Sebastiano Giovanni La Rocca – The Boss of Pittsburgh

By The Other Guy | April 23. 2020

Sebastiano Giovanni La Rocca – aka“John LaRocca”, “Big John”, “Lester Larock”- one of six children (3 boys and 3 girls), was born on December 19, 1901 in Villarosa (Caltanisetta), Sicily. He immigrated to the United States when he was 8-years-old on September 2, 1910 at NYC.

LaRocca’s palatial estate in Ingomar

He originally resided at 321 Main Street, in Jamestown, NY. By 1940, he lived at 6426 Apple Street in Pittsburgh. As he increased in wealth and power, he moved into a palatial home at 900 West Ingomar Road, Ingomar, PA.

In 1961, the FBI reported the estate sat on two acres of property and the all-stone residence, described as palatial, could not be rebuilt for less than $175,000 at that time.

He married Mary (nee Cmelik) in 1928. They had one adopted son, born in 1943, named John Jr., that he sent to the best private schools and military academy. The son later entered a private college university.

La Rocca was also said to have maintained a very close relationship with his brothers (all barbers by trade) and sisters.

FBI surveillance in winter with a better view of the home

He also had a longtime “comare” or mistress Zelda Lipkind, that served as his personal secretary for 19 years at Coin-Machine Distributors and was believed to have bore an illegitimate child by LaRocca or a fellow wiseguy.

By the late 1950s, she removed herself from working for this firm and personal situation and after marrying another man, LaRocca gave her a generous $5,000 wedding gift. When the FBI came calling to try and pry information from her about LaRocca and his mafia associates, she completely snubbed them, proving to be a “stand up” gal herself.

La Rocca stood at 5-foot 10-inches and weighed a stocky 200 pounds with black-grey hair, brown eyes, and a dark complexion.

He was said to always be impeccably dressed and typically always drove a gray, late-model Cadillac automobile that always had a spit-shine polish to it. He was also reported to be of a very generous nature to those around him whom he liked.

He and either his wife, mistress, or underworld associates liked to regularly visit Hot Springs, Arkansas and Miami, Florida as getaways and winter retreats through the years.

Among his favorites hangouts were the Villa Rosa Restaurant, and Genovese Cocktail Lounge, both of Pittsburgh.

FBI # 96725, PPD # 10714, IN&S # I-404A, Alien Reg # 5537570

Starting in 1922, his criminal record reflected a dozen arrests for:

1922 – assault with intent to maim and kill (3-5 years in state prison)

1926 – carrying concealed weapons ($50 fine)

A stoop shouldered mugshot of John LaRocca

1929 – carrying a gun

1931 – reckless driving, no license, possession of liquor

1931 – transporting and possessing 28 gallons of alcohol (dismissed)

1931 – transporting and possessing 35 gallons of alcohol ($50 fine)

1932 – unlicensed driver

1939 – operating a lottery (1 year probation and $300 fine)

1940 – larceny of automobile plates

1940 – immigration registration (during WWII – enemy alien reg.)

1953 – immigration violation

1956 – perjury for false statements

Considered a millionaire many times over, La Rocca, in addition to his racket operations was very interested in legitimate businesses throughout his lifetime, as evidenced by his ownership interests in numerous varied businesses and industries.

Side Note: A business model and mentality he stressed among his rank and file membership as well.

LaRocca’s North Star Cement Co.

He was a principal partner and president of the North Star Cement Company, 12 McCandless Avenue, Pittsburgh, which was operated by a nephew. Also a partner in this venture was capo Antonio Ripepi. This company employed over 25-30 people at its peak. The firm manufactured and distributed cement blocks for construction projects around Pennsylvania. It was considered a major player in the building materials supply industry.

La Rocca also had an ownership interest in Keystone Sales, Inc., a cigarette vending firm doing business as the Keystone Cigarette Vending Co. He was partnered with capo Joe Regino in this business, which operated in the city of Johnstown. In 1961, this firm reported bank deposits of $25,000 a month.

