Counterfeit Ring Busted in Chinchilla

The Black Hand in Scranton was notorious for shaking down other Italians, but they had their tentacles into other businesses as well. One of the most lucrative crimes came to light when police busted a Counterfeit Operation in Chinchilla on April 29, 1915.

For months, investigators built their case against the operation thanks to the work of well-known and well-respected Scranton Police Detective John Cartusciello. Cartusciello had been instrumental in dozens of cases against the Black Hand during his illustrious career. In October of 1914, he was led to believe an operation was in business, cranking out half-dollar coins. While it doesn’t sound like a lot today, in 1914, each $0.50 coin would be worth about $15 today. Still, not a lot individually, but when you’re cranking them out in masses, it adds up quickly.

Six law enforcement officials were part of the raid. It was reported that one was dressed as a “tramp,” one as a hunter, and the others in rundown clothes that made them look like “hoboes.”

The men stormed the building, guns drawn, shouting in English and Italian, “Hands up! The man who moves is dead!”

Without any further drama, five men, including two youths, were taken into custody. Thankfully, officers were able to surprise the operation – thanks to two of the lookouts who were allegedly deep into a game of cards in the barn. If the faintest hint of a raid was coming, the men had a cache of weapons at their disposal, including; “a repeating rifle of the heaviest caliber ever seen hereabouts,” two loaded double-barrel shotguns, two loaded revolvers, and six sticks of dynamite. Picone and Mangano were also carrying stiletto knives with 8″ blades – a tool of choice for the Black Hand.

Vintage Stiletto

In addition to their armory, the men were caught red-handed with all of the necessities for making thousands of counterfeit coins. The list of items seized during the raid included: two tools to make the coins, ten “spurious” (fake) coins, six good coins, a pile of “babbitt” metal, tin, acid, plaster of paris, bi-carbonate soda, a clay mold, and other tools of the trade.

The players involved were either already known to law enforcement or were tangled up with the Black Hand in Bull’s Head – the hotbed of nefarious activities in the city during this time period.

The leader of the gang was said to be Vincenzo Picone, 30. Picone had already been arrested seven times on counterfeit charges out of New York. Each time, he evaded conviction. He’s said to live in both New York City and South Scranton. Just a few months prior, he was also implicated in a holdup at the Baryta Chemical Manufacturing plant along the Laurel Line in what was known as “Little Virginia” near Davis Street.

He’s married, without any children, and is an immigrant from Agrigento, Sicily.

George Mangano, aka “Big George,” 29, was originally from Nicastro, Calabria, Italy. For the record, “Big George” was listed as 5′ 8-1/4″ and 208 pounds. He was involved in the Rosario Cuda murder in Bulls Head just six months ago. He was initially arrested but released after Frank Greco confessed to the murder. I cover that case in my Black Hand of Bull’s Head post. And I also cover Mangano’s death in Double Murder in Bull’s Head.

Gasper Marcianti, 31, of West Side, was listed as an “oil agent” on his naturalization papers. He immigrated to the US from Caltabellotta, Sicily, in 1903 and was a grocer who sold imported olive oil. Gasper was no stranger to crime as he was tied to an explosion at Giovanni Fazio’s macaroni factory on Franklin Avenue on New Year’s Day, 1906. The Fazio factory had been hit twice by the Black Hand.

The two younger men included Tony Ducati and Michael Esposito, also known as Michael Sposito. Ducati, 19, was listed as a barber, was arrested in 1914 for hopping a rail produce car, and was found with a gun in his possession. He was also implicated in a Black Hand extortion scheme, but charges were dropped when the victim refused to testify.

Esposito, 22, also a barber, was the lessee on the property. He was involved in some of the early Black Hand feuds that I covered in my post, The Black Hand Society of Bulls Head.

The Investigation

The investigation began in October 1914 when Angelo Menoni, 24, was arrested for passing a bad coin at the Delaware and Hudson line. At the time of his arrest, he had 195 counterfeit coins in his pockets – that would be almost $3,000 today! Police were not impressed with the workmanship of the coins. A lead-based alloy was said to be used, and coins didn’t look or feel like the real deal.

Under questioning, Menoni told police that he bought the coins from a man he had met at the Laurel Line earlier in the day. He explained that the man told him he had too much silver and he wanted to exchange it for paper money. Menoni said he had paper and didn’t mind having the coins and that he liked to jingle them in his pockets. Police didn’t believe this story and pressed on. They believed that Menoni was simply a “runner” for the larger outfit and would eventually break under pressure.

Two days later, police arrested Diego Sardegna, owner of an olive oil store on Locust Street in South Scranton, in connection with the coins. Both men were placed in the Lackawanna County Jail while they awaited trial.

Menoni wasn’t the only one to be caught with the fake coins. Days later, police arrested two other Philadelphia men in connection with the phony money, and there were reports that the fake coins were turning up all over the state.

It eventually got to the point where police had to put out bulletins to be on the lookout for the fake coins as banks and merchants were discovered to have them in their possession.

As the trial neared, “a swarthy, heavy-set, scowling individual” visited Menoni and Sardegna in jail. It was believed that the man was there to intimidate the accused – as well as the prosecutors. That man, Detective Cartuschiello determined, was Vincenzo Picone, brother-in-law of the imprisoned Diego Sardegna.

While in jail, Sardegna was also visited by his young daughter, likely Grace. He allegedly told her, “You must not believe that Papa is guilty.”

In spite of his words to his daughter, both men would plead guilty and be sentenced to time served (four months) plus two months for Menoni and five months for Sardegna. The light sentences were due, in part, because this was both their first offense.

