Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carlos Marcello: Big Daddy In The Big Easy

The Unholy Trinity

By 9am that morning, the federal courthouse was full. The case of The United States v Carlos Marcello had attracted spectators and members from both of the families that made up the universe of Marcello. Judge Herbert W. Christenberry presided over a case that charged Carlos and his brother Joe with "conspiracy to defraud the United States government by obtaining a false Guatemalan birth certificate" and "conspiracy to obstruct the United States government in the exercise of its right to deport Carlos Marcello." The case had opened twenty-one days earlier and by November 22, defense attorney Jack Wasserman and U.S. Attorney Louis La Cour were delivering closing arguments.

At 1.30pm, just as the judge was handing the case over to the jury, he was passed a note by the court bailiff. With a shocked expression on his face, he announced that President Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas and was dead. As the courtroom erupted, Carlos walked slowly out of the room, his face an impassive mask. At 3.15pm, the jury returned a verdict of "not guilty" on both charges, against both defendants. Carlos and Joe hugged each other, shook hands with their lawyer and walked out of the courtroom. Just thirty-eight minutes before, Air Force One had taken off from Dallas Love Airport to carry the dead and terribly mutilated body of President Kennedy back to Washington, D.C.

Mr & Mrs Marcello in 1965 (AP)
Mr & Mrs Marcello in 1965

The courts, however, were not yet finished with Carlos. On October 16, 1964, he was indicted in connection with jury tampering at his trial for the forged birth certificate. He eventually came to trial on this charge on August 17, 1965, but once again the jury found in his favour. It was his third consecutive victory against the Justice Department. There now would seem little chance that he would ever be deported.

Free of the impending charges that had hung over him like some Damocles sword, Carlos devoted all his energies into consolidating and building up his Mafia family, and the innumerable business interests that its power had allowed him to develop over the past eighteen years. Dun and Bradstreet, for example, estimated that 50% of New Orleans hotels were financially backed by the Marcello organization.

His political connections linked him into the powerful Long family. Carlos owed a lot to these people. It was after all, Huey Long who had introduced him to Frank Costello and the booming slot machine business that had helped spearhead his rise to power. Carlos maintained close ties with Earl, Huey's brother, and also son Russell, who became one of Carlos' principal contacts in the U.S. Senate. Louisiana politician, Congressman Hale Boggs, House Majority Leader, who became a member of the Warren Commission investigating the killing of Kennedy, was also financed into Capital Hill via Marcello. Jim Garrison, the flamboyant New Orleans District Attorney, famous for his involvement in the Kennedy investigation, was on exceptionally good terms with Marcello. Although he had a reputation as a tough prosecutor, he would go out of his way not to bring charges against any of the Marcello organization. During the mid to late 1960's, he dismissed eighty-four cases brought against Carlos' men, including one for attempted murder, three for kidnapping and one for manslaughter.

Carlos Marcello was a man with many friends in high places: state and federal judges, governors, senators, labour leaders, the list went on. 98% of the Louisiana legislature would accept bribes, according to Peter Hand, a close friend of Governor Earl Long. Carlos also controlled the head of the Louisiana State Police, Roland Coppola. He had a lock on the State Department of Revenue, the agency that collected all state taxes. They once assessed his $159,000 home in Marrero at only $8,000 for revenue purposes. He also had friends in other places.

Although he always denied any association with the Mafia, he was close to many top bosses. His compadre or closest friend was Santo Trafficante Jr., who ran Tampa and West Florida with an iron fist. Carlos was also on close terms with Joseph "Joey Doves Aiuppa, boss of Chicago, and Kansas City mob leader, Joe Civella. He did business with Dominick Brooklier, who headed up the Mafia in Los Angeles. Carlos was tight with Angelo Bruno, powerful head of the Philadelphia family, and of course for many years he was a good friend and business partner of Frank Costello, who had run what is now known as the Genovese family until 1957.

Carlos also had strong ties to the Dixie-Mafia, an inchoate bunch of loosely connected criminals, some of who traced their history back into the days of Prohibition. That network which did not have an organized hierarchy like the American Mafia specialised in armed robbery, scams, burglaries, safe-cracking, murder-for-hire and drug trafficking. Dangerous in the first degree, these hoodlums would kill anyone who got in their way. As someone described them: "...what makes them dangerous is they don't think, they just act." Carlos was long connected to one of this group, LeRoy Hobbs, Sheriff of Harrison County in Mississippi, a man so crooked and corrupt, it was said of him, "he is easily influenced by anyone with money, and a good-looking woman."

When it came to women, Carlos was somewhat of an enigma. Although he seemed a faithful husband and father, and in fact remained married to Jacqueline until the day he died, like many of his peers, he would stray from time to time. A report from the New Orleans Crime Commission indicated that Lillian Ropplo, the wife of one of his closest friends who was also a capo in his family, might well have been Marcello's mistress. He was undoubtedly well known to Virginia Hill, the leggy, voluptuous glamour girl of the mob. Longy Zwillman, the Jewish hood who ran much of New Jersey criminal action, once described Virginia thus, "She didn't look as if she would be hard to know." In her address book, among a host of well known mobsters, investigators found the name of Carlos Marcello and a contact telephone number. Apart from her obvious assets, it is thought that she also worked as a courier for the mob, helping to move money around the country. So it is conceivable that her relationship with Carlos was purely a business one.

The Marcello control of people at all levels was significant to his control of the Louisiana [Mafia]. He ruled this as a despot, with an independence and insularity that was unique across the twenty-four or so other criminal groups that made up the national syndicate of American-Italian mob families. Joseph Valachi, a former soldier in the Genovese family of New York, was the first "made" 'member of any Mafia family to turn informant and publicly testify as to the inner working of the Mafia in America. When he was asked at the McClellan Hearing what he knew about Marcello, he replied, "Louisiana? I don't know a thing except they don't want visitors. Once I was going to see the Mardi Gras and I checked it out with Vito, which I was supposed to do if I took a trip. He said, 'Don't go.' No explanation, just 'Don't go.' They didn't want anybody there. And I was told if I ever had to go to Louisiana, Genovese would have to call ahead and get permission. Genovese himself had to get permission. It was an absolute rule."

Although he was in a federal prison, serving time on drug trafficking charges, Vito Genovese was at this time, arguably, the most powerful mob boss in America. Yet even he would tip his forelock in deference to "The Little Man' in New Orleans."

By 1966, Carlos Marcello had been the chief executive of his criminal dynasty for almost twenty years. Through bribery, corruption, intimidation and an inherent ability to control situations, he was probably the wealthiest and most influential Mafia leader in the United States. He had succeeded in getting his way, and getting away with everything, all his life. His political acumen was only matched by his public relations savvyness. He once gave a cheque for $10,000 to a prominent society woman who was raising money for the Girl Scouts of America. He told her: "Don't mention my name. I don't want any publicity about this." The gift was news all over New Orleans in two days.

He had manipulated the unholy trinity of politics, crime and business like no gangster ever had.

In the fall, he went to New York for lunch, and then on his way home, he socked the wrong man in the face.

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