Count Dante: “The Deadliest Man Who Ever Lived”
In the 1960’s Count Dante promoted himself in comic book ads as the “Deadliest Man Alive.” One had only to mail order for his instructional booklet “World’s Deadliest Fighting Secrets” in which he outlined the “Dance of Death.” For the mere price of $5.00 they would receive the instructional booklet, and they would also receive a free Black Dragon Fighting Society membership card. One could become a card carrying lethal fighting machine for the paltry sum of five bucks. In these ads Dante stated that he had participated in numerous “fight to the death” matches in Asia. These matches were supposedly the type that inspired the 1988 film, “Bloodsport” starring Jean Claude Van Dam.
The comic book ads read: “Yes, this is the DEADLIEST and most TERRIFYING fighting art known to man-and WITHOUT EQUAL. Its MAIMING, MUTILATING, DISFIGURING, PARALYSING and CRIPPLING techniques are known by only a few people in the world. An expert at DIM MAK could easily kill many Judo, Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, and Gung Fu experts at one time with only finger-tip pressure using his murderous POISON HAND WEAPONS. Instructing you step by step thru each move in this manual is none other than “COUNT DANTE – THE DEADLIEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED.”
The comic book ads and pictures account for a great deal of Count Dante's lasting notoriety in pop culture today. Although, Count Dante’s legal troubles added significantly over the years to his reputation. His first notable encounter with the law occurred on July 22, 1965, Dante and an accomplice, Douglas Dwyer, (The Second Deadliest Man Alive) were charged with attempted arson. The two men were arrested while taping dynamite caps to Gene Wyka’s Chicago martial arts school window. Both men claimed to be heavily under the influence of alcohol at the time. Dante explained this episode was the result of a disagreement with Wyka over payment for a tournament that Dante had arranged for him. Count Dante received two years of probation for his involvement in this foolhardy endeavor. He could easily have been sent to prison for attempted arson, but his family’s position in Chicago society helped get him and Dwyer off with a “slap on the wrist.”
On April 24, 1970 the deadliest man alive, Count Dante, led a group of his Chicago martial arts students including his close friend, Jim Koncevic to the Green Dragon Society Black Cobra Hall of Gung Fu and Kenpo, a rival martial arts dojo in Chicago. Dante and his students went to the Black Cobra Hall to settle some old grievances and scores with the Green Dragon Society members. Supposedly when Dante and his students first entered the hall they claimed to be police officers, but then immediately attacked the rival dojo’s students. The ensuing altercation was bloody and involved several students from each martial arts school. The fight resulted in the death of Dante’s friend Koncevic after a Green Dragon student named Jerome Greenwald grabbed a sword from the wall and stabbed him.
This episode was labeled by the media as the “Dojo Wars” and has since become legendary; it is an integral part of a documentary film on Count Dante and his life. The incident also resulted in a trial in Cook County Superior Court for all those involved in the fight. Dante and the others from his martial arts school were represented by the noted Chicago mob attorney Robert Cooley. Cooley’s primary argument in the trial was that the Black Cobra Hall students were the aggressors, not Dante and his group. However, once he was on the witness stand, Dante was extremely macho and as combative as ever. He declared in his testimony at the trial that no one could ever get away with attacking him. The Black Cobra Hall members were just as antagonistic as Dante had been, and, in the end, the judge declared them all “a pack of lunatics and idiots” and dismissed the charges against everyone.
Robert Cooley was a very well-known crime syndicate lawyer who later with the assistance of Hillel Levin wrote and published the book “When Corruption Was King.” The book provided an account of how the mob controlled Chicago through the 1960s, 1970’s, and 1980s. In his book Cooley devoted an entire chapter to Dante, stating that he thrived on money, violence and sex. He thought Dante was a deluded, egocentric maniac who had a violent temper, little to no self-control and someone literally ready to die at a moment’s notice if necessary. Cooley also stated that Dante had business dealings with many well-known Chicago area organized crime members. Cooley himself later wound up in the U.S. Marshall Service Witness Protection Program after testifying in cases related to Chicago mob activities. He reportedly wore a wire for federal investigators obtaining evidence in “Operation Gambat.” Paramount Pictures, Temple Hill Entertainment, and Mark Wahlberg supposedly acquired the movie rights, and Frank Baldwin was mentioned as having been charged with writing the screen play.
