By Anthony Summers & Robbyn Swan
There have been allegations over the past twenty years that Florida’s Santo Trafficante and Louisiana’s Carlos Marcello admitted before they died that they had been involved in the assassination.
Do those allegations have merit?
The Mafia thought they had a deal, their help to get Kennedy elected in exchange for a complaisant Justice Department. The month after the election, though, John Kennedy announced that he was making his brother Robert Attorney General. Speaking from the steps of the Department of Justice, Robert made it clear that he intended to use the office to wage war on organized crime.
By early 1962, the Attorney General would be saying new laws and specialized intelligence had top gangsters on the run. Three hundred and fifty mobsters were indicted that year, 138 of them convicted. Some mobsters were fleeing the United States rather than face justice.
Lucky Luciano and Joe Adonis continued to languish in exile. Skinny D’Amato, the New Jersey nightclub owner who had acted as bagman during the West Virginia primary campaign of 1960, reminded Joe Kennedy that his help in the election had been against a promise of leniency for Adonis. Robert Kennedy had no intention of allowing Adonis to return, however, and D’Amato himself was indicted on tax charges.
The Attorney General pressed for the deportation of any other mafiosi who could be shown to be aliens. Early on, New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello had been flown out of the country to Guatemala – though he subsequently returned. There were new efforts to expel Frank Costello and Johnny Rosselli.
Rosselli and Sam Giancana had hoped for special treatment because both had been involved in CIA plots to assassinate Fidel Castro and – as Giancana put it – considered they had been “working for the government.” FBI wiretaps make clear Giancana simmered with rage. After the deal-making of the election – when his efforts had helped deliver Illinois for Kennedy – he felt he had been double crossed.
In November 1963, within hours of his brother’s death, Robert Kennedy asked rackets specialist Julius Draznin to look for Mob leads in Chicago. “He meant,” said Draznin, “Sam Giancana.” The focus of those who share RFK’s suspicion has long been on Giancana and two other Mafia bosses, Carlos Marcello and Santo Trafficante.
“The Mob typically doesn’t hit prosecutors or politicians,” said former House Assassinations Committee chief counsel Robert Blakey. “You are all right….just as long as you do not `sleep with them,’ that is, you do not take favors, either money or sex. Once the public official crosses the line, he invites violent retribution.”
In 1977 Santo Trafficante, the Florida Mafia boss, was forced by subpoena to testify on oath before the Assassinations Committee. The questions put to him included the following:
* Did you ever discuss with any individual plans to assassinate President Kennedy?
* Prior to November 22, 1963, did you know Jack Ruby?
* While you were in prison in Cuba, were you visited by Jack Ruby?
In response to all three questions, Trafficante responded, “I respectfully refuse to answer pursuant to my constitutional rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.” “Pleading the Fifth” invokes the constitutional principle that no one can be forced to give evidence that may be self-incriminating.
Having been granted immunity from prosecution arising from what he might say, Trafficante testified again in secret. Then, in late 1978, he appeared at a public hearing to deny having said in advance of the assassination – as alleged – that President Kennedy was “going to be hit.” Asked whether he had been aware of threats to the President allegedly made by his Louisiana counterpart, Carlos Marcello, he replied, “No, sir; no, no chance, no way.”
There was also, however, a comment Trafficante had made in 1975, while being taped during an FBI surveillance operation. “Now only two people are alive,” the FBI microphone had picked up Trafficante saying—in conversation with Marcello—“who know who killed Kennedy.”
What he meant remains unknown and unknowable. Trafficante died in 1987. Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, who had been his associate and who allegedly wanted both Kennedys dead, had vanished twelve years earlier—probably murdered by criminal associates.
Sam Giancana, the Chicago Mob boss who had conspired with Trafficante and the CIA to kill Cuba’s Fidel Castro, was also long dead. He had been found in 1975, lying face-up in a puddle of blood, just as the Senate Intelligence Committee was preparing to question him about the Castro plots. He had been shot once in the back of the head and six times—in a neatly stitched circle—around the mouth. It was the Mob’s way, one source said, of warning others not to talk. Some suspected that Trafficante had ordered the hit.
John Roselli had been killed soon after Giancana and Hoffa. What was left of him was found floating in Miami’s Dumfoundling Bay, crammed into an oil drum. He had testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee and was due to appear again. Trafficante was again a suspect.
