Joe Bruno on the Mob – Johnny Dio – A Gangster’s Gangster
If there was a way to make an illegal buck, Johnny” Dio” Dioguardi, called by Bobby Kennedy the “master labor racketeer,” had his sticky fingers in the pot. Dio was such a treacherous thug at a young age, in 1936, U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Dewey claimed Dio was, “A young gorilla who began his career at the age of 15.”
Johnny Dio was born Giovanni (John) Ignazio Dioguardi on April 28, 1914, on Forsyth Street in downtown Manhattan. Dio had three brothers: Frank and Vincent, who were legitimate guys, and Tommaso, or Thomas, who became, as did Johnny Dio , a capo in the Luchesse crime family. Dio also had an unnamed sister who can be identified only as “Mrs. Dioguardi-Priziola.”
Dio’s father Giovanni B. Dioguardi, who owned a bicycle shop, was murdered in August 1930 on a street in Coney Island, in what police called a “mob-related execution.” It seemed that the elder Dioguardi and another enterprising gentleman had robbed a rich lady of her jewelry, and the two men had were arguing over how to split the proceeds. The elder Dioguardi, who had been arrested twice for murder but never convicted, took six shots to various parts of his body, and it is presumed the other gentleman kept all the jewelry.
Johnny Dio graduated grammar school, but after less than two years at Stuyvesant High School, Dio dropped out and went to work for his uncle on his mother side: gangster James “Jimmy Doyle” Plumeri. By this time, the handsome Dio (who was said to have looked like silent movie star Rudolph Valentino) had already gotten a reputation on the Lower East Side as a tough youth, who terrorized street vendors into giving him a good portion of their wares for free. Uncle Jimmy Doyle (nobody called him by his real name Plumeri), recognizing Dio’s talents for thuggery, immediately put Dio to work as a schlammer (leg-breaker) in the Garment Center for Doyle’s Jewish associates Louie “Lepke” Buchalter and Lepke’s partner Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, who were affectionately known as “The Gorilla Boys.” Lepke, along with Albert “The Lord High Executioner” Anastasia, was the head of Murder Incorporated, a group of stone killers who murdered whomever the mob bosses in New York City and around the country said needed to be murdered. However, there is no proof that Dio ever joined that august group. Dio’s specialty was union-related extortion, and in that, he was tops in his field.
Dio and Doyle started a garment workers trucking association, whereby the truckers working in the Garment Center were forced to join the trucker’s union, headed, of course, by Dio and Doyle. If a poor sap trucker decided he didn’t want to join the union, a trip to the hospital was inevitable, if not a trip to the morgue. The union dues was hefty, but at whatever price they were forced to pay, it was a small price indeed to ensure the trucker’s continued good health. Of course, the “union dues” never made it into the union’s coffers (it went straight into Dio’s and Doyle’s pockets instead), and phony books were established to satisfy whomever decided to enquire about the trucker’s union’s financial solvency.
Members of the trucker’s union were even told where to spend their money and how much to spend on specific items. Dio and Doyle were pals with a local barber, and they ordered their truckers to patronized this special barber to the nifty tune of $2.50 a month. The truckers were also told where to buy their wine, where to buy their meats, and where to buy their clothing, and how much to spend on each item, which was certainly not at bargain prices.
For several years in the 1930s, Dio and Doyle, with nobody to stop them, had a sweet deal going for themselves in the Garment Center. Besides extorting the truckers, the dynamic duo of Dio and Doyle profited from the other end of the totem pole too. They forced the Garment Center’s clothing manufacturers (bosses) to employ only union truckers. Then they used the clout of their trucker’s union to bulldoze the clothing manufacturers into paying hefty off-the-books fees in order to keep their business up-and-running, and profitable.
If the clothing manufacturers refused to pay the extortion fees, Dio and Doyle would order their union truckers to go on strike, putting a dead stop to the clothing manufacturer’s cash flow. On occasions, if the bosses didn’t play ball, union thugs (schlammers) would break the bosses’ fingers, their arms and legs; and sometimes all three body parts on the same visit. In extreme cases, like if a boss threatened to talk to the Feds, Lepke’s Murder Incorporated boys would enter the scene, and seconds later, the chatty boss would exit the face of the earth, toes up.
