Lawyers, FBI agents, federal marshals, reporters, and family members dutifully filed into Judge Kathleen O'Malley's first-floor courtroom. The building has hosted some of the area's most infamous cases over the past few decades, including the trials of porn czar Ruben Sturman and mobster Joseph Gallo.
When Gallo was convicted of drug-related racketeering, Judge John Manos required every man in his courtroom to wear a tie. But that was seventeen years ago, when mob killers and hoodlums at least feigned having some class and panache.
There was no such window dressing in this case. Riddle's ex-wife, Angela Scott, entered the courtroom wearing piles of gaudy gold chains around her neck, a stud in her nose, and a football jersey with the word "naughty" emblazoned across her ample back.
The evidence presented by federal attorneys during the case was overwhelming. Of the 46 people indicted from a four-year FBI probe of organized crime and corruption in the Mahoning Valley, 42 people took plea bargains, including Lenine "Lenny" Strollo, a made man in the Pittsburgh Mafia who ran the Youngstown rackets. When guys like Lawrence "Jeep" Garono and even Strollo's older brother Dante struck deals with the feds, Strollo, a man known for weighing his options very carefully, realized he had little choice.
For nearly eight hours over two days, Lenny Strollo took the stand in the storied courthouse and gave a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of organized crime in northern Ohio. His testimony touched on everything from his youth repairing vending machines to Cleveland's bloody mob war of the late 1970s to the series of Mafia-related shootings that erupted in Youngstown in 1996.
Strollo implicated Altshuler, his friend of more than twenty years, in the murder of rival gangster Ernie Biondillo Jr. and attempted murder of Mahoning County Prosecutor-Elect Paul Gains. Strollo also fingered Riddle and Turnage, black street thugs Strollo had used to recruit drug dealers to gamble in the various card and dice games controlled by the Youngstown mob.
By the time Strollo was finished, the consensus was that Altshuler, Riddle, and Turnage had about as much chance of being acquitted as Biondillo did of surviving the shotgun slugs and pellets that were pumped into his body: None.
"Bernie the Jew," as his mob associates called the 68-year-old Altshuler, looked bored as he entered the courtroom, resigned to the fact that his lifetime of crime would end in prison. Turnage, 27, seemed terrified, while 39-year-old Riddle, who hoped to become the first black man ever inducted into the Mafia, appeared amused--either too cocky or too stupid to realize he was about to be sent away for life. The only question that remained was why the trio did not take the plea bargains offered by the government, as 42 others did.
It would have been a wise move, because there was no surprise ending, no fourth-quarter heroics. O'Malley read the verdicts unemotionally. On the first count, for the murder of Biondillo--guilty. On the second count, for the attempted murder of Gains--guilty. On the final count of gambling--guilty. Three defendants, three counts each, nine guilty verdicts.
Three hours later, following stiff federal sentencing guidelines that left her with little choice, O'Malley sentenced the trio to life in prison.
Riddle may have garnered himself a place in local lore, in what was quite possibly the last Mafia trial Cleveland will ever see. He took in the jury's verdict with a smirk, then struck out in the only way he could. Riddle turned his head, surveyed the courtroom, and released a loud, defiant . . . belch.
It was not one of the Mafia's finest moments, though it might have been a fitting exclamation point to the Youngstown mob's collapse. It's tough to imagine longtime Cleveland don John Scalish burping as his final show of bravado, much less cooperating with federal agents. After the trial, one longtime Strollo associate finally said what nearly every observer noticed, but virtually no one was willing to mention publicly.
"These fucking dagos snitch on each other," he complained over coffee in Little Italy. The only ones who didn't cop a plea, he noted bitterly, were "two shines and a Jew."
The trial was the culmination of a four-year FBI investigation that yielded thousands of pages of sworn affidavits and two thousand hours of conversations secretly recorded by FBI phone taps and bugs. It had all the hallmarks of the mob stories in movie theaters: colorful gangsters with nicknames like "Lemons" and "The Crab." Dogged investigators. Sotto voce planning sessions. Killings. And, inevitably, turncoats who cut deals for themselves and created a domino effect that ended with Dante Strollo testifying against his kid brother--who, in turn, agreed to tell the government mob secrets "whenever, wherever, to whomever, and in whatever form" federal prosecutors demanded.
