Thursday, July 25, 2024
Crime, Featured Article

The Many Saints of Bridgeport: The Mafia and Mayhem in the Park City

By Jaime Pettit

The older man looked unassuming, dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and a black-and-gray tweed sport jacket as he stood at the phone booth on the corner of Main and Jewett Ave. Passing Bridgeport residents paid him no mind as they made their way about the shops and houses for their Sunday errands. It was 2:30pm, and the sun peaked out through the clouds above the quiet suburban street. No one expected that the warm September afternoon would erupt in violence.

17-year-old Ted McKinney heard the three shots just moments after seeing the man on the street corner. Thinking the sound was that of a car crash, McKinney spun around, only to be greeted with a gruesome sight. The man he’d just passed was now lying upon the sidewalk in a spray of his own blood, and a red Chevy pickup was speeding around the corner of Jewett, out of sight.[i] Seconds prior, two men in masks had approached their target, and emptied their carbines into his chest, side, and left arm. Cries and chaos filled the air as a crowd of more than fifty people surrounded the stricken victim. A woman in nurse’s scrubs began to give him CPR as others tried to stop the bleeding from his chest and arm.[ii]

None of the concerned Bridgeporters realized the man they assisted was Fairfield County’s most notorious mobster, Frank Piccolo, nor could they anticipate that the hit ordered on him would be another link in the chain of events that would lead to the downfall of one of New York’s most notorious crime bosses. For now, as far as McKinney and the other good Samaritans were concerned, Piccolo was just a guy in need of help.

Frank Piccolo was a man whose life was described by the Bridgeport Post as “a sardonic twist to the American Dream.”[iii] Born in Harlem on July 2nd, 1921 to Francesco and Fannie Lanza,[iv] Piccolo spent his life working his way up through the ranks of organized crime, eventually achieving the rank of capo, or captain, for the Gambino crime family. In the daylight, however, he was known as the self-employed president of Pecon Industries, a consulting firm specializing in trucking. A married father of four, Piccolo lived in the Inwood Condominiums at 3200 Park Ave, close to a series of Italian specialty shops that were rumored to be sites of gambling and other illicit activities.[v] He was a tall and well-built man, with dark eyes and dark hair, whose style was underscored by a popular portrait the papers ran with, featuring the mobster wearing a starched collar and pair of aviator sunglasses that resembled Elvis’s signature 70’s look. Like the King, Piccolo also enjoyed his share of popularity. Gregarious and good-humored, he made many friends in the business community of the Bridgeport area and was regularly seen frequenting the Mill River Golf Club as well as the area’s various diners and shops.[vi] Evidently, Piccolo was not a man who stuck to shadow, but his boldness was not unreasonable.

Though he had a few run ins with the law throughout his life, state authorities could never pin the recent wave of mob-related violence in Connecticut back to the mobster. He’d spent 25 years evading any serious charges from police outside of several misdemeanors, including traffic violations.[vii] That changed in the summer of 1981. Three months before his demise Piccolo was implicated in a racketeering scheme against the Las Vegas singers Wayne Newton and Lola Falana the year before. He and his cousin Guido Penosi were accused of taking advantage of extortion threats the rival Genovese crime family were making against Newton. After receiving telephone threats against his family and his life, Newton had gone to Penosi for help, and within a few days of their talk, the threats stopped. In return for this favor, Piccolo and Penosi expected payment. In addition, the pair had extorted money from his manager, Mark Moreno, in a similar fashion, and had also attempted to get Lola Falana to buy an insurance policy through them in order to get a piece of the singers’ income.[viii]

Piccolo’s bold encroachment on the Genovese rackets was something that greatly displeased the rival gang. In response, they approached his boss in New York, Paul Castellano, for permission to take Piccolo out. Head of the Gambino crime syndicate, Paul Castellano was a mob boss who was known for his greed and underhandedness. In addition to siphoning millions of dollars away from family rackets for his own private business venture, Castellano would often short circuit the Gambinos’ union rackets directly in order to line his own pockets, doing so without the knowledge of his own men in order to grab a large chunk their expected loot for himself. After repeated requests from Genovese family, Castellano signed off on Piccolo’s execution, in part to solidify his position and win allies within the rival group, in part because he simply could not resist their offer to cut him in personally for a share of their Connecticut profits.[ix]

It’s likely that Piccolo caught wind that he was the target of a murder contract, and his actions earlier in the month of September caused some in the public to suspect the same. The Thursday before his death, Piccolo failed to show up for a court hearing challenging the use of wiretaps that had been key in securing two indictments against him. The Hartford Courant also reported that he was now rarely public without someone else nearby.[x] Eventually though, the Genovese’s foot soldiers would catch Piccolo alone, and their meeting would prove to be fatal. Ultimately, the efforts of the Good Samaritans of Bridgeport would be in vain, and Piccolo passed away from cardiac arrest about forty-five minutes after being transported to St. Vincent’s hospital.[xi]

