Did Sicilian Mob Infiltrate Witness Protection Program?

In 1987 a former Mafia killer emerged from the safety of the Federal witness protection program to recant his testimony.

This witness, Luigi Ronsisvalle, said he had quit the Federal Witness Protection Program and had voluntarily sought out Catalano's lawyer so he could provide a sworn statement that declared as false his Pizza Connection trial testimony against Catalano.
Luigi Ronsisvalle, left, and Fisher at motel where an agreement was signed.

Said testimony had helped put away one of New York's most ruthless mobsters, a Bonanno member who'd been elevated to "street boss" of the Zips. A burly man with enigmatic links to the Sicilian Cosa Nostra he was a convicted for playing a major role in a global drug trafficking venture called The Pizza Connection Case.

His name was Salvatore "Toto" Catalano, and he'd been sentenced to 45 years in prison for his role in the ''Pizza Connection" case.

This witness, Luigi Ronsisvalle, said he had quit the Federal Witness Protection Program and had voluntarily sought out Catalano's lawyer so he could provide a sworn statement that declared as false his Pizza Connection trial testimony against Catalano.

Today the name Ronsisvalle probably has little meaning to anyone.

But back in 1987, it would've been nearly like someone of Sammy the Bull's ilk suddenly insisting his testimony against Gambino boss John Gotti was false. (This, in fact, is something the Feds had initially feared when Gravano first came forward.)

Only two years prior to reaching out to Catalano's lawyer, Ronsisvalle, a prized witness, had spoken before a Presidential Commission in February 1985, before the Pizza Connection Case.

Described as "dark-haired, olive-skinned" Ronsisvalle was then age 44.

He was surrounded by U.S. marshals as he spoke rapidly, his words drenched in a thick Italian accent.

As one report had noted:

A former Sicilian heroin trafficker told a presidential commission Wednesday that he killed 13 people, but he assured the panel that he considered 11 of the killings honorable.

Luigi Ronsisvalle is serving a 15-year prison term for one of the slayings, the only one for which he has been convicted. He made the admissions in testimony before the President`s Commission on Organized Crime. The panel is holding hearings about U.S. heroin trafficking and the criminals involved. Ronsisvalle, 44, protected by 10 U.S. marshals wearing bulletproof vests, spent 2 1/2 hours describing his life of crime after coming to America from Sicily in 1966.

Wearing dark glasses and speaking in a heavy Sicilian accent, Ronsisvalle said that besides the slayings, he took part in arson, robberies and heroin trafficking to Chicago and Los Angeles. He said he also carried narcotics between organized-crime families in New York City during a 15-year period.

He openly derided the American version of the Sicilian organization, too:

"They`re only a gang here." 
"In Sicily if you are Mafia, you whistle and there are 20 guys behind you with shotguns."
Ronsisvalle said the Sicilian people often turned to the Mafia "for more immediate and sometimes severe justice" because Italian courts meted out justice so slowly....

As for his role in the Pizza Connection Case, a huge heroin trafficking conspiracy nicknamed for the pizzerias and other fronts used to smuggle $1.6 billion worth of heroin into the U.S. between 1979 and 1984, he noted that:

In the mid-1970s, he was enlisted by New York mob bosses to carry 40-pound suitcases of heroin from New York to Chicago.

"A man named Carlo would meet me at the train station and carry the suitcase and place it in the trunk of his car," Ronsisvalle recalled. "Then we`d go our separate ways until I`d see him the next trip."

Ronsisvalle said he made 40 trips by train to Chicago in a 14-month period, receiving $5,000 per trip.

Earlier in the hearing, Michael Tobin, chief of heroin investigations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, testified that traditional organized crime, as the Mafia is referred to, was the major controller of Turkish heroin in the U.S. during the late 1960s and in the 1970s.

Tobin said the 26 known organized-crime families in the U.S. are involved in drug trafficking to some extent.

Two years later and Ronsisvalle reportedly met with Catalano's lawyer twice in a cramped motel room near Cincinnati. The lawyer, Ivan S. Fisher, "met with Ronsisvalle in the presence of this reporter." ("This reporter" referred to Ralph Blumenthal)..

