For mobsters who've helped the feds, coming home for the holidays can be a dangerous proposition.
It was the night before Thanksgiving, 1994, and Paul waded cautiously into the Cleveland night. He was to meet Mike Roman at the Flat Iron, a corner bar on the east bank of the Flats.
A 26-year-old assistant manager, Roman had arrived at the bar to pick up his check, then drink it away. Paul says Roman was "shitfaced" when he arrived around midnight, and Paul ordered him to drink coffee before driving home.
At closing time, they walked out the back door. Paul, who spoke with Scene on condition that his last name not be printed, remembers Roman glowering at a group of men standing around a white car on Center Street. "What the fuck are you looking at?" he asked.
One of the men walked up to Roman. Acting on instinct, Paul took a swing. It staggered the man, but he reached for a gun, squeezing off three shots into Roman's chest. Paul says he tried to grab the gun and it went off -- piercing the wrist of his right arm. Paul says he hobbled away, blood spurting from his arm. A friend drove him to a hospital. Roman was dead.
This was a Mafia hit, says Paul -- only the bullets were meant for him.
His old friends suspected that he was a rat. Paul says it isn't true. But suspicion is all it takes to get yourself killed in this line of work.
Ten years later, he sits at the Flat Iron and rolls up his sleeve to show the scar on his right wrist. He remembers the pain, the temptation to pass out and bleed to death on the sidewalk, then the five surgeries it took to repair the damage. What he got out of the deal was a good story.
The transcript from the murder trial, though, tells a different story: Minutes before he was shot, Roman had been honking and cursing at the four men gathered around a car, telling them to quit lingering near the bar.
According to witnesses, Sam Bulgin, a Lake County drug dealer, was in no mood to take orders. He got his .38. The next time Roman came outside, Bulgin was ready.
The transcript makes no mention of the Mafia. Police say it was nothing more than a booze-fueled clash that escalated into gunfire.
Paul's face drops when he hears this. He had wanted to observe the 10th anniversary of the hit that almost took his life. He insists that Bulgin was a hit man, that the shooting was only supposed to look spontaneous. More likely, Paul is marking the 10th anniversary of the most paranoid time in his life.
There's no doubting Paul's Mafia cred. It's all spelled out in a federal-court file. Few can speak with the same authority on the 1990s version of La Cosa Nostra's Cleveland chapter. In a group whose story has survived through oral tradition, Paul may be the guy who authors the final chapter.
Paul came to the mob by way of Milan -- as in the Milan, Michigan Federal Correctional Institution. There he reunited with two swaggering wise guys, Allie Calabrese and Joe Iacobacci, whom he knew from his Collinwood youth.
During the 1970s, a young Calabrese had run gambling and loan-sharking rackets for the Mafia. Rivals tried to take him out with a car bomb, but Calabrese's neighbor died in the explosion instead. Later, Cleveland underboss-turned-informant Angelo Lonardo testified that Calabrese was involved in the plot to bomb Irish mobster Danny Greene.
Iacobacci went by the nickname "Loose" -- as in "screw loose." He had been trafficking in large quantities of cocaine. Lonardo confirmed to the FBI that Loose was a made man. Paul says Calabrese was too.
It's easy to see what they saw in Paul. He looks like a wise guy -- thick-bodied, muscular to the point of necklessness, Mediterranean skin, and a cocky grin. "Fuck" shows up in nearly every breath. What most endeared Paul to them, however, was his expertise in an unfamiliar area of crime -- the white-collar variety. Paul was in Milan on securities fraud. In the early 1980s, he had duplicated stock certificates and taken out bank loans by offering the phony stock as collateral. He had also sold stock for a phony product: a self-chilling can. Paul and his collaborators held a press conference at the World Trade Center to announce that they had inked deals with PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch. Any sucker who bought the stock saw his investment vanish.
Paul impressed upon Loose and Calabrese that white-collar crime paid better than drugs -- and brought only a fraction of the penalties. "It's a dirty business," Paul says of drugs. "And the kind of time they give out is fucking astronomical. I can do a million dollars in fraud and get three to four years. But if you do a million dollars in coke, you're never going to see daylight." A stockbroker in New York, Paul knew how to create shell companies and move money offshore. "These guys saw my paperwork when I was at Milan," he says. "They fucking loved me!"
They plotted to make their fortune in a racket called the "California swing." Paul would open bank accounts in New Jersey, then deposit bad checks with California routing numbers. At that time, it took 10 days for an East Coast bank to learn that the check was bogus. "In the meantime," says Paul with a satisfied grin, "I'm wiring $4 to $5 million out of the country to an offshore account."
The money would move from islands like the Netherlands Antilles and Curaçao to accounts in Geneva, then be routed through Chicago banks -- with the consent of the Chicago Mafia, which extracted its own toll.
The neatly laundered loot would be the building block for the new Cleveland Mafia, they all agreed. Loose, a favorite of former boss Jack "White" Licavoli, would be the head of the family. Calabrese would be his captain. "We had a pretty good crew set up," says Paul. "It could have been something."
Every start-up has its complications. While he was still in prison, Paul says, he ran into a man from a Newark, New Jersey crew that operated vending companies and trafficked in drugs. "He says, 'Hey, asshole, I know you,'" Paul recalls. Several years earlier, Paul had screwed the man's crew. "We sold him a vending company that didn't exist," he laughs. "Took his guys for about 150 G's."
