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Era ends with Strollo’s death

Mob boss who turned federal witness

Staff file photo / R. Michael Semple Lenny Strollo, left, pleads to charges in May 1999, with his attorney Thomas Buford by his side, during an appearance in U.S. District Court, Cleveland.

YOUNGSTOWN — One-time Valley mob boss Lenine “Lenny” Strollo, 90, the former organized crime boss who cooperated with the FBI and provided testimony on several Youngstown area killings and other violent crimes, has died.

His arrangements are being handled by Rossi and Santucci Funeral Home, which confirmed his death and said details are pending.

“His passing is an end of an era. Thank God that his organization has been completely abandoned,” said Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains, who was on the receiving end of one of the mobster’s more famous attempted hits.

Strollo’s story as played out in court testimony told of justice for sale in the past in Mahoning County.

He came up through the ranks of the Pittsburgh family and in 1990 was convicted on gambling charges and sentenced to 14 months in prison.

In August 1991, mob figure Joey Naples was killed in a mob hit in Youngstown. Strollo then became the boss of the Mahoning Valley operation: bookmaking, poker machines, narcotics trafficking and vending machines aided by his brother Dante.

In 1998, the U.S. attorney’s office said a large part of Strollo’s operation was dedicated to protecting Strollo and hiding his profits.

Not only was Strollo’s enterprise responsible for the death of Strollo rival Ernie Biondillo but also for the conspiracy to murder Gains before he took office, federal documents stated.

Gains was shot Dec. 24, 1996, by an intruder in his home. He was critically wounded, but survived.

SHOOTINGS

In 1999, three men who arranged the shootings of two prosecutors were convicted of working for the mafia in Youngstown.

Bernard Altshuler, 68, at the time; Lavance Turnage, then 26; and Jeffrey Riddle, then 38, were convicted in an investigation that also brought a deal with Strollo and indictments against public officials.

Altshuler, Turnage and Riddle, all of Youngstown, were sentenced to life in prison with no parole on the convictions of racketeering, conspiracy to racketeering and illegal gambling.

Prosecutors claimed Strollo’s three employees arranged the 1996 killing of Biondillo and the woundings of Gains days before he took office and former Prosecutor Gary Van Brocklin.

Lisa Abraham, former Tribune Chronicle reporter, spent weeks in Cleveland covering the federal trial of Altshuler, Turnage and Riddle, where Strollo was the star witness.

“I think all of the reporters covering the trial really understood that we were covering what would likely be the last big mob trial to come out of the Mahoning Valley. From that perspective, it felt very historic, very ‘end of an era,'” she said.

Abraham, who works as a senior writer for Kent State University, recalls thinking at the time how organized crime in the Valley had changed so dramatically — and that was a good thing.

“There was Strollo, up there testifying for the prosecution, something you never would have seen before,” Abraham said. “In the Mahoning Valley of the 1960s and ’70s, I suspect someone in his position would not have lived to take the witness stand. I think that was truly an indication that organized crime had finally been broken in the Valley.”

In February 1999, Strollo cut a deal with federal prosecutors that let him keep his money and spend 10 to 12 years in prison in exchange for telling all.

“I remember too, not long after Strollo got out of prison, seeing him in a restaurant in Youngstown, and thinking the same thing — if this was the past, he probably wouldn’t be alive to eat out in restaurants,” Abraham said.

Strollo testified in the U.S. District Court trial that Altshuler arranged the Biondillo killing. Turnage and Riddle were convicted of carrying out the acts of violence to further mob operations.

Federal investigations revealed that Gains’ assassination attempt was ordered by Strollo because Gains would not cooperate with the local mob.

However, as part of Strollo’s guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, Strollo was not required to admit his involvement in Gains’ shooting.

At the time, Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Morford said Strollo wanted Gains dead because he had an ”in” with former Mahoning County Prosecutor James Philomena and could fix cases.

PLEA DEAL

Strollo’s lawyer, Herbert Greenman of Buffalo, N.Y., in explaining why Strollo pleaded guilty rather than letting a jury decide his fate at trial, said: ‘They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.”

Strollo, 67 at the time, pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering and filing a false 1992 federal income tax return. Prosecutors agreed to drop 11 other charges against him.

Attorney Jay Milano, who defended Riddle in his trial, said Strollo was “masterful” in the way he set up his plea deal.

“I believe Lenny Strollo orchestrated the settlement of that case from top to bottom,” Milano said. “I recall each member of the conspiracy, the people indicted, turned on each other all the way up through where Mr. Strollo’s brother became a state’s witness. Then on the eve of the trial, Mr. Strollo entered a plea.”

At the time, Greenman said several factors went into Strollo’s decision to plead, but his family was his chief concern. He said the fact that prosecutors were willing to drop their forfeiture claims on Strollo’s money, home on Leffingwell Road in Canfield and other assets also was a deciding factor.

Milano remembered the prosecutors making it sound like they had taken all of Strollo’s assets when he testified. When Milano cross-examined him, he asked Strollo where he had buried his money.

“He was a mob boss; he had cash,” Milano said. “That’s when I got the most mob boss look I saw from him.”

Greenman said other factors contributing to Strollo’s plea decision were the amount of evidence prosecutors had against him, and the possible life-in-prison sentence Strollo could have faced if convicted at trial.

Strollo’s guilty plea the day before Ash Wednesday prompted at least one courtroom joke:

”What’s Lenny Strollo giving up for Lent?”

”Everyone.”

When Strollo testified in May 1999, he briefly described the mob’s power struggles in the Youngstown area in the 1960s and 1970s, which resulted in numerous deaths, including that of Charles ”Charlie the Crab” Carabbia of Struthers.

Strollo testified that he was the one who placed a call to Carabbia to set him up and to convince him to leave with former mob boss Jimmy Prato. Carabbia was never seen again.

“You set Charlie Carabbia up?” Special Prosecutor Steve Dever asked.

”It was part of the business,” Strollo replied.

Strollo said he grew in power until he was made head of the Youngstown family after the death of boss Naples.

Strollo said he was able to carry out his illegal dealings by paying off public officials, in particular, the police chief of Campbell and turn sergeants.

Corruption, he said, was a way of life.

”You had the politicians and more or less controlled the area and did whatever you wanted to do,” he said.

news@vindy.com

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