Toronto·CBC Investigates

Slain tow truck kingpin had a target on his back for years, court documents show

Alex Vinogradsky, a kingpin in Toronto's tow truck underworld who was gunned down outside a north-end plaza last month, had previously been the focus of plots to kill him, court documents reveal. Police also had information that he'd ordered hits on his perceived rivals.

3 men charged in 2018 plot against Toronto's Alex Vinogradsky, who was also grazed in 2019 drive-by shooting

A smiling man with dark hair and a beard is seen wearing a dark checkered blazer.
Alexander Vinogradsky, the owner of Paramount Towing, was gunned down on March 28 near Dufferin Street and Finch Avenue in Toronto. (Toronto Police Service)

Alexander Vinogradsky's Facebook posts share puns, poke fun at Gen Z and show off a trip to Tokyo Disneyland last year. In others, he is smiling or highlighting damaged cars in need of a tow.

But beneath the cheerful faces and overseas vacations, a constant menace lingered in Vinogradsky's life: as a kingpin in the Toronto area's tow truck underworld, he was a marked man. 

Before he was gunned down March 28 outside a north-end Toronto plaza, he owned Paramount Towing, one of four outfits allegedly locked in a deadly turf war that prompted a major police crackdown in 2019 and 2020. The investigation prompted dozens of arrests — Vinogradsky's included.

And though he was never charged in any murder plots, investigators had information the tow truck boss ordered hits on at least two perceived rivals in late 2018, according to court decisions that have not previously been reported on. One of those men survived a drive-by shooting while the other, Soheil "Cadi" Rafipour, was shot dead that Christmas Eve

"The owner of Paramount Towing was identified as Alex Vinogradsky and the confidential information received suggested that the murder of Mr. Rafipour had been ordered by Mr. Vinogradsky," an Ontario Superior Court judge wrote in a trial-related ruling published in January, recounting the steps police took to investigate the crime.  

Two men — one of whom worked for Paramount Towing, according to evidence presented at their pre-trial hearings — were convicted this past December for the Christmas Eve slaying.

Whether he knew it or not, Vinogradsky appeared to have stepped into a hornet's nest. According to court records obtained by CBC News, both of the targets in those 2018 shootings were associates of Toronto resident Girolamo Commisso — the nephew of Cosimo Commisso, a man long alleged to be a senior Mafia figure in the Greater Toronto Area. 

Police have not named any suspects or made any arrests in Vinogradsky's killing.

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Costa Rica plot

The first of the two shootings allegedly ordered by Vinogradsky targeted a man named Sergei Manukian. He and Rafipour had ambitions to start a competing tow truck business in the GTA with the goal of bringing in more clients to Manukian's existing physical rehabilitation clinic — namely, the people in the wrecked cars they would be towing, a judge said investigators had learned. 

Manukian was sitting outside his clinic — barely a block from the Toronto plaza where Vinogradsky would be killed six years later — in the driver's seat of a black Jeep, smoking a cigarette and chatting with his friend Jonathan Salazar-Blanco in the passenger seat. Two men in a grey sedan drove up and fired 21 bullets at them. The sedan then tried to speed away, but crashed into a nearby dumpster.

Neither man was injured; Manukian chased after one of the attackers and managed to subdue him. He was charged in relation to this incident and a video presented in court shows him repeatedly striking and wrestling a man to the ground. He was later convicted of assault and given an absolute discharge.

A composite photo shows headshots of two men.
Girolamo Commisso, left, Alex Yizhak, right, and a third man were charged in 2019 with plotting to kill Vinogradsky, but they were acquitted. (healwholeself/Instagram, Alex Yizhak/Facebook)

The day after the drive-by shooting, Salazar-Blanco told police, he flew to his native Costa Rica because he was afraid for his life. He told them he bought a last-minute ticket with money from friends, including Girolamo Commisso and their associate Alex Yizhak. 

Coincidentally, they had just learned that Vinogradsky was possibly also in or travelling to Costa Rica.

Commisso, Yizhak and Salazar-Blanco then began to make arrangements that would lead to police charging them with conspiring to murder Vinogradsky. 

All three were acquitted of the charges. But phone messages between the three men, obtained by police through search warrants connected to the Project Kraken investigation that included corruption in the towing industry, suggest there was no love lost between them and the Paramount Towing chief. 

Shortly after Salazar-Blanco landed in Liberia, Costa Rica, he messaged Commisso on WhatsApp about an apparent plan to get a gun. 

A police officer who investigated the case would later file a sworn statement saying that he believed "maquina" — Spanish for "machine" — was slang for a gun. 

"I believe Salazar-Blanco is speaking about obtaining a cheap and smaller caliber firearm to keep noise down while firing it," he wrote.

