Originally, I had intended to include a short installment about Carlos Marcello, the notorious New Orleans mob boss, as a part of the Bayou Brief’s retrospective on the 40th anniversary of the Brilab indictments. But then, like nearly everyone else on the planet right now, I suddenly found myself with more free time than I’d anticipated and the opportunity to tackle the whole story.
This three-part series (the Bayou Brief’s “Godfather Trilogy”) relies on thousands of pages of declassified government records, phone transcripts, court documents, multiple news reports published in the national and Louisiana media over the span of nearly 50 years, and more than a dozen academic essays and books, including Frenchy Brouilette and Matthew Randazzo’s raucous but admittedly unreliable Mr. New Orleans: The Life of a Big Easy Underworld Legend, Thomas Hunt and Martha Sheldon’s Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia, Mike Fawer’s From the Bronx to the Bayou, and Vincent Bugliosi’s definitive tome, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
I also considered three of the most notable works in the pantheon of JFK and Mafia conspiracies: Mafia Kingfish by John Davis, which in 1989 presented itself as the first comprehensive biography of Marcello’s life, Stefano Vaccaro’s Carlos Marcello: The Man Behind the JFK Assassination, and Lamar Waldron’s book The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination. The latter two books were both published in 2013, when the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination spurred renewed interest.
In the first part of the trilogy, we focus on the early years of Carlos Marcello from his birth in 1910 to his incarceration in 1938 for trafficking marijuana, and we trace the beginning of organized crime in New Orleans, which is widely acknowledged as the home of the original Mafia in the New World, as well as the two seminal events that would indelibly alter the way Italian immigrants were perceived in the Crescent City: The assassination of David C. Hennessy in 1890 and the lynchings of 11 Italian-Americans in 1891.
Next, we consider Marcello’s political influence in Louisiana, his connections to notorious mafiosi figures like Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky, his protracted legal battle over his citizenship, and the wild story of his deportation to Guatemala.
Finally, in the last part of this series, we unpack the theories that place him at the center of a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy, his arrest in 1966 for assaulting an undercover FBI agent, his conviction in 1981 in the Brilab sting, and the final years before his death in 1993.
“Let’s see what else I got,” Carlos Marcello told Loretta, his secretary at the Town and Country Motel, on the morning of July 18, 1979. She wasn’t surprised he had called into the motel’s five-room front office. He’d been more paranoid than usual lately and stopped talking about business inside of the office because, as he put it, “You never know.”
“You got the newspaper there?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I got it.”
“Okay, cut that uhh…” he muttered.
Loretta tried to cut him off before he finished his sentence, hoping to spare her boss, the boss, the indignity of describing the story that had appeared on the front page of the Times-Picayune.
“Yeah, I know.” Of course she did. Almost everyone in the country would have been able to figure out which story Carlos Marcello wanted clipped out of the paper that day.
“That Kennedy thing,” he finally said. “Put it in the mail.”
He was approaching 70. His salt and pepper hair had brightened to white, but he was still shaped “like a bottle opener standing upright,” having gained back all of the weight he shed a decade before, during his five-month vacation in the federal penitentiary. His sartorial sensibilities hadn’t diminished either. And he still spoke in his own unique, nearly indecipherable, expletive-laden jive. But he was softer and more patient than he’d been back in his heyday, when U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee made him an instant celebrity by mistakenly labeling him “one of the principal criminals in the nation.”
It’s not entirely clear why he wanted the story in the Times-Pic mailed to him, but obviously, it wasn’t for sentimental reasons. There had been a little rain earlier in the day, so it’s possible the copy that was tossed at his doorstep had gotten ruined. But in all likelihood, he’d impulsively thrown it away and now realized it’d probably be a good idea to know what, exactly, was being said about him in his hometown newspaper.
The day before, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) had finally released their report on the murders of civil rights icon Martin Luther King in Memphis and President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. The committee had spent more than two years and nearly $6 million investigating claims that the assassinations, particularly Kennedy’s, were a part of some type of conspiracy, a belief that was held by a wide majority of Americans. Ultimately, though, the report was a confusing, rambling mess, resolving nothing.
