Russ Bufalino, Pennsylvania crime family Boss
In his time, Russell A. Bufalino was feted by politicians, feared by his fellow mobsters and dogged by federal prosecutors.
Even 17 years after his death, the soft-spoken, eight-fingered Sicilian with a lazy eye, known to his closest associates as “McGee,” is still a presence in Northeast Pennsylvania, where he helped nurture the culture of corruption now unraveling under the pressure of a federal corruption probe.
The 2006 arrest of Mr. Bufalino’s longtime driver and reputed successor, William “Big Billy” D’Elia, put the FBI on the trail of two Luzerne County judges now facing prison for racketeering, federal prosecutors say.
Casino developer Louis A. DeNaples’ alleged evasions about a relationship with Mr. Bufalino in interviews with state gaming regulators forced him to relinquish control of his casino in return for dismissal of perjury charges in 2009.
Mr. Bufalino, or a character based on him, will likely play a prominent role in a film planned by Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese. “The Irishman,” based on the biography of a Teamsters official who claims to have killed labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa on Mr. Bufalino’s orders, would star mob-movie legends Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino.
But the definitive, if less cinematic, chronicle of Mr. Bufalino’s career can be found in his 1,164-page FBI file, acquired by Times-Shamrock newspapers under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Although heavily edited to delete the names of informants and associates and to protect investigatory information, the FBI file makes a compelling case that Mr. Bufalino’s quiet and modest life in Kingston obscured a criminal career of nationwide significance. Reports from FBI offices across the United States over a 30-year period link Mr. Bufalino and his crime family to union racketeering, bookmaking, the fencing of stolen goods, loan-sharking, narcotics and related violence.
“He was one of the most powerful mob bosses of his day, if not of all time,” said Charles Brandt, a former Delaware state prosecutor whose biography of former Teamsters official Frank Sheeran, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” is the basis for the Scorsese film project.
The earliest report in the Bufalino FBI file, dating from 1953, names Mr. Bufalino, who was then 50 and living in Pittston, as a “power in the Mafia” with “close contacts in the underworld in New York City and Detroit” and interests in gambling and racketeering connected to local dress factories. Similar reports from this era also link him to upstate New York mob boss Joseph Barbara, who employed Mr. Bufalino as a mechanic at one of his bottling plants during World War II.
Mr. Bufalino’s ties to Mr. Barbara would soon expose him and organized crime to increased and unwelcome scrutiny by law enforcement and the news media.
Apalachin, Cuba, Deportation
In November 1957, Mr. Bufalino helped organize a meeting of dozens of organized crime figures from across the country at Mr. Barbara’s 53-acre estate in Apalachin, N.Y.
A New York state police trooper, intrigued by a large number of hotel rooms reserved by the Mr. Barbara family and increased traffic at the estate, set up a roadblock near the estate’s entrance, setting off a panic among the mobsters, some of whom fled on foot into the nearby woods.
Nearly 60 men were detained. Twenty, including Mr. Bufalino, would be found guilty of obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to a grand jury about the purpose of the meeting, but those convictions were overturned on appeal.
Mr. Bufalino told a local reporter the gathering was merely a cookout.
For organized crime, Apalachin meant increased scrutiny from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which had been dubious about claims of a nationwide crime network before the well-publicized raid.
For Mr. Bufalino, Apalachin, and the subsequent decline of Mr. Barbara’s influence, created an opportunity for increased power over organized crime groups in Northeast Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier of New York. By 1959, Mr. Bufalino was the boss of the regional crime syndicate, according to the FBI.
Apalachin also resulted in a 15-year legal battle with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which wanted to deport Mr. Bufalino as an undesirable alien.
U.S. Attorney General William P. Rogers called the Bufalino deportation proceedings “one of the first results of an intensified campaign for enforcement of federal laws against racketeers.”
Mr. Bufalino, born in Sicily in September 1903, had been granted permanent resident status, but not citizenship, upon entering the country through Ellis Island in 1914, according to the INS. The agency alleged he falsely claimed U.S. citizenship upon returning from a 1956 trip to Cuba, where he and other mob figures had extensive interests before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.
In preparing for Mr. Bufalino’s 1958 deportation hearing, federal agents discovered birth records in the Luzerne County Courthouse had been forged to indicate he had been born in Pittston in October 1903.