There was no evidence Commisso ever sent any of the money discussed in the texts.

In messages a few minutes later, Salazar-Blanco tells Commisso from the airport: "Im here and not leaving," and "Ill do it with my bare hands if i have to."

And then just over an hour later: "I got it bro if he comes by here hes mine." Commisso replied: "let's hope u can get the exact flight."

Salazar-Blanco was simultaneously also texting with Yizhak. 

A few hours later, Salazar-Blanco messaged a photo of his hand cradling a loaded revolver. 

"It's on ma [N-word]," he wrote. 

However, Salazar-Blanco never found Vinogradsky in Costa Rica. According to further text exchanges filed in court, the men appear to have learned he was actually in Miami.

Salazar-Blanco was acquitted of conspiracy to commit murder in February 2022 when a judge ruled that while she had no reasonable doubt that there "was a conspiracy to find and kill Mr. Vinogradsky," it wasn't clear that Salazar-Blanco had a true intention to be a part of it based on the phone messages and his police interrogation. He could have been bluffing, the judge said.

The WhatsApp messages were never before the court at Commisso and Yizhak's brief trial in June 2022 because both men were immediately acquitted after the Crown announced its case couldn't go forward without its key witness, Salazar-Blanco. He had been personally subpoenaed but was unlikely to attend to testify, a prosecutor said. 

"It really would give it too much credit to say there was a weak case against both men," said defence lawyer Greg Lafontaine, who represented Yizhak at trial and both defendants at their preliminary hearing. 

"There was absolutely no case of guilt at all."

Reached earlier this week, Commisso said he had no comment. Salazar-Blanco did not reply to a request for comment sent through his former lawyer.

2019 drive-by shooting

It wasn't the last time Vinogradsky was targeted. 

In spring 2020, he was swept up in the police crackdown on the Greater Toronto Area's tow truck turf wars and faced charges of fraud, conspiracy to commit arson and a number of organized-crime offences. 

He brought a court application to have his home address redacted from evidence that would be disclosed to the 50-plus defendants, as previously reported in the Toronto Star

That application revealed that in December 2018, Toronto-area police had warned him they had information that his life was in danger. Soon after, Vinogradsky and his family moved to a different home. 

In April 2019, he went back to his former home and those threats became a reality.

While he was parked outside, the 2020 ruling on his application noted, another vehicle drove past and a man in the front passenger seat began firing a handgun at him. He drove away with the other car in pursuit, a man still firing at him.

A bullet hit him under his left armpit, the ruling said, but the injury was minor. 

In a statement he gave to police after the incident, Vinogradsky said he felt like "a dead man with money on [his] head," but wouldn't say who he thought was responsible, telling officers, "I have to think about my street cred." 

In June 2020, multiple cars and trucks were set on fire outside one of Vinogradsky's businesses.

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Violence persists in towing industry

The charges against Vinogradsky were dropped in 2022 when prosecutors decided they couldn't meet their obligation to disclose all relevant evidence to the defence without compromising the identity of one or more confidential police informants.   

Vinogradsky went back to work running Paramount Towing, posting a photo of a damaged car on Facebook as recently as Feb. 22 — five weeks before his death — with the comment "Another day on the job" and his company's phone number.

Reached by CBC News last week, a member of Vinogradsky's immediate family said they had "nothing to add right now." 

After arresting Vinogradsky and more than 50 others in 2020 amid the tow truck turf wars, police announced that they were dismantling "four distinct criminal organizations." They said, "We expect the extreme level of violence we have seen in our community to diminish." 

But the industry is still reeling.

Just last month, two masked people doused a tow truck in liquid and set it on fire at a strip mall in Richmond Hill, Ont. 

Surveillance footage showing a white tow truck in a plaza set on fire, and a suspect in dark-coloured clothing running away from the car.
A tow truck in a Richmond Hill plaza was set on fire in early March. The fire caused damage to a nearby business, police said. (York Regional Police)

The week before, A Action Towing and Recovery, a company based in Burlington, Ont., said three of its trucks were set ablaze overnight. Those incidents followed a rash of apparent tow truck arsons in the Greater Toronto Area last summer and fall.  

A Action Towing's owner, Doug Murray, told CBC News that there's been a significant drop in violent incidents between tow truck operators in some areas, but in others violence can persist. 

"As long as guys are fighting for the tow and chasing for the tow, there's going to be people angry with each other." 


Zach Dubinsky

Senior Writer, CBC Investigations Unit

Zach Dubinsky is an investigative journalist. His reporting on offshore tax havens (including the Paradise Papers and Panama Papers), political corruption and organized crime has won multiple national and international awards. Phone: 416-205-7553. Twitter: @DubinskyZach Email