This Metro Detroit writer and author reports on organized crime and runs the website Gangster Report.
By Scott Burnstein
The death of Detroit drug boss Henry ("Blaze") Marzette 50 years ago this month quelled a multi-year heroin war on the city's Eastside and brought an end to the reign of Motown's first big-time African-American crime lord.
Blaze Marzette died of kidney failure on April 10, 1972 at age 45. The drug war Marzette and his organization engaged in had more than 150 casualties in less than 20 months.
"Marzette lit the landscape around him on fire whatever he did, that's why they called him Blaze," notorious Motor City crime buster Vince Piersante (first with Detroit Police and then Michigan State Police) recalled in his final days in 2013. "I went and saw him at his mansion at the peak of the war. We both agreed the killing had to stop. The situation had gotten total out of control, completely untenable for everybody."
Marzette was a former star high school football player, Korean War hero and decorated Detroit Police Department narcotics squad cop before going to state prison for extorting drug dealers and reinventing himself as Motown's Black Godfather. Emerging from the penitentiary in the early 1960s, he rose to meteoric heights in the underworld in just a few short years, establishing drug, gambling and extortion rackets across the city.
Headquartering his affairs out of The Safari Room Lounge on Livernois on the city's near Westside, Marzette made millions, hobnobbed with musicians, actors and celebrities and purchased real estate, not just around the country, but around the globe. He was particularly fond of mink coats in the winter -- a trend many in the Detroit drug world would follow for years to come -- and fashioned himself a jetsetter with vacation properties in Jamaica, the Bahamas and the South of France.
Mythology surrounding Marzette's legacy on the streets and as a cop in the police interrogation room resonates today a half-century later. The "Marzette Method" of interrogation, whether as a cop or a crook, was breaking or cutting off his subject's fingers and toes.
In a bold plan for citywide dominance in the dope game, Marzette called a meeting of all the area's top African-American heroin czars at the old 20 Grand Motel on 14th Street on Detroit's Westside in June 1970 and pitched a consolidation of resources to cut the Italian Mafia out of the equation in the Motown narcotics world. The 20 Grand Motel and its adjoining dinner club and performance venue was owned by numbers lottery mogul Edward ("Fast Eddie") Wingate, a longtime affiliate of Detroit's Italian Tocco-Zerilli crime family.
Marzette's drug boss summit went south quickly and set the stage for a near two-year shooting war between Marzette and a group known as The Eastside 12, which was backed by the Italians and aligned with Marzette's Westside rival Nual (The Rusty Nail) Steele, who met his demise shortly thereafter. According to DEA records, Steele and Marzette got into a shouting match at the 20 Grand summit, dubbed "Little Apalachin" in reference to the historic conference of Italian Mafia dons in upstate New York, which as raided by local police years earlier.
Steele was gunned down at well-known gangster watering hole LaPlayers Lounge on Aug. 27, 1970. The June 14, 1971 Flag Day Massacre took out eight East Side 12 members and loyalists.
Marzette's main enforcers, James (Jimmy the Killer) Moody and Bobby (The Big Bopper) Martin, fell victim to the hit parade as well. Authorities suspected Moody was personally responsible for at least 15 of the slayings in the war. Moody's body was found in the trunk of his brand new El Dorado Cadillac at Metro Detroit Airport, days after Labor Day 1971.
Moody was the top suspect in the Nual Steele homicide and faced charges in the case until the only witness went missing. Stricken with a rare health disorder attacking his renal glands, Marzette extended his life at least two years by using a then-state of the art $30,000 a year mobile dialysis machine. At the time of his death, Marzette was facing a tax evasion case linked to an $85,000 IRS debt, some of which was tied in court documents to the kidney machine he purchased from Ford Hospital.
Many believe Marzette actually ordered Moody's murder as a means of stopping the violence. Instead, it kept going well into 1972, as a half-dozen Marzette lieutenants were killed in the first three months that year.
"The bloodshed was just nonstop, guys were getting killed every day, everyone's business was being disrupted," said retired DEA agent John Sutton, who was brought to Detroit in the early 1970s to combat the conflict. "This was no good for anybody. Money talks and everybody was losing money because they were having to run things bunker-style. Marzette died and things quieted down for a little bit."
Robert DeFauw, head of the DEA in Detroit in the 1980s, sees Marzette as the archetype for crack era drug bosses locally.
"Young Boys, Incorporated, Demetrius Holloway, Johnny Curry all aspired to be their own versions of Henry Marzette and they all achieved that to some degree," he said. "Marzette wrote the blueprint for Black organized crime in Detroit and everyone since has just followed his lead."