Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carlos Marcello: Big Daddy In The Big Easy

All in the Family

In 1953, Carlos purchased a group of buildings in Rossier City on Airline Highway, the main thoroughfare connecting New Orleans to Moisant International Airport. Consisting of a motel in one bloc, a restaurant and lounge in another and his office complex in the third, it was called Town and Country Motel. This would be his base for the rest of his criminal career. Two of Carlos' most trusted lieutenants, Norfio Pecora and Joe Poretto, were put in charge of the running of the complex, along with one of his younger brothers, Anthony. The place became a meeting place for top-level gamblers, Marcello's men, crooked politicians and equally crooked cops. Frances, the wife of Pecora, acted as Carlos' secretary, and in his office building as visitors left, they were farewelled by a message on the inside of the front door. It read: THREE CAN KEEP A SECRET IF TWO ARE DEAD.

From his spacious office behind a vast mahogany desk, Marcello ran his empires, both the legal and illegal ones. He had interests across Louisiana, into Mississippi and Texas. They also extended into the Caribbean, Mexico and across to California. His income was coming from gambling, casinos, (by 1964 he controlled fourteen of these in Gretna Parish alone,) narcotics, prostitution, slots and extortion, and in order to maintain its momentum, he was bribing and corrupting sheriffs, justices of the peace, police officers, prosecutors, mayors, judges, councilmen, state legislators and at least one member of Congress. His illegal capital funded motels, restaurants, banks, beer and liquor stores, taxi and bus firms, shrimping fleets, gas stations, the list was endless. He claimed however, that he was simply a salesman for the Pelican Tomato Company and earned $1500 a month. On paper he was, and the fact that he also indirectly owned the company, whose biggest customer was the U.S. Navy, was incidental.

Within thirteen years, Carlos would be possibly the wealthiest Mafiosi in the United States and most certainly one of the most influential. His criminal organization would be generating over $2 billion each year, making it the biggest industry by far in Louisiana. As the leader of the "first Mafia family" in America, he enjoyed unique privileges; for example, he could "open his books" and "make" men into his organization without the approval of the Commissione. His control and dominance of the Louisiana Mafia was incontestable. The late Vincent Teresa, a top Mafia thief and enforcer, working out of the New England mob, said of Marcello's crime family:

"It was very tight. They're all in deathly fear of Carlos Marcello because he's got the law, all the politicians in the state, right in his hip pocket. You just can't go against him."

Marcello remained a man of contradictions. Uneducated beyond the age of fourteen, he spoke with a vocabulary peppered with "dats" and "nuttins." Although he controlled hundreds of millions of dollars, he found it almost impossible to add and subtract. He was, however, driven to succeed and coupled with immense tenacious energy, and passionate willpower, he was able to dominate and control men of much higher education and social breeding. His strange, squat appearance and coarse manner did not prevent him from being able to manipulate the highly educated professionals in the legal and bureaucratic corridors of the state legislature.

In 1961, Aaron Kohn, head of the New Orleans Crime Commission, reported on the make up of the Marcello family and their relationship within their other, Mafia family:
Eldest brother, Peter, 40 in 1953, managed strip clubs in the French Quarter; Pascal, 36, operated an illegal gambling house in Gretna; Vincent, now aged 31, ran the Jefferson Music Company; 28-year-old Joe Jr. was Carlos' right hand, family underboss and worked with Joe Poretto in running the wire service and bookie network; Tony, aged 26, helped run the Town and Country Motel; and Sammy, the youngest brother at 24, aided in the management of the Jefferson Music Company and also acted as Carlos' spin doctor. All the brothers and the two sisters of the family were married. They and their children would meet every Sunday for lunch at the home of the family patriarch. The Louisiana Mafia was truly a family affair.

Senator McClellan shakes hands with Robert F. Kennedy (CORBIS)
Senator McClellan shakes hands with
Robert F. Kennedy (CORBIS)

Six years, almost to the date after the Kefauver committee grilled Carlos, the U.S. Senate set up another committee under the chairmanship of Senator John McClellan of Arkansas. Its brief was to investigate organized crime and labour racketeering. The chief counsel was Robert F. Kennedy and his brother, Senator John F. Kennedy, was made a member of the committee.

