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As aging mobster leaves prison, some fear his future role.


John Caniglia and Mike Tobin,
Cleveland Plain Dealer Reporters

For nearly 24 years, the man known as "Ronnie the Crab" watched out for his family and friends in a way only a mobster could.

He mediated disputes among his fellow Mafiosi. He made money in the rackets and taught his son how to do the same. He even held title to a Youngstown bar at the center of a sports gambling operation.

And he did it all, authorities say, without leaving prison.

What authorities can't agree on, however, is what will happen when Ronald Carabbia, 73, walks out of the Chillicothe Correctional Institution Tuesday, a free man.

Some, like Joseph Griffin, who led the FBI during the Cleveland mob wars, fear that Carabbia will resume his old role as a leader of the Northeast Ohio Mafia.

"Informants told us for years that he was communicating with street-level people in Youngstown and Cleveland on gambling operations, and this was while he was in prison," Griffin said. "I can't believe they are going to let him out."

Others, including Carmen Marino, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor who sent Carabbia to prison, argue that there's no longer a mob to lead.

"Organized crime is gone and dead," Marino said.

In fact, he now doubts whether Carabbia detonated the bomb in 1977 that killed fellow mobster Danny Greene, although he still believes that Carabbia helped plan the attack. He said so in a January 2002 letter to the state parole board, written a few days before his retirement, urging the aging mobster's release.

Danny Kelly, Danny Greene's eldest son, also did not oppose the board's decision to release Carabbia.

"If they let him out for the sake of his family, that's fine with me," Kelly said. "That time is gone and past. It's done."

The parole board agreed, concluding there is no direct evidence of Carabbia's ongoing involvement in criminal activity. The mobster was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1978.

Suspicious activity

The FBI's Youngstown supervisor, John Kane, was stunned by the board's decision, arguing that Carabbia's prison doings are suspicious, to say the least.

He said that Carabbia's son, Ronald, 39, who is suspected of running a lucrative sports gambling operation in the Mahoning Valley, regularly visited his father in prison, where the two would talk quietly out of the guards' earshot. Kane has no doubt that Carabbia was issuing both orders and instructions."In my opinion, if it has webbed feet, waddles and quacks, it's probably a duck," Kane said.

Agents who searched LaVilla Sports Bar and Grille in Struthers, which is titled to Carabbia and his wife, Josephine, found additional evidence of sports gambling, court records show. The details have not been made public, but prosecutors said Ronnie the Crab is clearly implicated.

"Ronald Carabbia is still involved in the decision-making at LaVilla," said Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, Marino's old boss. "Mr. Carabbia has essentially continued to have influence on the business and the illegal activity therein while incarcerated."

Both Carabbia and his son declined to comment for this story.

Josephine Carabbia's sister, Sally Ann Almasy, who holds the liquor permit at LaVilla, laughed at the claim that the bar is a hotbed of illegal gambling. "Oh, please," said Almasy. "The FBI came in here and found football pools. You have those in your office, and so does everyone else. The only reason that people are looking at us is because of the last name - Carabbia."

But suspicions about Carabbia's activities go well beyond sports gambling. The FBI also believes that he continued to play the godfather's role in prison.

Angelo "Big Ange" Lonardo, a Cleveland mobster-turned-informant, told FBI agents that Carabbia and his brothers, Charlie and Orland, controlled half the gambling and poker machines in the Mahoning Valley well into the 1980s. The profits from that operation, in which the Pittsburgh Mafia also had an interest, helped care for Carabbia's family while he was in prison, Lonardo said.

When Charlie's erratic behavior threatened to upset the delicate relationship with the Pittsburgh group, Cleveland mobsters begged Ronald to intervene, Lonardo told the FBI.

He tried, but it didn't work, at least not for long. In December 1980, Charlie Carabbia disappeared, presumably killed by the Pittsburgh mob.

Family appeal

Soon thereafter, Lonardo said, he and other Cleveland mobsters met with their Pittsburgh counterparts to ask that Carabbia's other brother, Orlie, not be harmed.

"They argued that Orlie Carabbia was needed to take care of Ronnie Carabbia's family while Ronnie was in prison," FBI agents wrote in a 1983 report. "They demanded that the cut of the gambling business in the Youngstown area continue to be given to Orlie Carabbia for himself and his brother Ronnie."

Orland Carabbia survived to play a role in the career of an up-and-coming Youngstown politician named James Traficant.

In 1980, he secretly taped Traficant, then a candidate for Mahoning County sheriff, discussing bribes he was taking from the Carabbia brothers. The feds used the tape to charge Traficant with corruption, but after a wild 1983 trial in which the sheriff defended himself, he was acquitted.

Nineteen years passed before feds finally got their man. Traficant was convicted in April of corruption and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Some say that conviction, following 70 others over two decades, dealt the final blow to organized crime in the Mahoning Valley.

But others argue that it's too early to write that obituary, that illegal gambling and other rackets are still going strong in the Youngstown area. All that's lacking is an experienced leader, a role they say Carabbia is well qualified to assume.

"Right now, the family is destroyed," said former agent Griffin, author of a book, "Mob Nemesis: How the FBI Crippled Organized Crime." "But once he gets out, he can put Ohio back under the control of the mob."

Prosecutor Mason agreed.

"To that element of society, he's the man," Mason said. "People are going to respect him."


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