TAMPA — When Angelo Bedami returned from hiding in Sicily in 1983 to turn himself in for smuggling millions of dollars of drugs into Florida from Colombia, federal law enforcement’s initial question had nothing to do with his operation.
“Was your father there? That’s the first thing they asked me,” Angelo Bedami, now 72, said. “I told them I didn’t see him.”
His father was Joe Bedami Sr., a convicted mobster and alleged hitman who went missing in 1968. For decades, it had been presumed that he ended up on the other side of a hit. But there were lingering doubts, which prompted the question: Was Joe Bedami Sr. really dead?
Apparently, he wasn’t, at least according to his son.
For years Angelo Bedami had played along with the narrative that his dad was killed. But, in early January, he changed his story when pressed by the Tampa Bay Times.
His father survived for decades under a different name after he disappeared. He is buried in Sicily as “Joe Salza,” his son now claims.
Remember this is Angelo Bedami talking, a man whose stories have shifted and changed over the years and who had been linked by bloodlines and his own actions to one of the most notorious crime families in America. But he is adamant that his father lived a simple life long after he was last seen in Tampa.
“I spent time with him there when I was in Sicily,” said Angelo Bedami, about his time in Italy in the 1980s.
That’s where his father fled to avoid standing trial, for at least one still unsolved murder or other crimes that included torching a department store.
Angelo Bedami initially asked to meet with the Times to talk about another topic. He wanted to state for the record that his own five-year drug trafficking sentence, considered light given the scope of his drug dealing, was not because he had cooperated with authorities.
Then, as he detailed his time on the run in Sicily, he mentioned how his father looked old for his age. Quizzed on how that was possible, since his father was supposedly killed 15 years earlier, Angelo Bedami smiled and said, “I can’t believe I’m talking about this. … Yeah, I ran into him.”
It’s a difficult claim to prove.
Italy does not release death records to the public until the individual has been dead for 75 years. And the Times could not find Sicilian city directories or phone books, either of which might list Joe Salza as a resident.
Ken Larsen, who once investigated the Bedami family as an undercover Tampa detective and later as a federal agent, said he believes the claim. He was told that in the 1970s that the elder Bedami was alive and had been in Costa Rica, but federal law enforcement lacked enough evidence to begin an international pursuit.
Larsen said it’s part of a larger narrative. “The Bedami family has gotten away with major crimes, including murder. They didn’t get punished by law enforcement.”
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The family history
The crime family’s story begins with Bedami’s grandfather, also named Angelo Bedami, who emigrated from Sicily to Chicago and then to Tampa in the early 1900s.
Here, he became close with Santo Trafficante Sr., who led a local crime syndicate.
His grandfather would become close with Trafficante’s son, Angelo Bedami told the Times. He was like an uncle to Santo Trafficante Jr., who took over the syndicate and grew it into the largest in the state and one that extended into Cuba.
News archives report the grandfather was arrested on at least two occasions, once for a Prohibition violation and once for numbers running, but was not convicted either time. He was a suspect in at least one murder but was never charged.
Joe Bedami Sr. was arrested more often.
“My grandmother had a plastic bag with all his clippings. It was like that,” Angelo Bedami said, holding his hands a foot apart to demonstrate the size of the pile of papers.
Joe Bedami Sr. was tried and acquitted of charges he robbed the Floridan Hotel, an Ybor City cigar factory and a supermarket. But he was convicted of a movie theater robbery and for running stolen automobiles from Florida to South Carolina. He served less than five years combined.
He was also tied to the murders of men whom Trafficante Jr. considered enemies — gangsters Charlie Wall and Joe “Pelusa” Diaz and Bennie Lazzara, who refused to allow the mafia to use his legitimate produce business as a mob front. Joe Bedami Sr. was never charged for those murders, and each remains unsolved.
In 1967, Joe Bedami Sr. was among those charged with burning down a Lakeland department store so the owner could collect the insurance. Soon after, he disappeared.
Law enforcement said Joe Bedami Sr. had been murdered by the organized crime syndicate for which he worked.
“If the FBI can’t locate you, you’re pretty far gone,” a source told the Tampa Tribune in 1968.
