The History of the Mafia in Connecticut
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No Family for Connecticut
In the early 1930s, the American Mafia was organized into families, one for each region and five in New York City. Connecticut, as is often the case, found itself divided between New York and Boston. Without its own family, New York and New England mobsters vie for influence in the state to this day.
At some point in the 1930s, the New Jersey wing of the New York-based Genovese crime family, the largest, most powerful and most secretive of the city’s five Mafia groups, became the dominant force in New Haven. Why is unclear, although some say it came to control the distribution of sugar needed to make bootleg liquor.
The family’s Springfield, Mass., wing would later move south into the Hartford area, even establishing an unlikely outpost in Old Saybrook, where its longtime leader Frank “Skyball” Scibelli summered.
When Prohibition ended, the Mob kept going, coming to dominate illegal gambling. There was no lottery so the Mafia created one. Called “the numbers,” people could bet as little as a penny. It provided a huge and steady source of income for the Mob until the state introduced a lottery in the early 1970s.
The Mob also came to control boxing, which was hugely popular in 1930s Connecticut. The New Haven Arena, as well as venues in Waterbury, Hartford and Norwich, had fight nights several times a month.
It was in the ring that Salvatore Annunziato became Midge Renault. Standing just 5-foot-3 and weighing only about 110 pounds, Annunziato was nicknamed “Midget,” which eventually evolved into “Midge.” Renault came from his brother who boxed under the name Jack Renault.
Annunziato was more street fighter than boxer—“He’d hit you with a stool if he could,” recalled his brother-in-law—and endured horrific beatings from skilled opponents. But his time in the ring, which ended after his brother punched a state boxing official, would prepare him for his future with the Mob.
With World War II came gasoline rationing and a new racket. Gangsters became rich selling counterfeit ration tickets around the state. Annunziato, who avoided military service by starting a brawl at an induction center, got his start with ration tickets, distributing them in the Naugatuck Valley.
The 1940s Mob had influence in other areas as well. In 1944, Arthur Barbieri, who would one day become New Haven’s Democratic chairman, was an Army lieutenant about to be shipped overseas.
One day in February, he and his brother-in-law traveled to Wethersfield prison to meet with his brother-law’s uncle, Ralph Mele, an infamous New Haven mobster who had engineered the murder of a father and son in Woodbridge about 10 years before. The next day, Barbieri was discharged from the army, sparing him combat in Europe that would kill many in his unit.
Mele wasn’t the only big-time mobster at Wethersfield. In the late 1940s, Charles “The Blade” Tourine landed there after attempting to bribe a state policeman. Tourine was a powerful member of the Genovese family’s New Jersey wing. A genius with numbers in spite of being illiterate, he would one day run mob casinos in Cuba, the Caribbean and England. In the late 1970s, the congressional committee investigating John F. Kennedy’s assassination would try and fail to get his testimony.
While in prison, Tourine took Annunziato, who had been convicted of robbing a card game, under his wing. Before long, Annunziato would have the chance to prove himself.
Changing of the Guard
Once out on probation, Mele came to dominate New Haven’s underworld, operating a multistate illegal lottery.
But the Mob had a problem. In 1950, U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee had convened a commission on organized crime that was grilling mobsters from across the United States. Broadcast live on television, the hearings mesmerized the nation.
The Mob wanted to keep things quiet during the hearings, but Mele wanted to keep expanding. And he’d angered a Maine gangster by trying to expand into his territory.
On March 21, 1951, Mele was taken for a ride and found shot to death on an isolated road in New Haven’s East Rock Park. The murder created a frenzy, sparking questions at the Kefauver hearings and a warning from syndicated newspaper columnist Walter Winchell that a gang war was brewing in Connecticut, but it was never solved.
Soon, however, word was out—Annunziato was the prime suspect. Soon after, the street fighter allegedly received rewards: Membership in the Genovese crime family and, thanks to Tourine, a job as business agent of the International Brotherhood of Operating Engineers Local 478.
But Annunziato would have to share New Haven.
Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano was a New Haven native who’d moved to Brooklyn as a boy and was rumored to have been a hit man for the notorious “Murder Inc.” hit squad of the late 1930s. His father worked at the New Haven café that sold the “murder whiskey” back in 1919.
In the late 1940s, Tropiano was arrested for two murders in New York City, but the charges were mysteriously dropped.
Years later, an FBI informant said that Tropiano and his crew of freelance gangsters had been caught robbing Mob gambling operations. He was given a choice: Kill your crew or be killed. Over the next 18 months, a dozen members of his crew turned up dead on the streets of Brooklyn. The killings made banner headlines and confounded local cops.
Tropiano got off, the informant said, by paying a homicide detective $20,000 to kill a witness.
The Mob needed one more thing. Willie Moretti, boss of the Genovese family’s New Jersey wing, was suffering from syphilis and saying dangerous things during his testimony before the Kefauver Commission. He needed to go.
On Oct. 4, 1951, four men met Moretti for lunch and shot him dead. Tropiano was widely believed within the mafia to have been one of the trigger men, informants told the FBI. His reward, word within the mob went: New Haven.
For the next 30 years, Tropiano, a member of New York’s Colombo crime family, shared New Haven with Annunziato in spite of a mutual hatred.