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December 10, 1897|
Terrasini, Sicily, Italy
|Died||October 30, 1977
Grosse Pointe, Michigan, U.S.
Birth of the Purple Gang
Working as a laborer with the Detroit Gas Company, Zerilli founded the Purple Gang with William Joseph "Bugs Bill" Bernstein, Abe Bernstein, Harry Fleisher, and Louis Fleisher at the onset of Prohibition. Zerilli began working with mobster Gaspar Milazzo to expand into loansharking, extortion, narcotics, labor racketeering, and bookmaking.
Rise to power
In 1930, following the murder of Milazzo by New York mobsters, the Purple Gang became involved in syndicate gambling operations. By 1936, Zerilli assumed control of Detroit's criminal operations. However, he did not officially become boss until 1964, when he succeeded Joe Vitale.
As one of two members outside New York City's Five Families who dominated the Mafia Commission, Zerilli was highly respected in the criminal underworld. Zerilli was a well-known advocate for the rights of mobsters to control criminal activity within their own territory. Zerilli insisted that the Commission approve in advance any exceptions to that rule. Although suspected in numerous gangland slayings, Zerilli was convicted of only two criminal charges in his life; speeding, and carrying a concealed weapon.
After more than 40 years, Zerilli retired from racketeering in the early 1970s and his son, Anthony Zerilli assumed control (one of the few sons of mob bosses to successfully do so). However, in 1975 Zerilli was forced to return as boss; his son had been convicted of conspiring to conceal interests in a Las Vegas syndicate casino. It was shortly after the elder Zerilli returned to power that former Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa was released from prison and began campaigning to regain his former position.
On October 30, 1977, Joseph Zerilli died of natural causes. He was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Detroit.
In April 2000, grandson and Detroit syndicate soldier Nove Tocco agreed to testify against his cousin and boss of the Detroit crime syndicate, Jack Tocco. Nove was the first member of the Detroit crime family to turn state's evidence since the family's founding in 1921.