The day the Cleveland mob diedAnother look back at the Greene bombing 25 years ago
By Ken Prendergast
Few Greater Clevelanders under the age of 35 may remember how different things were in their city in 1977. And it wasn’t just about disco music, long hair and bell-bottomed jeans.
But, for perhaps the first time in the 25 years since flamboyant mobster Danny Greene was murdered by a car bomb, young Greater Clevelanders may have some idea of the fear that pervaded their metro area in those turbulent years. Today, it's threats of terrorism for which we're being asked by authorities to maintain a watchful eye.
In the 1970s, however, it wasn't threats of explosive violence that terrorized Northeast Ohio's citizenry. Instead, it was the real and horrifyingly frequent use of it. By the time Greene’s life was cut short Oct. 6, 1977, in the eastern suburb of Lyndhurst, Cuyahoga County had seen 37 bombings in the previous year -- the most for any major city in America.
"For a year after the Greene bombing, nobody parked near my wife’s car at her workplace" at a local flooring company, said Roger Smyth, then Lyndhurst's chief of police. "Given the times, I can’t blame them."
The Greene bombing would serve as a benchmark. Before it, Greater Cleveland was frequented by acts of organized crime violence. After it, the region’s once-powerful mob was silenced. On the bombing’s historic anniversary, this dramatic change was recalled fondly by current and former law enforcement officials.
Yet, 25 years ago, few here could have predicted such a downfall, back when mobsters ran rampant in Northeast Ohio. The Mafia influenced everything from construction contracts, labor unions and powerful politicians as they enriched themselves from extensive gambling, loansharking, prostitution, garbage hauling, governmental contract bid rigging and other corruptive activities.
A turf battle between rival organized crime factions to control those rackets erupted in 1976, when John Scalish, godfather of the Cleveland Mafia since 1944, died unexpectedly during surgery. The aging mob boss failed to declare a successor in the event of his passing.
That created a leadership vacuum that two rival factions sought to fill. One was Scalish's traditional Cleveland Mafia family on the East Side, with James "Jack White" Licavoli taking its reins. The other was a new gang, mostly from the West Side, led by Greene and Teamster union boss John Nardi, said Lt. Rick Porrello of the Lyndhurst Police Department.
Porrello has authored two books on Cleveland organized crime history -- "To Kill the Irishman" and "The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia." For Porrello, it's not so much an occupational interest. His grandfather and uncle were local mob bosses who were murdered during the bloody years of Prohibition in a fight for control of the city's bootleg alcohol rackets.
While there had been a number of local bombings and other acts of mob violence throughout the 1970s, the pace worsened dramatically following Scalish's death, Porrello said.
The intensity and audacity of the violence was understood when Scalish's underboss, Calogero "Leo Lips" Moceri turned up missing in August 1976. In a motel parking lot in Akron, only his blood-stained Mercedes was found. It was rare for a Mafia family’s underboss to be assassinated.
Two of Scalish's enforcers also were targeted by henchmen working for Greene and Nardi, Porrello added.
First was Eugene "The Animal" Ciasullo. He was seriously wounded in July 1976 by a nails-laden bomb hidden in a flower pot on the front steps of his Richmond Heights home. Battling cancer, Ciasullo now lives near Pittsburgh. He is on probation for his alleged role in a 1990s Cleveland-area drug ring. Ciasullo declined to be interviewed for this story.
In September 1976, another of Scalish's enforcers was targeted, Porrello told. A bomb planted in Alfred "Allie" Calabrese's car instead killed an innocent man. Frank Pircio, 50, of Collinwood, died when he tried moving the mobster's Lincoln Continental to get his own car out of a shared driveway, the Cleveland Press reported. Calabrese died in 1999 of a stroke while behind bars, according to federal prison records.
In 1976, FBI agent Joseph Griffin was promoted from being a field agent in Buffalo, to become an assistant special agent in charge at the FBI’s Cleveland office. He was thrust into the job as the local mob war was nearing its peak.
"Fortunately, my specialty was organized crime," Griffin said. He was later named special agent in charge of the Cleveland FBI and wrote a book, "Mob Nemesis," about his experiences.
Law enforcement officials were beginning to get tips from sources that a mob war was underway and about to intensify.
"Sometime in March of 1977, I got phone call from someone I knew," said Pete Elliot, who worked at Cleveland's U.S. Marshal's office from 1967-90. "He was upset and scared. This person indicated that Danny Greene was going to be killed and there was going to be a mob war. He named names, and that anyone suspected of being an informant would also be killed.
