Wednesday 30 March 2011

The Mysteries of Frankie DePaula

Frankie DePaula, New Jersey boxer, died thirty-five years ago from complications arising from the wounds inflicted on him four months after an assassination attempt in a Jersey City alley way. His death, in many ways, was arguably the inevitable culmination of his frequently wayward lifestyle; a lifestyle that accommodated an active association with known criminals.

It is often said that the raison detre of boxing is to serve as a route out of the 'ghetto' and in a sense aid in removing oneself from the vices of the deprived environment from which one hails. In Frankie's case, boxing seemed only to further boost his leaning to criminality.

When Frankie fought Dick Tiger in October 1968, he floored the former world's middle and light heavyweight champion with his vaunted right hand on two occasions. But Tiger dragged himself up and returned the favour; forcing Frankie to lift himself off the rosin covered canvas at Madison Square Garden twice. Frankie lost that bout and seemingly his chance of elevating himself to a title shot.

Fate would intervene -for the better it seemed- because Harry Markson, the Garden's director of boxing and his matchmaker, Teddy Brenner appreciated his all out action style and not least the money which another visit from DePaula's supporters promised to bring. Yet the world light heavyweight championship bout delivered to Frankie would bring about not redemption, but instead may have in fact sealed Frankie's fate.

Frankie's death is officially unsolved and conflicting theories have arisen ever since as to why DePaula was targeted: Frankie was sleeping with the mistress of a Mafia don. Frankie spoke indiscreetly about his activities with so-called 'wise guys'. Frankie was about to squeal or did in fact squeal to the 'Feds'.

Questions remain. Did Frankie have anything to do with the theft of electrolyte copper going across state lines? Did Frankie throw the title fight with Bob Foster?

Part of the key, it seems, may relate to his January 1969 encounter with Bob Foster.

To understand Frankie is to understand the environment he grew up in. The Jersey City of Frankie's youth and adulthood was composed of largely working men and women of Italian, Irish and German heritage.

The traits of communal solidarity within it brought the benefits of dutifulness and respect among neighbours. But such security came with the caveat that people minded their own business and did not peer too deeply into each other’s personal affairs.

The goal of most people, like it was with their immigrant forebears, was to 'get ahead.' The problem was that such means did not always accord with the dictates of the law and the virtues of the Roman Catholicism many professed to follow.

Indeed, a culture of corruption permeated the city, which from the early part of the twentieth century operated its version of American 'bossism;' the dispensing of political and economic patronage via a 'strongman' mayoral figure.

While New York had Tammany Hall and Chicago City Hall, Jersey City had Frank Hague. That corruption and corrupt practices should become entrenched is no surprise, as Hague reigned for a 30-year period which also witnessed the rise of the Mob in the big cities of America.

Frankie, himself was born eight years before the end of Hague's reign, was from an early age a risk-taker as well as a fighter. As a youngster he would as part of a dare, deliberately run into oncoming cars whose drivers, breaking furiously, would be astounded at the sight of him bouncing off their bonnets before he scrambled himself away in great haste.

There were many punch-ups at school, but despite his waywardness, it was easy to like him. Several acts of transgression were due to his need to right what he perceived to be the wrongs done to his family, friends or neighbours. He is fondly recalled as a sort of a Robin Hood figure who when established as a prizefighter, would head back to his roots and settle accounts with landlords who were owed money by people he grew up with.

Frankie is credited with eradicating the sale of heroin from the local pool hall that he frequented. The dealers were fearful of confronting him. Frankie also made time for extended family relations like the cousin who has home movies that have Frankie shadow boxing with him and childhood friends at his birthday party in a small overcrowded living room.

Nevertheless, Frankie grew up, like many of his contemporaries, ‘looking for an angle’. Looking to 'score.' Rather illustrative of this is the nationwide college basketball betting scandal that took place in 1961. Many, perhaps the majority, of the main players in the fix were a network of Jersey City collegians; one of who had been a classmate of Frankie's in grammar school.

Another went to Frankie's school while a great many were known to him. Frankie himself would do time in Rahway prison. His career was certainly disrupted in one form or another given the fact that his record shows that he did not fight between November 1963 and September 1966.

All this must be borne in mind when considering whether Frankie was capable of throwing a fight in which he had at least a puncher's chance in dethroning the formidable Bob Foster. Why throw a fight that presented him with the opportunity of making himself a world champion; the goal, surely, that every fighter aspires to when they first lace up a pair of gloves?

Frankie by all accounts trained well for the bout but as the fight grew closer there were signs of unease. There are those who distinctly recall a diminishing in his level of bravado on the eve of the fight.

