Murder Inc Veteran Whitey Tropiano Hustled To The Bitter End

Aging, physically ill, embittered, and alone, Ralph (Whitey) Tropiano finally reached the end of his rope at Leavenworth, then one of the toughest prisons in the country, and he played his final card: He sent a message to the FBI that he was, at long last, ready to talk...

Ralph (Whitey) Tropiano

Not too many years earlier, in 1964, Whitey Tropiano had been at his pinnacle when he hit upon what he believed was the grand solution to all his pressing legal problems. He’d simply give the cops in New Haven, Connecticut, piles of cash and they'd leave him the hell alone.

To protect his gambling operations in New Haven, Whitey offered to send payments of $150-$500 a week, in addition to a one-time upfront good faith payment of $2,000 each, to New Haven Detective Stephen Ahern and a West Hartford police official. Ahern and the West Hartford cop graciously accepted Whitey’s largess, thanked him profusely, and then went straight to their superiors to tell them all the details of what had transpired.

In February 1964, Whitey and others involved in the bribery scheme were arrested. Ironically, by then, Whitey had never been less involved with his New Haven gambling operations, having charged his underling/protege Billy (The Wild Man) Grasso with handling the day to day. Whitey had decided to focus on legitimate front businesses, such as the New Haven Grape Company he formed. He also had become something of a construction mogul, building new houses and a shopping center in Branford, in partnership with a construction outfit.

Tropiano first met Grasso in the mid-1950s, a few years after New York mob leaders supposedly "collectively" awarded him the city of New Haven, Connecticut, for doing something for them on Oct. 4, 1951, at Joe’s Elbow Room, a restaurant in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Accord to FBI sources, Whitey was one of the gunmen who killed Willie Moretti, the powerful Mafioso and longtime ruler of northern New Jersey. Moretti had been stricken with terminal syphilis, a progressive illness that made him increasingly irrational and unpredictable — and worst of all, talkative. It was in such a state that Moretti had ambled into a chair before the Kefauver Commission, the televised 1951 hearings on organized crime that riveted the nation. Moretti's appearance didn't rivet his friends, so much as deeply unsettle them with his bizarre behavior, answering questions by saying "SOITANLY" as if in his best Three-Stooges voice. He also invited his inquisitors to visit him at his Jersey shore home. Mob leaders feared their friend would next spill mob secrets.

Sources later told the FBI (and these FBI sources included  were Greg Scarpa, who was in the same crime family as Whitey; most of the information about Whitey is likely accurate) and other law enforcement agencies that it was out of appreciation for the Moretti "mercy killing" -- coupled with the pressing need to get Tropiano out of New York City (all those damn murder investigations) that the mob "gave" Whitey New Haven. He became a made member of the Profaci crime family in Brooklyn, too.

So in late 1951, at age 39, Tropiano returned to his place of origin in Connecticut and married his sister-in-law (and there has GOT to be a standalone story regarding THAT) and settled in to ply his various skills.

He wasn’t the only wiseguy in town of course. Whitey had to share power in New Haven with Frank (The Attorney) Piccolo (aka Frankie Lanza), a capo with the Gambinos. Piccolo was the top man in Connecticut for then-boss Paul Castellano. State and local law enforcement officials regarded Tropiano and Piccolo as having equal stature and both were considered among the reigning powers in the Connecticut underworld. .... (As for Piccolo, in September 1981, when he was 58 and awaiting trial for running a convoluted plot to extort high-profile Las Vegas entertainers Wayne Newton and Lola Falana, he was gunned down outside a Bridgeport telephone booth. He was killed because Gambino boss Paul Castellano allowed it when Genovese boss Vincent (Chin) Gigante complained to him that Piccolo was becoming a pain in the ass and needed to go. Castellano's seemingly casual decision to let his construction business partner end the life of the powerful capo proved to be highly consequential. For one thing, it significantly raised Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano's admiration for Gigante. “The Chin would never do (what Castellano had done),” Gravano said later. Meaning The Chin protected his men. “Nobody fucked with (Chin). He ran a tight ship.” When Gravano flipped, he recalled the Piccolo hit. "Everyone in the Gambino family was disturbed about" Castellano's decision to sacrifice a made member to appease The Chin, he told the FBI. (We wonder if Big Paul had been a Wayne Newton fan. We'd bet Castellano was no fan of all the newsprint Piccolo and Guido Penosi were getting for trying to extort one of the biggest singing acts in Las Vegas.)

Whitey took the young Grasso under his wing and mentored him into mob life. (Prior to meeting whitey, Grasso supposedly did things like cheat local kids with loaded dice.) But by the late 1950s, Grasso had become Whitey’s right hand man. Nicknamed “Mickey” at the time, Grasso acquired a reputation for ruthlessness, efficiency, viciousness, and humorlessness. Numerous sources sing praise about what a tough guy Grasso was, and he was, though not with his hands. Billy, who stood at 5’8” and weighed about 180 pounds, wasn’t much of a fisticuffs brawler. In 1960, Billy and Whitey had to stop frequenting a Wooster Street restaurant, which had been their hangout, after a gangster beat the sht out of Billy there.

