Would the Real Criminal Please Stand up? (My Dad, the FBI, and some Mafia for Good Measure)

When I was growing up, my family lived with the near constant threat that our phones were tapped.

This was a plain and simple fact of life following the 1970 Organized Crime Control Act, the law that allowed federal prosecutors to, for the first time, legally tap the phones of mafia bosses, as long as a court agreed enough evidence existed to warrant that violation of privacy.

What ultimately began to bring down the mafia’s illegal gambling operation in western Pennsylvania was not the shredded remains of once-soggy gambling documents (lodged in a garbage disposal prosecutors dragged into evidence in May 1973), but the determination of Nixon administration US attorneys,  such as Dick Thornburgh, and their new-found ability to eaves drop on private telephone calls. 

image via realnewsreporter.com

In his 2010 autobiography Where the Evidence Leads, Thornburgh says the following about his wiretap successes in the early 70s, especially as they relate to my father’s boss, the man he was caught locked in a room with on November 21, 1970, when 100 federal agents raided 22 Pittsburgh locations:

The first successful wiretaps in western Pennsylvania helped bring down the massive sports-gambling operation of Robert “Bobby I” Iannelli.  After accumulating sufficient wiretap evidence, over 100 FBI agents staged a series of raids on twenty-two suspected gambling locations on November 21, 1970, seizing gambling records and paraphernalia.  This action sent shock waves through the illegal-gambling community, which had thought only interstate activities were within the reach of federal investigators.

The evidence gathered in the raids was presented, and an indictment was returned against Iannelli and twenty-five others on federal gambling charges.  All were subsequently convicted.  We had struck out first effective blow at the rackets.  (43-44)

Though our house was one of those raided in 1970, I have only vague recollections of being shut in my room, while that raid was underway—sitting on my bed, leaning against the wall, worrying, someone coming in to reassure me that everything would be okay.

What I remember more clearly and wrote about in my journal at the time, was a raid carried out in 1977.  On February 10, while my parents were in Florida and I was at school, FBI agents raided out house in Pittsburgh.  That evening I wrote a rough outline of what happened in my diary:

Today will be a day I will never forget. . . .

I found out that my dad had been indicted by the Grand Jury.  The FBI had been at our house today.  [My parents] said it would probably be on the news and in the newspapers.  I was really upset and I cried.  This means my dad might have to go to jail.  I watched the news on one channel.  They [mentioned] it and showed Joe Iannelli.  I don’t think they mentioned my dad, but I don’t know about the other channels.  I’m sure it will be in the papers.  A lot of people called this evening. . . . I couldn’t keep from telling Sis what happened since I started to cry and she wanted to know the problem.

The following day I noted in my diary that there had been articles in the local papers, and on Saturday, February 12th I wrote, “I talked to Bruce.  He saw an article about Daddy in the Pittsburgh Press.  He said not to worry.” 

I’ve not been able to track down that article online, but I did find one from the newspaper of nearby Lebanon, Pennsylvania on February 11th.   Called “Indict 12 on Gambling,” it read in part:

A federal grand jury indicted 12 persons on charges of conspiracy and operating an illegal gambling business in Allegheny County.

US Attorney Blair Griffith said those named in the indictment were:  Joseph Iannelli, 48, Norma Iannelli . . . William Tyce McCullough, 42 . . . .

Federal officials estimated the alleged gambling business took in $15 million annually in the county from September 1974 to February 1977. 

If convicted the defendants would face up to 10 years imprisonment and $30,000 fine.

(Lebanon Daily News, 3-11-1977, 3:1)

I remember sitting in my dad’s desk chair the night of February 10th, struggling with what I should or shouldn’t say on the phone—aware that the lines were likely tapped at that very moment.  Spinning myself round and round in that chair, the long phone cord coiled around me.  The more I talked to my friend Sis about what had happened that day, the more I saw myself trapped and in trouble—terrified that I might, one day, hear my own words played back at me in court, terrified that what I said might indict my daddy.

Though that night was four years after my father found himself on the witness stand in 1973, what seems more ironic to me (knowing that Dick Thornburgh the US Attorney for western Pennsylvania under the Nixon administration remains proud, even now 40 years later, for the role wiretapping played in those indictments and subsequent convictions) is the nearly concurrent illegal wiretapping the administration carried out on the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Office Complex in Washington, D.C.

I said in a post last week that, like people, the past is never all one way, never all good or all bad.  But most Americans would agree that Nixon’s actions during Watergate were nowhere near legal—let alone morally justified.  It’s no wonder to me now that, as I child, I confused the good guys and the bad guys, found it difficult to untangle right from wrong.  If the very administration indicting my dad was legally using wiretaps to accomplish that, while simultaneously using them illegally to win reelection, how did I as an 8 or 10 year-old stand a chance?

There’s a delicate line between right and wrong—an uneasy balance between criminals and their less-than-virtuous counterparts, running the government that indicts and convicts the former of wrong-doing.

Who was the enemy of the people—my dad taking illegal bets to support his family or the president of the United States happy to hedge his own, unwilling to leave his reelection fate in the hands of American voters.  What was the real threat to democracy—the more onerous enemy of freedom?

No wonder I was confused as a child—fearful that my own words spoken on a presumably private telephone could be used to indict my daddy.

Who deserved to be indicted, who deserved to be pardoned?

Would the real criminal please stand up?

