but Milwaukee, unlike Madison, fought back. Mathias was renting space from Milwaukee council president Robert Ertl, which greatly upset alderman Cynthia Kukor. She had pressed for a police investigation after getting a secretly-recorded tape fro ma woman who applied at the new, potential parlor. The tape was of the job interview and made clear that she was to massage people while fully nude, and if the clients were fully nude, she was to massage them completely. During the interview, the woman was also asked to disrobe – her hiring being based in part on her nude appearance. Mathias did not dispute any of this, but said there was a difference between nudity and sex, and his business was not a form of prostitution.

In the first week of December 1974, the pressure on Mathias increased when reporters found records in St. Louis. Although Mathias had sold his business there (actually in the suburb of Cool Valley), he did not leave before being extorted by a local police officer. During the federal trial of Officer William D. Merry (who ended up getting 10 years), Mathias’ manager Carol Sue Johnson testified that Mathias allowed prostitution and offered to pay for any legal expenses. (Mathias denied this and said any woman with a record of prostitution would be fired.) Days later, Alderman Ertl broke his lease with Mathias and reimbursed him $15,400 for building improvements Mathias had made.

Rev. Richard Pritchard took up the call of the anti-massage movement and in January 1975 organized a petition to get vice out of Madison. On January 21, Pritchard dropped off 11,258 signatures from people who opposed the city’s massage parlors and asked that the city specifically ban “sexual massages.” The law required that if they could achieve 8,000 signatures, the common council would have to either act directly or add the issue to the ballot for a public referendum. With only one alderman, Ivan Imm, in full support of a ban, they chose the latter.

Pritchard had been an influential force at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, credited with building it from 200 to 1,600 members. During the 1960s, he became active in the civil rights movement, venturing to the South on occasion. This sparked a schism in his church, though in September 1967, an internal vote was 2-1 for him to stay on as the pastor. The church was mainly upper-middle class and an anonymous man said Pritchard was disliekd because he “loves Negroes.” Pritchard himself said as a Christian he had to be in favor of civil rights, asking “how can we rest until every last person is free and has an equal chance?” The divide became untenable and in March 1968, Pritchard was voted out. A fair number of members resigned in protest and under Pritchard’s guidance organized the more progressive Heritage Congregational Christian Church. During the 1975 anti-massage push, Pritchard found himself a target; one phone caller even threatened, “get off the massage parlor kick or I’ll blow your wife’s legs off.”

Now two resolutions were on the April ballot. A great deal of funds were raised on both sides of the issue. Not surprisingly, the anti-massage group was largely funded by Christian organizations. The pro-massage group was a who’s who of the massage parlor business: Raymond Halsey (Cheri’s Bath and Massage), Jerome Mathias (Jan’s Health Studio), Lavern H. Hahn (Rising Sun) and Adele Schultz (Geisha House). Oddly, the largest pro-massage donor was Robert Ribble, a postal employee.

Sam Cerro co-owned the Geisha House with Adele Schultz. Cerro may not have been the one with the longest criminal record, however. Lavern Hahn had a track record going back many years, with a variety of felonies related to bookmaking, distributing pornographic films and soliciting prostitution. Hahn had once indirectly caused some embarassment to the local police department when it was learned that officers were taking home films they confiscated from Hahn to have their own private screenings – and on at least one occasion, a film was shown for fun inside the police station.

On April 1, 1975, the voters in Madison passed two resolutions: massage parlors must be licensed, and the parlors may not offer “sexual massages.” The rules were to go into effect two weeks later, on April 15. Jan’s Health Studio, through attorney Robert Brill, immediately sued the city calling its anti-parlor ordinance unconstitutional. Brill made a number of points, including that the new ordinance was geared more towards “suppression” of a legal business rather than merely “regulation.” The lawsuit went to federal judge James E. Doyle.

