As the most notorious boss of the Chicago Mafia since Al Capone, Sam Giancana controlled a criminal empire stretching across America.
He had an army of thugs to call on — but for two days in November 1963, he asked for help from his little brother, Pepe.
He was only a humble, illegal bookie in the Giancana empire, but Sam needed someone to chauffeur him around while the mobsters who usually did so were out of town.
As Pepe later confided to family, those men had gone to Dallas to do a job for Giancana — one that would become a seminal moment of the 20th century.
From conversations overheard at his brother’s mansion in Oak Park outside Chicago, Pepe worked out that their task was to help Lee Harvey Oswald assassinate John F Kennedy, then ensure that Oswald did not live to talk.
Since then, millions of words have been written about the killing of JFK: claims that the Mafia wanted revenge for his war on organised crime have vied with counter-theories that the president was killed by the CIA, the Pentagon, Fidel Castro, the Soviets and even Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
Historic: A smiling John F. Kennedy before he was assassinated on 22 November, 1963 in Dallas
Now, at long last, we may be coming close to the truth. Filmmaker Nicholas Celozzi — the great-nephew of Sam Giancana — says his Great Uncle Pepe and other members of his family have finally confided to him exactly how the Mafia killed JFK — and just as importantly — allowed him to reveal it.
He is working with the Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter and director David Mamet to produce a new — and what they believe could be definitive — version of the final 48 hours of President Kennedy’s life.
‘The story I got from Pepe was the underbelly of what happened on those two days, from a man who was a fly on the wall listening to how this was coming together,’ Celozzi told the Mail this week. ‘Sam had a very tight circle of who he trusted.’ His brother, with whom he was very close, was one of them.
David Mamet, whose writing credits include Glengarry Glen Ross, The Untouchables and The Postman Always Rings Twice, says Celozzi’s script has revived his own scepticism about the official version of JFK’s death. The film, which Mamet will direct, is provisionally titled 2 Days/1963.
‘It’s a helluva script,’ Mamet told the Hollywood website Deadline. ‘Really inside stuff, similar to what Francis Coppola did with Mario Puzo in The Godfather.’
The 1964 Warren Commission into the killing decided that Oswald had acted alone, but 15 years later, the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations — set up to investigate the deaths of JFK and Martin Luther King — concluded that Kennedy was ‘probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy’.
Notorious: Sam Giancana. As the most notorious boss of the Chicago Mafia since Al Capone, Sam Giancana controlled a criminal empire stretching across America
Oliver Stone’s 1991 film ‘JFK’ wove an elaborate web of conspiracy around the shooting, including the Mob, CIA, Army generals, FBI agents, Dallas police, Cuban dissidents, New Orleans gays and paedophile ex-priests.
But while it’s hard to actually imagine any part of the U.S. establishment — even the spooks — executing a President, the Mafia sounds entirely feasible.
Even more so, given that Jack Ruby, the nightclub owner who surprisingly shot dead Oswald just two days after the assassination, had myriad connections to Organised Crime.
The Warren Commission accepted Ruby’s claims that he acted impulsively, shooting Oswald outside Dallas police headquarters out of ‘insane’ grief over JFK’s killing.
According to Nicholas Celozzi, Ruby was one of three members of a crucial triangle in the Mafia’s JFK operation that also included two Sam Giancana stooges and assassins — Johnny ‘Handsome John’ Roselli and Charles ‘Chucky The Typewriter’ Nicoletti.
The suave, polished and perma-tanned Roselli was the Mob’s man out West, helping the Chicago Mafia (known as The Outfit) operate in Las Vegas and Hollywood. He was friends with Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe and had even ventured into film producing.
In the early 1960s, he had been recruited by the CIA in a plot — authorised by JFK — to assassinate Cuba’s communist leader Fidel Castro with poisoned pills.
According to Pepe, Roselli had become a ‘highly-proficient’ marksman while helping to organise the training of anti-Castro mercenaries at a secret camp in the Florida Everglades.
Both Giancana and Roselli had been deeply involved in running Mob-controlled casinos in Cuba, and were furious when Castro took over and closed them down.
According to CIA documents released in 2007, they were also furious when JFK closed down the U.S. operation to remove Castro. Nicoletti was a hulking, ‘stone cold’ hitman for Giancana. His very first ‘hit’ had been his own father, whom he’d shot when he was 12, allegedly in self-defence after Nicoletti Snr drunkenly pursued him with a knife.
He was said to be so inured to violence that he calmly ate a plate of pasta while killing a man by squeezing his head in a vice.
As for their boss, Giancana — a former getaway driver for Al Capone — he was a brute who had been exempted from serving in World War Two after a psychologist classified him as a ‘psychopath’.
While other Mafia chiefs kept a low profile, Giancana revelled in the limelight, especially when he was out with one of his glamorous mistresses.
Astonishingly, two of them — actress Marilyn Monroe and a beautiful woman named Judith Exner — were having affairs with him over the same period that they were also seeing JFK.
The stone-cold hitman: Charles Nicoletti, dubbed ‘Chucky the Typewriter’. Charles was one of three members of a crucial triangle in the Mafia’s JFK operation
Rumour had it that Giancana had helped get JFK elected by exploiting the Mafia’s power over union votes, so he and his cronies were furious when Kennedy allowed brother Bobby, his Attorney General, to launch a crusade against organised crime.
Everyone involved faced the imminent threat of being subpoenaed which, says filmmaker Celozzi, prompted Giancana to take drastic action.
So, when Pepe Giancana dutifully turned up at Oak Park, he says the household was in ferment as the assassins, Roselli and Nicoletti, prepared to head down to Texas.
