Feature Articles

May, 2010
Kill The Beard

      By Ron Chepesiuk

This is an excerpt from Ron Chepesiuk�s new book: The Trafficantes: Godfathers from Tampa, Florida: The Mafia, the CIA and the JFK Assassination. The book is available for purchase from, as well as, and through local book stores.

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Special to
[Excerpted from
"The Trafficantes:Godfathers from Tampa Flordia: The Mafia, The CIA and the JFK Assassination"

Santo Trafficante Jr.
Santo Trafficante Jr.
     Trafficante saw that Castro�s revolutionary movement was gaining momentum, so he wisely hedged his bets and did not cast his lot completely with the corrupt Batista regime. In the early 1990s, Frank Ragano, Trafficante�s long-time lawyer, revealed that Trafficante told him in 1958 that Trafficante and his friends were secretly contributing to the Castro rebels, as well as to Batista. �Santo figured that no matter who won the war, he would emerge safe and sound,� Ragano recalled. �All the bets were covered.�

     It was wishful thinking; Trafficante bet wrong. In reality, Castro closed down the vice center of the Caribbean on New Year�s Day, 1959, when he marched triumphantly into Havana and proclaimed victory. �I�m going to run all those fascist mobsters, all those American gangsters out of Cuba,� Castro declared. Batista plundered the state treasury and loaded three cargo planes with booty before flying into exile to Florida via the Dominican Republic. Lansky joined Batista on one of the last flights out of Cuba, later lamenting that he had to leave $17 million in cold cash behind before he had a chance nto transfer the money to a Swiss bank.

     Castro not only closed down the casinos, he also emptied their safes and interned the mobsters who were slow to flee. Trafficante managed to send a large amount of his casino profits--about half a million dollars-- to Tampa. The godfather also reportedly set up a Swiss bank account under the Sans Souci Casino name into which he deposited $8 million. But the report�s accuracy is questionable, given the evidence that he faced financial difficulties after returning to the U.S.Trafficante could not take care of all his Cuban affairs in time. In June 1960, Castro had him arrested and locked up in Tiscornia Prison. Trafficante managed to live quite well as a prisoner. He is believed to have used American dollars to pay off the guards and perhaps even Castro himself so that people could visit and bring him specially cooked food. The FBI files that the Bureau kept on Trafficante includes excerpts of a July 1959 La Gaceta magazine interview with Trafficante, conducted by the publication�s editor, Roland Manteiga. The editor reported finding Trafficante in �the pink of health,� and wrote that Trafficante�s �lovely and gentle wife spend many hours of the day with him in the garden of Tiscornia.�

     Trafficante was allowed a radio and TV, another inmate revealed, and he watched all of Castro�s televised public appearances. Castro even allowed Trafficante to leave one day so Trafficante could attend his daughter�s wedding in Havana. Trafficante said he was an admirer of Castro. The godfather�s enemies in the U.S. saw his imprisonment as a golden opportunity to get rid of him. A team of four assassins was dispatched to kill Trafficante, but Castro�s agents captured them. Curiously, rather than imprison the hit men, Castro sent them back to the U.S. with a stern warning: don�t try such a thing again on Cuban soil.

     Castro actually planned to execute Trafficante who grew desperate and called Ragano in Florida, urging him to do something about his dire situation.Somehow, Trafficante managed to get a stay of execution and was deported to the U.S. Many questions still remain about Trafficante�s time in Cuban prison and how he got out. Did Trafficante bribe Castro? Did his Mafia friends intercede with Castro on his behalf? Later, rumors circulated in Miami�s exile community about how Trafficante had, in fact, established a close relationship with Castro and could even have been a spy for him.

     The continuing mystery surrounding Trafficante�s last days in Cuba has helped make him one of the most enigmatic figures in Mafia history. One of those mysteries relates to the most famous assassination in modern American history. On November 26, 1963, two days after Jack Ruby gunned down Lee Harvey, the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy, a British journalist named John Wilson-Hudson walked into an American Embassy in London with some explosive information.

     According to declassified cables, Wilson-Hudson gave information to the American Embassy in London, indicating that an �American gangster type� named Ruby was in Cuba around 1959 and may have had something to do with Trafficante�s prison release. He claimed that Ruby came to see Trafficante with the person who brought the godfather his special food. It is known for certain that Wilson himself was working in Cuba at the time of Ruby�s alleged visit, and he was jailed by Castro before being deported.

