By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
By all accounts he wasn’t that nice a person.
Described as small, lecherous and ugly, with a temperament to match, it’s hard to find anything redeeming in a life like his, cut short by the mid forties. He played one shady card too many, and found out the hard way that the mob doesn’t tolerate rats or double-crossers. It was only because of Joe Valachi that he made more than just a mention in the New York daily papers: another gangster taken for a one-way ride and dumped in the street. Another sad sack, emptied by the ill fortunes of bad timing and egocentric judgment. It was Joe who let us in on the details of that last night in Harlem, and helped the cops close their case on the body found on 107th Street early on the morning of September 21st, 1952.
Eugenio (sometimes referred to as Eugene) Giannini was born in 1906 in Bari, Calabria, on the southern tip of the Italian peninsular. His parents immigrated to America, and he grew up in New York. Some sources claim his family settled in the Harlem or Bronx area, others that they laid down roots down in Greenwich Village. For a time as a teenager, he earned his living as a boxer, claiming 13 victories by knockouts. There is no record of just how he drifted into the criminal underworld, but in 1927 in Newport R.I., he served time for robbery, and again in 1928, he was arrested for carrying a revolver and pulled a five to ten year term in Dannemora prison. It was here, that he undoubtedly teamed up with at least one or more of the small group that later formed themselves into a ‘cowboy’ group that cruised the streets of New York looking for potential hold-up targets.
Released, he was again arrested in 1934 for armed robbery, but this time it also included a charge of first-degree murder for having shot and killed a police officer during the course of a hold up.
Giannini (photo right) and his partners had been confronted by the patrolman, and in the ensuring shoot-out, the officer was killed and three people were wounded. Somehow, in the make-believe world of the New York jurisprudence system, charges were dismissed and Giannini went free.
It’s a given in the Mafia underworld that you don’t kill law enforcement officers. Too much, far too much heat. Giannini was almost certainly not yet linked into that strange, mysterious brotherhood that afternoon when he went to meet his associates.
The man who would become their main victim, left his home at 40 Pendelton Place, New Brighton, on Staten Island, a curved, tree shaded residential street, probably sometime after lunch, as he was working the four to midnight shift on this day, May 4th 1934. I see him playing with his young sons, then kissing his wife good-bye, forever as it turned out.
Standing by the door to their small, neat house, watching him stroll down the street towards the sea, maybe she waved to him, one last time. He lived only about a mile and a half from the ferry terminal, so it’s possible he walked the journey. The five cent fare would take him to lower Manhattan in about thirty minutes.
It was going to be a hot day-temperatures would get up into the 80s by late afternoon in Central Park- perhaps even hotter where he would be working. It could be he stood on the ship’s deck, letting whatever breeze there was cool things down; the wind blowing through his short, dark hair, brushed back from his strong, oblong- shaped Scandinavian type face. As likely as not, he caught a street car from South Ferry Terminal, reaching the precinct building at number nine Oak Street in plenty of time to get ready for his watch.
Some of the streets he walked no longer exist to-day because of the redevelopments in the area: the new off ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge, and the massive twelve apartment buildings that make up the Governor Alfred E. Smith Housing projects.
That afternoon however, after signing in and getting ready for his shift, he left the station house, walked the short distance to New Chambers Street, turning east to Cherry and then north up Cherry before turning into Oliver, and that’s where it all turned bad.
Patrolman Arthur P. Rasmussen (right), Badge No. 13779, was 31 years old. An eight year veteran of the New York Police Department, his beat was the teeming, cramped streets and thoroughfares of the old Fourth Ward on the Lower East Side, sometimes referred to as ‘Little Spain.’
Like police officers the world over, his daily routine would be 97% boring routine, with maybe 3% of sheer terror and chaos kicking in.
For Arthur Rasmussen, to-day would be a three per center.
Unknown to him, just a few hundred yards away events were shaping up that would change things forever.
At 83 Oliver Street, Leonardo and Orizio Mangano were busy serving customers at their grocery store, a few hundred feet north of the Cherry Street intersection. Three men walked into the shop. They were, according to witnesses, almost identical: short, swarthy, with black hair under their fedoras, slim and well-dressed in dark coloured suits The men produced revolvers and demanded money. The two brothers handed over their day’s takings-$147-and although the thieves warned them to stay quiet as they left, Orizio threw a milk bottle through the storefront window, shouting out an alarm.
The robber’s startled by this, began running away down towards Cherry Street brandishing their guns, clearing a way through the crowded sidewalk..
Meanwhile Officer Rasmussen continued his beat, actually walking past the robber’s getaway-car, a tan coloured Auburn, parked at the northwest corner of Cherry and New Chambers Street-the driver sitting there- the car engine ticking over as the police officer walked past him.
As he approached the corner of Oliver Street, Rasmussen heard the noise of people screaming and saw crowds running, scattering across the street and sidewalks. The three men appeared running towards him like crazy, their little legs pumping like pistons looking for a con rod.
As soon as they saw the blue uniform they started shooting. By the time Officer Rasmussen had cleared his revolver, he had been shot three times- in the jaw, chest and abdomen. He collapsed onto the sidewalk as the robbers leapt over and around him, in their mad rush to their car. Struggling to his knees, the police officer fired his .38 revolver repeatedly after the crooks, until it clicked empty. Due to the street being so crowded, he must have strained to pick his targets without endangering any of the dozens of people milling about.