For many years he held a principal partnership in Coin Machine Distributors of Pittsburgh, a major vending machine company (which will be discussed in more detail below) L & G Amusement Co., (the letters stand for LaRocca and Genovese) was another major coin-machine distributor in Pittsburgh.

Duquesne Vending Company of Duquesne, PA., operated a virtual monopoly in that city for the placement of illegal slot machines. In 1948, detectives raided the firm and seized 38 one-armed bandits.

Underboss Mike Genovese

Other front companies operated to handle illegal gambling slots and jukeboxes were the Rock-O-La Corp., and Fayette Novelty Company.

In 1954, Standard Dryer Distributing Company was formed by LaRocca and several partners to sell and distribute mechanical hand dryers.

By 1951, he also held ownership of Beer Dispensing Company, a large wholesale distributor of beverages that later changed its name to Bulk Beverages Inc. This business was operated by his son John Jr.

La Rocca was said to own extensive real estate holdings in and around the greater Pittsburgh area that produced a large monthly rental income. These properties were put under a realty holding corporation.

Additionally, over the years, he acquired and owned a portfolio of “blue chip” stocks including AT&T and Western Electric, that provided regular dividends to he and his wife Mary.

Long considered the “boss” or “capo” of the La Rocca crime Family of Pittsburgh, he oversaw all racket operations of his borgata. Among the various rackets this small group engaged in over the years were:

• Alcohol bootlegging

• Labor racketeering (union corruption)

• Policy (numbers) gambling on a huge scale across the city.

• Casino type gambling (dice, cards, roulette, slot machines)

• Bookmaking (horses, sports)

• Slot machines/jukebox/coin-machine monopoly rackets

• Shylocking (or loansharking)

• Extortion and strongarm tactics

La Rocca was said to have attended the November 14, 1957 conference of hoodlums at Apalachin, NY. Although not physically nabbed there, the FBI stated that he was registered at the Arlington Hotel in Binghamton, NY, and was later grilled along with 61 other top mafiosi across the country before various grand juries.

He allegedly attended with capos Frank Amato and the Mannarino brothers representing the Pittsburgh area.

He applied for citizenship in 1950 and was arrested as an undesirable alien in 1953 following the issuance of a deportation order.
Said to have used his influence, La Rocca received a full pardon and dismissal of the deportation order from Pennsylvania Governor John S. Fine in 1954.

Aside from Apalachin, this was LaRocca’s most high profile arrest. (Click to enlarge)

The local racket element estimated that Governor Fine had been paid off to the tune of $50,000 to $100,000 in bribe money.

La Rocca and his associates were said to have deep connections within the East Liberty police department, and in local and state government that helped to greatly indemnify them from investigations, arrests and convictions. It allowed them to operate their numbers gambling racket and other criminal operations including illegal casinos and after-hours clubs virtually unimpeded over the years.

During his attempted deportation hearings, Allegheny County Judge Premo J. Columbus, who was also friendly with LaRocca, testified in LaRocca’s behalf. Only when the federal government stepped in and started investigating the La Rocca Family, were they exposed to real scrutiny and prosecution.

Throughout the years, it was reported that they had direct connections to District Attorney Samuel R. Di Francesco, after having contributed between $35,000 and $50,000 to help him get elected. Subsequently, this gave the LaRocca crew control over, and immunity in Cambria County.

LaRocca was said to have also worked in agreement, over the years, with Art Rooney (owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers Football team) in vending machines and in other business arrangements.

Starting out as a moonshiner and bootlegger in the 1930s at Jamestown, New York, LaRocca made regularly scheduled runs into Pittsburgh for his liquor operations. He would later remain in Pittsburgh because of the police “heat” he had in Jamestown, continuing his moonshining, and adding a numbers operation later on.

Surveillance photo of LaRocca at Mike Genovese’s car wash

In 1941, it was reported by informants that LaRocca was in control of all the numbers activity in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh. He was also said to be a distributor of “one-armed bandits” or slot machines that were placed throughout the neighborhood in candy stores, bars, and other establishments. LaRocca reportedly received these machines from a connection made in the city of Chicago.

