Feature Articles

April 2006

Angelo "Big Ange" Lonardo,
One-time Highest-Ranking Mobster
to Become a Federal Witness,
Dead at age 95

By Rick Porrello

Read 1988 Lonardo Senate Testimony


     Angelo "Big Ange" Lonardo, Cleveland Mafia underboss shown during his 1977 arrest for the murder of mob foe Danny Greene. A one-time highest-ranking Mafioso ever to become a government witness, Lonardo is much the subject of the book The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia.
     During the late eighteen hundreds, the four Lonardo brothers and seven Porrello brothers were boyhood friends and fellow sulphur mine workers in their hometown of Licata, Sicily. They came to America in the early nineteen hundreds and eventually settled in the Woodland district of Cleveland. They remained close friends. Several of the Porrello and Lonardo brothers worked together in small businesses.

     Lonardo clan leader "Big Joe" became a successful businessman and community leader in the lower Woodland Avenue area. During Prohibition, he became successful as a dealer in corn sugar which was used by bootleggers to make corn liquor. "Big Joe" provided stills and raw materials to the poor Italian district residents. They would make the booze and "Big Joe" would buy it back giving them a commission. He was respected and feared as a "padrone" or godfather. "Big Joe" became the leader of a powerful and vicious gang and was known as the corn sugar "baron." Joe Porrello was one of his corporals.

     With the advent of Prohibition, Cleveland, like other big cities, experienced a wave of bootleg-related murders. The murders of Louis Rosen, Salvatore Vella, August Rini and several others produced the same suspects, but no indictments. These suspects were members of the Lonardo gang. Several of the murders occurred at the corner of E. 25th and Woodland Ave. This intersection became known as the "bloody corner."

      The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia the Preface
By this time, Joe Porrello had left the employ of the Lonardos to start his own sugar wholesaling business. Porrello and his six brothers pooled their money and eventually became successful corn sugar dealers headquartered in the upper Woodland Avenue area around E. 110th Street.

     With small competitors, sugar dealers and bootleggers, mysteriously dying violent deaths, the Lonardos' business flourished as they gained a near monopoly on the corn sugar business. Their main competitors were their old friends the Porrellos.

     Raymond Porrello, youngest of his brothers was arrested by undercover federal agents for arranging a sale of 100 gallons of whiskey at the Porrello-owned barbershop at E. 110th and Woodland. He was sentenced to the Dayton, Oh. Workhouse.The Porrello brothers paid the influential "Big Joe" Lonardo $5,000 to get Raymond out of prison. "Big Joe" failed in his attempt but never returned the $5,000.

Meanwhile, Ernest Yorkell and Jack Brownstein, small- time self-proclaimed "tough guys" from Philadelphia arrived in Cleveland. Yorkell and Brownstein were shakedown artists, and their intended victims were Cleveland bootleggers, who got a chuckle out of how the two felt it necessary to explain that they were tough. Real tough guys didn't need to tell people that they were tough. After providing Cleveland gangsters with a laugh, Yorkell and Brownstein were taken on a "one-way ride."

     "Big Joe" Lonardo in 1926, now at the height of his wealth and power left for Sicily to visit his mother and relatives. He left his closest brother and business partner John in charge. During "Big Joe's" six-month absence, he lost much of his $5,000 a week profits to the Porrellos who took advantage of John Lonardo's lack of business skills and the assistance of a disgruntled Lonardo employee. "Big Joe" returned and business talks between the Porrellos and Lonardos began. They "urged" the Porrellos to return their lost clientele.

     On Oct. 13th, 1927 "Big Joe" and John Lonardo went to the Porrello barbershop to play cards and talk business with Angelo Porrello as they had been doing for the past week. As the Lonardos entered the rear room of the shop, two gunmen opened fire. Angelo Porrello ducked under a table.

