Paul Vario (July 9, 1914 – May 3, 1988) was a powerful and longtime captain in the Lucchese Crime Family. Vario served as the Underboss and Consigliere of the Lucchese crime family in the early 1970s but thought it was too much responsibility and a couple years later was able to resign under Lucchese boss Carmine Tramunti's approval. Vario was a maternal cousin of Colombo crime family consigliere Johnny Oddo and his brother, mobster Steven "Little Stevie" Oddo. Vario ran a very large crew of sophisticated thieves, criminal masterminds and ruthless killers. Additionally Vario was thought to have held the position of acting underboss for Stefano LaSalle of the Lucchese crime family just prior to the conviction of then mob boss Carmine Tramunti and before Anthony Corallo became the official leader. Under the iron-fisted rule of Corallo, the Underboss rank went to Salvatore Santoro. He was portrayed as Paul Cicero by actor Paul Sorvino in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas. For over 30 years, Vario was one of the richest and most powerful gangsters in New York City.
Vario lived all his life in New York City and was believed to be involved in loansharking and racketeering. The Vario crew stole from the neighboring JFK International Airport through hijacking. Prior to 1963 the airport was known as the Idlewild Airport and was also then used as fountain for stealing. Besides the Vario crew, the well-known Gambino family crew (led by Carmine Fatico and later John Gotti), also exploited the airport for their own criminal gain. According to former Vario associate Henry Hill, the airport was like the crew's 'personal Citibank'. Because of his influence over the cargo haulers' union, Vario could often threaten with a labor strike in order to turn an investigation away. During the 1980s the FBI would listen in with hidden microphones as fellow Lucchese family members and associates boasted 'we own JFK', an obvious testament to the enormous power and influence Vario wielded.
Illegal gambling, labor racketeering, prostitution, pornography and loansharking were also staples for Vario and his associates. It was believed that any form of gambling (most commonly numbers game, bookmaking or underground casinos) that operated in the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn paid regular 'protection' (extortion) payments. It was common knowledge that any racketeer wishing to operate in this area had to pay Vario and his brothers a portion of their earnings.
He and his brothers were involved in a number of legitimate businesses, including junk yards, flower shops, restaurants, night clubs, strip clubs, bars, bakerys, food stores, auto shops, construction companies and cabstands, from which he would conduct business most of the time. Brother Vito "Tuddy" Vario ran the Euclid Avenue Cab Co. and Presto Pizzeria. At his height, Vario was earning a staggering $7 million a day. Vario and his brothers, along with their criminal associates, operated in Brownsville section of Brooklyn, in East New York. Both the cabstands and pizzeria's were located in close proximity on Euclid Avenue and were popular hangouts for the crew. In the early 1970s, Vario became a billionaire, his extraordinary net worth was approximately $4 billion, and he was one of the richest and most powerful people in America, until his conviction.
According to Hill, Vario was always very careful, low-key and secretive, he never used a phone because he always believed it was too easy for law enforcement to hear his conversations. Instead he would meet with his soldiers or other intermediaries who would talk to the people Vario needed to communicate with. He was married with three sons, all of whom became involved in their father's dealings in one way or another.
Nicknamed "Paulie", he was incredibly massive, and was a beast of a man, he had a towering height and a monstrous size, he stood 6' 9" and weighed over 400 pounds. He had immense and incredible physical strength in his upper body and once physically flipped over a 2,500-pound vehicle, and beat a exceptionally large man almost to death with his bear hands. Vario was described as a beast with human skin. Vario petrified his underlings and enemies just by his sheer monstrous size and fearsome presence in the room. Vario was physically one of the largest mobsters in America.
In the early 1970s Paul was a "membership director" for mob boss Joseph Colombo's Italian-American Civil Rights League. However he rescinded his membership and withdrew all support when it became apparent that the relentless accusations Colombo was making against the FBI and U.S. government about racism and anti-Italian discrimination were attracting attention, which could easily divert from Colombo and his supporters' politics and into their criminal behaviour.
It was also during the 1970s that Vario began to come under greater scrutiny from the FBI. Since the late 1960s the Vario brothers had ventured into the junkyard business, most likely a front for a chop shop operation and would use an on-site trailer as an office to discuss business-legal and illegal. As a result of the surveillance Vario was indicted but refused to cooperate. He was eventually found guilty of contempt and conspiracy to commit perjury and was sentenced to three years. Prior to his conviction it was thought that Vario was serving as the underboss to then boss Carmine Tramunti. Vario was shipped off to the federal prison located in Lewisburg, PA. While in prison Vario was part of the infamous 'mafia row'. This was a tier of fellow mobsters and according to Hill they lived like kings compared to other prisoners with liquor, wine, cigars, cigarettes, personal showers, king-sized beds, telephones, pool tables, fine food and even able to have sex with their girlfriends anytime they wanted. Hill was also serving a sentence of five years at the Lewisburg facility for assault and extortion. Additionally, infamous Lucchese family soldier Johnny Dio was serving time as well, and according to Hill acted as a cook for Vario and others.
