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#616694 - 10/07/11 06:40 AM
The Heyday Of New Haven's Mob
Christopher Hoffman at the New Haven Independent has a five-part series on the history of the Mafia in New Haven, CT:
Part One: Salvatore "Midge Renault" [url=Annunziatohttp://www.newhavenindependent.org/archives/2009/08/the_midge_dynas.php][url=Annunziatohttp://www.newhavenindependent.org/archives/2009/08/the_midge_dynas.php][url=Annunziatohttp://www.newhavenindependent.org/archives/2009/08/the_midge_dynas.php]Annunziatohttp://www.newhavenindependent.org/archives/2009/08/the_midge_dynas.php[/url][/url][/url]
Thirty years ago this summer, New Haven’s most infamous mobster, Salvatore “Midge Renault” Annunziato, disappeared. Literally hundreds of newspaper articles were written about Midge during his lifetime, but most of his and the mob’s story in the Elm City has remained hidden.
What follows is part one of a five-part series lifting the veil of secrecy and silence that has long concealed Midge (pictured, from his FBI file) and the mafia in New Haven. It also tells the stories of two other gangsters who with Midge long dominated the New Haven underworld, Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano and William “The Wild Guy” Grasso.
This series is based on thousands of pages of FBI files, as well as police, prison, court and other public records, newspaper articles and dozens of interviews and conversations. Some names and minor information have been changed to protect the innocent.
Midge Renault’s rise is traced from impoverished Kid to muscle man for the mob … A meeting with Ralph Mele … The Mob forms an alliance with a powerful city politician … Midge is made …
June 19, 1979
Salvatore “Midge Renault” Annunziato sat in the fading light inside his East Haven home and waited for the phone to ring.
For more than 30 years, Midge had been New Haven’s most infamous gangster: delighting, horrifying and titillating the city and its suburbs. He’d shot men, beaten them, started riots, destroyed restaurants, shaken down contractors, corrupted cops, politicians and union officials, run illegal card and craps games and been arrested dozens of times for everything from breach of peace to attempted murder. The former boxer — Midge Renault was his ring name — loved violence, especially when he was drunk, which was often. Smashing his fist into a face or a baseball bat into a skull made him gleeful. He was so powerful that his jailers let him leave at night, so infamous that the city’s two daily newspapers referred to him simply as “Midge” in their headlines, and so vicious that he once beat up a man, ran him over with his car and then returned to beat him up some more.
But there was another side to Midge: a generosity and gregariousness that more than matched his mania for mayhem. A social butterfly, he roamed the city in constant search of a good time, delighting in handing out $100 bills, paying friends’ restaurant tabs, buying drinks for the house, doling out union jobs or lending his car. Possessed of a crude charm, Midge befriended everyone from the region’s leading political figures to bartenders and downtown parking lot attendants.
Midge, it was said, had a heart of gold. If he liked you, there was nothing he wouldn’t do for you. But if he didn’t, watch out.
On this night, however, all that seemed to be in the past. At 59, his body and his mind were going to seed, undone by years of alcoholism, prison, overeating and family tragedy. The jaunty, strutting gangster with the modish sideburns of less than a decade ago was gone, replaced by an old man with spindly arms who wore glasses the size of playing cards.
Much of his power was gone as well. It had been a decade since he’d lost his influence over the Hamden-based International Brotherhood of Operating Engineers Local 478, one of the state’s biggest and most powerful unions. Twenty years earlier, he had been its business agent and run it with an iron hand. It had been his power base, a steady source of income, a means to take care of his friends and family.
And there were rivals, including Billy Grasso, a ruthless up-and-comer from New Haven’s East Shore. Years earlier, Midge chased Billy out of Fair Haven for ripping off kids with loaded dice. Now Billy was a made guy, a favorite of New England crime boss Raymond L. S. Patriarca.
Midge was reduced to shaking down restaurants for a living, as well as embezzling from the Laborers Union and skimming off its Christmas parties. The FBI nailed him for the latter less than two months before, charging him with labor racketeering, embezzlement and conspiracy. He also faced an attempted murder charge for shooting a man in the leg outside his longtime mistress’s house. The two raps were more than enough to send him away for life.
An FBI agent told Midge there was a contract on him. It was finally too much for the boys in New York. Either they would kill him or the feds would put him away for the rest of his life. Your only chance is to switch sides and come over to us, the agent said.
Midge turned the agent down flat. “Take your best shot,” he said. “I can’t change.”
When his old friend and fellow Genovese crime family member Tommy “The Blond” Vastano arrived at the immaculate suburban ranch across from the baseball field at about 8:40 p.m., Midge said what his wife later called an unusually quiet good-bye.
As Midge exited his front door, Pasquale “Shaggy Dog” Amendola — the latest in a long line of wannabe gangsters who trailed Midge like loyal canines — followed. The Dog would take a separate car and bring Midge home later.
With Tommy and Midge in the lead, the two-car caravan left. At some point, the cars pulled over and Midge told Shaggy Dog to go home. He’d get a ride back. As the car drove away, the last wisps of light faded from the evening sky.
Nine days later, Midge’s lawyer reported him missing.
In November 1945, Midge and two accomplices held up a card game at Fair Haven social club. Midge, who fired a bullet into the ceiling during the robbery — a false legend claims that he used a machine gun — might have gotten away with it had he and his friends not later taunted their victims when they ran into them in a downtown restaurant. Midge was sentenced to three to five years in prison.
But that was typical Midge. He’d avoided military service in World War Two, in a crude way. Called to Hartford in 1942 for his army physical, Midge and a friend had cut through a screen door and returned with watermelon that they distributed to other recruits waiting on line. When officers objected, Midge and his accomplice started a brawl. After his arrest, Midge stood on a chair at the police station waving $50 and offering to take on anyone in the place. He received two moths in jail and the military deemed him unfit for service.
Midge%20Renault%20101.jpgBorn Salvatore Anthony Annunziato on Christmas Eve 1919 to immigrants from Naples, Midge grew up poor in Fair Haven, the seventh of 10 children. His father was a small time bootlegger who brewed and sold bathtub gin and Italian cordials like anisette; he drank too much, and beat his kids. Midge’s mother labored from dawn to dusk to feed her ever-growing brood. Midge’s oldest brother was severely handicapped. His legs mangled by polio at a young age, he would use crutches his entire life.
Midge’s five older brothers were delinquent almost from birth, racking up dozens of arrests for everything from petty theft to assault. One went to reform school at 9; two others were arrested for the first time at 9 and 11. Midge himself was arrested at 9 for an unspecified crime.
The Annunziato children evoked contempt in their teachers. One brother was an “an extreme behavior problem” who was “slovenly, dirty, babyish and quarrelsome.” Of another brother, a teacher wrote that “normal children should not be expected to endure his presence among them.”
Midge was a relative angel by contrast. While he was “defiant,” stole items and shot dice on school grounds, his teachers listed his attendance as “good” and conduct “fair,” although they noted his propensity to hit students, especially girls. He scored 90 on his IQ test, learned to read (relatives recall him as a fanatical newspaper reader) and finished eighth grade, with the best academic record among his siblings, according to available records.
In 1933, Midge’s beloved mother and second youngest brother Antonio contracted rheumatic fever. Their deaths devastated the 13-year-old Midge. He was arrested four times inside a year, the last time after stealing a car and running down a boy on a bicycle. When he refused to pay the injured boy’s medical expenses, the judge sentenced him to reform school.
There, Midge began focusing on boxing. His older brother Fortunato had fought under the name “Jack Renault.” Midge took the ring name “Midget Renault” because of his small size — he stood only 5’3” and weighed just over 100 pounds. Midget evolved into Midge.
In November 1936, fresh out of reform school, 16-year-old Midge won the state amateur flyweight championship. That was the high point of his career. For the next three years, he boxed constantly, often several times a month, at the New Haven Arena and venues around the state, but his brawling style was more suited to a tavern fight than a ring. Skilled boxers picked him apart and administered horrific beatings. Some would later attribute his erratic and extreme behavior to those beatings, saying they left him punch drunk.
In December 1939, Midge’s brother Angelo (nicknamed Cibol or “onions ” for his habit of eating raw onions like apples) punched the state athletic commissioner in the face after the commissioner suspended Midge for a hitting man when he was down. Future Chief of Police and Mayor Biagio DiLieto would tell the FBI years later that he considered Cibol the most dangerous of the Annunziatos.
Midge’s boxing career soon petered out. Over the years, he tried a variety of jobs: working in a shoe repair shop, assembling guns at the Winchester plant and upholstering furniture. But they were boring and didn’t pay enough. So Midge turned to crime.
Gasoline rationing during World War Two proved a gold mine for the mafia. The demand for counterfeit or stolen ration coupons was huge. Midge became a dealer and was said to control the distribution of fake or stolen coupons in the Naugatuck Valley. As he built up his business, he also built up his arrest record, getting pinched numerous times for assault and drunkenness.
In July 1945, an Orange cop pulled Midge over for speeding. Midge tried to bribe him with two $100 bills. The officer reported refusing the bribe upon which Midge became “the most foul-mouthed individual I have met in my 26 years in law enforcement.”
When the war ended, his business crashed. Out of money, Midge and two accomplices held up the card game in Fair Haven in late 1945 and were arrested and sent to prison.
But what had seemed a catastrophe — Midge by this time had a wife and two young boys — turned out to be a huge opportunity. In prison, Midge hooked up not only with a local mob boss named Ralph Mele, whose brothers had been his boxing trainers, but also Charles “Charlie the Blade” Tourine, a key member of the New Jersey group that dominated organized crime in New Haven.
Once released from prison in 1949, Midge began working for Ralph Mele. But the two had a falling out after Midge and a partner blew collection of a debt in Bristol. They “took the man for a ride,” only to have him escape and call the cops, landing Midge and his accomplice in jail. Worse still, the dust up made the papers.
“West End Club Steward Escapes ‘Being Taken for a Ride’” read the front page headline in the Bristol Press. Mele was angry at the publicity and, for a time, cut Midge off.
But it didn’t last. Midge was too good at shattering kneecaps and keeping everyone in line. Mele took Midge to meetings with other gangsters in Bridgeport and Ansonia.
Midge was on his way.
March 20, 1951
Ice Cream and Lottery Tickets
ralph%20mele%202.jpgRalph Mele (pictured, from his FBI file) walked across the taproom of Lip’s Bar & Grill in downtown New Haven and ordered a blackberry brandy. Mele, a 46-year-old ex-convict who had grown wealthy and powerful running an illegal lottery throughout New England knocked back the drink, hoping it would settle his nervous stomach. He checked his watch. The meeting was back at his place at 1 a.m. He’d have to leave soon.
Earlier, Mele’s boss, New York gangster Frank Costello, testified before the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. His testimony was the climax of the commission’s hearings, the first to be televised live. For weeks, New Haven and the rest of the country had been glued to their TV sets, spellbound by grainy black and white images of gangsters with names like “Greasy Thumb” telling tales of gambling, corruption and murder.
Most Americans thought the gangster era ended with the repeal of prohibition and the imprisonment of Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. Now they were learning of a national crime “syndicate” with tentacles stretching from coast to coast.
That may have been news in Nebraska, but not New Haven. Since Prohibition — the liquor ban went all but unenforced in the Elm City — New Haven had been a hotbed of gambling and mafia activity. The city was lousy with floating craps and card games, numbers rackets, bookies and loan sharks.
With Connecticut lacking its own mafia family, New Haven was a veritable United Nations of mobsters. Three of the five New York families, as well as the New England and New Jersey outfits, all operated in the city.
The dominant group was the New Jersey wing of mafia founder Charles “Lucky” Luciano’s New York-based family. How that came to pass, no one really knew, although some say the group established itself by controlling sugar supplies for brewing bootleg booze during Prohibition.
Mele had been tied up with the Jersey boys for decades. In 1932, he and other conspirators used infamous hitman Leonard Scarnici to rob a father and son at their Woodbridge gas station. The robbery went bad, and both men were shot to death. Mele was arrested, jumped bail and hid in New York City, using his mob connections to evade capture for a year. After finally being hauled back to New Haven, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and got two to five years.
Mele was paroled in 1937. The next year, he made the fateful decision to burglarize a Whalley Avenue theater. He and two accomplices tripped an alarm and were caught in the act. He got 12 years.
Prison authorities later said Mele operated “a vicious empire” within the walls of Wethersfield prison, the state’s only penitentiary at the time. Mele smuggled letters in and out, as well as drugs and other contraband. He claimed he could secure paroles for a fee and shook down prisoners and their families, but most likely it was just a common prison racket.
In the late 1940s, Mele’s friends hired top-flight New Haven lawyers to get him paroled. A postcard of the New Haven Green signed “Gyp — The Kid from Down Under” informed him the lawyers had been hired. Gyp was the nickname of an infamous New Jersey mobster, Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo.
The attorneys assured the authorities that Mele was reformed. All he wanted to do was sell ice cream for his nephews’ New Haven business, Golden Crest Ice Cream, also known as Royal Ice Cream.
“The plant has been constructed by his five nephews and I was surprised to learn that while plans for construction were underway, they consulted with Ralph and received from him much valuable assistance,” Mele’s attorney Alfonso Fasano wrote the prison warden on December 30, 1947. “Ralph is expected to take an important role in the operation of the plant as soon as he is permitted to do so by the Board of Parole. This is a great opportunity to do our part toward rehabilitating a man and bringing back into his rightful place in the community one who was formally an outcast. I know that you feel that saving a man is a far greater service than punishing a man.”