     Cleveland's underworld lost its' first boss as "Big Joe" went down with three bullets in his head. John Lonardo was shot in the chest and groin but drew his gun and managed to pursue the attackers through the barbershop. He dropped his gun in the shop but continued chasing the gunmen into the street where one of them turned, and out of bullets, struck Lonardo in the head several times with the butt of his gun. John fell unconscious and bled to death.

     The Porrello brothers were arrested. Angelo was charged with the Lonardo brothers' murders. The charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. Joe Porrello succeeded the Lonardos as corn sugar "baron" and later appointed himself "capo" of the Cleveland Mafia.

     On Dec. 5th, 1928, Joe Porrello and his lieutenant and bodyguard Sam Tilocco hosted the first known major meeting of the Mafia at Cleveland's Hotel Statler. Many major Mafia leaders from Chicago to New York to Florida were invited. The meeting was raided before it actually began. Joe Profaci, leader of a Brooklyn, N.Y. Mafia family was the most well-known of the gangsters arrested. Within a few hours, to the astonishment of police and court officials, Joe Porrello gathered thirty family members and friends who put up their houses as collateral for the gangsters' bonds. Profaci was bailed out personally by Porrello.

     As Joe Porrello's power and wealth grew, heirs and close associates to the Lonardo brothers grew hot for revenge. Angelo Lonardo, "Big Joe's" 18-year-old son along with his mother and his cousin, drove to the corner of E. 110th and Woodland, the Porrello stronghold. There Angelo sent word that his mother wanted to speak to Salvatore "Black Sam" Todaro. Todaro, now a Porrello lieutenant, had worked for Angelo's father and was believed to be responsible for his murder. In later years it was believed that he was actually one of the gunmen.

     As Todaro approached to speak with Mrs. Lonardo whom he respected, Angelo pulled out a gun and emptied it into "Black Sam's stocky frame. Todaro crumpled to the sidewalk and died.

     Angelo and his cousin disappeared for several months reportedly being hid in Chicago courtesy of Lonardo friend Al Capone. Later it was believed that Angelo spent time in California with his uncle Dominick, fourth Lonardo brother who fled west when indicted for a payroll robbery murder in 1921.

     Eventually Angelo and his cousin were arrested and charged with "Black Sam's" murder. For the first time in Cleveland's bootleg murder history justice was served as both young men were convicted and sentenced to life. Justice although served would be shortlived as they would be released only a year and a half later after winning a new trial.

     By 1929, Little Italy crime boss Frank Milano had risen to power as leader of his own gang, "The Mayfield Road Mob." Milano's group was made up in part of remnants of the Lonardo gang and was also associated with the powerful "Cleveland Syndicate," Morrie Kleinman, Moe Dalitz, Sam Tucker and Louis Rothkopf. The Cleveland Syndicate was responsible for most of the Canadian booze imported via Lake Erie. In later years they got into the casino business. One of the their largest and most profitable enterprises was construction of the Desert Inn Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. Dalitz would become known as the "Godfather of Las Vegas."

     By 1930, Milano had grown quite powerful. He had gone so far as to demand a piece of the lucrative Porrello corn sugar business. On July 5th, 1930, Porrello received a phonecall from Milano who had requested a conference at his Venetian Restaurant on Mayfield Road. Sam Tilocco and Joe Porrello's brother Raymond urged him not to go. At about 2:00 p.m., Joe Porrello and Sam Tilocco arrived at Milano's restaurant and speakeasy. Porrello, Tilocco, and Frank Milano sat down in the restaurant and discussed business. Several of Milano's henchmen sat nearby. The atmosphere was tense as Porrello refused to accede to Milano's demands.

     Porrello reached into his pocket for his watch to check the time. Two of Milano's men, possibly believing that Porrello was reaching for his gun opened fire. With three bullets in his head, Porrello died instantly. Simultaneously, a third member of Milano's gang fired at Tilocco who was struck three times but managed to stagger out the door toward his new Cadillac. He fell to the ground as the gunmen pursued him, finishing him off with another six bullets.

