Unsolved mystery: Mob hit on ‘Joey’

Editor’s Note: As the days wind down to the Aug. 31 closing of The Vindicator, this writer will revisit some of the mysteries that make the Mahoning Valley such a gold mine for journalists.

Today, the focus is on the headline-grabbing murder of mobster Joseph N. “Little Joey” Naples that remains unsolved more than two decades later.

“It looks like someone was waiting for him in the cornfield,” said Michael Waldner, then resident agent in charge of the FBI’s Youngstown office. “We’re still trying to piece everything together.”

That was a day after Naples, a capo in the Pittsburgh organized crime family, was gunned down Aug. 19, 1991, while inspecting the house he was having built in Beaver Township.

“We have no theories other than what we have been able to develop so far,” said then Beaver Township Police Chief David Thoresen.

Naples, a leading figure in the long and violent history of the Mafia in the Mahoning Valley, was assassinated on the evening of Aug. 19. He was found shortly after 8 p.m. lying next to a late model Ford Mustang parked in the driveway of his new home. The car doors were locked. He was shot from behind.

The gunman or gunmen appeared to have been standing in a cornfield across the street from the 3240 Lynn Road address.

Thus, the question that has remained unanswered for 28 years: Who pulled the trigger – or triggers – to end the life of a made-man in La Cosa Nostra?

The contract hit on Naples has intrigued this writer for years, not only because it has all the ingredients for a movie script, but because the move against such a ranking Mafiosi had to have been sanctioned by someone really high up in the organization.

It has long been whispered that the late John “Dapper Don” Gotti, the once real-life Godfather of the Gambino crime family in New York City, approved the hit that was requested by Mahoning Valley mob boss Lenine Strollo.

According to a confidential informant for the feds, Strollo feared Naples would seize control of the rackets while he was in prison. Within a year of Strollo being imprisoned, Naples was dead.

In 1990, the Valley Mafia boss was sentenced to 14 months in prison for operating the All-American Club in Campbell, reportedly one of the largest illegal casinos in the country.

The FBI contended that the casino generated $20 million a year for the Pittsburgh mob that Strollo led in the Valley.

Strollo became a government snitch in 1999 after being indicted in December 1997 on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations violations of aggravated murder, casino-style gambling and numbers lottery. He was arrested at his Canfield home and remained in protective custody until he reached a plea agreement and became a government witness.

He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and participated in countless interviews with FBI agents and federal prosecutors, and testified at several organized crime and government-corruption trials.

Strollo admitted to having mobster Ernie Biondillo killed – he is reported to have said that the murder was just business – and also putting out a contract in 1996 on the life of then Mahoning County Prosecutor-elect Paul Gains. Gains was shot while he was in the kitchen of his Boardman home. He survived and has been county prosecutor since January 1997.

With Strollo’s willingness to do whatever was necessary to stay on top, it was reasonable to assume that he had something to do with Naples’ murder.

He didn’t serve the entire 12 years in the federal penitentiary and in return for his cooperation was allowed to keep his blood money and all that it bought, including his Canfield home, which he has since sold.

At age 87, the Mafia boss is living out his life in the Valley. This writer has reached out to him through a mutual friend for a series of interviews about his life.

Strollo has shown little interest in telling the story of the Mafia in the Mahoning Valley and his association with the mob that began when he was a teen-ager running numbers.

He has a compelling story to tell, but unfortunately has chosen to remain tight-lipped. Even the promise to keep the video recording of the interview under wraps until after his death has not changed his mind.

This writer had hoped to wear down the Mafia boss, but the clock is ticking on The Vindicator’s last day of publication, Aug. 31.

Here’s one of the questions Strollo would be asked: Is it true that you hired two brothers (names withheld because they haven’t been identified by law enforcement) to kill your arch-rival Joey Naples?

Strollo isn’t the only mobster who has preoccupied this writer.

The late Vincenzo “Jimmy” Prato, long believed to be the Godfather of the Mafia in the Valley, was sought out when he operated the infamous Calla Mar Manor on Market Street in North Lima.

Prato was introduced to this writer and The Vindicator’s one-time city editor and managing editor, Paul Jagnow, by Don L. Hanni Jr., long-time chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party.

Hanni, a leading criminal lawyer in the region, had represented Prato when FBI surveillance equipment was found hidden in the drop ceiling of the restaurant after a heavy rain.

Prato was pleasant when this journalist would go out to the restaurant on Saturday morning in the hope of getting an interview.

Once, when asked about the Mafia in the Valley, the mobster replied, “What Mafia? There’s no Mafia.”

Strollo is the last of the mobsters who made the Mahoning Valley famous.

In 1963, the Saturday Evening Post in a cover story dubbed Youngstown “Crime Town USA.”

It would be a shame if Strollo died taking the secrets of organized crime to his grave.