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Originally published May 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 13, 2008 at 11:56 AM

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The cops vs. Colacurcio — the last round

Investigators are looking for links in decades-old killings while the Seattle strip-club magnate scoffs at suspicions.

Seattle Times staff reporters

For years, the feds chased Seattle strip-club magnate Frank Colacurcio Sr. They picked through his trash, eavesdropped on his conversations and recruited snitches. They finally nailed him for tax evasion and racketeering.

But investigators have long suspected that Colacurcio was behind the execution-style slayings of five people who had crossed him one way or another.

The victims: a rival strip-club operator and his fiancée, a bar owner in Central Washington, a mechanic in a murder-for-hire scheme, and a police informant.

The slayings, which took place in the 1970s and 1980s, have drawn little attention for more than 20 years.

Now, federal and local investigators have reopened the cases, trying to find out once and for all whether Colacurcio had anything to do with the deaths. Most recently, investigators reopened the slain-informant case, which might offer them their best hope.

The probe by the FBI, King County Sheriff's Office and Seattle police is one of the most sweeping organized-crime investigations ever conducted here. It is likely to be law enforcement's last shot at the man once accused of running a criminal cartel. Next month, Colacurcio turns 90.

So far, authorities have made arrests in four of the killings but are still investigating whether Colacurcio or his associates ordered the slayings. Authorities also are looking into his present-day activities, investigating whether he and his son allow prostitution and benefit from it at four Colacurcio-controlled strip clubs in the Seattle area.

Colacurcio Sr. hasn't been charged in the slayings and no charges related to prostitution have been brought against him or his son, Frank Colacurcio Jr., 45.

In a short interview, Colacurcio Sr. dismissed the notion that he was involved in old killings or illegal activities. "They have been investigating me since the time I was born," he said.

Colacurcio flourished at a time when Seattle had rougher edges, rogue cops took money for ignoring vice and some people in the strip-club industry or on its fringes met violent deaths.

As far back as the 1950s, he started operating jukebox and cigarette vending businesses, which historically have attracted organized crime because of their easily skimmed cash.

Colacurcio was even considered Seattle's own connection to the Mafia. More likely, investigators have concluded, he headed a home-grown organized-crime outfit.

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"Mafia malarkey," he once complained, saying local investigators needed someone to label their own mob figure.

Yet he and his friends also seemed to enjoy the image. Two years ago, while he awaited a court hearing, a cellphone belonging to an investigator on his defense team rang. The ring tone: the movie theme for "The Godfather."

A tough man to hunt

For some detectives, investigating "Frank Sr." was an obsession. They built dossiers with flowcharts and pictures of his known associates. Once, they even rented a room next to his old SeaTac office to eavesdrop through an electrical outlet.

Sometimes detectives missed opportunities. In some homicide cases, they failed to find witnesses, and in one instance, federal prosecutors didn't tell them about a suspect.

Over time, some investigators moved to other jobs; others retired.

Colacurcio's hair has gone from curly to wispy. Poor health has reduced his squat and burly build.

He doesn't show up as often at Talents West, the hiring agency and office for the Colacurcios' strip-club operations. The small building on Lake City Way is a well-worn space decorated with photographs of scantily dressed women and a giant framed photo of Colacurcio leaving a courthouse.

"I'll never be retired retired," he said in 1995. "Not until I'm in the grave."

But nowadays, his son and associates mostly run the business. Colacurcio Sr. spends most of his time in his modest home at the north end of Lake Washington.

In his younger days, he used thugs and threats to control Seattle's jukebox, pinball and cigarette vending machine business, competitors alleged. Then he wanted to expand into Portland.

James "Big Jim" Elkins, a Portland crime figure, told a U.S. Senate committee investigating organized crime in 1957 that Colacurcio asked for Elkins' help in opening prostitution houses there.

"He wanted me to arrange so that he could take over 3 or 4 houses," Elkins said under questioning by Robert F. Kennedy, chief counsel for the committee. "I told him if he wanted the houses to go buy them."

Elkins described Colacurcio as a fellow racketeer and a "boy that had various things operating in Seattle."

In the 1960s, Colacurcio introduced clubs with topless dancers to Seattle -- another cash business that allowed profit-skimming.

During a 1971 trial, he was convicted of racketeering. Federal prosecutors tied him to a bribery scheme in which police were paid to ignore illegal gambling activities at area taverns.

