By The Other Guy | May 8, 2020
The City of Altoona, within Blair County in Pennsylvania, is an area just shy of 10 square miles (9.8 sq mi) that is situated deep within the Allegheny Mountains. During its first development and expansion in the early decades of the twentieth century, it reached an all-time high population of 82,000 residents back in 1930.
By 1960, it still maintained a populous of approximately 70,000 people who called it home. After years of steady decline, today it hovers at only around 43,000 residents. Even still, the City of Altoona kept its ranking as the 11th largest city in the State of Pennsylvania.
With its typical All-American persona of apple pies and county fairs, Altoona was a very unlikely place to find the ancient Sicilian phenomenon known the world over as the Mafia. Although the city was much larger compared to its notorious Pennsylvania neighbor New Kensington in Westmoreland County, which was often referred to as “Little Las Vegas”, or such well-known nearby mob-run gambling meccas as Youngstown in Ohio, which was notoriously called “Bomb Town U.S.A.” because of all the bloody gang wars and subsequent killings and car bombings that occurred there over the years, the traditional sleepy little city of Altoona never had that kind of nasty underworld reputation.
By and large, it was a quiet, out-of-the-way area that was traditionally 95% white with an Italian population of no more than 12% or so. Black residents accounted for about 3% of its natives, and Hispanics were not even “a thing” at a dismal 1%…it always was, and is, a “white bred” town to its core.
Not only didn’t Altoona have its own resident Mafia Family, but it couldn’t even boast that it had a formal Mafia “regime” headed by an official “capo di decina” with a recognized crew of formally inducted “soldiers” and it’s “on record”, traditional “associate member” recruits and other lower-level tiered “associates”.
Oh sure, the area had its common criminals as all towns do, both semi-organized and not, but the Cosa Nostra was not entrenched there.
Altoona had their small share of bookmakers, numbers runners, and gamblers, thieves and hustlers as well. During the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, they also had their resident small-time drug dealers. But “small” and “small-time” were the words best used to describe its criminal fraternity.
Technically the LaRocca Family of LCN, based in Pittsburgh had jurisdiction over the territory, but little was ever really done to develop Altoona into a money-making mafia machine the way some other towns and small cities had been through the years.
It was a backwater, sleepy and forgotten little area as far as the Pittsburgh borgata was concerned.
Why that was is a mystery? Maybe because of Altoona’s distance from Pittsburgh proper, which was nearly 100 miles away, the hierarchy thought it a bit too far to worry about. Or maybe they thought that there wasn’t enough solid “action” available in Altoona to make it worth their wild to concentrate on it. Or quite possibly Altoona didn’t have enough capable resident Italian hoodlums to successfully rise to the occasion to do the job in the first place.
Racketeers sharp enough and savvy enough, who had the street “talent” required to complete the task at hand. Whatever the reason, Altoona was always left as a loose confederation of independent criminals devoid of any central command.
Within this minimal “talent pool”, the most notable Italian hoodlums and gamblers through the years were: John Verilla, Alfred Corbo, Michael Trafficante, Samuel Fashionatta, Joseph Ruggiero, and Paul Forcarelli. They rubbed elbows, associated and schemed with a hodge-podge of Altoona ne’er-do-wells of all ethnicities that would make any respectable hoodlum hang his head in shame and embarrassment.
The story written below is by and large the very limited, and ultimately, the very sordid history of the Altoona underworld. It’s a story of mostly incapable men who gravitated to the criminal underworld looking to dominate the area, but didn’t have the smarts or natural intelligence and talent to do so.
The Lucky Luciano’s and Frank Costello’s of the Italian underworld they were not! And it seems that those at the helm of mob power back in New Kensington and Pittsburgh also didn’t have the foresight or care enough to actually properly “groom” those who they tapped to lead in Altoona either.
Either that, or they didn’t really give a good fuck. To even allow such men to act as point-men representing the Pittsburgh crew, and to eventually induct a few as “official” members of the LaRocca borgata was a misnomer to say the least!