     Frank Milano and several of his restaurant employees were arrested but only charged with being suspicious persons. The gunmen were never actually identified.

     Following the murder of Joe Porrello, the "sugar war raged on with three more Porrellos, one more Lonardo, and several other associates and independents being killed.

     In mid-1931, National Mafia "capo di tutti capi" (boss of all bosses) Salvatore Maranzano was killed. His murder set in motion the formation of the first Mafia National Ruling Commission created to stop the numerous murders resulting from conflicts between and within Mafia families and to promote application of modern business practices to crime.

     Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Meyer Lansky were the main developers of the commission. Luciano was named chairman. Also named to the commission were Al Capone of Chicago, Joe Profaci of Brooklyn and Frank Milano of Cleveland. The American Mafia was now "Americanized" and would be run more like a business.

     In Dec. of 1931, Angelo Lonardo and his cousin Dominic Suspirato were released from prison after being acquitted of "Black Sam" Todaro's murder during a second trial. Because he had avenged his father's death and (for the most part) gotten away with it, he became a respected member of Frank Milano's Mayfield Road Mob.

     The thirst for revenge had not been satisfied for members of the Lonardo family. It was generally believed that "Black Sam" Todaro instigated and perhaps took part in the murders of "Big Joe" and John Lonardo. However it was believed by members of the Lonardo family that the remaining Porrello brothers, particularly the volatile John and Raymond and eldest brother Rosario still posed a threat because of the murders of Joe and James Porrello.

     On Feb. 25th, 1932 Raymond Porrello, his brother Rosario and their bodyguard Dominic Gulino (known also by several aliases) were playing cards near E. 110th and Woodland Avenue. The front door burst open and in a hail of bullets the Porrello brothers, their bodyguard and a bystander went down. The Porrellos died at the scene. Gulino died a couple of hours later. The bystander eventually recovered from his wounds. This shooting was Cleveland's worst Mob hit ever.

     Several hours after the murders, Frank Brancato, with a bullet in his stomach, dragged himself into St. John's Hospital on Cleveland's west side. He claimed he was shot in a street fight on the west side. A few days later, tests on the bullet taken from Brancato revealed that it came from a gun found at the Porrello brothers murder scene. Although never convicted of either of the murders, Brancato was convicted of perjury for lying to a Grand Jury about his whereabouts during the murder. He served four years after a one to ten year sentence was commuted by Governor Martin L. Davey.

     In 1933, Prohibition was repealed. The bootleg murders mostly stopped as organized crime moved into other enterprises. Angelo Lonardo continued his crime career as a respected member of the Cleveland family eventually rising through the ranks to the rank of underboss and one-time acting boss to run the northeast Ohio rackets in 1980.

     Enter Danny Greene. He was fearless and cunning - loved by his neighbors and hated by his business competitors - the members of the Cleveland Mafia. Fiercely proud of his Irish heritage, he was a Celtic warrior at heart, obsessed with the color green - green car, green jackets, green ink pens. Through the 1970s, the ruggedly handsome Danny Greene had been boldly encroaching on mob territory. Their threats didn't worry him.

     Danny got his start in racketeering as president of the local International Association of Longshoremen. He could have been a highly successful businessman, but it wasn't the life for him. After a shocking expose by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he was ousted from the docks and fined $10,000 for embezzling union funds. Danny had been forcing longshoremen to unload filthy grain boats and "donate" their paychecks to a union hall "renovation fund." The hall had already been renovated - painted green when Danny took office.

     Later Danny worked for as an enforcer for local mobsters including Alex "Shondor" Birns, well-known Jewish racketeer. After a dispute over a $60,000 Greene refused to repay, Birns had a bomb planted in his car. It was the first in a series of botched attempts on the brash Irishman's life. Danny found the bomb. A few weeks later Birns was blown out the roof of his car, in two pieces.