In 1932 and 1933, Dio and Plumeri were indicted twice for extortion, but they beat the rap both times, because their victims refused to talk to the Feds. In 1934, Dio was lucky enough to be elected executive secretary of the Allied Truckmen’s Mutual Association, an association of employers. Even though Dio was boss of the trucker’s union, he represented their employers during a strike by 1,150 Teamsters in September 1934.
Nice work if you can get it.
However, in 1937, both Dio and Doyle ran out of luck. The nephew and uncle duo were indicted for extortion and “atrocious assault.” During the trial it was alleged that Dio and Doyle, and several other of their gangster underlings, had been extorting as much as $500 from each trucker. Plus, it was alleged they had forced the clothing manufacturers to add a hefty “tariff” to every suit, coat, and pair of pants manufactured in the Garment Center. This tariff went straight in the pockets of Dio and Doyle, and that increased the cost of good for the general public.
Sweet deal indeed.
According to an article in the New York Daily Mirror, “At the trial, frightened witnesses testified how recalcitrant employers and employees were beaten when they refused to pay. One man said he was confined to bed for two weeks after an assault. Another said the hoodlums had threatened to cut off his ears.”
Realizing they were dead in the water, during the middle of the trial, both Dio and Doyle pled guilty as charged. In return they received free room and board in upstate Sing Sing Prison for a period of three-five years.
After he was released from prison, Dio decided New York City was too hot for him, so he moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he took up roots long enough to open his own dress manufacturing plant; non-union, of course. He later sold the plant, and to guarantee the new owners would have no trouble, Dio took $11,200 under the table to ensure that his erstwhile plant would remain non-union.
Dio sped back to New York City, and using the same tactics he had employed in Allentown, he set up a dress wholesaler. Using his profits from the business, Dio was smart enough to buy legitimate businesses, which included real estate and trucking. He also dabbled in the stock market, making him seem to the IRS as just another tax-paying citizen. But the New York City police knew better. They just couldn’t pin anything illegal on Dio, although they continued trying.
Back in his old Forsyth Street neighborhood, Dio decided to start a family. He married the former Anne Chrostek (a non-Italian). She bore Dio two sons (Philip and Dominick) and one daughter (Rosemary) who sadly passed away from an unknown illness. It was during this time that Dio, before the age of forty, was officially inducted into the Luchesse Crime Family, making him all the more untouchable on the streets of New York City. Even though they were only Italian on their father’s side, both of Dio’s sons eventually followed in their father’s footsteps into a life of crime. Philip Dio, who was called “Fat Philly,” was later inducted into the Colombo Crime Family, while Dominick, like his father, became a made man in the Luchesse Crime Family.
(Editor’s note: The Mafia rules changed around this time to allow more members to be inducted into the “Honored Society,” to fill the gaps of those who either were killed or sent to the can; “college” as the mob likes to call it. At this point, only your father (not both parents) had to be Italian for you to get “your button.” If your mother was Italian and your father a non-Italian — you were spit out of luck. Them’s the breaks.)
By the 1950’s, Dio had become a powerful captain (capo) in the Luchesse Crime Family, and with money pouring into his coffers in bundles (he allegedly earned $100,000 a week), he started living the life of a colonial baron. In the early 1960s, Dio moved his family into a spacious estate out on Freeport, Long Island, which cost Dio $75,000 in cash (Dio didn’t like banks or bank loans). During the week, Dio ate with his cronies in the best New York City eateries (his favorite being the trendy Black Angus Steakhouse). But, as is the Italian custom, Sundays were strictly for the family (famiglia). Inviting family member and close friends, Dio was proud of the fact he was an expert cook and was personally able to conjure up the best Italian delicacies to delight his guests. Dio was especially gracious to his wife, whom he loved dearly (unlike most mob men, Dio was faithful to his wife). Instead of personally buying his wife Christmas presents, Dio would give her a shoe box stuffed with cash, with a little note saying, “Buy yourself some nice clothes, honey.”
