Mafia turncoat Joseph Valachi uttered those words before the Senate Rackets Committee in 1963 in response to a question from Nebraska Senator Carl T. Curtis about La Cosa Nostra activity in Omaha. The quote is usually used to illustrate how naive the federal government was about organized crime in those days. After all, what would the Mafia possibly want with a mid-sized corn-belt burg like Omaha? Actually, though, the quote may better illustrate how little Valachi himself knew about the workings of the Mafia beyond his own backyard.
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Mob Gambling Operations Job
In truth, the presence of the Mafia in Omaha has always been a well-kept secret -- long on rumor, short on evidence. The city’s monopoly newspaper, the World-Herald, rarely, if ever, used the term 'Mafia' when reporting on local underworld activities. Omaha, after all, is a city known for its steaks and stockyards, agriculture and insurance companies, Boys Town and Union Pacific. But it is also a place where, for much of the Twentieth Century, bookmaking was a major business and where vice interests operated, often quite openly, with little interference from the law. By mid-century, Omaha had a reputation for more illicit gambling (and more bars and taverns) per capita than any other city in the nation. In fact, the city’s significance in the national organized crime picture appears to have been as a regional -- and at times national -- layoff center; a place where bookies in other cities could place bets they had taken to help balance their action and reduce the risk of a heavy loss.
The man who first organized Omaha crime was the city’s shadowy political boss, Tom Dennison. Dennison was a flinty-eyed frontier gambler from the old school -- he ran dance halls in the tough mining towns of Colorado before drifting into rough-and-tumble Omaha around 1891 and setting up a policy game. He soon became known as the city’s 'King Gambler' and first entered the political arena around the turn of the century as a way of protecting his interests. Although he never actually held public office, Dennison advanced a 'wide-open town' policy in which he acted as a power broker between the business community and the local vice lords. For more than 25 years, his power was such that no crime occurred in the city without his blessing, the police reported to him daily, and the mayor himself answered directly to him.
During the Prohibition era, Dennison developed a working relationship with Al Capone of Chicago and Tom Pendergast of Kansas City. He also formed the Omaha Liquor Syndicate, an organization designed to monopolize the illegal liquor trade in the city. This led to a rash of violence among the city’s bootleggers, which culminated in the December 1931 murder of Harry Lapidus, a prominent businessman and outspoken opponent of the Dennison machine. Although the murder was never solved, few doubted who was ultimately responsible. Public opinion turned against Dennison, and on August 5, 1932, the boss and 58 of his associates were indicted for conspiracy to violate the National Prohibition Act. Dennison was acquitted on all charges, but retired in disgrace. In 1933, his ticket went down to defeat in a local election, and the following year, he died in California at the age of 76.
Meyer Mob was the kingpin of a small group of mobsters who were mainly into grand theft auto, larceny and all sorts of illegal gambling operations. Meyer Mob began this gang when he identified that there was no Jewish gang in his neighborhood like how there was an Italian gang and an Irish Gang. The Mafia and Legal Gambling. The Mafia had been involved in illegal gambling in major east coast cities before the government legalized gambling in 1931. The government had the desire to entice the Mafia to move their gambling operations to the state of Nevada and away from the east coast.
After the fall of the Dennison machine, a syndicate headed by Sam Ziegman and Edward J. 'Eddie' Barrick seized control of local gambling. Ziegman, who was born to a poor Jewish family in Romania, operated a downtown cigar store and bookie joint called Baseball Headquarters. Barrick, who reportedly had a law degree from the University of Iowa, operated gambling joints in Des Moines before coming to Omaha in the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, Barrick had the biggest layoff book between Chicago and the West Coast and was known as the 'millionaire bookie broker.'
As a layoff bookie, Eddie Barrick had many contacts among the nation’s top gamblers -- Dave Berman of Minneapolis and Las Vegas, Ben Whitaker in Texas, Frank Erickson of New York, and mob mastermind Meyer Lansky, who ran the Dodge Park Kennel Club in neighboring Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the 1940s. In 1950, a little black book belonging to Los Angeles rackets boss Mickey Cohen was seized and was found to contain the names and numbers of Eddie Barrick and Sam Ziegman, right alongside those of Frank Costello of New York and Charles Binaggio of Kansas City. In addition to their bookmaking activities, Barrick and Ziegman had an interest in the Chez Paree, a casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, which in the 1930s and 40s was reputed to be the largest gambling spot between Chicago and Reno.
