Retired Intelligence Detective Gary Jenkins brings you the best in mob history with his unique perception of the mafia. In this episode, I speak with author Matt Birkbeck about the life of William “Big Billy” D’Elia, a prominent figure in the mafia. We discuss D’Elia’s role as a negotiator for the mob and his close relationship with Russell Bufalino. The conversation delves into behind-the-scenes dealings, connections to influential individuals, and the complexities of the criminal world. We highlight the scarcity of information about the Russell Bufalino family and the power they held.
One fascinating aspect that emerges is Billy’s role as a negotiator for the mob across different industries, including films, music, and politics. We discuss his connections with influential individuals like Nick Civella and Tony Ripe Civella, the nephew who took over the family business. A notable episode involves Billy intervening when Donald Trump wanted Michael Jackson to perform at his casino, ultimately becoming Jackson’s co-manager.
The book offers unparalleled insights into the inner workings of organized crime, including behind-the-scenes dealings and Billy’s rise to power within the mob. We uncover Muhammad Ali’s visit to Ted Kennedy on Russell Bufalino’s behalf, showcasing these hidden alliances’ unpredictable nature. The power and respect commanded by Bufalino become evident as we explore anecdotes of his interactions with figures like Frank Sinatra. We also touch on Bufalino’s influence through his connection to the Teamsters Union.
We recommend Matt Birkbeck’s book for true crime enthusiasts and provide valuable resources for listeners dealing with PTSD and substance abuse.
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Introduction of special guest Matt Birkbeck
[0:00] Welcome, all you guys back here in the studio Ganglans Wire where I have a special guest today, Matt Birkbeck.
He wrote The Life We Chose, and he examines the life of William Big Billy D’Elia.
Did I get that right, Matt D’Elia?
You got that right. Well, Matt, welcome. I’m really happy to have you on the show.
Thanks for having me.
And you write a lot about Russell Bufalino and who Big Billy D’Elia came up under. So that’s something that my guys out here really want to know about, because he was such an important mafia member nationally.
Bufalino was, and D’Elia, Big Billy, he came up under him. He kind of took over his kind of mantle, it looks to me like, from reading your book.
Guys, let me tell you a couple of quotes. You may all know mafia reporter, my favorite mafia reporter and expert, George Anastasia.
And he said about The Life We Choose, he said it’s a riveting, extraordinary account of one of the last 20th century goodfellas.
And Nicholas Pelleggi, who is the, of course, Las Vegas expert, called it a good read and an unforgettable story. So there’s pretty high praise, Matt, from guys like that.
Matt Birkbeck’s other true crime books
[1:14] What other true crime books do you have?
So this was my, I believe it was my seventh book. So I’ve written about Robert Durst in my first book, A Deadly Secret.
[1:25] I wrote two books on a really interesting case involving a girl who was kidnapped as a toddler, called Books for a Beautiful Child and Finding Sharon, which became a Netflix film last year.
It was released last summer. I’ve written about Sammy Davis Jr., Deconstructing Sammy, which also included The Mob, believe it or not.
And then now I did The Life We Chose, which came out last month.
[1:49] Interesting. Just a little aside, Matt, there’s a true crime author, And I think he produced the movie about Danny Green and the Cleveland mob, a guy named Rick Varello.
And Rick Varello played in a backup band as a drummer years ago for Sammy Davis Jr.
So he’s got a lot of Sammy Davis Jr. stories.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Ricky. I think, believe it or not, Sammy had a lot of Cleveland connections, which was really interesting. So your listeners or viewers or whatever may be interested in reading about Sammy and deconstructing Sammy too.
Yeah, really. Sammy’s an interesting guy. He brushed up against the mafia off and on all his career, but all those guys did.
You had to in the fifties, especially reading this book, you’ll find out how much music and Hollywood film industry rubbed up against the mafia.
Tell us a little bit about Big Billy D’Elia.
Billy D’Elia’s rise in the Bufalino family
[2:43] Billy was the head of the Bufalino family beginning in 1994, following the death of Russell Bufalino.
He was arrested in 2006. When he was arrested, he got arrested on a money laundering charge, and they later added attempting to kill a witness, which was later dropped.
