On March 1, 1994, professional gambler Emory J. Etheridge entered the President Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi to play blackjack. As the card shark sit at the smoky, green felt table, a two, a four, and a ten lay before him. Etheridge would only need a five to have blackjack, but before the dealer can reveal the face of the card, the FBI stormed the table, arresting Etheridge and seizing all of the cards and chips (1). Etheridge would be accused, along with seven others, of participating in a Mafia sanctioned cheating scheme that would bilk the casino out of over $500,000 (2).
FBI bugged Frank’s Deli (today known as Frank’s Restaurant), located on Decatur street in the French Quarter in January of 1993. Catering to such famous guests as Frank Sinatra, Frank’s was the meeting place for the post-Marcello New Orleans Mafia (3). The feds bugged Frank’s as apart of their ongoing investigation into the Mafia infiltrating Louisiana’s newly legalized video poker industry. Named OPERATION HARDCRUST for the stale bread undercover agents would have to eat while getting a layout of the deli; FBI wiretaps would record conversations between the upper echelons of the New Orleans Mafia extending their operations to the Mississippi Gulf Coast (4).
We want to hit these motherfuckers on the Coast. That’s what Mafia associate Joe Gagliano said to his father, New Orleans Mafia underboss, and owner of Frank’s, “Fat” Frank Gagliano while having coffee with him at his deli on January 15, 1993. It’s open season, you know, replied Los Angels Mafia member John Vaccaro (5). The two devised a scheme to mark playing cards with disappearing ink, and Gagliano, with his “flunky” Sam Matrana, would organize cheating crews of professional gamblers to use these marked cards to cheat (6).
I’ve done this before, said John Vaccaro to his New Orleans co-conspirators, and he wasn’t lying (7). In 1985, Vaccaro and his wife, Sandra, were both found guilty along with seven others of stealing over 8 million dollars from slot machine rigging at the Castaways, Barbary Coast and Bingo Palace casinos in Las Vegas, and Club Cal Neva, MGM Grand and Harold’s Club in Reno (8). Because of their conviction, Vaccaro and his wife were put into Las Vegas’ infamous “black book”, a list of people who aren’t welcomed in casinos in Vegas (Vaccaro has been taken off the list since his passing on November 16, 2015, his wife Sandra, who has the honor of the only woman being place on the list, remains on it to this day) (9). Vaccaro would get a nine year sentence for the slot machine rigging, but would get an additional 2 ½ years while serving his sentenced in 1988 for pleading guilty for conspiring to extort two men who were behind on gambling debts. Sentenced along with him in the same case was Los Angeles Mafia capo Luigi Gelfuso Jr, who plead guilty to extortion conspiracy, narcotics conspiracy, and a labor conspiracy involving payoffs to a local Teamsters union official for guaranteeing labor peace on a Hollywood film production and John DeMattia, a Sherman Oaks bookmaker who tried to extort more than $480,000 from former U.S. Senate candidate Roy Elson. These three men were the last to be found guilty in a case that would throw the majority of the top brass of the “Mickey Mouse Mafia” in prison (10).
Exiled from casinos in Vegas, Vaccaro would still be on parole when he traveled to the place of his birth, New Orleans, to talk to his Mafia counterparts in the early 90s. In a taped conversation between Vaccaro and Joseph Marcello, Jr., brother of former New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello, Marcello asked Vaccaro how long his parole was, and how that would affect his casino scam. Vaccaro replied with Fuck the casinos (11).
Another taped conversation Vaccaro had would also shine light on the state of the New Orleans Mafia during the early 90s. In a Frank’s Deli recording, Vaccaro would compare the Mafia in the crescent city to a Christmas tree. A prosecutor would describe the tape in court (12):
The comment, the particular comment that I think Mr. Metz (New Orleans FBI Agent) described to you [from a microphone recording in Frank’s Deli] was that-had the most visceral gut-wrenching effect on me sitting at the table, and I think you also must have sensed it somewhat, was the comment about the Christmas tree. And that whole analogy was somewhat disturbing. The Christmas tree and how everybody wants a present, and Mr. Metz had to explain that after the BRILAB situation and the Marcello family had been a little bit dormant, and with the advent of gaming, this whole thing began to grow again and there was like a Christmas tree and everybody wanted a present. Do you remember that one? The comment about the Christmas tree?
This gives us insight into the New Orleans Mafia after its longtime boss, Carlos Marcello, went to jail in the early 80s. Because of its loose and unorganized structure, the imprisonment and death of Carlos Marcello was a significant blow to the New Orleans Mafia. Some of the criminal networks and political connections that Marcello had at his disposal were not available to his successors (13). The desperation for revenue may have caused Marcello’s successor, Anthony Carolla, to end Marcello’s strict practice of banning other Mafia families 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.