At the hearing, Mr. Bufalino’s attorney admitted he was born in Sicily, did not possess citizenship and illegally re-entered the country in 1956. He was ordered deported.
Mr. Bufalino unsuccessfully fought his deportation all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear his appeal in 1973. But in the end, the Italian government declined to accept him and he remained in the United States.
The Hoffa disappearance
No one has ever been prosecuted for the 1975 disappearance of former Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa, but Mr. Bufalino’s FBI file indicates he was among the suspects.
Several men whose names have been tied to the Hoffa case, including Mr. Bufalino and Delaware Teamsters official Frank Sheeran, were subsequently imprisoned on unrelated charges in a concerted law enforcement assault on racketeering and organized crime that raged in the late 1970s and 1980s.
According to Mr. Brandt, the former prosecutor whose book is based on interviews he conducted with Mr. Sheeran, the union official claimed to have shot Hoffa on Mr. Bufalino’s orders.
Mr. Sheeran said Mr. Bufalino and other Mafia heads wanted to stop Mr. Hoffa from regaining the presidency of the Teamsters and control of its pension fund, which had been a source of easy loans for the mob. At the time of his disappearance, Mr. Hoffa, who had served time on bribery and other charges, was planning to run for the union presidency despite the terms of his early release, which barred him from union activities until 1980.
Mr. Bufalino’s FBI file makes several references to the Hoffa investigation, known as “Hoffex.”
“Sheeran was observed driving Russell Bufalino in Detroit right after Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance,” according to one FBI report. In Mr. Brandt’s book, Mr. Sheeran claimed he, Mr. Bufalino and their wives drove from Northeast Pennsylvania to Detroit in 1975 to attend the wedding of the daughter of William Bufalino, an attorney who had ties to Mr. Bufalino and the Teamsters.
Mr. Sheeran claimed he and Mr. Bufalino dropped off their wives at a diner in Ohio during the drive and Mr. Sheeran and Mr. Bufalino drove to a small airport, where Mr. Sheeran boarded a private plane for an hour-long flight to Michigan. Once there, Mr. Sheeran said, he met Mr. Hoffa and drove with him and another mob associate to a house outside Detroit, where he shot Mr. Hoffa. Mr. Sheeran then flew back to Ohio to continue his trip with Mr. Bufalino.
The FBI file says Mr. Sheeran, a Philadelphia native, was “closely connected” to Mr. Bufalino. Mr. Brandt’s book describes Mr. Sheeran as performing numerous services for Mr. Bufalino and Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno.
The FBI report says the Bufalino crime family had only 40 “made” members and 75 associates, but it had regular dealings with larger families in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York and Florida and ties to Las Vegas casinos:
“We have seen indications of accelerated infiltration of the garment industry â¦ extensive loan shark activity â¦ gambling junkets and casino skims â¦ bankruptcy fraud â¦ corruption of the financial community â¦ laundering of funds â¦ large scale fencing operation for stolen jewels â¦ political corruption â¦ fraud in Government contracts â¦ obstruction of justice and labor racketeering.”
Mr. Bufalino was known to associate with numerous local business leaders, politicians and even judges, according to the FBI file, which was heavily edited by the agency to delete their names.
“This Family has also established close political ties with prominent politicians,” a 1981 FBI report states. “The extent of this political influence was verified by the debriefing of (name redacted) during the multi-jurisdictional investigation of former Congressman Daniel J. Flood.”
Mr. Flood, who had represented the Wilkes-Barre area in Congress for decades, resigned from office in January 1980 and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws.
Hundreds of people, including many local politicians, attended annual dinners held to coincide with Mr. Bufalino’s birthday sponsored by the local chapter of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, of which Mr. Bufalino was a leading member, according to the FBI.
Mr. Bufalino and his wife, Carolyn, who had no children, lived in a non-descript home in a quiet residential section of Kingston. But Mr. Bufalino spent several days each week in New York City, where he had interests in restaurants, jewelry stores and garment businesses, according to the FBI.
It was a New York case involving $25,000 in diamonds that would send Mr. Bufalino to federal prison for the first time in 1978 at the age of 74. Mr. Bufalino was convicted of threatening Jack Napoli, who had used Mr. Bufalino’s name to secure the diamonds from a New York jeweler, paying for the gems with a worthless check.
