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Deep in the Heart of Texas: The Rise of the Italian Mafia in the Lone Star State

By Thom L. Jones

The Texas Almanac claims the heart of the territory lies near a small town called Brady, in McCulloch County. In square miles, Texas is the largest mainland state in the Union. Only Alaska tops it in size. “Bigger than Texas” is a somewhat overused expression, but hits the spot. It’s bigger than France and Germany and Kenya and is the exact size of Iran. It covers 270,000 square miles.

By the quickest road traveled, it’s 287 miles from Brady, south-east to Houston the major city in the state. Although rarely thought of as a Mafia stronghold, Texas, at one time had two, perhaps three Cosa Nostra families operating within its boundaries.

They were based in Galveston and certainly in Dallas and maybe in Houston, the largest metropolitan area, by population, in 1949 where this story begins, or, if a story has no beginning and no end, only points of entry and exit as Carlos Luiz Zafon believes, this is where we make an entrance. [1]

A Houston Mafia capo

It was alleged Vincent Vallone was in the Mafia. Perhaps a capo or boss of a team of soldiers or made men, running a small crew, maybe a dozen along with an unknown number of associates who worked for and under the soldiers. He lived in Houston. And that’s where he died. Like many of his peers, he did it the hard way.

We know how he died, but as almost always, in the world of Cosa Nostra, the why is invariably the most frustrating and tantalizingly elusive noun, endlessly beyond our reach. There is no “hard” evidence he was what he was. We know he lived in Houston, killed someone, went to prison, ran a restaurant, was married with children and someone killed him. There are no law enforcement files that prove beyond a doubt that he was a Mafia Don. And if he was, who his boss was. That he worked for the Dallas Mob or the Galveston Mob or even had his own mob.

If he was Cosa Nostra, he knew the rules.

The force of Cosa Nostra

Clausewitz believed murder was the continuation of politics by other means. Mafia politics has always been at the root of all the action within its dynamics as a social force. The use of the ultimate violence was from its origins in Sicily, the way the Mafia maintained its workable temperature within its political structure. Everyone who joined Cosa Nostra knew the only way out was death; however it evolved.

At about 10 pm. on the hot, sultry evening of Friday, July 15, a man called Barlow was standing on his house porch near the intersection of Chocolate Bayou and Schurmier Roads, about ten miles south of downtown Houston, when he noticed two cars speeding down the highway. As they approached his home, one, a black Cadillac, slowed down as though waiting for the other vehicle to overtake. It did, and as it passed, there were two loud blasts from the rear window of the other car. The Cadillac swerved and then ran off the road. The other car sped away into the night. [2]

Barlow ran across to the Cadillac. The driver, smartly dressed in a dark colored suit, shirt, and tie, lay sprawled across the front seat. The top of his head had been blasted off. The impact of the kill-shot had been so significant, it had blown his false teeth out of his mouth into the foot-well of the car.

The police investigators subsequently discovered two shotgun charges of buckshot had been fired from the pursuit car, one going wide and striking a house nearby, the other going through the left rear window, killing the driver instantly. He was, in due course, identified as Vincent Vallone, 65 years old, who lived with his wife Maria, down Old Chocolate Road on a sprawling estate.

Coming to America

Born in Gioia Tauro, Calabria, Italy, in November 1884, he had arrived in America forty-five years earlier, at the port of Boston where it seems he had a brother, Nicola. Sailing from Genoa on the SS Romanic, he arrived in May 1904. On April 22, 1906, he was living in Houston, as reported in his signed application for citizenship submitted in 1919. He stood five-five, weighed one-forty, brown eyes that matched the color of his hair and like almost everyone born south of Rome, had dark skin. Ten years later, his registration card shows that he’d put on twenty pounds and was described as “stout.”

And now, here he was, his twilight years extinguished like a stubbed-out cigarette.

In the incarnadine horror of the black car’s interior, there was somewhat incongruously, a scarlet rose in the driver’s lapel button-hole. It would later be revealed, he had over a thousand rose bushes in his gardens.

The name Vallone in Houston is more well-known in connection with food than the intrigues and conspiracies of the Mafia.