Following Vario's release from prison in 1975, he was no longer the underboss in the Lucchese crime family, as it was apparent that the boss Anthony Corallo had made his intentions of having Salvatore Santoro fill the role.
According to Hill, Vario forbade those closest to him to engage in narcotics trafficking (although while in prison Hill openly dealt narcotics with Vario's blessing). During the first few years of his release, Vario maintained his strong ties to the notorious Lucchese family capo and major drug trafficker Joseph "Joe Beck" DiPalmero. Because of their surveillance, the FBI believed that Vario had financed at least one large scale cocaine shipment with the assistance of DiPalermo. The shipment was seized in Queens following a tip-off to the DEA and was valued at $1.5 million dollars. Vario's misfortune was soon forgotten when he approved of the Lufthansa Heist in 1978 and collected a great tribute payment of an estimated $2.5 million
Vario was an extremely rich and powerful man. Vario was a multi-billionaire, He once showed Henry Hill a huge, converted bank vault that held a staggering $1.3 billion in cash and $600 million in gold bars.
Among Vario's associates were Jimmy Burke and Henry Hill. Vario owned a cab stand across the street from the apartment where Hill grew up, and took Hill under his wing when the boy was twelve or thirteen, having him run errands and act as a valet. As the years went by, Vario initiated Hill into criminal life, telling all of his associates that Hill was his nephew. It was while on a double date with one of Vario's sons that Hill met his wife, Karen. Karen later became a courier for Hill, running messages to Vario, with whom she had an affair. Burke's protege Tommy DeSimone attempted to have sexual relations with Karen Hill, Henry Hill's wife. In order to resolve the situation and quell a vengeful Henry Hill, Vario held a sit-down with members of the Gambino crime family and revealed to them that DeSimone, who was not yet a made man, was responsible for the murders of two of their members, prompting them to murder DeSimone in revenge. Vario was later imprisoned largely because of the testimony of Henry Hill.
Vario was known to be extremely ruthless and brutal, despite his portrayal as brooding and gentle in Goodfellas. Hill saw a show of this ruthless violence first hand. He watched, aged twelve or thirteen, as Vario drove up to a barmaid's apartment, took his brass knuckles out of his pants pocket and severely assaulted her for telling his wife that the two were having an affair. The barmaid's ribs, collar bone, cheek bones, nose and jaw was severely broken, she had a major concussion, and she had to get over sixty stitches across her face. The bermaid nearly died twice on the way to the hospital, and according to Hill, Vario never showed or expressed any remorse or regret over it.
Family and Lineage
Paul had a wife, Phyliss and three sons, Peter "Petey" Vario, Paul "Little Paulie" Vario Jr., and Leonard "Lenny" Vario, all of whom became involved in crime. Paul Jr. was a good friend of mobster Hill and introduced him to his first wife Karen Hill. Lenny was allegedly Paul, Sr.'s favorite son; he burned to death while torching property in connection with a union. Little is known about his other son, Peter. Vario adored Phyliss and was once so enraged that in a restaurant that he frequented called, DonPepe, located on Leffers Boulevard, in Ozone Park, Queens, N.Y., a maitre 'd accidentally spilled wine on her dress one night that he sent his entire 'crew' to the restaurant, where they assaulted the maitre'd and other members of the staff who tried to help the maitre'd. He is the grandfather of the Hollywood actor Paul Vario who starred in the mob thriller This Thing of Ours with James Caan, Frank Vincent, and Vincent Pastore.
Paulie also had four brothers; Vito 'Tuddy' Vario (1928-1988), Salvatore Vario (1919-1976), Leonard Vario (1909-1981), and Thomas Vario (1917-1984). He is also a relative of Boston, Massachusetts Whitey Bulger associate Benedetto "Chubby" Oddo (1939-). The Vario family originated from Sicily. The etymology of the Vario surname is that it was originally a nickname given to a person who lives in or comes from the property of Vannius.
Death and legacy
Paul "Paulie" Vario died while incarcerated at FCI Fort Worth, Texas, (Fort Worth Federal Prison) on November 22, 1988, at the age of seventy-three while he was serving a ten to twelve year sentence for convictions largely gained through the testimony of former Lucchese associate Henry Hill, who turned state's evidence and testified against Vario, Jimmy "The Gent" Burke and others, as the film GoodFellas more or less accurately relates. Hill entered the Federal Witness Protection Program after testifying, but was expelled several years later for revealing his identity in preparation for his autobiography "Gangsters and Goodfellas".
Paul Vario's body is buried at St. John's Cemetery, Middle Village, Queens, New York.