"The person indicated the local mob didn’t have the balls to kill Danny Greene," Elliot continued. "He said Danny Greene had outsmarted all of them. Instead, they were going to get someone on the West Coast and another person from Western Pennsylvania to kill Greene. After listening to the information for about a week, I took that (information) to the organized crime strike force, but they said the information wasn't to be believed."
Mob informants were rare in those years. They still adhered to the Mafia’s code of silence, Omerta, enforced by death. Years later, it was learned that Greene was an FBI informant, and often took advantage of that status for his own benefit.
After the attacks on the Cleveland Mafia, Licavoli turned the tables and instructed his own henchmen to target Nardi and Greene.
Porrello said the two men survived multiple attempts on their lives, including a remarkable incident in March 1977 in the parking lot of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Nardi and Greene were returning from a meeting in New York City with Gambino Crime Family boss Paul Castellano. Calabrese and another mobster, Pasquale "Butchie" Cisternino, had planted a remote-controlled bomb in the car occupied by Nardi and Greene. But Calabrese and Cisternino were too far away to trigger the bomb.
Nardi apparently didn’t have Greene’s luck or cunning.
On May 17, 1977, one half of the Mafia’s rival faction’s leadership was killed when Nardi was blown to bits by a car bomb outside his Teamsters office downtown. His brutal death garnered national headlines, which embarrassed Greater Clevelanders, based on the content of follow-up media coverage of the Nardi bombing.
Bombs were the preferred method of killing in those years, said law enforcement officials. Not only did their use erase much crime scene evidence, bombs also sent a powerful message to civilians and others that the Mafia shouldn’t be crossed.
Compared to Nardi, Greene had survived more attempts on his life, going back to the late 1960s, including a bombing that leveled his Collinwood apartment building in 1975. The attempts intensified after Scalish died and Greene tried to force his way into leading the Cleveland mob.
"Greene had the luck of the Irish," Porrello said.
As it turned out, Greene's Irish luck wasn't without limits.
In September 1977, a reputed mob wire man, Carmen Marconi, got into Greene's home and his hangouts to tap his phones, said Smyth, Lyndhurst's police chief from 1967-88. He said Marconi was a clever man. When Marconi’s alarm company was raided by police in the late 1970s, officers found privileged communications equipment stolen from the telephone company’s high-security research lab. Phone company officials had no idea how the equipment was taken, Smyth said.
He said it was Marconi who recorded Greene's girlfriend making an Oct. 6, 1977 dentist appointment for her boyfriend at the Brainard Place office building at Cedar and Braindard roads in Lyndhurst. Marconi’s discovery was quickly delivered to mob boss Licavoli, court records later showed.
Smyth, who was in Los Angeles on Oct. 6, attending a conference of the Internal Association of Chiefs of Police, got a call in his hotel room from Lyndhurst Capt. Harry Bell.
"He said a car blew up and thought it was Danny Greene," Smyth said. "I left the next day for Cleveland."
A Chevy Nova was parked next to a Lincoln Continental owned by one of Greene's enforcers. When Greene emerged from the dentist's office and approached the door to the green Lincoln, a remote-control button was pushed. The Cleveland Mafia hoped the violent explosion had eliminated its worst headaches.
"Instead, they were about to begin," Porrello said.
Lyndhurst police’s lead bomb technician George Soptich began several days work, collecting bits of trace evidence from the bomb blast. All the pieces he collected allowed him to put the bomb back together. His painstaking efforts are still taught at the FBI’s academy on how to do a post-blast investigation, Smyth said.
In the office building’s parking lot, among the pieces from the bomb and the shattered Chevy, there were other, more disturbing discoveries.
"I walked around the parking lot and there were little pieces of flesh everywhere," said Joe Darwal, a Sun Newspapers photographer for 28 years. He arrived at Brainard Place only minutes after the explosion.
Upon Smyth’s return to Cleveland, he learned there was a remarkable break in the case. Debbie Spotz, an artist related to a Berea police officer, spotted a car driving away from the Greene bombing.
She considered the driver to be suspicious, as the driver didn't seem surprised at the violent explosion, according to court records. Spotz sketched a detailed composite of the driver's face, which law enforcement officials immediately recognized as mobster Raymond Ferritto of Erie, Pa., Smyth said.
"As soon as I got back to Cleveland, we had the drawing," he added. "That investigation was all coming together. I was surprised we had such a big break. We had so many bombings back then, and a lot of them went unsolved."
With a search warrant in hand, Smyth and Lt. Joe Wegas, then-head of Lyndhurst’s detective bureau, drove to Ferritto's home in Pennsylvania. There, the two men were shocked at what they found.
"We couldn’t believe it," Smyth said. "In the visor of Ferritto's car, there’s the registration of the car that blew up Danny Greene. We were dancing around the back yard."
