By Thom L. Jones
It begins and ends with a man who had a name that sounded like a musk melon.
His impact on the American Mafia was much more than to just have helped the law incarcerate a man who at the time, they considered perhaps the most powerful hoodlum in the country. By helping to nail him and thus sending him to prison, he created a chain of events that would have perhaps, the most significant repercussions on Italian-American organized crime since its recognized inception in 1931.
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) had been following Vito Genovese (right) for some time.
Henry Giordono, the Commissioner of the bureau said:
‘We have to go after him. He’s too big to be ignored. We have no choice, and we’ll get him, not matter how long it takes.’
Following the ill-fated Apalachin mob meeting
held towards the end of 1957 in up-state New York, the largest office of the FBN was instructed to target Genovese as a main opportunity to take down in the bureau’s never-ending war on drug trafficking. Their underworld informants kept pointing to him as a major link in the heroin trail that stretched north into Canada, and from the biggest city in the United States, outwards across the entire continent.
The agents, men referred to as ‘The Wolves’ by the mob underworld, kept digging away, following up leads, questioning hundreds of suspects, looking for the missing link that would connect them into a conspiracy of drug trafficking which would help them nail the top New York hoodlum who was known to his peers as ‘The Right Man.’
It was Agent Anthony Consoli who first came across the name of Nelson Cantellops.
One of the agent’s informants, a small time Puerto Rican drug-pedlar, told him about the man who was his supplier. A man who was apparently linked into Vito Genovese through his drug activities. A dealer who was, therefore, through this connection, well-linked into the New York underworld. It took a while to track him down, but Consoli finally found Cantellops in the Tombs, the big, dank and depressing city jail in Lower Manhattan, on the corner of Centre and Franklin. He’d been charged with possession of narcotics.
It was 1957.
The prisoner, whose full name was Nelson Silva Cantellops, was short and chubby, with bulging eyes set deep in a sallow face. He was also a Puerto Rican, in his early thirties, and had an arrest record in New Jersey going back to 1949 when he was first indicted and served three years at Trenton State Prison for obtaining money under false pretences.
He was back in prison in 1952 for attempted forgery, and in 1956, received six months for marijuana possession. At this point in his career, he moved his area of operations over to Manhattan, where he worked as a card-sharp, con-man and drug trafficker. Nelson was your everyday low level scumbag street criminal, a man destined for an early grave or a finite jail sentence, whichever came first.
He did however, have a major part to play in the bureau’s war on drug trafficking.
For some reason, Consoli sensed something tangible could be wrested from this little man with the funny name. Agents questioned him daily after he was transferred to a federal detention centre, but they got nowhere. He put on a brave front, claiming he would be ’looked after’ by his friends in the underworld. His trial came up, he was found guilty, and with his long record as a recommendation, the presiding judge sent him away to Sing Sing Prison, in upstate New York, for four years. Nelson had a lot of baggage-a wife, children, girlfriend, mistress, they all needed him for something.
Two weeks after he was locked away, the bureau arranged to have him transferred to the Westchester County Jail, a much more pleasant venue than the grim prison at Ossining, and Cantellops began to co-operate with them. No one had come forward to ’fix’ his arrest, as he had been promised. It was par for the course with mobsters. They promised the earth and most times delivered nothing. And so because of their laxness, things rebounded on them, often with a terminal velocity.
Following an in-depth interrogation by William Tendesky, an Assistant U.S. Attorney specializing in drug cases, the prosecutor came out of the interview room and told FBN agent John R. Enright:
‘We’re going to indict Vito Genovese!’
Cantellops claimed he’d moved into the narcotic business in the spring of 1955 as a way of paying off a loan shark, a man called Charles Barcellona. Known to his peers as ‘Charlie the Wop’ the fourty-year Sicilian born, was a member of the crime family run by Albert Anastasia. A seasoned criminal with an arrest record dating back twenty years, which included violation of Federal and State Narcotics laws, Barcellona was, according to mob informant, Joe Valachi a ‘hitter‘ for the family. Also known as ‘Jacky Balls,’ his close friends for some reason, called him ‘Dummy.’ He’d spent a lot of time in prison, and had a particular hatred for cops, having taken his first beating from them when he was only nine years old. He in turn, introduced Cantellops to a man called Joe Di Palermo who set up the drug arrangement. The deal was that Nelson would deliver a ‘package’ to a man in Las Vegas. The package was ten pounds of heroin with a street value of $250,000, and the man it was destined for was Louis Fiano, a California narcotics trafficker.
