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The rat who started it all; For 40 years, Joe Valachi has been in a Lewiston cemetery, a quiet end for the mobster who blew the lid off 'Cosa Nostra' when he testified before Congress in 1963

The rat who started it all; For 40 years, Joe Valachi has been in a Lewiston cemetery, a quiet end for the mobster who blew the lid off 'Cosa Nostra' when he testified before Congress in 1963

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Joseph Valachi took few secrets to his grave.

The infamous mob rat unloaded years before his death in 1971, when a mysterious Niagara Falls mistress had his body shipped from a Texas federal prison for burial in Gate of Heaven Cemetery near the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.

Valachi, a soldier for legendary New York mob boss Vito Genovese, is considered the most influential informant in organized crime history. Valachi was the first to violate omerta, the mob's sacred code of silence, when he testified before a Senate subcommittee in October 1963. He later scrawled some 300,000 words in a scandalous, exhaustive memoir.

His mission: to destroy the underworld brotherhood that betrayed him and put a $100,000 bounty on his head.

Valachi provided what then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy called the "biggest single intelligence breakthrough yet in combating organized crime and racketeering in the United States." Valachi's writings inspired "The Valachi Papers," a seminal 1968 book that helped transform the mob genre into what it is today, from "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas" to "The Sopranos."

Fledgling mafiosi passed through Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century and forged a mythical subculture. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover denied the Mafia existed. Valachi finally, dramatically yanked off the veil on national television.

His gravelly voice croaked out the words "Cosa Nostra" (roughly, "this thing of ours") in public for the first time. He explained the blood ritual that comes with being a made man and laid out the mob commandments. He was the first to identify the heads of each crime family and the organizational flow chart beneath each one. He dispassionately detailed how contract killings worked and how Genovese gave him the kiss of death.

"There were no more secrets after Valachi," said famous mob author Nicholas Pileggi, whose books included "Casino." "He explained what it was all about. He named names. That's the beginning of the end of organized crime as we knew it.

"Until then, it was a world filled with secrets. After Valachi, the Boy Scouts had more secrets than the mob."

Mob turncoats lined up to blab when Valachi blazed a trail and didn't get whacked. One of the most notable was Henry Hill, the subject of Pileggi's book "Wiseguy," which was turned into the hit film "Goodfellas."

Valachi did keep one secret until he died. Disowned by his wife and son, both of whom were in the federal witness protection program, Valachi's will named Marie Jackson, a divorcee from Niagara Falls, executor of his estate. Valachi left everything he had to Jackson, even going so far as to list her mother as the secondary beneficiary.

The development bewildered Western New Yorkers and Mafia experts across the country when Niagara County Surrogate Court records revealed her name in 1971.

Who was Marie Jackson? What did she know? How did a mobster from East Harlem strike up a relationship with a woman in Niagara Falls?

Jackson purchased side-by-side burial plots for herself and Valachi. She at first declined to mark Valachi's grave, nestled against a chapel walkway, out of fear it would be desecrated. She joined him in 1999.

Valachi didn't leave Jackson much. He had been in prison for trafficking heroin for about a decade before his death. In her later years, Jackson made ends meet by managing adult book shops around Niagara Falls. She was arrested at least three times on pornography charges.

Valachi didn't own much, but what he knew was valuable. "The Valachi Papers," written by Peter Maas from interviews with Valachi and the mobster's own lengthy account of his experiences, came out in 1968 and was a blockbuster. A New York Times article four months after Valachi died quoted Jackson's attorney, Bernard Sax, as stating Valachi received "in the neighborhood of $30,000 thus far," for his assistance with the book, but most of it went to pay his back taxes.

In 1972, the same year the movie "The Godfather" was released, producer Dino De Laurentiis turned "The Valachi Papers" into a film starring Charles Bronson.

It's not known if Jackson received any money from the movie. In a rare 1995 interview that she agreed to do with The Buffalo News on a whim, she spoke only of book royalties.

That's where Valachi's local legacy gets foggy. The man who hurtled into the public's consciousness by divulging everything he knew left his estate to a woman whose family refuses to talk.

>Keeping quiet

The Buffalo News hasn't been able to uncover any record of Valachi relinquishing the rights to his memoirs, but they never were passed along as part of his estate. The memoirs aren't specifically mentioned in a straightforward will that bequeathed to Jackson "the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, consisting of all property of any nature owned by me at my death or acquired by my estate." An inventory of Valachi's assets never was filed with the Niagara County Surrogate Court.