Caught in the cross-fire, three civilian victims were injured:
Ten month old Thomas Farino, the son of another Oak Street officer, who was being taken for a walk by his aunt, Sue Farino, was grazed in the face by a wild shot; Joseph Gaetano, over from Brooklyn for the day, received a wound above his left eye as he was playing ball in the street with some pals. Officer Rasmussen had stopped briefly and taken a friendly swat at the ball with his nightstick. Leonora Albanese, who lived on Cherry Street was with two of her girlfriends. It was her birthday and she had just purchased a cake. The girls were walking three abreast, Leonora in the middle, when she was hit just above the heart. Shots ricocheted off parked cars, and fire escapes and one shattered the window of a barber’s shop.
Arthur Rasmussen finally collapsed in a heap outside a Greek coffee shop. He was bundled into a taxi by some people in the street and rushed half a mile south to the Beekman Street Hospital, but was dead on arrival. As doctors tried to resuscitate him, the three wounded victims started arriving, also by taxis.
The murder of Officer Rasmussen was the latest in a series of shootings involving New York Police officers. Two other patrolmen had been killed and four seriously wounded since the first day of the year. One of the wounded, Patrolman Lawrence Ward gunned down on 101st Street in Harlem the same morning of the day Officer Rasmussen was shot, died of his injuries on May 6th and the city was in an uproar.
Mayor LaGuardia issued an edict from City Hall demanding the police ‘shoot to kill’ any bandits plaguing the streets. All available detectives and patrolmen were launched on a manhunt for Rasmussen’s killers. Dozen of cops congregated in the area to help search for them. Patrol cars from the Battery to Fourteenth Street were ordered to converge in a huge dragnet around the area. Detectives were assigned to cover all railways stations, ferries and main highways out of the city.
It took the police fifteen days to make the breakthrough in the case.
Two ace detectives, from Oak Street-Gunson and Kaplan- were given one job: trace that brown coloured Auburn getaway-car.
No one had remembered the plate number, but some witnesses swore it started with a ‘U.’ That brought the two cops into the Bronx, where it might have been registered. After a lot of footwork, the detectives discovered a car like this may have been parked on Second Avenue in Harlem, and eventually tracked down a young boy, Joseph Borello who lived with his mother in an apartment at number 2165. He knew the car-and even better-who owned it. His name was ‘Whitey’ and he lived on East 109th Street, two blocks south. Calling up reinforcements, the officers rushed to the apartment and found Ralph DeLillo.
Taken to the Oak Street precinct, DeLillo was ‘vigorously’ questioned by the detectives, finally confessing to his part in the robbery and implicating two of his associates, Alfred Luicci and Gene Giannini who was also using the alias ‘Eugene Giovanni.’ Both men were quickly arrested and booked. They were held without bail as the prosecutor’s office and the police kept investigating, looking for others who might have been involved in the robbery and shoot-out.
It was believed by the authorities that the gang had intended to hold up the construction office of the huge Knickerbocker Village complex being erected at 137 Cherry Street. The worker’s payroll was due to be delivered on Friday afternoon, but police assigned to guard it became suspicious and delayed its delivery. This may have forced the killers to pick another target in the neighbourhood.
Interestingly enough, Giannini was found to have an infected wound on his right leg, which may have been a gunshot wound, indicating that although dying, as he fired off his revolver, Police Officer Rasmussen may well have hit one of his targets.
On May 7th, Police Officer Arthur P. Rasmussen was buried at 3 o’clock with a full Inspector’s funeral in the Moravian Cemetery in New Dorp. Over one hundred police officers attended along with family and friends. He lies buried in the single grave section, number 2819. His wife Sophie and his sons, Eugene and Charles have joined him there, over the years.
Officer Rasmussen's grave is on the westerly edge of the cemetery. At night, on an adjoining property, the New Dorp Lighthouse’s beacon of light shone out into the Atlantic Ocean guiding vessels into New York Harbor past the notorious West Bank, protecting ships as Officer Rasmussen had protected people in his life as a policeman.
A year later on May 2nd, Ralph DeLillio, the twenty-seven year old Harlem gangster was sentenced to thirty years in the penitentiary at Sing Sing for the murder of the police officer.
From records available, he seems to have been the only member of the gang of four that actually did any time for the killing. Eugene Giannini managed to escape this one, although arrogant and filled with a sense of self-importance, he apparently confessed to his mob pals, in years to come, chatting over card games of briscola and trisette in social clubs, how he ‘had knocked off that cop bastard.’
Joe Valachi, the mobster who turned informant, claimed that Giannini was part of the 107th Street Mob, the group we recognize today as the Luchese Crime Family, under its boss, Giacomo Reina, although it’s possible he was actually connected into the crime family run then by Charley Luciano.
He was known to his mob associates as 'Gino' or sometimes 'Genie,’ and worked off and on with a tight-knit gang of drug traffickers which included 'Big John' Ormento, Joe Valachi, Fiore Sano, Salvatore Shillitani, Pat Pagano and Pat Moccio.
Some researchers claim he was a close friend of Luciano and at times, he did business with Anthony Strollo, also known as 'Tony Bender,' a capo, or crew chief, in Luciano’s group, a crooked wheeler and dealer who was also an immediate and personal friend of the mob Machiavelli, Vito Genovese. Giannini, along with boyhood friends from the Greenwich Village area, Pasquale Moccio and Vincenzo Mauro, apparently also helped Strollo in his drug dealing activities.
