By Thom L. Jones
‘A sweetheart of a guy. He wasn’t a drinker and didn’t cheat on his wife the way most of these guys do. His one big fault is that once in a while, he would import 50-100 kilos of pure heroin.’
Assistant U.S. Attorney, Eastern District Strike Force, 1973.
On March 6th, 1962, NYPD detectives, Sonny Grosso and Eddie (Bullets) Egan, delivered two packages to the Office of the New York City Police Property Clerk, whose storage area was located on the second floor of 400 Broome Street, in lower Manhattan.
The two men signed in a blue suitcase and a black steamer trunk that contained fifty-one bags of heroin. It was the proceeds of the largest narcotics bust ever, at that time, by a municipal law enforcement agency in America, and it became famous around the world as ‘The French Connection Case.’
The drugs at the core of the mystery — popularized as ‘The French Connection’ in a 1969 book by Robin Moore and an Academy Award-winning film starring Gene Hackman that followed two years later — were secreted in compartments in an American car loaded aboard the liner United States sailing from Le Havre, France, to New York. The car and its 112 pounds of heroin were later claimed by a Luchese Mafia family underling, who as it happened, was being tailed by this pair of dogged New York narcotics detectives, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso.
The drug bust in January 1962 was widely hailed as a record. But the heroics proved short-lived.
The seizure was to a large extent, the result of the blindest luck. Egan and Grosso had been tailing a low level associate of the Mafia, called Patsy Fuca. Through their surveillance, they linked him to a visiting French television show host, Jacques Angelvin, who was visiting New York, along with his 1960 Buick Invicta. The two officers were part of a team of NYPD and federal drug bureau detectives that determined the Frenchman was probably the courier for a drug ring operating out of Marseilles. The police ‘stole’ the car, stripped it and found it contained the heroin. In due course, the Buick returned to its owner, was driven to the Bronx home of Fuca’s uncle Joe, and unloaded. Then, the cops moved in and arrested everybody. Well everybody except the guy that was behind it all, one Angelo Tuminaro, a.k.a. Little Angie, who was a major drug importer within the Luchese Cosa Nostra crime family of New York.
The mob, contrary to the myth that they didn’t touch drugs as it was ‘unmanly’ to do so, had been donkey-deep in the stuff, from its earliest days. The Lucheses were one of the more consummate peddlers. Along with Tuminaro, the family hosted such drug trafficking luminaries as John ‘Big John‘ Ormento, ‘Joe Diamond’ Evola, the di Palermo brothers, Charlie and Joe a.k.a. ‘Joe Beck’, Sally Santoro, Nicky Bonina, Frank Callace, ‘Big Sam’ Cavalieri, Sal Maneri, ‘Big Nose Nick’ Tolentino and Joe Bendenelli to name a few.
The Luchese Family had been linked into Pepe and Vincenzo Cotroni, Montreal based mobsters, who supplied drugs into New York via five major contacts. Tuminaro and his partner, Anthony Di Pasqua, were one of these five. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics believed Pepe Controni to be one of the biggest drug traffickers in North America.
The French Connection was a term used to describe a scheme through which heroin was smuggled from Turkey to France and then to the United States, culminating in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it provided the vast majority of the illicit heroin used in North America.
Made up of a number of syndicates, the biggest was headed by Corsican criminals Francois Spirito and Antoine Guacrini, and also involved Auguste Ricord, Paul Mondoloni and Sicilian, Salvatore Greco.
Illegal heroin labs were first discovered near Marseille, France, in 1937. These labs were run by the legendary Corsican gang leader Paul Carbone. For years, the Corsican underworld was involved in the manufacturing and trafficking of illegal heroin abroad, primarily to the United States. It was this heroin network that eventually became known as the ‘French Connection.’
Historically, the raw material for most of the heroin consumed in the United States came from Indochina, then Turkey. Turkish farmers were licensed to grow opium poppies for sale to legal drug companies, but many sold their excess to the underworld market, where it was manufactured into heroin and transported to the United States. The morphine paste was refined in Corsican laboratories in Marseille, one of the busiest ports in the western Mediterranean Sea. The Marseille heroin was reputed for its quality.
The first significant post-World War II seizure in America was made in New York on February 5, 1947, when seven pounds (3 kg) of heroin were seized from a Corsican sailor disembarking from a vessel that had just arrived from France.