Jackson's heirs, despite financial hardships that include multiple bankruptcies and debt collections, also have little apparent interest in acquiring the unpublished manuscript.

Maas donated Valachi's memoirs, titled "The Real Thing: The Expose and Inside Doings of Cosa Nostra," to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in 1980. The library also maintains Robert Kennedy's archives. Valachi's cooperation with the feds was considered one of Robert Kennedy's greatest achievements as attorney general.

"The Real Thing" is the manuscript Maas relied on to write "The Valachi Papers" as a third-person biography. Maas also donated to the JFK Library handwritten letters and cards mailed to him from an imprisoned Valachi, who often pleads with Maas for a quick note because he's lonely or to send Marie a couple bucks.

"Do let me enjoy a letter from you, OK?" Valachi wrote to Maas in 1968. "What friends I lost I need not mention them as you know. If you write me a few lines, I'll be happy."

Maas died in 2001. His book agent is also dead. De Laurentiis died last year. Maas' son, John-Michael Maas, was an infant when "The Valachi Papers" was published. John-Michael Maas wrote in an email to The News he had "no idea" whom to ask about ownership of Valachi's memoirs.

One local probate-law expert who wished to remain unidentified because he doesn't represent the Jackson estate said he believes the manuscript belonged solely to Valachi because it essentially was a diary.

One of Jackson's granddaughters, Jeanetta Birjukow of Niagara Falls, researched the issue in September 2005 but came away demoralized when she learned the JFK Library had "The Real Thing" archived in its stacks.

"We don't have money to go to war with the Kennedys," sighed one member of Jackson's family who wanted to remain anonymous.

While the JFK Library preserves the Kennedy family legacy, it is managed by the National Archives and Records Administration and not controlled by the Kennedys.

JFK Library chief archivist Karen Alder Abramson said to the library's knowledge, the Jackson family has not attempted to obtain the Valachi manuscript.

Jackson's only daughter, Karen Carlino, refused multiple interview requests through her husband dating back to Aug. 9. Carlino died Sept. 13. Carlino's children also declined to participate in this story.

>A Kennedy trophy

At the tip of Columbia Point, overlooking Dorchester Bay in Boston Harbor, stands Camelot's tower.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is a majestic edifice designed by I.M. Pei. The 115,000-square-foot building is on 10 manicured acres. Valachi's old secrets are on the fourth floor, way above ground, and available for anyone to examine. A librarian with security clearance will retrieve the documents upon request, call number 9/3 3/C/5, Volumes 1 and 2.

Inside the cardboard file containers are more than 1,200 yellowing pages -- a typewritten, double-spaced transcript of Valachi's handwritten life story. The third sentence begins "Never did I receive anything at Christmas time All I would get on Christmas was being awakened and having my father try and give me a glass of whiskey."

When Valachi wrote his autobiography, he already had presented mesmerizing testimony at Sen. John L. McClellan's subcommittee hearings into organized crime in October 1963. Valachi's revelations into Cosa Nostra were high theater, broadcast live across the country in black and white.

"This here what I'm telling you, what I'm exposing to you and the press and everybody," Valachi said at the hearings, "this is my doom."

He figured he had nothing to lose. He already was serving 15 years for selling narcotics. Genovese, his godfather, was in the same Atlanta federal prison. In a meeting about loyalty, Valachi believed Genovese had given him the kiss of death. Approached by a prisoner he was convinced was his would-be assassin, Valachi picked up a lead pipe and beat him death.

Quickly afterward, Valachi discovered he had misidentified the man he killed. The guilt consumed him -- and the chances of Valachi regaining his freedom vanished.

Valachi was 59 years old in 1963, not in the best of health, disowned by his wife and son, betrayed by his mob family and destined to be murdered if he didn't do something drastic.

He lashed out in the most demonstrative way possible, all with government protection. The Justice Department couldn't have been more thrilled with Valachi's predicament.

>'Cosa Nostra' revealed

"Valachi was a PR stunt," Pileggi said, "to show that [the Justice Department] was doing something, to get congressmen off their backs and to show they needed more money to combat organized crime.

"They had a real, live monkey they could stand up there and say 'We got the first one, and he's talking.' It all worked out very well and eventually put pressure on the mob."

Valachi provided intimate details of a vicious subculture he was a part of since 1930. He identified bosses of the five New York crime families: Carlo Gambino, Gaetano Lucchese, Giuseppe Magliocco, Bonanno and Genovese.

"It was like he came from another planet, with all this inside information that to him was routine," Pileggi said. "Valachi comes along and tells the truth, and it lends credibility to what had been the gangster myth."

