Tuesday, October 31, 2017

CIA joins with Mafia in effort to kill Castro

Some Kennedy assassination-related documents released through the National Archives last week (October 26, 2017) and earlier this year (July 24, 2017) discussed CIA cooperation with American organized criminals in an effort to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The documents revealed little about CIA-underworld interaction that was not already known to historians through other sources, but the release provides an occasion to reflect upon that interaction and its aftermath.

Another release of documents is expected in six months' time. Any additional pages will likely be in general agreement with those we already have. The key features of the government-underworld conspiracy appear to be these:

  • A small group of CIA officials decided to accomplish the assassination of Cuba's Communist President Fidel Castro by working with American Mafiosi, who had been deprived of Havana casino income by Castro's rise to power.
  • No written approvals of the plan by top CIA administrators or White House officials were ever obtained, though the CIA plotters later insisted that oral approvals from CIA higher-ups were obtained and that some discussion occurred with the White House.
  • In an effort to keep CIA involvement in the plot a secret, an outside intermediary was used to make contacts with Mafiosi. CIA was prepared to pay $150,000 to the Castro assassin.
  • The intermediary met and plotted with Mafiosi Santo Trafficante, Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli. The mobsters refused to take any money. Despite the efforts to keep CIA involvement a secret, the mobsters quickly figured out that CIA was involved.
  • A level of cooperation between the Mafia and the CIA was first exposed early in the planning process, when a technician illegally wiretapping a Las Vegas entertainer's telephone for Giancana was arrested and sought help from the CIA. CIA became involved and succeeded in having charges dropped, but FBI investigated the matter.
  • As FBI reported to Attorney General Robert Kennedy about the incident, the Bureau warned that any CIA-Mafia arrangement could subject the U.S. government to underworld blackmail.
  • Several times, Giancana and Roselli sought to use the CIA relationship to their personal advantage.
  • CIA scientists designed six poison pills. Those pills were delivered in two separate batches to Mafia contacts in Cuba so they could be placed in food or drink consumed by Castro. The pills reportedly were never used.
  • CIA-Mafia plans to poison Castro were called off following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. CIA conspirators remained in contact with Mafiosi for several years and continued to develop Castro assassination plans, though new leadership at the CIA did not know of the contacts or the plans until they were brought to light by the FBI.
  • Columnist Jack Anderson wrote about CIA plotting against Castro in 1967 and exposed Mafia involvement in the plotting in 1971. Official documents relating to the CIA-Mafia venture were discovered by the Rockefeller Commission and the Senate's Church Committee in 1975. Some secrecy was maintained until the New York Times published information about the government's relationship with Giancana and Roselli the following year.
  • Giancana was murdered in 1975. Roselli was murdered in 1976. Their killings appeared to be gangland "hits," but some were concerned that the murders related to their work with the CIA.

Click here to read the full article (including links to released government documents) at the American Mafia history website (mafiahistory.us)

Friday, October 27, 2017

Many, but not all, JFK files released

TIME photograph
Last night, the U.S. National Archives publicly released 2,891 previously classified documents relating to the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The documents are accessible to the public through the National Archives website.

National Archives
The release was made in accordance with a law passed in 1992, which required that assassination records be made public after 25 years. Then-President George H.W. Bush signed the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act on Oct. 26, 1992, setting a final release date of Oct. 26, 2017. A batch of 3,810 documents were released July 24, several months before the deadline. A last remaining batch of at least 3,140 files - many thousands of pages - remained secret through the final day, waiting on a release authorization by President Donald Trump.

In the evening, President Trump issued a memorandum approving the release of 2,891 of the remaining files but permitting an additional six months of review on 249 others. Reports indicate that officials of the CIA and FBI urged that those files not be released.

The President said the continued secrecy was necessary to address "national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs concerns." He further stated, "This temporary withholding from full public disclosure is necessary to protect against harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or the conduct of foreign relations that is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in immediate disclosure." The review of remaining material is scheduled for completion by April 26, 2018, but some information may remain classified after that time if agencies can demonstrate a continued national security threat from its exposure.