Meanwhile, a Trumbull police officer monitoring the Bridgeport police radio caught sight of the speeding red getaway vehicle and took off after it in pursuit. Following a high-speed chase through Trumbull and north Stratford, the two vehicles turned onto Beaver Dam Road, up a hill and into the back yard of reported Genovese affiliate Gustave Curcio. The officer, warned by his superiors of a possible trap, was forced to stop in his chase and wait for help as the red truck sped out of sight. In the hours following the shooting, officers from Bridgeport, Trumbull, and Stratford, armed with shotguns and clad in bulletproof vests surrounded the Curcio property, but no sign of the suspects or Curcio was found.[xii]

It didn’t take long for Bridgeport police to obtain a warrant to search the property. Curcio and his brother, Francis “Fat Frannie” Curcio were already known to authorities as reputed affiliates of the Genovese family, and were at the time subjects of a federal probe into an alleged loansharking operation. Though the subsequent raid on the home yielded no arrest of Curcio, police did uncover an arsenal of weapons within his home, heightening suspicion of his connection to the murder.[xiii] The investigation into the Bridgeport Police Department’s number one person of interest had begun, but it was perhaps a hunt that should have been conducted by a less controversy-ridden administration.

The Piccolo murder took place in the backdrop of one of the ugliest years in Bridgeport’s history. Then U.S. attorney Richard Blumenthal would find himself fighting a two-front war in the Park City; one against the mob, the other against the mayor.

Mayor John C. Mandanici, often referred to by Bridgeporters by his nickname “Mandy”, was presiding over an administration embroiled in scandal and infighting. A federal investigation had been launched into Bridgeport’s Comprehensive Employment Training Act activities within his first few months in office, one that revealed that rot spread deep in other corners of his administration.[xiv] Blumenthal would be a particularly tenacious foe for Mandy, relentlessly pursuing him and indicting many in his administration for corrupt activities. In the days following the Piccolo murder, Mandanici would add to Blumenthal’s many headaches by announcing his full intention to sue federal authorities under the precedent that they were violating his constitutional rights, claiming agents were orchestrating “politically motivated witch hunts” against him.[xv] Yet dealing with Blumenthal and the feds was the least of Mandy’s many troubles; the Mayor had made a lot of enemies in his six-year-reign. In the months leading up to the mayoral election, Mandanici was often seen going to debates wearing a bulletproof vest due to numerous death threats he had received.[xvi]

Police superintendent Joe Walsh, who headed both the murder investigation and the raid on Curcio’s home, was himself under federal investigation at the time. A little more than a month before the murder, Walsh had been subject to a federal sting operation that had been an attempt to expose him on corruption charges. It was hoped by federal agents that if they could catch the mayor’s major ally and chief deputy in bribery, they could also bring down Mandy for corruption. Things did not go as planned however. Walsh had caught wind of a plot against him and turned the tables on the feds, waiting until their informant, Thomas Marra, had produced an envelope full of money before arresting him.[xvii] Weeks later, Marra’s car was suspiciously firebombed while it was parked outside of the headquarters of Mandanici’s primary electoral opponent, Lenny Paoletta. Two weeks later, two cars parked outside of Mandanici’s house were also bombed, and Paoletta’s house was broken into.[xviii]

Despite the administrative turmoil, things moved quickly in Bridgeport in the hours and days following the murder. Gustave Curcio would surrender to authorities the day following the raid on his house, after a local judge issued a warrant for his arrest on the charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Though the judge set his bail at $125,000, Curcio would avoid spending time behind bars thanks to his brother, professional bondsman Vincent Curcio, who posted a surety bond.[xix] While Curcio walked free, Piccolo would make his way down Bridgeport’s streets for the last time.

On September 24, under a gray and dismal sky, a funeral procession of more than fifty cars carried Piccolo’s coffin from the funeral home where it had lain since that Tuesday evening, to a funeral Mass at St. Raphael’s Parish.[xx] Over two hundred mourners followed to pay their respects, and many more well-wishers would send extensive floral arrangements as a token of their goodwill. Curious Bridgeporters could not believe the service’s extravagance, as one woman watching the procession would gape: “My God, look at all them flowers. You’d think it was Al Capone.”[xxi]

Back in New York, the aftershocks of Piccolo’s death were also being felt. In 1991, Gambino mobster Sammy “The Bull” Gravano would testify that Piccolo’s death had greatly disturbed the Gambino family.[xxii] In an interview with Assistant US Attorney John Gleeson, Gravano stated that Piccolo’s murder would be another transgression in the long list of sins that the notorious John Gotti would cite as reasoning to sanction the assassination of Castellano himself several years later. “You just don’t let another Family kill a captain within your own Family.” Gravano explained. “That’s against our rules, and nobody was happy with that.”[xxiii]

That unhappiness festered for several years before erupting in another act of violence. On December 17, 1985, Paul Castellano would meet his end in front of a New York City steakhouse, when four assassins dressed in long coats gunned him down with semi-automatics.[xxiv] In macabre and almost poetic fashion, Castellano died much like the capo he sold out four years prior; bleeding out on a city sidewalk. John Gotti sat in a parked car nearby, waiting to make sure his former boss was dead. After the grisly affair was over, Gotti would assume leadership of the Gambino family, and, prior to his own downfall five years later, etch his name into American legend.