On April 15, two “outcall” parlors closed, Magic Fingers and Exotic Massages. Remember Us remained open, either defying the law or under the impression their massages were not sexual. Parlors that closed were the Geisha House (3157 East Washington), operated by Cerro and Adele Schultz; Rising Sun (117 West Main) and Genie’s Magic Touch (103 North Hamilton), both run by William Grover Garrott; Jan’s Health Studio (1320 South Midvale), co-owned by Garrott and Jerome Mathias; Cheri’s Bath (111 East Main); This is Heaven (117 East Main), run by Janice Kutil; Marge’s Whispering Winds (347 State), owner unknown. Genie’s Magic Touch had been vandalized days before closing, with graffiti reading “Pigs” and “Get Out of Town.” Schultz told the press that the Geisha House served customers coffee who arrived after the ordinance went into effect, but all the massage girls had gone home.

Two days after the ban, the massage parlors switched gears and began to offer “nude oriental wrestling,” nude dancing and nude body painting. Deputy City Attorney Larry O’Brien was skeptical that these new activities obeyed the law any more than the previous activities. “We’ll let the massage parlot operators play their word games until we find out what’s happening in their places,” he said. A hearing was set for April 29 to discuss the four massage parlors that remained open: Geisha House, Rising Sun, Jan’s Health Studio and Genie’s Magic Touch.

Jerome Mathias spoke with the press and said, “For me, it’s a blessing in disguise financially. We’re making more money than ever.” By offering “sexual consulting” rather than “massages,” the businesses (in theory) were no longer bound by massage parlor laws. Mathias said that maybe body painting “is going maybe a little too far, but this is what Rev. Pritchard has forced us into. This town is really going to get raunchy.” Mathias said if the city tried to shut him down, he would just switch to one of twelve other ideas and tie up the courts for the next five years.

At the April 29 hearing, Sam Cerro presented his case to the Madison City Council. He said they could “come over any time.” He explained, “You come in for a body massage, you’re going to get a complete body massage. We massage every itsy-bitsy part.” He acknowledged that previously the parlot offered “genital massages” but would cease to do so if granted a license. Rev. Richard Pritchard spoke out against vice, and alderman Anthony “Nino” Amato (the city’s most sonservative alderman) had some concerns. Oddly, Cerro was the only parlor operator who showed up to present his case. It was brought to his attention that parlor owners must have a clean criminal record for three years; Cerro said he had no record in the past three years (which was true).

The parlors carried on as the legal challenge remained in the courts. By August 1975, masseuse Barbara Hoffman signed on with Garrott and Mathias, saying the ban would affect her livelihood. The city repeatedly asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, saying that “commercial masturbation” was not protected by the Constitution. Judge Doyle said while this may be true, the legal issues raised were not “unsubstantial” or “frivolous” and deserved attention. This may be the first time Hoffman’s name was in the newspapers; in a few years, she would be notorious.

On August 21, the parlors were raided and the owners were ordered to appear in court September 2. Named in the orders were Adele Schultz (Geisha House), William Garrott (Jan’s Health Studio), Ray Halsey (Cheri’s Bath) and Janice Kutil (This is Heaven). Cerro was not named, perhaps because the license was in Schultz’s name. At the September 2 initial appearance, an unidentified police informant said he went to each of the city’s six parlors and paid for “the most extensive sexual massage” at each one. All six gave him a massage that would be considered prostitution.

(I do not have any articles between September 1975 and August 1977, so how these cases developed is currently unclear.)

As the sun rose August 31, 1977, Sam Cerro was in an East Washington motel with restaurant supplier Stephen Michael Issod and Ben Joseph Ciulla, an employee of Cheri’s Bath. The three men had $76,000 and had just agreed to purchase five kilograms of coaine… when they found out the seller was an undercover agent. According to the complaint, Ciulla waited in the car and Issod dealt with the agent directly, referring to Cerro as his “Italian Money Machine.” Cerro told the agent they wanted a reliable source, and said he was recently in Florida and had to wait there 8 or 10 days for his supplier to come through. Ironically, on a previous occasion, they had sold the agent Quaaludes to prove that they (Issod and Cerro) were not undercover cops.

