Mon Valley gambling arrests reflect old mob connections
Roots of an old crime syndicate family tree have resurfaced in a gambling case in the Mon Valley, an area rich with tradition of mobsters cozying up to public officials.
Some members of a million-dollar gambling ring state authorities busted last week have direct links to Pittsburgh’s former La Cosa Nostra, a Tribune-Review investigation found.
Authorities charged 16 people, targeting a businessman they said bought into the game through a deceased associate of the LaRocca-Genovese organization. Prosecutors charged the sons of two former mob associates and a key lieutenant, according to court records and reports of the former Pennsylvania Crime Commission.
“The sons obviously didn’t fall too far from the tree,” said Roger Greenbank, a retired FBI special agent who helped dismantle the Pittsburgh Mafia.
Authorities broke the Pittsburgh Mafia with high-profile federal convictions in the 1980s and 1990s, including cases against underboss Charles “Chucky” Porter and his top lieutenant, the late Louis Raucci Sr.
Deaths and attrition of inducting members also played a role in the demise, Greenbank said. Unlike the old days, those still in the game operate independently without paying tributes, or kickbacks, to the mob, he said.
“There’s no real structure anymore. There’s no real family,” said Greenbank, now employed by the state Gambling Control Board. “It’s gone in Pittsburgh.”
Yet that past casts long shadows.
Prosecutors on Sept. 5 charged Ronald “Porky” Melocchi, 54, of West Newton with heading an illegal poker operation that dabbled in numbers and sports betting rackets. They claim he did so through a McKeesport storefront that allegedly functioned as an illegal casino, and through Back Alley Vending, a Glassport business authorities said he bought from Primo Mollica, a Pittsburgh mob associate who controlled illegal gambling in the Mon Valley until his death in 2001.
“He was a major bookmaker and gambler,” Greenbank said of Mollica.
Melocchi wasn’t interested in discussing the case.
“I have no comment, thank you,” he said upon answering the cell phone investigators tapped last year.
In 1976, federal authorities busted Mollica and 13 others, including a former mayor and a magistrate, for taking part in a $3 million-a-year gambling ring centered in Clairton, McKeesport, Glassport and Elizabeth.
Just before Mollica’s five-year probation ended, Pittsburgh police in 1981 again arrested him for running a sports-betting business from a Squirrel Hill house.
In 1983, New Jersey State Police raided a suite at Caesars Boardwalk Regency Casino Hotel in Atlantic City and arrested Mollica for running a multimillion-dollar, nationwide illegal sports-book operation.
When state prosecutors filed charges last week in Melocchi’s case, Mollica’s son, Kirk, 46, was among those arrested. He declined to comment when reached at his Elizabeth home.
Court records list Kirk Mollica’s M&M Coffee Shop in Glassport at the Monongahela Boulevard address of Melocchi’s Back Alley Vending, which operated out of a garage on Oak Way. K Prime Investments in 1988 bought the property from Primo Mollica, county real estate records show. State records list Kirk Mollica as K Prime’s president.
More family ties
Others charged in the case with ties to the former Pittsburgh crime family include Rodney Iannelli, 53, of Ohio Township and Jeffrey Risha, 59, of Belle Vernon. Prosecutors in 2000 arrested Risha for his involvement in a Fayette County sports betting and illegal lottery ring connected to one of Pittsburgh’s last made mobsters, Thomas “Sonny” Ciancutti, 84, of New Kensington.
Iannelli and Risha could not be reached for comment.
Iannelli’s father, Robert “Bobby I” Iannelli, 83, ran sports-betting and numbers rackets in connection with the Pittsburgh family, the crime commission reported.
In his autobiography, “Where the Evidence Leads,” former governor and U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh said the first successful wiretaps used in Western Pennsylvania took down Robert Iannelli’s enormous sports-betting ring in 1970 and led to the first prosecutions under the Organized Crime Control Act the following year.
Another mob connection to the Melocchi case surfaced in December when investigators raided 70 locations and seized more than $1 million. Among the places searched was the Clairton home of Joe Nistico, 73, who was not charged.
Greenbank said Nistico is the nephew of the Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo Scarfo, who came to Western Pennsylvania in 1986 to meet with Pittsburgh gangsters because Nistico complained they wanted half of his sports-book business.
Nistico could not be reached for comment.
On Porky’s trail
In 2008, Internal Revenue Service agents and state police visited Melocchi as part of another investigation. At the time, he acknowledged having as many as 400 illegal video gambling machines and said he brought in up to $900,000 a year from those and legal machines such as pool tables, jukeboxes and video games, court documents state.
Two years ago, state investigators began targeting the Coffee Pot, Melocchi’s former Sixth Street business in McKeesport that authorities claim became a crossroads of illegal video poker, numbers and sports betting.
When he wasn’t aware investigators were listening in October and November 2012, Melocchi discussed plans to start another gambling business for his sons and others in his circle, fearing his 70-location operation was getting too big, transcripts revealed.
“Yinz all can make a payday,” he said during a taped call cited in a 134-page arrest affidavit.
In another conversation, investigators recorded Melocchi saying he wanted to mimic the business practices of John “Duffy” Conley, Western Pennsylvania’s former video poker king, who spent more than a decade in prison for gambling convictions.
“It’s what Duffy used to do,” Melocchi told an informant. “You form satellite operations. Everybody works out of the same hub, but nobody really knows that.”
Conley, 50, of Robinson said he did not know Melocchi but had heard of him.
“They believe I was the biggest and had too many machines, and that’s why they went after me,” said Conley, whom authorities once accused of having 4,000 machines.
The dangers of illegal gambling include running the operations without oversight to protect consumers. The ill-gotten, untaxed proceeds often pay for political influence, said state investigators.
“When you have money of this magnitude, it often leads to other problems,” said Joe Peters, the attorney general’s spokesman and former federal mob prosecutor.
Wiretaps recorded Melocchi bragging about his connections with McKeesport’s administration and police force.
“I do whatever I want in that town,” Melocchi told an informant in July 2012, according to an affidavit.
Asked if that assertion is true, McKeesport Solicitor Jason Elash said, “Absolutely not.”
Over the past two years, Melocchi and his family donated $4,050 to the campaign of Mayor Mike Cherepko, who denies the money bought influence. Melocchi donated thousands to other Mon Valley Democrats, including state Sen. James Brewster, a former McKeesport mayor, and Reps. Marc Gergely of White Oak, Bill Kortz of Dravosburg and Ted Harhai of Monessen. All said they returned the money or donated it to charity.
Investigators charged three former McKeesport police officers in connection with Melocchi’s operation, including Forward police Chief Mark Holtzman.
Ronald “Eke” Prest, a former McKeesport police sergeant, was Melocchi’s partner at Back Alley Vending, authorities said.
Prest referred questions to his lawyer, though he could not provide an attorney’s name.
“I don’t even know,” said Prest, 65, of White Oak.
Among the first places authorities raided in December was Viking Lounge, a McKeesport establishment owned by City Councilman Daniel Carr — who sneaked out the back door as agents filed in the front. He faces charges and did not return calls seeking comment.
Melocchi believed the bust was politically motivated and that it had to do with Carr.
“Dan is a very good friend, and Dan is getting powerful,” Melocchi told an informant. “And with his powerfulness, he created a lot of enemies, and that’s part of the problem.”
Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or [email protected].