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Epilogue|Frank IppolitoRemembering

Old age gets one of last of the 'Cigar City Mafia'

YBOR CITY — Frank "Cowboy" Ippolito wasn't a high-level boss or model for a Scorsese character.

In Tampa's underground of blood and money, he existed on the fringes.

He was a businessman, bolita gambler and bookmaker with an eight-page rap sheet. He was a husband and a ladies' man. He was a father who walked his daughter's dog, Chewie, every night.

He was close to Tampa's famous Trafficante mob family. He's pictured in Cigar City Mafia: A Complete History of the Tampa Underworld. He's featured on some Web sites.

As the old-school Mafia died out, Mr. Ippolito held on. He had heart and kidney problems, and he actually died three times, his daughter said. His heart rate went down to zero, then up, down, up.

He died April 17. He was 87. He was buried at L'Unione Italiana Mausoleum in Ybor City, in the same cemetery where legendary Tampa mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr. was laid to rest.

"He was really, literally one of the last old-time Trafficante guys still alive," said Scott Deitche, author of Cigar City Mafia. "I think when he's gone, it's a little more of Tampa's history that goes with him."

• • •

He was the youngest of 10 children born to Sicilian parents in Ybor City. He lived in the same house on Ninth Avenue for 70 years. He had bowlegs and a brother who liked to wear a cowboy hat. People called him "Cowboy."

As a young man, he joined the merchant marine. His daughter was stunned to find this out later — he was not the regimented sort. When he died, the funeral home offered to drape a flag on his coffin.

"He wasn't that type of person," she said. "I could not picture a flag on his coffin."

He was best friends with Henry Trafficante, brother of Santo Jr. The two ate together at Ybor City hangouts and had coffee every morning.

In the 1960s, Mr. Ippolito owned La Tropicana, an Ybor City restaurant known for its Cuban sandwiches. His daughter recalled seeing big hams around the house. He took her and her brother, Frank Jr., to drive-in movies. They visited Clearwater Beach in the summers. She remembers other things, too.

"There was this old lady who lived on the corner," said Frances Ippolito, 63. "Pure as the driven snow. She'd come with her 50 cents and give it to my father. This woman hit big on my father several times in those days."

Mr. Ippolito ran a bookmaking operation at La Tropicana along with Henry Trafficante. And at the Italian Club, the two had a Western Union ticker to generate quick scores for sports gambling.

His daughter pointed out an irony. In the Mafia heyday, people were arrested and gunned down over bolita, the Cuban numbers game. But today, anyone can walk into a corner store and play the state-run lottery.

"I see nothing wrong with that kind of thing," she said.

Her father was arrested 10 times in Florida on charges related to gambling and bookmaking, records show. He spent a handful of years in jail. Once, said Frances Ippolito, he took the fall for someone else.

"What kind of a man is that?" she said. "That's a good man. My father would never rat on anybody."

• • •

He wasn't boastful about his business. He saw nothing wrong with it.

"He was definitely popular around town," said Deitche. "He was very low key, never flashy. He wasn't one of those out-and-out gangsters who walked the walk."

He was married to the same woman, Jacqueline, for 51 years, but he had lovers on the side. He loved to dance and could charm anyone, his daughter said. If a man got in his way, he wouldn't pause to smash him with a bottle.

When his wife died of cancer in 1992, his spirit broke. A year later, he started seeing LaVerda Falkenburg, whom he stayed with until he died.

In 1993, Frank Ippolito Jr. was shot dead while trying to rob an armored truck. His organs were donated.

In the obituary, the family included a poem: "If you must bury something, let it be my faults, my weaknesses and all prejudice against my fellow man."

• • •

Accounts differ of Mr. Ippolito's take on fame.

His daughter said he didn't seek publicity and shied from the spotlight brought by Cigar City Mafia.

Rumors also swirl that he signed autographed copies of news articles and books, Deitche said. He's not sure if it's true. He never got to interview the man.

He tried. Once, he walked into La Tropicana, where Mr. Ippolito was eating. They recognized each other.

Cowboy got up and walked out.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

>>BIOGRAPHY

Frank 'Cowboy' Ippolito

Born: April 16, 1921.

Died: April 17, 2008.

Survivors: daughter, Frances Ippolito; two granddaughters; one great-granddaughter; friend, LaVerda Falkenburg; nieces and nephews. Predeceased by wife, Jacqueline Ippolito; son, Frank Ippolito Jr.

Old age gets one of last of the 'Cigar City Mafia' 04/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 10:18am]
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