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Mafia has long history here, growing from bootlegging days

Second of two parts

Monday, November 06, 2000

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sept. 13, 1931. Joseph Siragusa, 49, a bootlegger known as the "Yeast Baron" of Allegheny County, is preparing for his morning shave in the basement bathroom of his Squirrel Hill mansion.

His face covered with lather, he walks into the main room of the basement and finds himself facing three men with guns.

    Related coverage:

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The Western Pennsylvania mob today


He wheels and runs for the staircase.

Too late.

Five bullets rip into his chest and face.

He falls, grasping a stairway post, as two holy pictures tacked to the post fall onto his body.

When police arrive, they find a bizarre scene.

As Siragusa lies lifeless beneath a string of rosary beads, his prized parrot, Polly, shrieks from a cage nearby.

"Poor Joe! Poor Joe!"

"Two hours later she was still repeating her lament," read the account in The Pittsburgh Press, "while two canaries in a second basement chorused funeral tones."

Such was the death of one of Pittsburgh's earliest mob bosses.

It wasn't the first spectacular killing, or the last.

Chicago has its Scarface Al Capone and New York its Lucky Luciano, but Pittsburgh is not without its own bloody mob history.

The Western Pennsylvania mob is one of 24 traditional Mafia families in the United States, and its rise and decline has mirrored that of families in other cities.

The mob grew from the bootlegging years of the 1920s as immigrants seized economic opportunity. It became entrenched by alternately intimidating and protecting urban communities. It flourished for five decades despite internal power struggles.

And in the end, it was crippled by a combination of its own greed and relentless law enforcement.


Organized crime, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, is largely a story of immigrants and alcohol.

In the early part of the century, groups of criminals were already active. In Pittsburgh Police homicide logbooks, murders were often chalked up to the Black Hand, a secretive free-lance gang that preyed mostly on Italian immigrants.

But the outlawing of alcohol in 1920 created the first large-scale criminal organizations as Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants took control of the bootlegging industry.

All three groups had flocked to the industrial cities, Pittsburgh among them, for jobs. All three found themselves at the bottom of the economic food chain, their prospects hindered by poverty and discrimination. Under those circumstances, the urban landscape was a breeding ground for crime.

There were other social factors at work, too, mostly rooted in ethnicity.

According to "Blood and Power," a history of organized crime by Stephen Fox, the saloon was at the center of Irish community life, so the Irish found themselves in the ideal position to become the first bootleggers. Jewish criminals also recognized the profit potential, giving rise to such notorious groups as Detroit's Purple Gang.

But the Italians -- and in particular the Sicilians -- would come to dominate the underworld.

One of the main catalysts was Benito Mussolini. When he assumed power in 1922, he consolidated his regime in Sicily by subduing the Sicilian Mafia. Sicilian gangsters fled to America, where they gravitated to bootlegging.

The early Italian gangs didn't enjoy the same protections from the law as the Irish, who had ties with police and politicians. But what they had, according to "Blood and Power," was "their reputation for deadly, unpredictable violence."

Of all the gangs, the Sicilians proved the most violent. The early Mafia bosses in Pittsburgh and other cities grew up in Sicily, where the mob has its origins.

For 2,000 years, the island had been occupied by foreign powers whose feudal overlords kept private armies to enforce their authority. The armies evolved into secret societies. After the reign of Napoleon, these Mafia groups became mediators between peasants and the aristocracy.

The Mafia "families" were adept at exerting political influence and granting favors, but they also committed crimes and terrorized the populace.

The Sicilians brought that legacy with them to America, where the same symbiotic relationship took root in Italian communities.

In Pittsburgh, mobsters established themselves in the Italian neighborhoods of Larimer, the Hill District and Homewood. Outside the city, they set up rackets in New Kensington, Arnold, Wilkinsburg, McKees Rocks, Wilmerding, Braddock and other blue-collar towns.

The early years

The American Mafia, with its familiar hierarchy, national commission and established families in various cities, didn't truly take shape until the end of Prohibition in 1933.

In the decade leading up to repeal, gangs fought constantly over territory.

Between 1926 and 1933, there were more than 200 gangland killings in Allegheny County, according to old news accounts. About half of them went unsolved. Many bootleggers simply disappeared.

The first true boss to emerge here was Stefano Monastero, who had run bootleg supply warehouses on the North Side since 1925 and had survived several murder attempts.

On Aug. 6, 1929, his luck ran out.

As he and his brother, Sam, stepped out of their car in front of St. John's General Hospital on their way to visit a member of their gang, assassins opened fire on them with shotguns.

Police charged Monastero's arch-rival: Joe "The Ghost" Pangallo, who had himself survived numerous attempts on his life, including a 1927 incident in which a dynamite blast blew him through the roof of his car on Wylie Avenue.

Monastero was succeeded by Siragusa, who had emigrated illegally from Sicily to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1910 and moved to Pittsburgh at age 18.

