Just four years ago, the FBI chief in Buffalo said the Mafia here was all but dead.
“Some of the individuals who were leaders of the Mafia are still around,” said Adam S. Cohen, then special agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office in 2017. “But their organized crime activities don’t exist anymore."
But now, federal prosecutors are looking for organized crime activities in a widespread investigation that includes a former DEA agent accused of taking bribes, two nephews of the man law enforcement has claimed heads the Buffalo Mafia, a high school teacher who sold drugs, a businessman who grew marijuana in an Amherst mansion and the owner of a medical staffing business accused of fraud.
These six men – and others who know them – form the cast of characters in the latest effort by federal law enforcement to prosecute what government attorneys call the “Italian Organized Crime” family of Western New York:
- Joseph Bongiovanni, a retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was arrested in 2019 on charges of accepting $250,000 in bribes to help drug dealers avoid arrest, including some the government says are connected to organized crime. He has pleaded not guilty.
- Peter G. Gerace Jr., Bongiovanni’s childhood friend who owns Pharaoh’s Gentlemen's Club in Cheektowaga, and his brother, Anthony, a former Pharaoh’s employee who is awaiting sentencing on a weapons charge connected to drug trafficking. They are the nephews of Joseph A. Todaro, who law enforcement authorities have claimed for years headed the local mob. Prosecutors identified the Gerace brothers as unindicted co-conspirators of Bongiovanni.
- Michael Masecchia, a Grover Cleveland High School teacher, now on administrative leave, who recently admitted in a plea deal that he kept firearms, drugs and homemade explosives in his Williamsville home while running a drug ring that sold more than a ton of marijuana. Prosecutors mention in court documents that a federal agent warned Bongiovanni in a 2013 report that Massechia is “an associate member and possibly a made member” of the Buffalo organized crime family.
- Ronald Serio, a Buffalo businessman who lived in a spectacular E.B. Green-designed mansion on Lebrun Road in Amherst. He sold the mansion for $1.15 million about 18 months after police found marijuana and guns there in 2017. Serio has pleaded guilty to felony drug and weapons charges, and is awaiting sentencing. Five sources familiar with the case said Serio has been grilled at length by federal agents about his alleged dealings with Bongiovanni, Masecchia and other individuals who have been accused of having ties to organized crime figures.
- Joseph C. Bella III, the owner of a medical staffing business, who has previously been forced by the government to shut down his debt collection business and a company that sold bogus “dirty bomb pills.” He is under investigation for committing fraud while selling Covid-19 test kits, and he faces drug-trafficking and gun possession charges. Prosecutors call him an associate of Buffalo’s Mafia family.
The latest investigation is a continuation of unsuccessful efforts that date back more than a century, long before the iron-fisted reign of the late Stefano Magaddino, the most powerful Mafia leader in Buffalo’s history.
If there is a powerful Mafia family in Buffalo, law enforcement officials have never proven it.
Despite some successful prosecutions for murder, bookmaking, loan sharking, drug trafficking, theft and other crimes, law enforcement has never made a criminal racketeering case against leaders of the alleged Buffalo Mafia organization.
But now a highly regarded prosecutor, working with Homeland Security and other federal agencies, is taking another crack at proving the Mafia is still active here.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Tripi, who over the past two decades successfully prosecuted a murderous biker gang and homicidal gangsters on Buffalo’s East Side and West Side, is leading a team of government lawyers who are trying to build a case alleging organized crime.
Tripi was not permitted by the U.S. Attorney's Office to talk with The Buffalo News about the Mafia probe, but he has repeatedly spoken about the investigation into the "Buffalo Mafia," “Italian Organized Crime,” or “IOC” in court documents and in federal court hearings.
“It's an active organized crime investigation,” Tripi told a judge last year, during a detention hearing for Bella. “The investigation reveals that organized crime members and associates, which include Mr. Bella, are involved in drug trafficking and various wire fraud schemes.”
Tripi said the ongoing probe led to a 2019 indictment against Bongiovanni, the former federal drug agent who is charged with taking $250,000 in bribes to protect Masecchia and other alleged mob-connected drug dealers.
In December, when Masecchia pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and criminal possession of firearms, he admitted that he and unnamed “others” were assisted by Bongiovanni in operating a drug ring that sold marijuana grown in Ellicottville and Franklinville.
