Thursday, March 19, 2015

Berkshires Organized Crime History

Over the past few decades, popular culture depictions in movies and television has helped elevate the idea that gambling rackets and mob crime are the sort of thing that occurs in places like New Jersey, New York, Nevada or Chicago.

The truth is, New England has seen plenty of it over the years, and some of it quite a bit closer to home than the locales in Scorcese's "The Departed." Over the course of the past century, central Berkshire County has several times been the site of organized crime activity, from petty book-making to major scandals involving local officials and prominent mafia affiliates.

As a center of population, commerce and government in the county, the city of Pittsfield has perhaps naturally also often been the epicenter of much of its major criminal conspiracies. Repeatedly, investigation of such wrongdoing has also been characterized by allegations of corruption among the city's police department, politicians and other influential citizens.

As early as the 1930s, such corruption had already been intimated, when then City Councilor Daniel Casey first sought to launch a probe of the local police department. In April of 1936, Councilor Casey introduced a motion stating that "an investigation is necessary to determine what manner various forms of illegal gambling flourish throughout the city without interference or suppression by the police department," petitioning the council to launch a probe of the department.

At the time, Casey's motion was defeated in a tie vote, though it was not the last time the budding politician would raise the issue.

"Something is rotten in Denmark," reiterated Casey 11 years later, as state representative, again in reference to the belief that corruption in the department had stymied efforts to crack down on a growing gambling trade in the city.

His comment came after the February 1947 acquittal of Daniel Caligian on the first charge of attempted bribery in the history of the Police Department.

Caligian, a counterman for North Street's Majestic Restaurant, allegedly tried to pay Sgt. Raymond Coakley $500 to look the other way on his "bookie" activities, for which he had two previous convictions already.

According to Casey, Coakley "probably didn't report the first alleged bribery offer to some superior officers at headquarters because he was afraid of a leak in the department."

The Berkshire Eagle also voiced concerns over the not-guilty verdict, suggesting that local law enforcement had become "politics-ridden" and "susceptible to corruption, and that the case amounted to "a sad commentary on respect for law and order, and a severe indictment of the Pittsfield Police Department."

Not long after, Caligian went into the pinball machine business with Peter G. Arlos, a controversial figure who would later become the city's longest reigning city councilor. Together, they ran Automatic Vendors Inc. until 1950, when Arlos severed ties to begin his own pinball machine distribution business, Pace Merchandising Co. When their respective licenses to sell the machines expired at the end of 1951, their re-application to the Licensing Board launched the dramatic "Pinball Hearings," which dragged on before the board for the first several months of 1952.

Pinball machines had been a matter of local controversy for a number of years at that time and the licensing authority had been a matter of some legal gray area. In North Adams, all pinball machines had been removed, along with slot machines, in 1937, but by early 1938 the popular entertainment devices were already creeping back into circulation there.

In March 1946, the Supreme Judicial Court had ruled that only pinball machines that did not have a cash pay-off of any kind attached were legal in the commonwealth, and in October of that year, Pittsfield's Chief John Sullivan issued an order to local establishments for the removal of such gaming apparatus, even five taverns that had been issued permits by the city's Licensing Board just three months earlier.

Subsequent legislation from Boston in 1949 further clarified the legality of non-gambling pinball machines, though local authorities were still very much of the opinion that the industry surrounding their use was being used as some kind of front for other forms of illegal gambling, probably because of the reputation of their primary distributor as a known bookie.

The administration of the time at City Hall was adamant about the need to crack down on such infraction fand, at the start of 1952, the local Licensing Board enacted a far-reaching policy that no permit to supply the machines would be granted unless the applicant was willing to submit all records of their business, and submit to any questioning the board saw fit.

A provision that any attempt by the applicant to invoke the constitutional 5th Amendment to such questioning would be grounds for denial gave these hearings a much broader leeway to conduct fishing expeditions than any court of law could have. It was thought that the implementation of such strict procedure would automatically drive Caligian out of the business. "But Mr. Caligian along with his former associate in AVI, Peter Arlos, astonished the trappers by swallowing the bait and applying for the licenses," wrote Roger Linscott in The Berkshire Eagle.

