By Allan May
Reporting organized crime events is far from an exact science. Take the La Stella restaurant incident for example. In 1966, thirteen members of organized crime were arrested at an Italian restaurant in Queens, New York. The arrests appeared on the front page of the New York Times which called the affair “Little Apalachin.”
Why were the men meeting and having lunch together? Simple answer. Just ask Gay Talese, author of “Honor Thy Father,” a 500 page plus tome on the Bonanno Family. “They had assembled…to discuss pressing problems in the underworld – particularly, the Bonanno situation…”
Or…maybe we should ask Ernest Volkman. He tells us in his much maligned Lucchese Family tale, “Gangbusters,” that the meeting was held to discuss the successor to the terminally ill Tommy “Three Fingers Brown” Lucchese. Volkman also informs us that before the police arrived “flashbulbs suddenly went off,” and that the gangster’s table was surrounded by news photographers.”
Of course the always reliable John H. Davis informs us in his classic “Mafia Kingfish,” that the meeting came to an end when “two alert New York police officers, noting an unusual array of black limousines parked outside…barged into the place…and stumbled upon the largest gathering of major Mafia bosses held since the Apalachin conclave of 1957.” Hmm… I seem to recall that the police “stumbled” upon that “conclave” too.
Davis goes on to explain that the purpose of the meeting was to mediate a dispute between Carlos Marcello and Anthony Carolla over a matter in New Orleans. Davis also incorrectly informs us that several members of the group reconvened at the restaurant “the following day.”
Four years after “Mafia Kingfish” was released, Davis changed his tune and wrote in “Mafia Dynasty,” that the New Orleans’ dispute was only minor and that the meeting now was held to consider a replacement for the ailing Lucchese.
Then there is Frank Ragano’s version of the event. In his book, “Mob Lawyer,” the one time attorney for Santo Trafficante, Jr. reports his client told him, “the lunch had been a sit down, not a strategy session. Some New York mobsters were trying to poach on the action in New Orleans, which, unlike Miami, was a closed city, and Carlos was ready to resist intrusions by outsiders. Santo had been anointed by both factions to referee the dispute.”
While all scenarios are possible, it would seem unlikely that Trafficante, Marcello and three other New Orleans mobsters would sit in on Commission decisions that concerned the New York families.
However, it wasn’t just mob writers that were cashing in on the event to promote their subject matter. Police administrators and city prosecutors were trying to make a name for themselves also. The New York Times quoted Chief Inspector Sanford D. Garelik as calling the meeting a “little Apalachin.” He stated that the raid was part of the department’s campaign “to rid the city of top hoodlums.”
Meanwhile, Queens District Attorney Nat H. Hentel announced that all of the arrested men, charged with “consorting with criminals,” would be subpoenaed to appear before a special grand jury he planned to call.
The thirteen men arrested were, from New York; Carlo Gambino, head of the crime family that bears his name; Thomas Eboli and Mike Miranda, co-acting bosses (along with Jerry Catena) of the Genovese Family; Joseph Colombo, newly appointed boss of the crime family that carried his name; Aniello Delacroce, underboss of the Gambino Family; Joseph N. Gallo, the Gambino Family’s future consigliere; Dominick Alongi, Eboli’s driver; and Anthony Cirillo, a Genovese soldier. From Florida, Santo Trafficante, Jr. The other four men were from New Orleans. Family boss Carlos Marcello; his brother Joseph Marcello, Jr.; Anthony Carolla, the son of former New Orleans boss Sam “Silver Dollar” Carolla; and Frank Gagliano, the son of another deported mobster and the cousin of Eboli’s driver, Alongi. In addition, the owners of the restaurant, Joseph and Jack Taliercio, were arrested.
This would be the second time within a year that Eboli, Miranda, and Cirillo were arrested while dining. In October 1965, they were among seven men seized in a Manhattan eatery. The men were charged with the standard “consorting with known criminals” offense, but all were acquitted within a week.
According to the New York Times report, the police “burst in” on the group at 2:30 p.m. on the afternoon of September 22. None of the mobsters were surprised or offered resistance or even stood up for that matter, according to one detective. “They acted like gentlemen, just like your grandfather,” he stated.