Before Roselli died, it was reported, he had suggested that his former associates in the Castro assassination plots had gone on to kill President Kennedy. Within weeks of his death, the House of Representatives voted by a huge majority to reopen the Kennedy case—a decision that led to the formation of the House Assassinations Committee.
The Committee finding, in 1979, was that “extensive investigation led it to conclude that the most likely family bosses of organized crime to have participated in [planning the President’s assassination] were Carlos Marcello and Santo Trafficante.” While both had had “the motive, means, and opportunity to plan and execute a conspiracy,” however, the Committee could not pin anything on either mafioso.
In 1994, however, it seemed that credible testimony on the subject had perhaps emerged. Frank Ragano, an attorney who long represented Trafficante, Marcello, and Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa made remarkable claims in a new memoir. “Santo, Carlos, and Jimmy”, he wrote, had often spoken of their wish to see both Kennedy brothers dead. In July 1963, Ragano claimed, Hoffa had sent him to New Orleans to ask Trafficante and Marcello to kill the President. When he passed on this message, Ragano wrote, the mobsters’ response led him to think the idea “had already seriously crossed their minds.”
After the assassination, a gleeful Hoffa had supposedly exclaimed, “I told you they could do it. I’ll never forget what Carlos and Santo did for me.” Marcello supposedly said, “When you see Jimmy, you tell him he owes me and he owes me big.”
According to Ragano, Santo Trafficante had phoned him years later – on March 13, 1987 – to request a meeting. When the lawyer arrived to take him for a drive, the ailing 72-year-old mobster shuffled to the car in pajamas and a terry-cloth robe. Then, slumped in Ragano’s Mercedes-Benz, he talked in Sicilian of the old days, old murders, and of the Kennedys.
“That Bobby,” Ragano claimed the dying mobster had said, “made life miserable for me and my friends…God damn Bobby. Carlos e futtutu. Non duvevamu ammazzari a Giovanni. Duvevamu ammazzari a Bobby.” (“Carlos [Marcello] fucked up. We shouldn’t have killed John. We should have killed Bobby.”)
Four days after this supposed admission to the crime of the 20th century, Trafficante died. He had not elaborated on his statement, and Ragano said he had not asked him to. He said he thought about it anxiously for a while after the mobster’s death, then confided in his wife, and eventually went public.
Trafficante’s widow, his two daughters, and several friends and neighbors, said the March 13, 1987, meeting never happened. According to Ragano it occurred in the city of Tampa, the family’s traditional base and his own hometown. Trafficante had long since, however, lived most of the time almost 300 miles away, in North Miami Beach. He had not visited Tampa since the Christmas holidays, according to his family. The mobster was so ill, they insisted, what with heart disease, thrice-weekly hospital visits to have kidney dialysis, and a permanent colostomy bag, that travel had become a major undertaking.
The time of his momentous March 13 meeting with Trafficante, Ragano had written, had been about 1:30p.m..Yet Jean Amato, the widow of one of Trafficante’s close associates, says she visited Trafficante and his wife at home in North Miami Beach between noon and 2:00p.m.. Jack Hodus, a pharmacist, said he saw Trafficante there at about 6:00 p.m., and other accounts place the mobster in Miami for dinner. Even if only Jean Amato told the truth, Trafficante could not have been in Tampa at 1:30 p.m., as Ragano claimed.
Ragano asserted he could respond to these counter-allegations with three witnesses of his own, but declined to produce them unless the Trafficantes tried to take him to court for libel.
Meanwhile, there is some medical evidence. The records of Miami’s Mercy Hospital indicate the mobster was being treated in the dialysis unit regularly in early 1987. He was there, receiving treatment until 7.15 pm on March 12 – the day before his alleged lunchtime confession to Ragano – and was back in the dialysis unit by the afternoon of March 14.
Trafficante Dialysis 3-12-87 Trafficante Dialysis 3-14-87
Dr. Felix Locicero, Trafficante’s Tampa nephrologist, told us he knew of no visit to Tampa on March 13 and thought it “unlikely” the mobster was in town.
Exposing Ragano as a possible liar does not dispose of the “Mob dunnit” theory, nor of the notion that Trafficante and Carlos Marcello played some part in Kennedy’s murder. “Mark my word,” Trafficante is reported to have said to a close associate in September 1962, “this man Kennedy is in trouble, and he will get what is coming to him…He’s not going to make it to the election. He is going to be hit.”