The next month, the parole board released Mele, and he became a salesman for Golden Crest Ice Cream earning $89 a month.
I was just a front. The FBI would later conclude that Mele and several partners who also had front jobs at Royal Ice Cream operated a lucrative New England-wide illegal lottery. The “Mutual Pool Lottery” tickets were printed in New York and later New Jersey and then distributed by Mele and his partners. Some of the biggest names in organized crime — Frank Costello, New Jersey gangster Abner “Longie” Zwillman and Providence-based Raymond L.S. Patriarca — had a piece of the action, the FBI found.
Mele was soon able to move his family into a house on Goffe Terrace, then one of swankiest neighborhoods in the city.
Midge was at Lip’s Bar & Grill the same night as Ralph Mele. They were seen talking to each other around midnight. Mele had a lot to talk about. Business was booming, and he was expanding, recently paying cash for six cars for his couriers to deliver the tickets to other parts of New England, including Lewiston, Maine, which he had visited several weeks before.
But there was a problem. The Maine boss was unhappy, so unhappy he’d come to New Haven and met with Mele earlier that day to try to work things out. Now, there’d be another meeting.
It was not a good time for Mele to be expanding — or to have a beef with someone important. The TV hearings had badly rattled the mob. In an effort to lower the heat, Costello and other top mobsters ordered gambling operations shut down or cut back.
But Mele was doing the opposite, aggressively expanding and creating conflict.
Draining the dregs of his brandy, Mele left Lip’s and drove to his house on Goffe Terrace, where he lived with his brother’s family. Shortly after arriving, Mele told his niece that he had to go out again.
“I’ll be right back,” he said.
A moment later, his niece heard a car — not Mele’s — drive away.
The next morning, she found his medal of St. Christopher — the patron saint of travelers and those in distress — on the porch.
About 15 minutes after Mele’s niece heard him leave, State Trooper Robert Campbell turned down English Drive along the base of East Rock. As he rounded a curve, his lights played across a body sprawled on the damp pavement next to a cedar guardrail. It was still warm.
At first Campbell and the New Haven cops thought the well-dressed man had been hit by a car. After wiping the blood from his face, they saw the bullet holes.
Mele’s death had been especially brutal. After hitting him above the right ear, his assailant had pushed an unconscious or semi-conscious Mele out of the car onto the pavement and fired five .38 caliber bullets into his head. One smashed into his skull just behind his right ear, traversing the brain, cracking through the left side of his cranium and embedding itself in his scalp. The killer then knelt, pressed the gun against left side of the man’s jaw and fired four times, peppering his skin with powder burns and shattering his face.
The murder created a sensation. The city’s two daily newspapers almost immediately reported that Mele was a notorious ex-con who had been distributing illegal lottery tickets in the city, making his death a “syndicate” killing.
The police called in every available man. They combed the murder scene for clues, dragged the East River next to English Drive with huge magnets looking for the murder weapon and interviewed dozens of hoodlums, gamblers and “sportsmen,” as the papers called them. At one point, the department was fielding anonymous tips at the rate of six an hour. Lurid rumors spread, including one that Mele’s genitals had been severed and stuffed in his mouth.
The papers quickly learned that Mele was a “salesman” for Royal Ice Cream, where relatives who owned the business told reporters he’d brought in many new clients.
Mele’s murder began to attract national attention. Walter Winchell, America’s most popular columnist, mentioned the killing in his column and warned of an impending gang war in Connecticut. The Senate committee investigating organized crime called New Haven and asked for information about the killing.
A short time later, the commission summoned New Jersey gangster Abner “Longie” Zwillman to testify. Largely forgotten today, Zwillman was then one of the nation’s most famous gangsters, a reputed member of the so-called Big Six who had founded American organized crime.
Seated under klieg lights, with tens of millions of his fellow Americans watching on television, the senators asked Zwillman if he knew a man named Ralph Mele. I do not, he said.
It was almost certainly a lie.
Even as the investigation built into a frenzy, police acknowledged to the New Haven papers that they were “balked.” However, they did have a prime suspect. Word soon spread throughout New Haven’s neighborhoods. Midge had murdered Mele.
But the investigation made no progress. A year later, the papers ran an anniversary story noting that the murder was one of the few unsolved killings in recent city history.
No one would ever be charged.
Midge wasn’t the only one off the hook when the Mele investigation petered out. Arthur T. Barbieri, a rising star in the city’s Democratic Party, also heaved a huge sigh of relief.
Arthur had grown up in Fair Haven next door to Mele’s nephews and married their sister. He had known Mele since at least February 1944, when he visited him in prison. Two days after their jailhouse meeting, Arthur was discharged from the army, the reason a mystery. While his former army buddies in the 100th Division fought bloody battles on the German frontier, Arthur borrowed money from a Bridgeport mobster and opened The Top Hat Club in New Haven.
By the late 1940s, Barbieri was helping run Golden Crest Ice Cream, signing a note for the business’ trucks. He also started working with the Democratic Party.
In 1949, Barbieri worked closely with Democratic candidate Richard C. Lee in an attempt to unseat Republican Mayor William Celentano. They nearly succeeded and were gearing up for another try when Mele was murdered. Luckily for them, Barbieri, who still worked at the Golden Crest Ice Cream where Mele purported to be employed, was never publicly tied to the gangster.
Lee finally beat Celentano in 1953 on his third try. On election night, a group scooped Lee up on their shoulders and paraded him around the room. One of those men was Midge Renault.
Barbieri became one of the city’s most powerful men, rising to Democratic Town Committee chairman and public works director.
At some point after Mele’s murder, Midge entered a room, most likely with his mentor Charles “The Blade” Tourine at his side. Luciano family boss Frank Costello pricked his finger, smeared his blood on the card of saint, dropped the card into Midge’s hands and lit it. As the card burned in his cupped hands, Midge swore to put the mafia before everything in his life, including his own children. When it stopped burning, he rubbed the cinders to dust.
Midge was made.
But if he thought he would have New Haven to himself, he was wrong. Whitey was in town.
copyright 2009 Christopher Hoffman
#616695 - 10/07/11 06:42 AM
Re: The Heyday Of New Haven's Mob
Chapter Two in a five-part series on the heyday of New Haven’s mob: Salvatore “Midge Renault” Annunziato is forced to share New Haven with Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano, a fearsome New York City hit man … Midge becomes business manager for a major local union and makes a fortune … With politicians and the cops in their back pockets, Whitey and Midge all but run the city …
(See previous installment here.)
In the summer of 1952, a team of New York City detectives arrived in Point Beach, Milford. They were looking for one of most infamous murderers in the history of the American mafia.
In February of that year, a 24-year-old clothing store salesman named Arnold Schuster was riding the subway through downtown Brooklyn when a man caught his attention. He looked just like bank robber Willie Sutton, who had escaped prison five years before and was one of the nation’s best-known and most wanted criminals.
When the man got off the train, Schuster followed. He found two cops who arrested the man and confirmed he was Sutton.
The arrest turned Schuster into a celebrity overnight. But not everyone thought Schuster was a hero. According to mafia legend, Albert Anastasia, the most feared man in the mob, became incensed watching Schuster on TV and ordered him killed. Less than a month later, Schuster was murdered near his Brooklyn home, shot once in each eye and twice in the groin.
The killing shocked the city and the police department, sparking a massive manhunt.
That manhunt led New York City detectives to Milford. They had information that 39-year-old Brooklyn hoodlum Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano, who recently moved to Connecticut, was good friends with the prime suspect and that the suspect had visited Whitey at his Milford home.
The New York cops knew Whitey well. There were reports that he’d been a triggerman for Murder, Inc., Anastasia’s murder-for-hire gang of the late 1930s. He was suspected in a string of unsolved murders several years before in Brooklyn. He’d been arrested in two of the homicides, only to be released when witnesses refused to testify or disappeared.
Four to five detectives watched, followed and probably bugged Whitey for the rest of the summer. Whitey came and went at odd hours. He distributed illegal lottery tickets. Almost daily he visited the University Grille on Whalley Avenue in New Haven, a notorious underworld hangout. He spent a lot of time at the Waterside Social Club in West Haven, an illegal bar Whitey owned. But the cops found no sign of their suspect. After about eight weeks, they gave up and returned to New York.
No arrest was ever made in the Schuster murder.
Whitey was no stranger to Connecticut. He was born in August 1912 in New Haven, the second of five children, to immigrants from Naples.
In December 1919, a ban on hard liquor was already in place to conserve grain during World War I, even though Prohibition wouldn’t officially start for another month. Whitey’s father Biagio was a bartender at Sabatini’s Cafe in downtown New Haven. Shortly after Christmas, more than 70 people in Connecticut and western Massachusetts died of alcohol poisoning from drinking wood alcohol traced in part to the bar. The newspapers dubbed the substance “murder” or “poison” whiskey.
Biagio was a suspect in the unfolding investigation, the alleged middleman who marketed the deadly brew to city taverns and bars. On New Year’s Eve Day 1919, federal agents questioned the owners of Sabatini’s. Early the next morning, shortly after the last New Year’s revelers left, Sabatini’s exploded, destroying vital evidence.
Questions quickly arose about how the bootleggers could operate so openly. Sabatini’s was located within feet of the city’s police station; Chief Philip T. Smith’s office overlooked the cafe’s back door. Jitneys routinely offloaded illicit liquor into cars for distribution in full view of police headquarters. Reporters wondered in print if the perpetrators had friends in high places and would get off.
They proved prophetic. The suspects, including Biagio, escaped serious punishment.
The scandal was a foretaste of the lawlessness and corruption that would grip New Haven and much of Connecticut during Prohibition. The state’s large liquor-loving populations of Italians, Irish, Germans, Jews and Poles were not about to give up a good stiff drink. Connecticut and Rhode Island were the only states never to pass the 18th Amendment. The liquor ban went largely unenforced in both states.
New Haven fast became one of the “wettest” cities in the nation. Future Mayor Richard C. Lee, a child during Prohibition, recalled a street near the Winchester factory where five saloons operated openly and cops drank for free. Outraged prohibitionists ran photos of city workers serving New Haven cops beer at a city picnic. The city’s flouting of the law was so flagrant that a nationally known minister condemned it and neighboring Bridgeport as “Sodom and Gomorrah.”
It was in this era that what would become the mafia established itself in New Haven, putting down deep roots that endure to this day.
Whitey’s family, however, didn’t stick around. In December 1921, Biagio was sent to prison on a narcotics charge, plunging his family into poverty. Whitey’s mother, who never learned to speak English well, struggled, turning to New Haven’s welfare department for children’s shoes, groceries, coal and medical attention.
Sometime around 1922, the family moved to the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn, where they had relatives. By the time they left, Whitey already had a record. He’d been arrested two years before at age 9 for stealing a bike.
Whitey soon fell in with bootleggers; he began working as a runner. In June 1929, Whitey was caught burglarizing a store and sent to prison. He was 16.
In 1931, the prison gave Whitey an intelligence test. He didn’t do well on tests. New York prison records show he repeated numerous grades, was truant and finished only the fifth grade, spending his later school years in an ungraded class. But Whitey was clearly intelligent. He likely suffered from a learning disability that left him effectively illiterate.
Whitey bombed the prison IQ test, scoring so low — 45 with a “mental age” of 7 — that authorities concluded he was retarded. They classified him a “mental defective.” That designation had serious, lifelong consequences. Under New York law, prison officials could incarcerate “defectives” for life for minor crimes.
If he got out, one trip up could send Whitey back to prison for life, a fear he would live with until 1947, when he finally got his “defective” status revoked.
Whitey was released in 1933 only to return after hijacking a truckload of silk. Authorities gave him another chance in 1938, releasing him to work at a Brooklyn bakery. However, FBI reports recount rumors that he instead became a hit man for Murder, Inc., the murder-for-hire hit squad of the late 1930s, although the files contain no specific information.
Whether Whitey became a contract killer or not is unclear. What is certain is that he resumed his criminal career. He opened a “wire room.” He took illegal off-track horse racing bets, and loan sharked. That business, however, soured when local mobsters demanded a cut and tried to force him to join the mob. He shut it down. He saw no percentage in joining the mafia.
Whitey wanted to stay independent. He would succeed — for a while.
Murder, Inc. A Penny-Ante Racket
In 1946, the bullet-ridden body of a small-time hoodlum turned up on a street in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn. Soon, there were more bodies. Eventually, the count reached a dozen. Police believed all were killed by the same man or men. An investigating judge said the murder spree “makes Murder, Inc. look like a penny-ante racket.”
Whitey was arrested for one of the murders in August 1947, but the charges were dropped.
On Nov. 13, 1948, police arrested Whitey for another one of the murders. Whitey knew the victim well. He and Alfred “Socks” Lo Fredo had been arrested in 1942 on suspicion of robbing mob bookies. Lo Fredo’s body was found in July 1947 in a Brooklyn vacant lot.
Prosecutors crowed to the newspapers that they’d solved the crimes. Whitey was likely to face “the chair,” they said.
Nine days later, without explanation, authorities dropped all charges and released Whitey. No one was charged again for any of the murders.
In 1964, an informant told the FBI what had happened. Whitey was part of a gang of 10 to 12 renegade hoodlums who “did not respect” the mafia and routinely robbed mafia craps games. A top member of the Profaci crime family, one of the five New York mafia families, investigated and identified Whitey and his gang as the culprits. He confronted Whitey and another gang member and gave them a choice: Kill your crew or be killed.
