Welcome to the Hotel Sterling
By Ken Prendergast
When a team of FBI agents burst through the doors of Cleveland’s Hotel Sterling, people already inside the
hotel appeared understandably surprised at the sudden invasion of sweatpant-clad G-men. But one man
kept his wits, and his sense of humor, amid what would ordinarily be a rather upsetting turn of events.
That man was Samuel George Lucarelli Jr., owner of the seedy hotel.
"He said ‘here comes the FBI baseball team’," Joseph Griffin recalled. Griffin was special agent in-charge of
Cleveland’s FBI office back then. "When we raided the Hotel Sterling, we were wearing our FBI sweatpants.
Lucarelli was a funny guy."
He was also a powerful guy, and still is.
The FBI’s May 10, 1985 raid was the beginning of the end for the Hotel Sterling, which reigned for years as
one of the Cleveland Mafia’s biggest moneymakers. Gambling operations alone at the hotel netted for the
mobsters up to $5,000 a day, according to federal court records. It was also a place where the indigent could
stay for a week or more, find a prostitute or meet a loanshark to pay off gambling debts, and incur new
debts, prosecutors said.
Located on the southeast corner of Prospect Avenue and East 30th Street, at the eastern fringes of
downtown Cleveland, the five-story Hotel Sterling began its life as a legitimate hotel for visitors and
residents. But, in the 1960s, as downtown businesses declined, the southeast edge of the central business
district became a haven for criminal activities. Prospect Avenue was then known as Cleveland’s "red light"
district where prostitution and other criminal enterprises thrived.
The Hotel Sterling soon fell victim to the criminal element, according to a 1978 Department of Justice (DOJ)
report, "Organized Crime and the Labor Unions," written by Peter Vaira and Douglas Roller, who headed
organized crime strike forces in Chicago and Cleveland, respectively.
In the 1970s, the owner of record of the Hotel Sterling was Ernest Zeve, an associate of William "Big Bill"
Presser, the DOJ report noted. Presser was a nationally influential Teamsters union leader and Jewish
racketeer with ties to the Italian-American Mafia, or Cosa Nostra (translated as "Our Thing"). His power can
be summarized by his nomination in 1957 of James R. Hoffa Sr. to be the Teamsters new president.
Presser headed Teamsters Joint Council 41, based in Cleveland, and was president of the Ohio Teamsters
Conference, encompassing one of the union’s largest concentrations of dues-paying members. In 1983, his
son Jackie rose to become president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
"William Presser is a major international (Teamsters) officer allied with organized crime. His ties to the crime
syndicate are spread across the country," the DOJ report said.
The Hotel Sterling seemed to be an anachronism. It was a dingy place that served as a headquarters of
sorts, where local mob leaders and corrupt Teamsters officials met.
Carmen Zagaria, left, and his associate Joseph Giaimo are seen in this 1980 FBI surveillance photo. Zagaria
was the informant who broke the Hotel Sterling case. One of Zagaria's henchmen killed Giaimo in 1981
because Giaimo was owed $560,000 for a marijuana deal.
While low-income people lived upstairs, the lower levels served as a mob powerhouse. On the ground floor
was a restaurant and bar, behind which was an office, known simply as the "back room," where Mafia
business allegedly was conducted. In the basement, gamblers held court, protected by dirty cops and armed
mob bodyguards. Here, Mafia associate Carmen Zagaria ran a high-stakes dice game called barbotte on
Tuesday, Friday and Sunday nights.
Before Zagaria became a federal informant, dirty cops kept the hotel off-limits to law enforcement
investigations. Despite the police corruption, an honest Cleveland cop in the mid 1970s attempted to do his
job. He soon learned how extensive the corruption was. The unnamed Cleveland Police Department sergeant
had uncovered prostitution activities at the Hotel Sterling and began investigating. His noble efforts got the
attention of the hotel’s mobbed-up operators. They went straight to the top to put a halt to his investigation.
Michael Rini was a former Teamster Local 400 president and served as an administrative assistant and labor
advisor to Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk. Rini was a protégé of local Teamster leader Louis "Babe" Triscaro,
Hoffa’s reputed link to the Cleveland Mafia. During Mayor Perk’s reign from 1971-1977, Rini played a dominant
role in the hiring and firing of local government officials.
