The Murder Of Vincent Vallone
A restauranteur’s death in 1949 was also the end of the short-lived Houston Mafia.
In all of his days, Vincent Barlow had never seen anything like the events of that hot July night in 1949. Barlow, a resident of sparsely populated Chocolate Bayou Road in Houston, recalled that he was standing on his porch when he saw a black Cadillac driving fast, with a dark sedan in apparent pursuit. As they closed within 100 yards of his house, the Cadillac slowed down and eased over to the side of the road, as if to let the trailing car pass. As the sedan overtook the Cadillac, Barlow said, he heard two shotgun blasts in rapid succession.
The second car drove off. The Cadillac rolled to a stop on the side of the road, its engine running, its lights illuminating the sticky Gulf Coast night. When he investigated, Barlow saw a middle-aged man lying prostrate across the seat.
Police identified the dead man as Vincent Vallone, a 64-year-old restaurateur, nightlife figure, and resident of a large nearby estate. One of the blasts had taken off the back of his head, forcibly enough to knock his false teeth from his mouth. He wore a suit with a red rose in his lapel.
So ended the life of perhaps the most prominent Italian-American mafioso in Houston history. Clues were few and the list of suspects was long. One Houston cop, when asked if he believed an outsider killed Vallone, scoffed at the notion: “Why should there be an imported killer when there are a jillion people here who’d like to have killed him?”
Before it was over, the investigation and ensuing trials would transfix the state, put an end to Houston’s short Mafia history, and eventually draw two of the Bayou City’s most famous lawmen into combat against the state’s greatest defense attorney.
Vincent J. Vallone Sr. was born in 1884 in the port city of Gioia Tauro, Calabria, at the very tip of the toe of Italy’s boot. Today, Gioia Tauro is a stronghold of the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia. In 2006, Italian authorities claimed that 80 percent of Europe’s cocaine is smuggled through its harbor.
By 1908, Vallone was in Houston, where he took his citizenship oath. The 1920 Houston City Directory lists him as one of the hordes of grocers then working stalls at Houston’s old City Market. By then he was living in Houston’s First Ward with his Sicilian-born wife, Marietta Aiello Vallone, and five kids: Vincent Jr., Joseph V., Anthony, Benjamin, and Mary Rose. At some point in the 1920s, Vallone was awarded a lucrative Hermann Park food concession.
He apparently prospered in those Prohibition years, because by 1932, the newspapers were saying he was a wealthy man. It seemed like he had fulfilled the American dream: a couple of decades after coming to Houston, he had become one of the city’s most affluent purveyors of food.
But on January 29, 1932, a news item indicated that perhaps not all of Vallone’s businesses were strictly above-board, or he was at the very least running with a rough crowd:
The home of Vincent Vallone, rich Houston Italian, was wrecked by a bomb, resulting in flames that destroyed the structure. The family was not at home. Vallone could not account for the act.
Mr and Mrs Vallone were at a party in honor of visiting tenor Beniamino Gigli.
If that mystery was ever solved, the papers did not report it. What seems certain is that this had been meant as a warning to Vallone rather than an attempt on his life. Whoever planted that bomb would have known that the family would have been away at the time—Gigli was the Pavarotti of his day. Somebody wanted Vallone chastened, but alive and earning money.
Around that time, according to later reports, Vallone had expanded into bootlegging, gambling, and running nightclubs. One of those was the High-Hat, a Houston outpost of the Galveston-based Maceo Brothers’ vice empire.
Some mob historians have written on the difficult position New Jersey mobsters have always found themselves in, caught between often warring factions in New York and others in Philadelphia. Vallone was also in a hard spot. There was never a “Houston crime family,” but the same situation did not hold in nearby metropolises.
By Prohibition, the Piranio mob family was well-established in Dallas. Across the Sabine, “Silver Dollar Sam” Carolla was modernizing the New Orleans Mafia. And the seat of Texas Mafia power was just down the road in Galveston, where Salvatore (Sam) and Rosario (Rose) Maceo were prospering. Having taken over the city’s Beach Gang and then run the rival Downtown Gang off the island, the Maceos opened their famous casino, Maceo’s Grotto (forerunner of the Balinese Room), on the Seawall in 1929. By the 1940s, the Maceos had their gambling operations running so wide open Texans called their city “the Free State of Galveston,” and Galveston-bound Houstonians—on passing the midway point town of Dickinson—spoke of “crossing the Maceo-Dickinson line.”
