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Obituary: Frank D. Amato Jr. / Although identified as Mafia figure, he was never charged with crime

Friday, November 07, 2003

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

His friends who went to federal prison must have been jealous of Frank D. "Sonny" Amato Jr.

The son of a Pittsburgh Mafia godfather, he ran his own lucrative gambling empire in North Braddock for years, managing to avoid the lockup and, for the most part, staying out of the media spotlight.

And shortly after the 1990 Pittsburgh mob trial that sent away La Cosa Nostra lieutenants Charles "Chucky" Porter and Louis Raucci Sr., Mr. Amato even won the lottery.

On July 31, 1991, his wife, Betty Amato, hit the Pennsylvania Lottery's Super 7 jackpot and raked in $12.6 million, according to lottery records.

That raised some eyebrows among federal agents, especially because the mother of a fellow mobster, Thomas Ciancutti, had also recently won the lottery.

"We always wondered about that," said Roger Greenbank, a retired FBI agent who investigated the mob in Pittsburgh. "It just seemed too good to be true."

None of it ever made the papers, of course.

"It's not something we made public," Betty Amato said yesterday.

Mr. Amato, identified by the FBI as a Mafia member who reported to Porter, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure. He was 75.

"He was the best guy you could ever know," said Betty Amato, who lived with her husband on Broadway Street in East McKeesport. "There will never be anybody like him. He was honest and a true friend. There was no one like Sonny Amato."

Mr. Amato's past is entangled with the history of La Cosa Nostra in Western Pennsylvania, one of 24 original Mafia families in the United States and once among the biggest money-makers.

According to Greenbank, court testimony and reports by the defunct Pennsylvania Crime Commission, Mr. Amato was a major income-producer for the mob in the eastern suburbs of Braddock, Turtle Creek and East Pittsburgh.

But he was an old-school gangster, not given to attracting attention.

"He was very quiet," said Greenbank, who conducted surveillance on the Mafia throughout the 1980s. "He was like the old mustaches. Dressed up, with a necktie. He was always well-dressed. He looked like a businessman."

Greenbank remembers spying on Mr. Amato at his newsstand, Braddock News, and later at Catoris Candies in New Kensington.

"He held court," Greenbank said. "He was older; he was almost like a consigliere (counselor). You had to get approval to do something in his territory. But there was no violence. He stayed behind the scenes."

Mr. Amato was never charged with a crime.

But he was identified in federal court papers as an "unindicted co-conspirator," and his name came up in the testimony of Marvin "Babe" Droznek, an enforcer and drug dealer who said Mr. Amato was an underling to Porter, who himself reported to current mob boss Michael Genovese of West Deer.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Amato personally directed Droznek's activities as a sports bookmaker, using inside information on football games that Mr. Amato provided from a contact in Las Vegas.

Fred Burdell Jr., the former police chief of North Braddock, also played a leadership role in the illegal gambling business. Burdell, who died in 1990 of cancer at 61, had denied involvement in organized crime, but the Crime Commission said Mr. Amato relied on Burdell and other crooked public officials to maintain dominance of his gambling territory.

Droznek said he once attended a meeting between Mr. Amato and Ciancutti when the two men had a dispute over control of gambling in Braddock in the early 1980s. The Crime Commission and the FBI identified Ciancutti as a member of La Cosa Nostra.

Droznek, who carried a gun to the meeting, testified that the dispute was settled when Mr. Amato gave Ciancutti $20,000 to stay out of his territory.

Mr. Amato liked Droznek so much that he promised him membership in La Cosa Nostra "if the books ever open up."

Born on Nov. 11, 1927 in Braddock, Mr. Amato was the son of Frank Amato Sr., who ran the Pittsburgh mob from 1937 until his resignation because of a kidney ailment in 1956. Control of the family passed to Sebastian John LaRocca, and Amato Sr. became the family's underboss and consigliere until his death in 1973.

Under LaRocca, who died in 1984, the mob had strict gambling territories. LaRocca operated in Pittsburgh; Ciancutti had New Kensington; Louis Raucci had Penn Hills; and Mr. Amato had Braddock.

Mr. Amato continued to control gambling and the fencing of stolen property in Braddock throughout the 1980s.

Besides his wife, Mr. Amato is survived by two sons, Frank F. Amato and Fred Amato; sisters Frances Pirozzi and Peggy Scherbanic; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. today at Ronald V. Lucas Funeral Home in North Braddock. The funeral will be at noon tomorrow at the funeral home.

Torsten Ove can be reached at or 412-263-2620.

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