Carlos Marcello, the boss of the Mafia in the southeastern United States, had like Trafficante appeared before the Assassinations Committee. His principal business in life, he had earlier had the audacity to tell another committee, was as a tomato salesman earning about $1,600 a month. His answers related to the President’s assassination were no more illuminating.
Asked whether he ever made a physical threat against the President, Marcello replied, “Positively not, never said anything like that.” Trafficante, he said, had never talked with him about assassinating Kennedy. Their contacts had been “strictly social.” He did not know of any discussion with U.S. officials about killing Fidel Castro, had not been to Cuba before or after 1960, never had any interests there. He “never knew” either alleged assassin Lee Oswald or Jack Ruby.
More, just a little more, emerged from FBI surveillance obtained during a bribery probe in 1979, when microphones planted in Marcello’s home and office picked up snatches of relevant conversation. It was the year the House Assassinations Committee was winding up its work, and—on several occasions—mikes picked up the mobster repeating, as though he wanted to be overheard, the sort of “No, I never” denials he had made when testifying.
Once, however, when a visitor asked his reaction to the Committee’s suspicions as to his role in the assassination, the mobster told the man to shut up. There was then the sound of a chair being pushed back, of the two men walking out of the room. In the last words picked up, Marcello could be heard telling his companion that this was a subject better discussed outside. Going “outside” to discuss sensitive matters, the record showed, was something Marcello did on more than one occasion.
An informant the FBI used in that surveillance operation, a man named Joseph Hauser, later claimed he got Marcello to discuss the assassination. According to Hauser, the mobster admitted both that he had known Oswald’s uncle Charles Murret, and that Oswald himself had at one point worked as a runner for the betting operation run for Marcello by a bookmaker named Sam Saia.
Even more provocative was something that—according to Hauser—Marcello’s brother Joseph said. Edward Kennedy was about to run for the White House, and Hauser raised the subject of the “rough time” the elder Kennedys had given Marcello back in the 1960s. “Don’t worry,” Joseph supposedly replied, “We took care of them, didn’t we?”
Oswald’s uncle Charles had indeed been involved in gambling activity, and he was an associate of Sam Saia. Saia was a powerful figure in bookmaking, and was reputedly close to Carlos Marcello. What Marcello is said to have confided is thus plausible—but not evidence. Of the surveillance tapes thus far released, none show that Marcello made such admissions, or that his brother’s remark about having “taken care” of the Kennedys was really made. One must question, too, whether – if it was made – it was meant seriously.
More and similar material is reflected in FBI records. It dates to the mid-1980s, when the Mob boss had at last been imprisoned—on charges of racketeering, wire fraud, and conspiracy to bribe a federal judge. It was then that a fellow prison inmate named Jack Van Laningham, who was being used by the FBI in another surveillance operation against Marcello, made a fresh allegation that the mob boss had admitted involvement in the Kennedy assassination. The FBI file contains a report on what, according to Van Laningham, Marcello told him and another inmate as they were sitting “outside in the patio” of the prison yard. As originally circulated, with Van Laningham’s name withheld, it reads as follows:
A confidential source who has provided reliable information in the past furnished the following:
On December 15, 1985, he was in the company of CARLOS MARCELLO and another inmate at the FEDERAL CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTE (FCI), Texarkana, Texas, in the court yard engaged in conversation. CARLOS MARCELLO discussed his intense dislike of former President JOHN KENNEDY as he often did. Unlike other such tirades against KENNEDY, however, on this occasion CARLOS MARCELLO said, referring to President KENNEDY, “Yeah, I had the son of a bitch killed. I’m glad I did. I’m sorry I couldn’t have done it myself.
The report, as currently released by the National Archives with Van Laningham’s name revealed, is here: Confidential Source Report
Later, in a letter to an FBI agent, Van Laningham quoted Marcello as saying he had known Santo Trafficante, who had been his partner in the gambling rackets in Cuba. He had “hated” the President and his brother the Attorney General. He had been “introduced to Oswald,” the mob boss supposedly told Van Laningham, “by a man named Ferris, who was Marcello’s pilot” [a reference presumably to David Ferrie, a Marcello associate long rumored to have been involved in some way in the assassination] —and had thought Oswald “crazy.” He had backed Ruby in business in Dallas, and Ruby had come to Louisiana to “report” to him.