When the IRS began collecting a 10 percent federal excise tax on wagering in 1951, Barrick and Ziegman moved their operations to Las Vegas, where they bought shares in the Flamingo hotel and casino. Ziegman was one of several former Flamingo shareholders (including Meyer Lansky) indicted in 1972 on charges of participating in a skimming conspiracy at the casino. Other than this minor setback, Barrick and Ziegman prospered in their new home. When Eddie Barrick died in 1979 at the age of 93, a Las Vegas newspaper called him 'America’s biggest bookmaker.'
Aside from drugs, extortion, usury, embezzlement, gambling, prostitution, smuggling people, and counterfeiting goods, they also make money from legitimate business practices. After strict environmental laws took effect in the 1980s, the ‘Ndrangheta made a killing from discreetly disposing of toxic waste for penny-pinching corporations. Castro nationalized casino operations and kicked out the mob. This left the mobsters with just Las Vegas, and they made the most of it. In the early 1940s, Lansky and Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel drove.
Meanwhile, the influence of Italians in Omaha’s underworld was growing. For decades, Italian immigrants had crowded into neighborhoods around the stockyards and switchyards of South Omaha. There had been some early incidents of Black Hand extortionism in these communities, and during the Prohibition era, much of the city’s bootleg liquor had been produced here; but by and large the Italians had always kept to themselves. That began to change in 1930, when Tom Dennison placed a Sicilian named Frank Calamia in charge of liquor syndicate operations on the South Side. Calamia’s influence outlived that of his mentor. From 1946 to 1951, he controlled the C&C Publishing Co., which, as the local outlet of the national race wire service, distributed racing results received from the mob-controlled Harmony News Service in Kansas City.
Although the Omaha underworld maintained close ties to cities such as Kansas City and Chicago, it seems to have enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy. It is still unclear whether the April 1953 murder of gambler Eddie McDermott in a downtown parking garage was ordered by out-of-town interests or the local boys. In their 1952 book, U.S.A. Confidential, authors Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer listed gambler Alex Marino as the local front man for the syndicate and café owner Bennie Barone as one of the top boys in the area. Barone also had close ties to Des Moines rackets boss Louis Fratto, who was a frequent visitor to Omaha. In 1958, Omaha Teamsters Union Local No. 10 was investigated by the Senate Rackets Committee after driving a rival union out of a contract with the Midwest Burlap Bag Company of Des Moines. It was later revealed that Fratto had been active in the negotiations that resulted in the factory signing the back-door contract with Local No. 10.
It is the name of Anthony J. Biase, however, that has been most often associated with the Mafia in Omaha. Biase was identified in Ed Reid’s 1969 book, The Grim Reapers, as the 'leading Mafioso in Omaha,' and was similarly referred to as the 'head of the Mafia in Omaha' in former Kansas City Police Captain Robert Heinen’s memoir, Battle Behind the Badge. Biase was born in Omaha in 1908 or 1909. His record dated back to 1922 and included convictions for assault with intent to rob and possession of burglary tools. Biase and his brother Benny owned the Turf Cigar Store (later re-named The Owl Smoke Shop) on 16th Street, which, like many Omaha cigar stores, was a front for a bookmaking operation. He had connections to organized crime figures in Kansas City, Las Vegas and California, and reportedly to New York mob boss Vito Genovese as well, although this connection is a bit murkier. Reid notes that Biase was tied to Genovese through a California narcotics trafficker named Louis Fiano. According to author Jay Robert Nash, Biase became a Genovese ally in 1957 when Genovese made a move to extend his influence to the western states. Nash goes on to say that Biase became boss of the Omaha faction of the national crime syndicate after his associate, Anthony Marcella, went to prison. Marcella, a scion of the Kansas City mob, was convicted of narcotics violations in California in 1959 and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
In March 1960, Tony Biase was indicted by a federal grand jury on eight counts of narcotics violations. At that time, officials of the Narcotics Bureau named him as the major narcotics supplier in the Midwest. Evidence against him had been gathered by an undercover narcotics agent and Kenneth Bruce Sheetz, a Kansas City hoodlum who had sold narcotics for Biase. As soon as word got around that Sheetz had turned informant, a $5,000 contract was put out on him, allegedly at Biase’s request.
