Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carlos Marcello: Big Daddy In The Big Easy

The Long and Winding Road

For a man whose motto was, "Three can keep a secret if two are dead," it was a mortifying blow. In its year long, extraordinarily successful BRILAB undercover operation against him, the FBI had amassed fourteen hundred reels of recorded tape thirty-five thousand feet in all. It was a formidable weapon that would be used by the prosecution with devastating effect. The counts against Carlos and his co-conspirators were: racketeering, conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and interstate travel to engage in racketeering. The main witnesses for the government were convicted swindler turned government witness Larry Hauser and the two FBI agents, Larry Montague and Michael Wacks.

It took three weeks to select a jury that was acceptable to both the defence and the prosecution. The case eventually went to trial late in March and lasted eighteen weeks.

Over and over again, the jury listened to recorded conversations of Carlos, either talking to wired witnesses or held in the confines of his office at the Town and Country Motel. They heard the speech of a man presented by the authorities as a controller of labour unions, the manipulator of the political machinery of an entire state of the union, a man with links to the government of the country, and a man possibly connected to what had become known as the crime of the century.

What they listened to was fractured, uneducated, disjointed ramblings, often laced with racist comments and derogatory venom, aimed at mayors, state heads, politicians and union leaders, "It's taken time to get where I'm at. To know all these people governors, business, the attorney general, they know me."

"Governor John McKeithen...that sonofabitch got $168,000 my then he too scared to talk to me."

"That Mayor Morial...want money as bad as you need it...bad as everybody wants it. Ya unnerstand. He'll take it from the right people."

This was the speech of a man who for eight months had orchestrated a skilful, well-contrived and elaborate scheme to siphon off Louisiana state insurance contracts through the use of kickbacks and bribery. A scheme, that had it succeeded, would have netted him at least $1 million every month. There is little doubt that had Carlos himself set this scheme up, rather than it being an FBI sting, he would have probably achieved all of his objectives. One of his greatest strengths had always been his ability to deceive his enemies into believing that he wasn't smart enough to plan and orchestrate elaborate criminal conspiracies.

Marcello with a team of attorneys outside court (CORBIS)
Marcello with a team of attorneys
outside court (CORBIS)

By August 4, 1981, it was all over. Shortly after 4pm that afternoon, the jury returned its verdict. Carlos Marcello was found guilty on the charge of violating the RICO Statute, which carried a penalty of up to twelve years imprisonment. The next day, he was indicted by a Los Angeles grand jury for conspiring to bribe a federal judge. Bad was turning to worse very quickly.

The trial and conviction of Carlos sent shock waves through the American Mafia. Other people had been mentioned in the trial tapes Aiuppa, boss of Chicago; Santo Trafficante Jr., head of the Tampa mob; and Joe Civello, the man who ran Dallas for the Marcello family. Only a little over 10% of the recorded conversations had been presented in evidence. What was on the rest of the tapes? Would Carlos cut a deal with the government to ameliorate his sentence? The FBI heard of rumours going through the New Orleans underworld that a mob contract was out on him, and advised Carlos accordingly.

On November 30, 1981, he went on trial in Los Angeles, and eleven days later, the jury found him guilty on all three counts as charged. On January 25, 1982, back in a federal courthouse in New Orleans, Carlos was sentenced in the BRILAB case. Judge Morey Secon handed down a sentence of seven years in prison and a fine of $25,000. Out on bail, Carlos had to wait until April, 1982, to find out what his fate would be in Los Angeles. For a 72-year-old man who had spent his life controlling events, it must have been an interminable delay.

In Los Angeles, Carlos was sentenced to ten years in prison. At the hearing, Judge Edward Devitt said to Carlos, "You've led a life of any evaluation it's fair to say you're a very bad man."

On April 15, 1983, after all his appeals had failed, Carlos was remanded to the United States Medical Centre at Springfield, Missouri to begin his BRILAB sentence. Two months later, he learned his appeals against the Los Angeles conviction had also been denied. He now faced the prospect of seventeen years in prison.

He was incarcerated at Springfield for almost a year, and then in April 1984, he was transferred to another federal institution at Texarkana, near the Texas-Arkansas state line. This would be his home for the next two years. On February 19, 1986, he was moved once again, this time to a near-minimum security facility at Seagoville in Texas. This was a prison for basically white-collar criminals lawyers, doctors, accountants-men who had committed crimes of embezzlement and tax fraud, rather than hard core acts of criminal violence. Carlos was here for only a short time and was then shifted again on June 2, 1986, to a level-one category federal correction facility at Fort Worth. The Justice Department have never disclosed why Carlos was moved around so much in three years. It may be that the last two moves into softer, more accommodating institutions were the result of some old favours being paid back from people at high levels in either municipal, state or even federal government. The prison at Fort Worth was more like a rest home than a correction facility. Carlos could meet his visitors around a picnic table, away from prying eyes and hidden microphones. Two of people who came to see Carlos regularly were brothers Joe and Sammy; through them he was able to carry on managing his business activities, both legitimate and illegal.

Back on February 14, 1975, Carlos, a man worth many millions of dollars, had done something unusual: he applied for social security benefits. For eleven years, his lawyers had fought for his constitutional rights to these. They had argued that his deportation to Guatemala had been an illegal act. Although Social Security had received notification of Carlos' deportation, they claimed they had never had filed with them a Lawful Re-entry after Deportation notice. A hearing in 1984 determined that Carlos was not entitled to benefits, and on March 26, 1986, the District Court of Louisiana agreed.

This dancer's jig had a purpose. If the government had granted Carlos retirement benefits, it would be tantamount to it recognising him as an American citizen. Still an illegal citizen, he was always under threat of deportation, and feared that when his sentence was served, the government would kick him out of the country once again.

After a year living comfortably at the "country club" in Fort Worth, on May 21, 1987, he was suddenly, without notice, shifted back to the near maximum conditions of the Texarkana penitentiary. He would be there until March 1989, when he was transferred for the final time to a federal prison hospital in Rochester, Minnesota.

Early in the new year, he had suffered a series of stokes that had left him severely disabled, and by the end of March, he was obviously showing signs of Alzheimer's disease. At times he had become so disoriented that he thought he was living in a hotel and could not recognize family members who visited him. In July, in a surprise move, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Carlos' BRILAB conviction. One judge denied this reversal, but his decision in turn was overruled. In October, after having served six years and six month of his sentence, he was released and the old don was finally returned back into his family's care. "I'm retired," he told reporters. "I'm happy. Everybody's been nice to me." He returned to his white marble, two-story mansion overlooking a golf course in Metairie.

Here, he lived out the last years of his life, cared for by a group of nurses and watched over by his wife and family. Apparently, he lost the power of speech and regressed to his infancy. He was never seen in public again and died on March 3, 1993.

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