A series of proceedings commenced, with City Solicitor Francis Quirico summoning records from telephones and business transactions, and conducting probing questioning of a multitude of witnesses. Many stone-walled the attorney under examination, as unlike the applicants themselves, they were under no obligation to waive their right to silence.  Several of these witnesses would eventually be arrested on various charges by the anti-gambling vice squad formed by Mayor Robert Capeless later that year.

The Pinball Hearings, which played to packed audiences in City Hall chambers, lasted from February to early May. Sparks flew as Quirico repeatedly contended that the operations of the two applicants were being used as fronts for horse-betting and lottery schemes, while in response accusations of witch-hunting were lobbed by Thomas Noonan, a high profile Albany lawyer who'd won Caligian's case in '46 and joined these proceedings as additional counsel to local attorney Anthony Ruberto in March.

Considerable testimony from police officers and other witnesses alleged instances of book-making and other "questionable enterprises" had been occurring at places rented by Caligian and Arlos, and the board ultimately denied their permits.

Over the rest of the decade, local authorities continued efforts to rein in feared "organized gambling" in the county, with periodic raids on local businesses and private homes, such as one in Dalton in 1951 at which 31 high-stakes card players from around the Berkshires were arrested.

As the 1960s dawned, however, a new venture would introduce the involvement of major mafia figures to the Berkshires on a level never seen before.

In 1960, the Berkshire Downs racetrack was opened in Hancock by B.A. Dario of Rhode Island, who was also proprietor of the Lincoln Downs racetrack just north of Providence. Licensed pari-mutuel betting on horse races had been legal in the commonwealth since the 1930s, and at the time, state government permitted 90 days worth of racing in Massachusetts. The bulk of those days went to Suffolk Downs, but Berkshire Downs ran a 24-day cycle during its short period of operation as a track.

For most of its time in business, Berkshire Downs lost money as a venue, at least on paper, but it held a certain appeal for both locals and visitors and was often well attended. It also attracted the interest of some high-profile individuals, and a general reputation of being "mobbed up."

Within its first couple of seasons, the track had become the subject of investigation by state gaming authorities, who suspected that it was largely controlled by mafia don Raymond Patriarca Sr., boss of the New England "family" operating out of Providence and Boston. Later, FBI wiretapping helped substantiate Patriarca's involvement, and a 1973 congressional committee report ultimately concluded he was a key investor in the Berkshire venture.

Singer Frank Sinatra was another major investor, though he would later testify before the House committee that he had no idea the reputed mafia don was involved, and had withdrawn his $55,000 investment in the venue after finding he had been named vice president of the business without his knowledge.

The involvement of the New England mafia in Berkshire Downs may have helped, in part, to explain a perceived rise in apparent organized crime in nearby Pittsfield which would last throughout the 1960s.

Illegal activity was on the rise, ranging from the proliferation of bookies to the suspicious deaths of two Berkshire County men within a six-month period in 1962. Harold Boland, of Pittsfield, was found in a canal off Onota Lake in May, having had his wrists tied to a heavy stone. Joseph Klein, a West Stockbridge native who worked in Pittsfield, was found beaten to death outside his car by an assailant who had apparently struck after waiting for him to exit a bar in Canaan, N.Y. While the cases remained unsolved, suspicions ran high that the two men may have gotten in over their head in gambling and run awry of mob enforcers.

Local police were also under the lens again for possible corruption, with a state police probe initiated after three patrolmen were convicted in the robbery of a local hardware store, and allegations that other officers may have also been involved in illegal activities, including tips that had arisen from investigation of activity at the nearby race track.

The state police probe began in March 1963, and grew more intense as local media got wind of some of vague but sensational rumors stemming from the investigation. On April 3, the North Adams Transcript wrote that connections between the recent deaths and "a possible tieup between some city police officials and the criminal underworld stunned the city of Pittsfield today with the announcement that the alleged connections between gangsters, gamblers and city officials was under investigation by the Massachusetts State Police."

According to Commissioner Frank Giles, state police investigators had received information that more than one ranking officer had been taking bribes from bookies, and that a "high ranking police official" had been the liaison between the department and a "gaming rackets czar." After several months of surveying the department during which lurid headlines were rampant in newspapers from Pittsfield to Boston, the probe concluded that many of the tips had proven false, while others could not be substantiated.

