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Feature Articles


December 2019

Christmas In Murdertown

20TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

By J. R. de Szigethy

      It was Christmas Eve, one of the Holiest days of the year for those of the Christian faith, and a prayer was sent up to Heaven; a prayer for help, for Divine Intervention, as an American hero was in danger of losing his life. The call came from an American town that Norman Rockwell might have painted, a town where good, ordinary and decent citizens, trying to make a better life for their families and fellow citizens were pitted against the powerful and corrupt few who had the money and resources to control their community. It was a town where the worship of God and the worship of money generated constant conflict. It was a town where the good guys fought the bad guys, and the good guys often lost.

It's A Wonderful Life - Jimmy Stewart
1940's Holiday classic movie "It's A Wonderful Life" George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart)
     On this Christmas Eve, one of the good guys was in trouble, his life hanging in the balance; only a Miracle could save him. What he suddenly found himself in was a scenario as if it was lifted from the 1940s Holiday classic film “It's a Wonderful Life.” But this was not the fictional Bedford Falls but rather it's real-life equivalent, Youngstown, Ohio, derisively referred to since the 1940s by some of it's residents as “Murdertown, USA.”

     On that night in 1996, Paul Gains was the newly elected District Attorney of Mahoning County, awaiting his swearing in after the Holidays. Gains had been elected by promising to "clean up" Youngstown, which for the previous 7 decades had arguably been one of the most corrupt towns in America. During that early history, two rival factions of two American Mafia families ruled Youngstown, the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Mafia Families. As a Police Officer, Gains would not accept bribes and the fact that he was now the next District Attorney was met with alarm by the leadership of the Mafia figures who then controlled Youngstown.

     So the decision was made that Gains had to be assassinated. This Evil deed was to be carried out on a day law enforcement would least expect such a vile act; Christmas Eve.

     Thus, when Gains returned home that night, a hired hitman was already inside, waiting for him. Like a coward, he snuck up from behind Gains and began firing from his gun. When Gains collapsed onto the floor, he was bleeding from 2 bullet wounds. The assassin then knelt down on his knees, as if in Prayer to whatever Deity he worshiped, to finish his job. He pointed his gun at Paul Gains' head and pulled the trigger one more time.

     The gun jammed.

     He pulled his trigger again, and again nothing. The assassin, who had killed people before in more subtle ways by the dispensing of the drugs that were his trade, then fled the scene to the getaway car awaiting him.

     "Did you kill him?" one of his accomplices asked.

     In 1963, the Saturday Evening Post published a cover story on Youngstown detailing the 75 car bombings and 11 murders that had plagued the tough steel belt town in recent years. Mafia figures such as Charlie "Crab” Carabbia and "Little Joey" Naples were portrayed as men who brazenly broke the law with impunity. A sarcastic resident was also mentioned who wrote a letter back home to Youngstown, addressing the envelope; ‘Murdertown, Ohio.’ The Post Office delivered the letter to Youngstown.

     Hoping to shame the citizens of Youngstown into taking action against local corruption, the Editors of the Post wrote: "The time now has come for action on the part of the whole citizenry. Until each honest man is aroused, the cesspool will remain. And Youngstown will remain a shame to the nation."

     The Post article had little impact; the gambling, official corruption – and murders - continued unabated for another 33 years. Then came Christmas in Murdertown, 1996. The shooting of District Attorney Paul Gains finally achieved what all of the other murders in Youngstown had failed to; for the first time, the people of the Mahoning Valley realized they had a serious problem that had to be addressed; the pervasive and near-complete corruption of their community leaders by members of the American Mafia.

     At last, those lone, courageous individuals who had been trying for many years to make a difference in Youngstown were finally acknowledged for the important work they had been carrying out. One was attorney James Callen of the Citizen’s League; another was FBI agent Robert Kroner. Special Agent Kroner was then nearing the end of his career fighting corruption in Youngstown and like any other Agent, would want to go out with a bang. Solving the shooting of the District Attorney would certainly be one way of doing so. Still, even if that was accomplished, Kroner and his colleagues would always be haunted by that one, ‘big fish’ that had gotten away; James Traficant.

     Traficant’s curious journey through this story came about because someone had the courage to break the ‘code of silence’ that Mafia members and their families are expected to live by. Much is made by the Media of the vow of ‘Omerta’ that members of the Mafia agree to when inducted into La Cosa Nostra but what is overlooked is that Mafia wives also have to live by a code of silence; this doesn’t come about by any ceremony or Oath, but is tacitly understood. A good example was the behavior of the wife of Youngstown mob figure "Cadillac Charlie" Cavallaro. Back in 1962, Charlie and his two boys, ages 11 and 12, climbed into the family car one afternoon so that Charlie could drop them off at football practice. When Charlie turned on the ignition a bomb that had been secreted into the car exploded. Charlie was blown into two pieces while most of the 11 year old’s body was never found. The 12 year old survived. The mother of the two boys, Helen Cavallaro came running out of the family home to see what had happened, only to run back inside the house and barricade herself against the police, whom she knew were soon to arrive. Mrs. Cavallaro remained silent, refusing to speak to the authorities about who might have murdered her husband and their son.