Also at the weigh-in, Frankie's manager, the irascible Al Braverman, recalled Frankie's reluctance to engage Foster in eye-to-eye contact. He had, he claimed, used every trick in the book to get Frankie to go through with the event. Was he scared of Foster? Or was he demonstrating, palpably, his turmoil at what might have been going on behind the scenes?

For those who witnessed Frankie knock men unconscious in the ring and outside the ring with his right, it would be inconceivable for Frankie to know fear, or at least to so visibly exhibit it. But even they might understand this if they knew that Frankie was under orders to throw the fight and well knew what would befall him if he did not follow such orders.

The fight in the Garden started off fast. Frankie, the hairy, stocky Italian raced towards the on rushing tall and gangly African-American Foster. Frankie characteristically turned and twisted and quickly scored with a brief set of combinations to Foster's body. Whether fighting out of determination or desperation, Frankie slammed a shot into the champion's side, which caused him to tumble over.

It tends to look like a flash knockdown. Foster, whose lightness at 171 pounds gave him an at times deceptive aura of fragility, was unhurt and bounded up fairly quickly. Foster soon had Frankie on the canvas with a short left hook cum uppercut. But Frankie had been hurt earlier on by a more cleanly delivered punch. Foster, who continued to set Frankie up with his jabbing, followed up with combinations that dropped Frankie a second time.

The third knockdown was the culmination of a furious series of combinations Foster administered to the body; a vicious right putting Frankie down. Despite the power, Frankie still appeared 'fresh' and certainly capable of fighting on, but the fight was automatically stopped due to the 'Three Knock Down Rule' being in effect. He looked disappointed, loosening his gumshield, as the referee came across the ring to him. The fight was over, almost literally, in a flash.

How does one create an analysis based on a putative fix? It may be that Frankie went in prepared to box for a time but got scared when he knocked Foster down and panicked himself into three quick descents. Could Foster have known about the fix and have been caught off guard?

Fight fixes do not need the acquiescence of both fighters -only one needs to be in the know and Foster need not have known. Absolutely no evidence indicates that Foster knew of any fix going on. He had knocked out the legendary Dick Tiger and many others with his fast and intricately leveraged shots while Frankie could not keep Tiger on the canvas for the full count.

Foster was favoured to win and while boxing is not always scientifically logical, the logic here is that if the hard punching Charlie 'The Devil' Green could take DePaula out, then so could the venomously punching Foster.

Many fans of the era are aware of the rumours of a fix, while others are not. It has not been a major point of debate because the ending did not defy the odds which favoured Foster. When the Dick Tiger-Nino Benvenuti non-title bout, which took place four months later, was put under investigation, many in the boxing press were up in arms. Sure Tiger, the underdog, caused a minor upset but not much money, they argued, had been staked on the bout. Both Tiger and Benvenuti were absolved.

The investigation was carried out by the Rackets Bureau headed by New York District Attorney Frank Hogan and his assistant, Alfred J. Scotti. Hogan had played a major part in caging boxing's Mob czar, Frankie Carbo earlier in the 1960s, but this fact and the work done by the Kefauver Committee into combating and neutralising the influence of organised crime in boxing did not convince him that the Mob was no longer involved in the sport.

Certainly, those of Frankie's generation, hardened from the facts of life in New Jersey are not dismissive of the theory that Frankie's fight with Foster could have involved a fix. In Jersey City, they were brought up to believe that ‘nothing is on the level.’

This view becomes more compelling when one accepts firstly that fights which are fixed do not require both men to be aware of it. The cooperation of one is all that is required. The promise is that if you take a fall on this occasion, ‘we'll take care of you in a future bout.’

Secondly, one must accept that fights which involve a fix do not all bear the same hallmarks of an underdog winning or a huge amount of money being staked in legally constituted channels.

Gangster schemers can make a killing from a fight in which the betting favourite wins when it comes to predicting the exact round in which the win will occur; so that while Foster was favoured to win, most punters may have bet on an early or later round but not on the first round at odds which could have been set at say twenty to one.

Also, a hard punching brawler like DePaula would have had a puncher’s chance which would not preclude bets been wagered on his winning.

After the fight with Foster, a fight described by Teddy Brenner as the biggest mistake of his career, Frankie had been due to face Don Fullmer in an undercard bout of the May 1969 clash between Tiger and Benvenuti but had his New York license suspended after it was learnt that he had been arrested along with his manager, Gary Garafola and one Richard Phelan on suspicion of stealing $80,000 worth of copper.

