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Then as now, bringing down gangsters takes outside help

Published: Mon, July 2, 2012 @ 12:00 a.m.

Fifty years ago, Youngstown was in the grip of mob warfare so intense that it earned the city a national nickname: Murdertown. Eventually the people became incensed by the level of senseless violence. And, just as important, The U.S. Justice Department, then headed by U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, decided that only the federal government had the manpower necessary to break the back of organized crime.

There are some key differences between what was happening in Youngstown in the early 1960s and what’s happening now.

Then, the soldiers for two rival mobs headquartered in Cleveland and Pittsburgh were battling over Youngstown’s turf. The biggest prize was proceeds from the lucrative gambling rackets. The dead were typically men in their mid- to late-30s. They’d spent most of their productive years in lives of crime — gambling, burglaries, enforcement of mob discipline. And in the early ’60s the preferred method of ultimate enforcement had become the “Youngstown tune-up,” a dynamite bomb wired to explode when the ignition key was turned.

An uncelebrated anniversary

Fifty years ago Sunday, such a bomb killed William “Billy” Naples, the middle of three Naples brothers — the others being “Sandy” and “Little Joey” — to die in mob assassinations.

There are both similarities with and differences between the culture of violence that reigned in Youngstown a half century ago and that of today.

Today, the prize is the money that comes from drug trafficking. While the gambling culture of the mid-20th century had the potential to poison the entire community through corruption that reached into some police departments and even courtrooms, the drug culture poisons individuals and their families.

The losers in today’s gang battles are often younger — much younger — than those of earlier years. And innocent bystanders are much more likely to die in the crossfire today than then — though it wasn’t unheard of for a girlfriend to die alongside a mobster, and the real crackdown here came when a mobster’s car exploded with two of his sons also in the car.

The turf that the mobs are battling over are smaller today than then, and the structure seems less organized although obviously the cost of crossing lines is today, as then, death.

And death today comes at multiples of what it was then, with 17 homicides already registered in Youngstown this year. Many, but not all, are gang related.

Some things don’t change

All of which brings us to the key similarity between then and now: the need for greater resources than a local police department can muster.

And so we applaud the events of late last week, when local and federal law-enforcement officers served federal and state indictments on three dozen people charged with operating a heroin ring. The investigation covered three years and included work by the U.S. Attorney’s office, the FBI, Youngstown police and the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office.

The legal assault on drug traffickers uses the same powerful tool that was used against mobsters when another war broke out in Youngstown in the late 1970s: the wiretap. Old-time mobsters could tell this younger, different generation what it was like to never know when the feds were listening. Today’s gangsters are learning the same lesson the hard way.

Everyone involved in the cooperative effort that resulted in last week’s arrests deserves credit and thanks for getting some of the drugs and criminals off of Youngstown’s streets.

And we can all hope that there are more ears out there listening to drug traffickers as they talk to one another about the guns and drugs and money that are changing hands.

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