In March, 1955, Cantellops had attended a meeting at Al's Luncheonette at 34 East 4th Street, New York, to be briefed on his assignment. At this meeting along with Charles Barcellona, were Ralph Polizzano, his brother Carmine, Joseph Di Palermo and Anthony Colonna. Men whose lives were lived dangerously, moving in and out of drug deals with a confidence born of long experience. Cantellops agreed to transport the narcotics for the group. At the airport bus stop, in New York while Barcellona was talking to Cantellops, an unidentified man handed Cantellops the package. For this delivery, Cantellops was paid $1000 by Barcellona.
He travelled by air to Los Angeles, on to Reno, and then by bus to Vegas. It went smoothly, and other ‘trips’ followed: to Miami, Tampa, Key West, Philadelphia and the Virgin Island. Nelson was a busy boy. His loan shark debt cleared, he earned $500 for each trip he made, sometimes as high as $1000. On his first visit to Cleveland, in July 1956, he was taken there by a man called Vincent Gigante, a young hoodlum working at the bottom of the ladder in the crime family that included Genovese. People called him ‘Chin,’ but not because of his large, jutting jaw line. ‘Chin’ was a nickname his mother, Yolanda, had given him as a child, “Cincenzo,” abbreviated to Chin, and it stuck with him through the rest of his life.
Although Cantellops was driven on this occasion by a man from the Genovese family, he was apparently doing a job for John Ormento, a capo in the Luchese Crime Family. In what now seems an extraordinary breach of mob protocol, Joe Di Palermo a soldier in the family, had introduced Cantellops to Ormento, and subsequently to Carmine Galante, the then under boss of the Bonanno crime family.
‘Big John’ as he was known to his peers, was the consummate drug trafficker of his time, and had been a dealer since his teen years, operating initially in East Harlem, the traditional home of the 107th Street Mob, which morphed into the Gagliano and then the Luchese Crime Family following the underworld struggle now referred to as the Castellammarese War of 1930-31.
In a complex operation, typical of the drug dealing mentality, Gigante dropped Nelson off at a bus stop at a town called Loraine, about thirty miles west of Cleveland. He then caught a bus into the city and went to a hotel with the drug package. He left this with the hotel room clerk, telling him it was for his wife and then went outside to be met by Di Palermo’s brother, Charley. Nelson went back into the hotel, retrieved the package, and the two men caught a cab, stopping to pick up a woman at a pre-determined spot. The cab drove back to the hotel, the two men left the cab, the woman, and the drug package. Cantellops then took a Greyhound bus back to New York.
The FBN needed to check Nelson’s story, which they did in meticulous detail, cross-referencing schedules on aircraft, buses, taxis, whatever form of transportation he claimed to have used in his various drug courier travels. They even verified weather conditions against his claims, looking for anything that would discredit him. He checked out to their satisfaction.
In October, 1955, Carmine Polizzano's had asked Cantellops to investigate the policy banks in the Eldridge Street area on Manhattan's lower East Side to find out whether they might be used as a front for narcotics distribution. After Cantellops had carried out his survey, Polizzano then invited him to a meeting at his brother Ralph’s apartment at 57 East 4th Street. This meeting was attended by Ralph and Carmine Polizzano, Joseph Di Palermo, John Russo, John Ormento and Benjamin Levine. The group discussed taking over and operating these policy banks as a cover for the distribution of narcotics. Cantellops told the men assembled in the apartment that it might cost between $100,000 and $150,000 to purchase the banks in the Eldridge Street area. The group reached no final decision as it was agreed that the matters would have to be discussed with ‘The Right Man,’ who was Vito Genovese.
At this time, Genovese was a senior member of the family administration, maybe the underboss to Frank Costello who had taken over the running of the family in 1937 when the then street boss, Genovese, had skipped the country to avoid arrest in a murder inquiry. Genovese had returned in 1946 and been cleared of his involvement in the killing of an underworld hoodlum called Ferdinand Boccia.
The meeting at the East Village apartment also discussed the possibility of importing narcotics through Puerto Rico because of turmoil in Cuba and recent misfortunes regarding two shipments by boat. Cantellops suggested the use of the Island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico, as a distributing point, a suggestion that was never acted on.
According to Cantellops, his first contact with ‘The Right Man’ was initiated when he was approached by Carmine Polizzano, a man who was seemingly close to Vito Genovese. Nelson claimed that the first time he saw Genovese, he was sitting in a car with Polizzano, in Greenwich Village. This was in December, 1955. He saw him again, he claimed six months later. Some sources, including court transcripts, claim this second conclave actually took place nine months later, in September, 1956.
