Bunk Buddies: Marcello’s Cellmate Talks

The 1981 BRILAB (Bribery and Labor) sting that landed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello in prison was thrown out in federal appeals court in 1989. Serving 8 years of his 17 year sentence, Marcello was released. According to The Times-Picayune, “the mail fraud statutes under which Marcello and Roemer were prosecuted did not apply to acts of public corruption of which they were accused. (1)”

When Marcello was first sentenced in 1981, he was sent to the comfortable U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, where he served time ten years earlier. But after one year, Marcello was transferred to a maximum security prison in Texarkana, Texas (2). It would be here that Marcello would be the victim of another FBI undercover sting, CAMTEX (Carlos Marcello, Texas). The FBI would recruit Marcello’s cellmate, whose identity is still confidential, to report to the FBI on how Marcello would be able to run his criminal empire from prison (3). Along with Marcello’s attempts to bribe his way out of prison, the informant would also comment on how much respect Marcello commanded while in prison. When seeing Marcello for the first time, the informant was told by another inmate:

“That’s Carlos Marcello. He runs the place; he’s a good friend to have. (4)”

The informant also notes how inmates hung around Marcello for attention, that Marcello also had a smaller, more private cell, and that Marcello was constantly on the phone. CAMTEX is discussed at length in Lamar Waldron’s Legacy of Secrecy, and would provide the smoking gun of Marcello’s confession in the involvement of the assassination President Kennedy that would serve as the principle source for the book. But this article is not about Marcello’s time in Texarkana, or the JFK assassination. CAMTEX would end in 1987 (5).

In January of 1989, Marcello suffered the first in a series of strokes. He was then transferred from the maximum security prison in Texarkana to a medical center for federal prisoners in Rochester, Minnesota (6). It would be here where the FBI would interview one of his cell mates, Gus Russo, to gather information about him.

Born August Jerome Russo, Gus was Marcello’s 61 year old roommate and confidant (7). Russo’s arrest was apart of OPERATION SAFEBET, an investigation into political corruption and prostitution operations run by organized crime in Chicago (8). Russo would be one of 75 individuals arrested and convicted in the 1984 investigation. Despite being associated with the Mafia, Russo claims that he was not a made member of the Chicago Outfit and worked completely independent (9). Russo was sentenced to six years and started serving his time in a minimum security prison in Duluth, Minnesota. He was transferred to Rochester after he had surgery on his legs (10).

Russo’s testimony to the FBI gives us insight into Marcello’s state of mind during his later years in prison. Marcello, who was 79 years old at this time, was suffering from the effects of severe dementia, impairing his short term memory.(11). When Russo first met Marcello, he described him as “a little old man who was wandering around who had no idea what was going on.” Marcello’s commissary card was being misused by other inmates. Feeling sorry for the aging Mafia boss, Russo told a nurse that if they would allow the two to room together, he would look after Marcello; though, at the time, Russo had no idea that Marcello was one of the most powerful crime figures of the Gulf Coast (12). Russo would serve as a courier between Marcello and his attorneys (13). A friendship would develop between the two men. They would often make jokes with one another, and Marcello would playfully slap and hit Russo. While Marcello’s “hits” may have been playful in nature, Russo would complain about constantly getting bruised by Marcello, who he feared to hit back (14). Russo told agents that all Marcello talks about is New Orleans, and how eager he is to return (15).

But while Marcello’s mental state was in decline, his temper still flourished. Once Russo told Marcello to brush his teeth, Marcello responded with: “No motherfucker tells Carlos Marcello what to do” (14). Another instance when Russo asked what Marcello would do when he would get out of prison, Marcello told Russo he would get the motherfucker who put him in here, and then made a cutting motion with his thumb around his neck. When Russo asked Marcello how he would run his criminal empire when he is forgetting everything, Marcello said he is the oldest in the New Orleans Mafia, and would be boss for life (16). While Marcello’s mental capacity may have been stagnant, he was still feared and respected by other inmates. FBI documents detail how prisoners vacated benches and chairs when Marcello walked by them. The same treatment came with the TV room when Marcello was in there. Other inmates who were usually abusive towards fellow inmates and staff went out of their way to leave Marcello alone (17).