Houston lacked the muscle to stand on its own, much to Vallone’s frustration. Sometimes he worked with the Maceos, as he was in the 1930s. Vallone was doing pretty well. At some point after the bombing of his in-town home, Vallone bought that prairie estate on Chocolate Bayou Road. He covered the extensive grounds with rosebushes—as many as a thousand of them, some of them producing prize-winning flowers, others furnishing the buds Vallone took to wearing in his lapels. Around town, he was known as Don Vincenzo, at least according to a 1947 FBI memo that recounted a 1937 meet at his Chocolate Bayou “farm,” one attended by Joseph Piranio and Joseph Civello, the acting boss of the Dallas mob and his successor.
Vallone stayed out of the newspapers until 1937, which quite likely proved the worst year of his life up to that point. On March 8, he was accused of ending a barroom dispute by shooting 24-year-old Sam Farrugia five times. Farrugia survived his wounds and left town. Vallone was not prosecuted further.
Later that year, Vallone was questioned in connection to the violent demise of one Mike Salibo, a killing one reporter would recall years later as one of Houston’s most sensational. Salibo, a 35-year-old convicted rum-runner and drug smuggler, was found behind the wheel of his flashy late-model car on a lonely road outside of Houston, a single gunshot wound in the back of his head.
Vallone was questioned and released, and within a week police claimed they had their man: William Edgar Woodward, whom the papers frankly described as “a narcotic addict.” Woodward would never face trial, or even much questioning: within hours of his arrest, he was found dangling from his belt in his jail cell. Oh well, police said. Woodward had told us Salibo had burned him in a drug deal. And that was the end of the Salibo investigation.
But the troubles kept coming for Vallone. On October 5, 1937, “widely-known Houston nightclub operator” Vincent Vallone was apprehended by federal agents along with Sam Maceo, “kingpin of Texas nightclub operators,” along with more than 70 others accused of engaging in an international narcotics conspiracy—one that spread through New York all the way back to the old country.
Maceo stalled and eventually beat the rap years later, and all charges against Vallone were dropped in 1938. But he wouldn’t stay out of hot water for long. Two weeks after the fatal gambling house shooting of 45-year-old railroad worker J.I. Thomas, Vallone, by then a “well-known figure in Houston nightlife and sporting circles,” surrendered to authorities. (Before he turned himself in, police had questioned and released his son Vincent Jr., a former UT football star and future commercial real estate mogul.)
Justice was swift. Weeks after his arrest, Vallone was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Luckily, Vallone had powerful friends on the outside, a consortium of wealthy gentlemen willing to attest to his good character. According to later testimony, that group included Rose Maceo as well as LA racketeer and former Bugsy Siegel cohort Mickey Cohen, and New Yorker Frank Costello (whose raspy voice informed Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Vito Corleone).
By 1946, Vallone had been granted a full pardon, and dove right back into business, first at a restaurant named after his favorite flower: the Villa Rosa. There, an apparently chastened Vallone—the papers described him as “mild-mannered”—dished out Italian food. After hours, one paper noted, he was known to don the chef’s hat himself.
Meanwhile, he was hard at work on his dream: Sorrento, a 300-seat palatial restaurant, club, and possibly a gambling house at the corner of Fannin and Bell downtown. Named after the prettiest town in Vallone’s native Calabria, Sorrento would be top-notch across the board—a mainland rival to anything the Maceos owned down on the island. Vallone brought in an Italian chef who’d previously worked in the French Quarter, Hollywood, and Las Vegas. A Spaniard named Jose Cortez painted a 250-foot wraparound mural of Italian seaside scenes. The place would make national headlines shortly after its opening when Frank Sinatra dined there, accompanied by a woman not his wife.
But Vincent Vallone would not be alive to bask in that publicity. Indeed, he would not even live to enjoy Sorrento’s opening night.
In 1947 or ‘48, a chubby bespectacled man named Peter Duca opened up a strange novelty shop in the Galveston airport. His former employees would later recall that he very seldom sold any of his wares, and when he would leave town on what he called sales trips, he would always return with the same goods he’d taken with him. He lived alone in a rented room near the airport and had few, if any, friends in Galveston, but lots of out-of-town visitors.
