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The Story of New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello - Part 5

By Thom L. Jones

Read the first page of this story here

In 1960, Carlos Marcello had handed over $500,000 in cash to Jimmy Hoffa, the corrupt head of the Teamsters Union. He was to arrange the transfer of this into the campaign funds of Richard Nixon who was fighting an election against John F. Kennedy. Hoffa and the Mob desperately wanted Nixon to win the election.

In 1973, Nixon was president and barnstorming through the White House trying to plug all the leaks that were spouting over the Watergate burglary and recording it on tapes for posterity. He urgently needed $120,000 to pacify E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA official, who had organized the Watergate burglary. It is possible that this money came from Carlos. Hunt was identified by CIA operative, Morita Lorenz, as being at a Dallas motel on the evening of November 21st, 1963.

Pact between the Mafia and the U.S. government

There were many people who believed that Nixon and the Mafia were bedfellows. Martha Mitchell, wife of the former Attorney General told UPI reporters, "Nixon is involved with the Mafia." Nixon's chief of staff, General Haig, even ordered an investigation into the president's Mob ties through the Army's Criminal Investigation Unit.

In 1972, Richard Nixon arranged an unprecedented presidential pardon for New Jersey mobster, Angelo De Carlo, a feared killer and capo in the Genovese crime family. It seemed that Nixon was paying back favors for more financial contributions to his re-election campaign. If Nixon was linked to the Mob, there can be little doubt that one of his connections to it was Marcello.

By 1972, Carlos was sixty-two years old, richer and more powerful, possibly the most powerful Mafia boss in the nation. His only contender to this title may have been Carlo Gambino, the aging don who ran what was perhaps the biggest Mafia family in the country, based in Brooklyn. Although Gambino was a mob figure of stature, his significance outside of New York and New Jersey, was debatable. The House Select Committee on Crime declared in 1972, "We believe Carlos Marcello has become a formidable menace to the institution of government and the people of the United States." No government spokesperson ever said that about Gambino.

Called before the committee in June, Carlos Marcello was his old self. Formed to investigate the Mob's infiltration of professional sports, members grilled Carlos on his criminal ties. As usual, they got zilch. Repeating a well-worn story, he told his congressional inquisitors: ".... I'm not in no Mafia.... not in no racket, and not in organized crime."

In June 1971, the FBI had reorganized its New Orleans office and appointed a young, tenacious agent called Harold Hughes as head of a strike force to target Marcello. By 1972, with the death of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was finally able to exert real pressure on the Louisiana Mafia. By the mid 1970's, pressure was also building up on him from another direction.

In 1973, the first book was published on the assassination of President Kennedy, pointing a finger at Marcello; although in 1969, famous crime writer Ed Reid in his book The Grim Reapers had hinted at a possible connection. In 1976, an Italian documentary film called The Two Kennedys specifically nailed the Mafia as the force behind the murders of the brothers, again naming Marcello as the principal suspect.

And so, in September 1976, after much political and media activity, the 94th Congress established the House Select Committee on Assassinations to investigate the murders of President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. With a support staff of 170 lawyers, investigators and researchers, and a huge (for the time) budget of $6.5 million, this one had all the indications of a major inquiry. However, because of political in-fighting and procedural disputes, the Committee did not get off the ground until April 1977, with a reduced budget of $2.5 million, and a chairman called Professor G. Robert Blakey, a law professor at Cornell University and an acknowledged expert on organized crime. He was also the author of the famous RICO statute that five years down the track would come to haunt Marcello.

One of the Committee's first objectives was laid down by Staff Counsel, Robert Tannenbaum to investigate possible connections between Carlos Marcello and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was the first time in the fourteen years since the event that Marcello's name was publicly raised as a potential suspect.

On January 11th, 1978, Carlos appeared as a witness before the House Committee. He had not been called as a suspect and his sworn testimony was given under a grant of immunity. He was, however, not the first boss to be interviewed. Santo Trafficante Jr. had been interrogated on March 16th, the previous year. Speaking without immunity, Santo took the 5th on every question.

When he took the stand, the first question Carlos was asked was if he had any involvement in organized crime. Speaking in his quaint, ungrammatical Italian-New Orleans drawl he said, "No I don't know nuttin' about dat." He denied the existence of the meeting at Churchill Farms, and lied and bluffed his way through the session. He only lost his cool once, when the questioning turned to his illegal deportation.

"Everybody in de United States knowed I was kidnapped...I told the whole world it was unfair," he yelled, his corpulent face growing red with rage.

