Feature Articles

Christmas In Murdertown


By J. R. de Szigethy

     It was Christmas Eve, one of the holiest days of the year for those of the Christian faith, and a prayer was sent up to Heaven; a prayer for help, for Divine Intervention, as an American hero was in danger of losing his life. The call came from an American town that Norman Rockwell might have painted, a town where good, ordinary and decent citizens, trying to make a better life for their families and fellow citizens were pitted against the powerful and corrupt few who had the money and resources to control the community. It was a town where the worship of God and the worship of money generated constant conflict. It was a town where the good guys fought the bad guys, and the good guys often lost.

     On this Christmas Eve, one of the good guys was in trouble, his life hanging in the balance; only a Miracle could save him. This was NOT a replaying of the movie "It’s a Wonderful Life," the Holiday classic about how a guardian Angel on Christmas Eve saves the life of the ‘average American hero’ personified by the legendary Jimmy Stewart; this situation was REAL, the everyday hero REAL. This was Christmas in Murdertown, USA, also known as Youngstown, Ohio and the newly elected District Attorney, Paul Gains, lay on the floor of his home, having just been shot by an assassin. Gains had been elected just weeks earlier by promising to "clean up" Youngstown, which for the past 4 decades has arguably been the most corrupt town in America. The Mafia knew that Gains was "Untouchable" and thus the decision was made to murder him; this evil deed was to be carried out on a day law enforcement would least expect such a vile act; Christmas Eve.

     Thus, the assassin easily made his way into the Gains home. He aimed his gun at Gains and pulled the trigger. The gun fired and the bullet hit its target. Gaines collapsed, helpless. His only recourse was prayer. The assassin once again pulled the trigger. The gun jammed. He pointed the gun again at Gaines and pulled the trigger again. Again, nothing. The assassin, who had murdered people before in more subtle ways by dispensing the drugs that were his trade, then fled the Gains family home to the getaway car where his two accomplices awaited. "Did you kill him?" they asked.


     Paul Gains was not the only County Prosecutor in America known to turn to prayer; Gwinnett County, Georgia District Attorney Danny Porter once made the following plea; "Please God, don’t let it be one of ours!" "Don’t let it be a Gwinnett County law enforcement officer!" The time was April, 1993, the place; Gwinnett Police headquarters. While not exactly Mayberry, RFD, Gwinnett County is a sleepy enclave of close knit families north of Atlanta that is unaccustomed to the sort of crime that plagues major cities. Murder simply does not happen in Gwinnett County. Thus, the community could not have been more stunned when a 53-year-old grandmother, Emogene Thompson, was found murdered in her car parked just off the side of the town’s main road. County Prosecutor Danny Porter knew something was wrong when, days later, he got a call from the Police Chief asking him to come over immediately. There at the stationhouse, Porter learned that the police had determined Mrs. Thompson had been murdered in cold blood by a Gwinnett police officer; Mike Chapel. When word leaked out that Chapel had been arrested, the community, already reeling from Thompson’s murder, was in a state of disbelief.

     Mike Chapel was the local ‘all-American hero,’ a good athlete who had served his country in the United States Marine Corps before returning home to become a cop. He also owned a local gym, where he bulked his 6 foot 6 inch body into a formidable and intimidating presence. But Chapel had a ‘dark side,’ best expressed by the toy model of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character "The Terminator" that Chapel mounted on the dashboard of his police cruiser. "The Terminator" was Chapel’s self-professed role model and the cop even styled his appearance to resemble the murder machine from the popular movie. Then there was the matter of Chapel’s gym, which turned out not to be the squeaky-clean establishment some in the community thought it to be; several of the people who worked out there were using steroids to help bulk up their muscles. While steroids are effective at achieving these results, one common side effect is the so-called ‘roid rages’ users experience, which causes them to become violent and irrational.

     It would take Danny Porter two years of intensive investigation, but eventually he put all of the pieces together as to the circumstances of Emogene Thompson’s murder. A jury convicted Chapel and he was sentenced to life in prison. Unbeknownst to the District Attorney, this bizarre case was about to take on a new, unpredictable twist; Porter soon learned that the office of a United States Congressman, James Traficant of Youngstown, Ohio, had opened it’s own ‘independent’ investigation of the murder of Emogene Thompson.


     In 1963, the Saturday Evening Post published a cover story on Youngstown, Ohio detailing the 75 car bombings and 11 murders that had plagued the tough steel belt town in recent years. Mafia figures such as Charlie "The Crab" Carabbia and "Little Joey" Naples were portrayed as men who brazenly broke the law with impunity. A sarcastic resident was also mentioned who wrote a letter back home to Youngstown, addressing the envelope; ‘Murdertown, Ohio.’ The post office delivered the letter to Youngstown.