As with Tiger and Benvenuti, Frankie was summoned to give evidence to a grand jury looking into boxing and criminal elements. Frankie's comment to the awaiting press was "Everybody bets a dollar or two." Nothing came out of the investigation. Neither was anything to come out of the copper theft arrest; in terms, that is, of Frankie being convicted.

When Frankie was shot and left for dead in an alleyway off Harrison Avenue, it was immediately understood to have been a Mob hit. The effect of the public arrest and inquisition by Grand Jury along with covert operations undertaken by the New York Police Department was to place Frankie under a great deal of pressure.

He knew the 'rules' of the game that one does not talk to or disclose anything to law enforcement officials, but it has been suggested that Frankie may have been killed because those around him were convinced that he was unreliable and so should be done away with as a protective measure.

Others heard that Frankie was killed on the mistaken ground that he had turned stoolpigeon while others believe his slaying to be the result of Frankie having given information to investigating police officers. The key thing again is to note that Frankie was being subjected to police surveillance by the NYPD.

Joseph Coffey, an operative for the Rackets Bureau in the 1960s and 1970s, was surveying a number of persons at a restaurant after the fight with Bob Foster. In an interview broadcast by the BBC in 2005, Coffey alleged that he became convinced that the fight had been fixed when Frankie wanted to tip a bellboy but had to ask for change because he only had $100 bills on his person.

Coffey also alleged that DePaula's killing was based on a "misunderstanding" which arose after Frankie and Garafola had been questioned in the offices of the Rackets Bureau. Frankie had apparently forgotten his coat and went back to reclaim it the following day. His movements were apparently monitored by the Brooklyn Mob who subsequently had him shot.

The truth may actually go further. In one way, Frankie appears to have served as something of a sacrificial lamb in the quest by law enforcement officials to discover a mole operating within the ranks of the NYPD. There is evidence that Frankie was caught on an FBI wiretap, placed on the table he was sitting at on the night of the Foster fight, making comments such as "we scored tonight" and that he was confronted with the evidence and manoeuvered into giving some information on the copper heist.

The mole within the NYPD had apparently been feeding information to the Brooklyn Mob and that this leak led its bosses sanctioning a hit on Frankie. Once this was confirmed, the mole was left in place but it led to the establishment of a special Task Force staffed only by members of the FBI who would in the course of time play a key role in plotting the downfall of New York Don, John Gotti.

Where does this leave the other theory of Frankie being bumped off as an act of revenge for his dalliance with a high echelon mobster's mistress? It is said that a note pinned to the front of the woman's apartment announced that the doorbell was broken and that he should enter via the back, which he could only do by negotiating his way through the alley where he was shot.

Again there may be an element of truth to this story in so far as it relates to the possibility of a woman being used to instigate the circumstances that would lead to him being cornered. Yet, some tend to doubt its credibility; basing their scepticism on the grounds that Italian families will go to any lengths to cover up any hint that the death of a family member may have been due to them being a stoolpigeon.

Certainly, to some the mere fact that a person is interviewed by the FBI and that such interview is followed up with a grand jury hearing can be tantamount to a death sentence; the process tending to give the person's Mob colleagues the jitters as to whether they will testify or not.

Whatever the truth, Frankie's aspiration to be a wise guy was always going to be doomed to failure due to his lack of smarts. He was sooner or later going to be caught out of his depth and when that happens, the price as always is death. He would have known that several of his contemporaries who were involved in the botched college basketball betting scam had hits put on their heads.

One was later killed, apparently in an incident unrelated to the scam, as a revenge for him killing a partner in a dubious enterprise. Frankie would have known that those closest to you can frequently be your executioners.

One story has Frankie acknowledging the presence of Richard Phelan and another close associate of his at the scene of the hit and on discovering them uttering: "Hey, whaddaya guys doing here?" Some claim that Phelan himself pulled the trigger that unleashed the .45 slugs that penetrated him and caused his subsequent paralysis.

Phelan was later murdered. Gary Garafola was put on trial for Frankie's killing but eventually acquitted. A female witness for the prosecution chose to read a different script mid-trial. The atmosphere in the courthouse was said to be oppressive not least because of the presence of street toughs who paraded along its hallways.

Frankie survived for a further four months during which time his condition deteriorated to the extent that he turned into an emaciated 120-pound-shell afflicted by bedsores.

In time, Frankie heard about the reasons for the hit and not knowing of the part a mole had in his undoing was convinced that he had been hit on the basis of the supposed 'misunderstanding' caused by the trip to recover his coat. Frankie even told a visitor that he had to "get to Brooklyn to straighten it all out."

Frankie never got the chance. He died in September 1970 from complications resulting from pneumonia brought about by an errant nurse leaving a window unclosed in his Jersey City Medical Center room.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2006)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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