This meet seemingly revolved around discussion to take over the East Bronx policy banks, which were operated by independent, Spanish speaking mobsters. Genovese wanted to take control, to use these networks to also distribute heroin in this area of upper Manhattan. The Eldridge Street operation had apparently never been consummated, and this may have been an alternative that Genovese wanted to explore.
At some point in August, 1956, Cantellops visited a German restaurant in Manhattan with Ormento and a man called Joe Evola. While in the restaurant, Ormento went over and spoke to Vito Genovese who was sitting, dining with a woman. Genovese allegedly looked across at Nelson and remarked something like ‘he looks okay to me,’ signalling Genovese’s approval.
Sitting at the bar, close enough to hear the conversation, were two agents of the FBN, Francis Waters and John Hunt. The subsequent Genovese drug indictment was actually formed around their corroborating testimony.
At the end of August, or early September 1956, Cantellops attended a meeting at the home of Rocco Mazzie, at 2332 Seymour Avenue in the Bronx, where plans were made for extending the distribution of narcotics.
Earlier, the same evening Cantellops drove to the same German restaurant on East 86th Street with Joe Evola, Ormento, Carmine Galante and Andimo Pappadio, a capo in the Luchese family, and a man close to John Ormento and Genovese.
Galante was with the Bonanno family, along with Evola; Ormento, and Pappadio were with the Luchese’s, and Mazzie was tied into the crime family known to-day as the Gambino family, run then, by Albert Anastasia.
After Ormento made a telephone call, they all drove to the West Side Highway and met another car. Cantellops and Ormento entered the other car which was driven by Vincent Gigante. Ormento introduced Cantellops to Genovese, who was sitting in the back seat, saying to Genovese ‘This man is doing a good job for us. He is helping us and doing a good job for us.’ Ormento told Cantellops ‘This is the Right Man.’ Genovese said to Cantellops that they were going to a meeting where territorial control was to be discussed; that the people at the meeting were counting on Cantellops to help them and that Cantellops could earn some money by doing so.
This three-minute conversation was to be perhaps, one of the most significant encounters in mob history.
The two automobiles drove to Mazzie's home and everyone entered except Genovese and Gigante, who stayed outside.
Joe Evola, Mazzie, Ormento, Pappadio, Galante and Cantellops discussed the distribution of narcotics in the Spanish market in the East Bronx,(( the area bordered by Longwood Avenue and Fox Street, west of Hunt’s Point)) by use of policy banks, and sealing off the area to eliminate competing narcotics peddlers and policy operators so that they could control the narcotics traffic in this area. Evola and Pappadio thought that the plan would take a month or a month and a half to complete and the others agreed.
After twenty or thirty minutes Genovese came in. He wanted to know ‘what was the decision on the plan; what they had in mind.’ When he was told about the discussion which had taken place, Genovese said that he needed this information because he wanted to know when to send his men into the area. Later, in the presence of Evola, Ormento, Pappadio and Galante, Cantellops was advised that he would be the contact man for the distribution of narcotics in this area. Cantellops later delivered narcotics in this area at Ormento's request.
For the next nine months, Cantellops continued to work with Ormento and other mob traffickers, until he was arrested in early July, 1957. Although Ormento had promised Cantellops that he would be taken care of in the event of an arrest, nothing transpired. He was convicted and sent off to Sing Sing. While these events were developing, Genovese, Ormento, Evola and many other members of the American Mafia had their lives seriously disrupted in November, when they were corralled at the Apalachin mob meeting
The FBN spent a full year screening Cantellops and validating his story, before submitting the facts to a federal grand jury and obtaining indictments against Genovese and 16 of his associates, One of these, was Vincent Gigante, who was arrested only four weeks after his acquittal in the attempted murder charge on Frank Costello.
On July 7th, 1958, FBN agents arrested Genovese and 53 other defendants and 14 co-conspirators involved in the conspiracy. Of this group, only Genovese and 16 others were actually indicted. Two of them, evaded the law and did not appear for trial. The two who escaped arrest were Carmine Galante and John Ormento. Those detained were charged with conspiracy to import, conceal and sell heroin.
On January 5th 1959, the group went on trial. The charges laid against them, in full, were:
Conspiracy to import and smuggle narcotics into the United States.
To receive, conceal, possess, buy and sell the drugs.
To dilute, mix and adulterate the drugs prior to distribution.
To distribute the drugs.
On April 17th they were all found guilty and sentenced from five to twenty years. Vito Genovese was given fifteen years. He was initially confined in the Atlanta Penitentiary. The rest of the conspirators were sentenced as under:
Vincent Gigante-7 years. Soldier, Genovese family.
Joe Evola-10 years. Capo, Bonanno family.