In retrospect, it was all very weird. Eventually the Galveston paper frankly stated Duca’s shop was a front, its proprietor a “man of mystery.”
One day it would come to light that Vallone and Duca had a lot in common. Both had immigrated to America from Calabria. Both had been released from life sentences for murder. In Duca’s case, ten years after he’d escaped conviction for a New Orleans gangland double-murder, he was accused of taking part in the 1928 assassination of two men in a war between rival factions of a Pennsylvania coal miners’ union in the town of Pittston, then the domain of Santo “King of the Night” Volpe’s Bufalino crime family. That killing was strikingly similar to that of Vallone’s incident in Galveston—the victims’ car was halted, whereupon its occupants were shot to pieces while trapped inside.
Up to that point, Duca had been a man of many aliases and no fixed abode, and it took police four years to track him down in faraway Honolulu. He was hauled back via steamer to San Francisco and cross-country train to Pennsylvania, sentenced to life in the pen around 1932, and got out on parole after about 15 years. He was granted a transfer to Dallas, one of the many cities he’d lived in during his checkered past, and after a couple of years there Duca was allowed to take up his odd life in Galveston.
According to the somewhat laughable theory of Harris County Sheriff Buster Kern, Duca was nothing less than the don of the entire Texas Mafia, that every racket from Beaumont to Dallas to El Paso and the Free State of Galveston operated on the whims of this recent transplant to Texas, one who chose to hide in plain sight with a weird little shop at the Galveston airport. And it was Duca, whom he called the Texas “district supervisor” of the mob, who ordered the hit on Vallone, Kern claimed.
That was the result of the investigations he and Texas Ranger Johnny Klevenhagen conducted into the Vallone murder. Informants led the two lawmen to two of Duca’s out-of-town friends: Houstonians Louis J. Marino, operator of a Third Ward ice house, and Richard Diego “Dick” Carlino, a recent New York transplant who owned a small grocery store across from Emancipation Park, also in the Third Ward. Carlino confessed the whole thing, Kern said. Marino had been the driver, he’d been the triggerman. According to Kern, Carlino said that if he didn’t kill Vallone, Duca would see to it that his wife and parents would be murdered.
According to Kern, Carlino told him that Vallone had been pushing other mobsters around and his assassination was a “killing of honor.” Or maybe it was because Vallone had disobeyed orders, as Kern said at another hearing.
At the introduction of the M-word in Kern’s investigation, the media went into a frenzy. Wise guys were old hat on the East Coast, and had been operating right under the noses of Texans for decades by then, only not known as such. And like the rest of the nation, Texans knew all about “gangland murders.” But this all occurred before the Kefauver Committee exposed to the nation the extent of the reach and clout of organized crime in the Italian-American community.
Indeed, Texas reporters still felt compelled to define the Mafia in most of their Vallone stories, always in the most dramatic terms, such as the “dread Mafia Society, an organization that sponsors ‘hired’ killers” and “a secret Sicilian society that deals mostly in death plans.” (The Waxahachie Daily Light put to paper an amusing typo: “the dread International Crime Syndicate, the Marfa, or Black Hand.”)
Days later, Carlino was singing a different tune. By that time, he’d hired Percy Foreman, already renowned as the foremost criminal defense attorney in Texas. While Foreman looked on, Carlino told a reporter that Kern, Klevenhagen and other cops had held him without bond, driven him to “a cabin the woods,” and beat him mercilessly for hours. He was so battered and weary, he didn’t even know what he was putting his name to when he signed his written confession. He told a reporter he would have confessed to killing Cock Robin and Abraham Lincoln if that was what it took to get the beatings to stop. And, he said, the police told him they would jail his wife and parents if he failed to confess. Carlino and Foreman would stick to that story and variations of it for the next three years. (Marino was no-billed by a grand jury and cut loose.)
Meanwhile, Duca was arrested at the Dallas station as he stepped off the Galveston train. En route to an early court appearance, a reporter asked Duca if it was true that he was a member of the Mafia. “The Mafia? What is it?” Duca asked. “I am just an ordinary businessman with a small novelty manufacturing business in Galveston.”
That denial, one Americans would hear on countless occasions from men like Duca for decades to come, would be one of his last public utterances. He was sent back to Pennsylvania to face the wrath of his parole officer, but that meeting never came. He was found dead in his cell within 24 hours of his arrival back in the Quaker State. “Coronary thrombosis” came the very swift coroner’s verdict. Natural causes. Nothing to see here.