     Hoping to shame the citizens of Youngstown into taking action against local corruption, the Editors of the Post wrote: "The time now has come for action on the part of the whole citizenry. Until each honest man is aroused, the cesspool will remain. And Youngstown will remain a shame to the nation."

     The Post article had little impact; the gambling, official corruption – and murders - continued unabated for another 33 years. Then came Christmas in Murdertown, 1996. The shooting of District Attorney Paul Gains finally achieved what all of the other murders in Youngstown had failed to; for the first time, the people of the Mahoning Valley realized they had a serious problem that had to be addressed; the pervasive and near-complete corruption of their community leaders by members of the Italian Mafia.

     At last, those lone, courageous individuals who had been trying for many years to make a difference in Youngstown were finally acknowledged for the important work they had been carrying out. One was attorney James Callen of the Citizen’s League; another was FBI agent Robert Kroner. Special agent Kroner was then nearing the end of his career fighting corruption in Youngstown and like any other agent, would want to go out with a bang. Solving the shooting of the District Attorney would certainly be one way of doing so. Still, even if that was accomplished, Kroner and his colleagues would always be haunted by that one, ‘big fish’ that got away; James Traficant.

     Traficant’s curious journey through this story came about because someone had the courage to break the ‘code of silence’ that Mafia members and their families are expected to live by. Much is made by the Media of the vow of ‘Omerta’ that members of the Mafia agree to when inducted into La Cosa Nostra but what is overlooked is that Mafia wives also have to live by a code of silence; this doesn’t come about by any ceremony or Oath, but is tacitly understood. A good example was the behavior of the wife of Youngstown mob figure "Cadillac Charlie" Cavallaro. Back in 1962, Charlie and his two boys, ages 11 and 12, climbed into the family car one afternoon so that Charlie could drop them off at football practice. When Charlie turned on the ignition a bomb that had been secreted into the car exploded. Charlie was blown into two pieces while most of the 11 year old’s body was never found. The 12 year old survived. The mother of the two boys, Helen Cavallaro came running out of the family home to see what had happened, only to run back inside the house and barricade herself against the police, whom she knew were soon to arrive. Mrs. Cavallaro remained silent, refusing to speak to the authorities about who might have murdered her husband and their son.

     Things went differently 18 years later when it was Charlie the Crab’s turn to be murdered; Mrs. Carabbia took a bold, rare step for a Mafia wife; she broke the ‘code of silence’ and went to the authorities, telling them she was convinced her husband, missing only a few days, had been murdered. Mrs. Carabbia also stunned the authorities by naming the man she believed was responsible for her husband’s disappearance, the new Sheriff James Traficant. Mrs. Carabbia also had something to back up her claims; secretly recorded conversations between her husband and Traficant, where the Sheriff brags about laundering part of the $163,000 in bribe money he took from the Mafia through local attorney Ed Flask, the son of a former Mayor of Youngstown. Charlie the Crab tells Traficant not to worry about Flask, as he has in his possession "compromising photographs (of Flask) that would ensure his silence!"

     FBI agent Kroner was among those who investigated Traficant and the murder of Charlie the Crab. While the Sheriff was not charged with Carabbia’s murder, the tapes were enough to get an indictment against Traficant on bribery charges. At first Traficant confessed and agreed to be a co-operating witness for the Feds but after his attorney Carmen Policy – Ed Flask’s partner, abandoned him, Traficant changed his mind, perhaps fearing the Mafia would find and murder him. With no attorney willing to help him, Traficant recanted his confession and represented himself at trial, which was something of a circus; one of Traficant’s own Deputies testified that Traficant begged him to shoot him slightly so he could gain a trial delay as well as public sympathy; another Deputy was revealed to have threatened to murder the Mayor of Youngstown. In his Summation, Traficant urged jurors, 6 of whom were from the Mahoning Valley to support him "like junkyard dogs in a hurricane!" Reporters and law enforcement officials alike were stunned when the jury announced their verdict; not guilty on all charges. Traficant was thus transformed into an anti-Establishment folk hero and used his notoriety to propel himself into Congress. He has been there ever since.


     District Attorney Danny Porter was furious; Congressman Traficant and his entourage had marched into Gwinnett County with the intention of getting the murder conviction of Mike Chapel overturned. While making provocative public statements that Chapel had been framed by a vague conspiracy, Traficant and his team were able to stir up considerable emotion amongst the residents of Gwinnett County. Porter was not pleased. The D.A. told the Gwinnett Daily Post: "They are not prepared to discuss their evidence with the press, and they haven’t come to me with information, and they haven’t made it known to the police department. All of that tells me they don’t know what they are talking about. This tells me they are just trying to get some publicity out of the case for their own reasons."