Count Dante’s given name was John Timothy Keehan whose father, Jack, was a wealthy Chicago physician and Director of the Ashland State Bank. Keehan’s mother, Dorothy, came from an affluent family and was somewhat of a debutante in Chicago Society. John Keehan was both handsome and smart, and he always had money for the things he either needed or wanted. During high school Keehan studied boxing under Johnny Coulon at his 63rd Street Gym on Chicago’s South Side. Coulon was a former bantamweight champ and a real character who at one time had been a trainer for the great Jack Johnson. Johnny Coulon taught Keehan the art of boxing, he also taught him the concept of sensationalism. The latter concept Keehan would exemplify the remainder of his short life. That sensationalism even included him keeping a pet lion at his martial arts dojo in Chicago. Keehan would take the lion for walks on Rush Street in downtown Chicago using only a leash.
Keehan’s own personal martial arts journey continued after high school when in 1958 he joined the U.S. Army where he became intrigued with the hand to hand combat he learned. While in the military, from 1958 to 1961, Keehan was stationed on the West Coast. During this time Keehan studied martial arts under some famous instructors of that period including the founder of American Kenpo, Ed Parker. He also trained with James Yimm Lee a Kung Fu practitioner and successful author. Lee wrote the book “Modern Kung-Fu Karate: Iron Poison Hand Training” which is still available today.
After discharge from the military and back in Chicago Keehan studied karate with Charles Gruzanski, a former United States military police officer, who had been stationed in Japan at the end of World War II. Gruzanski lived and studied for years in Japan with some of the great masters of that era. After returning to the U.S. he wrote several books on the arts and taught karate on Chicago’s South Side. The most famous of his books is entitled “Spike and Chain: Japanese Fighting Arts” published in 1968. Charles Gruzanski was a Chicago Police Officer and police department hand to hand combat trainer.
John Keehan also received instruction in Chicago, from a teacher named Lee in Dim Mak, a form of attack on vital points or nerves. At the time, this supposedly lethal technique wasn’t shared with foreigners, but Lee saw something special in Keehan, that special quality was money and lots of it. Money was all important and because of that John Keehan acquired “The Death Touch.” A modern-day similarity to this “art” is taught by a few instructors in the U.S. and is called Tuite. Primarily Tuite is taught through seminars where each student pays for entrance and participation in the seminar and may also be required to purchase published materials.
It was also reported that Keehan had written to Mas Oyama regarding training. Oyama was a legendary karateka in Japan and highly respected all over the world. He was famous for supposedly killing bulls with one punch; though there were always questions about the physical state of the bulls before Oyama punched them. After receiving Keehan’s letter Oyama wrote to Charles Gruzanski, who he knew well from his years in Japan, questioning whether Gruzanski should train Keehan. Somehow Oyama, even from Japan, recognized what the American martial arts community did not see at the time, Keehan’s tremendous ambition as well as his egomaniacal, evil nature.
Keehan studied Judo with Mas Tamura who was a legend because he had defeated wrestler Karl Pojello in 1943 at one of the first recorded mixed martial arts fights. Because of his interest in many martial art styles Count Dante is touted as the father of what we know today as mixed martial arts by many of his admirers. John Keehan also became a member of the United States Karate Association acquiring a black belt from Master Robert Trias. Robert Trias is commonly known among martial artists worldwide as the father of American Karate and was the founder of the U.S.K.A. Along with the rank Trias awarded Keehan he also later appointed him Midwest Regional Director. As Midwest Regional Director Keehan sponsored tournaments in Chicago all of which were open to any style of martial art. Keehan eventually relinquished his membership in the U.S.K.A. leaving as a 6th degree black belt at age 26.
