Ken Eto and the FBI

FBI Agent Elaine Smith and Ken Eto

Ken Eto was a Japanese-American who became the highest known Asian-American in any Organized Crime family in the United States. He was called Joe the Jap or Toyko Joe by his peers in the
Chicago Outfit. In this podcast, I interview retired FBI agent Elaine Smith about Eto because she worked up a gambling case on him and after it became known the government was sending Eto to jail, his Chicago Outfit boss, Vincent Solano ordered his murder.

Ken Eto History 

Ken Eto was born in California prior to World War II. He was raised by socially conservative and strict Japanese immigrant parents. The government forced the Eto family along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans into Idaho internment camps for the duration of the War. Ken Eto spent the War at the Minidoka War Relocation Center. During this time, he learned he had a great mind for numbers and a memory for what cards had been played or not played during endless poker games in the camp. Ken Eto moved to Chicago in 1959 to make his fortune.

The Chicago Outfit and Ken Eto

Once Ken Eto arrived at Chicago, he sought out high stakes poker games where he was known as a consistent winner. The men who protected these games were Outfit up and comers like Turk Torrello, Vince Solano, Sam Giancana, and Joey Aiuppa. They noticed this newcomer was winning consistently and they forced him to pay a street tax on his earnings. In return for the money he made the Outfit, they assisted him in setting up a large Bolito or numbers operation. He was known to turn over up to $200,000 a week. Eto was responsible to pay off the Chicago cops to the tune of $3,000 per week. He became a huge earner for the Outfit. 

How The FBI got onto Ken Eto

A new FBI agent named Elaine Smith talked her way into being assigned to the Organized Crime Squad at the Chicago FBI office. Ms. Smith was from Chicago and being steeped in the lore of the Outfit had long wanted to work cases on these guys. One of her first assignments was to look into Ken Eto. The squad had dismissed Eto as a minor player and of no consequence because of his ethnicity. Agent Smith learned he was a major earner for the Outfit. Once she made her case and it became known that the US Attorney was going to convict him, Eto’s Outfit boss, Vince Solano, got nervous. He “whistled in” Eto for a meet. Ken Eto assured Solano that he could easily take a gambling conviction and do his time. Vincent Solano was irrationally afraid that Eto would turn government witness.

Elaine Smith turns Eto into a witness

On February 10, 1983, Eto pleads guilty and gets prepared for sentencing. On February 10, 1983, Vince Solano sends hitmen Jasper Campise and John Gattuso to pick him up and take him to a dinner meeting.¬† Solano was unaware of Eto’s culture and Samurai spirit or he would never have worried about him turning witness. Eto believes this is the way his life ends as he enters the car. He has instructed his wife on what to do if he is killed. Campise and Gattuso direct him to a restaurant that Eto has never heard body talk about. They park in a side street. Eto noticed that the hitmen’s hands are shaking and they keep incessantly and nervously talking about how great this food is going to taste. All of a sudden the men pull guns and fire to Ken Eto’s head and body. They push him out of the car and leave him on the street. Ken Eto staggers into an open drug store and calls for an ambulance. Elaine Smith answers a late-night phone call and leans of this murder attempt while on a Colorado ski trip. When she returned she is able to turn Eto against his bosses. She will spend the next week’s, months, and even years with Eto going around the country testifying against various Outfit members. Elaine Smith maintains a relationship with Eto until his death from natural causes while in Witness Protection living in a small Georgia town.

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