(Portions of Van Lanigham’s multi-page letter – to FBI agent Carl Podsiadly – can be found below.)
If Marcello really did admit that he ordered President Kennedy killed, this was damning information. But does Van Laningham’s allegation have a basis in truth?
The former Senior Supervisory Resident Agent at the FBI office near the prison, Thomas Kimmel, Jr., was interviewed by us for Not in Your Lifetime in 2013. He confirmed that Van Laningham had indeed been used in an operation that targeted Marcello in prison, and that Van Laningham did make the allegation alleging that Marcello admitted tohaving had the President killed. Kimmel had duly passed on the information to FBI headquarters, as the relevant memo shows.
Van Laningham, whom we also interviewed this year, claimed the FBI “did not want me to go into the Kennedy thing whatsoever. . . . The FBI doesn’t want anybody to know that.” According to the former informant, similar statements the Mob boss made to involvement in the assassination – on other occasions – were recorded on the bug with provided to him by the FBI.
Former agent Kimmel, however, insisted, “There was nothing remotely resembling that” on the tapes. Ron Sievert, the prosecuting attorney who supervised the Marcello surveillance operation, for his part, said there was “absolutely nothing to corroborate ” the claim by Van Laningham.
Agent Kimmel said he reported the purported Marcello admission to superiors because it was his duty to do so. He did not, though, recall having received any significant reaction. His own view, looking back in 2013, was as follows. “I don’t doubt that Carlos made the statement. I don’t think Van Laningham is fabricating that. . . . We got to the point where we thought Carlos would say almost anything. And even if he said something on the tape it would not be credible. Carlos was old. Carlos was on the outs….I thought there were indications of senility on Carlos’ part, and thought a jury or a judge would agree. . . .no matter what Carlos said.” Supervisory attorney Sievert agreed that “there was also the mental capacity issue.”
Attempts by the authors to reach a third agent involved – he used the pseudonym “Tom Kirk” in his contacts with Van Laningham – did not succeed. The former agent sent word that he did not wish to be interviewed.
Informant Van Laningham has claimed that, contrary to the recollections on interview of Agent Kimmel, of his case agent Ray Hult, and of prosecutor Sievert, the mobster had still been mentally “sharp” in 1985, when Marcello allegedly said he had had Kennedy killed.
There are other discrepancies between the version of events as told by Van Laningham and by the FBI agents involved. Kimmel’s memory was that the bug in the Texarkana operation against Marcello functioned only for three thirty-day periods (the periods covered by three separate court authorizations for electronic surveillance).
Van Laningham, on the other hand, said the operation lasted for more than a year – and that Marcello had been running his crime network from inside the prison. According to Kimmel, agents concluded that Marcello was not running his criminal empire from jail – and that was why the operation was terminated. His mental state, moreover, had been so poor that a court would have deemed anything he said unreliable.
Van Laningham, who claimed that he had been promised early release in exchange for his cooperation over Marcello, wrote a series of heated letters to the FBI in which he repeated his account of what he said the Mob boss had told him. Among other things, he named the other inmate who had supposed been present with him in the prison courtyard as “Don Wardell”.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons, however, told us it has no record of anyone by that name having been imprisoned at Texarkana or indeed anywhere in the federal prison system. In his interview with us this year, Van Laningham still maintained that the other inmate’s name was Wardell, and that he had disappeared from the prison soon after Van Laningham had identified him to the FBI handlers as having witnessed Marcello’s supposed confession.
(Two of Van Laningham’s letters recounting the Marcello “confession” episode and mentioning fellow prisoner named Don Wardell can be viewed here:Wardell
By 1989, three years after the episode Van Laningham claimed occurred, Marcello had suffered a series of strokes and was indeed in a state of what an attending doctor described as “senility.” That year, employees at a prison medical center reported having heard Marcello say—in the early hours of the morning, while in bed—“That Kennedy, that smiling motherfucker, we’ll fix him in Dallas.” The old man rambled on to that effect, apparently under the delusion that the jail employees were his bodyguards and that the assassination had not yet occurred.
The FBI did on that occasion follow up by questioning Carlos Marcello—both about that comment and the “I had the son of a bitch killed” remark Van Laningham had claimed occurred several years earlier. Marcello denied having said anything of the kind. He was released from prison soon afterward and died in 1993 at the age of 83.