WILKES-BARRE — Sally Bufalino Dietrick has only fond memories of her relative, reputed area crime boss Rosario “Russell” Bufalino, whose life and dealings with the Italian mob recently have been thrust under the spotlight.
“As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Bufalino was a good man,” Dietrick said. “I know a woman who told me if it wasn’t for him, her kids wouldn’t have shoes on their feet.”
Dietrick, along with her great-grandson, Sal Dietrick, 14, attended a discussion and book-signing event with author and former Allentown Morning Call reporter Matt Birkbeck on Sunday afternoon at Genetti Hotel & Conference Center in Wilkes-Barre.
Dietrick said her father, Charlie Bufalino, was Russell Bufalino’s first cousin.
Birkbeck, who lives in the Poconos region, stopped in Wilkes-Barre on tour with his latest book, “The Quiet Don,” to talk about writing the biography of Bufalino.
“The Quiet Don” has been flying off the shelves, Barnes & Noble Booksellers spokeswoman Donna Wench said in a news release.
“It is the biggest selling book in our Wilkes-Barre store with over 3,000 books already sold,” Wench said.
Birkbeck said he, too, is surprised about the strong response to his book, which was published back in October.
“To tell you that the reaction, particularly from this neck of the woods, has been surprising is an understatement,” Birkbeck said. “I couldn’t find people to talk to me before the book came out. Now everyone wants to share their story about Russell and about some of the things that actually continue to happen around here.”
But as far as Bufalino’s life of crime goes, Dietrick said she did not “know anything about that.”
The book signing was hosted by Wilkes-Barre Metro Film Office.
Birkbeck’s book begins and ends with the more recent tale of area businessman Louis DeNaples and his opening of the Mount Airy Casino in Mount Pocono.
DeNaples had been under a grand jury investigation starting in 2007 following charges he lied to the state Gaming Control Board during the license application process, saying he had no ties to the deceased Bufalino.
Prosecutors eventually dropped the case after it moved before the state Supreme Court when DeNaples argued confidential information had been leaked by state police to the press. DeNaples agreed to forgo ownership of Mount Airy and yield it to his children.
Birkbeck had covered the DeNaples case for The Morning Call and said his interest piqued as sources dropped clues that eventually led him to stacks of federal files on Bufalino, who passed away in 1994 at the age of 93.
Bufalino, a native of Sicily, called Kingston home for most of his life and traveled weekly to Manhattan to conduct business. He owned many of the dozens of garment factories once prolific in Luzerne County (Birkbeck called them sweatshops), and he ran illicit gambling halls in Scranton.
There were few large businesses in the Greater Wyoming Valley region that opened without Bufalino’s blessing, Birkbeck said.
Birkbeck said that in the writing process he found evidence to show Bufalino was connected to, consulted on or had oversight in a number of national events including the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba in 1961, the disappearance of famed Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1975 and even the production of “The Godfather” film starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino.
Exeter restaurant owner Bernie Foglia said he remembered as a boy that Bufalino would buy soup and bread to be passed out through in poor communities.
“I remember when I was a kid my father would always say, if it wasn’t for the Bufalinos there’d be a lot of people starving to death,” Foglia said.
Even Birkbeck agreed Bufalino endeared himself to his community.
One particularly hot day, Bufalino saw an elderly neighbor replacing his roof under a sweltering sun. The reputed crime boss ordered two of his men to call down the old man and finish the roof job for him.
Foglia said readers should draw their own conclusions about “The Quiet Don.” But he felt the biography wasn’t aimed at Bufalino like the book jacket indicates, he said.
“Some of it, like anything else, is open to interpretation,” Foglia said.