     Had any local reporters bothered to check out Traficant, they would have found that the Congressman and his associates have a history of interjecting themselves into notorious cases involving murder. Traficant and his associate Lester Coleman, for example, once claimed that agents of the CIA were responsible for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people. Time Magazine had to later apologize to Atlanta resident Michael Schafer, who had been falsely accused of being a "CIA double agent." Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Ron Martz and Lloyd Burchette Jr. threatened to sue Coleman for remarks he made about them in a book, and Coleman was successfully sued by DEA agent Michael Hurley. Traficant also championed retired autoworker John Demjanjuk, who was put on trial in Israel for being "Ivan the Terrible," a viscous Nazi concentration camp murderer.

     While some residents of Gwinnett County may have been convinced by Traficant and his associates that Mike Chapel was falsely convicted of murder, the Judge in the Appeal was unimpressed with the "evidence" they uncovered; the Motion for a new trial was denied.


     While Traficant and his associates were busy investigating the murder of Emogene Chapel, FBI agents in Ohio were busy investigating associates of Traficant on bribery, racketeering, and murder charges. First came the indictment of Charles O’Nesti, who for 13 years had run Traficant’s Youngstown Congressional office. O’Nesti pleaded guilty to perjury and racketeering charges. In February of this year, the Feds indicted Mahoning County Sheriff Phil Chance on racketeering and bribery charges. Chance was charged with taking bribes from Pittsburgh Mafia figure Lenny Strollo, with Charles O’Nesti acting as an agent between Strollo and the Sheriff. Chance was first hired as a Deputy by Sheriff Traficant in 1982 and Strollo was among those Pittsburgh Mafia figures who gave Traficant a $163,000 bribe in 1980.

     Just days after Chance was indicted Lenny Strollo’s brother Dante pleaded guilty to racketeering and agreed to testify against his brother. With conviction almost certain in his upcoming murder trial, Strollo stunned those following this story by himself ‘flipping’ just as his trial was to begin. Strollo admitted, as this reporter had predicted earlier, that he had a role in the murder of Charlie Carabbia and the Feds thus now have information to re-open this murder investigation.

     Strollo also confessed to his role in the shooting of Mahoning County District Attorney Paul Gains. This is the story the FBI had finally been able to piece together about this murder conspiracy: In 1996, Paul Gains defeated the incumbent Mahoning County District Attorney James Philomena, who then returned to private practice as a lawyer. Lenny Strollo had become involved with some drug dealers, one of whom, Lavance Turnage was arrested on charges of robbery and assault. Philomena and his associate, a disbarred attorney named George Alexander, told Strollo they could possibly ‘fix’ Turnage’s case with the Judge and in exchange wanted Turnage and his drug dealers to murder Paul Gains. While Philomena would not be named as the successor to Gains once he was murdered, Philomena hoped to use his influence to get another corrupt attorney named to replace Gains.

     Strollo claims that Alexander was behind the plot to shoot Turnage’s attorney Gary van Brocklin in the leg to get a delay in Turnage’s trial in 1996. Alexander was James Traficant’s representative in 1987 when Traficant was taken to Court and forced to pay back taxes on the $163,000 in bribe money he took from the Mafia. Traficant also put Alexander’s two daughters on his payroll, even though they did no work to earn the thousands of dollars they received. Van Brocklin, who later was appointed one of two Special Prosecutors to handle corruption trials in Youngstown had to resign when it was revealed Strollo had financed his 1984 campaign for Mahoning County Prosecutor.

     Strollo enlisted Turnage and associates Bernie Altshuler, Jeffrey Riddle, and Mark Batcho to carry out the murder of D. A. Gains. Batcho was the triggerman who shot van Brocklin in the leg and he was also the one who pulled the trigger on Gains, with Riddle and Turnage in the getaway car. George Alexander and James Philomena have not been charged and deny any wrongdoing.

     In February, 1999 the racketeering trial of Altshuler, Turnage, and Riddle finally got underway at the Federal Courthouse in Cleveland. While Lenny Strollo’s testimony was the most eagerly anticipated since the flipping of "Sammy The Bull" Gravano, it was the testimony of District Attorney Paul Gains that was the most satisfying. The courageous Prosecutor had survived his gunshot wound and lived to face in Court those who plotted to have him assassinated. The jury convicted all of the defendants on all charges and they received Life sentences. A state trial on related charges is to follow.


     While Danny Porter’s prayers were not answered, his nightmare that began when a uniformed police officer shot and killed a defenseless grandmother is now over; Porter can finally get on with the rest of his career unperturbed now that Traficant and his associates no longer have a forum to preach from in Gwinnett County, Georgia.

     Robert Kroner will soon retire from the FBI, but before that happens, the Postman might yet ring a second time for a Mahoning Valley criminal Kroner would very much like to put behind bars.

     Paul Gains continues in his role as Mahoning County District Attorney and will keep up the fight to clean up Youngstown. For someone who is very lucky just to be alive, everyday must seem like Christmas, even if he has to spend that Holiday in Murdertown, USA.

     It’s a wonderful life, isn’t it, Mr. Gains?

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