Feature Articles

February 2007
Tommy James Sinito
AKA The Chinaman:

The Early Years
Part 1

By Amy A. Kisil

The writer of this article is currently researching and writing a trilogy of novels loosely based on both people and events drawn from the Cleveland Mafia. She�s writing a book titled Three Cousins about Tommy Longo�s relationship with Cleveland�s Mafia and his Sinito cousins, Tommy and Chuck.

* * *

     Tommy "The Chinaman" Sinito, a made man in the Cleveland Mafia Family, remains an enigma. The Full extent of his criminal career and influence is shrouded in mystery. He played a large part in the Cleveland Mafia. Tommy Sinito rose from being an errand boy to the rank of made man under Mafia Boss Big Ange Lonardo.

     Tommy Sinito caught Big Ange Lonardo�s attention when he tended bar in the early 1970s at the Highlander Restaurant and Lounge on Northfield Road..

     Sinito remained a major influence in the Cleveland Mafia until his death from a heart attack in the exercise yard at the Belmont Correctional Institute in 1997. His rapid raise in Mafia ranks from errand boy to made man has created a plethora of stories about him. Most of these are nothing more than fantastic tales.

     Tall, handsome, complex and strong willed Tommy Sinito has many stories swirling around him. Most of these stories are nothing more than embellished tales passed, like a game of Telephone, from person to person. With each retelling they become more fantastic. Scant facts and rumors become huge tales with little basis in reality.

     Even his nickname, the Chinaman, has conflicting stories about its origins. One person will tell you he got the nickname The Chinaman because his eyes look slanted "like a Chinaman�s."

     Another will tell you he was silent, stoic, and inscrutable, the qualities some people think a Chinaman possesses. Sinito always calm, always quiet and always in control.

     The funniest story about the origins of his nickname is Sinito made karate chops when he got mad. A couple of his Mafia pals thought he resembled Cain, played by actor David Carradine, in the old television show Kung Fu. This behavior earned him the nickname The Chinaman. If Tommy Sinito acted like this it could earned him the nickname "Crazy". He would not have moved up in Mafia ranks. He could have been regarded as unstable..

     One of the most persistent stories about Sinito is in either 1973 or 1974 Tommy Sinito supposedly cleaned out a bar located on Cleveland�s West Side., It�s unclear where this bar was located. Some will tell you it was in the Tremont area. Others say it was located on West 25th and Detroit Avenue. Everyone who tells this story agrees the bar was on Cleveland�s west side.

     The story goes like this:

     Tommy Sinito complains about the loud music and noise in the hazy smoke filled bar

     "We need a little quiet to drink in peace!" Sinito says..

     One of the bar�s drunken customers takes exception to Sinito�s remark. This drunk tries to slug The Chinaman

     During the bar brawl Tommy Sinito, according to who tells the story, tosses out 10, 15 or 30 people into the street. Sinito, steps over a couple unconscious people laying in the street, rubs his hands together and goes back inside the now emptied bar. Tommy lays down $500.00 on the broken glass filled bar surface to cover the damages.

     "That�s for the damage!" He says. "Now where�s my drink?"

     Even Danny Greene, Cleveland�s legendary Irish gangster, couldn�t claim ownership of an exploit like this.

     Unless Tommy Sinito learned some fancy boxing moves from his Uncle Joey Maxim, the 1952 Lightweight Boxing Champion of the World. Joey Maxim outlasted, after thirteen rounds, the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson to win the championship. It�s doubtful Tommy Sinito managed to clear out a bar on his own without some help.

     This story grows each time it�s told. There are no facts to support this Chinaman tale. There are no media or police reports about a massive bar brawl involving Tommy Sinito. This is another story traded around in internet chatrooms, growing bigger on each retelling..

     Ironically the one crime the 1978 plot to assassinate then Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich during a parade, sounds like a internet chatroom story. The Kucinich plot was a real event. The Chinaman, along with other high raking Cleveland Mafia members who took part in planning the Kucinich assassination plot, were never indicted or charged with any crime.. The 1978 assassination plot sounds like another chatroom tale, but this one is based on facts, not fantasy.

     The Chinaman�s real life is a better story than any of the mixed truth tales swirling around him.

     Courageous, honorable, complex and strong willed Tommy Sinito left a lasting impression on those he came in contact with. James Willis, one of his former lawyers said about him during the eulogy Willis delivered at Tommy Sinito�s funeral services on December 23, 1977 at Cleveland�s St. John�s Cathedral , Willis called him "courageous and honorable. If he told you something you could take it to the bank. He wasn�t a cry baby. . .he was from the old school."