But when he was arrested, law enforcement across the country had wanted to talk to him.
Everyone from the FBI, US Secret Service, Homeland Security, IRS, New York City Terrorism Task Force, and that was because of who Billy was.
He became this very powerful individual, and it was a result of his almost 30 years with Russell Buffalino. Prior to Russell’s death in 1994, Billy had been with him since 1966, and the two men were very, very close, and Russell considered him his son.
[3:39] Russell, for those, even for your listeners who think they may know who Russell Buffalino was, they don’t know. Very few people know this, but he was arguably one of the most powerful and influential organized crime figures of the 20th century. He was that big. He was involved in so many different things, from Cuba, to the Appalachian Conference, to testifying before Bobby Kennedy, to the Teamsters, where he was just incredibly influential.
Russell Bufalino’s immense power and influence
[4:09] He knew and loved Jimmy Hoffa.
His nephew, who he had placed with the Teamsters, was their general counsel.
Russell had huge influence over their Central States Teamsters Fund.
Of course, he was involved. He was one of the key suspects in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa in the mid-1970s, in 1975.
I asked Billy, when I started interviewing Billy in 2020, I said, was Russell Buffalino ever a member of the commission?
And Billy said to me, no. He said Russell was above the commission.
[4:39] And that just spoke volumes to me. So that’s who Billy DeLeo was. Billy had the benefit of being tutored, being protege of Russell Buffalino. And he subsequently took on Russell’s role as the mob’s negotiator when Russell went to prison in the mid-1980s.
Yeah, I had read that about Russell, that he was the negotiator, go all over the United States and settle things that the commission, you don’t want to bring everything to the commission, but he would go out there and get people together, which is pretty interesting.
You’ve got some stories, really great stories that Billy told you.
[5:14] And how did you happen to get in connecting with him? Billy actually connected with me. It was August of 2020.
And I got an email, and it said, Would I be interested in speaking with Billy?
I knew who Billy was, because I had covered him when I was a newspaper reporter.
In the early 2000s, Billy was involved in it says I write in the book.
Billy was involved in a situation involving casino gambling in Pennsylvania when Governor Ed Rendell bought casinos here. And Billy was involved with one of the applicants who was a good friend of his. And that good friend turned his back on Billy and basically offered him up.
As I write in the book to the government, as I said, Billy never spoke to law enforcement.
They all wanted to talk to him. FBI wanted to talk to him about Jimmy Hoffa because they figured They figured that he knew Russell, he was that close to Russell.
He was also very close to Frank Sheeran.
And the government figured that he had to know something. And he did, but he didn’t talk to.
[6:13] Anyone. But a couple of things occurred. One, he saw The Irishman, the film, in 2019, and he was outraged by it over a couple of things. One, the portrayal of Bufalino, not the acting of Joe Pesci, who was marvelous, but the portrayal of Bufalino as being and somewhat subservient to some other mob leaders, which wasn’t the case in Billy’s eye.
And also, Frank Sheeran’s story about killing Jimmy Hoffa, Billy knew that wasn’t fiction.
And so he wanted to set the record straight on that. And he also wanted to set the record straight on a couple of other things involving the local connection with casinos and.
[6:53] This situation involving him and his former friend of his, this billionaire.
Big Billy’s involvement in New York City with Bufalino
[6:57] So they reached out to me, I jumped at the chance, it took a number of months to get Billy comfortable with the idea of talking to a reporter or a writer, an author. But once Billy got comfortable and began to trust me and we got going, we spoke for roughly another year and a half. And the result’s the book. Interesting. Now, in your book, you talk a lot about Bufalino bringing Big Billy on trips to New York City and going to the jewelry district, because he had some action down there getting stolen jewelry, I think, from people and other business that he had. And going to Copacabana, which is kind of part of the Irishman story, and the movie, they had this. And there’s another guy named Pete the Greek, Dacopolis, who was part of Joey Gallo’s crew that was with Joey Gallo that night that they had been in the Copacabana, and there was this confrontation, supposedly. So did he talk about that? What did What’d he tell you about going to New York with Bufalino?
