When I was growing up back in the 1960s, the Mafia was very much a “normal” part of society. In Rochester, everybody in town knew the name of Frank Valenti, the local Mafia kingpin. Most of the illegal gambling, extortion, loan sharking, insurance fraud, arson, narcotics, prostitution, and weapons trafficking in the city flowed through Frank and his “organization.” If anyone tried to circumvent the “system,” they could expect to be “contacted” by Frank’s men.
Stanley Valenti and his brother, Frank, rose to the top of the Rochester Mafia in the late 1950s, but both were arrested at the home of mobster, Joseph Barbara, during the infamous Apalachin Conference in 1957. Frank beat the rap, but cooled his jets in Pittsburgh. In the Valentis’ absence, Jake Russo took over the Rochester mob.
Stefano Magaddino in nearby Buffalo oversaw all of Western New York as part of the Bonanno family crime syndicate, and he believed Russo was holding back on profits from the gambling operations in Rochester. When he put the squeeze on Russo, the Rochester boss threatened to go over his head directly to the Bonanno family in New York City. That was a mistake. No one threatened Steve “The Undertaker” Magaddino and got away with it.
Meanwhile, Frank Valenti had returned to Rochester and opened a restaurant at 123 State Street named The Quill Room. On September 12, 1964, Russo left his house telling his wife he was going to the restaurant for a meeting with Valenti, but was never seen or heard from again. In an interview recorded forty-plus years later, former Rochester mob consigliere, Rene Piccarreto Sr., stated that Russo had been murdered by Valenti’s thugs in the basement of The Quill Room on the orders of Magaddino. The photo above shows Valenti entering The Quill Room sometime during the 1960s, adjoined by a photo I recently took of the same property.
With the death of Russo, Valenti was back on top as the mob kingpin in Rochester and continued in that role until 1972, when he was forced out after being accused of skimming too much off the top himself. The pro-Valenti and anti-Valenti factions subsequently battled it out in a series of bloody encounters throughout the 1970s while Valenti watched from the sidelines in the penitentiary and then as a retiree down in Arizona. Frank Valenti died in Sugarland, Texas in 2008 at the age of 97.
Many of these Italian-American Mafioso characters were dedicated Roman Catholics. They attended mass on Sunday and made sure their children were baptized, confirmed, and educated in Catholic schools. They were “able” to compartmentalize their “business” from their “personal” lives, not an unusual phenomenon within Catholic culture. Many Catholics were used to “living like the devil” on Saturday night and piously attending mass on Sunday morning. The mobsters’ parish priests knew what the men did for a living, their names appeared periodically in the Rochester papers, but their attitude, expressed by a New York City priest in regards to his mob boss parishioner, was, “He stays out of my business and I stay out of his.”
The history of the Roman Catholic church is filled with such worldly (and deadly) pragmatism. There was no genuine repentance. There was no Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. Frank Valenti and his lieutenants were all baptized and taught the Roman Catholic religion. Some would say they “did the best they could” in the dog-eat-dog milieu they were raised in, but Jesus Christ was not a part of these men’s lives.
Was Rochester mobster Jake Russo strangled in this restaurant basement?