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CRIME: Deep Six for Johnny

7 minute read

They buried him in the classic style. His body was sealed in an empty 55-gal. oil drum. Heavy chains were coiled around the container, and holes were punched in the sides. Then the drum was dumped in the waters off Florida. It might have stayed on the bottom indefinitely—except that the gases caused by the decomposing body gave the drum buoyancy and floated it to the surface. Three fishermen found it in Dumfoundling Bay near North Miami Beach. Police checked out the fingerprints of the victim with the FBI and made the identification: John Roselli, 71, a Mafia soldier of fortune who had been involved in some amazing capers—and made the mistake of telling about them.

Someone had asphyxiated the old man, which should not have been hard, since he was suffering from emphysema. Suspicion quickly centered on the Mafia itself. During the final years of his life, Roselli made two cardinal errors. He called public attention to the operations of the Mafia and, much worse, he betrayed one of its members.

In June 1975, Roselli was called to testify before a special Senate Intelligence Committee that was looking into the excesses of the CIA. Customarily, members of the Mafia clam up when they get within 100 miles of a Senate committee. Roselli not only talked—he provided the details of a startling story.

Roselli described how he and his longtime mentor, onetime Chicago Mafia Chief Momo Salvatore (“Sam”) Giancana, had been recruited by the CIA in the early ’60s to assassinate Fidel Castro. It made a kind of amoral sense for the agency to turn to the Mob: when the Cuban leader took power, he closed down the Mafia’s big moneymaking operations in Havana; Roselli had been running the swank Sans Souci gambling casino there. Roselli told the Senators that he also saw the killing of Castro as a “patriotic” endeavor, something he could do for his country. Both poisoned cigars and poisoned pills were considered by the CIA. For reasons that remain unclear, the mobsters muffed the job.

Five days before Roselli’s testimony, Giancana had been murdered in his Oak Park, III., home by seven .22 bullets fired at close range into his face and neck. As it happened, Giancana was due to be called before the same Senate committee. The FBI now believes that Giancana was killed not because of his CIA-Castro connection but as a result of a bitter feud over dividing the Mob’s spoils in Chicago.

The Third Man. During his testimony, Roselli not only talked freely about Giancana but also claimed that a third person took part in the anti-Castro plot: Santo Trafficante, now in his mid-60s, who has been identified as the Mafia chief in Florida. A man who abhors publicity even more than most of his colleagues, Trafficante took refuge for 18 months in Costa Rica to escape his notoriety. He returned to the U.S. shortly after Roselli talked to the Senate committee.

Three months after Roselli’s first appearance before the Senate committee, he was called back. This time he told another startling story: how he and Giancana had shared the affections of an attractive brunette named Judith Campbell Exner at a time when she also had, in her words, a “close, personal” relationship with President John F. Kennedy. The committee, trying to determine if Kennedy had known about the CIA’s plans to eliminate Castro, wondered if Exner might have told the Pre ident about the activities of Roselli and Giancana. The investigation turned up no evidence that she had.

Roselli was one of a breed that is dying off — usually by murder. Born Filippo Sacco in Italy, he entered the U.S. illegally as a child and remained in trouble for most of his life. In the ’20s, he was a recruit in Al Capone’s Chicago gang, reportedly as an arsonist, then moved on to bookmaking and numbers.

In the late ’30s, Roselli became the Chicago Mob’s man in Hollywood and was subsequently jailed for three years for plotting, with seven others, to extort $1 million from movie companies. The muscle: threatening to use a Mafia-controlled union of stagehands to close down production unless the studios paid up. Even so, the dapper, debonair Roselli remained a luminary of sorts in Hollywood. He married a starlet, got a piece of two nightclubs, and helped produce two crime films in the late 1940s, Canyon City and He Walked by Night. Says a producer who knew him at the time:

“He had direct knowledge about prisons and cops.”

In the early ’50s, Roselli even be came a member of the Friars Club, Hollywood’s frat house. He was backed by none other than Comedian Georgie Jessel, the club’s founder. “There were other members who had served sentences,” Jessel recalled last week. “I said anyone who had paid his debt to society was O.K., so I made him a Friar.”

Fleecing Friars. Roselli got along famously with the Jessel-Sinatra crowd, but again temptation got in his way. In 1968 he and four others were convicted of swindling members of the Friars — including Comedians Phil Silvers and Zeppo Marx and Singer Tony Martin —out of some $400,000 by cheating at cards. The elaborate fleecing system involved observers in the attic who peered through peepholes to read the cards of the players. They then flashed coded electronic signals to a member of the ring seated at the table, who picked up the messages on equipment he wore on a girdle beneath his clothes.

Before going to jail to serve eleven months for that caper, Roselli was bold enough to betray the Mafia in 1970. At the time, a federal grand jury was investigating charges that the Mob had illegally concealed its interest in the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. Roselli, by then the Chicago Mob’s top man in Las Vegas, talked about the scheme after being given a pledge of immunity. One of the men he discussed was Chicago’s Tony Accardo.

After getting out of jail in 1971, Roselli again supervised the Chicago Mob’s gambling interests in Las Vegas, while living quietly with his sister, Mrs. Joseph Daigle, in Plantation, Fla., just west of Fort Lauderdale. He was, his neighbors said, a nice, silver-haired gentleman who liked to walk his poodle and talk about such local worries as the caterpillars. Although he had arthritis of the spine, he played golf regularly. After another local underworld character was killed recently on the links, Roselli took the precaution of never playing the same course twice in a row. Still, he rejected his lawyer’s advice to hire a bodyguard. Asked Johnny Roselli: “Why would they want to kill an old man like me?”

Aside from his proclivity for disclosing Mafia secrets, Roselli could have been killed, federal investigators suggest, because some members of his old Chicago Mob—including Tony Accardo —felt he had been keeping more than his share of the Las Vegas boodle. Following another theory, some Senators who had once laughed at his jokes during his sessions on the Hill called on the Department of Justice to find out why he was murdered. U.S. Attorney General Edward H. Levi ordered the FBI to determine whether Johnny Roselli’s testimony about the CIA plot to get Castro might somehow have led to his end in an oil drum bobbing on the surface of Dumfoundling Bay.

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