Portion of released document

Working through the night to digest the just-released documents, historians and researchers discovered some interesting items:

 - One CIA document, dealing with Lee Harvey Oswald's trip to Mexico City two months before the Kennedy assassination, suggested that Oswald was accompanied on that trip by anti-Castro Cuban Francisco Rodriguez Tamayo. Rodriguez Tamayo was a captain in Castro's army before defecting to the U.S. in June 1959. He subsequently led an anti-Castro training facility in Louisiana.

 - Documents also revealed that the government of Mexico was actively aiding the U.S. in electronic surveillance of Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City.

 - Some documents related to CIA efforts to encourage the assassination of Cuban President Fidel Castro and other Cuban communist leaders. There also was discussion of agency outreach to American organized crime leaders for their help in eliminating Castro.

Reviewers of the documents have noted that the collection released last night did not contain any "blockbuster" revelations and shed little light on subjects of intense interest to assassination conspiracy theorists, such as the relationship between Oswald and the Central Intelligence Agency.



Personal note: I am amazed that "national security" is still being used as an excuse to deny U.S. citizens access to documents about the assassination of their President 54 years ago. Assassination is the ultimate breach of national security. Only by completely understanding and appropriately responding to what occurred can we hope to restore that security. I'm sure we will find (someday) that personal/agency embarrassment - government INsecurity - is the real reason documents continue to be concealed. And I would argue that secrecy over embarrassing facts is itself a serious threat to national security.


Links:

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

If you're black...

IF YOU'RE BLACK, you are about two and a half times more likely to be killed by a police officer. Sadly, that is the plain truth.

I don't believe this is a reason to condemn police officers or our law enforcement system. The vast majority of police are dedicated and conscientious. But *something* is very wrong here. We need to look at it and discuss it and solve it. Pretending it does not exist and attacking those who are vocal about it helps no one and may be a major part of the problem.

Of the known uses of police fatal force in 2016 (963 documented incidents), 233 of those killed were African Americans. That amounts to 24% of the number killed. African Americans comprise just 13% of the U.S. population. 


A total of 466 Non-Hispanic White Americans were killed in uses of police fatal force in that year. That amounts to 48% of the number killed. Non-Hispanic Whites comprise 61.3% of the population.
When you equalize the casualty figures according to population, you find that an African American is 2.35 times more likely to be killed by a police officer.


In case you think the statistics are skewed by some greater-than-average participation in violent activity by African Americans, consider that the numbers for *unarmed* African Americans are even worse. 


A recent study showed that they are being killed at 3.5 times the rate of unarmed Caucasian Americans. Another study found that there was no relationship between police fatal force incidents and the level of violent crime in an area.


In the 2016 African American fatal force total, less than one-third of the people killed were suspected of violent crime or were armed.


The year 2016 was by no means an exceptional year. 


In 2015, a total of 995 Americans were shot to death by police officers. A total of 259 of them were African Americans. That is 26% (greater than the percentage in 2016). The total for Non-Hispanic White Americans was 497, or just under 50%. 


Equalizing the figures, you find that an African American was 2.46 times more likely to be killed by a police officer in 2015.


Before 2015, reliable statistics are lacking. 


Fatal force statistics are merely the most attention-getting evidence of a problem. With all else being equal, African Americans also face higher rates of being stopped by police, of being arrested, of being convicted of serious offenses and of being sentenced to longer prison terms. Some of these things are beyond the control of police departments, showing that this is not purely a police issue.


You may say what you want about those who protest or march to increase awareness of this issue - "They're anti-police," "They're anti-American," whatever. But, regardless of who is protesting, how they're protesting and what you think about it, there is something very wrong here.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Summer 2017 issue of Informer

Informer - Aug 2017
Informer - Aug 2017 - AVAILABLE NOW
in print and electronic editions