No weapons were found on the men and police transported them “without handcuffs” according to the article. It was noted that the check was left unpaid. Taken to the Maspeth station house, police claimed to have had a hard time questioning the men because the hoods were not sure of their names, ages, or address.
The arrested were read their constitutional rights at the station and ushered into a waiting room and called in one at a time for questioning, which went on until 3:00 a.m. the following morning. In addition, each of the men were later stripped searched down to their underwear and finger printed.
Hentel, the Queens district attorney, instead of booking them on the “consorting” charges, named each of them a material witnesses in a grand jury investigation and asked that individual $100,000 bails be set. Hentel explained that in previous cases the arrested party usually was freed after a relatively low bail was set, and later won dismissal of the “consorting” charge. The high bail was set by New York Supreme Court Justice Joseph M. Conroy, who Hentel had gotten out of bed and driven to the police station to hold court before sunrise.
Inspector Garelik, who had quickly notified the FBI and the Treasury Department, of his catch, briefed reporters, “All of the men had large amounts of cash on them. The least amount anyone was carrying was $600…All (were wearing) $300 suits, and they are all well-fed.”
One detective told reporters, “These raids are good because we can see who is boss, not because they tell us, but because of the way they act toward one another. We can judge a Mafia boss’s importance by the respect or deference the other men show him.”
By Friday night, all of the mobsters had been freed on $1.3 million in bail. While attorneys for the men failed to get the bail reduced, those efforts kept their clients from having to appear before a grand jury that day. Having been taken to appear at the Supreme Court in Jamaica, New York, where the reductions was denied, the exercise prevented them from getting back to the grand jury room in time. It adjourned early that day so its Jewish members could get home before sundown for the start of Yom Kippur.
On Saturday, September 24, the New York Times ran a front-page article with a photograph showing two unidentified mobsters hunched over covering their faces with their hats and hands. A far cry from the future days of John Gotti’s court appearances.
Hentel told newsmen that the thirteen mobsters “have superior status in gangland to those at Apalachin.” He stated that Joseph Valachi had named all the men during hearing held in 1963. Hentel repeated, “we think this over shadows the Apalachin meeting.”
Garelik piped up that it was “apparent from the distances they traveled that they met to decide matters of national importance to organized crime.” He declined to say just what they matters might be.
The newspapers speculated that settling the problems of the Bonanno Family and choosing a successor to the gravely ill Lucchese could be items of business. Another item was the Genovese Family, which was currently being run by a triumvirate. While it is possible that these items were discussed, it is highly more likely that Ragano’s explanation rings true because of the presence of the mobsters from the south.
Frank Ragano believed the police found out about the luncheon by tailing Marcello once he arrived in New York City. Marcello had complied with a court order to notify the New Orleans immigration office when he traveled in order to simplify surveillance on him.
Ragano had been in Chicago working on a post-trial motion for another notorious client, Jimmy Hoffa, when he received the message from Trafficante that he was needed in New York. After Trafficante was bailed out, he and Ragano met for drinks. Then, according to Ragano, Trafficante told him, “I came up here to meet with these friends of mine in New York to straighten out a problem that Carlos and some of his friends were having with my friends in New York. Since I’m a friend of both, Carlo and the people in New York, there was going to be a sit down and I was going to be the one to decide who was right.”
The problem was believed to have been a dispute between the Marcellos and the Carollas regarding Anthony Carolla’s position in the New Orleans Family. Carolla felt he was entitled to a larger piece of the pie as well as consideration to be Marcello’s successor. Carolla was rumored to have invited some New Jersey mobsters down to partake of the “open city.” Carolla was said to have been rebuked in his efforts at this sit down by Trafficante and the New York bosses.
Meanwhile, a full week had elapsed since the arrests and Trafficante and Marcello still hadn’t been called before the grand jury. The following day the two men, along with Ragano, Jack Wasserman (Marcello’s attorney), and the three other New Orleans mobsters, returned to the La Stella restaurant for lunch. Reporters and several men in plain clothes, who were either detectives or FBI agents, soon joined them in the dining room.