All three were jailed, but Cerro was released when Adele Schultz brought $10,000 in small bills to the jail. She told the people there she was Cerro’s sister. The Geisha House and Issod’s apartment were raided, which lead to the discovery of more cocaine and “commercial gambling equipment.” Attorney James Ewers was also arrested briefly when he tried to stop police from entering the Geisha House. The officers held him for obstruction of justice, but he was released almost immediately without being photographed or fingerprinted.

On March 2, 1978, Dane County launched two John Doe probes – one into massage parlors and the other into drugs. Both of these secret probes were started based on information gathered at another John Doe probe on gambling, which had yet to go public.

April 21, 1978: Stephen Issod was sentenced to three years in state prison for his role in the cocaine conspiracy. This was to follow 27 months in a federal prison on unrelated charges. Issod addressed the court, and said that while he had no excuse for his behavior, he wanted to clarify that he saw himself not as a criminal but a person with a disease. He was addicted to cocaine and this caused his behavior. The judge found this explanation a bit strange, as he wasn’t caught buying cocaine for himself but rather to sell.

On April 28, 1978, ten people were charged with commercial gambling, stemming from a John Doe probe following Sam Cerro’s cocaine arrest. Cerro was hit the hardest – he had 55 gambling charges against him, in a complaint that ran 21 pages long. Many people testified that they placed bets on horses and football with Cerro at the Geisha House, usually using code names. The names wrre not always very clever; Homer Middleton was in the records as “Used Car Homer.” The other people arrested were: parlor owner Lavern Hahn, Thomas Teasdale, Richard Stenlund, Anthony Lapetina, John Nelson Gaulke, commodity broker Thomas Wittmayer, Walter Dugan, Patrick Cantwell and Adele Schultz.

On May 4, Yvette Corrigan, 26, was released from Dane County jail and ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation. She had been sent to jail for contempt of court – the Geisha House employee refused to testify at the John Doe probe even after being granted immunity. While in jail, she threatened to kill herself, saying, “I’m just going to lose my mind. I can’t cope with that kind of confinement.” In her writ for release, Corrigan said she had twice attempted suicide in the past, and had six abortions in the last six years. Following her exam – where she was deemed rational – Corrigan was ordered back to jail, but her attorney (Jack McManus) appealed, arguing that his client had fewer rights than the criminals on trial. A hearing was scheduled for June 1. The contempt charge was thrown out on October 19, when it was ruled that her testimony was no longer needed because charges had been filed against their intended target, John Gaurke.

On July 25, 1978, the newspapers reported a rumor that Sam Cerro was offering information on the murder of Gerald Davies in exchange for a light sentence. Cerro’s attorney, Donald Eisenberg, said he knew nothing about any such offer. In fact, the rumor was true and would eventually be revealed to the public in December. Barbara Hoffman, a masseuse for Jan’s Health Studio, was accused of poisoning Davies and Gerald Berge for their insurance money. Cerro would convince his friend, William Garrott, to testify against Hoffman if authorities would go light on Cerro. They agreed. (At trial, Garrott was accused of having a personal dislike of Hoffman because she tried to buy Visions burlesque house and he wanted it. Visions, which Garrott bought into in 1976, will be discussed in a different article. For more on Hoffman, readers are strongly encouraged to pick up “Winter of Frozen Dreams.”)

Cerro’s cocaine case not only turned into a gambling probe, but also lead to him having tax problems. The IRS said he owed them $136,000. On August 8, 1978, William Garrott and Lavern Hahn sued in federal court, trying to reclaim money they said Cerro owed them. Of the $72,000 he paid the undercover agent, Hahn and Garrott said $52,000 was theirs. Their claim was that the three were going to go into a new business together, but it fell through, and Cerro was told to keep the money “in trust” until a new opportunity arose.