Whitey and his partner chose the former. Over the next two years, they murdered their fellow gang members, dumping their bodies on the streets of Bath Beach.
In September 1948, the cops thought they had finally cracked the case when the girlfriend of one murdered man agreed to testify against Whitey. But Whitey got off when the mob paid a city homicide detective $20,000 to murder the witness, the informant said.
Now that Whitey had proven himself a reliable and ruthless killer, the mob used him to solve a major problem. Willie Moretti, one of the nation’s biggest mobsters who had long ruled northern New Jersey, was dying of terminal syphilis. As he became progressively more ill, he became more unpredictable — and talkative. His bizarre behavior before the Kefauver Commission, the televised 1951 hearings on organized crime that riveted the nation, unsettled the mob deeply. He answered questions with “soitainly!” in a Three-Stooges voice and invited the committee to his Jersey shore home. The mob feared he would begin telling mob secrets.
On Oct. 4, 1951, Moretti met a group of men for lunch at a Joe’s Elbow Room restaurant in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. In the midst of a friendly conservation, the men pulled out guns and opened fire, killing Moretti. Sources later told the FBI and the New York City police that Whitey was one of the murderers.
In appreciation for his hard work, needing to get him out of New York because of the heat from numerous murder investigations, the mob “gave” Whitey New Haven. He was inducted into the Profaci crime family, an honor he didn’t especially want. In late 1951, at 39, he arrived back in Connecticut, married his sister-in-law and set about collecting his reward.
Midge%20REnault%202.jpgFBIOne day in the early 1950s, Midge Renault (pictured) walked into Whitey’s Waterside Social Club in West Haven and announced he was now part owner. The two argued, and Whitey warned Midge he could get some hoods “to take care of him.”
But the dispute was quickly ironed out. The boys in New York were not going to tolerate infighting. It didn’t matter that they belonged to different crime families; business was business. Whitey and Midge would grow to resent, even hate, each other, but for the next 25 years, they would coexist peacefully and often work together.
Whitey and Midge soon took over New Haven’s numbers racket, running it with George “Dickie Wallace” D’Auria, an aging gangster who had once been a henchman for Willie Moretti, and Donald “Doc” Montano, the owner of a cigarette vending machine business.
Numbers were a simple lottery equivalent to today’s state-run daily numbers lottery. It was the mob’s single most lucrative racket. Whitey, Midge, Dickie Wallace, and Doc sat atop the operation. Midgie was mostly a strong arm, while Whitey handled the day-to-day operations from an “office” that constantly changed locations. The New York bosses had to have their end, and Whitey and Dickie Wallace regularly traveled to New York to deliver it.
In addition to numbers, Whitey and Midge ran and took cuts from floating craps and card games. Each had his specialty. Whitey sold illegal lottery tickets and strong-armed bookies. Midge shook down restaurants and card games.
But all Midge’s criminal activity paled in comparison with his biggest racket: the union.
In 1952, Midge’s mob mentor, Charlie the Blade Tourine, had Midge appointed business agent of the International Brotherhood of Operating Engineers Local 478, then based on State Street in New Haven. The union supplied operators for cranes, bulldozers, mobile generators and other construction equipment. It was the only operating engineers local in Connecticut, giving it a stranglehold on skilled labor for any large construction project in the state. Midge was assigned New Haven and territory south to the New York line.
Midge quickly seized control of the local, threatening and intimidating anyone who challenged him. Turning it into a personal fiefdom, he put his brothers and other relatives on the payroll and doled out jobs — real, no work and no show — to friends and allies. He routinely shook down construction companies, forcing them to hire extra men; one union dissident estimated twice as many employees as necessary worked on a large project. Midgemade the companies buy testimonial dinner tickets and ad space for union publications at inflated prices.
Outmoded, arcane union rules were another cash cow. Midge solicited bribes in exchange for relief from rules that, for example, required a man every 100 feet whenever generators or welding equipment were used or several fulltime operators for each pump or compressor even though the machinery needed no supervision after being turned on. It was cheaper and faster to pay off Midge than employ so many extra men, so most companies paid. If a company refused to play ball, Midge sent them elderly, inexperienced or incompetent engineers, slowing work to a crawl.
Midge also was reported to demand bribes of as much as $1,000 for choice jobs, often in the form of “loans” that were never repaid. H was rumored to control everything from gambling to food sold at work sites.
But also Midge sometimes helped out friends or acquaintances down on their luck without asking much in return. He got a job for Bob Mele, brother of the man he was suspected of murdering and his former boxing manager, even though Mele was at 59 considered too old for the work. Midge even refused to let Mele pay union dues. He never made Mele join the local.
Anonymous letters from dissident union members began arriving at the office of the U.S. Attorney for Connecticut. One dated Sept. 21, 1953 read:
“This local has recently taken in gunman Salvatore Annunziato [Midge] as business agent. He never worked a day in his life at any work. He is a racket man and served many years in state prison for a shooting. The main job of this character is to hold a gun to the heads of some 1,600 men in this local. None of these members dare voice his opinion openly for fear of losing his job or maybe beat up or shot up.”
But the U. S. Attorney and the FBI were uninterested. In spite of the shocking revelations at the Kefauver hearings, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover continued to insist the mafia didn’t exist, and the bureau made no effort to investigate or gather intelligence. The New Haven office of the FBI filed random scraps of information and conducted some narrowly focused investigations, such as of Ralph Mele’s interstate lottery, but did not attempt to learn about or build cases against organized crime in the city.
As a result, Midge, Whitey and the mob had a free hand just as vast sums of federal money began pouring into the city and the state.
In 1953, Democrat Richard C. Lee was elected mayor of New Haven on a promise to revitalize the decaying city. He launched the nation’s most ambitious urban renewal program, tapping federal funds to raze an entire neighborhood, much of downtown and other sections of the city. Lee eventually secured more federal redevelopment funds per capita than any community in the nation.
Lee’s ambitious plans were a bonanza for the local construction industry and the unions that supplied it. No union was more central than the operating engineers. The federal government pumped additional tens of millions into the state to build I-95, the first leg of the interstate highway system. In New Haven alone, untold amounts were spent to fill in the harbor along Long Wharf to create acres of new land for the highway and a line of factories as well as the New Haven food terminal, not to mention the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge. All of it required heavy equipment.
Thanks to their control of the operating engineers and other unions, Midge and the mob bailed cash as fast as they could from the raging river of money.
How much Midge and the mafia made from redevelopment will never be known, but one thing is clear: They were one of the few real beneficiaries. Over time, Lee’s ambitious efforts failed to arrest the city’s decline or improve the lives of the citizens. Some even argue that redevelopment hastened the city’s decline.
Lee knew about Midge and the mob. Not long after he was elected mayor, a city political figure asked to meet him for lunch at a Wooster Street restaurant. Instead of the official, a mobster sat down at the table. The mobster sternly told Lee to “stay away from Wooster Street.” Lee told him to go to hell and stormed out of the restaurant.
But the mayor had only so much control and influence. By the summer of 1957, Lee was concerned enough to mention Midge to his friend then-Sen. John F. Kennedy while the two were vacationing in Cape Cod. Kennedy, who was preparing hearings into labor racketeering, was interested and asked Lee to provide him with a “rundown” on Midge. The New Haven police subsequently prepared a report for Kennedy.
Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy, who was chief counsel for the special committee, never called Midge to testify. Instead, the dramatic hearings focused on Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters.
Wide Open Gambling
Lee may not have been Midge’s or Whitey’s friend, but Democratic Town Committee Chairman and Public Works Director Arthur T. Barbieri was another matter. Lee and Barbieri needed each other and worked together closely, but Lee never fully trusted Barbieri and suspected Barbieri had a mob ties.
According to an FBI informant, Barbieri moved quickly after Lee’s victory to take advantage of his newly acquired power. Shortly after Lee took office, Barbieri gave a key local gambler “the ‘go ahead’ signal for wide open gambling activities in New Haven,” the informant said.
On Jan. 25, 1954, weeks after Lee was sworn in, the police raided a craps game at the Towne House Restaurant at 174 Crown St. Sources later told the FBI that Barbieri was one of the more than 50 men at the game, but the police let him go while arresting everyone else.
Whitey was there too. According to FBI sources, he had a gun, a serious crime for a convicted felon and ex-con like Whitey. The gun miraculously disappeared by the time they got Whitey to the police station. He was arrested for gambling, paid a $10 bond, forfeited another $10 as a fine and was let go.
Barbieri was also friendly with Midge. He’d grown up on Clay Street in Fair Haven, blocks from the Annunziato home on Haven Street. Midge — a terrible driver — was constantly losing his license. In April 1955, Barbieri wrote the state Department of Motor Vehicles a letter on New Haven Democratic Town Committee stationary asking it to restore Midge’s license. Barbieri vouched for Midge, calling him a “working man” who needed his license to earn a living.
Barbieri wasn’t Midge’s only friend in politics. Republican U.S. Rep. Albert Cretella took time out from his congressional duties to defend Midge for a 1954 arrest in which he was accused of running over a man and then beating him up. Midge got off with a $150 fine.
The King of New Haven
Midge was at the pinnacle of his power, earning vast sums of money for himself and the mob and throwing his weight around New Haven. Unlike most mobsters of his day, Midge was open and proud about who and what he was. During one of his many trials for minor crimes, he answered “professional gambler” when asked his occupation. Midge ignored his license suspension and tooled around the city in hulking, late model sedans — he especially loved Oldsmobiles — and was allegedly the first person in the city to own a two-tone car. He sponsored an amateur football team called the Fair Haven Midgets. He prowled the city’s bars, restaurants and nightspots with a pack of eager young toughs eager to beat up anyone he told them to. He delighted in handing out $100 bills — $50s for kids — and jobs, buying drinks on the house, paying bar and restaurant tabs and lending his car.
And he had an impish, even subversive sense of humor. Sometimes, he’d mess with reporters who covered him, calling them at home late at night to berate them for referring to him as “Midge” instead of “Salvatore.” Later, he’d run into them at Malone’s or another bar and buy them beers.
Nowhere was Midge’s power more evident than in his dealings with the criminal justice system. He was arrested constantly for everything from assault to “abusing a police officer.” In 1955, he and his toughs started riots at restaurants — the Red Lobster in Milford and the Double Beach House in Branford — wrecking both establishments. The brawl at the Red Lobster overwhelmed Milford police, forcing them to call in the city’s fire department for reinforcements. The fight ended when a Milford officer drew his gun and threatened to shoot Midge, his brother Angelo and two others, who had chairs and tables over their heads about to attack him.
The state police later charged Midge and his accomplices with wrecking the restaurants as part of a scheme to force the owners to sell to him at rock bottom prices. The state was eventually forced to drop the case when witnesses wouldn’t testify.
Indeed, victims often wouldn’t testify, or even bother to call the cops after Midge beat them up. One day, a man drinking with Midge made the mistake of telling he was “a better man than him.” Midge savagely beat the man, breaking his jaw and sending him to the hospital.
When the New Haven police heard of the beating, they approached the man’s wife and asked how her husband had been injured.
“He fell down on the street and broke his face,” she said.
Even when Midge was arrested and found guilty, judges always went easy, usually sparing him jail time. When he did do time, it was at the Whalley Avenue jail run by the New Haven County high sheriff instead of state prison.
Midge, it seemed, could get away with anything. The same applied to his personal life.
At home, Midge had two sons and two daughters. In 1955, he joined the growing flight to the suburbs, moving his family from the Fair Haven neighborhood to a comfortable, modern ranch style home in East Haven.
Midge didn’t spend much time there. By the mid-1950s, he was living most of the time with his mistress, a beautiful divorcee named Angela and her young son. Angela was seven years older than Midge, standing just 5’1”, and she was terrified of him.
Midge was open about his love for Angela. His wife Louise knew about her. Once, Midge had repeatedly proclaimed his love for Angela at a social function, causing Louise to break down in tears.
But Midge would also say he loved Louise and maintained generally cordial relations with her. He’d always come home every few days for dinner or to spend time with her and the children.
For the rest of his life, Midge would maintain two households, sparing no expense to fix up Angela’s house in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. He would buy the same furniture for both his and Angela’s house, putting them in the same places in the same rooms.
The New Haven police knew all about Angela. At the time, adultery and unmarried individuals having sex was a crime in Connecticut. Frustrated by their inability to make any other charges stick, they considered arresting Midge for “lascivious carriage” — as the charge was called — but never did.
Whitey, meanwhile, was rarely arrested. He maintained a far lower profile. He fathered five children and lived quietly in East Haven. He was plagued by stomach problems that would grow steadily worse with age. He stood 6’1”, but was un-intimidating and low key. He wore horn-rimmed glasses that made him look owlish, even professorial. He was so unassuming that one who knew him thought he was teacher the first time they met. He claimed to work as a salesman as for a Brooklyn photography studio.
Looks were deceiving. Whitey was so aggressive and ruthless in shaking down bookies that he was called to New York in the late 1950s and told to back off. Midge may have been the public face of the mob in New Haven, but Whitey wielded more power. Thanks to his reputation as a mob hit man, the underworld feared him as much as, if not more than, Midge.
As 1957 drew to a close, Midge and Whitey seemed invincible. They had a hammerlock on the city’s lucrative rackets, as well as powerful friends in politics, the police and judiciary to protect them for prosecution. They could do pretty much whatever they wanted.