Carlos was once more back in the spotlight. This time he was in a high-ceilinged Senate hearing room, in Washington and, just as the last time, he would not answer any of the questions that were posed by the members of the investigating panel.

Carlos Marcello (left) at McClellan hearing (AP)
Carlos Marcello (left) at McClellan
hearing (AP)

Carlos was called before the meeting as a direct result of a subpoena that was served on him because of another meeting that had taken place sixteen months previously. It was one of a series of gatherings of Mafia heads and associates that had taken place from time to time over the years. Many of them were never discovered, or if they were, it was after the event. A few were recorded for posterity: the meeting in Cleveland in December 1928; the gathering at Atlantic City in 1929; a massive convention in the Bronx in 1931 at the end of the Castellammarese Wars; the conference that was held in Havana in Cuba in 1946; and then on November 24, 1957, the one that really set the mob on its ear.

On that day, New York state police observed a gathering of many people at the home of a known mobster called Joseph Barbara, a capo in the family of Russell Bufalino, on an estate near Apalachin, in upstate New York. Sixty men were stopped and questioned; two of them were Joe Marcello, the brother of Carlo, and Joe Civello, who ran the Dallas mob, a satellite of the Marcello family operation. The disclosure of the Apalachin meeting was a watershed in law enforcement's struggle to identify just what the Mafia was and who were its rulers. Why the meeting was called has always remained a mystery, no matter what the theorists claim. There is no real evidence that it was to settle the problems caused by the murder of Albert Anastasia or the attempted murder of Frank Costello, and the subsequent raising of Vito Genovese as "Boss of Bosses," or to resolve the mob's policy regarding drug trafficking and the resulting heat from the FBI. It may well have been about all of this and more. We will never know. No one who went to the meeting ever publicly disclosed his reasons for attending. For certain, it revealed without doubt the existence of a crime confederation on a scale never before imagined. It also highlighted key members of the mob and, as a direct result, people like Carlos Marcello found themselves called before the McClellan Committee to give evidence about their association with organized crime.

Aaron Kohn
Aaron Kohn

Before any witnesses were called, the committee heard evidence about the Louisiana Mafia from an expert. His name was Aaron Kohn. An ex-FBI crime buster, he had been involved in the arrest of such notorious gangsters as John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and the Ma Barker gang. Invited to head up the New Orleans Crime Commission in 1953, he would spend the next twenty-five years investigating organized crime in Louisiana and becoming the foremost expert on Carlos Marcello.

He laid out the structure of the Louisiana Mafia, and the fact that all the Marcello brothers were members of the secret society that had dominated the criminal underworld for almost seventy years. He detailed the growth of the Marcello empire, particularly the slot business (over 5000 machines in place), which acted as its main artery, pumping in huge amounts of money to fund and finance many of the other illegal enterprises. He detailed the depth of corruption that existed at city, state and parish level among the police departments. Sheriff Cocci took over the Jefferson Parish police in June 1956 and within weeks, he, his two deputies, his chief criminal deputy and chief civil deputy were calling on bars and restaurants, ordering them to move out their present jukeboxes and pinball machines and advising them that new ones would be supplied by Marcello-controlled companies. They were given the option of doing that or being harassed by police raids.

As usual, Carlos refused to answer any questions, citing the Fifth Amendment. Over and over again, the 33-year-old Robert Kennedy tried to get answers, but the boss of the mob smirked and scowled his way through the hearing, revealing absolutely nothing. But although Marcello's performance was in keeping with his attitude towards the law, he laid himself open to a judicial ambush that would arise as a direct result of his conduct at the hearing. The young Kennedy, smarting from the embarrassing way Marcello had treated him, never forgot. Two years later, Robert Kennedy was in a position to retaliate.

His actions against Marcello would set off a chain of events that might well have set the stage for one of the greatest tragedies the country would experience.

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