The Next Page: Michael James Genovese -- The life & times of the last great Pittsburgh mobster
Drawing on FBI files recently released to the Post-Gazette, Torsten Ove fleshes out the life of an old-school mafioso
April 19, 2009 4:00 AM
By Torsten Ove Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On an 82-acre farm in wooded West Deer, the final act in the decades-long drama of the Pittsburgh mafia has played out.
Quietly, of course. That was always the way with the secretive Michael James Genovese.
Consigliere and protege to Sebastian John LaRocca, Mr. Genovese succeeded his mentor in 1984 to become the low-profile head of La Cosa Nostra in Western Pennsylvania, according to the FBI.
He died in 2006 at age 87. But his widow, Jennie Lee Genovese, and his adopted son, Michael A. Genovese (a Post-Gazette truck driver), have been fighting each other over what's left of the estate they both call home.
Jennie and her late husband executed the Genovese Living Trust 21 days before he died, under which she and Michael were co-trustees. But last year she removed him as a beneficiary and kicked him off the property. He challenged her right to deny him his inheritance but lost in Orphan's Court. A county judge ordered that Michael had to move out by March 1.
The property, meanwhile, has fallen into disrepair -- a metaphor of sorts for the decline of the Pittsburgh mob. It used to be a working farm, but when Mr. Genovese died, workmen stopped coming around to maintain it.
It's hard to reconcile this forlorn scene with Michael J. Genovese, who embraced cocaine dealing and oversaw the most lucrative period in mob history here until the feds brought it down with a racketeering case in 1990.
Now old FBI intelligence files, recently released to the Post-Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act, offer new glimpses of his life. Although heavily redacted, they paint a fuller picture than ever before.
The files reveal him as old-school in many respects. He was a natty dresser, unfailingly polite, discreet in his dealings. He was the opposite of flashy modern mobsters like John Gotti.
Yet at heart he was a cheap, greedy street hood from East Liberty who never strayed far from those roots.
For decades, agents considered him and Mr. LaRocca the heads of the mob in Western Pennsylvania, the West Virginia panhandle, eastern Ohio and western New York.
The Pittsburgh gangsters, along with New Kensington rackets boss Gabriel "Kelly" Mannarino, once held sway across the country.
When New York City police arrested a team of hijackers in 1960, for example, one of them had a business card from the Genovese Cocktail Lounge, an East Liberty bar run by Mike and his brothers, Felix and Fiore, later called the Red Eagle.
Mr. LaRocca, an old-fashioned Sicilian, had favored Mike Genovese because of his "clean habits" -- he was fastidious in every aspect, from shiny shoes to manicured nails -- and because he once hit on a number for $60,000 and gave half of it to Mr. LaRocca.
Mike was "polished, sincere and ultra-conservative."
But the same could not be said of his brothers. Felix, the older one, was once considered for a top rank. But he drank, chased women and got arrested repeatedly. Fiore, the younger one who resembled Jackie Gleason, had "everything on his mind but business."
Mike was different. He cheated on his wives and enjoyed gambling, too, but seemed to have better control over his vices. He spent his cash out of town and had a reputation for "having the first nickel he ever earned."
The guy didn't like to pay for anything. The FBI had information that he directed a county employee to steal curbstones and Jersey barriers from a county storage facility. Aerial photos showed the barriers shoring up a hillside on the Genovese property; the curbstones were on his driveway.
And out in the neighborhoods, he imposed a "street tax" on gamblers doing business in mob territory, with payments made to him in cash.
A tough beginning
Born in 1919, Mr. Genovese was the middle son of Tony Genovese and Ursula DiAngelo and grew up on Larimer Avenue, once a thriving Italian community.
Not much is known about his parents, although files reveal that Mrs. Genovese was arrested in the 1930s for making moonshine.
Mike was raised at 313 Larimer with his brothers and three sisters and went to Westinghouse High School, but left in 1934 for trade school. He was no scholar. The files say his IQ was an abysmally low 77.
He came up rough. Although hardly imposing at 5-feet-8 and 165 pounds, he boxed, worked as a bodyguard for mobsters and was known to be good with a knife and a pool cue filled with lead.
His first brush with the law came in 1936, when he was arrested in the East End for robbing a man of $4. His only other arrest was in 1945 for carrying a concealed pistol and a blackjack in Youngstown. Informants told the FBI that he wanted to get caught so he could avoid military service. It worked; he never fought for his country.