They didn’t know it, but they were at the zenith. An alert state policeman in western New York State was about to trigger a chain of events that would put both of them, especially Midge, in J. Edgar Hoover’s sights.
#616696 - 10/07/11 06:43 AM
Re: The Heyday Of New Haven's Mob
by Christopher Hoffman | September 7, 2009 7:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)
hooverjedg.jpgHoover.Chapter Three in a five-part series on the heyday of New Haven’s mob: J. Edgar Hoover puts Salvatore “Midge Renault” Annunziato in his sights. He goes to jail … sort of. Midge suffers a family tragedy. He goes to federal prison, but not before flexing his power once again. Midge meets his nemesis, a New Haven cop named Stephen Ahern.
(See previous installment here.)
On Nov. 14, 1957, a state trooper in Apalachin, a small town near Binghamton, N.Y., noticed a steady stream of limousines driving into a country estate. He decided to investigate. The arrival of the police sent dozens of sharply dressed men fleeing into the woods.
Mafiosi from every corner of the country, including some of the nation’s most noted gangsters, had converged on the estate for a high level conference. The state troopers eventually rounded up 63 men, interrogated them and let them go because there was no evidence they had committed any crime.
The raid caused a media firestorm, humiliating FBI head J. Edgar Hoover. He had long denied the existence of the mafia. Hoover demanded information on the arrestees and discovered the FBI had little. He immediately created the Top Hoodlum program. Each FBI office was ordered to identity 10 “top hoodlums” and gather information on them.
The New Haven FBI office designated Salvatore “Midge Renault” Annunziato and Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano “Top Hoodlums” and went to work. By Christmas, they had compiled a 25 page-plus report on Midge and sent it to Hoover.
Hoover, however, deemed it “inadequate.” He wrote a scathing five-page letter ripping it apart. Agents needed to learn more about Midge’s mistress Angela, his association with Whitey and especially his activities with the Operating Engineers, which Hoover identified as most likely to yield a prosecution.
“It is expected that in the future you will give this matter your close personal attention to be sure this program is given adequate attention in your office,” Hoover wrote. “It is your personal responsibility to see that each agent assigned to this program is conscientiously and thoroughly investigating all phases of the subject’s activities.”
The New Haven FBI office dug deep into Midge’s past and present. The office sent Hoover sometimes-weekly updates and reports — one exceeding 150 pages. Agents blanketed the city and the region, combing school records, credit records, bank records, arrest and prison files, anything they could find on Midge. They talked to cops, informants, contractors, union officials, friends, men who’d been beat up, robbed or shaken down. They obtained Midge’s phone records. No piece of information was too trivial. One report informed Hoover that Midge had spent $60 on vitamins the year before and worked at the New Haven Trucking Company for two weeks in 1940.
Whitey got similar treatment.
Agents began tailing both men. Surveillance of Whitey turned up little. Midge was another story. Agents followed him for five straight days in 1958. Every day, he left Angela’s in his car, even though his license was suspended. They followed him as he went to the union hall, visited job sites, including the Hamden Middle School, and restaurants where he had meetings with union officials or others.
One day, agents watched as a New Haven police cruiser pulled Midge over. Instead of arresting Midge for driving with a suspended license, the cop talked amicably with him for several minutes and left. The FBI tipped off the New Haven police; when confronted, the officer told his superiors he asked Midge about a job for a relative.
In February 1958, the FBI tracked Midge as he and Angela flew to Miami and then on to Havana. Midge had told people he was going to Cuba to visit Charlie the Blade Tourine, his old mentor who ran the Capri Hotel & Casino, a jewel in the crown of the mob’s Caribbean empire. Less than a year later when Castro marched into Havana, Tourine fled and would later operate mob casinos in the Bahamas and London. He would become one of the most powerful and respected members of the Genovese crime family.
Jail … Sort Of
In March, the state Supreme Court upheld Midge’s 340-day sentence for wrecking the Double Beach House nearly three years before. Instead of going to state prison, Midge again was allowed to serve his sentence at the Whalley Avenue jail in New Haven.
Within weeks, the FBI learned Midge was getting special privileges. Restaurants or his wife brought him all his food. An informant described a New Haven restaurant bringing Midge two three-pound lobsters with all the trimmings. He received visitors who were not searched, was allowed in off-limits areas of the jail and slept in the infirmary instead of a cell.
Agents visiting the jail on another matter saw two women bringing Midge food. That prompted the FBI to arrange a meeting with jail officials. When the agent arrived for the meeting, Midge was lounging at the entrance counter, an area off-limits to prisoners. The jail official explained that Midge “must have been waiting to get back into his cell block,” but admitted he couldn’t explain why Midge was there. The official nonetheless denied Midge was receiving special treatment.
Complaints to the FBI multiplied. Midge had bribed or intimidated all the guards, leaving him effectively in charge of the jail. He controlled all numbers and horse racing activity, smuggled contraband in and out and carried as much as $1,000 in cash in spite of jail rules limiting inmates to $5 each. He gave every inmate a few dollars upon their release. His goon squad beat up prisoners at will. He slugged the son of a high jail official and got away with it. He smuggled in liquor as well as prostitutes to service his friends, taking a cut of the hookers’ earnings. The guards let him leave the prison through a gap in the back fence. There were rumors that he had television and a phone in his cell, prompting the FBI to check the number and location of the jail’s phones. He continued to run the Operating Engineers from the jail; anyone who wanted a job had to come to the prison to meet him.
When he got out in early 1959, it was as if he’d never been in.
But the jail term did have consequences. Under increasing pressure from the FBI, the city’s two newspapers and the national AFL-CIO — its powerful, longtime president George Meany was believed to take a personal interest — the Operating Engineers fired Midge. He would continue to wield great power within the union, but he never again officially worked there. For the rest of his life, Midge lamented the loss of his union job.
Midge was openly proud about who and what he was, and he expected his two sons to follow in his footsteps. So it was no surprise when Frank and Anthony turned truant and delinquent as they entered their teens. Local cops told the FBI of the boys picking fights and beating up other kids without provocation.
On New Year’s Eve 1959, the younger of the boys, 14-year-old Anthony, was on Main Street in East Haven with a friend. Around midnight, the boys crossed the street and were hit by a car. Anthony’s friend died instantly. Anthony, whose 15th birthday was weeks away, was seriously injured and taken to the hospital.
Midge rushed to the hospital. Barred from seeing his son, he threatened the staff, who finally let him in.
On Jan. 2, Anthony died.
The driver of the car began getting anonymous phone calls threatening to hurt him or burn down his house.
The head of New Haven’s detective bureau was worried. On the day of Anthony’s funeral, he ordered William Farrell, who would one day become the city’s chief of police, and another detective to go to Midge’s house and talk to him about the threats.
Farrell knew Midge. As a rookie, he had been breaking up a brawl at a Grand Avenue restaurant when a thug picked up a big jar of peanuts. He was just about to bring it down on Farrell’s head when he heard Midge growl, “Don’t hit the cop.”
Farrell and his partner were reluctant to go to Midge’s house on the day of the funeral, but they did as ordered. Midge greeted both men politely, got them coffee and led them into the basement where he had an office. Farrell and his partner explained why they were there.
“You think that if I was going to get this guy, I’d call him on the phone?” Midge asked.
No one ever hurt the driver.
Midge was still devastated when he traveled to Florida in April 1960 to attend a convention of the Operating Engineers, of which he was no longer a member of the union. One night at the motel bar, he told the bartender that his son had just been killed an accident. He wept openly and unashamedly.
A few days later, Dade County police arrested Midge in the same lounge after he got drunk and started a fight.
At about 2 a.m. on April 23, 1960, about 30 men were gambling on the second floor of the Grand Avenue Social Club. Cards and money were strewn over tables.
Suddenly, a window shattered, splattering glass against the shade blocking the view onto Grand Avenue. Shocked gamblers looked up to see a crowbar pull aside the shade and New Haven Detective Stephen Ahern standing in the bucket of a tree-trimming truck, a gun in his other hand. The men could hear wood splintering downstairs as police broke into the club.
“This is the police!” Ahern bellowed. “Don’t touch the table!”
Midge stood up, scooped some bills into his pockets and slowly walked toward the window. As he approached, he picked up a chair and reared back.
“No Midge, don’t do it!” someone yelled.
Midge didn’t listen and heaved the chair at Ahern. The detective ducked. The chair sailed over him and into the street below. Aside from minor cuts from flying glass, Ahern was uninjured. Midge and everyone else in the room were arrested.
Ahern was only 30, but already a legend. Born in New Haven, he became a police officer in the early 1950s after serving in the Marine Corps. He eventually joined the city’s elite Special Service Division, created in response to the Mele murder nearly a decade before. It focused on gambling, vice and organized crime.
Ahern became its star, especially renowned for his intelligence-gathering abilities. His sources were so good that he knew about crimes before they were committed. More than once, Ahern waited inside a building and arrested burglars as they broke in.
The secret to Ahern’s success would not emerge for nearly two decades: He was wiretapping people. He started in the late 1950s by climbing telephone poles and clipping a phone company device to the wires to listen. He had a Yale student build him a primitive listening device and then moved on to ever-more sophisticated bugging equipment.
Years later, a witness would tell a commission investigating the wiretapping about visiting Ahern’s Whalley Avenue apartment and hearing a “pen register” — a machine that records numbers dialed by a targeted phone — running in the next room. The witness told the commission that James Ahern, Steve’s younger brother and also a New Haven police officer, was in the apartment at the time. Both men paid little attention when the pen register — a noisy machine — went off.
Steve and Jim had two other brothers on the force. Years later, it would seem as if the New Haven police were a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ahern family.
Steve was relentless, dedicated and ruthless, and he hated the mafia. He is credited with being the first New Haven police officer to take the mob seriously and target it effectively. Midge and the mob had a nemesis.
A Wake Up Call
Midge%20REnault%202.jpgFBIMidge’s troubles grew. A month after Midge (pictured) chucked the chair at Steve Ahern, the FBI arrested him for accepting a $50 Christmas bonus and another $300 in questionable payments from a company building an I-95 bridge. Hoover had urged the New Haven office to prosecute Midge for the payments from the start of its investigation in late 1957.
The case was weak. Even company officials told the FBI during the investigation that it was “making a mountain out of a molehill.” But the U.S. Attorney’s Office managed to win a conviction. It was an ironic moment: Midge had extorted vastly greater sums of money in ways that were more flagrantly illegal, not to mention all the men he’d beaten.
At his sentencing, the judge lectured Midge on his contempt for the law, saying he was unworthy of the Operating Engineers’ trust.
“His record demonstrates an almost continuous betrayal of trust over almost three decades,” U.S. District Court Judge William H. Timbers said. “The man has shown an utterly reckless disregard of the law and of law enforcement agencies of this state and this nation.”
Timbers imposed a one-year prison, saying it was “a wake up call” for the 40-year-old career criminal.
Midge’s lawyer, Howard Jacobs, filed every appeal, sought every delay, eventually asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. When the court declined. Midge was ordered to report to the federal courthouse in downtown New Haven on Jan. 2, 1962, to begin his prison term.
He was an hour late. After turning himself in, Midge decided to go to lunch before beginning his journey to the federal prison in Milan, Michigan. With a U.S. marshal at his side, Midge exited the courthouse.
As he descended the courthouse steps, a New Haven Register photographer snapped a picture of a laughing Midge, without handcuffs and nattily dressed in a topcoat and hat. His ostensible guard is slightly behind him, smiling at the joke Midge apparently has just told.
Midge stopped smiling immediately after the shutter clicked. Enraged, he swore at the photographer and charged him. The photographer fled, with Midge on his heels. The guard made no effort to stop Midge or restrain him.
The photo made the front page of the paper.
Once at Milan, Midge flexed his political muscle. U.S. Rep. Robert Giaimo, who would represent the New Haven area in Congress until 1981, wrote the U.S. Bureau of Prisons asking it to transfer Midge to the Danbury federal prison so he could be closer to his family, according to the FBI. The bureau refused.
With Midge in prison, Whitey would have the city to himself. But Whitey was soon to have serious problems of his own.
#616697 - 10/07/11 06:44 AM
Re: The Heyday Of New Haven's Mob
by Christopher Hoffman | September 21, 2009 7:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)
devlin.jpgDevlin/FBIChapter Four in a five-part series on the heyday of New Haven’s mob: A brutal murder establishes Billy Grasso … He and Whitey Tropiano go to jail as Salvatore “Midge Renault” Annunziato fights a war with a master bank robber named Eddie Devlin (pictured) … Midge’s conflict with the Aherns comes to a head as he tries to introduce his son into the ways of the mob …
(See previous installment here.)
William “Billy” Grasso stood over the open grave in the earthen basement of an abandoned Branford house and insisted to his cousin and a detective that he knew nothing about the badly beaten, bullet-riddled corpse discovered there.
“I don’t want to get involved,” a visibly rattled Grasso kept repeating.
State police and the State’s Attorney’s Office had been stymied since finding the nude body of ex-con and small-time hoodlum Thomas “Pinocchio” Rispoli on Nov. 24, 1962. Weeks of trying to coax frightened witnesses to talk and surveillance of Grasso and his boss Whitey Tropiano had yielded nothing.
Now, a month to the day after Rispoli’s body had been exhumed from his dank grave, investigators brought in Grasso for questioning. Looking for an edge, they called Grasso’s cousin, a state trooper, and asked him to participate in the interrogation.
