The bills - more than $500,000, in denominations from $1 to $1,000 -- were old and musty. When FBI agents found them hidden in an attic trunk it marked the beginning of the downfall of the Buffalo Mafia. Once among the most powerful crime families in the nation, the Buffalo mob, with its tentacles stretching into Canada, Ohio and Pennsylvania, slowly disintegrated after the cash was discovered in the home of the son of the crime family's godfather.
Other factors certainly have contributed to the decline of the region's Mafia, but finding that money was the catalyst. It was cash the godfather, Stefano Magaddino, was keeping from his underlings, all the while telling them he was too poor to give them their share of the proceeds from their criminal enterprises.
The year was 1968. Three days later, the home of the godfather himself was searched. FBI agents found a large safe in the basement. It was empty. In his bedroom upstairs, Magaddino, 77, his head propped up by two pillows, rested in lime-colored pajamas, an oxygen tank at the foot of his bed and two doctors in the room. On a nearby dresser, vigil candles flickered in front of statues of the saints.
It had been more than 50 years since Magaddino had fled the Mafia wars of New York City to establish a crime family based in Niagara Falls. On the streets it was called the "Arm," and thanks to Magaddino's leadership acumen and powerful hand, it was always strong.
Magaddino was a real-life godfather, not just in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, but in Ontario and parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. He was one of a handful of men who founded the Mafia's national high commission, a group of 12 crime lords he reportedly ruled in the mid-1950s. Each Mafia family in the United States had a seat on the commission, and Magaddino and his fellow crime commissioners met periodically to settle disputes, determine what crimes were allowed and what families would control them. It was just such a meeting in 1957 at Apalachin, a rural area near Binghamton, that first alerted the nation to a nationwide criminal organization. Magaddino was there, but he managed to scurry into the woods as state police raided the secluded estate of Joseph Barbara, the host crime lord.
Now, 10 years after Apalachin, as Magaddino lay in bed, his underworld strength and his empire were flickering like the candles on his dresser. The discovery of the musty cache of cash in his son Peter's house was the first visible signal. Finding the money in that attic trunk angered loyal lieutenants, who now knew Magaddino had lied to them.
Today, the empire has all but expired. Perhaps the final gasp came last year when the mob lost control of Buffalo Laborers Local 210, for decades a base of mob power.
But the Buffalo family is not alone. Hard times also have befallen other crime families on the commission, many of them, like the Buffalo family, plagued by disloyal subjects and battered by government prosecutors. The latest blow came in New York City just about the same time the Buffalo mob was losing its grasp on Local 210.
For years Vincent (the Chin) Gigante, last of the old-line dons, was an odd sight as he strolled the streets of Brooklyn in bathrobe and pajamas. He was recognized in the underworld and by lawmen as the boss of New York's Genovese crime family, but his lawyers argued he actually was a mental basket case unfit for trial. In August, a federal jury sided with the government and convicted him of racketeering and conspiracy to murder, leaving another Mafia family with a shaky future.
Today's Buffalo mob -- disorganized and all but penniless -- is a far cry from its heyday. In the Mafia world, Magaddino and his lieutenants were men of respect, men of honor. Some were acknowledged as "made men," meaning they had killed or participated in a killing for the good of the Arm -- and for entry into the Arm's inner sanctum. At the same time, the leaders of Buffalo's Mafia lived a lifestyle rich in tradition and unity. Magaddino, in contrast to many of his lieutenants, was known as a soft-spoken gentleman, well-schooled in the ways of the Old World.
Magaddino held annual fall meetings at the now-demolished Andy's Cafe on Lower Terrace Street. As many as 50 men, members of the inner sanctum, shed Borsalino hats and camel hair coats to take seats at four long tables, arranged in a square in Andy's back room. "He wasn't loud or boisterous like a lot of others," one restaurant employee said of Magaddino at the time. "He was like Santa Claus. He smiled with his eyes."
Magaddino and his men followed a code written centuries ago on the island of Sicily, a code that required allegiance above all else to the Mafia family, even if it meant death or a stretch behind bars.
William Sciolino understood that code. He was a member of the mob's inner circle. He understood that to transgress the family meant death. And so it was in 1980 when two men, guns blazing, burst into the construction trailer where Sciolino, suspected as a government informant, was working. They left Sciolino dead in a pool of blood. Like scores before him, he had paid the ultimate price for incurring the wrath of the Buffalo Mafia. It might turn out to be the last slaying ordered by the decaying crime family of Western New York.
