In March of 2020, not long after I publishing the first installment of the Bayou Brief‘s “Godfather Trilogy” about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello, I started to worry that maybe I’d given myself an impossible assignment. The more I learned about Marcello, the more I became convinced of the impracticality of confining his story to a three-part online series.
I created this page for those interested in learning about and supporting the book I am currently writing about Marcello’s life and legacy. I should note this project has taken longer than I anticipated, both because of the seemingly endless amount of information that exists on Marcello and because I was personally sidetracked in November of 2020 after a health scare—no, not covid-19—landed me in the I.C.U. for a few days. I’ve since recovered and have rededicated myself to completing the book.
One thing that became clear to me during my time away from the project: There’s no way I can tackle this entirely by myself. It’s an enormous task.
For example, if you have a newspapers.com account, search for “Carlos Marcello.” You’ll get nearly 23,000 results, and that’s just a fraction of what’s out there. Government reports, court records, recorded transcripts. And this stuff ain’t free.
To that end, I decided to set up a Patreon account, with the hope of finding enough people willing to support me as I rededicate myself to this journey. Through Patreon, you’ll also receive exclusive content—essentially, it’s a blog about writing this book— and have direct access to me. There are three tiers of support: $3/month, $7/month, and, for my eternal gratitude and a mention in the acknowledgements, $25/month.
As I mentioned in the video above, today, outside of Louisiana, if Carlos Marcello is remembered at all, it is as a character in one of the countless conspiracy theories concerning President Kennedy’s assassination. In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of that day in Dallas, there were at least two new books that attempted to prove Marcello had masterminded the plot, one of which was optioned for a film adaptation by Leonardo DiCaprio. More recently, in the television series “Godfather of Harlem,” starring the Academy Award-winning actor Forrest Whitaker, Marcello is named as the mobster who ordered the hit on JFK.
These theories aren’t exactly new. Within only a few hours of President Kennedy’s death, the FBI began knocking on doors down in New Orleans, and not just because it so happens to be Lee Harvey Oswald’s hometown. When the Warren Commission published its report in 1964, finding that Oswald was the lone gunman and not part of any conspiracy, whether it was the Soviets, the Cubans, or the Mafia, it left some people with more questions than answers. Still, it’s important to note that the majority of Americans in 1964 accepted the government’s conclusions.
Public opinion shifted dramatically a decade later, with polls showing an overwhelming majority of Americans believing that President Kennedy’s assassination was part of a conspiracy. But the shift wasn’t because compelling new evidence had suddenly emerged but was instead a reflection of the lack of confidence in the credibility of the government that emerged in the aftermath of Watergate. It’s at this point that Congress decides to launch its own investigation into the assassinations of both John and Bobby Kennedy as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., an investigation that concludes with a Senate staff attorney named G. Robert Blakey writing a final report that argued Carlos Marcello had the motive, means, and opportunity to orchestrate the hit on JFK.
Like many from Louisiana, I was a kid when I first heard the name Carlos Marcello. Although I grew up in Alexandria, a city of around 50,000 people about three hours away from New Orleans, there were still plenty of stories about the Mafia’s hidden presence and gossip about at least a half dozen families allegedly connected to “the Little Man.”
Some of these stories, I learned later, were at least partially anchored in truth. In the early 1970s, two of Alexandria’s most prominent bankers became ensnared in the Louisiana legislature’s investigation into Marcello’s political influence. But for the most part, the stories that circulated around town about the mob were total fabrications, informed primarily by the bigoted fears that many in my grandparents’ generation harbored toward Italian-Americans.
Admittedly, I’ve always been deeply skeptical of the conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s death, not because of some misguided or blind faith in the integrity of the United States government but because they’re largely animated by and expressed through emotional appeals instead of a dispassionate evaluation of the facts. That said, of all of the conspiracies, I found the one implicating organized crime to be the most compelling, even though, ultimately, I still wasn’t convinced.
