Sopranos put hit on Youngstown.
By IAN HILL
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- You can add another name to the list of mobsters who have made their presence known in the Mahoning Valley over the years -- Paulie Walnuts.
Walnuts is a character on HBO's popular mob and family show "The Sopranos." During the show's season premiere last Sunday, Walnuts, portrayed by actor Tony Sirico, was shown in jail talking to New York underboss Johnny Sack on the phone.
Sack, played by Vincent Curatola, said he had heard that Walnuts was "doing the county book in Youngstown."
An estimated 13.4 million viewers watched the show, the largest audience ever for an HBO program. Sirico and other Sopranos stars will be at Mountaineer Park at 6 tonight to pose for photos with fans.
Previews for tonight's episode of "The Sopranos," which will be broadcast at 9 p.m., state that Walnuts is expected to be in jail indefinitely, leaving the door open for future references to Youngstown.
The reference to Youngstown last Sunday drew mixed reactions from local residents and officials. Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains, who was shot in a botched mob hit, said he wasn't worried that the reference would perpetuate Youngstown's image as Crime Town, U.S.A.
"It's television, it's make-believe," he said.
Gains noted that Walnuts had referred to a character named "Lenny Scortese" during the season premiere. Walnuts told Sack that during his first night in Ohio, he was pulled over in a car while driving to Steubenville with "Lenny Scortese."
The name seems to be a take-off of Lenny Strollo, the former Mahoning Valley mob boss who ordered the Gains hit.
"I hope they make reference to the fact that Lenny's in jail," Gains joked. Strollo, who has been in prison since 1997, pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges and testified against many of his former mob associates. He will remain in jail and won't be sentenced until the government no longer needs his testimony.
Dominic Modarelli, commander of the Italian-American War Veterans Post 12 in Brier Hill, added that despite how Youngstown is portrayed on television, he's confident the city is safe.
"We've got a real good neighborhood; you can leave your doors open," Modarelli said.
Former Youngstown Mayor Patrick Ungaro, however, said he was bothered by the use of the Mahoning Valley in the show.
"I hate to hear it; it troubles me because I think we've got a great community," he said.
"The Sopranos" production offices were closed this week, and the show's writers could not be reached for comment. Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey and the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber did not return calls for comment.
County Sheriff's Maj. Michael Budd said he's concerned that the reference to Youngstown could affect efforts to improve the local economy.
"We're hoping to get business in here, and that's not the image we want to portray," Budd said.
James Callen, a local attorney and candidate for Mahoning County Common Pleas court judge, said he thought the reference was "just one of the symptoms of our problem." Callen's efforts to fight organized crime in the Valley earned him a national fellowship in June.
"I think it's simply a side effect of the reputation that the community has," he said. "The challenge is to change the reality that created this image."
Callen, Budd and Gains were among the local officials who traveled to Sicily in December 2000 for an international symposium exploring the role of society in countering organized crime. A British Broadcasting Co. radio host did a story then describing Youngstown as home to men and women who could be featured in "The Sopranos."
Youngstown's mob history also has been featured on other television shows. Last October, the Arts and Entertainment network series "City Confidential" broadcast an episode called "Mob Hits and Misses in Youngstown." The show relied on crime scene and courtroom footage and sarcastic narration to portray Youngstown as a run-down community where many people were crooks.
Ungaro said he felt the reference to Youngstown on "The Sopranos" is a result of the city's reputation as Crime Town, U.S.A. He stressed that he thinks the city's reputation will slowly fade if local officials and residents continue to work toward improving their community.
"It will go away a little bit at a time," Ungaro said.
Gains added that he hoped "Sopranos" characters who mention Youngstown in the future will note that the government has worked to clean up the area.
Callen stressed that he doesn't think organized crime has been completely eliminated from the Valley.
"To claim it is and to stop working at it will lead to the situation repeating itself," he said.
In "The Sopranos," Walnuts and Scortese were arrested after police found a gun in the car they were driving to Steubenville. The car was pulled over after it failed to signal.
The gun was used in an 8-year-old murder.
Walnuts said he expects prosecutors to keep him in jail until they determine who is guilty of the murder.
"They'll keep us here as long as they can," he told Johnny Sack.