Obituary: Michael J. Genovese / Government said quiet businessman was mafia boss

April 9, 1919 - Oct. 31, 2006

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Whenever his name would appear in the newspapers as head of La Cosa Nostra in Western Pennsylvania, Michael Genovese would tell his girlfriend: "They got the wrong guy."

The government said they didn't.

Wiretaps of his former Larimer Avenue business, trial testimony in 1990, surveillance by federal agents and reports by the former Pennsylvania Crime Commission all identified Mr. Genovese as the top mafia boss here for the past 20 years, when he took over for Sebastian John LaRocca in 1985.

He could be a bit of a braggart, as revealed by those FBI wiretaps, but Mr. Genovese generally fit the profile of the old-school "man of respect" who dressed to perfection and operated quietly from behind the scenes.

So quietly, in fact, that the FBI never could convict him.

He'd been identified as one of the Pittsburgh family's three representatives at the infamous mob conference in Apalachin, N.Y., in 1957, and refused to testify about it before the U.S. Senate Rackets Committee.

He also went to jail in the 1970s for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating organized crime here. Agents always suspected him of laundering his money through commercial real estate in Oakland and Shadyside and had information that the driveway at his home had been paved at county expense.

But they couldn't get evidence to prosecute a crime boss renowned for his reclusive, low-key style.

"He beat us at the game," said Roger Greenbank, the former FBI agent who dogged the mafia here for much of his career. "To me, it's kind of sad in that it's the end of an era, and the end of a chapter for the FBI in Pittsburgh."

Mr. Genovese, who had long been ill with bladder cancer and heart disease, died in his sleep Tuesday at his home, a converted barn in the rolling hills of West Deer where he had lived for some 50 years.

He was 87 and had been bedridden for weeks, cared for by his second wife, Jennie, 53.

His first wife, Alice, died in 1998, a passing largely unnoticed by the public, because Mr. Genovese did not have himself listed as a survivor.

Jennie had been his girlfriend for three decades; the FBI used to watch him slip away from his car dealership in the afternoons and go to see her. She met him when she was 24 and running a nail salon near the Holiday House in Monroeville, a reputed mobster hangout at the time.

"He came in to have his nails done and he never left," she said yesterday. "For me, he was always there when I needed him. I knew him as a good man. I knew him as a classy man, a very proud man. But he did keep things to himself."

Her only complaint was that he could be a pain because of his insistence on a proper appearance at all times. "He always dressed meticulously. Everything had to match, his shoes, everything," she said.

To her, he was a successful car dealer and businessman.

But federal prosecutors and agents, who won convictions against his top lieutenants, Charles Porter and Louis Raucci Sr., after the 1990 trial, said they knew who and what he really was.

He ran his criminal enterprise from L.A. Motors on Larimer Avenue in East Liberty, at one time a working-class Italian neighborhood where illegal gambling was controlled by the mafia since the 1920s.

But while mobsters all around him went to jail, Mr. Genovese proved too crafty and insulated. Secretive by both nature and design -- especially after the 1980s wiretapping exposed his operation -- he was the opposite of such flashy modern gangsters as John Gotti.

"He did not want his name in the spotlight at all, from what we could tell from people we talked to and what came out at the trial," said Ed Reiser Jr., an IRS agent who helped build the 1990 case. "He did not want to be the front guy."

Born in 1919 in East Liberty, Mr. Genovese was a product of the close-knit Larimer Avenue community. He started as a numbers runner and later worked for a concrete company operated by Mr. LaRocca; the two later became partners in a vending business.

By the 1960s, the government said he was "co-boss" with Mr. LaRocca of the Pittsburgh family, one of 24 original mafia organizations in the United States. In time, Mr. Genovese came to control numerous properties in Monroeville, East Liberty and elsewhere.

In the late 1970s, Mr. LaRocca's health began failing and he yielded much of the power to three men -- Gabriel Mannarino, Joseph Pecora and Mr. Genovese. Mr. Pecora went to prison in 1979 and Mr. Mannarino died of cancer in 1980, leaving Mr. Genovese as the heir apparent.

He took over in 1985 with Mr. Pecora as his underboss, the government said.

According to the crime commission, the mob had become lethargic under Mr. LaRocca, but Mr. Genovese changed that.

"For many members and associates of the Family, Genovese was a 'breath of fresh air,' " says one report. "The Family became more active and aggressive both in reasserting its dominance in the Pittsburgh area and in expanding into new territories in Ohio and Erie."

Mr. Genovese retained family control over such traditional activities as illegal gambling and loansharking, but he expanded into video poker and drug dealing.

Through it all, even the dangerous trade in cocaine that proved to be the mob's undoing across America, he took care to keep himself isolated from underlings who could turn on him.

"He was smart. Proceeds from illegal activities were usually paid to him by one person, and very discreetly," said Mr. Greenbank. "It was all cash with him."

Regardless of the source of the mob's money, Mr. Genovese always got his cut. The late mobster Frank Amato once said, "Michael Genovese, at some point, gets a portion of everything."

What he did with it all is hard to know. Jennie Genovese said he didn't have any money and was living on Social Security. She said his medical treatments were paid for by Medicare.

"This man has no money. There's no money. People think he has lots of money and he didn't," she said. "We were going month by month."

The authorities who chased him and his cronies for years don't believe that and suspect he invested in real estate through a company in Highland Park.

The funeral arrangements for Mr. Genovese are by William F. Gross Funeral Home, 11735 Frankstown Road, Penn Hills.

In the old days, the FBI would turn out in force for such a mob chieftain's funeral, as would any number of "wiseguys."

That probably won't happen this time. Most of the old mafia members are dead, La Cosa Nostra itself appears to be a dying organization and the FBI is focused on fighting terrorism.

"It truly is the end of an era," said Mr. Greenbank.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Genovese is survived by his son, Michael A. Genovese; daughter Alice Sikovsek; and his sister, Frances Puccurelli.

Visitation will be at William F. Gross Funeral Home from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. today. Funeral Mass will be celebrated Friday at 10 a.m. at St. Bartholomew Church, 111 Erhardt Drive, Penn Hills.


Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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