Profiling the low-profile godfather, Russell Bufalino

John Davidson - For Times Leader
Russell J. Bufalino. right, and Thomas Lucchese testify before the Seante Rackets Committee, in Washington, on July 3, 1958, in a probe of alleged gangster infiltration of businesses and labor unions. AP file photo Russell J. Bufalino. right, and Thomas Lucchese testify before the Seante Rackets Committee, in Washington, on July 3, 1958, in a probe of alleged gangster infiltration of businesses and labor unions. - AP file photo

Editor’s Note: This profile of Russell Bufalino first appeared in the Times Leader on July 30, 2006. It has been edited for reuse here.

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You would never think so by the look of it, but a squat brick house at 304 E. Dorrance St. in Kingston was for nearly 40 years the home of one of the most powerful reputed mob bosses in the United States.

Russell Bufalino was born Oct. 3, 1903, in Sicily and ran one of the country’s most effective and influential crime families until his death in 1994. His unassuming house was characteristic of the way he ran the various business enterprises of the Bufalino family, from dress factories in West Pittston to casinos in Havana, Cuba.

Bufalino is played by Joe Pesci in the upcoming film “The Irishman,” based on Charles Brandt’s book in which he writes that Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran professed in the 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses” to acting as a hitman for Bufalino and for Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, whom he claimed to have killed in 1975.

For most of his years as godfather, Bufalino lived at his East Dorrance Street home and frequented local establishments such as the Mayfair Night Club and the Imperial Poolroom. Unless you knew something about the mob in the Northeast you’d never think he was anything but a mild-mannered old Sicilian who loved prosciutto bread, red wine and boxing.

In 1953 the FBI identified Bufalino as being “one of the two most powerful men in the Mafia of the Pittston, Pa., area,” and “the political and underworld leader” of the region. His 114-page FBI file describes myriad business and underworld activities, from union racketeering to trailer manufacturing to fencing stolen jewelry and gambling. Part of an FBI profile from 1957 said Bufalino, “apparently has a ‘hold’ on all persons involved in gambling activities in the Pittston area, in that he, Bufalino, gets a ‘cut’ from each of them.”

During World War II, Bufalino worked as a mechanic in the Canada Dry Ginger Ale Bottling Co., whose president reputedly headed the Mafia in the Northeast at the time, Joseph Barbara of Binghamton, N.Y.

In the 1950s, Bufalino owned at least seven dress factories around Pittston and exercised complete control over the area’s then-profitable garment industry; anyone who wanted a dress contract in New York City had to go through Bufalino.

But the FBI paid only cursory attention to people like Bufalino and Barbara in the decade after World War II as director J. Edgar Hoover concentrated his resources on suspected Communists. Organized crime didn’t become a priority until local police raided a gathering of mob bosses from across the country in Apalachin, N.Y., in November 1957.

In that raid, 58 godfathers were arrested, including Bufalino, and about 50 more escaped into the woods. The fiasco put the American Mafia in an unwanted spotlight. Although criminal charges were eventually dropped against the arrested bosses, the raid brought publicity to a highly organized crime network that spanned the country.

Bufalino is thought to have called the Apalachin meeting to settle possible disputes arising from the October 1957 slaying of Albert Anastasia in New York’s Park Sheraton Hotel. According to his FBI file, Bufalino checked into the Casey Hotel in Scranton with five men the night before the meeting and attended the next day with at least two of them.

An article in the New York Herald on Jan. 7, 1958, says Bufalino was picked up on a midtown street in New York City and questioned for three hours about the murder of Anastasia. Investigators later said Bufalino could shed no light on the case.

In the years following Apalachin the FBI started keeping closer tabs on Bufalino. The feds knew he traveled frequently to Cuba, where he reportedly owned a casino and a racetrack before Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

An FBI dossier from July 20, 1956, mentions a trip Bufalino made to Cuba with several business associates including someone from Medico Electric Co., which was awarded $800,000 in war contracts in 1951. The Pennsylvania Organized Crime Commission’s 1980 report identified Bufalino as a silent partner in Medico Industries, the largest supplier of ammunition to the U.S. government.

After the revolution in Cuba, Bufalino and several other mob figures were rumored to have been recruited by the CIA to work on a plot to assassinate Castro just before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, according to a 1975 Time magazine report.

Although many of Bufalino’s activities are outlined in brief in his FBI file, some are corroborated and described in greater detail in a 2004 book by Charles Brandt, “I Heard You Paint Houses.” The book, part memoir and part historical narrative, recounts the story of Frank `The Irishman’ Sheeran and how he got involved with Jimmy Hoffa, Bufalino and the mob. In the book Sheeran describes meeting Bufalino at a truck stop in Endicott, N.Y., in 1955; his truck broke down and Bufalino lent him some tools.

Over the course of the next few years Sheeran would learn who the kindly old Italian was who helped him out that day. Sheeran said when news of the Apalachin raid hit the newsstands he “understood why Russell would ask me to drive him to different places and wait for him in the car while he did a little business in somebody’s house or in a bar or a restaurant … Russell Bufalino was as big as Al Capone had been, maybe bigger.”

The book goes on to outline the events leading up to the disappearance of former Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, and Bufalino’s name comes up often in crucial parts of the narrative.

In the years following Apalachin, the FBI and INS tried to deport Bufalino to Italy, claiming his family had moved to the United States when he was 2 and falsified his birth certificate. In fact, most of Bufalino’s FBI file consists of documents dealing with his status as a U.S. citizen and the government’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to deport him.

He was first imprisoned in 1978 at the age of 74 after a federal grand jury found him guilty of extorting money from Jack Napoli, a mobster turned informant. He served three years but was imprisoned again in 1982 after being found guilty of conspiring to kill Napoli.

Bufalino was sentenced to 10 years at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, but his health deteriorated quickly and in 1987 he was transferred to the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo., where was released on parole in May 1989.

Up until September 1992, Bufalino was under the watch of the U.S. Parole Board and the Pennsylvania Crime Commission. Upon his release in 1989, a special agent with the commission said Bufalino would be kept under “constant surveillance” if necessary.

Bufalino is thought to have continued as the head of his family until his death in 1994. He was 90.

Russell J. Bufalino. right, and Thomas Lucchese testify before the Seante Rackets Committee, in Washington, on July 3, 1958, in a probe of alleged gangster infiltration of businesses and labor unions.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/web1_Bufalino_Lucchese-cmyk.jpgRussell J. Bufalino. right, and Thomas Lucchese testify before the Seante Rackets Committee, in Washington, on July 3, 1958, in a probe of alleged gangster infiltration of businesses and labor unions. AP file photo

John Davidson

For Times Leader