During the day, Michael Masecchia was a respected English teacher at Buffalo’s Grover Cleveland High School, where colleagues considered him a role model who genuinely cared about his students.
He also coached youth football and high school soccer, including an International Prep/Grover Cleveland team that won a statewide soccer championship.
But when he was away from the city schools, Masecchia lived a second life, one far outside the law.
At his Amherst home, according to documents filed by federal prosecutors, he slept with a gun under his mattress, with plenty of ammunition, a wide assortment of drugs and other firearms nearby.
Masecchia ran a marijuana trafficking ring, federal prosecutors allege, had connections to Buffalo’s organized crime family and paid thousands of dollars in bribes to a federal drug agent.
Federal prosecutors are looking for organized crime activities in a widespread investigation, just four years after the special agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office said, “Some of the individuals who were leaders of the Mafia are still around. But their organized crime activities don’t exist anymore."
Since at least August 2019, federal agents have been investigating Masecchia as part of a wide-ranging probe into Buffalo’s Mafia and its alleged ties to drug trafficking and other crimes.
In December, Masecchia, 54, pleaded guilty to felony drug-trafficking and weapons charges in federal court.
“Masecchia and others also participated in marijuana grow operations in Ellicottville and Franklinville, in Cattaraugus County,” said U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy. “In addition, the defendant possessed firearms to protect himself, his proceeds, and property where he stored marijuana and currency.”
Among the items seized in a 2019 raid at the teacher’s home were $27,950 in cash, eight guns, ammunition, three Mason jars of marijuana, various steroids in liquid and tablet form, hypodermic needles, two grams of suspected cocaine, Tylenol with codeine tablets, suspected hashish and four cellphones.
In court, Masecchia admitted that he had been dealing pot since 1999 and had distributed more than a ton of marijuana during that time. And he said that he “and others” in the drug trade had help from a federal agent, Joseph Bongiovanni.
As part of his plea agreement, Masecchia said Bongiovanni helped him and other drug traffickers to avoid arrest by providing “law enforcement-sensitive information,” including the names of potential cooperating witnesses.
Bongiovanni, who resigned from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2019 and faces felony corruption charges, denies assisting any drug dealers. In court papers, Bongiovanni’s defense attorneys said he stayed away from Masecchia because Masecchia had a “mean streak” and “was prone to engage in fist-fights and petty drug-dealing and use.”
Prosecution court papers include a copy of a 2013 email from an unidentified federal agent to Bongiovanni, stating that Masecchia is “an associate member and possibly a made member” of the Buffalo Mafia family.
The same email states that Masecchia’s father-in-law was the late Bart Mazzara, a “made member” of the Buffalo Mafia family. In 1996, Mazzara was one of 28 men forced to resign from Laborers Local 210 because of alleged associations with the Mafia.
None of that information squares with the portrait of Masecchia painted by his attorney, Patrick J. Brown, or people who knew him as a teacher and coach.
Brown described Masecchia as a devoted family man who cares about the community and takes a special interest in students from immigrant families.
In his younger days, Masecchia was a talented athlete in his own right. A star on the Bennett High School football team, he was recently inducted into the Harvard Cup Hall of Fame. In 1986 and 1987, he played running back for the University at Buffalo’s football team.
Since his arrest, he has been on administrative leave from his job in the city schools.
“His students loved him,” recalled Kevin Eberle, the former principal at Grover Cleveland who now serves as principal at the city’s Math Science Technology High School. Eberle said he has known Masecchia for two decades and considers him a compassionate and caring educators.
“Many times through the years, he would literally give the shirt off his back to immigrant students. He’d make sure they had spikes for soccer, clothes and food. It was nothing for him to literally feed them,” Eberle said.
Eberle, a former police officer, recalled a poignant moment involving Masecchia and a Grover Cleveland student who was killed as a bystander in a drive-by shooting. Eberle said he looked over at Masecchia during the student’s funeral.
Masecchia – the man who now admits he sold marijuana for 20 years and kept guns and drugs in his home – was crying.