In November, Giles admitted that there was no "positive information of wrongdoing by Pittsfield police." Later that month, the City Council approved a higher-than-requested raise for all department personnel.

Implied associations between law-enforcement officials and perceived underworld activity — particularly at the questionable racetrack — continued to trouble area residents, though, and the sense that corruption was still a problem would not soon dissipate. Even in 1976, when Berkshire Downs was all but dismantled, an editorial in The Eagle voiced concerns about this underlying perception.

"There is nothing illegal about Judge John A. Barry's serving as director and spokesman for a third-rate agricultural fair that serves as an excuse for a fourth-rate racing operation in Hancock. The same can be said in defense of Carmen C. Massimiano, the chief probation officer of the Berkshire Superior Court, who is evidently moonlighting at Berkshire Downs, too," wrote the Eagle's editor. "But there is a very serious question as to the good judgement of law-enforcement officials who allow themselves to be identified with any race track - and particularly a track so economically marginal that jockeys have to be saintly to stay honest."

While no indictments came out of the 1963 probe, not every cop on the force at the time turned out to be squeaky clean; in early 1968, a 17-year veteran of the force was charged as one of seven conspirators in a local stolen car ring connected to a major underboss in the Patriarca mafia.

Car thefts had been rampant throughout Berkshire County in the late '60s, and by 1967 authorities began to suspect a coordinated effort was involved in some of these. After months of investigation by state police and the FBI, they zeroed in on Edmund Crown, an automobile salesman from Lanesborough, arresting him on Dec. 21 in connection with the transport and sale of at least 31 stolen cars. Four more Berkshire residents were soon arrested in the stolen car conspiracy, including Pittsfield patrolmen Anthony Crea, and three eastern Massachusetts suspects, including Vincent Teresa of North Reading.

All but the latter were tried, convicted, and already paroled from jail less than two years later; though Crown had been charged with as many as 62 counts for which the maximum sentence could have been up to 20 years. Two and a half years was the maximum that inmates could be sentenced to the local House of Correction, which prosecutor William R. Flynn urged for Crown's safety "because of the people he has been involved with."

The sort of people he referred to were no doubt associates of Vincent "Fat Vinnie," Teresa, believed the be the ringleader of the car ring, who was also by his own admission the No. 3 man in the New England mafia.

Teresa's own trial in Pittsfield did not begin until July 1969, and ultimately resulted in a mistrial after it was realized that one of the jurors was a relative of the prosecutor. A new trial was planned for February 1970, by which time Teresa was already serving a brief sentence on an unrelated offence in Maryland.

Something changed in Teresa's perspective during this time, a change that was part of an emerging shift in the internal culture of the mob that would ultimately grow to become a serious Achilles' heel to its entire internal structure.

In earlier years, when a "made" man went to jail, he was well looked after by his associates.  His legal fees were paid, his family well looked after, and in the case of major players, his territory and financial interests were protected by colleagues on the outside. At the time of Teresa's incarceration, both Patriarca and underboss Henry Tameleo, who controlled the Boston branch of the New England family, were already serving time. With the organization in the hands of younger, less respectful mobsters, Teresa found his family neglected, his secretary the victim of an attempted murder, and millions of dollars he'd gathered in various scams taken.

This and the probable consequences of his impending retrial in Pittsfield was enough to make him turn state's evidence, one of the first accredited mafia members who opted to "rat," in what would soon become an epidemic for crime families around the country. A $500,000 price was placed on his head, and while his sentence was commuted in 1971, he and his wife and children spent the next few years under witness protection. Later, he published three books based on his days in the mafia.

While at the time, Lucchese family soldier Joe Valachi was the most prominent Cosa Nostra informant in the public mind, Teresa's decision to "sing" for the Feds was far more significant. From his position as one of Patriarca's key lieutenants, he provided information that devastated the Patriarca family and did damage to other mafia families as well. His testimony led to the indictment of at least 50 mob figures, and valuable leads in the pursuit of hundreds of others.

While Teresa's turn on his compatriots dealt a disastrous blow to the mafia in the Northeast, it was not the last time that mob influence would be felt locally, nor was it the last time Pittsfield officials would become implicated in illegal gambling activity.

