The Chicago Syndicate: Mafia informant made a lasting impression

Friday, November 04, 2005

Mafia informant made a lasting impression

Friends of mine: Paddy Calabrese

Mafia informant Paddy Calabrese was a friend of mine - sort of. News of his death last month from a massive heart attack triggered reminders of the tricky path reporters sometimes tread when they deal with sources. In Calabrese's case, the path extended over more than 30 years. Calabrese was the first person to be given a new identity by the government in exchange for his testimony against Buffalo mob chieftains. His case led to the creation of the Witness Security Program, and fortified a law enforcement experiment we know today as federal strike forces.

Calabrese was clandestinely moved from Buffalo with his wife, her two children from a previous marriage and their child. It was his wife's first husband's search for his children that led to my introduction to Paddy Calabrese. We met so he could tell me his side of the story - how he managed to elude the mob in his new life, how he raised his stepchildren as if they were his own, why he decided to break the Mafia code of silence and what he hoped to accomplish in life.

On occasion, when he returned to Buffalo, we met for lunch. He never looked furtively around to see who might be in the restaurant. He never showed concern that, as federal agents said, he was marked for death by the Mafia. Always, he was upbeat, full of braggadocio. He boasted often about how he had obtained a license to carry a firearm even though he was a convicted felon.

He reveled in describing his exploits in working undercover to help cops catch criminals. He made no secret of who he was or where he lived. After a few years of using phony identities, he returned to his given name. His business card for the detective agency he ran read "Patrick "Paddy' Calabrese." For years I kept it hidden in my Rolodex for fear the wrong eyes might learn his whereabouts.

Through the years I wondered why Calabrese stayed in touch, why he confided in me. It was, I imagine, because I was a link to his hometown and to his heritage.

He told me when we first met that my Sicilian ancestry meant I understood him. I nodded, but didn't agree. I think it was more likely that he wanted validation. Testifying against his fellow mobsters was unheard of in the 1960s when the Buffalo "arm" was thriving and ruled with an iron hand. By talking to a reporter, Calabrese, it seemed to me, was searching for approval that what he did was right. And, of course it was, but not to the people he had associated with all his life.

He did so because his family was not being taken care of by the mob after his arrest for the brazen daytime holdup of the treasurer's office in Buffalo's City Hall. In reality, his mob bosses most likely considered him a loose cannon not worthy of supporting. But to Calabrese, no money given to his family and the prospect of a long stretch behind bars were sufficient reasons to become the first Buffalo mobster to testify against his bosses.

That decision eventually turned out to be the first nail in the coffin of the Buffalo Mafia. As far as I know, he never regretted rejecting his underworld edict about not talking about Mafia affairs. But then again, out of fear it would be a sign of weakness, he probably never would have told me if he did.

However, the one prediction he always made to me did come true - he died from natural causes and not from a Mafia bullet.

Thanks to Lee Coppola, the dean of the journalism school at St. Bonaventure University in New York, for providing his viewpoint to us.

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