The Mafia, or La Casa Nostra as it has become known in the United States, was born from necessity. Sicily, standing alone in the Mediterranean, was an easy target for invading forces who plundered and ruled with little regard for the country they occupied. Six centuries ago, the Mafia was formed to protect the populace against the then-ruling French. But its mission was soon replaced by crime as the Mafia grew stronger, feeding on the populace it was created to protect and fortified by the code of allegiance its members were required to pledge.
When Sicilians emigrated to the United States in droves at the turn of the century, many came with the Mafia code stamped on their souls. At first they organized as the Black Hand, the supposed protector of fellow immigrants that in reality demanded payments from merchants and businessmen for protection from the Black Hand. Gambling, illegal numbers rackets and prostitution also helped the Mafia take hold in the United States. But it wasn't until 1919, when the Volstead Act banning alcohol was passed, that the Mafia's capacity to make money illegally caught fire. The Mafia took advantage of the nation's craving for drink. Crime families grew in numbers and power as heady profits from the smuggling and manufacturing of booze poured into their coffers. It was in this setting that Buffalo's Arm took root and prospered.
Their Own Skins
What led to the downfall? Simply put, the times -- and the crimes -- changed. Erstwhile mafiosi, two and three generations removed from the country where the Mafia's code of allegiance was etched, exhibited flagging loyalty when crunch time came. Witness old-time New York City hit man Jack (the Dandy) Parisi. When he died 15 years ago at age 83, a prosecutor said of the tight-lipped mobster, "If you hung him up by the thumbs for eight weeks, he might tell you his first name." That kind of allegiance simply no longer exists, in the Buffalo Mafia or elsewhere.
"The younger ones weren't stand-up like the old guys," says Donald Hartnett, retired supervisor of the Buffalo FBI's organized crime section. "They're always looking out for their own skin instead of the family."
It's almost as if the Mafia has become Americanized, the rigidity of the lifestyle giving way to the shifting neighborhoods and shifting mores of society in general. What was once essential to Mafia immigrants has little import today. "Like a lot of things," muses Hartnett in reflecting on what has happened to the Buffalo Mafia, "they just don't have the discipline in their lives."
Hartnett was often thwarted in his investigations by that code of silence. One of the most notable examples was in 1976. The rulers of the Buffalo family had ordered the death of Faust Novino, a mob associate. He was lured to a building on Connecticut Street, where several armed henchmen waited in the dark. But Novino came armed, too, and opened fire first. When police arrived they found the owner of the building, a mob insider named Johnny Sacco, bleeding from a bullet wound in his ample stomach.
"Who shot you, Johnny?" detectives asked.
"Nobody shot me," Sacco replied in true stand-up fashion.
Sacco subsequently served a seven-year prison stretch rather than rat on the mob, but in the twilight of his years, long after his release from prison, he had a change of heart. In 1989 he turned government informant rather than return to prison on a drug charge. The mob loyalist was cooperating with the government -- a telltale sign of the drastic changes that had ripped through the Buffalo underworld in 20 years.
The government, of course, has helped rattle the gates of the Mafia's allegiance. Silence, or "omerta," was always the cornerstone of the Mafia code, preventing lawmen from learning the inner workings of La Cosa Nostra. Then along came Joseph Valachi, who in 1963 for the first time detailed the mob's inner workings before a congressional committee, and Pasquale (Paddy) Calabrese, the first Buffalo Mafia insider to turn on his bosses. They paved the way for legions of others, such as Sacco and hit man Sammy (the Bull) Gravano, whose testimony two years ago put New York City Mafia boss John Gotti behind bars for life, and put Gravano in the national limelight.
Calabrese turned cooperating witness in 1967 after conducting a daring mob-approved robbery of the treasurer's office in Buffalo's City Hall, then learning the mob refused to support his family when he was arrested.
Now living out his life quietly in the Pacific Northwest, he reflects on his decison 30 years ago.
"I thought a lot about it," he remembers. "I thought about the mob family and I had to get over the idea I was betraying them. But they didn't do right by me and I've never regretted what I did. In fact, I'm proud of it. It's meant a better life for me and my real family and, from what's happened to the Buffalo mob over the years, it made the city better."
Calabrese not only set the stage for other Buffalo informants, he also was the first Mafia turncoat in the nation to be given a new identity and a new life by the government in exchange for his information. Hollywood even took note of the drama Calabrese's decision triggered. The James Caan movie "Hide in Plain Sight," filmed in Buffalo, followed. Today, the Witness Protection Program, created thanks to Calabrese, harbors untold Mafia informers who showed little regard for the "omerta" professed by their forefathers.
New Laws, New Crimes
Besides protection for informers, the federal government mounted an arsenal of laws to help decimate the mob. Bookmaking and loan sharking, staples of the Mafia in the years after Prohibition ended, were piddling state crimes until Congress enacted anti-racketeering laws in 1968 and 1970 that provided harsh sentences for taking bets and lending money at usurious interest rates. Just as significant, the laws also permitted federal agents to listen in on mobsters' conversations through previously banned wiretaps.
