The history of the Buffalo mob is replete with colorful characters: stool pigeons and stand up guys, goodfellas and goombahs, hitmen and high rollers.
With the deaths in recent months of reputed organized crime kingpins Joe Todaro and Sonny Nicoletti, the very future of the outfit known from New York to Las Vegas as “the Arm” would seem to be in doubt, but a legion of mob buffs – students and aficionados not unlike those preoccupied with the minutiae of the American Civil War – guarantee that the legacy of our own private mafia will continue well into the future.
While any discussion of the topic locally must necessarily begin and end with the man most responsible for it, Stefano Magaddino – a stone killer and astute businessman who liked to eliminate competition before it even became competition – there have been plenty of others who added their own pinches of zest and spice to the cacciatore we’ve come to know and love.
Moe Dalitz was born in Boston but became a member of the “Cleveland Syndicate” during the Prohibition years and formed what was known as the “Little Jewish Navy” to ferry brand name booze across Lake Erie for consumption by thirsty consumers in Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo.
His Hebrew heritage gave him a natural in with guys like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, and soon he was partnering with Magaddino to offload Sam Bronfman’s Seagram’s products at obscure docks and quays from Youngstown to Silver Lake.
Dalitz used his bootlegging profits to open several nightclubs in Cleveland, and was the first to hire a young man by the name of Lew Wasserman, who would later become the impresario in charge of the Hollywood mega media conglomerate MCA.
His show business connections provided the basis for Dalitz to invest in Las Vegas during its formative years, and he variously owned the Desert Inn and the Stardust Resort & Casino while building the Las Vegas Country Club and the Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center.
Like his old friend Magaddino, Dalitz died peacefully of natural causes – in Las Vegas in 1989. He was mourned by the likes of Barbara Walters, Sen. Harry Reid, Suzanne Somers, Wayne Newton, Buddy Hackett and Frank Sinatra, who Dalitz always claimed to have given his first big break in show business.
Another Clevelander with Buffalo connections was Aladena “Jimmy the Weasel” Fratianno, who turned government informant after being charged in the murder of Irish crime lord Danny Greene. Fratianno had briefly headed up the Los Angeles mob, working with the Magaddino family overseeing its Las Vegas interests.
"I don't let stress bother me," he said following an assassination attempt in 1987. "I think that's very important in a man's life, in anybody's life. Stress will age you quicker than anything. And I just try to take it easy."
Another Buffalo rat who became as well-known as his more upstanding colleagues was Ron Fino, who turned rat in 1969 at the tender age of 23. The son of crime boss Joe Fino – who also served as business manager for Laborers Local 210 in Buffalo – Ron Fino liked the shadowy world of undercover operations so much he began working for the CIA, running undercover stings against the Russian mafia, befriending Soviet oligarch Vladimir Putin and finally working in the Middle East, tracking down al Qaeda terrorists.
The newspapers called Frank “Butchie Bifocals” BiFulco the “Renaissance Man” of Buffalo’s organized crime family – alluding to his reputation as an inventor, entrepreneur and accomplished chess player. But the FBI alleged BiFulco to be a hardened killer, a capo in the Magaddino organization and a prime target of its organized crime task force.
BiFulco, now 68, was sentenced in 2003 to 10 years and 10 months in federal prison for doing a favor for a friend of a friend -- setting fire to a leased car two summers earlier.
The sentence -- 10 years of which was mandatory under a federal law forbidding the use of arson in criminal schemes -- angered friends and supporters.
His attorney, Anthony J. Lana, said BiFulco was unfairly targeted by FBI agents and federal prosecutors who -- in Lana's view -- were frustrated by their inability to convict him in previous cases.
Jurors convicted BiFulco of helping Betty Tata torch her leased 1998 Nissan Altima in August 2001 in the parking lot of the Walden Galleria Mall, apparently unaware of the video surveillance cameras now deployed in the parking lots of trendy malls and convenience stores nationwide.
According to the feds, BiFulco was a capo and overseer of Buffalo’s West Side and the labor and union rackets for the Magaddino family.
The feds tried to charge him with everything from ordering the murder of a low level drug dealer who might or might not have been involved in the killing of BiFulco’s step-son, Carmen Gallo, to involvement in penny ante-telemarketing fraud.
Later, law enforcement attempted to convict BiFulco on assault charges stemming from an argument he had with his wife, Cecilia "Sisi" BiFulco, over the death of her son.
BiFulco must be added to the FBI’s reputed mix that already includes Leonard Falzone and Bobby Panaro as possible future Buffalo kingpins.
But kingpins of what, exactly? When Magaddino died in 1974, there was still something worth arguing about. Between his death and Todaro’s reported emergence as boss a decade later, the FBI says 15 mob members and associates were clipped.
But that was long before Native American casino gambling, widespread off-track betting and the emergence of Black and Hispanic dope dealers robbed “the Arm” of many of its most lucrative profit centers.
The days when a guy like John Montana could serve as the Magaddino family’s consigliore, run the largest fleet of taxicabs in Western New York and hold a senior elected position on Buffalo’s Common Council are over.