"It showed these guys are not the sharpest tools in the box," Griffin laughed. "They made mistakes and we capitalized on them."
Porrello said Ferritto soon turned himself into the FBI in Pittsburgh. He immediately was arrested. The Cleveland Mafia quickly took out a contract on Ferritto’s life, Porrello added.
On a Friday afternoon in December 1977, Elliot was placed in charge of witness security for the U.S. Marshal's office in Cleveland. As a matter of courtesy, he decided to pay a visit to Cleveland's organized crime strike force chief Doug Roller to introduce himself. As they chatted, Roller's phone rang.
"He kept saying `Oh my God' and `That’s terrific'," Elliot said. "When he got off the phone, he said `Ray Feritto just flipped (over to the prosecution's side).' That's when I knew this bombing was going to reverberate throughout the country. That night, I was moving Ray Feritto into protective custody."
Ferritto was the Lakewood man’s first witness. It proved to be a baptism by fire. Elliot later learned the FBI was able to convince native Clevelander and West Coast mobster Jimmy "The Weasel" Frattianno to become a witness against the mob in the Greene murder case. At the time, Frattianno was the highest-ranking mafioso to turn against his former brethren in court. There would be more to come.
The Greene murder trial was one of the most notable court battles in Cuyahoga County history. The trial was also the county’s longest -- 79 days. As part of the evidence displayed, the car bomb was reconstructed with a mock-up car door, just as the mob hitmen had done.
"Capt. Soptich wanted to set it off with a cherry bomb in the court room for the jury," Smyth recalled. "I told him `no way -- you're going to scare the daylights out of the jury.' That was his point. So we chose to use a bell instead and, when it went off, the jury still jumped out of their chairs."
However, only two convictions resulted from the trial -- Cisternino and Ronald "The Crab" Carabbia. While Cisternino died behind bars in 1990, Carabbia was released on parole Sept. 24, 2002, much to the chagrin of federal officials who feared he would return to his reputed role as a mob leader.
"He (Carabbia) is the one guy who could try to bring it (the mob) back. He has what it takes," said Griffin, Cleveland’s retired FBI special agent in charge who is now chief executive officer of Quest Consultants International, an investigations firm based in Chicago comprised mostly of former FBI agents.
But the Greene trial, its mob turncoats and subsequent investigations had dramatic repercussions.
"As we started off and the bad guys started turning against each other, others started turning," Smyth said. "It went into the other (mob) cases here in Cleveland. Then it led to us getting indictments in New York (City) and Los Angeles. This (Greene murder case) was one of the first multi-jurisdictional, law enforcement strike forces in the country. All the agencies started working together for the first time."
"As a result of that (Greene) bombing that first year, in offshoot cases, I took in 26 witnesses," Elliot said. "Until I retired in 1990, I took in 80 witnesses, most of which were for organized crime cases. With their families, that amounted to about 250 people."
"They (federal marshals) made the case," Smyth said. "Without the witnesses, we wouldn't be anywhere. There were (death) contracts on all of them. Years later, after things cooled down, a source told me that my name was brought up once at the Card Shop (a Mafia hangout in Cleveland's Little Italy) as someone to be eliminated."
Follow-up court cases against the Cleveland Mafia in the early 1980s convicted local mob boss Licavoli and, later, underboss Angelo "Big Ange" Lonardo, of various organized crimes. Before Lonardo was sent to jail, he was named interim boss of the Cleveland Mafia. He soon turned against his mob pals.
"Most of these guys were maggots," Griffin said. "But one of them who had some class was Lonardo. He wouldn’t sit next to the others at the (court) hearings. After Lonardo was sent to prison, I sent agents to see him and we talked about him helping us. They stayed in close contact with him. Finally, we asked if he would testify for us in a case and he agreed. It was very exciting. Lonardo was the highest-ranking Mafia member to ever testify, since he was an interim boss. (Sammy) Gravano (who testified against Gambino leader John Gotti) was only an underboss."
Lonardo, inducted into the Mafia in the 1940s and respected by mafiosi nationwide, was used by the FBI and federal prosecutors as a witness in subsequent court cases throughout the country to seriously damage the national Mafia hierarchy, Porrello said.
"Removing a city’s mob leadership," Griffin said of Cleveland, "to tell you the truth, it’s never been done anywhere else in the country."
Some say organized crime in Cleveland is all but dead. But Elliot disputes that.
"I don't think that's true," he said. "There’s still a lot of operations going on."
"If the government is staying on top of things in Cleveland," Griffin responded. "They can keep the mob from coming back. But it all began with Danny Greene," he said.
Ken Prendergast can be reached by writing to email@example.com
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