In the mid-1980s, organized crime was still reaping major profits from gambling activity in Berkshire County, primarily in the form of sports betting. A multiple-year investigation coordinated by District Attorney Anthony Ruberto, in which the local DA's office utilized wiretaps for the first time, led to a number of indictments but narrowly missed netting "major sports betting figures in Massachusetts."

It did result in the 1983 arrest of Pittsfield Police officer William Zoitos and his wife, who authorities alleged had allowed their home and phones to be used for registering bets. The following year, Ruberto's office led a 13-home raid in which suspects were arrested across Western Massachusetts and into Connecticut.

Ruberto told The Eagle that the proceeds from these rackets "ultimately ends up in the coffers of organized crime, which uses that money to infiltrate other areas of society."

These profits fueled the booming narcotics trade, which by then was firmly established as the mafia's most lucrative enterprise, and left ample funds for exerting influence over law enforcement and political figures.

"If anybody in this town doesn't know that organized crime is here, then shame on them," Pittsfield Police Sgt. Richard Henault, head of the department's special investigations unit, told The Eagle.

Police Chief Stanley Stankiewicz concurred, adding that "mob related beatings" were not uncommon in the city.

According to newspaper reporting at the time, a bookie could be found as easily as hanging around any one of a number of local bars, and these individuals almost always paid a cut on to the larger latticework of the New England mafia.

In early 1986, one such bar in particular was the site of a police sting that sent major ripples through the community. On Jan. 11, the three-member SIU conducted a raid on the Beer Garden on Wahconah Street, during which then City Council President Angelo C. Stracuzzi was arrested along with several other members of his family on charges of allowing gambling on the premises.

Stracuzzi and fellow councilors denounced the raid as an act of political retribution for his push to disband the special unit and establish an independent committee to review the department's operation. The city councilor was ultimately acquitted of charges during a jury trial after testifying that he had sold his interest in the bar to his father and brother weeks prior to the raid. Three other family members plead guilty, with father Angelo R. and sister Donna Stracuzzi Smith paying fines, while brother Anthony Stracuzzi served a sentence of 10 days in the local jail.

The controversy following the raid made headlines in the New York Times, with allegations of racism, falsified pay records, and on duty drunkeness by its chief leveled at the Pittsfield Police Department. Chief Stankiewicz was hospitalized for chest pains during the ensuing scandal, ultimately resigning and moving to Florida later that year.

The SIU was immediately disbanded, and an ordinance establishing the Police Advisory Committee was passed by the council just days after the Beer Garden raid. According to the ordinance, the committee's role is "to advise the Mayor and the City Council on non-operational and non-investigatory matters relative to the Police Department in the City, and in advising with regard to rules and regulations in conformity with law."

By the late 1980s, the role of organized crime in Berkshire County was diminishing, as the New England mafia family has continued to decline following the 1984 death of Raymond Patriarca Sr., its most successful boss. Today, its membership of full-fledged "made" men has dwindled to less than a third of what it was during its peak, and those members that now remain are largely elderly, and increasingly being snapped up for prosecution. Patriarca family boss Peter Limone was placed on five years probation with an ankle bracelet in 2011, followed by the arrest of his successor Anthony DiNunzio the following year.  Antonio Spagnolo, the next acting boss in line, is currently awaiting trial following his arraignment this past fall, along with another longtime member, on extortion charges.

Occasional incidents of local gambling activity and alleged organized crime have occurred sporadically in recent years, such as the 1998 prosecution of Dalton resident Shaun Delmolino, and the 2003 money-laundering conviction of Giovanna Trotti, a Pittsfield man with purported ties to Springfield mob auspices. More recently, the owner of the former Hermann Alexander's bar was sentenced to probation for illegal gambling machines and conspiracy to distribute cocaine, following an April 2012 raid that also led to the arrest of eight other individuals.

Overall, though, the age of gambling rackets and traditional "mob" crime has all but died off in the Berkshires over the past quarter century. Today, concerns about mafia infiltration have been replaced by a new, arguably more troubling kind of "organized crime," in the form of youth street gangs. Affiliation with these, say many officials as well as local educators, has seen a dramatic rise of late, ushering in a new kind of danger which community leaders have only just begun to confront.

Thanks to Joe Durwin.

No comments:

Post a Comment