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‘Mafia Spies’: Sam Giancana is gunned down before he can be called before Senate

Florida mobster Santo Trafficante Jr., the last man standing in the mob-CIA conspiracy against Castro. | Library of Congress

This is the last of three excerpts from the new book “Mafia Spies: The Inside Story of the CIA, Gangsters, JFK and Castro” (Skyhorse Publishing, $25.99) by Thomas Maier, a former Sun-Times reporter whose other books include “Masters of Sex,” which was made into a Showtime TV series

By May 1975, Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli were still friends, linked by their criminal conspiracies, though no longer young and powerful.

The showgirls, the Hollywood celebrities, the millions in gambling revenue from Vegas casinos they oversaw for the Outfit — arguably the most formidable Mafia organization America had ever seen — were now mostly a memory.

Jail, foreign exile and the constant drumbeat of government surveillance had kept Giancana and Roselli apart. Their few conversations usually took place on random pay phones to avoid wiretaps.

Despite all these late-in-life difficulties, however, Sam and Johnny remained loyal pals upon whom each could depend.

Virtually broke, Roselli needed Giancana’s help in paying his lawyer’s fees. To their great chagrin, both men had been subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating the CIA’s plans to assassinate Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders. Roselli had little money left for a defense attorney.

The dark secret kept hidden for years — the agency’s recruitment of Mafia hitmen to pursue Cuba’s Communist leader — was coming to light officially. Roselli’s prominent role — detailed in Jack Anderson’s newspaper columns, as well as the investigative fallout from the Watergate investigation and reports of domestic spying by the CIA — prompted U.S. Senate hearings planned by Sen. Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho.

Giancana and Roselli were expected to testify about the CIA sometime in the summer of 1975. Giancana generously offered money to Roselli if he needed it for a lawyer. Roselli accepted through a mutual friend, conceding he wasn’t above Giancana’s financial assistance.

“Let me figure out what my next [attorney’s] tab will be,” he gratefully told the unidentified mutual friend. The Senate hearings were still a few weeks away. Both men would need the best lawyers’ advice possible.

Since leaving prison, Roselli had talked about getting involved again in casino gambling. Only this time, he wanted a place in the Middle East, where the governments would not ban him as in Vegas. Roselli desperately needed financial backers. Acceptance of money from Giancana may have included this dream of faraway casinos as well.

Giancana advised Roselli to be careful with associates. He worried that he and Florida mobster Santo Trafficante Jr., also involved in the CIA’s Castro assassination plot, had become “too close.” Giancana now believed this Tampa-based don, with his murky ties to Cuban exiles and Castro’s narcotics trafficking, could not be trusted. He knew Trafficante — for all his business savvy and ability to translate Spanish — was a murderer at heart.

READ MORE

‘Mafia Spies,’ part 1: Chicago’s ‘Mafia Spies,’ CIA Castro plot detailed in new book by ex-Sun-Times writer

‘Mafia Spies,’ part 2: Why mob boss Sam Giancana made Rat Pack play his Northbrook club

Perhaps the only alliance worthy of loyalty for Sam and Johnny was between themselves. A decade earlier, the two gangsters had generated millions together, with an ambitious vision that traditional bosses like the Chicago Outfit’s Tony Accardo could never imagine. Maybe if all went well, they could become crime partners again, overseeing the skim at some casino in Tehran or gambling ships off the coast of Belize.

Chicago Outfit boss Tony Accardo, who put Sam Giancana into power and later ousted him. | Skyhorse Publishing
Chicago Outfit boss Tony Accardo, who put Sam Giancana into power and later ousted him. | Skyhorse Publishing

But that same month Giancana became terribly ill during a visit to California. Doctors said he needed gallbladder surgery right away. An operation by Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, one of the nation’s best surgeons, was arranged in Houston.

Giancana recuperated for days in a Texas hospital bed, visited by his girlfriend Carolyn Morris and his daughter Bonnie. He returned home to Oak Park, yet he soon worsened. Giancana was sent back to Houston with a blood clot and other problems.

After several days in the hospital, where Houston police monitored him, Giancana bolted out the back door. He secretly made his way back to Chicago with the help of daughter Francine’s husband, Jerome DePalma.

Two days later, on June 19, 1975, Francine, her husband and their daughter visited Sam at his Oak Park home. They shared some dinner. As the youngest of Angeline’s babies, Francine had always been Sam’s favorite. She calmed his nerves without complaint. His surgical wounds were still very tender. He had lost a lot of weight.

Weakly, Giancana chatted with his family and two old friends from the Outfit — Chuckie English and Butch Blasi — until they all departed near 11 o’clock. Undercover Chicago detectives — who’d been sitting in an unmarked car, watching who came in and out of Giancana’s house — had left by that point.