During the early 1960’s Master Trias sanctioned open tournaments Keehan promoted in Chicago including two World Karate Championships one in 1963 and one in 1964. On the night of the 2nd World Karate Championship Tournament a night when a fight broke out between the Nation of Islam and Semper Fi. A night when after he defeated Mills Crenshaw in the semi-finals some claim that the great Mike Stone “stole” the tournament championship from Ray Cooper. Yep, it was that Mike Stone the one who would later steal Priscilla Presley from Elvis after becoming her karate instructor in Los Angeles. But that is a whole other story, and more than just a little complex in telling.
On this same night in 1964 at the championship tournament which was held at the University of Chicago Fieldhouse a chance meeting took place. A young 11-year-old African-American lad went with a group of friends to see the tournament. His name was Floyd Webb, and he would later in life become an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. Initially Webb and his friends were overwhelmed by the immensity of what they saw after entering the Fieldhouse. Somewhere between three and four thousand fans were there to see the action. There were multiple rings set up on the floor along with a judging area for each ring. The tournament was spectacular in size, scope and the excitement was electric.
Although it wasn’t long before Webb and his friends got over their first impressions and wanted some action of their own. As kids will do they went about looking for some mischief to get into. All at once they were confronted by none other than John Keehan, the tournament sponsor, who three years later would legally change his name to Count Juan Raphael Dante. Keehan claimed that his family were descendants of Spanish royalty, but they had to leave Spain decades earlier for political reasons. Some folks believe that the fact his high school in Mount Carmel was located on Dante Street is a bit too much of a coincidence, but I digress. Keehan was respectful and polite to the young boys asking them where they were seated, which was far from the action. He proceeded to reseat them in an area immediately adjacent to the rings where they could see very well. This act of kindness and Keehan ‘s good nature would not go unnoticed or unrewarded by Webb in later years.
John Keehan was one of the first instructors in the U.S. who taught the martial arts to African-Americans and Latinos. It has also been observed that Keehan was not selective, his students included Black Muslims and members of the infamous gang, The Blackstone Rangers (El Rukn). Keehan trained several individuals who were associated with the Chicago mob, as well as some known Chicago area street thugs. John Keehan also stated the he had trained Che Guevara and Raul Castro in the Sierra Maestra area of Cuba. Not just nice guys who had been bullied at one time or another wanted to learn the martial arts to defend themselves. Others with more sinister ideas also wanted to have this knowledge imparted to them for nefarious reasons.
Dante’s legacy may have been forgotten long ago except for two famous people who helped to keep it alive in modern pop culture. The first of the two famous individuals is Robert Rankin an author who lives in Brighton, U.K. Rankin has produced 23 novels since he started writing in the 1970’s. Rankin refers to his style of writing as “far-fetched fiction,” and he has received numerous awards for his work. A note of interest is that Rankin studied at the Ealing School of Art at the same time as Alan Lee and the late-great Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the band Queen.
Many characters in Robert Rankin’s various 23 novels, both antagonists and protagonists, were experts at Dim Mak. These characters learned Dim Mak from Count Dante’s booklet “World’s Deadliest Fighting Secrets” and the infamous “Dance of Death.” Rankin continues today to write, publish, and speak including making references to Dim Mak and Count Dante. The Internet has some great videos of him being interviewed and talking about his books and characters. He recently published all his novels, some of which are out of traditional print, online through his publishing company “Far-Fetched Books.”
The second famous person is none other than the young African-American 11-year-old from Chicago that Dante reached out to at his 1964 Karate World Championship Tournament. Floyd Webb is an Internationally acclaimed filmmaker, writer, consultant, lecturer, photojournalist, director, and producer. Webb has worked with famous people here in the U.S. as well as France, U.K., Germany, New Caledonia, and Africa. A few of the famous names he has worked with that are instantly recognizable here in the U.S. are Wesley Snipes, Mariah Carey, and Spike Lee.