Carmine Polizanno- 8years. Associate, Genovese family.
Ralph Polizanno-7 years. Associate, Genovese family
Salvatore Santora-20 years. Capo, Luchese family.
Joseph DiPalermo-15 years. Soldier, Luchese family.
Charlie DiPalermo-20 years. Soldier, Luchese family.
Rocco Mazzie-12 years. Soldier, Anastasia family
Charles Barcellona-5 years. Soldier, Anastasia family.
Daniel Lessa-14 years. Associate, Luchese family.
Nicky Lessa-12 years. Soldier, Luchese family.
Alfredo Aviles-10 years. Associate.
Benjamin Rodriques-10 years. Associate.
Jean Capece-5 years.
For his help in making the case Cantellops had his prison sentenced commuted by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. There was a story that went around following the case, that the inmates of the federal Atlanta Penitentiary, refused to be served cantaloupe melon at meal times.
The FBN kept after Galante and John Ormento, A line of enquiry followed by agents Martin Pera and James Hunt lead them to a homicide enquiry in the NYPD 48th Precinct in the Bronx. An elderly man had been attacked in his apartment. He’d worked as a processing chemist for one of the drug groups linked into Genovese. Detectives theorized he’d been killed to stop him testifying at the upcoming trial. Before he’d died, the man had given the police a description of his killer, and through their investigation, the agents determined he was a known criminal called Nicolas Tolentino. Often called ‘Big Nose’ for fairly obvious reasons, Nick Tolentino, a fifty year old New Yorker, was a soldier in the Luchese family, and like so many of its members, a consummate drug trafficker
Interestingly enough, a detective at the precinct house, Tommy Martino, had actually met this man at a function held at the home of a local, and well-known building contractor, David Giampa.
The agency carried out surveillance on Giampa, who was seen making frequent visits to an apartment building at 1466 East Gun Hill Road, in the Baychester section of the Bronx. A three story red-brick building, it stood on the corner of Adee Avenue. The agents saw Giampa carrying in bags of groceries and laundry, obviously supplying someone who was hiding out in the building.
One evening, it was April 1st 1959, the agents followed Giampa to an apartment on the third floor, and there, surprised Ormento and Nick Tolentino. They, along with Giampa were arrested and taken into custody.
Exactly two months later, Agent Pera and his current partner, Bill Rowan, organized and helped carry out the arrest of Carmine Galante
on a New Jersey freeway.
In due course, both Ormento and Galante were indicted, tried and convicted on narcotic charges. John Ormento went off to prison where he died in 1974. Galante also spent time, serving a twelve year sentence, before being released in early 1974.
The investigation and trial of Vito Genovese had been long and torturous.
It is not generally realized that Cantellops’ testimony, resulted in the indictment and incarceration of a bigger, and much more important group of drug traffickers than the famous ‘French Connection’ case that was to follow a few years later.
For the last fifty years, crime historians have argued over the validity of the conviction and sentence. Frank Selvaggi, a senior agent in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, called it ‘The frame of the century.’
The late Ralph Salerno, famous NYPD organized crime detective, believed it almost in conceivable that Vito Genovese would deal with someone like Cantellops.
On appeal, the government admitted it had suppressed evidence in the trial. Edward Bennett Williams, one of the best criminal lawyers practising at this time, argued brilliantly for Genovese. When he was congratulated him on his performance, he said, ‘Thanks, but there's not a chance. They won't let Genovese out. They'll call it harmless error.’ Which they did, and generally do, when they know the error is harmful in Mafia cases.
Rumours have long existed that Cantellops had been approached by a cartel of mobsters anxious to remove Genovese from the frame, for their own personal reasons.
These four men, according to these underworld rumours, Charley Luciano in Naples, Italy, and Frank Costello, Myer Lansky and Carlo Gambino in America, had put up a $100,000 bribe to induce Nelson to co-operate with the narcotic bureau and help convict Genovese. Costello would obviously have a vested reason in doing this, bearing in mind that he almost certainly knew Genovese was behind the attempt on his life. A rider to the bribe was that it had to include Gigante in the conspiracy so that he would do time as penance for his bungled attempt on Frank. Jimmy ‘Blue Eyes’ Alo, a senior capo in the Genovese family, is alleged to have arranged for an intermediately to travel to Sing Sing prison, and present Cantellops with the deal. It’s cute and cheesy, like a plot out of a Hank Jansen novel. But as a compelling reason upon which to build a hypotheses, about as ephemeral as a butterfly.