     Born in Chicago in 1911, Ruby was a small-time hood who had well-established contacts in the Dallas and Chicago underworlds. It is believed Ruby ran guns to Cuba during the revolution, with the smuggling overseen by a Norman �Roughhouse� Rothman, an under boss of a Pennsylvania Mob family and a Trafficante associate. A common link to Ruby and Rothman was Lewis McWillie, the pit boss at a Trafficante property in Cuba, the Capri Hotel. McWillie had operated a number of nightclubs in Dallas and became Ruby�s friend. Like Rothman and Ruby, McWillie ran guns for the anti-Castro movement during the late 1950s.

     McWillie confirmed what Wilson-Hudson had told the American Embassy. Ruby had traveled to Cuba in 1959. Ruby�s presence in Cuba was also confirmed by postcards he sent back to the dancers at the Carousel Club, a nightclub he owned in Dallas, and by Gary Hemming, a CIA agent, who said he saw Ruby in 1959 at a meeting focused on efforts to release Trafficante from jail. Some sources claim that Ruby was working as a middleman in Cuba, and, that, acting on orders from McWillie, Ruby was trying to buy Trafficante�s freedom by selling black market Jeeps to Castro.

Tampa, Florida
Tampa, Florida
     Whatever the true story, Trafficante was back in the U.S., establishing a base in South Florida and making contact with leaders of the growing Cuban exile community plotting to over throw Castro. Trafficante had taken a financial bath in Cuba, and money must have been an issue for him. Government records show that in 1961 he sold his house on Bristol Street in Tampa to a Vicente Amato, then leased the property back for $200 a month.

     A FBI special agent questioned Amato on March 9, 1961. In his opinion, Amato told the agent, Trafficante was broke. Trafficante later bought the house back and sold it. In the same year, the U.S. Treasury Department�s Federal Bureau of Narcotics issued a report that indicated Castro may have had something to do with Trafficante�s financial situation. On July 21, federal narcotics agent Eugene Marshall reported to the Bureau that Castro had ordered his operatives in Tampa and Miami to make heavy Bolita bets with Santo Trafficante�s organization. The operatives, according to federal narcotics agent Marshall, took note of which numbers got the heaviest play in the Miami and Tampa areas and then played the numbers themselves.

     Prior to the Bolita drawing each Saturday, these operatives communicated with their leaders in Cuba and advised them which numbers received the heaviest play. The Cuba lottery officials then rigged the drawing in such way as to make certain those numbers appeared, thereby forcing Trafficante�s Bolita players to win. The report cautioned that the information could not be verified, but added: �if this is true, there is a possibility that Trafficante, Jr. will again be active in the illicit narcotics trade.� Agent Marshall�s source for the alleged Castro plot against Trafficante told him that, for some unknown reason, Castro hates Trafficante.

     While Trafficante coped with losing his lucrative gambling business in Cuba, the U.S. was plotting to get rid of Fidel Castro. The CIA would supervise the project and give Castro the code name �The Beard.� In August, 1961, Richard Bissell, the CIA�s Deputy Director for Plans, asked Sheffield Edwards, the CIA�s Director of Security, if he could make contact with the Mafia that ran the gambling syndicate in Cuba. Bissell was a personal friend of President Kennedy, and many in the Federal government viewed him as the second most powerful man in the Kennedy Administration. Bissell headed the Agency�s clandestine service and was responsible for a vast network of spies worldwide.

     Under Bissell�s command, beginning in the late the 1950s, the Agency began to use bribery, propaganda and paramilitary force as tools of statecraft. Edwards contacted Robert Maheu, a former FBI special agent and a private investigator who worked for the CIA, to find out if he had Mob connections. Maheu was reluctant to get involved with the anti- Castro project, although he did acknowledge having contacts who could give him access to the underworld. Edwards would not take no for an answer, and he pressured Maheu to change his mind. Maheu finally relented.

     Maheu told Edwards that he would like to approach Johnny Roselli, a Los Angeles businessman with interests on the strip in Las Vegas. Maheu believed Roselli was a Mafia member. Roselli also served as Chicago mobster�s Sam Giancana�s representative in Las Vegas. A friend of Trafficante, Sam �Momo� Giancana had used his Mafia influence to help John F. Kennedy become president in 1960. The mobster, it is believed, helped the Kennedy presidential campaign in Illinois in 1960 and at the request of family patriarch had raised money for Kennedy�s crucial West Virginia campaign. Giancana also shared a girlfriend with the country�s most powerful man, President John F Kennedy. It is remarkable that the CIA would want to recruit a gangster like Sam Giancana. One police report described Giancana as a �snarling, sarcastic, foul-tongued, sadistic psychopath.� His nickname �Momo� was a corruption of �mooner,� which means a �nut case.� Giancana had once put a contract out on entertainer Desi Arnaz because he produced �The Untouchables,� which from Momo�s point of view, had denigrated the Italian American Mafia, while lauding the Mafia�s great nemesis Elliott Ness. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed in the Mob and Giancana�s contract was never executed. He was arrested more than 70 times and is believed responsible for numerous killings. Mob historian Carl Sifakis said Giancana qualified as �the most ruthless of the top bosses of organized crime.�

     Maheu arranged a meeting with Roselli in New York City on September 14, 1960, where he made the CIA�s pitch. �Me?�You want me to get involved with Uncle Sam?� said an astonished Roselli when Maheu outlined the CIA plan. Roselli was reluctant to get involved. �The Feds are tailing me wherever I go, Bob. Are you sure you�re talking to the right guy?� Maheu persisted and Roselli finally agreed to introduce Maheu to �Sam Gold,� a code name for Sam Giancana, who either had or could arrange contacts with the Mafia clients who could do the job.

     On September 28, 1960, Roselli and James P. O�Connell, a high- ranking CIA official, met with Sam Giancana at the Fontainbleau Hotel in Miami. Edwards authorized Maheu to tell Roselli that his clients would be willing to pay up to $150,000 for Castro�s assassination. It appeared, however, that good old fashion patriotism was the real reason that Roselli and Giancana got involved in the Castro assassination project. A memo written for the record by Sheffield Edwards on May 24, 1962 and now declassified stated: �No monies were ever paid to Roselli and Giancana. Maheu was paid part of his expense money during the periods he was in Miami.� Maheu later recalled, �The truth as crazy as it may seem, is that deep down he (Roselli) thought it was his patriotic duty.�

      Roselli had worked closely with Trafficante in the 1950s, and he late recruited the Tampa crime boss for the plot because of his knowledge of and numerous contacts in Cuba. At the time, Trafficante was still making regular trips between Miami and Havana on Mob business, since the gambling casinos were still operating in Cuba. The casinos were closed on January 7, 1959, but six days later Castro announced that the casinos would be permitted to re-open for tourists and foreigners, but not Cubans. The casinos reopened in late February and were allowed to stay open until September, 1961.

     On one of his Cuba trips, Trafficante made arrangements with a contact inside Cuba to get the Castro assassination plot moving. Long before the CIA contacted Roselli, it was considering a number of possible ways to get rid of Castro. At the time, Castro loved cigars and the Agency experimented with treating them with poisonous substances. The Agency considered contaminating a box of Castro�s cigars with botulinum toxin, a virulent poison that produces a fatal illness if ingested.

     A 1967 CIA Inspector General�s Report noted that �the cigars were so heavily contaminated that merely putting one in the mouth would do the job; the intended victim would not actually have to smoke it.� The CIA also looked at employing a shellfish poison that could be administrated with aspirin or a handkerchief treated with bacteria and even putting a liquid poison in the tea, coffee or bouillon Castro drank frequently. Other schemes can only be characterized as hair brained. One involved blowing the Cuban leader out of the ocean while he was pursuing his passion for skin diving, while another would have infected Castro so that his beard would fall out, thus ruining his macho image.

     The CIA also had the bright idea of arranging a typical gangland slaying in which Castro would be gunned down in a hail of bullets. Giancana and Roselli opposed the scheme, pointing out that hit men could not be recruited for the job because the chance for escape would virtually be nil. Finally, CIA scientists developed a lethal pill it believed could do the job. Six of them were given to Trafficante, who delivered them to a man named Juan Orta. Trafficante assured the CIA, that Orta had good access to Castro.

     Remarkably, while planning for the assassination was underway in Miami and Washington DC, the CIA did not know that Orta had lost his position in Cuba�s prime minister�s office on January 26, 1961, and had taken refuge in the Venezuelan Embassy on April 11, 1961. Orta did not get a safe conduct pass out of Cuba until October 1964.

     A 1967 declassified CIA Inspector General�s Report titled �Plots to Assassinate Fidel Castro� noted that �it seems likely that, while the Agency thought the gangsters had a man in Cuba with easy access to Castro, what they actually had was a man (Orta) disappointed at having lost access.� When the CIA realized the plot involving Orta would fail, Roselli told the CIA that Trafficante had a contact in the Cuban exile community who might be able to do the job. The man was Tony Varona, head of the anti Castro Democratic Revolutionary Front. Trafficante approached Varona and told him that Trafficante had clients who wanted to assassinate Castro and were willing to pay big money to someone who could do it. Varona was receptive because it would give him money to buy his own arms, boats and military supplies in his battle against Castro. According to a CIA Inspector General�s report, the CIA paid Varona between $25,000 and $50,000.

     The CIA gave money and the poison pills to Roselli, who passed them on to Varona. That was it. Incredibly, the CIA knew nothing from that point on about how Trafficante planned to have Castro killed. The Agency could only speculate.A press report said that Castro was ill, and the CIA concluded their assassination plan was working. But later, CIA intelligence learned that Castro was not really sick, and someone within the Agency speculated that Castro had planted stories in the press about his sickness because he knew in advance that the CIA was trying to kill him.