In the years since first meeting John Keehan in 1964 and coming from Chicago Webb developed a keen interest in him. Reading all the headlines over the years about Keehan’s escapades and run ins with the law helped to pique his interest. An integral part of what Webb believes is that stories are important, and stories are what people want. Keehan’s story is somewhat unique where the good guy turns into a villain and goes to a controversial and disputed death at the young age of 36. He is then buried in an unmarked grave, despite coming from a very affluent Chicago family. Floyd Webb’s mission was to write, produce, direct, and edit a film documentary about Count Dante titled, “The Deadliest Man Who Ever Lived.” Even though Robert Cooley was in the U.S. Marshall Service Witness Protection Program Floyd Webb tracked him down. While not totally surprising based on Webb’s skills and access to information this was undoubtedly a formidable task. At least Cooley should hope that it was because otherwise he could be found by people he testified against in Chicago. Normally the U.S. Government does not issue this protection unless there are significant reasons to guarantee the long-term safety of someone who testified in a federal case.
Cooley told Webb during their interview that Dante was the mastermind behind the Chicago Purolator Heist. The robbery took place at 127 West Huron Street in Chicago on October 21, 1974. A few minutes after 1:00 AM an alarm went off in the Wells Fargo Central Alarm headquarters indicating excessive temperatures in the building on Huron. The Chicago Fire Department as well as Chicago Police were immediately dispatched to the scene. The on-duty Purolator guard, Ralph Marerra, 31 at first would not let the fire department into the building until a Purolator executive arrived and gave his permission. When they entered the vault area there was a tremendous amount of smoke, they also found excessive heat, and a few unexploded gasoline bombs. Some of the bombs did not explode because of a lack of oxygen in the vaults. Police quickly determined this was a burglary and the bombs were set to cover up the crime.
This heist would become the largest cash heist in the history of the world as of 1974, some $4.3 million in unmarked bills had disappeared. The money stolen that night would have weighed more than 700 pounds. A few days later authorities arrested the guard, Ralph Marerra, as the inside man for the job. Some of the money was recovered at his grandmother’s house under freshly poured cement. Another large amount was found to have been transferred to the Cayman Islands by Louis DiFonzo, 27 who was arrested. Police also arrested Peter Gushi, 27, Pasquale (Patsy) Marzano, 42 who was the alarm man, William A. (Tony) Marzano 32, and James Maniatis, 59 who provided and drove the getaway van. These men were convicted and sent to prison except for DiFonzo whose attorney convinced the jury that he did not know the money was stolen.
Another intriguing part of the case was that the guard Marerra was considered by both federal and local authorities to be at risk because of the mob connections. Instead of the Cook County Jail he was housed in the Winnebago County Jail and while there he attempted suicide. He was then transferred to Cermak Memorial Hospital which is located at the Cook County Jail. At Cermak he had been placed in restraints, and kept in a small, very warm room with metal mesh covering the windows. He had been administered Thorazine and Cogentin by the medical staff at Cermak to keep him calm since he had attempted suicide. On December 4th a few days after his arrival at Cermak medical personnel discovered Marerra in significant physical distress.
Marerra was immediately transferred to Cook County Hospital where it was eventually determined that he had suffered from anhidrosis due to the cumulative effects of the drugs and a much warmer than average room temperature. His body temperature upon arrival at Cook County Hospital was 106 degrees Fahrenheit, he was experiencing seizures and was in critical condition. CCH personnel sent samples of his blood, urine, and gastric contents to the lab for testing. It was eventually found that the Thorazine and Cogentin blood levels were as prescribed and nothing else was discovered. He was later sent to a nursing facility to recover, but he escaped and was the last of the heist participants to go on trial nearly 9 years later. He was convicted in 1983 for his participation in the heist. Marerra was sentenced to 20 years in prison but served only 6 years getting paroled in 1989. Marerra won an award of $650,000 at trial in 1996 for medical malpractice from Cook County for “poisoning” him causing permanent disabilities to his speech and ability to walk. Who says crime doesn’t pay?