When Mr. Bufalino and an associate threatened Mr. Napoli, he went to the FBI and wore a wire during a conversation in which Mr. Bufalino vowed:
“I’m going to kill you, (expletive deleted), and I’m going to do it myself.”
Mr. Bufalino was convicted of extortion and got four years.
‘RABFAM’ and new charges
Federal agents believed Mr. Bufalino continued to oversee the operations of his crime family through his lieutenants while incarcerated in Danbury, Conn. In 1979, they went on the attack with an investigation designed to “decimate the Bufalino Family,” according to the FBI file.
It was called RABFAM, for Russell A. Bufalino Family, and it entailed numerous wiretaps, informants, undercover agents and surveillance based out of a new FBI office in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
RABFAM grew from a 1978 FBI investigation in Baltimore into the fencing of stolen goods. Through that investigation, undercover agents developed information on various organized crime figures.
“The evolution of the operation has been changed from a purely stolen goods posture to prosecution of members of Organized Crime Families, either through the purchase of stolen property or other suitable violations of Federal laws,” according to a 1980 FBI report in the Bufalino file.
RABFAM, overseen by the FBI’s Philadelphia office, involved a squad “engaged full-time in surveillance of members of the Russell A. Bufalino Family,” according to the file, which alleged Mr. Bufalino continued to direct family business from jail through two lieutenants. One handled “general criminal matters,” while the other took care of “white collar crime matters concentrating in labor racketeering, political corruption and infiltration of legitimate businesses.”
The names of those lieutenants have been edited out of the FBI file obtained by Times-Shamrock newspapers, but one page from the numerous RABFAM reports contains the hand-written notation “D’Elia,” an obvious reference to William “Big Billy” D’Elia, Mr. Bufalino’s former driver and eventual successor. He is now in federal prison on money laundering and witness-tampering charges. He did not respond to a series of written questions provided through his lawyer.
As RABFAM proceeded, Mr. Bufalino was hit with new criminal charges while still in prison. In December 1980, a federal grand jury indictment alleged he had somehow tracked down and conspired to kill Mr. Napoli, the prime government witness at his extortion trial, who had entered the Witness Protection Program.
Mr. Bufalino was released from prison in May 1981 while awaiting trial for murder conspiracy. While free, he met with mob associates, including Mr. Sheeran, in Wilkes-Barre, New York and Philadelphia, according to the FBI.
On Sept. 5, 1981, the local chapter of the Italian-American Civil Rights League held its annual dinner in downtown Wilkes-Barre. Mr. Bufalino was the “guest of honor” and received a plaque in recognition of his “service to the community,” according to the FBI.
By October 1981, Mr. Bufalino was back in a federal courtroom in New York, where a jury convicted him of conspiracy. He would begin serving a 10-year sentence the following August.
Meanwhile, RABFAM continued, but there were signs of internal tensions in the Justice Department over the direction of the investigation and frustration over its lack of results.
Mr. Bufalino’s indictment in the Napoli case came not from information developed by RABFAM, but through a grand jury in the U.S. Southern District of New York. The Philadelphia FBI office running RABFAM was unaware of the New York case until it learned a Newark FBI agent had been subpoenaed to testify about Mr. Bufalino before the grand jury just weeks before the indictment.
In September 1981, Eric H. Holder Jr., then a federal prosecutor and now U.S. Attorney General, wrote to the Justice Department arguing that RABFAM “has yet to develop a viable, indictable case” and should be shut down.
Mr. Holder wanted to terminate RABFAM because he needed the testimony of a RABFAM informant to pursue a jury-tampering case involving Bufalino lieutenant James David Osticco that had been developed independently of RABFAM.
In response to Mr. Holder’s memo, FBI headquarters wrote that going ahead with the Osticco case and unmasking the informant “would entirely void the continuing RABFAM investigation.”
In the end, Mr. Holder won. RABFAM informant Frank Parlopiano testified against Mr. Osticco at his trial in 1983. Mr. Osticco was convicted of bribing a juror in a 1977 fraud case involving three Lackawanna County officials and Mr. DeNaples, a Dunmore businessman. The juror was the lone holdout for acquittal in a case that involved overbilling the federal government for flood recovery work following Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.