Calabrese intervened on Paul's behalf, convincing the Jersey mobster that instead of putting Paul in the ground, he ought to put him on the payroll. As Paul's California swing turned profitable, the Jersey crew could get a fat cut.
Heading the Newark faction was Mike Taccetta, made famous as the model for fictional mobster Tony Soprano. Taccetta signed off on the deal. Paul had extra mouths to feed, but at least he was alive.
He left prison in 1991. From the smile on his face as he reminisces, it's apparent that these were his glory days. Besides the California swing, he was fleecing airlines with a luggage scam. At that time, you didn't need to show an ID to fly. So Paul could book himself on four flights, using a different name for each. He'd check carry-on bags. Upon arriving, he'd pick up the bag and rip off the tags, then report lost luggage containing about $2,000 in valuables. After a month of fruitless searching, the airline would send him a check for $1,250, the maximum rate.
It was so easy, everyone in Paul's crew did it. "We had guys sitting around, filling out forms all day," he laughs. Paul claims they made thousands a week, multiplying their profit every time they added a soldier. Once, he took a pack of 50 friends on a Florida golfing trip. All claimed to lose their luggage, thus vacationing at a profit.
Meanwhile, the California swing was bringing in so much money, Paul had to go to the Caribbean to cash the checks -- he was worried about alerting suspicion in the States. "I was basically a money machine for the fucking mob," he says. He wore $2,500 suits and $800 shoes, and drove a BMW convertible.
As head of the family, Loose was entitled to a cut of everything. He was supposed to send a portion to New Jersey to pay off Paul's debt. But Calabrese told Paul that Loose was keeping the money for himself and telling the New Jersey crew that Paul wasn't earning. Paul was furious, but he could do nothing. Loose called the shots.
The FBI was watching with keen interest. Agents decided Paul was ripe for the picking. In July 1992, he was arrested for a parole violation -- consorting with known felons. The feds knew about the California swing. If he wanted to be saved from prison, he'd have to wear a wire. As an extra inducement, Paul says, agents played a tape of Loose musing over the best method to kill Paul. This, says Paul, combined with the FBI investigation, was enough to make him bolt for Miami.
When the California-swing arrests came down, Paul was listed only as an unindicted co-conspirator. "They didn't have anything on me," he says. Court files say otherwise. The indictment notes that Paul agreed to wear a wire and that he hung around Cleveland long enough to tape roughly 200 meetings with his partners between the time of his arrest and the spring of 1993. [Paul says that he gave agents permission to bug his car, but never wore a wire.]
Paul was also a groomsman at Calabrese's wedding. He admired the older man's toughness, his style. This was "a gangster's gangster," Paul still says today. But his fawning respect also made Paul perfect for his role; Calabrese would never suspect him.
"Mr. Calabrese was clearly commanding a position of authority over him," FBI Agent David Drab testified at the trial. "He realized, in my opinion, that this cooperating witness [Paul] deified him in a sense, that he looked up to him and wanted to be part of the organization."
Paul taped Calabrese boasting about being "the only guy left" who was capable of forming a new Mafia. He recorded Calabrese's resentment of Iacobacci, who liked the money and prestige that came with mob work, but not the physical danger. "I'm the real, original tough motherfucker around here," Calabrese declared on one tape.
Once, at the Feast of the Assumption, Calabrese wanted to eat dinner at Nido Italia in Little Italy. He sat down at a table reserved by a man who had come with his family. When the man objected, Calabrese dragged him outside. He told Paul he "beat the fucker's head in." When the man's daughter kicked Calabrese in the groin, he slugged her too. Stories like these didn't help his case. Calabrese was sentenced to three and a half years. Iacobacci got two and a half. Meanwhile, Paul was in Miami, going to bed at night with a pistol strapped to his ankle.
The subsequent decade has only added more mystery -- and more death. In 1998, a jury convicted Sam Bulgin of killing Roman. Bulgin claims that he wasn't the shooter, that he was set up by a friend who ratted him out in exchange for a reduced sentence on his own drug-trafficking charges.
A year earlier, Bulgin's brother, Peter, was found shot to death in his East Cleveland home. Police never knew whether it was self-inflicted, but Paul believes it was payback for Roman's slaying. "He got whacked," Paul shrugs. He says he knows who did it, but he isn't telling. He only insists he wasn't the one.
In 1999, while doing time at a federal prison in Georgia, Calabrese was clubbed with a metal pipe. He slipped into a coma and died. The attacker was caught, but no one seems to know his identity -- only that he happened to be from Cleveland. Paul thinks Loose arranged the hit.
Loose himself has kept a low profile. There are rumors that he became an informant. Some say he's gone straight. But nobody seems to peddle the theory that he'll make another run at establishing La Cosa Nostra in Cleveland.
Paul claims to be enjoying straight living. He left Cleveland, though he won't say where his permanent address is. He regrets getting into the fast life. Friends from college stayed on Wall Street, earning Fifth Avenue condos.
He has no regrets about cooperating with the feds in taking down the Cleveland Mafia. "There's a difference between being a rat and self-preservation," says Paul. "My ass was against the wall. What was I going to do? Get clipped?"
Thanks to Thomas Francis.
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