Sometime after the initial arrests the FBI interviewed Count Dante based on information they received indicating he was the brains behind this robbery. Supposedly the security guard and inside man, Marerra, was associated with Dante through one of his Chicago martial arts schools, and as Cooley has related Dante also had the mob connections. A total of $1.2 million dollars was never recovered of the original $4.3 million stolen. Cooley told Webb that a large portion of the unrecovered $1.2 million included Dante’s cut from the heist. People who knew him said Dante was very concerned about being implicated in the heist. He was also extremely worried about the mob connections especially after learning about what had happened to Marerra. The day after Marerra was sent to CCH, long before causation was scientifically established, the Cook County State’s Attorney held a news conference stating that Marerra had been purposely poisoned. These concerns took a toll on Dante’s health and his various businesses in the Chicago area including a used car lot, hair salon, adult bookstores, and his five martial arts schools. Count Dante died at the age of 36 in his sleep on May 25, 1975 from internal hemorrhaging caused by a bleeding ulcer. Shortly before his death Dante had been given a lie detector test about the Purolator Heist, and he was slated to go before a grand jury. At the time of his death, which was seven months after the robbery, he had never been arrested or convicted in the Chicago Purolator Heist.
Floyd Webb has interviewed various individuals over the years who believe Count Dante did not die. Different accounts have him in the U.S. Marshall Service Witness Protection Program, others that he is alive and free by his own volition. No one knows for sure and without exhumation of the body buried in an unmarked grave in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois no one ever will know. Webb did obtain a copy of the death certificate for Count Dante. But many people believe it would have been easy to obtain a false document from the State of Illinois in the 1970’s. Illinois is notorious for political corruption, and that was especially true during this period. Three Illinois governors from approximately this period were convicted and sent to prison, not to mention the shenanigans of the Secretary of State’s Office. The final question in Webb’s mind was why was Dante buried in this unmarked grave at the young age of 36, even though his family was wealthy? In Webb’s documentary film about Dante he is shown standing at the unmarked gravesite positing that very question as a deer grazes in the background.
History remembers Count Dante as coming from a wealthy family and as a handsome, visionary entrepreneur. But someone who, for whatever reason, later turned thug and criminal and got his closest friend killed in a senseless fight. Per Webb’s documentary film Dante never recovered emotionally from the death of his friend Koncevic. Dante was a martial-arts “flimflam man” who fraudulently sold people training for a concept that was not valid. Also, a man who died possibly because of overriding concern based on his reported criminal activities. He is certainly not, however, the only American martial artist from the “early days” that was controversial. Here is a brief synopsis of a few others in the “dishonorable mention” category.
First up is James Masayoshi Mitose who was a renowned martial arts teacher from Hawaii. One of his top students was William Kwai Sun “Thunderbolt” Chow. Even though very small of stature Chow often tested his technique and skills against U.S. military personnel in Honolulu street fights. Later Chow trained the great American Kenpo Founder, Ed Parker who was originally from Hawaii. So, if Parker was the founding father of American Kenpo, Mitose must have been its Great-Grandfather.
After moving from Hawaii to the mainland in 1953 James Mitose taught his Kosho Shorei-ryu Kenpo form of martial arts to only a few students including Terry Lee. During this period in Mitose’s life he was reportedly involved in loan sharking activities primarily with people of Asian descent. In 1974 Mitose was convicted of murder and extortion for sending his student Terry Lee to kill Mr. Namimatsu who owed him money. Because of testifying against James Mitose, Terry Lee, who by this time had changed his name to Nimr Hassan, received only a three-year prison sentence. Mitose was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes and died in San Quentin in 1981 at the age of 64. Some American Kenpo practitioners still dispute the findings of Mitose’s trial and conviction stating that it was a tremendous miscarriage of justice. The court has in fact publicly acknowledged that it did make some rather important mistakes regarding translations from Japanese to English.
