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Saturday, November 1, 2014

All Mobbed Up - Giovanni (John) DiBella and Wisconsin's Grande Cheese

Retlaw Hotel
Excellent story thanks to Stan Gores and the Fond Du Lac Commonwealth Reporter, Story was published Saturday, March 12, 1966. Links provided:
DiBella Lived At Hotel, Headed Grande Cheese Firm, Meetings With Bonanno Kept Him In Spotlight 
Two months before his 18th birthday in 1908, Giovanni "John" Vincenzo DiBella, a native of Montelepre in the Province of Palermo in Sicily, made his first trip to the United States. He apparently liked what he found. There were more than a half dozen journeys after that and, always, he seemed to be doing at least moderately well. Born June 24. 1890, John DiBella came from a family of eight, with four brothers and three sisters, most of whom also settled in this country. They even established a business, called DiBella Bros. Co., Inc., in Brooklyn, N.Y., importing and exporting Italian food products. During his early years in the United States, DiBella listed his occupation as a "peddler." On later occasions, however, he would be classified as an olive oil and cheese broker in Palermo, a grocery and business management representative, a salesman and buyer, a businessman, a factory manager, an executive, and manager of the Grande Cheese Co. -- a firm that had its beginning in Illinois in 1941 but moved its headquarters to 1 S. Main St. in Fond du Lac in 1949. Not many people in Fond du Lac got to know DiBella closely during his years as a resident at the Retlaw Hotel, but those who met him liked his friendly, gentlemanly manner. He was not a big man, standing only 5' 6" and carrying well over 200 pounds. He was full-faced, with ruddy complexion, and his dark brown eyes looked out from under heavy brows and once- black hair now streaked with gray. Most persons didn't notice it, but he had a scar on his right eyebrow. His speech was described as "broken English" by those not fluent in Italian. There was a "mystery" about John DiBella. He was a man whose record showed no arrests, yet he was listed in rather extensive detail in police files across the nation.
 Linked With Bonanno
He had been linked repeatedly with Joseph (Joe Bananas) Bonanno, regarded as one of the kingpins in the Mafia, or Cosa Nostra underworld. What's more, Bonanno's wife, Faye, was a minor stockholder in the Grande Cheese Co. Bonanno sometimes came to visit him at the hotel, and on occasions reportedly even used his name. (Dan's Note: As Gay Talese wrote in his book (Honor Thy Father) about the fall of the Bonanno family, Joe's son Bill, needing a car to drive down to Phoenix, just went to Grande Cheese and "borrowed" one.) So what sort of man was John DiBella? Was he the polite, charming naturalized (1951) American citizen many saw him to be? Or was he, as some police investigators claimed, the Cosa Nostra's "cheese man" in Wisconsin? Did he have knowledge of four, or six, former Grande Cheese affiliates who were murdered in brutal gangland style? Or was this all a confusing web of falsehoods in which the amiable DiBella found himself strangely entangled, simply because he knew Bonanno?
Joe Bonanno, allegedly one of the kingpins in the Cosa Nostra underworld organization occasionally visited the late John DiBella in Fond du Lac. Bonanno resided in Arizona , where he owned considerable real estate. Police in New York and throughout the nation have been trying to find him since 1964, the year DiBella died. DiBella wasn't a man who talked much about himself. But on one occasion, Al Olson, manager of the hotel, approached DiBella and asked him, point blank, how it was possible that so many seemed to assume he was "mixed up in that sort of thing." DiBella's answer was short. "They're trying to smear my name," he said. So to understand DiBella, you have to look into records, talk to people who knew him, read what was written about him and then try to put the pieces together. When you do this it's like working on a human jigsaw puzzle. Records reveal that on at least one occasion, long ago, DiBella was listed as having a Fond du Lac address of 2554 Lewis St. There is no such address--but there is a warehouse at 254 Lewis St. So you give DiBella the benefit of the doubt and figure that perhaps the warehouse once served as a storage area for his company or that, through speech difficulties, the street number was recorded erroneously. When he moved into the Hotel Retlaw he didn't have that problem.
Another Of Same Name
You also discover that another DiBella has lived in Fond du Lac. He is Joseph DiBella, John's nephew, according to the records. Joseph has been associated with the Grande Cheese Co. and the Gourmay Cheese Co. of Lomira. There also have been reports that Bonanno has sold cheese for Gourmay. The addresses listed for Joseph are 14 Doty St. and 13 S. Maim St. There is evidence that John DiBella in 1928 had some minor difficulty with immigration authorities. A letter at that time, signed by DiBella, indicates he had married an American woman and they had become parents of a child. There is a later record that refers to a phone call having been made by a "daughter." Yet on other documents DiBella is listed as unmarried, with no children. And on the day he died his obituary said he never married. DiBella's last trip to Italy ended in 1940, when he returned, as a visitor, to the United States. He brought with him 30 cases of cheese, with Detroit, Mich, serving as his port of entry. A study of a state police report reveals that DiBella was believed to have had a primary interest in the Grande Cheese Co. dating to 1941. The next two years, during which time he also appears to have acquired a Fond du Lac address, he was a salesman working on commission for Grande while also keeping busy as a salesman, manager and buyer for DiBella Bros, of Brooklyn. His average weekly wage was about $115.