In April 1979, investigators spoke publicly about the John Doe probe into massage parlors. While the testimony was secret, it was revealed that the biggest hurdle was determining ownership, because the businesses all had layers of corporate records. Only This is Heaven was clearly owned by one person, Janice Kutil, with Cynthia Kutil, Joseph Kutil and Joretta Kutil serving as officers. The other parlors were a complicated web where the same names kept surfacing: William Garrott, Adele Schultz, Sam Cerro, Lavern Hahn, and Jerome Mathias. Two new names were on the list: Richard R. Busse and Richard H. Fredrickson. Mathias told the newspapers he was not in the business and sold his interest to Garrott.

Busse, aside from an apparent interest in the parlors, had a history of cocaine possession (which seems to be a running theme with parlor owners). On one occasion Busse told a narcotics officer that he would “knock him on his ass” if the police continued to harrass him.

April 30, 1979: Cerro was given three months in jail and two years probation on the cocaine and commercial gambling charges. This sparked an appeal from Stephen Issod, who felt it was unfair that he serve three years in prison when Cerro would get three months for the same offense.

By total coincidence, the night before Cerro’s sentence, Lavern Hahn was arrested for delivering narcotics and having a concealed weapon. Already faces gambling charges, Hahn was set free from jail by his attorney Charles Giesen furnishing the $10,000 bond. That morning, police caught a Madison restaurant employee in possession of amphetamines. When asked his source, he freely told them it was “Vern” and brought the police to Hahn in a parking lot. When arrested, Hahn had cocaine, amphetamines, a loaded Smith and Wesson, a 9-inch knife and a canister of tear gas.

Richard Busse went from being a name on a list to his own headline in March 1980, when his business, Health Consulting Services (1103 Regent Street), was targeted by the police. Although Busse claimed his business offered “professional services” and counseling for sexual issues, it appeared to be little more than another massage parlor. An undercover officer received a “sexual massage” that lasted an hour and cost $75; afterwards the masseuse said for an extra $100 he could have “anything he wanted.” The masseuse (unnamed in the newspaper) was arrested on the spot for prostitution. Attorney Donald Eisenberg, representing Busse, characterized the masseuse as a rogue actor. The city ordered Busse not to “offer sex for sale,” but the business remained open under the pretense that they were doing no such thing in the first place. On April 3, the city successfully ordered the business closed, arguing the proper permits were never issued.

March 12, 1980: Bryon Hahn, son of Lavern Hahn, filed paperwork to open the Shady Lady bath house at 3226 Commercial Avenue, a few blocks from the other east side parlors, Geisha House and Charlotte’s Web. The property was owned by Gordon King, who also owned the adjoining Fairview Motel. Bernard Reilly, in charge of city zoning, suspected it was another brothel, saying, “I can’t imagine anyone paying money just to go there and take a shower.” Attorney David Schwartz, who handled the paperwork for Hahn, said he was not told by his client what sort of business would be conducted. Schwartz worked at the same law firm as Donald Eisenberg, Charles Giesen and Ewers, the firm often used by Cerro and other parlor owners. By mid-April, the business was open, despite not being granted the proper permits.

December 8, 1980: police raided the Geisha House and found stolen property (mostly clothing and jewelry, but also power tools) and other questionable articles. One thing was a .45 automatic pistol, which was a violation of Cerro’s probation. Oddly, the raid was based on the word of three informants who said Cerro was dealing in cocaine, marijuana, Quaaludes and Valium – but no drugs were found. One informant even claimed to have spent three months, eight hours each day, cutting and diluting cocaine for Cerro. Another raid happened at the home of Cerro’s daughter Cathleen, where the police found a “cocaine spoon” and “hash pipe” but no actual drugs. Cerro was sent back to jail and faced revocation. His attorney, Bruce Rosen, said the gun was not Cerro’s. Though, if he was fencing stolen goods, that was the least of his worries.