[7:53] Yeah, no, he spoke about it at length. So what was really interesting about Russell, and was actually genius on his part in that he was living in Northeast Pennsylvania, but he spent half his time in New York City, from Sunday through Wednesday, he had an apartment for many, many years. And Russell had a restaurant called the Vesuvio, which was in midtown. And he only frequented the Vesuvio and maybe a couple of other restaurants, I want to be in a place called Johnny D’s.
And his favorite place I go to was the Copa Cabana.
[8:24] And he actually, as Billy describes in the book, performers would have to come visit with Russell.
Folks who were going to play at the Copa had to come visit Russell for lunch.
And there’s a scene in the book with Liberace coming to visit with Russell and having his so-called interview.
So Billy was with him. Billy became, Russell spent three or four years, basically, he considered Billy his son after a year or so. And that just opened up this whole world to Bill.
He had not been born into this life like a lot of other people are.
He was a student, he was going to business school and he was in the Army Reserves.
He was only 20 years old, but he took a liking to Russell and Russell took an immediate liking to him.
And when he brought him by his side, he just introduced him to everyone that he knew.
And he introduced him within a year or so, started introducing him as my son, Bill.
Now, Bill had his own father, but he had a real testy relationship with him.
And he considered Russell his father after a short period of time.
And that relationship just opened doors for Billy and just paved the way for him to ultimately become the head of the family.
The Cinderella story of Big Billy D’Elia
[9:34] Well, yeah. It’s kind of the Cinderella story, isn’t it? You reach out and tap somebody at a young age and say, you know, like, you’re the next prince. Come on and let me show you how to be it.
That’s like fairy tale stuff there.
[9:45] Yeah. That’s what’s really interesting about this book. It’s a very intimate book in terms of a relationship between two men.
It’s a father and son story at its core, set against this life within organized crime, and which makes it even doubly more interesting.
So it turned out to be, the focus of the book is between Bill and Russell, and it’s through their relationship that you just see. I’ve said this many times since the book came out.
I always thought of the world as being black and white with a little gray, But after talking to Billy for two years, even three now, because we still talk, the world is very gray.
[10:23] There was so much that goes on beneath the scenes. I mean, when you read this book, he wasn’t just involved in disputes involving organized crime figures.
Russell was called in, and Billy ultimately too, because there were scenes with Billy in the 1980s with some pretty famous individuals.
Sports figures, there’s a scene in the book with Russell and Johnny Unitas, a great quarterback with the Baltimore Colts.
Political figures, business figures, this whole gray area that I’m talking about encompasses almost everything about society and there’s this underbelly of how things get done.
And it’s pretty remarkable.
A Shift in Perspective: Seeing the Gray in the World
[11:00] Yeah, I have to agree with you. After doing this show for the last several years and getting to know guys personally, former Bob guys personally, and even though I worked on when I was working on them, I just saw it as black and white, good or bad.
I was good, they were bad, But now I’ve gotten to know him.
I’ve got one guy I meet about every week for coffee and it’s just so gray.
There’s so much gray out there besides the black and white. It just is overwhelming to me sometimes.
Like, boy, a different idea now.
[11:29] Yeah, no, I agree with you a hundred percent. So it kind of changed how I think of things.
My father was a cop in New York. He was a New York City police officer.
So I grew up a certain way and it helped me in my reporting throughout my career, particularly with law enforcement.
I was always able to befriend police sources within law enforcement, the FBI, US attorneys, whatnot.
But being with Billy DeLeon for two or three years It really opens your eyes to what goes on in the world.
I remember any of the other another story or so about when he was out in Los Angeles, settling like TV stars like Big Billy did some of this. He went out to LA or something about Baywatch dispute and some other things. You remember any of those stories? Those are great stories. It’s like one of them or so that kind of give our guys a taste of what they can get in this book.
Billy DeLeon’s Role as a Negotiator for the Mob
[12:20] So this goes back to Russell and then Billy becoming a so-called negotiator for the mob.
And Bill would get the call because the mob was involved in so many different things.
They were involved in films, they’re involved in music, they’re involved in the concert business, not to mention politics and Fortune 500 companies, they’re everywhere. At least a more so at that period of time, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. And Billy got called, even into the 90s, Billy would go out, he spent a lot of time in Beverly Hills.