Costello presumably had little or no respect for Genovese following the abortive attack on him, carried out on the night of May 2, 1957. The man who allegedly shot Frank was tentatively identified as Vincent Gigante, a soldier in the crew of skipper, Tommy Eboli. The attack on Frank was part of an orchestrated plan by Genovese to take back control of the family, which he had relinquished when he fled to Italy in 1937 to avoid prosecution.
Frank would have realized only Genovese would have had the nerve to make a strike against him. So it’s certain Costello would have lost no sleep over Vito and Gigante going down and doing time, but there is no evidence whatsoever that links these two men into some convoluted drug conspiracy deal involving two sitting New York mob chiefs, one exiled in Italy, and a major Jewish gangster like Lansky.
Also, what this theory overlooks of course, is the huge amount of detailed information Cantellops supplied to the FBN covering people, places and dates, which allowed the agency to construct the case. In addition, although his command of English wasn’t the best, Cantellops spent a week on the witness stand at the trial on direct, and four weeks undergoing cross-examination by the numerous lawyers employed by the defendants. He was so convincing, the jury had no hesitation in bringing in guilty verdicts against all those charged.
In one of the numerous appeals that resulted from the trial, it was stated that Cantellops was a key witness for the Government, and that he had a long criminal record, including perjury before a grand jury. On this appeal the appellants laid great stress upon the character of Cantellops.
The Court in its opinion stated (p. 190):
‘They argue that his testimony should have been stricken, that no defendant may be convicted on Cantellops' uncorroborated testimony, and that the indictment should have been dismissed. We do not agree. It was for the jury to judge the witness Cantellops on the basis of all that was brought out about his character, his previous activities.’
The Court further stated on the same page:
‘It is for the jury to say whether his testimony at trial is truthful, in whole or in part, in the light of the witness' demeanour, his explanations and all the evidence in the case.’
It has been claimed that there was no way Genovese would have allowed himself to have been seen in the company of a low level drug dealer like Cantellops. On the other hand, had this low level dealer been the potential conduit to huge amounts of money, it strikes me as more than likely Genovese would have wanted to check him out. Also, the powerful mob boss was almost certainly arrogant in his use of power. He knew, as did everyone around him, that he could have squashed Cantellops like a bug (or a melon.) This kind of attitude could well have made Genovese careless. And, in all fairness to Nelson Cantellops, he admitted that he only actually physically met Genovese briefly, on that one evening on the way to the Bronx meeting.
At the end of the day, maybe the case against Genovese was not unlike the one that banjoed his former boss , Charley ‘Lucky’ Luciano. He was tried and convicted on a prostitution case, which put him away for thirty years in 1936. Cynics at the time said that the government, unable to lock one on Lucky for all the bad stuff he had actually done, found a way to convict him and put him away for something he hadn’t really done. The ends justifying the means so to speak.
Et tu Don Vitone perhaps?
Maybe, but I think unlikely.
Nelson Cantellops did more than just help send Vito Genovese to prison however. He set in motion a chain of events that would have a devastating impact on organized crime across the United States.
Joseph Valachi, was the first member of the Mafia, in America, to reveal publicly its history, structure, and membership in significant detail, at least in New York. Interestingly enough, no one was ever indicted or convicted as a result of his revelations, but he set the precedent for mob informants that would not be matched again until the early 1990s.
‘Between Scylla and Charybdis‘ is the origin of the phrase ‘between the rock and the whirlpool‘ (the rock upon which Scylla dwelt and the whirlpool of Charybdis). These two monsters in Greek mythology inhabited opposites sides of the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and Italy. Odysseus, during his great quest, had to sail through these waters and choose which monster to confront. The saying may also be the genesis of the phrase ‘between a rock and a hard place.’
That’s where Joe Valachi found himself on the morning of June 22, 1962
A soldier in the crime family controlled by Genovese, he’d had to graft his way through life, like all of its members. The strength of Cosa Nostra as the mob called itself, was the fear it generated among ‘ordinary’ citizens, giving its soldiers and captains an edge in their business activities. Many of the lower-level members of the mob however, struggled daily to make a decent living. Just being a Mafioso wasn’t a guarantee of success.
Valachi probably lost more than he won in his years as a member.
He was inducted into the family that eventually was to be controlled by Joseph Bonanno, in November 1930. Subsequently, he transferred to the crime family of Charley Luciano, after the murder of Salvatore Maranzano, who had in fact headed up the group that had organized his initiation. This transfer took place sometime in late 1931, maybe September or October.
Interestingly, Joe Valachi had actually started his mob career as an associate of yet another mob family in New York, this one led by Gaetano Gagliano, (now know as the Luchese Family,) and it’s from this group that he transferred his allegiance to Maranzano, who had allied his men with Gagliano in what was to become known as ‘The Castellammarese War,’ an underground struggle for dominance between at least four warring factions made up of Sicilian, Neapolitan and Calabrian gangsters in the New York underworld.
