1970s Probe Spotlighted Legendary Pittsburgh Mob Boss

John LaRocca
Did the Mafia commit the assassination of JFK?

If it did, which mobsters were involved?

Pennsylvania's Trib Live noted an incident which for a time drew the spotlight on two little-known New Kensington gangsters: Gabriel “Kelly” Mannarino and his brother Sam — both of whom were part of the one-time rich and powerful Pittsburgh mob family of John LaRocca, who held power for some thirty years. The family has since nearly disappeared due to aggressive law enforcement tactics.

Both LaRocca and Mannarino were partners with Tampa mob boss Santo Trafficante in owning the Sans Souci hotel and gambling casino in Havana, Cuba. 

The two Mannarino brothers, caught with their hands in the cookie jar, were found to have major ties to both Castro and Cuban casinos established by the mob which, though closed when Castro took the helm, supposedly still stand today on that island nation -- either open to vacationing Europeans free to travel there (unlike U.S. citizens) or suffering from horrible neglect..

When looking to expand beyond Las Vegas and their regional gaming operations, which ran the gamut from storefront poker games to underground casinos sporting gaming tables, roulette wheels and slot machines that would've fit right in many casino's on the fabled Las Vegas strip, the Mafia for decades up through the 1950s and possibly later had viewed Cuba as the new frontier, an island with its own government far outside the purview of Federal officials who normally investigated this kind of thing — so long as it happened inside the U.S.

John Sebastian LaRocca (December 19, 1901 - December 3, 1984) was boss of the Pittsburgh crime family from the 1950s until his death in 1984. In 1956, LaRocca succeeded longtime crime boss Frank Amato as head of criminal operations in Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania. LaRocca and two of his captains, Mannarino and Michael James Genovese, were among the 100+ Mafiosi that attended the legendary Apalachin Meeting in 1957.

The old Pittsburgh don's police record began in 1922, when he was sentenced to three to five years in prison for assault with intent to kill and maim. LaRocca remained boss until his death from natural causes on at age 82.

LaRocca was considered by many to be the most successful of all Pittsburgh godfathers. Through bribery LaRocca became a powerful Mafia boss by controlling politicians, police officers and other officials in the Pittsburgh area. His family also maintained control of labor unions through local 1058. Because of his strong clout, he was respected and was able to work closely with several legendary bosses of the time, including Carlo Gambino of NYC, Angelo Bruno of Philadelphia, Russell Bufalino of Pittston, Nick Civella of Kansas City and Santo Trafficante, Jr. of Tampa.

Back to November of 1958: over 300 weapons had been stuffed inside burlap bags — weapons such as 50-caliber machine guns and M-1 carbines and everything in between. The firepower had been snagged from an Ohio national guard armory and was due to bolster Castro's efforts to seize control of Cuba.

The bags were loaded onto a twin-engine Beechcraft at a West Deer airstrip in November 1958, the Trib Live reported. The men at work thought they had freedom of action, but they most certainly did not.

"As the plane took off, troopers hiding nearby moved in to arrest the men. And when the aircraft landed in Morgantown, W.Va., it was seized."

Cut to the late 1970s -- the incident was at the forefront of congressional investigators seeking a link between the Mafia, Castro and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“La Cosa Nostra had a strong motive for taking drastic action,” the House Select Committee on Assassinations reported in 1979. “Yet it is extremely unlikely that it would have considered such a major and dangerous act as assassinating the president ... but the evidence does not preclude the possibility individual members may have been involved.”

The two New Kensington racketeers were the subject of special attention because of their ties to the smuggled weapons and Cuba, documents show.

One of the gun smugglers, Victor Carlucci, was Sam Mannarino's son-in-law. Another, Daniel “Speedo” Hanna, worked in a Mannarino gambling den in New Kensington. A third, Norman Rothman, managed the Sans Souci, a Havana casino in which the Mannarinos, Tampa mob boss Santo Trafficante and Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista shared an interest.

When Batista muscled the Mannarinos and Trafficante out of the Sans Souci -- yes, the former Cuban strongman did not indulge the Mafia's every request -- the Mannarinos tried to regain control by betting on Castro to restore ownership once he came to power. Perhaps one of the worst mistakes in gangland history, as we all now know.

As dramatized in the Godfather II, on New Year's Day 1959, Batista fled Cuba and the rebels moved in. The seized mob casinos were taken over as the property of el jefe.

In the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration in the form of AG RFK ordered a mob crackdown -- and FBI agents planted a microphone in the Mannarinos' private office.

The wiretaps produced little, but the brothers were indicted for tax evasion in 1963. Kelly Mannarino was acquitted. Sam was convicted and served 366 days in a federal prison. He died in 1967. Kelly Mannarino died in 1980.

LaRocca was succeeded by Michael Genovese -- first cousin to New York mob boss Vito Genovese -- as boss of the Pittsburgh crime family.

Genovese turned to gambling and drugs to start filling the family's emptying coffers. By this time, around the 1980s, the mob was slowly losing its influence on the government. The FBI quickly traced Genovese's cocaine trail to his top men, Charles "Chucky" Porter and Louis Raucci Sr.

After the conviction of the top members in the late 1990s and the deaths of many important members in the past decade, the family has few members left.

Cuba -- Even the Wiliest of Mob Bosses Was Fooled by 'the Beard'
Santo Trafficante of Tampa, Florida, ran the Hotel Deauville, the Sans Souci nightclub, and the luxurious Hotel Capri. He also had the Comodoro hotel and casino, where, in 1957, Trafficante allegedly fixed up a young American senator named Jack Kennedy with a trio of hookers.

Cuba's Comodoro casino, where  Santo Trafficante fixed up a young
JFK with three prostitutes in 1957.

Trafficante later kicked himself for not having filmed the scene. He also badly misjudged the growing Castro rebellion. "This is a temporary storm," he insisted as the rebels took Havana. "It'll blow over."

Lansky, the son of Russian exiles, disagreed. "I know a communist revolution when I see one," he said.

Batista, who beat it out of Cuba on New Year's Eve without warning his American partners, wound up with $300 million to cover his future life in exile.

Lansky wasn't as lucky. Lansky's granddaughter said that at his death in 1983, the old man, one of the men who set the foundation for the modern American Mafia, left behind only $37,000 in cash (so she claims!). When asked in his later years what went wrong in Cuba, the Jewish gangster/former close friend to Salvatore "Lucky" Luciano, offered no excuses.

"I crapped out," he said.

Some of the old hotel casinos have since been refurbished reopened, such as the Hotel Deauville; others have not.