Fisher paid Ronsisvalle $2,620 for expenses, and both swore the money was not in exchange for the  recantation.
As Blumenthal noted, during the first meeting, Ronsisvalle said:

"Mr. Fisher, I want you, please, from the bottom of my heart, I want you to accept my apology for what I done to Toto Catalano. I swear to God, I feel so bad, I feel like crying."

Fisher voiced his intent to seek a new trial for Catalano based on Ronsisvalle's recantation.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, then the United States Attorney in Manhattan -- and the man who'd supervised the Pizza Connection case's prosecution, said Catalano's conviction wouldn't be touched.

''There was an overwhelming amount of testimony against him,'' Giuliani said of Catalano.

Why exactly did Ronsisvalle offer the recantation?

As Blumenthal noted:

"Several factors that might explain the recantation were still open to question. It could not be determined with certainty, for example, whether any representative of Mr. Catalano had talked or negotiated with Mr. Ronsisvalle, or even threatened him, although both Mr. Ronsisvalle and Mr. Fisher denied this. During the interviews Mr. Ronsisvalle repeatedly asked for money but the possibility could not be ruled out that money had been passed to him or promised to him before the interviews."

"Still, Mr. Ronsisvalle's reversal raises uncertainties about some of the evidence used to convict Mr. Catalano, and perhaps about other aspects of the 17-month trial, the longest and one of the costliest Federal criminal trials on record. It also suggests that Mr. Ronsisvalle committed perjury before the President's Commission on Organized Crime. ...."

"At the same time, Mr. Ronsisvalle's statements raised questions about his treatment under the Federal witness program...."


as if to underline his sincerity, also refused to testify at two pending trials of major Mafia figures.

As for Fisher, considered to be among "the nation's most sought-after and highly paid criminal lawyers," he said he would present the new testimony to the United States Attorney in Manhattan. Fisher  also prepared an application in which he asked the judge, Pierre N. Laval, for a hearing to grant Catalano a new trial.

At the same time that was going on, Giuliani and chief prosecutor Louis Freeh hit the media, telling the New York Times in a joint telephone interview, that Ronsisvalle was a mere  ''background witness'' and that his testimony was far from crucial. 

''Had Ronsisvalle not testified it would have made absolutely no difference,'' said Freeh. ''There were numerous other witnesses who convicted him.''

The new account by the 47-year-old, Sicilian-born Ronsisvalle almost automatically subjects him to a prison term for perjury, as Fisher noted.

Whether Ronsisvalle was lying during his testimony or later, when he recanted, "remains far from clear."

During his meetings with Fisher, he spoke of various motives for recanting.

"Although he has confessed to committing 13 contract murders without remorse, he says he is so haunted by a guilty conscience for lying that he cannot sleep."

But he has also repeatedly asked for money; Fisher replied that Catalano was willing to pay.

Ronsisvalle also hinted that he'd feared Cosa Nostra-style retaliation.

When asked if he thought Catalano was out to kill him, Ronsisvalle quipped: ''Not any more.''

He also expressed disgust with his living conditions while inside the witness program, saying he had been shuttled between six cities in a year and was unable to find a full-time position.

Also he wasn't in this alone, as he noted when he emerged to "right the wrong" he believed he'd committed.

''I got three daughters. God is my witness. If I lie to you now, may my daughters drop dead with the worst things God can give to human beings. I'm swearing to you on my three daughters.''

He signed an affidavit that confirmed what he'd said, that he had lied in the pizza connection trial when he linked Catalano to a heroin delivery in Brooklyn street and also attributed to Catalano a conversation about heroin trafficking.

''Some of the testimony I gave at the trial of that case is not accurate and was not accurate at the time I gave it,'' the affidavit noted.

As for Fisher's side of the story, he said that, prior to the meetings at the motel, he had gotten, quite out of the blue, a phone call from someone claiming to be Ronsisvalle's representative.

The person told Fisher that the former witness wanted to meet with him.

