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Once a crook, always a crook? The gangster who joined the Witness Protection Program but never left his life of crime

By Gary Jenkins

Did you ever wonder what happens to folks when they enter the Witness Protection Program? In this article, I will tell you what happened to a Milwaukee man who testified against some mob associates. He found it hard to leave his old life behind.

Retired FBI agent Gary Magnesen, in his book, Straw Men: A Former Agent Recounts how the FBI Crushed the Mob in Las Vegas, tells a story about one of his first cases in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sally Papia, a girlfriend of Chicago Outfit guy Frank Buccieri (photo right), moved up from Chicago and opened a nice restaurant called Sally's Steak House. She was described as a raven-haired firecracker who thought she was the queen bee of Milwaukee organized crime because of her Chicago relationship. She hired three local mob associates and professional criminals to help run the place.

Chicago outfit guys would come into town and eat here and never pay any respect to the Milwaukee mob boss, Frank Balistreri. He hated her for that and openly called her an “Outfit wannabe in a fucking skirt.” Sally hired a chef after she paid for his tuition at a good culinary school. He left shortly after to open his own restaurant, the Northridge Inn. She became enraged and hired a local arsonist to burn it down.

On December 29, 1974, a Papia associate named Joseph Basile called a minor criminal named Jacob Schlechter and instructed him to set the Northbrook Inn on fire that night. Schlechter did so in the company of his wife, who later contacted the police and began supplying information concerning the ongoing conspiracy. Following the fire, Schlechter went to Basile's home to collect money for his work. Basile gave Schlechter $100.00 and told him that another $900 would be forthcoming from out of town. Schlechter asked what the fire was all about, and Basile told him that it was ordered because the chef had “screwed over” Sally Papia and because of a “personal grievance” Basile had against this chef.

On New Year's Eve, two days after the fire, Papia ran into the chef at a local restaurant. Dropping a lighted match into an ash tray, Papia said, “I told you this was going to happen.”

In early January, Schlechter asked Basile for the balance of the money due him for setting the fire. Basile deflected the request by advising Schlechter that they were getting pressure from Milwaukee mob boss Frank Balistrieri, who had lost some juke boxes in the Northbrook Inn fire, and that Schlechter should not tell anyone of his involvement in the fire.

On January 7, a criminal associate of Sally Papia's named Russell Enea approached Schlechter in Papia's restaurant and asked him if he knew anything about the Northbrook Inn fire. Schlechter, complying with Basile's order to keep mum, said that he did not. Three days later, apparently satisfied that Schlechter could be trusted, Enea again approached Schlechter and directed him to break the chef's wrists “so he never cooks again.” Enea said that “Max” would get in touch with Schlechter to talk about the job.

Shortly thereafter, another criminal associate and maître d' at Sally's Steak House named Max Adonnis contacted Schlechter and told him to kidnap the chef and take him to a garage so that Adonnis and Enea could break his wrists personally. Schlechter and Adonnis then discussed the plan with Herbert Holland, who was to assist in the endeavor. Adonnis explained to Schlechter and Holland that this chef owed Sally Papia $5,000, and he had “screwed over Sally.” Adonnis said he wasn't going to let this guy get away with this affront. Adonnis gave Schlechter a slip of paper listing the chef's address, the make and model of his car and its license plate number. A week later, Adonnis passed along a photo of the chef taken in Papia's restaurant, on which Papia's handwriting appeared.

During the next couple of weeks, Holland, Schlechter and Adonnis attempted to locate the chef without success. On January 18, Enea, disturbed by the lack of progress, approached Schlechter and, gesturing with his wrists, inquired what Schlechter was going to do about the chef. Schlechter and Holland renewed their efforts to locate the chef, but failed to do so, much to the expressed disappointment of Enea and Adonnis. Finally, Adonnis saw the chef working at another Milwaukee restaurant and obtained a new address, place of employment and license plate number. He gave this information to Schlechter with instructions to do the job right away.

After purchasing a baseball bat and two ski masks for use in the assault and kidnapping, Schlechter and Holland went to the chef's place of employment in the early morning hours of February 9, 1975. While waiting for him to leave work, the two were confronted by police because the auto in which they were riding matched a description of a stolen car. The Milwaukee cops noted the bat and ski masks. Shortly after this, two other Milwaukee detectives were going to the chef's apartment. As the officers arrived at the apartment, they saw two suspicious men parked the area. They got a uniformed patrol officer to pull them over and a search found two baseball bats, two ski masks, the chef's photo and his address inside the car. They arrested them for CCW and Schlechter and Holland spent the night in jail. Gary Magnesen and his partner went to the jail the next morning after being notified that one of the suspects wanted to talk to the FBI and only to the FBI. This was Jacob Schlecter, the guy described as 6'6 250 lbs. with a leg breaker's mentality. He was not as tough as he looked. Schlecter agreed to work with the Bureau and set up Sally and her underlings. Soon, he was out of jail and wearing a wire. He was able to record Sally and her co-conspirators talking about this plot to kill or injure the former chef.

During this time, Frank Balistrieri (photo right) directed underlings to bring Joseph Basile, the guy who originally ordered the arson, to him. He was livid and told Basile that Sally Papia did not have the clout to approve this arson or the assault on her ex-employee and he should not have done it without checking with someone in his crime family.

Jacob Schlecter testified against Sally Papia and her co-conspirators and they would go to jail for their participation in the arson and attempted murder. By 1977, Schlecter was relocated in the Witness Protection Program to Kansas City Missouri. He will soon draw some law enforcement attention.