In the wake of the sanctioned eavesdropping, federal agents studied Sicilian dialects, and the men in Buffalo's Mafia grew wary of discussing business where others might hear. That was never more evident than several years ago when a Buffalo gambler, in debt to a mob loan shark, asked to meet a boss of the Buffalo mob to implore him to intercede. For the meeting, the mob boss directed the gambler to an auto dealership in Niagara Falls. At the dealership, the mobster picked out a Cadillac on the showroom floor and opened the door.
"We'll talk in here," the mob boss told the gambler.
In Buffalo, as in much of the rest of the nation where Mafia families thrived, labor racketeering was a major force in keeping the family healthy. Local 210 was the stronghold of the Buffalo Arm. It provided high-paying administrative jobs with lucrative benefits for the family hierarchy, no-show construction jobs for the family faithful, honest work for the family's friends, and the opportunity to run bookmaking and loan-sharking operations on work sites while at the same time strong-arming contractors.
Hartnett remembers one Buffalo-area construction job where Local 210 members were carting off a small fortune in equipment and materials. Magaddino learned of the windfall and, according to Hartnett, warned the union's leaders, "You'll never see another sunset if I don't get my cut."
But it was the crimes the Buffalo Mafia never fully embraced that eventually contributed to its loss of power. Illegal numbers, for instance. For Italian immigrants, playing numbers that came to them in dreams or in other odd fashions was as common as eating pasta and sauce on Sundays. Few immigrants owned stocks, but most paid attention to the stock pages, because the winning numbers were based on the market sales volume on any given day.
That all changed as the ethnic makeup of the city changed. African-Americans living on Buffalo's East Side slowly entered the numbers rackets -- where they remain today -- and the mob paid little heed, preferring instead to concentrate on its other lucrative enterprises.
Drugs were another story. The Mafia dons of the past abhorred drugs, fearing the lengthy prison sentences that convictions demanded. On the other hand, second- and third-generation mobsters recognized the potential for profits that drugs offered. Consequently, Mafia families in Buffalo and the rest of the nation never presented a united front in the drug business. Drug operations involved Mafia members, but never with the unifying complicity of the high commission. The split opened the door for other ethnic-rooted criminal organizations to enter the field -- Hispanics, blacks and Asians.
"It's not that the mob wasn't involved in drugs," says one former law enforcement official. "It's just that it never bothered to try to control it."
A Buffalo drug case offers an illustration. In 1983, the FBI raided a ceramic tile store on Delaware Avenue that was a front for high-grade heroin entering the United States inside wooden pallets. The man running the operation, Andrea Aiello, had ties to the Mafia families of New York City and Sicily and chose a lengthy prison sentence over cooperation with the FBI. But what made the case even more interesting was that Aiello was operating without the permission -- without even the knowledge -- of Buffalo's Mafia bosses.
A Shrinking Economy
Lacking a solid foothold in the drug business, the Buffalo Mafia relied on the traditional gambling, bookmaking, loan sharking and labor racketeering for steady income. And steady -- and lucrative -- it was. Steady because blue-collar Buffalo and other cities controlled by the Buffalo Arm enjoyed gambling and wagering on sporting events and horse racing.
The mob, mostly through emissaries, visited factories, the construction sites and the offices, offering workers with steady incomes the opportunity to bet on football, basketball and other sports. At the same time, bookmakers took wagers by phone and mob-run dice and card games, featuring a high-stakes game called siganette, were available if you knew where to go.
All made money, and all sent a portion of the proceeds to the Arm's hierarchy. Because the mob never kept books that were audited, only insiders knew how much money found its way to the top. But consider this: Wiretaps revealed that Stefano Magaddino's cut from a popular siganette game controlled by his henchmen in an old firehouse on Seneca Street was $25,000 a week.
But like a lot of businesses, the mob found that when the economy goes bad, profits shrink and eventually even disappear. The region's declining population, the loss of thousands of factory jobs with weekly incomes and convenient locales for betting played a major role in the decline of the Buffalo Mafia. The customer base evaporated, and mob leaders weren't wise enough -- or strong enough -- to find other sources of income to fill the void.
The Mob After the Godfather
After Magaddino fell from power and then died in 1974 without ever going to trial, the Buffalo mob had a succession of kingpins. But they ruled without Magaddino's strength over a kingdom that was only a shell of the empire he once controlled. The discovery of the half-million dollars in Magaddino's son's house split his domain. Buffalo's mafiosi broke away; so did their compatriots in Rochester, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Ohio and the rest of the areas where the now-weakened Magaddino once reigned. And none of them was strong enough to merit a seat on the national high commission.