Tony’s on Richmond Avenue, is fine Italian dining at its finest. Around for 54 years, across three different locations, among the almost 400 Italian restaurants across Houston Metropolitan area, it’s claimed to be the best. It has served seven sitting presidents, British royalty, hundreds of celebrities across all kinds of professions, (in March 1989, Donald Trump and Richard Nixon partied here one night,) and offers in its extensive wine-list a red Bordeaux Petrus for $45000. That’s one bottle.

Tony Vallone, the owner, is the son of Anthony, senior. Six years old on that night in July, it’s reasonable to assume his recollections of this period are cloudy at best. He does, however, remember his grandmother, Maria, born in Vico Equense, a small coastal town near Sorrento. She introduced him to how food should be prepared and served; who guided him until her death in 1973, and nudged him into a life-long career that involves him to this day, starting out washing dishes, then progressing to a saucier until he opened his first restaurant in 1965 at the age of 22.

His grandparents had five children. One of them Joseph Vincent, who was born in 1910, married Frances Ianni, whose brother Joe, was a Mafia soldier in the Dallas Family, run by Joseph T. Piranio in 1949.

Joseph Ianni was related through Tony’s aunt, and, would one day be the alleged boss of the Dallas Mafia.

It’s a mere twenty-minute drive from the lush interior of Tony’s to Chocolate Bayou Road.

Within biological families, driving times can be a lot quicker. In Mafia families, they can be a lot more torturous.

The Dallas Mafia Family

The Dallas Mafia Family was allegedly formed in the early 1920s by Carlos and Joseph Piranio who had emigrated to America from Corleone, in Sicily. They moved first to Shreveport, Louisiana, and by 1910, as stated in the US census, were living on Main Street, Dallas, with their wives, Clemenza Grimaldi and, Lena la Rocca.

Like so many of their peers during this early part of the 20th century, the brothers were in the grocery business. By 1920, when the population of the city was 160,000, Carlo had moved into real estate, and Joe had opened a retail and wholesale tobacco company at 603 South Harwood Street in Downtown. Whatever it was like 100 years ago, now it’s just a dreary parking lot in a street that looks as exciting as a dead frog.

Then came 1920 and Prohibition and the brothers likely formed their own particular branch of a criminal organization that had its roots in Sicily from way back when. We think of the Mafia as a monolithic power, and yet in the small, impromptu tendrils that emerged in modestly sized cities and even towns across the United States, it was often very much a biological family business.

The Mafia may well have been established in Texas as early as the 1870s near Bryan, in the Brazos Valley, which lies between Dallas to the north and Houston the south. Sicilians from Corleone, Salaparuta and Poggioreale (in the province of Trapani,) working as cotton farmers and sharecroppers, had settled here. There is no evidence one way or the other, but it’s a teasing hypothesis, considering a man considered by many crime historians to have been “The Boss of Bosses” of the American Mafia, Giuseppe Morello, lived here for about two years from 1895, before moving to New York.

The Pirainos were distant relatives to the Trombatores of New Orleans, (who were themselves related to Morello,) their brother-in-law was Frank Aloi, they were tight with Philip Civello, who was also big in groceries, and Giuseppe Zabbia and Michelangelo Genaro and the Musos. Frank Ianni, father of Joe, and Louis Cascio were their men. Some of them lived on or near Dawson Street at one time, which today is a run-down, decrepit neighborhood called Deep Ellum. How the Mafia of Dallas evolved, we do not know. Like all Mafia clans in America and Sicily, their origins are unknown.

I see them sitting around a table, bottles of Dago Red, plates of sausages and cheese, cigars pumping away as Carlos and Joe make the motion to open the books. The Mafia is always about money, how to get it and keep it and more importantly, make more of it. So I figure that was number one item on the agenda. Control was also a big thing. Control the flow of fruit and vegetables in the markets; the gambling; the drug business; loansharking, prostitution. An endless list of demands that needed to be serviced. Not only in Dallas, but also down the road, 240 miles, in Houston which in those days, was a smaller city, population wise. So perhaps they set up an outpost there. Maybe.