It's a story that still plays well in the movies. But increased federal pressure and an influx of new ethnic and racial groups have radically changed the face of organized crime, decimating enterprises that were traditionally controlled by a few Italian families. A final wave of indictments from the Youngstown investigation is expected any day. But after that, La Cosa Nostra--the Mafia--in Ohio is probably finished.
"This was the last Mafia case. That's why I did it," says attorney Jay Milano, who defended Riddle. He should know. Milano's father, Jerry, defended a handful of wise guys in the 1970s and 1980s. The $65-an-hour fee the government paid Milano to represent Riddle is well below his regular rate, but he accepted the work because he wanted to be part of this trial. "It was worth it. It was complex and interesting," he says, noting his law firm had to build a new database just to keep track of all the evidence.
It's easy to view the mob as a romantic relic--with images of Al Pacino talking to Marlon Brando in a vegetable garden--or to simply write it off as an insular faction that runs a few gambling operations and rarely uses violence outside its own ranks. Or, in this case, as a group of small-time flunkies from downstate who turned out to be a bunch of squealers and chumps.
But the reality in Mahoning County is that the mob has held that area in its clutches for nearly three generations, infiltrated its public institutions to an unprecedented level, and, some residents say, choked off any possibility the depressed region has of economic recovery.
"I couldn't believe there was a place as corrupt as Mahoning County," Assistant U.S. Attorney Julia Stiller said as she left Judge O'Malley's courtroom. Based in Washington, D.C., Stiller travels the country assisting in organized-crime prosecutions. She vividly remembers the first time she traveled to Youngstown with Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Morford, who pointed out the different areas controlled by the Mafia.
"That was why malls didn't go in or projects didn't get done, just on the fact that [the mob] always owned everything," Stiller says. "In other cities, maybe they have some of it. But they didn't have the whole thing."
In Youngstown, they did.
My Kind of Crime Town
When Lenny Strollo testified at the federal courthouse, he was only a few miles from where the old Hotel Statler used to stand. The hotel earned a degree of infamy in 1928, when Cleveland police broke up what was the first known meeting of the Mafia's national bosses.
One of the topics on the agenda at that ill-fated meeting was the brutal Corn Sugar War, a familial feud of the late 1920s that left eleven local mobsters dead. The city's first mob boss, "Big Joe" Lonardo, rose to that position by controlling the flow of corn sugar, a key ingredient used by bootleggers. But his monopoly of the corn sugar business was threatened when the Porrello brothers moved here from Sicily. The Porrellos asked to have a meeting with Lonardo, but when he arrived at a barbershop, two gunmen appeared from the back and opened fire, killing Big Joe and his brother, John Lonardo. The ambush flashed into Cleveland's first mob war, which left four Lonardos and seven Porrellos dead.
One of the soldiers in that war was a teenaged Angelo Lonardo, who went on to take his father's nickname and position. Nearly fifty years later, "Big Ange" entered the witness protection program and became the highest-ranking mafioso to defect. His groundbreaking 1983 testimony established the existence of a national Mafia network and is still cited in mob-related cases.
The Cleveland mob got out of bootlegging when prohibition was repealed in 1933. Instead, the mob moved into rackets like gambling, loan-sharking, and controlling the vending businesses. In 1944, John Scalish, a suave old-school Mafia don, ascended as head of the Cleveland family.
It was around this time that fourteen-year-old Lenny Strollo started hanging around a repair shop on Youngstown's east side, washing windows and cleaning up around the store. Eventually the repairmen taught the young Strollo how to fix the various slot, pinball, and bowling machines that were common in the shot-and-beer watering holes around town that catered to mill workers. Soon, Strollo's vending side job was paying up to $250 a week, triple what he made at his legitimate job, and over time he had his own machines and territory.
Of course, that kind of cash attracts competition, and it wasn't long before Strollo was being squeezed by competitors. Feeling outgunned, Strollo turned to Jimmy Prato, a Pittsburgh mobster who owned a bar just outside of Youngstown.
