Panama Bandit Killer Collector for the mob
Last week, we retraced the footsteps of Sergeant Walter Holmes, a New Orleans Police Detective on the trail of a hold-up man wanted for the murder of Bar-owner Thomas Gagliano in 1958.
His search took him into Kentucky, then North Carolina, and finally, the Tangipahoa Parish Jail in Amite. In each location, he compared traits of truck-driving hold-up men. None of the three proved to be the killer.
Disappointed, Holmes loaded his car in Amite, preparing to leave, when Tickfaw Police Officer Louis Pigno approached him. Pigno recognized a police sketch of the bandit as a man called “Nofi” and according to Pigno, the so-called Panama Hat Bandit played poker in the rear of Angelo Nicotre’s bar every Wednesday night.
The following week, Holmes and Pigno sat in an unmarked car outside of an Independence bar called The Greek, waiting for the suspect to show.
When “Nofi” stepped into the light, Pigno said, “Angelo says this guy’s got relatives all over Independence. Do you want to question some of them?”
Holmes shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. I recognize him. His name was Onofio Pecoraro. He changed it when we busted him for robbing a warehouse. Today, he’s called Nofio Pecora and works as a collector for the mob.”
The original police report on the Gagliano homicide described the killer as “a white man with an olive complexion, 5 feet, 10 inches tall, 160-175 pounds, straight dark hair, could speak Italian, and had good teeth.”
Pecora matched the description, and he liked to wear Panama hats in the summer, but he was no “truck driver.” The anonymous telephone tip had sent the New Orleans police in the wrong direction. Pecora could have made that call himself.
However, Nofio Pecora was 48-years-old in 1958. If Pecora did shoot Thomas Gagliano, three witnesses lied to police.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 200-document file on Onofio Pecoraro, he began smuggling narcotics from Honduras and up the Mississippi River in 1935, but his first arrest did not come until December 21, 1937.
Federal narcotics agents indicted 88 people related to a “gigantic interstate narcotics ring.” Of the 88 arrested, most were from New York, but five had New Orleans homes: James Campo, Thomas Siracusa, Philip and Nicholas Bonura, and Onofio Pecoraro. Federal narcotics agents charged all five with “conspiracy to violate narcotics laws.”
In 1942, Louisiana State Police arrested Pecoraro—along with Philip Bonura and “Dutch August” Terilleaux—for possessing $20,000 in furs stolen from a Louisiana Department of Conservation warehouse, after a night watchman found two co-workers bound and gagged with adhesive tape.
The three arrested claimed to be traveling poultry dealers and said they had assisted a stranded truck driver on the highway and was given them the stolen furs as a reward.
When the fur incident made national news, Onofio Pecoraro changed his name to Nofio Pecora and opened a used car lot. Eventually, he would manage some bars on Bourbon Street, open a restaurant and buy a mobile home park, all through loans from his wife’s employer, New Orleans’ most infamous tomato salesman, Carlos Marcello.
As bail bondsmen, Nofio Pecora’s most famous client may have been a guy named Lee Harvey Oswald, and according to the FBI, one of the last telephone calls Jack Ruby made before killing Oswald was to Pecora’s office at the mobile home court.
Pecora’s wife, Frances, eventually worked in Louisiana state government before going to jail for attempting to bribe Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Eddie Layrisson—that was after sheriff’s deputies busted her son with a warehouse full of narcotics in Loranger.
But those are all stories for another week.
Back in New Orleans, Detective Holmes tried to track down 28-year-old Margie Simmons, Thomas Gagliano’s common-law wife, to show her a photo of Pecora and maybe ask why she lied about the age of the man who shot her lover. Unfortunately, though, Simmons had left town with no forwarding address.
Witnesses Louis Gallo, 41, was located but refused to answer Holmes’ questions without a lawyer present.
Barmaid Linda Pertuit, 38, said she had not actually seen the shooter, but she recognized Pecora’s photo. She said that he “collected dividends” weekly from Gagliano and other bar owners who hosted gambling activities in back rooms.
She said that she thought most bars in New Orleans opened their businesses with loans from the mob, but she never asked questions.
Holmes must have wondered about the Greek Bar back in Independence.
Nofio Pecora died in 1986.
Today, the Thomas Gagliano murder officially remains unsolved.