On June 20, 1960, Sheetz was ambushed and shot four times by two gunmen outside his Kansas City home. Although not expected to live, he managed to pull through and identify his attackers as Felix 'Little Phil' Ferina and Tony 'Tiger' Cardarella, both associates of Kansas City’s Civella crime family.
In December 1960, Biase was convicted of violating the Federal Narcotics Act and was sentenced to 15 years in Leavenworth federal prison. He was also convicted, along with Ferina and Cardarella, of conspiring to kill Ken Sheetz. On this charge, Ferina and Cardarella were sentenced to 10 years each and Biase was assessed five years, but a federal appellate court later reversed Biase’s conspiracy conviction, leaving him with only the 15-year sentence. He was paroled from Leavenworth in 1970, and although he apparently remained active in gambling, he was never in serious trouble again. His last arrest was in 1986, when he was fined for possession of gambling records. Otherwise, he lived quietly in his South Omaha neighborhood until his death on September 21, 1991.
In January 1974, the Omaha World-Herald reported that Omaha’s multimillion-dollar illegal bookie business was controlled by eight men. They were identified as: Joe Digilio, Ross 'Soddy' DiMauro, Anthony Manzo, Clarence Matya, Sam 'Peggy' Nocita, John Salanitro, and two men whose names were not released because police had been unable to make a case against them in recent years. One of these men was described as a 66-year-old south-central Omaha resident whose record had vanished from police files in 1965. After an arrest in July 1974, this man was identified as A.J. 'Tony' Higgins, a longtime Omaha gambling figure. The other man was described as a 64-year-old pool hall owner. This mystery man was undoubtedly Max Abramson.
Russian-born Max Abramson, known in gambling circles as 'The Little Giant,' had long been a leader in local gambling. His record of gambling-related arrests dated back to the 1930s. A veteran prosecutor once referred to him as 'the elder statesman of local bookies.' Abramson, who ran a pool hall called The Rocket at 16th and Farnam, was a semi-independent bookie who occasionally had dealings with operations run by Ross DiMauro and John Salanitro. In December 1970, Abramson, along with a dozen of the nation’s biggest bookmakers, was indicted by the Justice Department in a 26-city gambling and racketeering conspiracy case that dragged on for several years. Eventually the indictments were thrown out because Attorney General John Mitchell had failed to sign the case’s wiretap orders.
Ross DiMauro was a high-volume bookmaker who also dabbled in real estate. In 1971, he received a three-year prison term for criminal contempt of court after refusing to answer questions of a federal grand jury. The sentence was later reduced to three years probation. The questions DiMauro had refused to answer had to do with his relationship with Chicago mob figure Ralph Pierce.
With a bookmaking business approaching $500,000 a week, John Salanitro was said to be the kingpin of one of the largest illegal gambling rings in the country. The son of an immigrant shoe repairman, Salanitro was orphaned at the age of 14 and had to go to work to support his sisters. His name began appearing in print in 1959 when he was arrested with Bennie Barone in a gambling raid on a downtown apartment. By 1973, his gambling operations extended to Des Moines, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver and Kansas City. Bookmakers from these cities relied heavily on Salanitro’s operation to accept layoff bets. Transcripts from a Colorado gambling case showed that Carol Jean Reeb, the girlfriend and future wife of Denver mobster Clarence 'Chauncey' Smaldone, laid off $11,800 in bets with Salanitro during one week in November 1973. In 1971, Salanitro had served part of a one-year prison term for perjury after telling a grand jury that he did not know either Paul Villano or Clyde Smaldone, members of the Denver crime family.
In March 1975, Salanitro and 17 of his associates, including Max Abramson and Ross DiMauro, were indicted by a federal grand jury for participation in an illegal gambling conspiracy. During the investigation and subsequent hearings it was shown that Salanitro’s ring had conspired with public officials to obtain tip-offs on gambling raids. A municipal judge and an assistant city prosecutor were accused of helping the ring cover up their operations in exchange for alcoholic beverages, nightclub entertainment and automobiles. Although U.S. Attorney William Schaphorst was careful to say that the ring wasn’t linked to the Mafia or organized crime, the connections of Salanitro, DiMauro, and Abramson to top mob figures in other cities call this into serious doubt. If nothing else, as one city prosecutor later put it, 'the number of people involved in this activity (local bookmaking) constitutes organized crime.' One FBI organized crime expert called the Omaha operation 'one of the slickest in the country.'