Less than a year after Valachi's testimony, with Robert Kennedy still attorney general and Valachi in a Washington, D.C., prison, FBI special agent James Flynn convinced Valachi to write down every detail as a way to cleanse his soul and, while he was at it, whale on the mob some more.

>Memoirs of a gangster

"The Real Thing" would read like a succession of gangster cliches if Valachi hadn't been the first to validate them. All the soon-to-be stereotypical mob storylines emerge in titillating -- sometimes excruciating -- detail. There are references to contract killings, heists, nightclubs, prizefight fixing, machine guns in violin cases and women on the side.

He began his crime career in East Harlem, a 15-year-old dropout with smash-and-grab skills. He eventually joined a mob outfit, got into the bar business, dabbled in horse racing and managed a route of jukeboxes and vending machines. That's when he wasn't participating in murders.

Along the way, Valachi recounted such real-life characters as Funzi, Charlie Bullets, Pip the Blind, Dolly Dimples, Cockeye Nick and The Gap.

Valachi married Mildred Reina, the daughter of gunned-down boss Tom Reina, in 1932 and soon had a son. Valachi noted in "The Real Thing" that his "wife was a saint" and "there isn't a woman on earth that is better than her."

How Valachi met Marie Jackson has been debated. Maas claimed Jackson began writing to Valachi in prison after seeing him on television. Federal officials told The News the same thing after Valachi's death.

But Jackson, in a 1995 interview with The News, stated a mutual friend introduced her to Valachi in Niagara Falls years before that. She said Valachi alerted her ahead of time that he would testify before the Senate subcommittee in 1963. She claimed she often visited him in prison.

"Joe was always good to me," Jackson said. "He gave me gifts and money, and we took a lot of trips."

Jackson's brief marriage had been annulled over religious differences. She was Catholic, her husband Jewish.

Mentioned in Valachi's memoirs are how he knocked around Western New York and Southern Ontario on occasion. He fled to Buffalo for a week in 1931, spending time with local kingpin Stefano Magaddino and lieutenant John Montana while trying to avoid the potential wrath of Salvatore Maranzano, the so-called "boss of bosses" back in New York, over an unauthorized burglary.

Jackson isn't mentioned in "The Real Thing" or "The Valachi Papers." Valachi didn't indicate when or how he met Jackson, but on several occasions professed his devotion to her. He pleaded with Maas to help him set up a will and to send Jackson money after the book's release.

"I'll marry Marie if I had the chance," Valachi wrote in 1967.

>Valachi's value

Valachi's version of his memoirs never got published. In December 1965, word leaked from the Department of Justice that Valachi's autobiography was headed for bookstores. Hot protests from Italian-American groups, many of them backed by mob concerns, ensued. Influential politicians demanded the book be barred from publication because they declared it would smear all Italian-Americans.

A compromise ultimately was reached that allowed Maas, a Saturday Evening Post reporter the Department of Justice had chosen to edit Valachi's manuscript, to use most of the material for a nonfiction book written in the third-person. Then 22 publishing houses turned down "The Valachi Papers" before it was picked up.

The controversy overwhelmed Valachi, who began to feel his work was meaningless. Maas later wrote in the New York Times that Valachi, after being transferred from a relatively comfortable D.C. prison to an austere facility in Michigan, tried to commit suicide in 1966.

The value of Valachi's memoirs is difficult to calculate. As a piece of memorabilia, it might be worth only $500, Pileggi guessed.

But a misplaced U.S. government file of 800 mobster bios, likely prepared for the McClellan hearings in which Valachi served as star witness, sold at auction for $10,980 in June. The file was found on the back seat of a New York taxi in the early 1990s and published as a facsimile reference work in 2007.

Valachi's memoirs could be published similarly. Maas' adaptation was only a couple hundred pages and the Justice Department redacted names and certain accusations. Valachi's original manuscript could disclose all the deleted passages, plus more of his rambling tales.

Any subsequent Valachi book also could feature Jackson in a prominent role. Her grandchildren may still possess a stack of the couple's love letters, which were mentioned in her 1995 interview with The News. Their correspondence could construct a compelling epilogue and perhaps give insight into the mind of a marked man coping with almost inconceivable burdens.

As much as Valachi divulged about the Mafia and disclosed about his personal life, the story he wrote remains entangled with intrigue.

The story of organized crime can't be fully told without mentioning Valachi.

Forty years after his death, Valachi's story remains incomplete.

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