Under Whitey's tutelage, Grasso married, had a son, moved to the suburbs, and lived in a modest ranch on a quiet cul-de-sac in New Haven. For decades Grasso kept a cover job as a clerk at a New Haven appliance and television store.

There are very few photographs of Grasso, who went clothes shopping at Kmart and wore shoes that appeared to be fashioned from cardboard. He would drive 50 miles to make a call -- always on a payphone. When driving, he often pulled to the side, parked, and watched who might be following. Grasso dominated everyone around him -- and terrorized and petrified his mob underlings, who hated his greed but handed over to him every cent of his piece of whatever -- from card and dice games, loans, insurance scams, robberies. God help anyone who held back one cent. He also was the worst kind of health enthusiast in that he inflicted his lifestyle on those unfortunate enough to have proximity to him; he used it like a bludgeon.

Grasso used to kill time on Sunday afternoons at John (Sonny) Castagna's apartment in Hartford. No one murdered it like Grasso. Since he absolutely refused to discuss business indoors, and damn little about anything else, the two were forced to sit there in silence and stare at the television. Or each other.

"He'd ruin my whole day and make me miserable," Castagna later told The Courant, after flipping and testifying. "Cause you couldn't smoke when he was around, you couldn't eat when you wanted to eat, couldn't have a drink if you wanted to have a drink cause he was a health fanatic. Anyway, that's the way it went with him for like two years with him every Sunday."

Sometimes, Grasso ordered his girlfriend to cook some food, invariably unsalted, to bring it to them. If the slightest thing was wrong -- say the tomatoes weren't sliced -- Grasso erupted.

"Someone would bring the food, the macaroni, and we would eat macaroni," Castagna said. "And he'd start screaming. 'You moron. Cut the tomatoes. Don't think until I tell you to think!'"

Testifying in federal court in the early 1990s, Castagna called Grasso a "real gangster," compared to the pale imitations in abundant number.

"You had to do what (Grasso) told you to do," Castagna said. "He had a big ego. He treated everybody harshly. Old women. Kids. Everybody. He would threaten people over money, anything. It depended on how he felt when he woke up. If he was in a good mood, he would be all right. If he wasn't, he'd be nuts."

FBI snitches were saying that Whitey had been promoted to capo in the Profaci family — then in the process of being renamed for Joseph Colombo, who emerged as the new boss after the June 1962 death of the founder from liver cancer. (The gravel-voiced Profaci died owing the IRS about $1.5 million. After Profaci’s death, because of all the feuding for control of his crime family,  the NYPD held a special watch in Brooklyn, where the Olive Oil King was based, to head off any bursts of violence.)

Tropiano, awaiting trial on the bribery charge, used his army of lawyers and his plethora of medical problems, which included stomach surgery, to slow-walk the case. By 1965, Whitey and Grasso were focused on a new and ambitious venture to acquire a private garbage-hauling business and use it to create an association of garbage companies.

Billy (William The Wild Man) Grasso
Bill Grasso

It took Whitey and The Wild Man only around three years to get indicted for the effort. In March 1968, a federal jury returned its indictment charging Whitey, Billy, and Bridgeport hood Larry Pellegrino for restraint of trade. Whitey hired F. Lee Bailey, a Hartford native, to handle his appeal, but it did no good whatsoever. On December 9, 1968, Whitey was convicted of shaking down trash collectors, was given a 12-year sentence and a $10,000 fine. Billy Grasso got a ten-year term and $7,500 fine. Pellegrino got 8 years and a $5,000 fine

They were sent to separate federal prisons at the end of 1968. Whitey was nearly 60, in deteriorating health, and in no mood for prison. He had gotten away with so much worse, especially during his Bath Beach days — which the FBI learned all about by then, as we’ve noted, thanks to Colombo wiseguy-informant extraordinaire Greg Scarpa.

The sentence effectively marked the end of Whitey’s days as a major figure in the Mafia.

For Grasso, prison was his big break. He spent time in a cell with Raymond LS Patriarca himself — and would rise to underboss, handily outranking his former mentor.

That was the background against which Whitey went to the FBI. Exactly when and how many interviews Whitey gave them is not noted in FBI records. Whitey held a lot back — his years as a street gangster, the murders of at least 10 other gangsters, his years in Murder Inc., the murder of Willie Moretti in New Jersey, and he claimed that his refusal to join the Profaci family pushed him to New Haven. As for what he did tell the FBI, read on....

Whitey acknowledged knowing “goodfellas”— he used that specific term— in Joe Profaci’s crime family, one of five in New York City.