This story that I’ve written about the Altoona mob centers around a man who became an actual member of the LaRocca Family by the name of John Verilla.
Verilla must have watched the epic movie classic “The Godfather” once too many times, or had illusions of grandeur, maybe fancying himself as another Don Vito Corleone lording over all of Altoona. Because what he would do and the damage he would cause, both to himself and those around him, as well as Altoona itself, is one for the mob history books.
Whatever those men in power back in Pittsburgh saw in Verilla or were thinking when they went ahead and inducted him, we’ll never know.
But suffice it to say that Verilla was one of the biggest mistakes the otherwise careful and low-key LaRocca Family ever made!
This is that story!
John (Jack) Verilla – aka “Sonny Verilla”- was born on March 17, 1925, and grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania (Blair County), a town he would both reside and operate from his entire life. He lived at Box # 174, Road 2 in Altoona.
He was commonly referred to as both Jack and/or Sonny on the streets and in the mob.
As a young man, John Verilla served as a Seaman in the United States Merchant Marines during WWII. He married a girl named Angelina (nee Pellegrino) and together they would have two children including a boy John Jr., that he had named after himself. LaRocca Family capo Kelly Mannarino served as the child’s godfather during his baptism.
In future years, he would list Angelina (Angie) Verilla as the co-owner of record for Jaye’s Bar, located at 1208 16th Street in Altoona, a neighborhood tavern he owned and operated. Mrs. Verilla was placed on the ownership papers so as to obtain the liquor license from the SLA without a hitch.
Despite this “beard” or smokescreen, the constant gambling activity at this location over the years caused the Pennsylvania State Liquor Authority to take a hard look at Jaye’s Bar. Verilla was repeatedly cited for promoting gambling at this locale.
Subsequently in 1980, when Mrs. Verilla officially filed an application for a transfer of their liquor license to a new location at 201-15 East Sixth Avenue, which was also in Altoona, the SLA withheld approval pending the outcome of those gambling citations. (No disposition was available).
By at least 1980, Verilla had been identified and confirmed by the FBI as a formally inducted “soldier” in the Pittsburgh Family headed by Sebastiano (John) La Rocca. He was listed as a documented soldier on an official government flow chart created on the Pittsburgh organization by the Justice Department in 1981 and again in 1983.
Verilla operated in and was said to control the town of Altoona in Blair County, Pennsylvania for LaRocca and their borgata.
Although Verilla was not a “capo”, or even an official mafia member in the 1950s, he was given the Family’s authority by Pittsburgh capo Gabriel (Kelly) Mannarino over all of Altoona, nonetheless and operated in much the same way a soldier or capo would. In time, he would be officially inducted into the Pittsburgh Family of LCN.
Law enforcement reported that Verilla answered variously over the years to capos Mannarino, Tony Ripepi, and later Frank Amato Jr.
Among his first connections to the mob was a close friendship with a top Gambino soldier David (Davy Crockett) Iacovetti. Although Iacovetti was born in New York City and operated primarily out of New York and Connecticut, they had formed an early friendship as boys when Iacovetti’s family had moved to Altoona. As a small boy, Dave Iacovetti attended the Altoona public school system where he met Verilla, and they would maintain their close friendship from then on.
Side Note: Dave Iacovetti’s father, Albert, his mother and three brothers continued to reside in Altoona for the rest of their lives. Another strong connection between Iacovetti and Verilla was the fact that Iacovetti married a second or third cousin of John Verilla whose maiden name was Altiero. So, there were blood-family ties between them, as well.
This connection later allowed Verilla to associate with varied mob guys. He thrived and showed his capabilities to the organization over time, which in turn would lead to his induction into the Pittsburgh crew, the governing borgata with jurisdiction over the Altoona territory.
Reliable informants have said that with Iacovetti’s introduction and recommendation to “sponsor” Verilla and request for LaRocca to “make” him, Verilla was eventually absorbed into the borgata as a Pittsburgh member. But the exact year of his “making” ceremony is not known.