Prato provided protection for Strollo's vending businesses, but he couldn't solve all of his problems. In 1963 Strollo was arrested for counterfeiting $10 bills and, after a lengthy appeal, served jail time in 1967. But jail might have been the safest place for a Youngstown mobster in the 1960s. While Scalish kept mob peace in Cleveland, Youngstown was at war.
The Saturday Evening Post memorably summarized the situation with a March 1963 story called "Crime Town U.S.A.," in which John Kobler wrote: "Youngstown has had 75 bombings, 11 killings in a decade, and no one seems to care." He pointed out the power of Charles "The Crab" Carabbia, who for 25 years helped run card and dice games for the Cleveland mob in working-class towns like Struthers and Campbell.
Kobler also presciently noted, "The Youngstown area exemplifies the truism that rackets cannot survive without two basic conditions--the sanction of police and politicians, and an apathetic public. Here those conditions have combined to produce a breakdown of the democratic process. Buffoons and incompetents succeed to important civic posts. Officials hobnob openly with criminals."
Twenty-six years later, that assessment would still be true.
The Crab Sleeps With the Fishes
Located roughly halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Youngstown and its organized crime rackets were traditionally divided between the Mafia families in those two cities. That changed in the early 1980s, when a war left the Cleveland mob decimated and Pittsburgh dominant.
But in the mid-1970s, control of crime in Youngstown was still split between the Cleveland and Pittsburgh families. James "Jack White" Licavoli and the Carabbia brothers--Ronnie and Charlie--controlled the Cleveland family's interests. Prato did the same for the Pittsburgh mob, with help from Joseph "Little Joey" Naples and Strollo.
The balance of power changed irrevocably in 1976, when Cleveland don John Scalish died unexpectedly during open-heart surgery without having named a successor. Most assumed "Big Ange" Lonardo would take over, but underboss Milton "Maishe" Rockman insisted it was Scalish's dying wish that Licavoli be named boss of Cleveland's La Cosa Nostra. Licavoli agreed to head the Cleveland family and named his cousin Leo "Lips" Moceri--a brutal hit man and loan shark--underboss.
Many viewed Licavoli as a weak leader whose control made the Cleveland mob vulnerable to challengers. One of those challengers was John Nardi, a reputed murderer and drug smuggler who was an officer of Cleveland Teamsters Local 410. Upset that he was not chosen to succeed Scalish, Nardi began plotting Moceri's demise with the help of Danny Greene, the colorful Collinwood tough responsible for the car-bombing death of Jewish loan shark Shondor Birns.
On August 22, 1976, Moceri was tooling around Cleveland's Little Italy in his girlfriend's Lincoln Continental. It was the last time Moceri was ever seen. Nine days later police found the car, but no Moceri. Cleveland's second mob war had begun.
An enraged Licavoli demanded revenge for his cousin's murder, and, eventually, he got it. On May 17, 1977, Nardi was blown to bits when a car packed with explosives was detonated next to his in the parking lot of the Teamsters building.
Greene fell victim to the same technique five months later. The Irishman--who wore only green clothes, wrote in green ink, and drove a green car--was killed leaving his dentist's office in Lyndhurst. A car bomb blew his arm one hundred feet across the parking lot and drove the Celtic cross he wore around his neck into the black asphalt.
Sensing the Cleveland mob had larger problems to deal with, the Pittsburgh family began encroaching on its turf in Youngstown, leading to a four-year feud that killed ten people. One of the victims was Charles Carabbia, whose older brother Ronnie palled around with Edward DeBartolo Jr. until Ronnie was convicted in 1979 of flipping the switch that killed Greene.
Charles Carabbia's fate was one of many nuggets of information that came out during Strollo's testimony in March. The Crab received a mysterious phone call summoning him to a meeting at a Youngstown donut shop on December 13, 1980. He went to the meeting and was never seen again. Prato and Naples wanted Carabbia killed, to cement the Pittsburgh family's undisputed control over Youngstown. And, in a surprise twist, Strollo said under oath, Carabbia's killing was done with the blessing of either Licavoli or Lonardo.
