Under Surveillance

Apr 18, 2010 - by Ron Chepesiuk

Special to Crime Magazine

Ron Chepesiuk’s book: The Trafficantes: Godfathers from Tampa, Florida: The Mafia, the CIA and the JFK Assassination

This is an excerpt from Ron Chepesiuk’s book:The Trafficantes: Godfathers from Tampa, Florida: The Mafia, the CIA and the JFK Assassination. The book is available for purchase from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and www.ronchepesiuk.com.

by Ron Chepesiuk

When the Mob put a $100,000 contract on his life, Joe Valachi decided to tell all to the authorities, and in 1962 he turned informant. Valachi became one of the most valuable federal witnesses ever, compelling the U.S. government to put Valachi in the Federal Witness Protection program and to guard him with up to 200 U.S. marshals.

In his nationally televised appearance before the McClellan Committee in 1963, Valachi formally identified 317 organized crime members, including Santo Trafficante. During the hearings, Trafficante’s photo appeared at the top of a chart depicting the organizational structure of the Tampa crime family. Santo liked to keep a low profile, but the American public now knew him as one of the country’s most important mobsters.

Tampa Bay Florida

Tampa Bay Florida

But by the time Valachi testified, the FBI already knew that Santo Trafficante Jr. was a major force in the Mafia. The Bureau had him under constant surveillance while it gathered intelligence on him. The FBI’s Tampa field office was opened in 1960 to monitor the Tampa Mafia. Joseph F. Santoima headed the office until his retirement in 1973 after 33 years of service with the FBI. Under Santoima’s leadership, the Tampa office spent considerable resources monitoring Santo Trafficante, Jr. Wherever the godfather went, the FBI was sure to follow, and they had no problem letting its target know it. Files released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal that the FBI’s field offices in Miami and Tampa played the major role in the surveillance. For nearly three decades, the field offices kept voluminous files, containing memos, reports, newspaper clippings, telegrams, coded messages and other records. In all the FBI collected more than 38,000 pages of information on Trafficante.

The intelligence gathering began in earnest about 1958 when Alberto Anastasia was shot to death as he sat in a barber’s chair in New York City. The files confirm that Trafficante had been at Anastasia’s dinner party the night before and that Trafficante had checked out of the hotel two hours before Anastasia was hit. The files cover Trafficante’s days in pre-revolutionary war Cuba, including his arrest and incarceration in Trescornia prison, which, the field reports noted, was more Club Med than Alcatraz. As the files reveal, Trafficante’s family and friends could bring food in and even enjoy entertainment with the prisoner.

 

Santo Terfficante Jr.

Santo Terfficante Jr.

The St. Petersburg Times newspaper, which got the FOIA files released, reported that FBI agents tailing Trafficante often recorded the mileage of his Dodge Dart or Chevy whenever they found the cars unattended. Agents would look inside Trafficante’s car even though they did not have a warrant. One time, agents found four sealed thank you notes, a bank envelope and a car service center receipt, indicating that Trafficante had paid $110 for four Atlas tires. The FBI was a stickler for detail. For instance, in one 1966 report, an agent spent considerable space in a report describing how Trafficante got a flat tire on a trip to Miami.

His report recorded that it took him from 3:10 p.m. to 3:24 p.m. to change the Dodge Dart’s front left tire. The authorities were interested in every little detail of Trafficante’s life and in every move he made. In making his report for August 21, 1961, narcotics agent Oscar Leon Davis wrote that on his most recent visit to Miami, Trafficante purchased a pair of contact lenses and 12 pair of prescription glasses, all with different frames. Davis wrote: “The Miami Police Department’s Intelligence Unit is of the opinion that the purchase of those glasses of different frames could be that he wishes to change his appearance or that he plans to leave the country and wants to take an ample supply with him.”

No part of Trafficante’s life was out of bounds for the FBI’s investigation. For instance, when Trafficante’s wife was hospitalized at Tampa’s St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1966, the agents tailed the godfather on his daily visits to see her. The agents would follow him to the airport where they watched him buy newspapers before boarding a plane. Trafficante would sometimes try and shake the FBI tail by buying the airline tickets under an assumed name. On one occasion, he exhibited a sense of humor using the name of the agent who was following him to purchase a ticket.

But files show that the FBI seemed to know when Trafficante was scheduled to return to Tampa. When his plane landed, they would resume the surveillance and continue tailing him once again, as he made his daily rounds about Tampa before returning to his home on Bristol Street. Trafficante would also play games with FBI agents by talking in Italian when he knew they were nearby trying to ease drop on his conversations. Apparently, none of the agents tailing him understood Italian.

But on one occasion the normally low-key mobster blew his top. In 1967, the local police met Trafficante at the Miami International Airport and told him that he was no longer welcome in South Florida. A livid Trafficante shouted at the police officers after they asked for identification: “You sons of a bitch! You can’t do this to me. This isn’t Russia!” As a Miami Herald reporter and a photographer looked on, Trafficante was arrested and charged with vagrancy, disorderly conduct and possession of drugs, which turned out to be diet pills his doctor had prescribed.

According to Tampa Mob historian Scott M. Deitche, “This was just one of many examples of the bullish tactics law enforcement used in their attempts to rattle mobsters under their surveillance.” The police eventually dropped the charges when Trafficante’s lawyer, Frank Ragano, threatened legal action after a photo of his client appeared in The Miami Herald. Trafficante did sue the Miami police for $1 in damages for violating his civil rights, but the lawsuit got tied up in the courts, and the mobster eventually dropped it.

