The Legend of Pittsburgh's Sharpest Wiseguy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because not all mobsters get movies made about them.
By Seth Ferranti
The 6-foot-4, 250-pound East Liberty mob enforcer was caught on camera snorting cocaine with one hand while urinating off a balcony with the other. The footage of Eugene “Nick the Blade” Gesuale was captured as part of an FBI investigation into Pittsburgh’s Mafia in the 1980s. The fearsome narcotics kingpin was a John Belushi type and ladies man — albeit with a severe violent streak — who loved to party and spend money. One FBI agent said the crude mobster had absolutely no redeeming qualities. But Nick the Blade didn’t care; he was an old school mafioso who made his bones in the 1960s, carved out a drug empire in the 1980s, spent almost 30 years in federal prison for his prohibition-related crimes and even earned a mention in a famous gangster film.
“Nick the Blade’s pop culture claim to fame is that he was the infamous ‘Pittsburgh connection’ from the Oscar-nominated film Goodfellas,” says Scott Burnstein, author of Mafia Prince: Inside America’s Most Violent Crime Family and the Bloody Fall of La Cosa Nostra. He supplied wholesale cocaine to real-life New York Lucchese mob associates Henry Hill, James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke and Thomas “Two-Gun Tommy” DeSimone, portrayed by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, respectively.
They made a movie about that fucking rat. … They need to make one about a real gangster like me.
After dropping out of Central Catholic High School in 1959, Gesuale learned to cut hair at the Pittsburgh Beauty Academy — a skill he’d later use in prison. But a stylist’s salary wasn’t enough for the young man in search of money and power, so when drugs came into the equation, he slipped into a life of crime. By the end of the hippie era, Nick the Blade was calling the shots in Pittsburgh, dealing heroin and serving as “top muscle” for the LaRocca crime family, according to law enforcement. Police arrested him 13 times between 1959 and 1981, but none of these run-ins resulted in a conviction for one reason: Witnesses refused to testify.
“He earned his nickname from a pair of altercations in his youth when he attacked two separate men with a knife,” Burnstein says. The first involved someone looking at his girlfriend; the other a fight after a basketball game. Nick the Blade reportedly was also the prime suspect in the December 1967 gangland slaying of Pittsburgh mob flunky Alphonse Marano, a hit informants told the government he “made his bones” on. Marano introduced an undercover IRS agent to underboss Joseph “Jo-Jo” Pecora, who was in charge of West Virginia’s rackets and casinos. Pittsburgh don Michael Genovese blamed Marano for the subsequent bust and loss of revenue, and Marano subsequently was found dead, shot three times in the back of the head. Gesuale was questioned but never charged.
Between 1978 and 1982, Gesuale made in excess of $1 million from his illicit ventures, the IRS determined. This enabled the mobster to rent a $1,200-a-month penthouse in Highland Park, dine at Pittsburgh’s finest restaurants, fly first-class, wear a different pair of Gucci shoes every day, drive Cadillacs and Jaguars, pay cash for Las Vegas gambling sprees and buy his girlfriends expensive gifts, prosecutors said.
The indictment spelling his doom was filed in January 1985 and included Pagan motorcycle gang boss Daniel “Danny the Deacon” Zwibel, Pittsburgh Press truck driver Roy Ingold — who later testified against him — and Pittsburgh wiseguy John “Johnny Three Fingers” Leone. Before the indictment dropped, Gesuale was tipped off by FBI secretary Jacqueline Wymard, through her boyfriend, mobster John Carrabba, enabling Nick the Blade to flee.
On January 4, 1985, a fugitive warrant was issued for his arrest, and Gesuale landed on the U.S. Marshals Top 15 Most Wanted list. The feds claimed he fled with more than $600,000 in cash and was running his drug empire from Jamaica. Knowing that Gesuale was a big gambler, investigators staked out the only two satellite dishes on the island, nabbing Gesuale at a Montego Bay hotel, where they found him betting on NBA games. Authorities flew him back to Pittsburgh in July 1986. Five days into his trial, he pleaded guilty, and U.S. District judge Donald Ziegler sentenced him to 45 years.
In prison, gangsta rapper Clifford “T.I.” Harris, who served time with the aging mafioso at FCC Forrest City in Arkansas, told the old gangster that he could get millions for his story. Nick the Blade, who’d never snitched on anyone in his life and followed the code of omertà — the Mafia code of honor and silence — to the T, decided he wanted a movie made about his life, a la Goodfellas. “They made a movie about that fucking rat,” he complained to me back in 2012 at Forrest City, referring to Henry Hill. “They need to make one about a real gangster like me.”
After serving 28 years, Gesuale was released on October 31, 2014. Prohibited from returning to Pittsburgh because of threats he made against law enforcement figures during his trial, he relocated to Florida. The 72-year-old may have been an ex-con, but he still displayed plenty of flair. “He had a Rolls-Royce at the halfway house when he first got out,” a prisoner who served time with Gesuale tells OZY. “It was a badass Rolls that he bought for 100 grand in 1985. His sister held onto it that whole time for him.”
Not even two years out of prison, Gesuale was at Past Times Restaurant and Bar in Ormond Beach when he dropped dead from a heart attack while enjoying his usual glass of Pinot Grigio. Hardly a befitting end for a once-scary mobster, who was talking movie deals to the very end.
- Seth FerrantiContact Seth Ferranti