Joseph Valachi was one of very few men in mob history who multi-tasked his way through multiple crime families in the Mafia as he burned a career for himself as a hit-man, extortionist, drug dealer and all-round hoodlum.
Over the next twenty-eight years, he became involved in loan-sharking, slot-machines, pin-ball machines, the numbers racket, owning and running restaurants, dress manufacturing and linen-hiring businesses, owning racehorses, and during World War Two, the lucrative gas-rationing stamps fraud activity.
His downfall had been brought about by drug trafficking. Frank Costello, then head of Valachi’s crime family, had in 1948, laid down an order forbidding his members from handling drugs. He recognized the danger that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was to the mob and wanted no part of it. But a lot of the members could not resists the huge profits and relatively easy money to be made out of narcotics.
The FBN had Valachi listed in their ‘Black Book,’ their directory of known and suspected drug dealers. They’d been observing and tracking him since the mid-1940s, and by 1956 he was eventually arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison for five years for his part in a drug conspiracy, that also involved his brother-in-law, Giancomo Reina. Reina was one of 8 children, and one sister, Mildred, was Valachi’s wife. Their father, Gaetano, had headed up one of those four mob families back in the 1920s, the first that Valachi had been attached to, and his death may have in fact triggered off the Castellammarese War.
Valachi managed to evade this particular indictment however. Released on bail pending an appeal, his conviction was reversed. He had in fact been linked into his first drug deal as early as 1952, which escaped detection by the FBN.
By 1957, strapped for money ( a not unusual occurrence for mobsters due to their flagrant lifestyle, gambling habits and often on-going high legal expenses,) he turned again to narcotics for a quick fix. However, in May 1959, he learned that the FBN were after him, and fled New York, moving upstate to live in hiding, and then east across into Connecticut, settling at a trailer camp in a small community in Thompsonville, squeezed in between the Connecticut River and State Highway 91, close to the border of Massachusetts.
In the middle of November, one of Valachi’s associates, a man called Ralph Wagner, who’d made heroin deliveries for Joe, literally dropped a dime on Valachi. Arrested by the FNB, Wagner found a way to contact Valachi, who gave him a pay phone number near the caravan park. When Joe went to the station at a pre-arranged time to accept a call from Wagner, FBN agents were waiting to arrest him.
Assured by his mob bosses that the fix was in, and that incarceration would be light, Valachi was in fact sentenced to a term of fifteen years, and sent to serve it at the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.
In August 1962, Valachi was returned to New York as a co-defendant in yet another narcotics case, this one involving Vincent Mauro and Frank Caruso, along with Albert and Vito Agueci. Mauro and Caruso were part of the crew headed by Anthony Strollo, Genovese’s right-hand man. The Agueci brothers, from Sicily, were connected into the Buffalo mob, headed by Stefano Maggadino. Joe lost out on this one again, and received a further twenty year sentence, to be served concurrently with the one he was already doing.
While in New York, the FBN put pressure on him to roll-over and become an informant, telling him that Strollo had gone missing, and was believed murdered on the orders of his best friend and boss, Vito Genovese. The agents also inferred that Joe was next on Genovese’s list of house-cleaning. With these thoughts pressing down on him, Joe was returned to Atlanta.
Here, he became the central character in a bizarre theatre of manipulation, hidden threats and Machiavellian manoeuvres orchestrated by Vito Genovese.
The Don suggested that Joe move into his cell, and share it with the other inmates there, a group of four or five. Genovese kept on at Joe, questioning him about his latest drug conviction, hinting that perhaps he had collaborated with Mauro and Caruso, insinuating that he had not received his cut from these various narcotic transactions and also confirming in an indirect way, that he had been responsible for the death of Strollo.
Vito Agueci was also sent down to Atlanta following his conviction, and began associated closely with inmates Johnny Diouguardi, and Joe DiPalermo, both members of the Luchese family. Valachi began to believe that Agueci was feeding Genovese information through these two men that he was talking to the FBN (which at this time he wasn’t.) Gradually, Joe started to think that Genovese and the other mob inmates were shunning him, isolating him away from the few prisoners he had become close to. One day, DiPalermo offered him a steak sandwich, claiming he had smuggled it out of the prison kitchen. Fearing it was poisoned, Joe threw it in the trash. He stopped using the showers, especially after he was encouraged by Diougardi to do so, fearing the isolation and exposure there, and the possibility of attack.