A photographer from the New York Daily News asked the group for permission to take a picture. In a mock toast, Trafficante and Ragano raised their glasses to the cameraman.
Marcello snarled loud enough for the plainclothesmen to hear, “Why don’t they arrest us now?”
When the famous photograph appeared in a Time Magazine issue, it misidentified both Ragano and Wasserman as “top Cosa Nostra hoodlums.” Ragano demanded a retraction which Time refused. He then filed a $2.5 million dollar libel suit against the magazine. The trial, after much legal maneuvering on the part of Time, took place in May 1971. Ragano was represented by famed attorney Melvin Belli, while Time Magazine’s chief witness was organized crime expert, and author of the RICO statute, G. Robert Blakey. After three hours of jury deliberation, Time won the verdict.
The real loser in the whole La Stella episode appeared to be Carlos Marcello. After insisting for years that he never had been associated with organized crime figures, Marcello, and his brother, were hard pressed to explain their presence at the La Stella lunch. He offered the following weak explanation:
“I decided to see some of my old friends – so we all got together for lunch. Sure, some of those fellows had been in the rackets…But, if they’re in the Mafia, I don’t know a damned thing about that. This was strictly a social gathering; that’s all there was to it…What’s the matter with some old friends getting together for lunch?”
The disclosure of Marcello’s presence at the restaurant made sensational headlines in the New Orleans newspapers. Upon his return to the city, a large crowd of photographers, news reporters, and spectators awaited him. Also there to greet Marcello was FBI agent Patrick Collins. Marcello, angered by all the attention, became even more incensed once he saw Collins.
This encounter, between Marcello and the FBI agent had three versions. According to Marcello, as he was trying to make his way through the crowd, someone stepped in front of him, blocking his path and, losing patience, he swung out in frustration.
Collins had a markedly different story. According to the agent, he met Marcello to let him know the FBI was still keeping a close eye on him. When the two men came face to face, he claims Marcello shouted, “I’m the boss around here.” He then let fly with a straight left to the head of the surprised agent, which was caught on film by a photographer.
John H. Davis was able to bring us an even more bizarre version. He claims Collins was involved in a “clandestine” love affair with Joe Marcello’s wife, Bootsie, who was passing on crime family information to the agent. As Marcello made his way through the crowd, Collins, “an agent known for his brashness,” shouted, “Hey Carlos, guess what? I’ve been f—king your brother Joe’s wife.” After which Marcello took a swing.
Charged with assaulting a FBI agent, Marcello went to trial in federal court in Laredo, Texas in May 1968. The trial ended in a hung jury. Retried in August, Marcello was found guilty and sentenced to two years in federal prison. He served just six months at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri.
Trafficante, in addition to the restaurant arrest, was wanted for questioning in the Albert Anastasia murder that took place nine years prior in October 1957. It was believed that Anastasia was trying to get into the casino business in Havana and had meetings with Cuban hotel contractors as well as Trafficante just days before his death. Trafficante had stayed at the Warwick Hotel for several days, where Anastasia maintained an office, and checked out the morning Anastasia was killed.
Over the months following the La Stella incident Ragano and Trafficante made four trips back to New York to be questioned about both incidents. When Ragano finally asked a state judge for expense reimbursements the appearances for the Anastasia questioning stooped. In May 1967, after a fifth summons, Trafficante at last appeared before a grand jury to talk about the La Stella meeting. Like all the other men who were called to testify, Trafficante invoked his Fifth Amendment rights.
Queens’ District Attorney Nat Hentel had pressed hard for exposure to enhance his election chances. Hentel, a Republican in a heavy Democratic area, had been appointed by the governor to fill an interim term. When the inquiry went down the drain his election dreams for followed.
While the La Stella restaurant incident generated unwanted headlines and publicity for Carlo Gambino, Trafficante, and Marcello, nothing came of the arrests, no indictments were issued, and the purpose of the meeting was never definitively explained.
Copyright A. R. May 1999