Lonnie Affronti (left) and his “wife,” Billie in New York after their arrest in 1937
A mafia mess with narcotics and murder: Lonnie Affronti
By Diane Euston
Sometimes the most colorful of characters in Kansas City history get lost over time. Although countless books have been written about the mafia in our city, many people are left out because of lack of evidence and the unwritten “code of silence” that insinuates that these stories are best left untold.
One man caught my attention while writing a story published recently in the Telegraph about the unsolved murder of socialite Florence Barton. Lonnie Affronti (1898-1960) was accused of the crime but later was released. The more I researched him, the more fascinating his story became. You won’t find Lonnie’s name in most mafia history books, but his contribution at the height of mafia rule in Kansas City is deep and disturbing.
Still standing in northeast Kansas City at 517 Gillis is Antonio Affronti’s grocery store and residence, built in 1908.
The Affrontis in Kansas City
Antonio Affronti (1868-1937) and his wife Lena (1875-1948) immigrated from Sicily and moved to the Little Italy neighborhood in the Italian section in the northeast. Antonio was one of the many grocers in the neighborhood, and he built a sturdy brick building at 517 Gillis St in 1908. He ran Affronti Grocery on the first level and his wife and six children lived upstairs. Lonnie was the second oldest and the only boy. It seems from evidence that his father was well-connected to the underworld that made up the Roaring 20s in Kansas City.
Lonnie worked side-by-side with his father at his grocery store, but early on in his childhood, Lonnie ran through the City Market and picked pockets. The northeast neighborhoods were crowded with Italian immigrants, and by the turn of the century, there was a growing mafia presence. Known later as La Cosa Nostra (translation: “This thing of ours”), the Italian mafia grew even stronger during Prohibition. The Kansas City Star noted that Lonnie’s father was “influential in Democratic politics in the Italian section.” Young Lonnie Affronti was the ideal age to blossom within this network of organized crime.
Robbery and Murder?
In December 1919, Lonnie got himself into some serious trouble. Accompanied by Frank Harrell and two other men, Lonnie forced himself inside a home near Excelsior Springs of two elderly sisters named Martha and Amanda Howdeshell. Harrell was related to the victims by marriage, and they planned to rob the women because it was thought “they had a large amount of money secreted in the house.” The hope for all involved was likely to have an easy access to money, but this was unsuccessful.
They beat the women, ransacked the house, and took a mere $40 from the scene. Harrell later confessed to the crime and implicated Lonnie who was sentenced to ten years in prison for the crime on June 17, 1920.
Lonnie immediately appealed his sentence and was released on bond signed by his father. While he was out on suspicion of murder, he was arrested for the murder of socialite Florence Barton. She was shot and killed while on a nighttime ride with her fiancé near Hillcrest Country Club, and Lonnie was one of three men implicated in the crime. At his bond hearing for the murder, the Kansas City Star reported, “The courtroom began to be filled with young Italians. . . Among them was Johnny Lazia, convicted of a holdup and later paroled at the insistence of north side politicians.” Some of Kansas City’s “finest” underworld characters seemed very interested in Lonnie’s arrest. His father was loosely involved in dealing sugar for alcohol purposes but kept his name mostly out of police and federal investigations. Charges were later dropped against Affronti, but he wouldn’t be free for long.
Lonnie was brought in for various crimes while he awaited his appeal, including first degree robbery of 12 cases of liquor, a shooting, and the attempted murder of a man who was tied to railroad tracks near Excelsior Springs in the effort to scare an eye witness. The man’s legs and part of one hand were crushed by a passing train. His father was even denied citizenship because he withheld facts about his son’s growing criminal record and his own involvement. Citizenship was “dismissed” due to the fact his “character” was “not good.”
In February 1922, Lonnie was picked up at his father’s house; his sentence for the robbery of the Howedshell sisters was affirmed, so he was sent immediately to the Missouri State Penitentiary to serve his ten-year sentence from 1920. He was arrested “in a stylish overcoat” and the Kansas City Times reported, “He wore a large diamond-set ring and a diamond tie pin.” Well-connected friends sought a pardon for the “north side character,” but their efforts failed.