Russo’s information led agents to believe at least some of Marcello’s behavior was an act (18). On one occasion, Marcello was talking normally with a fellow inmate when they both entered a room which had prison staff. When the prison staff engaged Marcello, he would act stupid and vacant. One of the staff referred to Marcello as an “airhead”, which Marcello ignored, and when both of the men left the room, Marcello would continue their normal conversation. Another occasion, Marcello was greeted by several inmates, who he referred to “buddy” and “partner”. After walking away from the group of inmates, Russo heard him say “I’m so tired of this bullshit.” (19) Another occasion that suggest that Marcello was more aware of his surroundings than he let on was when he was watching television and heard that an author was releasing new information about the dissaperence of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa. The author had obtained the information from a confidential prison inmate in Chicago. FBI documents state that Marcello became visibly tense and angered at the announcement, but made no comment (20).

While Russo was not a member of organized crime, he was in the company of a couple of high ranking Mafia members while shadowing Marcello. Russo was able to meet Joseph Aiuppa, former leader of the Chicago Outfit who had been sentenced to 28 years in prison for skimming money from casinos in Las Vegas (21). Russo also reported that Marcello covertly met with Detroit Mafia capo Vito Giacalone several times (22).

Marcello was released from prison on October 20, 1989. He was picked up in a limousine and was immediately driven to a private jet at Rochester Airport, which took him immediately back to New Orleans. Television crews and photographers were waiting for Marcello when he exited the prison, and one photographer even followed the entourage to the airport (23).

Marcello returned to an organization in decline. Anthony Corolla, son of Marcello’s predecessor “Silver Dollar Sam” Carolla, had taken over the Mafia during the later years of Marcello’s incarceration. The new Mafia leadership violated Marcello’s strict ban on allowing any other Mafia organization from doing business in New Orleans.

Sure, go ahead. Come on in. You won’t get any heat from the Marcellos. They’re finished. They don’t mean nothin’ around here anymore (24).

That’s what underboss “Fat” Frank Gagliano said to Philadelphia Mafia capo Albert “Reds” Pontani when Mafia families from New York and Philadelphia started to extend their business interest to New Orleans. In the fall of 1991, Carolla and Gagliano invited Gambino Crime Family capo Joseph “JoJo” Corozzo and soldier Johnny Gammarano to establish a skim on Louisiana’s newly legalized video poker industry (25). The conspiracy between the two Mafia organizations would culminate in the FBI’s OPERATION HARDCRUST investigation, which would send the upper echelon of the New Orleans Mafia to prison, fatally wounding the organization.

Marcello would not live long enough to see his organization decimated. Retired from the New Orleans Mafia, he would die in his Metairie home four years after his release on March 3, 1993 (26).

 

Sources:
(1) Cannizaro, Steve. “’81 BRILAB Convictions Overturned.” The Times Picayune [New Orleans] 24 June 1989: n. pag. Print.
(2) Waldron, Lamar, and Thom Hartmann. “Chapter 65.” Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2008. 750. Print.
(3)Waldron, Lamar, and Thom Hartmann. “Chapter 65.” Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2008. 750. Print.
(4)Waldron, Lamar, and Thom Hartmann. “Chapter 65.” Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2008. 750. Print.
(5) Waldron, Lamar, and Thom Hartmann. “Chapter 65.” Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2008. 751. Print.
(6)  FBI Document # 1143081 -000-89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 3
(7) FBI Document # 1143081 -000-89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 13
(8) https://www.fbi.gov/chicago/about-us/history/history
(9) FBI Document # 1143081 -000-89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 15
(10) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 27
(11) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 40
(12) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 27
(13) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 15
(14) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 33
(15) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 28
(16) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 35
(17) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 39
(18) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 39
(19) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 39
(20) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 36
(21) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 27
(22) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 36
(23) FBI Document # 1143081 – 000- 89E-NO-50302 – Section 1, Page 41
(24) Davis, John H. Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989. 593. Print.
(25) http://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/04/us/video-poker-in-louisiana-is-mob-target-inquiry-says.html
(26) Waldron, Lamar, and Thom Hartmann. “Chapter 65.” Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2008. 761. Print.

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