It soon became clear that the French underground was increasing not only its participation in the illegal trade of opium, but also its expertise and efficiency in heroin trafficking. On March 17, 1947, 28 pounds (13 kg) of heroin were found on the French liner, St. Tropez. On January 7, 1949, more than 50 pounds (22.75 kg) of opium and heroin were seized on the French ship, Batista.
The first major French Connection case occurred in 1960. In June, an informant told a drug agent in Lebanon that Mauricio Rosal, the Guatemalan Ambassador to Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, was smuggling morphine base from Beirut, Lebanon to Marseille. Narcotics agents had been seizing about 200 pounds (90 kg) of heroin in a typical year, but intelligence showed that the Corsican traffickers were smuggling in 200 pounds (90 kg) every other week. Rosal alone, in one year, had used his diplomatic status to bring in about 440 pounds (200 kg).
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics's 1960 annual report estimated that from 2,600 to 5,000 pounds (1,200 to 2,300 kg) of heroin were coming into the United States annually from France. The French traffickers continued to exploit the demand for their illegal product, and by 1969, they were supplying the United States with 80 to 90 percent of its heroin.
Angelo Tuminaro (right), a small, five foot two, wizened and ugly little man, was born in 1910. He had a rap sheet starting in 1929 when he was nineteen. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics had identified him as a major narcotics trafficker as far back as 1937. A soldier in the Luchese Mafia Family, he was married to Bella Stein, whose father, a major prohibition bootlegger, was a mover and shaker in the Jewish underworld thereby allowing Tuminaro to become a significant liaison man between the Jewish and Italian underworlds.
The Jews at one time dominated the drug business in New York. ‘Smack’ the street slang for heroin, comes from ‘shmeck’ the Yiddish word for smell.
Tuminaro used his nephews Patsy and Tony Fuca, sons of his sister Nellie, to handle deliveries to customers in the New York area. He controlled his business either from his home at 24 Rutgers Street, in lower Manhattan, or one of the many mob social clubs that dotted the corners in the Mulberry-Mott Street areas, and on occasions from a barber shop, called ’The Apollo’ he part owned which was at 144 Clinton Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He also ran a business called C&P Painting and had extensive real estate holdings in the city. A 1964 Senate report listed him as ‘one of the largest wholesale narcotics traffickers in New York City.’
He had been arrested in the historic drug bust that landed Carmine Galante, Jone Ormento and Anthony Mirra among others, and was indicted in November 1960. He skipped bail however, and disappeared until he voluntarily surrendered to the local police in Miami, Florida, in 1962. In November 1986, Fortune magazine listed him as 49th out of the top 50 mob bosses.
The French Connection case became something of a legend, and through the movie and book, it became the stuff that fables are made of. Following the arrests and indictments of the leading players, the heroin was removed from its storage on several occasions, for use firstly in grand jury and court proceedings. In 1963, it was taken to a state laboratory in Tennessee for analysis, to see if its source in France could be traced. In 1964, federal marshals chaperoned it to a U.S. Senate investigation on heroin trafficking, in Washington DC. Amazingly following this hearing, the heroin was shipped back to New York by railway express without escort! It had a street value at this time of $50,000,000.
Returned to the Property Clerk’s Office which was approximately 100feet by 50 feet, it was secured in an area, 30 feet by 30 feet that would seem to have been impregnable: a cage, locked and secured and surrounded by three other similar cages.
Here were stored the most important police property: cash, pornography and drugs. Doors were padlocked into each area, the building had walls eight feet thick, doors were constructed of cast iron, and all entrances were guarded. Everything had to be signed in or out by authorized personnel, all under the watchful gaze of the curators of the office, men who worked the RDU, officers on restrictive duties. Some may have been recovering alcoholics, others may have had problems with their social lives, or had been rendered unfit by accident or injury for frontline duties.
In October 1972, a New York detective named James Farley was arrested by a special Nassau Counties force as he was about to rape a woman in her house. Farley, a serial rapist had been under surveillance as the major suspect in a series of attacks on women on Long Island. When the cops searched his home, they found brown manila envelopes containing narcotics, signed out from the New York City Property Clerks Office. Farley claimed he just never had time to get the items signed back in, but a check was made on the system all the same.