He made a fortune supplying beer makers with yeast, his rackets controlled by Salvatore Maranzano of New York. Joe Bonanno of New York fame became Maranzano's apprentice, supervising his whiskey stills in Pennsylvania. Like many bosses in smaller cities, Siragusa made tribute payments to Maranzano.

But a nationwide purge was coming.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a new faction of mobsters led by Lucky Luciano was trying to wrest control of the rackets from the old-liners in New York.

Maranzano became a victim on Sept. 10, 1931. Three days later, a group of New York hitmen showed up at Siragusa's $35,000 showplace home and gunned him down.

John Bazzano, whose son John Bazzano Jr. is one of the few remaining Pittsburgh mob members, became the new boss.

An unimposing Sicilian who immigrated to the United States in the 1890s, John Sr. worked as a theater manager, then built an empire by controlling sugar and yeast for beer makers. He lived with his wife and five children in a palatial Mt. Lebanon home where the lawn was "as smooth as golf links."

In 1932, he tried to consolidate his power by ordering the most spectacular gang murder in the city's history: the Volpe killings.

The eight Volpe brothers were racketeers in the Turtle Creek Valley who claimed royal Italian blood and virtually owned police and politicians in Wilmerding. One of them, James, served on Wilmerding Council.

They made no effort to hide their status. According to one news account, they were known for their "gaudy display of showmanship, calculated to impress their humble neighbors and feed a colossal conceit."

John Volpe drove a 16-cylinder Cadillac with bulletproof windows and a license plate that read "J.V.8." -- the 8 stood for the eight brothers. He also wore a watch fob studded with 25 diamonds arranged to form his initials.

Bazzano had agreed to take on the Volpes as his partners, and they used the Roma Coffee Shop on Wylie Avenue, which Bazzano owned, as their headquarters.

But when the brothers expanded their territory into East Liberty and the North Side, Bazzano ordered them rubbed out.

On the morning of July 29, 1932, gunmen pulled up to the coffee shop and opened fire. John was shot four times on the sidewalk. Inside the shop, a spray of bullets struck Arthur Volpe as he ate a bowl of corn flakes. James Volpe died trying to hide behind the counter.

On the weekend of the funeral, an estimated 50,000 people visited the Volpe home to pay their respects -- including judges, prosecutors, police and politicians.

The turnout illustrated another reality of mob power. Despite its criminal nature, the Mafia was respected by the public as much as feared. That respect is one of the main reasons for the longevity of organized crime.

By paying off police, judges and politicians, gangsters had the power to keep the peace, convey favors, sell jobs and take care of neighborhood problems.

Sometimes, of course, killing was also necessary.

After the Volpe hit, two of the surviving brothers, Louis and Joseph, complained to the La Cosa Nostra Commission in New York, which had been recently formed to oversee Mafia disputes. Because the hit had not been sanctioned, the hierarchy decided to make an example of Bazzano.

In an often-used mob trick, he was lured to a dinner in New York and set upon by almost everyone in attendance.

On Aug. 8, 1932, his body turned up in the middle of a street in Brooklyn, N.Y., wrapped in a burlap sack. He had been stabbed 22 times in the chest with ice picks and strangled with a rope. His tongue had also been cut out and his lips sealed with tape.

Police arrested 14 La Cosa Nostra members a few days later, including notorious New York mobster Albert Anastasia.

The charge: loitering. Police said they never could gather evidence to prosecute anyone for the killing.

Glory days

When Prohibition ended, the bootleggers needed a new source of income and returned to the traditional rackets of gambling and loan-sharking.

As its factions consolidated through murder, the Mafia slowly became established as a national criminal enterprise, mostly unchallenged.

"On some levels, gangsters then had more power than ever before or since," Stephen Fox writes in "Blood and Power." "The general public at the time was remarkably naive, even willfully ignorant, of the situation."

The mob entered its heyday, which would last through the 1970s.

After his gruesome death, Bazzano had been replaced by Vincenzo Capizzi, who ruled the family until 1937, when he voluntarily stepped down. Control passed to Frank Amato Sr., of Braddock, whose son Frank "Sonny" Amato Jr. is a current mob member, according to the former Pennsylvania Crime Commission and the FBI.

Amato Sr. expanded the family's influence beyond Allegheny County, concentrating mostly on gambling, but in 1956 developed a kidney ailment and resigned to become underboss.

John Sebastian LaRocca took over.

Born in 1901 in Sicily, he came to the United States in 1910 and settled with his family in Indiana County. At 14, he took a job in a coal mine in Yatesboro and stayed until 1922, when he went to prison for three years for assaulting a young woman.

When he got out, he moved to Scranton and married, settling with his wife in Jamestown, N.Y. After a failed attempt to run a gas station, he began transporting illegal liquor between Jamestown and Buffalo.