"Rini is also known as a ‘fixer’ for any problems that may arrive for influential organized crime figures," the
1978 DOJ report said.
Mobsters reportedly went to Rini to stop the police sergeant’s investigation of prostitution at the Hotel
Sterling. The sergeant subsequently was reassigned to other duties at Rini’s insistence, effectively putting
the kibosh on the policeman’s investigation, according to the DOJ report.
When a new player took over the Hotel Sterling, on or about 1980, the corruption didn’t end.
In 1968, Sam Lucarelli Sr. founded Minute Man Inc., a firm supplying temporary employees to client
companies. Sources say he did so with the blessing of the local mob, as the Mafia had a stranglehold on the
city’s labor scene at that time. However, Minute Man officials have long denied that their company had any
affiliation with organized crime.
Lucarelli’s son, Sam Jr., born Feb. 29, 1944, was bold, smart and ambitious. As a young man, he drove a
union chip truck 15 hours a day, learning the hard lessons of the labor world and the trucking trade on the
blue-collar streets of Cleveland. He loved to gamble and enjoyed Cleveland’s gritty street life. These
experiences, and his father’s alleged connections to organized crime figures, introduced him to the city’s
Sam Lucarelli Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps. Not only did he take over Minute Man, he also assumed
control over the Hotel Sterling through a company called N&S Properties. Under Lucarelli’s stewardship,
gambling operations continued at the hotel, as did the prostitution and loansharking activities. Gambling
consisted of sports betting, barbotte and numbers with next-day payoffs. The paying numbers were the
same as the winning Ohio Lottery numbers, but they offered better odds of winning and incurred no income
There was a different tax, however. A "street tax" was collected on a portion of the gambling profits earned
by the hotel’s owner, paid to members of the Cleveland Mafia, Zagaria later told the FBI.
Despite Lucarelli’s love of gambling, he wasn’t very good at it, said a former mob enforcer and convicted felon
from Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood.
"Lucarelli lost all the time," the man said. "He fixed the games at the Sterling, and he still couldn’t win."
Police continued to be kept at bay from the gambling operations as Lucarelli paid bribes to a few cops in the
Cleveland Police Department Third District’s vice squad, the FBI said. Lucarelli allegedly hired patrolman Louis
E. Catania as a police bagman to seek out other police officers who might be willing to help protect the hotel’
s gambling operations for $1,000 a week.
Zagaria, who continued running gambling at the Hotel Sterling, had become an FBI informant after he was
indicted in the early 1980s for running a large drug ring with the help of the Cleveland Mafia. He was even
proposed for membership in the Mafia, but declined the offer. Zagaria reportedly had led the FBI to the Hotel
Sterling, which was generating $4 million a year during the early- and mid-1980s from illegal gambling and
loansharking profits, the FBI alleged.
"At the time he (Zagaria) ran the barbut (sic) game at the Sterling Hotel during the winter of 1980-81, officers
of the Cleveland Police Department would frequent the hotel and were familiar with the illegal activities taking
place in the hotel," according to an FBI affidavit.
Loansharking operations were a big business, too. Zagaria told the FBI that Lucarelli had $100,000 on the
streets, with interest (called "vigorish" or "juice") charges ranging from 156 percent to 260 percent.
Payments by loanshark victims were to be made weekly.
Information in the FBI’s affidavits, derived mostly from informants, said loanshark payments were delivered at
the hotel’s bar. Loanshark victims gave envelopes filled with cash to a bartender who placed them in the bar’
s cash register. Those envelopes reportedly were picked up by Lucarelli. When those envelopes didn’t arrive,
there were consequences.
One loanshark victim reportedly told an FBI informant that "he had received threats and that he was going to
get ‘his back broken’ if he did not make his juice payment."
On April 2, 1985, an FBI listening device in the bar’s back room picked up an unknown man asking Lucarelli "if
these guys don’t pay this week, (are) we going to blow up their house or what?" Lucarelli’s response was
Two days later, the listening device overheard a conversation in the back room, in which a man said he had
made a bomb and was allegedly displaying it to others in the private room.