J. Edgar Hoover was made aware that the Trafficante surveillance had the potential for legal problems. In 1967 he wrote a memo to his Tampa and Miami field offices, warning his agents to be “circumspect and discrete…so there can be no basis for any allegations of harassment and to avoid, in so far as possible, any attacks on the FBI’s investigative procedures by the hoodlums and their attorneys.”

The FBI’s Trafficante investigation, however, was hampered by internal struggles within the FBI over who would be responsible for the surveillance. Eventually, the surveillance was split, with the Tampa office responsible for central Florida and the Miami office for the South Florida area. As part of its intelligence gathering operation, the FBI read the local newspaper regularly for any news about Trafficante’s activities. This included weekly wedding announcements and funeral notices. “Whenever a paper in Tampa, St. Petersburg or Miami wrote about Trafficante, the FBI would immediately wire the story to other FBI field offices nationwide,” The St. Petersburg Times revealed.   

One newspaper article from the file described Trafficante as a Tampa mobster whose “influence extended throughout Florida.” Despite the intense surveillance, Trafficante tried to carry on with business as usual. On September 22, 1966, he was attending a Mob meeting at the La Stella Italian restaurant in Queens, New York, when two NYPD officers walked in. Trafficante was in the company of some of the city’s biggest crime bosses, including Carlo Gambino, boss of the Gambino crime family; Joe Colombo, boss of the Profaci crime family, Thomas Eboli, boss of the Genovese crime family, and Carlo Marcello and his brother Joe of New Orleans.

“What’s the meeting about?” the police officers asked the gathering. Marcello answered: “I decided to see some of my old friends so we all got together for lunch. Sure, some of these fellows have been in the rackets, but if they’re in the Mafia, I don’t know a damn thing about that. This was strictly a social gathering. That’s all there was to it.”

The powerful godfathers were meeting, the authorities learned later, to decide who would be the big godfather in New Orleans. Carlos Marcello controlled the scene, but Anthony Carolla, an ambitious up-and-coming scion of a New Orleans godfather, wanted a bigger share of the action. The Mafia dons had actually made their decision in favor of Carlos Marchello at an earlier meeting, and this was, as Marcello said, a social gathering.

 

The police officers, however, did not like the answer, and they arrested the 13 men present at the meeting. The charge – consorting with known criminals. They were taken to a local police precinct, stripped down to their underwear, fingerprinted and held on $100,000 bond. The mobsters were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury, but each of them invoked the Fifth Amendment. Unable to bring any charges that would stick, the police had to release them.

Undeterred, Trafficante and Marcello consorted once again by going to lunch together the afternoon of their release. Trafficante was allowed to return to Florida, but he had to travel to New York five times to appear before a grand jury. In true godfather fashion, he said nothing to the jury except when he invoked the Fifth Amendment.

In October 1967, another grand jury began hearings into organized crime’s relationship with Tampa’s liquor industry. Several suspected mobsters, including members of the Trafficante crime family, had to appear before the panel.

All of them invoked the Fifth Amendment or gave evasive answers. Trafficante took the Fifth 80 times. On October 26, 1967, the grand jury indicted Frank Albano, the son-in-law of Santo’s brother Sam, and one of Santo’s brothers, Henry Trafficante. The court charged the defendants with unlawfully labeling liquor bottles and released them on $76,500 bail.

The authorities were trying to rattle the Tampa crime boss and to force him into making a mistake, but they were not succeeding. Despite the close surveillance, Trafficante continued to travel the country on Mob business. A July 10, 1968 Dade County OCB memo noted that he had traveled to Hong Kong, Thailand and other Asian countries and that various intelligence sources were fairly certain that a large scale narcotics operation was the reason.

An informant advised the OCB that on July 8, 1968, Trafficante had visited the residence of Evaristo Garcia and advised him to be careful in moving ahead with the plans for Ecuador. Trafficante told Garcia that a $10 million deal had “fallen through.” That remark about their Ecuador plans, the OCB speculated, most likely referred to the proposed construction of a casino at Guayaguil, Ecuador, which was to be used as a center for organized crime activities in Latin America.

The FBI began investigating the disappearance of an associate of Trafficante named Luigi Pietro Coliachin, also known as Louis P. Brady. A FBI report noted that a special agent of the FBI’s Miami office last saw Brady on August 9, 1963. Brady’s wife, Frances, told the FBI that she had last been with her husband at the Capra Restaurant in Miami Beach. The Bradys and their son were dining with friends, awaiting Santo Trafficante, who telephoned to say he would be arriving shortly. Before that happened, though, Brady sent his family home.

The wife never saw her husband again. In its report, the FBI noted: “Mrs. Brady is of the opinion that Trafficante is responsible for her husband’s disappearance.” The intelligence reports show that the authorities were certainly aware of Trafficante’s movements and activities, but it did not seem to make a difference. Despite all the information being collected, they were still far from building a solid case against the mobster. As the 1960s came to a close, the authorities were no closer to nabbing the Tampa godfather than they were a decade before when their surveillance first began.

 

-- Ron Chepesiuk is an award winning freelance journalist and Fulbright Scholar to Bangladesh and consultant to the History Channel’s “Gangland” television series. He is the author of several true crime books, including “Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel” and “Gangsters of Harlem.”  His next book, Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers, will appear as an e-book in late April and print book in late June. Go to www.ikeatkinsonkingpin.com/

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