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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Milwaukee's Sally Papia - A life lived on the edge

Bill Janz was a long lime writer for the Milwaukee Sentinel and Journal Sentinel who retired in 2000. Having spent many years as an investigative journalist, he wrote the following shortly after Papia's death from an auto accident in 2005. Article from the Milwaukee Journal Seninel archives with links provided:
By BILL JANZ (Milw Journal-Sentinel)

Posted: Jan. 13, 2005
Sally Papia loved being the show.
Despite her openness, Papia took secrets with her.
Papia's life revolved around restaurants, mobsters. She also loved being the mystery, the long-ago woman in black, engaged to a mobster, or dating a cop or a banker or a lawyer. Now the show is over, and her death left a mystery that probably won't be solved.

Her daughter, Candy, 51, drove their speeding car into a tree and was
killed on an icy road in Waukesha County. Sally, a widely known
restaurant operator, died later of injuries suffered in the crash. Her
funeral was Thursday night.

Sally and Candy had a love-hate relationship, "as much hate as there
was love," said Franklyn M. Gimbel, a community leader, noted defense
attorney and friend of Sally's.

He called Candy "erratic" and said that "we'll never know if a big
fight was going on in the car" just before the crash. He wondered if
Candy might have driven the car off the road while arguing with her

Sally could be charming or volatile. She could be warm or boisterous.
She could be loving or vengeful. She could be smart or naive. She not
only could be, but was, a mess of contrasts.

She was a lovable scamp, who could be more outrageous than a
firecracker in a convent.

One time she lighted a match and held it up, an implied threat that she
was going to burn down the restaurant of a man who owed her money. Yet
she was extremely generous and gave money to every organization ever
invented. And when a homeless man wandered into her classy restaurant,
she seated him at a table and fed him.

She was friends with many public figures, including judges, one of whom
brought her his homemade chili, in a jar. Yet more than 30 years ago,
before Sally left on a trip to Las Vegas, local mobsters gave her
$25,000 in a box that looked like a birthday present. She took the box
as carry-on luggage on the plane, and a courier picked it up at a
casino; it was money laundering, probably, but she said she didn't

When local mob boss Frank Balistrieri's sons - Joseph and John - were
petitioning to get out of prison during the 1980s, she hoped they'd be
sent straight to hell. She sounded as if she hated them. Yet, at the
time of her death, she was managing the Savoy Room, in a building owned
by Joseph Balistrieri.

For many years, every Christmas she sent plants to some state and
federal judges who ate in her restaurant, including the judge who sent
her to prison in the 1970s. But she also knew - very well - mobsters in
Chicago and pleaded with them to save an employee from being murdered, she said.

"Chicago was the boss, and Chicago loved me," she told me in December, 1986. "They respected me.

"Fifi (Buccieri) and (Tony) Accardo, they loved me. I fixed them
special dishes," she said, referring to top Chicago mobsters. "I fixed
Frank (Buccieri) special dishes, too."

She was engaged, in the 1970s, to Frank Buccieri, a Chicago hoodlum and
brother of the notorious Fifi, who was recorded laughing about a fat
man squirming on a hook on a wall. The terrifying transcript was the
preface to "The Exorcist."

Sally and Frank never married. He abused her, she said, including
bruising her face after I interviewed Sally and wrote my first story
about her. I expressed sympathy, but she said Buccieri was her problem,
not mine.

Maybe because she took the bruises and didn't blame me, we became
friends; she always knew I was a journalist - one who appreciated her
energy, her food, and her sporadic outlandishness, but not some of the
things she did, and I'd write about them. It was a fine line, but we
walked it.

Occasionally, when we talked in her old office at Sally's Steak House,
in the Knickerbocker Hotel, or on the telephone, she'd say something
similar to what she told me in October 1988:

"If you don't want to come to a young person's funeral, don't say
anything," she said, always referring to herself as young. For her, the
second worst thing about death was that her secret age, 70-something,
would be published. But not by me.

As a courts reporter, I met Sally in the early 1970s, when I was a
friend of several friends of hers, and still am. She told me about her
wild ride on an expressway, when a member of another local restaurant
family shot at her from another car. "The goofy Italian," as she called
him, was beaten and chased out of town, lucky to keep his life.

Truth, and a little extra
The following came from notes I took during many conversations with
Sally, whose truth occasionally had its attachments. She didn't lie,
friends said, but sometimes she exaggerated her own role in a good
story that didn't need any help.

Many of my notes are from the 1980s and early 1990s, when she was being
pressured by the government to stay out of prison by telling what she
knew about criminal figures.