Vincent Vallone was never a big-shot Mafioso. There is no evidence he was part of the Sicilian brotherhood, or the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, or how he became part of Cosa Nostra in America. Like the famous English song, composed in 1927, I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales, Vallone no doubt knew someone who had the right connections and one day sometime around 1925, was perhaps made a part of the Dallas cosca. Although it’s equally possible, that he was never part of the Mafia, simply, a criminal who was more successful at his job than most of his peers and operated in the same universe as the Piranio brothers. [3]

Bombing

By the 1920s living with his wife and five children in Houston’s First Ward, Vincent was also operating a successful grocery business, starting in the old City Market, and running a lucrative Hermann Park food concession. Over 400 acres, the park by the mid-1920s incorporated a zoo, and a golf course, and was packed with visitors most days, generating high revenue streams for Vincent’s business. Things were looking good until January 28, 1932, when a bomb destroyed most of his two-story home.

Luckily, he and his family were away, attending a function to honor the visit to Dallas of famous Italian operatic star, Beniamino Gigli who was then based with the New York Metropolitan Opera as one of its lead singers.

Investigators from the fire department concluded the explosion which occurred at some time through the night of Wednesday into the early hours of Thursday morning, was caused by a gas explosion.

Nothing came of the police investigations, although it was suggested the bombing if that’s what it was, was a warning to Vallone rather than a direct threat on his life. He’d been given a reprimand and was allowed to keep on earning. But who was behind the attack? Was it from Dallas or from Galveston? And what had he done to deserve it?

By this time, he was into bootlegging, gambling and opening and running nightclubs. So were other people in Texas.

The underworld in Galveston

The Maceo brothers were born in Palermo, Sicily. They were undoubtedly gangsters. Ipso facto they were in the Mafia. Or were they? Did they form their own little Mafia mob on the island of Galveston?

Established as a city in 1838, the sandbar island on the Gulf Coast of Texas, became, by 1860, the only sandbar port in the United States. Towards the end of the 19th Century, it was considered by many, to be the most modern city in the state of Texas. However, by 1920, it had experienced a significant economic decline due to The Great Storm of 1900 which is considered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the worst natural disaster experienced in the USA. Around 12000 people died, and damage to the island reached over one billion dollars in today's currency. The city went into a bad dream and spent years trying to recover.

Moving from a trading port into a tourist resort, with good weather (except for the odd cataclysmic hurricane) in order to try and restore its fortunes, drinking, gambling and prostitution were endorsed by a council which went for the idea of an open but clean town as a way of restoring the island’s tax base. As Prohibition was enacted, Galveston also became a perfect port for bootlegging.

The Maceo family or at least two brothers and the only sister, Olivia, arrived in Galveston between 1910 and 1917.  The two eldest of four brothers, Rosario known as ‘Rose’ and Salvatore always called ‘Sam,’  working legally in their trade as barbers, began illegally, peddling booze and quickly rose to the top of the Galveston underworld. They stayed there for 37 years and through their domination, Galveston became known across America as not just an ’open city,’ but as a ‘wide open city.’ Some called it “The Free State of Galveston.” Rose and Sam were Galveston’s perfect mutual symbiosis. [4]

Two criminal gangs operated in Galveston in 1917, the Beach Gang and the Downtown Gang. Rose, the hard man, always shadowed by James Barton Crabb, the Georgia boy who was his bodyguard, and Sam the politician, gradually dominated and eventually, replaced them with their own crime family that came to control gambling, prostitution and during Prohibition, bootlegging. Along with horse parlors and billiard rooms athletic clubs football betting and tip book betting and a lottery known as High and Low and roulette and dice and slots. They bought into the old Hollywood Diner Club on 61 Street which was the first big nightclub spot on the island.  Their empire which came to include oil and gas holdings and real estate became bigger and bigger. At one time, 2500 people across Galveston worked in various Maceo enterprises, and in the 1950 fiscal year, their bookkeeper, Sam ‘Books’ Serio, claimed the outfit generated almost $4 million. In to-days, currency, about $50 million.

In 1951, Texas Attorney General, Price Daniel, brought an indictment against the Maceos for using telephone lines within five different establishments across Galveston for transmitting horse-racing information to gamblers and bettors. Of the 17 accused, 10 were biological Maceo kin. If they had formed a cosca, it was very much a family business. The Federal Bureau of Narcotic (FBN) believed Galveston was a Mafia city, run more along the lines of Chicago, as a loosely defined Italian-American mob than the tightly defined structure that was the New York Cosa Nostra.

