President Kennedy and Jackie arriving at Love Field,
Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963. Photo courtesy NARA.
New Orleans godfather Carlos Marcello – with Jimmy Hoffa as his bagman – funded Richard Nixon's 1960 presidential bid with $500,000 in cash stuffed in a suitcase. Later Marcello – known as the Big Daddy of the Big Easy – would be named a key conspirator in President Kennedy's assassination.
by Don Fulsom
At the start of the 1920s, marijuana use in America was concentrated in New Orleans – and its intoxicating vapors were mainly inhaled by migrant workers from Mexico, by blacks, and by a growing number of "low-class" whites. Sailors and immigrants from the Caribbean brought this "new" (Its known uses go back to 7,000 B.C.) drug into major southern U.S. ports – above all into the Crescent City.
Along with jazz, pot traveled north to Chicago, and then east to Harlem – where it soon became an indispensable part of the music scene, even entering the language of the black hits of the day (Louis Armstrong's "Muggles," Cab Calloway's "That Funny Reefer Man" and Fats Waller's "Viper's Drag").
A squat but muscular fireplug of a man, rising New Orleans mobster Carlos Marcello was perfectly placed to make boatloads of money from illegal marijuana shipped into his territory. In 1938, though, Marcello sold 23 pounds of pot to an undercover agent. Convicted and sentenced to one year in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Marcello was also fined more than $75,000. Using his political influence, that particular "Reefer Man" was able to get the fine reduced to just $400. And he was out of prison in nine months. With Louisiana Mafia boss Sam Carolla pulling the strings, Gov. O.K. Allen – a former stooge of assassinated Sen. Huey Long – provided the leniency. Legend has it that Marcello eventually had a tailor sew a foot-long pocket into the left leg of his trousers, "which he would stuff with cash as he made his rounds through (Jefferson) Parish paying off the police one by one."
From pot dealing, police-and politician-corrupting street thug, Marcello graduated to godfather of New Orleans (and Dallas), governing a vast and violent criminal empire that brought in an estimated $2 billion-a-year. He succeeded Sam Carolla, who was deported to Sicily in 1947. Marcello quickly became a generous financial supporter of Richard Nixon; and, eventually, a suspect in the murder of Nixon's nemesis: President John F. Kennedy.
Marcello's first dealings with Vice President Dick Nixon involved Jimmy Hoffa, the mobbed-up Teamsters Union leader. Because Jimmy shared a common enemy with Nixon, Hoffa and his two million-member union backed Nixon against Sen. John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. A Louisiana Teamster official who later became a government informant has revealed that Hoffa met with Marcello to secretly fund the Nixon campaign with stacks of cold Mob cash. Edward Partin told Mob expert Dan Moldea: ''I was right there, listening to the conversation. Marcello had a suitcase filled with $500,000 cash which was going to Nixon ... (Another $500,000 contribution) was coming from Mob boys in New Jersey and Florida.'' Hoffa himself served as Nixon's bagman. Within a few weeks of that payoff, Vice President Nixon managed to stop a Florida land fraud indictment against Hoffa.
The Hoffa-Marcello meeting took place in New Orleans on Sept. 26, 1960, and has been verified by William Sullivan, a former top FBI official.
Sen. John Kennedy edged out Vice President Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, and Hoffa – thanks to Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy – was soon sitting in a prison cell for jury tampering and looting his own union's pension funds of nearly $2 million. Yet the Nixon-Hoffa link remained solid at least until Dec. 23, 1971 when, as president, Nixon gave Jimmy an executive grant of clemency and opened the prison's gates for him. Hoffa served only five years of a 13-year sentence.
In 1961, Marcello was "deported" to Guatemala by Atty. Gen. Bobby Kennedy. But the Louisiana godfather quietly returned in a small plane piloted by an associate named David Ferrie – later considered a prime JFK assassination suspect by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.
In 1967, just as Garrison prepared to indict him, Ferrie was found dead in his apartment. He was lying on a sofa with a sheet pulled over his head. Two typed "suicide" notes were found. Ferrie's name was typed, not signed, on each note. New Orleans Metro Crime Commission director Aaron Kohn believed Ferrie was murdered. But the New Orleans coroner officially reported that the cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage.
Garrison's investigators had learned that Ferrie – shortly before the JFK assassination – had deposited $7,000 in his bank accounts and had taken over a profitable gas station – a gift from Marcello.
Another top assassination suspect, Dallas striptease club owner Jack Ruby, had concrete connections to the Marcello crime family, according to a 1979 report by House assassination investigators. The report found that:
- Ruby was a friend and business associate of Joseph Civello, Marcello's top deputy in Dallas. Ruby was also very close to Joe Campisi – considered to be the No. 2 man in the Dallas Mafia hierarchy. Campisi was on such good terms with Marcello that he sent the Marcello family 260 pounds of homemade sausage every Christmas.