     Things went differently 18 years later when it was Charlie Carabbia's turn to be murdered; Mrs. Carabbia and her sister took a bold, rare step by co-operating with the authorities. Although Carabbia had been missing only a few days, the sisters were certain he had been abducted and murdered and the person they suspected to be responsible was the newly - elected Sheriff, James Traficant. Among the evidence turned over were secretly recorded conversations between Carabbia and Traficant made by Carabbia. On one of those tapes, Traficant bragged about laundering part of the $163,000 in bribe money he took from the the 2 American Mafia families to fund his election campaign for Sheriff of Mahoning County through a local lawyer. On the tapes, Charlie tells Traficant not to worry about the lawyer, as he has in his possession "compromising photographs that would ensure his silence!"

     According to transcripts of this conversation, Traficant became flustered upon Charlie's disclosure that he was a blackmailer. Traficant assumed, correctly, that it was likely that Carabbia was tape-recording their conversation. Part of the $163,000 bribe Traficant accepted came from the Cleveland Mafia Family of which Carabbia was a member. But part of that bribe money was also contributed by the Pittsburgh Mafia Family, with which Traficant had a much longer association. Carabbia would soon disappear, his car found abandoned in Cleveland. Some in law enforcement might interpret that the fact his car was found in Cleveland could suggest it was his own Cleveland Mafia Family that was behind his presumed kidnapping and murder, instead of the Pittsburgh Mafia Family.

     FBI Agent Kroner was among those who investigated Traficant and the presumed murder of Charlie Carabbia. While the Sheriff was not charged with Carabbia’s murder, - his body was never found - the tapes were enough to get an indictment against Traficant on bribery charges. At first Traficant confessed and agreed to be a co-operating witness for the Feds but after his attorney abandoned him, Traficant changed his mind, perhaps fearing the Mafia would have him murdered. Traficant then recanted his confession and represented himself at trial.

     Traficant's trial turned into something of a circus; one of Traficant’s own Deputies testified that Traficant begged him to shoot him slightly so he could gain a trial delay as well as public sympathy; another Deputy was revealed to have threatened to murder the Mayor of Youngstown. In his Summation, Traficant urged jurors, 6 of whom were from the Mahoning Valley to support him "like junkyard dogs in a hurricane!" Reporters and law enforcement officials alike were stunned when the jury announced their Verdict; Not Guilty on all charges. Traficant was thus transformed into an anti-Establishment folk hero and used his notoriety to propel himself into Congress in the elections of 1984.

     As a Congressman, Traficant gained notoriety for interjecting himself into controversial crime cases. Traficant began to claim that the CIA was responsible for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people. Eventually, a spy for Libyan Dictator Muammar Gaddafi was convicted for his role in the bombing. Traficant also championed retired autoworker John Demjanjuk, who was put on trial in Israel and later Germany on charges he allegedly committed war crimes while a Guard at a Nazi concentration camp.

     In response to the shooting of Paul Gains, Federal authorities in Ohio intensified their legal assault on members and associates of the Mafia. First came the indictment of Charles O’Nesti, who for 13 years had run Traficant’s Youngstown Congressional office. O’Nesti pleaded guilty to perjury and racketeering charges. The Feds then indicted Mahoning County Sheriff Phil Chance on racketeering and bribery charges. Chance was charged with taking bribes from Pittsburgh Mafia figure Lenny Strollo, with Charles O’Nesti acting as an agent between Strollo and the Sheriff. Chance was first hired as a Deputy by Sheriff Traficant in 1982 and Strollo was among those Pittsburgh Mafia figures who gave Traficant a $163,000 bribe in 1980.

     Just days after Chance was Indicted Lenny Strollo’s brother Dante pleaded guilty to racketeering and agreed to testify against his brother. With conviction almost certain in his upcoming murder trial, Strollo stunned those following this story by himself ‘flipping’ just as his trial was to begin. Strollo admitted, as this reporter had predicted earlier, that he and the Pittsburgh Mafia Family were involved in the murder of Charlie Carabbia.

     Strollo also confessed to his role in the shooting of Mahoning County District Attorney Paul Gains. This is the story the FBI had finally been able to piece together about this murder conspiracy: upon Gains' election as District Attorney, Strollo enlisted Mark Batcho and 3 associates to carry out the murder of Gains. Batcho was the triggerman whose gun had jammed. Those 3 accomplices faced a Federal Racketeering trial in February, 1999. Paul Gains, who had survived his wounds, testified for the Prosecution. The three men were convicted and sentenced to Life in Prison.

     Over 70 people, including Congressman Traficant, were convicted during the various prosecutions that grew out of the investigation into the shooting of Paul Gains. To this day, Gains continues in his role as Mahoning County District Attorney. For someone who is very lucky just to be alive, everyday must seem like Christmas for Gains, even if he has to spend that Holiday in Murdertown, USA.

     It’s a wonderful life, isn’t it, Mr. Gains?

*
POSTSCRIPT

     This is an Edited and Updated version of the original Feature Story published in 1999 at AmericanMafia.com. This reporter is pleased to reveal that, 20 years later, the use of the term “Murdertown” by residents of Youngstown is now a thing of the past. Because he survived his assassination attempt, Paul Gains is among those in law enforcement who made this happen.

     According to the current website of Forbes Magazine, Youngstown, Ohio is number 4 on their list of the “Best Cities to Raise a Family.”

Related Features by this author:
“Christmas in Murdertown: The Mafia Conspiracy That Stunned America.” http://americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_3.html

“One Degree of Separation: Congressman James Traficant and the Murder of Mobster Charlie Carabbia.” http://www.americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_1.html

J. R. de Szigethy can be reached at: writer10021@aol.com


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