     These personal qualities separated Sinito from the crowd of errand boys and associates who surrounded Big Ange and other Mafia bosses. Tommy Sinito�s relationship with Big Ange proved beneficial to both men. Each man respected the other and with Big Ange�s backing Tommy Sinito could climb high in the Cleveland Mafia�s ranks.

     During the course of his Mafia career, the Chinaman, never flipped on any of his Mafia associates. He�d taken an oath and he kept it. Omerta, the code of silence , was more than a word, omerta became the mainstream of his being. James Willis summed up his personality completely, Tommy Sinito "Was from the old school." .

     If the Chinaman had served out his jail sentence, he could have brought back the Cleveland Mafia family with a vengeance. Courageous, honorable and complex,. The Chinaman emerged from the crowd of Mafia errand boys and served as a Lieutenant for underboss Big Ange. Lonardo. A relationship that proved beneficial to both men over the years..

     All it could take to revive the Cleveland Mafia if someone filling the leadership vacuum, either an acting boss or a consigliore (legal adviser) would be to hold one initiation ceremony to bring new members into the Cleveland Mob. The Cleveland family could be revived and back in Business. With his determination and strong will Tommy Sinito could have held that initiation ceremony. There could have a revival of the Cleveland Mafia family. New members could have been proposed and made. Sinito could have been in charge of the new family, ruled by his iron hand.

     Even Big Ange Lonardo warned the FBI the Cleveland Mafia could be revived at any time. The Mafia could be revived after various Mafia leaders were released from federal prison cells

     Tommy Sinito along with Joseph Gallo held enough influence in the Cleveland Family to recommend new members to be inducted in the 1983 ceremony inducting two more made men into the Mob, Russell Papalardo and Joseph "Loose Lips" iacobacci, Jr. Both men were made into the Mob. Sinito could have with his strong will and determination could have revived the Cleveland Mob.

      Even from his prison cell in the Federal Correctional Institute Milan, in Milan, Michigan. Tommy Sinito remained an influence in the Cleveland Mafia. Two men Sinito recommended Russell Papalardo and Joseph "Loose Lips" Iacobacci, were proposed and made into the Cleveland Mafia in 1983.

     Prisoners have time to think about their former lives and the crimes they committed. It�s no doubt that Sinito did the same. The long hours he spent in his cell and the exercise yard gave him time to think. Tommy Sinito had time to remember when he caught Bug Ange�s attention as a bar tender at the Highlander Restaurant and Lounge, a transition point for him and the later course of his life.

     Tommy caught the attention of Big Ange Lonardo the most respected underboss and Mafia leader in Cleveland, both socially and professionally. Big Ange might have seen a little of himself in Tommy Sinito. The Chinaman benefited from this association. He started to climb up the Mafia ladder from errands boy to "Amico Nostra".

     According to Plain Dealer columnist Brent Larkin, the Highlander Restaurant and Lounge, "is remembered as a gathering place" for people like Salvatore "Sam" Vecchio and other members of the Cleveland Mafia. Like Jackie Presser�s Mayfield Heights, Ohio restaurant, The Forge and the Pettibone Club in Bainbridge, Ohio. Along with the Theatrical Restaurant on Short Vincent Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. The Highlander became a watering hole for local organized crime figures and celebrities . Mafia and Mafia wanabees rubbed shoulders and traded stories there.

     An ambitious man could, if he caught the right Mafia boss or underboss�s attention, could move up the Mafia ladder.

      Tommy Sinito came to Big Ange�s notice while he tended bar at the Highlander. He wasn�t a stranger to local Mob bosses, having spent long years as a Mob errand boy tending various vending machine routes. From this small beginning Sinito started his climb upwards through the Cleveland Mafia from errand boy to made man.

     The Cleveland Mafia coin operated vending machine and jukebox rackets weren�t new. The Mafia controlled many vending machine and jukebox routes . Most coin operated vending machines and jukeboxes, despite efforts by the Cleveland courts and police, remained under Mob control. Tommy Sinito ran some coin operated vending machine routes. He faithfully turned in his weekly pay envelope to the boss of the crew he worked for. Sinito became an earner, a man to be trusted.

     Coin operated vending machines, especially jukeboxes, were an attractive and lucrative source of cash for the Cleveland Mafia. The endless source of untraceable metal coins were converted into currency and mixed with dirty money to launder it. It became clean money to be funneled into other financial interests, legal or illegal. There was exclusive control of both coin operated machine distributors and the route men who serviced the vending machine.. This was an endless supply of steady income. An ambitious associate could work and earn respect as an earner for his Mafia bosses.

