John "Handsome Johnny" Roselli (born Filippo Sacco; July 4, 1905 – August 9, 1976), sometimes spelled Rosselli, was an influential mobster for the Chicago Outfit who helped that organization control Hollywood and the Las Vegas Strip. In the early 1960s, Roselli was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a plot to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Filippo Sacco was born in Esperia, in the Province of Frosinone, in the Central Italian region of Lazio, on July 4, 1905. His father, Vincenzo Sacco, moved on his own to the United States. Filippo immigrated with his mother, Mariantonia Pascale Sacco to Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1911. His father died in 1918.
In 1922, Sacco was arrested on narcotics charges in Massachusetts. He fled to Chicago where he changed his name from Filippo Sacco to John Roselli. The new name was in honor of Italian Renaissance sculptor Cosimo Rosselli. He became a member of the Chicago Outfit and was known by his mob nickname of "Handsome Johnny".
The exact date and reason for Roselli moving to Los Angeles is unknown. Some sources say that Al Capone or Frank Nitti sent him west to oversee the Outfit's business interests such as the racing wire and movie extortion scheme. However, Roselli moved to Los Angeles in 1924, before either Capone or Nitti became boss of the Chicago Outfit. He pleaded guilty to bootlegging beer in 1924 (then going by the name "James Roselli"). Roselli began his California criminal career working with Los Angeles mobster Jack Dragna.
Roselli became close friends with film producer Bryan Foy, who brought Roselli into the movie business as a producer with Foy's small production company, Eagle Lion Studios, where Roselli is credited on a number of early gangster movies as a producer. In the 1940s Roselli was involved in the Outfit's multimillion-dollar extortion campaign against the motion picture industry.
In 1942, Roselli was indicted on federal labor racketeering charges, along with George Brown, former president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union, and Willie Bioff, labor racketeer and former pimp. On December 4, 1942 Roselli, a professed U.S. patriot, enlisted in the United States Army. He served as a private until he was arrested March 19, 1943. In 1943, after a year-long trial on the racketeering charges, Roselli and several Chicago mobsters were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, in 1947 they were paroled after serving only about three and a half years. After his release, Roselli returned to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a movie producer with producer Bryan Foy. Roselli did end up receiving production credit on several "B" movies.
The extensive influence the Outfit had over Hollywood is best illustrated in 1948 when boss Tony Accardo told Roselli to force powerful Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn into signing then-unknown actress Marilyn Monroe to a lucrative multi-year contract. The usually combative Cohn quickly complied without opposition, mainly because Cohn had obtained control of Columbia through mob funds and influence provided by both Accardo and Roselli.
In the mid-1950s, Roselli shifted his focus away from Hollywood and toward the fast-growing and highly profitable gambling mecca, Las Vegas, Nevada. By 1956, Roselli had become the Chicago and Los Angeles mob's chief representative in Las Vegas. His job was to ensure that the Chicago mob bosses received their fair share of the burgeoning casino revenues through "skimming". However, according to the Los Angeles office of the FBI, Roselli was employed as a movie producer at Monogram Studios.
After the Cuban Revolution in January 1959, Fidel Castro closed down the casinos that the Mob operated in Cuba, and attempted to drive the mobsters out of the country. This made Roselli, Chicago Outfit boss Sam Giancana and Tampa boss Santo Trafficante amenable to the idea of killing Castro.
In 1960, the CIA recruited ex-FBI agent Robert Maheu, who later became a proxy to billionaire Howard Hughes in Las Vegas, to approach Roselli. Maheu passed himself off as the representative of international corporations that wanted Castro killed because of their lost gambling operations. Roselli introduced Maheu to two men he referred to as "Sam Gold" plus "Joe." "Sam Gold" was Giancana, "Joe" was Santo Trafficante, Jr., the Tampa, Florida boss and one of the most powerful mobsters in pre-revolution Cuba. The agency gave the mobsters six poison pills to murder Castro. For several months, anti-Castro Cubans tied to the Mafia tried unsuccessfully to put the pills into Castro's food. In 1961, after the failed CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba, these assassination attempts, which included hit teams of snipers, trained on Roselli's secret CIA base in the Florida Keys, continued with a vengeance, now with CIA legend William "Wild Bill" King Harvey, taking charge of Roselli's efforts.