Federal agents learned that in 1984, while investigating New York's Mafia families. At the time, Joseph Pieri, whose two sons had high-paying administrative posts in Laborers Local 210, was jockeying for control of the Buffalo mob with Joseph Todaro, whose only son had another high-paying 210 leadership job. Pieri went to New York to seek the counsel of Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno, then head of New York's Genovese family.
"Tell him he's dealing with the big boys now," Salerno advised Pieri while FBI agents listened. "The word (about Buffalo) will come from the commission."
Pieri succeeded his brother, Sam, as head of the Buffalo mob. Before Sam, Joseph Fino was the acknowledged godfather in the years after Magaddino's demise. But Fino was a reluctant godfather, and he willingly gave way to the Pieris.
Fino's son, Ron, also a leader of Local 210, revealed in 1989 that he had been an FBI informer for 15 years. He eventually was spirited into hiding and testified against mobsters in Buffalo and other parts of the country. Now living under government protection, he provides another telling symbol of the fall of the Arm -- the godfather's son an FBI informant.
Twenty-six years ago the son of another Buffalo godfather was destined to take his father's place. On a warm summer night, dressed in a white linen suit, he and his associates, together with wives and girlfriends, entered Eduardo's nightclub on Bailey Avenue, where Louie Prima was performing. The club grew strangely quiet as the entourage proceeded to a long table. In what could have been a scene from any number of Mafia movies, those in the nightclub who knew whispered to those who didn't who had just entered.
But between then and now, the heir apparent to Buffalo's Mafia throne, Joseph Todaro, went legitimate. He opened a pizzeria, quit his job at Local 210 and concentrated on running his business. Today, La Nova Pizza ranks as a Buffalo success story, a neighborhood pizzeria that reportedly grosses millions of dollars a year and distributes its popular chicken wings throughout the nation. Its owner, for years having dodged government efforts to put him behind bars, has never been convicted of a crime, and now reportedly shuns any contact with his former life.
Meanwhile, the FBI waits to see what happens.
"We still feel the LCN (La Casa Nostra) is a viable and visible threat to Western New York," says Virgil D. Woolley, acting head of the Buffalo FBI office. But he admits the Buffalo mob has a weak pulse and resuscitation seems unlikely without strong leadership and profitable criminal enterprises.
Still, Woolley refuses to label the mob dead, pointing to telemarketing frauds, infiltration of unions and legitimate businesses, and the possibility that casino gambling might spawn addicts who find only Mafia loan sharks available when they need cash.
"That weak pulse is one hell of a threat," he says.
Casino gambling in Niagara Falls, Ont., presents a two-sided coin to the Buffalo underworld. As Woolley worries, it might spawn addicts who turn to loan sharks. But it also provides gamblers a legal way to feed their craving.
"I haven't called a bookmaker in years," confides a Buffalo doctor with a passion for gambling who once had the telephone numbers of several bookmakers in his Rolodex.
Why should he? If he wants to bet on numbers, there's the New York State Lottery. If he wants to bet on horse racing, there's government-sanctioned off-track betting. And if he wants to gamble at cards or dice, there's Casino Niagara.
Labor racketeering? Local 210 was long looked at as the barometer of the Buffalo Mafia. You knew who was in control of the Buffalo mob by who got the plush jobs at the union hall and who got the no-show jobs on construction sites. It was the mob's answer to patronage -- you need a job, go see such-and-such. During the '50s, '60s and '70s, Local 210 always had a summer job for a college student -- providing your family knew the right people.
But then hard times hit Buffalo's construction business. The need for laborers diminished drastically, and even "made men" were forced to show up when assigned to a job site. Finally, last year, the Buffalo mob lost control of Local 210 when the local's international union stepped in, at the government's prodding, and ousted dozens of members it accused of associating with the Buffalo underworld.
What little patronage the mob had through Local 210 ceased immediately, and the last visible remnants of mob power in Buffalo disappeared.
It's hard to imagine what Stefano Magaddino might think of his criminal empire were he alive today, nearly 30 years after he waited for death while FBI agents searched his house. No leadership. No allegiance to tradition. No money-making enterprises. Even his grandson and namesake, who at last report was practicing law in Atlanta, wanted no part of the realm.
"The threat is there as long as the organization is there," warns the FBI's Woolley.
What organization? Magaddino might reply.
Lee Coppola covered organized crime in Buffalo for The Buffalo news and two Buffalo television stations for 25 years. A former prosecutor with the U.S. attorney's office, Coppola is dean of the journalism school at St. Bonaventure University.