Buffalo Mafia Investigation Relies on Lackluster Informants
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) _ Two Mafia ″canaries″ raised the FBI’s hopes of bringing down Buffalo’s mob bosses - until one informant stopped singing and the other didn’t know the song law enforcement agents wanted to hear.
John C. Sacco Jr., a reputed top mob enforcer, allegedly returned to a life of crime after giving the FBI bad information. And Ronald M. Fino, the son of a former Buffalo crime boss, produced less information than agents expected.
Securing the cooperation of the two organized crime insiders had given the FBI confidence that indictments could be obtained against the local Mafia elite.
Sacco’s defection, in particular, had thrilled authorities because his adherence to the mob’s code of silence had been legend. ″Nobody shot me,″ he once told police while bleeding from three gunshot wounds.
But Sacco now is in jail, accused of dealing cocaine, loansharking and trying to arrange at least one killing while on the FBI’s payroll.
″This is what happens when the FBI takes people like Sacco, who make a lifetime of lying, and try dipping them into the River Jordan and then calling them clean government witnesses,″ said Paul J. Cambria Jr., a defense lawyer.
Fino’s testimony helped convict three men on labor-racketeering charges, but prosecutors became disenchanted with him because he failed to produce information that could bring down the leaders of Buffalo’s crime family.
U.S. Attorney Dennis C. Vacco did not return telephone calls but has been quoted as saying, ″I like it better when there is less publicity about Ron Fino.″
G. Robert Langford, agent in charge of Buffalo’s FBI office, said the mob investigation is still going forward. He predicted that Buffalo’s organized- crime leaders would be indicted within the next year.
He acknowledged that Sacco’s backsliding slowed the investigation.
″We had put a lot of the direction of the investigation based on the information he had been giving us,″ Langford said. ″Now we’ve got to go in different directions.″
Buffalo’s mob family does not play as large a role now as it did more than 30 years ago, when its boss, Stefano Maggadino, sat on the Mafia’s governing national commission.
Its membership has been declining and it does not control the city’s drug trade. But it still runs plenty of gambling and loansharking operations, Langford said.
It is also intertwined with Local 210 of the Laborers Union, according to law enforcement agents. Fino became the local’s business manager in 1973 and became an FBI informant a short time later.
In an interview recently in The Wall Street Journal, Fino said his main role was to provide information on underworld influence in the union.
He said that he was not a member of the Mafia but that figures such as Anthony Liberatore, a former Laborers official and alleged mob figure in Cleveland, trusted him because they knew his father, the late Joseph Fino, Buffalo’s mob boss from 1968 to 1972.
But Fino said there are limits to the information he can provide - which is why Sacco would have been such an important informant.
″He was directly involved in crime that I wouldn’t be,″ Fino said in March. ″Much of my involvement is in subtler areas: labor corruption, political corruption, the intertwining of organized crime.″
Sacco, who began cooperating with the FBI in June 1989, was expected to help solve several murders and provide up-to-date information about mob leaders, including reputed boss Joseph E. Todaro Jr. But sometime last spring, things began to go wrong.
″He gave us a lot of good information, and then for whatever reason - you’d have to ask him - he changed his mind and started giving us bad information,″ Langford said. ″He started lying to us, and that was the end of the deal.″
Nurturing informants is a delicate task, and it is not uncommon for them to slide back into the criminal life, Langford added. ″They start cooperating and get scared, or they just fall back into the old ways,″ he said.
Fino knows what the pressure can do to an informant. His wife divorced him after he sought FBI protection. The mob has reportedly put out a contract on him. Fear for his safety kept him from attending his mother’s funeral last winter.
″I try to live a halfway normal life,″ he told the Journal. ″But it’s difficult. I can’t go and come like a normal person. The toughest thing is my children - I don’t see them.
″Would I do it again?″ he asked. ″No. The price is too expensive.″