One of the key elements showing his value was his ability to introduce the Treasury Balance lottery ticket racket into the area. Verilla was personally able to set up and get the “green light” to operate this network from area politicians which enabled the racket to thrive unimpeded by investigations and arrests.
Verilla worked a profitable arrangement to create a monthly “pad” where everybody ate – police officials, district attorneys, judges, and other influential area politicians he knew. His ability to “grease the wheels” of the “powers that be” so impressed the mob hierarchy that they felt compelled to initiate Verilla into Cosa Nostra, making him one of their own.
The lottery network Verilla set up extended from Harrisburg, PA out to the Ohio state line. He made the various connections needed to operate through those respective cities and counties enabling a huge gambling network to smoothly operate bringing in large revenue for the mob.
Two other key operatives of the Family ran rackets in Altoona as well. Pittsburgh Family soldiers Samuel (Sammy Fashion) Fashionatta and Michael Trafficante assisted Verilla in overseeing these racket activities. Sammy Fashion handled loanshark money and ran various card and dice games. Mike Trafficante operated a major policy numbers network, and backed a steady floating crap game which ran every Sunday at different locations in Altoona. He also owned a pinball and vending machine business in the area.
Another associate of Verilla was Joseph (Joe the Weep) Ruggiero, who was allowed to run a numbers gambling ring. Their operation, which they dubbed “The Family” or “The Blair Mob”, collectively operated a large numbers network from 12 locations across Blair County.
Several other close associates and minions of Sonny Verilla rounded out his crew including:
• John Caramadre – who handled a bookmaking office and was an advisor of sorts to Sonny.
• Mike (Chipka) Chopko – a gambler who distributed Treasury Balance lottery tickets throughout the territories.
• Vincent Caracciolo, Howard (Tony) Hugar, and Preston Ryan.
Verilla made use of Caracciolo for any strong-arm work required. This included threats and beatings, many arsons, and ultimately several murders. Verilla’s nickname for him was “Little Al” for Al Capone, in recognition of Caracciolo’s penchant for violence.
Before they got made themselves, Sonny Verilla utilized both Trafficante and Fashionatta as front men to try and keep any law enforcement heat off himself. This often gave the false impression that they were the leaders of various gambling activities when, in fact, it was Verilla operating from the background.
They each were believed to have gotten their start in the underworld under the auspices of Jack Verilla and Kelly Mannarino as “recruits”. Each would eventually also be absorbed into the LaRocca Family as soldiers as time went on.
Verilla liked to hang out at the popular Colony Steak House, Chilcote’s, and the Red Bull Inn, all in Altoona, which he sometimes used as a base. Years back, an interesting incident happened that’s worth mentioning.
In approximately 1965-66, Verilla was reported to have had a savage fistfight with a well-known Altoona racketeer and gambler named Alfred (Freddy) Corbo. A dozen people witnessed this free-for-all which took place right in the open. It culminated with Corbo knocking out Verilla’s front teeth with a brick.
Verilla lobbied hard for the borgata to “hit” Corbo, but nothing ever happened to Corbo. Supposedly, Dave Iacovetti from Florida flew up and helped settle the “beef” between them.
Side Note: It was said that Corbo had extensive financial resources and was also well-connected, and although not a recognized Cosa Nostra member per se, many people thought he was. Corbo was said to be a good earner who sent big envelopes to John LaRocca and the hierarchy back in Pittsburgh.
So, he too was also backed by LaRocca Family members and they didn’t want anything bad to happen to Corbo. That would have been the equivalent of “killing the goose that lays the golden egg”. Other informants reported that the beef was eventually settled at a sitdown of area racketeers that took place at the Colony Steak House.