He and his wife moved to Pittsburgh in 1933, where he set up a beer equipment and concrete block business in Oakland. In the next decade, he gained control of the numbers rackets in Homewood and elsewhere. He was arrested and convicted several times for larceny, receiving stolen property and operating a lottery.

Citing his criminal record, the Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to deport him in 1953 as an "undesirable alien."

The effort led to scandal. During the deportation hearings, several prominent figures testified on his behalf. One of them, Allegheny County Judge Premo J. Columbus, LaRocca's former attorney, said "there is no human being I would respect more than John LaRocca."

Outgoing Gov. John S. Fine stymied the deportation when he granted LaRocca an unprecedented back-dated pardon for a 1939 larceny conviction. That decision caused an uproar, but Fine dismissed it as a "tempest in a teapot."

In the end, the crime boss stayed and his stature grew. In 1957, he attended the infamous meeting of mob leaders at a house in Apalachin, N.Y., with his lieutenants, Michael Genovese and Gabriel "Kelly" Mannarino.

Mannarino ran his own empire in New Kensington with his brother Sam and became a local legend, enjoying a cozy relationship with politicians.

When the Mannarinos' mother died in 1957, according to old FBI files, federal agents were stunned to see Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence arrive at the Mannarino home to pay his respects.

Mannarino's influence stretched from New York to Cuba.

A year after the Apalachin incident, according to the FBI, his associates were arrested and later convicted for trying to ship $10,000 worth of rifles and machine guns stolen from an Ohio armory to rebel soldiers in Cuba under Fidel Castro.

The scheme was an attempt to take back control of the Sans Soucie, a casino in Havana owned by Mannarino, who believed that Castro would protect his gambling interests.

The 1950s and 1960s were lucrative years for the Pittsburgh mob, and LaRocca commanded a national reputation. In 1959, he appeared before the Senate Rackets Committee and pleaded the Fifth Amendment when asked by Robert F. Kennedy if he was among those who escaped the roundup at Apalachin.

A decade later, LaRocca and underboss Mannarino, along with Thomas "Sonny" Ciancutti, attended a national conference to pick a successor to New York crime boss Vito Genovese, who the FBI said is not related to Michael Genovese.

"[LaRocca] was what has come to be known as 'a man of respect,' " wrote the former Pennsylvania Crime Commission, "characterized by allegiance to the traditional 'Mafia values' of obeying orders, keeping secrets, and effective use of violence."

Some officials in Pittsburgh refused to accept that LaRocca was a big wheel in the Mafia or that the city even had a mob family.

"As far as I know," Public Safety Director James J. Dillon said in the early 1960s, "there is no syndicated crime in Pittsburgh."

A police superintendent said LaRocca was simply a businessman.

The unraveling

Federal agents knew better.

An IRS agent, Andrew Susce, had investigated LaRocca in 1943 at the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. But Susce said he was fired by his immediate boss when his 300-page report revealed extensive public corruption. The suppressed report was later used as background by U.S. Attorney Dick Thornburgh in his prosecutions of mobsters in the 1970s.

As LaRocca's health began to fail, leadership fell to Mannarino, Joseph "Jo Jo" Pecora and Michael Genovese. But Pecora was convicted on gambling charges in 1979, and a year later Mannarino died of cancer.

When LaRocca died in 1984, the Pittsburgh family chose Michael Genovese as the new boss.

According to the Crime Commission and the FBI, Genovese aggressively pursued the drug trafficking trade, in violation of old mob rules.

The shift left the mob exposed, investigators say, because drugs invited more scrutiny from police and federal authorities than other Mafia rackets. Because drug dealers faced serious jail time, they were more likely to turn informant.

Which is precisely what happened.

Through the 1980s, the FBI systematically attacked cocaine networks that provided the mob with a steady flow of income. Major cocaine cases involved key associates of the mob, including Gary Golden, Eugene Gesuale, Joe Rosa, Marvin Droznek and Paul "No Legs" Hankish. The drug investigations eventually led to Charles "Chucky" Porter and Louis Raucci Sr., Genovese's top officers, who orchestrated the distribution of thousands of kilos of coke.

During the mid-1980s, with drug profits flowing, the Pittsburgh family had initiated new members for the first time in many years. Porter and Ciancutti became members in 1986. Joseph Naples and Lenine "Lenny" Strollo, who controlled the Youngstown rackets, were inducted in 1987.

Their fates indicate how far the mob has fallen.

Porter, along with Raucci and seven others, was convicted of racketeering in 1990 and went to prison. Raucci died in 1995 while a federal prisoner. Porter turned informant shortly after, according to a recent motion filed by the U.S. attorney's office.

Naples is long dead, killed in a mob hit in Youngstown in 1991 that the FBI suspects Strollo engineered.

Last year, Strollo became a government witness and testified at a federal trial in Cleveland. Now Ciancutti, one of the handful of members left at age 70, is in trouble.

Two weeks ago he was arrested with 14 associates on charges of running a gambling ring in Fayette County.

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