On April 15, 1976, John Salanitro was found guilty of involvement in a gambling conspiracy and sentenced to 15 months in prison. He appealed his case, but it would never come back to court -- on July 24, 1976, he suffered a massive heart attack and died at the age of 44. In all, 18 men either pleaded or were found guilty of involvement in the gambling ring. All received prison time, except for Max Abramson, who received a $2,500 fine and probation.
After Max Abramson passed away in August 1981, Kansas City’s Civella crime family attempted to move in and fill the void left by the late gambling kingpin. Two Kansas City underworld figures, Patrick James O’Brien and John Anthony Costanza, were sent to Omaha to establish and oversee a bookmaking operation on behalf of the Civellas. They were assisted in Omaha by James 'Barney' Bonofede, proprietor of Angie’s Restaurant, and bar owner Donald J. Quinn, who had been convicted in 1975 of trying to arrange a $10,000 bribe of a juror in a gambling trial. The ring handled nearly $500,000 in bets during the 1981 football season, with Costanza reporting directly back to Anthony 'Tony Ripe' Civella in Kansas City, but it was knocked out of operation following a series of raids in November 1981. A major investigation by the FBI and Omaha law enforcement into the Kansas City connection led to the indictment of 11 people on federal gambling charges. In November 1982, O’Brien, Bonofede, Quinn and two other men pleaded guilty to operating an illegal gambling business and received sentences of up to two years in prison. Six others who were indicted with them pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. This case turned out to be one of the last federal gambling investigations in Omaha.
Illegal gambling seems to have fizzled somewhat when Omaha opened its city-sponsored keno parlors and Iowa legalized pari-mutuel wagering and riverboat casino gambling. In 1991, 100 years after Tom Dennison first arrived in the city, a company owned by I.B. 'Izzy' Ziegman, a widely known local entertainment entrepreneur and the younger brother of the late Sam Ziegman, made an unsuccessful bid to be the sole operator of Omaha’s new keno parlors. The company’s gaming consultant was a self-described protégé of Eddie Barrick and Sam Ziegman -- former Omaha bookie and legendary Las Vegas casino pioneer Jackie Gaughan.
Today, police estimate that there are 20 to 25 large-volume bookmakers operating in Omaha, each pulling in about $30,000 a week in profits. These bookies are tied to each other and to organizations outside Omaha, especially in Kansas City, where many of them lay off their bets. Several of these individuals are the sons of old-time bookies who inherited their fathers’ business, but it’s unclear whether there is currently a 'boss.' In the past, wiretaps enabled the police to know who the local gambling kingpins were and how the hierarchy functioned. But due to a law passed by the stare legislature in 1988 that removed gambling from a list of crimes for which wiretaps could be obtained, police today aren’t even certain whether a gambling hierarchy exists.
'There probably is some kingpin in Omaha,' said Sgt. Steve Clouse, head of the police department’s organized crime unit in a 1999 World-Herald story. 'But we can’t determine that without the wiretap.' Without the wiretap, it’s also hard for police to determine if any of Omaha’s top bookies are tied to organized crime. Maybe time will tell.
From Frank Iaconi to Carlo Mastrototaro, organized gambling was the mainstay of the Worcester Mafia.
By Steven R. Maher
The January 1950 marriage of Worcester Mafia boss Frank Iaconi’s daughter was spectacular, a scene right out of the Godfather. “The wedding took place in true millionaire fashion in Miami,” the Providence Journal reported. “The reception that followed at the Roney-Plaza Hotel, one of the city’s finest, even made a few not easily excited Miamians stare.”
Among those present at the extravaganza was Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Charles F. “Jeff” Sullivan, the Mayor of Worcester from 1946-1950. Until Jeff Murray in 2006, Sullivan was the last Worcester resident to be elected to state wide office.
Sullivan’s friends begged reporters not to mention that Worcester’s most prominent politician was attending the nuptials of the daughter of Worcester’s most prominent Mafioso. “He [Sullivan] just slipped down here for a little vacation, and it might prove embarrassing,” one pleaded.
