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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2001

Youngstown: a city mired in fear and corruption

BY MICHAEL D. SALLAH
BLADE NATIONAL AFFAIRS WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN - Just days after he was elected county prosecutor, Paul Gains began hearing the rumors: You won't live long enough to take office.

He tried to brush them off, but the warnings persisted: They're going to assassinate you.

As he stood in his kitchen on Christmas Eve, it was too late to take cover: A bullet ripped into his arm and back.

The attack on the man who promised to root out corruption is worthy of a 1960s mob movie, except it happened in 1996. And it wasn't Chicago or New York, but Youngstown - the heart of the Mahoning Valley.

The shooting - which the prosecutor survived - led to an investigation that went far beyond the attack on his life. It exposed Mahoning County as one of the nation's most corrupt regions, a place where the Mafia had a grip on everyone from politicians and judges to the police.

With the May indictment of the area's most powerful politician, Congressman James Traficant (D., Youngstown), on bribery and other charges, some officials are asking: Can it get any worse?

Besides the battle with organized crime, the area is experiencing some of its toughest economic times since the famous steel mills shut down a generation ago.

The number of people standing in unemployment lines in Mahoning County has increased by 118 percent since last year. In neighboring Trumbull County, it's closer to 190 percent.

A private prison in Youngstown that once employed 450 people just shut its doors. And a longtime textile cleaner did the same, eliminating 250 positions.

Even in the last decade - when most of Ohio was prospering - Mahoning County showed only 21/2 years of job growth.

“We're hurting. It's not a good time for us,” says state Sen. Bob Hagan. “And when people see the congressman on television ranting about his problems, they're laughing at us.”

Since the shooting of the incoming prosecutor by a mob hit man five years ago, 65 people have been convicted of bribery and racketeering charges, including a Who's Who of Youngstown: the former county prosecutor, three judges, a county engineer, a county sheriff, a county commissioner, a city law director, and a top congressional aide.

With the racketeering trial of the congressman set for February, local officials are gearing up to counter another round of negative publicity.

When a City Confidential television crew was in town three weeks ago to tape a show about corruption, local chamber of commerce officials called the cable show to try to tout the good things about the valley.

Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey refuses to talk about the city's infamous crime past, claiming “it's behind us now.”

Others disagree, saying it exists, but has gone into hiding. Local officials say the mob is one of the main reasons the local economy has never recovered from the demise of the steel industry two decades ago.

Unlike other areas that were forced to change and attract new businesses like Cleveland and even Toledo, the valley remains steeped in an older manufacturing economy that has never evolved.

Once boasting 64,000 steel-related jobs, the number is now fewer than a quarter of that. “We have to get beyond the corruption before we move to the next level,” says lawyer James Callen, a founder of the Citizens League of Youngstown. “And until that happens, it's going to be very difficult.”

Officials argue that too many outsiders mistrust the establishment to make sizable investments in the community.

The breathtaking valley, once covered by steel mills belching smoke, is now covered by decrepit buildings and scrap yards.

Not far from the downtown sits an abandoned hospital, surrounded by fences and razor wire.

No other urban area in Ohio has lost more of its population than Youngstown in the last 20 years.

“We never really came back after the mills closed,” bemoans Gary Clinton, 49, an unemployed laborer who lives in a makeshift hut near the downtown. “We ain't never going to come back.”

But that's the attitude that reformers are trying to change. Officials are trying to bring a $28 million convocation center to the city's downtown as the centerpiece of a revitalization effort.

A local group, ACTION, is trying to get political candidates to sign contracts pledging responsibility in government.

The Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber is gearing up for a promotional effort to counter the spate of negative publicity, says vice president Greg Sherlock. “We're not going to just sit back like the old days,” he says. “We're going to take advantage of the media here by talking about the good things about this place.”

Since the FBI investigation began five years ago, a debate has emerged: Just how openly should people talk about their battle with the mob?

Some argue that publicly exorcising the demons is the only way to bring about social and economic salvation.

Others say that continuing to bring it up only reinforces the stereotypes that have plagued the valley for so long.

“We get tired of reading about the organized crime,” grouses Dr. Gil Peterson, a retired Youngstown State University professor and friend of the congressman. “It's nothing compared to what it used to be.”

Others counter that the investigation during the last five years has shown the deep level of corruption, and there's no guarantee it's gone. “People don't think we have a problem because it has been accepted in our culture for so long,” says Senator Hagan, who ran unsuccessfully against Mr. Traficant last year.

“We've lived with this for so many years, we think it's a normal way of doing business. That's the crux of our problem.”

