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Cold Case Files: 20 (or more) audacious mob-connected murders

It was just an ordinary day – March 7, 1980 – on the construction site of the Buffalo’s Metro Rail project. Until William "Billy the Kid" Sciolino got a telephone call.

When he stepped into a construction trailer and picked up the phone, a team of masked gunmen appeared in the doorway behind him. Some crouched, others stood. They all blasted away at the 40-year-old Sciolino until he was dead. Then the killers quickly disappeared.

Buffalo Police homicide detectives arrived soon after, questioning every potential witness they could find.

"Same old story," one detective told a young reporter from The Buffalo News that day. "Nobody saw nothin’."

Law enforcement officials later revealed that they had learned Buffalo Mafia leaders targeted Sciolino, a mob-connected union steward for Local Laborers 210, because they suspected he had been serving as an FBI informant. Federal agents neither confirmed nor denied that theory.

Thirty-seven years later, the Sciolino murder – which happened in broad daylight, at a busy construction site near a Main Street intersection, a little over a mile from downtown Buffalo – remains unsolved.

Also unsolved are at least 22 other local murders that have connections to members or associates of Buffalo’s once-powerful Mafia. Mob leaders sanctioned only a few of these killings, authorities say. Many of the others involved personal disputes between drug dealers, bookmakers, loan sharks, burglars and other mob-connected characters.

These are among the coldest of the region’s cold cases. You won’t find a cop or prosecutor anywhere who is optimistic about solving them.

The Mafia is all but dead in Western New York. So what killed it?

Witnesses to mob murders are often fearful and unwilling to cooperate with police. And many of the killers involved in these local cases are either dead themselves or old enough to be in nursing homes.

"When ‘The Arm’ killed somebody, nobody wanted to know anything. Anyone who might have witnessed anything would be scared for their lives," remembered George E. Karalus, 82, a long-retired organized crime investigator for the New York State Police.

"There was always a fear of retribution," said Frank J. Clark, a former federal prosecutor and Erie County district attorney who retired in 2009. "People who witnessed something knew that it might not be good for their life expectancy to jump up and say, ‘I saw everything!’ "

Mobsters "were usually careful to commit murders in a place where there wouldn’t be too many ‘civilian witnesses,’ " Clark added. "The most likely witnesses were people who were involved in crime themselves and wouldn’t be likely to talk to the police."

Little investigation has gone into any of these unsolved homicides over the past decade, but Buffalo FBI officials say they still welcome any information about any of the cases.

"It’s important for the public to know these are still open cases, and there is no statute of limitations on a murder case," said Adam S. Cohen, special agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office. "These people who were killed – they had family, they had loved ones. Some of their family members are still around. … We wouldn’t care if the defendant was 90 years old. We’d still pursue any one of these cases."

Some of the underworld murders – like the shooting of mobster and union leader John Cammilleri outside a popular West Side restaurant – were front-page news for months. Others barely made media reports.

Cammilleri, 63, was a high-profile mobster, well-known for his dapper clothing and his role as a peacemaker on major Buffalo construction projects. Beginning his crime career as a small-time thief and moving on to bigger jobs, he spent time in state prisons for grand larceny, assault with intent to kill, burglary, extortion and robbery.

On May 8, 1974, he hurried across Rhode Island Street on his way to a birthday celebration at the old Roseland Restaurant.

"Hey Johnny!" someone yelled out.

When Cammilleri turned around, an assailant fired a .38-caliber revolver, striking Cammilleri in the face and chest. He died at the scene.

A car carrying the killer and several other men made a speedy getaway, and patrons who ran out of the restaurant found Cammilleri bleeding to death on the street, in his well-tailored blue suit.

Mob leaders were reportedly upset at Cammilleri for some of his union activities and for running a high-stakes card game that they did not profit from. Four names emerged as possible suspects within days of the murder, but no one was arrested.

In 1989, with help from a mob informant, FBI agents took a long second look at the case, but to this day, no arrests have been made.

The list of unsolved underworld homicides dates to the 1960s:

• Vincent Santangelo, 22, and Anthony Palestine, 21, both of Buffalo, were found tied up and strangled in a field off William Street on Aug. 12, 1961.

Charles S. Gerass, 36, a Town of Tonawanda real estate salesman, was found strangled in the trunk of a car parked along Sheridan Drive on Sept. 21, 1965. Police said Gerass had told his wife the previous night he was going out to meet with a businessman, Joseph Todaro Sr., about a piece of property. Todaro, who died in 2012, was named by the FBI as a leader of the Buffalo Mafia, but the allegation was never proven in any court. Calling Todaro a "person of interest," federal agents and Tonawanda police took a new look at the case in 2004 but never charged Todaro or anyone else.

Richard Falice, 23, of Buffalo, was found tied up and strangled behind a West Side gas station on Nov. 11, 1970.

Lester Speaker, 24, a Buffalo ex-convict, was found dead with bullet wounds near some railroad tracks off Tonawanda Street on May 12, 1971.

Albert J. Billiteri Jr., 23, a Buffalo drug dealer, was shot six times and left to die in Cheektowaga on Sept. 19, 1974. Police believe the murder was a revenge slaying related to the robbery of a mob associate’s mother.