She was having fun, but she was having fury, too: "I went with a
gangster, I don't care. I've been known as a Mafia sweetheart, I don't
care." But the government shouldn't expect her to get herself out of
trouble by getting someone else into trouble.

"I'll never be a stool pigeon," she said.

'I'm so afraid'
In early 1989, a car owned by Maximillion J. Adonnis, a felon and
former maitre d' for Sally, was shot up when he wasn't in it. She
tipped me off: "Max's car looks like Swiss cheese."

Adonnis had served nearly two years in prison for imprisoning a man
suspected of burglarizing Sally's home during the 1970s. Adonnis and
another employee of Sally's beat up the suspect, who suffered a broken
jaw. The employee put a bullet into the floor next to the man.

A large man with a larger personality, Adonnis was a glad-hander, and
customers liked him, although "Max could never walk a straight line,"
Sally said, and she wasn't referring to his balance.

After Adonnis' car was riddled, Adonnis was murdered. Sally told me
that Adonis had called her the night before he was shot to death and
wanted to meet with her. She was too busy to see him, she said.

Shaken, she couldn't decide if the murder involved drugs or - because
of Adonnis' call to her - "someone wants to put me away forever," she
said. "They could have had two of us at the same time and blamed me for
being mixed up with cocaine."

During early April 1989, I called her at home and asked again about
Adonnis' call: "Maybe he just wanted to tell me what he was going
through," she said. Later, she said: "I'm so afraid. I know so much,
they're afraid I'm going to talk."

Keeping secrets
She never told me what she knew, except for what I've quoted here. But
she occasionally would worry about her life span.

In October 1986, I was with her when she received a note, and she
laughed and said, "I'm lucky it wasn't a dead fish."

Talking about appearing before a grand jury, she asked me, probably
with those dark eyebrows of hers at attention, "What was that I took,
the 6th Amendment?"

Sally could mix things up, whether it was words or lettuce.

"Hone-y-y-y-y-y-y," she'd begin sentences, as if the word had 6 y's.
She could charm a smile out of a terminal pessimist.

Twenty-five years ago, we got locked up together while she showed me
her new liquor room. A man she disliked appeared in the doorway and
Sally shouted, "I'm busy," and slammed the door in his face; the door
locked automatically and could only be opened outside. An employee,
referred to as "The Enforcer" in a court case, heard Sally's shouts -
you could probably have heard them on Lake Michigan - and unlocked the

Dressed stunningly, she'd work the crowd in her restaurant, leaving red
imprints of her lips on the faces of pet customers - she kissed them
when they arrived and she kissed them when she left. My wife always
knew when I'd visited Sally.

Her personality was as bold as her handwriting. She used a large
alphabet. Her signature always looked like a headline.

After being arrested in the 1970s for threatening a former employee who
owed her money, she wrote a statement for me and her signature was an
inch high: "As a successful business operator there would be no reason
for me to resort to street fighting tactics to solve small problems
like the debt of a former employee."

Whether Sally was 40-something or 70-something, she had one admonition
for me when I wrote about her: "Would you please say that I look
younger and more beautiful?"

'I changed their diapers'
During the 1980s, Frank Balistrieri and his sons, Joseph and John,
served time in federal prisons for extortion. On Dec. 14, 1986, Sally
called me at home and said that the federal prosecutor "is trying to
use me as a pawn (to get more on the Balistrieris)."

"When I went to jail" in the 1970s, "they (the Balistrieris) didn't do
anything for me."

Referring to the sons, Sally said, "I baby-sat for them when they were
growing up." More than once, she said loudly, "I changed their
diapers." Laughing, I told her once that I was interested in
investigating the Balistrieris, but not their diapers.

"They had silver spoons in their mouths when my family never had a
spoon," she said. "You touch their hands, they're like silk. Even the
girls, their nails are a mile long."

She'd been working since she was a child, and she hated wealth without

Sally expressed disgust when I wrote about Joseph and, while detailing
his problems, described him as intelligent and a brilliant writer who
loved opera. She said I didn't know him the way she did.

She was furious when the brothers asked for a sentence reduction from
Federal Judge Terrence T. Evans, now on the 7th Circuit Court of

"I hope to God, Judge Evans - bless him for the wisdom he's had so far
- I hope he doesn't do anything," Sally said. "They'll come out like
King Kongs."

Ironically, at the time of her death, Sally was managing a restaurant
in a building owned by one of the brothers.

She was "enlisted" by the Balistrieris to manage the Savoy Room, friend
Gimbel said. She was bored, and running a restaurant "energized her,"
he said. But in the last six months, she had talked often about
leaving, he said.