Meanwhile, the Houston papers were fielding anonymous phone calls broadcasting threats to Vallone’s killers.
Here’s one that came into the Houston Press, the Bayou City’s most scandalous daily:
Vincent Vallone’s murder will be avenged. The rats who gunned my friend to death are going to be eliminated. The motive for the murder was fear. They thought Vallone was coming back into the rackets and because of his past power they were afraid of him…There won’t be any rest from now on for me. The men who killed Vincent won’t be able to rest either, and as they are eliminated, the world will know.
Another call went out to the Houston Post, and that one pointed the finger squarely at Galveston. By that time, it had emerged that Vallone had gone to the island a few days before his murder in an effort to collect a debt of tens of thousands of dollars he claimed a certain pair of Galvestonians had owed him since before he went to prison. It also came to light that one of his last phone conversations had found him on the horn with Carlos Marcello.
By the time Percy Foreman took up the Carlino defense, he was only halfway to legendary status. He’d yet to join the Jack Ruby defense team, or persuade James Earl Ray to confess to the murder of Martin Luther King, or successfully defend Candace Mossler and Melvin Powers in their scandalous River Oaks murder case, or mentor Dick DeGuerin, Mike DeGeurin, and Racehorse Haynes. On the other hand, he had already successfully defended hundreds of accused murderers and earned his status as likely the Houston Police Department and the Harris County district attorney’s office most hated and feared opponent.
At 6’4” and close to 300 pounds, he had the imposing stature of an offensive tackle. He also had the singular knack of making every trial revolve around the actions of pretty much everyone but his clients. And that most definitely held in the trials of Dick Carlino.
After an aborted effort in Houston, Carlino’s first trial was held in Austin. There Foreman convinced several jurors that Carlino’s signed confession had been beaten out of him and was therefore meaningless. After 17 and a half hours, they announced they were deadlocked and a mistrial was declared.
Carlino would face one more trial, and this time it would be held all the way out in San Angelo, one of the few towns in Texas not saturated with coverage of the Vallone murder and ensuing trials. Foreman’s strategy remained the same. This time he had a former jailer and 13 signed affidavits backing up his claims that his client had been beaten. Hobbling around the court on crutches thanks to an injured knee sustained in a fall at his hotel, Foreman really poured it on Kern, Klevenhagen, and a third cop by the name of Kain:
“Kern, Klevenhagen, and Kain! KKK! They ku-kluxed this defendant! They tortured him to make him confess! Who among you can say you, too, would not have confessed to this killing—innocent though you be—if these pistol-packing, blackjack-wearing, handcuff-carrying, booted and spurred officers of the so-called law had predetermined you guilty and decided you were going to confess?”
After an hour’s deliberation, the jury came back: Carlino was not guilty. As the triumphant Foreman hobbled out of the courtroom, first Kern and then Klevenhagen attacked him with their fists, right there in front of judge, jury, witnesses, and the accused. Foreman was slugged as many as ten times, knocked to the ground, his face bloodied. He asked to be taken to a hospital, and the next day a photo appeared in the paper of Carlino at Foreman’s bedside, attending to his defender.
“I have practiced law for 26 years and this is the first thing like this that has ever happened to me or any other attorney I know,” Foreman said later, blood still trickling down his face. Nevertheless, Foreman told reporters the lawmen were “forgiven.”
Despite outrage from the Texas State Bar and some politicians, neither of the lawmen faced any further consequences. Kern held the office of Harris County Sheriff until 1972. Klevenhagen was promoted to Captain in the Texas Rangers.
Carlino headed off to parts unknown: “I have no defense in Houston since you saw what the sheriff did to my attorney,” he said. And with the rise of Las Vegas and the peaceful deaths of the Maceo Brothers, Galveston’s wide-open era came to a close.
Sorrento, Vincent’s dream spot, opened a few months after his death in 1949. His son Anthony Vallone ran it and named it Vincent’s Sorrento in honor of his late father. Other Vallones opened other restaurants over the years. Benny had a place near the Shamrock for a time, and then, in 1965, Anthony Jr. opened Tony’s on Sage Boulevard. After two moves, he’s been in business now for 50 years, his restaurant now probably the most famous and respected in Texas history.