Real Life Goodfella
Eugene “Nick the Blade” Gesuale was a notorious Capo in the Genovese Crime Family who was the infamous “Pittsburgh Connect” in the movie Goodfellas.
When people think of the Italian Mafia they usually think of New York, but at one time the Five Families had factions in cities all across the nation. Especially East Coast hubs like Pittsburgh. In Western Pennsylvania the mob’s been active since the 1920s, when young Sicilian and Italian immigrants got into bootlegging, securing a power base for future generations. The Pittsburgh branch of the Genovese Crime Family has been recognized as one of the 24 traditional Mafia families in the United States. Running drugs, gambling, loansharking and infiltrating labor unions in the Steel City for close to five decades.
Eugene “Nick the Blade” Gesuale was one of the areas most influential and high profile mobsters. A towering and infamous figure he was a “gangster’s gangster.” An old school Mafiaso who made his bones in the 1960s, carved out a drug empire in the 1980s and spent almost 30 years in federal prison for his prohibition-related crimes. Nick the Blade was a player in the Pittsburgh mob for multiple decades, even earning a mention in the classic gangster film, Goodfellas as Henry Hill’s “Pittsburgh Connection.” But like everything in the criminal underworld, Nick the Blade and the Pittsburgh Mafia were eventually rendered obsolete by a relentless law enforcement campaign that was destined to wipe them out.
Making his Bones
Gesuale grew up running numbers in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh. A Larimer native, his father worked for Bell Telephone. After dropping out of Central Catholic High School in the 10th grade he attended the Pittsburgh Beauty Academy studying to become a hair dresser, a skill he would fall back on when he went to prison. A strange skill for a tough guy, but regardless, Gesuale was as tough as they come. Police arrested Gesuale 13 times between 1959 and 1981, but none of the cases ever resulted in a conviction. “That’s because witnesses would never testify,” a local prosecutor said.
A young and fearsome mobster, Gesuale earned his his nickname, Nick the Blade, after a pair of knife wielding altercations. Legend holds that he cut a man’s face for checking out his girlfriend at a movie theatre and that he stabbed another man after a fight broke out in a basketball game he was playing in. Pittsburgh police arrested him for numerous assaults in the 1970s and ’80s, including a brawl in Shadyside, a shooting in a Downtown parking lot, and an attempt to kill a man by running him over with his car. But each time, the victims refused to cooperate and the charges were dropped.
“Chaz, as we called him in prison was a throwback gangster,” Zach, a convicted drug dealer who did time with Gesuale in the Bureau of Prisons, tells Real Crime. “He didn’t mess around. If he had a problem with you, he would tell you. If it was serious he would just strap up. You wouldn’t even see him coming. Even at 70-years-old he was talking about getting dudes hit.”
By the 1960s, Nick the Blade was running rampant in East Liberty and dealing heroin, according to the FBI, Pittsburgh police and the former Pennsylvania Crime Commission. He proved a cunning and slippery adversary for law enforcement. When Big John La Rocca, the region’s longtime Mafia Don, named Michael Genovese as the head of the family in the late 1970s, his drug-friendly atmosphere proved paramount to Gesuale’s ascension in the ranks of the Three Rivers mob. Unlike most Mafia Dons of the day, Genovese actively encouraged narco activity amongst his troops.
According to FBI records, Gesuale “made his bones” in the gangland slaying of Pittsburgh mob flunky Alphonse Marano in December 1967. Marano had unknowingly brought in an undercover IRS agent and introduced him to soon-to-be underboss, Joseph (Jo Jo) Pecora, who was in charge of West Virginia’s rackets and casinos. With the undercover agent in place a string of raids occurred on December 23, 1967 and Pecora was arrested at the mob social club Marano helped run on the evening of December 27 on interstate gambling charges.
Genovese blamed Marano for the pinch, the loss of revenue and the infiltration. The next morning Marano was found dead in the trunk of his car on an abandoned road in Westmoreland County shot three times in the back of the head. A classic mob rub-out. Gesuale was picked up for questioning by authorities in the investigation, but never charged. In 1973, the “Lebanese Connection” case, accused Nick the Blade and 10 others of smuggling heroin into Pittsburgh from Beirut. But a federal judge tossed the case due to lack of evidence.
“Chaz had a long run in the drug game,” Zach tells Real Crime. “He made a lot of money. Money that sustained him through his 28 years of incarceration. When it came to paper, he didn’t play. He was about his business, in the streets and in prison. A serious Mafiaso and drug kingpin. He was like the Teflon Don for a long time before they got him.”
