The Trafficantes

The Trafficantes

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In this page-turning narrative, noted true crime writer Ron Chepesiuk chronicles the story of one of history’s lesser known but most important mob dynasties. For nearly seven decades, Santo Trafficante, Sr. and his son, Santo, Jr. were prominent gangsters on the Tampa crime scene. Santo Sr. arrived in Tampa in 1902 and settled in the Ybor City area where he slowly began his climb to the top of the Tampa mob scene. Along the way, he became a clever and ruthless gangster who preferred to operate in the shadows. By the mid 1920s, Santo, Sr. had become a powerful force in the Tampa mafia. Two decades later, the U.S. government reported that he was “strongly suspected of having financed important narcotics transactions.” During Tampa’s “Era of Blood” from 1930 through the 1950s, in which several local gangsters were murdered, Santo Sr. emerged as Tampa’s most powerful mobster. He would remain so until his death in 1954.

His successor, Santo Jr., lead the Tampa mob for more than three decades and became involved in some of history’s most seminal events. They include Mob dominance of the gambling scene in pre-Castro Cuba, the CIA plots to kill Castro, the spectacular mob hit of godfather Albert Anastasia in 1957, the famous Mob meeting at Apalachin in upstate New York that followed shortly after, the John F. Kennedy assassination, and the development of narcotics networks in Latin America and Southeast Asia, among others. Unlike most other godfathers, Santo Jr. never spent more than a night in an American jail. When he died in 1987, organized crime expert Ralph Salerno described Santo Jr.’s death as “the end of an era” and the godfather as “the last of the old time (gangland) leaders.” In vivid prose and concise detail, Chepesiuk weaves the fascinating story of the legendary gangsters, the Trafficantes.

“ Ron Chepesiuk’s book on the Trafficantes takes the reader behind the headlines to the real story, uncensored and without filters. The book is fast-paced with fascinating factual details told in Chepesiuk’s trademark tell-it-as-it-is writing style. A must read for true crime aficionados.”

“Elle Andra-Warner, author of several best-selling books, including Edmund Fitzgerald: The Legendary Great Lakes Shipwreck and The Mounties; Robert Service.

Prologue

A sudden hush swept the crowd in the cavernous room with the soaring ceilings, as the elderly, well-dressed witness strolled through the wide doorway. It was November 28, 1978, and Santo Trafficante, Jr. of Tampa, Florida, was on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, to testify about the John F. Kennedy assassination. Nattily dressed in a three- piece cashmere suit, a striped tie and wide brim hat, Trafficante had the look of a likeable grandfather, not the ruthless Mafia godfather the U.S. government knew him to be.

Three years earlier, Trafficante shocked the nation when he testified before Congress about his role in the CIA’s early 1960s covert campaign to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The U.S. Congress was outraged to learn that the CIA had hid its campaign from the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, even though one of its commissioners included CIA director Allen Dulles.

Established on November 29, 1963, six days after the assassination, the Warren Commission, heard 532 witnesses and reports from ten federal agencies. Its final report concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for assassinating President Kennedy and that it could not find any hard evidence of a conspiracy. Upon the report’s release, the Warren Commission sealed all of its files away from public view for 75 years (until 2039).

The American public, however, had a tough time accepting what became known as “the lone gunman” theory, and other aspects of the JFK assassination raised questions about whether important evidence had been withheld from investigators. So in April 1975, Virginia Congressman Thomas Downing, who also had doubts about the Warren Commission’s conclusion, introduced a resolution calling on Congress to reopen the JFK assassination investigation.

In January 1976, the U.S. Congress created the U.S. Select Committee on Assassinations to investigate the assassinations of JFK and Dr. Martin Luther King. Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., met with the Congressional Black Caucus to tell them evidence had been found which might effect the conclusion that James Earl Ray was the lone killer of her husband.

The committee began its work in 1978. Trafficante declined to appear in the previous committee session where Jose Aleman, Jr., a Cuban exile and former Trafficante associate, had provided some explosive testimony. Aleman claimed to have had a private conversation with Trafficante in September 1962 at the Scott Byron Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, in which Trafficante confided that he was certain President Kennedy would be assassinated. According to a 1976, Washington Post story, Trafficante was angry at the way John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, the U.S. Attorney General, were treating his pal, Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters Union boss. The Post quoted Aleman as recalling that Trafficante said: “(JFK) doesn’t know that this kind of encounter is very delicate. Mark my words, this man Kennedy is in trouble, and he will get what’s coming to him.”

Two Federal marshals sat behind Aleman, constantly scrutinizing the room as he testified. Aleman had asked for the Marshals’ protection because he feared for his life. Still the witness changed his tune and gave a different interpretation of Trafficante’s comments in public than he did in private to investigators. “This man, he’s no doubt not going to be re-elected, no doubt about it,” Aleman quoted Trafficante as saying. What the Mafia probably meant, Aleman explained to the committee, was that Kennedy would be hit by the Republican vote in 1964—not bullets.

Committee chairman Louis Stoke led the questioning of Trafficante. The chairman asked the witness about the time he spent in Cuba, what he did after he left Cuba in 1959, his relationship with certain fellow mobsters, the many plots to kill Castro and his relationship with Jack Ruby, the killer of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Chairman Stokes: Mr. Trafficante, did you ever hear of a Jack Ruby?

Trafficante: No, sir, never remembered meeting Jack Ruby.

Stokes: Never remember meeting him?

Trafficante: No.

Stokes: Are you aware that it has been alleged that Jack Ruby visited Chicago while you were at Tresconia (a prison in Cuba)? Have you heard that?

Trafficante: There was no reason for this man to visit me. I have never seen this man before. I have never been to Dallas. I never had no (sic) contact with him. I don’t know why he was going to come and visit me.

Stokes: Were you aware of any of the activities of a Jack Ruby?

Trafficante: No, sir.

Stokes: I want to ask you a question that is very important to this committee, and that is, did you have any foreknowledge of the assassination of President Kennedy?

Trafficante: Absolutely, not. No way.

Stokes: Had you known or had you ever heard the name Lee Harvey Oswald prior to the day President Kennedy was assassinated?

Trafficante: Never in my life.

Trafficante remained poised when the questioning shifted to Jose Aleman and his assertion that he had made a threat against JFK.

Trafficante told the committee: “As far as the Kennedy situation, I will tell you something now, Mr. Stokes. I am sure as I’m sitting here that all the discussion I made with Mr. Aleman, as sure as I am sitting here, I spoke to him in Spanish. No reason for me to talk to him in English because I speak Spanish fluently and he speaks Spanish… that is his language. There was no reason for me to tell him in English that Kennedy was going to get hit. I deny that I made that statement.”

The committee ended its questioning of Trafficante, explaining to the witness that, under house rules, he was entitled to make a statement to help explain or clarify his testimony. “No sir, your honor,” Trafficante’s replied.

On July 16, 1979, nearly one year after the hearings, the committee released its report. It reached a stunning conclusion. Even though Oswald probably killed President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on November 23, 1963, it is “possible… that an individual organized crime leader or small combination of leaders might have participated in a conspiracy” and had “the motive, means and opportunity” to assassinate President Kennedy. The report named Trafficante and fellow mobster Carlos Marcello as “the most likely family bosses of organized crime to have participated in such a unilateral assassination plot.”

Naming the mob as a likely participant may have been a huge surprise to many Americans living outside Tampa, but the authorities knew well the extent of Trafficante, Jr.’s power and craftiness. Years of investigating the crime boss and his family had tied them to some of the seminal events of the 20th century.