Feature Articles

Congressman James Traficant and the Murder of Mobster Charlie Carabbia
By James Ridgway de Szigethy
New York Investigative Journalist


     The story of how the murder of a Mobster is connected by just one degree of separation from the hallowed halls of Congress begins on October 6, 1977 in the Cleveland suburb of Lyndhurst, when a quiet shopping center was shattered by an explosion in the parking lot. One hundred feet from the epi-center authorities found the arm of a man, one finger encircled by a ring of gold and 5 emeralds. The arm was soon identified as belonging to Danny Greene, a flamboyant member of the Irish Mob.
The Reluctant Godfather
     This murder was the product of a turf war that began one year earlier when John Scalish, Godfather of the Cleveland Mob, died after open-heart surgery. His heir apparent was assumed by most to be "Big Ange" Lonardo, who assisted Scalish during his remarkable 32 year reign, but Underboss Milton "Deer Hunter" Rockman astounded everyone with his claim that it was Scalish’ dying wish that "Jack White" Licavoli succeed as Godfather. The position of Godfather was coveted by the ambitious "Big Ange" whereas the elder Licavoli, an unassuming 72 year old bachelor living a comfortable old age as head of the Youngstown rackets, did not want the job. No one, however, wanted to betray the final wish of their respected deceased leader and "Jack White" reluctantly agreed to assume the position as head of the Family. The new Godfather named his cousin "Lips" Moceri, head of the Akron rackets, as Underboss.
     Some, including Big Ange, suspected Deer Hunter was lying about the Godfather’s "dying wish" and wanted a head of the family such as the bumbling Jack White whom he could more easily influence and control. While quietly going along with this new appointment, many within the Family did not believe that Licavoli was ruthless enough nor possessing of enough cunning to effectively perform as Godfather. The job of running a major Mafia family is an extremely challenging position, requiring a wide range of inter-personal skills and abilities; among other responsibilities, the Godfather has the final decision when subordinates request permission to murder a fellow Mobster. Such life and death decisions can cause anger and resentment among the family and friends of those selected to be murdered, sometimes leading to plots to rub out the head and establish a new Godfather, as would be the fate of Gambino Family Godfather Paul Castellano. Godfathers also have to exercise leadership in resolving disputes over territorial rights to member’s drug trafficking, extortion, gambling and stolen property rackets; not an easy task when one considers that members of organized crime are known for their eagerness to resort to violence.
     Then there is the FBI. Those at the top of an organized crime syndicate are the targets of plots by the FBI and Justice Department to bring them down, even if it means making "sweetheart" deals with serial murderers such as "Sammy the Bull" Gravano. Despite the Hollywood hype that portrays them as ambitious men determined to rise to the top, most members of the Mob do not aspire to become anything more than a ‘Made’ member of the Family who can derive their livelihood from the various traditional rackets the Mob thrives on.
     As in the unexpected and unwanted elevation of the bumbling Claudius as Emperor of Rome, Jack White Licavoli proved to be an unorthodox and uncertain choice as Godfather. Unfamiliar with Mafia rules and protocol, it was Big Ange who had to prompt Licavoli on the traditional behavior expected by members of both their own Family and the heads of the five ruling Families of New York City that make up the "Commission," which serves as the "Board of Directors" of the Mafia.
     Such apparent incompetence on the part of Jack White served to spawn plots against his authority by another faction determined to take over the Ohio rackets. This crew was led by John Nardi, a high-ranking member of the Teamster’s union and his partner Danny Greene of the Irish Mob. Greene accepted a contract from Nardi on the life of Lips Moceri, who then disappeared, his bloodstained car found abandoned in Akron. His body has never been found.
     The murder of Lips was a stunning personal blow to Licavoli and a serious challenge not only to his authority as Godfather but to the very existence of the long-established Cleveland Family. Nardi’s mistaking Licavoli’s bumbling manner for weakness proved to be a fatal mistake; he was soon blown to pieces by a car bomb in the parking lot at his Teamster’s office. Only the murder of Danny Greene remained for the Cleveland Family’s revenge for the murder of Lips Moceri.
     Wearing his signature green apparel and signing for his tabs with a pen that oozed green ink, Danny Greene was a flamboyant, "in-your-face" Mobster who included Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy among his role models. Ohio police officer Rick Porrello, author of the definitive Greene biography TO KILL THE IRISHMAN: THE WAR THAT CRIPPLED THE MAFIA, tells CRIME & PUNISHMENT that Greene was a ruthless self-promoter who worked his way up in the Labor movement while living a life of reckless behavior. Greene believed himself an indestructible, modern-day "Celtic hero" protected by the "luck of the Irish" and even members of the Cleveland Mob began to buy into the myth Greene had created for himself after he emerged unscathed from several assassination attempts, including the complete destruction of his house by a bomb. Frustrated, the Cleveland Mob hired an outside professional hit man, Raymond Ferritto, who met with Godfather Licavoli and Underboss Big Ange on a boat on Ohio’s Mosquito Lake on October 4, 1977. At that meeting, the wiseguys listened to a tape recording made by a private investigator who had tapped the telephone line of one of Greene’s girlfriends. On the tape Greene casually complained that he had a dentist’s appointment in 2 days time, and how he dreaded going to the dentist.