"Were you aware that [Prato and Naples] were intending to kill Charlie Carabbia?" Morford asked Strollo.
"There was some conversation about it that--that they had, with [the approval of] somebody, either Jack White or Angelo Lonardo from Cleveland," Strollo responded.
"And was he ultimately murdered?"
"Yes," Strollo responded.
"And can you tell us what role you played in that murder?"
"I made the phone call," Strollo said.
Lenny Makes His Move
Carabbia's killing came with consequences, though. Both the Pittsburgh and Cleveland Mafia factions had been paying bribes to recently elected Mahoning County Sheriff James Traficant to protect their gambling interests. Convinced that Traficant was responsible for her husband's disappearance, Carabbia's widow approached the FBI with conversations Carabbia had secretly recorded between himself and Traficant. In those conversations, the two discussed how Traficant laundered $10,000 of the mob's money through Flask & Policy, the powerful Youngstown law firm run by Ed Flask and Carmen Policy, who is now president of the Cleveland Browns.
On August 9, 1982, Traficant was indicted for accepting bribes and filing a false income tax return. He confessed to the charges and hired Policy to defend him, but then recanted his confession. Policy dropped the former University of Pittsburgh football star as a client, so Traficant--who changed his name early in life from Traficante--acted as his own attorney.
During that trial, Traficant's friend Charles O'Nesti testified he delivered envelopes of cash to Traficant from Prato. Traficant countered that he accepted the $163,000 as part of a maverick operation to trap the mobsters. To the shock and amazement of prosecutors, he was acquitted.
He fared less well in tax court, though. The Internal Revenue Service, with Morford prosecuting, successfully argued in 1987 that Traficant owed back taxes on the money he accepted. By then, the disheveled Traficant had crafted a populist message, which struck a chord with Youngstown's unemployed mill workers, and he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He's still in Washington, the ultimate outsider, railing on the House floor about the need to put tanks on the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants and the need to increase tariffs to keep out foreign steel.
Unscathed by the Traficant trial, Prato retired from his life of crime and died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 81. One year before he died, though, Prato offered Naples and Strollo official induction into La Cosa Nostra.
Under questioning from Morford, Strollo described his induction ceremony, which Strollo said was attended by alleged Pittsburgh crime boss Michael Genovese, among others. "Well, it was a get-together of other members, and you took a, you took an oath, and it was drawing blood from your finger and burning a religious card and taking an oath of silence."
Unlike Scalish, the white-haired, cane-carrying Prato also named a successor before he died--Naples, now answering only to Pittsburgh. Strollo had his own gambling operations, most notably the All-American Club in Campbell, a run-down suburb east of Youngstown where every flagpole seems to have a Greek or Italian flag hanging underneath its American counterpart. Prosecutors say that when it was closed in 1987, the All-American Club was the largest illegal casino in the country, generating $20 million a year for the Pittsburgh mob through card and dice games and video poker.
Operating the club got Strollo, as well as his brother Dante "Danny" Strollo and Altshuler, in trouble in 1988, when they were indicted for gambling and bribing a Mahoning County sheriff's deputy and a local police chief. Strollo had met Altshuler in the mid-1970s, when they set up a craps game together. Another key figure working at the club was Ernie Biondillo, a close friend of Naples.
Altshuler was sentenced to one year in prison, Strollo fourteen months. As Strollo prepared to go to prison in 1990, he met regularly with Naples. Informants told the FBI that Strollo feared Naples would try to take over his gambling operations while he was away.
Strollo needn't have worried. On August 19, 1991, as Naples was checking on construction of his new mansion in bucolic Beaver Township, Pennsylvania, a sniper hiding in a nearby cornfield shot him dead. Strollo denies any involvement in Naples's murder, and the case remains unsolved.
With Naples dead, Strollo, by then living in a halfway house on Market Street in Youngstown, was his logical successor.
"So, they . . . put you in charge of the Youngstown rackets for the Pittsburgh family, correct?" Morford asked Strollo.