In what was described as a cleansing last year, a group of community leaders that included the sheriff traveled to Sicily in November.

The reason: to learn how the island was able to extricate itself from the grip of the Mafia.

The widely publicized trip led to tensions back home, where some people criticized the group for grandstanding.

But Mr. Callen and others say the trip did more to understand the culture of the valley - and its ancestral ties to traditional crime families - than anything ever written about the area.

As a result, programs were started in the schools and churches to teach youngsters about recognizing organized crime.

But the corruption in the Youngstown area is more pervasive, because it was woven into the fabric of life for generations, say experts.

“The political corruption is so deep in Youngstown that most people on the outside don't even believe it,” says Rick Porrello, an ex-Cleveland policeman who writes about the Mafia. “We're talking about old-line stuff that you used to see 50 years ago.”

On a fall day in 1962, Charles “Cadillac” Cavallaro stepped into his car with his two sons, ages 11 and 12. They never made it out of the driveway: A bomb exploded with enough force to blow the car into pieces. Cavarallo and his 11-year-old were nearly unrecognizable. The other boy survived.

The bomb was a message from a rival mob faction.

Like nine other Mafia murders in the Mahoning Valley in the previous decade, the crime was never solved.

But the killing of an innocent youngster thrust Youngstown onto America's crime charts.

The public outcry over the youngster's death led to a truce between the Cleveland and Pittsburgh families who were battling for control of the area's gambling and prostitution rackets. But the peace didn't last.

This was The Valley.

From the hills of Trumbull County to the vast industrial canyon where the mills churned out 10 million tons of steel a year, the area was a backbone of industrial America. It not only teemed with workers, but its streets were filled with gambling dens and brothels.

Bombings were rampant, with bodies turning up in the nearby Meander Reservoir. “One side would get hit, so they would go out and hit the other,” says FBI agent Robert Kroner.

In 1963, the Saturday Evening Post dubbed Youngstown as Crimetown, USA - a label that endures today.

Between 1962 and 1980, 38 people were murdered in turf disputes - with no one ever arrested.

For the average steel worker, crime wasn't the most important issue because everyone was flush with cash: Average wages in Youngstown were among the highest in Ohio. “Everyone was working. We thought it would never end,” says retired steel worker Joe Gavini, 84.

But a trend was under way that would change the valley forever: Big Steel was rusting.

The Japanese and other countries found a way to produce cheaper steel, while U.S. companies were still operating antiquated mills with high production costs. In September, 1977, on a day dubbed “Black Tuesday,” more than 4,100 workers were laid off from Youngstown Sheet and Tube.

Within five years, more steel companies folded, wiping out 30,000 jobs. Hundreds of families began to move away, with suicides and divorces doubling between 1980 and 1985.

Sadly, the corporate community “just vanished,” says Mr. Callen. “The leadership was unable to respond to the crisis.”

The former elite of the community had been “disinvesting” in the valley for years, and as a consequence, politicians became power brokers.

“Culturally, we never really evolved,” he says. “We basically froze in time. You kept hearing people say: `If only the mills would come back. If only the mills would come back.' Well, they're still waiting for the mills to come back. We still live in the world of our grandparents.”

One man emerged from the rubble to become the valley's voice: Mr. Traficant, who was elected Mahoning County sheriff in 1980.

The outspoken native son who grew up in a rough neighborhood called “Hunkytown” grabbed headlines when he went to jail rather than enforce foreclosure orders against jobless workers.

But in 1982, he was arrested for something more serious: allegedly accepting $163,000 in bribes from the crime families still fighting for control.

At first, Mr. Traficant signed a confession in exchange for immunity, saying the charges were true.

Later, he retracted everything, saying the note was forged. He admitted taking the money, but said he was conducting his own sting.

In a historic 1983 federal trial, he represented himself, and convinced the jury he was innocent. Wearing a pink shirt and ripped, green pants, he painted himself as the little guy going up against the federal government.

After his acquittal, he emerged as the anti-establishment folk hero. He fueled the anger that the rest of America had turned its back on the valley, saying it was “us against them.”

In 1984, he won his first term in Congress.

While the sheriff was victorious, the valley was losing. During the next 10 years, it was a battle to keep afloat. The Youngstown area lost $900 million in annual wages and a third of its tax base.

Organized crime became more entrenched.

Former Youngstown Mayor Patrick Ungaro and others went to Washington in 1984 to testify before a congressional subcommittee about the losing battle against the Mafia. But the cavalry never came.

Back home, the testimony created a great divide - one that still exists today. Then-Youngstown Democratic Party boss Don Hanni said the publicity was scaring honest business away. “Any self-respecting racketeer would starve to death in this town,” he said.