That’s what “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 (14). Carolla and Gagliano would also partner up with New York’s Genovese Crime Family to infiltrate Louisiana’s Video Poker industry (15). Around the same time, they would allow Vaccaro, though a New Orleans native, a West Coast mobster to come to New Orleans to organize the “card cheating” scheme in Biloxi. These schemes to infiltrate the legalized gambling establishment in New Orleans and Biloxi would end up being the death knoll of the New Orleans Mafia.
As of this writing, it is unknown to the author exactly how the Mafia penetrated the middle and upper management of the President Casino, but it may have been through John Grittini, one of the Operations Managers. Along with fellow manager Joseph Jackson, Grittini operated the Gulf Coast Gaming School in Biloxi and wanted to set another up in New Orleans. This may have not sat well with Carolla and Gagliano, Sr., since FBI wiretaps at Frank’s caught a conversation where Vaccaro apologized on behalf of Grittini for trying to set up a gaming school without the permission of the Mafia (16). When Grittini would later introduce Vaccaro to another casino employee, he would refer to him as somebody who once saved his life . Vaccaro stepping in for Grittini could have been the time, or in Grittini’s mind, the time that Vaccaro intervened and saved his life.
With a man on the inside, the scam was simple. Grittini would steal a deck of casino cards and give them to Matrana, who would then bring them to Florida to be marked with an invisible dye. Matrana would then return the cards to Grittini, who would return the cards to a locked stand where they would wait to be used. Grittini would involve several other employees at the President to help him accomplish this. On Grittini’s orders, Joseph Jackson, the assistant manager of the Casino’s “pit”, Victor Heackley, the casino’s “pit” manager, or their immediate superior, Gary Carroll, the operations manager of the President, would take the marked deck out of the locked stand and put them into play. The cheating crews would then show up and with one person reading the marked cards with a special pair of glasses, and then signal to a player in the cheating crew. As explained in court documents, “the markings altered the normal criteria of random selection, thereby affecting the operation of the game and determining the outcome of the game.” (17)
Available court records claim that the first “cheating crew” was sent to the President on June 4, 1993. Organized by Gagliano, these cheating crews were made up of expert blackjack players Robert Asiel, Emory J. Etheridge, and other unidentified gamblers (18). The crews would continue cheating through July 9, 12, and 23. But something would happen towards the end of July which would halt the cheating crews for a brief period: Joe Gagliano was shot.
On the evening of July 26, Joe Gagliano and his uncle, longtime Marcello associate Philip Rizzuto, were walking out of the Grand Casino in Gulfport, MS. As the two left the Grand, a heated argument started. Prosecutors would claim that this was a New Orleans underworld “territorial dispute” that spilled over in Gulfport. As the heated exchanged intensified, Gagliano would strike Rizzuto, knocking the 54 year old mob associate to the ground. Gagliano started to kick Rizzuto, and that’s when Rizzuto would take a .22 caliber pistol from his pocket and shoot Gagliano (19).
Rizzuto had longstanding ties to the Los Angeles and New Orleans Mafia. In 1968, the FBI followed Rizzuto, who owned two French Quarter bars and the Café de la Paix restaurant, as he picked up two Kansas City Mafia bigshots from the New Orleans airport and drove them to Marcello’s Airline Highway Town and Country Motel; where Marcello held court. In 1979, Rizzuto acted as a go between for his cousin, Los Angeles Mafia underboss Samuel Sciortino, and Marcello (20) . The boss of the Los Angeles Mafia, Dominic Brooklier (born Brucceleri), along with Sciortino and three other top LA mobsters, was going to be put on trial for racketeering, extortion, and murder charges. Rizzuto got Marcello interested in the case, and Marcello would attempt to bribe the presiding judge, Judge Harry Pregerson. Unfortunately for Marcello, he involved con artist/insurance swindler Joe Hauser in on the scheme. Unknown to Marcello, Hauser was electronically recording him at the behest of the FBI for their BRILAB (Bribery, Labor) sting, which would ultimately end up landing the
longtime New Orleans Mafia boss in prison. One particularly damaging conversation caught on tape, Marcello said this about this LA mobster pals (21):
These people from California….they good people. They part of the family. I don’t want nuttin’ to happen to em. They’re Maf like me.