     Vending machine and jukebox rackets aren�t new to the Cleveland Mafia. During the 1930�s and 40�s William Presser (Father of Jackie Presser, future President of the Teamsters Union) and John Nardi (Father of Mafia member Jack Nardi) organized various vending machine and jukebox rackets. The Chicago Crime Commission, said in its 1954 report. "Notwithstanding the inherently legitimate character of almost every section of the nation has become a racket." Jukeboxes and coin operated vending machines once an honest business became a Mob controlled operation in every large Eastern city.

     By World War II the Mob, especially in the large eastern cities, had a stranglehold on all coin operated vending machines. William Presser made strong ties with both Jewish gangsters and the Mafia to keep control. Usually a distributor sold their coin operated machines to a operation or a company holding exclusive rights to the route. Jukeboxes and other coin operated vending machine distributors were forbidden, sometimes violently from placing coin operated machines on Mob controlled routes.

     In Cleveland William Presser controlled the jukebox and vending machine rackets with muscle from the local Mafia.

     One of the first low level jobs a Mafia soldier did was servicing a vending machine route. An attractive way to launder money through an endless supply of untraceable metal coins. The profits provided an endless supply of converted currency to launder money, used to finance criminal activities.

     During the 1950�s and 1960�s many Mafia soldiers began became earners by servicing vending machines on routes controlled by the Cleveland Mafia. Without this source of income, a vital money source could dry up. Tommy Sinito started his Mafia career running vending machine routes.

     Frank "Little Frank" Brancato (Mafia Boss from 1972 - 1973) brought in Danny Greene and other Irish gangsters to act as errand boys and muscle to enforce the Mafia�s influence during the 1960�s . Greene was used as muscle in enforcing the Mob�s control over the garbage hauling contracts and other Mob influenced rackets.

     Brancato regretted this tactical move. Until his death he regretted bringing Danny Greene into the Mob and the damage it did.

     Big Ange Lonardo also had income from jukeboxes and vending machines. They provided a steady income and huge profits. This income was used to finance other illegal activities. Some of these laundered funds were invested in front companies were to launder money and funnel illegal goods through an front companies inventory. Various underbosses and bosses became silent investment partners in a mixture of front businesses. According to FBI records Appliance Mart was a front business, for the Mob.

     Appliance Mart,. like the gift basket shop Tommy Sinito opened in Beachwood, Ohio, was a front business for the Cleveland Mafia. Various illegal activities operated through the Bedford store. Appliance Mart, opened in 1972, had two locations, one in Euclid, Ohio and the other in Bedford, Ohio on Northfield Road. The Bedford store was located on the intersection of Rockside and Northfield Road. A Dollar General store now occupies the old Appliance Mart location. Appliance Mart too was located beside the former Bluegrass Hotel, a haven for racetrack people from the Thistledown Racetrack and another Mafia watering hole.

     Tommy and his brother Chuck co-owned Appliance Mart. FBI surveillance photos show both Tommy Sinito and Big Ange having regular meets in front of the store on Northfield Road. Other Mafia activities were conducted inside the Appliance Mart store during these meets.

     Plans and other long term criminal schemes and scams were hatched in Appliance Mart Sinito�s store like Joseph Gallo�s office in Orange Place in Beachwood, Ohio served the same purpose. Detailed plans for drug trafficking, conspiracies to kill police informers and other violent measures to protect Mob interests. These plans were conceived and acted on from meets in the back rooms of Appliance Mart.

     Probably the most lucrative of all was the loansharking scheme that operated out of Appliance Mart. Various customers and others got caught up in the loansharking schemes. Appliance Mart extended credit to customers it knew wasn�t credit worthy and then used "extortive measures" to collect money from them. One of the victims of this loansharking scheme, Carmen "Jinglebells" Zagaria, could later become a partner with Sinito and manage a major drug trafficking ring .

     Like others in the lower ranks, Tommy Sinito mixed both illegitimate and legitimate businesses together to earn a living. The Chinaman had an inherent business sense of what could be a good investment. He profited from the investments he made. Tommy Sinito flew under the radar of local law enforcement.

     Until 1973.

     In 1973 Sinito played a minor role in Cleveland�s Model Cities scandal.

     The shooting of Bob Doggett, Model Cities Director on a hot, humid August day in 1973 triggered an investigation into how the Cleveland Models agency was run..

     Doggett walking down a Cleveland sidewalk was approached by a tall , blonde haired, mustached man. Doggett ignored the man as he passed him.

     "Are you Bob Doggett?" The man asked him. "Come with me!"

     Doggett kept walking . two shots rang out on that hot, humid day. Only one bullet found its mark, Bob Doggett crumpled to the sidewalk, his blood pooled around him. While only one bullet entered him, it left it�s mark..

