What will be area’s top story in 2008?

By Bertram de Souza

If you go for the obvious, the top story for 2008 in the Mahoning Valley, as with the rest of the state and nation, will be the presidential election. But, don’t look for it to get your pulses racing. Why?

Because it should be clear by now that when Ohio holds its primary election in March, the Democratic and Republican nominees for president will likely be known. After the January caucuses in Iowa and primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and other states, there’ll be “Super Duper Tuesday” on Feb. 5 in which more than 20 states, including California, will go to the polls, followed by several others. Come March, the general election table could be set.

That means the politically active Mahoning Valley, which has traditionally played a leading role in the Democratic nomination sweepstakes, won’t get the kind of attention it has received in the past from the Democratic contenders.

In the general election, the Valley will not be a battleground, given its political leanings — but Ohio and a couple of other states will decide the outcome of the presidential election.

So, is there is a less obvious story that will grab the headlines?

Yes, there is, if you like intrigue: The release from federal protective custody of the Mahoning Valley’s favorite godfather, Mafia boss Lenine “Lenny” Strollo.

Strollo, who for 50 years was part of a criminal enterprise that contributed to Youngstown’s national reputation as “Bomb Town U.S.A.”, was arrested by the FBI 10 years ago as part of the federal government’s crackdown on government corruption and organized crime in the Valley.

In all, 70 individuals, including mobsters, judges, a prosecutor, a sheriff and other politicians, were convicted.

RICO indictment

Strollo was indicted on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) violations of aggravated murder, casino-style gambling and numbers lottery. The murder charge stems from his ordering a hit on mob rival Ernie Biondillo Jr. in June 1996. He also was charged in state court with the attempted murder in December 1996 of then Mahoning County Prosecutor-elect Paul Gains.

His federal indictment listed 29 co-defendants, with all but one, who died, pleading guilty or being found guilty.

In February 1999, Strollo became a government snitch and provided the FBI and federal prosecutors with a treasure-trove of information about the Mafia in the United States — he had first-hand knowledge of the players in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and New York — and also testified at the trials of various local crooks.

It was during one of his court appearances that he offered his famous admission that for the mob, murder is “business.”

Strollo was sentenced to 12 years in 2004, but with credit for time served and good time he is expected to be released by late 2008.

While no one is saying whether he is returning to his home in Canfield, it’s a good bet that he will. That’s because the federal government, in its generosity, allowed the mob boss’ wife, Antoinette, to keep all the ill-gotten gains, including the mansion in Canfield and the blood money.

At 76 — his birthday is in April — Strollo is on the last lap of his life, which means he’s not going to be worrying about revenge killing. After all, to him murder is business.

He broke the age-old pledge of Omerta when he became a federal snitch and his fingering mobsters not only locally but nationally means that someone somewhere is fantasizing about cutting off his tongue and then shooting him between the eyes.

While organized crime operations in the Valley and nationally have been largely dismantled, there still are Mafia types who believe in the old ways.

Witness protection program

Even so, it would come as a surprise if Strollo agreed to go into the federal witness protection program. Changing his identity and relocating to some backwater town in the southwest isn’t how one of the most powerful figures in the Valley’s sordid past would want to live out the rest of his life.

No, when Lenny Strollo is released from prison, he’ll come home — and give us the one of the best stories of 2008. Unless, of course, he is truly what an ex associate said of him: He’s a piece of [expletive] who will keeping hiding behind the federal government.

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