The New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune headlined his appearance: "THE MARCELLO-JFK CONNECTION," and elaborated on the thesis that Carlos had been behind the Kennedy assassination. Now it was public domain and he and his family would have to live with the disclosure for the rest of their lives.

Although the Committee had a huge catalog of conspiratorial allegations to investigate, including the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro and or the Cuban government, the anti-Castro Cuban exile groups, the FBI, the CIA and the Secret Service, it was in the area of organized crime that they developed the deepest suspicion. The Committee concluded that probably three men were involved in a plot to murder President Kennedy: Jimmy Hoffa, Santo Trafficante Jr. and Carlos Marcello.

  • READ: The Irishman: Jimmy Hoffa’s friend and the man who put two bullets in the back of his skull

Jimmy Hoffa had disclosed his plans to murder both Kennedy brothers to Edward Grady Partin, a Louisiana teamster official, early in 1962. Jose Aleman, the wealthy Cuban exile, documented Trafficante's involvement in front of the Committee, recounting the conversation he had with the Tampa mob boss in 1962, in which Santo had said that President Kennedy would "get hit." But it was Marcello, above all, who was targeted by the investigation.

In the final report, the committee stated, "In its investigation of Marcello, the Committee identified the presence of critical evidentiary elements that was lacking with the other organized crime figures: creditable associations relating both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby to figures having a relationship, albeit tenuous, with Marcello's crime family or organization."

Kent “Frenchy” Brouillette, a colourful and infamous mob character, was linked with Marcello through  prostitution and gambling rackets into the New Orleans crime family and their associates. He was also a cousin to four-term Louisiana governor, Edwin Edwards, who served a ten year prison sentence for extortion and may well have been on the take to Marcello. His personal aide, Charles E. Roemer was found guilty of soliciting funds from Marcello. Brouillette once described Ruby as “another Marcello family goombah,” and also claimed he had witnessed meetings between Lee Harvey Oswald and Marcello in the mob boss’s office at The Town and Country Motel. In one of the many degrees of separation in this tangled story is the fact that the first school Oswald attended was in Covington, where Marcello had his “summer” home.

The reaction of Marcello to the Committee findings was to authorize his principal attorney, Jack Wasserman, the man who had so successfully defended Carlos in his many deportation hearings, to search through the 220,000 pages of FBI documents that covered the assassination. His job was to find anything that might ultimately be used against Carlos to construct an indictment for conspiracy to murder the President of the USA. Wasserman however, died suddenly of a heart attack before he could complete his job.

The way things developed, the Mafia boss did not have to worry about this particular problem. There was however, something else, waiting for him in the wings, which when examined in retrospect, would prove even more damaging.

BRILAB

Lobbyist Isaac Irving Davidson was a mover and shaker in Washington D.C. He was a close friend of Marcello, who he referred to as "Uncle Snookems." Through one of his many business deals, he made contact with a Los Angeles-based insurance operator, who also happened to be a convicted swindler called Joseph Hauser. Davidson introduced this man to Carlos in June 1976. Hauser was anxious to expand his business interests into Louisiana. For a fee of $250,000, Carlos made a few phone calls, which resulted in Hauser getting access to all the insurance business from the Building Trade Union and also lucrative contracts with the Teamsters and Longshoreman Unions. Hauser leveraged this business through an insurance company he purchased in New Orleans, again using Carlos as the go between.

However, by the end of 1978, Hauser was in deep trouble. The SEC had placed his company under receivership because of irregularities they had discovered in the way the business was set up, and in addition he and Davidson were indicted on federal racketeering charges. In February 1979, Hauser pleaded guilty and looked set to pay a hefty fine and go off to prison for some time. He was then approached by an FBI agent, who offered him a way out of his troubles, provided he was prepared to participate in an undercover operation to be mounted against Marcello. It was part of a nationwide Justice Department sting operation, to be known as "Operation BRILAB," an anagram for Bribery and Labor. The exercise to dethrone Carlos Marcello began on April 2nd, 1979.

This was to be a momentous year in the life of Marcello. His peerless, hard working lawyer Jack Wasserman died suddenly of a heart attack. It was estimated that over the years, Carlos had paid him over $2 million in legal fees to fight his deportation case, which had originally been entered against him back in 1956, and was now the longest and costliest in United States history. In 1979, Carlos admitted for the first time ever, on record that is, that he belonged to the Mafia. The FBI launched two operations against him, both of which succeeded, and resulted in lengthy prison sentences, effectively destroying him and his criminal empire.