Everything seemed okay, and when they came to The French Connection stash, the RDU’s discovered that the last logged out entry was dated January 4th, 1972. At 12:25 p.m., a detective, Nunziato, shield no 3496, had signed out the heroin, a total of approximately 44 kilos. Although there had been a police detective called Nunziata, the signature did not match his handwriting, and no such police badge existed. The cases were pulled from bin number 14 in the cage where they were stored, and sent to the crime lab. When they were opened by assistants, it was discovered that the evidence bags were covered in thousands of red insects- soon identified as red flour beetles. The lab staff analysed the contents and found the plastic bags contained flour and cornstarch. The French Connection had disconnected.
But bad was to turn to worse.
Following a public announcement by the police commissioners office, and the expected media furore that created, a meeting of senior NYPD brass decided that all inventories of drugs held by the New York police department was to be made immediately. Over a three week period, 180 police officers checked every single package, envelope, box or case that contained drug evidence. They found that in a period from March 21st 1969 to January 4th 1972, Detective Nunziato, sometimes spelling the name with a final ‘a’ and using a different badge number each time, five separate numbers, and on one withdrawal no badge number at all, had made six separate withdrawals of drugs. In addition, other detectives unaffiliated with Nunziato, were bogusly drawing off and signing out drugs that were in storage, totalling almost 400 pounds of heroin and cocaine, enough to satisfy 20,000 addicts for at least a year. All had been replaced with flour and cornstarch before being returned. On the basis of the street value of the drugs, $70,000,000, it was the biggest robbery ever, in American history. Since the police had been burning some of the confiscated drugs no longer needed as evidence, perhaps even more narcotics had been snatched.
Maybe it was the biggest-biggest robbery ever in American history.
Amazingly back in 1968, Robin Moore had met with detectives from the Special Investigative Unit of the NYPD who were assisting him with ‘background’ for his book, and one of them, Joe Nunziata, actually suggested that Moore should write a fictional sequel about the confiscated heroin being stolen from the Property Clerk’s Office. History does not record if another of the detectives was called Frank E. King.
There followed a blasting of the police by the media, the city council, and every Joe on the block, and as a result, the Police Commissioner set up a special squad to investigate the disappearance of the drugs. The first meeting was held on Christmas Day 1972. Their investigation would cover America, Puerto Rico, Italy and Chile, and last five years. The squad located itself in the Number Two Tower of the World Trade Centre, and was formed into four research teams. Team number two would focus on links into organized-crime. They would be the most successful in the hunt for the perpetrators.
Their prime target was a man who lived in the borough of Queens. His name was Vincent Papa.
Papa had been born in Astoria, in 1917, the only son of Victor and Frances. He had a sister called Josephine. And that was all that was known about him until 1938 when the cops arrested him for attempted burglary. From then, his ‘yellow sheet,’ his NYPD arrest record, recorded numerous charges, at least twenty-six: larceny, burglary, bookmaking, gambling, assault, loan sharking, and drug trafficking. Your average, well-rounded out, professional hoodlum, working hard at developing his career. In between his various arrests and convictions, he got himself married to a woman called Mildred, and they had three children: Victor and Vincent Junior, and a daughter they called Valerie. They lived in an ordinary two story house, at 21-34, 37th Street, Astoria, in Queens (right). Nothing ostentatious, just one of many row houses in this part of suburban New York.
Papa’s first conviction for drug peddling was in 1959, when he got hit with a five year sentence. From then on, his name appeared regularly in court documents, confirming that he was a major supplier of drugs to other members of the underworld, many of them associates or ‘made men’ in the American Mafia. By the end of the 1960s he was a major operator in the supply and distribution of heroin into New York and Long Island. Only a very few men could move large amounts such as 50 or 100 kilos. He was one of them.
Papa operated from three different business addresses.
The first was the Astoria Colts Social Club, on Ditmar Boulevard in Astoria, Queens, where he conducted his cash and carry business. People brought him cash, and carried away drugs, or at least the addresses where they could pick them up. He ran a very successful drug operation. According to US Attorney James Drucker, between 1967 and December 1971, Vincent Papa (right) handled on average, 25 kilos of heroin each week.
A mob hangout, the Astoria was a place where Papa and his friends felt safe to conduct their affairs. His other places of business was a company he owned in Queens, called Ditmar’s Private Car Service on Greenpoint Avenue. The limos were used when out of service, to pick up and drop off drug consignments. There was also the VIP Tire Company he ran, also situated on Greenpoint Avenue.