     Finally, the Italians saw their chance. Greene showed up for his dentist appointment as planned, after which Ronnie Carabbia, head of the Warren rackets, pulled up in his own car, parking next to Greene’s. Inside a hollowed-out portion of the passenger side door was a bomb. Carabbia then slipped into a car driven by Ferritto and later, when they covertly observed Greene open the door to his car, Carabbia pushed the button of the remote control bomb that blew the car – and Greene’s body – into pieces.
     As Fate would have it, an alert artist was passing by and drew a sketch of Ferritto and his license plate. She gave this to her father, who happened to be a cop, and the two murderers, along with Jack White, Big Ange, and 15 other members of the Cleveland Family were indicted. Ferritto "flipped" and turned State’s witness, but only Carabbia and his associate Pasquale "Butchie" Cisternino were convicted.
     The fight for control of the Ohio rackets, however, was not over; with these convictions, responsibility for providing for Carabbia’s family fell to his younger brother Charlie "The Crab" who ran Youngstown’s portion of the Cleveland Mob’s gambling operations, the remainder being run by Jimmy Prato, Joey Naples, and Lenny Strollo of the rival Pittsburgh Family. At that time in the 1970s, most of the Mob’s money came not from drug trafficking, which is the huge money maker today, but from gambling. While Mobsters such as Carabbia raked in income from illegal slot machines, the bulk of the mob’s gambling income came from the wagering by average citizens on sporting events, especially professional and collegiate football games.
     The links between the Cleveland Mob and those in the world of football were extensive. One of the Cleveland Godfather’s golfing buddies was Cleveland Browns legendary fullback Jim Brown. Although the FBI investigated Brown for his wagers with Licavoli on their golf matches, no action was ever taken against Brown by the National Football league. However, Brown’s rap sheet includes arrests in 1968 and 1986 for assault, an arrest in 1985 for rape, and a 1978 conviction for assaulting professional golfer Frank Snow. Representing Brown was attorney Johnnie Cochran, who would go on to defend other professional football players accused of crimes of violence.
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     According to Dan Moldea in his book INTERFERENCE, an exhaustive expose on the links between Professional Football and the Mafia, Youngstown native Edward DeBartolo Sr., who in 1977 bought the San Francisco 49ers football team for his son Edward Jr., was a gambling partner of Ronnie Carabbia and the two made frequent trips together to the Tropicana casino in Las Vegas. DeBartolo had built his fortune in the Mob-influenced construction industry and his company facilities were bombed 6 times between 1952-1954. In 1970, the senior DeBartolo was linked in a Justice Department memo as an associate of organized crime figures Meyer Lansky, Carlos Marcello, and Santos Trafficante. These mobsters had for many years been involved in a scam in which quarterbacks on college football teams were bribed to "shave" points in favor of the Mob’s point spread. Because college athletes do not earn the huge salaries of professionals, because many are from low-income backgrounds, and also because by shaving points the bribed athletes do not cause their teams to lose, such athletes are easy targets for recruitment by the Mob. Such were the traditional gambling operations of the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Families and Charlie Carabbia saw the chaos in the aftermath of the Nardi/Greene war as the perfect opportunity to expand his operations at the expense of the rival Pittsburgh Family.
Enter James Traficant
     The product of a traditional Italian Catholic family from the tough, low-income Youngstown neighborhood known as ‘Hunkytown,’ Traficant grew up learning to fight with his fists, as well as his mouth. Just as Youngstown native Edward DeBartolo would change his name from that of his father, Italian immigrant Anthony Poanessa, so would Traficant’s family become more "Americanized" by dropping the ‘e’ from their original name, "Traficante." In the late 1950s Traficant tasted the roar of the crowd as the popular star quarterback of his high school football team. He parlayed this success into a football scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh, which for decades has operated one of the nation’s most successful and lucrative programs, winning several national championships. Once his heady football career in Pittsburgh was finished, Traficant returned to Youngstown to run Mahoning County’s substance abuse treatment program.
