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How I learned to cover the mob in Valley

Growing up in a tiny, rural community in southwestern Pennsylvania, I never encountered much drama, or crime.

Right out of college, I worked briefly in the “big city” of Johnstown, and even then I car-pooled to work with my mom, who worked at a bank a half-block from the real estate developer where I was doing PR and marketing. Let’s just say I didn’t get out much.

But when I settled in as a “cub reporter” at the Tribune Chronicle a few years later, I learned quickly. After all, this was the Mahoning Valley.

I recall sitting at my newsroom desk, early on, quietly taking it all in. My “deskmate” was hard news reporter Lisa Abraham, who, I still acknowledge as having taught me everything I know about how to cover police, crime, courts, and yes, organized crime in the Valley.

I’ll never forget the first time I got to write about “the mob.”

The newsroom received a tip that the feds were searching the Canfield home of then-Mahoning Valley mob boss Lenine “Lenny” Strollo. (Where the tip came from, I have no idea. I can only guess it originated from one of Lisa’s many, many sources.)

Law enforcement executing a search warrant are required to return to the court their record of what they found and seized. In those days, you couldn’t sit behind a computer and look up digital files of returned search warrants like you can today.

It was two days after the search, and my editor sent me off to U.S. District Court in Akron to pull the returned search warrants. That day, we got lucky and the records weren’t sealed.

Feeling like a high-powered journalist, I pulled the clunky black Nokia cellular phone from my equally clunky purse and dialed my office number to report back what I had uncovered.

Federal searches of Strollo’s Leffingwell Road home and other locations turned up a slot machine, a stun gun and mounds of documents.

My hands trembled, either from nervousness or delight — or perhaps both. As I flipped through pages of the search warrant, I spied the word “Rolodex.”

(I later came to realize the term “Rolodex” was referring to the small box where, pre-smart phone-era, people kept their business cards.)

For some reason, on this day, though, all I could think of was “Rolex” — the wildly expensive watch that any mobster worth his salt would own.

Loud and proud I relayed to the boss that investigators had seized a “Rolodex watch!”

“Wow, Brender!” my boss responded, and I could here him pecking at the keyboard.

The next day, a paragraph in the story read, “According to the court documents, investigators who searched Strollo’s Leffingwell Road home in Canfield seized a slot machine, Rolodex watch, computer documents, casino documents, a miniature revolver and personal and business financial records.”

Yep. Rolodex watch. I had so much to learn.

In the coming years, I got the opportunity to do that. I built good relationships with sources who provided good tips about investigations into the local mob.

Strollo, of course, was head of lucrative illegal gambling operations, orchestrated bribes of many elected officials and other crooked dealings and directed violent crime needed to stay on top of the game. It turns out, he was the mobster who at one point had ordered the failed hit on new Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains because the mob knew he wasn’t going to take bribes to fix cases.

Once, I sent my grandma into a panic when I relayed to her a story about calling Lenny Strollo’s home seeking comment for a story. He didn’t come to the phone, but I left a message.

When he eventually was caught, Strollo became infamous for breaking the mafia vow of silence in exchange for a plea deal that he couldn’t pass up. He sung like a bird on the stand in federal court in Cleveland.

Lisa Abraham covered that trial from gavel to gavel, and at one point, I sneaked away from my Warren newsroom to drive to Cleveland, where I sat in the back of the courtroom to witness the testimony. It was, after all, a piece of Youngstown history.

Strollo died last week at age 90, in the Valley where he’d returned after his release from prison. He had served just 12 years.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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