Mug shot of Paul Vario
July 9, 1914|
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||May 3, 1988
Federal Correctional Institution, Fort Worth
Tarrant County, Texas
|Known for||Lucchese crime family|
Nicknamed "Paulie," Vario stood six foot three and weighed 250 pounds. He was deceptively strong despite his girth. He had an aura of menace and would intimidate underlings and enemies just by his sheer size. During his adult years, Vario was arrested for loan-sharking, burglary, tax evasion, bribery, bookmaking, contempt of court and assault.
Vario allegedly had a very violent temper. One night Vario took his wife, Phyllis, out to dinner. While they were sitting at the table, the maitre d' accidentally poured wine on Phyllis' dress, then tried to dry it with a dirty rag. An enraged Vario hit the maitre d' twice and chased him to the kitchen. The maitre d' and several waiters with knives and heavy pans blocked the door. Later that evening, Vario sent two carloads of men armed with baseball bats and pipes to assault the waiters after the restaurant closed.
Vario's associate Henry Hill claimed that Vario severely beat a female bar server at her apartment with a baseball bat. The woman had allegedly informed Phyllis that she and Vario were having an affair.
In the early 1970s, Vario was "membership director" for Colombo crime family boss Joe Colombo's Italian-American Civil Rights League. However, he rescinded his membership and withdrew all support when it became apparent that the relentless accusations Colombo was making against the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. government and anti-Italian discrimination were attracting attention, which could easily divert from Colombo and his supporters' politics and into their criminal behavior.
Two associates of the Vario crew, Jimmy Burke and Henry Hill, would become famous. Burke would mastermind the multimillion-dollar Lufthansa robbery at JFK airport. Hill would eventually testify in court against Vario and write a very successful book about his mob career. Vario introduced Hill to the Lucchese family and took a personal interest in him.
At one point, Burke's protegé Thomas DeSimone allegedly attempted to rape Hill's wife, Karen, with whom Vario was having an affair. To punish DeSimone, Vario revealed to the Gambino crime family that DeSimone had secretly murdered William "Billy Bats" Devino, a Gambino family capo. This effectively made it permissible for the Gambinos to kill DeSimone in retaliation for his having killed Devino and Ronald "Foxy" Jerothe. Both Devino and Jerothe were said to have been close friends of Gambino capo and future boss John Gotti.
Rackets and businesses
Vario's crew frequently hijacked cargo at JFK International Airport. The airport was located near the Vario crew's neighborhood territory in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Vario often used his influence over the cargo haulers' union to threaten labor strikes in attempts to block government investigations. During 1980s FBI surveillance wire taps recorded Lucchese family mobsters boasting that "we own JFK." Henry Hill also stated that for the crews the airport was "like Citibank".
Vario allegedly controlled most forms of illegal gambling in the East New York section of Brooklyn. These included numbers games, bookmaking, and underground casinos. Anyone operating an illegal gambling operation in this area was forced to pay a percentage of their earnings to Vario as "protection" from theft or violence.
According to Hill, Vario originally prohibited his closest lieutenants from narcotics trafficking. However, when Vario was later in prison, he gave Hill permission to deal in narcotics.
Vario was also involved in legitimate businesses that included a flower shop, a bar, a restaurant and a taxi stand. Vario would use these business locations to also conduct his illegal rackets. At his height, Vario was earning an estimated $25,000 a day for all these illegal rackets. According to Hill, Vario once told him that he had stashed $1 million in a single vault. During this period, Vario also served as a counselor or underboss to Lucchese boss Carmine Tramunti.
According to Hill, Vario never used a telephone because he was afraid of electronic surveillance by law enforcement. Instead Vario met with his soldiers or other intermediaries, who then passed on messages to other people.
Prosecution and prison
By 1970, Vario began to receive greater scrutiny from the FBI and local police agencies. By the end of 1973, Vario had been indicted seven times in federal and state court.
On April 7, 1972, law enforcement placed an electronic listening device inside Vario's trailer at the junkyard and started gathering evidence against him. In addition, a police detective wearing a listening device started visiting the trailer. Vario was convinced the policeman was corrupt and soon started offering him bribes. The entire surveillance operation lasted about six months.
In October 1972, police raided Vario's junkyard in Canarsie. On November 1, 1972, Vario was indicted on charges of tampering with a witness. He had allegedly advised Frank Heitman, a convicted gambler, to flee to Florida to avoid testifying to a grand jury in Nassau County. To arrest Vario, police had to chase his car for 20 minutes through the streets of Brooklyn before he finally stopped for them. On November 21, 1972, Vario was indicted on insurance fraud charges. He and several co-conspirators had stripped a boat of its equipment, sunk it, and then filed a $7,000 insurance claim. On December 7, 1972, Vario was indicted on charges that included attempting to bribe the officer at the trailer. Also in December 1972, Vario pleaded guilty to drunken driving and received probation. However, Vario violated probation in early 1973 and was in jail by February 1973.
Vario was sent to the federal prison located in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. While in prison, Vario was part of the infamous "Mafia row" of prisoners. These mobsters lived lavishly (compared to other prisoners), enjoying wine and fine food. Lucchese soldier Johnny Dio acted as a cook for Vario and the others.