Firm's Purpose Outlined
Thereafter DiBella seems even more closely identified with Grande. The firm's purpose, according to articles of incorporation filed on Oct. 21, 1944, was to "own, lease and manage dairies, dairy farms and creameries, and to engage in the business of manufacturing, distribution, and shipping cheese, milk, cream, butter and milk products and by-products of all kinds, as well as machinery and equipment used in connection with the foregoing." Capital stock at this time was listed at $50,000, with 1,000 shares offered at $50 each. For a number of years later, however, the annual report of the company showed "the corporation has not held its first meeting" and that no stock had been issued and no officers elected. In 1945. when he reportedly was making about S400 monthly from Grande Cheese. DiBella sought an extension on his temporary permit to remain in the United Stales. He became a naturalized American citizen on Nov. 28, 1951. in Milwaukee. DiBella and Bonanno invested in an Arizona real estate contract on April 1, 1955. The property was said to involve between 175 to 200 acres of undeveloped land in the Tucson area, where Bonanno was living. In the summer of 1959 Bonanno visited Wisconsin. Police said he conferred with DiBella in "both Milwaukee and Fond du Lac." On one occasion, while at the Retlaw Hotel to see DiBella, the well dressed, smiling Bonanno was pointed out to an employe as having been connected with the underworld, "Oh, no," the astonished employee replied, "not Mr. Bonanno!" By 1959, however, DiBella found his relationship with Bonanno and others had brought him sharply into police focus. He reportedly was questioned in a Los Angeles Grand Jury probe on Jan. 23, 1959 and in a Phoenix, Ariz, investigation Jan. 6, 1960. But business for the Grande Cheese Co. was good. In 1959 one source claimed the firm grossed $735,000, of which $68,775 was in Wisconsin. It has been estimated that more than 90 million pounds of Italian cheese were being produced annually in the state, with mozzarella one of the fast movers because of the national pizza craze.
President Of Company
In 1960 John DiBella was president of Grande, with AI J. Caruso, a former Madison resident, serving as vice president. DiBella, Caruso, and Rose DiBella of Brooklyn served on the board of directors. During the same year DiBella headed Cloverdale Dairy of Fair Water, Gourmay JOE VALACHI made the Cosa Nostra a household expression in 1963 when he testified on TV before a Senate investigating committee. His mention of Joe Bonanno touched off news stories in Wisconsin on Bonanno's visits to this state. allegedly said he hadn't anticipated the "sudden termination of hostilities," meaning World War II, and added that he needed time to settle business matters before going back to Sicily. As thing*; developed, he neier went back. He became Cheese of Lomira, and was connected with the Kohlsville Cheese Co. of Kohlsville. It was claimed that Grande also had a connection with Valley Cheese Co. of Los Angeles. On May 22, J862 Leroy Sommers of Fond du Lac, owner of the Full Cream Cheese Co. of Malone, was found dead with the exhaust hose piped into his partly burned car. The death was ruled a suicide, but his wife Amy, with Peter Porath serving as her lawyer, later said she believed he had been murdered. Five weeks after burial, the body of Sommers was removed from its grave at Rienzi Cemetery and a post mortem confirmed carbon monoxide fumes as the cause of death. Mrs. Sommers started legal proceedings to collect on her insurance policy -- an action that meant the difference between $4,476 or payment of more than $190,000. A court ruling was shoved back to 1963. On Jan. 23,1963 former Gov. John Reynolds charged publicly that organized crime had invaded the cheese industry in Wisconsin. Called upon to produce evidence, he cited the gangland slaymgs of four men once associated with Grande. Later two other names were added. The six included: . Tom Neglia: Shot to death Dec. 6, 1943 while being shaved in a barber chair. Back in 1940, according to one informant , he frequently played golf in Fond du Lac and later became affiliated with Grande. James DeAngelo: On March 11, 1944 police found his body stuffed in the luggage compartment of his car. Sam Gervase: Slain in 1944 in his refrigerator repair shop. On the night of the murder, he allegedly had as guests at his home Fred Romano and wife. Romano, a Chicago attorney, was the first president of the Grande Cheese firm. Onofrio Vitale: His trussed body was found in a sewer not far from the home of Vmce Beneiento in Chicago in April of 1945. He reportedly had been a $5,000 a year cheesemaker for Grande. Vince Benevento: He was shot five times in front of his place of business in September of 1946. He was identified as being in the "Chicago cheese ring" and also was said to have been a former partner of Neglia and Angelo i the Grande Co. Nick Dejohn: Murdered gangland style in San Francisco in 1947. His body was found in the trunk of his car. A week after Reynolds had fired his blast, federal narcotics agents, spurred by the Sommers controversy, said they were going to investigate dope shipments reportedly made in Italian cheese coming from the Fond du Lac County area. In less than three days, however, the investigation was dropped, with agents admitting there was no evidence.