February 4, 1981: Cerro was released from jail pending the outcome of his revocation hearing. He was ordered to live with his brother John and have no contact with massage parlors or their owners.

May 12, 1981: Brothers Mark and Bruce Larkin were caught in the act of burglary when a Maple Bluff woman returned home to see their van in her driveway and a broken window. When Mark’s home was searched, police found $40,000 worth of sterling silver, plus jewelry, movie cameras, Persian rugs and other items. It was determined that they found a way to trace license plates and would go to the home addresses of expensive cars during the day, assuming the homeowner would not be there if the car was away. The van made them look like they were doing work. When questioned, the men said they had been fencing their goods through Sam Cerro. Mark Larkin, after all was said and done, ended up serving 12 years for 40-50 Madison-area burglaries. He was only on trial for four but admitted many more, leading the judge to call him a “one-man crime wave.”

May 19, 1982: Cerro was convicted of receiving stolen property (fencing), and was sentenced to five years in state prison. He also had his probation on the gambling charge revoked (though that sentence was to run concurrently). Among other things, he was accused of threatening witnesses and buying a stolen ring from burglar Mark Larkin. Convicted felon Larkin testified against Cerro, saying an $800 cocktail ring he stole in DeForest in November 1980 was the same one found in Cerro’s possession a month later. Larkin also said he negotiated with Cerro through his sister Sadie to change his story in court if Cerro would pay $10,000. Sadie, meanwhile, testified that no such discussion ever happened. Habitual criminal Dino Corti testified that Cerro offered to sell him the ring in question, so even if the bribe conversation never happened, the ring did manage to get from Larkin to Cerro. (More on Dino Corti will appear in another article… he later finds himself mixed up in two different murder trials!)

Karen Pope offered a story to provide Cerro an alibi; Pope, a masseuse for the Geisha House and simultanously the owner of the Tiffany Flower Shop, said Larkin offered to trade the ring for a nude body massage. She accepted, but then decided she couldn’t keep the ring because it would upset her boyfriend – who did not even know she moonlighted as a nude masseuse. She allegedly hid the ring in the mssage parlor and Cerro must have found it. Pope acknowledged she had multiple boyfriends, including Gregory Cerro – her employer’s son.

September 1982: Robert A. Lowery faced charges of delivering cocaine. Lowery was a Dane County deputy sheriff, but more to the point of this article, he was a close, personal friend of William Garrott and had been involved in the Barbara Hoffman investigation. Lowery was using Cindy Starkey as his delivery person for the cocaine; when police raided his rural home, they also found 34 pit bulls that were being trained for dog fighting. Lowery, needless to say, was fired. (Not long after his arrest, he was re-arrested for carrying a concealed weapon – a .38 revolver fell out of his pocket while perusing pornographic magazines at Red Letter News – a business that will be covered in its own article.)

October 1982: Attorney Donald Eisenberg faced ethics charges from the state bar. In the simplest terms, Eisenberg was accused of representing Sam Cerro and Barbara Hoffman at the same time (which was true). Eisenberg’s law partner Charles Giesen also represented William Garrott, which was not quite a conflict, but not ideal. Because Eisenberg knew that Cerro had offered to get testimony against Hoffman, it was improper to have both as clients – helping Cerro would (and did) hurt Hoffman.

January 1983: Robert Lowery and accomplice Paul Sofiakis pleaded no contest to dog fighting and were each given six months in jail, as well as ordered to make a donation to the humane society. Lowery also received six months for his cocaine charge, plus an additional three years of probation. (Sokiakis appealed the sentence, with the aid of Milwaukee attorney Dominic Frinzi, arguing the jail term would hurt his chances of making up with his estranged wife. The judge was not sympathetic.)

May 10, 1983: Robert Lowery was granted immunity when called before a grand jury investigating Madison-area massage parlors. It was revealed that Lowery was not only a good friend of William Garrott, as had been known for years, but that he even lived at Garrott’s house for a while when he (Lowery) was still a sheriff’s deputy. Some court spectators expressed concern that Lowery was represented at the hearing by attorney James Ewers, a law partner of Charles Giesen. They said Giesen was expected to testify at some point, given his past financial connection to Garrott.