He later formed the Coin Machine Distributing Co., located at 5746 Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh., that became one of the largest vending machine companies in the city, with the machines placed in the Homewood, East Liberty and Garfield sections of Pittsburgh.

He was reportedly partnered with capo Frank Amato, Barney McGinley, and Sam Mannarino in this venture. The company did well until authorities raided various establishments where the machines had been placed, forcing the firm out of business.

Below I have listed a thumbnail sketch for many of his more important members and associates. Most subordinates listed were top mobsters of this Southwestern mafia network:

• Michael Genovese – LaRocca’s closest associate, underboss and protege. Ostensibly a legitimate businessman and partner with Archie Nelson (also a racketeer) in Archie’s Car Wash, and L.A. Motors,he later became boss after LaRocca’s death.

• Samuel (Sam) Mannarino – With his younger brother Kelly, they were the gambling boss “capos” in New Kensington. Sam was later sidelined and semi-retired by the Family.

• Gabriel (Kelly) Mannarino – Younger brother of Sam who later took over various gambling operations as capo in New Kensington. A very important mafioso, he also held interests in Cuban gambling casinos in partnership with other bosses around the country. Owns Catoris Candies Inc., Ken-Iron & Steel Corp.,My-Ken Novelty Co., and S.&S. Distributing Co., both slot machine and vending businesses, both of New Kensington. Also owned the San Souci Hotel & Casino in Havana Cuba at one time.

Subordinates included the Lanzino brothers, Willie Sams, Al Zeid, and John Fontana. In later years, his young protege Thomas (Sonny) Ciancutti, would later raise to a position of authority as well.

• Frank Amato Sr. – Of Braddock, old-line Mafia boss with heavy political influence who LaRocca later succeeded, with Amato stepping down to serve in the underboss position thereafter. Interests included jukeboxes and vending machines, and the Adrilee Motel, Restaurant & Bar on Rt. 30. His son Frank (Sonny) Amato Jr., was a more current member of the Family.

• John Bazzano Jr. – The son of former boss John Bazzano Sr., he also became a top soldier within the borgata working under his father in law capo Tony Ripepi. By the 1980s, he had become underboss after the death of Jojo Pecora.

• Joseph (Jojo) Pecora – A soldier who later became an underboss to Mike Genovese after his accession to Family head. He controlled the West Virginia Panhandle area, and several labor union locals for the borgata. Pecora served a federal “bid” for political influence peddling.

• Frank Valenti – Son-in-law of Amato who later relocated to Rochester, New York, forming his own Family.

• Joseph Sica – Born 1908, another old line mafioso who served as a respected soldier of the Family in control of Penn Hills. He has a record for burglary, larceny, gambling, defrauding and receiving kickbacks from the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund with members of New York’s Genovese Family. After his conviction for kickbacks and extortion, Sica served part of a five-year sentence in 1978. He held partnership interests in Valley Beer Distributor, Tri-Boro Vending Machine Company, J. & L. Cigarette Service, and the Rainbow Amusement Park Company with the Volpe brothers. By the late-1980s, Sica was said to be serving as the Family consigliere.

Side Note: His daughter Josephine married Frank Rosa, the son of capo Joe Rosa. Sica was also an older cousin of former Lucchese acting boss turned informer, Alphonse (Little Al) D’Arco of New York.

• Giuseppe (Joe) Rosa – Another soldier who was later elevated as a capo and oversaw an outer distric.

• Antonio (Tony) Ripepi – Old-line mafioso born in Calabria who served as a senior capo. Father-in-law of soldier John Bazzano Jr. and Rochester mob figure Costenze (Stanley) Valenti.

• Dominick Anzalone – A key soldier who later had a falling out with LaRocca after being edged out of racket operations in PA. He later relocated out to California by 1960.

• James (Two-Gun Jimmy) Prato – A tough old-time Calabrian soldier who oversaw the Youngstown, Ohio rackets for the Pittsburgh crew. He was the nephew and protege of former Calabrian faction mobster Dominick Mallamo.

