By EDMUND H. MAHONY, firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Hartford Courant
HARTFORD — Not many people would consider a 10-year prison sentence a solid career move. But William P. Grasso wasn't like most people.
In 1968 he was running dice games and hustling street loans for Ralph "Whitey" Tropiano, a mafia soldier from New York who had returned to his old hometown, New Haven. They bought a garbage truck and planned to corner the suburban trash market.
Always angry, even then, Grasso gathered together members of the Bridgeport Independent Refuse Collectors Association and, according to prosecution evidence, laid down the law: If you compete, we will "equip trucks with enough muscle and send them into Bridgeport." There will be "arms broke" and bodies "in the river," the independent haulers were told.Gambino Crime Family . Grasso was indicted for extortion and conspiracy. For the first and only time in his life, at 40, he was convicted of a crime that carried a prison sentence. He was shuttled off to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta for 10 years.His cellmate was Raymond L.S. Patriarca, the snarling, Depression-era bootlegger who built his Patriarca crime family into the most powerful criminal organization in New England.
"Best thing that ever happened to me," Grasso later told an associate, "was when they sent me to Atlanta."
Grasso arrived in Atlanta as just another wiseguy from New England. He left as protégé and successor to one of the country's most powerful criminals. Unwittingly, the Department of Justice made allies of two remarkably successful, reflexively brutal criminals, one at the top and one on the way up. For a time, the alliance would change the face of crime in Connecticut.
Patriarca had been a force across New England for years. Through his army of killers he controlled everything illegal — and a lot that was legal — from New Haven to Bangor.
Listening in the early 1960s through an illegal microphone planted in Patriarca's Providence office, FBI agents heard talk of the crime boss and former Gov. John Notte sharing bribes from parties trying to add race dates at Rhode Island's horse tracks. They learned that Patriarca was charging recording industry executives for airtime on New England radio stations. Insurance executives complained to "the Office" about auto theft.
And the agents heard Patriarca resolve routine problems.
"Put 'em in the hospital," he snarled. Over and over.
Grasso had always been a sputtering, spitting, seething cauldron of rage himself. His nickname was "The Wild Guy." Police records show his first arrest, in 1951, was for a petty assault. But it wasn't until his release from Atlanta in 1973 that he broke out of the limited role of rough New Haven thug. Terrifying long-established criminals, he seized big chunks of Connecticut and pushed into Western Massachusetts for the Patriarca family.
When Patriarca died of a heart attack in 1984, he was succeeded by his son, Raymond "Junior" Patriarca. Grasso, established as a criminal force of his own, became the family underboss, or second in command. But, FBI agents and mob associates regarded Grasso as the de facto boss, eclipsing the weak and retiring younger Patriarca.
Grasso operated in Boston and Providence through subordinates. But he was a hands-on boss on his own turf in Connecticut — until his own men, broken financially by his greed and terrified he would one day come gunning for them, turned on him.
But between his release from prison and his death in what became a civil war within the crime family, Grasso's elusiveness, his secrecy and his ability to shed surveillance made him an obsession of the FBI. The bureau never got him.
Only one photograph of Grasso is generally available. He was born on Jan. 6, 1927. He was he was 5-foot-8, weighed 185 pounds, had black hair, brown eyes and what the FBI called an "olive complexion."
He was studiously understated. He lived in a modest ranch on a quiet cul-de-sac in New Haven. He bought clothing at Kmart. A smart aleck said his shoes looked as if they were made of cardboard.
He regularly drove 50 miles to make a telephone call. It was always a local call, from a pay phone, to thwart FBI wiretaps. Driving from his home in New Haven to Hartford, he often pulled off the highway and parked for extended periods, just to see who might be following.
He once tossed a copy of The Courant, with an article about his counter-surveillance techniques, at one of his underlings and, according to the underling, crowed, "See? They can't catch me."
In Hartford, those who recognized Grasso could see him in the Italian restaurants and cafes that once lined Franklin Avenue. He opened his own, Franco's, for his girlfriend. When Grasso had the place, it was the best restaurant in town. The cook, for whom the restaurant was named, once was jailed for lying to a grand jury investigating Patriarca family activities in Hartford.
Wherever he was, associates of Grasso said he dominated those around him with his fury. He terrorized and petrified his mob underlings.