June 9, 1983: Cerro was brought before the grand jury investigating Madison massage parlors, but took the Fifth Amendment and refused to say anything. He also said he would not turn over any business records. His attorney, Bruce Rosen, said that Cerro was in prison and therefore has no records – other than a Buddy Holly LP.

June-July 1983: Eisenberg goes through his hearing and Cerro is called to testify. Cerro claimed that he directly asked Eisenberg if there was a conflict of interest, and Eisenberg told him “there is no conflict.” District attorney James Doyle said the deal with Cerro was being negotiated as early as January 1978. (As noted above, Eisenberg told the press in July 1978 that he knew of no such offer – which was revealed at this hearing to be false.) The court found that Eisenberg violated ethical principles and suspended his law license for six months. He was rejected for reinstatemnt twice when it was found he had been offering legal advice to people without a license.

November 12, 1983: While at a gas station, disgraced Dane County deputy Robert Lowery saw Charles DiMaggio. He went over, punched DiMaggio in the jaw, and called him a “snitch.” Another man had to pull Lowery off of DiMaggio. At the time, drug dealer Herbert Herro was on trial for the murder of Robert Nelson, and DiMaggio was expected to be a witness. In the criminal complaint of Lowery’s battery, it was said he was a personal friend of Herro and had visited him numerous times in jail since his arrest.

March 1984: Following the suspension of Donald Eisenberg, Cerro appealed his gambling conviction, arguing he did not have adequate counsel. On August 3, this appeal was rejected.

July 1984: Cerro was charged with providing cocaine to other massage parlor operators between March 1977 and December 1980, in the agreement that he would get half of the drug sales.

December 18, 1984: Gregory Cerro, Sam’s son, was arrested for operating a house of prostitution (Geisha House). Undercover police officers applied to work as masseuses and were told that full body massages were expected to end with “a sexual act.”

January 7, 1985: Sam Cerro was sentenced to 45 years in prison on drug conspiracy charges by Judge John Shabaz, and also handed out a $15,000 fine. He was sentenced to a concurrent sentence for tax evasion. He served his time at the Oxford Federal Penitentiary.

September 29, 1986: Almost two years after his arrest, Gregory Cerro pleaded no contest to aiding and abetting prostitution. He was fined $2,380, put on three years of probation, and ordered to have no employment at any massage parlors.

November 23, 1986: Lavern Hahn died at a Madison hospital, aged only 51.

After a July indictment, William Garrott and attorney Charles Giesen went on trial in December 1986 for tax violations. They were accused of owning land and then artificially inflating the value when leasing to corporations that owned massage parlors. The scheme is a bit complicated, but it appears they were paying high rent to each other for the purposes of writing it off on taxes (or more likely not paying as much as they claimed). They were acquitted in January.

January 1987: The Shady Lady finally had its day in court for operating without the proper permits. Attorney David Mandell, representing the corporation, at first did not want to name the manager, but when pressed said he was hired by Thomas Garrott. Thomas Garrott was the brother of the more notorious William Garrott. The records of the corporation named Thomas Garrott, Bryon Hahn and a new name… business agent Charles Neider. The city informed them that the fine for operating without a permit is $200 a day, and they had therefore racked up $440,000 in fines so far. But with the owner being “3226 Corporation,” it was hard to tell who should be fined.

 

February 12, 1987: (Former) attorney Donald Eisenberg was indicted for tax violations. Specifically, he had helped drug dealer Howard Lee Ratzlaff conceal $124,000 in cash by funneling it through trust funds. Ratzlaff also happened to be the owner of Paradise Records on State Street. On one occasion, police raided Ratzlaff’s home and found 384 pounds of marijuana. The newspapers noted that this was likely to hurt Eisenberg’s chances of reinstatement.