Another incriminating remark was recorded by Hauser on an October 25, 1979, meeting between Marcello, Sciortino, Rizzuto, and Hauser at Carlos’ brother’s isolated hunting lodge in Lacombe, LA. Marcello indicated that he could provide the judge with $250,000 within a 24 hours notice. As the men continued to talk, they pondered what to do about James, “Jimmy the Weasel” Frattiano, who turned states evidence against Sciortino, and the rest of the LA mob. Sciortino would say (22):
Man, it would be nice if we can find some Mexican guy to kill Frattiano. That would solve all our problems.
The 1400 hours of tape that Hauser would record of Marcello would end up putting the Mafia boss in jail for 17 years for accepting insurance kickbacks and trying to bribe a federal judge. Marcello’s BRILAB conviction was thrown out of appeals court in 1989, with him only serving 8 ½ years of his sentence. Sciortino and Rizzuto would also be found guilty of attempting to bribe a federal judge (23).
Carolla survived his gunshot wound, and the cheating crews would resume operating on August 29, 1993. The crews would continue to cheat at blackjack at the President, usually accompanied by Gagliano’s lackey, Samuel Matrana. According to court records, the crew had a close call on November 16, when the President’s “Pit” manager, Victor Heackley, called Grittini to let him know that the security for the President was aware that the cheating scheme was in place. Grittini immediately called Matrana, who recalled the cheating crew (24).
On November 18, Heackley phoned fellow manager Joseph Jackson and discussed whether or not to continue the cheating scheme. For a second time the cheating crews stopped. On December 7, Grittini and Jackson had a phone conversation about the inequality of the division of the “won” money; Jackson possibly thought his Mafia partners were getting too much of the cut. The cheating would start to resume on December 13, when Grittini would call Matrana to set up a meeting with Joe Gagliano to discuss future cheating schemes, which would start on January 2, 1994 and end with the FBI’s arrest of blackjack player Emory J. Etheridge at the President on March 1, 1994 (25).
1994/1995 would be a tough time for the New Orleans Mafia. Because of the audio surveillance from the FBI’s OPERATION HARDCRUST, Joe Gagliano would face two different sets of federal indictments concurrently: One for the plan to skim money off of Louisiana’s video poker industry, and the other for the cheating scheme at the President’s Casino (26). All the mobsters, casino employees, and gamblers were indicted in a case the FBI hasn’t seen since the Chicago Outfit’s skim of Las Vegas casinos in the 1970s, which was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) (27). This was also the first case in which traditional organized crime figures were indicted in the state of Mississippi.
It would also be during this time that Joe Gagliano would refuse to testify against his uncle, Philip Rizzuto, for wounding him outside of the Grand Casino in Gulfport in July of 1993. Gagliano would plead the 5th Amendment, saying that testifying would further incriminate him in the federal video poker case pending against him, suggesting that the dispute between the two men was over the skimming of video poker machines (28). Not only would the aggravated assault charges be dropped for Rizzuto, but a jury would find that Rizzuto, a felon, was also justified in using a firearm in self defense against Gagliano. Federal law prevents felons from using firearms, except in an unexpected need for self-defense (29).
The Operations Manager for the President Casino, Gary Carroll, would turn state’s evidence in return for immunity (30). While the FBI played their audio surveillance in court, Carroll would decode certain terms used for the cheating scheme. The term “golf” was often heard on these tapes. When Carroll took the stand, he told prosecutors that “golf” was a code word for “blackjack.” As an example, this was one of the 60 taped conversations played in court, this coded conversation was between Grittini and Matrana (31):
I got four people standing around here….getting ready to play golf and I gotta call ‘em at the last minute and tell ‘em we’re not playing.
Another coded conversation, between Grittini and Heackley (32):
Grittini: [Y]ou know the dozen golf balls I’m talking about the bogus ones? The ones that they altered to work in our favor.
Heackley: Yeah, is there fifty-two balls in a box?
Heackley: We gotta find somebody to play with them.
The testimony of Carroll, along with the FBI’s tapes, would clearly piece together the Mafia sanctioned scheme to cheat at the President over the 2 ½ week trial. It took a jury 2 days in February of 1996 to come back with their guilty verdicts for various racketeering charges and wire fraud; except for Etheridge, who would be found innocent on all charges.
All the conspirators would receive the following sentences:
Joe Gagliano would get 2 ½ years in prison, and a $10,000 fine. Gagliano would also be sentenced the same week for his role in the Video Poker scheme to 3 ½ years in prison and fined $250,000.
Samuel Matrana – 9 years in prison, $6,000 fine.
John Vaccaro – 9 years in prison, and a $25,000 fine.
John Grittini – A fugitive at the time of the trial, Grittini’s docket report is unclear if he was sentenced at all. The author will change this as new information is found.
