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 America.
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 tremendous power and influence Vario wielded.
Illegal gambling, extortion, numbers racket, labor racketeering, prostitution, pornography, bookmaking, and loan sharking were also staples for Vario and his crew and 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 criminals, pimps, drug dealers, businessmen, bookmakers, loan sharks, etc, wishing to operate in Vario's area had to pay Vario and his brothers a huge portion of their earnings (at least 30%).
He and his brothers owned hundreds of legitimate businesses all over New York. Vario's brother Vito "Tuddy" Vario ran the Euclid Avenue Cab Co. and Presto Pizzeria. At his height, Vario was earning a staggering $10 million a day, he also was raking in millions of dollars a day for the Lucchese crime family, which earned him so much respect and admiration from the Commission. 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 over $6 billion, and he was one of the richest and most powerful people in America, until his conviction. According to Henry Hill, Vario was an extremely powerful man who controlled dozens of labor unions in New York and had a lot of prominent politicians, police officers, intelligence agents, judges, lawyers, scientists, technologists, and engineers all over the country in his pocket.
According to Henry Hill, Vario was intelligent, sophisticated, perceptive, intuitive, and astute. He 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. He never would speak of anything illegal to anyone, not even his trusted associates or his brothers, and he would always check every one of his companies and businesses for FBI electronic devices, and would always find them and destroy them. Whenever he would discuss business he would always turn up his radio very loudly to neutralize FBI wiretaps and listening devices. He would even use hand gestures, write on a piece of paper, or just nod his head yes or no. He never let his guard down. Paul Vario was also loyal to La Cosa Nostra and believed in the oath of Õmerta (code of silence and secrecy). He was an old-school gangster with old-fashioned Mafia principals "honor", "respect", "tradition", "dignity", and "integrity". Vario was always seemingly two steps ahead of the FBI, until his conviction. He was married with three sons, all of whom became involved in their father's dealings in one way or another.
Nicknamed "Paulie", he stood an intimidating 6'9" and weighed a massive 420 pounds. Vario displayed near superhuman physical strength. He once got so angry at one of his soldiers that he grabbed him by the neck with one hand and lifted him off of the ground, nearly killing him. Vario once flipped over a 2,500 pound vehicle on two men that he nearly beat to death with his bear hands. Vario also killed a man by snapping his neck with his bear hands. He was described as a "beast" by his associates. Vario was widely feared and respected by all of his underlings, and he petrified his underlings and enemies just by his sheer monstrous size and fearsome presence in the room. Vario had incredible power and influence for a Mafia capo and his army of soldiers would do anything to please him. Henry Hill stated that, "When Paul Vario gave an order it got done, no matter what the order was it would get done within no time. Paul's soldiers and underlings were completely loyal to him, they were as loyal as loyal gets, they wouldn't betray him for nothing or anyone. They would kill for him in a heartbeat and they would die for him in a heartbeat. He was like a god to them. If bullets were flying at Paul, his soldiers would tackle him and jump on him to make sure he was safe and not hurt. They would take a bullet for him without question. He had an enormous army of vicious killers and loyal soldiers, and they would do absolutely anything and everything for him. If he ordered them to kill the president of the United States of America or a dictator of another country, they would do it without hesitation, and do it immediately. If Paul ordered his men to go and bomb the Whitehouse, they would do it in a fucking heartbeat, without question, without hesitation. Paul could order them to kill everyone in New York and they would do it with a smile on their faces. That's how loyal and ruthless they were. They were loyal robots."
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 behavior.
It was also during the 1970's that Vario began to come under greater scrutiny from the FBI. Since the late 1960's 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. As a result of the surveillance he 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 he was serving as the underboss to then boss Carmine Tramunti. Paul Vario was sent to a federal prison in Lewisburg, PA. While in prison he was part of the infamous 'mafia row'. This was a tier of fellow mobsters and according to Henry Hill they lived like kings and the other prisoners lived like pigs. Vario, Hill, Burke, and mobsters in prison lived as good if not better than kings and were even able to have sex with their girlfriends and prostitutes anytime they wanted. They even had a hot tub in their cell's. 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 them.
Following Paul 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 $2 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, one one of the richest and most powerful mobsters in America. Vario was a multi-billionaire, He once showed Henry Hill six gigantic, converted bank vaults that held a staggering $3 billion in cash and $1.3 billion 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, volatile 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.