But not all of the Hotel Sterling’s residents and patrons considered themselves victims of Lucarelli’s operation.
Many of Minute Man’s temporary employees were transients and given low-rate residences at the hotel.
There were nearly 50 people staying at the hotel when the FBI raided it in 1985. While they could avail
themselves of its vices, residents and other patrons found that more practical services also were offered at
the Hotel Sterling.
"I use to cash my Minute Man checks at the Sterling," said a man, who identified himself only as Noodle. "Sam
and his father, Bucky, were classy people. Bucky was Ron (Lucarelli) Sr.'s uncle who I think ran a restaurant in
the Sterling. They were fine gentlemen. They were always willing to help. There’s no more people like them."
Sam Lucarelli Jr. had friends in high places. He was a major campaign contributor to Cleveland-area native
and Ohio Governor Richard F. Celeste, who gave Lucarelli’s Minute Man Corp. more than $1 million in no-bid
state contracts in the mid-1980s for state agencies looking for temporary workers. Many of those later
convicted in the Hotel Sterling gambling case gave money to a Laborers Union political action committee
which, in turn, contributed to the campaigns of federal, county and municipal judges, including Stephanie
Tubbs Jones, now a U.S. Congresswoman.
Also, in the mid-1990s, Lucarelli hired Benny Bonnano as Minute Man’s spokesperson, after Bonnano was
convicted of a felony -- theft in office as Cleveland’s Municipal Clerk of Courts. Bonnano was a close friend of
then-Mayor Michael White and then-President Bill Clinton. Sources say Lucarelli hired Bonnano for the benefits
his political contacts might provide to Minute Man and Lucarelli. A local judge in 2002 expunged Bonnano’s
Lucarelli also had friends in low places, informants and other sources alleged. Those friends were facing
tough times in the early 1980s, when the Hotel Sterling was still a reputed organized crime headquarters.
In 1982-83, federal and local law enforcement agencies began dismantling the Cleveland Mafia. Mob boss
James Licavoli, underboss Angelo Lonardo and other top Cleveland Mafia leaders were convicted of a variety
of organized crimes. With those leaders behind bars, the FBI turned its attention to various operations that
were enriching the Cleveland Mafia. Given that the Hotel Sterling was one of the local mob’s biggest
moneymakers, it was only a matter of time before the FBI targeted it. With Zagaria’s help, it didn’t take long
for the FBI to build its case.
In the FBI’s 1985 raid on the Hotel Sterling, agents seized cash, documents, betting paraphernalia and other
evidence of illegal gambling. The raid effectively shut down the hotel, as residents and other guests were
evicted. The state fire marshal’s office filed suit shortly after the raid to permanently close the hotel, as it
failed to meet a number of local and state fire codes.
Lucarelli apparently was undeterred. On April 16, 1986, he and an associate, Victor Nelli, met with patrolman
Catania at the Hotel Sterling to secure Cleveland police protection for a new after-hours club they planned to
open on Payne Avenue, near downtown. There, they would offer craps, blackjack and other gambling.
Catania reportedly sought and received approval from certain Cleveland police officers to open the cheat
spot. Six days later, Lucarelli called Nelli to say they had the green light from police to conduct illegal gambling
at the new club, according to court records.
It wasn’t until Nov. 3, 1987 that 11 men were indicted by a federal grand jury as a result of the FBI’s earlier
raid on the Hotel Sterling. Indicted were Fred E. Bolden, James J. DeCore, William J. DeNova, Isaac Johnson,
Samuel G. Lucarelli, Gregory D. Mascio, Joseph T. Nelli, Victor A. Nelli, Biagio A. Oddo, Michael Panzarella and
Robert A. Schuman.
Two more years passed before eight of the 11 men, including Lucarelli, pleaded guilty to reduced charges,
including racketeering and/or gambling. Lucarelli and Victor Nelli each were given 30-month prison sentences.
As part of his plea agreement, Lucarelli forfeited $200,000 in cash, payable in $25,000 increments every six
Also pleading guilty were Decore, Mascio, Joseph Nelli, Oddo, Panzarella and Schuman. Later, Bolden, DeNova
and Johnson were convicted of various charges stemming from the Hotel Sterling case.