But even the fact that Corbo would raise his hands to Verilla shows that, at that time at least, Verilla wasn’t a “made” guy yet. If he had been, Corbo would surely have gotten “clipped” for striking a goodfellow, let alone beating him so badly. But Corbo would continue to be a thorn in Verilla’s side over the years that was only tolerated because of Corbo’s close association with the Pittsburgh mob, not to mention his close connections in the detective bureau of the Altoona Police Department, which gave him an immunity from reprisal of sorts.
Known associates of Verilla included top “made” hoodlums such as:
• Sebastiano (John) LaRocca
• Michael Genovese
• Joseph (Jojo) Pecora
• Gabriel (Kelly) Mannarino
• Samuel (Sam) Mannarino
• Thomas (Sonny) Ciancutti
• John Fontana
• Frank (Sonny) Amato Jr.
• David (Davy Crockett) Iacovetti
…and mob associates Lou Cohen, Paul (No-Legs) Hankish, and others from Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and elsewhere.
In April of 1968, Verilla made a formal complaint to underboss Mike Genovese about the proliferation of drugs and narcotics coming into Altoona. He could not understand why Genovese would allow such activity to take place, especially since Cosa Nostra doctrine technically prohibited such activities. For his part, Genovese denied any knowledge of it and stated that he would “look into it.”
Shortly thereafter, Verilla made another formal complaint to Genovese, who be this time was also “acting boss” of the borgata.
He complained about the sale of Empire Treasury lottery tickets being sold within his territory by associates of capo Kelly Mannarino. Shortly thereafter, the tickets were no longer available for sale. But within two years’ time they reappeared.
Again Verilla reached out to Genovese to complain about other wiseguys attempts to poach rackets within his jurisdiction.
Within days, they immediately disappeared off the streets again. So, it showed that, indeed, Verilla had some power.
Reverse complaints also held true on occasion. There came a time around 1970 when both LaRocca and Genovese “pulled him up on the carpet”. They instructed Verilla, in no uncertain terms, that the revenue he was producing for the Family was insufficient. And that he has better do whatever he needed to in order to bolster racket revenues to a satisfactory amount. If not, his position as leader in Altoona would be assigned to another hoodlum.
Altoona was never owned lock, stock, and barrel by Cosa Nostra. Many independent operators ran gambling and other rackets around town. One method of generating revenue was to “shake down” these independents for a weekly or monthly “tribute”. It was said that the hierarchy wanted more money. They weren’t worried about the possible heat brought down by authorities and didn’t care if Altoona became known as another New Kensington, which was a notorious racket dominated-town controlled by the Mannarino brothers.
As the years passed, Verilla couldn’t resist the huge profits generated by the drug business and ended up going into the racket himself. He and some associates started distributing pharmaceutical drugs they got from a local physician named Dr. John Maras who regularly supplied them with Dilaudid, Percodan and Quaaludes.
Later, his henchman Caracciolo even set up a staged robbery of the physician’s office, with the stolen drugs funneled to Verilla. Key operatives in this pill ring included Tony Hugar and Henry Clark.
This profitable arrangement worked very well for several years between 1979 and 1981 with the doctor writing out phony prescriptions for narcotics on a regular basis until Clark had a falling out with Verilla. He then threatened Verilla and the doctor with exposure and arrest for cutting him out of their narcotics trade.
In time, this drug connection and pill business would turn out to be the unraveling of the Verilla gang, more commonly referred to as the Blair Mob.
In 1983, Verilla was nabbed in a surprise early morning sweep against his operations, orchestrated by three teams of state law enforcement officers. He was arrested in highly-publicized raids along with four key members of his crew.
Charged under the Pennsylvania Corrupt Organizations Act, counts against them included racketeering and conspiracy, arson, kidnapping and murder, lottery, bookmaking, shylocking, extortion, and tampering with a grand jury witness…basically the whole book was thrown at them.
Verilla’s name had also been mentioned in an earlier murder probe. After an intense police investigation by the district attorney’s office, he was subsequently tied to the January 1979 kidnapping and killing of a 57-year-old Altoona drug dealer by the name of John Henry Clark.