Fisher then invited New York Times reporter Blumenthal to accompany him (and private investigator Charles W. Kelly). He wanted the journalist there, he said, to dispel any suspicion that anything untoward was going on between him and the Sicilian shooter in witness protection.

Conversations between Fisher and Ronsisvalle were tape-recorded by the journalist. Both parties were told of this ahead of time.

Still, Blumenthal himself knew there may have been more to these meetings than met his eye.

He noted: "...There was no way of knowing what, if anything, might have been discussed on other occasions outside the reporter's presence."

This anecdote is included in Blumenthal's excellent book, Last Day of the Sicilians.

Ronsisvalle's testimony comprised one of four pillars of evidence against Catalano, who had been named street boss of the Bonanno crime family's Sicilian faction.

The other three key pieces of evidence tying him to the case were his fingerprint on a slip of paper reportedly that served as a receipt for a suitcase containing $1.54 million cash. Witnesses also identified him as having attended two meetings of the drug traffickers in Sicily.

Convicted along with 17 other defendants, Catalano was sentenced to 45 years in prison, fined $1.15 million and ordered to pay $1 million restitution to a fund for the rehabilitation of drug addicts.

He was serving his sentence in the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas when Ronsisvalle recanted.

When Ronsisvalle was originally testifying in January 1986, Fisher had been unable to shake Ronsisvalle, who stuck to his story incriminating Catalano in the face of a quite rigorous cross-examination. 

But later, in the motel room, the former witness sang a different tune.

Ronsisvalle said he had implicated Catalano to win an early release from prison for himself.

He noted that prosecutors had never encouraged him to testify falsely, nor where they even aware, as far as he knew, that he'd been lying to them. Furthermore, he admitted he'd gotten the idea to fabricate testimony based on an investigator's comments.

''Somehow I put him in the middle, I don't know how,'' Mr. Ronsisvalle said of Catalano. ''I'm trying to give it to you straight, but he's not there. I don't know what happened. Somehow the guy pops out on the corner.'' The testimony, he said, came ''out of the blue - he never was there.''

He said ''they showed me the pictures'' - surveillance photos - ''and while they were talking, I put two and two together.'' He concluded that Catalano was a key figure of interest -- and he realized that by fabricating "compelling testimony against him would win him a ticket out of prison as a witness."

His other testimony, including his identifying Catalano as a Mafia boss who oversaw gambling dens on Knickerbocker Avenue in Brooklyn's Bushwick section, was truthful, he said.

Living with the Lie
Ronsisvalle found himself drinking every night so he could fall asleep. "I can't take what I did in this court - a liar.''

He said the only difference between the motels he'd lived in since the trial and Manhattan's Metropolitan Correctional Center cells was that ''the floors look a little bit better" in the MCC.

"What I've got is one thing. I can go out, buy a cup of coffee, get drinks. I'm still in goddamn prison.''

His refusal to testify in two New York Mafia trials. One of them involved Anthony Aiello, a longtime fugitive cafe operator -- accused of drug trafficking. The other involved Joseph N. Gallo, reputed Gambino crime family consigliere. 

He had no problem, however, testifying in a third case, he pointed out.

That was the case of Vincenzo Napoli, who, as Ronsisvalle noted, had once tried to kill him in a hotel room.

Ronsisvalle also made additional critical remarks about life in witness protection. But he continually made it quite clear (as Blumenthal noted) that he wanted money. "You still don't talk about money," he told Fisher at one point.

''I'm being straight with you, completely straight with you,'' Fisher responded. ''The money question depends entirely on how much this is worth.''

Notes to a Biography
Ronsisvalle testified that he was born in Catania, an ancient port city on Sicily's east coast that sits right beside Mt. Etna, an active volcano. The city boasts a wide central square, called the Piazza del Duomo, that is known for featuring the whimsical Fontana dell'Elefante statue, as well as the Catania Cathedral. In the southwest corner is the fish market known as La Pescheria, which is surrounded by seafood restaurants.

The Mafia shooter, at age 26, arrived in New York in 1966. He carried an introduction to meet a Bonanno crime family member on Knickerbocker Avenue.