Shillitani went back a long way with Joe Valachi. An early associate of Tommy Luchese, he had been part of a street gang formed by Joe, running burglary and break-in teams in the late 1920s. Shillitani was inducted into the Mafia at the same time as Joe, and another tight buddy, Frank Calluce in 1930. Valachi eventually shifted allegiance from the group he was initially elected to, run by Joe Bonanno, into the one run by Luciano. He actually started his mob career with the crime family run by Reina, and may well have been the only hoodlum in the mob to shift base three times throughout his criminal career.
Shillitani had been born in 1906 in Sicily, his given family name being Scillitano (1) and had immigrated to New York with his family as a child.
He was hardly that successful as a mobster, spending a lot of his time in prison for various crimes, including drug trafficking that always seemed to go wrong. On a scale of one to ten as a success in his chosen career, he probably rated 100.
His mob pals called him ‘Solly Shields’ and after limited schooling, he had gone to work as a butcher. He left this job and then linked into Valachi’s street gang. He first served a 2-10 year sentence in prison for attempted robbery in 1925. Paroled from Sing Sing prison in 1928, he was quickly re-arrested for petit larceny and found himself back in the familiar granite building up the Hudson River. Released, he was back there yet again in 1929 for parole violation. He somehow managed to stay clear of the law for a while, but then on January 28th 1932, he and Nicky Paduano were part of a group involved in a shoot-out at the corner of Mace and Paulding Avenues in the Bronx. Twenty-year old Benedetto Bellini got the worst of this and laid down and died. Chased by Police Officer Thomas Qualles, Police Commissioner Muldoon’s driver, Nicky also ended up dead, courtesy of the cop’s .38, and Solly finished up in cuffs.
On May 25th., in front of Judge Barrett in the Bronx County Court, 27 year old Shillitani was found guilty of the manslaughter of Benedetto Bellino, and went away on a twenty year sentence, serving fourteen, and being released in 1946. At this point, never obviously a good learner, he decided to go donkey-deep into drug trafficking.
A police officer whose path kept crossing Shillitani’s said of him:
‘He’s been a bum and a hood all his life. His associates are all bums and hoods and he’ll die a hoodlum. He’s just no good.’
He and Joe had less than a stellar relationship as they moved through the Mafia underworld, scuffling for their share of the money-making opportunities all mobsters seem to devote their lives to finding. They also had their run-ins on numerous occasions.
Sometime in August, 1951, Sal went up to Joe’s bar and grill, The Lido Bar on Castle Hill Avenue, in The Bronx. A few days before Valachi had supplied his friend with a quarter of a kilo of heroin, which Shillitani had on sold, unknowingly to an agent of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics code-named ‘Pocoroba.’ The drug however, turned out to be less than perfect.
‘Joe,’ Shillitani said, ‘that merchandise you gave me, that is not on par, it’s not what you said it is. I got the guy "‘Pocoroba’" with me, out in the car, and he is kicking like hell.’
‘I can’t do nothing,’ said Joe, ‘it’s the way I get it, and the way I give it. I give you my word, I never touch it. The way I get it is the way I give to you. Any future time I can make good for it, let us see.’
‘Solly Shields’ spent a lot more time in the pen than Joe, but managed to outlive him by almost twenty years, dying in a Miami hospice in 1990, aged 84!
By the early 1940s, Giannini was running a variety of legitimate businesses, including a venture in restaurant supplies, and a garbage collection firm called the Eagle Waste Company. These were convenient covers for the illegitimate operations he supervised from his office at East 74th Street, which included gambling, loan sharking and the wholesaling of drugs. In between his frequent sojourns in the state prison, Shillitani also ran horse-betting and policy books with Giannini from these premises.
Giannini got himself married to a woman who had come to America from Sicily and they had two children.
He was arrested again in 1942 by agents of the Federal Narcotics Bureau for peddling drugs, and served fifteen months in prison. He kept clear of the law through the rest of this period, and early in 1950 was apparently putting together a deal with two of his close associates, Shillitani and Giacomo Reina, members of the 107th Street Mob, now working under the control of Gaetano Gagliano.
Reina’s father, Gaetano, had been the family head until he was gunned down in February 1930 during the mob war that perhaps resulted in the restructuring and formation of the New York Mafia crime families that operate to this day.
The deal Giannini and the other two family members had set up, involved him personally shipping high demand medical drugs such as penicillin and sulphur based medicines, both in short supply following the end of the world war, into Italy, and using the profits from this to purchase heroin to bring back into New York.
Giannini would in addition, take along on his trip, 15000 dollars in forged US currency for sale to the highest bidder, to help bolster the pot. He also wanted to take the opportunity to re-establish contact with members of the Paris and Marseilles French-Corsican drug gangs, people he had associated with during the late 1940s, frequenting bars and taverns on the New York waterfront. Men like Joseph Orsini, Marius Ansaldi, Francois Spirito, and Jean David, veterans of the European drug-trafficking business, who had operated prior to, and then after the end of the Second World War. These men controlled the flow of narcotics through Paris and Marseilles, and the major ports of Cherbourg and Le Havre.
The big and balding Ansaldi dominated the Paris branch of the Corsica/French junta which was based in Marseilles and around the Place Pigalle in Paris, and he had been involved in drug trafficking for over thirty years. One of the reasons behind Giannini’s visit to Europe was to meet up with Ansaldi and consolidate his New York-French connection with him.
