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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Mobster dad had a kinder, gentler side

TAMPA — Sandra Lansky was 13 when she first learned her father was notorious.

She thought he was a jukebox salesman until she stopped at a newsstand in Central Park in 1951 and saw him on a magazine cover. The story described Meyer Lansky as the accountant for the mob, a man who helped build casino empires in Las Vegas and Cuba — and ordered the murders of his enemies.

“It was garbage,” said Sandra Lansky, 76, of Plantation.

Now she's written a book, “Daughter of the King: Growing Up In Gangland,” and she'll be in Tampa at 7 p.m. Friday for a signing at Inkwood Books, 216 S. Armenia Ave.

Celia Zagula had a moment of revelation, too. She remembers her late father fondly, as a doting patriarch who loaned money to veterans and others in need, often giving them a job or a place to stay.

But many here knew Johnny Rivera as “Scarface,” a top numbers runner for Tampa mob figures Charlie Wall and Santo Trafficante.

Zagula was in fifth grade when she found out. One day at school, her friends told her that they could no longer go to her house because her father was a criminal.

“There was an article about him in the newspaper that morning that their parents read,” Zagula said.

It was a shock, she said, but it also made sense.

The disconnect between personal experience and public reputation is a common thread in the lives of organized crime families. How they deal with it varies.

Some, like Lansky, deny it. Others, like Zagula, accept it. Sarasota's Jerry Vairo, whose great uncle Paulie “Lefty” Della Universita was known as the mafia's “Secret Judge,” promotes it — to the chagrin of relatives who would keep it quiet.

Tampa's Lisa Figueredo navigates the gamut of family reactions through her publication, “Cigar City Magazine,” whose regular fare of Tampa gangster tales draws criticism from the survivors of her subjects.

Figueredo is unapologetic, saying some families knowingly have spent their share of a notorious relatives' ill-gotten gains and noting that there are black sheep from the mob in her own closet.

“I didn't break the law,” she declares. “They did.”

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Sandra Lansky's book is a tell-all when it comes to her own experiences, with passages about her mother's mental instability, abuse by her stepmother, and her own hard partying ways and romances, including one with Dean Martin.

But she doesn't call her father a gangster — and if you do, you can expect to be told off, just like a fan at an earlier book signing.

“I'm not very good with the nasty,” Lansky said. “I am very protective of my father. He was a very good man.”

The book provides a glimpse of the Meyer Lansky she knew — a loving man, she writes, who spoiled her, took care of a lot of people in financial trouble and served the U.S. government during World War II by using his connections to secure the shipping docks.

“He did a lot of good, but we never hear of that good,” his daughter said.

Zagula, now 41, doesn't blanch at “gangster” when she speaks of her father.

“It is what it is,” she said. “I don't think he would be proud of that term, but he was proud that he could use his connections to help others.”

Johnny Rivera is perhaps best known for claiming to have knowledge about who murdered Charlie Wall in 1955. The murder is unsolved.

When her mother was at work and they couldn't find a babysitter, Zagula said, her father would take her on work errands.

He often met with associates at bars, where she would be sent off to watch television.

“He was always certain I did not hear his conversations. I was confused by that secrecy until I learned why.”

The 13-year-old Lansky never did tell her father about reading that magazine from the newsstand. Zagula didn't confront her father, either.

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Vairo always knew his great uncle was involved in organized crime, but like most people, he thought Uncle Lefty was a low level New York bookie.

“That was his cover,” said Vairo, 45, of Sarasota. “Almost no one knew how powerful he really was.”

Universita was among the most trusted mafia soldiers, transporting important messages to the bosses in Sicily and bringing back millions of dollars to be split and laundered by the five families who controlled organized crime in the 1950s.

He gained the nickname “Secret Judge” because leaders trusted him to settle disputes discreetly rather than through violence, always agreeing to accept his decisions.

As Vairo grew older, he wondered if Uncle Lefty was more important than he let on, posing as he did for photos with the likes of Tampa's Trafficante.

In 2011, Vairo learned the truth about the man from Tony Napoli, son of James Napoli, who controlled one of the largest illegal gambling operations in the U.S. in the 1950s.

“He told me my uncle was a very important man and laid out the details for me,” said Vairo.

After Universita died, his brothers asked Vairo for help getting him the notoriety they felt he finally deserved.

So Vairo financed a book, “For Members Only — The Story of the Mob's Secret Judge.” He is also currently producing a documentary and working with Hollywood's Armand Assante on a film.

Universita's children are not pleased.

“They say he went through trouble to stay under the radar, and now I am exposing him,” said Vairo. “I'm just helping my uncles, but the rest of the family doesn't care. They're furious.”

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Lisa Figueredo deals with a lot of anger, too, with the stories about mob history told in “Cigar City Magazine” and in local tours of mob sites she helps organize.

She was 17, she said, when she learned of her own family's mob ties. A friend asked her if she was related to Lou Figueredo. She said yes, he was her uncle. The friend told her about his history as a numbers runner in the illegal local lottery.

“He was small time, I think,” she said. “But maybe he had a larger role. Never know.”

One relative who did have deeper ties was her Uncle Joe, known by Tampa's mob historians as “Baby” Joe Diez.

When she learned of his past from her mother, Figueredo thought back to family picnics on Uncle Joe's ranch in what is now the New Tampa area. At the back of the property was a building that consisted of a kitchen, a bathroom, and a dining room with a long table for 20 people. It looked like a setting from a “Godfather” movie.

“It suddenly made sense,” Figueredo said. “It was a meeting house where he would talk business with his bosses.”

Like Scarface Rivera, Baby Joe worked with Trafficante and Wall and was a suspect in Wall's murder.

Figueredo wonders if the hit was ordered during a meeting in that strange room.

“Again,” she said, “you never know.”

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