Although he was not then ''made'' he was an associate, he testified, and had been taught how to smuggle heroin aboard planes and trains and, yes, automobiles.

From 1975 to 1976, he said, he drove 80-pound loads of heroin on 15 occasions from members of the the Bonanno family to members of the Gambino family in Brooklyn. In other words, he was driving about $120 million worth of heroin (wholesale) earning himself $5,000 per trip.

Fifteen additional trips, he said, involved him riding on Amtrak to smuggle 40-pound loads of heroin to customers in Chicago.

Ronsisvalle also confessed to 13 murders -- six of which he committed as a hired gun. The last murder, he said, was in 1976, when he shot a man who worked as a cook in a Brooklyn restaurant. The victim had been  accused of raping a 14-year-old girl.

Her father had gone to the Mafia with $100,000 for justice.

I have found inconsistent reports on parts of Ronsisvalle's story. For example, the Sun-Sentinal noted of the rapist: "Euginio Frangellio, 32, was shot five times as he left the New Corners restaurant in Brooklyn.

The report quotes Ronsisvalle as saying, "I was paid $8,000. The man had raped his 13-year-old sister. She was my niece. It wasn't a matter of money. It was justice."

In all, Ronsisvalle said he killed 13 people in the United States. Eleven, he said, were contract killings
Ronsisvalle turned himself in and pleaded guilty to that killing -- which occurred in 1979. He later claimed he'd done this as a way of getting back at Michele Sindona, an Italian banker known "The Shark," among other things. He also was a member of Propaganda Due, a lodge of Italian Freemasonry. He had clear connections to the Sicilian Mafia and in 1986 was fatally poisoned in prison while serving life for the murder of a lawyer. (See New York Times obituary, here.)

Ronsisvalle testified that Sindona had offered him $100,000 to assassinate an assistant United States attorney, John Kenney, which was never carried out.

Ronsisvalle also provided information on Mafia figures he knew from Knickerbocker Avenue, including Catalano.

He voluntarily took a polygraph test on some of his information.

"Responses to two questions were judged truthful by the New York police examiner. Two other responses relating to knowledge he claimed to have about the 1979 killing of the Gambino family boss, Carmine Galante, were evaluated as deceptive."

For the murder of the restaurant cook, Ronsisvalle was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison. In February 1985 Ronsisvalle then contacted a New York City police detective, Kenneth McCabe, and offered to give authorities further information on the Mafia.

Motel Meetings
The meeting, in the presence of Blumenthal and the investigator, took place on Saturday, Sept. 19, in the motel's restaurant.

''What are you going to do for me?'' was one of the first things Ronsisvalle asked the lawyer. The tape recorded wasn't even running yet. Fisher asked how the testimony against Catalano had come about.

Ronsisvalle said none of the prosecutors or investigators had planted it. But he said, ''It sound like they washing my brain. They not telling me this is what you got to say, but the way they were talking, it sounds like that's what they would like.'' 

"You still not talking about them goddamn things," Ronsisvalle later said, rubbing tow finger, the signal for cash. He rubbed two fingers together in an evident reference to money.

Ronsisvalle, while discussing Catalano, suddenly eyed the tape recorder and stopped talking.

''Fisher insisted he continue talking while the recorder ran.

Ronsisvalle said it was well-know among Knickerbocker Avenue habitues that Catalano ''make a step up'' after the murder of Peter Licata, the Bonanno capo in charge of Brooklyn`s Knickerbocker Avenue when Ronsisvalle first arrived in the U.S.

Ronsasville had discussed Licata during the hearings prior to the Pizza Connection Case.

"The first thing I had to do is show the Bonannos I had guts. So I robbed a drugstore of $45. The guy in the getaway car got scared and left me. The drugstore clerk shot at me six times. I don`t know how he missed me, but I got away," he said.

Ronsisvalle then sold phony Canadian passports to Sicilian immigrants. He also started blowing up rival pizza parlors. He noted that Licata had taken him under his wing.

"But he (Licata) no liked drugs," Ronsisvalle said. "So they murdered him."