"Yes," he replied.
"Approximately when did this occur? How long after you were released from the halfway house?"
"Probably three, four months," Strollo said.
Fresh out of jail, Strollo was at the zenith of his criminal career. But, like all businessmen, he had problems to deal with.
Rivals, Drugs, and Money
There was a time when the industrial corridor stretching from Cleveland through Youngstown to Pittsburgh produced more steel than most European nations. But by the 1990s, those days were gone. And when the Mahoning Valley's economic base disappeared, so did the mob's clientele.
"When [the Mafia] ran the gambling for the working-class people in Youngstown, they made enormous amounts of money," Jay Milano says. "These people would go to work, drink their beer, go gamble, and never be involved with the police."
By the time Strollo took control of Youngstown, those gambling mill workers didn't exist anymore--at least not in the numbers that allowed the All-American Club to make millions. But Strollo and Altshuler had a plan.
"The economy was down, so they needed high rollers to play," Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wooley says. "Who are the high rollers? The inner-city drug dealers. So they got Riddle and Turnage to get high rollers in."
Jeff Riddle's nephew Lavance Turnage certainly would be able to identify Youngstown's nouveau riche. Riddle ran craps games with Altshuler at Sharkey's, a black nightclub in Campbell. Turnage was once a promising high school football player, but he quit college after a year and returned to Youngstown, where he fell in with drug dealers like Antwan "Mo Man" Harris, Cleveland Blair, George Wilkins, and Warren Willis.
How was the mob able to get black men in their twenties and thirties to work for white men the age of their grandfathers? Strollo testified they were lured in by money and, more disturbingly, legal protection.
On the stand in Cleveland, Strollo described how he wired virtually the entire Mahoning County legal system--using bribes, payoffs, and campaign donations--to control judges, county prosecutors, law directors, sheriffs, and policemen. With so many public officials on the take, short-circuiting standard legal procedures was relatively easy. Everything, from murder charges to alleged robberies to simple DUIs, was watered down or thrown out.
Strollo told of having cases fixed for Riddle, Turnage, and Harris. The list of bribes--a story in itself--is long and colorful. When his stepson was charged with a DUI, Strollo said he took care of Judge Martin Emrich by having landscaping work done at his house. Strollo said he had his brother pay Campbell police chief Charles Xenakis $500 a month for three years and claimed that Campbell Law Director Mike Rich fixed numerous cases for him.
"What we've had here is institutional corruption. They've basically been running Mahoning County as a criminal enterprise, because it suited a lot of people," says James Callen, president of the Citizens League of Greater Youngstown, which screens political candidates and speaks out about organized crime. "We really haven't had a democracy in this community in years. We've had a feudal government, divided up by mob nobility."
With the justice system in his pocket and the drug dealers gambling, Strollo's criminal empire was thriving. The mob knew the FBI was watching, but that proved to be only an occasional annoyance--like when agents raided a 1995 Super Bowl party, seized $15,000 and some gambling equipment, and arrested Jeep Garono and Danny Strollo, among others. That raid would eventually lead to a major headache for Strollo, though he wouldn't know it until it was too late.
A bigger problem for Strollo was what to do with Biondillo, who was encroaching on his turf and making noise about being the "new kid on the block." Biondillo had been paying off politicians on his own and putting video poker machines in private clubs in Hillsville, Pennsylvania--Strollo's territory--without telling the mob boss.
Strollo ordered Biondillo to remove the machines. When he refused, Strollo knew his leadership was being threatened. "He had no respect for anybody," Strollo said of Biondillo during the trial. When Strollo heard Biondillo might have him killed, he decided to strike first.
Hit and Miss
Downtown Youngstown is often eerily quiet around 6 p.m., a ghost town when most cities and suburbs are still struggling through traffic gridlock. Some businesses display "Team Lordstown!" banners urging residents to "Get the Next Generation of GM Cars for Our Valley," a reference to General Motors' pending decision whether to replace or relocate the massive Lordstown plant. The banners, full of bold lettering and exclamation points, leave the false sense that community pep can trump economic reality.