Mike rose through the mafia ranks on business savvy. He worked for Mr. LaRocca at various establishments, primarily North Star Cement Block Co. and L&G Amusement Co. L&G (the "G" stood for Genovese) was set up to force bar owners to install the company's jukeboxes.
In 1954, he put up $19,000 to buy into Archie's Car Wash on Bennett Street in Homewood, which became his gambling headquarters.
He enjoyed protection from the police. Among his close "associates," the FBI files say, was James V. "Chippy" DeStout, assistant chief of county detectives and a former Pittsburgh police inspector.
Mike was always known as a local tough. But he came to national attention in 1957, when he, Mr. LaRocca and Mr. Mannarino attended the infamous mafia conference at Apalachin, N.Y.
An FBI report indicates it was one of three mob meetings to set up a heroin network from Sicily to America.
Mr. Genovese refused to testify about it when grilled by Robert Kennedy before the U.S. Senate Rackets Committee. But he later told an informant that another plan had been hatched at Apalachin: building motels around the country to launder money.
Near the turnpike exit in Monroeville, the Phoenix Motel and the Toll Gate Motel would serve that purpose for the Pittsburgh family.
By 1960, both motels were so busy that Mr. Genovese had to turn away customers. He even chartered buses to the 1960 World Series games at Forbes Field, and also to Steelers and Pitt football games.
Monroeville businessmen didn't like Mr. Genovese because of his "aloofness," but he was there to stay. In later years, the mob came to dominate that area of Monroeville and even set up its headquarters there at the Holiday House.
Kennedy and the G-men
Life got complicated for Mr. Genovese after Apalachin. In 1958, he became a suspect in a plot by Mr. Mannarino, who ran a casino in Cuba, to supply rifles to Fidel Castro. Mafia leaders decided to support Castro because dictator Fulgencio Batista forced them to pay tribute to operate their gambling houses.
State police raided Mr. Genovese's property in search of guns. They didn't find any, and a New Kensington gangster was later arrested in the scheme.
But law enforcement was watching Mr. Genovese closely -- and he knew it.
Through the '50s and '60s, agents probed his real estate business, Nelson Development; tracked him as he tooled around in his white Cadillac; spied on his house; monitored the phone numbers he called.
He was always cordial with them. In 1961, an FBI man approached him at the Phoenix and asked him about a picture of Mr. LaRocca with Chicago mobsters at a 1960 World Series game. Mr. Genovese "requested that [the agent] confine himself to a general and friendly discussion" and not inquire about business.
He said he admired Robert Kennedy, describing his intelligence, wealth and contacts as "especially dangerous" to organized crime. But he also said Mr. Kennedy was "going too far" in investigating the mob and trying to make the United States a "police state."
This give-and-take went both ways. In 1963, the FBI offered its help when Mike and his second wife received extortion calls from someone saying he was cheating on her and "keeping a girl" at the Phoenix. Mike was infuriated -- but he told agents he'd handle it himself.
The FBI also uncovered a tangled personal life. Mr. Genovese married his first wife, Carmela Napoletano, in 1939 and had two daughters, Kathleen and Yvonne, with her. But in 1945, after he began an affair with a dancer named Alice Gray Rohbacker, he and Carmela separated.
After she moved to California and remarried, she told the FBI that Alice was to blame for ruining her marriage. She also complained that Mr. Genovese wasn't paying child-support bills of $100 a month.
Alice became Mike's common-law wife in 1947. Mike was stepfather to her daughter, Alice-Jo, from her previous marriage, but he badly wanted a male heir.
In the end, despite a raft of medical tests, the couple found they couldn't conceive. They adopted Michael A. Genovese in 1965, which surprised other gangsters who wondered if he'd paid someone off at the adoption agency. The FBI files are silent on that issue.
Alice died in 1998 and Mr. Genovese took up with Jennie Lee. They married in 2004.
At home, Mr. Genovese considered himself a "gentleman farmer." Unlike Mr. LaRocca, who moved to Florida to avoid Pittsburgh winters, Mike was a homebody.
He moved onto the farm in 1956 when the owner let him stay there in exchange for handyman work. He later bought it for $24,000 and launched an expansion, renovating the main house and planning an artificial lake.
He enjoyed doing odd jobs, hosting hunting parties and taking care of his horses, especially a favorite called Gunga Din.