Licata's Nov. 4, 1976 murder was the signal that "Toto Catalano" and the Zips of both the Bonanno and Gambino crime families were about to rise into power, unleashing a flood of drugs into the U.S. by way of Canada.

Under Catalano, Ronsisvalle began making the trips to sell drugs to the Gambinos, which was part of what he later recanted.

At the Presidential Commission he'd noted "Each time (he made a trip carrying a load of drugs) I carried a shotgun and a .38 (handgun). It was a lot of responsibility."

The shotgun was a Lupara, a short double-barreled weapon.

"In Sicily, we take the shotgun pellets out and replace them with the head of nails. When you shoot someone with that, not even his own mother will recognize him. It rips the flesh right off."

Ronsisvalle said that he was being truthful about Catalano as a boss -- noting that he'd lied about all the heroin-related information.

He then spoke of his need to swallow a lot of scotch at night in order to find sleep's solace.

''I don't know but you still don't talk about money. I'm going crazy like I told you.''

''I'm being straight with you, completely straight with you,'' the lawyer replied. ''The money question depends entirely on how much this is worth. I don't mind advising the client to pay you at all.''

"That was why, he said, he had invited a reporter - ''no one could ever think you and I had ever had any desire to do anything under the table.''

''So I'm not embarrassed talking about money,'' Fisher continued. ''It's not my money.''

Fisher said that when he got back to Catalano, he expected to be asked, 'How did it go?' ''

Fisher said he might respond, "Needless to say, the man needs money and he wants money, O.K."

Then the lawyer asked Ronsisvalle, ''What is the first question they're going to ask me?''

''How much he want?'' Ronsisvalle said.

''So, how much do you want?''

"I don't want to answer that question, because I know you don't know what I'm talking about and I don't know what you're talking about either."

Eventually, the two finally are talking about when money will be handed over. Ronsisvalle was seeking an immediate payment, there in the motel room.

"Do I have to? Can I wait till Monday? I can wire it to you on Monday."

Ronsisvalle said he was unable to even pay his motel bill, normally covered by the Witness Protection Program, which also gave him $30 a day for food and spending money.

Several days before he had quit the program following an argument.

He had flown to San Francisco to meet with prosecutors. On the way back, he had missed his connection in Chicago. A Marshal, he said, told him there were no accommodations for him in the city and that he should sleep for protection in the Federal courthouse. He said he refused, slept in the airport, and quit the program.

Once before, he said, he was kicked out of the program for two weeks for violating the rules by giving his telephone number to one of his daughters. He said he was allowed to re-apply and was re-accepted. But now, he said, he was out, period.

Fisher said he would pay the $420 bill -- but ended up hanging over the cash, plus an additional $200 "for expenses."

"That's fantastic!" Ronsisvalle said. But -- and the haggling began for a few thousand more. Ronsisvalle claimed he needed the money to visit his daughters before he was sent to jail for perjury following his recantation.

Three days later, on Sept. 22, Fisher and Blumenthal returned to the Ohio motel to see Ronsisvalle again.

Fisher brought an affidavit he had prepared stating that Catalano, contrary to earlier sworn testimony, had played no part in the heroin transaction and pipeline conversation.

''I want to be clear here,'' Mr. Fisher said. ''Before you and I said one word about any money you told me you were going to change your testimony about Catalano.''

''Now,'' he continued, ''I have $2,000 in cash. I know you'd like more. I'd like to give you none. Do you know why I'd like to give you none? So no one could say you're doing this for the money.''

"This is not buying me. Like I told you I have to see my daughters"

He handed Ronsisvalle the cash in folded bills. "Here's two thousand bucks."

Ronsisvalle signed the statement.

''Why the hell are you doing this?'' Fisher said, noting that no one but Ronsisvalle and Catalano would ever know the truth -- and that the signed affidavit was most likely a passport straight to prison.

"How I got to speak?'' Ronsisvalle said. ''In Chinese? In Japanese? What kinda language? You understand a man who can't swallow some things? You forget one point in 1979 I give up myself because I can't take no more of that goddamn life?"