Also present was Worcester Police Lieutenant William V. Massei. In 1940 Massei was appointed head of the vice squad, charged with the suppression of gambling in Worcester. Iaconi – described in Senate testimony as “the head of the gambling rackets in Worcester Massachusetts” – had no problems from Massei, who told the media, “There is no gambling or lottery in Worcester.” Iaconi, the man who headed the Worcester gambling rackets and Massei, the cop in charge of suppressing the Worcester gambling rackets, even owned summer homes in Westerly, Rhode Island “..within shouting distance of one another…”
Besides Lieutenant Governor Sullivan, there was another, unrelated Sullivan present: former Ward 3 councilman Philip F. Sullivan, who in 1946 was sued along with Iaconi for $57,300 by a die maker, who claimed he had been swindled out of his life savings in an Iaconi gambling den. The event had sparked a reform movement, spear headed by Worcester Telegram owner Harry G. Stoddard, which led to the adoption of Plan E government in Worcester. Philip F. Sullivan freely posed for photographers at the Iaconi wedding, praising the gangster as “a millionaire groceryman.”
Present too were other gangland figures. Frank Costello, the “Prime Minister” of the underworld and
America’s top racketeer, sent a personal emissary to the wedding.
Surveying this scene of splendor and opulence, basking in the glow of representatives of Worcester’s political establishment present to pay him homage, beaming at the respect shown by his underworld peers, Frank Iaconi must have commented to himself on his good fortune. Thirty years earlier, an immigrant fresh off the boat, Iaconi had labored in a public works project, digging ditches for a new sewer system,
“Iaconi literally rose from a job in a sewer gutter to a position of great power in the second largest city in Massachusetts,” recounted the Providence Journal.
Enormous gambling profits
Iaconi could afford such a pageant because of the enormous profits from his gambling rackets. Gambling would be the bread and butter of the Worcester Mafia for half a century, providing a healthy diet of cash.
In 1950 the Providence Journal published a lengthy expose about organized crime in Worcester, based in part on information from a member of the Worcester Mafia. The story described a “tri-city” criminal combine with cadres in Boston, Providence, and Worcester. This expose, and rackets expert Virgil W. Peterson’s testimony to the Senate Kefauver Committee, provides a basis of understanding how the Worcester Mafia grew from a bootlegging syndicate into a gambling cartel. Iaconi was front and center in both developments.
“He [Iaconi] dropped his pick and shovel in the 20s to take part in the gambling war that hit Worcester,” said the Journal. “From that he emerged with a small piece of the rackets and the reputation of being a pretty handy trigger-man.”
More profitable was Prohibition, the criminalization of alcohol, begun in 1920 and ended in 1933. Called “the noble experiment”, Prohibition made the Mafia. The end of Prohibition forced the mob to diversify into other rackets, one of which was gambling. Worcester followed this national model.
Iaconi formed a relationship with Worcester native Raymond L.S. Patriarca, a powerful Providence based mobster who in the 1950s became the Godfather of the New England Mafia. “Patriarca and Iaconi were associated together during rum-running days,” testified Peterson. “Iaconi worked for the Patriarca gang as a Providence-Worcester agent. Booze was run between the two cities.” In this capacity “Iaconi ran booze between the two cities for 50 cents a gallon and usually hauled about 300 to 400 gallons a trip.”
Mob Gambling Operations Group
“Iaconi then left the bootlegging racket and began operating beano games, then horse betting, and then numbers,” said Peterson. This was no small time operation. Said the Journal: “His [Iaconi’s] rackets milk millions of dollars from the city’s economy each year. His numbers agents float in every industry, barroom, and public gathering place. At least half a dozen horse parlors operate brazenly not far from city hall, and about 20 others do business throughout the rest of the city.”
Worcester’s mob boss put his money to work suborning law enforcement. Massei at Iaconi’s daughter’s wedding was the tip of the iceberg. Worcester police detectives and officers provided security for Iaconi’s gambling parlors; cops actually stood guard at card games. When state police raided Iaconi gambling operations in Fitchburg, the bookies were tipped off and evaded arrest.
Symbolizing the relationship between law enforcement and mobsters was the attendance at the 1946 wedding of Iaconi’s son of no less a personage than the Sheriff of Worcester County. Six City Councilors (then called Councilmen) were also present. The occasion allowed the media to comment on Iaconi’s access to black market goods: “Even though many wartime rationing restrictions were still in effect, no one seemed to question the source of nearly 1000 steaks or the sugar that was dumped into the five-layer, 153 pound wedding cake.” This image, of politicians and cops gorging themselves on contraband steaks and cake at a Mafioso wedding, seems like a scene out of a mob comedy movie.