The trooper arrived at the New Haven State’s Attorney’s Office to find his cousin “very nervous.” At 3:45 p.m., a detective and the trooper drove Grasso to the abandoned house on Brushy Plains Road. Despite their peppering him with questions, Grasso didn’t budge. Investigators had Grasso’s cousin take him to his Wooster Street home. Work on him, they told the trooper.
The cousins spent the rest of the evening talking at Grasso’s home or riding in the trooper’s cruiser. Grasso revealed nothing. When his cousin suggested he take a polygraph test, Grasso said again that he didn’t want to get involved.
The next morning, the cousins drove to Grasso’s mother’s home, where Billy asked his mother what he should do. Billy’s cousin again said he could clear himself by taking a polygraph, but Billy continued to insist he didn’t want to get involved. After “a very emotional scene,” during which Grasso’s mother promised to do whatever she could to help her son, the cousins left.
They spent the rest of the day discussing Rispoli’s murder and gambling in the New Haven area. As he left, Billy’s cousin asked him one more time to submit to a lie detector test. Billy said he would get some advice and call him.
Grasso never underwent the test.
William “Billy” Grasso was born in New Haven on Jan. 6, 1927, the youngest of six children. His father, Mariano Grasso, was an immigrant from the Naples region who ran a bakery and a pizzeria. His mother, Clorindo, who had been born in New Haven, was a housewife. Billy grew up on James Street in Fair Haven, blocks from Salvatore “Midge Renault” Annunziato’s home on Haven Street.
Billy dropped out of school in 1943 when he was in the ninth grade. He entered the army two years later when he was 18. He was honorably discharged in 1947 and became a truck driver for a fuel oil company.
Grasso had been arrested for “delinquency” at 13 and for “idleness” at 16, but his first real brush with the law came during the Fair Haven “near riot” in July 1951. Patrolman Frank DiLieto, brother of future New Haven Chief of Police and Mayor Biagio DiLieto, was off duty when he got into a confrontation with Midge’s brother Angelo “Cibol” Annunziato. Annunziato and others began throwing fruit crates at DiLieto. By the time police arrived, a crowd of about 300 had gathered. Frank DiLieto and his brother Anthony, who was on duty and among the officers responding, were injured, while six people were arrested, including Grasso.
One man who grew up in Fair Haven recalls Grasso cheating local kids with loaded dice. Midge, the man said, found out and made Grasso stop. Soon, however, Midge couldn’t tell Grasso what to do any more.
Sometime in the 1950s, Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano met Grasso and took him under his wing. By the late 1950s, Grasso had become Whitey’s right hand man. Nicknamed “Mickey” at the time, Grasso acquired a reputation for ruthlessness, efficiency, viciousness and humorlessness.
For all the fear and loathing he generated in his lifetime, Billy, at 5’8” and about 180 pounds, wasn’t much of a street fighter. When it came to fisticuffs, he always seemed to come up on the losing end. In 1960, Billy and Whitey had to stop using a Wooster Street restaurant as their hangout after another gangster beat Billy there. More than two decades later, Billy got into a fight with a Hartford boxer who quickly dispatched him. The boxer was later found shot to death in his car.
Billy’s personal life was conventional and quiet. He had a wife and a son, and, unlike Midge, he almost never got arrested. There were no stories of drunkenness or outlandish behavior. He kept a low profile, for years maintaining a cover job with a New Haven appliance and television store. He was intelligent, disciplined and cunning and would grow increasingly sophisticated in the years to come.
“There’s a Man in Town, and He’s Look’n All Around”
Billy was with Whitey on Nov. 11, 1962, when convicted burglar Thomas “Pinocchio” Rispoli showed up on Wooster Street to collect on a horse bet. Rispoli had won big — $1,700 — but Whitey concluded that Rispoli had “past-posted” the race, which meant he placed the bet knowing the winner. He refused to pay. When Rispoli grew angry, Whitey offered to give back his $200 bet plus $100. That only further enraged Rispoli, who stood 6’ 2” and weighed nearly 200 pounds. He beat Whitey so badly that he had to go to the hospital. When Billy sprang to his boss’ defense, Rispoli cold-cocked him.
Once he calmed down, Rispoli realized he was in trouble. You didn’t hit people like Whitey Tropiano and expect to live. But Rispoli was tough and self-confident. He started carrying a gun. His friends told him to get out of town, but he was convinced he could work it out. One friend recalls his jittery bravado.
“He was walking around singing, ‘There’s a man in town, and he’s looking all around …’” the friend said.
On Nov. 19, Rispoli borrowed a car and drove to the gas station at State and James streets on the edge of Fair Haven. The station, like most of surrounding neighborhood, was abandoned because it was about to be torn down to make way for Interstate 91. Even though it was midday, there were few people around. A man squatting in one of the soon-to-be-demolished houses saw Rispoli get into a car with New Jersey license plates. There were two to three other men in the car.
Five days later, a Branford police officer making a routine check for vandalism at an abandoned house ventured into the basement. He noticed freshly turned earth. He reported to his superiors, who arrived with a shovel. They began digging and uncovered deeper Rispoli’s naked body doused in lime and wrapped tarpaper.
The medical examiner concluded that Rispoli had died “recently,” probably in the last two days, even though he had been missing for five, indicating he had been kept alive and tortured. His skull had been fractured with a blunt instrument. He had been shot at close range three times, once in the right cheek, once in below the chin and once more in the nape of the neck.
The State’s Attorney’s Office, the state police and New Haven’s Special Services Squad went into high gear. Investigators quickly learned of Rispoli’s dispute with Whitey and Grasso and immediately focused on them, watching their homes and tailing both. They followed Billy as he bought cider at a local market and picked up his son from playing pickup basketball near his Wooster Street home. Another team watched cars come and go from Whitey’s East Haven home, recording and running license plates to find out who owned the vehicles
Some of the people the cops were watching were better at surveillance than they were. State troopers followed one car after it left Whitey’s home into New Haven, but broke off the tail after concluding the driver had spotted them. On the way back to Whitey’s house, the car they’d tailed suddenly appeared behind them and followed them.
Investigators had no better luck with potential witnesses, most of whom were afraid to talk. The cops tried repeatedly to talk to the owner of a restaurant in the city’s Hill section. She and her daughter knew Rispoli so well that the mother had given him the key to the restaurant.
One morning, the owner arrived at her restaurant to find all the gas stoves and ovens on, flooding the building with combustible natural gas. There was no sign of forced entry. On the floor, the woman found a ring that she recognized as Rispoli’s.
The woman and her daughter refused to talk.
On Jan. 3, 1963, investigators made their last gambit. They brought Whitey to the State’s Attorney’s Office. He refused to answer any questions about Rispoli or admit to any dispute with him. After half an hour, they gave up and let him go.
That same day, investigators filed a report in which New Haven State’s Attorney Arthur Gorman concluded that the investigation had “come to a dead end.”
“This is mainly due to the fact that people are afraid to talk,” the report said.
No one was ever arrested for Rispoli’s murder.
“Are You Crazy?”
Midge%20REnault%202.jpgFBIMidge (pictured) was released from federal prison around the time Rispoli was murdered. He was a changed man. Perhaps it was being incarcerated at 42, the death of his father or lingering grief over Anthony, or a combination of all three. Whatever the reason, Midge started spinning out of control.
Within a year of his late 1962 release, he was arrested four times: He led a mob in a racially motivated attack on black residents in his old Fair Haven neighborhood. He started a brawl at an East Haven social event. He led East Haven police on car chase that ended with him trying to ram a squad car and fighting with officers. In the most brutal incident of all, Midge and two accomplices used baseball bats to beat a loan company officer trying to collect a payment from Midge’s female friend. Midge, the loan collector later told the jury, smiled as he swung the bat.
Midge wasn’t done. In November 1963, he was on trial for the racially motivated attack and for beating the loan collector when he entered a bar on Columbus Avenue in New Haven’s Hill section and ordered drinks on the house. Tending bar that night was an ex-boxer and small time hoodlum named Lawrence “Lorry” Zernitz. Midge and Zernitz got into an argument. Over what is unclear, although it may have been related to Zernitz’s divorce. Midge pulled out a gun.
“Are you crazy?” Zernitz said. A moment later, Midge shot him in the stomach.
Zernitz was badly wounded, but survived. The cops arrested Midge.
A few weeks later, Midge was convicted of attacking the loan collector in spite of witnesses who placed him elsewhere at the time. The judge sentenced him to five to 10 years and immediately sent him to prison, denying his request to remain free pending appeal.
A year later, Midge was tried for shooting Zernitz. The trial degenerated into a circus. Witnesses repeatedly replied, “I don’t know” or “I can’t recall” or outright refused to answer, contradicting statements they had given police. Zernitz claimed he could not identify Midge as the man who shot him. The State’s Attorney’s Office would later charge him and another witness with perjury.
The jury nonetheless convicted Midge. He was given an additional three to five years.
Midge had pulled out all the stops, but still ended up in prison. It was a sign that his and the mob’s grip on the city was loosening.
In early 1964, Whitey Tropiano thought he was finally going to solve one of his biggest problems. For years, Steve Ahern and New Haven’s elite Special Services Bureau had harassed his gambling operations. Now, Steve had agreed to talk.
Whitey offered the Ahern and a West Hartford police official $150 to $500 a week for protection of his gambling operations. In addition, there would be one-time “good faith” payments of up to $2,000 each.
Ahern and the West Hartford cop took the money and informed their superiors. In February 1964, Whitey and others involved in the scheme were arrested for bribery.
Ironically, Whitey was less involved in gambling than ever, having turned over most of the day-to-day operations to Billy Grasso. Whitey was instead concentrating on legitimate businesses and rackets that exploited or used legitimate businesses as cover. He started the New Haven Grape Company, which had a monopoly on distribution of grapes, a seasonal business made lucrative by the Italian tradition of homemade wine. Whitey also built new houses and a shopping center in Branford in partnership with a local construction company.
Informants told the FBI that Whitey had been promoted to “capo regime,” or captain, in the soon-to-be-renamed Colombo crime family. Joseph Colombo was to emerge as boss of the family after founder Joe Profaci’s death from natural causes.
At the time, the FBI was bugging mobsters all over the country, yielding a treasure trove of intelligence. On one bug, agents overheard Meyer Lansky brag that “we’re bigger than U.S. Steel,” a line that would make its way into Godfather II. But the bureau couldn’t use the information in court. Eavesdropping laws were badly outmoded and completely out of step with technology, so the bugs existed in a netherworld, neither legal nor illegal: information collected was inadmissible, but the buggers couldn’t be arrested. When the bugging was exposed later in the 1960s, mobsters from around the nation successfully sued the FBI, which led Congress to pass new surveillance laws requiring probable cause and warrants.
But that was still to come in 1964 as the New Haven FBI watched Whitey settle into his new office at the New Haven Food Terminal. Agents sought authorization for a “highly confidential source ” — FBI-speak for a bug. They provided detailed descriptions of the office’s interior and layout, suggesting a “black bag job” — an FBI break-in. FBI headquarters turned down the request for the bug, concluding agents hadn’t provided enough reason for one.
FBI agents weren’t the only ones using electronic surveillance. In 1965, the New Haven FBI office learned that Billy Grasso had spent nearly $500 to purchase state-of-the-art eavesdropping devices. They included an easily installed phone bug, a miniature listening device to be attached to clothing and a sophisticated receiver — “superbly engineered,” gushed an FBI technician — for capturing conversations on several bugs simultaneously.
How and against whom Billy used the equipment is unknown.
Whitey’s bribery trial kept getting put off. His stomach problems grew worse, forcing him to undergo an operation. But he finally went before a jury and was convicted.
As his appeal plodded through the courts, he and Grasso embarked on their most ambitious venture yet, buying a small trash hauling business and creating an “association” of garbage companies. They got into a dispute over routes with a Milford hauler. Billy overreacted, scaring the owner so much that he cooperated with the FBI.
In March 1968, a federal jury indicted Whitey, Billy and a third man for restraint of trade. Later that year, Billy and Whitey were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. Whitey hired famed defense attorney F. Lee Bailey to handle his appeal, but Bailey was unsuccessful. Whitey and Billy entered different federal prisons at the end of 1968.
It was a bitter pill for Whitey. He was nearly 60, and his health was deteriorating. His days as a major player in New Haven were over.
But for Billy, prison would pay huge dividends, catapulting him from underling to the big time. The protege was about to eclipse the mentor.
With Billy and Whitey and Midge out of commission, a power vacuum formed in New Haven. It was inevitable that someone would try to fill it.
Three men strolled into the First New Haven National Bank on Long Wharf Drive at 10:56 a.m. on Jan. 18, 1967. They were dressed identically in long gray dress raincoats, hats, dark trousers and dress shoes, and gloves. At first glance, they appeared to be businessmen. But a closer look indicated something was wrong. Each wore a flesh-colored mask with rosy red checks.
Once inside, the men pulled revolvers and calmly ordered the manager, three tellers and two customers to lie down. One robber vaulted the counter and methodically cleaned out the money drawers. He then ordered the vault opened and emptied it. It was brimming with cash. A short time before, an armored car had delivered the payroll for the nearby Sargent & Co. plant, enough cash to pay about 900 employees.
A customer outside the bank realized the bank was being robbed and ran to the gas station next door.
But it was too late. The robbers left the bank at 11:02, just six minutes after they had entered and got into a getaway car. Police found the 1966 Chevrolet, which had been stolen, abandoned a short distance away. The robbers’ haul: $81,865 in cash.
Eddie Devlin had struck again.