They hated his greed, yet handed over half of whatever they made from running card and dice games, putting loans on the street at exorbitant rates, from insurance scams or simply from stealing. To do otherwise could be fatal, according to John F. "Sonny" Castagna, a Hartford gangster who died in September in Florida, where he had been relocated under the Justice Department's witness relocation program.
Grasso used to kill time at Castagna's apartment on Adelaide Street in Hartford on Sunday afternoons. The two would sit in silence and stare at televised football games because Grasso refused to discuss business indoors for fear of hidden government microphones.
"He'd ruin my whole day and make me miserable," Castagna told The Courant last year. "Cause you couldn't smoke when he was around, you couldn't eat when you wanted to eat, couldn't have a drink if you wanted to have a drink cause he was a health fanatic. Anyway, that's the way it went with him for like two years with him every Sunday."
Sometimes, Castagna said, Grasso ordered his girlfriend to deliver plates of food. It had to be unsalted and if the slightest thing were out of place, if tomatoes were not sliced the way he liked them sliced, Grasso might erupt.
"Someone would bring the food, macaroni, and we would eat macaroni," Castagna said. "And he'd start screaming. 'You moron. Cut the tomatoes. Don't think until I tell you to think.' "
Outside, Castagna said, Grasso was less inhibited. Still, the camera the FBI put on a pole near Castagna's front door produced nothing to incriminate the underboss.
Testifying in federal court in the early 1990s, Castagna called Grasso a "real gangster," as opposed to the pale imitations then sashaying along the avenue.
"That means you had to do what he told you to do," Castagna said. "He had a big ego. He treated everybody harshly. Old women. Kids. Everybody. He would threaten people over money, anything. It depended on how he felt when he woke up. If he was in a good mood, he would be all right. If he wasn't, he'd be nuts."
It was widely believed that to fight back was fatal. A young Hartford boxer who clipped Grasso on the face during a misunderstanding in front of Franco's was shot dead within weeks.
While he was living in Florida, Castagna recalled a weekend in Hartford when Grasso's appendix burst as he relaxed with his girlfriend. Grasso telephoned one of his soldiers, Louis Failla, with orders to drive him to the hospital. Failla jumped into his midnight blue Cadillac. Grasso survived. Failla returned the following day with flowers.
As Castagna told the story:
"And Billy says, 'Hey Louie, don't you come here to see me no more. You didn't save my life. The doctor saved my life. Just stay away from this hospital. You didn't do nothing for me. I'm not obligated to you for nothing.'
"Louis always said, 'Geez. I wish I had a flat tire on the way over to pick him up.' "
Criminal Against Criminal
Not long after Grasso's return to Connecticut from prison, criminals whose interests overlapped those of the Patriarca family in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts began getting gunned down or blown up or they just disappeared.
In late 1974, just released from a sentence of his own, John "Slew" Palmieri, a member of New York's Gambino crime family, returned to New Haven to flex his muscles. He was vaporized by a car bomb.
Five years later, three more gangsters died or vanished within 10 months.
The first to go, in June 1979, was Salvatore Annunziato, a boxer better known to many by his ring name, Midgie Renault. Midgie was short for Midget. Annunziato stood a little over 5 feet tall and weighed 110 when he fought. Annunziato was affiliated with New York's Genovese crime family, lived in New Haven and was said by the FBI to be closely connected to local labor unions. He spent most of his time getting drunk and starting fights.
His family said Annunziato got into "a big car" with some friends and never returned. A close associate of Grasso said recently, on the condition that he not be named, that Annunziato got drunk and stuck up one of Grasso's card games.
Thomas "Tommy the Blond" Vestano was shot in his backyard in Stratford in January 1980. He was said by the FBI to be affiliated with the Genovese crime family's gambling operations in Connecticut.
Grasso's old mentor, Tropiano, was next, early in April 1980. Tropiano, affiliated with New York's Colombo crime family, had been convicted with Grasso of extortion. After his release, he was said to be considering a return to business. He was in New York, walking along a Brooklyn sidewalk in broad daylight, when he was cut down by gunfire from a passing car.
"Why do we go for years and years in Connecticut without a hit and now … ?" an FBI agent in New Haven asked when Tropiano became the third Connecticut gangster to die or disappear in less than a year.