Release from prison
In 1975, Vario was released from federal prison. He was no longer the underboss in the Lucchese crime family; new boss Anthony Corallo had replaced Vario with Salvatore Santoro. On parole, Vario moved to a residence near Miami, Florida.
During the first few years of his release, Vario maintained his strong ties to the Lucchese family capo and well-known dope trafficker Joseph "Joe Beck" DiPalmero. Because of their surveillance, the FBI believed that Vario had financed at least one large-scale cocaine shipment with the assistance of DiPalermo. The shipment was seized in Queens following a tip-off to the DEA and was valued at $1.5 million.
In 1978, Vario approved his crew's participation in the infamous Lufthansa heist at JFK airport. The idea was presented to Vario by phone while he was in Florida. Vario quickly gave his approval, but insisted that Burke, then in prison, supervise it. In December 1978, the crew successfully looted an estimated $5 million in cash ($18.4 million today) and $875,000 in jewelry ($3.2 million today) .
Return to prison
On February 9, 1984, Vario was convicted of defrauding the federal government. Now a government witness, Hill testified that Vario had arranged a fictitious restaurant job for Hill so that Hill could be released from federal prison. Vario was convicted and on April 3, 1984, he was sentenced to four years in federal prison.
On February 21, 1985, while serving his prison sentence, Vario was indicted in a racketeering conspiracy that involved extortion. He and co-conspirators were charged with extorting over $350,000 from air cargo companies at JFK airport, threatening them with labor problems if they did not pay.
Paul and his first wife, Vita, had three sons, Peter, Paul Jr., and Leonard. Vario was the grandfather of actor/artist Paul Vario.
On July 20, 1973, Leonard Vario died of severe burns at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn. The cause of his injuries was never discovered. At his funeral, two television cameramen and a police detective were beaten by the mourners.
Paul had four brothers; Vito (1928–1988), Salvatore (1919–1976), Leonard (1909–1981), and Thomas (1917–1984). Vario was a maternal cousin of Colombo crime family consigliere John Oddo and his brother, mobster Steven. He was also related to Whitey Bulger associate Benedetto Oddo (1939-).
Paul Vario Sr. died on May 3, 1988, at age seventy-three, from respiratory arrest while incarcerated at Fort Worth Federal Prison in Fort Worth, Texas. He was serving a ten to twelve-year sentence for convictions largely gained through the testimony of former Lucchese associate Henry Hill.
- Pileggi, Nicholas. Wiseguy: The 25th Anniversary Edition. Simon & Schuster. p. 8. Cite error: Invalid
<ref>tag; name "wise_guy" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
- Pileggi, Nicholas (1986). Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. Simon & Schuster. pp. 11 and 12. ISBN 0-671-44734-3. Gives Vario story growing up.
- Pileggi, Nicholas. Wiseguy: The 25th Anniversary Edition. Simon & Schuster. p. 120. ISBN 9781451642780. Retrieved 23 August 2015.
- Pileggi, Nicholas (2011). Wiseguy: The 25th Anniversary Edition. Simon & Schuster. p. 54. ISBN 9781451642780. Retrieved 23 August 2015.
- "VARIO IS SENTENCED TO 6 YEARS IN JAIL". New York Times. April 7, 1973. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
- Markham, James M (November 2, 1972). "Vario, son, and 2 others indicted after trailer bug". New York Times. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
- Markham, James M (October 26, 1972). "VARIO AND 4 HELD IN HIJACKING CASE". Retrieved 20 July 2014.
- Markham, James M (November 14, 1972). "Gold Tells How Detective Infiltrated Mafia's Trailer". New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
- Kaplan, Morris (November 22, 1972). "REPUTED MAFIOSO INDICTED 6TH TIME". New York Times. Retrieved 22 July 2014.
- Markham, James M (December 7, 1972). "2 Detectives and 7 Others Indicted in Mafia Inquiry". New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
- "VARIO CONVICTED OF TAX EVASION". New York Times. February 10, 1973. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
- Gene Mustain, Jerry Capeci (2002). Chapter 9: "Club Lewisburg". Mob Star: The Story of John Gotti. Penguin. ISBN 9780028644165. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
- Feiden, Doug (June 4, 1979). "The Great Getaway: the Inside Story of the Lufthansa Robbery". New York Magazine: 39. Retrieved 26 July 2014.
- "Crime Figure FacesPrisonTerm". New York Times. February 10, 1984.
- Fried, Joseph P (February 22, 1985). "11 INDICTED IN AIRPORT EXTORTION CASE". New York Times. Retrieved 22 July 2014.
- Sibley, John (October 11, 1973). "Detective and 2 TV Men Beaten At Funeral of Mafia Chief's Son". New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
- Obituary in New York Times: Paul Vario, 73; Called a Leader Of Crime Group
- Pileggi, Nicholas, Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family, Corgi (1987) ISBN 0-552-13094-X
- Raab, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires. New York: St. Martin Press, 2005. ISBN 0-312-30094-8