Edmund J. Devlin (pictured at the top of this story) was born on Christmas Day 1933 to Irish immigrant parents, the second of five children. His father was a factory worker and tool and die maker. His mother stayed at home and raised her kids. Eddie’s father worked steadily, but barely earned enough. During an especially tough stretch, they were forced to rent an apartment in New Haven’s Oak Street section, then the city’s poorest, most run down area.
Eddie attended St. Joseph’s School in New Haven, where he was an indifferent student and often truant. At 10, Eddie was arrested for stealing a wallet. At 12, he was arrested again for petty theft. Four months later, even though he had committed no new crimes, the juvenile court sentenced him to reform school.
“There continued to be complaints about his attendance at school,” read a report explaining the reasons for his incarceration, “his late hours, and he was known to be associating with an older group of colored men of questionable reputation, and bragged about his refusal to cooperate with the school, a clergyman to whom he was on probation and the court.”
Eddie remained at the Meriden School for Boys until 1949 when he was released only to be returned a year later after stealing a car and breaking and entering. He bounced in and out of prison until 1956, when he was caught holding up a New Haven dress factory payroll. He claimed that he did it because a small trucking business he had started was failing. The judge sentenced him to seven to 12 years.
In his pre-sentence report, the 22-year-old Devlin told the probation officer “one of his main ambitions is in the future to own a business of his own.” The comment would prove prophetic.
In October 1962, Devlin was on parole and helping a gambler in New Haven’s Hill section take football bets when Steve Ahern’s Special Services Bureau busted the operation. Eddie was arrested but jumped bail before he could be returned to prison.
For the next year and half, he stayed on the lam, eventually settling in Brooklyn, where he forged a connection to the mafia, probably the Colombo crime family, of which fellow New Havener Whitey Tropiano was a member.
It was in Brooklyn that Devlin likely learned to rob banks. Whatever he did there, it was lucrative. Connecticut authorities learned that he had sent $10,000 to his sister.
Devlin was caught in early 1964 and returned to Connecticut, where he finished his sentence. He was denied parole. When he was released in 1966, he was under no state supervision.
After getting out, Devlin, now 32, assembled a gang of young Italian and Irish toughs from the New Haven area and began robbing banks. They became the most successful bank robbery ring in Connecticut history up to that time and one of the best the FBI had ever seen, stealing as much $200,000 in a single robbery.
The gang’s robberies were meticulously planned and rehearsed using stop watches to limit time inside banks to five or six minutes. Robberies were timed to coincide with armored car deliveries, maximizing the haul. Armed teams of two to three would enter the bank branch dressed in layers of clothing. One would jump the counter while the others kept watch on customers and employees.
Once the robbers went outside, a driver in a stolen car would take them to another stolen car a short distance away. As they drove, they would shed their clothes. The robbers would change cars, drive a short distance to another stolen car and so on. They would switch cars from five to nine times after each robbery. Afterwards, they swapped the stolen cash for clean money.
Their tactics worked brilliantly. Law enforcement was stymied. The gang seemed able to rob banks at will.
Devlin was so good that the FBI in 1970 put him on its Ten Most Wanted List. By the time the gang’s run ended that same year, it had robbed at least 20 banks in Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It had stolen at least $500,000 to $1 million — $3 to $6 million in today’s money — most of which was never recovered.
Devlin’s success left him flush with cash. Backed by mobsters in Brooklyn, he began muscling into New Haven gambling and loan sharking. With Midge in prison and Whitey and Grasso distracted by legal problems, Devlin grew more and more powerful.
But he understood the limitations he faced. He could work with the mafia, but never be a member because he was Irish.
“You really have to be Italian to succeed in this business,” he lamented to a friend.
Whitey and Grasso appeared to have no objections to Devlin’s expanding role in New Haven. Midge, if he ever got out of prison, would be a different story. And Midge was trying hard to get out.
Sonny and Pop
In the late 1950s, when Midge was officially forced out of the operating engineers union, Elwood “Pop” Metz and his son Elwood “Sonny” Metz appeared in New Haven and took over the day-to-day operations of Local 478.
Father and son were from New York City, where Pop had spent 31 years as a cop, rising to deputy inspector, one of the highest ranks. How he and his son came to take over the New Haven local is a mystery.
What is known is that Pop Metz was a top cop during one of New York’s periodic spasms of police corruption. Scores of officers, including some of the department’s highest ranking members, were fired, demoted or forced to retire for taking bribes to protect mob gambling operations.
Whether Pop was caught up in the scandal is unknown. Records show that he was demoted in 1954 from deputy inspector back to captain, a common punishment for cops found to have tolerated bribery. What is certain is that the mob had corrupted the highest levels of the New York City police when he was a captain and deputy inspector.
During the early and mid-1960s, the Metzes solidified their control over the union. Sonny eventually became president, Pop, “special representative and steward coordinator.” The local would build a new headquarters on Dixwell Avenue in Hamden and name it after Pop complete with a bronze bust of his smiling, bespectacled visage over the entrance.
Despite the Metzes’ new control over the union, Midge continued to wield considerable power. He could still secure jobs, real, no show or no work, for his relatives, friends and allies.
When Midge returned to prison, the Metzes at the very least looked the other way when a union official on Midge’s behalf shook down members working on the power plant in Bridgeport. Each of the 29 members on the job was required to donate $100 a week to the “Little Man’s Fund” for Midge and his family. Midge’s family also received the proceeds from a bogus lease under which a large construction company “rented” a piece of heavy machinery from him.
In 1966, Midge’s conviction for shooting Zernitz was overturned on a technicality. A new trial was ordered. Zernitz had died the year before of a heroin overdose — the New Haven cops were convinced he’d been given “a hot dose” to silence him — so the state’s attorney decided not to retry the case.
By early 1968, Midge had a shot at parole. He asked Sonny Metz to help. Sonny, who was increasingly influential in state and local politics, agreed, a decision would he later publicly regret. Sonny obtained letters from construction firms, even getting one company head to testify for Midge at his parole hearing. He intervened with elected officials — the FBI redacted their names in files provided the author — to argue for Midge’s release.
Sonny’s hard work paid off. Midge was released in June 1968.
As part of the effort to get Midge released, his wife and surviving children wrote letters to the parole board.
“I know my father has changed and will behave when he gets out which I hope is very soon,” Midge’s sole surviving son, Frank, said. “He was always a good father and provider. I would always talk to him like a father and son should. I don’t want to bore you with all these details, but I just to express my feelings as to how important it is for all of us to have my father home.”
In the approximately four years that Midge had been away, the counterculture had exploded. Frank, 24, married and with kids, was attracted to it, listening to rock and roll music, letting his hair grow and smoking marijuana.
Midge would have none of that. Upon his release from prison, he got Frank a haircut and put him to work in the family business. Midge wanted a family dynasty and Frank was his heir.
Most people who knew Frank liked him, recalling him as a decent, sensitive easy-going guy who never wanted to be a gangster. His father, they say, forced him into the mob. But a few disagree. No one, they say, traded on Midge’s name like Frank. He eagerly agreed to follow in his father’s footsteps only to find out he didn’t have the stomach for it.
What is clear is that Frank was unsuited to be a mobster.
Back to the Future
Midge got out of prison in June 1968 determined to pick up where he’d left off.
But the city, the underworld and the nation had changed in the four and half years he’d been in prison. Like so many American cities, New Haven was in steep decline with working-class Italians and Irish fleeing rising crime and deteriorating schoolss. Factories were leaving, too, heading for lower taxes, newer facilities and better access to the highways in the suburbs. In 1967, a riot ripped through the city’s Hill section, exposing Mayor Lee’s expensive and ambitious urban renewal program as a failure.
The mob was changing as well. The FBI and local enforcement put steady pressure on the mob, forcing it to go deeper underground. The days when a gangster like Midge could openly serve as business manager of a major union were waning, if not over. Mobsters like Whitey and Grasso understood the need to grow more sophisticated and burrow into legitimate businesses.
But Midge wouldn’t or couldn’t adapt. His attempts at legitimate businesses had been failures — an industrial laundry, a shack-sized restaurant called Bosmo’s Shrimp and Clam Bar (Bosmo was one of his aliases) and a small concrete company.
Midge left prison determined to force the world to fit him. That meant reasserting control over the Operating Engineers. So instead of thanking Sonny Metz for helping him get out, Midge turned on him. Within weeks of his release, he was criticizing Sonny’s leadership and trying to push him out. Sonny resisted.
Midge took a similar attitude toward Eddie Delvin. Some said that Midge demanded a cut of Devlin’s bank robbing proceeds. Others said that didn’t happen. Whatever the cause, Midge was soon at war with Devlin.
The soldiers in that war were young Irish and Italian hoods mostly from Fair Haven who had grown up together and were, in many cases, lifelong friends. Now they were trying to kill each other with M-16 assault rifles stolen from the Colt factory in Hartford. Like other members of their generation, the young men on both sides embraced drugs, especially speed and heroin, adding a viciousness and unpredictability to the fight.
Steve Ahern and his brother Jim were determined to head off trouble and put Midge back behind bars. Steve had risen to chief of detectives and earlier that year. An outgoing Mayor Dick Lee, increasingly concerned about unprofessionalism in the police department, had appointed Jim chief of police.
At 35, Jim was the youngest chief in the city’s history. Jim was handsome, smart, ruthless, efficient and ambitious, with a genius for self-promotion and public relations. A former seminarian who had earned a college degree, unusual for even high ranking cops in those days, Jim was determined to modernize the department and curb the influence of Arthur Barbieri and other political leaders in recruiting and promotions. Several years later, Jim would write a scathing book in which he alleged that the mafia used urban political bosses to control police promotions and protect its rackets. While he never named Barbieri in that context, it was clear to anyone who knew New Haven that he was accusing Barbieri of being in bed with the mob.
Barbieri returned the contempt. The two men became bitter enemies.
Reforming the department and ridding of it political and mob interference required taking down Midge. Almost immediately after Midge got out of jail, Steve Ahern set out to put him back behind bars. He came up with a then-novel approach: Follow Midge everywhere. Document violations of parole restrictions — for example, where he could live and with whom he could associated. Then send him back to prison.
A team of cops was soon tailing Midge everywhere.
They cops bugged him, too. Steve’s wiretapping was about to explode, even in the wake of recent federal legislation making it a crime. The city was entering the most tumultuous period of its history. Student radicals and the Black Panthers established presences in the city. Faced with what they saw as impending violent revolution, Jim authorized his brother Steve to expand his wiretapping operation. Soon, a team of men manned a special room where four machines worked day and night monitoring conversations and recording phone numbers. Eventually, the department would wiretap 10,000 people, everyone from gangsters like Midge to clergymen to reporters to Mayor Lee.
The cops may have been focused on Midge, but Midge’s focus was on Devlin. As spring turned to summer, the two gangs skirmished. One man was wounded. Shots were exchanged on a highway and then at a ball field.
Among the young toughs around Midge, a true killer emerged. Midge grew to love and rely on Richard Biondi, who had no problem shooting and killing people for him.
Biondi was cool and fearless. One who knew him recalled riding with him in a car in New Haven when he cut off a black driver. In his lap, Biondi cradled a pistol. When the driver glared, Biondi casually yelled, “Sorry ni**er!” After the black driver drove away, Biondi turned to his friend and casually said, “Both of those things are true. I am sorry and he is a ni**er.”
One night in early August, Midge learned that one of his men, Edward Gould, was going to switch sides and join the Devlin gang. Gould had to go. Midge saw an opportunity for his son to take a key step. It was time for Frank to earn his bones, to kill for the mob, or at least for his father.
Midge sent Frank and Biondi to kill Gould. The decision would have dire consequences for all three.
#616698 - 10/07/11 06:46 AM
Re: The Heyday Of New Haven's Mob
by Christopher Hoffman | September 28, 2009 8:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)
Midge%20Renault%20101.jpgFBIFinal chapter in a five-part series on the heyday of New Haven’s mob: Salvatore “Midge Renault” Annunziato returns to prison. Billy Grasso rises to power as the FBI inserts an undercover agent into New Haven and is shocked what it finds. Midge, Whitey Tropiano and Grasso meet their ends.
(See previous installment here.)
1971 - Present
Salvatore “Midge Renault” Annunziato (pictured) and his son Frank waited outside the courtroom for the verdict. They were on trial for an unsuccessful attempt to kill Edward Gould during their war with Eddie Devlin two and half years before. The trial had lasted two weeks. It featured a parade of colorful lowlifes discussing bank robbery, gang war, drug abuse, shootings and attempted murder.
Waiting for the jury to come in, Midge gave the press a rare statement. He told reporters, “Even if I get convicted, I never got a fairer trial than I got this time.”
“You Can’t Do Nothing Right”
Devlin gang member Edward Gould faced a decade or more in federal prison for bank robbery. The FBI and Steve Ahern made an offer: Gould could testify about the night that Frank Annunziato and Richard Biondi tried to kill him in exchange for a vastly reduced sentence. Gould took the deal.
Midge had personal and professional reasons to kill Gould. Gould had been in the driver’s seat earlier that year when Midge’s brother-in-law got out of a parked car and was run down and killed. The hit-and-run driver was never caught, leaving Midge suspicious that his death had not been an accident. And Midge sensed Gould was about to jump to Devlin’s side.
Midge ordered his son Frank and his chief assassin Biondi to kill Gould.