It was around that time that law enforcement told Charlie Wall’s nephew that Joe Bedami Sr. was dead. A spokesperson for Lazzara’s family said they were told the same.
Mob historian Scott Deitche said he’d “heard through the grapevine” of mafiosos that a hitman killed Bedami and buried the body under a local bridge.
“A potential reason given is that he was becoming too much of a legal liability,” Deitche said. “It was not explicitly said that they feared he would turn, but we can read between the lines.”
But now Deitche wonders, if Angelo Bedami is telling the truth, whether that rumor was spread by friends to protect Joe Bedami Sr.
Trafficante Jr. knew that Joe Bedami Sr. was alive, according to Angelo Bedami, when asked by the Times. But, he said that for safety precautions, Trafficante Jr. never visited nor spoke to Joe Bedami Sr.
Angelo Bedami said he was 15 or 16 when his father confronted him in the living room.
“He told me he had to leave,” he said. “He said he was not going back to prison. ... He thought he’d go away for a long time.”
His father wanted to avoid the arson conviction, according to the son. The possibility of a murder trial also loomed large. Larsen said law enforcement was still gathering evidence tying him to the Lazzara murder that occurred in 1959. Larsen heard that might be why Joe Bedami Sr. fled.
A police sketch of the suspected killer in the Lazzara case bears a striking resemblance to Joe Bedami Sr.
Following in father’s footsteps
After their father’s disappearance, Angelo Bedami and his brother Joe Bedami Jr. rose in the criminal ranks, focusing on drugs and counterfeiting.
In 1975, his brother was arrested for selling a kilo of cocaine and counterfeit bills to Larsen, the detective. A key witness would be Dick Cloud, a former Tampa police detective sergeant who was assisting federal prosecutors with their investigation. But Cloud was killed in his home before the trial.
The Bedami brothers’ friend Victor Acosta was charged with organizing the hit. He overdosed on sleeping pills before the trial. Their cousin Manuel Gispert was convicted and sentenced to 60 years for providing the murder weapon.
In 2021, Angelo Bedami admitted that Cloud was killed to protect him and his brother but denied involvement or prior knowledge.
Larsen said that the brothers were pivotal to Cloud’s murder plot. “However, despite a concerted effort, not enough evidence of their guilt could be collected and again they evaded being indicted along with the others.”
According to Larsen’s sources, Trafficante Jr. believed the brothers were involved, too.
“During grand jury hearings for the Cloud murder, they let Trafficante and eight or 10 others stew and sit in a room for hours,” Larsen said. “At one point, when Trafficante is steaming mad because of the mess everyone was in, he said to an informant, ‘The f--king Bedamis are going to pay for this.’ Angelo’s grandfather later persuaded him to give Angelo and Joey a break. Santo demurred, Joey was acquitted of counterfeiting and, once again, they get away with everything.”
Angelo Bedami claims he was unaware that Trafficante Jr. was ever mad at him and said that the Tampa don later provided him names of government officials who could be bribed to fix problems.
By 1982, Angelo Bedami’s smuggling operation was having planeloads of drugs confiscated by law enforcement. He suspected that at least one of his underlings may have been cooperating with law enforcement. He mentioned the names to an associate who could get information from crooked law enforcement officials.
“I gave him three names I suspected,” Angelo Bedami said. “I asked which it was. He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Which is it?’ He said, ‘All three.’ And I thought, ‘Time to go.’”
He fled to Denver but didn’t feel safe there, so he “strapped $130,000″ to his chest and returned to Tampa, he told the Times. Then he flew to Sicily before he could be charged with a crime.
A cousin picked him up at the Palermo airport and drove him to the small agricultural town of Alessandria della Rocca. That’s where he now says Joe Bedami Sr. lived in a two-bedroom house in a simple neighborhood with brick streets and an outdoor market. It was the first time they’d seen one another or spoken since 1968.
“He was waiting outside,” he said. “And he gave me a big bear hug.”
The father almost immediately and proudly asked if the drug smuggling business was as big as he’d heard, Angelo Bedami said, and he replied, “I can’t count the money. I have to weigh it.”
He told the Times that he was in Sicily for six months — three months longer than he had testified in 1985, according to news archives.