One of Papa’s suppliers of drugs was Louis Cirillo (left). According to The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (know today as the DEA,) Cirillo, during 1970 and 1971, was probably the biggest drug dealer in New York. A man with a fearsome reputation for violence, he once bit out a man’s Adam’s apple during a fight, and the word in the underworld was that ‘when Louis did a number on a victim, you had to leave the room.’ He was allegedly, Papa’s major heroin supplier.
He was arrested in Miami in 1972 and in January 1973, after a jury trial in the Southern District of New York, he was found guilty on two counts, and sentenced to two concurrent terms of 25 years imprisonment.
Cirillo was born in New York in 1924. He maintained he was a bagel baker, at Midtown Bagel Bakery in Manhattan, earning $200 a week, and lived in the Bronx, at 2907 Randall Avenue.
His employer later admitted that ‘he couldn’t bake a bagel if he had to.’ Apart from his claim to fame as a drug dealer, he is also linked, in an apocryphal way, to the murder of Tommy Eboli, the alleged boss of the Genovese crime family in the early 1970s. It is quite possible that Cirillo was a soldier in the Mafia family headed by Eboli.
Eboli it was claimed, raised $4 million from various mob bosses, including Carlo Gambino, to purchase drugs through Cirillo. When the drug dealer went down in 1972, agents digging up the back garden in his home in the Bronx, discovered $1,078, 100, which it was assumed was some of this mob cash.
When Gambino demanded his share back, and Eboli reneged on the deal, he was shot dead, as punishment. Or so the legend goes.
Vincent Papa was a man of less than medium height, a solid looking guy, with thick, salt and pepper hair, swept back. His eyes were soft and hazel coloured. He wasn’t a flashy dresser, favouring dark jackets and pants, and plain, white, unbuttoned shirts. Sometimes he wore a fedora. He was a man of property, with a relaxed, graceful air about himself. A low key kind of person, who lived by a simple creed—‘my word is my bond.’ He was known and respected by his family and associates as a ‘stand-up guy.’ His mob friends and subordinates referred to him as ’Dad’ or ‘The Old Man.’ He was a generous friend, a man with charisma, and would often lend money without seeking guarantees. But he was a man not to be crossed. Anyone did, they were history. During the police investigation of Papa, two of his associates were murdered. One was called Jack Locorriere, who ran Ditmar’s Limo Service and the other was named Louis. When Jack went missing in 1973, Papa sent a message to one of his associates.
‘Don’t send anybody to Jack. Don’t send anybody to Jack but Louis.’ Louis La Serra’s body was subsequently found, decomposing in Queens, with a bullet hole in the back of the head. Louis had been sent to Jack.
A killer and man who terrorized others when it was needed, Papa was away from his workplace, a devoted father. When his children married, the ceremonies were like Hollywood movie events, attended by a cross section of men who were important in the New York underworld. Vincent Papa had some heavy contacts, and was a close associate and personal friend of Carlo Gambino and Carmine Paul Traumunti, known as ‘The Old Man’, and a major player in the Luchese Mafia crime family, two very powerful mob bosses in New York’s Cosa Nostra.
On February 4th 1972, a joint task force of Federal Drug Enforcement agents, and NYPD detectives arrested Papa as he drove away with Joe Di Napoli in their 1968 green Pontiac sedan, from the home of Napoli’s comare, Genevieve Patalano, at 1908 Bronxdale Avenue in the Bronx. In the car was a green suitcase that the two men had collected from the house that contained $967,450 in new $100 bills. When federal agents question him about the money, Vince claimed that he and Di Napoli had found the money in a telephone booth, and were simply going to the police to hand it in, when they were arrested. The money in the case had obviously been converted from $10 and $20 bills to make it easier to transport. It was subsequently discovered that the money had been changed at a bank in Babylon, Long Island, using a bank-teller, who was the brother-in-law of Angelo Paradiso, one of the men who worked within the Papa organization.
What the two men were really going to do with the cash of course, was buy themselves 200 pounds of heroin.
When Papa was arraigned before a magistrate he requested legal aid, claiming he couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer. In September 1972, Papa plea bargained himself a five year term on two terms each of conspiracy to import narcotics and tax evasion. He had also been indicted on a four-count tax evasion charge, with hiding undisclosed earning of $244, 00 between 1967 and 1970.
He was sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta to serve his sentence. With remission, he could do it standing on his head.
