Crimetown USA

(The New Republic)
There was a certain tidiness to the killings in Youngstown. Usually they happened late at night when there were no witnesses or police and only the lights from the steel furnaces still burned. Sometimes neighbors would hear the short, sharp sound of gunfire and then nothing, a silence you can’t describe unless you’ve heard it, which if you’re lucky you haven’t.

Everyone suspected who the killers were–they lived in the neighborhood, sometimes just down the street–but no one could ever prove anything. Sometimes their methods were simple: a bullet to the back of the head or a bomb strapped under the hood of a car. Or sometimes, like when they got Mr. Magda, they allowed for the more dramatic, tranquilizing their victim with a stun gun and wrapping his head in tape until he could no longer breathe.

Yet the most frightening method, the one that captured the city’s imagination, was the most immaculate: the disappearance of people in broad daylight. They were the city’s ghosts. Police found their cars empty on the side of the street, the engines still warm, or their dinner tables still piled with food. They had, in the most classic sense, been “rubbed out.” The only sign of the killers was an artistic flourish: the dozen long-stemmed white roses victims often received just before they vanished.

So, when Lenny Strollo ordered the hit that summer night in 1996, there was no reason to believe it would go down any differently.

As the top Mafia don in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, he presided over the killings and disappearances in and around Youngstown from his farm in nearby Canfield, where he tended his gardens and ate vitamins to quiet his heart. His reach extended over nearly an entire corner of the state, a stretch of land that was home to more than 200,000 people and that had become, by all accounts, the most crooked county in America–a place, in the modern era, where the Mafia still held sway over every element of society, from the police to the judges to the politicians. Only months earlier, Strollo had ordered his main mob rival mowed down as he drove to work. But this time his choice of target was more brazen: the newly elected county prosecutor, Paul Gains.

The Mafia didn’t ordinarily “take out” public officials, but the 45-year-old prosecutor had so far resisted all the customary overtures, bribes, and campaign contributions, and it was now widely rumored that he planned to hire as his chief investigator the man the Mafia hated most: Bob Kroner, the local FBI agent who had spent 20 years pursuing the mob. In Mafia fashion, Strollo employed endless layers of authority so that nothing could be traced back to him. First he gave the order to Bernie the Jew, the man he relied on for all his muscle. Bernie, in turn, hired Jeffrey Riddle, a black drug dealer turned assassin who was obsessed with the Mafia and, according to friends, boasted that he’d one day be the first nigger ever inducted into the family. Riddle then brought in his own two-man team: Mark Batcho, a fastidious criminal who ran one of the most sophisticated burglary crews in the country, and Antwan “Mo Man” Harris, a crack dealer who, though he still lived with his mother, had already committed at least two other murders.

That Christmas Eve, as Batcho and Harris later recounted, the three men loaded up on everything they needed: walkie-talkies, ski masks, gloves, a bag of cocaine, a police scanner, and a .38 revolver. Around eight o’clock in the evening, they drove out to the prosecutor’s home, in a Youngstown suburb dotted with strip malls. The houses glowed with Christmas lights. But, when they arrived, no one was home. Batcho got out of the car and waited behind a lamppost near the garage. He attached a speed loader to the revolver to enable him to shoot faster and tested the voice-activated walkie-talkie. No one responded. He tried again. Nothing. He couldn’t believe it. Here they were asking him to carry out the premier Mafia hit in years and the equipment was busted. He ran back to the car and said he couldn’t kill anyone without “communication.”

Batcho, Harris, and Riddle regrouped at the Giant Eagle Supermarket on Route 224 and programmed two of their cell phones so they could dial each other at the touch of a button. As they eased up in front of the house again, they noticed that a car was in the driveway and the kitchen lights were on. “OK,” Riddle said, shoving the gun back in Batcho’s hand, “get out and go do this.”

Batcho jumped out of the car, carrying the bag of cocaine Riddle had instructed him to plant on the body to make it look like a drug-related killing. He crept up to the house, his heart pounding. The garage door was open, and he said, “Hey, mister, hey, mister,” but no one answered, and he kept walking. The side door to the house was open, too, and he could hear someone speaking. He decided to go in. Creeping down the corridor, he heard Gains talking on the phone in the kitchen. Batcho rushed in, pointed the gun at the prosecutor’s midsection, and fired. As Gains fell to the ground, Batcho fired again. Blood spilled from two wounds–one in his forearm, the other in his side. Batcho took another step closer as Gains put up his hands to ward him off.