One night in June, in the cell, Genovese sat talking to him, rambling on about bad apples and how they should be removed; then kissing Joe, for old time’s sake, and asking after the health of his grandchildren, planting seeds, sowing doubts and fear into the mind of a man already on the breaking edge.
In desperation, Joe demanded that the guards incarcerate him in a solitary cell, claiming his life was in danger. This gave him a few days respite, but then he was released, as the prison governor could not be convinced there were grounds for his fears.
Joseph Valachi reached his epiphany early in the morning of June 22, 1963. Wandering around the prison grounds, terrified of each and every inmate who passed him, he saw three men moving slowly towards him. There had been construction taking place in the complex, and he grabbed a piece of iron piping as a weapon to defend himself. As Joe DiPalermo, the man he considered his principal tormentor, walked past, he lashed out, striking him in the head. Joe then chased off the other three men, returning to beat DiPalermo to death. Except he killed the wrong man.
His victim, John Saupp, was in prison for mail robbery and forgery, a minor, inconsequential petty criminal. His misfortune was to bear a striking resemblance to DiPalermo, especially in profile. Distraught and full of remorse for killing an innocent man, Valachi eventually began cooperating, first with the FBN and then the FBI, who took control of him on behalf of the Justice Department. And the rest is history.
After a massive, lengthy de-briefing by the government, Joseph Valachi, guarded by agents of the FBI and the US Marshalls, was taken to Washington D.C. in September 1963 to appear before an investigative subcommittee headed by Senator John McClellan of Arkansas. It was here that the world first became aware of Joseph Valachi, who was also known in the New York underworld as Joe Cago and Joe Cargo, Joe Kato and Joseph Siano. On his first arrest in November 1921, he had called himself Anthony Sorge.
Short and squat, with crew-cut gray hair, sucking on a lemon, to help his drying throat, Joe Valachi spoke for thirty-one hours over a seven day period, from September 27th.
Introduced by Robert Kennedy, the US Attorney General, he sat facing the committee, under the glare of lights and the gaze of three major television network cameras, answering questions and explaining the structure of organized crime ‘families’ in the USA, and for the first time, confirming the hierarchy by names, and especially the heads of the five New York mobs.
Republic senator Karl Mundt was so confused by the litany of death, mayhem and Joe’s scrambled Bronx vocabulary, he said at one point:
‘You’re getting me all confused. It sounds like a Chinese Chess game.”
To some in the hall, it sounded like a fairy tale. No one had come prepared for the intensity of Joe’s revelations. Democrat Edward Muskie thought the whole thing a waste of time.
Much of what he disclosed, confirmed information that the FBI and the FBN had already obtained, from illegal wiretaps. He described in detail, hundreds of members, specifying minute trivia about them: who they worked for, their knick-names, their social contacts.
‘They eliminated the term boss of all bosses’ said Joe at one point in his testimony, ‘but Vito Genovese is just that, under the table.’
In his defence, he was rarely if ever, caught short by his handlers. Although a lot of what he described was already known to the law enforcement agencies, his real danger to the mob was an ability to create a schematic view of the structure of organized crime, describing chapter and verse, how it functioned. Opening up a book that had forever been closed until now. In essence, he was able to convince law enforcement to stop looking at the Mafia’s criminal acts as simply isolated, unconnected crimes; instead, he forced them into approaching organized crime as a huge, inter-locking matrix of self-serving dimensions, allowing the law to adopt a radical new philosophy in its fight against this so-far almost hidden enemy, on an intercontinental scale never before contemplated.
It was generally assumed that Valachi disclosed the term ’Cosa Nostra’ for the first time. In fact, the FBI and other federal agencies had heard the denomination used before.
In 1961 and 1962, these agencies were spelling it in their reports as:
‘Causa Nostra.’ It was an expression mainly used on the Eastern Seaboard, and seldom, if ever heard in cities like Chicago or Philadelphia or Detroit.
Although Valachi had seemingly never intended to disclose what he eventually did, planning to tell only enough to get revenge against Genovese, as he talked to agents of the FBI, his frustrations and resentments over perceived slights and lack of recognition for his many years of service, by his various bosses over the years, finally pushed him into disclosing everything he knew, or almost everything, about Cosa Nostra.
A foot soldier and therefore limited in his scale of knowledge, he knew enough however, to give his friends in the mob plenty of heartburn. It is fascinating to imagine being a fly on the wall in Genovese’s cell when Joe’s revelations were broadcast. How the mighty Don would have coped with his peers had he been released just then, is interesting to contemplate. According to author Nick Tosches, Vito ‘was the most violent, most grasping and most treacherous of his breed.’