35 thoughts on “Would the Real Criminal Please Stand up? (My Dad, the FBI, and some Mafia for Good Measure)

  1. Kathy, you are doing a brilliant job sharing this with us. It takes a lot of talent to convey that confusion, the not-all-bad-or-good mentality that any child would be conflicted with.


  2. Phone tapping/hacking has been very high profile in the UK recently as there has been a big Newspaper scandal. You are probably aware of this but have a look,
    Imagine how paranoid you could have all been if Rupert Murdoch and his news hounds had been around in your Dads time.It would seem that nobody is safe or entitled to a private life these days


    • Wow, Carole, thanks for the link. I had heard about the Rupert Murdoch situation,but hadn’t associated it with tapping. I will take a look. Yes, it would really make one paranoid–though I had one psychiatrist explain to me that it’s not clinically paranoia, if indeed you are being tapped–which I thought was an interesting distinction. What is privacy these days, anyway?


  3. In my opinion, you’re having no problems at all with voice and perspective. It’s really working for you, as Tori says. It’s beautiful and frustrating and a “page-turner” all at once. Just keep swimming 🙂


    • Does treading water count? It’s weird, after each piece I write, I think, “I can’t do any more of this.” But then somehow I manage to push out another post. I would NEVER have dreamt it would be so challenging. Glad you think I ‘m already swimming. Maybe I just need to keep doing what I’m already doing. Thanks, Rose!


      • It counts (I say emphatically)!! You have to listen to yourself of course, but from my perspective, you’re doing so well. The biggest challenges often bring the best rewards, but that doesn’t diminish how challenging a challenge can be (oh dear). Thanks for your gifts.


  4. Kathy, you’ve taken an issue (wiretapping and on a greater scale, the government’s right to invade the privacy of its citizens) that we can only appreciate intellectually and brought it down to a level of where we can “live” it through your young eyes. Bravo.


    • Thanks, Renee. I’m tickled to death you think this is working. I’ll admit I was excited when I recognized the irony involved with the Nixon administration. I thought, “This is just too, too good.”

      This comment really thrills me–as that’s exactly what I’d aspire to do. Thanks, my friend.


  5. I was going to mention Rupert Murdoch, but Carole beat me to the punch. Ironic that all these years later it’s still very much a controversial topic…and still ruining careers and men.

    As for Nixon? Ugh…he got what he deserved, that’s for sure.


    • The strange thing is that I don’t remember feeling terrified–though I think it must have been a defense mechanism on my part—not allowing myself to feel what I couldn’t manage. It had to have been terrifying–you’re right.


  6. Kathy, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for you to live this way as a child. Always fearing the unknown and feeling insecure about what might happen to your dad and the rest of the family. I know I’m repeating what others have already said, but you really conveyed those feelings well.


    • Thanks, Heather. I think the worst part about it for me at the time was not having someone to talk to about it–and not having a reality check–someone to acknowledge that, indeed, this was a bizarre way to live. I’m glad you think I convey the feelings well.


  7. I mentioned this in a response to your comment on my latest post, but I just wanted to say it on your site, too. Goodness, Kathryn. I am on the edge of my seat reading each of your posts. When your memoir is ready, not only will I buy it, I will devour it. I’ll share it with everyone I know…your writing is so powerful. It’s a perfect match for your powerful life.


    • Yes, it is different. I’ve never heard anyone else have this perspective. Of course, I may just not have found it–but, perhaps, I do have a perspecitve that’s unique and fresh. I’m so happy you will read!


  8. Kathy,
    This is just amazing. I love the little details that bring your story to life, reminding us that you really lived this as a child. “I remember sitting in my dad’s desk chair the night of February 10th, struggling with what I should or shouldn’t say on the phone—aware that the lines were likely tapped at that very moment. Spinning myself round and round in that chair, the long phone cord coiled around me. The more I talked to my friend Sis about what had happened that day, the more I saw myself trapped and in trouble—terrified that I might, one day, hear my own words played back at me in court, terrified that what I said might indict my daddy.” Brilliant!

    I also love that the questions you raise with this memoir still ring true today, as tapping phones in the name of democracy has become the norm rather than the unique. I’m so excited for you and this journey you are on.

    Keep at it,


    • Yes, so true–wire tapping is done in the name of democracy now more than ever. It’s interesting to watch that in action here, at its inception and realize where its come. Thanks so much for reading, Lisa, and offering such huge encouragement. You’ve made my day, my friend!


  9. Power corrupts. Full stop.

    Your writing, which has always been really good, seems to be getting a life all of its own. The story you tell is gripping, but its the way you write that keeps bringing me back. I love the way you can convey emotion. I find that really difficult.


    • Wow, Jackie, this comment has made my entire weekend. Thank you. I don’t know that I’m better than anyone else at conveying emotion, but, I suspect, my story may just be more emotionally laden than some others. Does that make sense? I think you share emotion really well.


  10. Kathy– your account of not knowing what to say to your friend over the phone is heart wrenching. Concern over wire-tapping is definitely not something any young child should have to endure (let alone even begin to understand)!
    I’m anxiously awaiting further posts!


  11. Pingback: We Interrupt your Regularly Scheduled Program to Bring you—another Kathy? « Lake Superior Spirit

    • Yes, it was Bobby. It made my father sick to have to testify against his friend. However, I believe he and Bobby resolved this before my dad’s death. They were still friends at that point. How do you know Bobby? If you read the articles I link to in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the names are identified. I just don’t like to name names, as these folks are still alive–and I feel a sense of loyalty to them. They were like family to us.


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