In subsequent testimony by former associate Vincent Caracciolo, who had turned informant, he recalled how it was agreed upon in a hushed conversation between he, Verilla, and Caramadre to murder Clark. Caracciolo recited how he later directed Clark to Mineral Point in Cambria County under the guise of a mutual business scheme.
Once there, Caracciolo and his associates Preston Ryan, Joe Martino, and Marvin (Wax) Wansley, forced Clark to kneel, placed a shopping bag over his head, and then drove an ax right through Clark’s skull. They then poured gasoline over the dead man’s body and ignited it.
Prosecutors said Clark was killed to prevent him from making good on his threats to tell authorities about mob activities and narcotics trafficking in the city by Verilla and his crew.
In another killing also committed in 1979 by Caracciolo, he admitted to murdering Dennis P. Hileman by striking him in the head several times with a ball-peen hammer, slitting his throat and stabbing him in the chest…a vicious murder if ever there was one.
The victim’s body was later found weighted down with cement cinder blocks attached to a chain wrapped around Hileman’s torso, then thrown into the Tipton Reservoir.
Back in 1978, Verilla ordered several of his men to kidnap, beat, and then cut off one of gambler Joseph McDermott’s fingers for the unpardonable offense of having accepted numbers bets at the Roundhouse Inn in Logan Township. Not being part of their mob, it was determined that McDermott should have his finger severed for dipping it into the Verilla organization’s gambling profits.
Side Note: Clearly by this time, soldier Jack Verilla was getting “drunk with power”. His stupid decisions while trying to be a big man around town were laying the groundwork for a major fall from grace…which wasn’t long to come.
If the boys back in Pittsburgh knew what he was doing and how he was operating, they probably would have clipped Verilla.
Subsequently, Caracciolo ordered Ryan, Scott Bruner and John Clark to snatch Joe McDermott. This was done on March 21, 1978. They grabbed their victim, throwing him into Ryan’s van, tied his hands and feet, and sped away. After accomplishing their gruesome task of amputating his pinky finger and threatening McDermott’s life if he continued encroaching on their territory, he was released.
As if those horrendous acts were not enough, Caracciolo was also indicted and convicted for a series of seven arsons committed in the 1970s and 1980s including a house fire at a property he owned in Blandburg in Reade Township; Johnny O’s Disco, and the Greenwood Steakhouse, both in Altoona. A fourth fire committed in 1983 that destroyed a Williamsburg residence to collect the fire insurance money was also charged.
Caracciolo received a double-life sentence for the two murders and 30-60 years for the arson fires. The judges ordered each of those sentences to run consecutively… Caracciolo was buried! He was never getting out.
After flipping, he later gave evidence and open court testimony against his boss Verilla and several of their mob associates charged in both the killings and arsons.
Caracciolo was later ferried into a witness protection program through the Blair County District Attorney’s office. He served his full sentence in solitude at a prison facility far away from Altoona and his former mob confederates…when he was already well into his 80s, he applied for clemency, citing his prior full cooperation with the government…his appeal was denied!
Jack Verilla went to trial in September of 1984, and after two weeks of very contentious and sordid testimony, Verilla chose to throw in the towel and enter a guilty plea to first-degree murder. The jury had to deliberate the death penalty for him, but once they became hopelessly deadlocked, the judge stepped in and sentenced Verilla to serve the mandatory life term for this conviction.
Side Note: Other trial witnesses for the prosecution included former osteopath Dr. John Mara (who got a 15 to 30-year sentence for writing thousands of illicit prescriptions), Joseph Ruggiero, Preston Ryan, and Joseph Martino…nearly all of his formerly loyal colleagues lined up to bury Verilla.
At 59 years old, Jack Verilla became the only Southwestern Pennsylvania mafia soldier to be convicted of murder in the last 25 years (up to that time).
He would end up dying four years later while serving his bid behind bars. An awfully tough way to get out of a jail term for sure, maybe the toughest! But he got out from under it nonetheless.
John Michael Verilla died on September 10, 1988. He was only 63 years old.
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