Hauser, aided by two undercover FBI agents, set themselves up as representatives of a fictitious West Coast insurance company and set out to induce Marcello to use his influence to get key officials in the labor movement and the state and municipal governments to award major insurance contracts to the company, in return for a share of the huge commissions payable on these agreements. Hauser and the FBI agents would wear wires and Marcello's office at the Town and Country Motel complex would be bugged.

This operation had been under way about six months, when Hauser, in one of his many conversations with Carlos, picked him up on the wire he was wearing, saying, "I'm doin' this for friends of mine in California. They Mafia like me, you know, personal friends."

The men he was referring to were the leaders of the Los Angeles Mafia: the boss, Dominick Brooklier, his under boss Sam Sciortino, a capo called Mike Rizzitello, and three top soldiers in the West Coast arm of the mob. They had been indicted on federal racketeering charges in February 1979, largely on the evidence of former capo "Jimmy the Weasel" Frattiano, who had become an informant because he feared Brooklier had put out a contract on him.

The FBI through Hauser, convinced Marcello that they could set up the judge in the forthcoming trial of the six men, provided Carlos could provide a suitable inducement. On November 1st, the FBI bug planted in Carlos' office recorded him confirming with Hauser that he would guarantee the $125,000 that had been agreed upon to bribe district court Judge Harry Pregerson.

On June 17th, 1980, Carlos Marcello, along with three other men, was indicted by a federal grand jury of twelve counts of racketeering in the BRILAB case. It was scheduled for summer 1981. On August 5th, 1981, he was indicted again by a Los Angeles federal grand jury for conspiring to bribe a United States district judge. Carlos was not concerned about his New Orleans trial. He had beaten them always on his home ground. As he said to a newspaper reporter, "They's not going to get me man, no way man. Dese are my people here." But Los Angeles was a different story. That was the one to fear. As it turned out, they would both shaft him.

The Long and Winding Road

For a man whose motto was, "Three can keep a secret if two are dead," it was a mortifying blow. In its year long, extraordinarily successful BRILAB undercover operation against him, the FBI had amassed fourteen hundred reels of recorded tape thirty-five thousand feet in all. It was a formidable weapon that would be used by the prosecution with devastating effect. The counts against Carlos and his co-conspirators were: racketeering, conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and interstate travel to engage in racketeering. The main witnesses for the government were convicted swindler turned government witness Larry Hauser and the two FBI agents, Larry Montague and Michael Wacks.

It took three weeks to select a jury that was acceptable to both the defense and the prosecution. The case eventually went to trial late in March and lasted eighteen weeks.

Over and over again, the jury listened to recorded conversations of Carlos, either talking to wired witnesses or held in the confines of his office at the Town and Country Motel. They heard the speech of a man presented by the authorities as a controller of labor unions, the manipulator of the political machinery of an entire state of the union, a man with links to the government of the country, and a man possibly connected to what had become known as the crime of the century.

What they listened to was fractured, uneducated, disjointed ramblings, often laced with racist comments and derogatory venom, aimed at mayors, state heads, politicians and union leaders, "It's taken time to get where I'm at. To know all these people governors, business, the attorney general, they know me."

"Governor John McKeithen...that sonofabitch got $168,000 my money....an then he too scared to talk to me."

"That Mayor Morial...want money as bad as you need it...bad as everybody wants it. Ya unnerstand. He'll take it from the right people."

This was the speech of a man who for eight months had orchestrated a skillful, well-contrived and elaborate scheme to siphon off Louisiana state insurance contracts through the use of kickbacks and bribery. A scheme, that had it succeeded, would have netted him at least $1 million every month. There is little doubt that had Carlos himself set this scheme up, rather than it being an FBI sting, he would have probably achieved all of his objectives. One of his greatest strengths had always been his ability to deceive his enemies into believing that he wasn't smart enough to plan and orchestrate elaborate criminal conspiracies.

By August 4th, 1981, it was all over. Shortly after 4pm that afternoon, the jury returned its verdict. Carlos Marcello was found guilty on the charge of violating the RICO Statute, which carried a penalty of up to twelve years imprisonment. The next day, he was indicted by a Los Angeles grand jury for conspiring to bribe a federal judge. Bad was turning to worse very quickly.