The future for Gus Curcio, by contrast, was far brighter. A grand jury refused to indict the alleged Genovese affiliate for conspiracy and murder due to a lack of evidence for his guilt.[xxv]  However, neither he nor his brother Francis evaded the law for long. In 1983, both were indicted for loansharking charges, and Curcio was sentenced to eight years in prison.[xxvi] Since his release, Mr. Curcio has reputedly left his life in organized crime and continued his successful career as a businessman. To this day, he owns a number of restaurants and businesses in Bridgeport and Stratford, still living in the area.

[i] Anthony P. Spinelli Jr., “To them, he was just a guy in need of help,” The Bridgeport Post, September 20, 1981. Bridgeport History Center Clippings..

[ii] Andrew Krieg, “Mob Boss Piccolo Gunned Down on Street,” Hartford Courant, September 20, 1981. Connecticut State Library.

[iii] Michael P. Mayko and Richard Peck, “Sidewalk Death Ends Life of Crime,” The Bridgeport Post, September 20, 1981. Bridgeport History Center Clippings.

[iv] Mafia: The Government’s Secret File on Organized Crime (University of Michigan: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 72

[v] Ibid. “Sidewalk Death Ends Life of Crime,” The Bridgeport Post

[vi]Ibid. “Sidewalk Death Ends Life of Crime,” The Bridgeport Post

[vii] Ibid. “Sidewalk Death Ends Life of Crime,” The Bridgeport Post

[viii] Andrew Krieg, “Extortion Plot Against Las Vegas Stars Charged,” Hartford Courant, June 13, 1981. Connecticut State Library.

[ix] Carl Sifakis, The Mafia Encyclopedia: Third Edition (New York, NY: Facts on File Inc. 2005), p.208.

[x] Michael P. Mayko “Bosses may have ordered hit” The Bridgeport Post, September 22, 1981. Bridgeport History Center Clippings.

[xi] Anthony P. Spinelli Jr., “Area Mob Leader Slain,” The Bridgeport Post, September 20, 1981. Bridgeport History Center Clippings.

[xii] Ibid. Area Mob Leader Slain,” The Bridgeport Post.

[xiii] “Police uncover arsenal in raid on Curcio home,” The Bridgeport Telegram, September 23, 1981. Bridgeport History Center Clippings.

[xiv] Grimaldi, Lennie. “Recalling the 1981 Mayoral Election: Mob Hits, Firebombings, Voter Backlash.” Only In Bridgeport, November 12, 2023. https://onlyinbridgeport.com/wordpress/recalling-the-1981-mayoral-election-mob-hits-firebombings-voter-backlash/#comments.

[xv] “Mandanici plans to sue feds for violating his rights,” The Bridgeport Telegram, September 24, 1981. Bridgeport History Center Clippings.

[xvi] Rob Sullivan, Political Corruption in Bridgeport: Scandal in the Park City (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014), p.61.

[xvii] Rob Sullivan, Political Corruption in Bridgeport: Scandal in the Park City (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014), p.74-75.

[xviii] Ibid. Lennie Grimaldi.

[xix] Jack Dolan and Daniel Tepfer, “Curcio Surrenders in Slaying” The Bridgeport Post, September 24, 1981. Bridgeport History Center Clippings.

[xx] Paul Guernsey, “Mobster travels streets of Bridgeport for the last time,” The Bridgeport Post, September 24, 1981. Bridgeport History Center Clippings.

[xxi] Nancy M. Tracy, “Family Grieves, But Others Shy Away As Piccolo Is Buried in Catholic Service,” Hartford Courant, September 25, 1981. Connecticut State Library.

[xxii] “Sammy ‘the Bull’ Gravano FBI Debriefings.” The Smoking Gun. Accessed May 16, 2024. https://www.thesmokinggun.com/file/sammy-bull-gravano-fbi-debriefings?page=4.

[xxiii] Scarpo, Ed. “1992 Testimony of Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano Part 4: Plotting to Kill a Boss” Cosa Nostra News, January 3, 2021. https://www.cosanostranews.com/2020/12/1992-testimony-of-gambino-underboss.html.

[xxiv] Robert D. McFadden, “ORGANIZED-CRIME CHIEF SHOT DEAD STEPPING FROM CAR ON E. 46TH ST.,” The New York Times.  December 17, 1985. https://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/17/nyregion/organized-crime-chief-shot-dead-stepping-from-car-on-e-46th-st.html

[xxv]  “Grand Jury Refuses to Indict Curcio for Murder,” Hartford Courant, February 12, 1982. Connecticut State Library.

[xxvi] “United States v. Curcio, 608 F. Supp. 1346 (D. Conn. 1985).” Justia Law. Accessed May 16, 2024. https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/608/1346/1465143/.

Jaime Pettit
Jaime Pettit serves as an Assistant Archivist at the Bridgeport History Center at the Bridgeport, Connecticut Public Library. She received a Masters' in Information Science at the University of Michigan and a Certification in Museum Studies at Harvard University. She has previously worked with the University of Michigan and Arizona State University's departments of archeology. Pettit's current projects combine her love for both history and writing to highlight interesting and lesser-known stories from Bridgeport and Connecticut.