Gimbel never met anyone with so much charisma, "a stand-alone person,"
he said, "who was the candle in the middle of a dark room."

After sentences were reduced for Joseph and John, Sally said loudly,
"All BS, of course. It's BS. It shocks me, it shocks me, it shocks me,
that a judge would be so naive."

I was in her office one day in 1989, facing her across a bunch of
bananas on her desk, as she threw a fit about "the boys." Over and
over, she slapped the table with packets of sugar, angrily, nearly
histrionic, over the coming release of the Balistrieri brothers.

"Four or five years ago," she said, a member of Frank Balistrieri's
group was slapped in the face by a local businessman. The man who was
slapped informed Frank Balistrieri, she said.

"They took his whole company away from him (the man who did the
slapping)," she said. "And 96 stitches were taken across his face.
Today, the last I heard, (he) is a big, fat, sloppy bartender in

Sally knew, firsthand, what happened to people who bothered Frank

She named a widely known man in the Italian-American community. She
called him "a bookie and a gofer. Frank (Balistrieri) doesn't want to
do things, he has him do it."

But, she said, doing things for Frank made the man feel he was more
important than he was. He even mimicked Frank, holding his hand in his
pocket, the way Frank did, she said. Sally was along, she said, when
several of Frank's friends took the gofer to Chicago, knocked him
around, and decided to impress upon him his status in Frank's outfit.

"They peed all over him," she said.

When the government involved her family, she would have liked to have
hit the federal prosecutor with a cast-iron pot: During a telephone
call to me on Sept. 17, 1987, Sally, very upset, said, "The goddamn
government subpoenaed my 82-year-old mother. My mother never went to
school, never left the house. She doesn't even read."

On April 5, 1988, she said that a former employee was granted immunity
by the grand jury investigating payoffs to a union: "He has to do the
right thing," she said.

But Sally's former employee didn't say what she hoped he'd say, and
eventually Sally was convicted and imprisoned for less than a year for
paying a union not to organize.

Referring to the former employee, Sally said, on Jan. 10, 1990: "I
saved his life twice. I went to Chicago twice and asked special
permission (that he not be killed). Frank (Balistrieri) wanted him
dead. He could have been in the gutter, like Maxie (Adonnis)" if she
hadn't interceded, she said.

She called him "The Judas." And promptly renamed her dog, who was named
after the employee.

"Pimping all the time, he's still pimping," she said. "For businessmen
every day."

Sally said that the late Federal Judge John Reynolds, who sentenced her
to her first prison term, "wished me luck" before she went to prison.
Reynolds ate at Sally's Steak House, as did many judges and baseball
players. However, E. Michael McCann, Milwaukee County district
attorney, did not permit his assistants to eat Italian - at least not

When an appeals court turned down her appeal, she said, on Aug. 13,
1990, "At least John and Joey know I'm not a stool pigeon."

Mother and daughter
Sally and Candy were estranged numerous times, and there were court
battles. Occasionally, over the years, Sally complained to friends
about "physical encounters" with Candy. Way back in 1988, Sally told me
that Candy was "sick, really sick."

Candy called me several times in the late '80s and early '90s and
criticized her mother unmercifully.

"She's got such a big mouth," said Candy, one of her more restrained

In late November 2004, Candy got herself into trouble again. An officer
of the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department went to Candy's home to
retrieve a credit card of Sally's. Candy, sliced up the card and was
cited for disorderly conduct, according to records. The citation was
filed a couple of days before the car crash.

The last time I spoke with Sally was on Thanksgiving, when she called
me at home and wished me, and my family, a happy holiday.

Many years ago, when I complimented Sally on her black outfit, she
said, "I love black, but don't bury me in it."
She should have been buried under Bartolotta fireworks.,3180851

More of my related Mob posts:
The Milwaukee Queen Bee of Organized Crime
"Mr. Fancy Pants" Balistrieri - Tracking Milwaulee's most dangerous mobster
Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggerio-The real story of the "wise guy"
The Beef That Didn't Moo - Wisconsin Ties to the Mob
Tales of the Milwaukee Mob and Two Cigarette Men!
Married to the Daughter of a Milwaukee Mob Boss-Our Pediatrician!
Tale of a Failed Milwaukee Mob Hit!
Lieutenant Uhura (of the Starship "Enterprise") - close encounters with the Chicago and Milwaukee Mob!
Part Two: The Milwaukee Mob and Lieutenant Uhura (Star Trek)
The New York Mob and Iowa Beef - Part 1
The New York Mob and Iowa Beef Processors - Part II
The Milwaukee mob hit on Anthony Biernat

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