To the task force, he was a prime suspect in the theft of the police departments drug evidence. The last looting from the Property Clerk had taken place on January 4th 1972, and a month later Vince Papa had been found with almost a million dollars in his possession. The drugs stolen that day had a value of approximately $1,400,000. It had to be more than just a coincidence. Where there is cause, there is always effect.
In August 1973, a year into his sentence, he was brought from the federal penitentiary at Atlanta to answer questions before a grand jury assembled to investigate the theft of the French Connection drugs. After invoking the fifth amendment and refusing to answer any questions put to him by a federal prosecutor, Pappa was excused.
He was by now, using the services of a counsellor called Frank Lopez, a high-profile criminal defence lawyer, who worked in partnership with another attorney called Theodore Rosenberg, who himself was under surveillance in an investigation involving a New York State Supreme Court judge. The police team investigating Rosenberg had tapped into his office telephone system, and one day, in August 1973, a detective on duty supervising the recordings, heard a voice calling in, asking to speak to Lopez. It belonged to a man called Frank King. A note on this call was logged and eventually found its way to the desk of two of the police investigators on the special squad involved in the French Connection inquiry. They recognized King at once. A former detective in the NYPD, he had been assigned at one stage to the SIU.
The SIU-Special Investigating Unit of the NYPD Narcotics Division-was the most corrupt law enforcement agency in American history. Robbery and bribery of big-time dope dealers by agents of this unit was commonplace, as was the use of illegal wiretaps, rampant perjury, and in fact murder to achieve an objective was not unknown. It was said of its officers that they were poor in their twenties, rich in their thirties and in jail in their forties. Their unique assignment was to investigate major narcotic traffickers in New York, and their creation as an anti-crime unit stemmed directly from the French Connection case. The eighty men and women who formed the SIU roamed across New York at will, chasing leads, following suspects, arresting drug dealers and lining their pockets with huge amounts of money siphoned off the criminals they arrested. Stealing money and drugs from the narcotic traffickers they detained, became a standard procedure. At their peak, an SIU agent was known as a ‘Prince of the City,’ because of his free-wheeling attitude and his loyalty only to his brothers in crime.
King had resigned from the force in 1972, and now worked as a private investigator, in partnership with another ex NYPD officer, a man called Pasquale Intrieri, a former detective-lieutenant. In May 1972, Manny Gambino, a nephew of the mob boss, Carlo Gambino had been kidnapped. For some reason, it was a concern of Vincent Papa that his organization might be suspected of being involved, and he had accordingly, hired King and his company, to act as a bodyguard for his two sons, as he feared reprisals against them.
This was the first link between Vincent Papa and Frank King. On December 16th 1973, an article in The New York Times linked the two ex-cops to the theft of the French Connection drugs. Written by Emanuel Perlmutter, it disclosed that two retired NYPD officers, (photo right: NYPD officer, a man called Pasquale Intrieri, a former detective-lieutenant), a lieutenant and one of his detectives, along with four serving officers, were prime suspects in the $70 million theft of the French Connection narcotics. A few days later, the police crew bugging the telephone of Frank Lopez, heard him talking with Frank King. The lawyer seemed to be reassuring King that his position was secure, but their main worry revolved around whether or not investigators had determined who had forged the signature on the logging-out record of Detective Frank Nunziato.
There had been a senior drug squad detective with the SIU called Nunziata. A big, gregarious guy, he looked like the movie star, Dean Martin and had died in mysterious circumstances in February 1972. His body was found in his car parked on Driggs Avenue in the Williamsburg borough of Brooklyn. It was ruled by the coroner that he had committed suicide, although he was left handed, and the gunshot wound was to his heart, an almost impossible physical accomplishment. In addition, there was no gunpowder found on his shirt, or any traces on his hand.
Nunziata had been under intense investigation for corruption and drug related crimes.
His widow, Anna, challenged the findings of suicide, claiming her husband would never have killed himself, and when the family lawyer, John Meglio, demanded that the detective’s clothes be handed over to the family for their own forensic examination, it turned out that the Property Clerk’s Office had lost them!
Rumours in the New York underworld pointed to shooters from the Luchese crime family as having carried out the detective’s killing.