And he spent a lot of time resolving disputes between, say, producers and singers and actors.
But it wasn’t just over… Like there would be instances where there would be money, like Baywatch, or these two brothers who were involved with the production company and they were owed $2 million, but they wanted to get out.
They didn’t want to be with them anymore because the production company had allegedly, or was allegedly mobbed up.
They didn’t want to be involved with them anymore.
And Billy goes out there and he took him two days, he resolves the issue for them.
It was an issue involving Tony Braxton, the singer that Billy resolved.
It was also another issue involving Fabio, the male model who was big at the time.
And this didn’t have anything to do with money, it had more to do with something involving Fabio personally.
And Billy was asked to come out and help resolve that issue.
So he was crisscrossing the country, and as I write in the book, he had…
Connection with Nick Civella and the Teamsters
[13:49] Spent a lot of time in Kansas City. He knew the Savellas. He knew Nick Savella.
He knew his nephew, Tony. He knew Tony really well.
And we talk about that. We write about that in the book.
[14:00] Tom Hanks Interesting. That whole Savella thing, I noticed the way he wrote.
[14:04] The way you wrote and the way he told you about like when Russell went to Leavenworth, Nick Savella was already up there and he was getting really old.
It was kind of a little personal touch about how they were old friends and had business together for a long time through the Teamsters, and they both really intimately connected with the Teamsters. And he was glad to see Nick was there and having this friendly face, somebody more of his peer group that was there. Yeah, they went back to the 1950s. It was Russell who organized that famous meeting in Appalachian, New York, where all those top mobsters convened and were subsequently arrested in 1957. And Nick Civella was there at that meeting. So he and He and Bufalina had gone way back.
And so when he arrived in prison, if I recall correctly, Nick Cervello was only there for a year or so.
He had been very sick.
And then he got released and he died two weeks later. But they knew each other well.
He had introduced in the 70s, he had introduced before he went to prison, Russell had introduced him to Billy.
Billy’s Involvement in Resolving Disputes with Trump and Michael Jackson
[15:02] So Billy knew him and Billy knew his nephew, Tony, who took over the family when Nick went to prison.
And there’s a scene in the book after Billy met Michael Jackson’s co-manager.
After intervening, you know, we talked about big names that are in the book.
He intervened in a situation in which Donald Trump wanted Michael Jackson to play at one of his casinos in Atlantic City.
And he got a firm no from Jackson’s manager, Frank DiLeo, who happened to later become.
[15:31] He was one of the actors in Goodfellas.
He played the caps donor, Tutti, the little squat guy.
So he said no. Awesome.
[15:39] Trump didn’t end around and he had already had tie, had longstanding ties with organized crime figures. And he reached out to two guys in Los Angeles. One guy was Mike Rizzatelli, a heavyweight in LA, and they threatened DeLeo. DeLeo reaches out to friends he has in Pittsburgh, but they’re not big enough to intervene. So what do they do? They reach out to Billy DeLea.
[16:02] And there’s this big meeting in New York in 1988 during the Grammys where Billy’s there and these two guys walk in and they see Billy and they know that’s it. It’s not going to happen.
And they offer Billy half the Trump money and Billy says no. And they leave and Jackson’s manager, Frank DiLeo, is ecstatic. Only Billy says, this isn’t over yet. I’m now your partner.
Yeah. I’m now Jackson’s co-manager. And he was. And there’s a photo in the book of Billy with Michael Jackson and Frank DiLeo. And Billy was on tour. He went on tour that summer or that year during Jackson’s bad tour, and he spent a lot of time with him and talked to him.
It’s just remarkable how this is like one of those gray areas that we talked about.
It’s things going on under the scenes, behind the scenes.
Billy was publicly identified as being a so-called security consultant, but in fact, he was his co-manager and he was getting a piece of whatever Delayo made.
Wow. Oh my God. That’s a hell of a story. I’ll tell you what.
And like you said, that gray area, I see it in little ways around here, but on a national level, you hear people allude to that sometimes, but you never really get to specific details like that.