IN THIS ISSUE:
- Excerpt from Dock Boss by Neil G. Clark, scheduled for release this summer by Barricade Books. It is the story of Eddie McGrath and the mobsters who controlled New York City's West Side waterfront.
- Lennert Van`t Riet and David Critchley provide a groundbreaking history of Frank Zito's little-known but influential Springfield, Illinois, Mafia organization.
- Justin Cascio explores the career and family connections of the "Capitano," Angelo Di Carlo, who held key underworld positions on both sides of the Atlantic.
- Edmond Valin digs through government records to discover the identity of Bonanno Family informant, "Willie the Tilemaker" Dara.
- Bill Feather provides details on the founding of twenty-nine United States Mafia organizations.
- Richard Warner reviews books on an axe-wielding killer, the origins of street gangs and revered New York law enforcement officer Joseph Petrosino.
- In The Warner Files, Richard Warner outlines recent changes in the Chicago Outfit.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Old 'Black Hand' lie has new teller

I figured I would give Stephan Talty's new book, "The Black Hand," a try. Any book that gets a movie deal involving Leonardo DiCaprio before it even has been released must be good, right?

After many years of research into the Black Hand, Joseph Petrosino, the NYPD Italian Squad and the early Mafia, I have some familiarity with the subject matter. I acquired the Kindle version as it was released this morning. (Fourteen-ninety-nine?! For a stream of electrons? Are you KIDDING me?) I quickly looked it over. I noted that it has an index, a bibliography and some endnotes - items important to those of us who do research.

I set to reading it, but I didn't get very far before I found something troubling. Chapter 1 begins with a description of what Talty claims was the first U.S. murder performed by a Sicilian "Black Hand Society." This was the killing of Francisco (Talty spelled the name Fransisco) Domingo on January 3, 1855.

According to Talty, the victim was found dead of multiple stab wounds - more than a dozen in all, plus another one across his throat from ear to ear - near the Mississippi River a short distance from New Orleans. Domingo apparently had been dead awhile, as Talty notes the blood on the neck wound was "caking thickly in the heat." (Must have been a particularly warm January in New Orleans.) The waters of the river, Talty says, were just a few feet from the corpse's "out-flung hand."

This is intended to show us that an organized "Black Hand Society" (Talty often refers to it as "The Society") was already extorting payments and murdering uncompliant targets in America at that time.

In the book's endnotes, Talty shares the blame for this tale with historian Michael L. Kurtz. Talty correctly points to Kurtz. That historian started off a 1983 article in the Louisiana History journal with precisely the same January 3, 1855, murder story and almost precisely the same wording (even the same misspelling of Francisco). Kurtz wrote that Domingo had been stabbed "over a dozen times, and his throat was slit from ear to ear."

In that article, Kurtz indicated that the details of the Black Hand murder of Domingo came from a couple of sources. One was the January 4, 1855, issue of the New Orleans True Delta newspaper and the other was (insert ominous music here) the book Brothers in Blood by David Leon Chandler.

I should mention that Chandler is someone to whom I owe an odd sort of debt. If his 1975 book had not contained so many obvious fabrications, I probably never would have chosen to spend so much of my time and resources digging up and writing about TRUE crime history (thereby avoiding the poverty and obscurity I now cherish).

Kurtz's citation of Chandler was correct. Brothers in Blood did report an elaborate story relating to the Domingo killing. Chandler claimed that Domingo, a truck farmer, was stabbed eighteen times (Eighteen! proving that when Chandler concocted a story, he went all in) and was also slashed across the throat (the "ear to ear" thing was added by Kurtz) before being dumped at the New Orleans levee. The murder of Domingo, according to Chandler, was never solved.

Chandler insisted that Domingo was identified as a Sicilian despite his Spanish-sounding surname. That's strange but very convenient, considering the whole Sicilian Black Hand theme he was about to explore.

The author went on to state that Domingo's widow provided authorities with samples of extortion letters her husband had received. These were signed, Chandler said, by hand prints in black ink. So, there we have the appearance of the dreaded Black Hand that so excited Stephan Talty that he led off his first chapter with this incident.

However, even Chandler, who elsewhere delivered his misinformation with great conviction, was somewhat hesitant to connect the Domingo killing with a Sicilian criminal organization. He noted that Black Handers were not always organized and not always Sicilian or even Italian. He also explained in a footnote that the ethnic backgrounds of the victim and the killer in this case were uncertain.