February 24, 1987: Michelle Gibellina, the daughter of Sam Cerro, and her husband Charles Gibellina, were arrested on a warrant charging them with fraud in Schiller Park, Illinois. Specifically, they were said to $3,400 for their wedding reception. The charges were dropped in March.

December 3, 1987: Police – undercover as a “bachelor party” — raided the Shady Lady following a tip from a man they called “F.S.” who had purchased sex there on three occasions. Bryon Hahn, the manager on duty, was charged with keeping a house of prostitution. Kathleen Price, Lora Gibney and Lola Brown were each arrested for prostitution. Brown was also in possession of LSD. Business records, cash and receipts were also confiscated. The women were released, and Hahn posted $10,000 bond.

January 4, 1988: Bryon Hahn had his preliminary hearing, where defense attorney David Mandell argued that Hahn could not be the “keeper” of a house of prostitution, despite being the manager, because he was not the owner and had no say over the hiring and firing of employees. He was no more a keeper than any of the women. The judge was not entirely convinced and bound Hahn over for trial.

February 16, 1988: Police raided Sheer Elegance (850 East Broadway), a lingerir store with “live models” owned by Sam Cerro’s son-in-law, Charles Gibellina. Gibellina was arrested for operating a house of prostitution, Barbara Shifrin and Jill Bansemer were arrested for prostitution, and David Capps was arrested for outstanding drug warrants in California. Condoms and guns were found in the building, and police had testimony of people who Gibellina had talked to about his “whorehouse,” including a Menards employee who helped pick out lumber for remodeling. Representing Gibellina was Morris Berman, a law partner of Charles Giesen.

May 1988: The city, unable to find the “real” owner of Shady Lady to fine them, instead ordered a permanent injunction to have them closed. Shortly after this, 3226 Corporation sold the business to CMR Limited, owned by Charles and Michelle Gibellina. They, in turn, leased the property to MISSISH Limited, owned by Sam Cerro’s ex-wife Adele Schultz and her son Douglas Schultz. When questioned by the city, Charles Gibellina said that William Garrott is the one he paid $91,000 for the property.

December 14, 1988: Lora Gibney, arrested a year prior at the Shady Lady, was acquitted of prostitution charges after the jury deliberated six hours. The evidence was overwhelming, but the defense’s push was on “where there’s smoke there is not always fire” worked. The other two women pleased guilty rather than go to trial and ended up with 10-day jail sentences.

January 9, 1989: The city ordered the Shady Lady closed again. Would they be more successful this time than the eight years it took before?

March 13, 1989: Charles and Michelle Gabellina, along with their employee Tammy Franklin, broke into the apartment of Joyce Wynn, another employee, and beat her with fists and an aluminum baseball bat. Wynn’s roommate, Judy Griffin, received a black eye in the scuffle. The victim said she was targeted because she would not be Gibellina’s “girl” and she was suspected of becoming pregnant by a black man, which angered Gibellina. When released on bond the next day, Gibellina called the victim repeatedly threatened to bomb her apartment. He was immediately re-arrested. Gibellina swore no threats were made and that the phone call was about the victim wanting to be paid in cash to avoid Social Security payments. Authorities did not buy this story.

March 27, 1989: While drunk, Joyce Wynn drove to the Shady Lady and used her vehicle to cause damage to the parking lot and screamed in the windows while flashing her headlights. When police arrived, she was arrested and taken to a detox facility.

April 24, 1989: Charles and Michelle Gibellina came to an agreement with Dane County prosecutors. In exchange for leaving the county, they would be sentenced to only five years of probation on outstanding charges and all civil suits would be dropped. They were further ordered to have no financial interest in massage parlors, and to have no contact with any of 14 people who had been witnesses against them in the past.

August 15, 1989: After two years since his arrest, Bryon Hahn was sentenced to two years of probation for keeping a disorderly house and further ordered to perform 80 hours of comunity service.