Throughout the rest of 1970s and into the mid-1980s, Nick the Blade was one of Pittsburgh biggest narcotic’s traffickers. He was also the go-to enforcer for Steel City mob brass. Like his mentors in the family, future crime family underboss Chuckie Porter and Penn Hills Capo Louie Raucci, as well as syndicate Godfathers, Sebastian (Big John) La Rocca and Michael Genovese, Nick the Blade was a Mafia lifer who followed the code of Omerta. He also acted as a liaison between the local LCN and the area’s outlaw bikers.
Fearsome Drug Kingpin
Gesuale, formerly of East Liberty and Highland Park, headed a marijuana and cocaine distribution network in the late 1970s and 1980s with ties to both Western Pennsylvania’s LaRocca/Genovese La Cosa Nostra family and the Pagans motorcycle gang, the Pennsylvania Crime Commission wrote in a 1990 report. Particularly close to Michael Genovese, Nick the Blade seemingly had free reign to do as he pleased. John LaRocca, the mob boss for many years, was once asked why he kept around someone as volatile as Gesuale. “He keeps the heat off of us,” he replied.
“Eugene Gesuale was a kilo-weight drug dealer, a thief and a violent criminal,” Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, who helped prosecute Gesuale in the 1980s while working as an assistant U.S. attorney, said. “He was vicious. He was amoral. It wasn’t about what was right and wrong. He did whatever he wanted. He was as bad as it gets. He was the ultimate thug. He loved playing the role of the Mafia capo, the don.”
Between 1978 and 1982, Gesuale made in excess of $1 million from his illegal operations, an Internal Revenue Service investigation determined. That equals roughly $3 million today. That bankroll allowed Gesuale to live in a $1,200-a-month penthouse apartment on Bunkerhill Street in Highland Park under an assumed name, wear a different pair of Gucci shoes everyday, dine at the best restaurants Pittsburgh had to offer, buy his girlfriends fancy gifts at New York boutiques, fly first-class all over the world, drive Cadillacs and Jaguars (often registered in his mothers name), and pay cash for big losses at Las Vegas casinos, prosecutors said in court.
Along with high-level drug dealing that helped him to control the majority of the cocaine and heroin markets in Pittsburgh, Gesuale was involved in bookmaking, loan sharking and extortion, the commission reported. He also ran a prostitution business in Manhattan’s “Little Italy” section, with the apparent approval of New York City mob families, and most afternoons, Gesuale could be found making deals out of a bar in Swissvale, a former Gesuale cocaine dealer and bike gang member testified in court.
“Chaz loved to gamble and be in the middle of the action,” Zack tell Real Crime. “Even in prison he always played poker and bet on games. And not just a couple of stamps like most dudes. He would bet $500-1000 a game, every Sunday during football season. And he;d win too. You’d always see Chaz out at rec playing poker after he worked out. That was just want he did.”
FBI surveillance logs from that time period noted Gesuale acting as “top-muscle” for Porter and Raucci. His name surfaced in the press for a “shakedown turned violent,” when he and Billy Porter beat up Pennsylvania policy kingpin Harry Martorella with a baseball bat and accidentally shot a passerby on December 20, 1978. The attack took place at a downtown Pittsburgh parking structure Martorella owned.
Martorella co-owned the property with his two brothers, who were partners in a robust citywide numbers lottery that catered to both street figures and a more civilized clientele.Their refusal to pay a monthly tribute to the mob led to the broad daylight assault that cost Gesuale and Billy Porter almost two years apiece in jail. But the beatdown let others know what would happen is they didn’t pay.
FBI agent Roger Greenbank, who worked to dismantle the Pittsburgh Mafia’s since the late 1970s, called Gesuale, “a crude and fearsome narcotics kingpin” who had “absolutely no redeeming qualities.” The 6-foot-4, 250-pound East Liberty mob enforcer and drug dealer once was seen on surveillance snorting cocaine with one hand and urinating off a balcony with the other. He was the John Belushi of the Mafia, albeit with a sever violent streak.
Nick the Blade attained a level of pop-culture fame as the infamous “Pittsburgh connection” from the Oscar-nominated film Goodfellas. Gesuale supplied wholesale cocaine to real-life New York Lucchese mob associates Henry Hill, James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke and Thomas “Two-Gun Tommy” DeSimone, portrayed by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in the Martin Scorsese helmed gangster flick. The person referred to as the Pittsburgh connection is never seen in the film, but Nick the Blade was the Mafia drug dealer hooking up Henry Hill.