Linked to the European based group in North America was Tony d’Agostino, who headed up and oversaw the importation of cargo into Canada and New York. He was based initially in Montreal from 1946, moving to Mexico City in 1948. He was another major contact that Giannini had developed, and the Algerian-Frenchman also counted many other mob family notables as friends and customers, including Frank Scalice, a senior capo in the New York Mafia family run by Vincenzo Mangano
With his wife and children, and a big, roomy Cadillac full of product hidden away in secret compartments, Giannini drove up into Canada. Sailing from Montreal early in 1950, he landed at Le Havre in France. This was the first of three trips he would make to Europe in the next two years.
He first travelled to Paris where he met up with his Corsican connections, and then drove south into Italy and to Naples to touch base with his old friend Charley Luciano, now living there in exile since his deportation from America.
According to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Luciano was knee deep in drug peddling, acting as a vital link between Italian and American mob interests. He was undoubtedly at the great Mafia gabfest that was held at The Grand Hotel des Palmes in Palermo in 1957, that amongst other things, perhaps helped solidify drug dealing arrangements between the two countries.
Charley Luciano aka Lucky Luciano aka Charles Ross, aka Salvatore Lucania lived in Italy, not from choice, but by default. Convicted on prostitution charges in 1936 in New York, he was sent to prison, effectively for the rest of his life. By what could be called an amazing series of coincidences, or as some referred to it: ‘Lucky’s Luck,’ he found himself free after ten years, although having to suffer the indignity of forced deportation back to his place of birth.
He left New York early in 1946, on a scuttlebutt cargo ship called the ’Laura Keane’ and stepped off it in Palermo, Sicily. Legend has it, getting on the boat he had $150, getting off, wrapped in his underwear in one of his suitcases was stashed $150,000. Like so many mob fables, this may be true, then again, it may be simple fiction that has turned into fact because it has been repeated enough times over the years.
Charley in due course, settled in mainland Italy, eventually in Naples where he lived the rest of his life leaving only briefly towards the end of 1946. Using a most circuitous route via Venezuela, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, he travelled to Cuba, arriving there on October 29th.
He stayed firstly at the Hotel Nacional, and then at a spacious private residence in the exclusive neighbourhood of Miramar, only a few blocks from the home of the Cuban president. This house belonged to General Perez Damera, chief of the Cuban general staff. Indalecio Pertierra, a Cuban parliamentarian and manager of the Havana Jockey Club, used his clout to arrange legal residence for Charley.
When the FBN discovered Charley was in Cuba, they brought pressure to bear through their own government to have him deported, and he was kicked out on March 20th 1947
In the meantime, in late December, mob bosses from America- Italian and Jewish- descended on the Nacional and some kind of underworld conference took place over the next few days. We really have no idea what was discussed at this conclave as there is no hard evidence from any reliable source.
It is logical to assume however, that on the agenda may well have been narcotic trafficking from Italy into America. Luciano had probably decided this was his route to wealth, now that he had lost the jewel in his crown-New York- and this meeting was the rational venue to lay down some rules and maybe establish contacts.
From that meeting probably grew Luciano’s eventual complex, interlocking network of dealers and managers, who helped him run his drug trafficking business. They included:
In Sicily, possibly Nicola Gentile and Giuseppe Settecasi in Agrigento; Frank Coppola in Partinico, and Sal and Ugo Caneba, who supervised the many illegal heroin labs located on the island, creating the heroin from the raw materials shipped from the Far East through the ‘Corsican Connection.’
On the mainland, he had Joe Pici, an alleged former soldier in the Vincent Mangano crime family that was based in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He looked after Genoa and Milan, along with Giovanni and Corrado Maugeri; Frank Barone and Joe Arena handled things in Rome. Then, there was Alberts Barras and Antonio, Giuseppe and Sebastiano Bellanca and Tommy Martino another expatriate Mangano soldier, helping to feed the shipments from the ports of Italy into New York, Detroit and Canada.
A bewildering multitude of men from all over Italy and New York. Short, squat, dark-skinned, black-haired characters who look at you from mug shots with eyes that crepitate with the venom you would expect from serial killers waiting to pounce on their next victims.
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics had been trying for over 20 years to bust the American Mafia’s hold on the dope trafficking business. They were extremely successful in this respect. Between 1956 and 1964 they were responsible for the arrest and conviction of 206 Mafia members for crimes involving drug trafficking, some of the more notorious being Vito Genovese, Big John Ormento and Carmine Galante.
The FBN was abolished, and incorporated into the BNDD Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in 1968, and then the DEA Drug Enforcement Agency in July 1973.
Formed originally in 1930 under its commissioner, Harry J. Anslinger, the FBN had recognized the mob for what it was long before Hoover and his Federal Bureau would even acknowledge that the entity even existed. The FBN believed that the Mafia was ideally situated to operate in the illegal narcotics business which by its very nature is international in dimension. The Sicilian arm of the honoured society liaised with the many Mafiosi who had been deported back into Italy from America and who had the contacts still in place in the major cities like New York. They also used connections in Turkey and the Middle East, as well as their Corsican allies, and their links into the French drug laboratories, to ensure a continuous flow of the raw opium material and its processing into the finished powder base.
After his stay in Naples, Giannini and his family, motored down through Italy, crossed the Straights of Messina and travelled across Sicily to Palermo. There, a Packard convertible, bought with some of the proceeds of the drugs and counterfeit money, was packed with heroin, stashed away and welded into secret compartments under the car’s wings. The vehicle was taken back into North America by a courier who brought along his aged mother as a decoy for any inquisitive custom agent. The car came ashore in Montreal aboard the S.S. Empress of Canada . It was then driven down into Vermont, where Giannini himself was waiting, having returned from his own travels in Europe. The car and its contents were taken to New York, where the drugs were disposed of.