     Danny's big mistake was the 1976 murder of Leo "Lips" Moceri, the respected and feared new underboss of the Cleveland Mafia, and the bombing of enforcer Eugene "The Animal" Ciasullo. Aging mob boss James Licavoli ordered his henchman to "get rid of the Irishman," but the inexperienced soldiers had no luck. The attempts by the self-proclaimed tough guys were almost comical. Then west coast wise guy Jimmy 'the Weasel" Fratianno recommended a hired killer from Erie.

     In the end, Danny went out the way he predicted. "When you live by the bomb, you die by the bomb." The Irishman was dead. But the Mafia's celebration was cut short. There was much sloppy work, a few observant witnesses (one of whom was a sketch artist) and extraordinary investigations by federal, state and local officials.

     As a result of Danny's murder and the ensuing convictions, Angelo "Big Ange" Lonardo, sugar war survivor, successful restaurateur and Cleveland mob underboss tried to regroup after many of the Cleveland mobsters were convicted in connection with the Greene murder, but in 1982 he was implicated in a major drug operation being run by his lieutenants including Joey Gallo. Lonardo relentlessly denied that he had given his underlings the okay to enter the drug business.

     "Angelo Lonardo is probably one of the most respected guys in the whole United States...," said Gallo one day. "He's really the kind of guy we needed in this town a long time ago, but you know, nobody ever listened to him because... he don't express himself... But out of everybody that's left, this guy commands a lot of respect... I respect him not only because I have to because, I'm telling you, he's a great guy."

     The conversation, secretly recorded by the F.B.I., would come back to haunt the mob and Joe Gallo, in more ways than one.

     Indeed Gallo was right. Lonardo was greatly respected nationally by many of the most powerful Mafia leaders. And his quiet nature, typical of the last breed of Mafiosi, was a form of protection against such treacherous betrayers of the brotherhood like Jimmy Fratianno.

     Even police detectives and F.B.I. agents had a certain respect for Lonardo.

     "To me, he was almost like the movie version of The Godfather," a policeman commented. "He was always the gentleman, not a tough street rat. He was someone who recognized us as people in the same general line of work - on an opposing team, of course."

     And Lonardo maintained respect for the police. When detectives would arrive at his home to execute a search or arrest warrant, Lonardo and his wife would treat them like guests even inviting them to sit and have coffee.

     Strike Force prosecutor Donna Congeni was impressed with Lonardo's demeanor in the court room. She was subjected to cruel, obscene insults from some of the other defendants and even their attorneys. But Lonardo treated her with respect and courtesy, even standing when she approached the defendant's table.

     "He was the epitome of class," she once remarked.

     But Congeni was just as determined to send Lonardo away for life as she was the others. The task proved challenging.

     "Because of his years of careful training in the art of secrecy and insulation, with meetings held in back rooms and decisions made with nods and coded phrases, our case against Angelo Lonardo was difficult to prove," said prosecutor Congeni. "But once drug ring leader and informant Carmen Zagaria testified about Lonardo's methods, the jury could see his power and control."

     As a result of sentences handed down by U.S. District Court Judge John Manos, Angelo Lonardo, Joe Gallo and several others would be destined to life behind federal bars. In a separate trial, another Lonardo lieutenant, Tommy Sinito, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 22 years. He later died in prison.

     It had been a career proving crime pays. For decades, Big Ange Lonardo survived the most hazardous pitfalls of Mafia involvement - mob bullets and prison. Through fifty years of acquiring power and money through criminal and legitimate enterprises, he had spent only eighteen months incarcerated.

     F.B.I. agents had been visiting Lonardo and offering deals since his conviction in 1983. They promised to get him out of prison on an appeal bond. No doubt it was a tough decision. In August of 1983, Lonardo was brought to Kansas City to testify before the U.S. grand jury investigating skimming from several Las Vegas casinos. Lonardo refused to address questions alleging that he transported skimming proceeds between Chicago and Cleveland. Despite an offer of immunity and a judicial order, he would not betray omerta.