After the hung jury, Mr. DeNaples and the other three defendants pleaded no contest in the case. He received a $10,000 fine and three years probation.
RABFAM was shut down for good in 1984.
Mr. DeNaples’ alleged relationship to Mr. Bufalino would surface decades later when he successfully applied for a state license for Mount Airy Casino Resort in Monroe County. A Dauphin County grand jury indicted Mr. DeNaples in 2008, alleging he lied to gaming regulators about his relationships with Mr. Bufalino and Mr. D’Elia.
The grand jury concluded “DeNaples escaped a lengthy prison term by employing his organized crime contacts to fix his criminal trial.”
The perjury charges against Mr. DeNaples, who was not charged in the Osticco case and who has denied having ties to organized crime, were withdrawn and he agreed to transfer ownership of the casino to family members.
Efforts to reach Mr. DeNaples and his attorney in the perjury case were unsuccessful.
Mr. Holder did not respond to an interview request placed with U.S. Department of Justice.
Decline, death and legacy
Mr. Bufalino spent nearly seven years in federal custody for the murder conspiracy conviction and suffered a stroke while in prison. He was released in 1989 and died in a nursing home in 1994.
According to Mr. Sheeran, who was incarcerated in a federal prison hospital with Mr. Bufalino, the mob boss found religion behind bars.
“When you get to be my age, you’ll realize there’s something more than this,” Mr. Bufalino told Mr. Sheeran, according to Mr. Sheeran’s biography.
The leadership of Mr. Bufalino’s organized crime family, which was dwindling in numbers and influence, eventually fell to Mr. D’Elia, who pleaded guilty to money laundering and witness intimidation in 2008 and is now serving seven years and three months in a federal prison in Arizona.
Mr. D’Elia’s arrest has had a wide-ranging impact, leading to the racketeering convictions of two former Luzerne County judges who took $2.8 million in kickbacks for placing juveniles in two for-profit detention centers.
Mr. D’Elia and one of those judges, Michael T. Conahan, were longtime friends who met regularly for early breakfasts in a Wilkes-Barre chain restaurant, according to court testimony.
The kids-for-cash prosecution “sprang from the Billy D’Elia investigation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod said earlier this year. “About six or seven of D’Elia’s lieutenants were prosecuted. Ultimately, D’Elia was prosecuted. That led us to Judge Conahan, given his relationships with him, and then from there, we began to focus on the whole financial dealings with Judge Conahan â¦ All of that began to come out.”
The kids-for-cash case is just one of more than 30 federal prosecutions of government officials and contractors that have exposed a culture of corruption in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties over the past three years.
As for Mr. Bufalino’s crime family, its days as an independent power center are probably over, according to James Kanavy, a former investigator for the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, a now-defunct state agency that issued annual reports on organized crime in the 1980s.
“I don’t think there’s a standalone family here any more,” Mr. Kanavy said. “Any remnants here would be aligned with the New York families.”
Mr. Kanavy said the decline of the local coal and garment industries, which offered prime opportunities for labor racketeering and other criminal activities in Mr. Bufalino’s heyday, made Northeast Pennsylvania less attractive for mob activity.
“I don’t think there was that much money to be made here,” Mr. Kanavy said.
Mr. Brandt said the collapse of the Bufalino family was part of a wider decline brought about by new crime-fighting tools like the federal RICO statute, which made it easier to prosecute organized crime figures. The creation of the Witness Protection Program also made it easier for prosecutors to “flip” mobsters to turn on their colleagues, he said. In the waning days of Mr. Bufalino’s influence, mob families “closed the books” and stopped recruiting new members who might not follow the old traditions.
In Mr. Bufalino’s era, silence, or “omerta,” was the order of the day, in and out of the courtroom. Mr. Brandt said his research revealed that investigators had bugged hotel rooms used by Mr. Bufalino during his weekly trips to New York, with little result.
“Russell was so good at keeping his mouth shut. He was really old school. It was a waste of time bugging his rooms. There was no careless talk, no careless chatter.”
Even in the file the FBI kept on him for 30 years, Mr. Bufalino remains a shadowy, sinister and mostly silent character.
He was convicted, but never truly captured.