Revealing the Specifics: Unveiling the Gray Areas of Society
[17:10] That’s a very specific case there that people don’t usually get that. This book is a must-read, guys, I’ll tell you right now. You got anything else that you want people to know about that book?
[17:23] Like I said earlier, it’s not what you might think the traditional mob book, where there’s a lot of violence and a lot of bloodshed and criminality. I mean, the criminality is there, but this is really, like I said earlier, an intimate story regarding Russell Buffalino and his young protege and so-called son, Billy DeLeon, and Billy’s rise to power. And now, you know, Billy, you know, the first part of the book, Billy’s an observer, he’s a fly on the wall. And he lays what was going on for like 10 years or so, including a real interesting meeting involving the men who ordered the murder of Jimmy Hoffa.
And this was after Hoffa disappeared. So Billy gives a lot of insight into that.
And then Billy becomes, he goes from being an observer to when Russell goes to prison.
[18:11] He becomes a participant. And he becomes, unbeknownst to law enforcement, he becomes de facto head of the Bufalino family, which had been a very, very powerful and important family in this country. And so the book itself is a really unique look at the underpinnings of organized crime. And of course, what we just talked about, this really incredible gray area where, I mean, I read about Muhammad Ali visiting with Ted Kennedy in Washington on behalf of Bufalino. And these are narratives that you’re not really going to see anywhere else, or you you won’t see anything else.
So I’m very glad I did the book because it really opened my eyes to what happens behind the scenes.
Really? I love that story about him going to Jilly Rizzo’s in New York and sitting at Sinatra’s table and then Sinatra sits with him and loves, got it. That was a great story, but that brings us back to the power of Bufalino because Bufalino goes into the restaurant and sits at the table.
He’s told by Jilly, hey, this is Frank’s table and Frank’s in town.
Bufalino’s Power Displayed at Sinatra’s Table
[19:09] And Bufalino says, I don’t care where he is, this is my table.
And you tell him if he wants to sit here, he could sit with me.
And Frank Sinatra shows up and he sits with Russell and Billy DeLeo.
And they have a conversation and they talk as if they’re old friends.
But that was Frank Sinatra paying his due respect to Russell Buffalino and also engaging for the first time with Billy DeLeo. So that’s actually a hell of a story too.
Yeah, that is. Guys, this is a heck of a book. You gotta get it.
You really gotta get it.
[19:40] Did he do this on the your opinion after talking to big billy personally i just want to know is was he doing this on the strength of his personality and then billy took on that kind of the strength of their personality it wasn’t because they had a big hammer over anybody or that he was it was obviously capable to have somebody yet but there was none of that talk in the book it was more like.
Everybody just gave him this respect. Was it because of his connection to the Teamsters?
That’s a pretty powerful hammer to have in your hand that you could solve any problems any business has with the Teamsters Union. But what did you think about how they achieved that kind of influence?
Billy DeLeo’s Influence and Russell’s Teachings
[20:19] Well, there were two things going on. One area that Billy didn’t want to go into was violence.
And I understand that, in that he didn’t want to connect himself to anything that potentially could get him into trouble again.
He had spent four years in prison from 2008 until 2012.
[20:39] And you know, he’s in his mid seventies now. And so he was careful.
I mean, there’s violence in the book.
You can’t do a book like this without having any violence and it is in the book, but Billy didn’t want to get into any specifics.
But the other thing, and you raised a good point, is that he learned from Russell.
One of the earliest questions I asked him, I asked Billy, which was really stupid on my part, I said, so how did you make money with Russell in the beginning?
Did he pay you? I mean, wait, did he pay you every week? Every two weeks?
Like, was he gonna give you a check? I mean, was he gonna- Really?
That’s a good question.
He goes, no. He goes, he didn’t pay me.
He said he taught me.
He taught me, like early on, you see Russell doesn’t like how Billy dresses.
And he takes him to this, in Midtown Manhattan, he takes him to this clothing store.
Russell was a clothes horse. He liked to wear nice clothes and jewelry.
And he took Billy’s and he spent a half a day with him there and brought him $2,000 worth of suits and shirts and pants.