Vincent Vallone was maybe a partner with the Maceo brothers in some of their gambling enterprises, as was Biagio Angelica, a New-York born, Houston-based, alleged soldier in the Dallas Mafia, although some sources claim he was part of the Maceo Family and not Dallas. Vallone had at one time, managed a night club in Houston for the Maceo’s called The High-Hat. It was closed down in a raid led by an Assistant District Attorney called Percy Foreman. Ironically, fifteen years later, he was to play a leading role in the final act of Vallone’s story.

A peripheral figure in this story, Angelica may well have been a lot more than the sum of his parts; he will re-appear in Vallone’s final days.

Sam Maceo and Vincent Vallone were so tight however, at some part in their lives, to be both arrested for the same criminal act.

In 1937 the FBN shut down an American and European drug ring that seemed to include everyone along with the kitchen sink. The American arm was apparently operating in New Orleans, Texas and New York. Different sources number those arrested from 15 to 88. There may have been as many as 16 from Texas in the roundup. Vincent Vallone and Sam Maceo were definitely on the list.  Somehow, they wriggled free from this one, and both were acquitted by 1942.

1937 was not a good year for Vincent.

Early in March, he was involved in a barroom brawl with a man called Sam Farrugia and shot him five times. Farrugia, 24, an alleged bookie, somehow, survived the attack and when he recovered, never pressed charges and left town.

Later in the year, Vallone was again in the news when he was questioned in connection with a well-known rum-runner and drug trafficker, thirty-three- year- old Mike Salibo. His body, shot in the head,  was found in his car, abandoned on a deserted road outside of Houston on July 22. Although he was interviewed by the police, Vincent was never charged in connection with this killing. Salibo was part of a drug ring headed by Chicagoan Louis “Big Daddy” Ginsberg, who eventually went to prison for 50 years which at the time, was the longest sentence ever handed down for narcotics trafficking.

On October 5, along with Sam Maceo, Vallone was arrested by agents of the FBN as a suspect in the drug ring that rounded-up so many people. Considering, by to-days standards, the small amount of drugs involved, it seems much ado about nothing. The charges against him were dismissed by the government on May 24, 1938. [5]

Mob Meeting

At some time during the year, Vincent hosted a meeting at his estate in the country, south of Houston. There were at least six others, excluding family, maybe more. Joe Piranio, Mafia boss of Dallas along with his number two, Joe Civello were in attendance. Also, there was Alfonso Attardi, (an alleged soldier in the Houston Family, who refers to Vallone as “Don Vallone” in his report to his contact in the FBN,) as well as Biagio Angelica, August Simoncini and, Isadore (sometimes spelled Esadore) Cavaretta.

Vallone’s sons, Anthony and Joseph, may also have been in attendance. Anthony was known to the federal drug bureau as a narcotics trafficker. There is no date specified in the file, although it’s reasonable to assume it occurred after October 5 and was connected to that narcotics bust. At least five of the people gathered here were indicted in this case. Attardi, who detailed the information to his handler, never disclosed just what happened that day. [6]

If 1937 was awful, Vallone’s Annus Horribilis was waiting in the wings.

One of his gambling joints was called The 21 Club Room and was located on Capitol Street in downtown Houston. Late on the afternoon of August 29, 1939, two men, J.I. Thomas who was aged 35 and worked on the railroad, and his friend, a man called Strelau, attempted to enter the club. There was a dispute between the two men and Anthony Vallone, Vincent’s son, who was employed as a doorman and at least two others from the club itself.

During the scuffle, Vincent Vallone produced a pistol and fired two shots at Thomas, killing him.

Vallone pleaded self-defense, claiming he was trying to save his son; that Strelau was holding a razor and Thomas was reaching into his clothes as though to produce a weapon. Feeling in mortal danger, he had fired to protect himself and Anthony. Brought to trial in 1940, the jury, however, did not believe him. He was convicted on February 7, 1941, and sentenced to life in prison and incarcerated in Huntsville Penitentiary approximately 70 miles north of Houston.

