Ex-leader's funeral draws Pagans to Penn Hills

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Decked out in their "colors," many sporting gray beards and a few even leaning on canes, the Pagans invaded Penn Hills on Wednesday to say goodbye to one of their leaders.

Daniel "The Deacon" Zwibel, a former national vice president who went to federal prison for selling cocaine for the Pittsburgh mafia in the 1980s, died Feb. 12 at age 70.

About 100 bearded bikers, maybe more, congregated at William Gross Funeral Home for the funeral, periodically stopping traffic on Frankstown Road with the wave of a hand to let their brethren cross the street.

Penn Hills police cruised up and down Frankstown, but all appeared peaceful as the bikers strolled from the funeral home to gather at the nearby White Hawk Cafe.

There were few motorcycles in evidence -- it appeared most of this crowd had arrived by car.

Nearly all wore their trademark uniform -- jeans, boots and jackets that read "Pagan's." The apostrophe seems misplaced, but the gang has always insisted it isn't.

Who's to argue?

The man of the hour was The Deacon, formerly of Plum and later of North Huntingdon in Westmoreland County, who had a long history of drug dealing and clashes with the FBI.

Zwibel was convicted in the 1980s of dealing drugs for Eugene "Nick the Blade" Gesuale, a La Cosa Nostra associate from East Liberty convicted of running a drug network with sources from New York, Florida and Colombia and operating a prostitution ring in New York's Little Italy.

The FBI and the former Pennsylvania Crime Commission said Gesuale, whose drug operation was protected by former LCN underboss Charles Porter of Penn Hills, had long been associated with Zwibel.

The biker served as Gesuale's connection to the Pagans along with Robert Fitz, president of the Ohio chapter, who later became a government witness.

Zwibel had been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison in 1978 for drug dealing.

While in a West Virginia lockup, federal authorities said, Gesuale visited him to plan his return to trafficking when he got out.

At his sentencing in 1985, assistant U.S. attorney Jeffrey Manning, now a Common Pleas judge, said he was amazed that "as soon as he was released, he goes to work for Gesuale selling drugs again."

In fact, Zwibel was still on parole for the 1978 conviction when he was indicted in 1985.

The late U.S. District Judge Gerald Weber scoffed at the contention of Zwibel and four other Gesuale conspirators that they played "minor" roles in the drug enterprise.

"There is no minor role in the distribution of drugs," said the famously plain-spoken judge. "It's like saying someone is just a little bit pregnant."

He sent Zwibel to prison for 20 years, but after an appeal, resentenced him in 1988 to 15 years. Federal parole has since been abolished, but it was still in effect then, and Zwibel was released in 1991.

In 2009, he made the papers again when police said he burst into a neighbor's home, hit the resident in the head with a revolver and fired a shot into the floor.

Zwibel was charged with attempted homicide, aggravated assault and other offenses, according to court records. But the most serious charges were dropped last year when the victim decided not to pursue the case.

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


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