- Joe Campisi – the owner of Dallas's Egyptian Lounge – said he dined with Ruby at the lounge the evening before Kennedy was murdered. Campisi also admitted that he visited Ruby in the Dallas County Jail six days after Ruby murdered Oswald.
- Ruby met with four New Orleans nightclub operators and Marcello associates in June and October 1963. And Ruby made a telephone call on Oct. 30, 1963 to the New Orleans office of Marcello gang member Nofio Pecora, whose associate, Emile Bruneau, had bailed Lee Harvey Oswald out of jail that summer.
It is now known that Ruby was not only a police-protected pot dealer – but a government informant: In 1947, he was a secret Syndicate source for a young congressman from California named Richard Nixon; in 1950, he covertly cooperated with a Senate committee probing organized crime; in 1956 – according to newly released memos – the FBI fingered him as a liaison between the Dallas police department and local drug dealers.
Identified by the Warren Commission as the lone killer of President Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald had his own ties to Carlos Marcello. In New Orleans – where Oswald spent significant portions of his life – Oswald's uncle and substitute father was Charles "Dutz" Murret, an important bookie in Marcello's gambling operations. Oswald's mom, Marguerite, dated some of Marcello's employees.
Jack Ruby stalked Oswald after his arrest – finally killing him with a pistol shot to the guts two days after Kennedy's murder, as the alleged presidential assassin was being transferred from one Dallas jail to another.
Shortly after entering the White House in 1969, Richard Nixon moved to solidify his close favor-trading friendship with Carlos Marcello – known in the underworld as "the Big Daddy in the Big Easy." Their main go-between was old Nixon loyalist and Mob lawyer Murray Chotiner. The pinky ring-wearing Chotiner and his brother were responsible for defending 221 organized crime figures in California.
Chotiner had a White House office and an official government job from which to trade on his powerful behind-the-scenes influence. He had served Nixon since the Navy vet's very first campaign for Congress in 1946. In fact, Chotiner had introduced Nixon to L.A.'s top hoodlum, Mickey Cohen – and pressured Cohen to contribute to the Nixon campaign. Chotiner was associated with scores of other leading gangsters, including Meyer Lansky and Ben "Bugsy" Seigel.
When Chotiner, on behalf of President Nixon, sought to aid Marcello, the gangster was facing a two-year prison term for his 1968 conviction of assaulting a federal official.
Throughout Nixon's first two years in office, Marcello and his lawyers used all the clout they could muster with the administration to get Marcello's sentence cut. Nixon's crooked attorney general, John Mitchell, finally put the squeeze on a federal judge to slice Marcello's prison term to six months – and arranged for him to spend that time at the medical center for federal prisoners in Springfield, Mo. (Mitchell was the first person since the FBI was established in 1908 to hold the office of attorney general without undergoing an FBI investigation – thanks to a special request made by Nixon to his ever-loyal crony J. Edgar Hoover. In 1975, Mitchell himself was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury and sentenced to two and a half to eight years in prison for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up.)
Marcello emerged from his term at Springfield in March 1971 – just in time to aid Chotiner's efforts to spring Jimmy Hoffa from prison.
At about the same time, President Nixon – perhaps, in part, to aid Marcello's illegal drug trafficking business – ignored a call by a blue-ribbon presidential commission to decriminalize marijuana. That decision has had startling repercussions: An estimated 15 million Americans have since been arrested on pot charges.
Nixon's main motive, of course, was political: A Republican "law and order" president could not turn his back on his conservative, anti-drug constituents. But, as Gore Vidal pointed out in The New York Times in 1970, "The (government) has a vested interest in playing cops and robbers. Both the Bureau of Narcotics and the Mafia want strong laws against the sale and use of drugs because if drugs are sold at cost there would be no money in it for anyone."
Though Nixon reintroduced Jimmy Hoffa to a world without bars, Hoffa wouldn't stay in it for long. Fantasizing about the restoration of his old powers – despite a clemency ban on that – Hoffa openly plotted to unseat his successor as Teamsters president, Frank Fitzsimmons. More amiable and pliable than Hoffa, "Fitz" was now backed by the Syndicate; and he had established an ultra-chummy relationship with President Nixon.
In 1975, Hoffa was kidnapped, killed and smelted. His corpse was reportedly crushed in a steel compactor for junk cars. Hoffa expert Dan Moldea has smilingly opined that Hoffa became "someone's hubcap."
It was only recently revealed that, during the Clinton administration, FBI field agents wanted to haul ex-President Nixon and his buddy Fitzsimmons before a Detroit grand jury to testify about Hoffa's disappearance. But Justice Department higher-ups said no.