Victor Heackley – 9 years in prison, $22,500 fine
Joseph Jackson – 3 years in prison, $5,000 fine.
Emory Etheridge – Found innocent of all charges.
Robert Asiel – A fugitive at the time of the trial, would receive 3 years probation, and a $2500 fine.
While New Orleans Mafia boss Anthony Carolla, underboss Frank Gagliano, and high ranking members Joseph Marcello, Jr. and Sebastian “Buster” Salvatore, would not be charged in the President Casino case, they would be sentenced in the video poker skim in October of 1996:
Anthony Carolla – 44 months, $500,000 restitution
Frank Gagliano – 36 months, $250,000 restitution
Joseph Marcello, Jr. – 33 months, $250,000 restitution
Sebastian “Buster” Salvatore – 18 Months, $25,000 restitution
Frank’s other two sons, Frank, Jr. (as of this writing, the current owner of Frank’s Restaurant), and Jack Gagliano would be identified as unindicted co-conspirators in the skimming case, but they wouldn’t stay out of trouble for long. In November of 1997, Frank, Jr. and Jack would both plead guilty with 9 others in participating in an illegal sports betting ring. Frank, Jr. would plead guilty to accessory after the fact to the use of a telecommunications device for the purpose of accepting bets or wages, and Jack would plead guilty of conducting an illegal gambling business. The Gagliano brothers would escape jail time with Frank, Jr. serving two years’ probation, paying a $1,000 fine, and doing 50 hours of community service; and Jack serving six months of home detention, three years’ probation and paying a $2,000 fine (33).
With the upper echelon of the New Orleans Mafia in jail with enormous restitution to repay, it would be an organization struggling to make it into the new millennium. While the FBI has said modern Italian organized crime still exists in some limited capacity in New Orleans, Anthony Carolla, Frank Gagliano, and Philip Rizzuto would all pass away in the early to mid 2000s with little fanfare. It seems like the New Orleans Mafia, the oldest Mafia organization in the United States, would die with these men*.
In the summer of 2014, names synonymous with the New Orleans underworld, like “Marcello”, “Gagliano”, and “Carolla”, would once again appear on the pages of New Orleans newspapers. On May 7, 2014 a Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputy stopped a white van with a stolen plate on East William David Parkway, in Metairie, LA, right outside of New Orleans. In the van were two men. Upon closer inspection, deputies discovered that the van had two dining room chairs sawed off at the legs in the back, along with the rear outfitted with custom sliding windows. A .22 caliber sniper rifle, with silencer, was found in the back of a van with a fuse capable of detonating an explosive device. The driver of the van was Dominick Gullo, a 72 year old man with no prior record and his passenger would be Joe Gagliano. While Gagliano’s lawyers claimed that he purchased this van to sell snowballs, it was clear that this van was outfitted for some sort of assassination (34).
The headline “assassination van” would appear not only in New Orleans media, but in news outlets across the country. While some surmised that the Mafia was making a comeback in New Orleans, Gagliano was never identified as a “made man” in the New Orleans Mafia, and this “assassin van” may have been personal instead of business, and shouldn’t be taken as some sort of Mafia renaissance in the Big Easy.
Gagliano would plead guilty to felony possession of a firearm, and both men would plead guilty to possession of an unregistered silencer (35).
*There have been numerous debates on when the New Orleans Mafia was established, but after the impressively sourced Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia by Thomas Hunt, there can be little doubt that the Mafia first made its home in an Antebellum Crescent City. This author’s problem is the line of succession. It’s doubtful that the same organization run by Charles Matranga was succeeded by “Silver Dollar Sam” Carolla after his death. This claim first appeared in David Chandler’s ludicrous Brothers in Blood: The Rise of the Criminal Brotherhoods, a book full of errors and inaccuracies, which should be dismissed by any serious organized crime historian. This author believes the Mafia organization of Matranga and Carolla were two separate organizations, since, as you can read about in Gangs of New Orleans, Carolla’s Mafia was not the dominate criminal organization until the 1940s. Though these two criminal organizations may have been separate, it may still be appropriate to call New Orleans the oldest Mafia organization in the United States.
Note: There is no clear way to cite a federal indictment. For the purposes of this post, when a federal indictment is being cited, it will be listed as:
“Southern District Court of Mississippi. Document #343-2. Case: 1:95-cr-00017-WJG.
Filed May 10, 1995.”
(1) McKinney, Kevin. “Prosecution Wraps Up Card-Scheme Trial Close To Conclusion.” The Sun Herald [Biloxi] 10 Feb. 1996: The Sun Herald Archives. Web.