”Iaconi’s Worcester monopoly is an important terminal in the tri-city combine because of its immunity from police interference,” continued the Providence Journal. “Besides pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the syndicate’s reciprocal layoff system, Iaconi provides the only safe haven for ‘hot’ racketeers who merit syndicate protection. A racketeer on the lam from Providence, Boston, or any other city is assured of an undisturbed existence in Worcester if he has the O.K. of the syndicate, the former Worcester gangster reports.”
“When you say Iaconi is a shooting man, we laugh,” the defector from the Worcester Mafia remarked. “He doesn’t have to do any shooting. If someone comes into town that’s hot, he just tells the police to lay off. If someone comes in who’s not wanted, he picks up the phone and tells the cops where to get him.”
Iaconi’s control of Worcester also made it a safe place for Mafia leaders to meet. According to one published report, some 200 syndicate leaders, including Frank Costello, met at the Sheraton Hotel in Worcester in 1950.
Some believed that city officials had struck a Faustian bargain with Iaconi. One urban legend had it that Iaconi, in exchange for running his gambling operations without police interference, kept large-scale narcotics and large-scale prostitution out of Worcester. Credence to this “unholy procedure” was given by a May 1950 Worcester Telegram editorial.
“But when, throughout the years, top officials here have asked about gambling protection, the answer has been that there was an ‘arrangement’ with Iaconi which was to Worcester’s advantage,” read the editorial. “For through him, they said, Worcester was shielded from invasion by racketeers from Boston, Providence, and elsewhere who might have otherwise would have muscled in on the Worcester field, but were kept out by the squire of Shrewsbury Street. So Iaconi, we are asked to believe, was protecting Worcester.”
Iaconi had such a strangle hold over Worcester that it took a United States Senate Committee to bring him down. Worcester police never succeeded in arresting Iaconi. In 1943 Massachusetts Attorney General Robert T. Bushnell conducted raids in Worcester and arrested Iaconi for promoting a lottery. Iaconi got off with a slap on the wrist: a $5,000 fine and a two-year suspended sentence.
The Kefauver Committee was established by the U.S. Senate to investigate organized crime, and named after committee chairman Senator Estes Kefauver. After hearing testimony in 1950, Kefauver himself said the committee would examine Iaconi’s tax returns. This triggered an Internal Revenue Service investigation of Iaconi, who was indicted on five counts in February 1953 of failing to pay a total of $217,875 in taxes on $350,000 in rackets revenue. The indictment alleged Iaconi had tried to wash clean his gambling receipts through front corporations in Worcester.
“The government is understood to have based its case before the Grand Jury on evidence that allegedly showed Iaconi had funneled illegitimate funds through legitimate enterprises,” Worcester’s daily newspaper reported. “It was reported that East Side Package Store, 129 Shrewsbury Street, and Central Wholesalers Grocery Inc., 76 East Worcester Street, Worcester, were cited before the Grand Jury as evidence of Iaconi’s legitimate enterprises.”
Massei, the vice squad commander who attended the 1950 wedding of Iaconi’s daughter, was indicted by the same grand jury for failing to report $74,739 in taxable income over five years.
In July 1954 Iaconi pled guilty to one count and served eleven months in federal prison in Danbury Connecticut. Not long after being released from prison Iaconi died of natural causes.
Mob Gambling Operations Jobs
Fast-forward thirty years to the 1980s and things were remarkably the same, with different players. Carlo Mastrototaro was the boss of the Worcester Mafia with corrupt cops protecting his enterprises, albeit a tad subtler than in Frank Iaconi’s days.
Mastrototaro had risen high in mob circles. After Boston based underboss Gennaro J. Angiulo was jailed, Patriarca reportedly promoted Mastrototaro to underboss, the second in command of the New England Mafia.
But in the early1980s Mastrototaro had a determined adversary who emerged from the same geographic and ethnic terrain as the Worcester Mafia: District Attorney John A. Conte.
It is hard to find anyone in the Worcester media with a good word to say about John Conte. He made reporters’ lives difficult. Obsessed with keeping the District Attorney’s office nonpolitical, Conte made himself almost completely unavailable for comment on crime stories. Legend had it that one Worcester Telegram reporter had programmed his computer to automatically type into stories that Conte had no comment. Conte’s rare press conferences or comments inspired Diane Williamson to dub Conte “The Phantom”.
