Sam the Fat Man
By Scott M. Deitche
On August 6th 2002, in a crowded New York City courtroom, a jury acquitted two mobsters of conspiracy to hire a hit man. One of the mobsters, Gambino capo Greg DePalma, was no stranger to the New York press. He was a Gotti-era capo, whose loud mouth got him into trouble with the law. The other mobster, Sam ‘The Fat Man" Cagnina III was a virtual unknown to the press. Neither reporters for the New York Post nor The Daily News knew who Cagnina was. The reason is that Cagnina was not a New York gangster. He was a long-in-the-tooth Trafficante family associate from Tampa.
Sam "The Fat Man" Cagnina III was born on December 13, 1935 in Tampa.
The Fat Man’s father was a Trafficante family associate, active from the 1930s to the 1950s. Cagnina II had some early arrests for bootlegging and moonshine making (Tampa was surrounded by rural areas back then). He worked at Pete’s Filling Station in East Hillsborough County, just outside of Tampa city limits. Police described him as a "drop man"- a person who receives lottery tickets and bets from peddlers and takes them up the line. On July 29th 1953, he was convicted of failing to purchase a gambling stamp, which gamblers (legal and illegal) were supposed to have so the feds could tax their earnings. This was in addition to other arrests on gambling related charges. Cagnina II was also charged with selling stolen property out of the filling station in November of 1953. He died in January of 1983 at age 72.
Although little is known about Sam Cagnina III’s early years, apart from a short stint as a Key West police officer, by the early 1970s, he found himself running with a renegade group of Trafficante family associates led by Victor Manuel Acosta (who reported to crime family underboss Frank "Daddy Frank" Diecidue).
In addition Cagnina III also found himself in his father’s underworld sphere. Both men were associates of a crime group with close ties to the Trafficante family. Known as the cracker mob, it was led for decades by Harlan Blackburn. The cracker mob was an assortment of various Anglo criminals who operated gambling, moonshining (yes, moonshining), and other rackets in the rural counties of Polk, Pasco, Highlands, Desoto, Orange, and Volusia, all outside Tampa. The Fat Man became an associate of Blackburn, and, in 1971, attempted to kill one of Blackburn’s top men, Clyde Lee.
Blackburn was concerned that Lee was stealing money from his operation. On March 19, he drove Lee to an apartment complex near Orlando to meet with Cagnina III. The meeting was a set-up and Sam fired at Lee, missing the gangster. Lee escaped. OnJune11th, Lee was at a highway rest stop in a telephone booth when a carload of people, including The Fat Man, drove up. According to the trial transcripts:
While at the pay telephone, Lee was accosted by three men who drove up in their automobile…they attempted to use a shotgun, which jammed, and one of them (Cagnina) shot Lee several times with a revolver.
Cagnina was brought to trial in 1973, and after being accused (and acquitted) of threatening a witness, the trial languished for five years. In the intervening years, Cagnina III found time to participate in a gangland war that shook the streets of Tampa. This is an excerpt from the draft of Cigar City Gangsters:
While Blackie Llerandi was dealing with the Pico Lopez situation, Victor Acosta was taking aim at rival lounge owners. There were small skirmishes between the two camps, which became known as the "lounge wars." Acosta’s faction had Blackie Llerandi as well as mob hitman Sam "The Fat Man" Cagnina III, and Ismael "Terry Lee" Garcia. The Acosta group backed certain lounges in Tampa, Miami, and Key West, extracting protection payments in exchange for peace as well as using the lounges as a distribution point for cocaine and marijuana.
The chain of command went from Acosta through Llerandi to Cagnina, who often had Garcia actually doing the dirty work. Before long the gang was shaking down massage parlors across the state and expanding the drug ring, but Cagnina was getting a little greedy. He decided he wanted a bigger piece of the action from the parlors. Cagnina went about contacting some owners of massage parlors, especially Ronnie Yaras, owner of a string of strip clubs and parlors in South Florida, which he inherited from his father.
Cagnina decided it was a good time to take Yaras out of the picture and divvy up the proceeds between himself, Garcia, and George Webber, a Tampan who owned a number of lounges backed by the Acosta camp. The contract went to Garcia, who took it upon himself to become better friends with Yaras. Good enough friend that when Yaras invited Yaras to his house, he did not think anything of sitting back in his easy chair, back to Garcia. This gave Ismael the chance to shoot Ronnie once in the neck and once in the temple.
Following Yaras's death, Cagnina decided that it would be a good idea if Webber were cut out of the action as well, leaving more money for fewer hands. Webber also found himself in the unenviable position of being in front of Garcia while Garcia was pumping a bullet into his neck. It took authorities over two years to locate Webber’s body.
In 1978 the law finally caught up with the 5’ 9" 300lb. Cagnina. He was charged with racketeering and the attempted murder of Clyde Lee. The Fat Man decided to flee Tampa and went on the lam for two years. Police caught up with him in Pompano Beach, on Florida’s East Coast. Federal agents tear-gassed the home Cagnina was hiding in, and brought him back tot Tampa to face trial. In March of 1981 he was convicted of conspiracy to counterfeit $12 million, passing counterfeit notes, possession with intent to deal cocaine, and the massive theft of 25 cases of government eggs. It was unclear if the Lee shooting was made part of the charges or was used in a superceding indictment. In any event, Cagnina III was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
He languished there for over 20 years before coming to the attention of prison officials when he was caught on tape planning the murder of Nicky LaSorsa, a car dealer who owed Gregory DePalma money. The two aging, wheelchair-bound gangsters were in adjoining cells at the Springfield Prison Hospital in Missouri. They enlisted the aid of Dominican drug kingpin Jose Reyes to hire an outside hitman. Cagnina was heard on tape boasting of his ties with Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, imprisoned boss of the Genovese family. Reyes obviously did not know that Cagnina had been behind bars since 1981.
The trial ended in acquittal for DePalma and Cagnina. The jury found Reyes’s testimony hard to swallow, even though there were tapes of the men plotting to kill LaSorsa. The Fat Man won his day in court, but he will not be back to Tampa anytime soon. He still has nine years left on his sentence.
Scott M. Deitche and Steve Lenehan are currently working on a book about Steve’s life in the mob entitled, A Day’s Pay.
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