The second person in this dishonorable mention category is Thomas Pitera who as a child in the 1960’s was a huge fan of Kato on the television show “The Green Hornet.” Pitera wanted to be like Kato and trained very hard in New York becoming considerably skilled in karate and advancing in rank to black belt. He also spent two years training in Japan where he studied under famed Master Hiroshi Masumi. Pitera was awarded the two-year scholarship to Japan after winning a very tough kumite (sparring) competition in Brooklyn, NY. He fought seven bouts in one day winning each of them even though towards the end of the day he was bruised, battered, and exhausted. After his scholarship ended he found a job at a local factory in Tokyo to earn money so he could stay a while longer in Japan and train.
Upon Pitera’s return to New York he joined the Bonanno crime family as an enforcer. The Bonanno crime family is one of the original five mafia families in New York. Pitera would sometime later become a hit man for the Bonanno family committing murders on command. He was one of the most feared mafia soldiers on the streets of New York. Thomas Pitera was known in the underworld as “Tommy Karate” and in 1992 he was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of six people. He is currently serving his sentence at the United States Penitentiary McCreary in Pine Knot, Kentucky. There seems to be some poetic justice for this big city tough guy mobster, who was famous for dismembering his victims, spending the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison near a very small town in the hills of Kentucky.
Last but certainly not least is Carl Gucasian better known as “The Friday Night Bank Robber.” His claim to fame is that he successfully robbed over 50 banks across a 30-year period. The FBI has indicated that he may be the most prolific bank robber in U.S. history. Gucasian was a very intelligent man earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Villanova University. Then following a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, he earned a master’s degree in systems analysis from the University of Pennsylvania. He followed this with doctoral work in probabilities and statistics at Pennsylvania State University. During these periods he studied karate from various martial arts schools eventually earning a 3rd degree black belt in the Ryukyu Kempo style from a Pennsylvania satellite karate school in George Dillman’s organization.
Carl Gucasian was meticulous in planning his bank jobs only robbing banks adjacent to a wooded area that stayed open late on Friday evenings. Gucasian also only pulled bank jobs after daylight savings time changed so it would be dark when he hit. He waited to enter the banks until just a few minutes before closing time carrying a handgun, wearing dark baggy clothes, and a full-face mask. In each of his bank robberies he was in and out of the bank in little more than two minutes. He would then run to the woods from the bank, get on a bike or motorbike he had stationed there, ride a short distance through the woods to a van he had parked in a rural location. He put the bike in the back of the van and then drove to a nearby freeway to blend in with traffic.
Gucasian only got caught after two boys, who were playing in the woods, found a waterproof package containing money, plans, and weapons hidden deep in a drainage pipe. The FBI traced back to him from information he left in the plans that suggested he was a martial artist with advanced rank in the Ryukyu Kempo style of karate. George Dillman of Reading, Pennsylvania was interviewed by the FBI as they tried to determine who this individual might be. Eventually the FBI tracked him down and arrested him through one of Dillman’s satellite schools as well as information from Gucasian’s neighbors. His initial sentence was for 115 years, but because of his cooperation with authorities in solving a large number of bank robberies it was reduced to 17 years. During his prison time he taught calculus to other inmates in a college credit program. Carl Gucasian was released from prison in May of 2017 at the age of 69.
The individuals in these three short stories along with Count Dante are on one side of the martial arts spectrum. They are interesting to read about as part of the history of martial arts in America. As you noticed about each of them they were the author of their own demise. There were of course other famous martial artists from the “early days” who were decent people. Some of the names are folks like Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Joe Lewis, Robert Trias, Jhoon Rhee, Douglas Grose, Allen Steen, William Dometrich, Ed Parker, Benny Urquidez, Gene Lebell, and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace. These individuals were successful not only in martial arts, but also in other endeavors such as police officers, actors, firemen, bodyguards, trainers, and motivational speakers. There are countless others across the spectrum of martial arts styles. This latter group was responsible for bringing martial arts into the mainstream of American public knowledge as well as the development of the various MMA organizations of today. But no one can deny the impact on American martial arts by one John Timothy Keehan, a.k.a. Count Dante.