     But back in his lonely cell at Lewisburg Prison, Lonardo must have been weighing his options. It was only after his first judicial appeal was denied that he picked up the F.B.I. agent's business card and quietly slipped away to a prison pay phone. He had made a painfully tormenting decision that would have far-reaching effects throughout the national underworld.

     "Are you still there?" he quietly asked.

     Indeed the F.B.I. agent knew what Lonardo meant. He was swiftly removed from Lewisburg, placed under 24 hour guard, and the long process of betraying his past began.

     When the word spread, Lonardo's relatives and friends couldn't believe it. They were shocked. If Danny Greene was watching, no doubt he was beaming at the chaos his war with La Cosa Nostra had sparked.

     In the underworld, gangsters from New York to Los Angeles were reflecting on past dealings with Lonardo, nervously wondering what he might reveal.

     After weeks of debriefing, legal procedures and judicial technicalities, Angelo Lonardo, known appropriately in F.B.I. files as "Top Notch," was ready.

     The first stop was back to Kansas City where prosecutors had been unhindered by Lonardo's previous refusal to talk. They had returned indictments and the historic Strawman II skimming trial was underway. Among the defendants was Angelo's once-dear brother-in-law and companion Maishe Rockman.

     Seated in the witness chair, seventy-four-year-old Lonardo looked aged and weary. But his testimony was effective. In addition to Rockman, numerous mobsters were convicted of skimming more than $2 million from two Las Vegas casinos. They included:

  • Joseph Aiuppa, 78, boss of the Chicago Mafia

  • John "Jackie" Cerone, 71, Chicago underboss

  • Joseph Lombardo, 57, Chicago capo

  • Angelo "The Hook" LaPietra, Chicago capo

  • Frank Balistrieri, Milwaukee mob boss (plead guilty)

  • Carl DeLuna, Kansas City underboss (plead guilty)

         Lonardo spent the next three years in other federal court rooms and before the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations revealing everything he knew about the mob's operations. During one exchange with Senator Sam Nunn, he instructed the committee on the difference between and gang and a Mafia family.

    SENATOR NUNN: You mention the murder of Leo Moceri. Who committed that murder?

    LONARDO: I believe it was Danny Greene and Keith Ritson.

    SENATOR NUNN: Why was that murder committed?

    LONARDO: Well, Leo Moceri and John Nardi did not get along, and one day during the feast that they hold in Cleveland every year, in Mayfield - I think you know about that - Leo Moceri told John Nardi to mind his own business and he had better start behaving or otherwise he was going to get it. He says,"You know I'm the underboss now, he says, "don't forget."

    SENATOR NUNN: How was that murder carried out?

    LONARDO: Well. John Nardi was being tried in Miami on narcotics and while he was there he gave Danny Greene the order, the contract to try to get Leo Moceri.

    SENATOR NUNN: Was that murder carried out by the other gang, another gang -

    LONARDO: Yes

    SENATOR NUNN [continuing]. Against a member of your gang?

    LONARDO: Against a member of our gang? No. He was a member of our family.

    SENATOR NUNN: And someone from another family carried out the contract on him?

    LONARDO: It was not a family. It was Danny Greene and Keith Ritson.

    SENATOR NUNN: Did they belong to any kind of family at all? Was there any kind of -

    LONARDO: They were what you call a gang.

         Lonardo's knowledge of the underworld was brought from the Las Vegas skimming trial in Kansas City to New York City. There in September of 1986, he and Jimmy Fratianno were key witnesses at the United States vs. Salerno trial. Dubbed the "commission case," this highly publicized and successful attack on organized crime began in 1980, when the New York City F.B.I. initiated an ambitious assault on the Mafia.