The assassination attempts by Roselli were publicized in 1971 by Jack Anderson, a Washington Post reporter and acknowledged by the CIA in 2007 when it declassified the Family jewels documents.
In 1963, singer Frank Sinatra sponsored Roselli for membership in the exclusive Los Angeles Friar's Club. Soon after his acceptance, Roselli discovered an elaborate card-cheating operation run by one of his Las Vegas friends, Maurice Friedman, and asked for his cut. The card cheating was finally discovered in July 1967 by FBI agents tailing Roselli. Scores of wealthy men including millionaire Harry Karl, the husband of actress Debbie Reynolds, and actor Zeppo Marx, were bilked out of millions of dollars. Grant B. Cooper represented some of the defendants in the case, including Roselli. Roselli was eventually convicted and fined $55,000. During the trial, secret grand jury transcripts were discovered on the defense attorney's table. Cooper eventually pleaded guilty to contempt for possessing the documents.
In 1968, Roselli was tried and convicted of maintaining an illegal residence in the United States (he'd never acquired lawful US residence or citizenship), then was ordered deported to Italy by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. However, Italy refused to accept Roselli, so he remained in the United States. Roselli was close to L.A. mob caporegime Jimmy Fratianno for many years, and he is mentioned with near reverence by Fratianno in his best selling book, The Last Mafioso
On June 24 and September 22, 1975, Roselli testified before the 1975 U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCIA) led by Idaho Senator Frank Church about the CIA plan to kill Castro, Operation Mongoose. Shortly before Roselli testified, an unknown person shot and killed Giancana in the basement of his Illinois home. This happened just days before Giancana was to testify before the committee. Giancana's murder supposedly prompted Roselli to permanently leave Los Angeles and Las Vegas for Miami, Florida.
On April 23, 1976, Roselli was called before the committee to testify about a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. Three months after his first round of testimony on the Kennedy assassination, the Committee wanted to recall Roselli. However, at this point, he had been missing since July 28. On August 3, Senator Howard Baker, a member of the new SSCIA, requested that the FBI investigate Roselli's disappearance.
On August 9, 1976, Roselli's decomposing body was found by fisherman in a 55-gallon steel fuel drum floating in Dumfoundling Bay near Miami, Florida. He died of asphyxiation. Federal investigators suggested he may have been killed by Chicago mobsters for keeping an unfair share of the mob's gambling interests in Las Vegas. At the behest of some members of the United States Senate, United States Attorney General Edward H. Levi instructed the FBI to find out if Roselli's earlier testimony regarding the CIA plot to assassinate Castro may have led to his murder.
JFK conspiracy allegations
After Roselli's death, journalists Jack Anderson and Les Whitten published an editorial stating that Roselli had told associates that individuals he had recruited to kill Castro had been turned by the Cuban leader to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.
Bill Bonanno, the son of Cosa Nostra mafia boss Joseph Bonanno, claimed in his 1999 memoir, Bound by Honor: A Mafioso's Story, that he had discussed the assassination of Kennedy with Roselli and implicated him as the primary hitman in a conspiracy instigated by the mob. According to Bonanno, Roselli fired at Kennedy from a storm drain on Elm Street. In 2006, the Discovery Channel aired an hour-long television documentary entitled Conspiracy Files:JFK. Based on information in the book Ultimate Sacrifice by Lamar Waldron, the program asserted that Roselli was responsible for framing Abraham Bolden who was arrested the day before he was to appear before the Warren Commission. In 2010, Playboy magazine published an article by Hillel Levin in which Roselli was also implicated in the assassination by Robert "Tosh" Plumlee and James Files, an inmate within the Illinois Department of Corrections.
In the CBS television drama Vegas, the character from the Chicago Mob Johnny Rizzo, portrayed by Michael Wiseman, is loosely based on Johnny Roselli, as when Rizzo is introduced. Rizzo is in the Vegas black book and is not allowed to be in any casino. When Sheriff Ralph Lamb catches Rizzo in one, he demands that Rizzo leave. Rizzo, known for his temper, gets into a fight, and is easily subdued by Lamb. This is based on an actual event involving the real Sheriff Lamb and Roselli.