One day, Whitey told them, a goodfella introduced him to Joe Profaci, who offered him membership — which Whitey promptly turned down, Tropiano told the agents.

“Membership in the family did not bring with it instant riches, and, in fact, the members were expected to ‘make it on their own,’” Whitey told the FBI agents.

“Membership meant simply that you were assured no interference from outside individuals, that is being under the protective wing of the family, but on the other hand it meant sharing wealth with the family.”

After declining Old Man Profaci’s offer, Whitey said the cops harassed his gambling operations and complained they weren’t making any money.

Whitey said he was forced to close down his gambling operation, the police were so bad.

A Profaci wiseguy again suggested he join the family, but he said he again refused.

He claimed he’d gone to New Haven to escape police harassment and pressure to join the mob.

Whitey said he took orders from Profaci once in New Haven and that Profaci had visited him there and introduced him to Raymond L.S. Patriarca, head of the New England mafia family.

From then on, he collected debts for Patriarca and helped him out whenever he could.

The FBI wanted details — names and information on mobsters and mob activities in Connecticut and in New York.

Whitey named the acting head of the Colombo family, the underboss and five capos.

He estimated the family had 100 made members. He talked about the other New York crime families. The Luchese family had about 85 members, the Genovese family 800, and the Gambino family 1,000. The Bonnano family, he said, had been split into families, he said. He named some of the leadership of the other families and dished on their internal rivalries.

In Connecticut, Whitey identified Nicholas Patti of Ansonia as a member of the Gambino crime family and boss of the Naugatuck Valley. Joe “Buff” LaSelva, a “councilman” in the “Jersey crew,” and Joseph “Pippie” Guerrerrio were made guys who ran Waterbury, Whitey said. Frank Piccolo, a made man in the Gambino family, was the biggest operator in Bridgeport. He confirmed that Midge was a member of the Genovese family.

Whitey identified 21 living and dead mafia members, most of them in Connecticut, shared rumors about a murder in New York City and detailed mob numbers, bookmaking and other operations. He claimed that other hoodlums had “bought off” members of the New Haven Blades professional hockey team, presumably to fix games.

Whitey personally admitted to being part of a group that controlled numbers in New Haven and running other illegal gambling operations. In addition to owning the New Haven Grape Co., he said he had interests in a construction firm, an after-hours club and a car dealership. He named the mobsters who were running his operations in his absence and admitted he was trying to plant phony evidence to get his federal conviction overturned.

Whitey expressed anger and resentment toward co-defendant and former right-hand man Billy Grasso, who was serving his sentence in the Atlanta federal prison. Years ago, he said, he’d taken Billy “out of the streets,” clothed him, fed him and put him to work. He blamed Grasso for his conviction.

Whitey’s career as an informant was short. FBI approached him again in later years, but he rebuffed them.

“Subsequent contacts with Tropiano were for the most part unproductive,” his FBI file reads.

In 1974, Tropiano -- who in the 1940s "did not respect other button guys" and who robbed wiseguys and mob-run crap games, then killed lots of hoodlums in Brooklyn to make amends -- was paroled out of prison in poor health.

He went into a semi-retirement of sorts and spent much of the time at his home in New Haven, Connecticut. Over time Whitey recovered and by early 1979, he was back in business, running a loanshark book and moving large quantities of cocaine, as informants told the FBI.

One Patriarca wiseguy none too pleased about Tropiano's return to Connecticut's crowded, jumbled underworld was Grasso, who got out the previous year. Eventually, Grasso drove up to Rhode Island and told Patriarca that they needed to take care of Tropiano. Whitey was bad for business, Grasso argued, and he brings the FBI with him wherever he goes -- the Feds are always up his ass.  

Patriarca, never hesitant to sanction murders -- and never pleased about how the New York families freely operated on his turf -- essentially said, "Whatya waitin' for!"

On April 2, 1980, Whitey was in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, where he’d grown up and made his bones for Cosa Nostra.

 At 2:25 p.m., he and a nephew walked down 63rd Street and lingered at 1062 63rd Street when two cars pulled up and two gunmen with stockings over their faces leapt out and blasted away. The nephew fled, unhurt, but Whitey was shot up, riddled with bullets -- in the head, the back, the stomach. Whitey, 67, was pronounced dead at the scene.

He was buried several days later in New Haven around where he'd been born and where his onetime protege Grasso was a powerful capo still on the rise -- but only until Grasso's luck ran out on June 13, 1989, when Patriarca gangsters in Hartford, Springfield, and Boston struck The Wild Man before he could move against them (they had been convinced he would). On the pretext of a meeting in Worcester, Grasso hopped into the back of a van -- and was promptly blown away. That same day, Grasso's right-hand man in Boston, Frank (Cadillac Frank) Salemme, was shot up outside the International House of Pancakes in Saugus. Salemme survived. Both shootings were part of a larger effort by disgruntled Patriarca factions attempting to seize control of the family.