During the 1950’s, through his connections with New York City Teamster leaders Martin Lacey and John O’Rourke, Dio became tight pals with Teamster big-wig Jimmy Hoffa. Dio and Hoffa first met in a secret meeting in a New York City hotel room, and Hoffa, who had hoped to unseat Teamster President Dave Beck, figured Dio, with his union background, would be the perfect person to become chums with. In late 1955, Dio was able to obtain charters from the Teamsters to set up seven Teamster locals, called “paper locals,” because they did not have actual teamsters as members. The roles were filled with Dio’s relatives and pals, and their vote for teamster president was in Hoffa’s back pocket.
Dio’s modus operandi for more than 30 years was this: control the unions, then use the unions as a sledgehammer over the heads of the bosses. Dio would tell the bosses, “Pay or my boys will strike.” The bosses always paid, the workers always got screwed, and Dio made out like a bandit every time.
During his illustrious criminal career, Dio controlled the unions to the detriment of its members to such an extent, that during the 1950’s McClellan Committee hearings into organized crime, the committee issued the statement, “It cannot be said, using the widest possible latitude, that Johnny Dioguardi was ever interested in bettering the lot of the workingman.”
Famous Mafia turncoat Joe Valachi owned a dress factory on Prospect Avenue in the Bronx for 12 years. Valachi once said, “I never belonged to any union. If I got into any trouble, any union organizer came around, all I had to do was call Johnny Dio and all my troubles were straightened out.”
However, in 1956, as the Teamsters elections neared and they were scheming for control, both Hoffa and Dio had a stone in their shoe, and his name was syndicated newspaper columnist Victor Riesel.
Victor Riesel was born on March 16, 1913 on the Lower East Side to Jewish parents in a mixed Italian/Jewish neighborhood, not far from where Dio grew up. Victor’s father, Nathan Riesel, was very proactive in union activities and was instrumental in creating the Bonnaz, Singer, and the Hard Embroiderers Unions. In 1913, he also helped organized Local 66 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and soon he was elected secretary-treasurer of that union, then finally president.
When Victor Riesel was a young child, his father taught him how to make union speeches, which the young Victor fiercely gave at union meetings and at outdoor union rallies. Nathan Riesel was hard-line anti-communist, and he was strident in preventing the communists from infiltrating his locals. Victor saw his father return home many times, beaten and bloodied from fights he had with communists activists, or the mobsters (schlammers) who were hired by the factory owners to break up union strikes that Nathan Riesel had participated in. This formed the notion in Victor Riesel’s young mind that gangsters were the bane of legitimate unions.
In 1926, Nathan Riesel moved his family to the Bronx, where Victor attended and graduated with honors from Morris High School. While in high school, Riesel began working as an “stringer” for several newspapers throughout America. His writings were mostly about the labor movement in the United States, and how they were hampered by a “gangster element,” who sought to play both ends of the spectrum by infiltrating the unions, then working for the boss manufacturers to physically quell any union strikes or demonstrations. In 1928, Riesel enrolled in night classes in the City College of New York City (CCNY), where he took courses in human resource management and industrial relations. To support himself while attending night school, Riesel worked at strenuous jobs, both in a steel mill and in a saw mill. While in college, Riesel also worked as a columnist, then as an editor on the student newspaper. Besides writing columns on the labor movement, Riesel also wrote columns on varied subjects like literature, and the theater.
While in college, to get needed experience in the outside newspaper world, Riesel took a job as a general office boy at The New Leader, a political and cultural weekly magazine that was both liberal and anti-communist. Riesel cuts his teeth in the business by doing anything his bosses at the newspaper told him to do, including sweeping the floors, and writing columns for the newspaper. In 1940, after 12 long years of hard work, both in and out of school, Riesel finally earned his Bachelor of Business Administration from CCNY. He was offered the job as the managing editor at The New Leader, and he took the job with the determination of ridding the unions of “gangsterism.”
Riesel caught his first big break, when in 1941, he was hired as a columnist for The New York Post. In the 1948, when the Post changed management, Riesel switched to the New York Daily Mirror, owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hurst. By 1956, Riesel’s column was syndicated in 193 newspapers throughout the United States. In that same year, Riesel began working in conjunction with United States Attorney Paul Williams, with the expressed purpose of taking on the gangsters who ran the New York City garment and trucking unions.