Around that time, Colacurcio met in Yakima with Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno, the son of legendary New York Mafia boss Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno, to discuss a business relationship, State Patrol investigators reported. Colacurcio famously responded to a reporter that he and his family had gone to Yakima to pick hot peppers, "but I didn't pick no bananas."

By the 1980s, he had expanded his strip-club business into at least 10 Western states. Eventually, law-enforcement agencies banded together, driving him out of many states.

Returning to the spotlight

Despite his notoriety, Colacurcio almost faded into local lore. He attracted little attention for years after being convicted of tax fraud in 1991. Few noticed when his 36-year marriage ended in the early 1990s. He and his son concentrated on their nude-dancing clubs, which years ago stopped selling alcohol to avoid state liquor inspectors. The clubs make their money from cover charges, high-priced soft drinks and charging a hefty per diem to the dancers.

But Colacurcio Sr. became big news in 2003 when the "Strippergate" scandal jolted Seattle City Hall.

For years, the Colacurcios had tried to expand parking at Rick's, their Lake City Way strip club, but they were repeatedly rejected. When the parking plan came before the council again four years ago, Colacurcios associates contributed thousands of dollars to three City Council members. Shortly afterward, the council approved the plan.

Newspaper stories raised questions, prompting some council members to say they knew virtually nothing about Colacurcio Sr.'s background.

Prosecutors investigated, and in 2005 charged Colacurcio, his son, Frank Jr., and two others with skirting donation limits by secretly reimbursing contributors.

The alleged attempt to buy council votes got law-enforcement officials talking about Colacurcio again. The purported scheme reminded them of his past efforts to trade money for favors from public servants.

FBI analysts who study crime patterns began examining old cases in the summer of 2005, including unsolved homicides. The FBI then went to King County and Seattle police officials, and the agencies agreed to work together on a larger investigation of Colacurcio and his associates.

Retired investigators were called in to share their knowledge: Daryll Whitehead, a retired Internal Revenue Service agent who investigated Colacurcio for 25 years; and Larry Mayes, a recently retired Sheriff's Office commander who looked into Colacurcio for 12 years.

They are careful in talking about the current investigation, just as they were in the days they dogged Colacurcio.

But Mayes said he was impressed that investigators have been able to make arrests in the killings.

"They've done a better job than we were able to, and I give them tons of credit for that," he said.

Is there anything to find?

Since reopening the homicide cases, investigators have combed through old records, re-interviewed some people and discovered new witnesses.

And prosecutors have charged three people with first-degree murder in the deaths of the strip-club operator and his fiancée, the Yakima bar owner and the mechanic.

Those killings all occurred in the mid-1970s, when Colacurcio was in prison on the racketeering conviction. His associates were keeping his clubs going while he planned an expansion for when he got out, according to investigators. But a turf war between rival strip-club operators threatened those plans.

The bar owner in Yakima was killed after a Colacurcio associate unsuccessfully tried to buy the bar.

Less than two months later, the strip-club owner and his fiancée were killed after a Colacurcio associate allegedly approached the owner and told him to curb illegal activity at his club because it was drawing scrutiny of the industry.

The mechanic was shot after someone in organized crime put a contract on him because he had obtained money that didn't belong to him, according to court papers. A year later, a suspect in that killing told federal prosecutors she had information about Colacurcio, former IRS agent Whitehead said.

The latest homicide investigation to be reopened is from the mid-1980s, when Colacurcio was under intense scrutiny by the FBI and law-enforcement officers in a dozen Western states.

In that slaying, an Arizona con man named Rex Parsons was last seen in Seattle meeting with a Colacurcio associate. The connection is one of the strongest direct links to Colacurcio, which gave detectives hope when they decided to reopen the case.

Parsons' body was found near Snoqualmie in April 1985. Detectives quickly determined a possible motive: Parsons was an informant for Phoenix police and had been providing information to the FBI.

But the case proved frustrating to detectives, as did efforts to solve the earlier killings. Wiretaps of Colacurcio produced little.

"You couldn't get him on tape," Whitehead said.

Colacurcio said today's investigators also are wasting their time.

"The whole issue seems silly," he said. "I am sure they're not going to find anything because there is nothing to find. It would have been found long before this."

Seattle Times researchers Gene Balk and David Turim contributed to this story.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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