• Nicholas Stirone – Became a labor union official under the supervision of LaRocca. Stirone was President of the District Labor Council for the International Hod Carriers, Painters and Common Laborers Union (AFL-CIO), and representative of the Construction General Laborers and Material Handlers Union – Local # 1058 (AFL-CIO). In 1957, he was sentenced to 3 years in prison on anti-racketeering charges.

• Hyman (Little Hymie) Martin – Close associates of LaRocca who resided in Miami. With arrests for armed robbery, murder, liquor law violation, gambling. He operated Cuban gambling casinos.

• Felix (Phil) Genovese – Older brother of Mike, he was overseer/controller of the numbers operation in East Liberty and Homewood. Owned and operated out of the Red Eagle Club and Genovese Cocktail Lounge. Numbers racketeers “Boots” Bellini and his brother operate under Phil.

• Fiore (Fio) Genovese – Brother to Mike and Phil, he was said to be an “associate” active in the numbers racket in tandem with his brothers.

• Capo Louis and Joseph Volpe – Notorious brothers whose three older brothers were shot to death years earlier in the Hill district during Prohibition. The Volpe’s ran all racketeering operations in the Wilmerding, PA., area. The Volpe brothers’ killings were a pivotal event in Cosa Nostra. Boss John Bazzano was later lured to NYC and massacred as a result of his orchestrating their murders. Joe Sica was thought to serve in the Volpe regime.

• John Scardina – At one time he was considered the top numbers operator in the city of Farrell, PA. A close personal friend of LaRocca.-Joseph (Little Joe Ragno) Regino – a convicted counterfeiter, he was born in Calabria, Italy in 1907, and controlled all rackets operations in the Johnstown section of Pittsburgh. He had a record of 14 arrests and served a term at Lewisburg Penitentiary. Regino and LaRocca were partners in a major vending machine firm that controlled vending rackets in that city. He also held interests in a cigar store and bowling alley. Regino later relocated to Pompano, Florida.

• John C. Fontana – Another reputed soldier, said to be active in policy and bookmaking. Controls Westmoreland County for the Family. Suspected of involvement in narcotics trafficking. Served under the Mannarino brothers in the New Kensington area handling gambling operations.

•…others included; Thomas Pecora, Jack Cancellieri, Al Ladish, Phil Scassera, Charles Margiotti, Charles (Charlie Murgie) Imburgia, Robert (Bobby I) Ianelli, Fritz Kohl, Tony Grosso, Paul (No-Legs) Hankish, Michael Trafficante, Primo Mollica, Anthony (Wango) Capizzi, Samuel (Sammy Fashion) Facionatta, Sandy Naples and his brothers, Lenine (Lenny) Strollo and his brother…among many others.

By 1950, La Rocca was already considered overall boss of Allegheny County and its outer environs for decades. Federal law enforcement identified him as the “power” in the city of Pittsburgh where he was “representante” of their local resident mafia Family. This group also held sway over parts of Ohio, West Virginia, and Western PA.

A younger photo of John LaRocca

On June 11, 1959, La Rocca appeared with Gabriel Mannarinobefore the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field of the United States. Senator Bobby Kennedy was head of the proceedings. Both were grilled in regard to their knowledge of labor racketeering and mafia corruption.

In the aftermath of the Apalachin Meeting debacle and intense law enforcement scrutiny they followed, LaRocca started spending more and more time down in Florida and away from daily mob operations. He allowed his trusted underboss to act as “acting boss”. This allowed LaRocca to remain in the shadows.

Of course, he was consulted on any major moves his men contemplated making before doing so. And he surely received his bosses share of the spoils. But LaRocca was content to essentially semi-retire from the day to day mob grind.

Sebastiano Giovanni LaRocca died on December 3, 1984 in McCandless, Pennsylvania at 83 years of age.

Aside from having served a few years in state prison in his youth, LaRocca lived a very charmed life as the “Representante” of one of the most successful, and trouble free, Cosa Nostra Families to ever operate in the United States.

Click to read the full history of the La Rocca Family of Pittsburgh

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