Conte was elected state senator in 1962. In 1973 two Worcester Lodges of the Sons of Italy gave Conte their achievement award. As a state senator whose district included Worcester’s east side, Conte must have crossed paths with Mafiosi at public events in certain neighborhoods. That didn’t stop Conte from prosecuting them years later as District Attorney. Given the damage done to Italians’ reputation by the Mafia, there is some historical justice in the prominent role played by an honest Italian-American like Conte in a concerted effort to disrupt the Worcester Mafia.
“Operation Big League”
Past law enforcement efforts to dismantle organized crime failed because Mafiosi were prosecuted as individuals for solitary acts. RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was to prove so effective against criminal syndicates, was in its infancy. Conte approached the Worcester Mafia as an organization, which had to be taken apart from top to bottom, from Mastrototaro at the heights to the low level street operators. Conte was on the cutting edge of jurisprudence, using a RICO-style approach before RICO itself became fashionable.
Conte was convinced that the mob was dealing narcotics.
“I think there has been one myth that has been prevailing in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the past few years: that organized crime is not into drugs,” Conte told reporters at a press conference. “I think we can dispel that and say point blank that wherever we find gaming and organized crime, we positively seem to find drugs also.”
In October 1980 the investigation got underway. Code-named “Operation Big League”, it began with electronic surveillance in locations around Worcester County between February and August 1981. 500 cassettes of audiotapes, each sixty to ninety minutes long, were compiled recording bookmaking, drug deals, and other sundry crimes.
In August federal, state, and local police raided 17 locations in Worcester, Clinton, Saugus, Springfield, Agawam, Brookline, and Concord. “All aspects of organized crime, from gaming and drugs to extortion, porno shops and prostitution – you name it, it was all uncovered in one fashion or another in this investigation,” said Conte.
The evidence from the raids and the electronic surveillance was brought before a grand jury and 44 people were charged:
• Mastrototaro and four other men were indicted for running an extensive gambling operation. Operating out of a location on Green Street in Worcester, the enterprise took bets, ran a lottery by phone at several locations in Worcester and one in Clinton. Counting those indicted in later investigations, this network may have had over seventy operatives throughout Worcester County.
• Mastrototaro was charged in connection with the theft of $45,000 worth of pornographic videos, which were to be sold by Mastrototaro’s pornography store United Books on Main Street in Worcester. (See following story.)
• A drug network was exposed selling cocaine, marijuana, Valium and other controlled substances. Mastrototaro was not indicted on any drug related charges, but some of the men charged with helping Mastrototaro running a gaming syndicate were also charged with running the drug operation.
• To complete the analogy with Frank Iaconi’s era, three Worcester cops were indicted for conspiracy to sell cocaine and other defalcations. One of the cops was nicknamed “Security”, apparently for his efforts at safeguarding Mafia activities. All three later pled guilty to charges of trafficking cocaine.
“The main purpose [of Operation Big League] is to prosecute organized crime and bring to public attention the connection between drugs and gaming in organized crime operations,” Conte said at a press conference. “The public will know there are police agencies that want to bring down organized crime.”
Mob Gambling Operations Definition
As a result of intelligence developed from “Operation Big League”, two other large-scale prosecutions of organized crime later took place. One was “Operation Rackets” in June 1983, in which thirteen were charged with running a wagering network in the Leominster area. In March 1984 Conte obtained indictments in “Operation Underworld” against thirty-seven participants in a Worcester area gaming operation. A number of those indicted had east side addresses, and three had the last name Mastrototaro.
Carlo Mastrototaro was not indicted in “Operation Rackets”. By this time he had pled guilty to a number of “Operation Big League” charges and was sentenced to eighteen months in jail. In 1984 was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for his part in a $1 million scheme to defraud 3,000 persons in a bogus travel agency scam.
Organized gambling was long the lifeblood of the Worcester Mafia. Two conclusions can be drawn from this chronicle. First, modern technology -sophisticated electronic surveillance – is the best tool for penetrating and dismantling illegal, dangerous networks. Second, such gambling syndicates can only thrive in an atmosphere in which they are tolerated by a complacent or corrupted law enforcement.