The success of this first venture encouraged Giannini into his further visits into Europe, but on these, he travelled alone, leaving his wife and children in New York. During the spring and summer of 1950 he moved between New York, Paris and Palermo. It seems that through the rest of 1950 and into 1951, he organized a steady stream of American-Italian tourists, bringing their big, cavernous automobiles with them, into Europe, mainly via the port of Le Havre, in northern France. Groups which a cynical FBN agent referred to in a report as ‘Giannini’s European Tours.’ The cars would be driven into Paris or Palermo, and while they were being serviced at a pre-selected garage, loaded up with packets of heroin. The couriers would then make their way back via liners such as The Queen Elizabeth or The Queen Mary which would dock in New York. Giannini would also use theSS Scythia , which came into North America at Quebec.
This routine went on without a hitch until April 1951. Giannini, on one of his European visits, was driving from the French Riviera into Italy, when he was stopped at the San Remo checkpoint by the Guardia di Finanza , the Italian Financial Police, who also operate the custom service and man the border check points. Arrested and taken before a magistrate in Ventimigila, near Liguria, he was remanded to await trial on a charge of complicity in distributing counterfeit money. One of his associates in the scam the previous year had been arrested and had named Gino as his supplier.
This may have been Pierre Lafitte, who approached the FBN to help him avoid deportation, from New York, by offering to help the agency set up a major sting operation that would help snare Joseph Orsini, the fourty-eight year old fellow Corsican.
A one-time resident of New York, living in a Brownstone at 26 W. 85th Street, near Central Park, Orsini was now based in France, working closely with a number of major heroin traffickers and their chemists. With his melon shaped head, and pencil-thin moustache, he looked like a worn out version of Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movies. A former merchant seaman, with a long criminal record and convictions for fraud, robbery and collaboration with the Germans during World War Two, he used his contacts in the maritime trade to have drugs smuggled from Europe into New York, using seamen as couriers.
He was imprisoned on Ellis Island awaiting deportation as an alien. Knowing he would have to leave America, sooner than later, Orsini persuaded Lafitte, also in custody on the island, to become a partner in his latest drug importing deal that also linked Shillitani, Pat Pagano, Moccio and another drug dealer, Larry Quartiero. Because they both came from Corsica, maybe Orsini felt a bond with the other Frenchman; felt he was a man he could trust because of his roots. He couldn’t have been more wrong as it turned out.
Concurrently, the FBN’s European office was launching its own investigation into Frank Callace and his major chemist contact, Carlo Migliandi, who was eventually charged with arranging the exportation of over 800 kilos of heroin into America between 1946 and 1953. Through Charles Siragusa, the FBN’s head of its first European office in Rome, the agency kept up so much pressure on the expatriate New York mobsters resident in Italy, that Charley Luciano even confided in his family to check his suit pockets when he died and was laid out, in case agents planted drugs on his corpse!
Dominic ‘The Gap‘ Petrelli who was a good friend of Joe Valachi, and a previous member of the Mafia underworld in New York, now lived in Italy, having been deported there after his arrest and conviction in 1942 for drug trafficking in Arizona, in one of the first major cases built by the FBN against the mob. He had purchased some of Giannini’s counterfeit dollars, and had been arrested in Naples trying to pass them on. Questioned by the Carabinieri, the Italian military police, he himself then had turned informer and also blew the whistle on Giannini.
Swamped by this bow-wave of treachery, Gino was imprisoned in one of Italy’s worse penitentiaries: the Poggio Reale Prison in Naples. Held here for ten months as the slow cogs of the Italian judiciary system ground along, he eventually began sending letters to the FBN’s Italian director, Charles Siragasu. Some were abusive, many pleaded for help to get him released. He thought the FBN would oil the wheels of justice for him because in addition to being a killer, a Mafiosi and a drug dealer, Eugenio Giannini had, for a number of years, been a confidential informant for the FBN.
Although he was selective in what he offered the bureau, they were aware of his strategy and kept a discreet, but close watch on him, while using his information to help nail other drug smugglers. It’s possible he went with them sometime in the 1930s, following yet another arrest, this time in a narcotics-conspiracy case, as a means of mitigating his sentence.
One of the letters he sent Siragasu, referred in some detail to his knowledge of and transactions with Charley Luciano, and his associates Joe Pici and Frank Callace, in their drug dealing activities, and inferred that Giannini could offer the FBN a lot of confidential information linking Luciano into various narcotic deals that had gone down.
Giannini finished his dispatch, ‘Destroy this letter after reading it. If it gets into the wrong hands I might as well buy a slot in a cemetery.’ It was a prophecy with an ominous ring of truth about it.
Early in 1952, he was eventually brought to trial and released for lack of evidence.
Petrelli, the hood who had originally denounced him, had retracted his testimony, a not unusual occurrence in mob trials. In addition, a New York lawyer had visited Italy and may well have come to an ‘arrangement’ with an Italian member of the judiciary system. Whatever the trigger was, Giannini was released from Poggio Reale in February, 1952.
Although he had spent months in prison, he had not been idle. Just before his arrest, he had purchased 10 kilos of heroin from Marius Ansaldi, one of the redoubtable members of the Corsican criminal mob, the bald, giant of a man who dominated the Paris drug trade. The money to finance this had been supplied by his New York associates, Shillitani, Reina and possibly his Greenwich Village boyhood pals, Moccio, all soldiers in the Luchese crime family, and Mauro who was linked into Strollo and the Mafia clan of Luciano, controlled by Frank Costello at that time.