Around midnight on Aug. 10, 1968, Gould left Chip’s Lounge on Grand Avenue and ran into Frank and Biondi. Frank asked Gould for a lift to his car down the street. They got into Gould’s car with Frank in the back and Biondi in the passenger seat. At the intersection of Grand and Ferry, Frank told Gould to turn right. Gould knew that led to East Rock Park, one of the most isolated spots in the city and the same place Ralph Mele’s body had been found 20 years before.
Fearing for his life, Gould turned left instead. As he did, he looked in his rearview mirror and saw Frank raising a gun. Gould slammed on the brakes and jumped from the moving car. As he fled, he heard shots and felt stings in his shoulder and foot.
Gould desperately knocked on doors, running from one house when the owner offered to call police, until he found someone willing to drive him home. Police found him there, bleeding, and took him to the hospital.
Biondi was there too. He’d accidently shot himself in the knee when Gould hit the brakes. Both men would recover.
The next day, according to testimony at the trial, Midge was overheard telling his son, “You can’t do nothing right.”
The war climaxed later that year when Midge’s men shot up a Devlin hangout in West Haven; Devlin gang members responded by shooting Biondi to death.
Shortly after Biondi’s death, the New Haven police arrested Midge for parole violations and returned him to prison.
“The Most Vicious Verdict in the World”
Midge told reporters that he couldn’t imagine a guilty verdict. He praised the judge for his fairness. He couldn’t remember how many times he’d been arrested. He did recall the longest jury deliberation, nine hours.
At 4:50 p.m. the foreman said that the jury hoped to reach a verdict by 5:15 p.m. Midge’s mood darkened.
“I feel numb,” Frank was heard muttering as he paced.
At 5:20 p.m., the jury asked to be allowed to continue to deliberate. The judge agreed. Ninety minutes later, it had reached a decision. Midge, Frank and their lawyers filed back into the courtroom. The foreman rose and spoke: Guilty.
Enraged, Midge leapt to his feet.
“That’s the most vicious verdict in the world!” he yelled.
As Midge left the courtroom, a New Haven Register reporter snapped a picture. Snow was falling as Midge, Frank and Midge’s longtime lawyer Howard Jacobs went down the courthouse steps. Midge was nattily dressed with modish sideburns and haircut, looking ahead, unworried and confident. Frank stared menacingly into the camera, looking haunted, shocked and lost.
Midge got nine to 14 years, Frank five to 10. Midge managed to stave off imprisonment until 1972. On reporting day, police found him in an East Haven restaurant and took him to prison.
Frank, meanwhile, remained free on bond as his and his father’s appeals worked their ways through the courts. But like his father, Frank was all but spent. Deeply embittered and haunted by what he had done for his father, Frank turned to drugs, becoming, in the words of several friends, “a stone junkie.”
Whitey Tropiano, meanwhile, couldn’t take it anymore. He hated Leavenworth prison, then one of the nation’s toughest. He sent word to the FBI: He was ready to talk.
How many interviews Whitey gave over what period of time is not stated in FBI records. What is clear is that he spilled his guts.
Whitey acknowledged knowing members — he called them “good fellows” — of Joe Profaci’s crime family, one of five in New York City. One day, a “good fellow” took him to meet Joe Profaci, who offered him membership in the family. Whitey claimed he turned Profaci down.
“Membership in the family did not bring with it instant riches, and, in fact, the members were expected to ‘make it on their own,’” Whitey told agents. “Membership meant simply that you were assured no interference from outside individuals, that is being under the protective wing of the family, but on the other hand it meant sharing wealth with the family.”
After he declined Profaci’s offer, the cops began to harass his gambling operations. Because they were not getting paid off by the mob to protect his operation, they weren’t making any money, they explained to him.
Whitey said the harassment grew so bad that he closed down his gambling operation. One of Profaci’s men again suggested he join the family, but he said he again refused. He claimed he’d come to New Haven to escape police harassment and pressure to join the mob.
Whitey acknowledged taking orders from Profaci once he arrived in New Haven. Profaci came to New Haven and introduced him to Raymond L.S. Patriarca, head of the New England mafia family. From then on, he collected debts and did other favors for Patriarca.
The FBI wanted names and information on mobsters and mob activities in Connecticut and beyond. Whitey named the acting head of the Colombo family, the underboss and five capos. He estimated the family had 100 made members. He talked about the other New York crime families. The Lucchese family had about 85 members, the Genovese family 800 and the Gambino family 1,000. The Bonnano family, he said, had been split into families, he said. He named some of the leadership of the other families and dished on their internal rivalries.
In Connecticut, Whitey identified Nicholas Patti of Ansonia as a member of the Gambino crime family and boss of the Naugatuck Valley. Joe “Buff” LaSelva, a “councilman” in the “Jersey crew,” and Joseph “Pippie” Guerrerrio were made guys who ran Waterbury, Whitey said. Frank Piccolo, a made man in the Gambino family, was the biggest operator in Bridgeport. He confirmed that Midge was a member of the Genovese family.
Whitey identified 21 living and dead mafia members, most of them in Connecticut, shared rumors about a murder in New York City and detailed mob numbers, bookmaking and other operations. He claimed that other hoodlums had “bought off” members of the New Haven Blades professional hockey team, presumably to fix games.
Whitey personally admitted to being part of a group that controlled numbers in New Haven and running other illegal gambling operations. In addition to owning the New Haven Grape Co., he said he had interests in a construction firm, an after-hours club and a car dealership. He named the mobsters who were running his operations in his absence and admitted he was trying to plant phony evidence to get his federal conviction overturned.
Whitey expressed anger and resentment toward co-defendant and former right-hand man Billy Grasso, who was serving his sentence in the Atlanta federal prison. Years ago, he said, he’d taken Billy “out of the streets,” clothed him, fed him and put him to work. He blamed Grasso for his conviction.
Whitey’s career as an informant was short. FBI would approach him again in later years, but he mostly rebuffed them.
“Subsequent contacts with Tropiano were for the most part unproductive,” his FBI file reads.
The Wild Guy
In 1973, Billy Grasso was released from prison. He had thrived in the Atlanta Federal Penitenary, thanks to meeting Raymond L.S. Patriarca, longtime head of the New England mafia family.
From his headquarters on Atwells Avenue in Providence, R.I., Patriraca had long dominated organized crime in New England. Billy had qualities that Patriarca admired: He was smart, cold-blooded and ruthless. Soon Billy was “shining Patriarca’s shoes.” The two men had much to offer each other. Billy would allow Patriarca to expand into New Haven. Patriarca was Billy’s ticket to the big time.
Billy was unpredictable and deeply paranoid. In the coming years, the FBI would find him virtually impossible to tail. He would drive in circles and sit in empty parking lots for hours. Sometimes, he would drive up the I-95 on ramp at the end of Wooster Street and then back down.
Billy trusted almost no one and turned on people suddenly and without reason. His men were terrified of him and grew to hate him. Because of his blind rages, quick violence and extreme greed, they eventually nicknamed him “The Wild Guy.”
“When Billy talked, guys vibrated,” said one FBI agent.
Billy got a cover job as a salesman for a trash hauler. He immediately set to consolidating his power. With Patriarca behind him, he was poised to become the most powerful gangster in New Haven. He faced one obstacle: John “Slew” Palmieri.
The Naked Bomber
Palmieri was a made man in the New York City-based Gambino crime family, then the nation’s most powerful. His specialty was bombs. He was an old school artisan who learned his craft in the 1930s. He used alarm clocks, mixed his own explosives and assembled his devices in the nude to guard against ignitions caused by static electricity.
Palmieri was the prime suspect in a sensational 1962 car bombing on Lombard Street in Fair Haven. At 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 9, a parked car exploded, shattering windows and sending parts and shrapnel hurtling through the densely populated neighborhood. The blast, heard as far away as North Haven, damaged 11 homes, shut off gas and electricity and sheared tree limbs. A piece of fender crashed through the storm door of one house and embedded itself in a wall. Amazingly, no one was killed or injured.
Every evening around that time, the car’s owner, who had a vending machine business and was in dispute with another company over placement of machines, would drive to the New Haven train station to get the New York City newspapers. He felt sick that night and stayed home. It saved his life.
The cops named Palmieri and the owner of the other vending machine business as suspects, but never charged either with the bombing.
Now, more than a decade later, the 60-year-old Palmeiri, just released from prison in an unrelated case, aimed to become the biggest man in New Haven. On Nov. 10, 1974, Palmeiri left his apartment at Bella Vista in New Haven, and as he drove down Eastern Street, his car exploded, throwing it 200 feet down the road and killing him instantly.
A short time later, Grasso discussed the bombing with his federal parole officer.
“It was a lousy job,” Grasso told him.
With Palmieri gone and Midge and Whitey in jail, nothing stood between Grasso and control of New Haven.
Around the same time, Billy officially switched from the Colombo family in New York to the Providence-based Patriarca family, and Patriarca formally inducted him into the mafia. Billy was now a made man.
A Small Town
Every week for 15 years, gamblers flocked to a plumbing business on Forbes Avenue to play craps. The game was one of the biggest between New York and Boston with a bank of $50,000, so lucrative that Raymond Partriarca and Carlo Gambino were among the gangsters who took a cut. Billy Grasso was one of the operators.
In mid-1974, the New Haven FBI learned of the game and targeted it. Agents hoped to raid the game and build cases not only against local mobsters like Billy Grasso, but perhaps against Gambino and Patriarca as well.
At first, they decided to work with the New Haven police department. They got a rude shock. Immediately after the FBI informed New Haven police of its interest in the game, a city police cruiser parked in front of the business at game time, scaring off players. That, coupled with the fact that New Haven police had allowed the game to operate unmolested for 15 years, led agents to conclude that “there was some type of corruption involved in this particular game.”
The bureau next turned to the state police organized crime unit, but it soon concluded that state law would hinder use of any information gathered and that the unit was incompetent.
Determined to crack the game, the FBI settled on a new strategy: insert an undercover agent into the New Haven underworld. It would not be easy.
“Historically, the city of New Haven, although population based on the 1970 census exceeds 110,00, can be described as a ‘small town,’ ” reads a 1976 FBI report. “It has been ascertained that there is an intertwine between criminal elements and law enforcement. Further the criminal element all appears to have grown up together or are related to each other in some way by either blood relationship or close companionship over the years. It is extremely difficult for any individual to establish himself within the criminal element.”
However, a trusted informant who was a lifelong New Haven resident and whose family had long been involved in the city’s rackets agreed to introduce an agent into the city’s underworld. In January 1976, the agent went undercover in what the FBI dubbed “Operation Richmart.”
The operation quickly bore fruit. Within weeks, the agent had gotten close to a local mobster — his name is blacked out in FBI records — who was “making a play” to take over the city’s rackets. The agent met Adolfo Bruno, a top member of the Genovese family’s Springfield arm, who asked him to come to Springfield and sweep the gang’s phones for bugs. (The agent’s cover was as a telephone company employee.) Bruno arranged for the agent to take a junket to a casino in Curacao in the Caribbean. During the trip, Bruno bragged that New Jersey-based gangsters controlled the casino. Soon, the agent was invited to the Forbes Avenue craps game, where he got to know even more local hoodlums and gamblers. Some hoodlums even began borrowing money from the agent.
One day in mid-March, the agent was present when a group of mobsters sat around a table at G-G’s discussing recent news stories about then-New Haven Police Chief Biagio DiLieto’s son’s heroin use.
“The group further discussed by DiLieto’s son’s action they were afraid that this would cause the chief to resign,” the undercover agent’s report reads. “Group felt that should this occur, they would lose their control over the New Haven PD.”
The men did not elaborate.
No Decisions Without Prior OK
In early March, a “source,” probably an informant possibly wearing a wire (the FBI report does not explain), accompanied a mobster to the Park Sheraton Hotel in downtown New Haven. The mobster met with a hotel official to get a friend hired as the maitre’d at the hotel’s restaurant. When he was told the job was filled, the mobster told the official to arrange it anyway, but the official refused.
The gangster made a call and told whoever was on the other end that he wanted to see him immediately. He then asked for a hotel room.
The source accompanied the gangster and two others to the room. About 25 minutes later, there was a knock. The gangster opened the door. Arthur T. Barbieri walked in.
Barbieri’s 20-plus-year run as Democratic Town Committee chairman had recently ended. As in many American cities, young reformers were challenging the city’s Democratic machine. In 1975, they’d elected a reform mayor, Frank Logue. Rather than being forced out, Barbieri resigned.
The gangster was angry about Barbieri’s decision. Soon after Barbieri entered the room, he and the mobster got into a heated argument “during which (name blacked out) grabbed Barbieri around the neck and told Barbieri he’d made a big mistake stepping down and by this move had put a lot of (the mobster’s) people in trouble. (The mobster) also told Barbieri that his people had spent a lot of money on Barbieri. Source advised (the mobster) further told Barbieri he was not to make any decisions without prior okay from (the mobster). Source stated that Barbieri’s only reply … was he knew what he was doing and it would not be long before he was back in power.”
The incident broadened the investigation. What had started out as a narrow effort to bust a high stakes craps game now expanded into broad racketing investigation involving alleged police and political corruption. The undercover agent’s attendance at the annual Italian-American Civil Rights League dinner further fueled the FBI’s interest.
In 1970, Joe Colombo, boss of the Colombo crime family, created the league after his son was arrested for melting down quarters for their silver. The organization hit a nerve in the Italian-American community, which believed Italians had suffered genuine discrimination. Members picketed FBI offices all over the northeast, including in New Haven, alleging that the FBI unfairly targeted Italians. The group launched a crusade against use of the word “mafia” in the media and movies, succeeding in getting the word dropped from the movie The Godfather. There was talk of a hospital, a youth camp and charitable programs.