His father had legally become Joe Salza, so Angelo Bedami said that he told locals that he was his son, Stefano Salza, and there on vacation.
Joe Bedami Sr. had lost weight and looked old for his age, but he was still burly, according to his son. His father had plenty of money “from wherever” and did not own a car, so he relied on others for transportation, mostly to the coast an hour away. He enjoyed walking around a fishing port. “Kids sold shrimp the size of lobsters.”
They mostly played cards with his dad’s friends, he said, and hosted dinners either at his father’s home or at his cousin’s Palermo house. His father had become a decent cook, mostly chicken and pasta.
In April 1983, while Angelo Bedami was still in Sicily, he was indicted by a grand jury for his drug smuggling operation. News archives report that investigators identified 14 separate ventures involving 13,000 pounds of marijuana, 170 pounds of cocaine and 100,000 pills.
That was not even half of his business, Angelo Bedami boasted, claiming his crew brought in 37 planeloads of drugs, with the cocaine being purchased from Pablo Escobar’s cartel.
“I was calling my brother from a realtor office’s payphone every Saturday at 12 and he would keep me informed” on the indictment, he said. “That’s how he offered me an opportunity to come home.”
Robert Merkle, then the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida and known as “Mad Dog” for his aggressive and ambitious style, was on a crusade to root out the corruption that he believed engulfed Hillsborough. He’d already had three county commissioners convicted of taking bribes and was determined to prove the same was occurring in the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office.
Joe Bedami Jr. believed that his brother could cut a deal for a lesser sentence in exchange for testifying that he’d bribed attorneys, Angelo Bedami said. It was a risk that could have ended with him in prison for decades, he now claims, but his father convinced him it was worth taking. “That life was fine for my dad. He was happy. But I don’t think I could have lived there forever.”
In May 1983, knowing they’d likely never see one another nor talk again, his dad hugged him one last time, Angelo Bedami said. He left his father his remaining cash, a friend drove him to the airport and he returned to Florida to cut the deal.
For providing information on his multi-ton drug smuggling operation and testifying that he’d bribed the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office to fix cases for him, Angelo Bedami was sentenced to five years, serving 36 months of it.
Still, he said, “I’m not a stool pigeon.” Instead, he claims, he used Merkle’s aggression against him.
Merkle wanted him to wear a wire, he told the Times, but he refused and countered that he’d only testify in court. Angelo Bedami said he knew that no judge would believe him without corroborating evidence from a wiretap, and the defendants would be acquitted. Merkle agreed because he was so determined to prove the corruption allegations, Angelo Bedami said.
He then testified that he’d fixed drug cases by having private attorney John Demmi pass bribes to the state attorney’s office but claimed he did not know who received the money. He still claims ignorance.
Citing a lack of evidence, the judge threw out the case.
Demmi’s attorney, Arnold Levine, then criticized Merkle for making a deal with a high-level drug smuggler.
Even if Demmi was guilty, he told the Tampa Tribune, “They gave up too much. How can they let the Bedamis … walk the streets?”
Merkle died in 2003.
Demmi died in April 2022.
This fits a pattern.
For years, Angelo Bedami denied to the Times any role in the Cloud murder. His brother died in late 2020. Less than six months later, he admitted the loose connection.
When asked if he was truthful on the stand, he said, “Well, the judge didn’t think I was.”
In another federal case that was part of his plea, he then testified that his uncle Sam Lorenzo helped the drug smuggling operation.
But Angelo Bedami said he only told investigators what they could already prove. News archives say he downplayed his uncle’s involvement. Lorenzo was sentenced to three years in prison.
Joe Bedami Sr. would be 97 today, but his son claims that, around 1990, cousins informed him that his dad died of natural causes. He would have been around 65.
Angelo Bedami was on probation at the time, he said, so he could not risk going to the funeral.
For law enforcement, Larsen said, this is a “disgusting” example how three generations of criminals tied to a powerful mob family escaped full justice because of the corrupt power that they wielded.
Angelo Bedami sees it differently.
“This is a great story,” he said with a smile and a chuckle. “Both of us under indictment and hauling ass. Being with my dad again. ... It was the best time of my life.”