As the debate raged, the shootings continued, showing the mob was alive and well in the 1990s in the valley as it was being crushed in other places like Chicago and Detroit.

In 1991, Joey Naples, a local mob leader, was gunned down near his home. Five years later, Ernie Biondillo was ambushed by two masked men and murdered on a public street.

Then the mob went too far: it targeted the newly elected prosecutor, Paul Gains.

The ex-policeman vowed to stop case-fixing in court, and refused to accept campaign money from the local godfather, Lenny Strollo.

The aging mob boss later confessed he wanted the incoming prosecutor killed before he could take office in January, 1997.

But the hit man surprised Mr. Gains in his home on Christmas Eve.

“I was lucky,” he recalls. “The first bullet hit me in the arm and side. The second one just missed me as I fell to the ground.”

Then the intruder leaned over the lawyer, who was gasping for breath on the kitchen floor, but the gun wouldn't fire. It jammed.

The gunman panicked and bolted out the door. Mr. Gains survived. Months later, he received a call from an angry woman who knew the people who wanted him dead.

What followed was the most sweeping investigation ever waged by the FBI against the Youngstown mob.

Though federal agents had been probing gambling dens since 1995, the investigation was now expanding to violence and murder.

Church ministers and community leaders who had been warning people about the Mafia suddenly had an audience.

Mark Batcho, the hit man, and Strollo eventually gave the FBI the break it needed: They became government witnesses.

One by one, the layers of corruption were peeled back, exposing Mahoning County like never before.

Agents found a series of cases being fixed in the courts as well as county road and building projects funneled to the right contractors for a price.

Agents discovered the previous county prosecutor, James Philomena, was fixing cases in exchange for money. He pleaded guilty and in 1999 was sentenced to four years in prison.

Agents found evidence to show three judges were accepting bribes to render favorable rulings, for instance, reducing a charge of assault with a deadly weapon to simple assault.

Two judges, Martin Emrich and Andrew Polovischak, were sentenced to 21/2 years in prison in 1999 after pleading guilty to the charges. Patrick Kerrigan spent the summer in a halfway house.

O'Nesti died of cancer last year after pleading guilty to perjury and racketeering charges. Chance was sentenced to six years in prison.

Former county engineer William Fergus pleaded guilty in 1999 to conspiring with Strollo to extort money from paving contractors.

Two months ago, the long-awaited bomb dropped: Congressman Traficant was indicted on 10 counts of racketeering, bribery, and tax evasion.

The flamboyant lawmaker, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused, among other things, of shaking down corporate leaders for money in exchange for lobbying on their behalf to secure federal contracts.

He's also charged with ordering his staffers to work his horse farm, and requiring workers to kick money back to him.

The fountains in downtown Youngstown are no longer running, and the sidewalks on some of the well-traveled blocks are crumbling.

Beyond the old office buildings are the vestiges of the steel mills - acres of broken concrete and weeds.

In 1960, there were 166,000 people in Youngstown. Today less than half that number live there.

“We've been clinging to steel way too long,” says Ed Alleman, a longtime local resident. “People are still trying to figure out where to go from here.”

Though some companies benefited from a resurgence in domestic steel a few years ago, cheap foreign steel being dumped in the United States is setting the industry back again.

Congressman Traficant places much of the blame on the federal government - the same government that has caused his own woes, he says.

Shortly after he was indicted, he took to the local airwaves, ranting about corrupt FBI agents. He says he will represent himself at his trial and will prove he was “set up” by federal agents still angry over his acquittal 18 years ago.

Listeners called the station, hailing the lawmaker. Retired steel worker Joe Gavini says he's supporting the congressman. “He's all for us,” he says. “He's been doing a lot of good for us. No one fights for this area the way he does. And if he took money, so what? They all took money.”

In his last election - even after he announced he was under investigation - the congressman won the primary race against state Senator Hagan, and easily won the general election in November.

Others say they will not support him in the future. “He needs to go,” says Kelly Norwood, who lives near Youngstown. “Until they get rid of him, they're not going to move forward.”

After decades of investigating organized crime, FBI agent Robert Kroner says he believes the area is on its way to rooting out the corruption. “But I would be foolish to tell you that we are totally cleansed because of what has happened,” he says. “In the long run, that's going to be up to the people of the Mahoning Valley. They are the only ones who can ultimately stop it.”

Mr. Callen, who led the trip to Sicily last fall, says the ties between Youngstown and the old power brokers are starting to break.

“You don't just change overnight. It takes time to undo what has been done for so long. But we have to stay vigilant. We can't just give up.”



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