Back in July 1963, a Hoffa emissary met in New Orleans with Marcello and Florida godfather Santos Trafficante. Longtime Hoffa and Mafia lawyer Frank Ragano – who disclosed the session in the 1994 book Mob Lawyer – said he carried a message from the Teamster's boss: Hoffa wants a "little favor … You won't believe this, but he wants you to kill John Kennedy. He wants you to get rid of the President right away."
Ragano said the faces of the two Mob bosses "were icy. Their reticence was a signal that this was an uncomfortable subject, one they were unwilling to discuss." But Ragano said Trafficante, on his deathbed in 1987, confessed that he and Marcello did, indeed, follow through on Hoffa's "favor."
Carlos Marcello's pilot and employee, David Ferrie, is by far the oddest character in the Kennedy assassination saga. He was a friend of Oswald, and possibly, of Ruby. Ferrie was bald from head to toe—but sported part of a red floor rug as a hairpiece, and drew brows over his eyes with stage greasepaint. He was a homosexual pedophile who had been fired by Eastern Airlines after his arrest on morals charges. When Ferrie died of his alleged "brain hemorrhage," D.A. Garrison publicly speculated that the CIA deliberately silenced Ferrie. Ferrie pal Edward del Valle was murdered at about the time Ferrie died. Del Valle – a Cuban exile leader – was the victim of a gunshot to the heart and an apparent machete chop to his skullcap.
In 1979, the House assassinations committee concluded that at least two shooters were involved in the JFK assassination, and that the most likely conspirators were Hoffa, Marcello, Trafficante and Chicago godfather Sam Giancana.
Two top committee staffers – Robert Blakey and Richard Billings – later wrote of their conviction that "Oswald was acting in behalf of members of the Mob, who wanted relief from the pressure of the Kennedy administration's war on crime led by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy."
The two investigators say both Oswald and Ruby were Mafia-connected, and that Ruby silenced Oswald on Mob orders. In a recent book, former Mafia consigliere Bill Bonanno — the son of legendary New York godfather Joe Bonanno — also maintains that Hoffa, Marcello, Trafficante, and Giancana were involved in the JFK assassination.
Blakey wishes he knew – back when he was leading the House probe – what he has since learned about the CIA's possible role in the assassination. He recently confessed that he had trusted the CIA too much in the mid-'70s. Blakey is one of a diverse group of authors and legal experts who have announced his support of a lawsuit that demands the release of secret CIA records related to the assassination. Authors supporting the suit include anti-conspiracist Gerald Posner and pro-conspiracist Anthony Summers. Experts include John Tunheim, a federal judge who chaired the Assassination Records Review Board of the mid-1990s.
Robert Blakey's new suspicions seem to mesh with the assertions of President Nixon's chief of staff Bob Haldeman, who flatly declared in a 1978 book that the CIA pulled off a "fantastic cover-up" that "literally erased any connection between the Kennedy assassination and the CIA." Dozens of other investigators and assassination experts now believe the CIA was somehow involved.
Did Nixon himself know what his Mafia (and, perhaps, CIA) friends were up to? Speaking with Haldeman on one of the newly released White House tapes, the 37th president dismissed the Warren Commission's lone-killer finding as "the greatest hoax that has ever been perpetuated."
One of Bobby Kennedy's top Mob fighters, Ron Goldfarb, now concludes that the JFK assassination "was the work of Hoffa, Trafficante and Marcello. Oswald was, as he claimed, a patsy. Neither I, nor anyone, knew how the Mob recruited Oswald. But it was a Mob touch to use someone to carry out its deadly assignments and then to kill that person to avoid detection. The case was circumstantial, but compelling."
Then, in 2009, a secret FBI informant exploded a verbal bombshell: Carlos Marcello once told him during a prison yard conversation, “I had the little bastard (JFK) killed. He was a thorn in my shoe.”
Jack Van Laningham—a former cellmate of the Mafia don—disclosed Marcello’s confession in a TV interview on the Discovery Channel’s “Did the Mob Kill JFK?” Van Laningham subsequently passed a polygraph test.
He said Marcello explained that Oswald had visited him in New Orleans and that “he was my man. He did what the hell I told him to do.”
As for Jack Ruby, Marcello told his cellmate that Dallas strip club owner was under his thumb, deeply in debt, and owed the Mob boss “big.” So Marcello, according to Van Laningham, ordered Ruby to pay off the debt by rubbing out Oswald.
Van Laningham, who was at the Texarkana Federal Prison for bank robbery, ratted out Marcello for the FBI in a deal that sprung him from prison early. Thomas Kimmel, the FBI agent who supervised the informant, says he has no reason to disbelieve Van Laningham’s story.
Carlos Marcello died a free man in one his mansions in Metairie, La., in March 1993 – following a final prison stint. At the time of his death, he had Alzheimer's and had regressed to his infancy.
Don Fulsom covered the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton presidencies as a reporter for United Press International. He has written articles about Richard Nixon for a number of publications, including The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Esquire and CrimeMagazine.com.