The trial and conviction of Carlos sent shock waves through the American Mafia. Other people had been mentioned in the trial tapes Aiuppa, boss of Chicago; Santo Trafficante Jr., head of the Tampa mob; and Joe Civello, the man who ran Dallas for the Marcello family. Only a little over 10% of the recorded conversations had been presented in evidence. What was on the rest of the tapes? Would Carlos cut a deal with the government to ameliorate his sentence? The FBI heard of rumors going through the New Orleans underworld that a mob contract was out on him, and advised Carlos accordingly.

On November 30th, 1981, he went on trial in Los Angeles, and eleven days later, the jury found him guilty on all three counts as charged. On January 25th, 1982, back in a federal courthouse in New Orleans, Carlos was sentenced in the BRILAB case. Judge Morey Secon handed down a sentence of seven years in prison and a fine of $25,000. Out on bail, Carlos had to wait until April, 1982, to find out what his fate would be in Los Angeles. For a 72-year-old man who had spent his life controlling events, it must have been an interminable delay.

In Los Angeles, Carlos was sentenced to ten years in prison. At the hearing, Judge Edward Devitt said to Carlos, "You've led a life of crime...by any evaluation it's fair to say you're a very bad man."

On April 15th, 1983, after all his appeals had failed, Carlos was remanded to the United States Medical Centre at Springfield, Missouri to begin his BRILAB sentence. Two months later, he learned his appeals against the Los Angeles conviction had also been denied. He now faced the prospect of seventeen years in prison.

He was incarcerated at Springfield for almost a year, and then in April 1984, he was transferred to another federal institution at Texarkana, near the Texas-Arkansas state line. This would be his home for the next two years. On February 19th, 1986, he was moved once again, this time to a near-minimum security facility at Seagoville in Texas. This was a prison for basically white-collar criminals lawyers, doctors, accountants-men who had committed crimes of embezzlement and tax fraud, rather than hard core acts of criminal violence. Carlos was here for only a short time and was then shifted again on June 2nd, 1986, to a level-one category federal correction facility at Fort Worth. The Justice Department have never disclosed why Carlos was moved around so much in three years. It may be that the last two moves into softer, more accommodating institutions were the result of some old favors being paid back from people at high levels in either municipal, state or even federal government. The prison at Fort Worth was more like a rest home than a correction facility. Carlos could meet his visitors around a picnic table, away from prying eyes and hidden microphones. Two of the people who came to see Carlos regularly were brothers Joe and Sammy; through them he was able to carry on managing his business activities, both legitimate and illegal.

Back on February 14th, 1975, Carlos, a man worth many millions of dollars, had done something unusual: he applied for social security benefits. For eleven years, his lawyers had fought for his constitutional rights to these. They had argued that his deportation to Guatemala had been an illegal act. Although Social Security had received notification of Carlos' deportation, they claimed they had never had filed with them a Lawful Re-entry after Deportation notice. A hearing in 1984 determined that Carlos was not entitled to benefits, and on March 26th, 1986, the District Court of Louisiana agreed.

This dancer's jig had a purpose. If the government had granted Carlos retirement benefits, it would be tantamount to it recognizing him as an American citizen. Still an illegal citizen, he was always under threat of deportation, and feared that when his sentence was served, the government would kick him out of the country once again.

After a year living comfortably at the "country club" in Fort Worth, on May 21th, 1987, he was suddenly, without notice, shifted back to the near maximum conditions of the Texarkana Penitentiary. He would be there until March 1989, when he was transferred for the final time to a federal prison hospital in Rochester, Minnesota.

Early in the new year, he had suffered a series of stokes that had left him severely disabled, and by the end of March, he was obviously showing signs of Alzheimer's disease. At times he had become so disoriented that he thought he was living in a hotel and could not recognize family members who visited him. In July, in a surprise move, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Carlos' BRILAB conviction. One judge denied this reversal, but his decision in turn was overruled.

In October, after having served six years and six month of his sentence, he was released and the old don was finally returned back into his family's care. "I'm retired," he told reporters. "I'm happy. Everybody's been nice to me." He returned to his white, sprawling, two-story mansion overlooking a golf course.

Here, he lived out the last years of his life, cared for by a group of nurses and watched over by his wife and family in his home at 577 Woodvine Avenue, just across the street from the Metarie Country Club. Apparently, he lost the power of speech and regressed to his infancy. He was never seen in public again and died on March 3rd, 1993. His wife, Jacqueline, lived on, and died peacefully, in her sleep, in January 2014. She was 96. The year after Carlos Marcello died, another Jacqueline, this one the widow of John F. Kennedy died. She was 64 when she was taken by cancer.

Read the final part of Out of Africa: The Story of New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello

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