Batcho aimed near Gains’s heart and pulled the trigger. But the gun kicked back in his hand, jamming. Jesus fuckin’ Christ! Batcho turned and ran out of the house, stumbling into the woods in back. He tripped and fell and, getting back up, hit the button on the cell phone, screaming, It’s done! It’s done! Come pick me up! As he came out of the woods, he saw the car approaching down the street and lurched toward it, jumping into the backseat. He crouched down, shivering. “Did you kill him?” Harris and Riddle asked.

“I think so,” Batcho said uncertainly.

“You don’t know?” Riddle said.

“The gun jammed,” Batcho said, “the gun jammed.”

Harris looked at him coolly. “Why didn’t you go in the drawer and get a steak knife and stab him to death?” he asked.

Riddle said they had to go back and finish the job, but just then the police scanner crackled with news of the shooting. Riddle hit the gas and started swerving along the back roads. Fearing they’d get pulled over, Harris took the gun and threw it out the window. But the speed loader was missing. Where the fuck is the speed loader? they started screaming at each other. Then from the scanner came even worse news: Gains was still alive.

It was one of the least skillful murder attempts in the valley’s history: the speed loader was found outside the house, along with a clean footprint; a sketch of the shooter appeared in the paper within days. But, ironically, the crime scene was so messy that investigators couldn’t believe Strollo’s people were behind it–not even Gains, who told friends, If the mob had done it, I’d be dead. Batcho, who had begun to wear disguises around town, slowly emerged from hiding. Amazingly, it looked as if these murderers would get away as well, until one spring night the prosecutor got a phone call at home. “Are you Paul Gains?” a woman asked.

“Yes,” he said, “who’s this?”

“I know who shot you,” she said.

When the woman rattled off details about the crime that few could have known, Gains called the police, who brought in the FBI. “I know everything,” she told the agents who rushed to her apartment the next day. “I know other people they shot. I know everything.”

And so it happened. The call, from the ex-girlfriend of an associate of the hit men, helped solve a mob hit for the first time in the valley’s history. But, coupled with a three-year covert operation by the FBI, it would ultimately help uncover something far broader. It would slowly untangle what authorities describe as one of the last truly mob-run counties in the country: a place where the Mafia still controlled a chief of police, the outgoing prosecutor, the sheriff, the county engineer, members of the local police force, a city law director, several defense attorneys, politicians, judges, and a former assistant U.S. attorney; a place whose residents had grown so used to a culture of corruption that they viewed it casually, even proudly; a place, in a sliver of America, where a malignant way of life was left largely untouched for almost 100 years. Now, after more than 70 convictions, the investigation has wound its way to the most powerful politician in the region, a man whom the FBI caught on tape with the mob nearly 20 years ago but who has eluded them ever since: United States Congressman James Traficant.

Today, the Mahoning valley is one of the most depressed corners of America. But it wasn’t economic bust that first brought the mob to the valley; it was economic boom. In the early years of the twentieth century, the valley–a thin corridor of land that twists and turns its way through northern Ohio–was the heart of an industrial empire. Steel mills stretched as far as the eye could see, their furnaces streaking the sky with 15-foot flames. For more than 50 years, their lights drew immigrants–Poles and Greeks and Italians and Slovaks who thought they had found the Ruhr Valley of America–as well as a burgeoning class of racketeers who thought they had found their own “Little Chicago.” Youngstown’s streets were lined with after-hours joints, where the steelworkers drank and played Barbut, a Turkish dice game, and where capos, dressed in white-brimmed hats and armed with stilettos, ran the numbers, or “bug,” as the locals called it. Youngstown in the 1940s wasn’t particularly unusual. Like Chicago, Buffalo, or Detroit, it had a teeming immigrant population accustomed to arbitrary and violent authority, a booming economy, and pliable local politicians and police–all the ingredients the mob needed to flourish.
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