A mob past becomes an asset

SUN JOURNAL

For sale: After years of gawkers, owners of an upstate New York house that was a once Mafia hangout now say, auction this.

August 03, 2002|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

APALACHIN, N.Y. - Angels could live in this stone house on a 42-acre estate, and still it would be known for its nefarious past - a cookout 45 years ago when 60-some gangsters wearing dark suits and white fedoras met secretly over steak sandwiches until state police pulled up, sent them fleeing into the woods and gave the nation a new household word: Mafia.

The spectacle, memorialized in the opening sequence of the movie Analyze This, has saddled the handful of owners of this property since 1957 with a stream of annoying gawkers, but the dark past becomes an asset today when the property goes up for auction.

"It's got an appeal far beyond that of a simple 42-acre horse farm," says local auctioneer Bob Connelly, who plans to start the bidding at $275,000.

"It's got national notoriety. Real estate in this area's cheap. If you look at it from a national point of view, the thing's a steal."

Along with the 11-room house, the 50-by-22-foot "summer" house, four-car garage, parking lot, two horse barns, two-acre pond and swimming pool, the auction will include about 150 items that belonged to mob underboss Joseph Barbara Sr., the host of the ill-fated gathering, including a large octagonal oak poker table, a grand piano, two bar tables and a walk-in cooler where the mobster kept his meat and beer.

Barbara personally planted the grape arbor and built the huge stone barbecue, where the mobsters gathered for grilled steaks that gray Nov. 14.

Before the Apalachin raid, Americans did not know that a national crime network existed, and the FBI denied its presence. Overnight, the Mafia lost its shroud in a breakthrough that would change mob history and infuse the gangster "family" into decades of popular culture.

"It was the event that forced the FBI and law enforcement and J. Edgar Hoover to acknowledge the existence of a national syndicate of Italian-American gangsters," says Jerry Capeci, a writer who is an authority on organized crime.

The raid happened almost by accident when two state police officials stationed near this upstate New York hamlet near Binghamton stumbled on the meeting of the nation's mob bosses to discuss strategy after the murder of family leader Albert Anastasia in a Manhattan barbershop.

Sgt. Edgar Croswell and his partner, investigator Vincent Vasisko, had long suspected Barbara, a Canada Dry distributor, of bootlegging and other illegal acts, and routinely watched his house.

The day before the Nov. 14 meeting, the two officers happened to be at a nearby motel investigating a bad-check complaint when Barbara's son came in and reserved a block of rooms for what he called a convention of beverage distributors.

The next day, the officers brought federal alcohol tax agents to the Barbara home and found about 30 cars parked in Barbara's driveway and a number of nattily dressed men gathered about.

As the officers recorded license plate numbers, men started yelling in Italian, and suddenly dozens of them burst from the summer house and garage and fled in all directions, many into the woods.

Had they stayed put with their steak sandwiches, the police would have left, says Vasisko, 76, who retired as a state police investigator in 1984, and then served as chief civil deputy undersheriff in Broome County, N.Y. (Croswell retired as a state police captain in 1966 and died in 1990.)

"If you've got nothing to hide, you don't run," Vasisko says. "You've got 50-some people dressed in suits and fedoras running in the woods. That by itself is suspicious."

Working through the rainy afternoon and night, the officers and their reinforcements rounded up 65 men with now-infamous names such as Vito Genovese, Carlo Gambino and Paul Castellano, carrying no wallets but thousands of dollars of cash in their pockets. Those fleeing by car were stopped at a roadblock and escorted to the police station; others were picked up on roadsides or stumbling out of the woods with burrs stuck to their soggy clothes.

All but one told the police they had traveled to Apalachin to visit their sick friend, Joe Barbara - one said his car had broken down. The police found their stories ridiculous but had nothing to charge them on and let them go.

The officers called the FBI, which wasn't interested in the raid. But the newspapers were, and soon the story made headlines across the country, forcing Hoover to investigate the gathering and create a "Top Hoodlum Program."

The Barbara house, part of which dates to 1867, was sold in 1959 - the same year Barbara died - and for a short while it became a tourist site, offering visitors a peek at the "crime shrine" for $1 and an "Apalachin Joe Barbecue" for an extra 50 cents.

"The PTAs in the local schools were really mad because it looked like they were glorifying the bad event," says local historian Emma Sedore.

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