Revisiting Youngstown’s explosive past

By Peter H. Milliken


Fifty years ago, a longtime local racketeer, Charles “Cadillac Charlie” Cavallaro, and his 11-year-old son, Tommy, were killed, and another son, Charles Jr., 12, was critically injured in a North Side car bombing.

It is one of 82 unsolved local underworld bombings spanning a decade that would result in the creation of the phrase “Youngstown Tuneups.” In a 1963 cover story, the Saturday Evening Post dubbed the city “Crime Town USA.”

But what was different about the Nov. 23, 1962, Cavallaro bombing was that it was the first time children became victims of such violence.

“The Cavallaro bombing crossed the line because innocent life was lost,” notably that of a child, and a second child was maimed, said William Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.

“This just shocks the sensibilities of the community, especially a community that’s very family-oriented,” said Fred Viehe, a Youngstown State University history professor, who teaches a course on the history of organized crime.

So overwhelming was the outrage, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered a full-scale FBI investigation.

“You couldn’t turn away from it,” Lawson observed. No longer could organized-crime activity be viewed as “victimless crime,” nor could the violence be dismissed as “just one racketeer killing another,” he said.

“Everybody could visualize their son being in the same situation. ... I think that got to the people,” said Mahoning County Sheriff Randall Wellington, who was a city police officer during the early 1960s.

A man who answered the telephone at the Cavallaro residence said family members were “not interested” in being interviewed for this story.

The Cavallaro bombing, which got nationwide publicity, brought more federal law enforcement presence to Youngstown than any previous bombing, said Wellington, who will retire at the end of this year.

The explosion, which leveled the garage at the Cavallaro’s Roslyn Drive residence, occurred the day after Thanksgiving, when Cavallaro turned on his car’s ignition to take Tommy and Charles Jr. to football practice.

Charles Jr., who was lagging behind and had not yet reached the car when his father turned on the ignition, suffered a severe hip injury, underwent a five-hour surgery and was hospitalized for 86 days after the blast.

Cavallaro, 60, a grape salesman, was nicknamed “Cadillac Charlie” because of his fondness for expensive cars, but the death car was a 1956 Ford sedan and his estate’s appraised value was only $12,552.

Immigration authorities had been trying to deport him to his native Italy since 1935, saying he had entered the United States illegally as a stowaway on a ship that docked in New Orleans in 1921.

The bomb was planted “probably for business purposes,” Viehe said. “Probably he was infringing on somebody else’s territory,” most likely gambling territory, Viehe said, making an observation consistent with police theories of the crime 50 years ago.

“Gambling was very lucrative. There was a lot of infighting over that” among factions of organized crime that controlled it, Wellington said. “That caused a lot of friction. I think that caused a lot of the bombings.”

Public expressions of outrage concerning the Cavallaro bombing extended from the coroner to the police chief to the priest conducting Tommy’s funeral at nearby St. Edward Church, whose school Tommy and Charles Jr. attended.

“I’m calling on the decent people of Youngstown to wake up and help the authorities bring an end to these unspeakable atrocities,” said Dr. David A. Belinky, Mahoning County coroner, in a Vindicator story printed the day after the bombing.

“I am accustomed to seeing death, but no man can become accustomed to what I saw today,” Dr. Belinky said.

“We have done everything humanly possible in the past. We are seeking all the help we can get to stop these outrages,” said city Police Chief William R. Golden.

“Let each of us examine his conscience to determine what extent he has contributed to the death of this child,” said the Rev. Stewart J. Platt, assistant pastor of St. Edward Church, during Tommy’s funeral three days after the bombing.

“Have we neglected to vote or misused that vote, contributing possibly to corruption in office? Have we kept silent when we could have helped by giving information to the proper authorities?” Father Platt asked the mourners.

If the Cavallaro double murder was a professional hit, the assassins likely came from out of town and left town after the crime, Viehe said.

“If it’s a professional hit, probably no one in town knew who did it. They may have [had] some inkling as to why, but probably those who did know the why were also in the underworld,” Viehe said.

“People wouldn’t talk. You had a code of silence within organized crime, even between competing factions,” Lawson said. “You had people in the community, who may have been aware or witnessed such things, who, either out of loyalty or respect, or even fear, would not come forward to say that they had witnessed something.”

The bombings were difficult to solve because “most of the evidence was blown up” when the bombs exploded; because racketeers and their associates observed a code of silence; and because many of the perpetrators likely were from out of town, Wellington said.

Police brass gave patrol officers a list of organized-crime figures and ordered them to check their homes and hangouts during routine patrols, report license plate numbers of cars parked in the area, and report any unusual activity, Wellington recalled.

“They were aware that they were under surveillance. They were cautious,” Wellington said of the organized-crime figures. “It gave a good database for the detectives. If anything did happen, there would be a follow-up,” Wellington said of the surveillance effort.

Wellington said he was not at the Cavallaro bombing scene, but he was engaged in directing traffic and crowd control at two other bombings that killed racket figures:

The deafening 12:10 a.m. July 17, 1961, explosion outside Cicero’s restaurant in the Uptown area of Market Street that killed James Vincent (Vince) DeNiro, owner of that restaurant;

The July 1, 1962, blast that killed William (Billy) Naples on Madison Avenue, just west of Elm Street.

“It was just utter chaos up there,” with police cars, fire trucks, and news media at the Uptown bombing, Wellington said. The Vindicator reported the blast was felt for miles and drew thousands of spectators to the scene. Cicero’s, which was at 2609 Market St., eventually was destroyed by fire in July 1969.

The bomb blasts were emotionally disturbing because of the death, and often, dismemberment of their victims, Wellington observed.

At the Madison Avenue scene, Wellington said: “I was horrified when I saw that — just to see the wreck there — to see a twisted piece of metal that was once a vehicle and then see a body within that twisted metal. It was just pretty emotional for me.”

Although the perpetrator of the Cavallaro bombing clearly had some technical bomb-making knowledge, the fact that the explosive device was rigged at the intended victim’s residence, where innocent people, including children, were living, indicates some amateurishness, Viehe observed.

Immediately after the crime, investigators concluded dynamite caused the blast.

However, an FBI wiretap of a February 1963 telephone conversation among four reputed Mafia figures in northern New Jersey overheard the alleged mobsters deploring the use of a grenade and the killing of a child in the Youngstown attack.

“When this happened, they realized they’d made a great public-relations error,” Viehe said of those responsible for the Cavallaro explosion.

A week after the Cavallaro bombing, The Vindicator quoted an unnamed source saying the explosion “brought gambling virtually to a halt” in Mahoning County, with much of the action having “fled to Trumbull County.”

Organized crime-sponsored gambling and the bombings that accompanied it waned after the introduction of legalized gambling through the Ohio Lottery in 1974, Wellington observed.

Viehe described Youngstown as “a border land for the Cleveland and Pittsburgh crime families,” who “like to keep things quiet” because “violence is bad for business.”

A segment of the public appreciates gambling, prostitution and, today, drugs, Viehe observed.

The professor added, however, “They don’t care to get involved in violence. They might get hurt in a crossfire.”

To this day, Youngstown hasn’t overcome the “Crime Town USA” reputation it acquired from the long series of underworld-related homicides, Viehe said.

“It’s still the albatross. Anytime some sort of incident occurs, that immediately comes to the fore,” even if the murder stems from street crime, Viehe said.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.