The Pasco County Mafia, as seen on TV

Published April 10, 2000|Updated Sept. 27, 2005

The CBS network is playing up its new series Falcone, about an undercover FBI agent who infiltrates the Mafia. So far there hasn't been much homage paid to Florida's own Pasco County, where real-life events took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s that helped inspire this series.

The FBI called its Pasco presence "Operation Coldwater," in honor of an alleged low-level thug of the Gambino crime family named James Vincenzo Acquafredda in New Port Richey.

Acquafredda, who described himself as a former milkman from New York, bought a garbage-collection company named Gulf Coast Carting. He and his "associates" formed the West Coast Cartman's Association and demanded that other garbage companies pay "initiation fees" and "monthly dues."

Acquafredda drew attention. An undercover FBI agent entered the association and even served as its recording secretary. To the FBI's delight, it realized it was getting in on the ground floor as organized crime from New York was beginning to infiltrate Florida's fast-growing west coast.

The mob came to Florida seeking the permission and the blessing of Tampa's own crime boss, Santo Trafficante Jr. Soon, the word was out that high-stakes blackjack and craps games were being run in a Port Richey apartment.

A new operator soon showed up in Pasco going by the name of "Tony Rossi." Rossi opened up a bottle club on U.S. 19, just north of the Pinellas County line, and named it the King's Court.

Rossi was an undercover agent. His club was wired for sound and videotape, which were transmitted to an FBI-rented apartment across the highway.

The cameras rolled as Rossi and another agent, "Donnie Brasco," reeled in their fish. On March 26, 1980, they caught a mid-sized one when a lieutenant of the Bonanno family named Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero paid a visit.

"I'm from downtown, Madison Street," Ruggiero said. "I'm with Rusty." He meant Phillip "Rusty" Rastelli, head of the Bonanno family.

Ruggiero brought in Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano, a Bonanno captain. Sonny Black met with Trafficante at Pappas' Restaurant in Tarpon Springs, then reported "the doors are now open" to do business in Florida.

The mobsters had been paying off a Pasco sheriff's captain, but that didn't help them on the night of Jan. 17, 1981, when the joint was raided by other deputies during a "Las Vegas Night." Sonny Black was arrested. So was agent Rossi.

""Tony, I ought to cut your f------ throat," Sonny Black growled at Rossi. "You have embarrassed me in front of my people in New York, and you embarrass me with the crew in Florida."

Soon after, the feds ended Coldwater. The evidence they had gathered contributed to indictments in New York and Milwaukee. In April 1983, a federal grand jury in Tampa indicted a dozen more, including Trafficante himself, although he was never convicted.

Several people with connections to King's Court ended up dead. Sonny Black was found in a New York drainage ditch, his hands cut off. The Pasco sheriff's captain was found shot dead at home hours after he had agreed to testify. It quickly was ruled a suicide.

Agent "Donnie Brasco" went on to write a book by that title, which became a Hollywood movie starring Al Pacino as Lefty. Unfortunately for Pasco, the producers moved most of the Florida action to Miami. In turn, Donnie Brasco helped inspire Falcone.

As for me, I was a rookie reporter who arrived in Florida a few months later, moving into the same apartment complex in Port Richey where the first gambling had occurred.

Trying to confirm this big story for the newspaper, I must have amused one of the feds on the case, who took pity. "I can't comment on whether ACQUAFREDDA is related to COLDWATER," he repeated slowly, over and over, until I got it, which took an amazing number of repetitions. I am eternally grateful.