Mauro was tight with Vito Genovese, a man so devious, he kept his right hand in his pocket while shaking hands with his left, and they were both partners in a pin-ball machine company called New Deal Distributors. Mauro also known in the mob as ‘Vinnie Morrow,’ was also a close aid and confident of Tony Strollo, and through him, may well have been involved in the attempted hit on Frank Costello in 1957, acting as the ‘point man’ for the Vincent Gigante the alleged gunman, who couldn’t shoot straight, and although firing a .38 calibre revolver at Frank from no more than ten feet, did no more damage, than to create a new hair parting for the family boss.
It was not unheard of for mobsters from different crime families to work together on a project like this intercontinental narcotic conspiracy. Giannini had organized for the dope to be taken to Milan and stored in a tailor’s shop on the Via Durmi. He then arranged for his brother-in-law, Giuseppe Pellegrino one of the many expatriate New York mobsters based now in Europe, and who may have acted as a kind of ‘chief-of-staff for Charley Luciano in Italy to visit him in the Naples prison, and asked him to uplift the dope and take it and store it at his own home at #27 via Alfaro in Salerno, south of Rome.
Freed from prison, Giannini was in no rush to return to New York. His friends Shillitani, et al. had been arrested in late 1951 on a narcotics indictment, and Gino thought it a smart move to stay in Italy and apply for citizenship based on his parentage. But the FBN got wind of his scheme, and brought political pressure down on the Italian government to block the application. Giannini was subsequently expelled from Italy.
Charles Siragusa, the head of the Rome office, was largely instrumental in organizing Giannini’s deportation. He harboured an especially strong dislike for the drug dealer, to some extent generated by an unusual and capricious event he had experienced.
He had hired a young, pretty woman to be his secretary. She was an American, living in Rome with her husband, who was studying there under the G.I. Bill. One day, he was dictating a report to her on the drug dealer when she suddenly burst into tears. It transpired she was a niece of Eugenio Giannini, and she hated him with a vengeance. As a teen-ager, he had continually harassed her with his sexual advances and lewd gestures, and it had left an indelible print on her memory. Siragusa could never get over what the odds were that out of the millions of people in Rome, he would choose this particular woman for this job. To him, it simply confirmed what a low-life philistine he was dealing with, and in terms of Eugenio Giannini, we can see to-day, how Murphy and his law, operates at all levels of the spectrum.
Giannini arrived back in New York, touching down at 12.30p.m. on April 8th, 1952 at Idlewild Airport. As he left the plane, he was taken into custody by FBN agent Al Giuliani. Named as a defendant along with twelve others on the narcotics case that had bagged Shillitani- docket number 136-148 in the Southern District of New York- he was arrested and then released on bail of $15000. He had five months to live.
From this point on, the details regarding the ultimate fate of Eugenio Giannini comes from the testimony of Joseph Valachi (below), arguably one of the most famous mob turncoats ever. He claimed he was called to a meet with Tony Bender. They joined each other for dinner at Rocco’s, the famous Greenwich Village restaurant run by the Respinto family, on Thompson Street.
Bender told Valachi that word had come down from Charley Luciano that Giannini was an informer, talking to the ‘junk agents.’ Under normal circumstance, Giannini’s own crime family would have taken care of the problem, but Vito Genovese, back from his self-imposed exile in Italy was working hard to re-establish himself as a power in the New York mob, and regain control of the Luciano crime family, now under the control of Frank Costello, and he was as Valachi explained it, ‘anxious to throw the first punch.’ Luciano being the injured party, and still the titular head of the crime family that Valachi, Bender and Genovese were all part of, created the opening needed.
Valachi was between a rock and a hard place. He had known Giannini for years, and the little, ugly mobster in fact owned him $2000. He knew that this would be used against him if he tried to shield Giannini in anyway, and so to forestall that, told Bender that he would find him. In the convoluted and devious universe of the Mafia, to ‘find him’ meant to seek him out and kill him. According to Bender he and his associates had been unable to locate Giannini who was moving about town.
Valachi simply picked up the telephone and dialled Gino’s home, reaching the mobster immediately, proving beyond any doubt that Bender‘s IQ was perhaps not that of a genius..
They met that night in the Bronx, but Valachi spotted a suspicious looking car parked in the vicinity of the bar where they sat drinking, and called the meeting off. A few days later, Valachi arranged another get-together, and this time, brought along one of the men he had chosen to carry out the hit on Giannini, a mobster called Joe Pagano, the brother of Pat, his drug-dealing associate.
The killing of Giannini is a classic example of how the hierarchy in the Mafia insulate themselves from any direct contact with their victims. The order may have originally came down from Luciano, safely ensconced thousands of miles away in Naples. His instructions were relayed to Vito Genovese who then passed the word down to his subordinate Tony Bender. He would be nowhere near the scene of the killing however, as he would simply pass on the command to Valachi who himself who not be directly involved.
For the actual hit, Valachi choose three men: Joe Pagano and his brother Pat, and his young nephew, his sister Filamino's son, Fiore Siano.
This second rendezvous took place in a bar in the Bronx, called The Casbah. Joe Pagano was along for two reasons. First to get a good look at the man he was going to kill, and also, to make the next meeting between Giannini and Pagano go down smoothly. Valachi bought the drinks, and even lent Giannini $100 as the gangster claimed he was running short of cash. That must have really hurt Joe, knowing he would never see any of his money again.
A few days later Valachi learned that Giannini was working as a ‘drop escort’ at a dice game in Harlem. Escorts would meet prospective gamblers a block or so from the actual game, check them out, and if okay, escort them to the game site.