In late 2019, after recording Combat in the Courtroom, a podcast series with legendary Louisiana criminal defense attorney Mike Fawer, I knew that my next major project had to be about the life of Carlos Marcello.
As he explains in his book and on the podcast, Mike had first encountered Marcello as a young lawyer working in the Department of Justice under Bobby Kennedy. At the very beginning of the Kennedy administration, he caught wind of a secret plan to deport Marcello to Guatemala, using the pretext of a phony birth certificate that had been filed under Marcello’s birth name, Calogero Minacore, in a small town outside of Guatemala City. Mike thought this was a particularly terrible and potentially illegal idea, so he wrote a memo to his colleagues, urging them to reconsider. It’s unclear if anyone ever read Mike’s memo, but either way, his advice was ignored.
20 years later, now working on the opposite side of the courtroom as a criminal defense attorney, Mike was hired to represent Charles Roemer, the outgoing Commissioner of Administration under Gov. Edwin Edwards and the father of future Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, against federal conspiracy charges resulting from an FBI sting operation known as Brilab (for bribery and labor racketeering). Roemer, however, wasn’t the star of the show. That title belonged to one of his three codefendants, Carlos Marcello.
Mike talks about his impressions of Marcello on the podcast, but it was this passage from his memoir From the Bronx to the Bayou that first convinced me to start researching everything I could find on Marcello:
Two things jumped out: His decision to describe Marcello as “a real human” was a way of implicitly juxtaposing how Marcello had always been portrayed by the government and in the media. I’d gotten to know Mike well enough to know that he doesn’t hand out compliments for free. One of the reasons he was so successful as a lawyer is that he’s a pretty good judge of character.
The other thing that caught my attention was the notion that Marcello’s “insight” wasn’t necessarily the result of any sort of access to inside knowledge but was really just attributable to the fact that he kept himself informed by reading the news every day. It also told me that he was someone who understood the wisdom of Sir Francis Bacon’s expression “scientia potentia est.” Knowledge is power.
In the Brilab case, there wasn’t anything especially sinister about Marcello’s actions. Today, with the benefit of nearly four decades of hindsight, it’s difficult not to conclude that the federal government had grossly abused its powers, trampling over the rights and deliberately entrapping Marcello into a scheme they sold to him as legitimate but knew themselves was corrupt.
In short, the government entered into a plea agreement with a convicted insurance fraudster from Beverly Hills named Joseph Hauser. In exchange for a reduced prison sentence, Hauser was tasked with recruiting Marcello, someone he knew only as a passing acquaintance, as a partner in a seemingly legitimate business venture, undertaken with the imprimatur of the global firm Prudential Financial, they claimed would save the state of Louisiana $1 million a year. Marcello wasn’t expected to worry about the mechanics of the deal; his role was to be the local liaison for his out-of-state business partners who, unbeknownst to him, were actually undercover FBI agents.
It’s somewhat remarkable that the government succeeded in securing convictions, both against Roemer and Marcello, because both the undercover sting operation and the case presented at trial were sloppy and riddled with some fairly significant problems. Joseph Hauser, for example, was, by his own admission, under the influence of a powerful cocktail of pharmaceuticals the entire time, which helps to explain why in more than one of the secretly recorded tapes the government presented at trial, Hauser had very obviously attempted to stage phony conversations, including one bizarre discussion he pretended to be having with Marcello while alone inside of a men’s room.
In another memorable episode, at one point during the operation, Marcello, Roemer, and the three men secretly working for the FBI, including Hauser, schedule a meeting for the following day at the Holiday Inn. The only problem was that at the time there were three Holiday Inns in Louisiana. So at the appointed time, Marcello shows up at the Holiday Inn in Baton Rouge, Roemer at the Holiday Inn in Lafayette, and the FBI at the one in Port Allen.
I wondered whether society had misjudged Carlos Marcello, whether the stories we tell about him here in Louisiana are based in fact or if they’re largely attributable to the Mafia of the movies.
If there is any theme to the story I’m stitching together, it’s about this dialectic, between the man and the myth, the “real human” and the villain in an American tragedy.