Frank King lived with his wife in Chappaqua, New York, a wealthy suburban enclave about 20 miles north of Manhattan. From August 1973, he had been a major surveillance target of the French Connection squad. Wiretaps were placed on his private and business phones, and agents followed him twelve hours a day. In February, 1974, at a press conference, the chief assistant of the Special State Prosecutor in charge of the case, announced that the department was close to indicting a former NYPD detective, alleged to be the ‘kingpin’ in the ring that had arranged the theft of the drugs from the police property office.
On May 10th Frank King was indicted on a conspiracy charge, along with Vincent Papa, involving the hiding of two men, associates of Papa’s who were then fugitives from the law. A few days later, the lawyer, Frank Lopez was also indicted, this time by the French Connection grand jury, on charges of criminal contempt.
The Special Prosecutor leading the French Connection investigation, Maurice Nadjari, called another press conference, later in the year, at which he announced further indictments in the case, claiming his office was close to folding up the case, two years after the investigation had begun. He claimed that his office knew six NYPD detectives were involved in the theft of the French Connection drugs, which they had arranged to sell to Vincent Papa, but as of August 16th, 1973, his office did not yet have enough evidence to close out the investigation, but things would roll up soon..
He was a little out in his time frame. There was still three years to go before the French Connection Case would end.
Early in 1974, another figure emerged in the long, on-going investigation. A man called Tom Puccio, a prosecutor in the Criminal Division of the United States Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York, based at the U.S. Courthouse in downtown Brooklyn. He was initially involved in investigating Chilean drug dealers who had been deported to New York in December 1973, following the coup that had toppled Allende. They were to be used to gather evidence against the corrupt SIU police officers who had arrested them and shaken them down during their drug-dealing days, when they had lived and operated in New York in the late 1960s.
Puccio was drawn into the French Connection Case and it became an obsession with him, driving him to work sometimes fifteen hours a day or more, trying to fit together all the available evidence. It was a complex judicial jigsaw, where the important linking pieces always seemed to be lost to sight. As he was digging, deeper and deeper into the backgrounds of the motley cast of crooked cops and seedy mobsters that made up the French Connection Case Vincent Papa was facing more troubles that were coming at him from another source.
In March 1974, he and his illegitimate son, Vincent Junior were indicted on charges of conspiring to deal in narcotics. This particular case had been orchestrated by the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which covered Manhattan and the Bronx. It hinged on evidence supplied by one of Papa’s team, a man called Joe Ragusa. Frank Lopez would again defend Vincent, this time, assisted by another hotshot lawyer, an attorney called Ivan Fisher, a man who would become famous ten years down the track for his defence work in the famous ‘Pizza Connection’ trial.
Both lawyers did their best, but Papa was found guilty, although his son was acquitted. The presiding judge sentenced Papa to a jail term of twenty years. Even with remission time, he would be inside at least fifteen years, a life sentence in essence for a man who was fifty-seven years old.
Although he was now in deep trouble, the catalyst for his future, even more serious problems, lay in events that had occurred two years earlier when Vincent Papa had collaborated with the justice department. Visited at Atlanta, by a special prosecutor working with the federal Organized Crime Strike Force, he had supplied the names of SIU detectives who had been selling off confidential information to underworld sources. In return for his co-operation, the government dropped a drug case they had against one of his men, the same Joe Ragusa who was now testifying against him.
If there is such a thing as honour among thieves, it is indeed a tenuous concept.
Vincent Papa was concerned that word would get out that he had informed, even though it was against cops rather than criminals in the underworld. He had violated a special code which he and many of his peers lived by, never to help the law, never to inform, never to ‘rat.’ Not only did he feel personally uncomfortable about this, he also knew that his actions could probably kill him if word ever surfaced about his actions.
Although all the documents and papers relevant to the United States v Papa were sealed and made unavailable to the public, one reply brief slipped through the security system, and a copy was obtained by someone who visited the office of the Clerk of the Court of Appeals.
At the end of March 1976, Francis E. King, the former SIU narcotics detective went on trial, not for stealing the French Connection drugs from the NYPD property office, but for abuse of his power as a police officer, including associating with and receiving bribes from Vincent Papa. The trial lasted six weeks, and Tom Puccio, the lead prosecutor, spent seven hours on his final summation to the jury, possibly the longest ever recorded in a criminal case in an American courtroom. It was to no avail. King was found not guilty and acquitted.