Frank D’Angelo, 37, a Town of Tonawanda burglar and gambler, was ambushed and shot to death as he walked out of the old Mulligan’s on Hertel Avenue, perhaps Buffalo’s most popular nightclub at the time, on Oct. 5, 1974. D’Angelo had reportedly failed to give mob members their split of the profits from a jewelry heist. Years later, key physical evidence from this case disappeared from Buffalo Police Headquarters.

William Esposito, 29, a North Tonawanda burglar, was hog-tied and left to strangle himself behind a West Seneca apartment building, where he was found Feb. 17, 1976. The killing was suspected to be revenge for a barroom disagreement with a mobster.

Robert H. Reingold, 41, a suspected rapist and convicted counterfeiter from Buffalo, was found hog-tied in an abandoned car in Buffalo on May 31, 1976. FBI said Reingold may have been killed in revenge for the shooting of a mob member’s relative.

Joseph C. Vara, 40, a Buffalo bartender, has been missing and presumed dead since Nov. 3, 1977. His family and police believed he was murdered because he had a romance with the estranged wife of a mob member.

John C. Certo, no age available, of Niagara County was found dead in a burned-out shed at the Lewiston town dump on Nov. 14, 1977. The FBI believes he was hit over the head and left in the burning building because of a dispute he had with the daughter of a mobster.

Peter A. Piccolo, 32, a popular Buffalo hairstylist and operator of a hair design school, was shot in his salon April 19, 1979. FBI agents said Piccolo was a reputed cocaine dealer who upset mobsters by cheating one of them in a deal.

Raymond Townsend, 37, of Lockport, a reputed mob muscle man and member of Laborers Local 91 in Niagara Falls, was shot to death in his car outside a Wheatfield tavern on Sept. 29, 1979.

Carl J. Rizzo, 64, of Buffalo, who worked as a consultant to a mob-connected dental clinic that served Local 210 members. His body, hog-tied and partially decomposed, was found in the trunk of a car on April 10, 1980.

Robert B. Warner, 32, a Buffalo restaurant operator and former government informer, was shot outside a Hamburg nightclub on Feb. 8, 1981. Drug dealer Victor Panaro was convicted of ordering the hit on Warner, but no one has ever been convicted of killing Warner.

Robert A. Schickler, 21, of the Town of Tonawanda, was shot and his body was found off a dead-end road in Allegany County on June 9, 1984. Police said the slaying was drug-related. A Buffalo mob associate was investigated but never charged.

Joseph San Fratello, 45, a suspected Buffalo cocaine dealer and Local 210 steward with a long criminal record, was shot leaving an Allen Street bar on Feb. 2, 1985. Buffalo police voiced concerns at the time that the death signaled the start of a major drug war, but that did not happen.

Alan R. Levine, 33, a convicted drug dealer from of the Town of Tonawanda, was shot to death on East Ferry Street with $500 cash left in his pocket on Sept. 19, 1986. Police believe the slaying was drug-related. A suspect was arrested but acquitted at a trial in 1991.

Michael Ress, 35, a small-time Buffalo drug dealer, is believed to have been shot by a thief and mob associate, the late John C. Sacco, after a dispute in August 1989. Sacco died a year later and was never charged with killing Ress.

Paul Gembala, 42, a Buffalo man who had been convicted of several crimes and was suspected of cocaine dealing, was found dead outside a West Side pizzeria on Nov. 20, 1992. Police said he was fatally shot.

Michael Baldi Jr., 31, a Buffalo businessman and suspected drug dealer, was found shot to death in his car off Chandler Street on July 8, 1993. Police said Baldi had a gun on him but did not use it.

In the early 1990s, the Erie County District Attorney's Office had some rare good fortune in solving three underworld homicides. The victims were Albert Monaco, a Laborers Local 210 member and mob associate whose bullet-riddled body was found in Evans in April 1984; Robert DiGiulio, a former bodyguard for celebrities who was ambushed and shot outside his Amherst home in April 1985; and John Pinelli, a drug dealer who was shot and dumped in a ditch in Eden in September 1986.

The DA's office had major help from William Koopman, a former Buffalo garbage worker who took part in all three killings and then became a police informant.

Taking a plea deal that critics called outrageously lenient, Koopman implicated his former mentor, Luciano "Dilly" Spataro, a mob associate and hit man, in all three slayings. Spataro served a lengthy state prison term and is now fighting for a parole release.

Parole granted, then reversed, mob hitman ‘Dilly’ Spataro wants his freedom

Koopman, now in his 50s, was sentenced to five to 15 years in state prison. He admitted to involvement in five murders and $1 million in drug deals. After serving time under a fake name, he was released in 1994, having served less than five years.

Clark, the former DA, recalled working on the Koopman-Spataro cases with fellow prosecutor Thomas P. Franczyk, who is now a judge.

It has always been extremely difficult to prosecute organized crime figures without making deals with an informant such as Koopman, Clark said.

"It's tough, because you have to pay a price to make cases like that," Clark said. "You're giving a deal to a killer to catch other killers. But that's about the only way we ever solved any of these mob homicides."

Anyone with information about any of the unsolved cases is asked to call the Buffalo FBI office at (716) 856-7800.

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