‘The one thing that is really important to know is that these two were nervous wrecks,’ says Celozzi. ‘They didn’t have a clear idea how it was going to happen.’
Roselli was so worried he developed stomach ulcers, but his concern wasn’t confined to getting caught: Pepe said Roselli kept asking if he was ever going to see him again. ‘He was thinking that, going down to Dallas, he was never going to make it back because he knew that in their business when you’re involved in something like this, a lot of times they take you out as well,’ says Celozzi.
According to Pepe, Roselli was tasked with shooting Kennedy if Oswald missed — while Nicoletti’s job was to dispose of Oswald afterwards.
As noted by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, Oswald was connected to the Mafia through various people, notably an uncle, Charles Murret, who was not only a father-figure to him but a key lieutenant to the powerful New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello.
Some have argued that Marcello was the real brains behind the Mafia plot to kill JFK. Celozzi, Giancana’s great-nephew, accepts Marcello may well have been the one who suggested Oswald, whose admiration for Fidel Castro opened up the delicious possibility that the Cuban leader might be blamed for the president’s murder.
Oswald, a former U.S. Marine who had once defected to the Soviet Union and had a history of mental instability, told investigators after he was arrested that he was just a ‘patsy’.
Some have taken him at his word, arguing that the Mob never trusted him as a shooter and his job was simply to take the blame.
However, Pepe Giancana told his great nephew that Oswald, watching the Kennedy motorcade from an upper floor window of the Texas School Book Depository, was supposed to shoot him. But knowing he was ‘unreliable’, Giancana sent down Roselli as backup.
According to Pepe, the plan did go wrong. Oswald fired at JFK but missed. When he heard a second shot go off — courtesy of the president’s real killer, Roselli, who was lurking with a rifle near the infamous ‘grassy knoll’ where a second gunman has long been alleged to have been waiting — he realised he had been set up.
He fled the building, and on seeing Nicoletti and JD Tippit, a corrupt Dallas police officer, waiting in a car to pick him up, he took off. They followed and finally caught up with him an hour later in a residential neighbourhood.
‘There was a witness that saw it and she said there were two guys in the car,’ said Celozzi. ‘Now, from what Pepe told me, Nicoletti was screaming at Oswald to get in and he said, excuse my French, “F-you, you’re trying to kill me.” ’
Tippit, the cop, then got out of his car and after a brief exchange, Oswald shot him, fatally. Pepe’s account of Oswald then escaping with Nicoletti in hot pursuit certainly tallies with the statements of several witnesses who said they saw two men fleeing the scene.
Nicoletti couldn’t keep up with Oswald and lost him. According to Pepe, when Oswald was arrested and started to talk, Sam Giancana had to ‘put the arm’ on Jack Ruby to finish the job.
Ruby, a violent man, did the odd job for the Mob, but he wasn’t a Mafioso. He had cancer and had reportedly been told he had just six months to live.
It wasn’t too difficult to persuade him to ambush Oswald and his guards outside Dallas police headquarters, where he shot him.
Although the Warren Commission accepted Ruby’s insistence he acted alone, the subsequent House Select Committee investigation not only found Ruby had strong Mafia ties but also discovered he’d been trying to get close to Oswald since his arrest.
The committee’s chief counsel concluded: ‘The most plausible explanation for the murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby was that Ruby had stalked him on behalf of organised crime.’
Ruby lasted three years in prison before he succumbed to a lung cancer-related pulmonary embolism. And none of the others in the conspiracy outlined by Pepe Giancana survived long either.
Both Sam Giancana and Roselli, his henchman, were murdered — in 1975 and 1976 respectively — just weeks before they were due to testify before a House select committee investigating abuses by U.S. intelligence services.
Suave and polished: The Mob’s man out West, ‘Handsome John’ Roselli. Roselli — who was due to be questioned specifically about the killing of JFK — was found sawn in half and stuffed inside an oil drum, floating in the sea
Giancana was shot dead as he was cooking in his basement kitchen. Roselli — who was due to be questioned specifically about the killing of JFK — was found sawn in half and stuffed inside an oil drum, floating in the sea.
Nicoletti, the second hit man, was shot dead in 1977, having been called to testify before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Celozzi, the filmmaker, has no doubt all three were murdered by the Mafia.
Pepe Giancana, meanwhile, died in 1996. There is an obvious question about Celozzi’s extraordinary account — why has it taken so long to tell the tale?
He made a 2011 documentary film about Sam Giancana in which he interviewed family members but never made the sensational allegations that have captured David Mamet’s interest.
In fact, he identified an entirely different Mafioso as the man Pepe said had killed JFK.
Celozzi explains he was constrained in what he could say at the time both because Sam’s daughter, Bonnie, was uncomfortable about the story emerging and because a prominent Mafioso — he won’t say who — was still alive and would have taken the revelations very badly.
Meanwhile, other books and documentaries have identified different Mobsters as Kennedy’s assassins. Back in 2000, convicted Mafia hitman James Files not only claimed he was the man who shot the president from the grassy knoll — but also implicated Nicoletti and Roselli.
Bonnie said she believed Pepe’s version of events was ‘85 per cent correct’. Celozzi said Francine — Bonnie’s sister — told him she remembered their father spending the day at home when JFK was shot, which was ‘really strange for him’.
She recalled he and Pepe kept an eye on the TV and when news of JFK’s death was announced, her father told his brother: ‘OK, good, let’s go. It’s done.’
The screenwriter says he and David Mamet will simply lay out events on those two fateful days and ‘people can make up their own minds’. No matter how convincing they are, however, history suggests this most enduring of whodunnits will never be definitively settled.