Paul Frank "Paulie" Vario (July 9, 1914 – May 3, 1988), was an American mobster and made man in the Lucchese crime family. Vario was a caporegime and had his own crew of mobsters in Brooklyn, New York. Following the testimony of Henry Hill, Vario was convicted in 1984, of fraud, and sentenced to four years in prison, followed by extortion in 1985, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He died on May 3, 1988, of lung failure in prison.
Paul Vario was born in New York City. In 1925, at age 11, Vario was sentenced to seven months in juvenile detention for truancy. He later became a member of the Lucchese crime family.
In the early 1970s, Vario was "membership director" for Colombo crime family boss Joe 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 However, he rescinded his membership and withdrew all support when it became apparent that the relentless accusations Colombo was making against the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. government and anti-Italian discrimination were attracting attention, which could easily divert from Colombo and his supporters' politics and into their criminal behavior.
Rackets and businesses
Vario's crew, notably consisting of Thomas DeSimone and Henry Hill, frequently hijacked cargo at JFK International Airport. The airport was located near the Vario crew's neighborhood territory in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Vario often used his influence over the cargo haulers' union to threaten labor strikes in attempts to block government investigations. During the 1980s FBI surveillance wire taps recorded Lucchese family mobsters boasting that "we own JFK." Henry Hill also stated that for the crews the airport was "like Citibank".
Vario allegedly controlled most forms of illegal gambling in the East New York section of Brooklyn. These included numbers games, bookmaking, and underground casinos. Anyone operating an illegal gambling operation in this area was forced to pay a percentage of their earnings to Vario as "protection" from theft or violence. In the late 1960s, Vario entered the junkyard business, most likely a front for a chop shop operation. He used a trailer at the junkyard as an office to discuss business, legal and illegal. According to Hill, Vario originally prohibited his closest lieutenants from narcotics trafficking. However, when Vario was later in prison, he gave Hill permission to deal in narcotics.
Vario was also involved in legitimate businesses that included a flower shop, a bar, a restaurant and a taxi stand. Vario would use these business locations to also conduct his illegal rackets. At his height, Vario was earning an estimated $25,000 a day for all these illegal rackets. According to Hill, Vario once told him that he had stashed $1 million in a single vault. During this period, Vario also served as a counselor or underboss to Lucchese boss Carmine Tramunti.
Prosecution and prison
In 1970, Vario was cited for contempt of court and was sent to the Nassau County Correctional Facility on Long Island for seven months.
On April 7, 1972, law enforcement placed an electronic listening device inside Vario's trailer at the junkyard and started gathering evidence against him. In addition, a police detective wearing a listening device started visiting the trailer. Vario was convinced the policeman was corrupt and soon started offering him bribes. The entire surveillance operation lasted about six months.
In October 1972, police raided Vario's junkyard in Canarsie. On November 1, 1972, Vario was indicted on charges of tampering with a witness. He had allegedly advised Frank Heitman, a convicted gambler, to flee to Florida to avoid testifying to a grand jury in Nassau County. To arrest Vario, police had to chase his car for 20 minutes through the streets of Brooklyn before he finally stopped for them. On November 21, 1972, Vario was indicted on insurance fraud charges. He and several co-conspirators had stripped a boat of its equipment, sunk it, and then filed a $7,000 insurance claim. On December 7, 1972, Vario was indicted on charges that included attempting to bribe the officer at the trailer. Also in December 1972, Vario pleaded guilty to drunken driving and received probation. However, Vario violated probation in early 1973 and was in jail by February 1973.
On February 9, 1973, Vario was convicted on tax evasion charges. On April 6, 1973, Vario was sentenced to six years in federal prison for the tax evasion conviction.
Vario was sent to the federal prison located in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. While in prison, Vario was part of the infamous "Mafia row" of prisoners.
Release from prison
In 1975, Vario was released from federal prison. He was no longer the underboss in the Lucchese crime family; new boss Anthony Corallo had replaced Vario with Salvatore Santoro. On parole, Vario moved to a residence near Miami, Florida.
During the first few years of his release, Vario maintained his strong ties to the Lucchese family capo and well-known dope 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.
In 1978, Vario approved his crew's participation in the infamous Lufthansa heist at JFK airport. The idea was presented to Vario by phone while he was in Florida. Vario quickly gave his approval, but insisted that Burke, then in prison, supervise it. In December 1978, the crew successfully looted an estimated $5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewelry (equivalent to $23 million in 2019).
Return to prison
On February 9, 1984, Vario was convicted of defrauding the federal government. Now a government witness, Hill testified that Vario had arranged a fictitious restaurant job for Hill so that Hill could be released from federal prison. Vario was convicted and on April 3, 1984, he was sentenced to four years in federal prison and fined $10,000.
On February 21, 1985, while serving his prison sentence, Vario was indicted in a racketeering conspiracy that involved extortion. He and co-conspirators were charged with extorting over $350,000 from air cargo companies at JFK airport, threatening them with labor problems if they did not pay. Convicted again with the help of Hill's testimony, he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for extortion.
Paul and his first wife, Vita, had three sons, Peter, Paul Jr., and Leonard. Vario was the grandfather of actor/artist Paul Vario.
On July 20, 1973, Leonard Vario died of severe burns at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Queens. The cause of his injuries was never discovered. At his funeral, two television cameramen and a police detective were beaten by the mourners.
Paul had four brothers; Vito (1928–1988), Salvatore (1919–1976), Leonard (1909–1981), and Thomas (1917–1984). Vario was a maternal cousin of Colombo crime family consigliere John Oddo and his brother, mobster Steven. He was also related to Whitey Bulger associate Benedetto Oddo (1939-).
Vario died on May 3, 1988, aged 73, from lung failure as a result of lung cancer while incarcerated at Fort Worth Federal Prison in Fort Worth, Texas.
He is buried at St. John Cemetery, Middle Village, Queens, New York.