“Chaz used to love the notoriety that film brought him,” Zack says. “He was locked up when it came out and he reveled in the infamy. He used to tell people all the time, ‘I’m the Pittsburgh connection from the Goodfellas film.’ He was very proud of that little bit of fame. It made him feel like a star, but he wold always make it clear that he wasn’t a snitch like Henry Hill. He hated rat motherfuckers.”
The Lucchese crew met Gesuale via a former prison cellmate of Hill’s, Pittsburgh Mafia associate Paul Mazzei. He was affiliated with Chucky Porter and his younger brother Billy, but Mazzei worked under Nick the Blade moving coke, heroin and marijuana. Mazzei, like Hill, became a federal informant and was implicated in the 1970s Boston College men’s basketball point-shaving affair, the national scandal involving B.C. power forward and Pittsburgh-native Rick Kuhn.
“Chaz used to tell us all the time that he ran that Boston College point shaving scheme,” Zack tells Real Crime. “He said he made tons of money betting on the games and that Mazzei and Hill reported to him on that venture, getting his ok for every move. He loved sports and gambling so much that I wholeheartedly believed him, even though he wasn’t indicted on the case.”
The indictment that eventually brought down Gesuale was filed in January 1985 and included Pittsburgh wise guy John “Johnny Three Fingers” Leone, Pagan motorcycle gang boss Daniel “Danny the Deacon” Zwibel, and Roy Ingold, a Pittsburgh Press truck driver, who’d later testify against him. Prior to the indictment Gesuale was tipped off by FBI secretary Jacqueline Wymard, who leaked information about the case to her boyfriend, mobster John Carrabba, who in turn tipped off Gesuale’s guys, allowing Nick the Blade to disappear.
When the U.S. Attorney’s office brought its case Gesuale’s life of high-living by way of crime finally ground to a halt. He was being charged with numerous offenses including, “engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise.” Judge Manning, who tried the case with Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Teitelbaum, summed up Nick the Blade- “He’s a hustler, a gambler, a spendthrift, a man with a violent temper, and a man with expensive taste.”
On Jan. 4, 1985, a fugitive warrant was issued for his arrest, following his failure to show up for trial. He landed on the U.S. Marshals Service’s 15 most-wanted list. The feds said he fled with almost $600,000 in cash and was running his drug empire from Jamaica. He was finally arrested in July 1986 in Montego Bay. The United States Marshal Service worked closely with Jamaican Police in his arrest and shipped the fugitive back to the United States to face trial.
Ingold was instrumental in snitching Gesuale out and telling agents where he was. Investigators knew Gesuale was a big basketball fan, and at that time, there were only two satellite dishes on the island. One was installed at a Montego Bay hotel. For Nick the Blade the gig was up. His love of sports doomed him. Authorities flew him back to Pittsburgh on a Learjet in July 1986 and he was taken to trial later that year. Five days into trial, Gesuale decided to plead guilty. U.S. District Judge Donald Ziegler sentenced him to 45 years.
Using a combination of informants, wiretaps and surveillance the feds systematically worked their way up the chain of command
by using drug dealers Marvin Droznek and Joey Rosa as government witnesses to provide details of the mob’s inner workings. Their testimony ultimately led to the prosecutions of more than 40 people. The top dogs were Raucci and Porter, Nick the Blade’s two main running partners. After the 1990 trial, the two men and their associates went to prison.
“I like [former U.S. Attorney] Tom Corbett’s statement on the night of the convictions, on the courthouse steps,” said FBI agent Greenbank. “’We have successfully severed the head from the body of La Cosa Nostra in Western Pennsylvania.’ And I think he was right. We took off the largest moneymakers for the family. It was an awful lot of hard work by a lot of people.”
In his underworld career, Gesuale was the subject of numerous drug, gambling, loansharking, extortion and murder investigations, dating back almost a half-century. He was a main player in the Pittsburgh mob. Chuckie Porter and Louie Raucci, his peers, were convicted of a RICO and drug conspiracy in 1990. Porter defected to the government and entered the Federal Witness Protection Program. Raucci died in prison in 1995. But Nick the Blade did his time. Waiting patiently, like men in prison do, for his return to society.
Gesuale’s older brother, Anthony, 75, who lives in Ohio, lost contact with his younger brother while he was behind bars, but he doesn’t like the FBI’s rundown of his brother’s life. He thinks his brother’s life was ruined by drugs and that informants set him up. “It’s a terrible thing, drugs,” he said. “It all boils down to drugs. He was a victim of the drugs.”