         Strike Force teams were assigned to build R.I.C.O. cases against each of the five Mafia clans in New York. The operation included New York State Organized Crime Task Force investigators, N.Y.P.D. detectives and U.S. attorneys. Six years of investigation were capped by indictments of numerous high-ranking mobsters, including the bosses who make up the elite Mafia ruling commission. The case was dubbed "Star Chamber" by the investigators. In all, there were 37 counts of loansharking, labor payoffs, extortion and racketeering. It has become better known as the "Commission Case."

         Clevelanders Angelo Lonardo and another mob turncoat, Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno, were key witnesses. Fratianno, a high-ranking southern California Mafia leader would later co-author two books and appear in a documentary about his life. The prosecution also had celebrated F.B.I. agent, Joseph Pistone on their side. Under the assumed name of Donnie Brasco, Pistone had gone undercover and infiltrated the Bonnano crime family. His historic penetration of La Cosa Nostra's inner circle netted a wealth of invaluable intelligence which provided an in-depth look at the structure and operations of New York City's five Mafia families. Pistone told his story in the book Donnie Brasco - my undercover life in the Mafia.

    All of the commission case defendants were convicted and sentenced as follows:

    Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno (Genovese family boss) 100 years; $240,000 fine

    Aniello "Neil" Dellacroce (Gambino family underboss) 100 years; $240,000 fine

    Carmine "Junior the Snake" Persico (Colombo family boss) 100 years; $240,000 fine

    Gennaro "Gerry Lang" Langella (Colombo family underboss) 100 years; $240,000

    Ralph Scopo (Colombo soldier) 100 years; $240,000 fine

    Anthony "Tony Ducks" Corallo (Lucchese family boss) 100 years; $250,000 fine

    Salvatore "Tommy Mix" Santoro (Luchesse family underboss) 100 years; $250,000 fine

    Christopher "Christy Tick" Furnari (Luchesse family consigliere) 100 years; $240,000 fine

         Gambino family boss, Paul Castellano, had also been indicted, but prior to the trial was killed in a plot led by his cocky lieutenant, John Gotti. Gotti took over the Gambino family after Castellano's murder. Dubbed "Dapper Don" because of his impeccable appearance and "Teflon Don" because of his numerous acquittals, Gotti eventually received a life sentence for the Castellano conspiracy. He has since died in prison.

         Internationally, Lonardo's name remained less familiar than that of other powerful Mafia turncoats such as Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, former Gotti underboss, because the aging mobster never went on talk shows or cooperated in writing a book. This author attempted to interview him twice in the 1980s, but he declined. His defection was a grand prize - a coup for the late F.B.I. Joseph Griffin, then agent-in-charge of the F.B.I. field office in Cleveland must have been delighted.

         "Jimmy Fratianno was a captain. Joseph Valachi was a mere soldier," he explained to the news media. "Lonardo is to Fratianno and Valachi what the president of General Motors is to a foreman and an assembly line worker."

         After leaving the witness protection program, Angelo Lonardo lived quietly in northeast Ohio until his death in March of 2006 at the age of 95. He remains one of the most significant figures in the history of the American Mafia.

    About the Author

    A cop in suburban Cleveland, Rick Porrello, serendipitously began his writing career when curiosity about the mysterious murder of his grandfather along with the deaths of several uncles led to penning his first true crime saga, The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia, much a biography of Lonardo. Porrello went on to write a second book, To Kill the Irishman: The War That Crippled the Mafia which recounts the story of Irish-American racketeer Danny Greene who took on the Cleveland Mafia and was murdered in 1977. The tale was heralded by Midwest Book Review as "..."must" reading for anyone with an interest in the workings of organized crime. Here is a true-life story more dramatic than anything to ever come out of a Hollywood movie." To Kill the Irishman has subsequently been optioned for a major motion picture. Much of the above article was excerpted from both of the above titles. His most recent title, Superthief - A Master Burglar, the Mafia and the Biggest Bank Heist in U.S. History has also been optioned for a film. See and

    Contact Rick Porrello at

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