In 2011, I met retired FBI. Agent Gary Magnesen in a Las Vegas hotel room. The Gangland Wire production team was interviewing persons connected with the 1970s Strawman investigation into the influence of the Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland and Kansas City crime families over Las Vegas casinos and skimming. When agent Magnesen was first out of the FBI. academy, he was assigned to the Milwaukee organized crime squad. Retired agent Magnesun would start his career in Milwaukee and end it at the Las Vegas office. By the 1980s, the Organized Crime Strike Force in Kansas City proved that Milwaukee mob boss Frank Balistrieri, along with mob bosses in ClevelandChicago and Kansas City, was involved in a criminal conspiracy to secretly control Las Vegas casinos and skim money from casino receipts. The popular book, Casino, by Nicholas Pillegi and the film by Martin Scorsese recounts this story.

After interviewing retired agent Gary Magnesun for my soon to be released documentary, Gangland Wire, I obtained his book, Straw Men: A Former Agent Recounts how the FBI Crushed the Mob in Las Vegas. In it, he tells about his career in Milwaukee as well as in Las Vegas. I noted a name, Jacob Schlecter, and his description of 6'6' 250s lbs. with a leg-breaker mentality. I remembered a 1970s Kansas City narcotics investigation and surveillance and believed this was the same guy we investigated. This investigation did not turn out as we planned. 

In 1978, a Kansas City DEA informant claimed he could buy weed from a mob guy named Joe Sharpino, who had a tow truck and worked out of a body shop located in a predominately Italian section of Kansas City. The DEA could find no criminal record on this guy. We checked with the FBI and the Kansas City Police Intelligence Unit records and found this guy to be a mystery. The DEA informant was making a few small “controlled buys” from Sharpino (this means he was wearing a microphone and was being monitored). The DEA case agent related his agency had the resources to keep offering more money and buying larger quantities in order to “make him a dope dealer.” The informant keeps reporting that this Joe Sharpino claims the body shop owner had connections with the Kansas City La Cosa Nostra crime family. The body shop is owned by a Kansas City man of Italian heritage who had some distant relatives that were possibly connected to the mob. We check every law enforcement source possible and we cannot locate any prior mention of Mr. Sharpino. We cannot find any street courses who ever heard of this Joe Sharpino.

Our investigation revealed that Sharpino was actually an independent tow truck driver who mainly hung around this body shop. The informant was buying more and more weed and laying the groundwork to introduce an attractive female DEA agent as a big buyer with lots of suburban customers.

We rented a nearby apartment, watched the body shop and recorded every license number that came and went. No mob guys were showing up. If this was a mob location, the owner was not associated directly with any local mob folks. The informant was seen going into the body shop and he was wearing a wire for the marijuana buys. We got suspicious when we heard no mob type conversations while he had the recorder on his body.  However, the informant kept telling his DEA control agent stories about how this Joe Sharpino was going to break somebody's legs that owed the body shop money. We even sent another independent informant to the body show with the cover that he needed a car repossessed. In reality, our informant was a “buy here, pay here” car dealer, so he legitimately had several cars he needed repossessed.  Sharpino was suspicious and turned down the offer of work. 

After a couple of weeks into this, the informant reported that Sharpino had a heart attack and was admitted into St. Luke's hospital for heart surgery. While Sharpino was recuperating, the informant relates that he wanted the informant to perform a wedding ceremony. The informant had a Universal Life Church minister's certificate and the supposed mob guy wants the informant to marry him and his girlfriend while he is still in the hospital. After several jokes about how to “wire up” the informant and record the ceremony. In the end, the informant conducted the ceremony without a tape rolling.

Shortly after the wedding, this supposed mob associate, Sharpino, got back to working with his tow truck. The informant makes the introduction to the female agent and she makes her pitch. Sharpino agrees and claims he can supply 50 pounds of weed. By this time, the DEA has to get the guy identified in order to continue the investigation and to put in larger resources. I asked our Fingerprint Unit supervisor to make personal calls to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) at the FBI headquarters. We had the guy's driver's license record and it showed no arrests. The fingerprint guy noted something we had failed to note, when the license was issued to Sharpino, he used a home address of 811 Grand, Kansas City Missouri. Shortly after, he changed it to his current address.  The fingerprint unit supervisor checked his FBI. contact with the name Joe Sharpino and his date of birth at NCIC.  The NCIC contact could not say exactly, but indirectly, we learned our friend was in the Witness Protection Program. We understood why his first address with the Missouri Department of Revenue was 811 Grand. This was the address of the Federal Courthouse where the FBI, ATF and the US Marshall's office kept offices. The DEA took this to the US Attorney's office who contacted the Witnesses Protection folks.  After a consultation and looking at our skimpy case, the US Attorney ordered the DEA to stand down and drop this investigation. The guy soon disappeared from Kansas City. We never heard from him again.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Gary Jenkins is a Gangsters Inc. contributor who has worked in the Kansas City Police Department Organized Crime Unit for 8 years from 1976 to 1984. He retired from the KCPD in 1996, entered the UMKC School of law and was admitted to the Missouri Bar in 2000. During the past 10 years, He produced 3 documentary films and launched an iPhone app titled Kansas City Mob Tour. His most recent documentary film, Gangland Wire, was released in 2013. In this documentary, Gary used retired F.B.I. agents, Nevada Gaming Agents, Stardust employees and experts to tell the story of how the Midwest mob families gained and lost control of several Las Vegas casinos during the 1970s. He may be reached his blog page www.ganglandwire.com, his Facebook page Gangland Wire, his twitter feed is @jenkslaw. The below story may have heard on Gary's true crime podcast, Gangland Wire Crime Stories.   

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