This was a double whammy for Johnny Dio, who was heavily involved in both unions, and for Jimmy Hoffa, who was trying to unseat Dave Beck as head of the Teamsters.
On April 5, 1956, Riesel was asked to be a guest host on Barry Gray’s WMCA overnight radio talk show. Riesel had recently been on a rant in his columns concerning the International Union of Operating Engineers and its President William DeKoning Jr., who Riesel claimed was conspiring with known labor gangster Joseph Fay to reinstall DeKoning’s father William DeKoning Sr. as the president of the union. DeKoning Sr. had just exited the can after being imprisoned for extortion, and Riesel felt that having the senior DeKoning back as president of the union would be a downright disaster.
As a result of his columns on both DeKonings and Fay, Riesel received numerous death threats. However, Riesel shrugged them off, knowing only a fool would hurt an esteemed member of the press. Doing so would certainly result in the law coming down hard on all union racketeers, and their rackets.
On this particular radio show, Riesel invited two members of the International Union of Operating Engineers, who were challenging the DeKonings for control of the union. This did not sit too well with Johnny Dio, or with Jimmy Hoffa, who both figured Riesel would go gunning for them next.
Gray’s show originated at Hutton’s Restaurant on Lexington Avenue and 47th Street. After the show, which ended at 2 a.m., Riesel and his secretary moseyed over to Lindy’s restaurant, on Broadway between 49th and 50th Street, to grab a bite to eat and drown the food down with hot steaming coffee. (Ironically, this was the same Lindy’s Restaurant in front of which small-time gambler Herman Rosenthal was shot to death in 1912.)
At approximately 3 a.m., Riesel and his secretary emerged from Lindy’s and started walking toward the secretary’s parked car on 51st Street. Riesel wore his eyeglasses to work, but when he was out in public, for appearances sake, he normally removed his eyeglasses. Just as Riesel and his secretary neared the secretary’s car, Riesel took off his eyeglasses, put them in an eyeglass case, and inserted the case into the breast pocket of his overcoat. Suddenly, a tall, thin man, wearing a blue and white jacket, sprung from the shadows of the Mark Hellinger Theater and flung a vial contain sulfuric acid into Riesel’s eyes, rendering Riesel blind for the rest of his life. Then the assailant calmly walked away and disappeared into the night. Thereafter, Riesel wore sunglasses to shield the public from the sight of his severely disfigured eyes.
The day after the attack, the Daily Mirror offered a $10,000 reward for information that led to the capture and conviction of Riesel’s assailant. The Newspaper Guild of America, the New York Press Photographers, the New York Reporters Association, and the Overseas Press Club chipped in with another five grand. In less than a week, donations from assorted groups, including the labor unions and radio station WMCA, had raised the reward total to $41,000.
With tips coming in in droves, some reliable, some not so reliable, in August of 1956, the FBI ascertained that Riesel’s assailant had been small-time hood Abraham Telvi. The only problem was, Telvi was now deceased; apparently murdered on July 28 because he had demanded another $50,000 on top of the paltry $500 he had already been paid for throwing the acid in Riesel’s face.
On August 29, Dio was arrested for conspiracy in the Riesel attack. Dio pled not guilty and was released on $100,000 bond.
On October 22, Dio’s pal Joseph Carlino pled guilty to hiring Telvi to attack Riesel. Carlino implicated two other men, Gandolfo Maranti and Dominick Bando, as accomplices in hiring Telvi. Carlino also said that Dio had ultimately given the order for the attack. Dio lawyered up with a top New York City mob attorney, and his attorney was able to get Dio’s trial severed from the trial of Maranti and Bando.
At their trial, both Maranti and Bando verified Carlino’s assertion that Dio had engineered the attack against Riesel. Maranti and Bando were both found guilty of conspiracy. But their sentencing was delayed until after the Dio trial.