Walks To Safety Building
With suspicion beamed at the Grande firm, DiBella maintained his law-abiding image by walking into the Fond du Lac Safety Building on Feb. 1, 1963, announcing he was willing to open the company's records to inspection. All he requested was that an attorney accompany him on the prescribed date. On Feb. 13 he was back again, along with Atty. Dominic Frinzi of Milwaukee (Dan's Note: Frinzi was Milwaukee mob boss Frank Balistrieri's attorney and represented many of Milwaukee's mafia figures.) and Caruso. A closed door meeting with Fond du Lac District Atty. Thomas Massey and LeRoy Dalton of the state attorney general's office, plus Fond du Lac law enforcement authorities, was held on the second floor. This meeting, according to some newspaper reports, resulted in the "opening" of the Grande Cheese Co. records. Massey and Dalton both deny that the records were presented for scrutiny. Both also tried to pry information from DiBella on his relationship with Bonanno and the men who had been murdered. DiBella insisted he didn't know the men who had been slain. What's more, he said he was there to discuss the business of Grande Cheese, not his personal relationships. Occasionally, DiBella and Frinzi exchanged comments in Italian. The session was said later was translated. While the meeting received widespread publicity, it accomplished little and no photographs were taken. The public was informed that no evidence of criminal activity could be found involving DiBella or Grande Cheese. It seemed for awhile as though things would calm down. However, on March 22, 1963 Mrs. Sommers accepted a $30,000 settlement from her husband's insurance company while admitting that she had no real proof that he had been murdered. The Sommers case did not implicate anyone, but the publicity it received exerted a steady pressure on Fond du Lac County elements of the Italian cheese industry. It so happened that 1963 also was the year that Joe Valachi, the one time Cosa Nostra member, decided to tell all. Among those he named in October was Bonanno, referring to him as a "godfather" in the underworld organization. This resulted in immediate revival of Bonanno's ties with the Wisconsin cheese industry, and his relationship with DiBella. A narcotics agent charged that Bonanno had used the cheese industry as a front for dope traffic.
'No Evidence'
Fond du Lac law enforcement officials again were called upon to make public statements that "there was nothing" in regard to visits Bonanno made to Fond du Lac. But for aging John DiBella, then 73, the spotlight never dimmed again. One man who knew him, and was aware of the insinuations that surrounded his business career, said he just seemed "like a nice old guy." Another claimed he was "one of the nicest men I've ever met." Former Police Chief James D. Cahill and present Chief Harold Rautenberg both had similar views. "You can't convict a man because of his friends," Chief Rautenberg explained. "A man is innocent until proven guilty." There was no legally acceptable proof that DiBella was anything other than what he appeared to be -- an elderly businessman living at a Fond du Lac hotel and who never did anything for which he could be arrested. But time was running out for DiBella. On Sept. I, 1964 he died, the victim of a heart attack. On the day of his funeral, plainclothesmen from Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, the FBI, federal narcotics bureau, and local law departments were in attendance. Cameras clicked and notes were taken. Ordinarily, a "marching" procession is held at Italian funerals. In DiBella's case that was called off. Instead, a motorized procession was held following services at St. Mary's Church. Then the body was taken to Milwaukee for shipment to New York. From there, DiBella went home -- by ship -- as he had come from his beloved Montelepre as a youth in 1908. In his will he made it clear that he wanted to be buried in Montelepre's Roman Catholic Cemetery. Moreover, he left $3,000 for perpetual care of the DiBella family plot and to "have masses celebrated for the repose of my soul and the souls of the faithful de-parted at least once each month." Yet even in death, DiBella remains tangled in controversy. Because of his residency in Wisconsin, an inheritance tax conflict has erupted, with the state of New York. When he died he was living in Fond du Lac. But his will lists his home at 8715 Chevy Chase St., Jamaica, Queens County, New York.
Claims Filed
One of his brothers, Guiseppe, has filed a claim of $788,497 on DiBella's will. The executrix and chief beneficiary Rose DiBella, has filed a claim for $27,800. It now seems likely that the will -- which also stipulated a total of $2,000 for each of two orphanages in Montelepre -- will be tied up for a considerable time. A man who got to know DiBella quite well told the writer that the late Grande Cheese Co. executive "received undue publicity right up to the time they buried him." He added that newspapers n e v e r said anything "about the good people he knew," always playing up his association with Bonanno. While DiBella admittedly knew Bonanno, the man explained, "he didn't associate with him." Strangely, there is another, added bit of irony. Joe Bonanno has beem missing since Oct. 21, 1964 when, he was hustled into a car on Park Avenue in New York City on the eve of his scheduled appearance before a Federal Grand Jury. His attorney, William P. Maloney, who was with him at the time, said Bonanno was kidnaped. Later he indicated that Bonanno is alive, but still hasn't been found. Federal officials are skeptical. In the meantime, investigation into Bonanno's life, according to the New York Times, has revealed that he "rules over a larger empire of crime than had been previously known." The investigations continue. But John DiBella sleeps fore v e r in the graveyard at Montelepre. --
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