July 24, 1990: Gregory Cerro and Kathy Price were charged with a forgery scheme. Cerro was cashing forged checks from Shotz Distributors in Milwaukee, and also cashed a Veterans Administration check he stole from a guest at the Fairview Motel. The key witness was Roger Williams, a man who met Sam Cerro in prison and was told to go work for Sam’s son Gregory upon his release in February 1989. Williams took up residence at the Fairview Motel, managed by Gregory, and helped operate the Shady Lady until it was shut down by the city – revealing that Sam Cerro, even from prison, was calling the shots at the massage parlor. Some of the money from the forged checks was used to rent cars, including one given to Jeffrey DeMars, who used it to burglarize a place in Fond du Lac. Willaims had also recently testified during the David Mattison murder trial – a busy man.

April 1992: In an effort to collect over $200,000 in back taxes, the IRS requested permission to strip the Geisha House of its furnishings, despite their belief everything in the building would only add up to $20,000. Permission was granted and on April 16, agents rolled up with two moving vans and loaded them full of couches, chairs, massage tables, lingerie and anything else that wasn’t nailed down. Schultz told the press this all could have been settled if the IRS was reasonable – she was okay with paying $100,000, but thought the $200,000 was unfair.

December 8, 1993: Cerro was released from prison after 8 years of his 45 year sentence.

April 1994: Attorney James J. Ewers, Cerro’s attorney in 1985, was facing his own drug charges for old actions that finally caught up with him. From April to November, 1989, attorney Ewers used his law offices to distribute cocaine. He bought the cocaine from Rodney Rhodes and Ira Williams, beginning with one and two ounce purchases and moving up to buying as much as 1.5 kilograms at a time. In fact, Ewers began using cocaine in 1985 or 1986 and used it hundreds of times thereafter. He underwent treatment for cocaine abuse in the spring of 1987 but resumed using cocaine. Ewers began using crack cocaine in his law office in 1987 and prepared it there. He used cocaine with several clients he represented in criminal matters. Ewers then escalated to reselling the cocaine from Rhodes and Williams, including substantial amounts to wheelchair-bound Virgil Vollmer.

In the spring of 1989, Attorney Ewers represented a man charged with bail jumping and possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. Upon the client’s no contest plea to the bail jumping charge, the controlled substance charge was dismissed and the client was given a stayed five-year prison sentence and placed on seven years’ probation, including a provision that he have no contact with any controlled substance. Notwithstanding his knowledge of the terms of the client’s probation, Attorney Ewers used cocaine with that client and distributed cocaine to him through November, 1989, preparing crack cocaine and using it with that client at the desk in his law office. On occasion, Attorney Ewers gave the client powdered cocaine when he left the office.

August 1, 1994: Ewers pleaded guilty to his drug charges and faced a potential 21 years in prison and $600,000 in fines. His most recent client was Elbert McGowan, accused of murdering a woman at Token Creek Park; he would have to find a new attorney.

Sam Cerro died 11:31pm on August 31, 1994 at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison. He was at his rural Cottage Grove home when he suffered a “sudden cardiac episode” and had to be picked up by ambulance.

October 6, 1994: James Ewers was sentenced to five years in prison, as well as three additional years of probation. Six months later, his law license was stripped (a foregone conclusion, but the formalities were necessary).

Also try another article under Organized Crime
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

3 Responses to “Sam Cerro, Madison’s Last Crime Boss?”

  1. Tim Z. Says:

    Yes he was. Among other things, he owned and ran the brothels in Madison during the 1970s and 1980s. Rumor has it a close relative of his still owns the Geisha House, one of the last brothels left in WI. It’s on E. Washington Ave in Mad.

  2. joey Says:

    One of his relatives?? His daughter runs it.

  3. Bill Says:

    The best book that touches on Sam Cerro and 1970s Madison is “Winter of Frozen Dreams.” Do not miss this book!

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