Unfortunately, the group was controlled by the mob, which provided much of its leadership, looted its coffers and used it to discourage investigation and prosecution. In June 1971, Colombo was shot and severely wounded while giving a speech at the league’s annual rally in New York City.
The league immediately collapsed almost everywhere — except in New Haven where it thrived until about 1980, at times playing a role in local politics and purporting to protect Italians from discrimination.
Even given its history, the undercover agent was shocked by what he witnessed at the league’s 1976 dinner in New Haven. Gangsters, politicians and top police officials all attended and mixed openly. The chiefs of police of both Hamden and North Haven were there, as well as Barbieri. Large ads in the program paid tribute to numerous mobsters including Francis “Fat Frannie” Curcio of Bridgeport, a possible mafia member who was one of the region’s biggest loan sharks and gamblers. The dinner caused the FBI to further ratchet up its investigation. A second agent was sent undercover, while the first began wearing a wire and recording conversations.
But FBI headquarters was skeptical. The director was concerned about the cost of the investigation, convinced the office could achieve the same results for less by using paid informants. He questioned whether it could produce prosecutions. Further hampering the operation, the undercover agent had to leave New Haven several times for extended periods to testify at a trial in Buffalo.
The investigation nevertheless continued to bear fruit. In early summer, the bureau made an arrest. The U.S. Attorney began subpoenaing people identified by the agent to appear before a grand jury. Agents also began approaching hoodlums and trying to interview them.
The subpoenas and interviews threw the New Haven underworld into an uproar. But no one appeared to suspect the undercover agent. Hoodlums confided their fears to him and advised him to be careful because “stool pigeons” were everywhere.
Trust in the agent grew. By the end of the summer, he made contact with New York mafiosi and was negotiating what appeared to be a deal to deliver hijacked truck trailers. His New Haven friends wanted to use his apartment for a gambling operation.
But the FBI director still wanted to shut down the undercover operation, again expressing concern about costs and doubts that it would yield prosecutions. The New Haven office strongly disagreed. It pleaded for more time, offering to cut expenses by getting rid of the agent’s car and keeping his apartment for only another month or two. The FBI director refused.
Within weeks, the FBI pulled out the agent and closed the investigation. No further arrests followed.
Whether the FBI would have resorted to an undercover agent against the crap game if the Ahern brothers were still running the New Haven police is unknown. They were long gone.
In 1970, Jim Ahern retired after less than three years on the job. Brother Steve followed not long after and set about quietly building real estate and security businesses that would make him rich.
Jim Ahern sought to capitalize on his growing national reputation. In May 1970 when he was still police chief, Jim earned universal praise and national acclaim for successfully keeping the lid on protests during the trial of Bobby Seale and other Black Panthers. The stark contrast with fatal shootings of protesters at Kent State University days later only further enhanced Ahern’s reputation. President Richard Nixon appointed him to the federal commission that investigated the Kent State killings.
Jim’s profile grew. He addressed the 1972 Democratic Convention and appeared on the Dick Cavett show. His new friends included Sen. Ted Kennedy and New York Mayor John Lindsay. Jim wrote a controversial book called Police in Trouble, exposing mob infiltration of big city politics and law enforcement and blasting backward, incompetent policing; Kennedy gave him a blurb for the jacket. Lindsay wrote the introduction, praising Ahern’s “uncompromised outrage.” As his state and national profiles grew, Jim Ahern laid plans to run for governor.
But there was a deep hypocrisy to Jim Ahern’s public persona. The liberal cop forcefully condemning civil liberties abuses had presided over one of the biggest illegal wiretapping operations in American history. Incredibly, he blasted the Nixon administration for illegal wiretapping in his book and at 1971 ceremonies marking the first anniversary of the Kent State shootings.
In January 1977, Ahern’s secrets finally brought him down. The New Haven Journal-Courier published a five-part series by reporter Andrew Houlding exposing the Ahern brothers’ massive illegal wiretapping. The ensuing scandal and resulting lawsuits were not settled until late 1984; they destroyed the Aherns’ reputations. Jim Ahern died of cancer 15 months later at the age of 54.
In 1977, as the Ahern brothers twisted in the wind with continuing revelations about their wiretapping, Midge caught a break. A federal judge found that the court had failed to inform the jury that Steve Ahern had made a deal with one of the witnesses at Midge’s and Frank’s trial. He ordered a new trial.
Gould and other key witnesses were unavailable, and the state’s attorney abandoned the case. By 1978, Midge was free once again.
But he wasn’t the same. He was nearly 60 now. The last five years in prison had worn him down. His brother in law recalled that much of he spark was gone by the time he finally got out.
Midge tried to pick up where he’d left off. He still lived most of time with Angela, who was nearing 70, in her New Haven home. he still supported both her and his wife. Shut out of the operating engineers, he shifted to skimming from the less lucrative laborers union. He returned to his other old rackets, gambling and restaurant shakedowns. He spent much of each day drinking at local bars and restaurants. One Fair Haven bar maid recalls Midge running out of money and him sending to her to his home where his wife left cash in the milk box.
Midge hadn’t lost his subversive sense of humor. At the same Fair Haven tavern, he liked to put a $100 bill and his keys on the bar and dare one of the barflies to start his car. Would it explode? Who knew?
Sometimes the FBI would send an undercover agent into the watering holes to observe Midge and try to engage. One agent recalled him exploding into storms of profanity, unsettling and frightening other patrons. Sometimes, the agents would see his son Frank.
Midge still dreamed of an Annunziato dynasty. Frank may not have measured up, but he had three sons who coming of age. Midge had high hopes for his grandsons and wanted to get them started. But Frank, in spite of his severe drug addiction, resisted.
There were signs that Midge’s mind was going as well as his body. One day a woman asked Midge for a jump for her car. Midge had one of his men start the woman’s car. Midge then grabbed the woman’s arm and told her she owed him a favor. He kills anyone who doesn’t, he told her.
The woman wasn’t intimidated. She told Midge she knew bigger people than Midge Renault and she could call them to get him to lay off. After Midge disappeared, she denied to investigators that she’d done so.
Midge didn’t know it, but the FBI was following and in many cases videotaping and recording him. Informants tipped the agents off that Midge ran an illegal gambling casino at a laborers union Christmas party. The FBI captured it all on tape and in the spring of 1979 arrested him on a wide range of charges that would send him back to prison for years.
Between that and his arrest for shooting a man outside Angela’s house, he was in the biggest trouble of his life.
Midge’s wife Louise grew worried when Midge failed to return home on the evening of June 19,1979, or the next morning. Midge had never gone more than 16 hours without calling her. She called family and friends. No one had seen him.
Finally, after nine days, Louise called Midge’s lawyer, Howard Jacobs, who reported his client missing to the East Haven police. A media frenzy followed as the state, local and federal law enforcement searched for Midge.
Days turned to weeks. They found no sign of him.
“The Gee’s Gone”
On July 21, a month and two days after Midge disappeared, East Haven police arrested a close associate of Midge and Billy Grasso in a shooting at a restaurant.
“Where’s Midgie?” the cop asked as he booked the man.
“Look west,” the hoodlum said softly. Other cops came in the room and he clamed up.
On Sept. 1, 1979, a police officer met an informant at a Milford rest stop. The informant was also a key figure in the Forbes Avenue craps game. Days earlier, the FBI had finally raided the game.
Most of the discussion centered on the craps game, but at one point, the cop asked “Where’s The Gee?” referring to “Midgie.”
“The Gee’s gone,” the man replied. “The outfit took care of him.”
The FBI interviewed dozens of people. It followed up on leads as far away as London and Aruba, but found no sign of Midge.
In mid-January 1980, a grand jury investigating Midge’s disappearance took testimony from Thomas “Tommy the Blonde” Vastano, who had picked up Midge the night he disappeared and was the last person to see him.
Two weeks after appearing before the grand jury, Vastano was ambushed at about 2 a.m. as he returned to his Stratford home.
Neighbors heard him cry, “Oh no! Oh no!”, followed by shots.
The cops found Tommy the Blonde, 71, shot to death in his driveway, his car door still open.
The East Haven police informant had news: Midge was alive. It was Feb. 2, 1980, about a week after Vastano’s murder.
Midge was “out west on the farm,” said the informant, whose information had proven reliable in the past. The farm, he said, was “a resort” for mob members whom the organization had “used,” but still wanted to hold onto. Midge was “not hit,” the informant insisted.
In May 1981, an anonymous tipster told New Haven detectives that he had witnessed Midge’s murder the night he disappeared, he said. His killers weighted down his body with an anchor and dropped it off a bridge into Bridgeport harbor near the ferry landing.
A high-ranking city police officer went to the bridge and concluded the story was plausible. He did not investigate further, he said, because it was East Haven’s case.
Midge’s bondsman, who had been forced to forfeit Midge’s $30,000 bond the year after a judge concluded there was insufficient evidence that he was dead, seized on the information. He sought a new hearing.
A federal judge granted the hearing, listened to the new evidence and concluded it still didn’t prove Midge was dead. The bondsman never got his money back.
Meanwhile, drugs were slowly killing Frank Annunziato. As his liver deteriorated, he expressed deep remorse for his criminal acts. He cursed his father for getting him involved in the mob. He unburdened himself to a New Haven cop he trusted, telling him everything he had done for Midge.
“It was like I was his priest and he was confessing,” the cop recalled.
In 1983, Frank died of liver failure. He was 40.
Frank succeeded in one important way. His three boys steered clear of the mob. All three ended up in legitimate jobs. One even ended up selling computer software to police departments.
In June 1985, the New Haven Register ran a story reporting that Midge’s fate remained a mystery six years after his disappearance. It was the last time he would be mentioned in the newspaper for more than a decade.
whitey%20tropiano.jpgFBIWhen Whitey Tropiano (pictured)finished his federal sentence for garbage racketeering, he was sent back to Connecticut to finally begin his term for trying to bribe Steve Ahern a decade earlier. In November 1974, he was paroled.
His health had deteriorated. He entered semi-retirement, spending most of his time at his East Haven home.
In early 1979, Whitey had recovered enough to attempt a comeback. Informants told the FBI that Whitey began loan sharking and was moving large amounts of cocaine.
Billy Grasso wasn’t happy. Billy was now a made man, putting him on equal footing with his former boss and mentor. The two men clashed. The FBI began hearing that Grasso’s boss Raymond Patriarca had put out a contract on Whitey.
On April 2, 1980, Whitey was back home in Bath Beach, the Brooklyn neighborhood where he’d grown up and made his bones as a mafioso. It was about 2:15 p.m. when he left a business owned by a family and, accompanied by a nephew, strolled down 63rd Street.
Suddenly, two cars pulled up. Two men with stockings over their faces got out and started shooting. The nephew fled, unhurt, as the men peppered Whitey with bullets to the head, back and stomach. Whitey, 67, was pronounced dead at the scene.
He was buried several days later in New Haven.
His murder remains unsolved.
The Wild Guy
Billy Grasso was now the undisputed king of New Haven. He would rise to the position of second in command of the Patriarca crime family, but much of his later career remains shrouded in mystery. The FBI, which had compiled hundreds of pages of documents on Billy from the late 1950s through about 1980, claims to have no files on him after that time until the late 1980s.
In 1989, the New England mafia went to war with itself. Only years later would it emerge that the war was fomented in part by rogue FBI agents working with James “Whitey” Bulger, head of the mostly Irish Winter Hill Gang in Boston.
In June 1989, Connecticut and Massachusetts mobsters picked up Grasso in a van. They had all grown to hate him for his greed and fear him for his unpredictability, greed and quick resort to violence. Billy got into the front seat. Patriarca family soldier Gaetano Milano of East Longmeadow, Massachusetts handed him a paper with a story about a recent gambling bust. With Billy distracted, Milano raised a gun and shot him once in the back of the neck. He would later claim self defense. Grasso, he said, was about to have him killed. He had no choice but to whack Billy first.
“It’s over,” he told his accomplices. The conspirators dumped Billy’s body in Wethersfield next to the Connecticut River where fishermen found it the next day.
Milano’s comment was more prophetic than he realized. Grasso’s killing triggered a series of events that would cripple the mob in New Haven, the state and the region, greatly diminishing its power and reach.
The FBI launched an intensive investigation, eventually arresting Milano and numerous others and convicting them in a 1991 Hartford trial.
As part of its investigation, the FBI dug up three graves in a Hamden garage. Most of the bodies had been removed, but bones from the fingertips and the throat remained. Based on impressions, one of bodies was between 5’2” and 5’4.” Midge was 5’3,” leading FBI agents to believe that he was buried there.
At the time, DNA technology was insufficient to determine whether the remains were Midge’s. The bones were instead attached to a board and displayed during the trial.
By the 2000s, technology had advanced to the point where a DNA test was possible. The author of this series asked a member of the Annunziato family to approach Midge’s two daughters about a DNA test to determine whether the remains were his.
The daughters angrily refused. They are deeply embittered and angry with their father. They just wanted to forget him.
New Haven and its surrounding suburbs, however, have never forgotten Midge. While he has disappeared from the press, his memory is very much alive. People still tell stories, a mixture of fear, awe and amusement in their voices. Mention his name and a brow furrows, followed by a nervous laugh. He was something that Midge.
Thirty years after his disappearance, Midge’s fate remains a mystery.