Dio’s attorney was able to delay his trial for almost six months, and during this time Maranti and Bando began to have bouts of memory loss. When Dio’s trial finally commenced, both Maranti and Bando recanted their testimony, and with no corroboration of Carlino’s claim that Dio ordered the Riesel attack, all charges against Dio were dropped. Maranti was given 8-16 years in prison, and Bando 2-5 years in prison, and another 5 years for contempt of court. Amazingly, Carlino received a suspended sentence for aiding the law in the convictions of Maranti and Bando. However, no matter how the situation was cleared or not cleared up in court, Dio has forever been remembered as the man who “blinded Victor Riesel.”
In October of 1956, Dio was indicted, along with several Teamster officials, on extortion and conspiracy charges. The indictment said that Dio had extorted money from New York City Garment Center truck drivers, and had also extorted money from Garment Center manufacturing bosses not to have the same truck drivers go out on strike. Also included in the indictment was the alleged extortion of New York City stationery store owners, whose stores Dio’s men had picketed. The store owners were allegedly told that if they wanted the picketing stopped, they would have to force their employees to join Teamster Local 295, and hire Johnny Dio’s “labor consulting” firm, Equitable (not) Research Associates, for a $3,500 retainer, and $200 a month salary.
Because Dio’s attorneys were so adept at stalling tactics, and the fact that key government witnesses had recanting their testimony, Dio’s trial did not take place until November of 1957.
The trial took four weeks, but when it ended, Dio was convicted as charged and sentenced to two years in prison. While in prison, Dio was indicted again on extortion charges. This time, instead of the victims being stationery store owners, they were the owners of electroplating shops. In 1958, Dio was convicted again, and this time the judge threw the book at Dio, sentencing him to 15-30 years. Dio began serving his time in Sing Sing Prison, while appealing his sentence. On June 23, 1959, an appeals court inexplicable overturned the decision in Dio’s trial, saying that since Dio didn’t issue the threats personally, he should not have been convicted of extortion. A split court ruled, “Extortion cannot be committed by one who does not himself induce fear, but who receives money for the purpose of removing or allaying pre-existing fear instilled by others.”
Jonathan Kwitney said in his book Vicious Circles, “The decision seemed to legitimize the whole purpose of the Mafia.”
However, the law was not finished with Johnny Dio. On June 24, 1959, one hour after he finished his two-year bit on the first extortion charge, Dio was pinched by the Feds and charged with income tax evasion; for non-payment of taxes for three dress manufacturing companies he owned (non-union, of course), and two labor union locals. Dio went on trial in March of 1960. He was found guilty and was sentenced to four years at the federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia. Dio was released in March of 1963, partially on the basis that he had obtained a real job in a legitimate industry. Dio claimed he was now a salesman for Consumers Kosher Provision Company, another sham job that provided Dio the opportunity to do what he had done in several other industries before. This time it was the kosher meat business that would pay the piper for Dio’s Machiavellian machinations.
At first, the scam worked like a charm. Dio and a bunch a his mobster buddies separately approached two rival kosher meat companies and convinced both of them that their business would be ruined if they did not hire their group of thugs to fight back against the other company’s group of thugs. The two competing companies were the Consumers Kosher Provision Company, run by a dupe named Herman Rose, and the American Kosher Provision Inc., who had employed mobster Max Block (he had just been forced to resign as head of the butcher’s union) to make sure other mobsters didn’t try to shake down American Kosher. Block’s muscle was provided by Genovese thug Lorenzo “Chappy” Brescia, who had been extorting the butcher’s union for years. According to Vicious Circles, Block was receiving an annual salary of $50,000 a year from American Kosher, and Brescia’s cut was $25,000 a year.
This is where Dio began working his magic in the kosher meat business. Through two intermediaries, Dio approached Herman Rose and convinced Rose that in order to compete with American Kosher, it was imperative Rose hire Johnny Dio to protect his interests. Rose figured this was the right thing to do and he hired Dio at the salary of $250 a week; not an exorbitant amount of money. But it gave Dio the appearance of an honest job, and it gave the Mafia the opportunity to control the prices in the two top kosher meat companies in the area. (This is why, overnight the price of kosher meats skyrocketed.)