      In the long term Bob Doggett�s shooting was the tip of the iceberg. The Model Cities program was embroiled in graft and corruption. Every civic hand reached into the large, open ended; funnel of federal money. Money flowed in an endless stream, every public official in Cleveland came to feed at the trough.

.     The Model Cities program was a federal program created under President Lyndon Johnson�s Great Society Program during the 1970�s. Model Cities funneled millions of dollars into major cities in an effort to help the poor. Some compared the Model Cities Program to granting everyone

three wishes. The money pot at the money rainbow overflowed with an endless source of federal funds. Local Cleveland area civic and community groups were to determine how to use these funds. Originally the first planned amount was to be 45 million dollars,. a later federal audit by the GAO showed much of the Federal funds were wasted. The GAO�s l audit showed at least as much as 9.2 million dollars were misspent on fraud and waste...

     One prominent Cleveland crime figure and drug trafficker Ronald Bey benefited. Bey was hired to conduct a drug control feasibility study. Hired by then Mayor Perk, despite protests from his staff, he hired Bey to a high level administrative staff position. An investigation of the corruption and graft in the Model Cities program could lead to Mayor Perk�s office.

     During the time Ronald Bey worked in Mayor Perk�s administration he appeared in several photographs with Mayor Perk, despite Perk�s protests he didn�t know Bey worked for the City of Cleveland, these photographs of both men decorated city hall.

     Bey became a suspect in the Bob Doggett shooting. Cleveland Police investigators uncovered that three days earlier Doggett had refused to pay Bey�s $3,111 fee on his service contract.

     A Special Grand Jury was convened to Investigate the Model Cities shooting. Its purpose was to investigate Doggett�s shooting and how the Model Cities program was administered.

     One of the witnesses subpoenaed was Tommy Sinito. . Although Sinito was granted immunity from any charges that might result from this Special Grand Jury�s findings, Sinito refused to cooperate.

      Sinito had served as an officer in the car rental agency that rented the car to the man who shot Bob Doggett. Tommy Sinto refused to cooperate, he could not testify before the Special Grand Jury.

      No individuals, including Bey, were ever indicted from the results of this Special Grand Jury . This investigation was a foreshadow of what could come later in the 1984 probe of Sinito�s involvement in a 1978 plot, along with other major Mafia figures, to assassinate Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich.

     Tommy Sinito�s uncooperative behavior during the Special Grand Jury hearing to Investigate the Model City shooting, showed he had grit and determination. Sinito wasn�t a man to bend under any pressure, even legal pressure, to flip on his associates. This strong will could push him up the Mafia ranks.

     He showed he could be trusted, unlike other low level associates, who were shake and shiver boys who ran scared at the first sign of trouble.

     When Tommy Sinito tended bar at the Highlander Restaurant and Lounge on Northfield Road no doubt Big Ange Lonardo saw a little bit of himself in the young Mafia associate. Both men were forceful, ambitious and determined individuals. Each one balanced the others weaknesses and strengths, making a strong team.

     During his early Mafia years, Tommy Sinito, probably through a silent partner, found another way to make money. Sinito�s inherent business sense in real estate led him to invest in an amusement park in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. This amusement park provided another way to launder money from various illegitmate activities , such as gambling, drug trafficking and loansharking. Large amounts of dirty money could flow undetected through the amusement park�s cash flow, another source of laundered money for the Cleveland Mafia.

     A lucrative source of income were the coin operated laundry machines located in the large hotel and apartment buildings in the Cleveland area. There was money to be made in handling these contracts. Money Sinito wanted and money he intended on getting for his own profit.

     Unfortunately this brought Tommy Sinito into conflict with Irish gangster Danny Greene brought into the Mob by Frank Brancato. Danny Greene controlled some of the more lucrative laundry contracts Tommy Sinito was competing for. Greene kept those laundry contracts by force and fear. Danny Greene murdered his competitors especially if they had Mob ties.

     Tommy Sinito considered Danny Greene an extortionist, Sinito felt Greene�s coined operated laundry contracts with their excessive fees were nothing more than extortion. The Chinaman knew if you wanted to wring a guy or a business you bleed them dry slowly. So you could make a profit and have a steady source of income.

      Some of those who competed with Danny Greene�s vending machine empire didn�t fare well in the fight. They became casualties of Danny Greene�s war!

     John Conte owned a vending machine business. While Conte owned a vending machine company, he worked as a route man for another one. Conte�s company provided slot machines to various private clubs and parties.