(2) “The Mob and Gambling Scam.” The Times Picayune [New Orleans] 21 Feb. 1996: The Sun Herald Archives. Web.
(3) Bridges, Tyler. “Operation Hardcrust.” Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001. 182-84. Print.
(4) McKinney, Kevin. “Casino Plot Hatched In N.O. Deli, FBI Says.” The Sun Herald [Biloxi] 3 Feb. 1996: n. pag. The Sun Herald Archives. Web.
(6) UNITED STATES v. VACCARO. United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit. 11 June 1997. FindLaw. Web.
(10) Murphy, Kim. “3 Admit Conspiracy: Guilty Pleas End Mafia Prosecution.” Los Angeles Times [Los Angeles] 07 Apr. 1988: Los Angeles Times. Web.
(11) UNITED STATES v. VACCARO. United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit. 11 June 1997. FindLaw. Web.
(13) Davis, John H. Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.40, 59-60. Print.
(14) Davis, John H. Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989. 593. Print.
(15) Bridges, Tyler. “Operation Hardcrust.” Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001. 175. Print.
(16) UNITED STATES v. VACCARO. United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit. 11 June 1997. FindLaw. Web.
(17) Southern District Court of Mississippi. Document #343-2. Case: 1:95-cr-00017-WJG.
Filed May 10, 1995.
(18) Southern District Court of Mississippi. Document #343-2. Case: 1:95-cr-00017-WJG.
Filed May 10, 1995.
(19) Baughn, Alice Jackson. “Shooting Case Tossed Out Of Court, Victim Linked to LA Mob Case Wouldn’t Testify.” The Sun Herald [Biloxi] 30 June 1994: Web.(20) Baquet, Dean, and (20) Jim Amoss. “Marcello’s Co-Defendants Make Up an Odd Couple.” The Times Picayune [New Orleans] 6 Aug. 1981: 11. Print.
(21) Davis, John H. Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989. 502. Print.
(22) Davis, John H. Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989. 505. Print.(23) Davis, John H. “Trial Two: Los Angeles.” Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989. 550-59. Print.
(24) Southern District Court of Mississippi. Document #343-2. Case: 1:95-cr-00017-WJG.
Filed May 10, 1995.
(25) Southern District Court of Mississippi. Document #343-2. Case: 1:95-cr-00017-WJG.
Filed May 10, 1995.
(26) McKinney, Kevin. “Gagliano Sentenced For Role In President Scheme Guilty Plea Nets 2 1/2 Years, $10,000 Fine.” The Sun Herald [Biloxi] 4 Apr. 1996: The Sun Herald Archives. Web.
(27) McKinney, Kevin. “FBI: Case A First For Mississippi Closing Arguments End In Casino Matter.” The Sun Herald [Biloxi] 15 Feb. 1996: The Sun Herald Archives.
(28) Baughn, Alice Jackson “Shooting Case Tossed Out of Court Victim Linked TO L.A. Mob Case Wouldn’t Testify.” The Sun Herald [Biloxi] 30 June. 1994: The Sun Herald Archives. Web.
(29) Baughn, Alice Jackson “Jury Finds LA Man Innocent of Firearm Possession Charge.”
The Sun Herald [Biloxi] 10. Feb. 1995: The Sun Herald Archives. Web.
(30) UNITED STATES v. VACCARO. United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit. 11 June 1997. FindLaw. Web.
(31) McKinney, Kevin. “Prosecution Calls “Golf” Code Word For Blackjack Witness Interprets Transcripts At Trial.” The Sun Herald [Biloxi] 8 Feb. 1996: The Sun Herald Archives. Web.
(32) UNITED STATES v. VACCARO. United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit. 11 June 1997. FindLaw. Web.
(33) Associated Press. “Three Guilty of Making Sports Bets” The Sun Herald [Biloxi] 29 Nov. 1997: The Sun Herald Archives. Web.
(34) Lawton, Dan and Jim Mustain. “Assassin Van Suggests Organized Crime Elements.” The New Orleans Advocate [New Orleans] 23 July. 2014. Web.
Both individual photos of Joe Gagliano, Rizzuto, Carolla, and Sciortino come from The Times Picayune. The photos of Frank Gagliano and Vaccaro were both found on the internet, but have been authenticated as the actual men. The photo of Marcello comes from John H. Davis’ Mafia Kingfish and the group shot of the Gaglianos, Carolla, and Joe Marcello comes from Tyler Bridges’ Bad Bet on the Bayou, which has an excellent chapter on the Bally Gaming/Video Poker Skim. The photo of the beached President Casino barge was also found online.