Earlier that day, Senate Intelligence Committee staffers arrived in Chicago, aware that Giancana had “little taste for a grilling by a congressional committee.” The next morning, they intended to escort him safely to Washington, to answer the Church committee’s questions about the CIA’s homicidal schemes.

After his dinner guests departed, Giancana said goodnight to the couple who were his housekeepers and lived upstairs. To lull themselves asleep, the couple turned on their television. Giancana retired to his basement den with a little snack that Francine had left for him.

All around his well-decorated den, Giancana’s knickknacks — cigar humidor, paintings and hobbies like golf and photography — were on display. So was his collection of favorite movies, which included “The Manchurian Candidate,” starring his friend Frank Sinatra, with its Cold War plot of double-agent spies and assassination conspiracy.

Sam pulled out the sausages in Francine’s doggie bag. Atop a small stove, he started to grill them in a pan.

A knock at the basement entrance drew his attention. He opened the steel door to allow in a recognizable face, apparently a trusted friend, whom he invited to share his meal. After a little discussion, Giancana turned his head to continue cooking. Along with the heated sausage, he boiled escarole and ceci beans in another pan.

Suddenly, the late-night friend became an attacker. He pulled out a .22 pistol affixed with a silencer and fired it into the back of Giancana’s head.

Giancana collapsed to the floor. This was no random murder. The killer wanted to send a message.

The assassin placed the pistol’s silencer into Giancana’s mouth. He fired six more times, rhythmically and quietly.

Bullets into the mouth were a Mafia signature. It also was a warning to anyone else who might think of talking to the feds or a congressional committee.

“The mob knew the odds were Sam wouldn’t keep his mouth shut this time,” surmised Robert Maheu, his onetime CIA connection. “So it silenced him for good.”

Expressing the shock of the nation, The New York Times columnist William Safire called Giancana “the only person in American history to be murdered just before he was to appear in front of a congressional committee.”

Local law enforcement theorized his murder wouldn’t have taken place without the approval of Accardo. There had been many grievances between the two. But Giancana’s family believed he’d been killed because of his work with Roselli on the CIA assassination plots against Castro.

“I always felt very strongly that the subpoena requiring Sam to appear before the committee was the death warrant that led to his murder,” insisted Antoinette Giancana. She rushed to his house when she heard of Sam’s murder.

“He’s gone — he’s dead!” Antoinette screamed at his body still on the floor.

She was overcome with regret. At the time of his death, her father still had been refusing to speak with her.

On June 23, 1975, reporters swarmed Giancana’s funeral, as they once did at his court appearances. A hundred mourners attended his memorial service. Young toughs threatened to beat up photographers if they snapped the casket passing by.

None of the top members of Chicago’s Outfit paid their respects, as though they’d been warned in advance. Neither Accardo nor any out-of-town Mafioso showed their faces, including Johnny Roselli, scheduled to testify before the Senate in a few days.

Law enforcement observers noticed Carolyn Morris didn’t attend Giancana’s funeral. Absent also were familiar faces from Hollywood and Las Vegas, including his Rat Pack pal and Cal-Neva partner Frank Sinatra.

But Phyllis McGuire, his beautiful former lover, did appear. “I give her credit,” said William Roemer, the FBI agent most familiar with Giancana’s personal life as well as his criminal history. “She had the guts to be seen at his funeral … Almost nobody cared.”

At 67, Giancana was laid to rest at Mount Carmel Cemetery, the same place where another notorious Chicago gangster, Al Capone, was buried. Giancana’s remains were placed in a mausoleum, entombed next to his beloved wife Angeline. For family and friends, it was a sad reminder how Angeline’s early death changed everything in Sam’s life.

Giancana’s murder would remain unsolved. Police rummaged through his possessions and discovered numerous curious artifacts, including a framed photograph of Giancana with Pope Pius XII at the Vatican. How did this gangster, after a lifetime of murder and mayhem, arrange for his picture to be taken with the pontiff?

Eventually, the assassin’s weapon — a black automatic pistol with a homemade silencer — was found in a park two miles from Giancana’s home.

Ballistic tests proved the gun killed Giancana two months earlier. Police theorized the assassin heard sirens and ditched the weapon out of the window of a getaway car.

In tracing where the murder weapon had been purchased, detectives found one suggestive clue:

The gun came from Miami, purchased in a gun shop in the heart of Florida’s Cuban exile community, where Trafficante was king.

Author Thomas Maier, a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter whose other books include “Masters of Sex,” which became a Showtime TV series. | Provided photo
Author Thomas Maier, a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter whose other books include “Masters of Sex,” which became a Showtime TV series. | Provided photo