Picone was already known to Cartuschiello. Months earlier, the Detective learned that Picone had offered to train a man on how to counterfeit money. In letters between Picone and Marcianti, the West Scranton man offered to pay Picone $10 in exchange for the supplies to make “fifty cent cigars” – code, police believe, for the fake coins. Detectives had intercepted the letters, steamed them open, photocopied the contents, then sealed them up and sent them on their way.

With that combination of evidence, Cartusciello started to watch Picone’s every move. The Detective even coordinated with the United States Secret Service to have Picone trailed in New York City. In case you didn’t know, the Secret Service was initially founded in 1865 to investigate all counterfeit operations that involve US currency. Today, they still hold that responsibility, among other duties.

It was determined that just two weeks before the raid, Esposito leased land in Chinchilla from Dr. D.H. Jenkins of North Scranton. The small bungalow was along Northern Boulevard – across from the current post office. The building was set back about 200 yards from the main road and perched up on a hill – providing a view of the valley below. My guess is that it was likely where I-81 is today.

Esposito and his wife, the former Anna Trunzo, were married in 1913 when he was 20 and Anna was just 15. Together, they operated a farm on the property as a front to the operation. It was said that Mrs. Esposito, now 17, would take an old mule and deliver eggs to customers in the city. The legitimacy of the business quickly became questionable when it was known that they would have to buy their eggs elsewhere to fulfill orders because they didn’t have enough chickens of their own.

On the morning of the raid, as the men were set to meet at the farm for production, Picone grew suspicious. He felt that Cartusciello was onto him. Intending to throw off the Detective, Picone visited a friend’s house in West Scranton near the Detective’s home at 122 St. Francis Cabrini Avenue (then called Chestnut Avenue). He waited for the Detective to pass by on his way to work so he could strike up a conversation with him. Seemingly to let the Detective know his location.

His plan worked. Cartusciello saw Picone standing in a doorway, and they had a quick conversation. Picone told him that he had other plans for the day to try to throw the Detective off his tail – or so he thought. Cartusciello continued on his commute to his office downtown.

At Police Headquarters, a man approached Detective Cartusciello and asked some strange questions. The Detective saw through the farce and realized that the man was tailing him and reporting back to Picone. The detective played along until the man eventually left the station. Once he did, the group of six officers took off for Chinchilla in a large touring car.

Once there, three men went around the back of the cabin, and three approached from the front. They quickly entered the building and were able to detain all of the men without any issues.

The Trial

All five men we summoned to appear in court in Sunbury the following Tuesday, May 4th, 1915. The two young men, Ducati and Esposito, had already confessed to the crime, but prosecutors didn’t want a plea bargain in exchange for lighter sentences.

All five men were quickly convicted. Picone was sentenced to six years and six months. Marcianti received four years and six months. Ducati and Esposito each got two years, and Mangano initially received four years.

Leaving the courtroom, Mangano, who had stared at Cartusciello the entire trial, said to the Detective in his native Italian language, “Four years won’t be long passing, and by God’s mother, I’ll stab you to death when I come out.” The Judge heard the threat and ordered Mangano back into the courtroom for questioning.

Mangano, talking through an interpreter, admitted to making the threat. He said, “Well, he sent me to die in jail, and I don’t see why he should not die, too.” With that, the Judge modified the sentence by adding six additional years in jail, for a total of ten years.

All of the men initially reported to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA, but would later be transferred to the United State Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. This facility in Atlanta housed other New York City mobsters, including Giuseppe “Clutch” Morello, founder of the Morello Crime Family, and his underboss brother-in-law, Ignazio Lupo. Both of whom were also convicted of counterfeiting in 1910. In 1915 alone, there were over 65 new inmates sent to this facility for Counterfeiting, the highest number of new inmates for counterfeiting during that time frame.

Mangano would be released on January 25, 1922, after serving almost 6-1/2 years. Within 2-1/2 years of his release, Mangano was shot to death in a gun battle in Bull’s Head.

Ducati was released on December 16, 1916, after serving just seventeen months of his 24-month term. His freedom didn’t last long, and his incarceration did not reform him. He was convicted in 1918 of the Bull’s Head slashing of John Sharo and sent back to Eastern State Penitentiary for a maximum seven-year sentence.

Once again, he was promptly released after just eighteen months. He was married in Scranton in 1928 and eventually moved to NYC and spent the rest of his days, allegedly, as a barber.

Michael Esposito would be released the same day as Ducati on December 16, 1916, and, within 28 months of his release, was stabbed to death in Bull’s Head.

Gasper Marcianti was released on October 27, 1918, and would die of illness in the Hillside Home in 1929 at the age of 46. His obituary lists only a cousin, Samuel LaBella, and a brother in Italy.

The ringleader, Vincent Picone, was released on February 24, 1920. He served just under 5 years of his 6 1/2-year term. Upon his release, he returned to New York City. The best I can tell is that he divorced his first wife, likely during his prison time, and remarried shortly after returning to the City. It looks like Picone died of a heart condition in 1923 at the age of just 38. He left behind a wife and a newborn son.

Detective John Cartusciello gained tremendous accolades for his efforts in taking down this ring. While there were others involved, all pointed to the Detective as the mastermind behind the bust. Cartusciello went on to have a long and prosperous career in police work and later as a private investigator. The Detective was originally a restaurateur in Scranton before becoming a Patrolman in about 1912. He left his job with the City after about a decade and opened Cartusciello’s Detective Agency in 1922.

However, he wasn’t without his faults. He and his brother, the city Alderman, were arrested in 1929 for kidnapping a man. The man was wanted for spousal support in New Jersey. He was in Scranton, so the Alderman and the Detective took the man, against his will, back to the New Jersey state line and handed him over to authorities. The two brothers would eventually be exonerated of the “crime.”

Detective Cartusciello passed away in Scranton in 1973 at the age of 89, but his legacy in protecting the city lives on. Thank you, Detective Cartusciello!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s