     As time passed and nothing happened, the CIA never made the obvious conclusion: the Mafia was playing a con game. The mobsters the CIA had recruited had no real intention of killing the Cuban leader. They were simply telling their gullible spymasters what they wanted to hear. As Carl Sifakis described the situation: ��Trafficante was conning the intelligence agencies with thrilling tales of his men risking their lives, slipping into Cuba and having their boats shot out from under them.�

     The stories, Roselli would later tell informer Jimmy �The Weasel� Fratianno, were �bullshit.� There is no evidence, moreover, that any of the money and/or equipment ever reached Cuba. Once again Trafficante was suspected of being an agent of Castro, revealing the CIA plots and feeding him information. After all, by doing so, Trafficante would be in a good position if Castro ever let the Mob back into Cuba.

     The CIA plotting continued, as it planned for the invasion of Cuba and Castro�s overthrow. The attack on Cuba would not involve U.S. troops, but would come from the CIA-trained Cuban exile community. The U.S. Air Force would provide the air cover. Meanwhile, relations with Cuba continued to deteriorate rapidly. In 1960, Cuba confiscated all U.S. investment and property on the island. In retaliation, Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961.

     In the early morning of April 14, 1961, a squadron of U.S. B-26 bombers camouflaged with Cuban insignias began bombing airports in Cuba. Two days later, U.S. frogmen began landing on the beach of the Bay of Pigs and positioned themselves to guard the coming invasion. Brigade 2506, a group of 1200 Cubans spearheaded the invasion, but it turned into a total disaster and thousands of Cuban exiles were captured.

     The plan was to have Castro�s assassination coincide with the Bay of Pigs invasion. The CIA believed that Tony Varona had given the CIA poison pills to his contact in Cuba who awaited Varona�s signal for him to use it. Meanwhile, the CIA put Varona under �protective custody� so the Agency could control the invasion�s direction. In their book Ultimate Sacrifice, authors Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann noted: �the secret invasion could not be postponed even after it had become an open secret because it had to coincide with Castro�s assassination.� The authors concluded that �the CIA-Mafia plots were so tightly held within the CIA�known only to a handful of officials�that miscommunication resulted in the plot�s failure.�

     The Bay of Pigs fiasco was not only a black day for the U.S. government and the Cuban exile community, but was also for the Mafia. Trafficante and his fellow mobsters viewed a successful Bay of Pigs invasion as their best way of getting back into Cuba. Trafficante who, despite the questions surrounding his relationship with Castro, maintained close relations with the Cuban community and was aware of the invasion plans. The godfather had no doubt the invasion would be a success, so he sent an aide to Nassau, Bahamas, where Trafficante kept a large amount of gold in a bank. Once the victorious invaders entered Havana, Trafficante�s agent would follow with the gold, which would be used to re-open the casinos and get the gambling going again.

     Sober reality quickly set in for the Mafia. It would not return triumphantly to Cuba. Instead, it became the target of a law and order investigation spearheaded by U.S. attorney General Robert Kennedy, JFK�s brother. The FBI would place Trafficante under close surveillance for the rest of his life. The Mafia continued to work as hit men for the U.S. government, carrying out the assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, a month after the Bay of Pigs invasion. Trujillo had been the Dominican Republic�s brutal dictator for 31 years. President Dwight D. Eisenhower feared that Trujillo�s iron rule would spark a revolution modeled on what Fidel Castro had done in Cuba.

     On May 30, 1961, Dominican exiles launched an invasion of the Dominican Republic from Cuba. The invasion failed miserably and the surviving rebels were rounded up by Trujillo�s military, tortured and executed at a military base. But it was time for Trujillo to go. On May 30, 1961, assassins in a souped-up Chevy cut off Trujillo�s car on an isolated stretch of highway in the Dominican Republic. They fired into Trujillo�s car, killing him. Later, Trujillo�s bodyguard told reporters that the assassination involved Johnny Roselli.

      According to Waldron and Hartmann, Trujillo was killed in a hit very similar to one that Roselli�s Chicago Mafia was famous for, the assassination of Mob boss Frankie Yale. Perhaps because of Roselli�s success, the CIA continued to use Roselli and Trafficante in plots to assassinate Castro, but without telling the Kennedys.

## Ron Chepesiuk is an award winning freelance journalist and Fulbright Scholar to Bangladesh and consultant to the History Channel�s �Gangland� television series. He is the author of several true crime books, including �Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel� and �Gangsters of Harlem.� His next book, Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers, will appear as an e-book in late April and print book in late June. Go to

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