The investigation has had some success already in seizing weapons, drugs and money from four defendants – Serio, Bella, Masecchia and Anthony Gerace. A total of $440,000, 24 guns, more than 200 pounds of marijuana and other assorted drugs have been seized from those men, their homes and their cars.
But that doesn’t prove the existence of a Buffalo Mafia family, said Thomas J. Eoannou, defense attorney for Bella and Anthony Gerace.
In Eoannou’s view, the days of fearsome Buffalo mobsters who murdered informants and stuffed bodies into the trunks of cars are long gone.
“With the death of Stefano Magaddino almost 50 years ago and the crackdown on Local 210, legalized gambling and the end of omerta, the code of silence, by the 1990s, it was over. All the real mobsters are dead,” said Eoannou. “Those days are over.”
Eoannou was referring to Laborers Local 210, the union that prosecutors alleged was controlled by organized crime for decades. After a government crackdown in 1996, 28 members of Local 210 were forced to resign from their positions. In a non-criminal proceeding, the men were accused of associating with organized crime.
Across the border
Twenty-five years later, prosecutors appear to be also taking aim at suspected Buffalo Mafia connections in Canada.
Prosecutors and Mafia experts allege that Buffalo mobsters control organized crime activity in part of Ontario. Canadian authorities said a Hamilton, Ont., drug trafficker named Domenico Violi has been the “underboss” of the Buffalo mob family since 2017, according to Canadian news outlets that covered Violi's trial. Violi is serving an eight-year Canadian prison term for selling methamphetamine, fentanyl and other narcotics.
According to wiretap transcript evidence presented by Canadian prosecutors, alleged Buffalo Mafia boss Joseph A. Todaro named Violi underboss during a meeting in Florida, even planting a kiss on Violi as he honored the Canadian, reported Canadian news outlets.
In November 2017, when authorities announced the arrests of Violi and 12 other mob suspects in Canada and the United States, U.S. Justice Department officials in Brooklyn said the arrests included “members of the Todaro organized crime family.”
“The coordinated investigation lasted more than two years and revealed criminal activity spanning the United States and Canada,” the Brooklyn prosecutors said in a news release.
“There are definite historical connections between the mob families in Buffalo, Hamilton, Burlington and Niagara Falls,” said Antonio Nicaso, a college professor in Kingston, Ont., who has written 40 books about the Mafia and served as a consultant to Canadian law enforcement.
“Because of lenient Canadian laws, Canada is a great land of opportunity for Buffalo and other American mob families to traffic in drugs and launder money,” Nicaso said.
Nicaso said he is watching the Buffalo Mafia investigation with interest, to see if prosecutors can nail down the long-rumored ties between Buffalo and Ontario.
‘What can you give us on the mob?’
So far, no one has been indicted for racketeering in the latest Buffalo probe, but the Bongiovanni case repeatedly mentions links to “Italian Organized Crime.” An indictment filed against the former drug agent last June claims Bongiovanni has “friends and associates” who were involved in drug trafficking with “Italian Organized Crime.”
Five sources who are familiar with the investigation told The News that federal agents have repeatedly asked criminal defendants over the past two years for information about the Buffalo Mafia. The sources said agents are trying to link the cases against Bongiovanni, Masecchia, Serio, Anthony Gerace and Bella – in addition to an ongoing investigation into activities at the Pharaoh’s strip club – to the Buffalo Mafia.
Serio, the former Amherst mansion owner, pleaded guilty to felony drug charges and is awaiting sentencing. His attorney, Herbert L. Greenman, declined to comment on any possible connections between his client and organized crime.
“Every defendant with an Italian last name is being asked, ‘What can you give us on the mob?’ ” said one Buffalo defense lawyer. "Dozens of people have been put before the grand jury."
Eoannou said prosecutors are trying to connect “a number of individuals whose last names end in vowels … to organized crime that in my opinion no longer exists in Buffalo.”
What Todaro says
Todaro had one word to describe all this when a Buffalo News reporter spoke to him at his West Side pizzeria earlier this month: “Nonsense.”
Todaro has not been mentioned by name by federal authorities in court papers related to the ongoing organized crime investigation, but Tripi in court called Todaro's nephew Peter Gerace Jr. "a relative of the reputed head of the Buffalo Mafia family."
