KELLY'S CLASSICS - Gerald Catena - Golfing Gangster
Back in the days of Enoch "Knucky" Johnson, when gangsters were among the pillars of the community, Abner "Longie" Zwillman was responsible, according to the Kefauver Committee, for about 40% of all illegal liquor in the United States between 1926 and 1933, unloading most of his supplies along the Jersey coast.
One of Zwillman's young lieutenants, Gerald "Jerry" Catena, was also friends with Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Like Zwillman, Catena was from Newark, involved in the trucking business and the longshoreman's union and served as an underboss in the Vito Genovese mafia family.
Catena also liked to play golf, one of his most popular pastimes, a passion for which eventually led him to prison.
Said to have attended the April 1929 convention of organized crime leaders in Atlantic City, Catena was there when the "Lucky" Luciano-Meyer Lansky Syndicate was officially inagurated to divert mob money earned during prohibition into gambling operations after its eventual repeal.
Al Capone, who also attended that meeting, suddenly disappeared for a few days, only to surface at the train station while arranging for his arrest in Philadelphia, said to be a strategy to take some of the pressure off the other, lesser known gangsters, like Catena. Capone's missing days in Atlantic City were said to have been spent at the clubhouse of the Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield.
Catena may have also attended the conclave of American mobsters in Havana in 1946, the year he formed Runyon Sales to distribute Lion pin ball machines in New Jersey.
Catena was listed as being among those identified as being at the 1957 Apalachin, New York meeting of mob bosses, which was broken up by local police and removed any doubt about the existence of the Mafia. When Genovise soldier Joe Valachi became the first "made" member of the Mafia to break the oath of omerta and testify before Congress, he mentioned Catena as being one of the Genovese family capos.
Catena was what the mob calls an "earner," as his pin ball machines could be found in every pool hall, bowling alley and mom and pop grocery store in every town in New Jersey. When the office of Angelo "Gyp" DeCarlo was wiretapped, DeCarlo was overheard saying that "Catena has more money than anybody, except Meyer Lansky," the mob's senior accountant.
At some point a number of Bally slot machine appeared in the locker room at the Atlantic City Country Club, providing a small but appreciated income for the club.
When club owners Sonny Fraser and Philadelphia-Ocean City builder Jack Kelly opened the Atlantic City Race Track in 1946, the first legal gambling in New Jersey, Florida Senator George Smathers complained that the track was competition to Florida gambling and mentioned the fact that they had illegal slot machines in the Atlantic City Country Club. Instead of getting rid of the slot however, Sonny Fraser sold the club to his brother Leo, who kept the slots until a New Jersey State trooper conference at the club led to them being removed.
When the owner of Lion pinball, Ray Moloney died in 1958, Catena's Runyon Sales took over the company, which also distributed Bally machines in the state, thus giving them a monopoly on pin ball machines in New Jersey. Catena cemented his relationship with the Chicago warehouse based Bally when his daughter married Michael "Mickey" Wichinsky, Bally's Nevada distributor.
When Vito Genovese was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1960, there was considerable speculation as to who would replace the mob boss, but instead of a mob war breaking out, Catena was given the responsibility for the family's New Jersey operations, while Thomas Eboli ran the New York side of their family's business.
When it became known that Catena was a major stockholder in Bally, the company bought out his shares in order to satisfy the Nevada gambling authorities, but he continued to run the company that distributed Bally machines in New Jersey.
Some of these pin ball machines were rigged to pay out so many "free-games" that the store owners would reimberse the winner with cash, thus being a slot-machine before legal gambling came to New Jersey.
In 1970, at the age of 68, Catena was sent to jail for being a stand-up guy in refusing to answer questions before a grand jury looking into mob activity in th state. He was sent to Yardville state prison with two other mobsters who refused to talk - Philly mob boss Angelo Bruno, a member of the national Commission, and Nicky Scarfo, who would later replace Bruno in a the midst of a bloody mob war.
During Governor Brendan Byrne's 1977 re-election campaign, he promised to keep oganized crime "out of our State!" Then, setting the ground work for casinos in Atlantic City, Byrne appointed JOe Lordi the first chairman of the Casino Control Commission. Lordi's law firm had previously represented the Catena family - in civil court, not on criminal matters, and one of Lordi's brothers worked as a bartender in one of Catena's restaurants. And while he was Essex County Prosecutor, Lordi approved a gun permit for one of Catena's "soldiers."
Lordi's response was simply, "If you lived in the Ironbound section of Newark, it was a hopping area. The mere fact that you rub shoulders with somebody or eat in his restaurant doesn't make you an associate."
When the New Jersey casino law was written, in order to encourage competition, a casino company could not own more than three casinos or buy more than half of its slot machines from any one company.
But since there were no other slot machine manufacturers other than Bally, the law was changed to allow for Resorts, the first casino, to buy all of its machines from Bally.
Then Bally decided to get into the casino business itself, and purchased and leveled the historic Marlboro-Blenheim Hotel and built Bally Park Place. But first they had to get rid of William O'Donnell, the Bally director who was once partners with Catena and Sam Klein in Runyon Sales/Lion pinballs.
Lordi skirted around all of his issues and maintained his position in the government, despite the transparency of his mob connections, but Jerry Catena and Sam Klein couldn't get around it, mainly because of their golf game.
One of the things these guys like to do was play golf, and despite the New Jersey restrictions placed against associating with certain known criminals, Casino Control Board investigators photographed Klein playing golf with Catena at Clarence Geist's exclusive Boca Raton resort in Florida.
Then Commission chairman Peter Echeverria called their golf games "horrible," in that they had "openly and notoriously" associated in "complete disregard" of the state's restrictions.
They just couldn't help it.
For Catena and Klein, it was one of the most expensive game of golf they ever played, as Klein's casino license was revoked, he was forced to resign, sell his Bally stock and fined $50,000.
Catena's parole was considered violated and he was returned to prison, where he died a few years later.
Eventually, in 1998, Bally-Hilton, led by Wally Barr, purchased the Atlantic City Country Club and expanded their casino ownership to five casinos in Atlantic City.