Leads Emerge in 2 Club Killings
In the annals of Orange County law enforcement, few places had a more notorious reputation than the Mustang topless bar in Santa Ana.
By the time the club closed in 1988, after less than five years in business, its manager and doorman had been murdered and one of its financial backers blinded in a botched hit carried out by a reputed mobster. An explosion finally destroyed the club and sent the arsonist flying into the street.
Twelve years later, the Orange County district attorney’s office has reopened the books on the Mustang Club in a bid to crack the two unsolved murders.
Investigators said the probe has benefited from the arrests last week of three suspects in the killing of Los Angeles nude-club owner Horace McKenna, who had tried to buy the Mustang shortly before his death.
Authorities originally thought McKenna’s case was tied to the Mustang murders. Now they believe McKenna’s death was an attempt by his partners to take control of his business.
Still, officials said evidence gathered in the McKenna case now is helping shed new light on both long-forgotten murders. They have crisscrossed the country in recent months talking to associates and relatives of the victims; in the days since the McKenna arrests, they have also fielded a flood of calls from people claiming to have information about the Mustang murders.
“We have [new] leads in both cases,” said investigator Rick Morton, who declined to provide specifics. “I would say we have significant leads in one of the cases.”
The investigation covers a bloody period when organized crime made its greatest inroads in Orange County, according to veteran detectives.
The violence at the Mustang was fueled by criminal interests warring for control of the club. It resulted in Orange County’s only conviction of a known “made” Mafia member: Michael Anthony Rizzitello, who was sentenced to 37 years in prison for a shooting that blinded Mustang financier William Carroll.
“The Mustang was a magnet for the mob,” said former Deputy Dist. Atty. Chris Evans, who handled the case. “We had a run on mob murders, no question about that. It was a busy time. And a lot of it was centered around the Mustang.”
The Mustang Club opened on Harbor Boulevard in 1983 and almost immediately became a target of police. Within a year, one of the club’s managers and five topless dancers were arrested on prostitution-related charges. At the same time, city officials tried repeatedly to have the club shut down.
But it was during a violent 14-month period beginning in early 1987 that the killing began.
The first took place in Buena Park on New Year’s Day. Two armed men stormed into the luxury condo of club operator Jimmy Casino, bound his girlfriend with a bandanna and a belt, forced him to point out valuables such as furs, jewelry and keys to luxury cars, then shot him in the back of the head.
Casino was well known in the adult entertainment industry and once owned several topless bars on the Sunset Strip.
Buena Park police and district attorney’s investigators immediately ruled out a random robbery as the motive of the murder and concluded that it was somehow connected to a turf war among the various businessmen who had financial interests in the Mustang.
“Man, we worked that case. We worked it, we worked it, we worked it,” said retired district attorney’s investigator Rusty Hodges. “But the right witness never came forward for us. I hope they do now.”
Casino’s former wife, Carol, also suspected a club connection because she said her former husband often argued with other business partners over the direction of the club.
She said the case still stirs mixed emotions in her.
“You play with those kind of people, you are going to get hurt,” she said. “[But] my belief is every person has a mother, father, spouse or child. . . . A crime’s a crime.”
Four months after the Casino murder, William Carroll accepted an invitation to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Santa Ana. Carroll, a financial backer of the Mustang Club, was joined by Rizzitello, who was described in court as an under-boss of the Milano organized crime family in Los Angeles. A third man accompanied them.
After dinner, the three drove to a vacant parking lot near the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, according to court testimony. Carroll sat in the front seat with Rizzitello behind him.
Unexpectedly, Rizzitello grabbed him around the neck, put a .38-caliber pistol to the back of his head and said, “This is for not letting us eat,” before firing three times, Carroll later testified in court.
Doctors saved Carroll’s life, but he was blinded. Rizzitello and the other man were convicted of attempted murder and are in prison.
In court, prosecutors argued that Rizzitello tried to kill Carroll as part of an effort to take control of the Mustang. Rizzitello’s attorneys, however, asserted that their client had no interest in the club and therefore no motive for shooting Carroll.
Around the Mustang Club, it was hard to miss George Yudzevich. The 6-foot-7, 383-pound giant served as bouncer and doorman at the club; his distinctive presence earned him a role in the 1980 gangster movie “Gloria.”
In March 1988--14 months after his boss Casino’s killing--Yudzevich was found dead behind his car, which was backed into a parking stall at an Irvine industrial park. A bullet had nicked his carotid artery, and he bled to death.
Detectives could find no fingerprints but discovered several spent shell casings.
They later learned that in the months before he was killed, Yudzevich had testified in Brooklyn against two Gambino crime family members with whom he extorted thousands of dollars from a Manhattan businessman.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t like Mr. Yudzevich,” recalls Irvine Police Det. Larry Montgomery, who investigated the killing full time for one year.
Yudzevich’s name surfaced during the Rizzitello trial; prosecutors said Yudzevich was secretly skimming money at the club for Rizzitello. Detectives theorized about motives, but they could never build a case.
“We had no witnesses, no vehicle [description], no DNA,” Montgomery added. “I bet you the gun was thrown in the ocean or destroyed shortly after the crime, and that’s the only piece of physical evidence we can link to the crime scene.”
By the time Yudzevich was killed, the Mustang Club was no more.
An arson fire on Christmas Day 1987 destroyed much of the club, just days before IRS investigators were preparing to padlock it for unpaid taxes. Before the club could reopen, a huge explosion and fire leveled the building.
A man found injured and bleeding behind the club later was convicted of arson and sentenced to seven years in prison. Prosecutors said the force of the blast had sent the man flying.
In the months afterward, authorities talked about cracking the murders and making more arrests. But it never happened. Slowly, detectives moved on to other cases and the sensational crimes faded from view.
Among law enforcement officers, the killings remained an intriguing mystery--so much so that the organized crime unit of the district attorney’s office decided to open the “cold cases” in 1997.
“What more serious crime could there be for an organized crime unit than murder? If there’s a chance we can solve these cases, we’ll do everything we can,” said investigator Morton.
Initially, the team believed the Casino and Yudzevich slayings were related to the 1989 machine-gun assassination of Horace McKenna, a former CHP officer who owned nude clubs and was gunned down outside his Brea mansion in 1989.
But the McKenna case took a different turn early this year when the alleged hit man confessed to police and went undercover as an informant wearing a “wire.” Prosecutors last week charged him and two others for allegedly killing McKenna as part of a scheme to wrest control of McKenna’s nude dance businesses.
Morton and others are hoping for a similar break with the Casino and Yudzevich cases.
Investigators interviewed Casino’s former wife, Carol, several months ago. For her, the new and aggressive pursuit of her former husband’s killer gives her new optimism that authorities are interested in solving all murders, even those that involved shady circumstances.
“They should punish those people” who did it, she said.
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