[21:35] He then taught him the intricacies of so-called scoring. Doing it, getting a score, whether it would be jewelry, Russell basically owned 47th street in Manhattan, which is where you find all the jewelry stores.
He had cops working for him. He had runners working for him who would find stolen jewelry or steal it themselves and bring it there.
And then Russell would get it. He’d sell it. So Billy learned to make money doing that.
He learned to make money.
Russell owned, he was a huge force within the dress manufacturing business in this country.
And he had factories in Pennsylvania and he taught him how to make money with so-called overcuts, where you keep the material that the company paid for.
You deliver their dresses, but you have excess material. You keep it.
You make more dresses. You put the company logo on it and you sell it yourself.
You know, little things like that.
And then it got much bigger and bigger. I mean, there’s scenes in the book into the 1990s where Billy gets involved with a rapper named Corrupt, who had been managed by Suge Knight in L.A.
[22:38] They wanted to take over Kurupt’s contract. And Billy told Suge Knight, and Suge Knight knew who Billy was. And he just said to him, we’re taking him over. We’re taking over Kurupt’s contract. And Suge Knight said, okay. And Suge Knight is, I mean, he’s in prison now, but he was a real gangster type of guy. And he just walked away. And Billy ended up forming a company, selling shares, and he sold those shares. And Billy made millions from that.
It was just a million ways to make money. But Russell also taught him how to do it away from from the eye of the public and law enforcement.
The Untold Story of Russell Bufalino
[23:09] That’s why they called Russell the quiet on. I had written, you did mention this earlier, but another book I had written was on Russell Bufalino in 2013 called the quiet on.
And I wish I had Billy back then I would have written only one book, but with Billy being available, he gave me the opportunity to really clear the record up on the Bufalino.
So other thing that I guess I should add is that there really isn’t much on the Bufalino family.
If you look up online, there isn’t a lot, and yet for being so powerful and so important, you’d think there would be more, and there wasn’t.
And that was a testament to Russell for how he managed his business and his life.
And so Billy carried that on. And that’s why there really wasn’t much written about Billy DeLeon.
Even when I hear about the book and I hear about Billy, the first question is, who is Billy DeLeon?
[24:02] And when they read the book, they go, oh, my God, but what that was also one of the great things about doing this story is that you’re introducing the public to a figure that most people didn’t know anything about.
Yeah, interesting. Yeah, he was smart. I mean, these guys like Nick Civella was like that.
He did not want any violence associated with him at all if he could help it.
And he understood that staying in the background. And Bufalino obviously did knew how to do that, too.
A lot of those guys in New York, Gotti and people like that.
I mean, the violence all over the place and out in the public view and getting drawn that attention to yourself.
Contrasting Mob Bosses: Violence vs. Staying in the Background
[24:40] So that’s the contrast in my bosses, the successful, my bosses and my bosses that, that are not so successful.
[24:47] Well, Matt Birkbeck, I really appreciate you coming on the show guys.
I will have links in the show notes to all of Matt’s books. He’s got an author page on Amazon and also to this book.
And so I suggest you get this book.
And is there any last words you’d like to say, Matt?
[25:05] No, I just thank you for having me on. I appreciate it and I enjoyed it.
All right. Thanks a lot, Matt.
Well, guys, I really recommend you get that book. I don’t always read these books.
I read this book and it’s a good one. A lot of insight into the mob and how it works.
And I’ll have links to the book and links to his author’s page.
You want to look at any of his other books? He’s got that Quiet Don.
And so you learn more than you ever want to know about the ufalino crime family.
And you know, I like to ride motorcycles, so don’t forget to look out for motorcycles when you’re out there on the streets. And if you have a problem with PTSD, be sure and go to the VA website and get that hotline number. If you have a problem with drugs and alcohol, then our friend Anthony Ruggiano, he’s a drug and alcohol counselor down in Florida, and he has a hotline number on his website. And be sure and like and subscribe. And some people tell me that I should ask you for reviews, I don’t know, give it reviews on Spotify.
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And so it helps other people find the show and helps people know a little bit about more important. So I do this for fun, but I like to get more and more subscribers. The more subscribers I have, the more fun it is.
So thanks a lot, guys.