For those pleading guilty or convicted, it was a rogue’s gallery.
Bolden was a retired Cleveland police officer who spent his post-law enforcement career under the shadow of
that felony conviction.
DeNova had gone to prison in 1967 after FBI agents confiscated 43 stolen fragmentation grenades at his
Warrensville Heights home. He later moved to Twinsburg, and was convicted of grand theft, breaking and
entering, plus auto theft in Summit County. Today, DeNova reportedly works for Lucarelli at Minute Man.
Oddo is the son of Charles Oddo, a 1930s gambling operator and former associate of local Jewish racketeer
Shondor Birns who was murdered by associates of Irish gangster Danny Greene via a car bomb in 1975.
Mascio was convicted in 1976 of weapons charges. He was manager of the Prospect Lounge, near the Hotel
Sterling, when it was cited repeatedly by the Ohio Liquor Control Commission for allowing prostitution,
gambling and drug sales, according to commission records.
Panzarella, is the son of Tony Panzarella, another former associate of Birns and of Cleveland native Donald
King (today a famous boxing promoter) who got his start in the gambling rackets with Birns. These days,
Panzarella reportedly works for Lucarelli at Minute Man.
Schuman is a former Warrensville Heights patrolman who was fired in 1973 for associating with mobsters and
other known criminals, including DeNova, court records said. Schuman reportedly tried to influence a Summit
County judge to give DeNova a light jail sentence.
Little is known about the others caught up in the Hotel Sterling case.
Media efforts to contact Lucarelli for comment on the 1985 raid and 1987 indictment were referred to his
lawyers, Anthony Garofoli and Elmer Giuliani. Garofoli was a former law firm partner of John Climaco, when
Climaco served as legal counsel for the Teamsters and for the late Jackie Presser. Giuliani was a famous
Cleveland mob attorney who died of natural causes in 2000.
In court, Lucarelli and others who pleaded guilty said they were sorry for the embarrassment they had
caused their families.
Lucarelli served his time in prison and again returned as boss of Minute Man and its various employment
companies. But, today, his son Jason serves as the corporate front man, given his lack of a felony record.
Minute Man continued its growth to become the largest temporary employment firm in Greater Cleveland. Sam
Lucarelli Jr.’s supporters say the sting from the Hotel Sterling bust has unfairly tainted him.
"It's just sad that Cleveland (its organized crime scene) is in such bad shape that the wealthiest Italian
(Lucarelli) in town can be considered the Mafia boss," said one source who refused to be identified. "He
(Lucarelli) couldn’t kill a fly. When Sam Bussaca (a former Cleveland Teamster leader and reputed mob figure)
got out of the joint, he laughed in Lucarelli’s face and called him a wanna-be."
But the FBI and federal prosecutors said Lucarelli and his associates received the punishment they deserved.
Some, including Wayne A. Johnson, recently the chief investigator of the Chicago Crime Commission, contend
that Lucarelli and a few of his associates continue to mingle with mob figures, not only in Cleveland but in
Chicago as well. But it should also be noted that Minute Man and its ancillary companies have offices
nationwide, including in Chicago. Today, Lucarelli owns a mansion in an exclusive section of suburban
Brecksville. He continues to be associated with powerful politicians, including Ohio Governor Robert A. Taft,
who personally attended a 1998 fundraiser for him, hosted by Lucarelli at Little Italy’s Nido Italia restaurant.
Yet, not all life goes on as before, in the aftermath of the Hotel Sterling case.
Among all the punishment dished out as a result of the hotel bust, the most serious blow was dealt to the
building itself. The Hotel Sterling was handed a death sentence, derived from the federal case against its
owner and the many fire code violations found in the unkempt building. In May 1986, the Hotel Sterling was
knocked down by the wrecking ball and carted away.
These days, Prospect Avenue is a reputable, revitalized district of near-downtown businesses, townhouses,
churches and union office buildings. Now a parking lot, the southeast corner of Prospect and East 30th offers
no clues as to its shady past. Only in court records and in the memories of those who stayed there, ran its
vices or partook of them, is there any evidence of that street corner’s sordid history.
But most of its players are still around, still playing.