     Two developments of the 1970s would shape Traficant’s life forever. One was the then-popular and outrageous polyester leisure suits and casual clothes that have become the trademark of Traficant’s own colorful and personal style. The second was much more serious; the souring of the Youngstown economy. During the 70s, Japan began dumping into the United States low-priced steel that was subsidized by the Japanese government. Unable to compete with these unfair practices, the steel industry throughout American was devastated, sending thousands of once-proud steelworkers into the ranks of the unemployed. The resultant discontent turned the blue-collar residents of Mahoning County against the government "Establishment," a constituency Traficant perfectly symbolized as someone who grew up on the wrong side of town.
     In 1980 Traficant saw his chance and declared his candidacy for County Sheriff. Charlie the Crab, who had known Traficant for years, saw this as his opportunity and approached Traficant with the offer of $163,000 in bribe money to finance his campaign. Part of this money came from Carabbia’s Cleveland Family and the rest was contributed by the rival Prato/Naples/Strollo faction of the Pittsburgh Family. As both had lucrative gambling interests in Mahoning County it was necessary for both to bribe the man who might be next elected Sheriff so that those rackets could be protected. Traficant accepted the Mob’s, money, agreed to protect their gambling rackets, and was elected Sheriff. Then, on the afternoon of December 13, 1980, just weeks after Traficant’s election, Charlie the Crab got a phone call from someone who asked to meet him at a local donut shop. Who that person was, or what business they had to transact is not known, but it is unlikely that a Mob figure would agree to meet at a donut shop, an establishment frequented by members of law enforcement, if he intended on engaging in something illegal. Indeed, at least one member of law enforcement WAS there that day, a Mahoning County Sheriff’s Deputy, who reported seeing Carabbia’s car parked outside the donut shop with the lights on and the doors locked. 24 Hours later the car was found abandoned in Cleveland, the keys in the ignition. Charlie the Crab has not been seen since.
     Convinced her husband had been murdered and that Traficant was responsible, Mrs. Carabbia stunned the FBI agents assigned to the investigation by making an astonishing disclosure; Charlie the Crab had secretly tape recorded conversations between himself and Traficant which detailed their illegal activities together. Mrs. Carabbia turned over the tapes, which reveal The Crab’s concern that Traficant had long been aligned with the Prato/Naples/Strollo faction of the Pittsburgh Family. "I am a loyal !!!!!" Traficant tells Carabbia reassuringly on one tape, "and my loyalty is here!" "And now we’ve gotta set up the business that they’ve (Pittsburgh) run for all these !!!!!!! years and swing that business over to you . . .That’s why you financed me!"
     Traficant and The Crab also talk about how Traficant laundered $10,000 of the Mob’s money through Ed Flask, a partner in the Youngstown law firm of Flask & Policy. When Traficant expresses his concern that Flask knows that he has been bribed by the Mob, Charlie the Crab tells Traficant not to worry, as he has in his possession "prejudicial, compromising photographs of Flask which would ensure his silence."
     "Do you know what kind of pictures I’m talking about?" The Crab asks Traficant.
     Carabbia does not elaborate as to the contents of the photographs, but it is clear to Traficant at that point in the conversation that Charlie, in addition to being a briber, gambler and racketeer, is also a blackmailer.
Trial & Error
     On August 9, 1982, Sheriff Traficant was indicted by the U. S. Attorney’s office for accepting bribes from organized crime figures and for knowingly filing a false 1980 personal income tax return. When arrested, the FBI played for Traficant Charlie the Crab’s tapes and the Sheriff offered a full confession. The indicted Sheriff then turned to attorney Carmen Policy, Ed Flask’s law partner, to represent him in his bid to escape jail time. However, Traficant then called a press conference to spill the beans about the widespread corruption and Mob activity in Mahoning County; an outraged Carmen Policy then dropped Traficant as his client.
     Sensing Traficant’s vulnerability once his attorney had abandoned him, the government offered Traficant the opportunity to become a co-operating witness in their prosecution of the Mafia. Such an agreement would spare Traficant serious prison time but the down side of such an arrangement meant Traficant would have to spend years hiding in the Witness Protection Program. Traficant knew that members of both the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Families would be looking for him, hoping to park a certain type of automobile in his vicinity. With not only his own safety to think of but also that of his wife and two daughters, Traficant made a bold, gutsy decision; he would reject the government’s offer and stand trial, acting as his own attorney.
     At his trial in the Federal Courthouse in Cleveland, the government presented a strong case against Traficant, including the damaging statements on Charlie the Crab’s tapes. Perhaps the most bizarre testimony came from Traficant’s friend and colleague Joseph Hudak, head of the Sheriff’s office narcotics unit. Sergeant Hudak testified that for 5 times in the previous 10 months, Traficant had begged him to shoot him – but just slightly, so that he could blame such an ‘assassination attempt’ on the Mob and thus postpone his trial and gain public sympathy. "At first, he suggested I shoot him in the shoulder," Hudak testified. "Then he said he would put his hand up and I should shoot him through the hand!"
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