Chandler reported that the details of his story came from the January 4, 1855, issue of the New Orleans True Delta newspaper.

The fact that Chandler said these things caused me to doubt them. It didn't take long to find out the truth of the Domingo killing. We will simply have to wonder why Kurtz and Talty repeated the Chandler tale (and imagined they would get away with it).

Daily Picayune of June 24, 1855, thought the case was solved.

I quickly found articles on the killing in the New Orleans Picayune, New Orleans Bee and New Orleans Daily Delta. These articles were entirely in agreement that Francisco Domingo was fatally stabbed at about five-thirty in the afternoon of Thursday, January 4, 1855 - not Jan. 3. Domingo and a man named Guillermo Ballerio (or something spelled reasonably close to "Ballerio"), both fishermen (neither farmed trucks or anything else), had an argument during supper inside a home they shared on Marigny Street with a number of other fishermen. They decided to settle it like gentlemen. When Ballerio quickly found himself at a disadvantage in the fisticuffs, he opted to settle it like something other than a gentleman. He pulled a knife and plunged it into Domingo's side.

Just once. Not more than a dozen times or eighteen times. And just in the side. Not across the throat.

Domingo was never found dead by the side of the Mississippi with his blood baking in the (January) heat. He was, in fact, taken to Charity Hospital. Doctors could do little more than keep him comfortable and await the inevitable. Domingo died at the hospital the following day.

The newspaper accounts mention nothing about extortion, nothing about Domingo's wife, nothing about an inky Black Hand and nothing about Sicily. And it turns out they had good reasons for these omissions.

The case Chandler said was never solved, well, it actually was solved and almost immediately. Ballerio was arrested. An inquest at the end of the month found that he had caused the death of Domingo by penetrating Domingo's lung with a knife. Ballerio was charged before Recorder Seuzeneau in February and brought to trial before First District Judge Robertson in June. A jury returned a guilty verdict for manslaughter late on the evening of June 19 (or perhaps early in the morning of June 20). On June 24, Judge Robertson sentenced Ballerio to serve seven years at hard labor in the penitentiary.

OK, so that's the story from the Daily Picayune and the Bee and the Daily Delta. But the stories of Chandler and Kurtz (and, by extension, Talty) still could have been drawn on some nonsense published in the January 4 issue of the New Orleans True Delta newspaper. That's the one Chandler and Kurtz claimed to use as their source. Maybe that newspaper - and no others - published the stuff about the wife and the Black Hand and Sicily and multiple stab wounds and the Mississippi River and... all that.

There aren't many copies of the January 4, 1855, True Delta floating around. But with help from Becky Smith, head of Reader Services of the Historic New Orleans Collection at the Williams Research Center, I obtained a copy of that issue.

New Orleans Daily True Delta, Jan. 4, 1855.

It didn't even mention the Domingo killing. And, if you think about it, that actually makes a good deal of sense because those historians placed the killing one day earlier than it actually occurred. True Delta went to press on January 4 before the stabbing happened and a day before Domingo died. The newspaper did not mention the incident even in the January 5 issue. Whether it did so sometime after that seems of little consequence. The Chandler and Kurtz citations of True Delta were False.

Funny thing about Domingo's surname. He had that Spanish-sounding name because - you may want to sit down for this - he was Spanish! He and Ballerio were both from Manilla in the Philippines. As you probably recall, the Philippines were a Spanish colony from the time of Magellan's visit there in 1521 until the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. A listing of passenger arrivals in New Orleans actually shows Spanish citizen Francisco Domingo, then 25, entering the U.S. from Havana Cuba aboard the Brig Salvadora on September 13, 1847.

Interesting side note: the criminal phenomenon that first became known as the Black Hand had its roots in Spain.

After all of this, I was left staring at Talty's book wondering if I should try to read another paragraph. I decided instead to skip around to a few random pages to check things out.

I noticed Talty's use of an alternate spelling for Petrosino biographer Arrigo Petacco's surname. (The name appears as "Petacco" on his book, Joe Petrosino, but has also often been written as "Pettaco." I "Googled" it, and found quite a few uses of this spelling.) There was a far less common alternate spelling for the name of the Trinacria cafe ("Trinarcia" - don't bother "Googling" that one).