Later on, Ronsisvalle appeared in the media again -- he'd said he had only called Fisher in the first place because he'd been approached by Sicilian gunmen who told him they knew exactly where his wife and daughters were -- and that if he didn't call Catalano's lawyer and make the recantation, they'd kill his family.

No one seemed to believe Ronsisvalle, who received a five-year suspended sentence before disappearing, once more and for the final time, into the witness protection program.

Many questions linger on regarding the Pizza Connection Case. The biggest one probably is -- what happened to all the money..... About a billion dollars had disappeared before it could be confiscated. Also law enforcement never knew if they'd found all the operation's links.

In fact law enforcement had decided not to pursue the case into Canada (it was far too complicated already). This allowed one Vito Rizzuto to slip away silently and continue to build his power base as boss of the Montreal Mafia.

In April 2009, The Express ran a story that noted:

All of them held key roles in New York’s five criminal “families” before being jailed for racketeering, extortion, conspiracy to murder and loan sharking. At least a dozen more underlings will also be freed this year.

Agents fear the mass release will trigger an unprecedented gangster bloodbath as the bosses reclaim their old positions. One senior FBI officer said: “Six of the Mafia’s most notorious capos and underbosses are hitting the streets at around the same time, as well as many henchmen.

“First, we expect a brutal power struggle as they push aside the Wise Guys who stepped-up in their place. Then we anticipate a series of turf wars between the families. When the dust settles, with hierarchies re-established, it’s going to be back to business…big time.”

The Gambino, Bonanno, Colombo, Genovese and Luchese mobs have fallen into disarray over the past two years. Rules of entry have been relaxed, with wannabe ‘soldiers’ allowed in if they can prove even distant Italian ancestry and murder no longer a prerequisite.
“Discipline has collapsed dramatically in all five families over the past two years,” said the senior agent. “They have lacked leadership and there are Mafia affiliates on the street now who would rather remain ‘independents’ than become ‘made men’ because there’s little kudos to being in the Mob these days, plus they get to have more control over their finances, rather than having to pass a hefty ‘taste’ of every illegal job they do up the chain to multiple capos, underbosses and godfathers.”

All that is about to change as the ‘dirty half-dozen’ bosses return to shake-up what mobsters and agents alike started to jokingly refer to as the’Cosy Nostra’.

The big six are Domenico ‘Italian Dom’ Cefalu, George ‘Big Georgie’ DeCicco, Joseph ‘Joe C’ Caridi, Benedetto Aloi, Matthew ‘Matty the Horse’ Ianniello, and Anthony ‘Fat Anthony’ Rabito.
Genovese capo Lawrence ‘Little Larry’ Dentico, 85, will be freed on May 12 after serving four years for running an illicit gambling ring.
Also due for release on parole on November 28, the same day as his boss Joseph Caridi, is Luchese capo John ‘Johnny Sideburns’ Cerella, 68, and the two are expected to be immediately reinstalled in their old positions of power.
Federal agents anticipate a further shake-up in the Bonanno hierarchy when veteran hoodlum Salvatore ‘Toto’ Catalano, 67, is released on November 14 after serving 29 years for drug smuggling and distribution. 
He was a key player in the infamous ‘Pizza Connection’ case in the Eighties, when the Mob was importing heroin from Sicily and using New York pizzerias as distribution hubs.

 But instead, "Toto" Catalano -- like the Pizza Connection Case's missing billion dollars, like Ronsisvalle himself -- is gone -- as in, disappeared.

One law enforcement official -- "Flatbush native Charles Rooney, who was, at the time (of the Pizza Connection Case), a young FBI case agent assigned to monitor Mafia-related activities in the Bonanno crime family’s Knickerbocker Avenue stronghold" -- was quoted in one story saying of Catalano:

Where he is now is anyone’s guess. “I don’t know even if he’s in the United States anymore,” says Rooney. Always viewed as a stateside asset by his taskmasters back in Sicily, Rooney suspects Catalano may have booked a one-way ticket back to Italy — courtesy of his Sicilian patrons — where he could be monitored or, if need be, silenced. 
And just like that, Catalano returned to the relative obscurity from which he came, leaving an indelible mark on Bushwick and all of New York City.