Since the 1980s, Todaro and his late father, Joseph E. Todaro, have been identified by federal law enforcement as leaders running the Buffalo Mafia family. But they have not been criminally charged and the allegation has never been proven in court. The elder Todaro died at age 89 in December 2012.
Neither Todaro has been convicted of any organized crime activity.
Police efforts to link the Todaros to Mafia activities date back to 1967, when police raided the son's stag party at Panaro’s, a West Side restaurant. The two Todaros and 34 other men were charged with “consorting with known criminals." The charges were later dismissed in Buffalo City Court.
“It’s nonsense,” Todaro said, when asked about rumored mob connections, as he worked behind the counter at La Nova Pizza. “I’m 75 years old and still work seven days a week.”
Todaro denied the claim that he kissed Domenico Violi and made him an underboss. He said he is aware of the federal probe, and is especially upset that authorities appear to be trying to link him to drug trafficking.
“They can say anything they want about me, but when they say narcotics, that bothers me,” Todaro said. “I am totally against narcotics. I see what it does to people.”
Todaro added he has had no contact with his nephews, the two Gerace brothers, in recent years.
The restaurateur said he started working for his father as a youngster in 1957, when Joseph E. Todaro opened the original La Nova in the City of Tonawanda. He said he is proud of how the business has grown and considers it a positive force in Buffalo.
“I employ 150 people,” Todaro said of his workers at the Buffalo and Williamsville La Nova locations, and La Nova Wings, a production facility in Cheektowaga that ships chicken wings to customers nationwide.
“I shouldn’t be talking to you,” Todaro told the reporter, quickly adding that he wants people to know he is an honest businessman with nothing to hide.
Married to the mob?
One person who has testified before the grand jury is Peter Gerace Jr.’s ex-wife, Katrina Nigro, who used to operate an adult store inside Pharaoh’s.
Nigro declined to tell The News what she was asked about, but she said she had a ringside seat to Buffalo Mafia activities during her four years as Gerace’s wife. They divorced in 2018.
When asked if she has provided names of witnesses or recordings to back her claims about organized crime, she said she could not disclose that, but added, “A lot will be coming out.”
Nigro claims that Gerace physically attacked her on several occasions and boasted that he knew mobsters who could kill her. Gerace denies those allegations.
In fact, Gerace – through attorney Steven M. Cohen – filed a lawsuit last year in state court, accusing Nigro of libeling him. He said Nigro has made false allegations about him to three police agencies.
According to Nigro, the lawsuit not only represents an attempt to discredit and intimidate her, but to obtain information she has provided to federal investigators and the grand jury.
Cohen described Gerace as a law-abiding citizen who has fully cooperated with government officials in the operation of his club, providing surveillance video and extensive paperwork to prove all his transactions are legal.
Pharaoh's was searched by federal agents in December 2019 several weeks after Bongiovanni’s arrest. No charges have been filed against Peter Gerace Jr. or his business since then. Prosecutors in a court filing said that Pharaoh’s was "the subject of a recent search warrant for evidence related to narcotics and racketeering violations."
Back in 2006, Peter Gerace Jr. pleaded guilty to a felony charge of wire fraud conspiracy, in connection with a fraudulent sweepstakes telemarketing firm he ran for several years. He was sentenced to five months in federal prison and three years on supervised release.
Informant: Mob is 'a lot smarter' now
Bongiovanni’s attorneys, James P. Harrington and Jesse C. Pyle, have accused the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Buffalo of conducting a “selective prosecution” that is unfairly aimed at Italian-Americans.
“The ‘Bills Mafia’ has more structure and substance,” the two attorneys said in recent court papers. “These allegations are rooted mainly in alleged activities of past generations, visiting the sins of the grandparents on their grandchildren.”
Was the FBI wrong when it declared the Buffalo Mafia family all but dead four years ago? Cohen, the former agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office, no longer works there. Current FBI agents in Buffalo declined to comment for this story. So did U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy.
But Ronald M. Fino, a former Buffalo mob associate who has served as an FBI witness and consultant, said he believes the mob is still active in subtle but profitable ways.
“The mob remains very active in Buffalo, but they’re a lot smarter than they used to be,” Fino told The News in early February. “They are less violent than they used to be. They make their money through fraudulent schemes. Now, they do their business through legitimate fronts.”