     Conte too was a close friend to Mob figure Joseph Gallo. Maybe Conte�s death served a twofold purpose. One, to eliminate a competitor. Two, to send a loud message to the Mob, that he, Greene, controlled the Cleveland�s vending machine market. Danny Greene meant to keep his control over it..

     In Danny Greene�s war with the Mob to build a vending machine empire, Conte became a victim. Conte told his wife he had a meeting with Danny Greene to discuss some business that morning. That was the last time Conte�s wife saw him. His badly, beaten body was found a few days later in Austintown, Ohio.

     Police investigators theorized that Conte was beaten to death in Danny Greene�s trailer. Conte�s body was latter transported to the dump site in Austintown.

`     Investigators found some physical evidence in Greene�s trailer that a violent act may have occurred. Danny Greene was never charged with Conte�s murder. Modern forensic science, in the 1970s, in some physical tests was still in its infancy. The laboratory tests and the methods used to gather evidence were in some cases inaccurate and imprecise. Even if the various physical items found in Greene�s indicated they might have been used to murder John Conte the forensic evidence wasn�t strong enough to make a case against Greene for Conte�s murder

     Tommy Sinito escaped being a victim of Danny Greene. Sinito found a bundle of dynamite wired to the frame of his car. He removed the bomb, disarmed it, and later destroyed it. Sinito avoided becoming a victim of the Danny Greene�s self declared war against the Mafia.

     This act by Danny Greene drew an unwilling Tommy Sinito into the Greene/Nardi war Mafia war in Cleveland during the 1970s. A war that made Cleveland the bomb capital of the world. Cleveland even eclipsed Youngstown�s reputation as Murder City. The Chinaman would later play a role in the Greene/Nardi war.     

     During the 1970s Tommy Sinito became a regular at Jackie Presser�s restaurant The Forge. These frequent stops at this Mayfirld Heights Mafia watering holes brought him under FBI surveillance..

     The Forge itself was a one story building, it�s outside appearance unappealing. The restaurant nestled between the two high raise towers of Carl Milstein�s Gates Mills Apartments in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. The Forge could play an important part in Jackie Presser�s role as an FBI informant on Mob activities..

     The restaurant�s decor was overdone and the food mediocre. Unfortunately for Presser, the restaurant didn�t attract the crowd he wanted to impress, the country club, horsy, social set from Gates Mills. What The Forge did attract was the Mafia in large numbers. The FBI soon learned of the new Mafia hangout in Cleveland.

     What the Mafia crowd, who were regulars at The Forge, didn�t realize was Jackie Presser, along with his business partner Tony Hughes were FBI informants. Jackie Presser had been feeding information to the FBI about Mob activities since 1968

     Having the Mafia crowd gathered at The Forge made Presser�s FBI informant role easier. The information exchange between Presser and the FBI was a two way street. The FBI gave Presser leeway to conduct his own illegal union activities with the Teamsters. The FBI turned a blind eye only as long as Presser remained a an informant on Mob activities..

     Jackie Presser and Tony Hughes appeared at The Forge when prominent Mob members were present. Whenever the Mafia appeared Presser and Hughes were present. High ranking Mafia members were treated like royalty. The Forge provided its own version of " Tin Roof " service, everything was on the house. No Mafia member who made a stop at The Forge ever paid a bill for anything.


      What the Mob crowd didn�t realize, while Jackie Presser and Tony Hughes were circulating by their tables, both men were listening closely to the conversations. Presser and Hughes probed discreetly for information, later passed to the FBI. As Mob members talked about their plans, who made out of town trips and other Mob deals, Presser and Hughes mentally stored away this information..

     Tony Hughes and Jackie Presser met regularly with Marty McCann, head of the Cleveland FBI�s Mob Squad Unit. The Forge�s manager Lemar Smith had an apartment in the Gates Mills Apartments complex . The three men used Lemar�s apartment for regular meets. at Lemar�s apartment. The apartment�s location was ideal. A short walk from The Forge for Presser and Hughes, a short ride up the elevator to Lemar�s apartment. As the three men talked under the shielding noise of a droning television set, Information flowed freely about Mob activities from Presser and Hughes to the FBI, each man then went his separate way, each party satisfied with the part they played.

     While Tommy Sinito sat in The Forge discussing his criminal plans, being treated like royalty, he slowly came under the FBI�s lens.

     Sinito moved from tending bar at Big Ange Lonardo�s Highlander Restaurant and Lounge to being treated like royalty at The Forge. Tommy Sinito could be proposed and made into the Cleveland Mafia in a few years, but for now, it was a heady sensation for The Chinaman to be treated as "Amico Nostra."

End of Part 1


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