Former FBI intelligence analyst and Johnstown native Paul Hodos loves history and organized crime. So writing “Steel City Mafia: Blood, Betrayal and Pittsburgh’s Last Don” about the history of the Mafia in Pittsburgh came naturally.
The book, which came out in April, fills a gap that Hodos observed: Philadelphia, Cleveland, Youngstown, Chicago and Detroit all have books chronicling homegrown organized crime. There’s even a book about the Johnstown mob. While earlier books touched on the Pittsburgh Mafia, none centered on the Steel City’s real-life counterparts to “The Sopranos,” “Goodfellas” and the “Godfather.”
Hodos has a history degree from Saint Vincent College in Latrobe and a graduate degree in strategic intelligence.
He didn’t work on mob cases while in law enforcement; terrorism and public corruption cases kept him busy. Hodos began his FBI career in New York City before transferring to the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. He left the agency about two years ago.
Before writing about organized crime, Hodos read lots of books and watched a lot of movies. Though his family worked in steel mills and he isn’t Italian, Hodos does have a distant connection to the region’s mob history.
“Not that we were related to anyone who was big in the rackets or something like that, but I remember stories that my grandpa used to tell me,” Hodos said during a recent interview from his home outside of Washington, D.C. “One of his relatives was married to a person who actually appeared in that Russell Shorto 2022 book, ‘Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob’ — Pippy DiFalco.”
Pittsburgh’s mob history is a convoluted web of “made” men, Italians initiated into the Mafia, and their many associates who formed a workforce of thousands. Hodos calls these associates “fringe racketeers.”
Joseph “Pippy” DiFalco was a gambler who lived on the fringes of a crew controlled by Pittsburgh Mafia leader John LaRocca. In 1969, DiFalco’s brutal murder shook Johnstown.
“Fringe racketeers become more important in that family because associates end up doing a ton of the work because they’re reporting to a made guy who is ostensibly like an area boss,” Hodos explains.
The bosses were men — the Mafia was a patriarchal, male-dominated organized crime world — with familiar names among crime aficionados: LaRocca, John Bazzano and Pittsburgh’s last leader or don, Michael Genovese.
Labels like mob and Mafia have become interchangeable in popular culture. But among law enforcement officials and historians, they are terms of art. The Mafia is an organized crime network with roots in Sicily. What sets it apart from other ethnic-oriented groups is its distinctive culture.
“The Italian Mafia has a very well-defined hierarchy and pretty well-defined rules,” Hodos says. Pittsburgh’s Mafia differed from other cities because it had fewer “made” men and local mob leaders liked to bend, if not break, the rules established by the leading five mob families based in New York City.
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Some of Pittsburgh’s best-known racketeers weren’t actually part of the Mafia. Gambling kingpin Tony Grosso, who ran numbers games throughout the city between the 1940s and 1980s, was a fringe racketeer who leveraged the label to his advantage.
“He was involved in the illegal gambling business and people just assume that because of that, that every Italian criminal, especially those who are into gambling, is going to be underneath whatever don is in the area,” Hodos believes. “My guess would be that there’s a certain amount of mystique and there’s a certain amount of protection from third-party crazies.”
Hodos had lots to choose from to tell his story. Many episodes didn’t make the cut. Those that did are woven together in a narrative that draws from Hodos’ decades in law enforcement. He knows what documents to request through the Freedom of Information Act and he knows how to read them. He also knows the right people to question, like former special agent Roger Greenbank.
His former gig didn’t afford Hodos any special access, though. “The agency is super vigilant about people trying to get unauthorized access to documents. Obviously, there’s a lot of that kind of stuff in the news lately.”
When asked about his favorite Pittsburgh mob story, Hodos paused for a moment before settling on one: the 1985 disappearance of McKeesport restaurant owner Joseph “Joey” Bertone.
The former boxer began racking up arrests in the 1970s for theft and loansharking. Law enforcement suspected that his McKeesport restaurant was a mob front for illegal activities. Bombings in 1978 and 1982 reinforced their suspicions.
According to the version recounted in “Steel City Mafia,” Bertone left his home one evening and never returned. His last hours allegedly involved a meeting in a drug dealer’s truck garage and a request for money that Bertone made to racketeer Joey Rosa. Hodos wrote that a few weeks after Bertone failed to return home, mob boss Chucky Porter summoned his wife and gave her $20,000. Bertone was never seen again and his body was never found.
“Joseph Bertone’s story is one of the more interesting ones. There are so many theories out there and I find them all to be fascinating,” says Hodos.
As for Pittsburgh’s mob history, Hodos admits, “You could probably write a thousand-page book on that.”
For now, folks will have to settle for his 171 pages.