But there was more. Frank Piccolo, known for his attempt to blackmail entertainer Wayne Newton, was gunned down in Bridgeport in September 1981. Piccolo, a member of New York's Gambino crime family, was caught in a phone booth.
An FBI affidavit, citing informant information, said that "since the disappearance of Salvatore Annunziato and the gangland murders of Ralph "Whitey" Tropiano and Frank Piccolo, Grasso has been able to absorb a number of the interests of the deceased (or missing) individuals." Grasso was not charged in any of the deaths.
With southern Connecticut under control, Grasso moved north, according to the FBI and Grasso associates. Hartford had by tradition been an open city, meaning rival mobs were free to operate without fear or favor of anyone but the law. Grasso stopped that.
Right off the bat, he slapped a local wiseguy in the face at the Casa Mia restaurant and chased him down Franklin Avenue for holding back part of a $2,000 gambling score, a witness told The Courant. Next, Grasso informed Tony Volpe, the Hartford tough guy friendly with the Genovese family crew in Springfield, that Volpe was henceforth retired.
Grasso put a crew of guys in charge of running card and dice games and lending money in the back rooms of the restaurants and cafes along Franklin Avenue. He did the same in New Britain. He demanded a cut of anything his crew made, anywhere in New England.
From New Britain to Rhode Island, Grasso "lined up" bookmaking offices, meaning everyone now worked for him and owed him a percentage of whatever they earned. There was testimony in court in Hartford in the early 1990s that Grasso was collecting millions of dollars a week from bookmakers in eastern Connecticut alone.
Grasso looked next to Springfield, solidly under the control of Genovese capo Frank "Skyballs" Scibelli. Grasso "bought" Castagna by paying off a loan-shark debt Castagna owed Scibelli, Castagna later testified. Grasso recruited Springfield loyalist and East Hartford area restaurateur William "The Hot Dog" Grant, who owned Augie and Ray's on Silver Lane.
He recruited and swore in a new Patriarca family soldier from Springfield. Two associates who knew Grasso well said he did it to spite the Springfield Genovese crew.
A Sanctuary For Fugitives
Back in Connecticut, Grasso was running a sanctuary for fugitive gangsters. According to FBI sources and others, he had a man inside the state Department of Motor Vehicles who could fabricate phony identifications. Grant, whom Grasso had put in charge of much of the gambling in Hartford, was able to arrange apartments from a principal in one of the state's largest real estate companies.
Alphonse "Allie Boy" Persico, the Colombo crime family underboss, lived for years under Grasso's protection in a West Hartford apartment. A U.S. Marshals Service fugitive squad tracked him down in 1987. The marshals said Persico was startled when they crashed into his kitchen. He was making sauce.
Salvatore "Mickey" Caruana lived similarly in a Middletown apartment arranged by Grasso in the 1980s. He was the Patriarca family's principal marijuana smuggler and fled in 1983, following his indictment for distributing $173 million of marijuana.
Caruana disappeared for good around 1986, according to FBI agents and other sources.
Longtime organized crime investigators believe Caruana may have ended up in a secret grave Grasso had dug beneath a residential garage in Hamden. The investigators suspect Annunziato may have been buried there as well, although it is unlikely anyone will ever know for sure.
When an informant led the FBI to the garage in 1990, agents discovered that someone else got there first. The old graves had been unearthed, the big bones removed and a new concrete floor poured.
The owner of the garage was an ex-member of a gang of Irish bank robbers who set himself up in retirement as a locksmith. He said in court much later that that he believed he would have ended up beneath his garage if he hadn't cooperated with Grasso.
Grasso's luck ran out on June 13, 1989. Patriarca gangsters in Hartford, Springfield and Boston, convinced they were on Grasso's short list of victims, decided to strike first. The plot to kill him, outlined in prosecution papers and testimony in court, became part of a wider attempt by disgruntled Patriarca factions in Hartford and Boston to seize control of the family.
The Hartford crew got Grasso into a van on the pretext of a meeting in Worcester and one of the members shot him in the back of the neck. The same day, Grasso's right-hand man in Boston, Frank "Cadillac Frank" Salemme, was riddled with gunshots as he stepped out of the International House of Pancakes in Saugus. Salemme lived.
The revolt failed. Peace was made between rival factions in the family.
But it was too late for Grasso.
His killers dumped his body in a patch of poison ivy by the side of the Connecticut River in Wethersfield.