If Youngstown is one of the most depressing places in America, Murdock Street is one of the most depressing stretches in Youngstown. The quarter-mile, one-way street, just east of downtown, has almost as many cars on blocks as it has houses, and certainly more dogs than people. Vacant lots are littered with shattered beer bottles and plastic wrappers. The narrow two-story homes all sorely need fresh coats of paint.
Ernie Biondillo often cut through this desolate street on his way to work at Youngstown United Music, which he ran after Naples's death. He occasionally wore a bulletproof vest--though even that wouldn't have helped him on the warm morning of August 3, 1996. When Biondillo turned down Murdock Street off Himrod Avenue, he couldn't get his rose-colored Cadillac through the narrow street. A car driven by Lavance Turnage sat with its hood raised, blocking his way. Biondillo went to back up, but by then another car, driven by Warren Willis, had pulled behind him, boxing him in.
Waiting in the shadow of a nearby house were Cleveland Blair and George Wilkins. The moment Biondillo was trapped, they pulled down their ski masks, brandished shotguns, and rushed his car. Blair and Wilkins sprayed shotgun pellets and slugs through the rolled-up windows, essentially blowing Biondillo's face off in a bloody gangland execution.
Before the four drove away to collect their shares of the $35,000 hit fee and celebrate their success over a lunch of chicken and pizza, one of the men reached through the shattered window and pulled the gold ring with diamonds that spelled "EB" from Biondillo's finger.
The murder was an uncharacteristically bold move by Strollo, who had always been a smart, cautious man, advising friends: "Anger is the wind that blows out the flame of the mind." Strollo preferred to exercise his power quietly, as in the virtual lock he held on the county prosecutor's office for at least twelve years. As if bribes and campaign contributions weren't enough, one of Strollo's own lawyers, Gary Van Brocklin, was elected to that office in 1984.
But in March 1996, five months before the Biondillo killing, the unthinkable happened. Paul Gains, a former U.S. Steel mill worker, Youngstown police officer, and criminal defense attorney, won a close Democratic primary. With no Republican challenger in the November 1996 general election, Gains was assured the county prosecutor's seat.
"It was a total upset," Strollo said. "It didn't bother me at first, because I thought I had some inroads with him because I had two people talking to him."
But when Gains refused overtures from his people, Strollo had a problem on his hands. With rumors circulating that Gains would hire FBI agent Bob Kroner--who had investigated the Traficant case in the 1980s and was responsible for busting the All-American Club--as a criminal investigator, discussions turned to ways to "eliminate Paul Gains." Strollo turned to Altshuler, who was also arranging the hit on Biondillo. Altshuler went to Riddle, who recruited drug dealers Mo Man Harris and Mark Batcho.
According to testimony at the trial, Riddle, Harris, and Batcho began targeting Gains in the spring of 1996, not long after his primary victory. They considered killing him at a BW-3, but decided the restaurant was too crowded. The cat-and-mouse stalking continued intermittently until Christmas Eve 1996, when Riddle and his thugs finally got to Gains.
It was cold and rainy when Gains left his office at 8 p.m. on December 23. He went to the Draught House, a Youngstown bar where he caught up with some lawyer friends, then made his way to the Caffe Capri in Boardman. Gains left there at about 1 a.m. and stopped to buy cigarettes and cat food before he went home.
What Gains didn't know was that Riddle, Harris, and Batcho were staking out his house. While Gains fed his cats and made a call on his cellular phone, Batcho entered through the side door.
"He came in, and I pirouetted and saw the gun," Gains says. Batcho, whose state trial is scheduled to begin next month in Youngstown, allegedly pulled the trigger of his .38-caliber handgun. The bullet entered and exited Gains's arm, then entered his side and went through his back, exiting near the spine. The second shot missed Gains but hit his caller ID box, knocking out his home phone.
The force of the attack knocked Gains to the ground, and he lost consciousness. Batcho allegedly went in for the kill, but his gun jammed. He panicked, ran out of the house, and hopped in the car where Riddle and Harris waited.