Valachi decided this would be the window of opportunity he would open to have the hit carried out, but then ran into another problem. The dice game was operated by Paul Correale, a soldier in the same family as Giannini and mob protocol demanded that something like a killing going down in its vicinity had to be cleared through the proper channels. Valachi again contacted Bender who promised to sort it out with his boss, Genovese, who in turn would seek out and clear it with Tommy Luchese, head of the family that Gianni and Correal were part of.
As it happened, Bender never got around to sorting the problem out, and some time later, Joe Valachi was called onto the carpet by Vito Genovese, who apparently gave him a dressing down at his office in Erb Strapping Company, one of his legitimate fronts at 180 Thompson Street. It operated as one of the largest service companies in the frozen and tin meats business in the Port of New York. It also acted as a major transhipment points for heroin smuggled into New York.
Correale, also know in the underworld as ‘Paulie Ham,’ was another major junk pusher in the Luchese family, and complained to Genovese that because the murder had been committed so close to his crap game, it had cost him $10,000 to straighten things out with the local police precinct. Just how Valachi, incessantly broke, and Bender tighter than a virgin’s daughter handled this one, was never disclosed.
Late on the evening of September 19th, Giannini left the terraced row house where he was currently living, at 282 West 234 Street in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, and drove south into Harlem. The 8 mile journey might have taken him 20 minutes, depending on the traffic that Saturday.
The two Pagano’s and Siano Fiore met up with Giannini at the drop and walked with him towards the site of the dice game which was located close to 112th Street. Somewhere near the game, at approximately 5 a.m. on the morning of the 20th, someone shot him, twice in the head, with a .38 calibre handgun. The classic mob hit: a double-cap.
It is almost certain the shootist was Siano (right). Tall and slim, with a shock of thick, black hair, the 25 year old was a hit-man in anticipation, anxious to make his bones for the mob. Valachi knew Siano’s pedigree was just waiting to be proved and it’s more than likely he did just this that early morning in some dark, fetid alley in East Harlem.
In a police photo he looks at the camera with a sneer across his face; left eye drooping slightly, contempt for law and order emanating from him like the calefaction from his life’s ambition to be a wise-guy, whatever the cost.
He got his wish in 1954, after the Mafia opened the books-allowing in new membership after a 25 year hiatus. Joe Valachi sponsored his nephew, along with the Pagano brothers and Vincent Mauro, allcugines or young men in waiting, who were made into the crime family now referred to as the Genovese or West Side Mob. He joined a crew of hard-nosed guys, under Tony Bender the skipper, one of whom, down the track, would became relatively famous in the crime family. A thick-set, ex boxer called Vincent Gigante. The same one who spent weeks practicing his marksmanship with a .38 revolver in a cellar in Greenwich Village, and still couldn’t his squat at ten feet when he tried to make Frank Costello go away.
A year down the track, Siano would again help his uncle Joe kill another man, Steven Franse, in the kitchen of Joe’s restaurant in the Bronx. Siano had a somewhat chequered career in the mob, being arrested numerous times, for burglary and robbery with a gun, and received a eight year stretch in 1954 for violation of the Federal Narcotics Laws. He went down for being as assistant district attorney Fred Nathan claimed: ‘the principal dealer in cocaine along the Eastern seaboard.’
Fiore disappeared from Patsy’s Pizzeria on 1st Avenue, between 117th and 118th Streets early in 1964. The first pizzeria to open in New York in 1933, it was a preferred mob hangout for the wise guys uptown. Three men stopped by to talk with him and they all left. It’s quite possible, two of the men were the Pagano brothers, as Patsy’s was Joe Pagano’s favourite pizza place in New York until he died. The underworld thought Fiore was talking to law enforcement, always a one-way ticket to somewhere unpleasant for anyone in the mob.
In Sicily they call it Lupara Bianca, a Mafia killing in which all traces of the victim are removed. The New York underworld inhabited by Italian-Americans referred to it as goingsquadoosh .
Joe Pagano and his brother Pat, would each eventually become a capo in the Genovese family, and powerful members of the mob.
In 1959, Joe Pagano landed a job as an 'executive' at Murray's Packing, a meat dealer run by Murray Weinberg. In 1961 he somehow got himself promoted to president of the company. In a 'long-firm' fraud scam "buying heavily from suppliers, selling off everything and not paying creditors" the company went bust. The fraud included the crime family of Carlo Gambino, managed by their financial whiz-Carmine Lombardozzi- and when it went to court, Joe tried to accept full responsibility for the losses incurred: somewhere between $800,00 and $1,000,000. The jury however refused his excuse that he had 'gambled it away.' In a civil law suit brought in 1964, Joe was convicted went to prison, being released in 1970 when he agreed to a token payment in retribution of $70,000. From the meat scam he moved seamlessly into another involving illegally factoring Medicaid claims, mainly in the Bronx.
He was also very involved in the entertainment business. There is an apocryphal story that when Frank Costello stepped down after the attempted assassination attempt in 1957, Vito Genovese made him pass over his shares in the famous Copacabana Club in New York to Joe. Joe Pagano died of natural causes in 1989.
His brother Pat, started off his working life as a bricklayer, following in the path of his immigrant father, Donato. The elder brother eventually became a power in Local 59 of the International Bricklayer's Helpers. He worked closely with Tony Strollo managing his interests on the New Jersey docks. He was murdered on April 27th., 1974, in the Bronx.