Anthony noted that prior to getting involved with cocaine, Eugene was a successful hairdresser in Squirrel Hill. His brother was also a good student when they went to Catholic high school together. But later on drug’s consumed Eugene and he became an addict. Even in prison, Eugene was using drugs and never got the help he needed for his addiction.
As for his criminal life, Anthony said Eugene was not the drug kingpin the FBI said he was and that his sentence was harsher than sentences given to other people, as a result of the war on drugs. Eugene served more time than murderers. “He never killed anyone,” Anthony said. “Yes, he may have stabbed a few people, but those were neighborhood disputes. It’s unjustifiable what they did to him.”
After serving 28 years in prison Gesuale was released from custody on October 31, 2014. Prohibited from returning to Pittsburgh, due to threats he made against law enforcement figures during the time of his conviction, Nick the Blade relocated to Florida, where he’d once been active in the drug underworld. At 72-years-old, his days as an active gangster were over, but he still carried it like the Mafiaso of his youth.
“Chaz had a Rolls Royce at the halfway house when he first got out,” Zach tells Real Crime. “He used to park it right in front of the halfway house. It was a bad-ass Rolls that he bought for $100 grand in 1985. His sister held onto it that whole time for him. He still has money stashed from back in the day too. Chaz was definitely a big deal and liked the attention.”
Too old for the mob and too old for crime, Nick the Blade was interested in shopping his story to Hollywood. In prison, noted gangsta rapper T.I. had taken an interest in Gesuale and told the old gangster that he could get millions for his story. With that thought foremost in his mind, Chaz was interested in looking for a blockbuster movie deal. The Mafia Capo, who’d never snitched on anyone and followed the Mafia’s code of Omertà, wanted a movie made about his life, a ‘la Goodfellas.
“They made a movie about that fucking rat,” he said. “They need to make one about a real gangster like me.” During his time in prison, Chaz would regale prisoners, including T.I., with stories for hours and hours. He’d have his fellow prisoners rolling on the cell floors laughing at his tales. He had a serious mob story, but the way he told it was both comedic and tragic. Because to Chaz it wasn’t about how bad or how tough he was, it was about all the crazy and ridiculous situations he got himself into during his life. Drugs, women, money, booze and violence- his life was a never ending cacophony of chaos, unorganized and off the hook.
Death of a Gangster
Taking Gesuale down was one of the first major victories for the feds fighting the mob in Western Pennsylvania, Manning said.
Though Genovese was never convicted, his condoning narcotics trafficking in the Pittsburgh mob led to convictions of his top people plus much of younger members and associates, destroying the organization’s line of ascension. Those convictions and the old age of the other mobsters proved to be the downfall of the Pittsburgh family. “Whoever is left, organized crime doesn’t exist in Western Pennsylvania anymore,” Manning said. “It’s a bunch of old men, and that’s a good thing.”
Eugene “Nick the Blade” Gesuale, 73, was at Past Times Restaurant and Bar, “when he suddenly fell over” at the end of July, bar manager David Ruiz said. He dropped dead of a heart attack while enjoying his usual glass of Pinot Grigio. “He was on his cellphone and it looked as if he was having a seizure. I called 9-1-1.” Ruiz said. Gesuale was a regular at the S. Nova Road bar, which opened this past May.
Gesuale usually arrived at the bar alone and Ruiz described him as friendly and talkative. When Gesuale entered the bar Ruiz would set up a glass of his preferred wine. The old mobster would drink and talk on his cell phone. Gesuale’s residence is listed in The Falls community off of Clyde Morris Boulevard in Ormond Beach, the police report noted.
The incident report, as the Journal Online noted, described how “while police were on scene and he was being given CPR by another bar patron, his cellphone rang and it was a Facetime call from a cousin who identified himself as Geno.” The cousin, once informed of what was happening, asked that Gesuale’s car keys and phone be given to the bar’s owner.
“I was surprised he was nursing such a girly drink,” Roger Greenbank, the retired FBI agent who helped send him to federal prison for 28 years during the Mafia crackdown of the 1980s, said. “Would have thought something more macho would have been his style.” At the end of his life, his former adversaries in law enforcement, had nothing but jokes for Chaz.
“I don’t think he was a wine guy when he was in Pittsburgh,” said Bob Garrity, a retired FBI agent who investigated organized crime in Western Pennsylvania in the 1980s and 1990s. “He seemed more like a shot guy.” But now Nick the Blade is a dead guy. Though he lives on in Mafia legend. He doesn’t have a movie or a tell all book, because he wasn’t really that type of guy, despite the enticement he felt in his old age. He was an old school gangster that came up the hard way, when men were men, and Mafiaso had to kill someone to get in.