According to Harris's testimony, Riddle asked Batcho if Gains was dead. "[Batcho] said, 'I don't know, I don't know. I shot him but the gun jammed.'"
When Gains regained consciousness, he managed to pick up his telephone. The line was dead. Gains fumbled for his cell phone, dialed 911, and waited for help to arrive.
"I thought, I'm gonna die," Gains recalls. "I had lost any sensation of pain. My last thought was, How's my mother going to handle this? Then I passed out."
When Gains awoke in the hospital, he was happy to be able to move his legs but perplexed by the shooting. "I kept questioning why. I didn't know I had done anything that would anger anyone so much." Amazingly, Gains was sworn in as Mahoning County prosecutor ten days later, bits of the bullet still lodged near his spine.
Gains's office is in the Mahoning County Courthouse, a magnificent four-story building erected in 1908. Its marble pillars and ornate gold, green, and maroon fixtures give the building an air of nobility. It's the kind of place one might expect Gregory Peck to walk out of as Atticus Finch, a man as graceful and dignified as the surroundings.
But when he comes out to greet a visitor, Gains is more like the anti-Atticus. Short and blunt, with pockmarked olive skin and an excitable manner, Gains seems the prosecutorial equivalent of a pesky dog that won't go away.
"As long as I'm in office or alive, I'm still a concern to them," he says of the Young-stown mob. Gains puts down his cigar and whips out a black and silver handgun he keeps strapped at his side. If the mob comes back to finish the job Batcho allegedly started, Gains will be ready.
Many Youngstown residents still note the lack of public outcry over the Gains shooting. "One prominent member of the community actually said to me, 'Yeah, he was a good guy who wanted to clean house, so of course they shot him,'" says Mark Shutes, an anthropology professor at Youngstown State University. "There was no outrage."
Gains admits he felt abandoned by all but his closest friends. He turns away and stares at the wall. It's a rare moment for the kid who swept floors to put himself through Catholic high school and served as president of the Youngstown Fraternal Order of Police. His voice cracks, and his eyes get just the tiniest bit misty. "I don't think about it too much," he says, slapping his hand on his desk with a sense of finality. "It was a tough time for me."
He quickly gets hold of himself, clears his throat, and gets angry. "These people are a cancer on this society," he fumes. "When I think of all the lives these people have affected because of their greed, it disgusts me. It absolutely disgusts me."
"I'll Never Give You Up"
Friends say Strollo always despised the FBI. He would continually tell friends that the federal government was misguided in targeting the Mafia, because taking down the mob would only create a vacuum that would be filled by more ruthless criminals.
But if Strollo's contempt for the feds was increasing, so was their infiltration of the Youngstown mob. Court documents show that the 1995 Super Bowl raid Strollo dismissed as an annoyance actually provided the springboard to the investigation that made a defector out of the Strollos and Garono and sent Altshuler, Riddle, and Turnage to prison for life.
That raid led to Youngstown gambler Michael Sabella, who six months later agreed to wear an FBI wire and record his conversations with bookie Michael Serrecchio. Using the evidence garnered from those conversations, Morford and Kroner were able to get a court order allowing agents to hide microphones and tap the phones at Mr. A's eatery, a reputed mob hangout.
Those taps provided evidence that led to more wiretaps, one of which yielded a conversation in which Garono and Strollo discussed supporting Phil Chance for Mahoning County sheriff. Just like that, the federal investigation had expanded from illegal gambling to racketeering and public corruption.
Kroner eventually got permission to bug Strollo's phones and sprawling Canfield farmhouse. At one point Strollo is heard telling a caller, "I don't feel that we should have people listening in on our conversation. My phone is bad, and I know it." Agents also heard Strollo discuss bribing county officials with O'Nesti, Traficant's mob connection. From information like that, the FBI got a search warrant for Strollo's home, and, in January 1997, agents seized more than 40,000 pages of documents, including financial and gambling records.
Ten months later, Strollo and his cronies were indicted.
"There was a tremendous amount of hard work that went into this case, but also some luck," says Morford, a forty-year-old who looks younger. Sitting in the U.S. attorney's law library on the fifteenth floor of the Bank One building, Morford, Wooley, and Kroner note wryly that the mob's arrogance was a factor, too.