His killer was never identified, although brother Joe claimed he knew who did it but had to 'pass on it,' inferring he had been instructed not to get involved by his crime family's administration.
Back in Harlem, police were alerted by someone to the sound of gunshots in the early hours of Saturday morning, and arrived outside the Jefferson Major Athletic Club on 2nd Avenue between 111th and 112th Streets. There was blood on the sidewalk but no body. Thirty minutes later another call brought a police car to 107th Street, five blocks south, and there, the responding cops found a body lying face up in the gutter.
A deli owner, opening his shop, had found Eugenio Giannini sprawled in death. Dressed in a light tan jacket, brown slacks and shoes, he was wearing an expensive Swiss watch and had a billfold containing $140 in his pocket.
At first it was thought the dumping of Giannini on 107th Street was some kind of symbolic gesture, the area being the heartland of the Luchese family, but Valachi confirmed it was much simpler. After his hit squad had done their job and left, two other men working the drop with Giannini had found him still breathing, and were rushing him to the Flower and Fifth Avenue Hospital at 5th Avenue and 106th Street, but he died en route and they simply ditched the body into the street.
That Eugenio Giannini’s body lay cooling in death that early September morning is not in doubt. What is in doubt, is exactly how he came to be in that fetid gutter in Harlem. Joe Valachi’s story has the ring of truth in terms of the mechanics of the hit, but it is entirely possible that the driving energy to see Giannini killed was more about money than honour or dishonour.
It is a given in the Mafia that the number one abuse of power is betrayal of the oath, and ratting out someone has only one punishment. But screwing a mobster out of his precious money runs a close second. Cosa Nostra might literally mean ‘Our Thing,’ but a more metaphysical interpretation could easily be ‘Our Dough,’ for the mob exists for one thing and one thing only-money.
It is the Sacred Grail of all made men, the very reason for the existence of the modern day Mafia, and Giannini had broken the boundaries on that second revered covenant. Although Tony Bender had told Valachi that the hit had to go down to avenge the wrong done to Luciano, back in Naples. the FBN believed that Gino was killed not because he was an informant, but because he had tried to screw his associates out of most of their share of that ten kilos of heroin he had purchased just before he was arrested at San Remo.
He maybe got the clip not because he dropped a dime on Charley Luciano, but because he double-dipped his drug partners. The bureau believed that Giannini had organized someone to visit his brother-in-law, Joe Pellegrino, collect six of the ten kilos and bring them back to America to him alone. To Giannini, this could have been worth almost $100,000 a fortune then, and a huge sum for a man who was terminally broke. The FBN had in fact just this gem of information from another one of their hundreds of informants within the mob who had passed on this tit bit of intelligence to his handler.
George White, the infamous FBN agent, revealed this piece of information at the State Crime Commission hearings, in November, 1952, although he was perhaps necessarily vague on the actual motive for the killing of Giannini.
The agency substituted one of their agents, Tony Zirillo, into the role of pick-up man, and he left New York in August and flew to Rome. In a complex sting operation organized by the FBN and the Guardia di Finanza , Pelligrino was arrested with the six kilos of heroin. Although the New York media did not cover the operation, the Italian press did. Within a few days, the men back in New York who had financed the deal, knew what had gone down.
So it’s quite feasible that Bender, knowingly or otherwise, only told Valachi part of the story. At the end of the day, the semantics of the hit were really less significant than its ultimate outcome. How Eugenio Giannini got it, was perhaps a lot more relevant than why. And we owe a debt of gratitude to Joe Valachi for sharing the details of that with us.
Informants like Valachi are enduringly important to law enforcement and Mafia historians trying to make sense of the seemingly senseless mob hits that go down with illimitable regularity. He and his like, are a kind of Rosetta Stone, helping to unlock the process of decrypting the almost always impossible code of silence that helps to protect the men who make the decisions to remove the irritants and the killers who carry out the dematerialization.
In the never-ending saturnine maze that constituted the New York Mafia’s convoluted mob politics, Giannini was more a 60 watt light bulb than a chandelier. When he tried to shine his light into the dark corners, it led him, unerringly down a one-way street, and all too soon, he found himself short-circuited for good. A man who lived a life of unremitting perfidy, lying, cheating, stealing, double-dealing and womanising, wearing his lack of conscience as an attachment deficit like the trousers he pulled on every morning, he found out that treachery was synonymous with betrayal, and both traits could only ever lead to the inevitable two in the head.
A not uncommon occurrence that occurs with monotonous predictability in the world that people like Giannini inhabited.
Joe Valachi, who comes in and out of Giannini’s story like a recurring bad dream, gave evidence at a senate hearing on organized crime in 1963. Among the dozens of atoms of mob intelligence and underworld mythology he offered, some true, some not so true, there was this, which probably speaks louder about Mafia mores than any FBI report or Intel ever did:
‘In the circle in which I travel, a dumb man is more dangerous than a hundred rats.’
There is a saying in Ecclesiastes:
‘……..and there is a man that prolonged his life in his evil doings.’
For Gene Giannini it just didn’t work out that way. He never got around to living the long haul. He was a dead man in waiting. His never-ending search for the pot at the end of the rainbow supply chain brought him only a non-returnable one-way ticket out of the remorseless and implacable world of Cosa Nostra . He was a man who had ceaselessly searched for the best room in the mansion of life and always ended up in the bathroom.
The pay-day for the killing of that brave New York Police officer was eighteen years in the making, but all the more satisfying when it eventually arrived.
(1) The Origin of Organized Crime in America. David Critchley.
Taylor & Francis, 2008
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