In 1977, he was not so lucky. He was back in court along with his ex-partner, Pasquale Intrieri, and another ex SIU cop, a man called Vincent Albano, charged with income tax evasion, the basis of the indictment being that essentially they had never declared, for obvious reasons, the money they had either stolen from drug dealers or had been offered as bribes, but had spent plenty of it, leaving a trail that Tom Puccio nailed down so effectively, the jury found all three men guilty. For his part, Frank King, was sentenced to prison for nine years and fined $30,000.
According to Bob Leuci, the NYPD cop who became famous as the ‘Prince of the City,’ through his biography and its subsequent translation into a movie starring Treat Williams, Frank King was ‘a thoroughly corrupt cop. He was a gangster as a cop.’
While Frank King was fighting off the attacks of the Federal prosecutor, Vincent Papa was serving out his consecutive sentences in the penitentiary at Atlanta. Early in the spring of 1976, he discovered that some of the inmates had found out about his cooperation back in 1972 with the law. The reply brief that had been copied that day in the office of the Clerk of Appeals, somehow surfaced in the prison.
One man in particular, deeply resented Papa’s cooperating with the authorities and was stirring things up. A short, pudgy, Jewish gangster called Herbie Sperling (right), who was himself serving a life sentence for drug trafficking. He had been a major narcotics dealer in New York, based on 7th Avenue in Manhattan, working with his Jewish partners and associates out of the famous Stage Delicatessen and also operating from his apartment on Spring Street and sometimes his mother‘s apartment on 8th Avenue.
Arrested along with 17 others, he was indicted, tried and sentenced to life plus 30 years.
Sperling had been on the wrong side of the law all his life, starting as a gopher when he was just a boy of seventeen, for infamous Mafioso, Vito Genovese.
He had delivered drugs at one time for notorious mob turn-coat, Joseph Valachi and was known on the streets as a hustler with balls.
Also known in the underworld as a ‘stone-lunatic,’ Sperling had a reputation for violence dating back to his youth when he terrorized Delancey Street. Although of small stature, he was known by his peers as being as mean as a snake and he was a major suspect in the brutal murder of one of his associates, a man called Louis Mileto. His headless and limbless torso had been found in the trunk of a burnt-out auto in Suffern, New York. The torso was identified by teeth, the medical examiner had found inside the stomach. Mileto had been so badly beaten, he had swallowed his teeth, smashed out of his jaws. Mileto, like Patsy Fuca before him, had been siphoning off heroin without Sperling’s knowledge. Not the smartest move with a psychopath like Herbie floating around.
The little Jew mobster was renowned for his foul mouth.
When Sperling was arrested at the Long Island home he shared at times with his elderly mother, the arresting agents told him they would release her if he cooperated.
‘Listen.’ Herbie snarled at them, ‘if you guys have a beef with her, that’s her problem. Don’t lay it on me. The old lady has to take her own weight.’
Agents confronted Sperling with an axe they found in the hire car he was using at the time, he denied any knowledge of it, claiming:
‘That’s the last fucking time I ever hire a car from Avis.’
When found guilty at his final trial for drug dealing, the presiding judge asked Sperling if he wanted to address the court
‘Yes, Your Honour‘ Sperling said. ’If you think I'm going to beg for mercy, you've got another think coming. You're all a bunch of fucking fascist cocksuckers, you can all go to hell, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you…’
When Frank Lopez discovered the danger his client was in, he did his best to have Papa resettled in another jail, but all his attempts failed. Tom Puccio tried one last time to get Papa to give up more of the crooked SIU agents with the promise that he would have him moved to a safer prison, but Vincent Papa refused to go down that track again. He lived out the rest of his life at Atlanta, guarded by bodyguards, who could watch over him most of the time, but not all of the time.
On Tuesday, July 26th 1977, early in the evening, he was leaving the prison mess hall and walking down a ramp towards the recreational fields, when he was set upon by three black inmates. Young, strong, muscular toughs, all armed with ‘shanks’-home made knives. They repeatedly stabbed him in the back and chest, at least eight times, as other inmates quickly walked by, eyes averted. The gray sweatshirt Vincent wore, quickly changed to black and his white running shorts turned pink, his body pumping out pints of blood, as he lay dying on the concrete walkway.
Herbie Sperling was indicted by a Grand Jury for the murder of Vincent Papa, but was acquitted for lack of evidence. The leader of the trio that attacked Vincent, a man known to the inmates as ‘Tattoo,’ was however convicted, and a further life sentence was added to the years he was already serving. He and another black inmate were sentenced to life for the killing of Papa on 26th October, 1979.