But, the files say, he wasn't interested in any real farm work.
He was a night owl, leaving home at 10 p.m. for the Phoenix, which he had stocked with prostitutes, and returning around 5 a.m.
Friends and enemies
As his business interests expanded, he developed friends in high places. On July 2, 1967, one of the Pittsburgh crime family members held a party until 4 a.m. at his Whitehall home. The guest of honor: Frank Sinatra. Among the hosts was Mr. Genovese.
Later that year, county commissioners Tom Foerster and Leonard Staisey celebrated an election victory at the Hollywood Social Club in the city. Mr. Genovese sat at their table.
But while Mike enjoyed his station in life and chafed at being characterized as a gangster, he still ruled by fear.
That was never more apparent than when Alphonse Marano of Penn Hills turned up dead in December 1967.
Prior to the death, federal agents had raided clubs in West Virginia run by Joseph "Jo Jo" Pecora based on information from an undercover IRS agent whom Mr. Marano, a doorman and gambler, had unwittingly introduced to the mob.
Two days before the murder, Mr. Genovese walked into a mob-run club, ordered it cleared out and grilled the employees, zeroing in on Mr. Marano. He returned the next night and again focused on Mr. Marano, telling him he had lied to him the night before.
After Mr. Marano left, Mr. Genovese stared at everyone. Then, an informant said, "he suddenly made a fist, turned it over with his thumb down and left the premises."
The next day, Mr. Marano was found dead in Yukon, Westmoreland County, shot three times in the head.
Yet when his brother was killed in 1971, Mr. Genovese took no action. Fiore and another man had left the office of a Larimer magistrate to buy jars for spaghetti sauce the men were cooking in a back room when a retarded man named Nicholas Gelormini opened fire on them.
Mr. Genovese initially wanted to order a hit on Mr. Gelormini, informants said, but Mr. LaRocca flew home from Florida to calm him.
It turned out that Mr. Gelormini wanted revenge for being teased by mobsters at the Red Eagle where he worked. He went to the house of Eugene Gesuale, his chief tormenter, to shoot him. Mr. Gesuale refused to come out, so Mr. Gelormini shot Fiore instead.
"Genovese holds no grudge," the FBI wrote, "because he thinks the killer is insane."
RICO and the money
By the beginning of the 1970s, the files show, Mr. LaRocca was spending most of his time in Florida and gangsters started calling Mr. Genovese.
The feds took their best shot in 1973 when they subpoenaed him to testify under a grant of immunity before a special grand jury. He refused to answer questions and was jailed for six months in 1974.
That was the closest he ever came to accounting for what agents said was a life of crime.
In the 1980s, however, his organization began to unravel as prosecutors chipped away at his cocaine enterprise using RICO, the powerful Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It was the drug-dealing that ultimately did in the mob, here and across America, because the profits were too huge for the organization to maintain the discipline on which La Cosa Nostra was built.
Some 40 mobsters and associates ended up in prison. But not Mr. Genovese.
Agents considered building a tax case against him but felt they didn't have enough to convict, in part because his underlings would not testify against him.
In his later years, he became increasingly reclusive and sickly, suffering from heart disease and bladder cancer. He rarely left the West Deer property.
On Oct. 31, 2006, he died in his sleep at home.
On his deathbed, it's unclear if he suspected that his widow and his son would one day battle each other for a piece of his legacy. Michael A. denied it in court, but Jennie said he had long been estranged from his father.
Where did the money go?
The late mobster Frank Amato once said, "Michael Genovese, at some point, gets a portion of everything."
Yet when he died, his widow said he was living on Social Security. She wouldn't comment for this story, but at the time she said, "people think he has lots of money and he didn't. We were going month by month."
The FBI and the IRS believed Mr. Genovese invested everything in Shadyside apartment buildings through a Highland Park company owned by two brothers who were Democratic ward bosses.
But they could never prove anything. So when his lieutenants, Chuck Porter and Lou Raucci, went to jail in 1990, Mr. Genovese watched from afar, untouched.
Former FBI agent Roger Greenbank, who dogged the mafia here for years, put it best after Mr. Genovese died.
"He beat us at the game," he said.
Not bad for a Larimer kid with a 77 IQ.
Torsten Ove, a Post-Gazette staff writer, has often written about the mafia, including a history of the Pittsburgh family and the release of Chuck Porter from prison in 2000 after turning FBI informant. He can be reached at