"[Strollo's mob] knew they were being watched," says Wooley, pointing out that, even after the 1995 Super Bowl raid, the mobsters continued their gambling and bribery and went ahead with the shootings of Biondillo and Gains. "That's how confident, how cocky they were [that] they could get away with anything. That's from sixty years of being emboldened."
The indictments included two Clevelanders. Mayfield Heights resident James Teresi pleaded guilty to running an illegal gambling business. His Euclid-based Miray Fund Raising Inc., prosecutors say, was actually a front for Strollo, Garono, and Altshuler to skim money from casino nights sponsored by nonprofit groups.
In addition, University Heights attorney Stewart Mandel pleaded guilty last year to filing a false corporate income tax return. Prosecutors accused the Strollo brothers and Mandel, a former assistant U.S. attorney and University Heights law director, of skimming hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Conneaut fireworks company Mandel owned.
Securing plea bargains from the likes of Teresi and Mandel was critical to convicting the higher-ranking mobsters. The government was able to build its case by convincing lower-echelon criminals to roll over on their superiors. "It's like riddles and puzzles to put together," Morford says. "To work your way to the top, you have to plea bargain and get cooperation to get to the next level."
In the end, the very group that had reenergized the Youngstown gambling rackets brought them down. "The mob thought they had lightning in a bottle with the drug dealers," says Milano. "But the drug dealers they were ripping off started turning on them."
Other moves were just plain moronic. In 1997, a Pittsburgh jeweler paid Wilkins $255 for a ring. Questioned later by prosecutors, the jeweler said the ring Wilkins pawned was tough to forget--after all, not many have the initials "EB" spelled in diamond nuggets.
By 1998, Wilkins, Blair, and Harris had all pleaded guilty and agreed to testify about their roles in the shootings of Biondillo and Gains. O'Nesti and Rich pleaded guilty to conspiracy in March 1998. Garono, who once said a good way to get gamblers to pay up is by putting them in a bag and beating them with a baseball bat, agreed to racketeering charges four months later.
Then in February, Danny Strollo agreed to testify against his brother. Friends say Danny was terrified of prison and had grown to resent his younger brother, whom Danny felt wasn't paying him enough for his role as liaison with the police. One longtime Strollo friend says Danny always cared much more about his winemaking hobby than he did about the mob rackets. He'd spend $20,000 a year on grapes alone, and considered it the highest honor to supply all the wine at weddings of his friends' children.
Finally, on February 16, 68-year-old Lenny Strollo struck a deal with federal prosecutors that could have him out of jail in as little as twelve years. As for Altshuler, Riddle, and Turnage, even their lawyers were not completely sure why they took a bad gamble on a life sentence.
Some speculate that Altshuler, at age 68, figured accepting a plea bargain and serving ten to fifteen years was the equivalent of a life sentence anyway. Why not thumb his nose at the feds one last time? But veteran courthouse observers are still scratching their heads over Riddle's and Turnage's decisions to go to trial, even with some demented notion of honor at stake.
"Jeff Riddle said, going into this case, 'Don't make me a snitch, and make my accusers look me in the eye,'" Milano says. "Jeff was very realistic from beginning to end."
So was Strollo. That's why he accepted the deal and broke omerta--the code of silence he took in Pittsburgh twelve years earlier--and why he could be out of prison in twelve to fifteen years, if his health allows it. At least that's how Milano sees it.
Just before Altshuler, Riddle, and Turnage were marched out in their orange prison jumpsuits for sentencing, Milano sat on a court bench in an expensive gray suit, head cocked and leg resting on his knee, chatting with reporters. With Morford just a few feet away, Milano breezily predicted a happy end for the Youngstown don.
"Lenny will be on a beach with a couple of blondes and a bag full of hundred-dollar bills, waving, saying, 'No, Bernie, I'll never give you up,'" Milano said with a grin on his face, clearly amused by the image. "The death of Lenny Strollo? He'll die of a heart attack with two bimbos in Barbados."
Mike Tobin may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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