Lonnie seemed to make friends wherever he went, and this applied to prison as well. Lonnie gained the trust of the prison warden and even worked as a driver for a prison board member. In July 1925, he was allowed to visit his parents and sister while he was still technically behind bars –alone. When people got wind of his special release, the story graced the headlines of newspapers in the area. In defense of letting Lonnie travel back to Kansas City, the warden stated, “It would have cost too much to have sent a guard with him.”
In June 1927, Lonnie was released early for “good work and service to prison officials” and only served five years and three months.
Booze and Narcotics
Less than a year after he was released, Lonnie was caught unloading 2,444 gallons of whiskey valued at $25,000, but after a series of continuances, he walked away after paying a minimal fine.
In September 1929, he was identified by two witnesses as being the man who robbed Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Kansas City of over $8,500 in payroll money. When he went on trial in 1930, the witnesses–who had been visited by his sister and girlfriend– “had become uncertain in his identification.” Thus, Lonnie walked away yet again.
After a few arrests for narcotics, federal agents were working hard to build a case against him. A local man named Joe Reveley gave federal agents information about Lonnie, and in October 1931, Reveley was found dead with multiple bullets in his body. Lonnie was nowhere to be found.
In May 1932, federal agents were able to arrest Lonnie on 11 charges when they found him hiding out in Philadelphia. If convicted of all of his charges, he was set to serve 92 years in federal prison. Lonnie’s brother-in-law, Rocco Manzo, was able to get him out of jail after putting up his business and his home as security.
The pressure was mounting. Another witness, a taxicab driver in Excelsior Springs with a morphine addiction, was set to testify against Lonnie. And Lonnie wasn’t about to go down without a fight.
Another Witness Killed
On June 22, 1932, federal witness Thomas Ross accompanied his wife, Azalea, and a friend named Homer Morrison to breakfast at a restaurant on State Highway 10 and piled into his Model T after they were finished. About six miles from Richmond, Thomas pulled his car over on the side of the road after crossing a bridge near Richmond to use some drugs.
A man later identified as Lonnie emerged from the brush and pointed a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun at them and said, “I want to see you.” The witnesses recalled seeing a distinctive blue Chevy with yellow wheels in the distance pulled over on the side of the road. Thomas and his friend Morrison bailed out of the car and ran down the isolated road. Thomas was shot in the back and was later in critical condition. Morrison was only slightly wounded in the round of gunfire. However, 30-year-old Azalea tried to scramble out of the car and was shot in the back at close range by Lonnie.
Azalea died almost immediately, but her husband and his friend miraculously survived. Thomas was already set to testify against Lonnie just six days later. The newspaper reported, “The law and Lonnie Affronti have been enemies the last fifteen years.”
The manhunt for Lonnie started almost immediately, but he was yet again nowhere to be found. When he didn’t show up for his federal indictment on drugs, his bond put up by his sister and brother-in-law was revoked. When the court went to collect, it was found that his sister, Angelia, and her husband, Rocco Manzo, had transferred the property to their children three days earlier.
It took two years for the government to finally seize the property and sell it on the courthouse steps. An anonymous buyer represented by a lawyer purchased the properties – and Lonnie’s sister and family never had to move. Regardless, Lonnie was a man on the run and no one seemed to know where he was. In 1934, law enforcement eventually tried to put pressure on him by arresting his wife, Rose Neil, in Kansas City for involvement in a narcotics ring that spanned Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Even with all the pressure, Lonnie remained hidden from authorities.
Lonnie was on the run when his father passed away in December 1937, and in his obituary, his only son isn’t listed.
Suspicious Murders Mount
It was suggested that Lonnie remained on the mafia payroll in Kansas City but his funds were cut off when the gangsters weren’t sure of his return. This allegedly angered Lonnie, so he headed back to Kansas City in December 1936 with murder on his mind. Since Lonnie’s departure, a man named Lloyd Tinsley had taken over a lot of Lonnie’s business interests in the narcotics ring. On December 8, Tinsley was found murdered three miles south of Parkville. Two weeks later, Buddy Briggs, a close pal of Tinsley’s, was found on a sidewalk in Kansas City with two bullets in his head. Both men were known to have angered Lonnie, and Lonnie was still on the loose.