Frank King, the ex SIU detective, did his time and then disappeared into obscurity. Last heard of in the 1980s, he was still working as a private investigator in the New York area. He may have died at the age of 60, in July 1994.
Tuminaro and Cirillo are almost certainly dead. Little Angie would be 111 if alive, and no doubt still looking for drug customers.
Herbie Sperling, now 72, is currently housed at the Allenwood Medical FCI in White Deer, Pennslyvania. He will stay in the prison system until he dies, probably choking to death on a mouth full of expletives.
Vincent Papa was buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Queens. Often referred to as The Boot Hill of the Mafia, among other luminaries laid to rest there, are Charley Luciano, Vito Genovese, Joe Profaci, Carlo Gambino and Joe Colombo. Vincent, by his own admission was not ‘made’ into the mob, but simply an associate, but he had no doubt earned his spot in this eternal garden of fame. On his last visit to see Tom Puccio, in New York on December 20th 1976, he had admitted to his involvement in the stealing of the drugs from the Police Department property office. He would never go on record with this, and early on January 4th 1977, the statute of limitations ran out for the French Connection Case.
Tom Puccio had come close to nailing it. He had discovered the identity of the man who had signed out the drugs, forging Detective Nunziato’s signature, a drug dealer in Vincent Papa’s organization. But without Papa’s confirmation, Puccio had no supportable evidence to indict the man. SIU detectives, possibly including Frank King, had undoubtedly been involved in the theft of the drugs. It was also more than likely that one of the RDU’s in the Property Clerks Office was an inside man on the theft. Puccio thought he knew who this was, but again without the cooperation of Vincent Papa, there was nowhere he could take it.
But at least Puccio had the satisfaction of knowing that Papa had admitted he was part of it. And that was how the New York papers remembered him in their obituaries:
‘Vincent Papa, the man who stole the French Connection.’
In February 2009, over thirty years after the murder of Vincent Papa, another mobster decided he wanted to get in on the act.
Anthony Casso, one-time head of the Luchese crime family, serving 455 years without parole for crimes innumerable, in the federal ‘super-max’ prison in Florence, Colorado, confirmed with 79 year old Pat Intreri, the former NYPD drug detective, and peripheral player in the theft of the drugs, that he knew who stole the property from the Broome Street office, naming one for sure as Vincent Albano, another former New York cop, who was found shot dead in an Oldsmobile in the car park of the Staten Island Hospital, in July 1985.
Because of his previous unstable and unpredictable behaviour concerning evidence and intelligence on the mob underworld, authorities declined to take up Mr Casso’s offers of help.
He wasn’t a drinker and didn’t cheat on his wife the way most of these guy’s do…..
James Drucker was wrong in this respect about Papa. He did have at least one comare, who bore him a son out of wedlock. For some strange reason they called him Vincent Junior, just like his legitimate step-brother, who grew up to be a successful real estate agent, operating in Whitestone, New York, and fought in Vietnam, receiving a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Junior by default, unfortunately went the way of his father, and also ended his life in prison, although he died of AIDS rather than a knife in the back.
In a strange, almost doppelganger-type coincidence, Louis Cirillo begat a son, Louis junior who also joined his father in a life of crime. At the age of 26 he was indicted and convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for trying to help is old man run a drug ring out of Otisville Correction Centre. Bad just got badder for junior, and in December 1991, his body, with the customary three behind the ear, was found in the trunk of an another abandoned Oldsmobile, this time in the Bronx.
He had married into Philadelphia mob royalty, his wife Maria, being the daughter of imprisoned mobster Joseph "Chickie" Ciancaglini, one time hotshot capo in the crime family of Nicky Scarfo. Maria Malone Ciancaglini had met Louis when she was visiting her father at Lewisburg and he was visiting his. They fell in love and were married in September, 1991 in a sumptuous ceremony attended by 350 guests that was estimated to have cost gazoons. The wedding photo album alone, set someone back $10,000! He was dead three months later.
No doubt it was all about drugs. Somehow it seems, it always is.
Junk is the ultimate product, the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk is necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy…….
Thanks to Dan and Rick M from the Real Deal Forum for their help in researching some of the background to this story.
© Thom L. Jones. 2011