The book included an often repeated but still inaccurate mention of Petrosino working as a city street sweeping "whitewing." (The white uniform that inspired that nickname was not in use until years after Petrosino had moved on to other things. He and the other sweepers actually swept streets in their own clothes.) And there was an interesting Talty insistence that Vito Cascio Ferro was such a genius that he masterminded the courtroom defense of 1903 Barrel Murder suspects even though he could not have anticipated their arrest and fled New York for New Orleans as soon as he became aware of it.

In my final random selection, I found some familiar stuff about Petrosino's ostensibly Irish assistant "Hugh Cassidy" actually being an Italian with the real name of Ugo Cassidi. I think I first saw that written in NYPD: A City and its Police by James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto. It's a neat story. But it makes me wonder about the Irish-born city police officer named Hugh Cassidy listed as a resident of East 119th Street in the 1900 U.S. Census. (Coincidence?)

Stephan Talty and Leonardo DiCaprio have no reason to care what I think. But I am unimpressed with what fourteen-ninety-five buys these days.

Sources:

  • Chandler, David Leon, Brothers in Blood: The Rise of the Criminal Brotherhoods, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975.
  • Kurtz, Michael L. "Organized Crime in Louisiana History: Myth and Reality," Louisiana History, Fall 1983, New Orleans: Louisiana Historical Association, 1983, p. 355.
  • Lardner, James and Thomas Reppetto, NYPD: A City and its Police, New York: Henry Holt, 2000.
  • Talty, Stephan, The Black Hand, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
  • List of passengers arrived from foreign ports in the port of New Orleans, quarterly abstract, September 1847.
  • United States Census of 1900, New York State, New York County, Ward 12, Enumeration District 940.
  • New Orleans True Delta, Jan. 4, 1855; Jan. 5, 1855.
  • "Third District: Another Probable Murder," New Orleans Daily Picayune, Jan. 5, 1855, p. 1.
  • "Third District: Probable Murder," New Orleans Bee, Jan. 6, 1855, p. 1.
  • Third District: The Supposed Murder," New Orleans Daily Picayune, Jan. 6, 1855, p. 2.
  • "Inquests," New Orleans Commercial Bulletin, Feb. 2, 1855.
  • "Committed for murder," New Orleans Daily Delta, Feb. 11, 1855, p. 8.
  • "The Courts," New Orleans Daily Picayune, June 20, 1855, p. 2.
  • "City intelligence," New Orleans Bee, June 21, 1855, p. 1.
  • "The Courts," New Orleans Daily Picayune, June 24, 1855, p. 4.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

'Wrongly Executed?' earns notice

The current issue of Vermont's esteemed alternative newsweekly, Seven Days, provides readers with a glimpse of my recently released book, Wrongly Executed? The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution. That such a fine periodical took notice of my work and decided it was worth sharing with readers is an honor. Thank you to Seven Days and to arts reporter Sadie Williams.


See:

Friday, January 6, 2017

Book giveaway concludes

The Goodreads.com book giveaway has concluded. A total of 863 people entered for a chance to win one of three signed paperback copies of Wrongly Executed?.

Winners, selected at random by Goodreads, were located in northern Illinois; Hillsborough County, Florida; and Hocking County, Ohio.

Thanks to all who entered and to Goodreads for hosting the promotion.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

1939: Sberna sent to The Chair

On this date in 1939: Charles Sberna was executed in Sing Sing Prison's electric chair. Though convicted of participating in the killing of an NYPD officer, many to this day insist that he was innocent.

As the son of a fugitive wanted for orchestrating a series of bloody anarchist-terrorist bombings and the in-law of a family of Mafia leaders, could Sberna possibly have received a fair trial?

'Wrongly Executed?' provides the details and historical background of the Sberna case. The story is a complex and controversial one, involving celebrity attorneys, underworld bosses, violent political radicals, media giants and ruthless establishment figures, all set in a period in which Americans sought stability and government-imposed order after years of political upheaval, economic depression and Prohibition Era lawlessness.