He would serve only three years and two months, which for a man in his mid-fifties would not be a cake-walk, but infinitely preferable to the twenty to fifty he could have faced. In 1946 he was granted a full pardon and restoration of citizenship rights. Just how a lifetime in prison turned into thirty-eight months has never been explained, except by one man, whose motives could have been somewhat influenced by what he was doing at the time.

Back on the streets, Vallone ran a restaurant he called Villa Rosa, after his favorite flower, which opened in 1947, and started work on a vast restaurant, club and potential casino, which would be constructed at the corner of Fannin and Bell Streets in Downtown Houston. This was to be called The Sorrento. It would open after his death, on the evening of Thursday, November 10, 1949, and made the national headlines almost before the first courses were served.

Frank Sinatra

In January 1950, Frank Sinatra, at the height of his career, was performing in Houston at The Shamrock Hotel, the largest hotel opened in America in the 1940s.  He was surprised by a newspaper cameraman, Edward Schisser, who had followed him to the restaurant, trying to get a picture of Sinatra with his date, the movie actress, Ava Gardner. Sinatra at this time was still married to his wife, Nancy. A scuffle broke out which was resolved by Anthony Vallone senior, Vincent’s son, who was managing the restaurant after the death of his father.

It was alleged it had been funded by Mrs. Elizabeth moody who may have been Libby Moody, the youngest daughter of William L. Moody, one of the richest men in Texas, who owned the Galveston based, American National Insurance, that in 1954 was valued at $400 million. (In today's currency, about $4 billion.) If this information, posted in The Austin American newspaper in November 1950, is correct, it leads us into another mystery. Just how a man like Vallone would be crossing paths with the highest level of high society in Texas.

Named after a small, picturesque town in Campania, Southern Italy, the Sorrento could seat 300. Vincent Vallone had imported an Italian chef, Guilo Zanga, and the main room was encircled by a massive hand-painted diorama almost 300 feet long of Italian scenes, painted by Spanish artist, Jose Cortez.

Anthony claimed the restaurant was so-called because of his father’s love of the area where he spent his childhood. How Vincent Vallone went from Gioia Tauro, Calabria, his birthplace, to a small town in the province of Naples, 280 miles north, before he emigrated to America at the age of 20, has never, to my knowledge, been established.

Murder investigation

Following the murder of Vincent Vallone, the investigation of the crime fell into the orbit of two lawmen: Harris County (which includes the city and metropolitan area of Houston,) Sheriff C.V. (Buster) Kern and Texas Ranger, Johnny Klevenhagen (right). Both lawmen were legends in their own lifetimes and had worked together often, solving so many complex and dangerous cases, they were sometimes referred to as “The Gold Dust Twins.”

The initial stages of the inquiry were not promising.  Sheriff Kern, in one of his many newspaper interviews, claimed:

“The strands of Vallone’s life were so complex that it would be difficult to solve the slaying. Some of his friends might have killed him. Or it might have been business associates.”

One Houston police officer, after someone asked if he believed an outsider killed Vallone, laughed at the notion: “Why should there be an imported killer when there are a jillion people here who’d like to have killed him?”

However, that all changed at 10 am on the morning of Saturday, October 15, 1949.

The “Gold Dust Twins” accompanied by two sheriff’s deputies, pulled over a pick-up truck in Houston and arrested the driver. His name was Diego Carlino (right), and the law had their man. A passenger with him, Louis J. Marino, was also taken into custody. In Mafia-style killings of this nature- from “difficult” to “it’s in-the-bag,”- an arrest is almost always engineered through the help of an informant. Vallone’s case would be no exception. The Harris County sheriff subsequently claimed that a tip-off from a source who was under “protective custody” led to the arrests.

Kern later claimed they transferred their suspect to the jailhouse in Texas City, about 45 miles south-east of Houston to avoid the press chaos they believed would ensure once his arrest was publicized.

It also, conveniently, isolated him form legal aid.

In court

Ironically, while Galveston 14 miles to the south of Houston, was the site of America’s worst natural disaster, Texas City was where, in 1947, America’s worst industrial accident occurred, when two freighter ships at the docks exploded killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands more.