After Herman Rose died in 1964, Dio convinced the Kleinberg family, which owned the majority of stock in Consumer Kosher that it was good business to merge with American Kosher. The Kleinbergs, trembling in their boots, agreed with Dio’s assessment, and with the mob running both companies, the “bust-out business” in the kosher meat industry began in full throttle.
Soon, Dio and his pals, using their usual tactics, began scooping up, and creating from scratch, other small kosher meat companies. Stock was transferred back and forth between the companies, and so were the assets, which included the kosher meat itself. First, Consumer Kosher went bankrupt; then did American Kosher. The other Dio-controlled companies started acquiring the meats (that had not been paid for), and one by one, they too declared bankruptcy, only to be acquired by another sham company owned by, what the newspapers called, “The Kosher Nostra.” The suppliers of the meat out west, because of the multiple bankruptcy proceeding, were stiffed of their meat payments. According to New York Post reporter Marvin Smilon, one of these meat providers had the temerity to ask one of Dio’s meat cronies, “Why do we have to deal with Dio?” He was told, “Sit down and be quiet. You ask too many questions.”
But all good things must come to an end. In 1966, Dio, along with four of his associates, were indicted for “bankruptcy fraud.” In 1967, they were all found guilty, and Dio was sentenced to five years in prison. However, with his high-powered attorneys working their magic, Dio was able to stay out of prison for almost four years. This gave Dio the extra time he needed to work another scam, called “The Great Mafia Bagel War.”
It started with Ben Willner, who had a machine that could make automated bagels, for around 50 cents a bagel, whereas a hand-rolled bagel cost about 65 cents to produce. This was not good news for the Bakery and Confectioners Workers Union, because it put their member’s jobs at risk. Willner was great pals with Moe Steinman, who didn’t care too much how the bagels were being made, because he had a stranglehold on bagel distribution, not bagel production. Willner ran to Steinman, and Steinman, hoping to help his pal out, introduced Willner to Johnny Dio, whom Steinman knew was an expert at “labor-related problems.” Dio helped out Willner, for a piece of the pie of course, and soon Steinman was packing his supermarkets with anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000 worth of Willner’s bagels a week.
The only problem was that Genovese Crime Family capo Thomas “Tommy Ryan” Eboli had his own bagel maker, who was being short-changed because of the Willner/Dio/automated bagel-making machine trio. This man was named Arthur Goldberg and he ran to Eboli, screaming. Eboli demanded a sit-down with Dio, who had been with the Luchesse Family for more than 30 years. At the time, in the New York City Mafia pecking order, the Genovese Family was much more powerful than the Luchesse Family, and Dio was effectively pushed out of the bagel business for good. Dio broke the bad news to Willner, and as a result, in December of 1969, Willner was forced to close shop. This led to the Eboli/Goldberg crew taking over Willner’s business, and his automated bagel-making machines.
Dio felt bad about losing his bagel scheme, but he felt even worse, when in November of 1970, he ran out of appeals and was forced to go to prison for a five-year stretch at the federal prison at Lewisburg, P.A. on the bankruptcy fraud charges. (He did not Pass Go, and he did not collect the customary two hundred dollars.)
In 1972, while still in prison, Dio was indicted again, this time for stock fraud, concerning the At Your Service Leasing Corp., a luxury car leasing firm that did most of its business with organized crime figures. It was alleged that in 1969, before Dio went to prison, Dio, along with Carmine Tramunti, Vincent Aloi, and Michael Hellerman, “floated” $300,000 of false stock in the car leasing company. Dio’s group then either bribed, or forced security dealers to sell the stock, and then turn over the money to the Dio investment group. The jury found Dio guilty, and he was hit when a knockout blow when he was sentenced to nine and ten-year prison terms, to run consecutively. Dio appealed his convictions twice, but he lost both appeals.
Johnny “Dio” Dioguardi never was a free man again. Dio died on January 12, 1979, in a Pennsylvania hospital, where he had been transferred to from federal prison. To add insult to injury, Dio was scheduled for parole in just a few short months.
The news of Johnny Dio’s death did not receive an inch of space in any of the New York City daily newspapers, even though a paid death notice appeared a few days after his death in the New York Daily News.
It was as if Johnny Dio, a gangster’s gangster if there ever was one, had never existed.