It was not to be of course. Vito Genovese died in the Federal Medical Centre for Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri from heart disease, on St Valentines Day, 1969, before he finished his sentence. Had he lived and served this out, it is almost a certainty that the government would have arranged to deport him back to Italy. He had been denaturalized in 1955 for concealing his criminal record when he applied for citizenship. Up to 1959, he had avoided deportation with a series of legal manoeuvres, but it was almost a given the state would have kicked him out of the country as soon as he was released.
If all Joe wanted was revenge against the man and the system, he managed to get that, in spades. He lost his job, his lifetime, his wife and son, who left him, and for this he laid the blame square on Genovese.
‘Vito Genovese is responsible for everything,’ he told author Peter Maas.
In 1964 Joe was encouraged by the justice department to put down on paper his life story and his knowledge of the Mafia. The 2190 pages he wrote, are held in 20 folders in two boxes at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
‘The Real Thing: The Expose and Inside Doings of Cosa Nostra,’ they document his life from 1920 until 1964.
Like his nemesis, he died of a heart attack, at the La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution in Texas, on April 3rd 1971.
He is buried in a nondescript grave at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, in Lewiston, Niagara County, in upstate New York. How he came to be here is an interesting side note to his life and death.
It is generally believed that sometime in the late 1960s he entered into a correspondence with a woman called Marie K. Jackson, a housewife, who lived in Niagara Falls, New York. Abandoned by his wife and son, this relationship was all Valachi had in his final years. When he died, she claimed the body and had it shipped north, at the government’s expense and the body was buried in Lewiston, on or about May 6th. The cemetery sits right on the border of Canada, wedged in between the Niagara River, freeway loops and two massive hydro lakes. Marie Jackson died in 1999 and lies buried next to Joe.
She had been married at one time, and apparently had children, according to her attorney, Bernard Sax, but details about her are scarce. Originally Marie Murray, she was a Niagara Falls native and attended local schools before taking a job at the Amberg's Men's Shop, where she met her future husband. The marriage was not a happy one apparently, and was annulled by the Catholic Church after three years. He was Jewish and she was Catholic, and their religious differences made the marriage impossible, she later claimed.
She and Valachi had first begun corresponding when he was incarcerated at the Federal prison in Milan, Michigan, in 1966, and maintained a relationship, by mail; she would write him at least twice a week, until his death. She was apparently attracted to him by his performance at the McClellan hearings, which like millions of Americans, she watched on television. Seemingly, she never physically, visited him in any prison. She filed probate on his will at the Niagara County Surrogate’s Court in Lockport, N.Y. in August 1971. His estate was valued at $30,000, the bulk of it, his share from the Peter Maas autobiography. Most of this however, was escrowed by the U.S. government to meet back-tax obligations; some of the remaining money converted into bonds was sent to Valachi’s ex-wife, Mildred.
However, Marie claimed in an interview with a reporter from the Buffalo News in 1995 that not long after her marriage broke up, she met Valachi at a house party thrown by a mutual friend in the Falls city. Joe seemingly visited her regularly and paid the rent on her apartment. They met and travelled together often, she claimed, and he took her shopping in New York when she visited him there. None of this information was ever disclosed by Valachi himself. If this is true, it may well explain Joe’s knowledge of the Buffalo Mafia family, information he disclosed at the senate hearings in 1963. His links into the Agueci brothers is perhaps confirmation of his connection into the Mafia family headed by Stefano Maggadino.
Nelson Silva Cantellops, on his release from prison, disappeared into obscurity, emerging in 1965, dead on a bar-room floor, the result of a bad meeting with someone’s knife. His killer was never apprehended.
It’s interesting that although he was the main instrument in the government’s fight to indict and imprison a man considered perhaps the biggest criminal in America at the time, there does not appear to be a single photographic image of him, anywhere, and the details of his life after the Genovese case, and his death, do not seem to have been recorded in any detail. The short, chubby Puerto Rican criminal, wanders through this story as almost a will-o'-the-wisp, a flickering light, always receding, whenever the search is on.
Like Dick Datchery in Charles Dickens’ last and unfinished novel, ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood,’ Nelson comes and goes in the story of Vito Genovese’s drug bust, as not only a conundrum, but seemingly a lost and forgotten figure in the history of organized crime. A few, yellowing pages in a long disused case file, lying in a dusty corner of an archive room somewhere, he lives on only in the memory of those of us searching for the Holy Grail of Mob lore:
The perfect certainty, the Gospel according to St. Paul-the truth; or maybe to St. Rita-the saint of the impossible; or most probably, St. Jude-the saint of hopeless cases.
© Thom L. Jones