Two days after his arrest, the lawmen were back in Houston with Carlino and his signed confession that he had murdered Vincent Vallone. The two arrested men were held in custody, and then the fun began. Carlino claimed he had been beaten, repeatedly for two days which was why he had admitted to the crime.

Frances, Carlino’s wife, hired a lawyer to defend her husband. Not just any lawyer, but Percy Foreman (right). The same man who as a district attorney, closed down the Maceo’s nightclub in Houston that Vincent Vallone had managed in the 1930s.

Three years after taking on the Carlino case, he would be beaten up by the “Gold Dust Twins” and spend the night in hospital. For doing his job. Into the distant future, he would find fame and notoriety defending people like James Earl Ray, Charles Harrelson, and countless others. Out of 1500 death-penalty cases, he would represent, he would lose just 53.  Only one client was executed by the state, and Foreman later, claimed, “he deserved it.”

A cross between a snake-oil salesman, a crusader, a folk hero, and a scoundrel, he is today, the one, against whom all defense lawyers in Huston are seemingly measured. He would take cases that were nothing, and make them notorious. At six-five and two hundred fifty pounds plus, he was an imposing figure in front of the bench. His appearances in the courtroom were always filled with drama, fire, and thunder. He was a Baptist deacon, but a colleague once said that in addressing juries Mr. Foreman was as likely to quote Playboy magazine as the Bible. In front of jurors, he would sob and scream and rant and rave to achieve his client’s innocence.

His defense of Carlino would be no exception.

The first trial in 1950, held in Austin, the state capital, ended in a deadlocked jury, and Carino was leased on $20,000 bail and re-tried in San Angelo in 1952 in the 51st District Court under Judge John F. Sutton. A medium-sized town of 50,000, it was on the cusp of a booming oil and gas industry and only an hours drive or so from “The Heart of Texas.” After three weeks, Foreman summed up with a rave and rant that plainly confirmed his status as the most flamboyant defense lawyer in the state.

He argued that the defendant’s confession had been beaten out of him by Harris County sheriff Buster Kern and Texas Ranger Johnny Klevenhagen, and was witnessed by a deputy named Kain. In his closing argument, Foreman pointed to Kern and Klevenhagen, who sat in the front row of the courtroom, and shouted, “Kern, Klevenhagen, and Kain! KKK! They Ku-Kluxed this defendant! They tortured him to make him confess! These Gestapo. Who among you can say you, too, would not have confessed to this killing—innocent though you be—if these pistol-packing, blackjack-wearing, handcuff-carrying, booted and spurred officers of the so-called law had predetermined you guilty and decided you were going to confess?”

The trial ended after 15 days, and the jury retired and returned in 60 minutes with a not guilty verdict. As Foreman left the court, he was attacked and beaten-up up by the “Gold Dust Twins.”

Photo: Diego Carlino

A stand-up guy, Foreman on his release from the hospital, said: “I harbor no malice to these poor misguided minions of the law.”  Each lawman was fined $5 for simple assault. Judge Jimmie Keen presiding over their hearing, paid the fine for them.

Kern (right) would be the longest-serving sheriff in the history of Harris County, running his office until 1972. Klevenhagen was promoted to captain in the Texas Rangers and died young, at 46, of a heart attack, in 1958.

Diego Carlino and his wife left Dallas and were reported having moved to New York, Carlino’s home town where he had been a truck driver, following distinguished service during World War Two as a paratrooper before moving to Texas. Marino’s case had collapsed before San Angelo, charges against him were dropped, and on his release, he had also disappeared. There is a Louis Marino listed in many sources as a soldier in the Texas Mafia, although this one is apparently connected into Galveston. If he was the same Marino, maybe he “made his bones” as the American Cosa Nostra refers to its induction ceremony, by fulfilling his part in the killing of Vallone.

In Sicily, they call it “having their eyes opened.”

Continue reading – Part 2

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Comment by John Ramsey on May 15, 2019 at 2:30pm

I wonder how many of these guys were at the Appalachian meeting?

I thought that Carlos Marcello of New Orleans had huge influence in places like Dallas and Houston.

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