Fifty years ago this month, Mahoning Valley Mafia boss Lenny Strollo and two of his associates, Vince Serman and Bobby Armstrong, were arrested by U.S secret service agents and charged with possessing and passing counterfeit $10 bills. The money came from Cleveland, and Strollo gave Armstrong and others thousands of dollars to launder.
“I would start cashing them, would take one, 10 and 20 [dollars] and put them together. I’d buy something for a buck or buck and a half, give them the 10 and get the change,” Armstrong recalled in a telephone conversation from his home outside Ohio. “I would keep 40 percent of the change; Lenny got the rest.”
Everyone in Strollo’s gang, including some well-known characters like Frankie Lentine, got in the act.
But it wasn’t long before vendors taking the $10 bills to the banks to be deposited found out they were counterfeit.
All it took was for one of the players to be nabbed by the feds with a fist full of dollars, and the rest was history.
Armstrong, whose father was a Youngstown police officer, was 19 at the time. Although he was facing a prison sentence, he refused to give up Strollo. Indeed, he testified on behalf of the mob boss and Serman.
Time behind bars
Armstrong, who over the years has been in touch with this writer, spent 25 months behind bars; Strollo and Serman got six years apiece, but they stayed out on appeal for a time.
Thus, when Armstrong came out of prison he went to work for Strollo and his brother, Danny, at A1 Vending.
He got a woman pregnant, married her and they had a child.
In mid-1968, Armstrong was arrested for armed robbery, kidnapping, intentional shooting with intent to kill and rape. He said he was set up by Danny Strollo and “Brier Hill Jimmy” (Vincenzo “Jimmy” Prato, the acknowledged Godfather of the Mafia in the Valley.)
Armstrong said he was supposed to rob the 13th Frame bar on the West Side, but things went wrong. Since he was on parole for six years, he received a prison sentence of 19 to 95 years in the third trial. The first two ended with hung juries.
Armstrong served a total of 10 years, and it was during his time behind bars that he decided to get even with the Strollos and Prato.
“After I was released I was on parole for 10 months. When I got off parole I went back to Lenny. I said to myself ‘These S.O.B.s will pay for this.’ I shook hands with Danny, and started keeping records for three or four years.”
He then called the two FBI agents who were assigned to the organized crime division in the Youngstown office, Larry Lynch and Craig Morford, and offered his services.
“I told them I wanted to be paid, I wanted protection, oversight and was prepared to wear a wire and show them where to place their bugs, including the rooms at the Stardust Motel in North Lima where Strollo and the other mobsters met.”
Armstrong spent almost two years giving Morford and Lynch insider access to the mob. Based on the information gathered, the federal government launched a major investigation into government corruption and organized crime in the Valley. The result: More than 70 convictions of mobsters and public officials, including a sheriff, prosecutor, county engineer, judges, lawyers and others.
“They [Morford and Lynch] told me I did what no law enforcement agency could have done in 50 years,” Armstrong said.
After he retired from the FBI, Lynch talked to this writer about Armstrong’s role in the crackdown of government corruption and organized crime. Lynch said the information provided by the snitch was invaluable.
Strollo was ultimately arrested and became a government informant.
Armstrong went into the government’s witness protection program, got a new identity (he took the name Robert Carney), spent years in several cities, and ultimately put down roots in the South. He has left the witness protection program and as he approaches his 70th birthday is willing to talk about his days with the Mafia in the Valley.
Because of limited space, many of the more colorful stories could not be included in this column.
However, Armstrong has agreed to be a guest on the Louie Free Show on Monday, starting at 9:30 a.m. The show is streamed on Vindy.com.