James Earl Ray, the committee concluded, had acted alone when he fired a single shot in the direction of the second floor of the Lorraine Motel, killing Martin Luther King. Yet, confusingly, because Ray falsely believed he’d be rewarded and celebrated for his actions and because his two brothers had lied about their contact with him, the HSCA also found that King’s death could be considered part of a conspiracy, though not a very meaningful one.
With respect to the assassination of President Kennedy, however, the committee determined that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the only gunman at Dealy Plaza that day in Dallas. Relying on an analysis of radio recordings from the Dallas Police Department, it concluded that a fourth shot had been fired by a second gunman in the “grassy knoll,” the sloping hill sandwiched in between the Texas School Book Depository Building and a triple underpass.
Who was this second gunman? The committee couldn’t say, though it did rule out the possibility of a plot by the U.S. government, the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro, or organizations opposed to Fidel Castro. That left only one likely candidate: the Mafia. And while the HSCA was willing to raise some questions about Florida mob boss Santo Trafficante, they honed in on the owner of the Town and Country Motel in Metairie, Louisiana: Carlos Marcello.
He was the only person specifically identified by the committee as having the “motive, means and opportunity to have President John F. Kennedy assassinated.” Of course, the committee also found there wasn’t any real evidence of his involvement, but that wasn’t the part of the report that interested the media.
So yes, when Carlos Marcello asked whether she had a copy of the morning paper, Loretta immediately knew why he was interested.
Twenty years after the House Select Committee on Assassinations published its report, a jury in Memphis would unanimously rule that James Earl Ray had not acted alone. In fact, he hadn’t even been the one who fired the fatal shot, confirming a theory that Martin Luther King’s children had eventually come to believe as well. And two years after the verdict in Memphis, Dr. Don Thomas, a scientist and JFK enthusiast in Weslaco, Texas, published a peer-reviewed article in Science & Justice that conclusively proved the audio analysis on which the HSCA had relied was bogus. There hadn’t been a second gunman, and there wasn’t a fourth shot, just a jammed transmitter in the midst of complete pandemonium and panic.
But the theory that Carlos Marcello had orchestrated the assassination was never dependent on the presence of a second gunman in the grassy knoll, and so, it endures.
Nearly three decades since his death in 1993 and 40 years after he was indicted in the Brilab sting, Carlos Marcello still beguiles us.
Was he nothing more than a petty drug dealer who leveraged his connections in the underworld to build a real estate empire? An uneducated dolt who accumulated power by terrorizing and murdering anyone who stood in his way or a criminal mastermind who operated the most successful subsidiary of the biggest business in the world? Or was he none of those things?
Is it really possible that he was responsible for ordering the assassination of a beloved President, or in a nation that needed a villain, was he just the most convenient person to blame? How much of the lore about him is real, and how much of it was just concocted by sanctimonious politicians on a phony moral crusade or by fraudsters and hacks hoping to make a quick buck?
Marcello is an especially challenging subject because of the attention he continues to receive from conspiracy theorists and fans of pulp fiction, Mafia melodramas, and movies about gangsters. A significant amount of the information about him online is either wholly inaccurate or riddled with incorrect details, tall tales, and baseless speculation. Nearly every biopic and TV news program about him suffers from an overdose of sensationalism.
To some in New Orleans, he was a benevolent and avuncular man, “The Big Daddy of the Big Easy,” “King Midas of Jefferson Parish.” To most of his contemporaries, though, both friend and foe, he was always “The Little Man” or “The Little Big Man,” a reference to his pint-sized stature. It’s a moniker that would seem like a pejorative unless you were familiar with the lexicon and the idiosyncrasies shared by those in the Family Business. The nickname didn’t bother him much. Self-effacing humor was a trick of the trade, a way of deflecting attention, and to be successful in organized crime, it was best not to throw too much attention to yourself.
To the best of my ability, I’ve tried to separate fact from fiction and to approach the subject dispassionately and without any preconceived opinions.
Ultimately, I discovered a man who wasn’t nearly as nefarious or as cunning as he is often portrayed to have been. This is not to suggest he was a good man, only that the legend of Carlos Marcello is largely an invention of the public’s imagination and his own thirst for wealth and notoriety, which shouldn’t be confused with a desire for fame and power.
Before we consider the reasons why he will forever be connected to the events of Nov. 22, 1963, we must better understand how a diminutive Sicilian immigrant from New Orleans became a villain and then a myth.
Next page: Little Palermo and the Sicilian Quarter.