Although there is no direct evidence to connect Lonnie to the murders, it is just another coincidence of people connected to him that were left in body bags.
The feds had no idea where Lonnie had gone, but he continued running a large narcotics ring in Brooklyn under the alias of Joseph Fardella – his mother’s maiden name. He was associated with “One Eye” Maxie Gordon who used the cover as a fur dealer for his business in narcotics. Gordon got his nickname after he lost his eye in a pistol duel with Egan Rats in St. Louis in 1922.
While on a narcotics run, Gordon died in a suspicious car accident near El Paso on July 31, 1937. His widow, Esther, was quite aware of the money owed to her husband on credit, so she set out to recover some of his accounts. She was found to have traveled to Kansas City in early August and likely visited with local mob bosses who were on Lonnie’s trail. Esther left Kansas City and headed back to New York empty handed. She did allegedly catch up to Lonnie when she returned to Brooklyn and demanded payment.
On August 27, less than one month after One-Eyed Maxie’s death, 38-year-old Esther Gordon’s body was found inside a wooden barrel on the rocky shore of the East River in Queens, New York. She had been stabbed with an ice pick ten times and shot once in the head.
Her murder remains unsolved.
Captured and Charged
On December 30, 1937, police in New York were following a tip unrelated to Lonnie that a cigarette truck was about to be hijacked. As they trailed the truck, Lonnie cut in front of police and almost caused an accident. They followed him to a swanky apartment “luxuriously furnished” and found the man was living under the alias Albert Leonard and was cohabitating with a 27-year-old Chicago showgirl named Billie LeRoy.
They found $600 in cash in Lonnie’s pocket and 12 fashionable suits hanging in his closet. There were three pistols and narcotics valued at $3000 inside the apartment. He claimed he wasn’t a gangster but made a living “by gambling and selling cars.” After further police investigation, it was found that the man in front of them was none other than Lonnie Affronti– wanted in Kansas City for over five years. He was wanted for murder of Azalea Ross in Ray County, Missouri, and for the narcotics charges that could’ve landed him in jail for 92 years.
But first, New York prosecuted him for possession of firearms and sentenced him to five years in state prison. When the judge in New York commended the police for doing a good job, Lonnie said, “Oh, not so good. It took them six years to catch up to me.”
After serving his sentence, Lonnie was finally sent back to Missouri. Just shy of 11 years after the murder of Azalea Ross, a jury in Ray County found Lonnie guilty of second-degree murder on May 22, 1943, and was sentenced to ten years in prison. In January 1944, an additional 45 years was added to his sentence for nine counts of narcotics. He would be eligible for probation after 25 years.
Finally Paying the Price
Lonnie served just under 17 years for his crimes in Missouri before he died of a heart attack in the prison hospital in Springfield, Mo. on March 30, 1960. He was 61 years old and was quietly buried next to his parents in Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery in Kansas City.
For 30 years, Lonnie Affronti was king of the underworld of narcotics in Kansas City. He was accused more than once of murder, and his involvement in the mafia goes largely unnoticed in books on the topic. When prosecuting Lonnie for narcotics, U.S. Attorney David Thompson claimed, “[Lonnie] says he has answered for all his crimes. I don’t think he has answered to one-fifth of them.”
Although the full story of gangster Lonnie Affronti will likely never be unveiled, his involvement in organized crime stretches across the country. Starting with petty crime and then advancing into illegal liquor, narcotics sales, and numerous murders with his fingerprint on them, Lonnie was a man who was able to use his illegal means to evade prosecution. He was able to escape from punishment in many of the crimes he was prosecuted for, but in the end, he was finally placed in prison where he belonged.
In the next issue, we will continue exploring the organized crime involved in Florence Barton’s murder by looking at the private investigating agency, the Midwest Detective Agency and its corrupt owner involved in the case.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.